Thoughts from Richard King (Cleveland Orchestra), David Cooper (Berlin Philharmonic), and Jeff Nelsen (Canadian Brass).
As summer begins, we horn players may find ourselves gently slipping into the familiar seasonal routines. Students who are happily having a break from the classroom may also have an interruption of private lessons or not have access to their school-owned instruments.
Teachers and performers, novices or experts, amateurs and pros could have an entirely different schedule from the rest of the year—Maybe we have some outdoor band concerts. Maybe we travel to a chamber music festival. Maybe our orchestras move into their summer home. Maybe we teach at clinics. Maybe we have a various combination of all these things.
Probably the one thing that most of us will have at one point or another this summer is- a BREAK from HORN PLAYING!!! Whether or not it is intended, all of us will find ourselves with time away from our instrument now and then. Family vacation? Road trip? Cruise? Didn’t get around to it? Didn’t feel like it?
As a thirty-year veteran of the Cleveland Orchestra, I have seen most every situation that has caused me to hit the pause button and find myself on some type of horn playing hiatus. Most common to me however, especially as a twenty-year principal horn player, was the INTENTIONAL hiatus! My whole being would cry out for relief from the grind, both physical and mental. With my orchestra work schedule I eventually fell into the habit of taking two larger yearly breaks of about two weeks each. In June and December at the end of a long run of concerts, I would put my Conn 8D in the case and put it out of my mind. I closed down those weeks in my schedule book and very rarely took outside work, saving those rare exceptions for very special opportunities.
At first I would wonder if I would remember how to play at all when I returned to my instrument. Would all my skills be gone forever? How long to get back to normal--- a day? A week? A month? Would I be able to find a fingering chart? Would the valves be frozen? Where did I leave my Kopprasch and Gallay books?
Experience has taught me what reentry will be like. Just like sitting in a car for a long time, the first steps when you get out might feel stiff bizarre and stiff. Haven’t ridden a bike all winter? You might wobble for a few yards in the spring. Here’s a good one- you haven’t flossed your teeth lately? Your gums might bleed some! You get my point. Of course there are many ways to get back to playing after a break; some dive right in and play strenuous music and barrel right through, some take it extremely easy and play three minutes at a time, working back slowly.
The procedure for me is exactly tha t- a procedure. The most important point for me? Before my intended time off, I look at the calendar. I identify a date, working backwards from my next playing obligation, that I want to start back up. As a first horn player it is 5-7 days for “normal” repertoire. Mahler Symphony or a concerto? Maybe rethink that time frame. When that date on the calendar arrives I start back up! No negotiating! Play 10 minutes, softly and slowly and then take a short break to oil the valves and look for the Kopprasch books. Mindful not to overdo and injure myself I take it from there, playing in shorter segments multiple times during the day. You don’t sound great on day two? Try not to freak out. You’ll get there. As good as you were and perhaps a little better starting with a fresh perspective.
My late father quit high school in 1945 at seventeen to work on the road as a trombonist. Three years later he quit playing altogether, not to start again until his retirement at age 62. He started up again, complaining bitterly about how his chops didn’t feel as good as they used to… After six months he was sounding fine, enjoying his music making again and he did so for twenty more years.
We all need a break now and then, then we get back to the horn playing we love!
Thoughts on Staying in Shape Over the Summer
When I look at my schedule for the past couple of years, staying in shape isn’t a problem at all because I have playing and teaching throughout the entire summer. These days it’s more about where can I rest over the summer and I have to plan a few days here and there just to catch my breath. That being said, there was a period of my life after student music festivals and before professional music festivals where I needed to figure out how to stay in shape during the summer breaks from Orchestra.
I love doing recitals and when I was younger, the competitions I did were really a blast! I loved hearing and meeting horn players from all over the world and trying to hear the different horn school sounds - the Czech sound, the German sound, the French, the British etc. In the States, competitions weren’t such a big deal as in Europe but I was able to find out about a few by reading people’s bios and seeing what competitions and prizes they had done and then doing an internet search of music competitions. I was lucky enough to do 2 competitions when I was younger and even though I didn’t win any prizes, I was able to meet the professors and European soloists who were judging the competition, as well as the many young students who were playing in the competitions. Many of the students I was competing against became great friends and went on to have huge careers. This was one of the first moments for me to hear a style of playing that was different than mine and yet I could learn so much from. It also set a higher standard of playing for me because there were many players doing things on the horn that I couldn’t do.
