Happy New Year! How are those resolutions going? At this time of year, there is certainly no shortage of inspirational blog posts. These posts encourage us to make resolutions for the upcoming year, and some even try to show us how to stick to them. Then there are posts – a lot of them, in fact – that tell us not to make resolutions (see here, here, and here). I’m not wholeheartedly endorsing those ideas, but they do make sense; resolutions are notoriously hard to stick to, often because they are far more idealistic than practical. By the second week of January, in fact, most new year’s resolutions have been abandoned. So, I decided to kick this blog off with practical advice I give all of my students, and a resolution that you can keep through the whole year.
The one thing you must do is decide to make the absolute best use of your practice time. To achieve the results you’re looking for means, specifically, to decide to do the things you know you need to do but that you’ve put off for whatever reason, whether it’s because of difficulty, boredom, forgetfulness, poor time management, or simply laziness. In my experience as a performer and a teacher, I can say this with certainty: the things you’re purposefully neglecting in your regular practice are the same things that will make you great.
This sounds obvious. I can tell you that it’s not obvious to everyone, because it wasn’t to me. As a high school student, I thought I was on track to be a world-class trumpet player. In my small high school band program and in my county-wide band, I was consistently first chair. I sat second chair in my district’s honor band every year, but I never made all-state band. Still, I was seeing what I thought were the signs of success in most auditions and performance experiences. I was told often by private instructors, however, that while I may be a “big fish in a small pond,” I would need to buckle down to make it at a higher level, especially with things like articulation, my biggest area of weakness.
In one week’s lesson, my teacher opened my Arban’s book to the sections on triple- and double-tonguing. It was toward the end of the lesson, so he briefly explained the “tu” and “ku” syllables and their alternation, told me to work on it for the week, and that he would continue the explanation the next week. Now, I took playing and practicing pretty seriously, or at least what I as a high school student thought was serious. I practiced every day (at least a little), was attentive in lessons, and read about and listened to the trumpet as much as I could, which was a little harder in the pre-internet age than it is now. I made sure that, in addition to my band music, solos, and scales, I practiced everything assigned in my private lessons. Well, almost everything. The problem with this assignment was that when I worked on these double tonguing studies at home, it sounded bad. Really bad. I didn’t understand how anyone could make this technique sound good (I later learned that I was tonguing about 100x too forcefully). I didn’t want to sit in my room and listen to myself sound bad, and I really didn’t want anyone else in the house to hear me sound bad. So, I didn’t double tongue in these studies (or anywhere else) again for the next six years. Instead, I figured out how to single-tongue the studies at a tempo even faster than my teacher had assigned for the double-tonguing.
When I returned to my lesson the following week, the first thing my teacher asked me to play was the double-tonguing study. I did, single-tonguing of course, at the assigned tempo. I played the articulations cleanly, and we bumped the tempo up a few times. Impressed, my teacher asked if I was double-tonguing. I lied and said that I was. He said, “Great!”, and that was the last time we really talked about it. Secretly, I was proud of how fast I could single-tongue notes, and I assumed that I wouldn’t need this double- or triple-tonguing nonsense, at least not for a long, long time. I faked through double-tonguing for the rest of high school and even the first year and a half of college. I would revisit it on my own periodically, but only just long enough to decide that it still sounded bad and abandon it all over again. Finally, toward the end of my sophomore year in college, the lie caught up to me when my teacher assigned a cornet solo, Fantasie Brillante. The final two variations called for a tempo too quick for me to pull off by single-tonguing, so I came clean about my lack of understanding in this area, and articulation became the hot topic in my lessons for the rest of the semester. I worked and worked at it, and slowly (very slowly), it started to make sense and get easier.
I could end the story right there, and the lesson would be worth learning. By avoiding this core technique in my practice, and by lying to my teacher about it (by the way, I could write a whole post about being honest with your private teacher), I put myself years behind in the area of articulation. But as I got older (and finally better), I realized that there was more to the moral of this story.
It wasn’t until my first year in graduate school that I really understood proper articulation (single, double, and triple); as it turned out, I wasn’t even single-tonguing properly all along, and it was affecting my endurance, my tone, and my intonation. I was extremely fortunate to find a teacher that was patient enough with a student as old as I was, and we spent the better part of a year tearing down a lot of my technique and rebuilding it from scratch. (That year, by the way, was completely worth it! Improvement came quickly after that, and I know that first year and my graduate school experience as a whole saved any chance I had at a career in music.) In the process, what I discovered is that the core areas of trumpet technique – tone, flow, range, flexibility, and articulation – are all connected. This guides my pedagogy and approach to the instrument to this day. Put simply, by understanding proper articulation, I better understood the entire technical approach – how I move my air, how the embouchure is affected, how tone is affected, etc. By avoiding articulation study because it would temporarily sound bad, I risked putting myself years behind in all aspects of my playing.
The things you’re not doing in your practice time are the same things that will make you great. Whatever it is that you know you’re supposed to be working on but have been putting off – articulation, lip slurs, transposition, that etude that’s been collecting dust on your music stand – resolve today to not put it off any longer. Mastery is only achieved by risking failure, modifying as needed, and trying again. Trust me, it’s worth potentially sounding bad today and working through it slowly and thoughtfully until you’ve learned it properly. It will save you time (maybe years) in the end.