Four Tips for Getting Back in Shape after Taking a Break

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Recently I picked up my horn again after a 4-week break. I like to take summer breaks for several reasons many of which I spelled out previously in “Taking Time Off from the Horn.”

One of the biggest benefits from taking time off is that it provides an opportunity to hit the reset button and start over.

Along these lines

Fergus McWilliam, low horn since 1985, says he takes a four week break from the horn every summer so that he’s forced to start again from scratch. He regards this as something akin to an annual medical check up; or a surveyor  stripping a building back to its foundations to make sure everything’s still securely in place.


Of course during this interim period I am still thinking, living and writing about music and the French horn. While at work for example, I listen almost constantly to Internet-streamed classical music radio stations, broadcasts and recordings.

(As a side note, I cannot say enough good things about Wilhelm Bruns and his natural horn playing.)

1.) Plan ahead

Taking time off and getting back in shape takes some planning.

If an impending event is in the future – such as an audition or a performance – it is probably not a good idea to wait until the last minute to get back in shape. It is probably also not a good idea to take too much time off.

Having done this before, I know that 2-3 weeks is enough time to get back in shape (and this seems to be a fairly common timeline for many players). This year however I am getting a big head start in order to prepare for what is shaping up to be a very busy playing season.

When calculating the time needed to get back in shape, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

2.) Take it easy

Playing the horn is a physical activity and with getting back in shape, adequate rest is important. The first few days can be particularly misleading in that everything can feel fresh, free and easy.

Muscle conditioning is a gradual process and when muscles tingle or burn that is normal. This is normally a sign of lactic acid building up in the muscle tissue and it is a natural part of the re-building process.

It can also be a sign to take a break – for a few minutes, or even for a few hours. In more extreme cases these sensations may even be micro-tears in the embouchure muscles.

3.) Remain calm and carry on

Sometimes after taking time off and returning to playing, I get the “wiggles” – my embouchure may twitch or convulse, particularly in the transitional areas between ranges.

This is normal and is nothing to get too terribly excited about. Muscle synapses need time to re-coordinate themselves; during the layoff time they fall out of sync and upon returning to activity, they will wiggle and wobble out-of-order as they fall back into line.

Aches, pains and odd physical sensations are nothing to get excited about when getting back in shape. Actively resisting these sensations may only make things worse.

It is akin to a baby learning how to walk; in its first attempts at walking there will be wobbles, and even a few falls. If that baby had the brain to think in detail about the complicated muscle coordination it takes to walk, it might never get up on its own two feet.

Like a military cadet learning to march in perfect step with the entire parade, I take confidence in that with time and good training, the wiggles and wobbles will go away.

4.) Get back to basics

Getting back to basics is actually one of the pleasures of taking time off. This can translate to different things for different people, but for myself it boils down to:

  • Long tones
  • Scales
  • Arpeggios

Of course these basics can take on many forms outside of routine practice. Some of my personal favorites for this approach include the Kopprasch, Schantl, Ward Fearn and Arban books.

(I am also looking forward to experimenting with what Lucinda Lewis calls “blocked buzzing.”)

How about you?

What are some of your strategies for getting back in shape?

Please feel free to add your thoughts and comments below.

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