My youngest students are energized. Their holiday concerts are approaching, their parents are shopping for Christmas presents, and their teachers are starting to reduce the load of new information. My oldest students are exhausted. They are studying for tests, losing sleep over projects, and dashing off to regional honor band auditions. All of them are eagerly awaiting the start of their winter holidays.
New trumpets and equipment notwithstanding, holiday breaks pose certain motivational challenges for students (and, ahem, their teachers). Most commonly, this dilemma can be summarized as: X-box or practice session? The usual answer is not hard to guess, but it creates a series of problems come January, when my high schoolers are gearing up for All-State and my middle-schoolers are trying to remember how to form an embouchure after two weeks off. The following list includes a few tips and tricks that I have tried over the years to keep myself and my students in shape without compromising the relaxation factor of holiday breaks:
1) Decide upon a reasonable expectation for practicing before the break begins.
Trumpet players need daily practice on their instruments. The facial muscles used to play the trumpet simply do not get enough exercise in everyday life to compensate for not playing. I have observed that if a trumpet player takes a few days away from the instrument, the resulting frustration of having to get back in shape can actually be a deterrent to the resumption of a normal routine. Therefore, it would be a better to play only twenty minutes a day every day over break rather than practicing, say, an hour on Monday and an hour on Thursday. Decide how much practice is realistic and shoot for that goal. If some of the suggestions in the rest of this article seem too intense for you, ignore them! YOU are in control of how much practicing you choose to accomplish.
2) Decide how you will track your progress.
During the school year, trumpet players have all kinds of motivations to practice: band class, private lessons, competitions, etc. During breaks, it is easy to get distracted. The following methods can help you to stay focused:
- Set a measurable goal for yourself that will help you to assess the effectiveness of your practice sessions. For instance, you might decide to memorize all twelve major scales, learn a new piece of music, or master a particular passage of music at a certain tempo. This kind of goal makes it obvious as to whether you are actually doing what you intended to do.
- Set up a chart in a highly visible location (bathroom mirror, bedroom wall, etc.) detailing your goals. If your goal is simply to play every day, all you need is a calendar on which to cross off the days you’ve practiced. If you are working towards a measurable goal, you might want to make a chart of that goal instead.
- Schedule a trumpet lesson. If you and your teacher will be in town during the break, he or she might be available to meet with you. If your teacher is leaving town, talk with this person about how much practicing you think you will be able to do over the break and ask for assignments that will push you to stick with this goal. Some teachers will also be willing to receive phone or email updates (my students sometimes text me sound clips), and some may even suggest a different instructor that you could meet with in their absence. You should always respect your teacher’s wishes in the matter of playing for another person. If you want to know whether your teacher would consider that option, ask politely and explain why you are asking. Private teachers are usually very invested in their students and are often supportive of a student’s attempts to learn as much as possible, but they sometimes have strong opinions about who else you should consult and how you should approach that person. Your teacher will appreciate it if you ask first, because this action demonstrates your commitment to keep your primary teacher involved all things related to your development as a trumpet player. My students are always welcome to play for other people, as long as they report back to me in their lessons so that we can talk about whatever advice they might have received.
3) Make a plan for special circumstances.
Are you going to be out of town during the break? Can you bring your trumpet? Can you bring your mouthpiece? Some situations make practicing nearly impossible. Will you have time to practice on the days that you are traveling? Would you be able to practice on those days if you woke up a little bit earlier? Will you practice on a major holiday? What will you do to make sure that you get back to practicing right away after the days that you can’t practice? If you answer these questions ahead of time, you will minimize the chances that one day away from your trumpet will turn into five days when you aren’t looking. It’s okay if you have days when you don’t get to your horn. Just make sure that you have thought about these situations in advance, because advance planning will minimize the guilty-conscience reaction that you might otherwise experience.
4) Decide when you will practice on the days that you are able to practice.
Some students prefer to practice first thing in the morning to get the trumpet out of the way. Others might choose to set an alarm for a certain hour of every day, or to bribe themselves with the promise of other activities (“I will not turn on X-box until I have practiced”). Figure out what works (and what doesn’t work) and stick to this method.
5) Give yourself the chance to enjoy your practice session.
I love practicing, but I hate getting started. My lip does not respond optimally and I am often physically tired, which means I don’t want to hold up the trumpet. This reluctance doubles if I haven’t been playing every day! But a few minutes in, I usually forget about these drawbacks. Make the choice to get past the point of warming up each day so that you have the chance to actually enjoy your time with the trumpet. Remember, it is your choice to be a trumpet player, and it is much better than studying for a test!
6) Have fun!
Holiday breaks can be a great time to get together with friends who also play instruments and just read through some music. Let yourself play what you want to; it doesn’t always have to be disciplined. If you do miss a day, don’t beat yourself up over it. Think back over your day and savor the memory of everything you did that day that made it great. And then figure out what you can do the next day that will help you to enjoy your practice time.