How much is too much?

Practice, practice and more practice. But how much is too much? Is there anyway to know for sure when to stop playing and put the horn down?

This is a question that I struggle with all the time. If I’m having a good day and actual music is flowing out from my horn I want to keep playing. The pieces I am working on just click. These are the days that make all the hard work worthwhile. These are the days when I know that I can play this instrument. Too bad they are so few and far between. On a good day I stop practicing when the good day starts going south, typically around two hours of playing with lots of breaks.

If I’m having a mediocre day (the norm for me) with missed notes here and there, sloppy slurs and fuzzy or constricted tone then I keep going because I know I should. I am trying to increase my endurance so as my playing deteriorates I start dropping the range that I practice in so that I can keep going. Again, I take plenty of breaks and try to get about two hours of practice in. On these days I don’t practice beyond two hours. Maybe I should. Or not. I just don’t know.

If I’m having a bad day – most notes are cracked or completely missed, tone is awful, range is shot – I pay attention my breathing to see if that is the problem. Usually it isn’t. I try to push through for a half hour or so but a day like this is so bad that the only thing to do is put the horn down for the day and resist the temptation to try again later in the day.

I should point out that none of these instances involve pain. I very rarely have any pain in my chops but when I do I stop.

So for the really bad days I stop out of frustration and because I feel like my chops are rebelling. But I don’t know this for sure. Maybe I should keep playing anyway. Or maybe two hours of practice on the good and mediocre days is too much even with all the breaks. Probably if I practiced less I’d have more good days, fewer mediocre days and even fewer bad days. But, how does endurance get better then? And with shorter practice sessions how do you get better technically?

The long term goal is to increase endurance by strengthening the muscles in the embouchure without causing harm. The short term goal is to have good practicing days while increasing endurance. When there’s no pain, where’s the point that tired chops turn into harmed chops and how do you know if you are at that point?

One simple answer is to ask your teacher. I have two teachers (more on that in another post). Before I started with the second teacher I would practice for about 40 minutes straight and then fade quickly. If I managed an hour that was a really good day. The interesting pearl of wisdom here is that the first 20 to 30 minutes were almost always good. I was at this level of time for months and months. I didn’t feel like I was making any progress.

When I talked about this endurance issue with my second teacher he said to practice for twenty minutes and then take a minimum 20 minute break and go on from there. He said to drop the range as I got tired. I’ve been using this approach for about two months now and I got up to about two hours of actual playing daily almost immediately. Adding the breaks was a huge help.

On my good days I can see that I have improved significantly over the past two months. But those mediocre and bad days sure are frustrating. I have the luxury of plenty of time to practice all day if I had the chops. Maybe I should push to three hours, accept that there might be even more bad days, but then see improvement at a faster pace.  Those good days where I see the improvement are really rewarding. Or, maybe I should drop back and enjoy more good days and just deal with improving more slowly. I’m not a particularly patient person so I like option one better.

It’s a conundrum, not only for me but I think for anyone returning to the horn. We remember, or think we remember, where we were when we stopped and we want to get back there fast. We forget that back then we had been playing for years – junior high, high school, college – and that our endurance developed so gradually that we didn’t even notice it was happening.

So what to do? What did you do to develop endurance? Thoughts?

Bits and pieces –>

9 thoughts on “How much is too much?

  1. If you check out my Uncle Harry’s book on horn technique, he recommends playing the entire Strauss one without a break, other than the written rests, and then playing it again, to build endurance. Of course, you must be fairly advanced to do that. He also used to play through the entire Belloli Etudes to build his high register if he had some extended high licks coming up.

    First of all, do no harm. If your lips are tired, rest, and gradually play longer and longer practice sessions. Playing in band or orchestra is quite different from home pratice and really helps to build endurance,as it has varied pianissimo and forte playing with plently of rests.

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    • Hi Ken,
      I’ve heard about playing Strauss 1 straight through and then playing it again. I didn’t realize it was from your Uncle Harry’s book. I actually tried it once and got about 1/3 through the second time. I can play it straight through the 1st time without a problem with endurance. Sometimes I can even play it without messing up too many notes. 🙂 I haven’t heard of the Belloli Etudes.

