Excellence = Strength + Skill
03 Sunday Feb 2013
Olympic records of a hundred years ago resemble high school records of today. What is different is that today athletes know what to work on and how to train, as well as corollary fields of diet, rest, and mental preparation. Musicians of today are faced with similar advancement of standards: what was considered very difficult a century ago for professionals is often played today by college (and sometimes high school) students. Some of this is due to advancements in equipment, but most of it is due to the improvements in each generation of teaching. Following are some ideas of how to discover, isolate, break down, and learn difficult technical passages.
There are two primary components to any skilled activity: strength and skill (precise movement). A pole vaulter has to be very strong to perform his/her sport, but without possessing both strength and an exact kinesthetic knowledge of what and how to move at exactly the right time, the athlete will never triumph. The same is true for a music performer.
Development of pure muscular strength of any sort is the result of effort plus rest. Continuous effort without rest will actually break down the muscle fibers and make it worse; strength arises during the resting period following vigorous muscle activity. Rest without effort, of course, brings nothing, and for horn players, this means a flabby lip that has no endurance and lacks the muscle tone necessary to produce (in combination with proper air support) notes in the upper register (a very temporary and injurious substitute can be produced by pinning the lip across the rim with pressure). A judicious amount of rest – both brief rests sprinkled all during a workout session as well as longer rest between sessions – provides the key to developing the needed muscle tone in our embouchures.
Suggestions for developing strength:
•It’s tempting to leave the mouthpiece on the lips and keep playing, but you will be able to play longer and develop strength faster if you remove the rim completely from the lips after every exercise, or simply as often as possible.
•Warm-up sessions should have times where the player free buzzes and/or plays with the mouthpiece alone to reinforce the feeling of playing with as little pressure as possible.
•To develop endurance, you have to endure, i.e. continue playing when tired. Huge caveat: continue playing but as your lip begins to tire, take more frequent rests and play passages less and less in the high range. In no case should you force the high range through pressure.
•Have some very loud playing at some point in your practice day, but surround it with rest.
•An alternate and reinforcement of rest (between higher/louder playing) is playing in the low register. Try etudes (such as those by Kopprasch) down an octave, or play music intended for bass clef instruments.
•It’s tempting to think that the valves do the work, but they don’t. Develop strength and accuracy by spending a good deal of time in the warm-up and workout sessions playing exercises without valves on the overtone series where the chops do the work! (well, to be completely accurate, the proper lip tension combines precisely with aperture size and air flow). If you do, horn playing will seem much easier when you add valves.
•Practice as much as possible without sheet music, i.e. by memory or by extrapolating exercises from basic principles (e.g. play the same exercise in other keys). Play with eyes closed to be able to concentrate on the exact kinesthetic sensation of what it feels like – and store it in your kinesthetic memory. Listen to what you are playing! When we play exclusively from sheet music, all too often we are distracted by the visual sense away from hearing or feeling much of what is happening.
•Work on lip slurs of all kinds using the overtone series first in your warm-up and later workout session. Then continue the workout session working on valve technique (scales, arpeggios, patterns) while adding variations in articulation, rhythms, accents, and gradually extend the range.
•Tempo should always be determined by the speed at which you can play the given pitch sequence flawlessly. You can work toward a faster tempo that you can’t quite do yet, but always start from where you can nail it.
•One part of a workout session should be devoted to inventing and practicing mini-etudes that directly address the problems of the solo or excerpt that you are currently working on.
•Spend most of your time working on the things you can’t do very well (or well enough). Spending (too much) time polishing already mastered material may be soothing to the ego, but it leads to stagnancy and boredom. Work on stuff every day that you can’t quite do yet. Stretch your limits.
•There are some skills that tend to get rusty without daily use: sight-reading and transposition are at the top of the list.
There is no getting around the fact that developing both strength and skill take time and dedication. It takes a large quantity of quality work to hone an ability to the level of excellence. It is also a fact that time is just as long if you don’t make the effort! So you might as well just take a deep breath, focus, be calm, and set to work. Every relaxed, focused, accurate effort is “money in the bank” and will pay off in a big way when you withdraw it at performance time.