The PowerHour

I want to use this platform to share one of my practice techniques that I employ most days. I've discussed this with a number of musicians and I love hearing their practice habits so I wanted to share mine. Hopefully, you'll find something in this post that you can use in your own practicing. PowerHour. I use it as a way to stay focused and productive by practicing things in short bursts. I use this technique when I warm-up as well as when I am practicing excerpts or solo repertoire. During this post I'll be talking about me playing the tuba, but I think this technique could be used on any instrument. So, what is the PowerHour? It's pretty simple. It is four 15-minute chunks of practice time separated by some sort of physical activity. I set a timer on my phone for fifteen minutes and get to work. As soon as I hear the timer go off I finish the exercise I'm on and put the horn down. The physical activity in between these chunks could be some push-ups, some tuba push-ups, a wall sit, some stretching, or anything that gets you standing and gets your blood pumping again. As a warm-up, I would select four of these activities separated by a minute or two of some physical activity to get my blood pumping.

  • Warm ups from He!! – these are a series of exercises from my professor Don Harry. There are exactly what they claim to be.

  • Triple L tones (long, low, and loud)

  • Arban's – for this I just set my metronome to the tempo of the day (which I will make another post about in the future) and randomly open up to a page of the Arban book, play all of the exercises on that page, then flip to another page. I try to make sure I play from each section of the book just to make sure I'm not neglecting any Arban's goodness.

  • Bordogni's – on either CC or F. If I'm playing them on CC I'll play it as written, then down an octave, then one time alternating back and forth every line or phrase. If I'm playing them on F, I'll play it down an octave first, then as written. Sometimes I'll take it up an octave but I do not regularly do this.

  • Lip bends – for this I'll use the "Shwarma" exercise from the brass gym or some Caruso exercises. I am focusing on a mechanical bend and total control of the pitch.

  • Scales – just good old fashion scales. If you're anything like me and completely dependent on technology then you might need an app to help you pick random scales. Again, I just set my metronome to the tempo of the day and play some scales and focus on intonation and clear articulation throughout the entire range of the instrument.

  • Lip slurs – there are a lot of different resources available that fit this category. I just try to make sure that with whatever exercise I am doing I am getting nice "gooey" slurs that are in tune. A personal favorite is the Jellyfish.

When I use this technique while practicing excerpts or solo rep I do things a little different. I still set the timer for fifteen minutes and take a minute or two break between chunks to stand up and move around a bit. If I'm practicing excerpts I'll play an excerpt at full blast (full tempo and dynamic) two times through. After that I'll play it at half speed and half dynamic to focus on the thing I am not doing well with the excerpt. Then I'll gradually build it back up to full blast. It is amazing how fast fifteen minutes can go by when you are really focusing on what you are doing and trying to make improvements. I'll usually do four different excerpts in one PowerHour.

I do the same thing with solo rep. I'll only do a PowerHour with solo rep if there is a particular movement or passage that I struggle with. I also do this as I approach a performance of a piece. It's easy for me to just run a piece and think I am being productive when in reality I could be reinforcing mistakes or bad habits I have established with the piece. Typically, as I get closer to a performance I start getting lazy and accepting mistakes thinking it is too late to fix them. With the PowerHour technique on a specific passage or movement, I find that I can easily fix a mistake in fifteen minutes and keep improving the piece. It's never too late to fix something or make something better. By using the PowerHour technique I find that I am more focused and way more productive with my time. I have to set deadlines for myself because I am easily distracted. If I go into a practice session without a clear plan of what I need to get done I am very un-productive. Using the PowerHour gives me a structure, a clear sense of direction, and I usually leave the practice session feeling like I actually got something done.

One final point I would like to discuss is the idea of ending the day with quality. I'll be honest and admit that this is something that I have only recently started taking seriously. I've usually tried to end the day with a little warm down, nothing too serious. It could be just playing long tones and going chromatically down an octave or playing descending arpeggios. I was usually just trying to "stretch" my face muscles and leave feeling relaxed, which I am still trying to do. But now, I am trying to end my day of playing creating the most beautiful sounds possible. I am focusing on playing with a warm sound, playing with good intonation, and starting and ending each note beautifully. I want to reinforce good sounds on the horn at all times, not just when I am performing or in a rehearsal. I have actually noticed a difference since I have made this mental switch while warming down. The biggest difference has shown up in my standards for my sound during the warm up. I am no longer accepting bad sounds when I pick up the horn at the beginning of the day because I have raised the standards in all of my playing. It's mainly a mental switch that I am glad I have made.