A common question that I get from my students is: “When should I take a day off from trumpet playing?” Despite the need for muscle recovery many students don’t have a good idea of when a day off is necessary or why they would need one.
Days off your instrument serve as an opportunity for your muscles to recover and strengthen! There are two basic reasons why you should take a day off: overuse or injury.
One reason you may need a day off is that trumpet playing is an athletic endeavor that stresses the muscles of the embouchure. If muscles are not fully recovered from practice session #1 then practice session #2 may be adversely affected. Fatigue can build up over the course of a day or over several days if sufficient rest is not taken. Accumulated fatigue will make practice less effective and can lead to bad habits which take additional time to fix. If you continually overwork your muscles, you may find yourself dealing with overuse issues that become chronic.
Identifying when you are overusing your embouchure can be tricky because many of the warning signs happen to a lesser extent as you tire during a practice session. While the symptoms vary by the person, some common signs include: problems with response, tone quality, and range as well as swollen lips and lingering muscle fatigue after practicing. If you experience these issues repeatedly or at the beginning of practice sessions you may be overusing your embouchure. Take a break of at least 24 hours so that you can recover.
I have a rule of thumb: if I immediately feel and sound better after a day off I was overdoing things before and likely risking injury. When this happens I reevaluate and rebalance my practice with more rest, shorter sessions (but maybe more of them), less of specific exercises, or make other changes to ensure that I’m not overworking myself.
An embouchure injury is another reason that a day off (or more) may be required. Injuries do not need to be severe to justify a day off. A cut, sunburn, or other damage to your embouchure should be allowed to heal fully before you play on it. This is especially true if playing aggravates the injury. You can help prevent minor embouchure injuries by using lip balm, drinking plenty of water, and being cognizant of any hazards unique to your environment.
Major embouchure injuries like deep cuts, muscle damage, etc. should be treated with the appropriate medical professional. Playing should not resume until you are fully healed.
Managing your practice so you don’t need days off
As musicians, we do not always have the luxury of taking days off due to rehearsals, gigs, or other calls. Therefore, we need to manage our daily practice to be ready to play at any time. In my own practice, I alternate my daily workload with low intensity practice days and high intensity practice days. While these different workloads do not necessarily change the amount of time that I practice they do change the content.
Low intensity practice days focus on elements like: response, articulation, finger dexterity, intonation, and other skills that do not place a high amount of strain on my embouchure. During low intensity practice, I will also limit the length of any music that I play and focus on shorter sections to allow for plenty of rest.
High intensity practice days focus on endurance, range, piccolo trumpet, and other more taxing aspects of playing. During high intensity practice, I also work on any particularly difficult excerpts and do full runs of etudes that I broke up during my low intensity practice.
When planning, I try and have a maximum of three high intensity practice days each week and I often have fewer when I have several performance responsibilities in a short timespan. By managing my practice this way I find I am a much more consistent player, I constantly improve, and I’m ready for gigs when my phone rings last minute.
I hope this is helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions!