(Note: My wife/editor warns me that this will be super dull for non-brass players, while I know it will be very pertinent to those of us who try to play these darned things, and probably other instruments too. You’ve been warned. I like to write about these things that I think about a great deal, as they're really the nitty-gritty of professional music making.)
It’s not by chance that I’ve gotten this website and blog up and running around now. Not through any grand designs, or a strategic launch before the holiday season. Really, it’s because this has been a physically and mentally taxing part of the orchestra season. Heavy pops and opera shows along with big serious repertoire on stage have meant that I’ve needed to be judicious with my practicing, leaving time for other matters.
When it comes to playing your instrument, there is only so much physical and mental energy to work with in a day, and we carry a longer-term balance as well. The goal is always to get the best result possible, both immediately and in the long term, and that doesn’t always mean that more is better. When I’m not feeling the heat of my schedule, I know that I have the energy to spend on serious practice: time, quality, intensity, and focus. But when work is a pressure cooker, it’s best to balance that with a lighter workload outside of office hours. If I’m playing a well-balanced, high workload piece at work, like a Mahler symphony, I don’t need to be hitting it hard in the practice room, in fact that would be more likely to hurt my performance than help it. If it’s something more homogenous, like a John Williams programme, I need to balance it out with some soft, lyrical, low playing while still keeping the practice time down.
It’s important to think about what sort of condition you need to be in. The demands of a Bruckner symphony are very different from a Bach orchestral suite, and something like Petrouchka is again another beast entirely. Whether you need to be strong, sensitive, or well-rounded (or any other specific profile) will determine how you tailor your workload leading up to and during a concert cycle.
Heavy weeks like the one I’m in now also highlight the need for quality recovery. Just like athletes, getting good sleep and treating your body well lead to better performance. Giving your brain a chance to recharge is important too. You don’t get stronger when the horn is on your face, it happens when you recover afterwards and your body adapts to the workload it has experienced.
Practicing heavy in light weeks and light in heavy weeks is not a new idea, but it’s still one that bears fruit. Getting that balance right is the way towards optimal performance, progress and avoiding injury in your playing, and keeping your head on straight when things get crazy!