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The Sage Page - Setting Up Your Own Program Of Daily Practice

Greg Sage is an excellent and experienced brass player residing in the Boulder Vicinity. He studied at the Berkeley School of Music, and performed professionally with many leading bands across the country. Greg has also taught here in Colorado. Much of the information in this article is applicable to any musical instrument.

Do you want to hear more of what Greg Sage has to say? See How to choose a private teacher.

 


 

Setting Up Your Own Program of Daily Practice

To develop and maintain the ability to play an instrument you must follow a program of daily practice. This routine will serve as the foundation of your skills, an overall daily constant that provides stability and consistency to your playing. A routine will also check and maintain your progress by reviewing each of your weaknesses and limitations daily. This is why most instrumental teachers structure their lessons around a daily plan or program that documents the activity and improvement of their students. Though it is always best to study with a good private teacher, not everyone has the opportunity or can afford a quality instructor.
There are many ways to create and plan your own practice schedule to improve as quickly as possible, and every student can become a better player with the proper effort and organized approach. What an audience hears in performance should be the "tip of the iceberg", an ability that has been firmly supported by a daily program of carefully chosen calisthenics and self evaluation. This structured practice routine turns over the responsibility for growth and improvement to the musician, rather than leaving it to chance. An effective program of daily practice will strengthen your playing at a regular pace and remove the guesswork that is so often a big part of improvement attempts. A routine is then a structured, organized series of exercises toward specific goals in an overall plan.
To be effective, it must address all the various aspects of your playing that work together to develop physical and intellectual strength. These portions are completed daily in a specific order which produces the most efficient stressing and build up of the muscles and mind. First, you need a sturdy stave book to write the routines. This book will be more important than any other, and kept with the methods you choose to work from and follow each day. You want your program to stay intact; loose stave paper spread around may eventually encourage a lax approach. This routine you set up must be complete, conscientious, and practiced entirely, the same way, every day. As a train must run on tracks to know exactly where it's going, an instrumentalist working to grow and improve must follow a daily plan. Just as you have made a commitment to play, you must make a similar commitment to improve. Old ways take effort to change, and the feeling of control and stability that follows a strictly adhered to program may be entirely new to you. You must maintain total faith in the calm common sense behind what you are doing. There will always be those that attempt to discourage you by relating their lack of closely following anything, or recommending some simple exercise they're currently using that seems to bring a measure of improvement. Stick with your decisions, the discipline at first necessary to follow a daily routine won't be easy to maintain. True improvement takes work; you must overcome any obstacles you may have to a commitment of diligent practice. Don't let what seems to work for others interfere with what you are doing, especially when it requires less work or effort. If you believe an idea has value, then possibly work it into your program. The choice is yours to systematize and advance your playing while taking full control of your development, or sit back and wait for improvement to happen with less than a total effort.
There are ways to become the best you can be, but you must make the decision to use them. Anything less than complete devotion to working through each problem in your playing as part of an overall plan produces weak results that are usually temporary and inconsistent. Each aspect of your instrumental ability must be isolated and specifically practiced. Always assume that playing problems such as sloppy technique, poor tone, articulation and interpretation will never solve themselves. Unfortunately, there are private lesson teachers that attempt to address all these issues by simply giving out
songs week to week for their students to work on. Songs can be a portion of your daily
practice, but never the substance of a valid lesson program that realistically expects to progress a student at his or her potential. For the student that expects to improve, a carefully planned 4 to 8 part routine of calisthenics written to specifically address each facet of playing is essential. A daily routine is an effective preparation for performing all types of music with careful skill and precision. Each problem in any style can be focused on and overcome with carefully executed drills and concentration. These exercises never need to be boring or uninteresting, especially as they help you to play increasingly difficult material. When constructing your routine, first establish a warm-up that calmly "wakes up" the various muscle groups and can be done comfortably each day as an introduction to the remainder of your program. A sensible warm-up is essential. Without it you will fatigue more quickly and may even damage muscles by demanding them to work in ways that require careful preparation. Be realistic with your limits and don't push
yourself too quickly. The muscles feel their best when you first start out, but they must be made ready just as a runner eases into an actual run by stretching and walking. Next, you must research into the method books and literature projects you would like to become involved with.
There is a wide variety of methods and programs for every instrument, as well as publications of ensemble music, solos, and exercises to develop improvisational ability. Choose a balance of materials that cover each aspect of playing that you need to maintain or improve. Break your playing down into its components, such as warm-up (and there are many books available of just warm-up exercises, especially for brass players) scales, articulation, tonguing and technique, tone, range, rhythm, endurance, velocity, sight reading and literature, etc. Practice from method books which specifically cover these issues, and which do so with a wide variety of exercise examples
and approaches. By keeping track of all you've completed in your stave book you can
alternate parts of different books on a weekly basis to cover as much material as possible. Some types of calisthenics must be worked on each day, but it would be possible, for example, to alternate classical solos with improvisation if your time or endurance prevent you from being able to do both every day. You must structure the routine so that you are able to do everything that you list. If you need to shorten your routine to get everything in, then do so--you're aiming for quality, not quantity.
It's easy to become overwhelmed by all of the practice material available; establish a focus on the fundamentals you need to master, the decide which other projects you have the endurance, time and desire for.
Remember to maintain a varied mix, and don't neglect the basics. If you would like to improvise, a routine of improvisation exercises and nothing else will create more problems than it addresses. Anything neglected will quickly make itself felt, and don't expect one exercise to satisfy a variety of functions. For example, don't assume that a scale exercise will also serve to build your tone if you play the exercise slowly with concern for your sound. This won't develop a better sound than you already have; an exercise written specifically for tone development will do that. Saving time by addressing many issues with few exercises is not an effective way to practice. Be honest with yourself and spend whatever time is needed to strengthen the weaknesses
in your playing. None of this is impossible, nor even difficult with some concern for
your ability and a little research into what is available through various publishers.

