What is "Practicing?" And How do I do it?

What does it mean to “practice?”

To most non-lawyers, doctors, and artists of all stripes, this word sounds like what one does to improve at a leisure activity. For medical professionals and lawyers, a “practice” is what is done to make money, a remunerative activity in itself. However, to artists, “practice” is what they do to hone or maintain their craft in order that they are able to make money. In this use of the word, one’s “practice” does not directly create revenue but instead leads towards the ability to create a career in a separate genre of activity, often (but not exclusively) called “performance.” While it is true that performing at a high level is a skill itself, I believe the vast majority of musicians would agree with me that the skills they display in performance came first and foremost came from “the room.” 

Therefore, in order to display maximum competency in performance, it becomes wholly important to gain as much skill as possible in the practice room. This is achieved by practicing appropriate repertoire, in an efficient manner, within proper sequence.  In other words, how you practice is just as important as what you practice. In my experience, most high school and collegiate, and even many graduate student musicians practice inefficiently (read: poorly). Practicing efficiently is work: nothing more, nothing less. You must be efficient in the practice room to improve at any acceptable pace. And in order to do this, you have to have to practice strategically.  Put simply, it takes a lot of discipline to “practice” in a manner that efficiently grows one’s ability on stage.

To assist young trumpeters in tackling this huge issue, the next several blog posts will form a mini-series on some of the items on the sheet below. Obviously, not every strategy will work for every passage, but it has been my experience that any passage you can imagine will benefit from using one or more of these practice strategies while preparing for performance. I will display how one could use between one and three strategies per post. These strategies will be displayed via their effect on the specifics a difficult passage in a trumpet solo, etude or orchestral excerpt that has, in my experience, benefitted students and my own playing while preparing for performance. This type of activity constitutes a full 50% of the time I spend teaching in lessons.

I received this sheet from Tom Booth at The Round Top Festival Institute in the summer of 2011, and have since expanded and adapted it for my own playing. While it has brought me much misery in the practice room, it has definitely brought a larger return on my “room” time than I could have ever imagined: without the practice strategies I gained at Round Top, I would not be close to the caliber of player I am today.

The first post on this list will be Theo Charlier’s ubiquitous etude #2 “Du Style,” with the goal note, mouthpiece buzzing and all 12 keys strategies. (#6, 10, 28). So here’s the sheet:


1.   10 Coins

2.   Permutations

3.   Backwards by Beat/Note

4.   Down the Page

5.   Very Slow to Very Fast with Met

6.   All 12 Keys (or 24 by switching modes)

7.   With a Drone

8.   Fermatas with a Tuner

9.   With Recordings

10. Buzz with berp and/or a fixed pitch instrument

11. Solfege with Piano or Generic Syllable Singing

12. Harmon Mute

13. Flutter Tongue

14. Spread out Met/Offbeat Met

15. Occasional Tuner

16. K Tongue Everything (and other various K Tongue strategies)

17. Memorize

18. In the Dark

19. Other Horns

20. Skeletonizing

21. Computer Program (using technology)

22. On the Lead Pipe

23. Short Notes

24. Take it to the Easy Place (Separating the needed skills)

25. Dotted 8th/16th and reverse

26. Very Soft to Very Loud and Very High to Very Low (extremes)

27. Play for and with non-trumpet players

28. Goal Notes (Over-phrasing until it’s just right)

29. Air Patterns

30. Put the Horn Down and go have fun


Look for opportunities that stretch you

A couple weeks ago, I was asked to do a gig improvising melody and providing background music to accompany a multimedia presentation for a large off-campus group. For some of the tunes, I had a melodic line, but for others I was only provided a lead sheet (lyrics and chord changes) and given the direction: "Make the entire experience better for the audience!" Wow. 

Well then. No pressure or anything!

At first I was hesitant to do accept the invitation, as improvisation is a skill on the fringe of my comfort zone. I also like planning in advance, and the set list was only determined the day before the gig; even after being decided, it was more of a general idea of, "Well, let's see how the audience feels at that point and we can go in one of several directions." There was no chance to prepare or design what I'd play or how I'd handle a particular piece beforehand. Oh, and I was asked to sing and harmonize too. And all of this for the grand fee of $50! Let's just say the gig definitely was a "gut check" type of service. So why agree to play? It’s simple, really: I wanted an opportunity to stretch my ear, bring live music to a group of non-musicians, and expose these people to the trumpet in a way they’d likely never experienced. Last reason: the group is run by a non-musician friend. 

So on the Tuesday night of the service, I showed up with much trepidation with my C trumpet, a silent mute to warm up with, a music stand, a pencil, a quiet and loud straight mute, a cup mute, a harmon mute, bucket mute, plunger and a pixie mute in tow. You know, the normal stuff you bring to every gig. And you know what? It went really well. 10 years of education have paid off! (Not to mention the thousands of hours spent practicing, the hundreds of concerts, and the too-many-to-name influential instructors and colleagues.) I played the service in a manner that supported the focus of the presentation and gently facilitated mood changes between pieces. Despite the singing, improvisation and secondary instrument uses, I became part of the ambiance when necessary and the head of attention when it was called for. It was fun. The audience enjoyed it, and I enjoyed helping further their experience. I grew as a musician, despite the nerves. Perhaps more importantly, doing this service furthered a relationship with a person who now thinks quite highly of my playing. Don’t ever forget: sometimes, small things like these on random Tuesday nights are the building blocks for a variable and lasting career. 

So what is the moral of the story? In order to grow you have to take risks. True, they should be calculated risks: if you've never played above a high C in your life, it's probably not the best idea to take a gig playing lead on a traveling West Side Story show with 8 services a week. However, assuming you've developed your skills to a reasonably similar level to what's being asked, you absolutely should take the gig. Prepare yourself to not be comfortable all the time when performing, because even when you are eminently over-prepared, something often does happen to throw a wrench into any carefully laid plan. (Notice I didn't say not confident - you should set yourself up for success and be confident of achieving it - but that's for another post!) Some of the best performances I've been privileged with have had some really "nervy" moments. 

The nerves reminded me of a story about Maria Callas as told by one of my favorite music history professors. "It wasn't that she was the best. She was excellent, of course, but she was never the most technically proficient singer. No, it was the fight. The questioning. Can she pull it off again or is Wagner finally going to one over her this time? The wondering made the eventual victory so much more sweet."

Stretch yourself. You'll be glad you did.


Hi everyone! Welcome to jessepatrickcook.com, the website for trumpeter and educator Dr. Jesse Cook. (That's me)

I'm going to make it a goal to update my website blog once a week with some (hopefully) helpful tips that have assisted my journey to being a professional musician. It will be everything from quotes from the greats, to pedagogy, to repertoire suggestions, and more. Hope you enjoy!