For many high school musicians, making the All-State Band, Orchestra, or Choir is a big dream. Beyond the obvious tactic of “practicing a lot,” what else can you do to become a better musician? Follow these 3 simple-but-effective instructions and behold as your skills as a musician become better and better!
- Record Yourself
It seems obvious—and it’s likely a piece of advice you’ve heard before—but recording yourself is one of the absolute best things you can do for yourself. You might say, “But I already listen to myself while I’m playing, and I can hear if I make a mistake.” Let’s think about that more: when we are actively playing our instrument, our body is doing a lot, and our brain can oftentimes (rightfully so!) be fully saturated with thoughts as we are playing. What our brains think about while playing (a whole ‘nother article on its own), can range from focusing on the sensation of breathing, to fingerings/positions, how we’re tonguing, identifying and executing note groups such as arpeggios and scales, observing whether we are sharp or flat or just right on pitches, shaping phrases to their peaks and valleys, wondering what’s for dinner, pondering why school has to start so early, hmmm… how much longer do I have in this period?, do I have volleyball practice this evening?, wait what key are we in?, etc.
So, if our brain is caught up in the act of playing the instrument, how much mental power do we really have left to assess our playing as it is coming out of the bell? The answer is: who knows, but we should really try our best to break up those two tasks!
While you play the horn, yes, you should be actively listening to yourself and making adjustments. However, by recording yourself, you are able to turn what was a fraction of your attention while playing to listening to yourself now to 100% of your attention to listening to yourself.
When you listen to a recording of yourself, you want to listen critically, but not in a mean way. Remember: we are always students of the craft of playing an instrument, regardless of if you have been playing for 3 months or 30 years. Ask the best musicians in the world and they will tell you that they still practice with the intent of getting better! No one is perfect and there is no “finish line” with being the best we can be as musicians and human beings.
Listen to the recording of yourself like you are your own teacher. Listen for…
- Tone: Does every single note have my best sound? Which notes don’t? Why do those notes not sound as good?
- Pitch: Does every single note sound like the right note? Can I sing the right note? (Hint: if you can’t sing the right note, you’re likely not playing the note as best you can!)
- Rhythm: Can I tap along with the recording of myself? Do duple (8th notes, 16th notes) rhythms feel completely square? Do the triplets fit correctly in the beat?
- Written Markings: Does it sound like I am observing the musical instructions written on the page? Sometimes when we are playing we might think we are slowing down in the ritard, slurring where it says to, crescendoing when indicated, etc., but in the recording of ourself, it’s actually not obvious that we are executing those things! Leave no stone unturned when it comes to written markings—the judges expect the best musicians to do every single instruction on the page.
- Style and Phrasing: Does this march sound like a parade could go down Main St. with this recording playing in the background? Does this love song sound like it could woo your romantic interest? Make your etudes sound like the piece of music they are—don’t just play the notes!
One last thing: don’t feel like you need to buy a fancy mic to record yourself! Just using your memo app on your phone is a great start!
- Plan Mock Auditions and Do Them
Most musicians understand the need to and strive to practice the audition music itself diligently. What many musicians don’t do, however, is put enough emphasis on the act of performing the music at an audition. When we as musicians audition, we are taken from the comfort of our practice room or living room, and are put into a scary environment of a room surrounded by peers, with our bell pointed at the ears of discerning judges. Performing music at an audition usually feels completely different than performing music in our own privacy. Therefore, we must rehearse the audition situation and simulate the potential feelings that come with that experience.
When you do a mock audition, do your best to set it up as close to the real deal as possible. Set up a curtain, put “judges” behind the curtain, give them the audition music, paper, and a pencil. Ideally, hold the audition in a similar room as where your real audition will take place. Hold the mock audition at the same time of day as the real one. Find someone to act as the audition proctor. If you can get any and every little detail of the mock audition as close to the actual audition experience, you will do yourself a great favor.