A complete routine can be finished in as little as 90 minutes, or it can be expanded to a fair portion of the day, depending on what you can do physically or how quickly you would like to achieve certain goals. Experiment--just keep a record of what you're doing to determine which approaches have worked best for you. Alternate the difficult exercises with the not so difficult. Another way to build strength is to rearrange the order of your routine before seeking new material. This helps build endurance by using exercises the muscles are already familiar with, but in a different way. Mistakes will be made, but for good reason. Everyone's demands are different, and the only way to determine what you require is to closely analyze your individual responses to what you're practicing. Some
exercises may affect different aspects of your playing; you need to closely observe changes that occur in your ability each day, learning more about your playing with each new problem that arises, decisions made and solutions that are tried. To get the most from your program, here are a few guidelines that may help you:

1. You must practice your entire routine every single day. The path to improvement consists of commitment and consistency. The only exceptions to this are performance days or when playing has become genuinely painful from overplaying the day before. On days of a performance, as a trumpet player, I do my usual warm-up and possibly some minor flexibilities to "get the blood flowing". I never push myself until the actual performance. On days following those of overplaying I may do a warm-up followed by soft soothing exercises punctuated by generous periods of rest. "Listening to your body" is necessary as you discover what your limits are. Never seek out excuses to avoid practicing. Instead, strive to play whenever possible. A day home sick is ideal for working on less physically demanding literature or technique exercises. When an instrumentalist is accustomed to practicing everyday, few activities will help regain health faster than the moderate exercise of playing. Practicing is not a price to pay as an instrumentalist; it is a daily opportunity to experience and develop your musical expression. If you are going to play at all, do it consistently and to the best of your ability. Otherwise, you're simply courting frustration, unmet goals, and disappointment most likely followed by failure. Can you picture yourself ever saying, "Yeah, I used to play."? If so, why put yourself through all the wasted energy of forcing yourself to practice? Play because you want to, or save yourself the trouble. You will continue to improve only by practicing each day. The decision must be made and never questioned. However, it's also important to practice only because you want to. If you take days off, you're choosing not to maintain the ability you already have to play your instrument. You've made the choice to slowly give it all up, to surrender away all you've ever worked and dreamed for. From the lack of confidence in your playing to spending the time you do practice regaining lost abilities, not playing everyday gradually destroys everything you've ever accomplished. At first you may choose to take days off, to test what I've just written and see if this is true for you. These issues need to be addressed early in your career on the instrument. Face your decision to practice regularly from the very start and stick with it. When you attempt to satisfy your need to practice by facing a new decision each day, your improvement is far more difficult and stress producing than it will ever need to be. After this commitment to work daily has been made you'll look forward to playing as you get up in the morning, and be consistently able to hear and feel the improvement you're making. Progress is often slow, and rarely occurs as quickly as we would like or expect. I often compare development on an instrument to the growth of a young child. The progress seems slow and difficult, with spurts of improvement followed by long periods of no change. Eventually the child does mature, but not without constant attention and care. There's nothing we can do to speed up the process, predict its pace or
stop what our time and effort have made inevitable.

