Ah Summer, that wonderful time of year that always seems to pass too quickly. You get to take a break, relax with friends, and forget about school for a while.
With the school year looming around the corner maybe you’re feeling like you should have practiced a bit more this summer? Maybe panicking a bit about being ready for band?
Perhaps your break wasn’t a summer vacation away from your instrument. It could be for a multitude of reasons but taking a large amount of time off trumpet (or any brass instrument) isn’t recommended in most cases.
The good news is, it does not need to be difficult to get back into playing shape if you do it properly.
The bad news is, we gradually loose coordination and strength when we don’t play our instrument and because of this it is very easy to over-practice and to hurt yourself when coming back. Injuries generally occur when we try to instantly resume our previous abilities as if we had pressed “pause” when we started our break. When we then “unpause” our playing we often use poor coping strategies to compensate for our now more limited ability. Luckily these issues can be avoided if we are willing to take a bit of time to redevelop our skills in a healthy way.
Slowly building up to your old practice time and intensity is the most important thing that you can do. Start with just 5 minute practice sessions three times a day and build back up to your normal practice routine over the course of one to two weeks (or longer in the case of extended breaks). You will be surprised at how quickly your ability returns if you use this common sense approach.
Now if I just told you: “don’t over do it and you’ll be fine” that wouldn’t be very helpful. So…..
There a specific system to getting back up to speed as quickly as possible that involves re-training skills in a specific order. This is best thought of as three (overlapping) stages of focus.
The stages are as follows:
1) Response / Tone
2) Flexibility / Dexterity
3) Range / Endurance
The reason that this order works best is this progression allows rapid redevelopment of coordination while initially keeping the demands on strength low. This greatly reduces the chance of injury (and further playing issues). Once you have re-developed proper coordination you will be able to to properly use the strength you already have and develop new strength in a healthy way. This allows you to efficiently and safely work on restrengthening your embouchure over time which gives the best opportunity for quickly returning to a previous playing ability with the lowest risk of injury.
While the guide below is written with trumpet players in mind (and links to trumpet resources) the principals work for any brass instrument.
Let’s go into a bit more detail on each stage and how it might correspond with your increasing practice time.
A note before we begin, because every player has a different skill level I can not make specific recommendations for exact exercises to do as you recover. I have listed the types of exercises you should be doing as well as some general examples. However, during a period of retraining you should use exercises that you already know as much as possible so you can focus on “how you are practicing” rather than “what you are practicing.” If necessary you can pull exercises from the materials I have listed but before you do that, see if it is possible to adapt exercises you are already familiar with.
Links will go to places to purchase copy-written materials and to IMSLP for public domain materials. There are alternate locations to purchase / find all materials. Please be sure to look around to find the best price. Free resources will be marked. I do not make money from any of the links.
STAGE 1 – RESPONSE / TONE
Focus on restoring muscle coordination while minimizing strength requirements.
Practice Guidelines: During the first section of our recovery we want to focus on recovering our note response as well as our tone quality. During this time, your playing should be focused on soft playing at the low end of your range. Additionally, you should use short practice sessions spread throughout the day. I typically advise practice sessions between five and twenty minutes at least three times a day. While you practice make sure to keep things easy and take lots of breaks. This approach allows you to establish good embouchure form and function without over-stressing the muscles. If possible, do this stage before your ensemble responsibilities begin.
Techniques / Exercises: During your initial return to the horn practice should be focused on the absolute fundamentals played softly. Use this time to ensure that your setup is working as easily as possible. Regardless of what exercises are practiced make sure that: the airstream is steady, notes respond quickly (no air in the front of the sound), notes are accurate and do not chip or crack, the sound is characteristic for your instrument, pitch is steady, and minimum mouthpiece pressure is used at all times.
During this stage exercises should include: breathing exercises, note response studies, flow studies, and long tones. Adapt exercises you already know first but here are some examples and recommendations of exercises if you are unsure. If you are choosing from the included resources be sure to choose exercises well within your skill level and simplify if needed.
