Eli Epstein, besides publishing a new book on horn playing, also has started answering reader questions on his Facebook page. His first post was on the topic of summer vacation, and he offered it to Horn Matters readers as a follow-up article to the interview recently posted.
Since summer is almost here, students often ask me about taking time off from playing. Should they take any time off, and if so, how much? If I take a break, how should I approach getting back in shape?
After the intensity of school, term papers, finals, and juries everybody’s ready for a break. The same is true for professionals. Symphony schedules can be grueling and nobody wants to get burnt out. In all walks of life it helps to take a break, catch our breath, and then, renewed, go back to our endeavors with freshness, excitement and energy.
However, playing a brass instrument is different from most endeavors. While we need to take breaks, we need to do so with mindful planning. Facial muscle tone weakens rather quickly if it’s not regularly exercised. Since so much of what we do requires minute movements regulated by the firing of specific neurons in the brain, when we take a break, the myelin that insulates those neural pathways and helps them fire quickly and automatically, starts to atrophy. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes how the worst thing for a cellist like Yo-Yo Ma or a basketball player like Shaquille O’Neal, would be to stop playing for a month cold-turkey. If they did that, all of their exquisitely tuned neural pathways would deteriorate. The movements that they took for granted as automatized, would become quite rusty and unfocused. After such a long break, it would become hard for them to regain the ease and good feeling that they were used to.
The common wisdom is this: on a brass instrument, for every day we miss, it takes two days to get back to where we were before. I’ve found this formula to be quite true for me. So I’ve learned to calculate how much time I can take off, and still be totally back in shape by the time I need to perform again. For example, if I know that I have ten days off until my next rehearsal, and I’m on a family vacation, I can take three days off, and then have six days to get back into shape.
That said, the way I get back into shape is always quite gradual. For each day I take off, I recognize that I lose significant range. Through experience, I now know that if I take one day off, instead being able to play to high C, I will only attempt to get up to G at the top of the staff on the first day back. If I miss two days, I won’t go higher than E at the top of the staff. Three days, third space C. Over three days, second line G. My goal is to stay healthy and not hurt my facial muscles. I always practice in front of a mirror to make sure that my embouchure set looks healthy and natural.
I’ve heard about professional brass players who were critically injured by taking three weeks completely off and then coming into a strenuous major orchestra rehearsal as if they had practiced those three weeks before. For them, this way of operating resulted in long term disability, loss of confidence and esteem, and fear of never being able to play again.
Mindless practice is our enemy. If you read The Horn Call, there are many references to how horn players are a unique and thoroughly dedicated bunch. We need to have more discipline than most in terms of daily mindful practice. We should never “just go through the motions.” When we practice without focus, bad habits can creep in, and become “myelinated,” that is, entrenched before we realize. I’ve found that practicing the warm-up in my book is a very easy and efficient way to maintain muscle tone and healthy habits during a vacation. Even if you just do a warm-up for 45 minutes a day, practice that warm-up in a very discerning, mindful way, in a quiet place without distractions. Whenever I practice, I play everything knowing full well that myelin is wrapping around my neural pathways. I feel that I have to be very careful to continually reinforce the habits of my playing that I want to reinforce.
Timing is very important when contemplating a break from practice. If you’re in conservatory, probably the worst time to take a week off is in the middle or end of August (historically when most families go on vacation). Usually conservatory placement auditions occur at the end of August or beginning of September. If one takes a week off in August, that means it will take two weeks of gradually getting back into shape. If one takes two weeks off, it will take a month to get back into shape. Often in that situation, we might panic practice and not remember to have discipline to get back into shape gradually and healthily.
I hope you enjoy your summer vacation and take time to get a break from the horn. But I encourage you to plan well so that you can truly enjoy your break and feel confident that you will be able to gradually build up your strength and agility on the horn in a timely, healthy and complete way before your first performing responsibilities.
Thank you Eli for these insights! For those looking at a longer break of playing I would also point readers to this article, an interview with Laurence Lowe of BYU on the topic of coming back to horn after a long break.