Practicing Like an Athlete


Do you wish you accomplished more in your practice sessions? Do you struggle with having fatigued or beat-up chops? Do you even know what you should be doing to reach the next level? If you would like to learn some ideas borrowed from fitness that will help you with these questions, read on!


The trumpet is a physically demanding instrument. In order to make music, one must overcome the physical challenges of playing the trumpet. Playing the trumpet and playing music are two different activities.


I say all of this because I want to suggest that we approach practicing this physically demanding instrument in a similar manner to approaching lifting weights. I have been lifting weights/exercising intensely almost as long as I have been playing the trumpet, and I have learned that my most productive practicing feels just like my most productive athletic training sessions (and I have never had an injury). I will share with you 4 principles from bodily fitness which could help your musical fitness.

Principle 1: Set S.M.A.R.T. goals


Time is a precious resource, and we can’t really afford to waste any of it—we need to use our time as wisely as possible. We also only have a limited amount of endurance in our embouchures to play the horn, and thus we must use that as wisely as possible, too. Over the years, I have taught a number of students and I have noted some trends. One of these trends is students practicing ineffectively because they don’t have a clear goal. SMART is an acronym which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound. An example of an ineffective goal is “I want to get better at the trumpet”, or “I want to play higher notes”. How do you know when you are “better”, or when you have played “higher”? Don’t waste time setting goals like that. Instead, a better goal might be, “I want to be able to play measures 1-16 of the All-District Prepared Etude accurately at 80 bpm by Wednesday”. If today is Monday, this is a good goal to make. Here is why:


This goal is specific—you have specified what measures of what piece, or what exercise you will work on, as well as how fast you want to be able to play it. You can measure it with a metronome (80 bpm is the target). It is a small enough chunk of material to work on to where it is achievable within your practice sessions. It is relevant because All-District auditions are coming up next week Friday. This is also a timebound goal—you have 3 practice sessions (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday) to complete it. This goal will keep you focused on the prize. Make goals like this for greater success.


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Principle 2: Have a written plan


Before you pick up your horn to practice each day, write down what specific activities you will do. I would recommend also using a timer/stopwatch during your practice sessions and planning how long you will do each activity. Continuing with the example from above, Let’s say you have 30 mins each day to practice—here is what Monday’s plan would look like



Warm up; 5 mins

Learn notes (learning fingerings, sounding out notes without metronome, singing) for measures 1-8; 5 mins

Learn rhythms (singing/clapping) for ms 1-8; 5 mins

Learn expression marking (articulation, dynamics—singing and/or playing) for ms 1-8; 5 mins

Practice ms 1-8 with metronome; 10 mins


At the end of this practice session, you should note what metronome marking you finished with so you can start there at the next practice session. Each practice session should be planned to move you closer to your goals, just like this Monday plan.


Principle 3: Rest as much as you play


A common issue I hear from students is they become fatigued after practicing for a short period of time, or that they become fatigued faster than is productive for their sessions. When I observe how students with this complaint practice, I notice they will attempt a passage over and over with NO rest.


When exercising, we break up exercises into REPS and SETS. A “rep” is a repetition. A set is a group of reps. If I wanted to train my chest with pushups, I might do 3 sets of 20 reps. So, I would do 20 continuous pushups (this constitutes 1 set), then REST for one minute (do no activity), then do another set of 20 pushups, rest 1 minute, and then do one final set of 20 reps. This is more effective than simply doing 60 pushups all at once (although there IS a time when I DO want to train that way). Most of the time, we need to break the exercise up into sets with rest in between so our muscles can recover.


Similarly, when we play the horn (a very PHYSICAL instrument), we need to rest between sets of exercises! Remember, we are training these very small muscles in our face to do something quite unnatural that the muscles (and tissues) were not intended for—blowing high velocities of air through a piece of plumbing. We must be kind to our faces! So, the principle is that you should REST AS MUCH AS YOU PLAY. If you practice the aforementioned measures 1-8 and it takes you 40 seconds to play it, you should spend AT LEAST 40 seconds with the horn OFF of your face. Then then next rep of it takes 30 seconds, you spend AT LEAST 30 seconds resting. Say the next time you do it takes you 1 minute because you play it twice back-to-back. You should then spend AT LEAST 1 minute with the horn OFF your face. This will allow you to practice for long sessions without overly fatiguing yourself. Also, resting between sets of playing allows your BRAIN to subconsiously review what you just did, thus making your practice more effective.


Principle 4: Record yourself


You can only know what you really did when you can give 100% of your attention to listening to yourself. We can (and should be) aware while we are playing, but judging your form and HOW you are doing WHILE you are doing the activity is going to take away from how present you are when actually doing the activity. Instead, since we just talked about resting as much as you play, you should record every little chunk of practice. Then, while you are resting your face, you should play back the recording. This is brilliant because if it took you 1 minute to play a passage, the recording will be 1 minute long, which satisfies the rule of resting as much as you play. This is good for your face and brain. Then, listening back to that 1-minute recording will inform you of what you did or didn’t do, so the next repetition of that material can be more focused. Wins all around!


These are all principles you can apply to your practice TODAY and you will see results. Your practice will be more organized, less fatiguing, and you will have a clearer idea of what you actually must do to reach your goal.


Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or physician—this article is created for educational and information purposes only. You should only attempt physical exercise at your own risk.




Jason Klobnak


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