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.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Practice Space - Mental Space

Now that you have a good place to practice, you need to have the right mental approach to get maximum results. It is vital to find the focus necessary for good work.

With our lives increasingly busy, we tend to cram practice in the midst of other stresses. Real practice takes a focus and clarity of thought that demands our complete attention. Finding the time is hard enough. Once you have scheduled it, make sure that you get the most out of it. Find a way to leave all other thoughts behind. It is often easier to find this focus when you have a regularly scheduled practice time within a well-budgeted calendar. Optimally, find several shorter intervals during the day to keep your mind sharp.

Once you have a good space with plenty of focused time to practice, you are ready to build the new trumpet player within you. My goal is to help my students become as physically efficient and musically informed trumpet players as possible. Help set the stage for great practice before you begin.

1) Have adequate fuel for the machine - make sure that you have eaten a meal to fuel the brain. A grumbling stomach will distract you from the task at hand.

2) Have a notepad with you. Should distractions of "to-dos" arise, you can jot them down and continue.

3) Turn off notifications on your smart phone. I am guilty of being tied to my email.

4) Get rid of any other possible distractions that you can. Life does intervene, but do your best.

Now you are ready to begin.

The purpose of practice for me is simple: I want to improve the process of getting the sound in my head out through my chosen tool, the trumpet, so that it can enter the listener's ears and we can share that sound together.

Arnold Palmer, the great golfer said, "Practice with INTENTION and ATTENTION." These are wise words from a master, which truly apply to us as trumpet players. Amateur golfers often hit the driving range and just hit balls and watch where they go. For Arnold, there was always a clear target in mind and a purpose for what he was doing. How many of us have gone through our lives practicing scales mindlessly in front of the television?

For a long time, I was concerned with "putting time in". There is no doubt that at some point in all of our lives, we need to spend time developing the muscles which help us produce a sound. However, if we are not careful, the incorrect muscle memory that we develop early on can remain a burden throughout our careers. In many ways, some of the repertoire that I learned first is the most challenging for me now. The haphazard practice of youth ingrained habits that remain difficult to re-program. As a sort of vaccine against these habits, Norman Bolter, the fantastic former trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and educator counsels his students to approach everything like it is their first time, even if it is a solo or etude they have played for decades.

I do a fun exercise with my students every once in a while. Just as they are about to play, I pull the trumpet away and ask them to sing the first note. It is amazing to them when they actually play the note and hear how far off they are. So many players get in the habit of just blowing into the horn and waiting to see what the note sounds like. This is backwards!!!

Imagine for a moment the creative process of other artists. Don't forget, you ARE an artist. A painter doesn't wait to see what the brush does, nor does a poet wait to see what words come out of his pencil. The creative process must begin with the intention in your mind to communicate a sound, an image, a texture etc. Years ago, I asked a young student named Madeleine to define music. Her response has always stuck with me. Even as a 6th grader, she understood; "Music is talking without words." We must always have a clear image of what we are trying to communicate or we are just potters throwing our clay on the wheel and hoping for the best.

That sound in your head is the target that Arnold Palmer was always hitting to on the range and on the course. It is that INTENTION to communicate the sound in your head that begins to make the physical process work. The rest of practice is ATTENTION to the details of what you are trying to communicate as well as to your physical habits. More on both to come!