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When you first start out on the horn, just about everything is a struggle. If you survive and continue a couple years, you acquire some skills and begin to find that there are some things that you can do better than others. This is when it starts. Later, if more years have gone by and you have perhaps had some lessons and have gotten better at more aspects of technique, a certain siren song becomes paradoxically stronger: the tendency to play what you can do rather than work on what you can’t do. This is especially obvious in things like warm-ups and technical review (which should be 20% review and 80% development). Listen in a hallway of practice rooms or go to a music camp: you hear players zip through impressive warm-ups – overtone arpeggios, scales, etc. If you repeat the experiment the next day or the day after that or the day after that, you find that you hear the same dazzling routines, word for word. They know what they know and it feels good to whiz through it, showing to the world and to oneself that boy am I good at some stuff here.

It is a good idea to start with what you know know well (we essentially have to relearn and recalibrate our horn playing every day), but problem is that if you don’t also push against your limits and force more myelin to form around neural pathways, you don’t get better. In other words, working on what you can’t do yet. Doing the same thing every day also leaves out many other possibilities and limits your flexibility and narrows your field of technical knowledge and know-how. And perhaps worst of all, it’s just plain boring to face the Ground Hog Day routine – be it ever so quick and slick – every day and every day, always the same. The mind numbs and goes to sleep. You endure the workout and think of laundry and holidays and lunch.

It’s hard for us to think outside the (practice) routine. We are trained from the beginning to follow orders, do as we’re told. We receive no encouragement to explore either the instrument (what can this baby do?) or music (how many ways can you rearrange 4 notes?). If it ain’t ink, it don’t exist. So we stick with the ink and with the routine that our teacher gave us and her teacher gave her and his teacher gave him back into the mists of time… How do we break the cycle and interject some new light on a stale subject?

Inventory to the rescue.

There are in fact many ways to break out of the box; one simple way is to take inventory of what you can and can’t do. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. The reason the superstars got so super is not because they were born that way, but because they single-mindedly looked for and worked on stuff they were less good at. Tiger Woods (I’m paraphrasing from memory an example from one of the Talent books by Coyle or Colvin) might step a ball down deep in the sand and try to hit it out – a very difficult shot – and repeat it 500 times in a day, even though he may only encounter that shot three times in a season). So it behooves the rest of us to examine every part of our game and see where we are. Trills? Fluttertongue? Low range? Upper register? Transpositions? Endurance? Atonal sight reading? Improvisation? Whole tone scales? There’s always something. Although it’s hard to face it (see my earlier post “Eat the Frog”), working one of these areas into our daily practice is the key to improvement, and, for lagniappe, should add spice to the same old same old.

We can also add pizzazz and panache to the old routine simply by massaging a few parameters: play it faster; play it on the other side (F or Bb) of the horn other than usual; change articulations, dynamics, note rhythms (who says it has to be all 8ths?), meters (try odd meters, add accents), and so on.

So: to add some technique caffeine to your practice, take inventory, and use it to make a revised plan of attack. Go lighter on the stuff you can zip through, much heavier on the sticky bits. Gradually move the sticky into the zip category, and add new stickies to take their place. It’s tough, and more bruising to the ego than only playing stuff you can rocket through, but it puts money in the technique bank. Show your ego the door, roll up your mental sleeves, and get out there and take inventory.

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