The way I see it, there are really two kinds of musicians when you get down to it: really devoted, conscientious people who live with their instrument as a part of themselves and live to practice; and then the more light-hearted types who love playing music but have to sometimes fight to get in their practice time because of all the lovely distractions whirring around us. As much as I would like to say I am one of those disciplined strivers, I fall firmly into the second group.
That’s not to say that I am undisciplined. It’s just that now that I’m a little older, I plan for some undisciplined time each year where I don’t play concerts and I spend a couple of weeks avoiding my saxophone. As a college professor, this tends to fall firmly in July. These days, this break is a healthy choice, and helps me eliminate bad habits that have crept into my playing when my practice happens mostly in between students’ lessons and focuses on difficult music and whatever my students are working on.
The only problem with this is that any time off can have a negative impact on our playing. Embouchure, support—all of that is muscle. Ask any bodybuilder, and he or she will tell you that if any take time off has an impact. The same holds true for musicians. I have a friend who used to say, “One day off, and I notice. Two days off, and musicians notice. Three days off, and the audience notices.” Yikes.
So what do you do after you take that lovely holiday? How do you get ready for Fall? If you are like me, or you know people like me and want to help them pick up the pieces, check this out for my hard-won TOP TEN STRATEGIES FOR GETTING BACK IN SHAPE!
While most of these ideas will work for just about any musician, these are my tips, so some are more saxophone specific. The amount of time it will take you to get back in shape will depend on many variables, but for me, I am usually back ship shape in a week or two, depending on how much time I have taken off.
1: If you’ve stopped, start to listen to art music again
In the summer, I listen to a lot of pop. I want a break from the intellectualism of my work, and I feast on Norah Jones and Flo Rider. That is not to say that I abandon all of my favorite jazz and classical players, but I certainly don’t listen to very much concert saxophone music during July. This is when I rediscover the music that I have given my life over to: I search the Internet for people who I don’t know, and pieces that are new and bring something special to the table. It is a springboard of inspiration!
This is based on an embouchure exercise from Larry Teal, filtered through my teacher in my undergrad, the amazing Dr. Jackie Lamar, and heavily dosed with corniness by yours truly. Smile with your teeth together, and, like a Rodeo Rider, say “SHEEEEEEEEEEE-OOOOOOOOOOOH!” Be sure to really pucker up on the “ooh.” This will wake up those embouchure muscles.
3. Go get a Frostie from Wendy’s.
Drink it through a straw. Nothing is better for your soul or your embouchure muscles than an extra thick milkshake sucked through a straw.
4. Play Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
This one is a recent discovery. When I first start out again, I find that I lose my more advanced scale shapes and my typical metronome speeds. This depresses me. So rather than start with scales and the metronome, I play nursery rhyme type songs by ear in all 12 keys. The rule is I go slow enough so that I can think it through and play without a mistake. It is more fun, frankly, and gives me a chance to focus on the embouchure and support.
This exercise is so versatile. You can play it with drones, or change keys after each phrase. You could even record yourself and play harmony. I like to vary the articulation throughout; sometimes I even play them in odd time signatures. The main thing is to listen to yourself, and play it like a concerto. I has to sound exquisite, or you miss the point of the exercise. I should also mention, when you’re back in shape, it can be a great altissimo exercise, too.
People often ask me about long tones when I suggest this exercise. For me, these come later. They are, after all, endurance exercises, which is something that you don’t have much of when you are coming off of a break. I dislike long tones initially because they require a lot of embouchure strength. Start with these other exercises, and after a couple of days, add those long tones back in when your lips can handle it without forcing you to change your embouchure. Extra points if you do overtone longtone exercises a la Rascher.
5. Find an easy piece or etude that you’ve never played before.
I’m always tempted to play through a familiar virtuosic piece after a break to “see what I’ve lost.” Don’t do that. It will just upset you. You’ve lost a lot, my friend. You know, deep down that you have, so don’t play games. Do this other stuff for a week, then attack that repertoire again.
