The Daily Routine: A Necessity for Great Brass Playing, Part One

In the next two posts, I will be discussing perhaps the most foundational part of my approach to brass playing: the “daily routine,” covering most or all of the fundamental elements of playing the instrument. That I place such emphasis upon this will not be surprising to those that know my pedigree, if you will, as a trombonist; of my two primary trombone teachers at the university level, one was a student of Emory Remington (1891-1971) at the Eastman School of Music, while the other studied with at least one of Remington’s students. Remington pioneered the concept of a “balanced daily routine” for trombonists and other brass players, and exercises derived from those he developed for his students are used by brass players (and others) all over the world.

I started building my own daily routines as a high school student, though they have certainly evolved and expanded over the years (and continue to do so). While those that have heard or used my routines will recognize them as derived from Remington in large part, I have expanded upon Remington’s concepts, as well. This week I will discuss just what a daily routine is, what it should accomplish, and the types of exercises it should contain, and then next week I will discuss optional or occasional parts of a daily routine and how to approach secondary instruments, and close by evaluating several different approaches to the daily routine.

More Than a “Warm-Up”

Before I begin discussing the goals and the parts of an effective daily routine, I must clarify that what I am talking about here is more than simply a “warm-up.” Though one would ideally play the entire daily routine at the beginning of the playing day, this is not always possible. Often an early morning class, lesson, rehearsal, or even performance can prevent a person from completing the entire daily routine prior to his first playing engagement of the day. Because of this reality, it is helpful to differentiate between a “daily routine” and a “warm-up.” The latter, assuming that a person is practicing regularly, should require no more than ten minutes to complete. After playing just a few exercises (perhaps some mouthpiece buzzing, long tones, and one or two lip-slur and scale exercises), one should be sufficiently prepared to approach most playing engagements. The ideal daily routine is more comprehensive than this, often requiring 20 to 45 minutes or more to complete, and still more if one is working with one or more secondary instruments in addition to one’s primary instrument.

The kind of daily routine I am discussing can rightly be called a “warm-up and maintenance routine.” It certainly includes those elements that are necessary to “warm-up” for various playing engagements, but goes beyond that into exercises designed to maintain and extend fundamental playing skills in various areas. This makes such a routine invaluable to the professional player and the advanced student seeking a balanced way to maintain and build strength, stamina, range, flexibility, and speed. A good routine will make these individuals’ studies of advanced performance and instructional literature much more efficient, as they will find that the skills developed in the daily routine lead to less time being required to master “real music.” Such routines are equally of use to serious amateurs and to professional musicians who are not primarily performers, such as school band directors. These individuals desire to play at as high a level as possible, but are often prevented by a busy schedule from engaging in extended practice sessions on a regular basis. Regularly completing a balanced daily routine can help such individuals to maintain a relatively high level of playing in a limited amount of practice time. Whether one is a student, an amateur, a band director with a busy schedule, or a professional musician, a good daily routine will make practicing more efficient and productive, even when practice time is limited.

What the Daily Routine Should Accomplish

1. Warm-Up. Although the daily routine is more than a “warm-up,” part of its purpose is to prepare the body for the demands of the playing day. The first exercises in a routine in particular should be relatively “low-impact,” so that the muscles, nerves, and blood vessels most engaged when playing are not damaged by moving too quickly into more taxing materials. After those early exercises, the player should be physically ready to tackle the more demanding exercises in the daily routine or, if necessary, move on to rehearsal, performance, and teaching responsibilities before completing the remainder of the routine later in the day.

2. Skills Maintenance. The daily routine should be a means of maintaining fundamental playing skills. One reality of a musician’s life is that much of the music we have to play in the professional world is not very challenging. This is especially true for low brass players, who are so often relegated to “oom-pahs” or other simple accompanying parts. And yet, on occasion we are called upon to execute great technical feats, and if the more challenging aspects of playing such as multiple-tonguing, extreme ranges, and lip-trills are not exercised regularly, we might find ourselves unable to deliver when these skills are demanded of us. The daily routine serves as a means of exercising such skills on a regular basis, so that we are well able to meet whatever technical demands come our way.

3. Skills Extension. Hopefully we are all seeking to develop our abilities to play higher and lower, faster and slower, with greater breath control, greater technical precision, etc. The daily routine provides an ideal forum for accomplishing this, and allows us to increase our technical skills in a measured way. For example, when playing high register extension exercises, one can try to reach one note higher every month (or, after a certain point, every year or more!). When playing fingering exercises using the metronome, the player can try to increase the tempo by five beats per minute each week. Conversely, the player can try to reduce the tempo each week when working on long tones or other breath extension exercises. In short, not only should the daily routine cover certain types of exercises each day, but should also be used to increase one’s abilities in key skill areas.

