Practicing for Improvement

Our previous Summerkeys article, “Practice Plans for the Avocational Trumpet Player,” made suggestions for organizing your time – how much and what to practice.  In this article we’ll take a look at how to practice to actually improve your playing.  If you haven’t read the first article, please do that before tackling this one.

You’ve no doubt heard the expression, “Only perfect practice makes perfect!”  What exactly does this mean as it relates to improvement of our playing?  We train various playing responses, whether skills or specific pieces of music, into our neuromuscular system through repetition.  However, only correct repetitions get us closer to our goal.  In fact, incorrect repetitions will need to be “de-trained.”  When you think of it, it’s amazing that we ever learn to do anything well!  How do you do correct repetitions of something you can’t do?

What’s needed is a problem-solving approach.  We must simplify the task to a level at which we can accomplish it correctly, do lots of repetitions, then gently “press on the edge of the envelope,” moving toward the original task, always with lots of repetitions along the way.  Most of us have been taught one problem-solving approach:  SLOW IT DOWN.  Faced with technical complexity, slow the tempo of the passage down until you can perform it correctly, then gradually increase the tempo (with reps at each increase) until you are where you need to be.  Maybe even exceed that tempo.

The problem is that this doesn’t always work, even for technical issues.  Let’s say you are working on a fast single tongued passage.  When you slow it down you probably will not hear any finger discrepancies that are present.  The tonguing hides them at reduced tempi. If you can’t hear them, you can’t fix them, and that’s why this approach, even if done carefully, doesn’t always get you to the speed you’re looking for.  To hear finger issues you need to slur.  So, slow the passage down slurring all of it, noting any finger problems.  Slow the tempo down as much as you need to get perfect reps (also, think Clarke studies) and do lots of reps.  Gradually increase speed, and you’ll probably find that when you can slur it accurately, you can tongue it accurately.

Other kinds of issues, such as lip slurs for example, require very different problem-solving techniques, and a good teacher can help you identify all of these.  Here’s our mantra:  GOOD PRACTICING IS APPROPRIATE PROBLEM_SOLVING PLUS SUFFICIENT REPETITIONS.  Be aware that after a while the problem-solving part can become a fascinating intellectual exercise, but don’t neglect the repetitions.  Playing something correctly once doesn’t train it in!  

Having said all this, it’s also critical to have a very good mental model of what you would like to hear coming out the bell.  Access that model before playing, listen to what you play, and note whether your performance is headed toward your model or not.  This process used along with good problem-solving and enough correct repetition will insure your success.  

Practicing for performance is a little different, and we’ll discuss that next time.  Meanwhile send me an email if you have any questions.  See you in Lubec!  Bob Stiller