Advice Music Practice Time Management Trombone Warm-Up

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


Music Photos Review Trombone

…Just one word… Plastics: The pBone

I got a new trombone this week.  It was probably the easiest trombone purchase I’ve ever made.  New horns are typically huge, important investments: every horn I’ve ever bought (besides my first Bundy) has come with days/weeks/months of testing, debating and fretting.  This instrument, however, didn’t come with a huge price tag (just $150 from Hickey’s Music Online) and so wasn’t such a big deal.  In fact, I bought it sight unseen, having never heard or held one.

Why?  I direct the pep band at Dickinson College and don’t trust myself to bring anything I can dent into the stands.  So when I saw the plastic Jiggs Whigham pBone, in red (Dickinson’s colors are red and white) and for only $150, I thought it was a risk I could take.

After spending some time with the horn here are my thoughts:

tl;dr: The pBone is an extremely playable, durable instrument bound to find its way into elementary schools and ska bands around the world.


The pBone

The pBone is made of plastic with a carbon fiber inner slide (with metal stockings and a plastic outer slide) and a metal counterweight.  The instrument is extremely light.

pBone Slide

The slide lock is giant and actually has a visual aid on the horn to let you know when it’s locked and when it’s not.

pBone Lock

The spit valve (does anyone call it a water key?) is awkwardly placed on the outside of the slide.  It’s one piece with no cork, a design that I wonder if others will be implementing.

pBone Spit Valve

It comes with a matching plastic mouthpiece that reminds me of the Giardinelli I played on for a year during high school.  The mouthpiece is functional but I find it plays better with my Giddings & Webster.  Any small shank mouthpiece will fit in the instrument.

pBone Mouthpiece

The slide and bell section are held together by friction (not screwed together) like some older trombones and is very secure.  The giant grip feels oversized in my hands but is probably rather ergonomic.

pBone Parts


A player can get a decent sound on the pBone.  The low register (B flat at the bottom of the bass clef staff and lower) sounds slightly more “plasticy,” for lack of a better word, than the upper register.  The overtones are pretty well in tune.  Overall the sound can be warm and pleasing and holds up through extreme dynamic ranges.

The slide action is my biggest issue with the instrument.  I’m not sure if it’s the particular horn I purchased or all the pBones but the slide sticks quite a bit and makes a scraping noise even after oiled.  Slide-o-Mix has been ineffective, I’ll try some Trombontine when I get a chance to order it to see if that helps.  The slide issue is pretty significant, it makes small tuning adjustments impossible (you hope the slide gets to the right place the first time, otherwise you’re out of luck) making subtle playing a real pain.

update: I’ve learned via Kessler Music (via redditor sillybear25) that the slide “scratchiness” is normal and will go away as the metal inner stockings wear away the plastic of the inner slide.  Excellent news, though with my once a week usage of the horn I expect it may take a few months before mine becomes truly playable.

The Bottom Line:

The pBone is a competent instrument.  I’ll happily spend my Saturdays playing “Sledge Hammer” on it.  The playability, durability and cost are right.  I foresee band programs having sets of these in their school colors for their youngest players to use, though I fear legions of trombonists learning on instruments with poor slide action.  If the slide issues can be worked out the pBone will be a phenomenal first instrument.  Until then it’s an alternative but those who can afford and be trusted with a more expensive and “dentable” metal instrument should seriously consider it.


Advice Music Mutes Trombone

Trombone Mutes: The Basics (For Trombonists)

This is intended as a resource for trombonists.  In future posts I will go through each type of trombone mute individually and talk about its quirks and uses, here I will explore the many things that are true of all of them:

1. “Mute” is a misnomer.

Despite their name, mutes don’t actually mute.  In fact, many times, a muted brass instrument will sound louder than an open (unmuted) one.  Mutes are filters: they amplify, pass or attenuate (emphasize, do nothing to, or de-emphasize) certain frequencies.  A mute that removes the low frequencies and emphasizes the high can seem to project more than an open horn.

That said, some mutes will make the instrument decidedly softer: it’s impossible to play very loudly with a practice mute and, while penetrating, solo-tone mutes are not very loud.  In the end it takes knowledge of each mute to know which will suit your needs.

2. Practice with mutes.

The only way to understand how mutes will affect your sound and playing is to practice with them.  You’ll find that:

  • All mutes affect your pitch (which you should compensate for by manipulating your tuning slide).
  • Mutes respond differently in different registers (how so varies from mute to mute).
  • They can tire you more quickly (practice with them for extended periods of time to become accustomed to the resistance).

Practice scales with various mutes (a different mute per day can give you some serious insight) and you’ll quickly figure out their tendencies.

3. Learn how to make mute changes as quickly as possible.

Composers have a habit of writing impossible mute changes.  While they should do their best to give us adequate time we should do what we can to make the changes as quickly as we can.  That means, first and foremost, practicing the mute changes.  Many times, simple repetition will allow you to anticipate the change and pull it off.

If speed alone is not working (and you will be performing seated) try the knee/lap technique where you prepare the mute by putting it in the crook of your leg or in your lap.  This technique can shave some time off the change. Or if the note before the mute change or the first note of the muted passage is in first position you might be able to do the one-handed mute change: hold the trombone and slide in first position with one hand and grab and insert the mute with the other.  This technique can be seriously fast (especially when combined with the lap/knee) but requires the music to be just right to make it useful.

Adams Excerpt
I find this mute change from John Adams' "Son of Chamber Symphony" to only be possible if I put the mute under my knee at the beginning of the piece, insert the mute with my right hand and play the middle C in first position with the trigger.
Birtwistle Excerpt
I ready the mute with my left hand to make this change in Birtwistle's "Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum."

Unfortunately, these techniques will not always work: if you are standing for a performance you surely can’t do the knee/lap technique and if the mute change doesn’t involve notes in first position you’re out of luck.

4. Make mute changes as silently and securely as possible.

Metal clanking on metal or dropping to the floor at the wrong time can seriously ruin a piece.  Simple enough: try to insert/remove the mute quietly and do so firmly.  Give the mute a little twist to ensure it’s in place and, most importantly, never trust a harmon mute.  Those things are bound and determined to fall to the floor.

5. Figure out a good way to travel with mutes.

Trombone mutes are awkward to carry but it’s our responsibility to deal.  I suggest finding a bag large enough to carry several mutes.  I use a large backpack style bag in which I can fit a good number.  The bag is big when full but it gets the job done.  Until someone develops a collapsable mute there’s not much we can do.

Mute Bag