Some Trumpet Practicing Guidelines From Another Discipline

CMP LogoAlex (one of my high school students who has been mentioned in this blog before), recently had to miss his weekly lesson in order to attend a summer camp.  This particular one was held by the Civilian Marksmanship Program, and so I was curious to hear what he thought of it.  When asked, his face lit up with a big smile, and then he described how much of the instruction he received in the classroom was almost word for word what he had been hearing in his trumpet lessons.  This didn’t surprise me, for both endeavors (shooting a rifle and trumpet playing) are disciplines, which require a large degree of study, awareness and practice.  I then asked Alex to recount as many of those guidelines as he could, thinking that they would not only be interesting to hear, but also that they would underscore some of the principles a trumpet player (or other musician for that matter) should be familiar with.  Viewing these ideas from another perspective could also help trumpeters compare their own practice routines with those of the marksman, to see if they approached their music practice time with the same degree of seriousness, intention and single mindedness.  Here are the ones that Alex remembered (shown in boldface), followed by a few words concerning their application to trumpet playing:

  • You must have a clear mental image.  It all starts with the mind.  Is your mind sending precise signals to all of the parts of the body associated with trumpet playing?…posture, jaw and tongue positions, lip alignment, aperture size shape and location, mouthpiece placement, weight distribution, breathing, etc.  Plus, do you have a concept of the sound you want to resonate, the tempo and subdivision of the music, and what you are trying to communicate musically?  Clarity requires more data (like more pixels in a picture), and imagery is a great way of storing that data (a picture is truly worth a thousand words…or more).
  • Be completely relaxed, with tension in only the right places.  A clear mental image helps with this.  The muscles that are required for the job can work more efficiently if the opposing muscle groups to good playing are relaxed.  Independence and coordination help to keep wasted energy to the minimum.  The mind needs to be relaxed too, with no conflicting or distracting thoughts.
  • If a mistake was made, you must know exactly how it occurred.  Why did you miss that note?…not enough air support, too much mouthpiece pressure or poor weight distribution, an unfocused lip aperture, not hearing the pitch in your head before you played it, an incorrect fingering, etc?  Every problem has its own solution, but the first step is correctly identifying it, and knowing its root cause.
  • If you notice a problem with your form before you pull the trigger, you must stop, and start completely over from the beginning.  If you are not set properly before you begin to play your first note, you will be inviting the body to come up with its own knee jerk reactions to compensate, and that usually means tension in all of the wrong places.  Worse yet, is that you begin to acquire or perpetuate bad habits, which moves you in the opposite direction you want to go.  Starting over from the beginning gives you a chance to replace the misstep with a more positive course of action, clarifying that mental image all the more.
  • After working on various aspects of form individually, everything must eventually become a single autonomous action.  The best way to do this is to begin with the most fundamental steps, where you can observe the entire playing system in action, and where your chance of coordinating all of the newly learned functions is the highest.  For a trumpet player, critically observing how you start a note will reveal how balanced and coordinated the entire playing system is.  Gradually introducing more complexity (which is done during a proper warmup) will help insure that all of the components continue to work as one.
  • When performing, don’t overthink.   By the time it comes to perform, your mind should be on the music.  The time for practicing is over (at least until the next practice session), and you must become a conduit for the music.  Brainwave patterns have been shown to be completely different for practicing and performing, and so we must be clear in the role we are to assume.  If you have been practicing correctly, you should already be experiencing how that fundamental work has helped your musicality.

I’m sure there were even more analogies than Alex remembers, but seeing a little bit of this relationship between two entirely different disciplines should help increase your respect for some of the core principles that would be a part of any good trumpeter’s practice routine (or any other musician’s).

One very interesting observation I made during Alex’s lesson that day.  Although he had been away from the horn for an entire week, his initial warmup showed very positive improvements.  While he could not at first explain the reason why, we soon both agreed that he had spent the previous week in intensive study and practice…several hours each day.  The noticeably improved single mindedness that he developed that week was now being transferred to another discipline, his trumpet, and the results were obvious.  Of course, I couldn’t help but ask him if the hours he spent during the week at camp matched the hours he practices trumpet each week.  He again smiled at me, knowing that a good point had been made for increasing that daily practice time!

This also makes a strong case for the benefits we can acquire through our involvement with music (and why it should be offered in all schools!).  My students have noticed their grades, interpersonal relationships and general interest in the world improve as they began learning how to discipline and focus their mind on music, and develop their awareness and sensitivity.  There are many studies that support this relationship, but it is best when experienced first hand!

We should see that there are so many helpful analogies that can be drawn from other disciplines.  Artists, architects, weight lifters, swimmers, baseball players, golfers, bowlers, software designers, race car drivers, physical therapists, players, designers and builders of musical instruments (all represented somewhere here in this blog), plus many more…all would have their own guidelines that could resonate with us, and possibly give us new insights into our own field.

Thanks for bringing up this topic, Alex…I’m sure everyone can benefit from it!

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