Starting (and Maintaining) A Practice Routine

As I’m writing this, it’s late July.

Here, that means that summer is winding down, and summer marching band camps are starting back up. This means that the next school year is on the horizon.

If you’re looking to create (or improve) you’re playing this upcoming year, here are some tips on starting and maintaining a consistent and beneficial practice routine.

Starting A Practice Routine

If you’re looking to start a practice routine, the most important thing is consistency.

It is not important that you play for X hours every day. Or that you play a high C every day. Or that you play the hardest excerpts or etudes every day.

In the beginning, the important thing is just to get into the routine of practicing. That means your goal is simply to play a single note every day. This is easiest if you try to play this note at about the same time every day.

Maybe it’s a middle C after you shower and get dressed. Maybe it’s a second-line G before you do your homework. Or maybe it’s a bottom-space F right before (or after) dinner. No matter what the note or when you do it, think about what makes the most sense for your (average) day.

Once you get in the habit of playing this single note every day, then you can stack other things after it.

In the beginning…your goal is simply to play a single note every day.

Maybe you start on a middle C, and then do one of my Remington Exercises or a Lip Slur. Or start on a second-line G and do one of the Schlossberg Exercises. Or instead of playing a note on the horn, you take 30 seconds every day and do some mouthpiece buzzing, then add some of my Lip Buzzing exercises after a few days.

You can find all of these exercises (and more) on my Horn Exercises page.

Once you’ve established the habit of playing (even 30 seconds) every day for a few weeks, you’ll find a couple of things start to happen:

  1. Even though you’re not doing extensive practicing, you’ll start to get better.
  2. When you start getting better, you’ll want to start doing more things during your practice (2-octave scales, harmonic series studies, etudes, solos, etc.).

This is when you can start to work on building up a daily routine.

Building A (Better) Practice Routine

Once you’ve established a baseline for several weeks, only then should you worry about “improving” your practice routine.

There are a few different directions you can take to improve your practice routine.

  1. Add more time. This is fairly straightforward but not always practical, depending on your schedule.
  2. Select certain exercises to maximize the results of your practice time.
  3. A variation of #2 – have a selection of exercises that you cycle through every few days.

Adding Time to Your Routine

While #1 is the easiest to conceptualize, it’s also often the hardest to do. During marching band season, free time is often hard to find, and most of that is taken up with school work – after a full day of school and a 2-3 hour marching band rehearsal, there’s not much time (or face) to practice for an hour (or more) at home. Similarly, if you’re an adult with a full-time job and a family, it’s hard to find the energy to extend practice time in the evening (or before work).

Select the “Perfect” Exercises

While there are no “magic exercises” to improving on the horn (or any instrument), with careful selection and attention, you can get a lot of work done in 10-15 minutes of practice. For example, while many people practice articulation exercises in isolation, improving articulation can also happen in long-tone or scale exercises (provided you pay attention to it). Harmonic series exercises also encourage a strong, continuous air stream, similar to long-tone exercises. And of course, you can add dynamic contrast (< >) to any exercise.

Cycle Your Exercises

If I had to pick the “best” way to build a good routine (and improve your playing), this is probably it.

Having a “cycle” of exercises is a way to cover a wide range of skills without feeling like you need a 3-hour practice session. Here are some examples of cycles that have proven successful for me and my students:

  • When practicing lip slurs (or the harmonic series), don’t do every fingering every day. There are 12 harmonic series’ on the horn (T0, T2, T1, T12, T23, 0, 2, 1, 12, 23, 13, 123). This means you can do:
    • 6 fingerings/day (2-day cycle)
    • 4 fingerings/day (3-day cycle)
    • 3 fingerings/day (4-day cycle)
  • When practicing scales, don’t do all 12 keys every day. There are 12 keys, so you could split them up as you did with the different fingerings for the harmonic series. It’s also fine to only do 1 or 2 scales per day (a 6- or 12-day cycle).
  • When doing long-tone exercises, don’t do them chromatically. Instead, use the notes from your scale-of-the-day or, my favorite, do them by minor 3rds.
    • Minor thirds are a repeating interval. In every octave, there are 4 notes a minor third apart:
      • C minor thirds: C, Eb, F#, A, C (cycle repeats)
      • B minor thirds: B, D, F, Ab, B (cycle repeats)
      • Bb minor thirds: Bb, Db, E, G, Bb (cycle repeats)
    • Notice that going a half-step lower than Bb puts you back in the C minor third cycle.

Other Resources

Starting (and maintaining) is one of the hardest things to teach, so I’ve written quite a bit on the subject. If you want some more of my thoughts about various practice strategies, here are some of my favorites: