Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Tuning Slide 3.19- Endurance

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Last month we looked at attitudes and habits that lead us to self-care, respect for our colleagues, and balance in our musical lives. This month I want to dig into some of the things I have learned about practice. I never was very good at practicing. I would do it when I needed to or when I wanted to have some fun with some new piece of music I found in a music store. But I was not very disciplined or organized. Over these past few years of my growth into a musician I have been taught a great deal about what makes for practice. I have even come to enjoy it. What then are the effective, efficient, and deliberate ways we can practice that will enhance what we want to do?

So, the theme for November here on The Tuning Slide:

The joy of practice

If you’re not practicing- that’s stupid.
-Lennie Foy

How long can you play? How high can you go? How will your chops hold up? I ask myself these questions all the time. They are questions of endurance. I have had a love/hate relationship with endurance. I love it when I have it and hate it when it bugs out on me. I am not satisfied with what happens and what I’m doing. Some days it seems like I have more endurance than I need and then the next I barely make it through a 30 minute routine. As I was working on this week’s post I dug a little more intentionally into the book by Paul Baron, Trumpet Voluntarily: A Holistic Guide to Maximizing Practice Through Efficiency. In a number of different posts I have written about “deliberate practice” and I have been trying to do that. But it seems I was missing something.

Well, not missing it so much as not applying what I know to my practice. That missing something was what I talked about last week- balance. Baron, on p. 13 caught me up short when he wrote:
A chop-building routine requires stretching the boundaries of your range, endurance, and volume but with a balanced approach so as not to injure your lips.
He goes on to talk about how rest is important- you know- rest as long as you play when practicing. He talked about things I am already doing- the Clarke studies, the Bill Adam routine, and Concone etudes. But he also ended up talking about the danger we fall into, what I fall into, when I think I have found the promised land of endurance and range. I get what he calls “stupid chops”. For Baron that is when he neglects the daily maintenance of his chops in order to play a show. He ignores the stuff that balances the thing he is working on with the basics.

What does he mean?
When things are going great, we sometimes feel like we are unstoppable and do not pay attention to the proper mechanics of playing, only to pay the price later. [Then] we decided to try a new routine and push it to sheer exhaustion.
He just described what I (and obviously others) end up doing in some repetitive and self-destructive cycle. All stemming, it appears, from an inability to maintain balance.

Stupid chops.
  • My lips don’t recover enough between days of practice
  • My range falls apart.
  • My sound is mediocre to poor.
  • I feel like I am straining to just play what I used to be able to play well.
Sometimes, as I have noted before, this happens just before I am about to make another breakthrough in endurance or range. So I used to just power through it until I had to back off and go at it again. It always needed up in some way of taking a step backward to allow my chops, attitude, and ego to rebuild. Then it moves ahead- but only after I have consciously stopped to return to balance.

I am at one of those points again which is why I think I subconsciously picked this month’s topic. I get the chance to write it out and see what it might mean. After Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop in August I was working on some embouchure adjustment thanks to Bill Bergren’s mentoring. It began to fall into place. I was regularly doing things that I had not thought possible a few months earlier- like regularly being able to hit the high “C”, “D”, and at times “E” above the staff. I was able to play quite well for up to two hours a day! It felt good. It was a major breakthrough.

Until about three and half weeks ago when it became work again. It happened on a Tuesday after a Monday when I practiced an hour in the morning with my normal routine and then two Big Band rehearsals that evening, and therefore the equivalent of another two hours plus of playing. I forgot to balance and went right ahead on Tuesday to try to do it again. And I fell apart. Like Paul Baron said, I felt “unstoppable” until I stopped. I forgot the mechanics of playing (just say “M”, right Bill?) and breathing. I barreled my way into the upper register forgetting the basic middle “G” approach. Now here I am trying to recuperate and recover from my own stupidity- er, lack of balance.

Maybe I should practice what I preach.

Let me bring it together as a way of giving myself a direction if not an actual plan. My “deliberate” practice over the next month or so will focus on balance. I will work on developing an overall style of practice that will allow for the balance to be more natural and ongoing. The basics of that will be:
  • Rest as much as I play.
    • Admittedly I am not good at this. If I have an hour to practice I have difficulty only playing for 30 minutes. But that doesn’t mean I should spend the whole hour playing in order to get it all done. That IS a recipe for disaster, and it isn’t deliberate. I need to prioritize and plan the things I need to do.
  • Balance the upper and lower.
    • Doing the expanding long tones starting on middle “G”; working Clarke 2 and 4 as expanding up and down from G; playing different volumes
  • Increase slowly, not trying to get too far too fast.
    • Impatience. Dangerous. We get hurt when we are too impatient because we forget the basics. Take it easy. Grow at your pace and don’t push it. (By the way, never pray for patience. God will make you wait.)
  • Don’t forget the basics
    • I know what they are. We all know what they are. Sound, rhythm, scales, long tones. We all know where to find them- Arban’s pages 11-36. Now to be aware of playing with good sound, good rhythm, and good intonation. Balance!
So what’s good in all this? Well, the work I have done has not been lost. I just need to get back into balance. When I was practicing last evening I still have the range I had three weeks ago- and it is actually a little stronger and clearer than it was. My sound is as steady and full through the same range- and is a little stronger as well. I am aware of being more relaxed overall. It is always a movement forward even when you have to slow down or even take some time to regroup!

This is one of those topics where it almost begs me to comment on how this applies to every day life.
  • Rest and play- All work and no play makes Johnny dull. It can also make us sick and can lead to burnout. Take the time to kick back; find the direction of play; have fun.
  • Balance the extremes- Always living at the extremes will just make you more addicted to adrenaline. It may easily lead to physical repercussions. The body needs the balance.
  • Patience- Take it at a sensible pace. Life is a marathon- not a sprint. Plan for the long-haul.
  • The Basics- Breathe. Take time to renew and refresh. One Day at a time.
If we can make these who we are, we can endure more than we thought, with greater range- and for longer than we think possible.

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