      I guess my biggest question is how to tell whether you are doing any harm when there’s no pain. Maybe that’s the criteria – no pain, don’t worry. When I’m having a good day I can tell when I get tired because I start playing really poorly and I know it’s time to stop. On the other hand, there are plenty of days when I start off playing poorly and it doesn’t get better. Then I have to decide to fight through it or stop. That’s a decision I have trouble with because I don’t have enough experience yet to tell what’s the best thing to do.

      Tina

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      • You might experiment a bit to learn what works best for you. Everyone has a different physical set-up, body, chops, etc. This does not even get to the difference in mouthpiece and horn, playing style, kind of playing, amount of playing, high, low, middle register, etc. With experience will come a routine of practice that works for you, and should vary depending on what you are playing later that day, or even the next several days. If you have played a lot, even without pain, you might consider a warm-down at night with very soft arpeggios, low long tones, or practicing the Kling Etudes (flexibility) an octave or even two octaves down. This might work even at the beginning of the day if you have played a lot the previous day, followed by a rest period before your regular practice.

        Your blog does not seem to mention the Carmine Caruso lip-building exercises, which many New York City brass players use religiously. They are excellent, but one has to be judicious about resting several hours after them, or not doing them every day.

        I hope you have finally settled on horn and mouthpiece that are comfortable for you. The comments in the Farkas book on choosing them are the most succinct and best I have seen: Paraphrased: “No mouthpiece or horn are perfect for everyone or every occasion. It is not about perfection, it is about finding a middle ground that you can make work for yourself, and stick with.”

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      • I think you are right that I have to find a good warm down. Right now I play some low notes but I really need to do more. I have settled on my horn and mouthpiece and I have no intention of changing either one anytime soon.

        When I was at the Barry Tuckwell Institute in July several of the instructors mentioned the Carmine Caruso exercises but they all added the caveat that they shouldn’t be done unless you were working with a teacher that taught them correctly. There wasn’t anyone close to me that taught Caruso’s method so I haven’t tried it.

        Happy New Year!
        Tina

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  2. Thanks for writing this blog. I played horn from age 12 through 22, and then I started university & never really had the time. Now, I am 34. Our first son is due this October, and I really want to share music with him,so I got out my horn again and started playing.

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  3. I know this is an old post but…VERY interesting topic as I am basically brand new to the horn after some 45 years. Brand new? As in this is my second day. I know nothing of the Carmine Caruso methods but when you started talking about the necessity of resting and not doing to many of these exercises it really hit home. When I was in my 30’s-50’s I raced bicycles. (when in my 50’s we called it “masters”…that’s for fast older people). What you are describing with the Caruso system I believe might be equated to a bicycle training technique called “periodization”. It works! It is the rule of the day now and the most scientific way of training for many years now. That’s how the Tour de France guys do it. (plus some illegal help I hope they can stop). Example: We had very hard days doing intervals, which was hell. Basically going all out for from 1 to 2 minutes followed by a cool down (all done by observing our heart rates on the bike computers—yeah, it was that scientific.) Then do another, and another and another. In the end you felt like falling off the bike it was so grueling. Then after that day we had our easy day of long distance spinning. No big gears, no high speed work, just an easy 40 miles or so. (That’s when our fast twitch sprint muscles got stronger). Then we had another semi-hard day of tempo riding in a pace line. Long distances 50+ miles of high speed work with each guy taking a turn at the front to break the wind for the guys behind that were resting in his draft. My point to of all this is that “periodization” let your different muscles that you were NOT using on that day, rest and get stronger. That’s how the pro’s do it. The way to get fast was NOT to go fast every day. The way to work up to distance was NOT to go long every day, the way to get all of this done was to alternate and then even take a day off after race day, followed by a day of easy spinning just to loosen up….then the hard week started all over. It seems to me that maybe this Caruso method is touching on this very thing with our horns. Maybe someone can fill me in on this, but I do know one thing; playing horn uses certain muscles for one aspect of playing, and other muscles for other aspects of playing, and still others for endurance. I think there may be something to a sort of “periodization” or rotation of working on different techniques at different times when training for the horn. I say training, because when it comes to muscles, that’s exactly what it is. Any thoughts on this from any of you advanced players? I could sure use some input and if periodization can be applied it will sure help me get better quicker. I’m 66 and the clock is ticking! Ha!
    Thanks for the inspiration! ………Martin

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    • Hi Martin,
      I reread that post and for the most part I still agree with it. One thing I would change is my comment “If I’m having a bad day – most notes are cracked or completely missed, tone is awful, range is shot – I pay attention my breathing to see if that is the problem. Usually it isn’t.” Well, usually it is. I wrote that back in 2009 and I didn’t have a clue about air.

