Written by Anne McNamara
By Anne McNamara
A challenge for many young (and some not-so-young) musicians is finding the time and motivation to practice. Just as aspiring athletes must put in time and a great amount of hard work at the gym in order to excel on the playing field, trumpeters must diligently practice in order to obtain proper technique and build the necessary endurance to perform successfully. Yet, simply putting in repetitions of Clarke studies and time with the horn on your face is not enough to truly reach excellence. While the first hurdle to development is finding time and motivation to practice, the second is having the organizational skills to consistently improve.
Many of us turn to diaries or journals in order to write down our thoughts, frustrations, hopes, and dreams on a daily basis. Why not do the same thing for our practicing? Taking detailed notes about the “big five” of our practicing: “who, what, when, where and why” provides a snap shot of our development on any given day. It also shows us what we are lacking in our regimen. Not sure it’s worth it? Try the following experiment:
- Make a list of the top 3-5 areas of your playing that are weak. Avoid negative adjectives in your descriptions; merely regard it as a clinical assessment. For example, “limited high range” or “slow double tongue” etc.
- For one week, write down everything that you practice and the amount of time that you practice each exercise, etude, solo.
- At the end of the week, compare your weak areas to your practicing record.
If you have a slow double tongue, what percentage of your week was spent on double tonguing? If your high range is lacking, how much time did you spend playing in the upper register? Analyzing your practice habits can shed some light on why you struggle with certain areas. If you are spending adequate time on your weak areas but you still aren’t improving, this can bring up a sixth question of “how” you are practicing. If you spent half of the week practicing Arban’s double tonguing exercises, did you vary your tempo? Did you isolate the “ku” or “goo” of your double tongue technique? Did you use wind patterns (articulating just on your air) or sing it? It’s always best to include several approaches to each area that you’re working on.
Once you have properly analyzed your practice tendencies, you can begin to systematically improve your playing through the use of a practice journal. The immediate benefits are wasting less time in the practice room and more focused sessions. The long term benefits are gaining clearer insight into how consistent you are on a day-to-day basis and creating a growing “blueprint” of your trumpet playing. This record will serve as a reference in your private teaching. You never know when you will need to help a struggling student with a concept and gain inspiration from how you solved the same problem in your practicing. A thorough practicing journal should include the following:
- Who: Composers/Pedagogues that you are performing.
(ex: Stevens Sonata first movement, Bai Lin, Arban, Clarke, Stamp)
- What: Specific measures or sections covered, exercises, techniques, equipment, tempos, etc. The more detailed the better.
(ex: Clarke Study No. 2, odd exercises, quarter = 100, slur two, tongue two)
- When: Each entry should have a date and each exercise should have the amount of time you spent on it. At the end of each day, tally up the number of minutes and/or hours you practiced. At the end of each week, tally the total number of minutes/hours for the week. Circle or highlight any time that is out of the ordinary whether it be more time than normal or less time than normal.
- Where: List the location(s) that you practice: practice room, living room, concert hall etc. If you are always practicing in the same location, this can cause stiffness or dullness in your playing. Make sure to vary the location when you can.
- Why: If there is a special reason why you are practicing something such as: you heard about it in a masterclass, you are preparing for a recital, or you want to bump up a few chairs in your section. Write it down. Sometimes the “why” can be very telling in terms of our motivation or lack thereof.
I also highly recommend labeling each entry with a category: Warm-up Routine, Tone Production, Articulation, Lip Flexibility, Etudes, Transposition, Solos, Excerpts, Transcriptions, etc. With each area clearly labeled, it will help your analysis and it will allow for quick reference if needed. Below is a brief example of an entry:
Writing these details down doesn’t have to be a time-consuming chore. Ultimately this is your record, so you can use abbreviations and notate it however you would like, so long as you understand what each record means. The most important thing a practicing journal provides is honesty. If you truly wish to improve, then you must be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Without a daily record, it is all too easy to merely practice the things that we are good at and to conveniently ignore the rest.
About the author: Anne McNamara currently serves as the Assistant Professor of Trumpet at Campbellsville University. Prior to her appointment at CU, Dr. McNamara was the primary trumpet instructor at the University of Utah as the first Raymond C. Morales Postdoctoral fellow in the School of Music. Her performance experiences have taken her to various locations in the United States and Europe. Highlights include performing on a live radio broadcast on Utah’s Highway 89 classical station, performing principal trumpet with the Great Noise Ensemble in their performance of Louis Andriessen’s La Commedia in the 2014 Andriessen 75 Festival, performing as a flugelhorn soloist with the JMU Brass Band at the Great American Brass Band Festival, and touring Spain as a participant in the Burgos Summer Chamber Music Festival. She has also been a featured soloist in the St. Louis Church Concert Series located in Clarksville, MD. As part of this series, she performed the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, Handel’s Let the Bright Seraphim, and selections from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. While living in Salt Lake City, Dr. McNamara performed trumpet with the Utah Ceremonial Brass Quintet and soprano cornet with the Utah Premiere Brass Band in addition to freelancing with several groups.
Dr. McNamara earned her Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a Jazz Studies minor from James Madison University, her Master’s degree in Trumpet Performance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her Doctorate degree in Trumpet Performance from the University of Maryland. Her primary trumpet teachers include Chris Gekker, Steve Hendrickson, Dr. Michael Ewald, Ronald Romm, Tito Carrillo, and Jim Kluesner.