Playing a new piece, though—in particular one that is not very extreme in terms of range—is therapeutic and won’t freak you out so badly. For me, summer becomes a great time to audition new works for advanced high school students and my college freshmen.
6. Practice in short bursts throughout the day: let TV help you.
TV has commercials, and they are spaced pretty regularly. Work on your music during the commercials during Day 1 and 2—maybe two episodes of House Hunters International, or if you’re not old, literally anything else. Day 3 and 4, swap it out and play during the show and take breaks during the commercials.
7. Invite a friend over to play duets.
By the end of the first week, I am feeling punished and slap happy with a need for some outside stimulation. Have a friend come over for dinner and play some duets. It’s fun. Or, if you are at school and your family is running you nuts, maybe you aren’t too far away from your university or conservatory and you could go for a visit with some pals. College campuses are amazing places over the summer. They tend to be spotless, pristine, and the amount of parking available will make you tingle with delight. Plus you’re out of the house and away from your family, which will probably do you all some good.
8. Once you start back, don’t take ANY days off from the horn for two weeks.
This is tough, but it’s about discipline and muscle development. You have to establish that you are playing saxophone (or whatever) every day again, and your lips need to get used to it. Tough love. Don’t be a baby. You are making music, not digging ditches.
9. Resist the temptation for EZO, Cigarette Paper, or Floral Tape…at least for a little while...
Sax players have tricks for dealing with that lower lip problem of your teeth pressing into the soft tissue at the base of the embouchure. You will feel like you need your EZO, or whatever you use. Don’t use it for a while. A lot of those embouchure pinch points happen because we use jaw strength instead to the facial muscles to control the embouchure. When you feel your teeth, stop, refocus your embouchure and try again. Or, take a break. It could be you have worked all you can for that session. Never sacrifice the structure of the embouchure for more time playing—especially when you are recovering from time off.
10. Be gentle with yourself. Guilt isn’t very useful in the long run.
You will probably feel regret for taking time off. Maybe you didn’t plan on taking quite some much time away from the horn. Well, as M from James Bond says, “Regret is unprofessional.” Leave it alone. You can’t live in the past. Promise yourself to plan better next time and focus on the joy of playing music again. Pay attention to your fundamentals, stay committed, and become aware of the improvement you make every day. T
What is the longest amount of time you have taken off from playing, and how long did it take you to sound like yourself again? What do you do to get back in shape after a long break?
I thrive on the buzz of the college campus. During the semester when I lumber through the corridors of Baird Music Hall on campus at Morehead State University, the practice rooms are almost always filled with students working. Scales, Arpeggios, and snippets of music from all over the world spiral through the air in a little, hill-protected hamlet in Eastern Kentucky. Miraculous and wonderful!
Usually, I am barely able to slide my key into my door before students cluster around me with questions about music, or school, or the odd personal problem that is “too urgent to wait.” My students are mostly music education students, and they are passionate, eager, and impatient to steer their own music programs someday. I have a fun job because of my students and the work that I get to do with them—I don’t take it, or them, for granted.
All that energy during the year makes summertime hard for me. Summer, for people like me, is a time to teach a few younger students, travel, reflect or practice. Usually all of that, actually. For me lately, it has been a lot of reflecting, and really that’s what makes summer hard. If you are even tangentially involved in music education, and can operate a smartphone, I bet you’ve seen these articles coagulating your news feed on social media. One is about the Atlanta Public Schools’ decision to “cut” its music programs and jobs while simultaneously sweetening the financial package of the superintendent.
it was one of those
'atlanta’s burning' moments.
'if this is happening in a big city,
what does it mean for smaller districts?”
Predictably, musicians and music educators were outraged. I was depressed. “Here we go,” I thought, still reeling from hearing that several of my friends and colleagues teaching elementary and high school music found pink slips in their final checks of the school year. It was one of those “Atlanta’s burning” moments. “If this is happening in a big city, what does it mean for smaller districts?” Doomsday scenarios begin to sequence: “Music in our schools is over! What will become of culture?! What will become of music in America? Why do schools so casually cut the very program that was a lifeline to me when I was in school?”
