How effective is my practise?

As an instrumental music teacher the subject of practise is one that I discuss almost on a daily basis with all kinds of people. Usually it’s with my pupils or their parents but it is a topic that comes up in social situations too. Maybe I’m chatting with someone about cookery, open source software or learning a language; eventually the subject of practising to learn new skills will creep into the conversation. I also tend to talk a lot about podcasts and YouTube videos as I can be quite an obsessive consumer of these at times. I find it quite mind-blowing how much you can passively learn over time just from listening to others talking about their passions and interests.

One YouTube channel that I’m a bit of a fan of is that of Mike Boyd. Mike constantly tasks himself with learning new skills and in the past few years has learnt over fifty-two new skills. These vary from the frivolous, such as spinning a ball on his finger or doing a wheelie on a bike, to more serious skills such as swimming a mile in freezing cold water. Mike, it appears, is a real master of mind and body… or is he? I think that if you were to ask him then he’d probably say no. What Mike seems to be master of is practise.

A recent video that Mike put out featured his wife Kim, who learned to juggle as a test to see whether or not Mike learns skills faster than the average person. You can watch this video here, but please remember to read the rest of this article… you haven’t gotten to the good bit yet!

This video really got me into thinking about how I describe the process of practise to people. I’ve done it in a couple ways in the past and neither of them have been particularly effective.

I’m not a fan of the traditional model of music practise that is sold to keen beginners when they take up an instrument. By that I mean getting your instrument and music out, standing in a room alone and repeatedly struggling to get better at the work you’ve been set for half an hour per day, every day. My modus operandi goes like this: I leave instruments and mouthpieces lying around in most rooms of the house. Whenever I walk into a room, get bored whilst sat at the computer, am forced to wait the labourious ninety seconds for the kettle to boil, etc., I pick up an instrument and I start to play. This way I do between five and ten minutes of practise repeatedly throughout the day. This is how I learnt to play when I was young and playing along to the radio in this way is how I learned to play by ear and later developed that into perfect pitch. Another way this system can work is to have a trumpet or cornet nearby when watching television. Whenever the adverts come on you can play for a few minutes. Working like this I would set goals to achieve in that short time and it’s a very effective way to add a little pressure to your mini practise sessions. I’ve told many of my pupils about this way of working. To date I’m only aware of one of them who has actually tried it. I know this because after six months his trumpet had been dropped and knocked off of tables so many times that it needed replacing… #facepalm.

Another thing that I’ve often reserved for more experienced players is simply describing how many hours of an average week I would spend playing my cornet or trumpet between the ages of twelve and sixteen. During that time I attended brass band rehearsals twice per week (four hours). I played in two bands at a Saturday morning music club (two and a half hours). I had a weekly lesson (half an hour) and a couple of lunchtime music groups at school (one hour). In an average week I was engaged in musical activities for a minimum of eight and a half hours before personal practise. And that’s an average week without concerts on the weekends or county brass band or concert band courses to attend. There actually weren’t very many of these minimal “average” weeks. Telling people this information rarely inspires them to try harder so these days I just save it for someone who needs a scare.

In Mike Boyd’s videos he places a counter on the screen so that the viewer gets to see how much time he has dedicated to practising his new skill. In the video above it took Kim just over four hours to learn to juggle three balls continuously for over thirty seconds. She did this over the course of eight days, which is an average of half an hour per day. If Kim were to have only spent ten minutes per day, six days per week, practising then it would have taken a month to achieve her goal. In all likelihood it would have taken longer because a basic familiarity with the task would have taken much longer to settle in her mind and muscle memory.

The problem with this comparison is that it isn’t simply one thing that you are trying to learn when you pick up a musical instrument. What if the skill that you are trying to master is playing one scale from memory and it requires four hours of continuous practise? Well, if you were to practise one scale at a time for ten minutes per day then you could learn all twelve major scales in a year. But after eleven months do you think you’d remember the first scale that you learnt to play? Maybe. (click this link to learn more about my method of teaching scales. There’s also a book about it in my store.)

Here’s another example: a student has an exam coming up in two months and they still cannot play the required music from beginning to end without stopping. If they practise for ten minutes per day, six days per week, then as far as playing time is concerned the exam is eight hours away. It is 9am, could they take the exam at 5pm and pass?

