Posted by: Liz Massey | August 26, 2010

Practice Notes 2: Further reports on getting my musical groove back

Photo courtesy SXC.

In February, I wrote a post about beginning to play my trumpet again after a break of at least a dozen years. I was jubilant that playing a musical instrument was as much fun as I remember it being, but I was also dreading the long road back to sounding good — to myself, at least.
Fast-forward half a year and I have been at this musical rehabilitation now for more than 8 months. I thought now was a good time to revisit my original post and compare my progress in terms of fluency, engaging in “deliberate practice,” and building positive creative habits.

Like It’s Second Nature: Fluency

At one point in my previous musical career, I would rate myself as fluent on the trumpet. I could play lead trumpet in a number of concert settings, I didn’t struggle with learning new material for the most part, and I had practiced the scales and exercises that got me to that point so much that I always felt I had them “under my fingers.” Years of not playing slowly eroded much of this fluency, although many skills have been quick to return to at least a basic level. Here’s an update of fluency measures I mentioned in February and how they figure in my trumpet practice right now:

Using time-based measures to chart fluency. Time-based measures are one of the foundations of achieving fluency. If you can’t do something quickly and accurately, you aren’t fluent. After 8 months of practice, I am ready to add rehearsal with a metronome to my regimen. I’ve gotten to the point where the notes and rhythms are coming. Playing in tempo is the next step on the road to being able to play with others.

Approaching performance goals by “chunking” difficult passages or techniques into smaller sub-steps. In the beginning, being out of practice necessitated that I break every thing I did into baby steps. Just getting to the end of a phrase playing all the correct notes and not panting was an accomplishment!

Now, the chunking advice is harder to follow. I usually only practice 20 minutes at a time and typically want to spend most of that time playing tunes and having fun. I have to remind myself that I am to the point where improving my command of a passage trumps being able to “get through” it to the end.

Playing short, starting simple. Although my endurance has improved to the point where I’m physically capable of playing for more than 20 minutes, keeping rehearsals that brief keep me hungering for more.  The one downside to that is that, as noted above, I tend to bluster my way through passages that challenge me, rather than backing up and rehearsing something more basic to master an underlying technique.

The Slow Crawl Towards Mastery

Playing the trumpet is once again a habit with me. I originally thought I could find time to practice daily; however, I’m mostly a “weekend warrior” at this point, getting in practice sessions each Saturday and Sunday. Occasionally, I am able to add a third practice day during the week, and I’d like to make that a more regular occurrence. I know the habit has taken hold already, though; the two weekends since February when I haven’t been able to get any practice in were positively PAINFUL for my lack of effort.

Florida State University psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson lists focus on a gradual refinement of technique as a hallmark of mastering a domain, and I am happy to report I have recovered a lot of my previous skill level with the trumpet. My range is better (can hit an A above the staff fairly reliably), my tone is much “prettier” and I am no longer struggling with basic rhythmic patterns.

However, I am at a bit of a cross-roads in two areas — long-term goals and seeking out feedback.

For the moment, I am content with playing from my 25 year old exercise book and my jazz “fake” book of the same era for my rehearsal repertoire. However, I find myself craving new tunes and new regimens to try. Is this laziness on my part, when I won’t even play my scales in all 12 keys? I’m not sure. But I do plan to use the energy of my desire as incentive, promising myself that I can buy a new music book after I have mastered specific sections of the material I am playing now.

The other quandary I have revolves around feedback. I have the experienced ear of my partner (who was a cello performance major in college) to dissect my playing, and as I mentioned in my first post, I have used posts of YouTube versions of the tunes I am playing (performed by professionals) to help me engage in self-feedback. But the feedback in that case is less immediate — I’m establishing my perception of how I’m doing by listening to and posting the clip, which I tend to do after I’m finished with a session. It might then be a week before I get back to the song I was working on. Perhaps if I listed to the clips before I tackled the song, the feedback mechanism would be more direct.

My current proposal for incorporating feedback into my practice regimen taps my love (to the point of obsession) for producing podcasts and videos. I am considering recording my rehearsals and listening to/viewing the clips afterward. If I don’t die of embarrassment after absorbing them, I may even share the clips with musician friends (particularly brass players) I know and trust to solicit even more feedback. I will make it a point to listen/view the media close enough to my rehearsals that I can make immediate corrections to my playing.

If I get bold (and good) enough, who knows? You might eventually see my practice recordings on YouTube.

Down the road, I may also join a band or hire a teacher. But those are not on my radar right now. They are excellent ideas for anyone wanting to obtain feedback from others, but I’m consciously choosing other routes for now, in consideration of the crazy quilt of activities that make up my present life.

That’s my progress report on my trumpet playing. There has been one additional benefit this year to resuming my practice regimen, one that has stayed constant from the first time I picked up the horn until today — I finally feel like a musician again, and that’s incentive enough to keep working at it.


  1. […] 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 months […]

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