At some point, every brass player uses The Arban Cornet Method, and it is highly likely that you will work on the studies found in the book at some point. The studies feature in graded syllabuses and are very good studies to play for technical exams or even unaccompanied solos. They are brilliant works of musical art and I know that my technique and musical ability is better because of them.
I recently recorded Study No. 9 and that video is below. I had not played it for some time so I had to go back to basics in order to prepare. In this blog, I will share some tips for how to prepare a study but hopefully the guidance could also be used for any piece of music you are learning.
As always, this is based on my experience and in order to make it suit your needs you might need to experiment or adapt it, so always have an open mind when reading and when going about your own practice.
Before You Start
Let's presume you are learning an Arban study for the very first time and there is no rush to learn it. There are some goals that I would think about before starting and some of these areas might require some practice beforehand.
1) My sound should always be full and warm.
2) My current range should exceed that required for the piece.
3) I should have a firm grasp of all basic playing techniques.
4) I want to be able to play the study perfectly, every note, every time.
5) I want to add more dynamics and style, especially if none are marked.
6) I want to draw as much music out of the score as possible.
7) I want to find my own interpretation.
8) I do not want to miss out any details from the written score.
9) I will not allow myself to simplify the music in anyway due to any breathing or technical challenges.
10) I want to play in a relaxed manner.
Always warm up first and then to start, think about the eventual tempo you would like to play the study. Even if you think you might be able to play it at that tempo, start at half that speed using a metronome. If the study has a change of tempo within it, then adjust the tempo to suit when needed. Aim to play the whole study at half tempo adhering to all of these rules:
1) Over do and exaggerate all written details (dynamics, articulations, accents etc).
2) Aim to breath where you will at the correct tempo (this is a great challenge).
3) Play all notes to their fullest length within the style.
4) Make note lengths even and consistent.
5) Avoid any tiredness, rest when needed.
Sometimes teachers say 'learn the notes first and add the details later' but I find this just leads to bad habits. Always learn music in all it's detail right from the start, it is just a more efficient use of your time.
If you cannot play it all 100% perfectly then slow down the tempo until you can. Your goal is to play the whole study PERFECTLY at the slow tempo. If you are playing every day, keep the tempo at the slow speed for 7 days and resist the temptation to speed up. This builds brilliant foundations and stamina and in many cases you will be able to go straight up to full tempo, successfully, on day 8. Never play some bits faster if they are easier and some bits slower, it only leads to bad habits.
As you progress with your slow practice you might notice some places which seem trickier than others. Stop your practice of the rest of the piece until you master the trickier bits. How many times do we see students play a piece brilliantly at the beginning but fall apart later or mess up one or two bars. Just do not allow that to happen and make sure the whole piece is improving at the same pace. If one chunk is perfect and another is not, then only work on the part that is not. Once sorted, go back to the initial plan. Again, the goal is to play the whole study PERFECTLY at the slow tempo.
When ready, normally after 7 days, I like to just try at the correct tempo and fix any problems as they arise bar by bar however you might prefer to gradually increase the tempo bit by bit. Either route is okay and you could experiment with both. Every note must be perfect and exactly as written.
Arban's studies present excellent breathing challenges, especially for low brass players. I always follow these rules for breathing:
1) Always breathe in a relaxed, deep manner, taking in maximum air.
2) Only breath in a rest.
3) If you cannot only breath in a rest, only breath after the longest note in the phrase.
4) If you cannot do items 2 or 3 then find a musical way to breath using some rubato.
5) Never miss a note out to breath.
6) As you progress, count how many breaths you take in the whole study, can you lower this number without negatively impacting the music?
If you feel that breathing is hindering your progress then work on that area more. Do some breathing exercises or practice long tones. Think about how a cellist or pianist would play the music, we should be equal to them as brass players.
Fix All Problems
If you encounter problems, then take some time away from the study to work on that specific area. Perhaps your finger or slide co-ordination isn't great, then find suitable pages within the Arban book that will help you in that area. Perhaps you are struggling with some interval jumps, just use the interval pages in the Arban book to fix this. It might take time to develop but when you return to the music after a period of technical practice you will notice big differences. Then work those technical exercises into your daily routine for ongoing maintenance.
Try making the study harder for a while. Play it at a faster tempo, even if you have to bluff your way through it. Sometimes when you go back to the correct speed it will feel easier, giving you more time and space and fixing any problems you previously had.
Try playing the whole study slurred or tongued. Or try changing some rhythms. Can you double up on all notes or play all the semi-quaver (16th notes) subdivisions? Or play in a swing style or reverse swing rhythm style or dotted rhythm style? I find this uneven way of playing can feel very awkward but if you can clean it up you will be amazed at how easy the music seems when you go back to playing it as it is written.
Play sections an octave higher or lower and try transposing sections up or down a tone just for the added challenge because when you go back, it will feel easier. Try singing the whole study or play it on another instrument which you can play. Learn the study with a partner for the added tuning challenge. We want performing to be easy, everything should feel easy, so to create this effect we have to be clever in the practice room.
Can you use any alternative valves or slide positions to help you through any technical passages. Especially low brass with 4th valves remember the 4th valve gives us many extra valve combinations.
When you are playing the study up to full speed, start recording yourself. Play the study through without stopping and imagine you are performing to an audience, ignore any mistakes, just go straight through. Then, as you listen back to it, press stop at every inaccuracy and work on that bit over and over, slower if needed and with the tips mentioned above. Set a stop watch for 10 minutes to work on that bit. After 10 minutes go back to listening to the recording and again, when you notice something less than perfect, press stop and repeat this process daily. Eventually, you want to be able to listen to the whole piece without pressing stop. This is a great way to be critical of yourself in a positive way and it also helps you raise your quality control and even makes you crave perfection which in the practice room, is fine. Maintain a positive attitude and belief that you have what it takes and you will get there.
Once you can play the study perfectly and consistently, now is the time to add some x-factor. You might like to learn it from memory or enhance the dynamics by subtly adding to the score. Can you increase the tempo for extra excitement or work on some rubato in any slower passages. If you are preparing for an exam then best to avoid anything that is not directly written but if not, there is no harm trying a few places up or down an octave just to add some flare. Just do not do anything which spoils the flow of music, use your common sense but have fun with it.
Here is my recording and I hope it helps demonstrate that the tips here in this post can help you prepare an Arban study or any piece to a high level.
I hope this is useful and thank you for reading!