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?