All in all I think there’s a lot of perspective to be gained from doing some simple maths relating to instrumental practise. It’s a great way of understanding how much work needs to be done but also a good way of allowing yourself to accept your limitations in terms of progress. Are you having trouble with double tonguing? How many hours have you invested in nothing but trying to improve it? Maybe you could learn it in four hours of dedicated practise. But something else that Mike Boyd does is research. If you’re struggling to do something on your instrument then it’s best to find out how others do it before you waste time practising the wrong way. It takes longer to over-write a bad habit than to form it correctly in the first place.

The most important things are motivation and enjoyment. Enjoyment can even be used as motivation! I always tell my pupils that it’s fun to be good at something and you get good by setting goals. So, what are you going to learn this week?

Methods and Mouthpieces – are you a hacker?

Here I present to you what may be the two most loaded topics in trumpet playing and pedagogy.

It is often said that the instrument we chose to play says a lot about our personality. Another way of expressing this is that your instrument chooses you, not the other way around. This is the reason for the ample supply of jokes about violists, french horn players and operatic sopranos; or indeed comments such as “you’re such a typical brass player” or “aren’t classical guitarists weird?”. Well I don’t know about the last one…

Over the last 15 years as I have ventured down the path of being a professional trumpet player I have found that, regardless of an individual’s actual personality, some things appear true in all of us. Trumpet players, despite being the hippest and most necessary part of any ensemble, are complete geeks. Other more appropriate terms may be tweakers or hackers (in the lifehacking sense – see wikipedia definition here, no reference to computer security intended). Although there may be those who disagree, I will state here that this stems from the fact that the trumpet is one of the most difficult instruments to master and maintain a high level of playing on. Equally I believe that this is why it is also one of the most rewarding.

Question: So what is it that you “hack”?

Answer: Methods and mouthpieces (and lead pipes, tuning slide curve, water key design, weighted valve caps…. the list goes on…)

Question: What is it you are trying to achieve?

Answer: The holy grail? A small change that will make everything easier forever more… OK, seriously, a better tone, easier high notes, increased flexibility, cleaner articulation, better intonation, increased stamina… basically a trumpet that plays itself.

Question: Can you not achieve all of these things through practise?

Answer: Hacking is my practise.

And there is the point of the blog post. This is how after playing the trumpet for 22 years I make practising scales, flexibility, articulation, range builders and long notes interesting. On top of this endless game of moving the goal posts I constantly find that reading method books and trying different equipment reveals to me all of the preconceptions that I have about playing and how to break them down. It helps me to make massive leaps forward when I find something that works and I  have safe places to go back to when something isn’t working as it should. This is also why I am a multi-genre player. If I stick to any one style of music for too long then I stop learning from it and begin to lose interest. I love the fact that one day I’ll be playing on a dub record and the next day I’ll be in a chamber orchestra, or wedding band.

And yes, there are trumpet players who aren’t like this. Often you’ll find those who are interested in various methods, but not in changing their equipment and vice-versa and sadly those who never change a thing. It is my opinion that they are missing out. They are missing out on being the best player they can be. I don’t believe there is any such thing as “good enough”.

I’ll end this with a quote. This comes from an article that the great Bobby Shew wrote in 1997. It is currently available on his website:

Don’t be afraid TO TRY!! Better to explore and discover than to keep your head and mind buried in the sand of tradition (and misinformation).

A quote about our practice

A great quote from the writings of Herbert L. Clarke. It is amazing how much of what he says applies to learners today:

In my practice I kept to the elementary, although I could play a lot of tunes when I first started and this even before a perfect scale was played – that is, played without making a mistake of any kind. How often do we think that our work is satisfactory when, after all, we merely blow into the cornet and make a noise without being perfect in every detail! One hundred percent alone is perfection. Ninety-nine percent only proves that one percent is missing in perfection, thus making the whole imperfect by just one per cent; therefore, when in his practice a player does not correct the slightest mistake immediately he logically is practicing to be imperfect.
I have heard many pupils play page after page of the instruction book, missing the notes here and there and making all manner of mistakes without correcting them, then say: – “well I played fifteen pages of exercises today.” There was no realization that even if only one mistake was made they had not played the fifteen pages, but simply “played at them.”