Recently, there was a major competition held in the city of Tokyo. As usual, several weeks before the event, a large number of students came to me to receive coaching on the required solo repertoire. Most of these students came very well prepared and only needed small adjustments on their very good preparation, however, closer to the actual competition something strange happened; the high level of playing they had shown only a few weeks before started to deteriorate. The good tones that were there began to sound strained, pinched and full of extemporaneous noises, the high register became undependable as did the low register and the general musicianship became labored and quite simply had lost all the beauty that was there only a short time before. The reason for this was not complicated; the dedication and motivation to be their absolute best on the competition had lead them to increase their practice times to the point that they were damaging their playing, the excess of hard work caused their playing to get ugly.
This kind of extreme over practicing doesn’t happen only before competitions but also before exams, auditions and concerts. Our embouchures; that meeting place where the moving air meets the lips (embouchure is a verb), is made up of blood and muscle and like all the other parts of the body, it can easily be overworked and stressed. Like a ballet dancer, who’s body is trained to be facile and fluid, our embouchures need that same fluidity and if, by over training, the embouchure becomes more like the rigid and stiff musculature of a body builder lifting weights, this stiffness in brass instrument performance simply translates a sounding bad. The similarities of playing a brass instrument to the voice are many. Singers, however, cannot practice long hours like some brass players are tempted to do; they have the advantage of pain, which tells them it’s time to stop, the larynx just won’t allow the voice to let enthusiasm rule over reason.
Enthusiasm, the will to win, the goal to be perfect, is a good thing, but it needs to be monitored by smart practicing.
Warmups are to brass playing like stretching is for an athlete; working on the bar for a ballet dancer or vocalizing is for a singer. Warmups are part of embouchure care and if you are in preparation mode for an important performing event such as a competition, warming up is an essential part that preparation, this is smart practicing.
In any form of exercise, breaks are needed; ten sets of ten pushups can work very well in developing strength, but 100 pushups at one time would be very destructive to the body for most people, plus it would be very painful! Another important kind of rest is to take breaks after two or three hours. If you’re going to practice all day, go for two or maximum three hours, then rest at least one hour; do something else and think about something else.
Much of our preparation can be done without actually playing the instrument. Phrasing, breaths and dynamic decisions can be done only by studying the part and making those musical decisions without fatiguing the embouchure. Similarly, singing the music can help to make these musical decisions. Finally, the passages that require rapid fingering can be studied by practicing only the fingering alone.
When preparing for an important performance of any kind, there is always the tendency to practice only the piece or pieces that are being prepared for the specific event; this also will have negative result. An efficient embouchure requires diversity. If your pieces are high, practice low. Nothing destroys tonal beauty and embouchure efficiency faster that concentrating your work only on the high register. The situation with dynamics is exactly the same, if you are preparing for a symphony orchestra audition where most of the repertoire is fortissimo, practice an equal amount in a pianissimo dynamic range.
Avoid Last Minute Practicing
Performance preparation needs to be finished and ready ahead of time; the last days before the event are much better used by concentrating on maintaining the finest, most facile and beautiful playing possible. There are many sad stories of players panicking in the last days before the event and destroying the good work that was already finished.
Hard work and enthusiasm are good things when they are controlled with common sense.
September 16, 1013, Tokyo