I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of most breathing exercises. The reason for this is that it seems to me that people who do a lot of breathing “calisthenic” type exercises tend to have tight sounds. If you’ve been reading TuBlog for a while you know axiom number two (The Seven Axioms of Teaching) is always play with your best sound.
Try this: go back to the beginning of this blog post and read it aloud. What do you notice? Now, if you've got an instrument nearby play something and notice your breathing. How is conversational breathing different from breathing as you play?
In a conversation your breathing is shallow, slow, and imprecise. Hopefully, when you play your breathing is deep, full, relaxed, efficient, and exact. A lot of players breathe conversationally as they play. Our breathing should be more like when you’ve been running sprints than conversational. As low brass players, we need to be breath athletes, a virtuoso breather. Breathing in context must be practiced in the same way you practice technical passages of notes.
Here’s an exercise that I think is useful. Play it in every key, any range, all dynamic levels, and any tempo. The lower/faster you play it, the more effective the exercise will be.
Here are the rules:
Add this exercise to your routine and I think you’ll be pleased with the results. What do you do to work on breathing?
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I do the majority of my practicing in my office at university. There's a busy hallway right outside my door and a window which looks out into the atrium of our main music facility. There are almost always people near enough to my office to hear me practice in real time. I was thinking about this recently and began to wonder who might be listening to my practice sessions from the hallway.
I'm not suggesting that people camp outside my office door and eagerly await the arrival of my first notes every day (as cool as that would be). However, the thought that people walk past my door and hear what I'm working on reminded me of something I've heard a lot of musicians say: always sound your best.
The sentiment of always sounding your best is well-intentioned, but impractical and unsustainable. It's also in direct contradiction to one of my axioms, which is that practice is for problems. If you constantly attempt to play your best, you'll be stuck forever playing like you do right now because the fastest way to improve is by attacking your weaknesses. Attacking weaknesses means making mistakes. Making mistakes means sounding less than your best. The goal is to improve every time you sit down to practice.
People walking by probably think that I don’t perform as well as I do since I spend most of my time working on weaknesses. They walk by and hear me sounding my worst, precisely because I'm fixing the highest priority problems. I think certain people are surprised when I perform because there’s a big difference between performance preparation (practice) and performance. Performances are a very different product than practice would indicate. This is because I spend so much more time hashing out problems (improving weaknesses) than working on my strengths.
Here's another way to look at it: maintain strengths, but focus on weaknesses. Better yet, make weaknesses improve so much that they become strengths.
It's best to sound your best in certain situations. Find a way to peak for each performance. If that's not possible, decide which performances are most important to you and peak for those. Ultimately, you’ve got to decide what’s more important to you: improving or sounding your best.
I'm a huge proponent of to-do lists. I use one every day to help me remember what I need to get done. Items on my to-do list could be things like sending an email when I get to the office, picking something up from the store, or other things that I need to get done that day. I also have recurring tasks for things I need to do regularly, like writing new Tuba Tuesday emails or evening long tones for my practice rest day.
Have you ever thought about making a to-do list of things you need to practice today? In issue #14 of the Tuba Tuesday Newsletter I discussed becoming your own greatest asset by taking a proactive approach to directing your development as a player. One of the ways to do this that I mentioned was to record yourself and fix problems you hear in your recording.
I record practice sessions regularly. I've got a recital coming up in two weeks and will record run-throughs of my recital repertoire several times between now and then. When I listen back to the recording I always use the sheet music of the piece I'm listening to for reference. As I listen and follow along in the part I write down feedback on what I hear.
This feedback could be complimentary, "Great entrance," or "Nice vibrato." Or it could be critical such as, "Accuracy, m. 65," or "Louder through crescendo, m. 122." I try to be as specific as possible with the criticisms so that I know exactly what to work on when it comes time to practice the piece again.
The list of feedback from listening is now your practice to-do list. Next time you practice you know exactly what to work on. Work your way through all of the criticisms and mark them off the list if you want. When you've fixed all of the problems, record yourself again. Listen, make a new list, and repeat the process. Do this as many times as you can before your performance.
One important suggestion; this process is most effective later in your performance preparation. I only start recording myself after I think I've fixed everything in the piece.
What's on your practice to-do list?
Thank you for reading!
Today I'll discuss being your own greatest asset.
An asset, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is an advantage or resource.
A liability is a debt or pecuniary obligation.
Let's re-frame my questions. If you have a lesson teacher, great! Pump them for every scrap of knowledge you can. You are with them a half hour a week or a full hour if you’re fortunate.
You have yourself for the other 167 hours every week. So wouldn’t it be useful if you could be your own teacher? Are you an asset to yourself or a liability?
How can you teach yourself?
Thank you for reading!
Today we'll discuss the most important book in your journey to become a better brass player, the Vocalise etudes (euphonium/trombone and tuba) of Marco Bordogni.
There are many reasons to use the Bordogni book; it's an excellent resource when you're learning to play expressively. Since all of the etudes are written with slurs pretty much the whole way it's also great for working on playing with smooth legato. Since smooth legato requires smooth air stream, it's also a superb study in breath control. Finally, It's a versatile wealth of music that can be adapted and adjusted to suit your needs as a player.
The one time in my career where I think I've made the most progress as a tuba player was when I was playing Bordogni etudes for roughly an hour every day. I'd work through my daily routine, then move on to Bordogni, then practice other repertoire for the rest of the day. Wow, those were the days! No responsibilities except to make myself a better player. I digress...
I wasn't just mindlessly playing though the etudes. I had a purpose to everything I did. You can do anything you want with the etudes. You're limited only by your imagination.
Below is a list of the things I would do regularly that I found most useful.
1) Sing each etude using solfege if possible
2) Buzz large portions of each etude with particular attention to large/awkward leaps
3) Play them at the written octave but change certain aspects such as:
If you're familiar with the Bordogni etudes, what do you do that I didn't discuss here? Reply to this email if you'd like to talk about it.
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Jeremy is Associate Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at West Texas A&M University.