This week I am continuing the discussion begun in last week’s post about the brass player’s daily routine. Whereas in the previous post I covered foundational concepts concerning regular fundamentals practice, today I will be discussing ancillary topics such as materials that are useful but not necessarily part of every day’s routine, as well as how to approach secondary instruments. I will conclude by addressing the question of whether one should play the same routine each day, an area in which there is some disagreement among brass players.
Optional or Occasional Elements
While the daily routine should be as comprehensive as possible, including every skill that “might” be needed by a player at some point can lead to the routine becoming excessively long and cumbersome. For example, I do not include extended techniques such as multiphonics, microtones, or protracted muted practice in my daily routines. The playing that I do requires such skills far too rarely to merit their being part of my daily fundamentals work. It is, however, helpful to always be mindful of ways that one’s routine can be modified or extended to include such skills when the need arises. For example, one can include multiphonics at various intervals in long tones or scale exercises—it is particularly amusing to play scales in fifths, octaves, or tenths using multiphonics. Trombone players could also modify long tones exercises to include “half-positions” or other microtones. If one is preparing to perform a piece with extended muted passages or perhaps using unusual mutes, simply practice playing any and all of the exercises with the appropriate mutes. I have, at times, even had to include “beatboxing” in my articulation exercises! (I have to admit, that one was fun.)
In short, just about any of the exercises in a good daily routine can be modified to address specific and perhaps unusual playing requirements. While there is no need for these modifications to be practiced daily or even regularly by most people, one should be aware of and ready to make such modifications when needed.
Approaching Secondary Instruments
Very few professional or even amateur musicians these days are allowed the luxury of specialization on a single instrument. In the brass world, trumpet players play on multiple trumpets in different keys as well as flugelhorn, horn players might have a descant horn or Wagner tuba, and low brass players do all kinds of mixing and matching of multiple trombones, euphoniums, baritones, and tubas. (With no disrespect intended to my trumpet and horn-playing colleagues, we low brass players tend to be more versatile when it comes to playing different instruments.) The question then becomes, how does one utilize the daily routine concept to develop and maintain skills on secondary instruments?
The ideal, of course, would be to play a complete daily routine each day on every instrument one plays. Of course, this is not practical. For me, this would involve playing four or five (depending on whether the small-bore and large-bore tenor trombones are considered separately) complete daily routines each day, and thus anywhere from three to five hours spent each day on fundamentals alone. Again, while this would be helpful, it is not practical or even possible—with family, church, teaching, and performing responsibilities, I rarely have even three hours per day to practice anymore. And yet, I am still playing professionally—on a regular basis—on five different instruments. How do I do it?
First of all, it is important that one consider one of his instruments to be his primary instrument, and the one on which the main, thorough daily routine is performed. I have tried two or three times to “switch around,” playing my main daily routine on different instruments, always with unsatisfactory results. For me at least, it is best that one of the instruments be “home,” and everything else treated as deviations from that. Because I play alto trombone, small-bore tenor trombone, large-bore tenor trombone, bass trombone, and euphonium regularly, I have found that, for me, the large-bore tenor (the one “in the middle”) is the best “springboard” for playing these other instruments, though there have been times in my career that I was playing so much bass trombone that I considered making it the primary instrument. It really doesn’t matter which instrument you consider to be your primary instrument, only that you have such a “home base.”
Perform a thorough daily routine on your primary instrument each day, and then use shorter “secondary” routines to maintain skills on secondary instruments. When constructing these shorter routines, use exercises that emphasize areas of difference between the different instruments, while not repeating areas where the techniques for each instrument are essentially similar. My own secondary routines include long tones (for developing a characteristic sound on each instrument), and some articulation, slurring, and range extension exercises, but primarily emphasize fingering patterns and slide position exercises on the different instruments, as this is the area of difference that is most difficult to master. In addition, playing scales and arpeggios on all of one’s instruments develops both technical facility and tuning.
