This weekend, countless young music students all across North America will walk into the practice room for the first time leading up to the new semester and ask themselves the age-old question: “How do I get back in shape in 24 hours?”
(And let’s be honest — quite a few professionals will too).
The school year or season ended months ago and the relaxing summer ahead seemed so long. Without a summer season or festival, things can easily end up on the back-burner for too long. You had planned to practice hard — with a few little trips, brunches, and seasons of Parks & Rec sprinkled in — but time and bottomless mimosas got away from you. You now find yourself days away from your first playing obligation and struggling to get your valves to move.
It happens. We’ve all been there.
I used to be a fan of the whole “plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead” idea. I also required a caffeine IV drip to survive. Similarly, I thought taking time off from the horn was one of the worst mistakes you could make — you’d lose your edge. But it’s just not true. Rest and recovery are vital to your development on the instrument and, even more importantly, your general wellbeing.
I mean this truthfully: so many of my biggest “ah-ha moment”-type breakthroughs on the horn have followed a break. Sometimes that break has been just a day or two — other times it has been a week or more. Your body resets, your mind resets, and you come back to the same problems with the same tools, but the tools are sharpened, you can handle them more easily, and you can see everything more clearly. While I’m never in peak physical shape in the days immediately following the break, I’ve never once felt — after a week or two of careful practice — as though I have lost any of the ability or technique I was playing with before the time off. Yes, my endurance lasts about 42 seconds and most of the nuance in my technique is completely out the window for a few days, but there is never a need to panic. It always returns — often stronger than before.
That being said, vacations can’t last forever.
“So how do I get back in shape… and fast?!”
If you truly only have 24 hours until your first lesson and you haven’t played since your last orchestra concert in May, I’m afraid I can’t offer you too much more than some advice for next time. (And… maybe bring your teacher some donuts).
For the rest of us, it will just take a little brainstorming and patience.
Personally, unless I am doing it in a serious time crunch — which does happen — I love the process of coming back from a big break. It’s like hitting the Reset Button on a video game. We’re not totally wiping everything away or playing an entirely different game — nor did we lose all of our past experience going through the levels — we’re just going to enjoy some time beginning again, re-visiting the earlier levels, and using the skills we developed last time to navigate the game again. With time, thoughtfulness, and a little patience, your Reset Button can be your secret weapon to bouncing back stronger, more balanced, and more confident than ever before. It’s important to note that, perhaps best of all, the Reset Button approach outlined below does not have to be in your toolkit just for coming off a break — you can press your Reset Button and do this kind of work any time you wish.
Like anything else worth striving for, this work is simply a matter of the three big questions:
Where are we going?
Where are we coming from?
How do we get there?
Or, in other words:
How much time do I have before I have to play in front of another human being? How much time until I need to be in my top shape? (These questions might not have the same answer).
What shape am I in right now? How big of a break did I take? What are the biggest areas of concern or weakness in my technique right now? Historically, which elements of my technique have taken the longest to bounce back after a break? What are the physical elements of my process that are most important to efficient playing?
What exercises, études, and repertoire can I incorporate into my daily practice to most efficiently and safely get back into shape? How much should I practice to re-build my endurance without overdoing it? How should I structure my practice?
When you do have the luxury of time, taking a day to sit, reflect, and plan your Reset Button can be incredibly rewarding and enlightening. Outlined below is the full Reset Button method. You may choose to water it down or follow it more loosely based on your own time restrictions. The important thing is to honestly assess where you are, where you’re going, and how to get there as efficiently and safely as possible.
If you only have a few days, the principles still apply. Just don’t overdo it!
The Reset Button
Write down today’s date, the date of your next playing obligation, and how much time you have in between.
If your next playing obligation is rather low key, write down the date of the next playing obligation that requires you to be in your best shape. Again, write down how much time you have in between.
Assess your technique — completely — as it is today.
Divide a sheet of paper into three columns. In the far left column, list all of the elements that make up the total technique of your instrument. For example, if you are a horn player, your list might look something like this. (For this purpose, you don’t need to include special extended techniques like multi-phonics unless it’s something you use often or will use soon).
In the middle column, honestly assess where you currently stand with each technical element you listed. For some, it can help to think of your favorite player, or a colleague or studio mate you admire, and compare each element of their technique to your own — but don’t use this as an exercise in self-deprecation. Take note of which elements will require the most immediate attention and mark those with an asterisk. If you are unsure about how to assess some of the elements because you haven’t played at all lately, don’t worry. You can leave some blank or make guesses based off past experiences. You’ll revisit this list after your first practice session and be able to re-assess and fill in the blanks.
Lastly, in the third column, start brainstorming different ways to address each individual element. What are the exercises in your toolkit — or that you’d like to add to your toolkit — that you can use to address this specific problem? If you determined that your low range is very weak right now, what are the études, exercises, and solo pieces you can use in the coming weeks to strengthen this area? If you’re stuck or don’t know of any, it’s okay! You don’t need to use already established études and exercises for every single element — you are encouraged to create your own exercises to address specific needs. This doesn’t mean you have to write out an entire vocalise-type étude for each one — create short, highly specialized exercises that target your specific need. If you’re really stuck or looking for more ideas, ask your teacher or your colleagues for suggestions.
(If you have a copy of the Audition Playbook, you may choose to use the Initial Technique Assessment on Page 61, disregarding the “spotlight excerpts” column).
