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The Art of Practicing

Gordon Cherry

Gordon Cherry

Practicing is an art, not a skill. A skill is something you can be taught in a certain number of lessons, while an art is something you learn slowly and gradually over your entire life. Whether you are a sculptor, a painter, a ballerina or a trombonist, you have to apply discipline in order to progress. The art of practicing is something you adhere to for a very, very long time, and you must master it to become a great performer.

Most people look back on the lessons they had with their teachers and find that 99% of the time was spent on the traditional warm ups, etudes, solos and excerpts. You're basically taught how to play the trombone. We haven't really learned how to practice! And yet that's what we spend most of our time doing. We practice. We practice before rehearsals. We practice before concerts. We practice in the studio. The practice time is where you "make your gravy." It's where you make all your gains. Much of the time students and even professionals waste time or actually destroy themselves in the practice room. Why? Because they are impatient and look for short term gains.

Mindless practicing gets us into trouble. A daily routine can be a good and a bad thing. It's fine to go through many of the same exercises each day, but you shouldn't just be going through the motions. You must hold to a very, very high standard. The key to becoming a great musician, brass player, or trombonist, is to set these standards for yourself and apply them every time you pick up the instrument. Otherwise, you will drift aimlessly and go nowhere.

You have to set goals for yourself when you are practicing. If you are working on an etude, you should ask what the etude is accomplishing. What does it want? Is it looking for dotted rhythms, legato, arpeggios, low register, high register, or technique?

Your Most Important Tool: The Pencil!

You must have a pencil there. Many players don't carry a pencil with them, and if they do, they don't use it enough. You need a pencil to work out all the notes and rhythms, and to correct mistakes as you make them. Trying to remember your mistakes is a major mistake. Think of your brain as a giant computer. Your computer is programmed to see symbols on a page and interpret them. If your brain is seeing symbols and misinterpreting them, and you don't correct your computer's software, it's going to make the same mistake again. Maybe not the next time, but a week later in the lesson when you're under a little pressure. The pencil is extremely important!

Marking in the breaths, even where they seem very obvious, is another way of training yourself. Breathing is the secret to playing at a very high level, and so much of the time students don't have any idea where they breathe. You can tell that when you work on a Bach Cello Suite with them. They just take breaths any old place. The student has to become aware of where to breathe, and the best way to accomplish this is by penciling in breath marks.

My Routine

I use a modified Remington routine, which is 70-90% of the standard routine that's in the Remington book that Don Hunsberger edited, plus various little exercises that I've picked up over the years or invented. It can take anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes, depending on whether I'm trying to take it easy or wanting to cover every little nook and cranny.

The routine evolves slowly over time, although the foundations are always there. It starts with the long tones. Then I get my tongue moving with some legato in a stationary position, in other words my slide isn't moving. Next I go to some legato exercises where my slide is moving a little bit, using short two or three note scales. Then I do slow slurs, flexibility, scales, arpeggios, and finally I add "supplementary exercises" as needed. These are anything that pops into my mind for high/low register, fast/slow, or loud/soft.

Orchestral Excerpts

If I have a very loud concert to play in the orchestra I don't go wild on the loud stuff in the practice room. It isn't necessary–in fact it is counter-productive. Your endurance comes from the rehearsals. Very rarely will I sit down and play through the fortissimos all by myself. You can't do any tuning or blending, and you can wind up forcing and getting all tight. Instead of sitting there and hammering away at some lick, I will make an exercise out of it. For some of the loud, long things I'll play some sort of whole note or long tone exercise louder than usual, but try to make it into a "song-type" study. I play it slowly and make it sound lyrical, but it'll be forte.

If it's a technical, loud excerpt I practice it softly and slowly. For example, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is best to work up at a much lower, slower level. You need to practice some arpeggios with the fast sixteenth. It doesn't have to be done loud, because it's just to get your arm and slide working. It's the same thing with Rossini's William Tell Overture. The week before I have William Tell I will practice some chromatic scales in little bits and pieces, softly and slowly.

You pick up some useful tricks as you go through your career. For instance, practice the trombone solo from Ravel's Bolero down the octave. I learned this from a tuba playing friend of mine who'd taken lessons from Arnold Jacobs. He wanted to know how he could practice the "Bydlo" more than a couple of times without getting wasted, and Jacobs said "Play it down the octave. Play it down two octaves. Play it down three octaves if you can." I play Bolero down the octave four or five times for every time I play it up in the regular octave. You can work on a lot down the octave, including your breathing, phrasing, musicality, and vibrato. It gets your air moving, and builds relaxation and confidence. Take it up to the regular octave and work on it one time, then take it back down again. You can keep going back and forth like that for a long time.

Another challenging high-note excerpt is Schumann's 3rd Symphony, the Rhenish. It's very slow, and relatively soft. I play it down the octave of course, but I also play it faster and mezzo forte. I get that going and then pop it up the octave. Another technique is to take it up a half step from an octave below, then a step, then a minor third, a major third, and keep going all the way up.

When I have Brahm's First Symphony coming up, with the high A chorale that has to be nailed every time, I'll practice "Security in the High Register" from the Remington book the week before, a few times every day. I'll be very diligent and slow about it, practicing it slurred and articulated, and will be ready for that solo.

Take a Break!

