The phenomenon of unused home exercise equipment is so pervasive in our society that it has become something of a trope. With the holiday season fast approaching, many families will soon see this in action once again. Typically, a person purchases or is given a treadmill, stair climbing machine, weight bench, or even a more elaborate piece of workout equipment, vowing that *this year* will be the year that “I finally get back in shape.” Nevertheless, the resolution to become healthier rarely lasts through the month of January, after which that workout equipment becomes at best a place to hang laundry, and at worst only an unused occupier of space, a constant reminder of the healthier life that might have been.
Although I have sometimes been guilty of neglecting the exercise equipment in my home, that has not been the case this year, as I have lost over 40 pounds in the past few months through diet and exercise. But I didn’t write today to brag about weight loss. Instead, I want to address another kind of often ignored “exercise equipment,” one whose neglect was—with some exceptions—quite noticeable among my students this week.
I have on occasion used this space to extol the virtues of daily, systematic fundamentals practice, including the use of a comprehensive daily routine (see here and here) and some regular program of scale and arpeggio work. While it has become fashionable among some in the low brass community to disdain this type of practice because of its repetitive and supposedly uncreative nature, I find the daily routine to be an indispensable tool in the development and maintenance of brass playing skills.
While the daily routine might vary in length and in the specific exercises used from day to day (I have routines of several different lengths depending on the amount of time available for fundamentals practice), some time should be spent each day systematically addressing the following items:
- Breathing exercises. While such exercises are usually a form of overtraining, they do improve the efficiency with which one moves air.
- Mouthpiece buzzing exercises. A few minutes of buzzing each day promotes efficiency in the use of the air and embouchure.
- Long tones. Use this time not only to “warm up” the embouchure, but also to ensure that the breath, attack, tone quality, steadiness of tone, and release are all optimally timed and of the highest quality.
- Articulation exercises. Each day’s practice should include a review of all types of articulations, both single and multiple-tonguing. Trombonists in particular should work on legato articulations.
- Lip-slur exercises are extremely helpful for building strength and flexibility. In the upper register this same technique is used to produce lip-trills, an important skill for trombonists especially.
- Fingering/slide movement exercises. Use diatonic and chromatic patterns to develop speed and dexterity of the fingers and/or slide arm.
- Range extension. Each day’s practice should include exploration and extension of the tonal range, both high and low.
- Scales and arpeggios. I recommend having scale and arpeggio routines in each key area, and performing these in at least one key area each day. Besides developing familiarity with the playing requirements in different keys, these routines can be used for further development in the other areas mentioned above.
At this point you might be thinking, “That all sounds good, but surely it takes a long time to do. Are you really suggesting that I spend 30 minutes or more each day on playing fundamentals?” YES. Yes, I am. Amazingly, students who would not dream of entering a race or some other athletic contest without training first seem to think that they should be able to achieve optimal musical development without taking the steps needed to develop the strength, stamina, and flexibility needed to play well. As I noted a few weeks ago, the similarities between effective sports practice and music practice are so pervasive that they seem to be essentially the same thing, only applied in different areas. That 30 minutes—or more—of daily fundamentals work might seem like a lot, but in the end it saves practice time, as errors and failures due to lack of basic skill development become rare, or even nonexistent.
If you spend a few hours watching late night television or even browsing the internet you are likely to encounter advertisements for hundreds of different pieces of exercise equipment for sale at different price points. All of them promise the ability to “become a better you” physically speaking, and many of them can actually deliver on those promises…but only if they are used. In the same way, lots of brass players and teachers make regimens for playing fundamentals practice available online (mine are here and here), all promising the ability to “become a better you” musically speaking. And similarly, most of these can actually deliver on these promises…but only if they are used.
Students, don’t make the daily routine into an unused piece of gym equipment. Put the laundry away and get to work!