Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Taking a Day Off?

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
What you do everyday matters more
than what you do every once in a while.
-Gretchen Rubin

Habit: (noun) a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

After last summer's trumpet camp I managed to get into an early habit of practice. I had never been that consistent before and it took a while for the habit to sink in. Do it every day, we were told. Make it a habit to play the trumpet every day. One of my notes from our closing session was a quote from someone:
You can take a day off, but you can never get it back.
Then, of course, there's the famous quote attributed to just about every musician who has ever been famous:
If I miss one day’s practice, I notice it. If I miss two days’ practice, the critics notice it. If I miss three days’ practice, the public notices it.
I was a little concerned, though, since I knew that daily exercise with no breaks is not a good idea in any exercise program from biking to weight-lifting. In fact it is a cardinal rule of exercise- you need to take a day off in order to allow muscles to rebuild. If I work my upper-body today, I shouldn't work those same muscles tomorrow. Shouldn't this apply to trumpet playing? What about the muscles in my lips and cheeks?

I checked with Bill Bergren and he tried to change my mind on that. He said that the day-off rule is
not in all forms of exercise. We are building coordination. Trumpet playing has very little to do with strength.
That made a little sense to me, but unlike my work-outs there are just the facial muscles we are working on. I can't work on some and not others. They are muscles, after all.

So I started paying attention to things like how long it takes to get warmed up after a strenuous day of playing. I took note of endurance and range. I began to notice that there were good days and less than good days. Some days I was warmed-up in no time. Other days, I was having trouble getting to "G" above the staff without straining. I made sure that I was taking appropriate breaks while practicing and doing my daily routine- the old "rest as much as you play" rule. Overall, the progress was positive, but not a straight line. Only natural!

This was also after I had been working for nearly 5 months on building my embouchure, endurance, and technique. It wasn't early on so I felt I was in a better place to decipher what was happening.

So when I missed a day of practice, usually due to circumstances, I paid attention to what might have been different. What I discovered was that, in general, one day off like that did not have any major impact. Sometimes I noticed that the day of rest was actually helpful to my endurance, range, and even tone on the next day. (There probably was something to the idea of a "Sabbath day" after all.) Sometimes my technique would be slightly off, but it usually came back in warm-up.

Then we were traveling and I missed four days in a row. That I noticed. I wasn't back to square one, of course, but I had lost some of the edge. I also was not as on target with my scales or even chromatic runs.

With these experiences I did some more digging on the Internet among some of the many trumpet-based web sites. I found that most do feel that a day off on some regular basis can be helpful. It does allow for some recuperation, especially after a particularly heavy performance or strong of performances. But even those with that view were very clear- taking time off can be dangerous. I pulled out a few "guidelines" from my research:
  • Take a day off by choice, not laziness- "I don't feel like it today" is not a good reason. As I write this, I have had an easier day. I didn't do my routine- by choice. I had a relatively unstrenuous gig this evening, so for the day I didn't push it since I had a more strenuous day yesterday. It isn't a true day off since I did play this evening, but it was planned this way.
  • Don't play fatigued- Be aware of the limits of your body. Your muscle memory will work better if it has "good" memories of playing and not memories of how fatigued you were.
  • Rest as much as you play- this goes with the fatigue issue, but also with the building of endurance.
  • Do something musical even on the days you don't play- listen to some music, do some study of some music, do some musical research, keep yourself connected to your music.
  • Don't make it a habit to not play. Sure you can get by with only 2 or 3 days of practice a week. I have many years experience at that. It doesn't work. You won't improve very quickly and may very likely get frustrated with your lack of progress. 
  • Have fun while practicing. Don't make it a chore- make it a joy. That routine you do every day? It is essential so make it a habit. When it becomes a habit, you will miss it when you don't do it.
So, in general I agree with my friend and mentor, Bill. Daily practice is good and essential. Know that there are times when you can't practice and don't kick yourself if one of those happens. But work at it so it doesn't happen except by accident- or a clear, reasonable choice.

What have been some of your experiences with missing days of practice? Share them in the comments.

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