2. During your routine, rest adequately as you practice. A good rule is to rest as much as you play. This is especially important for brass and woodwind players that are demanding much from a relatively small area of muscle tissue (the embouchure). When someone advances to the point of practicing 4 to 6 hours per day, at least a third must be spent resting off the instrument. Endurance is built from exercising the muscles to their limits in a variety of ways, with each portion of your routine followed by rest. The most important aspect of building endurance is to sense what any particular exercise is doing for you--is it strengthening the muscles, or damaging them? After practicing your routine for a couple weeks you'll become aware of muscles being stimulated, energized and challenged, or "torn down". You're progress will be quickest, most consistent and of highest quality when your daily routine avoids the tearing down or damage caused by
attempting too much and not resting enough. A routine is not supposed to be a daily journey to exhaustion! Fatigue is fine, but pain and the resulting stiffness are not. Your muscles must be relaxed and flexible if you expect to play consistently at your best. A brass player that overstresses his embouchure quickly loses fundamental strength, tone,
technique and control. Guitarists, drummers and piano players develop various degrees of muscle strain or even tendonitis, destroying their ability to play at all. Adequate rest between exercises that constitute a balanced, sensible routine can prevent these problems. You must listen to your body when it tells you that you are doing too much, or that what you are doing may not be right for you. Develop an awareness of the most you can accomplish daily when working over a long period of time, improving on your instrument evenly and gradually. Remember, the function of a routine is not to simply locate your
limits and push them. The primary function of a routine is to establish day to day consistency in your playing. Taking risks with your ability by working on material that may injure your muscles with its difficulty is not necessary or wise. If you push too hard, a price will be paid, if not by the second or the third day then certainly by the end of the week. As your muscles adjust to your practicing you'll need to tailor your routine to what your individual system can accomplish. It may be necessary to put aside material that duplicates the purpose of something else, or that tires you too quickly. However, be sure to include exercises that focus on your weaknesses. Things you don't do well are never pleasant to work on, so take advantage of the freedom to gradually address these areas of
your playing by including a little each day into your program.