- Breathing Exercises
- Note Response Studies
- Flow Studies
- Any exercises that move you through your range in a controlled way
- Scales as Long Tones
- Clarke Technical Studies – Free – done slowly
- Numbers 1 and 2 are especially good during this stage
- Long Tones
- Scales as Long Tones
- Etudes / Songs
- While not mandatory, these can make your practice more fun. Any piece you choose at this stage should be easily playable and well within your ability focusing on fluency not skill acquisition.
Timeframe: This period of recovery is generally fairly quick. If you have only taken a week or so off the horn you may find you are ready to move on after a day but if you have taken a summer off expect to spend 2-3 days or more focused on this section. In general, a longer amount of time taken off the horn means more time needs to be spend at each stage (especially this one).
When to move to the next stage: Do not move on from this stage too quickly. The better your coordination is the quicker you will recover overall. You should begin to add elements of stage 2 into practice sessions when: response is close to normal and notes respond easily, first attacks are confident and notes are not chipped or missed, tone has returned to a characteristic state, pitch is steady through a long tone, and there is minimal to no lip swelling after practice sessions.
STAGE 2: FLEXIBILITY / DEXTERITY
Focus on refining muscle coordination while expanding strength requirements
Practice Guidelines: During the second stage of recovery the focus needs to be on refining your muscle coordination so that movement through the ranges of the horn is possible. We also want to gently expand our strength requirements in terms of range and endurance without overtaxing the muscles. During these practice sessions, keep focusing on soft playing while building the ability to move fluidly through the comfortable range of the instrument. Articulation quality and speed should also become a focus. Multiple shorter practice sessions are still advisable but lengthen sessions as your strength returns to between fifteen and thirty minutes. In order to avoid injuring yourself, use shorter practice sessions later in the day as you tire and be sure to include plenty of rest. This approach allows us to continue to develop our abilities on the horn while keeping our playing requirements within reach. If possible, do this stage before your ensemble responsibilities begin.
Techniques / Exercises: During this section of recovery include all of the exercises from stage 1 while adding new responsibilities. Use this time to make sure that movement through the range of the horn is as easy and smooth as possible while staying within your comfortable range (which may be different each day). Regardless of what exercises are practiced be sure that: partials and intervals are fluid when slurred, pitch and tone stay steady as you move through the instrument, fingers slam valves down at all times, finger dexterity exercises have a smooth and connected sound, articulations “pop”, and pitch and tone stay steady through articulations.
During this stage exercises should include: everything from Stage 1 as well as partial exercises, interval exercises, finger dexterity exercises, and articulation exercises. Adapt exercises you already know first but here are some examples and recommendations of exercises if you are unsure. If you are choosing from the included resources be sure to choose exercises well within your skill level and simplify if needed.
- Partial Exercises – In a comfortable range
- Interval Exercises
- Finger Dexterity Exercises
- Articulation Exercises
- Etudes / Songs
- While not mandatory these can make your practice more fun. Any piece you choose at this stage should be easily playable and well within your ability focusing on fluency not skill acquisition.
Timeframe: This period of recovery generally takes a few days as you are now rebuilding muscle. If you took a week or so off this stage takes one to two days. If you took the summer off expect to spend four or more days at this stage as your muscles begin to restrengthen and your range expands. In general, a longer amount of time taken off the horn means more time needs to be spend at each stage.
When to move on to the next stage: While stage 2 transitions gradually into stage 3 it is still important to spend enough time in stage 2 to ensure you have enough coordination and strength to avoid playing issues as demands increase. Before you move on make sure that: movement through the horn is comfortable, range has returned to 80% of normal with a characteristic tone quality, partial exercises are clean and accurate at quicker tempos, articulations “pop” and do not influence tone quality or pitch, endurance is improving, and practice sessions cause minimal to no lip swelling
STAGE 3: RANGE / ENDURANCE
Focus on solidifying muscle coordination while strengthening the embouchure
Practice Guidelines:During the final section of recovery we will focus on solidifying our muscle coordination so that our upper range, dexterity, and advanced techniques (for instance double / triple tongue) are all accessible. Additionally, we will focus on strengthening the embouchure and push our range and endurance. Due to the fact that this section is more taxing than the others it is especially important to make sure that recovery time is sufficient to compensate for the increased demand. At this point your practice sessions should be close to normal length but incorporate more rest than you think you need to prevent injury.
