Keeping the Chops Going amid Heavy Playing Weeks

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I have had so many conversations with people about chops lately, but, thinking back, clearly many people get their chops into a bad place this time of year. Bad chops are no good; you cannot play high, or long, or with delicate control with bad chops. You can be perfectly focused, etc., but with bad chops, the performance will not go well. They can really drag you down.

Haven’t you written about this already??

I have touched on the topic a few times in Horn Maters in various ways (as has Bruce). For me, this article from 2004 (!) has some of my most essential thoughts:

How Much Should an Advanced Horn Player Practice?

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It is still worth a read, as it lays out a key tactic; I suggest very often to players who are struggling. The “short version” is this. You can play three good solid sessions a day. A session is a practice session, a rehearsal, or a concert. Before each of these three sessions you will warm-up, the warm-up is visualized as being attached to the playing session that follows. If you have particularly heavy day coming, ideally the day before or after can be a lighter day. In the following sections, I will expand on these ideas further.

Healthy musicianship compared to the “tough guy” approach

One area I see emphasized out there more and more in brass teaching is the topic of healthy musicianship. Old school brass teaching was not about this at all, it was not a positive place to work on improvement. You get a sense the idea was survival of the fittest.

It also does not help that the warm-up advice found in most of the old standard horn publications are idealized and not realistic for day-to-day use in a real world setting. I lay this topic out further in this article

Understanding the Hornmasters on the Warm-Up

Of course, pros all understand that these published warm-ups need to be individualized, but students do not know this. There is a big danger as a student to do a routine that is not a good one for you. Those routines can be the gateway to problems.

System, or cult?

Related point, some students for sure go to a teacher thinking they are a guru with answers that will lead them to success. Most if not all teachers certainly have underlying systems in their teaching. I do for sure, but at the same time, the older I get, I am very cautious at this point about presenting very specific systems of warming-up. I even thought about publishing a warm-up system at one point, but backed off. The point being to find a reasonable routine that works for you; do not force yourself to do some punishing routine presented to you by a guru.

Warm-up like a real pro

Well, at least like some professionals. It will be individual, but for most it is not like in the books. The tactic presented in print typically is a giant morning mega-warm-up. Then, after that, you are magically warmed-up for the rest of the day! However, is that reality?

Some orchestral players like to warm-up at home with something like a mini-mega routine with very light warmup at the hall, but for me that is not ideal. When I try to do that the result is you might as well punch me in the face, especially so before a second rehearsal or concert, my chops will not hold up.

My tactic in orchestral playing is I like to warm-up at the hall. Ideally, before every session I have time to do some version of my most standard 20-minute warmup, although I can feel good in ten minutes, often reverting to the warm-up routine presented in my book Introducing the Horn (available as a Kindle ePublication). Less than 10, I might be hurting later, and I don’t like hurting chops.

I could describe the 20-minute warm-up in some detail, but instead I will share this: my routine is almost all slurred, and begins and stays for a while in the mid and low range. That is where I start my playing session, as the point of a warm-up is to warm-up, and that range gets me there the best. Although I will slot in different exercises of a similar character for variety, I do not use my routine to work on technique. I have no daily or weekly component in it that tries to learn new things or address every possible skill. I do that when I am actually practicing, as those skills come up in actual music I’m working on.

Sure, sometimes you have to warm-up on the fly

I have of course done my share of gigs where all you could do was warm-up in the car driving to the gig, buzzing a mouthpiece. However, this should not be your habit and standard way of doing things.

Balance and pacing in your playing day

The bad news for students is that their situations are often not very good for promoting healthy chops. Typically, you are running from class to class, and you may not have a free half hour to warm up before your horn lesson or before a rehearsal. This is not good.

In addition, practice time needs some planning. Just because you have a two hour block of time open does not mean that practicing for two hours straight is a good idea. You will be better off practicing those two hours in two sessions separated by some rest. It would be worth your time to map out your schedule to include times like this, if possible.

A related thought being that, when you can, you need to assert yourself to insure you have time to be warmed-up. You do not have to start a quintet rehearsal right after a class. You do not have to put your lesson at a time when your chops are cold. Do not bend to peer pressure and other people’s logistical problems; protect your chops.

Of course, sometimes a conductor in a school situation will add a two-hour “sound check” right before a concert and they just do not understand the consequences of that on their brass players. The reality being …

You can only play so many hours without consequences

As stated earlier, I think you are best to think of your playing day having a maximum of three playing sessions. As a student, three is ideal. A playing session being a rehearsal, a practice session, or a concert. Warm-up before each one. Other systems are out there, but really, you cannot play longer than an hour of practice or a 2.5-hour rehearsal without a good solid break to recover.

At a bare minimum, the playing day needs to be thought of being made up of separated chunks of playing.

That having been said, there are other systems out there that could work for you (in athletic training much use is made of alternating heavy light workout days, for example), and endurance is about more than simply enduring and pacing. I can think of at least three things not yet presented that are relevant to mention.

The first is to use an assistant wisely. An assistant can help so much on first horn, yet the reality is most students have a limited idea how to use one effectively. I was lucky that early on, I had some great models to work with. For more on the topic see:

Essential Information: Use of the Assistant First Horn

Another big topic is you may be using a certain mouthpiece or horn to get a certain sound or whatever, but that can be a mistake. If it is like weight lifting to play, you are working too hard! I cannot emphasize this too much; you really need to try a few to gain perspective on your mouthpiece, this one element can hugely impact your endurance. A recent article of mine might be of use to read:

PSA: How many mouthpieces should you own?

A side point being I am a firm believe that a rim that is too round in profile is not great for endurance.

The final topic area is mouthpiece pressure. People worry about mouthpiece pressure far too much, and too little pressure certainly leads to more chop problems than does too much pressure. The goal is not to use too little or too much pressure but rather to use just right — enough to support your chops and provide a base for your tone production. This article by Bruce Hembd gives a great overview:

Mouthpiece Pressure and other Tall Tales

Three stories that illustrate the issues

The first story is from my MM studies, early on. Heavy playing, practice, demanding ensemble placements, and very demanding teacher. Probably limited warm-up before rehearsals too. Some advice received from a former teacher was very helpful; to go back to materials like were in my normal warmup. One issue for sure was trying to do the Verne Reynolds warm-up materials, the ones he gave us, not the ones in his book, which are different and much more reasonable. I was in short trying to do a very demanding routine of the type I would never give students, six pages guaranteed to make your chops hurt! Getting the VR routine out again this past week, I still feel uneasy, I remember the bad chops. Sometimes you will be better off not doing what your teacher suggests doing.

Side point: Since when I was an undergrad I have warmed-up about the same before every practice session or concert. That routine continued to solidify and eventually I had a solid and very set routine that I did before every service for more than ten years. This worked great in relation to auditions too; I had a lot of faith that if I did the routine at the end my chops would feel good. That is the goal, right? I still do that exact routine from time to time. It works great for me, but when I give it to students I try to emphasize that it is really just an illustration of how I warm-up. What they work out for their warm-up is likely going to be different. And that is OK.

Second story is on a similar point, heavy playing. I was one of the co-principal horns in the Colorado Philharmonic (now known as the National Repertory Orchestra) the summer after I completed my MM. My chops again were taking a beating. We had three days off, and I took a road trip over to Aspen to see David Wakefield who I had studied with three previous summers. He talked me through how to manage the heavy load better, key points being holding firm to my normal and reasonable warm-up, and to always warm-down a little after each service. I was just putting the horn away as I was so tired. This was a key piece of advice that got me through the summer.

The final story comes from when I was playing in the Nashville Symphony. The orchestra was split and I played first horn on a run of Nutcrackers with no assistant. I made it by employing two tactics. One was to shift octaves with the second horn in some passages (thank you Joy!). The other was to eat Popsicles and such after each service. Ice seemed too intense; a Popsicle has air pockets and is a less intense sensation. Sometimes I used a bag of frozen peas or a cold can of soda. There is solid sports science behind this; the cold helps to prevent swelling after the heavy services.

You can only play so many notes a week without consequences

Recently I was shown a spreadsheet a teacher put together to manage the playing loads of their college students. It included not only their large ensembles but also quintets and more. The goal was that players in their studio all had balanced and manageable playing loads. I know for sure we thought about similar things when I taught at Brevard in the summers, you want to keep loads balanced, but inevitably the better students get busier than the rest, and may practice harder too. This can be OK if managed well, but be very aware that there is a line that you can cross — and the horn playing experience that results from crossing that line too often or extensively may become one that is not healthy or positive.

Promote a good mindset by playing music you enjoy

Finally, periodically a topic I bring up also with students is that playing horn should not be drudgery. I think, especially for amateur players (but really for anyone), it is important to practice music you enjoy as much as you can. Music you do not like can put you in a bad place mentally. Of course, sometimes you have to work out music you do not much enjoy playing, but try to balance it with music you enjoy.

Bottom line is that healthy chops are a product of not only managing your chops effectively but also your general mindset. If things do not feel good, healthy musicianship points to it being high time to take a day off and reevaluate things.

University of Horn Matters