Buzzing with your lips alone without instrument or mouthpiece will improve your tone and strengthen your embouchure. It may also solve some embouchure position problems.
To get a nice buzz, bring your upper lip slightly on top of the lower one and blow some air. With a bit of practice, you can control the pitch of your buzz.
I often practice buzzing a few simple exercises ( just a couple of intervals) which I repeat on my mouthpiece and then on the horn. The tone is instantly richer and more focused.
Here is a little example. It's very simple.
Most of the music we play, especially the music from the classical period, is made of scales and arpeggios. Take time to identify these scales and arpeggios in your parts. It'll help you play them!
There are many types of scale. Major, minor, chromatic etc. You can also find different modes. Also scales don't always start from the first degree and and can be broken in thirds, fourths etc. So they can be a bit "hidden" sometimes.
As for arpeggios, they may be in root position, first, second or third inversion so here again it might be a bit of a challenge to find them if you haven't done a couple of years of theory class.
Once you've identified the scales and arpeggios. You will hear your music better and instead of playing each note separately, you can play the scales and arpeggios without having to focus on the notes alone. This will increase your ability to anticipate the music thus making your playing more relax and fluid.
To practice more efficiently, make a schedule of what you need to work on during the week. Write down when you will practice which piece, etude or technical exercise and for how long and stick to your plan.
You will be more efficient if you play only one thing per practice session and do it really well than if you put everything in the same basket without any organization. It will allow you to focus on one particular piece and to work on it more thoroughly. In the following practice session, do something completely different to work on a different aspect of your playing and to avoid stiffness from repeating the same movement too much.
Adjust the length of your practice sessions according to what you will be practicing. Don't try to work on worn out chops. Nothing good will come out of that. Allow enough time for your lips to recover between practice sessions.
I personally do 30-40 minutes on one thing followed by a 40 minutes break. Then I do another 30-40 minutes etc.
I know it's not always easy to get a practice room in a conservatory so you'll have to do with the time you have. Consider that factor when you plan your week.
Many musicians, actors, dancers and athletes take Alexander technique lessons to improve the way they use their body. I have personally done it myself for about a year in Switzerland back in 2001-02. AT is not only about having the right posture when you play but also about making the right move with your entire body to achieve an optimal result. It teaches you not to focus on the actual results but on the means to get there. If you do the right move, you'll eventually get the right result with time and patience.
We very often take shortcuts to reach notes or play a difficult passage. Although you might actually get what you want in the short term, you can easily develop bad habits from forcing things which will hurt you in the long run. AT can help you unlearn some of these bad habits and replace them with good ones.
I was always amazed how good my playing felt after each Alexander technique lesson. Some conservatories and music faculties offer it on their premises. If you are lucky enough to be in one of these schools, take advantage of this. If your school doesn't have an AT teacher, make a little research to find one in your area. You won"t regret it. You'll immediately feel a difference in your tone and it'll greatly improve the fluidity of your playing.
Here is a video of an Alexander technique masterclass to give you an idea of what it can do for you. You can find many more about it online.
We all have days once in a while where our chops just don't respond like they should. This can be caused by various factors: sudden change in temperature or humidity, general fatigue, over-practicing the day before, lack of practicing, illness, stress before a performance etc...
If you are generally in good shape and your chops normally work fine, you probably should just take it easy for the day without trying to force to play louder in the high range. Forcing your chops when they don't feel well is like scratching a skin rash to make it feel better. It really doesn't help and you'll just get more anxious about it.
Do what you have to do for that day with the chops that you have and put the instrument back in the case. Go do something else if you can and forget about it. Your chops should feel better the next day if you give them a chance.
If you are a bit stiff a few days before a performance, take some time to play slow and easy pieces that you won't play in that performance. It'll relax your embouchure and undo some of the stiffness.
As for over or under practicing, it's up to you to determine how much you really need to practice to achieve your goals and keep a strong embouchure. You can talk about it with your teacher. Stick to your plan but be flexible about it when needed.
If your chops don't go back to normal after a few days. You might want to take a few steps back and play everything softer and slower for a couple of days or take an entire day off to relax your face.
You can also try to be a bit less perfectionist. If you don't allow yourself any mistakes, you'll tend to get a bit stiff which will affect your chops.
In any case, you need to be patient with your body. It has ups and down. There are different solutions for different situations. Most of the time, things go back to normal by themselves if you give yourself a chance.
I personally practice on my mouthpiece alone every day for a few minutes as part of my warm up routine. I do one or two octaves glissandos to increase flexibility and fluidity. It is also very useful to play a difficult passage on the mouthpiece and then play it on the horn. It allows you to focus on the actual movement of your lips and air flow. It's also a good way to find out if you hear the music correctly.
When you sing the music in your head while playing, your brain gives orders to your lips, fingers and the rest of your body to produce what is playing in your head. It will send signals to your muscles and after a few times playing like this, will find the most efficient way to do it. Of course you have to know your music. We very often say: "if you can sing it, you can play it" . It is true assuming that you have the strength to reach the notes of course.
I personally find after a while doing this that my lips start feeling very good and my tone improves a lot. I also have more endurance. I believe the reason for that is that the brain is acting to produce the desired notes and sounds rather than reacting to what it hears. The brains no longer needs to correct each note's tone and pitch after it hears them thus saving energy to play longer.
Can you eat a whole steak in one bite? Neither can I!
When you have a difficult piece or etude to play, don't try to play the whole thing from the beginning to the end over and over again until it's perfect. It'll take for ever or it will simply not work. Instead, cut the piece in small sections and practice each section until you can play it with ease. Then move on to the next one and put the parts together when you feel comfortable enough.
If you have for example a 60 bars etude, you can cut it into four sections of 10 to 15 bars depending on how hard each section is. Practice only one section per day. It'll take you four days to get through it and a couple of days to put the whole thing together. It seems a bit boring but it's very efficient and you'll learn it much faster at the end. You better spend an hour on 15 bars and make it work than a month running through a whole etude with mediocre results.
We all get frustrated sometimes when we can't play a passage or can't reach some notes. You might think that you are doing something wrong and need to change this and that. What if you just needed more time?...
If you're doing the right move, using the right fingering, blowing the right way, aren't too tired etc. you'll be able to play that passage eventually if you allow yourself a few days, weeks or months to learn it. You don't necessarily have to change your playing for every passage that doesn't work immediately!
If you expect perfection right away, you will only create stress for yourself which will slow down your progress.
We've all heard that playing music takes talent and practice but we often forget one element in the equation: time and patience. Progress will happen gradually if you're doing what you have to do on a daily basis. You'll be a bit better than yesterday and tomorrow will be a bit better than today. At the end, all these "a bit better" will add up and it'll be quite good!
The truth is that learning a musical instrument is a long process. It takes years to reach a certain level and once you've reached that level, you'll probably want to be even better! So when should you be happy with your playing?
The answer is: RIGHT NOW!
Not being perfect doesn't mean that you can"t have fun playing. Also being happy with your playing doesn't mean that you don't try to improve. We all know what we have to work on and are doing it but we also have to appreciate what we've achieved so far.
I am associate principal horn of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the author of the progressive methods. I'm happy to share my experience as a horn player and teacher with you.