3. Set goals for yourself. But don't spend all your time practicing a certain style of music. There's no such thing as beginning on an instrument to become a "jazz player" or a "classical player". You must learn to play the instrument first! Stick with mastering the basics, then you can later explore specific styles of music if you choose. Many students want to play jazz without concern for tone and proper articulation development, or play classically without being able to play "by ear". Never forget that the instrument has fundamentals that must be maintained, basics that will provide you with the tools to play all types of music. Make a commitment to develop the sound and personality you like, but don't limit yourself by restricting what you choose to practice. Include music you enjoy from songbooks, solos, etc. into your routine. Go ahead and commit to projects of working up literature that may take weeks or months to master, but try to keep them within your current ability or a little beyond. There's nothing wrong with trying something far beyond you, but it can become difficult to accomplish much day to day. It's best not to work on material that will simply damage your muscles or prove to be discouraging. But always explore new pieces, one day you'll be able to play them and with each new music purchase you'll be adding to your repertoire. If you have more to do than you can realistically cover each day, then alternate materials that strengthen the.same areas of your playing. For example, rotate one type of literature with another, practicing one piece on Mon., Wed., Fri., the other on Tues., Thurs., Sat., then working
on whichever is weakest on Sunday. Don't introduce new material or changes into your routine until your playing is stable and you have control over what you are currently doing. The point is to develop a body of calisthenics and literature that can be accomplished and expanded. If a student has been playing longer than a year, I rarely expect physical growth or adjustment in less than a week of practice, and often wait two weeks before introducing a change of material.

4. Practice is enjoyable, and the growth process is rewarding to experience. However, the daily struggle with the same familiar issues can become comfortable. When the results of our effort finally appear we sometimes overlook the improvement or actually sabotage our progress. After working to accomplish a specific goal in your playing, don't immediately jump to more difficult projects that put you back where you started. Take the improvement and use what you have just accomplished. Recognize when you could be introducing obstacles to your improvement, or stalling your growth without realizing it. Gradually reach for more difficult material, and never be totally satisfied. Goals have no limits!

5. Don't accept the common belief that working on certain styles of playing will limit your versatility. Capabilities do not usually "trade off" with one another. The advice that "Jazz players can't play classically (when actually some of the best classical players also play jazz, and many believe that a mastery of classical technique is essential to play jazz correctly), just can't be stated for everyone. Brass players are often told that "upper register players have poor mid-register tone"--and both of these statements are simply based on the experience of others. Try whatever you desire, then analyze your own development. Accept these examples as a warning that others pave had trouble, and
compensate a little extra in the planning of your routine. If you are a trumpet player and wish to build your upper register, then be sure to allocate a generous block of time to mid-register tone maintenance. Don't deny yourself something before you've even begun. The experiences of others can never be more than suggestions or opinion. Unless you have decided ,to follow a private teacher, the comments of others are their views that mayor may not apply to you. Do what you know is right based on your own careful observations of your limits and responses to various exercises and stresses. You are the only person that knows exactly how you play. Construct your program with sensible, mature, well rounded approaches. And when you do seek advice, get it from those you know and respect.

6. Don't practice simply for the admiration or approval of others. It's impossible to take responsibility for how others will perceive you and your musicianship. Play for yourself, it's only then that you can develop the understanding of your ability necessary to meet whatever goals you have planned for yourself. As a student in music school or with a private teacher, devote the effort needed to learn all you are required to, even when asked to master certain styles that you don't like or you may feel "conflict" with your playing. You cannot control or avoid t~e opinions and priorities of those that come into your life, and many will claim to know more about your playing than you do. Accomplish this material toward your own mastery of the instrument. Your devotion and perseverance at completing the required work will earn respect, while continuing to practice the program you have established for yourself. What motivates each musician to play is as individual as they are. But for yourself, don't play simply to earn money or to compare your playing to others. Play to reach your individual potential and establishing your own musical identity.

7. Performing is a major result of your work, and an audience that values your ability is always rewarding. You are speaking a language that non-musicians enjoy hearing and don't understand. They're in wonder that you can do anything, so what you perform does not have to be difficult or flashy-it may even be best that it's not. Many people would rather hear a moving interpretation of something they recognize than a difficult solo
that's perfectly executed.

8. There are parts of your routine that should be done without your instrument. Wind players must do breathing exercises to continue proper physical development, and all musicians can benefit from a regular program of physical exercise, such as jogging. At times when your instrument is not available, scales can be fingered through on armchairs and tonguing exercises done under your breath. There are no secrets. Anyone that implements a structured and conscientious daily practice routine can develop on an instrument.

Do you want to hear more of what Greg Sage has to say? See How to choose a private teacher.

 

 





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