The best thing about a mock audition is that there is no result or outcome whether you play excellently or not! If you “crash and burn” in your mock audition, great! Why did that happen? Think and take notes. This is a learning experience. Did you practice too much leading up to the audition and wear yourself out? Did you neglect a certain passage in your music during your practice in the days or weeks leading up to the mock audition and struggle with it in performance? Did you burn the roof of your mouth by eating super-hot pizza just before the mock audition? Did you catch yourself being distracted by a certain clothing garment (for example: a loose shirt cuff that wiggled around annoyingly as you moved your slide or a pair of pants that were too tight and limited your ability to breathe fully)?
Take note of both the positive and the negative. If the mock audition went great, awesome! Still, take notes. Why did it go well? What was your preparation like in the days leading up to the mock audition? What did you eat or drink? What was your playing schedule like leading up to it? Think and write it down!
The trick with mock auditions is to plan them in advance (maybe a month or 6 weeks from now!), and plan a few of them as goals for you to practice towards. Think about this: we practice playing our instrument daily, but we practice performing it far less! Start practicing performing sooner and more often with mock auditions.
- Make or Find a Daily Warmup/Routine and STICK TO IT!
How we play our instrument on a daily basis is a direct result of our daily practice regimen and routine. What I mean by a daily warmup is a set of exercises that you play every day to improve the various technical skills needed to be a musician in top form. A sample list of skills one might focus on are: ease and beauty of tone, fluid legato, flexibility, upper register, lower register, single tonguing speed, double tonguing speed, finger dexterity, intonation, “target practice,” dynamic spectrum, vibrato, scales, arpeggios, detached playing, etc. If you take private lessons, ask your lesson teacher to give you or help you put together a packet of exercises for your daily routine. If you don’t take lessons, search for websites of the leaders and/or professors on your instrument and see if they provide PDFs of their own practice routines.
Once you find a set of exercises, start diving in and practicing them. Hopefully there will be exercises that you can’t quite play yet, and that’s a good thing! Start with what you can do and either build speed or range or comprehension from what already does sound good. Remember that good sounds come from other good sounds. Pushing your boundaries is, of course, great!… to an extent. Do stretch your abilities but realize that at some point you might no longer be building quality upon quality if you push yourself too far.
Perhaps most important about the daily warmup is the word daily. The best musicians, athletes, businesspeople, [enter field professional here] developed at some point in their life a level of daily discipline that taught them fundamental skills and enabled them to do their job at a high level.
If you want to learn how to play Blue Bells of Scotland, start integrating double tonguing into your daily routine today; if you want to play a high C in 6 months, start focusing on making the pitches just under high C sound great today; if you want to conquer that really challenging passage in your 3rd All-State etude, start working on it very slowly today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…
I promise you will notice improvement in your playing if you adhere to these 3 points! 1) Record yourself to illuminate what needs to be better, 2) Do mock auditions to simulate the nervous audition feeling, and 3) Start practicing a disciplined, daily fundamentals routine to ingrain the skills you need to perform your audition music to your highest ability! Good luck and happy practicing!
About the Author
Christian Paarup is a trombonist, teacher, composer, arranger, digital sheet music engraver, and trombone sales specialist. He has performed with many ensembles in Texas, including the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Opera, San Antonio Symphony, and Dallas Winds, and is a founding member of the Fort Worth Brass. Mr. Paarup is Adjunct Professor of Low Brass at Dallas College, a private instructor for Aledo and Burleson school districts, Founder and Director of the Trombone Choir of North Texas, and a frequent adjudicator at UIL auditions and competitions. His works have been performed at the International Trombone Festival and American Trombone Workshop, among others. Through Paarup Music Editions, Christian has helped create method books, arrangements, and instructional materials for esteemed artists and educators such as Dr. Per Brevig, Joseph Alessi, Dennis Bubert, Anthony Barfield, and Karen Houghton. Mr. Paarup holds degrees from Baylor University (BM – magna cum laude), and the Manhattan School of Music (MM), and is a three-time Texas All-Stater. His teachers include David Finlayson, Brent Phillips, and Dennis Bubert. As the Trombone Specialist for Houghton Horns, Mr. Paarup helps guide customers, creates social media content, and represents the business at workshops and trade shows.
To schedule a private lesson with Christian or our other highly qualified teachers, click here.