After the initial grief, I rallied for action.
I started thinking of how we could show those no-good administrators once and for all the importance and universality of music education. I had visions of working with radio stations, Spotify, Pandora, Apple and Muzak. What if, for one week, we stopped the music? What if for one week, there was no music on the radio, or in restaurants? No live musical performances anywhere in the country? A musical apocalypse! That’d show them how important it is!
As I Googled the number for Pandora to make my case for why they should lose millions of dollars of revenue nationwide for a week for the sake of solidarity, I saw an update to the Atlanta story pop up on my newsfeed.
a musical apocalypse!
that'd show them how important it is!
Today, the Atlanta Public Schools released a statement explaining in more detail what they were planning. They are not cutting all the programs in they district. They are eliminating a few jobs, yes, which is a shame, but all the students in primary grades will still have their general music classes taught by qualified, certified teachers, and there will still be band and orchestra programs. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen even makes this statement in her remarks: “As an oboe player as well as an avid lover and supporter of the arts, I truly understand the importance of these programs to our students. I will do all I can to keep them as part of school district focused on providing a quality education at the highest levels of efficiency.”
What happened? Well, it turns out, like a lot of education organizations, the APS found that they needed to downsize. Programs had to be cut due to a lack of funding, or overstaffing. Positions would be lost, but not just music—across the board. According to Carstarphen’s remarks, 20% of the cut positions came from the central office—administrators and staff.
What question do we ask now?
Well, we could ask, “So who got cut? Who lost their jobs?” Of the 60 or so music teachers in the APS, 18 will no longer be teaching music the district next year.
That was a good question. Here’s a better one:
“WHY did those teachers get cut?”
According to the article, because students in those schools were not interested in studying music. Principals (or Building Level Administrators if you want to use the fancy education lingo) found themselves with the power (granted by Dr. Carstarphen) to make these staffing decisions based on the budgets given to them by the school board. “… If principal A observed high interest in band over orchestra in their elementary school, that principal could choose to enhance the band program and remove the orchestra program. If principal B saw a growing interest in visual arts, principal B could decide to invest more in visual arts, eliminating band and orchestra. If principal C was interested in enhancing band and orchestra programs, principal C could choose to increase school class sizes in order to offer a more robust fine arts program.”
How is this conducive to creating a community of artists and educators doing the best work they can? It sounds like they are promoting a culture of competition among the arts: whatever is the most popular with the local tweens will get funded. The least popular will get cut.
It’s like the Fine Arts Hunger Games down in Atlanta.
Or are the fine arts in our schools behaving more like a cult of “plastics” who are seem to be working together on the outside by are secretly sabotaging each other from the inside?
“On Wednesdays, we wear pink.”
...you can do everything right
and still end up losing your job,
while down the street, another teacher
who is no where nearly
as effective or inspiring continues to invest
in her pension, year after year,
tired holiday musical after tired holiday musical. It just ain’t fair.
Music educators at the primary and secondary levels are among the very, very best teachers I have known. Some are also among the worst. What’s frustrating for me, is you can do everything right and still end up losing your job, while down the street, another teacher who is no where nearly as effective or inspiring continues to invest in her pension, year after year, tired holiday musical after tired holiday musical. It just ain’t fair.
The decision by APS raises awareness to an interesting problem. How do we keep kids excited about music? How do we get them involved in band, orchestra, and choir? In this case in Atlanta, principals were supposed to make choices based on student interest. How do we make sure students stay interested?
Passion? Commitment? Excellence?
The other side to this is the very vocal public outcry. The dissent of the Internet was so vociferous that the superintendent had to post a public statement. Why? Because the culture at large placed a value on music—specifically music education in a major city. This is how we keep music in the schools. We must work together not to vilify administrators who are trying to hang on to their own jobs, but to remain culturally relevant, vibrant, and important to our communities. We have to show what we do, and we have to do it well.
I’ll tell you what I am reflecting on this summer:
No one hates music, but how do we get everyone to love it again? MT