• Jason Sulliman

Day 227- Switching Gears

Somewhere around the 180's I realized that I needed to put more (really just about all) of my eggs in the basket of how my body makes sound on a trombone if I want to play like the great players. I have written about this before, but this idea became even more clear to me as I chipped away at this thousand-day journey. Around day 185 I had a kind of epiphany and decided that the quantity of practice (though important) was currently less important than making sure I maximized the proportion of my practice time on embouchure, lower jaw movement, balance of upper/lower lip, particularly with how my face works in the upper register (F4 to C5). Basically I realized that in order to replace such an engrained habit of collapsing in that range, I would need total focus on the issue until meaningful progress was reached. Therefore, I changed my practice habits to reflect this goal.

Practicing every day is even more important for me with this mindset. Replacing habits is not just about practicing and focusing on a new habit. It is also about defaults, and giving opportunities (more importantly preventing opportunities) for those defaults to surface (thus become further reinforced). I knew that if I really wanted to change, it would also be about preventing those undesirable defaults from happening. Therefore, my practice goals for the past 40 days or so has been roughly 30 minutes a day (a single unit with some warming up) and singularly focused on how my body makes sound in the upper register. I knew that if I also practiced repertoire or other aspects of playing (articulation or low range, for example) I would give an opportunity for my old default to manifest, thus reinforce itself.


My unit totals for the second batch of 100 days is about the same as the first hundred. I was aiming for 450 (averaging 4.5 units a day) and I was well on pace for reaching 500 units for most of the hundred, but this new shift in gears really caused the quantity to drop. It was difficult to give up on quantity. We tend to equate volume of work with productivity, and sometimes this can actually hurt us. It is important to have the fortitude to go against a powerful force of attraction in achieving work output and associating that with achieving goals. I ended up around 390 (roughly the same as the first hundred, but for different reasons). The good news is I am happy to say that now on day 227 I feel that there has been sufficient progress made in the direction of forming new habits, and now I can SLOWLY start to introduce other aspects back into practice.

From now until day 300, my goal is to do between one and three units a day (stability with a focus on embouchure, agility with a focus on embouchure, and articulation with a focus on embouchure) and I think when I reach day 300, I will be able to add some additional units of practice. This will result in a total of around 250 units for days 200-300. Quality over quantity right now.

Mentally this has been agonizing. The cynic in me has referred to 'getting my UNIT of practice in" as some kind of cop-out- the kind of thing I'd expect to hear from a mediocre student. A singular unit. How lame. To identify as a musician and spend such little time working on my craft has been frustrating. The good news is life continues to churn on. Babies get sick, my new house has things that need to be fixed, there are always emails to answer, duets to arrange, grants to apply for, etc. etc. etc. so I am definitely not bored with life. I just am not yet comfortable with the unbalanced diet. I am slowly trying to embrace that my life and goals require a shift in gears, which is never easy for a creature of habit. I turned 40 recently and I am sure my age is not helping my ability to cope with paradigm shifts! Oh how I long for the neuroplasticity of a child right now!

It used to baffle me why so many ‘young’ musicians win big jobs right out of school- I used to marvel at how that was even possible. They must be really talented, right? The truth is there is nothing I am doing now that a middle schooler couldn't do in terms of how I am practicing. The hard part is being so honest with yourself, even if that means changing everything about the way you approach practicing your instrument. The older you get, the harder that is. Younger musicians (who started with less bad habits and basically on the correct path) not only can avoid this almost entirely, but when they do have to have an existential crisis about how they practice, they have the plasticity and resilience to change gears more easily. They are usually less 'stuck' in their old ways. That's a contributing factor as to why a 22-year old can win a really big job and if you haven't really advanced much in auditions by the age of 40, it will be tougher to do so. Well, I think I'm onto something, so I will continue to hack away. Excited to see and hear what's in store for me around day 300!

Long term goals: Day 300- have my face working well in the upper register

Day 400- regain the losses in the lower register

Day 500- learn how to articulate sound all over the range (this HAS to be done after previous goals, not concurrently).

Day 600- re-group after the first 500 days and form new goals!


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