4. Mental Preparation. Finally, the daily routine helps to mentally prepare the player for his playing demands, just as it helps in physical preparation. The consistency of returning to the same exercises each day can help to establish and maintain the healthy mindset that is needed for successful performance, promoting focus, relaxation, and poise.

Necessary Elements of the Brass Player’s Daily Routine

1. Breathing Exercises. Spend a few minutes each day exercising and even “overtraining” the breathing apparatus so that large quantities of air can be moved in and out with the greatest possible efficiency. I recommend exercises similar to those found in The Breathing Gym.

2. Mouthpiece Buzzing Exercises. Some of my teachers advocated buzzing on the mouthpiece regularly, while one in particular eschewed mouthpiece exercises entirely. I find that a small amount of mouthpiece buzzing each day promotes efficient use of the air and embouchure. Because the mouthpiece is less “forgiving” than the instrument, approaches that yield a poor sound on the instrument result in no sound at all being produced on the mouthpiece only. Buzzing thus trains the player to use the air and lips in a way that leads to efficient tone production. That said, excessive time spent buzzing can have negative effects (hence some teachers’ avoidance of it), so it is important not to overdo this.

3. Long Tones. Playing long notes at slow tempos provides a great opportunity not only to “warm-up” the embouchure, but also to focus on a number of important skills that can sometimes be neglected when other technical demands are present. When I play long tones each day, I make sure that I inhale in time and without stopping before the first articulation, that I articulate clearly and correctly, that my air is moving consistently, that my tone is full, that my face is relaxed, and that I release each note in time and without “chopping off” the airstream with the lips or tongue. That might sound like a lot to think about, but all of these things are essential to great musicianship, and long tones exercises provide a great opportunity to ensure that all of these “little things” are done properly.

4. Articulation Exercises. Use the daily routine to master staccato and legato articulations, single and multiple tonguing, and even more extended articulation skills such as doodle tonguing. Work on different articulations on single notes as well as during technical exercises, scale and arpeggio exercises, etc. As mentioned earlier, when working on increasing tonguing speed, use the metronome to measure your progress, increasing the tempo by 5bpm or so each week.

5. Lip-Slurs/Trills. The daily routine should include a number of lip-slur exercises to develop flexibility in moving between the different “partials” both smoothly and efficiently. Trombone players especially should include some whole-step trills from the seventh partial and above. The technique required for these trills and lip-slurs in lower registers is essentially the same, but execution is more difficult in that upper register, so diligent, daily practice is needed in order to master this skill.

6. “Technical” Exercises. Every daily routine should include exercises to develop slide technique and/or finger dexterity and speed. Construct exercises for this purpose using patterns regularly encountered in music, such as short diatonic or chromatic scale patterns, arpeggios, etc. That way, the exercises used to develop one’s physical skills are also being used to internalize common patterns, leading to more accurate execution, especially when sight reading.

7. Range Extension Exercises. The daily routine is an ideal time to exercise the entire tonal range of the instrument. Furthermore, the daily routine provides a great opportunity to work on expanding one’s range. As a general rule, during the daily routine I try to reach at least a perfect fifth higher and lower than I can play comfortably. That way, the “extremes” of my comfortable range become even stronger and more secure, and in public performance there is some psychological comfort in that I am never reaching anywhere near the absolute limits of my range. Even better, by practicing this way my usable performing range also slowly expands, though one does eventually reach a point when such expansion is almost imperceptibly slow.

8. Scales and Arpeggios. Spend time playing scales and arpeggios each and every day. Just about every piece of music is full of patterns based upon these, and the more patterns one knows and readily recognizes, the more able he will be to accurately read and execute whatever music he encounters. Practice major and minor scales throughout the range of the instrument and at various speeds, and perhaps in thirds, fourths, or other intervals. Even better, learn some of the more unusual scales, such as modal, pentatonic, octatonic, blues, bebop, and whole-tone scales. Composers are using these with increasing frequency in their works, and so familiarity with them will enhance one’s reading and interpretive skills. Practice triads and seventh chords, and even ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords. Don’t neglect chromatic scales, either; trombone players especially are prone to take chromatics for granted because such patterns lie so “naturally” on the instrument. Still, these must be mastered, so practice chromatic scales starting and ending on different pitches. Some routines I use for scale and arpeggio practice can be found here.

To be continued next week….

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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