Ever sit in your practice room and practice something over and over until you’re blue in the face (or, more literally, in the lip) and still feel like it isn’t right?
In some ways, it can be a sign of grit and determination to keep going and try to figure it out. However, “I’ve GOT to figure this out” can quickly turn toxic when you add, “…or else [insert dire prediction of future success or failure here].” In fact, with books expounding on having the grit to toil through the difficulties to find success, and the old America saying, “Keep the nose to the grindstone”, there is much to egg us on. Get after it!
For many years I just HAD to figure out how to be more efficient and durable and mostly approached it like I was manning a battering ram, and my goal was just inside the castle walls. All I had to do was JUST FIGURE IT OUT! In the end, I did not really figure it out until I had the time to allow it to happen in its own time. But I digress…
Where were we?
GET AFTER IT!
Yes, please do that.
What if you reframed that thought and made it simply, “I WILL figure this out”? That does a few things:
- It assumes that you have the tools to go forward and improve.
- It doesn’t set any hard deadlines by which you’ll HAVE to have it all figured out.
- It sets your intention, which is not to give up.
- It gives you space, and despite many of us not knowing it, we all need that space.
In recent weeks of teaching my T5 (Training Trumpeters to Teach Themselves: www.benwrighttrumpet.com) Seminars and at the New England Conservatory, I’ve worked with excellent and hardworking trumpet players who sometimes can’t get themselves out of thought loops. They carry excess physical tension which comes through in the sound and makes playing the trumpet feel difficult in many ways: sound production (especially in any dynamic softer than mezzoforte), articulation (getting a clear articulation that isn’t hammered or labored sounding), lack of flexibility.
Both players said they get into a practice session and reach a point of frustration with a technique or passage and just stick with it, hammering away. Through watching them practice in Practice Window Training™ sessions, I have been able to observe all kinds of habits that aren’t helping them improve:
- Once they get to a tough spot, they repeatedly start the same place with no semblance of rhythm as they prepare to play.
- The same can be said of breathing. It is haphazard, at best.
- These things leave half the work they were doing rather useless as it is done in conditions that don’t exist in performance: they leave the horn on their face for repeated iterations which avoids the crucial coordination of the initial attack after a rest.
These bad habits and more come about as a result of the frustration they were feeling as things didn’t get better quickly enough. It takes its toll on the lips quickly, which then has a huge effect on the sound quality, and the frustration builds, etcetera! This is a loop that we should all strive to avoid.
When this starts to happen, stop and remember, “I WILL figure this out. Maybe not in this practice session, though!” Give yourself some space. Take a decent breath with the rhythm and style in mind. EVERY repetition you do needs that kind of attention. Practice a spot for a limited amount of time, and then move on! You can get back to it later and make improvements. It rarely will all happen at once.
THIS is the fastest way to improve. Much better than just bashing away for hours on end. With thoughtful, efficient practice, one can get much more done in an hour or two than four hours of less thoughtful repetitions laced with bad habits.
So, the next time you catch yourself saying, “I’ve gotta get this fixed NOW,” take a few breaths and remember that, even though it may seem slower, being more aware and taking a little more time in the now will get you where you want to go sooner than blindly plowing forward!
Second Trumpet, Boston Symphony Orchestra
Faculty New England Conservatory