Tag Archives: Fundamentals

Impediments to Progress: Holes and Loops

David Waters, my professor in grad school, referred to deficiencies in technique as “holes.”  Just like a depression in your yard, the hole could be filled with the right tools and some hard work.  Others call them hurdles or obstacles.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not as easy as going to the shed and grabbing a shovel.  Sometimes you are not aware of the hole, sometimes the motivation isn’t there to fill it and sometimes it seems like no matter how much you put into the hole, no amount of work will hide it.  It’s the last scenario I will address most but I’ll also touch on the first two.

Being aware of an issue is the first step.  That may be obvious but the issue itself may not.  Continuing with our “hole” metaphor, if we don’t get into the yard and look we’ll never know there’s a hole to be filled.  Musically speaking, we listen to recordings and attend concerts to discern what others are capable of, we talk to others (friends, teachers) and they tell us what we should be able to do.  Then, if we have enough motivation, we start addressing it.

A dissertation unto itself.  Here are just a few points.  There’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic being motivation that is tied to a task and exists within the individual performing.  Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the performer: money, fame, competition, cheering crowds, fear of punishment, etc.  In our “hole” situation intrinsic motivation would be love of manual labor or the joy we get from a beautiful yard, extrinsic motivation would be getting paid to do the work or a fear of someone tripping and twisting an ankle.  There are beliefs about the relative merits of each: studies show that both can be beneficial but the lasting effects of intrinsic motivation usually trump extrinsic.

The Black Hole:
Occasionally we encounter a hole that just can’t seem to be filled.  Try as we might the problem remains.  This is far from uncommon.  Here are just some thoughts on why this might be:

Fear of Success
This is a form of self-sabotage that will keep us from achieving all that we can. Think about this in depth before you go any further.  Fear of success can take a few forms:

  1. Fear of lost friends/relationships
    The belief that, if we improve, others will resent it and we’ll lose them in our lives.  Think about athletes who “make it big.”  They go from unpaid high school or college players to multimillionaires overnight but their friends and family haven’t changed.  It’s easier to see how someone could be afraid of losing those they care about in a situation like that but it can happen in the less lucrative field of classical music as well.  (“Will my friends resent my ability?”)
  2. Fear of responsibility
    The belief that, if we are successful it will be expected of us again.  Showing that we’re good at something puts pressure on us to be good again and again, which then causes people to look to us when they need something done, which adds more responsibility to our lives…. something not everyone can handle.
  3. Fear of reaching our potential
    The belief that, if we do our best it still may not be good enough.  Simple as that.

You haven’t made it a priority
Be honest with yourself, have you really prioritized the issue?  Too often, I see frustration in others over a particular habit they can’t change or skill they can’t do that could be alleviated if they would make the issue a priority.  For instance, if they are having difficulty with air flow they spend their time practicing their solo repertoire without touching on exercises to address the problem, hoping the problem will work itself out on its own.  It should be your goal to spend so much time working on your weaknesses that they become your strengths.

Unreliable Sensory Perception
 This a concept from Alexander Technique that, in short, means we can’t trust ourselves.  Our habits are so engrained that even things that hinder us (that we even know to be detrimental) will feel ‘natural’ and ‘right.’  This makes it difficult for us to change the habit.  An outside perspective (teacher, mirror, recording device) can help you become aware of when you’re not being efficient.

Trapped in a loop
While at Rice University I took several courses on performance psychology with Dr. John Eliot.  There are many great things from those classes that I still use on a daily basis.  This “Performance Circle” is one of them:

By following the arrows you can trace the path of performance and find places where you can become trapped in your efforts.  Some people are inclined to get stuck in a “training loop” in which they feel hard work is the solution to their problems, others will get stuck in a “trusting loop” in which they feel that their creativity will pull them through.  To escape either try applying techniques from the other loop.  Without doing so you run the risk of burnout or never achieving what you’re capable of because of fear.

Think about your personality.  Do you feel that hard work is always the solution?  There’s a possibility you should think more creatively about your performance.  Do you feel like you can achieve your goals using your natural ability and your imagination?  A little elbow grease might improve your performance.

To bring back our hole metaphor… imagine we have a hole in our backyard that we can’t fill no matter how hard we try.  Maybe there is a spring at the bottom of the hole that washes the water away.  Thinking creatively we’d realize we need to block the spring first.  No amount of sheer hard work was ever going to solve the problem.  Alternatively, contemplating the nature of the hole will never get it filled without some hard labor.

