Solo and Orchestral Trumpeter and Educator

Thoughts on music, trumpet playing, and education from Eric M. Berlin, Professor of Trumpet at the University of Massachusetts and Principal Trumpet of the Albany Symphony and Boston Philharmonic Orchestras.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Practice Space - Physical Space

The majority of my Sunday was spent making a good practice space for myself in the basement of our new home. I cannot stress enough the importance to me of a good space to play.

In the late 1990's and early 2000's I spent countless hours practicing in an amazing church in Brighton, MA. A good relationship with the clergy and organist scored a key and security code which allowed me to practice late into the night whenever I could.

It was in this space that the most dramatic improvements I have ever made in my playing happened. What I found in those magical days was not only a space which made me sound good, but a place where I could truly remove myself from all distractions and focus entirely on the task at hand. Practicing at home or in my office has always been difficult with the constant reminder of and ease of access to the rest of life. There are always emails to answer, laundry, dishes, and the worst distraction of all, the television.

In discussing "practice space" I want to first describe the physical characteristics of my optimal practice space and in a later post, discuss the equally important mental space one must inhabit to make the best use of that physical space.

For a trumpeter, I recommend the following features for your practice space

1) Find a large a space if possible. Let's face it, nobody likes to practice in a small room.
  • It is for your own protection: As trumpeters, we produce a lot of sound. Mike Keough, a former UMASS student, during a semester abroad, did research on noise levels at the Royal Academy of Music in London. This was due to the European Union's new standards for workplace noise levels. Upon his return, he gave a fantastic presentation to the entire student body on the result of his findings. Trumpet and trombone rank as the loudest acoustic instruments and cause the most damage to our hearing. The most interesting thing to me was that the person suffering from a lead trumpet the most was the player him/herself, not the bassoonist in front.
  • A larger room helps you hear your sound more realistically. The physics of the trumpet do not allow us to accurately hear our own sound directly. We must wait until the sound is reflected back to us to hear it. (or better yet, record ourselves - more on that later) In most small rooms engineered for practicing, the environment is acoustically dead. I spent many hours in these rooms and didn't realize that I was playing louder and working harder to get the sound I wanted to reflect back to me to no avail. (To avoid this pain when you need to use one of these rooms, I recommend using ear plugs and tune in completely to the sound in your own head. You would be amazed at what you can accomplish!) In contrast, the church in Brighton had a 4 second reverb that allows one to play arpegios and hear them ring as a vertical chord. Nice way to find out if you play in tune with yourself!
2) Find an isolated room. If you can find a room which is physically removed from the distraction of other people and distractions of your own making, all the better. This is often unrealistic physically, but can often be accomplished in other ways. While at the New England Conservatory of Music, we would often hang a jacket over the door window to shield us from the prying eyes of those looking for a friend to talk to. It doesn't hurt to leave the laptop and smart phone behind as well.

3) Find a good sounding space. Not everyone can find a church with 4 second reverb to practice in. (Doc Severinsen is a big fan of stairwells too!) However, small rooms, carpeting, acoustic tile and low ceilings can all deaden the sound. Although harder surfaces will make the space louder, it helps give a more accurate picture. If a space forces you to play harder to get the sound you want, you will ingrain bad habits and possibly injure yourself.

4) Equip it with the right equipment
  • Mirror
  • Metronome
  • Tuner
  • Chromatic Drone
  • Amplified speakers or headphones
  • Recorder!!!
With all of this said, making an absolutely perfect practice space in one's home is difficult. All we can do is the best we can. As for my own space, I laid claim to one quarter of my basement for my dedicated practice space. (Thanks to my wonderful wife!) Finishing the space was not difficult as 3/4 of the basement walls are concrete. The fourth wall still had exposed fiberglass insulation. My first step was to enclose the insulation and make a hard reflecting surface. With plastic sheeting and a staple gun, I laid a vapor barrier to further insulate and protect the new wall I was about to install. To create a better reflecting surface, I used furniture quality plywood sheets which I cut to fit. Regular plywood would have been okay, but for $5/sheet difference, I felt the smoother surface would not only look better, but may reflect better. Once these sheets were attached to the walls, the experience of playing became MUCH easier.

After hanging a mirror across from my chair, the rest of the project was merely setting up some electronic stuff in a comfortable place. My own space contains the following because I already owned these things and they work great. However, as I will describe below, it is easy enough to function well more simply and less expensively.
  • A matched pair of Rhode NT-5 small diaphragm condenser mics mounted across the room from where I sit or stand.
  • These are powered by a small M-Audio DMP-3 two channel microphone pre-amp.
  • An old Realistic powered mixer which I use to channel, balance and control volume from a metronome and drone.
  • Matrix MR-800 Quartz Metronome (This is the loudest metronome I have ever found. Even a brass quintet playing mezzo-forte can hear this!)
  • Korg Master Tune MT1200 Chromatic multi-temperament tuner - this is overkill for most purposes except for piano tuning, and it is no longer made, but I own it and it allows full chromatic tone generation.
  • Seiko ST1100 Chromatic Tuner - this is the tuner that I prefer and is always in my case. The response time is quick, but not so quick that the needle never stays still. Also produces full chromatic tone generation. In my office, I prefer the Peterson V-SAM Virtual Strobe tuner.
  • Pair of Fostex PM-1 MKII ACTIVE 6.5 inch powered monitors. These produce a large volume of sound and are helpful if playing with Smart Music or any play along system.
  • M-Audio MicroTrack II digital recorder. I have had this for many years and it records great to .WAV file.
  • Audio Techinica ATH-M40FS Studio Headphones - these are relatively inexpensive but very true sounding. I listen to playback of my practice through these to hear more objectively.
This is far beyond what most people need to practice well. In fact, I can do everything that I need with a small portable set up which I carry in my trumpet case (which I take to my practice church). It includes:
  • Matrix MR-800 Quartz Metronome - anything with a headphone jack works
  • Seiko ST1100 Chromatic Tuner - anything with a tone generator and headphone jack works
  • Sony Stereo Microphone - I have been using it since I was in college and it has held up great. It is a discontinued model similar to ECM SM957. I set it across the room with a 16 foot extension cord from Radio Shack
  • M-Audio MicroTrack II digital recorder. There are many great recorders available now. I only recommend that you insist on user variable gain control. Otherwise, you will have high dynamics lowered and soft dynamics raised on your recording negating all of the good work you do creating dynamic contrast.
  • Shure in ear monitors. These are a discontinued model similar to the Shure SE215 - use the best headphones that you own.
  • A few small cables and adapters from Radio Shack to make a small mini-mixer. To do this, insert a headphone volume control into the tuner and metronome (I have older, cheap radio shack versions of these) Then plug each of these to one of end of the 1/8 inch stereo plug to two mono splitter. By then inserting your headphones into this, you can control the volume of each the drone and tuner for practice purposes.

This small package is a complete practice recording setup. It will allow you to follow the practice routine which I will detail in upcoming posts and helped me make major improvements in my playing while practicing in my beloved church in Brighton.

So, find a good space to practice where you will be as far from distraction as you can manage and then equip your space with the ability to record and assess yourself while the instrument is not on your face.

Next post

Practice Space - Mental Space