On a separate sheet of paper, make a list of all of the exercises you typically do as part of your daily fundamental routine. At the bottom of this list, add all of the exercises and études you wrote down in column #3 of the technique assessment. (There will likely be a fair amount of overlap, though hopefully not completely).
This is your new toolkit. Your practice sessions over the coming days will almost entirely draw from this list.
Draw a line below the last item on your list and write down any repertoire you need to prepare for your first playing obligations — placement audition music, assignments for your lesson, etc. You’ll add this music to your practice sessions as needed, but focus more on building the foundation of your playing again and learning the music away from the instrument. Listen to recordings and mentally practice a ton!
Identify any other off-the-instrument elements you’d like to incorporate into your “routine.” Stretching, centering, yoga, breathing exercises, Alexander Technique work, etc. Now is the time to introduce (or re-introduce) these back into your routine.
Create (or re-evaluate) your personal Process Checklist. (If you know me or anyone else who has studied with Andrew Bain, you know it’s all about the Process!) Your Process Checklist is a layer-by-layer list of the individual fundamental physical ingredients that make up your most efficient playing. This list is essentially your playing from the ground up. For example, here is a past version of mine.
When practicing, use your Process Checklist to focus your practice, problem-solve, and ensure you are always building a secure and efficient foundation, in order, layer-by-layer. When monitoring each item on your list in practice, do just that — monitor — not control! Ask yourself, “Am I breathing freely?” instead of trying to force yourself to breathe freely. Monitoring with a curious awareness will prove to be incredibly enlightening. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your playing and eventually discover that things seem to just fall into place when you let them.
When problem-solving, don’t jump straight to the layer you assume is causing you problems. Go back to #1 — am I thinking about Process or Result? Then #2, #3, etc. Build the “house” of your playing on a solid brick foundation — not sticks and muddy rainwater.
Admittedly, it takes time to adjust to this way of thinking if you are not used to it. But it is incredibly powerful and transformative and, in my opinion, the most important takeaway from this list.
Plan your first practice sessions and get to work!
Good news! You’ve already roughly planned all of your sessions by creating your list in #4. Your list likely has way more on it than you’d ever play in one practice session — and especially in the first sessions where your endurance is lacking — and that’s fine. You’re not playing the whole list. This list is more of a menu of tools to choose from. You’ll cycle through all of them over the course of each day or two. In the first few days, instead of planning exactly which elements to practice when, simply plan out how long each session should be, gradually throwing in the different exercises to each session. Start small and listen to your body.
For example, your first session might be only 25 minutes long. Start with some of the easier exercises and standards from your daily routine. Be flexible — not rigid! Be cycling through the list throughout the day in your various sessions, addressing each specific exercise and element, and monitoring the items on your Process Checklist. Aim to practice in shorter sessions spread out all throughout the day — such as three to four 25-minute sessions on the first day and a gradual increase in time or number of sessions on the second or third (preferred) day.
Re-visit your technique assessment list and make any changes based on what you’ve noticed in your first day or two of practicing. Do you need to adjust your priorities?
Really try to not care what you sound like — or, to an extent — what it feels like.
You should be focused on putting in the right ingredients (Process!) and gradually building up again — not worrying that you don’t sound like you did right before your recital. And it will feel weird. Always be consciously aware of any pain or discomfort and do not push further if those feelings arise — but do not freak out about things feeling a little different. It’s like running for the first time after a pie-filled Christmas vacation. Trust that it will come back soon and enjoy this opportunity to focus on simply putting in the right ingredients.
Gradually increase the length of your practice sessions and add in the more difficult exercises. Building endurance does require pushing beyond what is comfortable — but doing so requires careful attention in order to not push to the point of injury. Always be listening to your body. As I said earlier, this process requires flexibility.
After four or five days, you’re likely feeling a bit stronger and have a better idea of the elements you need to focus on the most in the coming days. Write this down. Take note of what your priorities are and make sure you are playing the exercises addressing those issues in every session. If you wish, you can start to be a little more methodical in your practice planning at this point — planning specifically which exercises to practice when. It’s likely too that what you assumed would be an issue a few days ago has cleared itself up rather quickly — and things you didn’t worry about are proving more difficult! Adjust accordingly but maintain the same approach and principles. Focus on the process, listen to your body, and don’t overdo it.
Continue mentally practicing your repertoire and listening to recordings — it’s a vital skill to be able to learn the music away from the horn! However, after a few days of fundamental strengthening, feel free to gradually start introducing the repertoire back into your practice. It is recommended that you still dedicate at least 60% of your time to building your fundamental baseline and always focus on the Process!
Keep your notes for next time and record yourself and your thoughts before your next break! I have a friend who records himself playing and talking through his thought processes in the week or so leading up to a big break so that he can listen back and remember what he was thinking, feeling, and sounding like when he comes back to the instrument. He says it helps him bounce back faster than ever. I think this is brilliant. Similarly, it’s important to keep the notes you’ve kept throughout this process so that you can more quickly plan for your next “comeback.” If you were surprised by how long it took your high range to feel normal again, you’ll be able to better plan for this next time.
Lastly, enjoy this process! Don’t panic. It’s a great opportunity to reassess and begin again!
If you have any questions, comments, or ideas, please do not hesitate to comment below or contact me here. Happy practicing!