Warm-Up and Time Management

For as long as I can remember I’ve begun my day with exercises that touch upon the fundamentals of playing: a “laundry list” of techniques such as ear-training, breath control, tone quality, articulation, flexibility, etc.  The idea being that by playing these exercises I ready myself for the musical challenges of the pieces I face later in the day.

Thing is, these are all techniques that can be practiced or “improved.”  I can tongue more quickly, make longer phrases, play louder/softer, etc.  One of my first teachers, Jim Erdman, used to say “Always happy; never content.”  It instilled in me a lifelong goal of “getting better.”  With this interest in improving my ability I could spend hours on one skill: focusing my articulation, playing long tones…  My “warm-up” began to take up the majority of my playing day.

This wasn’t so big of an issue in college, after all, it was my sole responsibility to “get better.”  I could hole-up in a practice room for hours on end and play those long tones.  But things have changed.  Responsibilities (playing, family and otherwise) increased, as did the need for a succinct warm-up.

It’s taken conscious effort to develop a routine and a system for executing it that address the fundamentals in a timely manner.  Developing this program involved:

  1. Understanding of the purpose of the warm-up.
  2. An organized view of the skills it takes to play the trombone (the aforementioned “laundry list”).
  3. five-minute hourglass.
  4. A notebook (or Evernote).

1. What is a Warm-Up?

A warm-up is a set of exercises that get you ready for the musical day.   Individuals will incorporate different studies in their warm-up but they have basically the same goal in mind.  My goal is to be playing efficiently and comfortably by the end of my routine.

Players will feel “warmed-up” after different amounts of playing.  Some warm-ups are a few notes (John Marcellus is fond of saying that he “warmed up thirty years ago”),  some (including mine) are fifteen minutes to a half-hour and I’ve heard some players proclaim they don’t feel warmed up until they’ve played for three hours!

Generally, warm-ups are structured to gradually increase in intensity and cover all the techniques needed to play.

2. The Laundry List – Everything it takes to play the trombone

Milt Stevens, former principal trombone from the National Symphony recommended that you “make a list of every possible technique it takes to play your instrument.”  He then went and did it pretty comprehensively:

Milt Stevens - techniques

I received this list during a masterclass with Milt in 1997 and I haven’t been able to find anything better.  It’s what I use to be sure I’ve touched on every skill.

3. The Hourglass

So how does one be thorough but not take up their entire day on fundamentals?

Some of the techniques can be addressed in a single exercise (posture can be combined with them all).  Breath control and relaxation, for example, are pretty general and should always be kept in mind but can be addressed specifically in a long tone exercise that also addresses basic embouchure formation, tone quality, basic attack, slide accuracy and intonation.  I prefer the Remington Long Tone Exercise:

Remington Long Tones

That’s seven items from the list in one exercise, fourteen more to go.  (You could even add vibrato into this exercise to cover that technique as well.)

By intelligently doubling (or tripling…) up on techniques the entire list can be dealt with pretty speedily.  Keep in mind, if there’s a technique with which I’m having issues I focus on it with its own individual exercise.  For instance if I had problems with multiple tonguing I would work on it in with its own exercise that eliminates (as much as possible) other techniques, for example: multiple tonguing on a single note.

The next step to efficiently making it through the warm-up is to regulate your time.  Here’s where the hourglass comes into play.  Instead of playing an exercise until it is “right” or it “feels good,” flip the hourglass (I find a five-minute glass is a good length) and play until the sand runs out.  Once time is up go on to the next exercise.  No questions.  No backtracking.  Guess what?  You have tomorrow to do it again, and the day after, and the day after that.  Five minutes is plenty of time to cover a technique, if you insist on getting more work on it after your warm-up you can choose some etudes that cover it as well.

4. Keep Records

And finally.  Document.  Everything.  Keep notes of your warm-up (and all of your practice sessions).  Write down exercises, tempi and how you felt about all of it.  What are your goals for the session?  Were sixteenth notes at quarter note equals 108 too fast for you to articulate?  Did lip slurs into the pedal range feel great?

Refer back to your notes.  If you’re working to improve the speed of your articulation: know what tempo you feel comfortable, then bump the metronome up a few clicks.  Play at that speed and take notes.  When you feel comfortable at that tempo, bump it up again.

You’ll be able to look at your notes and see what you were up to when you were playing your best/your worst.  Five years down the road you’ll have something to look back at and compare against.  In conjunction with recordings this an extremely valuable asset.

Practice Notes - 05 (Part 1)

My practice notes from 2005 (Part 1)

Practice Notes - 05 (Part 2)

My practice notes from 2005 (Part 2)

Practice Notes - 3

My practice notes from 2011