I just returned from ITF all charged up with energy and focus. After listening to so many sounds, I feel it is important to clarify some of my language, which in turn will clarify my practice.
For me, there are four types of playing the trombone: Practicing, Preparing, Maintaining, and Enjoying. Just because the horn is up to your lips doesn’t mean that you are practicing. Here are some brief descriptions of each type of playing:
First, Practicing is when you are working on getting better at some aspect of playing. You may be using repertoire or technical exercises, but the entire focus is on improving what you can do with a trombone. It is usually focused, rigorous, and yields a change in behavior (better playing). Second, Preparing is where you are getting better at specific repertoire. You are shedding the notes. You are experimenting with the phrase, etc. You may be getting a little better at the trombone (practicing), but your focus is to learn the repertoire in front of you. In terms of practice, it is nowhere near as productive as actual practice. Third, Maintaining is where you are going through exercises or repertoire to keep up your current abilities. A consistent ‘warm-up’ might fall into this category as the gains you are experiencing are due in a large part to the frequency of playing (not a focus on practice). Many people have a set of exercises they play regularly which enables them to play at a comfortable level. People warm up in order to play what they should be able to play, but this may not focus much on actually improving their skills. For players that take days off and return to the instrument, the maintenance required to get back into the swing of things is often inaccurately referred to as practice (in my opinion). Fourth, Enjoyment is where you are just playing with no specific goal or aim. You might be performing or maintaining, but you are not chipping away at getting better at something, you’re just playing for fun without a really specific goal toward improvement. Improvement requires a change in behavior.
While I was at ITF, I noticed a few different levels of play. There were high-level professionals (most commonly in orchestras or top-tier service bands where the ensemble makes up a majority of their livelihood- for example, the New York Philharmonic). There were a number of college teachers (who do play professionally, but most of their livelihood is through their teaching responsibilities)- this is where I reside currently. There were students covering a wide range of playing level (high school, college, graduate/pre-professional), and there were recreational players also covering a wide level of play. Retirees, weekend warriors, regional freelancers, etc. It was really refreshing to mingle with all types of players!
Through hearing conversations and interacting with several people, it became apparent to me that many people (in all of the levels) spend a fair amount of their face time maintaining and preparing. Some feel a need to do so in order to handle the amount of playing they do (for work or pleasure). Recreational players seemed to spend more time playing (which makes sense as they are doing it primarily for fun) but what I witnessed the least (both in conversation as well as observation) was actual practice. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum- if you want to get better, you need to spend more time practicing. You may play more, you may maintain more, etc. but unless you are actually practicing, you will continue to play at the same level (you’ll just have more experience at it). People seem to talk about practicing less often than any other type of playing. In a way practicing focuses on what we do not do well, and I wonder if that lends to a more personal and private approach that people keep when it comes to their practice. Perhaps people don’t want to talk openly about what they do poorly and how they are trying to improve on it. Lastly, I also noticed that people who do not play every day often need more time maintaining in order to get their chops ‘up’ to play their next event. Another reason why I am convinced that practicing every day is a superior method is I never have to play just to maintain. I practice every day so each day I’m already a little better than the day before! Maybe that’s the trick- Practice to the point of never needing maintenance, because maintenance refers to staying where you are (or getting back up to where you already are as a player).
Given this explanation, my goal is 5 units of PRACTICE every day. If I have to learn new pieces (like my faculty recital this fall) then it will be additional units. I feel great after 710 days- there’s no stopping me now! Let’s go Practice!