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Day 1032- I’m Not Crazy!

I made the most amazing discovery today. I went through my 5 technical units today (very specifically laid out 15-minute practice units, very specific tempos, very specific ranges, stability for 32 minutes, etc.) and I have really made some great progress on playing the full working professional range. My high range was always limited, and my ability to just pick up the horn and play was always bad. I needed a ton of time to warm up and practice, and if I walked away from the instrument for 20 minutes, I would be ‘cold’ again. You know those people that would put the horn down for 6 weeks in the summer and then pick it up on the day of the first rehearsal of their next gig (I’m looking at you Carl!)- yeah- that was never me.

I thought I was crazy. As an undergrad I practiced 40 hours per week (some days as much as 9 hours) because the most common prognosis to having difficulty on the horn is ‘practice more’. I obsessed in grad school etc. and FINALLY, I have made some really meaningful headway. It only took 16 years of college, 25 years of playing, an extra master’s in kinesiology, and an obsessive desire to investigate. Oh, and I’m 42 and it’s after midnight on a Friday night and my family is asleep and I’m practicing- that kind of stuff.

Many of you know that when you get older, you develop knots in your muscles, like your back or shoulder, and if you take a tennis ball and massage them out, you will feel a little ball of tissue in your body ‘thump’ it’s way across the ball- like an upright jazz bass player’s thumb as it thumps across a string. It’s usually called a ‘knot’ and our bodies form these knots for all sorts of reasons.

Many of you brass players know that as you ascend on the instrument, the locus of vibration gets smaller (toward the center). I have crossed a threshold with face strength. I can now maintain my embouchure shape even when the tiny knots inside my lips cross to the inside of the mouthpiece. It feels like a knot traveling over a tennis ball, or the thump of a bass player’s thumb across a string. I can actually feel the knots migrate to the inside of the mouthpiece when I cross a certain point in my range. My lower lip has two knots. I think I might name them.

Up until today, my face wasn’t strong enough to hold its shape through this, and it would ‘buckle’ and collapse into a different shape. My jaw would curl under, one side would puff out, I would frown on one side and smile on the other, etc. All sorts of weirdness. It was a mess. I’m amazed at how I had a ‘decent’ tone throughout it all, and no one ever brought it up (in hindsight I was probably masking it through obsessive practice). The only time it ever really surfaced in my playing was when I went into the upper register. For those of you who take bass trombone auditions, you know that is a death blow. There’s no way you can advance if Kodaly and Franck and Strauss and Haydn all get tight and pinched and the high notes don’t happen at all. You’re done.

Today when I was playing, I noticed that my face was stronger, and it could hold its shape, so I felt the tiny knots slip across the rim of the mouthpiece. It was in a predictable part of my range, but now it doesn’t seem to affect my playing like it used to. It was fine. I was able to play 3-octave arpeggios from pedal Bb up to high Bb, B-B, C-C etc. up to E5 (I even squeaked out an F5- which for me is unheard of). It no longer controls my playing. Now I control it.

A few takeaways: First- I’m NOT CRAZY! It feels very validating to discover that yes, my face does weird things and I’m going to have to work with that. I’m not crazy. Second- I have found a solution. I wouldn’t call it a ‘short-cut as I’m on day 1032 and still much work to do, but it feels great to finally be figuring it out. Third- It makes total sense why I always seemed to need a ton of practice time before I was ‘ready’. Some players could just pick up the horn or take days off. Not me. I need 2 hours every single day- no exceptions. People thought it was in my head (or I was doing it wrong). They were wrong. All of them. The further I got in the industry, the crazier I felt because no one could relate and no one strikes up conversations about how they are limited in their brass playing. High-level professional usually became high-level because they didn’t have to deal with this. They were lucky, but also they could not help me at all. It all makes sense. If there are knots (or scar tissue) in my lips, it makes sense that I would need to ‘work it out’ daily and make sure they are really warmed up. Like an athlete who needs to nurse an old ankle injury and it takes longer to be ready to go- that’s my face. Also if I walk away from the horn, I have to warm it up again. I’m not crazy. It’s a thing. It’s a challenge for our industry, but nothing insurmountable. Lastly- for all the ‘great players’ out there. There’s a storm coming…I’ll see you in 964 more days…

(OK, maybe a little crazy)…

More to come!