To do a routine, or to not do a routine for any instrumentalist is a big question. I’ve gone long stretches of years on both sides of the camp, and I want to quickly talk about the pros and cons.
My biggest early influence was Ed Kleinhammer, the legendary former bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he instilled in me his guiding principle of practice and performance: “The Music Comes First, you’ll develop the technique you need when you need it.” If I was playing a concerto with a fast section we’d never work on double tonguing, we’d practice it slowly, cleanly and musically, and break out the half speed tape-player until it sounded better. We never defined a routine for me, instead each day after a short warmup I took stock of what I thought needed polishing, or what skills were needed for upcoming performances. But the music always came first. I did this for 10 years and made every effort to play musically and on occasion succeeded.
Ed Kleinhammer and Nate Mayland circa 1996
However, I still had the same shortcomings in my playing. I struggled with pitch, and didn’t have the low range I wanted, so when I moved to NYC I sought out Sam Burtis who introduced me to Carmine Caruso’s method, which is a very specific routine done with a lot of care and thought. This structure gave me confidence that I could learn new skills slowly but surely by comparing how I sounded day to day. And then I did this for 10 years and made every effort to extend my range, clean up my tone and articulations. And on occasion succeeded.
At the time, I considered Kleinhammer’s method to be a musical approach, and Caruso’s method to be a technical approach, and that neither could do both. What I thought was the downside of the musical approach was that I wasn’t learning enough technique, and what I thought was the downside of the Caruso approach was that I became muscle bound and rigid in my playing.
Ed Kleinhammer and Arnold Jacobs
During the Covid break from live music I’ve been mixing a number of routines, like Remington, Joe Alessi’s exercises, Toby Oft, Stamp, and my own exercises, trying to keep my strength up. I had the thought in the back of my mind that because I’d studied Kleinhammer’s teaching years ago that I still had those breath attacks and soft “nuuu” attacks in my bag of tricks.
Two weeks ago in frustration I threw my routine out the window and decided to do nothing but focus on a gentle attack. I went back to my method books, listened to some great recordings and really slowed my practice down. “Am I doing this right? Am I actually doing what I think I’m doing?” Slowly it’s coming along and I was reminded yet again that a skill you’ve learned long ago doesn’t stay polished on its own. Whether it’s sight-reading, intonation, tone, range, dynamics, or rhythm, the only way to keep doing it well is conscientious thought, and focused practice.
Maybe I’m finally old enough to understand what Kleinhammer was talking about. You can make any note musical, even the middle of a completely technical Arban’s exercise as long as you are focused on playing exactly in the style you want to play in. Success lies completely in your mindset. Be open to improvement, be open to what an exercise is trying to teach you, and yes, play every note as beautifully as you can. Thanks for watching. Learn more at Maple & Brass.com.