Trumpet Topics

Getting Back In Shape

Several years ago, I was a very active long distance runner. I diligently kept a running diary, logging the number of daily miles and other information about intensity and other information such as running injuries, as I trained to beat my previous best time in the weekly Saturday morning 10K races. I also trained for and completed a marathon and one 50K (about 31 miles) race. I voraciously read books and magazines about running, physiology, and training philosophies. I must say that during that time, I probably discovered at least as much about the physical aspects of blowing a trumpet as I did about running.

Although the ultimate goal in playing the trumpet is to produce a creative musical experience, the first step is to attain a mastery of the physical control of producing the instrument's characteristic tone.

The building of range and endurance and the mastery of tone production on the trumpet is a regime of physical training almost identical in principle with that of other physical disciplines such as long distance running or weight lifting. This observation was made many years ago in a trumpet method book titled 37 Weeks to a Double High C. In the book's preface Spaulding points out that to cause a muscle or group of muscles to grow stronger, one must first stress that muscle, then secondly, the muscle must be given time to recover and grow stronger. There is an important physiological principle here, that when we stress a muscle, it will try to rebuild itself stronger than it was previously. But -- and here is the most important point -- we must give the muscle adequate time to rebuild.

Recovery Time

How much time is necessary for recovery? Weightlifters, Spaulding states, stress one group of muscles on even days and the other muscle groups on odd days, thereby allowing each muscle to have a full 48 hours of recovery time. In following that same principle, he prescribes, in his range-building method, that the trumpeter must play only every other day, thereby allowing the embouchure a full 48 hours to recover and rebuild slightly stronger than it was previously.

Although it is impractical for most students or professionals to adhear to a totally day-on, day-off routine, I have long advocated to my students a practice of heavy-day, light-day, to whatever extent possible when we are trying to build our strength, range and endurance. This, of course, would apply if we are trying to get back in shape after a summer holiday or other occasions where we haven't kept up the condition of our "chops" to the extent that we would like.

Play - Rest

A second suggestion regards equal amounts of playing and resting within our practice session. This advice has been given in various trumpet method books for more than a century. My proposal is that this advice should be applied to very short durations of blowing; it doesn't mean to blow constantly for a half-hour then rest for a half-hour. Rather, in some of our "tone development" exercises it could mean segments as short as playing 10 seconds - resting 10 seconds.

Dynamics - Range - Articulations

Our tone development exercises should include, to some extent, all dynamic levels, the entire range, and mixed articulations. Our day-to-day playing is never at only one dynamic level, therefore our building exercises shouldn't always be at the same dynamic level. In The Trumpeter's Supplemental Guide Bill Pfund recommends 60% at soft levels, but 20% at medium levels and 20% at forte and fortissimo levels. I totally agree. We can't expect to survive a Sousa march or a Mahler symphony if we have practiced only at mezzo forte levels. For the same reasons, our building routine must include at least some daily exposure to the extremes of our range and to various articulations. Regarding articulations, I recently heard an idea (from some West Coast brass players, I believe) that tongued exercises are much more effective for quickly getting back into shape than are non-tongued exercises. That's an interesting idea, but one with which I have yet to try extensively.

Listen to Your Body

This admonition is one that I have heard hundreds of times in my running experiences, and one that I learn to appreciate even more as my age increases. The simple fact is that one formula cannot fit everyone or every situation. For example, play 10 seconds - rest 10 seconds may be fine on a pianissimo third-space C, but totally unrealistic on a fortissimo high C. We do need to practice some loud high C's, but in this case playing 5 seconds - resting 15 seconds may help prevent us from mashing our lip. We strive to train and condition the lip, not beat it into submission! Remember that in a recovery phase of our conditioning, we must be building correct playing habits. If you feel that you need an extra 20 seconds of recovery time, take it! Even when we are not in a recovery mode, we must constantly strive for the reinforcement of correct tone production habits. Our practice period is the time that we must reinforce these correct habits because in rehearsals and performances we generally tend to revert to whatever works (excessive tension, mouthpiece pressure, etc.) to get the job done.

Does your lip feels stiff and unresponsive? You may need to take some extra rest. This may be just a few additional seconds of rest between the repititions of the passage you are "woodshedding" or it may mean that you need to divide your practice today into 10 minute segments, rather than your usual half-hour segments. You may need to interject 5 minutes of short pianissimo mid-range tones. Does your lip feel bruised? You may need to take an unplanned break for several hours. Should you try a warm compress? Should you try ice? My point, as you can see, is that you should not submit to a formula for success but rather, you should listen to the signals that your embouchure is giving you and make adjustments which are appropriate for you.


A final word regards the need for making adjustments as one ages. Because my late summer performance activities are generally light, I often find myself in a "getting back in shape" mode at the beginning of our academic year. I have experienced a breakdown of my chops quite similar to breakdowns I've experienced with a return to running after a layoff. With my running, I would carefully increase the length of my runs, taking care not to increase the mileage too soon. After a few weeks of constantly feeling stronger, a hamstring or a quadracep may start to hurt. Even more common would be a joint problem - usually the knee or ankle. In my playing, I'm always careful to very gradually increase the amount of daily playing - I usually time my playing with a stopwatch to be certain of an ever-so-gradual increase. However, despite the utmost of care, after 4-5 weeks of increased endurance, range, flexibility and control I have still experienced "breakdowns" which usually start with ever-increasing stiffness of the embouchure, accompanied by a lack of responsiviness and of course a decrease in endurance. When these "breakdowns" occur, they are usually quite a surprise, because up to that point my building process had been quite good. Perhaps it has been my experiences in running which taught me to "listen", in this case to my embouchure, to make adjustments in my daily routine which have successfully carried me through those tough times.

I feel that the important thing is, as Jim Fixx suggested in his book The Complete Book of Running, published twenty years ago, Listen To Your Body. Well, Trumpeter: Listen to your chops. Be flexible in the daily expectations of yourself and realize that you may need to modify your plans to accomodate the physiological limitations your body.

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