Practicing With A Master Plan

Mike Rafalczyk Posaunist,
Mike Rafalczyk

Dear fellow trombonist,

I’m sure you practice regularly. After all, you know that the trombone can be a little bitchy and that not playing it for a while makes picking it up again all the more difficult. Embouchure is one area that suffers most if we forget to play regularly. I often notice that some musicians tend to practice without a specific intention: they take the piece at hand and start playing.

This, however, leads to a situation where you invariably stop in the same places and never seem to make any progress. You may be familiar with the "time management" notion. That’s right, that thing you need on the job to stay focused and organized.

But playing the trombone is your hobby! Remember, though, that there will be times when you won’t have much time to play your instrument. In those situations, using your time efficiently is of prime importance.

How often do I need to practice?

If you are no longer a child and nobody forces you to learn an instrument, you never NEED to practice. A piece you can play really well is always fun.

Not just during a concert but also at rehearsals. You should therefore tell yourself: I WANT to practice, I WANT to make progress, I WANT other players to accept me as their equal, and I WANT our band/orchestra to shine at our gigs as a unit.

That is the most important step. It is all up to YOU. And just in case: youngsters are not the only ones who say "Gosh, I have a class/rehearsal tomorrow, so I need to practice a little today." This is probably the most ineffective attitude on the planet!

Tip: Practicing is not something we do only once hours or minutes before you need to play something"”it is something we need to do REGULARLY. 

How long do I want to practice?

"I often have only 5 minutes, so I don’t even bother." That is something I have heard time and again. But this is nonsense. EVERY minute you spend practicing is time well spent.

Obviously, practicing half an hour a day would be even better, but most of us also have a job, a family, friends and maybe also other hobbies. I know how difficult it can be to make time for something. While 15 minutes a day are a good start, 20 to 30 minutes would be great.

On the other hand, it is better to practice 5 minutes every day than one hour once a week! Not storing your trombone in its case or gigbag but leaving it somewhere where you can see it and grab it anytime will encourage you to pick up your instrument and play "in between takes". Not having to assemble it is not only a timesaver"”it also lowers the inhibition threshold.

Tip: Leave your trombone fully assembled on a stand. This will incite you to practice even for minutes, while it is also better for your instrument.

Daily Warm-Up

For your daily practice sessions, I suggest devising a fixed sequence. This way, you are sure to cover all important aspects of playing the trombone. Here is what I have been doing for years:

1.    General Warm-Up

Get your body up to speed and prepare it for playing.
Stretch your arms in the air and lower them with a long and audible yawn. Open your mouth wide (nobody is watching) and lower the pitch of your voice proportionally to the height of your arms. This exercise causes your larynx to relax.

2.    Warm-Up for Breathing

Purse your lips like you would for whistling. Now inhale through this tiny opening. This allows your body to automatically breathe in the right way, because it has the impression that it needs to overcome resistance while inhaling. As a result, you will use your diaphragm for breathing. Repeat this several times.

Next, breathe the air out intermittently through your pursed lips, like you want to blow out several candles. This should automatically activate your diaphragm. You can check both parts of this exercise by shaping both thumbs and indexes to an "L" and holding them just below your ribs. This allows you to feel how your diaphragm pushes your hands away while you breathe in and out.

Last part of this section: take a small piece of paper, stand in front of a wall or door and try to push the paper against the wall or door with pursed lips"”and keep it there. This again only works if you use your diaphragm and tense your abdominal wall. This is the legendary "breath support".

3.    The First Notes

Grab your trombone, take a deep breath and play each note between the Bb in first position through the E in seventh position for as long as you can muster. This allows you to combine your breathing exercises with your first lip movements. This strengthens your embouchure, helps you to produce beautiful notes and is also helpful for high-range passages at a later stage.

4.    Legato and Staccato

In a previous workshop (Playing trombone in a more professional way, part 2), I talked about lip and tongue exercises. They are my staple for everyday practice"”and I must say that they help me enormously. Play this exercise in all 7 positions, alternating between slurred and articulated notes.

Daily practice

I suspect that the above 4 exercises already take 5~10 minutes of your time. Even if that is all you have on certain days, these exercises will help you stabilize your embouchure and intonation: the trombone will keep doing what YOU want rather than the other way round.

If you can devote more time to your practice session"”by all means do! You are now ready to practice the exercise your teacher gave you or the piece you need to prepare. This will be a lot easier after warming up and more effective than if you start practicing the music at hand unprepared.

Good luck and remember to have fun,

Mike Rafalczyk