A common mistake is to try and push range hard every day. I recommend that you work on range every other day at the most. This allows for full recovery between taxing range-focused practice sessions which can help us avoid bad habits and injury. Additionally, when working on range exercises you may not be able to play your highest note every single day. We are human, things are going to be different every day that we play. My recommendation when doing range exercises is to follow a “three strikes and you are out” rule. If you try to play a range exercise and fail three times in a row it is time to stop working on range for that day. Play a warm down and give yourself a break.
Finally, once you reach stage 3 you are likely ready to begin comfortably playing with an ensemble again. Make sure that you are still taking appropriate rests during your ensemble rehearsals and focusing on the good technique you have been building over the first two stages.
Techniques / Exercises: This section includes all of the exercises from stage 1 and 2 while adding new responsibilities. Use this time to expand the skills you have already retrained to work over the entire range of the horn. While our practice up to this point has focused on soft playing we should start to work on our louder dynamics over our full range. However, if you can not play an exercise softly you should not attempt to play it loudly as loud dynamics can disguise technique problems that soft playing would reveal. The majority of your practice time should be focused on soft playing. During this practice time be sure that: you are working towards ease of playing, there is minimal mouthpiece pressure, a characteristic sound with no strain is possible, and all of the responsibilities from earlier stages are extended through the range of the horn.
During this stage exercises should include: everything from stage 1 and 2, advanced partial exercises, range specific exercises, advanced technique exercises, longer etudes / excerpts from music. Adapt exercises you already know first but here are some examples and recommendations of exercises if you are unsure. If you are choosing from the included resources be sure to choose exercises well within your skill level and simplify if needed.
- Advanced Partial Exercises – Expanding Range
- Range Specific Exercises
- Colin – Range Development for Trumpet
- It is nearly impossible to blanket recommend range exercises. The best self-study path is to use exercises you can already play in the lower register and transpose them to a higher range. The Arban, Franquin, and Clarke exercises in the previous sections are all good candidates for this method. Additionally, transposing melodies into higher and higher keys also works well.
- Advanced Technique Exercises
- If you already have study materials on advanced techniques go back to the beginning and work through the material again. This shouldn’t take too long and will allow you to refresh the skill. If you do not already have materials do not introduce new advanced techniques during the recovery process.
- Etudes / Excerpts
- Arban Complete Method – Goldman Edition – Free
- The Art of Phrasing – P 191 – 245
- 14 Characteristic Studies – P 285 – 299
- It is nearly impossible to blanket recommend etudes. Here is a website with a wonderful selection and previews of every book if you need material.
- Music from your school or other organization (even old music from past concerts) can also work great for this.
- Arban Complete Method – Goldman Edition – Free
Timeframe: This section should already look like a shortened version of a normal practice schedule with some extra rest and care taken to avoid excess strain. As muscle strength and endurance returns, practice sessions will gradually increase in both length and intensity until things are back to normal. This section is highly variable in length depending on how much time you took off and your previous ability. If you took the summer off expect to spend five or more days at this stage before the horn feels 100% back to normal. This can take significantly longer if earlier stages were rushed or if playing injuries occur during this stage.
When to move on from this stage: Moving from stage 3 into your normal practice routine is a gradual process. As your playing becomes more comfortable transition back to your normal practice routine little by little. If you find yourself overdoing things step back and incorporate more rest. Before making your practice more difficult make sure that: mouthpiece pressure is at a minimum, notes respond easily through the range, tone quality is both characteristic and consistent, movement through the horn is fluid, and articulations “pop.” You will find yourself adding difficulty several times before things feel 100% back to normal.
Taking time off the instrument will always result in a period of uncomfortable playing when you return. However, by retraining properly it is possible to quickly return to normal. Hope this was helpful and if you have any questions please post them in the comments.