The Case For Practice Routines

October 2, 2015

Faculty Author:

Why use a Practice Routine?


Routines can be a performer’s best friend when done well and an enormous waste of time and energy when done poorly. A routine can help ensure that we hit all the important fundamentals required to play our instrument well in a sequence that flows smoothly and logically from one thing to the next. Not only can they facilitate physical and musical gains, but psychological ones as well. We all feel more comfortable, and are less susceptible to stage fright, when we can honestly tell ourselves that we’ve done everything possible to be prepared.


Before we dive in and see what makes a routine tick, there’s one point that should be explored right away.


Routines are not rituals! (read more)


Routines are scientific. Rituals are superstitious. Routines can be abridged when needed while rituals are rigid. Routines build confidence while rituals breed fear. If, at any point, we ever feel like we just aren’t “warmed-up” or “ready to perform” until after our 90-minute routine, we should take a step back and check to see if our “routine” crossed over to the dark side and became a ritual!


What exactly is a routine?


Here is my definition of a routine:


A routine is a specific sequence of actions designed to facilitate consistent, measurable advancements toward long-term goals.


Why all the jargon? Well, let’s find out by breaking it down below, starting with “a specific sequence.”

Don't have enough time to read the whole thing? Here's the SparkNotes version:


  • The design of our routine will be determined by our goals. Identify them first and work backwards.

  • Define what progress looks like. This part doesn’t need to be an essay.

  • Start small then build on what works. A routine shouldn’t be overwhelming or daunting. 

  • Routines are not Rituals!

  • Above all else, we must believe in ourselves and trust the process!

"a specific sequence"


It’s helpful to think of our sequence as being made up of large concept blocks that contain the individual actions. Examples of these concept blocks may be tone, flexibility, range, articulation, or finger technique. There are countless actions we could use to develop our articulation; the important part is that we are consciously working on our articulation every day using an action that makes sense for our goals.


Our mission, then, is to experiment with the ordering of these different concept blocks until we find a sequence that we think works best for us. This sequence is not to change for weeks or even months. It is specific. Actions may be substituted based on our progress toward our goals (more on that a little later), but even then, we make sure that we’ve extracted all the value from an action before swapping it out.





I say “actions” as opposed to “exercises” because to look at a routine as a series of musical examples is too reductive. For example, let’s say we want to start our routine in the morning. For any musician, the morning can be when we feel the most restricted by our own body. We just spent an entire night immobile while taking shallow breaths. Some basic cardio and stretches, done everyday, can do our warm-up wonders. Similarly, listening to a favorite musician for inspiration before playing our first note may also be defined as an action in a routine. Or, as Dr. Noa Kogeyama from the Bulletproof Musician suggests, we could include time for reflection during our resting periods.




Our routine isn’t going to just be a patchwork of various actions arranged into a sequence. If it were, we would never be able to truly evaluate its effectiveness.

To design our routine, let’s first identify what we want our routine to do for us. If we’re working on a particularly demanding piece, I would suggest looking at the craziest licks and asking, “What fundamentals (flexibility, multiple tonguing, range) will I need to master in order to play this section to the best of my ability?” The idea is to develop a logical sequence of actions that progresses in difficulty, ultimately enabling you to perform the craziest licks well. Some of us may recognize this concept and would label it “scaffolding,” as we begin with manageable exercises before methodically expanding our comfort zone with progressively difficult ones. If we have a performance coming up where we have to play a virtuosic triple tonguing line, we’re not going to invest much time, if any, on double tonguing. We’re also not going to start working on triple tonguing at a fast tempo. Start slow. Build rock-solid fundamentals, then progress from there.


If you’re not currently working on a piece like this, simply ask yourself what skills you would like to improve to create a goal. More on goals in a bit.




“Facilitate.” Not “result in.” Even the most “perfect,” most individually-tailored routine won’t result in us becoming a better musicians all by itself. Practicing is still going to be hard work that demands our full attention at all times. The good news is, our bodies and minds like routines and the structure of one lets your mind flow easily from one action to the next. Also, because we always know exactly what our next action is going to be, we are much less likely to become distracted thinking about what we should do next and produce better results. Check out goal number 3 “Get out of results and get into process” from this article written by Dr. Bob Rotella.


“consistent, measurable advancements”


The beauty of keeping with a specific sequence of actions for long periods of time is being able to experience concrete improvements within those actions. If we decide that performing expanding long tones first thing every morning is important to us, we can easily measure our progress.


But wait.


What does progress actually look like? What are we trying to accomplish with this action and how are we going to measure it?

Defining progress, in my opinion, can be as simple as saying “I just want it to feel easy,” or it can be as complex as keeping notes detailing the ease of playing and the challenges that remain. The most important thing we can do for ourselves here is to create our most perfect sound in our heads and actively measure how we sound against that ideal. So not only are we measuring our progress against our own playing on previous days, but also against, as Arnold Jacobs says, “the horn in our head.”


"long term goals"


Long-term goals have cropped up a bit in previous sections of this post already because it’s nearly impossible to talk about a routine without them! As Joe Burgstaller, former trumpeter for the Canadian Brass often says, “Your short term goals must reflect your long term goals.” Define what it is you would like to accomplish after 3-6 months and work backwards from there. You’re welcome to look ahead even longer, but it often feels more tangible working with a time frame of under a year for our purposes.


For Example:


Pretend we’re performing a taxing solo piece in 4 months that ends on a high F, a note out of our current range.


So let’s say our current manageable range extends to a high D. We need only to increase our range one half step each month over the next 4 months to feel confident about that lick (better to own an F# when you need an F)! Perhaps this month we work on solidifying our current range through actions that expand to D and Eb. Next month we can have a similar goal but raise it to E and Eb and so on. Keep in mind that this high F will be at the end of the piece, so designing a sequence that tackles both endurance and range will be key. 



Have fun creating your very own routine!




Do you have a routine? We would love to hear what worked and what didn’t work for you! Comment below to share your thoughts.



When he isn't working for one of his four internships, Austin Boyer is a Teaching Assistant for the Lively Arts at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is a co-founder of FredBrass. He has performed up and down the east coast with a variety of ensembles and was a semi-finalist at the 2014 National Trumpet Competition. He currently lives in the land of craft beer, mustaches, and happiness with his fiancé and his cat, Stella. 

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