Practice: Keeping it Fresh

by Rachel Castellanos

Originally published to

My ultimate goal on the trombone is to be able to play everything I can hear. I will spend the rest of my lifetime practicing, and continuing to improve. The beautiful thing is there is no ceiling, and the possibilities are limitless!

For me, practicing evolves over time. I become obsessed with different aspects of playing, different method books, and different music at different times. I have a very “go with the flow” approach when it comes to practicing. Any time I have ever tried to force myself to do something, it has been unsuccessful. A lot of people coin the phrase “listen to your body”. I definitely feel this is true for practicing a musical instrument as well.

Be in the moment. Something that helps me to be in the moment when I am having trouble focusing is to imagine the note name while I am playing the note. This is also very helpful for transposition, alto trombone, and varied clefs. It keeps my brain from worrying about yesterday or tomorrow.

Physically, treat yourself fairly. If I am really into playing something, and don’t feel fatigue, I’ll keep going. However, if fatigue is really causing my practice to deteriorate, I put the instrument in the case and do something else. When my brain wants to practice but my body doesn’t, I figure out difficult rhythms in pieces I have to play for upcoming concerts. I usually clap or sing with a metronome at a slow tempo, subdividing as much as becomes helpful. This always helps my sense of time later on when I’m feeling more physically fit to play the trombone. If I have taken a few days off, which I think is important every so often, I usually come back by buzzing Stamp studies with mp3 or drones. It’s important to hear the pitches and buzz the correct pitches. Again, thinking note names can be very helpful.

Approach the instrument in a childlike way. When I practice, I try to maintain the same curiosity and fearlessness I had when I started the trombone at eight years old. I remember listening to recordings of trombonists when I was in middle school, and thinking to myself “I’d really like to be able to play a trill”. So, I kept trying. And then I found that part of the Arban’s book that works on trills, and I practiced that. And I STILL practice that part of the Arban’s book. So, I hear what I want to do. Then I find an exercise to work on it. Then I do it, A LOT. Then, I apply what I learned to a piece of music. Having that goal in mind is important. For reference, the exercises in The Arban’s are part of THE SLUR ex. 16-22 in particular, practiced slowly with a metronome for accuracy and timing.

Lessons. Great teachers have been very important, because they have opened my ears to hear my own playing in a more picky way than I did before. I have learned so much from lessons with different teachers as well, and new points of view. After a lesson I feel motivated to go home, practice, and apply what we worked on in the lesson. It has been important with various teachers to be a sponge, and go in with an open mind. I have gotten the most out of lessons this way. Again, this goes back to the childlike approach. Children are so ready to learn, and I believe we as adults still have this capacity.

Practice with friends. My husband plays bass trombone, and some of our early dates while in grad school were spent practicing until the music school closed around midnight. Now, I’m not saying one has to MARRY someone who plays the same instrument. But, it was really helpful to practice together. As a tenor trombonist, it was great to practice with a bass trombonist for low range studies. Some of my favorite low range studies are in Charlie Vernon’s book, The Singing Trombone. There are several pages of low lip slurs that are fantastic to work on for all trombonists, tenor or bass. Many times I was motivated to practice longer by playing lip slurs back and forth, or Rochuts in octaves.

When you are mentally exhausted, do something else. Practice is not about logging hours. If the mental focus isn’t there, take a break that is as long as you need. Take 20 minutes, take an hour, take a day, or take a week if possible. I have found that I come back from a couple days off more motivated and refreshed. Any fear that I would forget how to play trombone hasn’t happened to me yet! Take that time to go for a run, dance, swim, read a book, do yoga, go sailing.  

Read the original publication here.

Rachel Castellanos

Native Chicagoan Rachel Castellanos is trombonist in the Alliance Brass Quintet as well as the New Chicago Brass. She has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on multiple occasions, and in addition to various orchestral and chamber music performances, she has shown her versatility as a musician, performing in a range of styles including Jazz, Salsa, and Pop music. Rachel is on the faculty as low brass instructor at CHiarts, Chicago’s High School for the arts, and trombone instructor at Highland Park High School.

In 2003, Rachel left Chicago to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, double majoring in Trombone and Jazz Performance. After completing her degree, she returned home to pursue her Masters in Trombone Performance at the DePaul School of Music under the tutelage of Charles Vernon and Mark Fisher. Rachel went on to further study with Jay Friedman at the Chicago College for the Performing Arts, Roosevelt University.

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