Every wind player has to form some kind of embouchure. That means there is a specific coordination of the muscles in the face to hold some kind of shape in order to have a consistent tone produced. This is caused by isometric contraction. By definition, isometric contraction is when muscles pull against each other (or pull against the forces of gravity, or pull against environmental constraint, like the limits of bones and ligaments in the musculoskeletal system). Isometric contraction means there are muscles that are working. They are trying to pull against something and this means three factors become highly important: Strength, Coordination, and Endurance. I'll explain the challenges with these three factors a little here:
STRENGTH - This is really hard to measure (almost impossible in a lab/research setting) as we are dealing with muscles that are small. For example, the difference in strength between someone who has a weak zygomaticus major muscle and someone who has a strong zygomaticus major muscle is very subtle. But for high level music making, this difference might be extremely important- it might be the difference between winning jobs and just advancing.
COORDINATION - Again, this is very difficult to measure in a lab, but we know the muscles in the face can coordinate in a million different ways. Subtle differences in the recipe of how much each muscle is contributing can create significant differences in tone quality. Having the 'right' sound can be the difference in the professional industry, and this is determined by a number of factors, including the shape of the oral cavity- which is significantly effected by the way the face muscles coordinate.
ENDURANCE - The tricky thing about endurance of really small and highly coordinated muscles is the level of specificity required to evoke the right engagement and development. If you play something that isn't physically demanding enough, you won't stimulate the right development. If you play something that is too taxing, you won't stimulate the right development. Larger, stronger muscles will take over which will change your efficiency, tone quality, etc. The Goldilocks Zone is razor thin and frankly most methods overlook this crucial aspect. Most musicians have little/no experience with low-threshold or high-threshold motor units, anatomical intricacies within the face, lactic acid threshold for small muscle groups (even exercise physiologists usually only study this using larger muscle groups).
I get really specific and meticulous. Here is an example of my own progress:
Each color represents a different 'workout'. Each note, each duration, etc. is charted in a way where trends can be spotted with strength, coordination, and endurance. Most importantly, we can pinpoint the Goldilocks Zone and optimize your productivity. We dial this in for each note and several different tests of endurance. I take care of the math and charts. I take something enormously complex and make it simple for you so you can do your exercise, and then get back to making music!
BASICS to OPTIMIZE YOUR PRACTICE SESSION.
#1 WORK HARD
The amount of time you put into your craft will directly affect your progress. Several people have supported the "ten thousand hour rule", but remember that these ten thousand hours must be deliberate practice. Here is a link to the practice charts I use (and I have my students use them too). It is a great way to keep track of practice time from both a quantity and a quality standpoint.
DOWNLOAD MY PRACTICE CHART PDF ->
PRACTICE CHARTS - I started using practice charts only a few years ago when I had several students that had a difficult time developing good practice habits. I found the charts helped them see how much practice time they were actually getting (most people practice significantly less than they think they do), but the charts also helped students see what they tend to practice, and more importantly what they tend to avoid. Even though the motivation was to help my students, I found that the practice charts were even more helpful for me. In retrospect, I can see why. For younger players (such as beginners) it is far more important that they just develop habits of playing and having fun while playing, so practice isn’t viewed as laborious and tedious. If you are teaching young players, you need to keep the details of high-level pedagogy to yourself, and if you are going to try to infuse it into your teaching, you have to do it discreetly. The detrimental results of demotivating a student from wanting to practice are more problematic than less efficient practice for a beginner. Therefore beginners do not really need to keep accurate notes of what they practice in order to improve- they just need to play. The further one travels on the journey toward becoming a professional/working musician/teacher the more important it is that practice sessions are highly specific and focused. Goals need to be specific and built from session to session in the most efficient manner possible. I learned first-hand how valuable keeping accurate notes was for my development. I feel like each year my practice sessions become even more productive. Here are some reasons why: Total honesty with practice time. Most people do not practice as much as they think they do. Practice charts help illuminate that. Humans tend to avoid the things that are less gratifying to practice. If you want to be a professional, you have to develop your weaknesses until they become strengths. Practice charts make it painfully obvious if you are avoiding any technical areas, and then enable you to address them proportionally. Human memory is biased. We tend to lose track of how much time we have put into developing something. With practice charts, I can start to see how many minutes it takes to learn a new solo or solve a specific technical issue within my playing. This information is as valuable as gold for the developing brass player. Everything has a cost. Our currency is time. Humans like to fill in charts. When you see a trend in your practice (let’s say 8 units a day for 5 days straight) it can actually become a motivating factor to help you get 8 units on the 6th day. We have a need for order, symmetry, and continuation. As trivial as it sounds, keeping a chart will help you fill in the chart- the byproduct is more practice time. Practice charts help us practice in smaller, more focused chunks of time. This has tremendous benefits for us both mentally and physically. This cannot be overstated. We need mental and physical breaks in our practice in order to keep our productivity at the highest level possible. Practice charts help control our OCD/ADD tendencies. We all gravitate toward more 'OCD' or more 'ADD' habits in life. Some of us can practice the same line for an hour, and some of us get bored before progress has really been made and struggle with 'following through'. With practice charts, one can more successfully find the middle ground. By ‘forcing’ us to either spend an entire 15 minutes working on a specific goal or by ‘forcing’ us to ONLY spend 15 minutes working on a specific goal, it becomes a way to control our more extreme mental tendencies.
