Monday, November 3, 2014

Better Practice Through Focus
by Dr. Richard J. Rulli, University of Arkansas

Focused practice is a key to steady improvement and maintenance of performing ability. It is not uncommon for students who practice several hours a day to show less improvement than others who practice less time but with greater focus. As we grow older and the responsibilities of job and life mount, we are all forced to get more out of less practice time. The sooner young players can become more efficient with practice time, the quicker they will improve toward their goals.

Organized practice begins with the basic question "When am I going to practice today?" The more that practice is spread throughout the day, the more effective it becomes. One strategy is to never let twelve hours pass without practicing. This sounds simple enough, but in real life it can be quite difficult. The best way that I have found to accomplish this is to consider my scheduled practice sessions as sacrosanct. In other words, they are untouchable. I tell my students to treat their practice sessions as if they were classes in which one absence is a failure for the semester. The total amount of time that one should practice each day depends on career goals and ability, but it is a good idea to limit the length of each practice session to twenty to forty-five minutes. Be sure to schedule enough rest between sessions so that you can play all day long without getting mentally and physically fatigued.

Many students are unsure how to approach the various practice sessions throughout the day. The first session is the most critical. Warm-up sessions, or what I call maintenance routines, can vary according to ability and personal taste. I am more of a routine oriented player and like to have a dependable group of daily exercises such as James Stamp's Warm-Ups & Studies (Editions BIM). I know very good players who are not routine oriented and do vastly different things each day. Most students are best advised to lean toward an established warm-up routine to build fundamentals, but it is good to get past the attitude that you must do X-Y-Z before you can play. Always make your first session of the day a maintenance routine that is vibrant and valuable.

The remaining practice sessions throughout the day can be organized around material that is being prepared for lessons or performance. I would suggest a practice log to help organize these sessions ahead of time. For example, if you have thirty-minutes to practice, instead of just opening up a book and going at it, try allotting specific amounts of time to certain goal areas. Spend ten minutes on technique, ten minutes on flexibility, and ten minutes on repertoire, such as solos, etudes, and excerpts. You may not get through all of it in ten minutes, and that is okay; you can pick it up again in a later session. This method keeps practice interesting. In addition, mix up the order of material at each session. We all tend to fall into the habit of "this before that" in our practice, but rarely does real performance fall into such predictable patterns.

At the end of the day, play material similar to the first session that focuses on warm air and a great sound. This "warm-down" does not have to be as extensive as the warm-up routine. I personally find Herbert L. Clarke's Technical Studies (Fischer), the 'flow studies' of Vincent Cichowicz, and the Stamp materials to be good vehicles to center my sound and put me in a position to be successful the next day. The warm-down is vitally important if you are particularly fatigued: the last thing you want to do after a difficult performance is just put the trumpet in the case and head for the post-concert festivities. Take two minutes to focus your sound and you will be amazed at how ready you are to play the next morning.

A common problem is maintaining the motivation to practice. There are times when we have to order ourselves into the practice room. This is especially true when practicing is left for late in the day when mental and physical fatigue play a role, or when improvement is perceived as lacking. When this happens to me, I often have my best and most productive practice sessions because I am really focused on what needs to be done and go about it efficiently. Sometimes these sessions are longer than usual as a result of the high level of productivity. Instead of canceling practice when motivation is lacking, focus on simple fundamentals and a beautiful sound. Then you can be satisfied that you fulfilled some basic work requirements and leave with peace of mind until the next session.

Distractions during practice can disrupt focus. Beginning with the physical space, make it as conducive to concentration as possible. Turn off all unnecessary electronic devices and if you practice in a public space such as a school practice room, position yourself facing away from the curious eyes passing your window. If you are feeling particularly rushed or stressed when you begin a practice session, take several deep breaths and try counting aloud descending from ten, gradually slowing the count as you progress, telling yourself you will be ready to focus when you arrive at zero. This really calms the mind and sets the tone for progress.

Lastly, stick to your plan. There are no quick fixes when it comes to trumpet playing. I do not mean to imply that progress is a dreadful path, but rather that artistic trumpet playing is a life-long endeavor. Solid progress is a result of focused practice sessions based on long-term goals. In this digital age, patience is often replaced with unrealistic expectations and frustration. The more you can focus each day's practice on challenging yet attainable goals, the more satisfaction and success you will experience.

Dr. Richard J. Rulli
University of Arkansas
[email protected]

Richard J. Rulli, DMA, is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where he teaches applied trumpet and brass chamber music. Dr. Rulli performs as a founding member of the Boston Mountain Brassworks (UA Faculty Brass Quintet) and as Principal Trumpet of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas (SoNA) and the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra. Dr. Rulli is a 2009 University of Arkansas Faculty Gold Medal recipeint for his support of students as a faculty mentor in performance and advising. He has been a featured performer and clinician internationally and nationally at conventions of the International Trumpet Guild (ITG), International Brass Festival, and College Band Directors National Association Southern Division Convention, as well as the state conventions of the Arkansas, Georgia and Wisconsin Music Educators. At the 2006 ITG Conference, he performed as trumpet soloist in the world premiers of two works for trumpet and choir, where the concert reviewer described his playing as "masterful, lyric, sensitive and imaginative." For more information visit