Practical practice: about the methodology for brass players
Musicians and sportsmen have always had one thing in common if they wanted to get better and stronger: practice and training. The constant repetition of a number of movements or reflections is one of the most powerful tools for moving from initial competence to a professional level of mastery. During such exercises, our memory learns to develop automatic actions and to limit the expense and effort to the bare minimum. Unfortunately, not every training session immediately leads to the desired performance increase. You probably agree: sometimes you can practice and practice, and still have the impression that you’re not making any progress. That is a clear indication that it is time to analyze the usefulness and mix of the exercises you are completing. The question to ask should be: where do you stand today and where do you want to go?
What do composers expect from performers?
What should a trumpet player"”or any musician, for that matter"” be capable of and what do composers expect from their performers? For a classical concert the structure is crystal clear:
a) Rapid movement (Allegro), the occasional daunting leaps and forte
b) Slow movement (Andante), calm, long phrases, piano c) Fast movement (Allegro con brio), similar to first movement (a).
These are simple opposites whose main challenge is to play an often exhausting soft and solemn passage after a fast and loud one. This can also make it difficult to play the following loud and technically challenging passage with the right drive and bravado. In short: we need to move away from monotonous exercises. Never repeat the same (kind of) exercise time and again"”try to vary and distribute your efforts. What we need is quickly alternating a combination of opposites.
The safety exercise: getting the 1st note/piano passage right
It took me years to understand the importance of my father’s exercise (who used to be the 1st and solo trombone at Südwestfunk Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden), which was designed to develop precisely that: Safety exercise: variation from loud-soft, high-low, long-short. Pick a note, a low A, for instance, and play it forte and long after counting down in your head. Then stop. Next, play a high note, like the G2"”play it piano and short. Stop again and pause. Next, play a low F#, forte and short. The important aspect is to vary several parameters (piano/forte, short/long, high/low). This helps you gain confidence, because you practice precisely what causes musicians the biggest headaches.
The confidence of the 1 note: the most beautiful high note is worth nothing if it cannot be deployed at the right time.
Confidence for piano passages, especially after a forte passage.
This is what I like to call intelligent practice, because the exercise as such is far less important than the situation it prepares us for.
Strength and endurance: an embouchure exercise
Strength and endurance: The most-in-demand exercises are related to embouchure, yet quite a few players put a lot of strain on their lip muscles, especially if training their lips is what they set out to do. Here again, you need to work in a controlled way to strengthen your muscles without straining them. My father taught me how to get stiff lip muscles form playing low notes. Like a cyclist warming up with a light gear and pedaling quickly, start with low notes you sustain for a while. That way, you avoid unnecessary pressure in your mouth while still maintaining the embouchure position. You need to strain without draining. I suggest you perform the following exercise: play a note sequence, exercise or song that doesn’t move beyond the G1. This could be a passage you play one octave below its original pitch.
play all notes, irrespective of their original lengths, as two half and four quarter notes.
Do not breathe with your mouth but through your now. This will allow you to maintain your lips in a round, closed "eu" position even while breathing.
Only play soft notes (piano).
Use a slow tempo (54BPM)
After a few minutes, you will feel the strain in your lips, but without excessive pressure. You may notice that you breathe in more than you breathe out. In that case, check your breathing and correct it. Even if you perform this exercise every other day, you will soon notice that you stamina/endurance increases. At a later stage, you can include higher notes.
Dynamics control is a prerequisite for musically meaningful performances. It requires constancy and timing: my father used to tell me to start by focusing on getting a good crescendo or decrescendo with good breath control and intonation. And right he was. Know the volume of thy lungs and learn to use it wisely... Perform this exercise to a metronome to practice crescendos and decrescendos of equal lengths. A tuner should also be handy to check your tuning. For decrescendo, the tongue needs to be lowered to avoid that the pitch rises as you play softer, and vice versa. Wide legato jumps: fifths and fourths are classic trumpet intervals, and quite a few exercises are based on them. I suggest playing legato octave, ninth and tenth steps to discover how airflow and diaphragm support will help you achieve the desired result. Always practice slowly and in a controlled fashion. The good old Arban method provides enough scores for this.
One tip for the road: find your own approach
One important aspect is that each musician needs to find their own approach and technique rather than simply try to copy other musicians or their teacher. My father, for instance, had to practice almost until minutes before a performance to play at his very best, while I have found that light practice on the day before a performance and intense practice 4~5 days before that works best for me. Listen to the advice other people give you, but by all means create your own practice mix, because you know best what really helps you get better.
Have fun and enjoy playing music!
Further reading for brass players
Thompson, James: The buzzing book, Editions BIM Vizzutti, Allen: An intermediate/advanced book, Alfred Publishing Damrow, Frits: Fitness for brass, De Haske Guggenberger, Wolfgang: Basic plus, Rundel Arban, Jean- Baptiste: Trompetenschule Bd 1-3, Hofmeister Brandt, Wilhelm: 34 Etüden für Orchestertrompeter, benjamin Kopprasch, C.: 60 ausgewählte Etüden Concone, Giuseppe: Lyrical studies, Editions BIM