“A practice session is like a fight. The object is to finish as quickly as possible with the least amount of damage to yourself.”
When many brass players sit down to practice music or technique of some kind, generally they are following a specific set of instructions prescribed by either the author of the method, or a general practice approach learned along the way. Often, scale studies, long tones, chord studies and etudes are practiced with the same basic approach or mindset, and the session proceeds linearly through the order of what is being played. With this comes a general “middle of the road” approach to dynamics, intensity (both physical and musical), and tempo.
In my opinion, the most common causes of excessive fatigue and frustration in practice sessions, are a lack of a solid sense/awareness of pacing and a failure to differentiate and make necessary accommodations for higher intensity training necessary for physical and musical development. With this, comes an overestimation of the amount of high intensity playing really necessary for “chop” development. For any kind of practice, it is helpful to ask the question “What’s the least amount of this I can do and still receive the maximum musical or physical result?” If some is good, more may NOT be better.
Understanding which Mode you are in when working on a study or musical passage will greatly improve the chances for success in a given practice block, it will help determine the necessary rest and recovery time, and it will aid in setting up realistic expectations for what might get accomplished.
There are far too many “things” to practice in a given session for most of us. Look for simple and elegant solutions to get to working on MUSIC as quickly as possible.
3 Modes of Brass Practice
1st Mode – Repair
Required by many players after high intensity professional work or practice (e.g. Session players, Broadway show players, circuses etc.)
It is important to differentiate between high level professional players who play music that demands a very high level of intensity/volume and those who over-play the dynamic and or range requirements of the music through lack of awareness or over-eagerness.
In the first case, the professionals are recovering/repairing after performing, recording, or rehearsing music that requires them to play at a high intensity level for long(er) periods of time. In the second case, the player has not learned to exercise good musical judgement and plays in a way that is beyond their capabilities in the moment or, they have not done the necessary foundational practice and training that allows them to play demanding music without overtaxing their body/musculature. You can spot these players when they “take things up an octave” when not indicated in music.
2nd Mode – Low Intensity Flow and Technical Work
• Chop Neutral – Clarke style approach to music or fundamentals
• Repetitions are non-destructive
• Rest returns chops to a basically fresh state
• I place upper register development in this category
3rd Mode – High (or Higher) Intensity Training
3a – Higher Intensity Volume
3b – Speed Work
3c – Endurance Work
Let’s look at a simple way to turn one octave of chromatically expanding Long Tones into a focused and organized training session by adding a degree of elevated intensity/volume, a tuner, and a timed component with rests using an interval timer.
The second example of training will introduce an element of increased speed, a limited number of repetitions that go past the point of clean execution, with an accelerating metronome. For this we will use a basic circular chromatic exercise in the style of Clarke.
Training with Simple Expanding Long Tones
Here is a common exercise that has been around for decades. To be sure, there is benefit in simply playing the exercise as written and not over-thinking it, and for developing players, this might be fine as-is. However, to transition from just “playing” the exercise to conceiving it as a training session, we must push our way out of the comfort zone in some way. This is my way of doing that, you may come up with your own!
Training Mode – 12 Minutes to Glory or Ignominy
• Each tone will be 45 seconds (timed) with 15 seconds rest (timed)
• Play each note only slightly louder than is comfortable – in other words: “Lean In” to the sound so that you can feel your chops working and waking up, but no louder.
• Using a tuner or tuner app (I use and recommend Tonal Energy) play at what you believe is the center of the pitch WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE TUNER!
• When it feels like you are in the center of the note – look at the tuner.
• Look away again and try to hear the center of the pitch as you continue to “Lean In” to the sound.
• Push the pitch sharp and then flat and try to return to the center of the pitch as you hear it. Do NOT fret if you are sharp or flat, only try to hear the centered pitch.
• During the 15 second rest period, empty your spit valves, take a shot of Rye Whiskey or espresso, or both, and look reverently to the heavens to thank me for bestowing such a hip exercise on you.
• Rinse and repeat for one octave or 12 minutes, which ever comes first.
• Rest 5-10 minutes.
• After 10 minutes —STOP practicing exercises and get on to learning some music!
Training with Chromatic Technical Studies
This is another simple way to turn routine, circular, technical practice into “Training” by pushing the limits of TEMPO.
• Start at a manageable tempo and accelerate each rep. by one or two beats per minute (BPM in the picture above). Choose a fixed number of reps that allow you to push beyond where the study can be executed cleanly, but not so many reps that it turns into (to put it impolitely) a complete shit show. The point is to scuffle and scramble to keep it together at a tempo beyond your comfort zone.
• Rest 15-30 seconds (Timed) and continue
• This process can be done with any technical study.
By being intentional with your practice, understanding what mode you are in prior to starting, and maintaining the awareness to keep your playing in that particular “zone”, you may find that the results of your practice are significantly improved and consistent.