Strategic Practice


One of the most common areas that I teach as a trumpet professor is how to practice. Strategic practice isn’t always intuitive, but when we establish a fundamentally-rooted routine the rewards can be great! It feels incredibly gratifying to reach higher levels of mastery on our instruments. In my career, I’ve confronted numerous turning points in my own musicianship. There are so many techniques and exercises to practice that it can be intimidating or overwhelming. It is all too easy to reach a plateau in our skill level and become stuck in place. Even those of us who have performed for many years still need occasional advice to keep moving forward.

I like to begin my practice sessions with a centered, grounded mindset. This includes creating a quiet environment and disconnecting from devices that may distract us. A few body stretches paired with deep breathing lowers stress and loosens the muscles. I enjoy doing about 10 minutes of Qi Gong before picking up the trumpet. This relaxes my breathing and reduces tension in my upper body.

As you establish a warm up routine, identify the fundamental skills commonly required for your instrument. As a brass musician, I use a mnemonic device of SAFARE to give direction to my routine. SAFARE stands for sound, articulation, flexibility, agility, range, and endurance. This memory aid might help other musicians besides brass players, and we must continually evaluate how we can best improve our weaknesses. A daily warm up routine should cover several areas of our playing to build consistency in performance. Following a focused warm up, we can tackle specific technical challenges with exercises that strengthen our weaknesses. It’s okay to make mistakes when we’re practicing, so long as we reflect on why they happen after playing a musical passage. This awareness will reduce the likeliness of mistakes happening again and make every repetition purposeful. Remember that practicing is like running a marathon, not a sprint!

The next area of a well-rounded practice session is music! Afterall, music is why we do what we do. I like to play a few simple, lyrical melodies after warming up. This ensures that I’m connecting the notes smoothly with my best sound. I allow myself to think about the product rather than the process at this moment. After establishing a musical mindset with simple etudes or lyrical solo material, I progress to repertoire that I need to practice for upcoming performances. I know that I should spend more time focusing on the most difficult sections and I break these down into manageable goals. Can I master 4 measures or a few lines today? How can I practice these difficult passages to be overprepared? The following bullet points will offer a few strategies to optimize your practice sessions.

  • Practice with a partner and enjoy the benefits of trading phrases, ideas, and motivation. Your
  • tennis game improves by playing with others. The same applies to music!
  • Sing your music expressively to develop phrasing and dynamic contrast.
  • Experiment by interleaving your music. Practice passage A for 15 minutes, then passage B for 10 minutes, take a 5-minute break, play passage A again!
  • Record your practice even from the beginning when you need to play material slowly. Listen to the recording and identify where you can improve precision and clarity.
  • Breathe in time and release air without tension even if you play the violin!
  • Practice with impeccable time! Use a metronome or an app like Drum Beats+.
  • For brass and wind players, playing in the center of the pitch promotes efficiency and increases
  • endurance. Trust the air column to produce vibration and listen for the “sweet spot”.
  • Play scales and melodies over a drone to improve intonation. The Tonal Energy app has a drone function and many drone pitches are available on YouTube. I like to use cello drones!
  • Break practice sessions into small increments. Several intensely focused 15 to 20-minute sessions is a more productive use of your time than one 2-hour block of wandering practice.
  • The musical ideas in your head are conveyed with ease when you develop stunning technique.

    This vocabulary of technique will enable you to tell stories while focusing on expression.

About Dr. Zach Buie:

Dr. Zach Buie is an Assistant Professor of Music at Boise State University in the United States. He has performed with ensembles including the Macao Orchestra, Utah Symphony, Dallas Winds, Boise Philharmonic, and is a founding member of the Palisade Trumpet Collective. He holds a Bachelor of Music from the University of Texas at Austin, a Master of Music from Baylor University, and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from The University of Utah.

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