One of my major goals in becoming self-employed was to rediscover practicing the tuba in a way that is meaningful to me. I’ve talked about this in a few other posts, but the basic idea is that there’s a part of me that still practices the same way I did when I was 20. However, a lot of my timing, technique, and interest has shifted since then, and so many of those old tools need to be re-evaluated. Also some old habits need to be redirected.
One element I’m finding fundamentally important is the environment I practice in. For example, let me show you my old practice space:
There’s a nice clean space with the instruments and stand close at hand. There is, however, one huge and fundamental flaw with this setup. Can you spot it?
Here’s I’ll zoom in:
Still missing it?
Yup, this is also my work space with my computer. Years ago I got into the habit of browsing the web while going through my tuba warmup. And in my defense, a lot of my warmup is a physical activity just to get the blood flowing and to limber up. I might as well be entertained while I’m doing it.
Recently after I took a lesson with my former teacher Jay Krush, I realized that this was causing a lot of bad habits to emerge. If I were passively reading something, that’s one thing, but here I was using a mouse with one hand and playing the tuba with everything else. Often I’d be leaning forward to reach the mouse. I would also tilt my head to the side so I could get a better view of the screen.
But the larger issue is that I just wasn’t concentrating on what I was playing. And if I wasn’t going to listen to what I was playing, there wasn’t much “practicing” going on.
A few weeks ago, I got rid of an old broken bed in my spare bedroom, and repurposed the space for playing. Allow me to show you:
This room is pretty tiny, but it works great for what I need. There’s a lot less in the room to distract me… well, unless you count the bookshelf and my complete collection of Magic the Gathering cards. Fortunately, I’m faced away from everything.
The mirror has been great. For one thing, I can check on my posture and embouchure (mouth shape) while I’m playing. A small but important side effect is that I have a hard time doing anything except concentrating on playing and the sound while I’m watching myself. The stand in the picture is usually behind me during the warm up part of my routine, so I can’t get distracted by what’s on the page. Even the open window makes it a nicer space.
I already can feel a huge difference by staying in the moment while I’m playing. I have started to check in while I’m performing by thinking back to how I am seated, how I am breathing, and how I am playing while in my practice space. It’s interesting to be in the middle of a dimly lit bar and all of a sudden thinking about relaxing while breathing, and maintaining my playing posture. I don’t know if this is something obvious for most brass players, but it came as a pleasant surprise to me.
It’s almost as if we practice to prepare ourselves for performing.
Not all is well in practice-land though. While creating and using this new space in the last 2 or 3 weeks has been great, I still have some issues to overcome.
I purchased my first smart phone 2 months ago since I knew I would not be as connected to a computer as I was with a full time job. It has been an invaluable tool for both my personal and professional life, allowing me to respond to gig requests quickly, making navigation so much simpler, and even pulling up charts and set lists when I need them. The downside is that I find it difficult to disengage from the phone sometimes, and one of those times is while practicing. Sometimes I’ll get a gig to bid on right in the middle of my lip slurs, and I’ll take a look at my phone to see if I need to respond immediately. And I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s just a friend chatting with me, and I’ll want to engage with them.
In either case, it clearly takes away from my practice time and quality. I’ve broken my practice session down at this point to play in small intervals, maybe 10-30 minutes at a time. I find it disingenuous to my commitment to music to allow myself to be so easily distracted. Yes, there are emergencies, yes there are times where it’s great to be the first to respond. However, I think I can afford to donate a solid 30 minute block to my craft without allowing for distractions.
Reps But Not Sets
So far I’ve been pretty good about getting my warmup/daily routine in every morning. Where I’ve been lacking is in following up with more practice later in the day. If I have a gig at night, I tend to only do my basic routine to keep fresh for the evening. How do gigging brass musicians manage practicing and improving without overdoing it? Is it as delicate a balance as it seems for me?
For instance, last weekend I had a lot of endurance playing to do, to the extent that I overdid it a bit. I’m taking today as a no play day to recover so I can start to focus again on the finer points of my playing. Maybe there’s some playing I can do across the day that keeps me improving while not straining. Again, I’m still working on this.
Where Are We Headed?
I have a few specific things that I’m working on, but not a whole lot of direction. I have a book of mixed meter etudes I’ve been going through to improve my sightreading, and I have a piece or two that I’m trying to get up to speed. Without scheduling a recital, I don’t know what to do to find a more specific motivation. Maybe I can arbitrarily choose a project (learn the complete works of TMBG on the tuba), but I have a hunch that will feel empty as well.
Many of my brass idols (Buddy Baker, Douglas Yeo, Philip Farkas) write that without a set of short, medium, and long term goals, you won’t get anywhere. But doesn’t that take practice to a whole other meta-world, in which I’m spending hours poring through material, choosing music to play, and then repeating the process daily, weekly, and monthly. Again, has anyone found a way to make that work.
Then there’s also that I want to improve my trombone and baritone horn skills, learn the electric bass, play polkas on the accordion, write new music to sing, arrange new music for Polkadelphia, cultivate a private studio, and do web design on the side. I’m still figuring out if that’s realistic.
I have to keep remembering what someone told me recently about striving to be the best I can be. It’s ok for me to keep looking ahead up the mountain at all the things I have yet to accomplish and all the work I have to do in order to accomplish it. But it’s also important to turn around occasionally and look back down the path I’ve already traveled through. Certainly I can beat myself up about everything I haven’t accomplished yet, but I can also temper it with how far I’ve come. If I’m to keep growing, I’ll always be a work in progress, and that’s ok. The story continues… and it’s been quite a page-turner so far.