These last six months have been a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had my open-heart surgery on May 22nd, and with just a few bumps in the road I seem to be more-or-less through to the other side of this experience. I'm posting this blog entry on both my main trumpet blog (accessible from the links up top of the page) and as the last entry on my heart surgery and recovery blog that I've kept, which you can find here.
Coming back to playing the trumpet after this long off has been exciting and interesting. I sure missed it, and I still miss being at work playing with the orchestra. The most important thing though is to make sure that I get my playing to a strong and very healthy place before I do get back on the job, as it's hard to make adjustments when the schedule is so heavy.
Since I got some good advice from my teacher Andrew McCandless in my undergrad, I've always believed strongly in the power of taking some time off. Be it a day when you're feeling beat up and your schedule permits it, a week over the Christmas holidays, or six weeks over the summer, I've found that I always come back recharged, feeling fresh, and ready to play my best. It has been my experience, and especially that of my students, that taking well-earned time off is the time when long-term gains are realized and habits can be tweaked in a positive direction, and it's this last idea that has been of particular interest to me this time around.
Physically speaking, I don't think there's a great deal of difference between taking six weeks or five months off (given that I've healed up well and playing the trumpet hasn't exposed any problems with my recovery from surgery). Mentally though, there is a huge difference. All my deeply entrenched habits are looser, more malleable, which is a great opportunity but also a minefield. It'll never be easier for me to fix things, but if a new problem creeps in to what I'm doing it'll become a dominant habit very quickly. I've specifically targeted two long-time weaknesses of mine: starts, and my right hand.
For as long as I can remember I've had trouble starting first notes, and I've done a lot of work to understand the problem and fix it. My goal was to only do it the right way from day one back on the trumpet, and I've had a surprisingly easy time of it. Now it's my habit, and don't take it for granted. Aside from being diligent with everything I start, at the end of my first session every day I now have a little routine to really solidify what I've developed. I play the first few notes of Mahler 5 and Pictures, I start a couple of passages from the scherzo of the Barber Symphony No. 1 which is coming up in a few months, and I finish with the solo from Copland's Outdoor Overture, which is especially telling due to the downward slurs at the beginning.
I think most trumpet players have a lazy right hand, especially the third finger. I was able to do some focused work before I started playing the trumpet again; right-hand work doesn't mess with a healing sternum. In everything I'm playing now I'm trying to be very mindful of being strong and direct with my hand, especially routine things that I do every day like flow studies and the great Clarke-style piccolo trumpet studies by Chris Gekker, which are particularly good for the right hand.
The plan is to work hard between now and the end of the year, take a bit of time off as I usually would over the holidays, and consolidate all this good work I've been doing for my return to performance in January. I think it's a good, healthy plan and I really believe that I'm going to sound better in the near future than I have in the past.
Please don't hesitate to reply to this post to ask specific questions about getting back in shape after a hiatus like this. There's so much nuance to it that's hard to articulate without the focus of a specific question.