Before moving on, I should point out that the above advice applies only to approaching secondary instruments within the same family. Doubling on trombone and euphonium, for example, includes many areas of similarity that need not be repeated in one’s practice on each instrument. Those with doubling instruments in different families, such as tubists that double on upright bass and/or bass guitar, might need to do more thorough fundamentals work on both instruments than I have indicated here, since the two instruments are so dissimilar.
Should One Play the Same Routine Each Day?
There are differing opinions on this question among brass players, even among those that agree in principle that performing some sort of thorough fundamentals routine each day is desirable. Some believe that one should not play the same routine each day, because this fosters a sense of boredom and, paradoxically, dependency. These would say that performing the same routine on a daily basis causes the player to “go through the motions” in an unproductive and mentally-disengaged manner, while at the same time leaving that player mentally ill-equipped to cope on days when for some reason he is unable to complete the entire routine. Players holding to this opinion often prefer to approach daily fundamentals work in a “freestyle” manner, playing whatever exercises come to mind in a semi-improvisatory fashion. My response to these is that there is little guarantee that a haphazard approach to daily fundamentals work will yield a balanced approach to the instrument; players might instead gravitate toward exercises that they enjoy or that they play well, leaving areas that are less “fun” or perhaps that need additional work more or less untouched. While the objections regarding boredom and dependency are legitimate, I think they can be answered. The issue of boredom can be resolved by using various kinds of recorded or computer-generated accompaniment to create greater enjoyment, by varying the sequencing of the exercises, or by simply playing close enough attention to one’s playing that even the minutest technical issues are noticed and, hopefully, immediately addressed. While those playing the same routine each day can feel dependent upon it, when one understands the difference between a “warm-up” and a more thorough daily routine, the sense of panic that might develop when one cannot complete the entire routine is mitigated.
Another group of players advocates varying the contents of the daily routine according to the demands of a given playing day or week. For example, a player with this approach who has a great deal of high register playing to do during rehearsals and performances during a given week might construe his daily routine that week to favor the lower register, so that his total “time on the horn” achieves an overall balance. There is, in my opinion, more merit to this method than to the previous one, but I fear that it goes too far in allowing external circumstances to determine the contents of one’s routine, and while in the short term it yields a very balanced approach, I wonder if the long-term effect is as consistent.
A third group rigidly holds to playing the same exact routine each day, with very little or no variation. As long as the routine one uses provides a thorough and balanced “diet” of the types of exercises described above, this is a more or less healthy approach. Potential downfalls include the possibilities of boredom and unhealthy dependency as mentioned above, as well as a limited ability to adapt to time constraints or the occasional need for additional work in certain areas. I will address the latter two of these downfalls below.
In my opinion, this third approach is best, with modifications. I find that performing more or less the same comprehensive routine each day fosters consistency in my ability to meet a variety of playing demands, while also providing an appropriate forum for extending skills in certain key areas (range, speed, lengths of phrases, etc.). Recognizing, though, that not every day’s schedule allows the amount of time one might prefer to spend on fundamentals, I have found that having multiple routines of various lengths, but covering similar materials, allows one to enjoy most of the benefits afforded by performing the same routine each day while also providing some flexibility with regard to time requirements. For example, the “Level 3” routines found on my faculty website at Ole Miss are both rigorous and thorough, and I prefer to use the tenor trombone routine in that category whenever possible. This takes about 45-50 minutes. When time does not allow this, I use the “Level 2” routine, which is similar, but only 15-20 minutes in length. The longer routine is ideal, but because the shorter routine is so similar to it, I lose very little by using the shorter one when necessary. With either routine, when the need arises for additional focus in different areas, I will add variations to the exercises normally included in the routine, and even add unusual elements when necessary, as discussed above.
Of course, all of these approaches (and perhaps some others) have very fine musicians among their advocates. This is not an area in which it is possible to say “my way is right, and your way is wrong,” though I hope that I have ably expounded and defended my methodology both here and in last week’s post. Whichever of these approaches to daily fundamentals work you choose (or your teacher chooses), make sure that you do spend a substantial amount of time each day working “the basics.” You will play better, learn and master new music more quickly, and be in the best physical condition to meet your various playing requirements.