Maintaining “Chops” During the Break

The Fall 2012 semester ended at Ole Miss today. I have cleaned up my office a bit, submitted most of my final grades (I’m still waiting for some additional info to finalize a couple of them), and have “migrated” instruments and materials that I normally use while on campus to my home office. Students that have not already “gone home” for the break are preparing to do so. I am looking forward to a few weeks of rest, of “catching up” on reading and various projects that are necessarily neglected while school is in session, of spending time with family, and of “tweaking” syllabi and course materials in preparation for the spring semester.

The long periods of rest between semesters constitute an enviable “perk” of academic life both for faculty and students. While many students (and perhaps some faculty members!) in other fields will use the opportunity to “vegetate” and do very little, for musicians to do so would be highly irresponsible. Daily practice remains a necessity even during our time “off,” even if the intensity of that practice is reduced just a bit. The following thoughts are intended to help students (and teachers) to practice efficiently and effectively during the break while also allowing time for rest and for various activities they might wish to pursue during this time.

Set Goals and Make Plans to Achieve Them

First of all, approach practicing during the break with both short-term and long-term goals in mind, just as you (hopefully) do while school is in session. Make a mental note of big performance obligations for early in the spring semester, and take these into account when making plans. If you have a big recital planned for January or early February (as I do), then your practicing during the break will need to be as intense—if not more so—as it is while school is in session. If your heavier obligations occur later during the semester, then you might be able to give yourself an opportunity to “take it easy” just a bit. In short, look at your performance calendar for several weeks and months out, and plan your “holiday” practicing accordingly.

Many students use the break from school as an opportunity to take a few days off the horn entirely. Doing this for short periods once or twice per year is healthy, as it facilitates a certain degree of both physical and mental recovery. Allow me to offer two words of caution: first, plan your days off in advance, and stick to that plan. If you approach the break as a time to practice “when you feel like it” your practicing will be very erratic and you will take far too much time off on the whole. Secondly, do not take a few days or a week off and then immediately move into your regular practice routine. Start slowly and add practice time over three or four days so that you do not injure yourself. More on the second point later.

While “taking it easy” might be a healthy way to approach practicing during the break, the time can be used for extra practice, as well. Given some time without regular obligations, you might find that you can “spread out” your practicing into numerous short sessions throughout the day, a method of practicing which allows for multiple short bursts of productivity as well as ample rest. One year I practiced for six hours—in 20-minute sessions—on the day after Christmas while everyone else was out shopping. That was an EXTREMELY productive day that I still clearly remember more than ten years later.

Whether you decide to use the break from school to intensify your practicing or to relax it, take care to, as my college band director would say, “plan your work and work your plan.” This way you will ensure that your time away from school is time well spent.

The Daily Routine: The Key to “Maintenance” Practicing

Throughout my performing and teaching career, and quite honestly going all the way back to my high school days, I have been an outspoken advocate of a daily fundamentals routine as a means of maintaining and developing playing skills. I have written about that on this blog here, here, and here, and have posted a number of routines of varying lengths and levels here. My idea of a daily routine includes—but extends beyond—what one might call a “warm-up,” with the longer and more advanced routines developing quite a wide range of playing skills.

I have constructed my daily routine in such a way that not only am I “warmed up” after completing it but I have also exercised most or all of the “fundamentals” that I need to reinforce each day in order to play my best. I like to think that, as long as I complete the daily routine on a given day, I have practiced enough to maintain my playing skills; improvement and development come with whatever practicing beyond the daily routine I am able to accomplish.

The daily routine, then, is a key to “maintenance” practicing. Perhaps you want to use the break from school to relax a bit and lessen the time devoted to daily practice, or maybe family responsibilities and other factors will prevent you from practicing as much as you might like. Whatever the case, if you find yourself with very limited practice time for some or all of the break, take care to at least complete your daily fundamentals routine each day. You won’t “grow as a player” very much from doing such a minimal amount, but I think you will at least find upon returning for the next semester that your playing has not significantly declined.

Dealing with Unappreciative Relatives

I have been blessed with family members that are reasonably supportive of my work, though I do endure some slight “friendly verbal abuse” when my practice sessions go on too long while I am visiting my parents and in-laws. Perhaps you have experienced the same, or worse, have found yourself visiting family members that do not want to “put up with that ‘racket.’” Whichever is the case, there are steps you can take to give yourself plenty of practice time without disturbing others.

The best thing you can do is find an alternative location to practice. When visiting my wife’s family I often practice in my father-in-law’s workshop. The building is a bit dusty and does not have air conditioning or heat (which is often not a problem during the daytime given Mississippi’s mild winters), but I am able to practice there without interruption and without disturbing others. If your family does not have a workshop, shed, or barn you could use, you might try seeing if a local church would let you practice in its facilities (which I sometimes do when visiting my parents). Churches usually have the advantage of being heated and cooled, and provide an acoustically desirable practice space.

If no alternative location is available, a good quality practice mute can help you to get some productive practicing done while minimizing or eliminating the disturbance to others. While older practice mutes were heavy and caused quite a bit of unevenness in both sound and pitch, modern mutes are lighter and much closer in pitch and response to the open instrument. For trombone and euphonium I recommend the “Warm-Up” mutes from Best Brass. While I have no personal experience with this mute, I have heard that the Schlipf tuba practice mute is excellent.

Easing Back Into Normal Practice Patterns: Do Not Try to “Play Catch-Up”

Lastly, a word of warning for those that fail to keep the above advice. For various reasons—some of which are not our fault at all—many of us find ourselves nearing the end of the holidays not having practiced nearly as diligently as we would have hoped. This creates a certain temptation to “make up for lost time” or “play catch-up” during the last few days before returning to school. If this becomes the case for you, or if you have decided to purposefully use the time off from school to relax a bit and lessen your playing demands, give yourself a few days to reestablish your full practice routine before beginning the next semester’s playing obligations in earnest. As mentioned above, gradually increase practice time over a period of three or four days so that the tissues are not damaged by the sudden “shock” of diligent practice. While taking too much time off can be bad for one’s playing, soft tissue damage from overexertion is even worse. In this situation, as always, practice wisely!

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, and Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed here are solely those of Micah Everett, and are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which he is associated.
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