      I was a long distance bicyclist for many years – 80 to 100 mile days and 600 mile weeks doing charity rides. I wasn’t as methodical as you describe but in general I followed the concept of working different muscle groups on different days in the gym. Outside I always varied the course I was training on. One day very hilly, one day flat and fast, etc. So let’s think about whether that works for the horn. I’m just throwing some thoughts out there. Embouchure muscles are small and there are many of them that work while we are playing. I’m not so sure that it’s possible to isolate one set to work it or relax it. I think it’s true that higher notes require tighter muscles and that’s probably why it feels good to ‘cool down’ on low notes. I think practicing actual music as opposed to etudes is similar to bicycling a route with hills. In music we are using the whole range of the horn and some phrases will be high and our embouchures will work harder and some phrases will be low and we get to relax. This in itself will develop endurance. Etudes are for more technical work but many of them also use a large range but in a specific pattern. More like a circuit than the randomness of training on a road. When I practice I start with an easy warm up slowly building up my high range and then I move to etudes and then the music I have to work on. As I get tired I take high passages down an octave.

      I don’t think there is any magic formula for how much to practice on a given day other than the 20 minutes on 20 minutes off that seems to work for everyone just starting up. There will be days when you feel great and days when your lips are stiff as a board. I can say that once I get into a routine of practicing a minimum of two hours a day I don’t have days when my lips are stiff. If I back off on practicing and either play for only one hour or skip a day I am stiff the next day and I have to warm up much more slowly and stay mid-range much longer before I feel good. If I can’t loosen up I stop unless I’m in a rehearsal. If I feel any twinge of pain I stop and if I’m in a rehearsal I play down the octave and don’t play in any tutti sections. Any real pain I stop no matter what.

      Two thoughts – if you use air and air support correctly you will automatically use less pressure and have more endurance. And never stop a practice session on a bad note. Always play something you can play well – even if it’s 5 notes of a scale.

      And I stopped adding posts to my ‘all my posts’ link a while ago so it’s no longer all my posts.
      ~Tina

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      • Hi Tina,
        You make some very good points and thanks so much for the tips on practicing 20 minutes on and 20 off. That feels pretty good to me as the first 20 seems to go by fast and I could probably over do it. You are soooo right about the good days and the not so good days. I was doing pretty well the first few days and my notes felt stronger than my last two days. So I’ve hit my first valley. I’m not worried at all. Thanks to your blog I get that there will be many times like this and on many levels too.

        Quick question; can you point me to some good beginner books that I should have? I understand everyone seems to consider the Fakas book a necessity—right? Any others for real beginners that I should pick up? I’m assuming my teacher will probably have their preferred books to start with too, but I would like to bring something to my first lesson that I think I can play to show the teacher where I’m at. (it won’t take long to hear that! Ha!)

        You were a cyclist too! Amazing! I wonder? Do cyclists prefer the horn more than other instruments? Ha!
        I totally get what you are saying about training different muscle groups in the embouchure/face muscles. Silly of me to not get that hey are all pretty much interconnected. I think you are totally correct.

        BTW, was I wrong to reply to such an old post? Is it OK to post to your early posts? I don’t post much to blogs so I’m not too sure of the protocol you would like me to use.

        Thanks very much for all your help and suggestions,

        Martin

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  4. Hi Martin – You can reply to old posts! It’s 100% okay. Keep on asking as many questions as you want. I’m happy to answer what I can.

    There are many good beginner books but as you point out, almost every teacher has books that they prefer working with so regardless of what books you bring they will ask you to get the ones they like. Look at sheetmusicplus.com and search for French horn etude books and easy solos. Select a few that you think are at your level and send me the links. I’ll look at them and give you my opinion. You can also try searching the web for easy horn music. If you are only looking for something to play for a teacher (soon) there may be some you can download.

    Everyone says to read Farkas. It will give you some suggestions on embouchure, mouthpiece placement, transposition and other stuff but there are also one or two sections that some teachers feel are no longer that valid. Also, it’s difficult to look at pictures and emulate what you are looking at. A good teacher will be much more worthwhile.

    ~Tina

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