I had another summer where I went through an embouchure adjustment and it was suggested from Dale Clevenger that I only play melodies that I could play by ear or by memory that didn’t go above 3rd space C. I would spend a lot of time everyday just playing by ear and figuring out how to play what I could sing. That was a really fun exercise, and it taught me how to sing on the horn as well as giving my lips a break while going through that embouchure adjustment.
After that summer, I was lucky enough to be shown a really great warm up routine. I have had so much improvement in my playing and success in my career since I started doing slow and consistent practice on fundamentals. I had a warm up routine I had been doing since high school, which helped me, develop my practice habits and my consistency in my playing. However, in order for me to really develop as a horn player, I needed consistent goals and really simple parameters every day. I worked from soft to loud from middle to the extreme registers very slowly and observed everyday how to improve my sound and the consistency of my response in all registers and dynamics. This was probably the best thing I could have done to improve my horn playing and as long as I did my warm up routine everyday I knew that I would be able to keep in shape and play whatever was required in the rehearsals. No matter how I felt physically, if I do my warm ups I know I can be consistent in rehearsals and concerts.
We all have a lot of work to do with our horn in hand. We all love playing horn, for the most part. Throughout our lives, time spent on the horn can often sway between feeling like work and play. That’s just part of our gig as a horn player, regardless of our level of playing and frequency with which we get to do it.
With each year, I have ended up increasing the frequency of times I’m not playing horn. I have 2 sons who are more fun than practicing, and I have some Xbox games to catch up on! Whatever our reasons for taking breaks might be, most of my breaks have been accidental, and noticed only when healthy performance fears give me enough nudge to get me off the couch. I used to feel bad about neglecting my practicing “duties” and have found now I experience more benefits from taking those breaks without feelings of guilt. I’ve learned a couple things:
- Plan your playing breaks.
- I have a picture on my bathroom mirror that reminds me to plan my breaks. It’s of me, in shorts, knee-deep in the ocean on a Cuban beach, playing my mouthpiece. Ugh. Yup, a half-holiday half-horn work moment that didn’t end up maintaining my chops or “you must play today” guilt.
- Plan your playing as well as breaks. Leave your horn in the closet until your planned moment of playing-again comes. You’ll be more present with your family and friends, you’ll rest better, annnnnd you’ll start playing again with more optimal set-up and intentions. You can absolutely bring your horn on vacation. While considering it, decide if you’re really going to get substantial value out of playing throughout your holiday or doing so more to absolve yourself of the guilt of leaving your horn behind.
- Embrace time off
- There’s a saying, “Take 1 day off, you know it. Take 2 days off, your colleagues know it. Take 3 days off, everyone knows it.” This is often true, so after 3 days you might as well take off for a week or three if you can!
- Though days off can affect our abilities, so can an imbalance of work and rest. I’ve had to be very firm with some students when telling them to take a break (when to take time off is a longer topic). I’ve noticed a curious connection between students who hated having to take the break and those who enjoyed it. The ones who enjoyed it, for the most part, returned rested and rejuvenated. The ones who hated or didn’t embrace the breaks, returned closer to their initial physical state, and same or worse mental state. I think this happens when we skip the learning zone.
- If you’re taking time off, take the time off! That way, you’ll reap the benefits of leaving the Comfort Zone of playing every day while not skipping straight into the Panic Zone. There is a place between – the Learning Zone. Ahhhhhh… I’m now able to take longer breaks (weeks at a time) with shorter periods of getting back to performing well. I know what I need to do, and I know how to play for 10 minutes and not feel bad about sounding bad. The bad sounds are just an unemotional result from doing other things than horn.
- Give yourself a break about giving yourself a break! The more frequent my breaks have become, the better I’ve become at returning to my best level. And, I’ve ended up stumbling on improving that level, too!
- Start again, again and again!
- I got this idea from a concept in an audio book Bill VerMeulen turned me onto titled “How the best get better” by Dan Sullivan. Dan said that when we think we’ve hit our learning wall, and our growth has stopped, we’ve hit what he calls our “Ceiling of Complexity”. Essentially, we’ve done all the work of data collection, analysis, learning, and repetition that we can creatively do, and we’ve stopped seeing growth. We’ve spread out all the papers with info on them all over the floor, and we can’t find the next step for growth. At this point, all we can do is break it down and start again. My use of this concept has me starting again as optimally as possible. I think my favourite bonus result is that I also leave some destructive habits behind. Habits are results from our choices and actions. Our bodies don’t discern between good or bad habits, we just learn habits. I’m seeing leaps of efficiency in my playing from “starting again” a LOT. The best use of this concept is to see our first routine of each day be a “Start Again” opportunity. I hope this approach can also help you end up building higher quantity and quality of good habits.