#2 WORK SMART
The more efficient your practice is, the more effective it will be. It seems logical that the better you practice, the faster you will improve. Instead of 'ten thousand hours', I think of it as 'one thousand breakthroughs'. A 'breakthrough' (a fancy term might be a 'Gestalt') refers to that moment when you make some sort of connection- an 'a ha' moment where you perceive something differently than you did before. Usually when these breakthrough moments come along, we can never go back to that period of unawareness. When we hear a small detail about our sound or our articulation for instance, we cannot 'un-hear' it. That is a breakthrough. I think it takes about one thousand of those, and that takes most people about ten thousand hours of deliberate practice.
MICROBREAKS - Remember to take care of your body while you practice. Follow this link to Musicians Health and Wellness Resources for some great stretches and body rehab work you can do in between practice units!
HOW MUCH DETAIL SHOULD I PRACTICE? - Obviously, we want to practice all the little things, but too much might be problematic. Watch this video to find out more.
DEVELOPING AGILITY IN FASTER PASSAGES - This is a lengthy video where I demonstrate how I learn fast or tricky passages. In short, I think slowing down the metronome is a longer way to do it (not bad, not detrimental, just a longer way). Watch the video where I explain why.
FRIDAY TEACHING TALKS - I have started a video series where I talk about my philosophy behind how I practice. These videos can provide insight as to why I do things a certain way.
Mindful Progress - The myth of consistency and repetition
Adding Energy - the importance of context
Easy vs. Mastery - The contradiction- Mastery isn't always easy
Throughout my years in academia exploring the intersection of science, data, and brass playing, I've compiled a growing collection of resources for students and professionals alike. Many of these resources are provided for students at Troy University, but I've made them available to anyone who may be interested.
Stability. To be 'stable'- unwavering. Consistent. Steady. Like a foundation of a house, or a pyramid. Environmental variability will not cause a change in course. I define stability as the ability to remain at a level of homeostasis regardless of the presence of factors of variability.
As a musician (particularly a wind musician), we need an embouchure (when the muscles in our face create a stable formation that can allow a consistent flow of air to pass through an opening (aperture), which creates a consistent vibration in the lips, thus a consistent sound). The muscles in the face need to be coordinated in a very specific manner that allows for consistency as well as flexibility.
This entire concept of stability is a matter of scaling. If we think about anything that is stable it has to be relative to time. A bridge is stable unless you are referring to a period of a million years. In that case, a bridge is actually not stable at all - it is quite flimsy. For our purposes as musicians, we can relate to things that seem consistent over a period of seconds or minutes as this most closely relates to the amount of time in between breaths or tiny breaks in musical lines. In the grand scheme of life, the amount of stability we need is actually quite small.
As a brass musician, I need to be able to play tones that are unwavering in frequency, timbre, or volume. They need to have clarity and efficiency. I shouldn't have to work too hard to make these sounds. I noticed a funny thing- I have been playing trombone for decades and only recently discovered how bad I am at playing really stable tones. I basically have NO stability! In fact, as I work with my students, I am starting to discover that almost none of them have stability in their playing either.
I have paid keen attention to great players as of late for this very reason and I started noticing the best players do have great stability - the way they play is so smooth that even notes that change pitch, etc. appear to be all 'the same' as if there is no movement in the face. I am not sure if they meant to develop stability or not, but they DID, and if you want to sound like them, stability is one skill you need to master.
