General vs. Specific

Thankfully, I practice a lot differently now than I did when I was just learning the trumpet. Back then when it was a victory just to make a sound, my priority was Hot Cross Buns. By the time I worked my way up to Ode to Joy (in B-flat), I had learned what seemed like a ton of repertoire. By the time I was in high school it was all I could do to try to be on top of my wind ensemble and jazz band music, and when I started private lessons that meant even more material that I was responsible for. In university I had recitals, orchestra, brass quintet: a seemingly endless stream of repertoire I had to learn.

Now that I'm on the job, I realize that life in the trenches means going through more repertoire than I could have imagined back then. Faced with performing so much music in so little time, my amateur self wouldn't have known how to begin to cope. What I've learned is that, for me, it calls for a qualitatively different approach. 

I started to figure this out towards the end of my undergrad years at the Glenn Gould School. I had been taking pro auditions for a couple of years, with no real success. I had spent a lot of time on the excerpts: listening, recording myself, working out every possible kink I could find. But I wasn't getting the results I was looking for, and I had a hard time sorting out what I could do better. I got my first positive sign without really knowing how I did it, advancing to the second round at a fourth trumpet audition in Montreal. It was a big list, and not an audition that I was as specifically well-prepared for as I could have been. Afterwards I realized that even though I was less specifically prepared, I had generally made big improvements in my playing since the last auditions I had taken. This was a big idea for me, and one that has served me well over the years. Pursuing this avenue of growth gave me all sorts of ways to work towards my goals rather than fruitlessly scrutinizing my Promenade again and again. 

The specific challenges of any given passage can be broken down into more and more basic components. A technical passage might come down to quality of multiple tonguing and coordination (which usually means not rushing); something lyrical might really be about evenness of sound production, use of vibrato, and general musicianship. What's true about any passage is that if you're generally good at the things it requires, you're going to do better. If your articulation, flexibility, and musicality are strong, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to play a fine ballerina's dance. Through refining your ears and ability to analyze what's going on in your playing, you'll learn to spot the general skills that need work. 

What this really boils down to is the importance of fundamentals. The most basic practicing is the most generally applicable, and that means that it's your biggest return on investment. A personalized approach to fundamentals, one that focuses your efforts on areas that need the most attention, is the single most important part of your practicing to develop. The more experienced I've become, the larger the proportion of my practicing that is dedicated to fundamentals. I'm the type of person who thrives on routine, so that makes it easy, but even if you're not, you can develop a flexible framework of practice that can let you target the areas you need while still keeping things fresh every day. That's a big topic though, and is worth its own post in the future.