Maximizing Practice to Maximize Results

By Mark Van Cleave

I always hated to practice as a kid. My folks would do their best to pressure me to sit in my bedroom on a summer day and play my trumpet, “you have to practice before you can go out and play” etc. It wasn’t until high school that I first started enjoying playing the trumpet. I actually wanted to practice. My folks changed to “you have to mow the lawn before you can practice”.

The one thing that really bugged me was that I would practice and practice, and at the end of the practice session, I really didn’t know if I had actually improved or not. If I did improve, it was difficult to tell what had improved and how much it had improved. This became frustrating. Once again, practicing was a drag.

After high school, I started studying with Jerry Franks. He was a wonderful teacher and a great man. The interesting thing about the way he taught was that he expected results. It wasn’t a matter of if I would improve. It was a matter of how quickly and how much improvement would result. The main difference in the way he taught was that he showed me what kind of exercises to play and how to play them. I learned how to calculate just how much improvement I would make each practice session. This was very rewarding and motivating. It was a kind of kind of an upward spiral.

I found that by following simple, logical instructions, I was able to force my trumpet playing machine to improve without really trying. I didn’t have to hope for improvement. I could see it materialize in every practice session right before my eyes. My sound, flexibility, fingers, range, etc. started making remarkable improvement. Other trumpet players (and teachers) told me that any method that would produce these kind of results this fast had to be a gimmick and probably would never last. Well, to make a long story short, I ended up hitting the road. Playing lead trumpet and conducting for ice shows and circuses for several years. This kind of work really puts an embouchure through it’s paces. I figured that this kind of brutal playing would let me know if in fact this “gimmick” was going to last. The fact is, my embouchure continued to get stronger and better. Many years later, I realized that this in fact was not a gimmick!

So, what exactly am I talking about? Well, there are certain physical adjustments (many more than can be addressed in this article) that have to be made in order to play well. These adjustments have to be learned and polished in the practice session. In order to insure that the embouchure is making and learning the correct adjustments, you have to practice in a very prescribed way. Playing certain exercises in a very specific way that forces the embouchure to move and adjust correctly. There are many different skills that make up good trumpet playing. Sound, flexibility, fingers, single tonguing, vibrato, etc. There is a very specific way to practice each of these skills to insure that you are not spinning your wheels in the practice room. There are many, many good books that contain good exercises for practice, however, how you practice these exercises will determine the results you get.

The embouchure has to work in an efficient manner. This is accomplished by practicing in such a way that forces your embouchure to actually take control of what comes out of the bell. This may seem obvious, but many trumpet players rely on their left arm and gut to do most of the work. This kind of brute force cannot produce a controlled musical performance. It is very important that you practice in such a way to promote the use of skill and coordination rather than brawn. You are what you practice. If you end up forcing out high notes in your practice session, don’t be surprised when you hear the same forced quality on a gig. If you spend time forcing out high notes in the practice room, guess what you have just learned how to do? Remember, everything you play you learn. Every time you pick up your horn, you are reinforcing habits or building reflexes. Good ones and bad ones. These reflexes are what you will draw from on the gig. This is why it is so important how you practice which exercises.

The following exercise is what I like to refer to as my “desert island” exercise. …If I was going to go to a desert island for twenty years and could only take one exercise, this would be the one. This exercise was constructed to be an “idiot proof” exercise. What I mean by that is this: If you practice this exercise while listening for three specific things, your embouchure has to work correctly. So, if you play this exercise while following the instructions, your embouchure has no choice but to work correctly. This exercise is great for “lining up” the embouchure and getting it to work very efficiently.

Exercise #1:

Your ability to control the aperture is one of the most important keys to developing a strong and responsive embouchure. It is important that when you practice, you practice exercises that develop control of the aperture. While playing the trumpet, your embouchure is constantly making adjustments depending on the range and volume of what you are playing. These adjustments have a range of motion. It is important to practice and learn to control the entire range of motion in order to play the trumpet well.

If you were building strong biceps, you would work the entire range of motion. You would not just hold the weights. Strength and flexibility result when the entire range of motion is practiced. This is why you do not want to crescendo into the upper register while practicing. If you practice the upper register by blasting out the high notes, you are eliminating embouchure movement and control from your practice. Practicing and developing the correct embouchure movement is just as important if not more so than strength alone.

Example:

In very basic terms, as you play in the lower register, your embouchure is more open than when playing in the upper register. Likewise, your embouchure is more open when playing loud than when playing softly.

Conclusion:

Playing low and loud will produce the most open setting, and playing high and soft will produce a more closed setting. This is your range of motion (maximum open to maximum closed).

If you play louder as you ascend (gun or blast the high notes), you limit the embouchure’s motion. The embouchure just sits there, motionless. The only thing that is being practiced and developed is your ability to force air. You are not developing a strong (controlled) embouchure, just a strong gut.

In order to maximize the benefits of your practice sessions, you need to maximize the “range of motion” in the embouchure (low/loud to high/soft). Practicing in this manner forces the embouchure or control mechanism to move. If you are not practicing control, you will never develop control.

Unfortunately, most exercise books tell you to crescendo when ascending. Likewise, most music is written with the top notes to be played louder than the lower ones. This gets the student in the mind set that as you ascend you start gunning it. This is where the student shoots himself in the foot! There is a big difference between practicing the trumpet and practicing music. While practicing music, you have to pay attention to all of the dynamics and phrase markings. While practicing the trumpet, the student’s main concerns should be on improving the trumpet playing machine. Maximizing the efficiency of the embouchure.

The only drawback with this exercise is that some student will over do the decrescendo into the upper register. They will start pinching out the upper notes. This is NOT acceptable. The decrescendo has to be within the boundaries of a good sound. Without a good sound, you have nothing!

The last thing to listen for is the clicks between notes. The clicks or pops that occur in between the slurred notes reflects both the accuracy and speed of the flexibility mechanism. The more pronounced the “clicks”, the more efficient the flexibility mechanism is working.

Things to listen for:

  1. Centered sound in all registers. Never sacrifice tone quality in order to hit the note. The tone quality will help you determine if you are in the center of the horns tuning or slot. This is also the point of maximum resonance and ease of operation.
  2. Clicks between notes. When you are producing noticeable clicks between the notes, your flexibility mechanism is operating correctly.
  3. Low/loud to high/soft. Decrescendoing into the upper register maximizes the embouchures range of motion. Practicing in this manner will produce accurate control of the entire range of motion.

Flexibility:

  1. Big breath.
  2. Relaxed exhale.
  3. Continue to play with the same centered sound as in the long tone exercises.
  4. Listen for clicks.
  5. Play lowest notes the loudest.
  6. Decrescendo up.
  7. Do not pinch high notes. Play high notes as softly as possible while maintaining a centered sound.
  8. Crescendo down.
  9. Play even eight notes. Use metronome. Push fastest controlled speed.

Remember:

As you ascend into the upper register, do not decrescendo so much that you lose the center of sound or start pinching out the high notes. Always play with the best sound possible. Without a good sound, you have nothing.
example1

Continue adding a note on top of each slur. Play slur three times with every valve combination. Down to F sharp then back up to low C. Continue up until you are playing two octave slurs (From low C to high C) three times with every valve combination. Down and up.
example2

© 2004 MVC Republished by permission.