May 23, 2010


Yesterday I played with the Timpanogos Brass at Juan Diego's commencement (an additional function to the graduation mass held earlier in the week). This time we set up in their high school auditorium and were without an organist, so fortunately our Tubist remembered his music! (He also brought us all doughnuts--always a great way to make up for past sins). We played a bunch of prelude music followed by the obligatory and eternal"Pomp and Circumstance".

Along with the tedium of repeating the tune of Elgar's famous march 50 times, gigs like this always remind me how far I have to go in improving my endurance on the trumpet. I have always had a nice sound, reasonably good technique, and natural musicality, but when it comes to playing for long durations, I consistently struggle. I think I've heard everyone at some point complain about the difficulty of playing a two-page Charlier, making it through the Hindemith Sonata, or continuing on to the high C at number 29 of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony 1st mvt. Even so, in most situations, I seem to get fatigued well before other players. When I play duets with my friend Ian Murdock, he'll just be good-and-warmed-up by the time I start leaving out measures here and there to let my chops recover. During yesterday's prelude and processional, which in total I think ran to around 30 minutes, I became audibly fatigued: quite an embarrassment for me.

We had a long break after this first segment and the group went back down to the band room to pass the time until we were called for again. Lately I've noticed that people like to bring up Chicago while in casual conversation with me, and yesterday, Ryan Williams our wonderful trombonist told me about a time he attended the Midwest Band Clinic (held annually in Chicago), and got to hear Chris Martin (the current principal trumpeter in the CSO and former student of Barbara and Charlie--my soon-to-be instructors at NU), play in a performance with the Chicago Brass. He said it struck him that Chris had been playing for hours and hours beforehand and still sounded fresh and strong at the concert. I mentioned to him my frustrations with endurance and he replied by saying he'd heard that Chris would practice to the point where his muscles simply wouldn't allow it, and that each day he'd try to push that threshold a bit further. This certainly sounds like a great idea on the surface.

During the year or so of preparation I had between the time Larry Zalkind got me committed to going back to grad school, and my auditions at the various schools to which I applied, I went through what could be one of the most tumultuous periods in my experience as a trumpeter.

After talking with Larry, I immediately rededicated myself to practicing and study with a vengeance. My daily routine was this:

5:30-7:30am... practice
8:00-12:00... work at Cannonball
12:15-12:45... practice (usually piccolo)
1:00-5:00... work at Cannonball
6:00-7:00 or whenever I was done... practice

Additionally, my work at Cannonball frequently involves play-testing and acoustically adjusting trumpets, so at the end of the day that's a LOT of playing...and I NEVER missed a day.

I believe this is the most time I'd ever devoted to practice in my life. After having my first couple of lessons with Charlie Geyer I got even more excited and kept up this exhausting schedule at the expense of sleep, relationships, and my sanity...all in the name of working hard in order to be competitive for grad school auditions. (I should say that Mr. Geyer did NOT suggest that this practice routine was a good one--quite the opposite in some ways in fact).

I was improving tons for a while, but at some point in late spring or early summer I hit a wall. My range, which had increased markedly for a while, fell off, my sound was frequently plagued with double buzzing and "fuzz" and everything about basic playing became a huge effort. It became obvious that I had overdone it.

I had a lesson with Nick Norton and he instructed me to take a couple days off without touching the trumpet then come back slowly--maybe only playing 45 minutes to an hour at the most every day. He recommended a great book of simpler etudes (Longinotti) and advised me to go out and have fun once in a while. This proved to be excellent advice and though my full recovery lasted months, I noticed an almost immediate improvement in my sound.

Somewhere around that time I heard another story about New York trumpeter Louis Hanslik, a Juilliard grad who I'd met when we both played in the concert that opened Zankel Auditorium at Carnegie Hall. Apparently, he'd also been a practicing fiend, and while at Juilliard, had experienced something similar to what I'd recently been through. I heard that Mark Gould (who had been my teacher there for a semester) told him he was only allowed to play 45 minutes per day for a while and that he subsequently improved as I had.

From my own experience and after hearing this story, my schedule has evolved on the premise that I should focus primarily on developing a routine that's efficient. More precisely: I need to be able to get a lot done without having to play more than a couple hours per day. For everything except long duration endurance this has worked really well for me.

Now I guess that the stories about Chris and Louis are not necessarily at odds. One thing Charlie told me in our first lesson has stood out in my mind as I mull over this problem. He had asked me to tell him what my biggest problems as a trumpet player were.
I responded predictably, "Range and endurance".
"Ahh, but what kind of range and what kind of endurance?" he countered.

He went on to explain that the kind of range and endurance you use playing the Brandenburg is totally different from the range and endurance you use playing a Shostakovich Symphony...which is also totally different from the range and endurance you use to play a Charlier etude...a brass quintet orchestral get the idea.

For our first lesson I stupidly did not bring a recorder and so don't have a perfect memory of the advice he gave on this subject. I do remember him saying that it's necessary to prepare differently for each performance situation, and that I should be creative as I come up with ways to address specific problems that arise. If I need to play the Brandenburg, it doesn't make much sense in preparation to hammer my chops on big horns, and vise versa.

Ok, so now I'm kind of thinking that if I have a quintet gig coming up where I know I'll be playing for long periods of time without taking the mouthpiece off my lips, then in preparation for that, I should do something along the lines of Chris Martin's supposed technique: Incrementally increase the time the horn spends on my face from day to day--and even most specifically from practice session to practice session--prior to the performance. But I don't need to practice that way all the time, and maybe the way I approach my other practice cycles will balance this "heavy lifting" well and lead to more strength development over all.

When it comes down to it--I don't think I've ever played a quintet gig that lasted more than 2 hours, so the main thing with this type of endurance is that I've got to be able to play without a whole lot of rest for individual periods of time (each maybe 10-15 minutes) that add up to about 2 hours of playing.

Years ago, I also read briefly about marathon preparation. The book I had said that several months before the event, you should run something like 3-5 miles a day for 5 days of the week, 10-13 miles on the sixth day, and then take the seventh day off. As the race gets closer, you should primarily increase the amount you run on the 6th day while keeping the distances on the other 5 days relatively modest. And most importantly, the day off at the end of the week is crucial to the ability of your body to recover and build efficient long-duration muscle.

It's obvious that the relentless practice schedule I maintained last year was not allowing time for my muscles to recoup after being pushed to their extreme. This must be where the damage arose. I jumped in head first and only stopped swimming when my body quit and I had to accept a life preserver. It would have been much wiser to get out of the ocean once and a while for a soak in the sun. (me and my penchant for analogy).

It makes sense for me to occasionally focus on endurance as one individual part of playing in much the same way I single out one aspect of articulation or multiple tonguing on a given day or week. Instead of incorporating "general endurance" as a daily practice issue--like running marathons every day from the get go--I should instead push myself incrementally beyond my threshold for a few sessions--always being strict about wise amounts of rest and recovery--and then back off a bit.

We'll see how that goes.

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