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Day 524- Exit off of Habit Highway

Here on day 524 I feel accomplished that I was able to maintain 3 hours a day through the winter break. Today will mark the 78th day in a row of 3-hours of practice. The winter break during the academic year is normally a time I find difficult to sustain ambitious practice goals. There are times where I just want to sleep in, hang out with my family, fix our fixer-upper house, etc. but practicing three hours every day is a little like living in extreme conditions. For example- I imagine if I lived in the arctic circle where it is common to have 4-5 hours of daylight. The amount of time one has to do things ‘during the day’ is limited. That’s exactly how it feels with practice in the winter for me. I am either sacrificing the morning, the mid-day, or the evening, which leaves me with a shortened day to get anything else done. I’m not complaining, just observing why it is challenging at times. Over these past few weeks I felt the challenge the practice brings to limiting productivity with the rest of my life. Mowing the lawn, fixing the roof, doing a load of laundry, grocery shopping, dishes, etc. etc. I just don’t have the kind of time that I used to for such tasks. Naps are extinct. When my son naps, it’s practice time for me. I miss naps. He is not a big fan. Ironic…

Nevertheless, I have been improving steadily and up until now I would have said that “today is the best I have ever played a bass trombone”…. until today.

The first two units of my practice is devoted to re-calibrating the way my face makes sound (some might call this an embouchure adjustment) and in an effort to ‘force’ my lower jaw and lower lip to remain balanced with the top (as opposed to collapsing underneath as it has for the first 25 years of my playing) I have slowly developed the ability to do this- with great success! But today something happened. I noticed that I now have the ‘strength’ to keep this new level of coordination in the face and keep both lips relatively balanced during vibration. But with this I have noticed some collateral damage, albeit (hopefully) temporary. With this new balanced approach to vibration, it means that the locus of vibration on my lips is different. Thus, there are times where it sounds rough, gritty, double-buzzed, inefficient. I can tell that today there were times where the lips were ‘forced’ to utilize a spot with some scar tissue, and it sounded rough. In the past I would have always counseled students to go with what sounds best, but today I recognized that I am clearly taking a different path- a path that is sure to be rocky, unsettling, winding, etc. As if I just turned off of a nicely paved road onto a sketchy dirt trail saying to myself “I think this is the way”. That’s when it occurred to me – I am veering off of the “Habit Highway” and essentially trudging onto an unfamiliar dirt road. There is no sign. It’s not on the map- but somehow I think this will get me where I want to go. I am not 100% certain, but if I am to work through and loosen up some of the scar tissue, this has to be the way.

For the purposes of this blog, I will spare the neuroscience stuff and leave it at “I think what I am doing is right- for me- at this place in my playing”. I understand how habits form, how they bias our judgment both consciously and unconsciously. But it has given me pause. I have previously talked about the concept of finding success at an early age and how much easier it is. The longer you need to trudge on in the practice room, the harder it is to win jobs and break into the industry. But maybe that isn’t the entire story. Sure, it is harder to replace well-established habits. It is harder to find the increased time needed to accomplish this as life sets in (double whammy really with habits being more solidified and less time to course correct). We all know the story. But what I am doing with my playing is something that even a few years ago I don’t think I would have fully understood as I do now. What if the added age and experience is essential to handling this productively? What if instead of the easy statement “be successful early, or it probably won’t happen for you” isn’t the whole story? What if, in-fact, there is a bi-modal distribution that would show both young players, and more seasoned players experiencing success professionally on trombone (even if there are different ways to which they got there). It gives me optimism. In the next 400 days I am sure to make more discoveries and I am eager to see where this dirt trail leads! I might find that this current path is not productive and ultimately turn back. The older you get, the less time you feel that you have the time to ‘turn back’, so I recognize that it would make more sense to hedge my bet at this age. But, all of the experience and study and training that I have tells me to go forth. So here goes…