Advice Gigs Music Time Management Warm-Up

Get Me to the Gig on Time

One of my biggest fears in life is that I’ll be late.  As a musician it’s unacceptable.  A concert has a start time: the audience will be there, the other performers (if there are others) will be there.  It’s like showing up for a meeting late… except with more people… who probably paid.  Getting to a rehearsal late is less offensive but is still an issue (more like the meeting).  You just try not to do it.

Most musicians have experienced some form of the “slept through the gig” nightmare.  Stories abound of up-and-coming musicians who get called for a big gig and sleep through their alarm/blow a tire/get caught in a knife fight with a monkey.  The story usually ends with the player never getting called again by the contractor (I’ve heard versions where the player was blackballed by an entire city and was forced to move).  It’s enough to put a fear of tardiness in anyone.

I’ll be the first to admit that things happen.  Just a month ago I needed to be in New York for a 3pm rehearsal, when, at the same time the skies burst and flooded central Pennsylvania.  (It was sad.  The rain was so bad one buffalo at a local zoo drowned and they had to euthanize another or else it would have had the same fate.)  Amtrak cut off service between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.  I had to wait for a bus to get to Philly, then a train from there to NYC putting me at the gig about three hours late.  There was nothing that could be done and, in the end, the world went on turning, but that rehearsal lost a bit of its usefulness and I couldn’t help but think “What if that had been a performance? …Would the world have stopped spinning? Or worse, would I ever get called for a gig again?”

To avoid that ever happening I’ve developed strategies for ensuring I make the gig.  First and foremost my approach involves planning to be early.  Any band director worth his salt has told his students “Early is on time.”  There’s a lot of truth to that.  A concert may have the downbeat at X o’clock but you need to get your instrument out, prep it, warm-up (if you didn’t do that at home earlier in the day), set up your music and whatever else you need and generally just get accustomed to the space.  I figure that for a rehearsal I need about a half hour, minimum, to do that; for a concert I add another half hour.

The next step in my strategy is factoring in travel time.

Travel time is where the greatest danger lies.  Regardless of what Google Maps says or your mode of conveyance (mass transit, car, bicycle, walking) so much of the trip is out of your control.  Consequently I developed a formula for myself:

tt = travel time (what you should plan to get to the gig)

wu = warm-up time (usually either thirty or sixty minutes)

btt = base travel time (this is what Google or Amtrak tell you)

wct = worst case traffic (what you believe is the absolute most time you can sit in traffic, your knowledge of the area/judgment comes into play here)

x =  the “plan for the unexpected” variable, determined by how far away the gig is (within 25 miles, x = fifteen minutes; 25 to 50 miles, x = thirty minutes; greater than 50 miles, x = sixty minutes; I use a similar system by substituting “miles” with “blocks” and changing the ranges when I’m in NYC)

tt = wu + btt + wct + x

(Flying is another matter completely with TSA shenanigans and parking and such.)

I developed this formula when I played with a brass quintet in Washington DC.  At the time, I had just graduated from Eastman, lived in south central PA and drove to Kensington, MD (just north of DC on the beltway) twice a week for rehearsals, plus random other days for school shows in DC, MD and VA.

If you have ever driven in DC you know the hell it is (note: I’ve lived in Houston and have had to commute in NYC as well so I know a variety of bad commutes… though I’ve never had to deal with LA or any of those crazy places outside the US).  Getting into the city can be a nightmare: the intersection at 95 and 495 can be horrendous… add to that the potential for traffic problems around Baltimore and a drive that would take me an hour and a half in the dead of night without traffic could take me three plus hours on a bad day (it once took me eight hours in the snow).  Unfortunately, there was no way of telling when it would be a bad day.  So I used the formula.

For a noon school show in downtown DC coming from PA:

wu = .5 hour
btt = 1.5 hours
wct = 1 hour (fluctuated depending on the time of day)
x = 1 hour

tt = 4 hours

Leaving four hours before a gig that should, for all intents and purposes, take me about an hour and a half to get to, meant I could get there incredibly early… I’d use those days to explore the neighborhoods/grab food/do other work; occasionally I’d show up just in time despite my efforts.  The important thing is, I was never was I late.

I still use it today.  Two months ago I had a session in NY at 11:30am.  Doing the math:
wu = .5 hour
btt = 3.5 hours
wct = 1 hour
x = 1 hour

tt = 6 hours

I left at 5:30am and was lucky I did, I ran into a seventeen mile backup (traffic stopped for the majority of it) in NJ and got to the city at 11 o’clock.  Without the traffic I would have made it to the city at 9:30am and would have had two hours to kill.

My formula fell apart in the flood though.  It can’t account for disaster on that level (Amtrak shutting down).  Though I can say that if it was a performance to which I was traveling I would have done everything in my power to get there (rental cars were completely sold out, but I could have taken a taxi back home and then driven to NYC).

Now if only my students would be able to walk across campus to get to rehearsal on time.

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.