Chris Van Hof

Trombonist-Educator-Music Arranger

Unplug it, then plug it back in.

A mantra of the early 21st century could be the advice you take anytime an electronic device of yours ceases to function properly: "unplug it, then plug it back in." With a lot of time to think lately, I thought we could apply this very well to being a musician, especially at this time of year.

It is a magical time of the school year--the end of spring break. Here in Colorado, that means a few inches of snow after a couple days spent in shorts and t-shirts (the wonders of life at 5,000 feet!), but for all trombone players studying in college, it can signify a chance to push a hypothetical "rest button" for the rest of the school year. Most of us by now have established some major things: competition recordings are done, recital dates are set, jury repertoire is chosen, summer activities are coming into focus, graduate school choices are being made, etc. Essentially, we have a chance to explore some new tricks.

I have recently come off of a period of being on the road playing recitals and giving master classes. These kinds of trips are high intensity for me, and force me out of my comfort zone: long hours in a car or airplane, practice mute warmups in a hotel room, or at a roadside rest area, quick one-time rehearsals with a pianist followed sometimes immediately by a performance--the list of challenges goes on. Fortunately for me, I had a couple days built into this week during which I could step away from the trombone and focus on some other projects (and a mountain of laundry from two young sons, my wife, and myself!). So, here I am today about to practice with a chance to follow that most applicable of 21st-century advice: "unplug it, then plug it back in."

So what can you do on your reset? Here are the things I am focusing on, which I hope can give you an idea of where you can take yourself:

1. I am re-committing to a new daily "Spring fundamentals routine." I will always begin with my Remington long tones, but now I plan to re-introduce some favorite exercises from Schlossberg and Arban's that were set to the side for the "Winter fundamentals routine."

2. I am challenging myself with music that is hard for me. In this case, that means learning a few new jazz standards and transcribing some JJ Johnson solos that I have long admired. I am fortunate in my job that I can shun a particular style of music in my non-fundamentals practice without negatively impacting my freelancing in all styles, and this spring the focus is on hard bop.

3. I will work through a challenging etude book I've long owned but never played out of. In this case, Tommy Pederson's "Advanced Etudes for Tenor Trombone."

4. I will begin working out of "Flexus" by Laurie Frink (a trumpet book, but well worth stealing!)

These are the focal points of my Spring Break Reset. Here are some ideas you could consider:

1. Learn a Rochut in Tenor Clef, Alto Clef, and the opposite mode (e.g. B-flat major becomes B-flat minor) every week. This is not for your lessons, just for your edification.

2. Set a range growth goal and work steadily towards it. For example, you want a solid pedal F by May, or to add a major second to the top of your comfortable range.

3. Set an articulation velocity goal and work steadily towards it. Comfortable single-tonguing sixteenth notes at 120 bpm? Aim for 140 by May--or more!

4. Learn 15 orchestral excerpts before the semester is over (as in memorize the excerpt and be able to hear the orchestra playing in your mind's ear while you perform)

5. Go back and fine-tune a solo you learned at a young age, but could revisit and play with greater alacrity now that you're a better player.

6. Improvise daily. All you need to do is turn on a drone and decide on a mode for the day. You may improvise freely, or in strict time, but what matters is that you explore creativity in every practice session.

Happy practicing, and Happy Spring!