The body is designed to operate under variable constraints and can usually deal with a changing environment to produce consistent results (product over process). It is fine when the system accommodates tiny adjustments and variability (that is most likely imperceptible), but if you want to play at the highest levels, you have to have an exceptional balance of stability and agility such that there is no audible involuntary deviation from your sound. That means being able to play sustained tones with no 'funny business' in your face. Minimal shifting around in your embouchure in order to sustain tones. It makes sense that this would also help agility as increased shifting around while you play, the more cumbersome it becomes to move around the range of the instrument (thus less agility).
Under my "Facework" program, I offer private consultations for people that need a 'personal trainer' to either develop stability, improve their current stability, or rehabilitate after injury. Visit my Facework page for more information.
The opposite of stability, agilty is the ability to move from note to note. Having the freedom and flexibility to change notes over the range of the instrument. The greater the change, the more agility is needed. Imagine that same pyramid now turned up-side-down and balanced perfectly on its point. With the slightest effort, it could 'fall' into any direction. As brass players, we need to be able to change from note to note, and most of our demands include scaler (conjunct passages at a moderate tempo). As the repertoire gets more challenging, we will find greater leaps that happen at faster tempos. Developing agility is essential to navigate this repertoire.
As a musician (particularly a wind musician), we need an embouchure (when the muscles in our face create a stable formation that can allow a consistent flow of air to pass through an opening (aperture), which creates a consistent vibration in the lips, thus a consistent sound). The muscles in the face need to be coordinated in a very specific manner that allows for consistency as well as flexibility. This holds true for stability and agility.
As a brass musician, I cannot have too much agility. The greater my ability to move about the range of the instrument, the easier I will be able to navigate the repertoire. As long as my agility training doesn't start to effect my stability, agility can be viewed as almost limitless.
Most people will utilize lip slurs, lip trills, arpeggios, etc. to develop agility. These are all fine choices that will foster the development of agility. I also find it important to be familiar with contemporary tonalities, and therefore I utilize basic intervals (Major seconds, minor thirds, Major thirds, perfect fourths, etc.) up and down the instrument. This method requires solid understanding of theory- if you find it complicated, you need to do more theory homework before continuing.
BREATHING - As a lifetime student of both kinesiology and the trombone, I've found daily stretching to be a powerful tool to ones musical development. Below are a few stretches I've found to be useful as a performer, and as a teacher. There is simply no better exercise to develop your breathing. The body knows what to do, you just need to get your body working more efficiently. Learn more about how to improve your breathing.
SOUND - Sound in many ways is like a musician’s fingerprint. It is a form of identity for a brass player. There are several factors that interact dynamically to help shape our individual sound, including stability and agility. Learn more about developing sound.
RANGE - First and foremost, if you want to have great range on your brass instrument, you need to develop your stability. Your face needs to be working in an efficient and productive manner in terms of controlling the vibration of your lips. Most people (myself included) that have struggled with range have developed a certain habit in terms of how the muscles are coordinated in the face to make sound- and it doesn't work over the range we feel we need to do the job we want to do. This coordination has most likely also left certain muscles lacking the relative strength they need to 'hold' a certain setting or embouchure. The problem is two-fold. I look at it as 90% coordination and 10% strength. Once you've explored techniques to develop stability, follow this link to learn more about developing range.
INTONATION - If you want to have great intonation on your brass instrument, you need to develop your stability. (Are you noticing a pattern?) Your face needs to be working in an efficient and productive manner in terms of controlling the vibration of your lips. Most people (myself included) that have struggled with intonation have developed a certain habit in terms of how the muscles are coordinated in the face to make sound- and it doesn't sustain frequencies evenly and consistently to do the jobs we want to do. This coordination has most likely also left certain muscles lacking the relative strength they need to 'hold' a certain setting or embouchure. The problem is two-fold. I look at it as 90% coordination and 10% strength. Once you've explored techniques to develop stability, learn more about intonation.
ARTICULATION - In order to clarify your articulation, you'll have to refine some dynamic physical factors of sound production. First thing's first: You need to develop a way of playing where the shape of the oral cavity is consistent and variability is minimized- the best way to do that is through training your stability. I know, I know, I sound like a broken record. If you haven't visited my page on stability, do that now! There is no better way to set up a great foundation to improve articulation! Once you've explored techniques to develop stability, follow this link to learn more about articulation.
TIMING - A few tips on developing your timing.
HARMONIC FLUENCY - A few tips on developing classical and contemporary harmonic fluency.