Five Secrets to Rapid Improvement in Your Playing

At some point, every part-time musician (PTM) reaches a point of frustration with their progress. Whether this occurs early or later on your path, it’s almost certain to happen. The way to break through this barrier is to build your momentum…but how?

I hit this obstacle early in my “second childhood” on the trumpet. Things that used to be easy for me two decades prior (yes, two decades!) were unreachable. The “good ear” I had as a high school and college trumpeter was gone. My range was gone. My endurance was gone. I was beginning to wonder if I simply wasn’t cut out to play any more.

After reading a great deal, practicing as much as I could, trying every different approach and piece of advice I could find, buying various methods and study manuals, I finally distilled what worked for me. After running it past several other PTMs, I’ve concluded that this is a decent framework for just about anyone playing just about any instrument. There may be more things you’d add to the list, and if there are, I’d love to hear them! But these are what worked – and work – for me.

1. Practice every night – even if it’s only five minutes

There are evenings (days or nights if you work shifts) where you just don’t have time for a good solid practice session. But there are almost no days when I can’t spare five minutes. I find that keeping lips-on-mouthpiece, fingers-on-strings, or whatever applies is the greatest key to rapid improvement. Why? Muscle memory for one reason, but I think there’s more to it than that. If you set it as a priority to play every day, you take it more seriously. Granted, you can’t play only five minutes every day and get very far, but it does keep you in the habit. And you’d be surprised what you can accomplish in only a few minutes of concentrated effort.

2. Start with scales

I’m convinced that running scales every day will do more to improve more aspects of your playing than almost any other effort. You can work on your dynamics, expressiveness, tonguing/breathing/range (for winds), fingering, picking/plucking/bowing patterns (strings), endurance, and several other areas important to mastering any style of music. It also helps you master your scales (duh!) and learn your keys (one flat = key of F, two flats = key of Bb, etc.). You can run through all of the major scales in a matter of a few short minutes at the beginning of your practice session once you’ve gotten into the routine and believe me, you’ll notice the difference it makes.

3. Use etudes/studies

These musical “exercises” are more entertaining than scales, but they help you polish certain areas of your playing by focusing upon them in a more isolated manner. Some etudes help you gain expressiveness, some work on developing clean attacks, some help refine bowing techniques (strings)…well, you get the idea. When I wanted to learn to double- and triple-tongue on trumpet, I cracked open the method books and the Arbans manual to the sections on multiple tonguing. Someone else had already done the legwork of selecting those exercises; I could go straight to practicing them!

4. Join a group as soon as you can

While trying to join a band, community orchestra, or ensemble is probably not the best idea after only a few lessons, at some point, you’ll have mastered the basics and will be getting reasonably comfortable with your instrument. As soon as you feel that you are “getting the hang of it”, start looking for a group to join. You may not be ready for the big time, but there are numerous groups out there that don’t expect you to be a pro…just that you’re not too bad and improving as you go. Frankly speaking, there is nothing that will make you work to improve quickly than knowing you are on the hook to play somewhere, even if it is in a large group. (Caveat: Don’t reach TOO far beyond your current capabilities or playing will suddenly become “un-fun”. The key is to stretch without breaking!)

5. Finish each practice session by having someĀ FUN

Is there a particular style of music (or two, or three) that you really like? Finish each practice session with a fun piece, even if it’s a simplified version. Envision yourself playing that with a group someday, and play it like you already are. I love many styles of trumpet music, but my favorites are probably Dixieland Jazz and Mariachi music. Early in my re-learning period of trumpet playing, I found a simplified book of Dixieland Jazz music with an accompaniment CD that was on sale, and I bought it. What a great find! Each night – and especially ones when progress seemed elusive – I would finish with one of the songs in that book. What a lift! I’d put away the horn happy and ready to do it again the next evening.

What do you think? Do you have any additional secrets you’d like to share? Please do so by leaving a comment or sending us an email. And above all, keep playing!



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