What I Learned from Focusing on One Skill for All (OK Most) of 2014



When you find yourself becoming a better musician it feels good. As previously discussed, a great way to accomplish this is spending time with your weaknesses.

Just at the tail-end of 2013 I decided to get after a serious weakness of my own – my articulation. I’m not sure if it’s because I spent so much time in the south but my tongue was slow. Reeaaaal Slow.

This being the case I hailed 2014 “The Year of the Articulation.”

Here’s how it all went down.

The Plan

The concept behind “The Year of the Articulation” was that if I practiced nothing else that day I was GOING to spend time with my articulation. This meant that as long as I practiced my articulation for any length of time, and with at least some awareness I was on track.

General Practice Statistics 2014:

Total Days Deliberate Articulation Practice 2014: 273/364 = 75%

Deliberate Articulation during “Intended Practice Slot” Start Date Jan 25 – End Date Nov 10 (290 days): 261/290 = 90%

(Note: During the “Intended Practice Slot” I was uncomfortable with less than 90% daily practice. Any less seemed lazy and stressed me out)

Deliberate Articulation Practice Time Each Day: 2-20 minutes

Total Days off Trumpet 2014: At Least 31 Days (lacking records for additional 9 days). PS if this made any difference physically it only helped.

What I Did

Initially, I borrowed a routine from a friend and practiced it for 80 days exclusively before scrapping it. Traditional methods of learning articulation (focusing on the air stream doing the work, playing scales and tipping the metronome slowly but surely) DID NOT work for me.

On day 81 I began an expansive scale routine which I largely stuck with for the remainder of the year. I started on an F# major scale in the staff and expanded outward chromatically in both directions until ending on a major scale to High F# and Low F#.

I focused on playing each note as short as possible following a practice suggestion of James Morisson’s that you can check out HERE.

I practiced at a slow tempo (typically quarter or 8th notes played somewhere between 58-70 bpm) and at no point did I attempt to speed up the metronome. As my articulation improved I focused on playing the notes shorter and shorter at a comfortable tempo.

Eventually I cut out the requirement of expanding to high and low F#. I stopped BEFORE feeling the embouchure challenged in any way. This usually meant that I stopped around A or B on top of the staff. This was in effort to reduce the excessive embouchure fatigue and stiffness that was building up due to my practice habits and freelancing.

After 6 months I discovered a distinctive “pop” sound I was creating (something like a sub-tone). This sounded like efficiency to me so I guided my efforts toward creating that sound in practice above all else.

Before leaving for a 6 week tour I STOPPED practicing my articulation.

 What Happened?

My articulation improved – along with every other technical aspect of my playing.

Interestingly, during the entire process (about 10 months), I did not notice any dramatic improvement and the whole thing was kind of a drag. I was constantly struggling to find a balance between practice and gigs. During those 10 months I more or less “kept my head down” when I left the house to play. It was not until I completely stopped practicing articulation that it began to improve in clarity and speed. Also, once I stopped the routine my embouchure became exceedingly more flexible which was cool.

Another point to note is that I kept trying to articulate the “proper” way by hitting with the tip of the tongue behind the top front teeth. I naturally play with an “anchor” tongue where the tip of the tongue is planted firm against the inside of my lower lip and strikes the roof of the mouth with the front/middle/fat part of the tongue. Once I accepted this my life became much easier and I seemed to improve instantly.

What Did Not Matter?

The programming, or what I actually practice, mattered very little, if at all.

Dealing with my own idealism about what I was practicing created a huge amount of stress for me. I was very concerned with the types of scales I “should” play to best serve me, the patterns that will give me the most leverage, the way that I approached the day, etc. During the “work” stages of learning to articulate properly the programming was my GREATEST concern and it ended up being one of the LEAST important factors.

Training the tongue (or any muscle) is not as “physical” as you might think. In fact, wearing out the tongue did not seem to be beneficial. We are just entering data into the subconscious through the muscles. Eventually that data works its way back out in the form of more precise, controlled movement.

What DID matter?

Attempting to get and listening for a result matters – no matter what that result is.

Intention gets your brain inside the muscles. When your brain is inside the muscles they are better at learning any movement.

Practicing slowly matters.

As mentioned I did not bother practicing any exercises faster than I could maintain control over the result. Once I stopped practicing the routines the tongue sped up dramatically ON ITS OWN. Aim for clarity, not speed.

Eventually stopping regular practice matters. The data you pump into your brain through regular practice needs time to ruminate and the freedom to work itself back out.

What Do I Now Do Differently?

Create more specific goals. Rather than saying, “I’m going to get better at articulation this year,” say something like, “I’m going to get my single tongue to X speed.”

Make a simple plan and go for it. You get smarter as you go. I spent an exorbitant amount of energy speculating when I could have just done some simple work and got on with my life (whoa).

Be goal-oriented calendar time be-damned. You can probably achieve more…or less…or more…than one thing in a year.

What’s Next?

My next goal is to get my practice time on non-gig days up to 4 hours of focused, deliberate work. I want to improve my ability to focus on working through problems to this volume of time – because it feels right.

Currently I shed between one and a half to two hours per day with the intention of connecting my ear to my fingers. I want to play the horn as simply and naturally as singing in the shower. I am not concerned with what I practice (I have a few projects I’m chipping away at) so much as I reach the 4 hour mark with helpful practice. The idea is that when I can do this I’ll be able to learn new material more quickly (in fewer days) and get way better.

The Plan

Use Auto-suggestion in the form of incessantly writing “I practice 4 hours a day easily” (or something like that) in my practice journals, as well as thinking it and saying it out loud.

Mark on a wall calendar the total amount of time I practice each day. Just by seeing it I’ll want to do more.

Practice what I want to practice.

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6 thoughts on “What I Learned from Focusing on One Skill for All (OK Most) of 2014

  1. Reread. Deep, man. Damn the routines. I’m gonna focus on weaknesses by intense concentration on results, practicing and playing what makes sense and appeals. Thx for being open about what works for you.

  2. Pingback: July 2015: New Fan, Kindle, Harmonic Series Routine, and the ii-V7-I Progression | Blackwell's Trumpet Basics

  3. hell ya man ive been struggling with trumpet for a while and this gave me a little boost of “dear trumpet players, everything is going to be ok” thanks for sharing blackwell

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