Posted by: Liz Massey | February 12, 2010

Practice Notes: How I got my musical groove back (sort of)

Photo courtesy of Cameron Barber via SXC.

Starting on my New Year’s Eve birthday, when my grandson insisted I get my trumpet out and play it for him, I’ve been on the road back to being an active instrumental musician. The decision to start playing again regularly was not one I took lightly. I played for more than 15 years before stopping shortly before I moved to Phoenix, but it’s been more than a dozen years since I played the trumpet with any regularity.

Playing a brass instrument was part of my family’s tradition. Some of my earliest memories include following my dad around the house as he played his French horn, tooting along as best I could on one of his spare mouthpieces. He had also played baritone and cornet as a young man, settling on the French horn when he was drafted and served in the Seventh Army Band in the 1950s.

I began playing my horn young, at age 8, and continued until I was well into my twenties. At the time I quit, I was playing better than I ever had in high school or college. I was active in several community bands before I quit, but once I got out of practice, I had a hard time getting motivated to start again.

Attending to practice and technique is one of the elements of creative momentum, and I thought it would be interesting, a little over one month into the process of beginning to play again, to see how I’m doing in relation to some of the advice I previously passed along related to fluency and “deliberate practice.”

Fluency factors

In my fluency post, I mentioned tips for how to build a practice regimen based on mastery or fluency. Here are my field notes on how well I’m doing with regards to that.

1. Build time-based or real-world measurements into your goals for practice. I haven’t started practicing with a metronome yet, but at some point, I will. I may also look into playing with a background track on jazz standards to ground my rehearsal of those tunes in the real-world of playing with a rhythm section.

2. Break big performance goals into smaller “chunks” and master the “chunks” first. Right now my biggest goal is to get through an exercise or a song without panting and being able to hit all the notes involved. However, I am starting to break exercises and songs into smaller pieces to get rhythms or timing correct.

3. Short practice intervals are better than long ones to achieve fluency. Got this one down pat! Frankly, I only have 15-20 minutes at a time to practice, anyway.

4. If you get stuck in learning a skill, move back to rehearsing a simpler skill that supports it. I still remember my scales and fingerings, but correctly producing the rhythms of the melody line can be a challenge, even on relatively simple songs. So I spend a lot of time focusing on tapping out rhythms and playing individual phrases or passages.

5. Chart your progress towards fluency. My main charting/documenting activity has been to post videos from YouTube of jazz musicians playing songs that I’m working on to my Facebook profile page. Part inspiration and part instruction, the videos give me a chance to reflect on what I’m aiming for, and discuss it with my social network.

Deliberate intentions

I also blogged a while back about the concept of deliberate practice, as articulated by K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University. Now, Ericsson is talking about mastering a domain, such as music performance, and my goals in that area are nowhere near that lofty. However, there are a couple of hallmarks of deliberate practice that I’ve been considering as I rehab my trumpet playing.

  1. Investing a considerable amount of time in solo rehearsal. Solo rehearsal is all I have at this point. As mentioned earlier, I can’t dedicate a large amount of time to it. I am noticing that at first, my expectation would be that I would practice almost every day; now it is to practice at least 3 days a week.
  2. Focusing on a gradual refinement of their performance. One issue that haunted me during my non-playing years was how lousy I would sound when I got back into it. And it’s true—my embouchure is weak and I’m struggling to hit high notes that I could hit easily as a ninth grader. However, my knowledge of scales and intonation is intact, so I have a situation where I’m pretty sure I know what I should sound like, or what I have sounded like, but less of a clear path on how to get back there. But I am aware it will take time, and I am willing to be patient and try different approaches to get back to that level of playing.
  3. Seeking out regular, immediate feedback. I haven’t gotten to this hallmark yet, but I will. I can consult the experienced ear of my partner, who was a cello performance major in college; and I may experiment with recording myself (audio or video) and seeing if reviewing the material provides insight. But eventually, I know I will consult with a coach or teacher to map out a strategy to become a better player.

The questions to you…

  • Have you come back to an artistic discipline after years away from it? What was the most difficult part about returning to it? What was the easiest?
  • How have you designed a practice routine as you “rehab” your skills in a discipline?
  • How have you gotten feedback on your progress? Have you charted your practice and noticed any patterns?


  1. I have played piano professionally most of my lief. As I may be transitioning to being a teacher the thought of not playing and practicing the way I am used to is terrifying to me.

  2. […] Practice Notes: How I Got My Musical Groove Back (Sort Of) […]

  3. […] 18 months, I’ve posted several times about beginning to play the trumpet again. (Here are part 1 and part 2.) It’s been a journey filled with creative stimulation and challenges. The past 12 […]

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