One of the biggest keys to successful practicing is resting. There are two types of rest, the rest in your practice session and the rest between practice sessions. The rest you take while practicing can be 10 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute, five minutes, even 10 minutes. Practice until you feel fatigued, then stop. Never practice until collapse because you can damage the muscle tissue. Every time we practice until we feel that little bit of burning we're actually tearing the muscle tissue slightly. Later, during rest, the body repairs those muscle fibers by building new ones. This is how we build up muscle.

Practice longer periods when it feels comfortable to do it. Don't practice with a feeling of fatigue, and don't put your watch on to determine when you are going to come back. Come back when you feel fresh. This is a difficult thing for impetuous people. Most of us want things to happen instantly. We want to practice something and have it actually improve while we're there. Surprisingly, not everything improves right in front of our eyes like some magical light bulb going on! A lot of the improvement happens overnight when our bodies do the repair and our brains sort things out for us.

Other Practice Tools

Using a recorder to tape yourself and listen to it is very valuable. It's a humbling experience, but you have to do it. A lot of the time we think that we're putting something out, and maybe in the confines of a little studio we are, but when you're on a big stage in a big hall the amount of effort you have to put into expression is magnified. You have to listen to yourself play, because you may just be internalizing all these things. You may think that you're doing something very beautiful and nice when really it's not going anywhere.

Another valuable, but misused, tool is the tuning box. The tuner is great if you learn not to cheat on it. A lot of players bend their note to play in tune with the tuner, which is totally incorrect. You have to be totally unbiased, play the notes and accept that every one is not perfectly in tune. If a player puts the tuning box on a couple of times a week for 10-15 minutes, and applies it honestly, when they're warmed up, in a room that's at the right temperature, then he/she will be giving themselves something valuable.

Let's say that it's 70 degrees in your room, there's no draft and you're all warmed up. You have the box turned on at A = 440 and want to tune up your Bb. That sounds simple, but people will bend that note either by lipping or blowing it up or down. What you have to do is almost close your eyes, play the note and hold it steady, then look at the note not at the moment you articulate it, and not at the very end of your breath, but a few seconds in. That will give you a pretty good idea of where you are. Once you have that note in tune you can start doing some very slow exercises to tune some of the other notes on that harmonic, slide position, arpeggio or scale. It has to be done slowly, and don't forget about resting!

In ensembles, of course, you have to play with great tuning (notice I didn't say perfect tuning), matching it to whatever the group is doing.

I know some people tune first position out a bit, but I don't. I tune my Bb right up in first. I have a Shires trombone now, and there are no flat notes on the instrument. Even the D, a third above middle Bb, with my configuration and mouthpiece, is a hair sharp. Those players that play Bach or Yamaha trombones may need to play a tiny bit out so they can get the D up, but I don't have that problem on the Shires.

Practicing with a metronome is also important, but it can't be a crutch that you take out into the world with you. You can't take your metronome on stage. However, every once in a while when you are practicing your scales and arpeggios, you should have that metronome on to make sure you're not dragging or rushing. When you have a very difficult piece, such as the Blue Bells of Scotland, use your metronome to get the technique absolutely perfect at a slower tempo. We tend to practice the fastest we can play, and that's not good. You need to practice slower than you can play and be in total control. Slowly move the metronome up over the weeks and months. I don't suggest that you use it when you're playing a Bach Cello Suite, Rochut Melodious Etude or anything that has a lyrical style. You'll turn your beautiful lyrical passages into marches, and we don't want that. If you need it to get a tempo that's fine: find the tempo, turn it off and play.

I use a little bit of mouthpiece buzzing, maybe one minute a week. Some people do a couple of minutes a day and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. What is seriously wrong is when players do one hour a day of buzzing, practicing everything in their warm up. That's a very serious mistake.

An esteemed colleague of mine showed me a little trick. Blow into the horn on a nice, mezzo forte middle Bb. As you are playing loosen up the mouthpiece and pull it out of the lead pipe, while you keep blowing. The note will stop and there will just be air. This person proved that when you play a middle Bb on the trombone, your lips aren't buzzing together the same way as when you actually, consciously buzz the mouthpiece.

However, buzzing is part of my practice technique. With the more and more challenging music we get every year from composers, the perfecting of a piece becomes more and more problematic. The solos we had written for us 30-40 years ago were difficult, but there are solos now that are at the edge of physical limits. A lot of the music we're playing today is dissonant, the intervals and rhythms are strange, and the actual construction of the work is hard for the player to fathom. I find that using the mouthpiece to pitch the notes helps me learn the piece. I can make sure that my brain is actually understanding the intervals. Mouthpiece buzzing, a little bit at a time, confirms to me that I'm doing it right. It's an important diagnostic tool.

Ensembles and Listening

People who always practice by themselves, never in an ensemble, tend to be very poor ensemble players. Ensemble practice for a trombonist is invaluable because most of us are going to be playing in some sort of group. Players spend too much time these days on individual practice. They need to spend more time on section practice.

Practice also involves listening. Young players who want to become excellent on their instruments should listen as much as they can. Listen to great artists, not just brass artists. Listen to singers, violinists, great orchestras and ensembles and learn from them. When you are listening to a great artist you are in a way practicing, because you are taking something in. Whether you are a student or a seasoned performer, if you're not constantly learning you're going to go backwards. The secret is to always be in practice mode, to always be listening.

Practice is the key to becoming a great player. We've all seen and heard of colleagues or students who were born with amazing potential and talent, and yet because they didn't have the right psychological make-up they failed in their quest to become professionals. They hadn't mastered the art of practicing.

About Gordon

Gordon Cherry is former Principal Trombonist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and also makes available online an excellent series of sheet music at Cherry

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