Inspiring Practice

Sometimes we forget how essential the daily-ness of practicing is to playing the trumpet.  Wouldn’t it be nice to take a couple of days off each week when other demands like tests or classwork press in on us?  If you’re in a learning stage of development, i.e. a student rather than a professional, daily practicing is even more crucial and fundamental.  But it’s every bit as critical to professionals, too.  If the habit isn’t formed during student years, it probably won’t ever be, so professionals know this because it got them where they are.

Why?  Because habits are not easy to form, nor are they easy to break once formed. Bad habits demand daily minding if we want to break them, and establish better habits in their place.  The strongest habits form slowly over time.

Need some inspiration?  Check out this slide set.

The Virtue of Patience

Improve by Sweating One Step at a Time

progress erin archer

Sometimes life just overwhelms us, and we’re left feeling like giving up might be a reasonable option.  But why give up if taking one step yields the fruit of our labor?  Figure out what that one step for today will be, and push into it.  You have nothing to lose.

For example, here’s a short term idea that will wake up and sharpen articulation.  Spend an entire practice session in which everything is tongued, slur absolutely nothing.  Turn all notes into groups of four sixteenth notes so a quarter note becomes four sixteenths, a half becomes eight sixteenths, etc.  In order to strengthen muscle, and the tongue is a muscle, you must bring the muscle to failure.  So fail away!  It will only make you stronger.  Try it and see.  Runners and other athletes are experts in this.  Rest when needed, but push past the comfort zone before giving in to the desire to cease from your efforts.

Here’s another example of a one-session goal:  Do you find yourself unavoidably tense in the upper register despite all your best efforts to retrain old habits?  Or do you find yourself becoming more and more tense the longer you play?  Imagine what would happen to a distance runner if s/he fell victim to that scenario!  Try this:  Relax (muscles of shoulders, or neck, or face) AFTER you reach a high note that produces tension or AFTER a long time of not taking the horn off the face. Hold the identified note while making a slight crescendo and decrescendo staying as relaxed and easy as you can.  Did you feel that relaxation happen?  Now rest, and try approaching the note again with the muscles you just coached into relaxing and attempt to APPROACH the note relaxed. Continue to relax AFTER reaching the goal note or goal area where you first identify tension has increased.  Try adding in some articulation on the note while maintaining the relaxed flow of air.  Start with eighth notes first, then triplets (and sixteenth notes if you can maintain the relaxation.)  Otherwise, make articulation in the upper area tomorrow’s goal.  This approach adds just enough variety to the exercise to keep our minds engaged.

By now, the idea must be occurring that long term improvement happens in steps so small, we can’t hear the improvement right away.  This kind of practicing requires us to have faith in ourselves, and faith in the process of practicing.  I’m talking as much to myself as to anyone in this respect.  It’s so tempting and easy for me to put some time in mindlessly doing a few well worn exercises, and then go on about my day.  But then I realize, wait, this IS my day.  This is what I enjoy most: performing well with enough endurance to burn bright through an entire concert or recital.  So with that, I’m off to spend some time practicing a few specifics.  I prefer working on etudes or excerpts, but because I need to get a solo ready for a recital, I’m going to work on a specific area of the solo that I’ve identified as a problem area for me.  After that, I’m going to work on endurance by playing the solo all the way through very slowly.  I expect to be quite worn out in about an hour or so, but it will be the best kind of tired.

Join me.  Go get tired!

Disagreements of Perception in a Musical Context and their Implications for Conflict Resolution in General

You say potato, I say potâto, you say tomato, I say…  If fundamental differences arise in the visual chromatic spectrum, they can certainly arise in the aural spectrum as well.  What seems like a disagreement isn’t, but as many observed when the dress hit Twitter recently, it generated vehement conflict.

Musicians resolve conflicts of this nature on a steady basis, in fact, it might be argued that such negotiation of perception serves as the basis for strategies of musical instruction.  Learning to see, or in the case of music, hear along similar lines of interpretation becomes the goal in creating harmonious sounds.  Agreement is fostered through shared experiences in ensembles and in listening to others.  What counts as harmonious or inharmonious is defined by how close to prescribed parameters pitch or rhythm attributes  fall.  About which everyone supposedly agrees.  However, that closeness to prescribed parameters is itself open to debate in much the same way as the color of the viral Twitter dress.

Hence the variety and value of individual preference.  I dare assert that each human being on the planet experiences music in an entirely unique and individual way even when operating within a common framework of musical education.  When there is difference of opinion of pitch, for example, we can and often do resort to a tuner.  A given sound quality can sound higher or lower (sharp or flat) to our ears depending upon the concentration of frequencies within the given overtone series.  A tuner sorts out our perception (which may skew the pitch), and reports on only one aspect of the sound, the dominant frequency.  But is the tuner really the final arbiter of pitch? If a pitch sounds flat or sharp to one person, it becomes unpleasant no matter what the tuner pronounces it.  While grateful to have that arbitration, musicians don’t rely upon it exclusively for reasons illustrated in the viral dress, and neither should anyone in other contexts rely exclusively on one parameter of perception.  What can we learn from the disagreement over the color of a dress that can help us relate better to one another as musicians and as people?

  • Capitalize on differences of perception to create a well-rounded and detailed picture. The more people and perceptions present, the more well-rounded the picture will be.  We each have only two eyes and ears, but combined, we have infinitely more.  Working together, as one observes within musical contexts like a symphony orchestra or within smaller ensembles of various kinds including all styles of music, creates beauty and art: Not disagreement, but profound integration and harmony.  It also creates amazingly effective results.  For an example of fully integrated data from disparate sources and locations, check out Palentir technologies.  (I have no connection to this company, but have been in awe of it since I discovered how it mightily coordinates disaster relief of all kinds.)

What about those situations when we all need to be on the same page?  Such as when the one who is most certainly playing flat simply needs to raise their pitch to agree with everyone else?

  • Negotiate the solution by appealing to prevailing perceptions, much like the tuner sorts out the dominant frequency within a given range of frequencies. As a group of people discuss various strategies, one or two will dominate.  Giving mutual respect for all perceptions enhances the process and creates unity moving forward.  Obviously shouting down someone who sees gold/white as an idiot serves no one.  There may be more than one who see it a certain way, and effective communication can help persuade others when such unity is essential.  After I learned that others saw the dress a different color than I did, I was able to see it through their eyes, so to speak.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who experienced that.
  • Find the similarities or connections between seemingly opposite perceptions. For example, in a recent blog post, I detailed a situation where a student of mine was given competing instructions from his band director.  Rather than call out the band director as a moron who couldn’t see plain colors for what they were, I was able to devise a method of instruction which incorporated what the band director required of the student into my existing method’s framework.  (For more on that, head to my music website blog post at  or )

Although obvious to us all, it bears reminding ourselves that we are each very different in our common humanity.  The viral dress illustrated the scientific facts behind our differences in perception.  Though unseen, these differences create harmony and beauty where war may well ensue, but only when respected and strategically utilized.  I would even dare to assert that these solutions apply to the world of US politics.  When liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats can avoid vilifying each other, and instead work together to craft a whole picture, the result dwarfs the effort required to achieve it.  Granted a lot more is at stake than the color of a dress.  But if the argument taught us anything, it’s that if we’ll go to war over the color of a dress, maybe we’d better learn how to respect each other’s perceptions before we find ourselves at war over a simple difference of perception.