A former mentor once told me that building endurance is going to hurt, “there’s no way around it.” Qualify this claim. What are some insights you would have for building physical and mental endurance on the instrument? Include anecdotes that have been formative in your approach to building endurance.
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When approaching the idea of endurance, I am continually reminded of the old adage of “no pain, no gain” used by coaches to emphasize the idea of building a consistent work ethic. While I agree with the general sentiments of this phrase, I believe that far too often, the word “pain” is misconstrued to indicate that it must involve literal suffering, when it is perhaps better understood when substituted with “effort.” In this sense, I view the building of endurance not as a process that requires the musician to experience excessive physical discomfort, but one that consistently stretches the boundaries of our physical comfort zones at a sustainable rate. During my undergraduate years, I uncritically bought into the idea of the 10,000 hour rule, which dictated that I would practice 6 hours per day regardless of what my day looked like. Needless to say, the results obtained were short-lived and counterproductive to ever feeling true mastery in any lengthy performance that demanded endurance. Once I discovered a passion for weightlifting in my masters, I realized that our embouchure is as much of a muscle group as any other, and therefore building strength would necessitate a similar approach of intense (yet calculated) efforts combined with a great amount of rest time. I define calculated efforts as the necessary stress that we must our muscles through in order to gain strength, either in the gym or on the instrument. If one wishes to grow one’s biceps, it is important to gauge one’s current strength where the individual can perform various repetitions of arm curls comfortably with a given set of weights. However, in order to see increased results in stamina and strength, it becomes necessary to stretch the limits of one’s comfort and pick the heaviest set of weights that can be reasonably managed without presenting a risk of injury. Any type of muscle growth requires muscle breakdown, and this can only be obtained through physical effort and discovering one’s limits. Similarly on a brass instrument, we do well by first identifying the extent of our comfort zones in boundaries of our cash register, but we recognize that any growth is solely the result of venturing outside of these parameters and challenging both our physical and mental comfort. Here, I find it important to differentiate between physical and mental comfort: the mental portion is how much weight we think we can lift, and the physical is how much we can actually lift. What is the highest note that we believe we can play, and does this match the potential of our physical limitations? My experience has been that oftentimes, our physical comfort is dictated by our mental comfort, meaning that our physical potential is often far beyond the self-imposed limits that we perhaps unintentionally create. I believe that one of the most often neglected discussions of endurance, however, is regarding the idea of rest time. Lifting weights takes a large toll on the body and requires ample amounts of rest time as well as protein intake to regenerate the literal damage that the muscles have been subjected to. If we accept that our lips are a muscle group, why are they to be treated any differently? Since minutes of rest time are imperative during lifting sets to have continued energy, adequate rest time between sets of long tones, lip slurs, scales, and any practice segment is equally important. A wise mentor once said to me that while an activity itself is where the work occurs, it’s the time away from the activity when our body adapts, processes, fully absorbs, and neural pathways are reinforced. My rule for endurance: work to challenge your self-imposed boundaries on a daily basis, keep a progress log to confirm your results, stay hydrated, and get all of the sleep you can afford - you’ve put in the work, so allow your body to take care of the rest. Rest is where the magic begins.
Personally, I don’t think of endurance as getting from point A to point B without symptoms of fatigue. Building endurance to me is about building trust in my own playing and level of preparation. In my own experience, building endurance can be tedious and painful, especially when my practice sessions were unbalanced and I was playing inefficiently.
I don’t have much to offer in terms of building endurance. To be clear, I have many tactics that I use, but to me the approach to building endurance is as personal as how we choose to warm up or the equipment we play on. The most common strategies I use are alternating light and heavy days, balancing high and low playing, practicing long passages at half-tempo, and setting durational goals.
In regards to duration, I am reminded of an anecdote I heard about the Russian trumpet prodigy Sergei Nakariakov. His father (who mentored him in his youth) discovered that brass players would at most only play 7 minutes consecutively without pause. To train for the difficult repertoire he would play, he would gradually increase the length of consecutive facetime. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I think of this strategy often when I am preparing for a solo performance. I will offer this: I have had issues with overuse when I set arbitrary durational goals. I would ignore warning signs to achieve this. It’s not worth it. I listen to my body more now, but am still reluctant to use this approach.
I would strongly advocate for injury awareness. There are many great resources- such as Lucinda Lewis’s book Broken Embouchures and the website musicianswell.com- that offer great knowledge and insight in regards to different embouchure injuries, mental hurdles, and stories of musicians who overcame injuries. It is difficult to talk about injuries and embouchure overuse without feeling like you will be perceived as weak, defective, or possibly lazy. It is important to know when you need to ask for rest and step away from the horn before you injure yourself beyond repair. As Angela Bilger remarks in an interview with Colin Williams about the injury he overcame, most of us have the expectation of playing without pain. This will probably not be your reality. You should be able to interpret what a specific pain means. Is this indicative of an injury or overuse or is this unconnected to your performance practice?
As someone once quarried: how can you know if you have gone too far if you have never been there? I’ve been there and I’m determined not to go back. Know your limits and when to step away from the horn. My final recommendation is to not learn this lesson the hard way.
I think there are two sides to endurance. The first is obvious: if you only play one hour a day, you will have a rough time in a three hour rehearsal. There is no way around the time-commitment that superior endurance requires, but the second side of endurance requires more intentional practice and analysis. Efficiency is the second side of endurance, and understanding your own approach to the instrument should be the first step to addressing endurance. Personally, I struggled with endurance when my repertoire featured articulation in the high register. I could slur in the high range for hours, but I had efficiency issues with my articulation and the simplistic “time spent = endurance gained” mentality was doing more harm than good. I had to commit to spending analytical time dissecting my articulation, time that was fueled by practice techniques focused on syllables, air flow, and relaxation without the long, sustained methods that are typically associated with endurance building.
In terms of the physical nature of endurance, I find that the difference maker in performances is the strength of a player’s sustain. How you phrase after you initiate a note can be the difference between life and death in a performance, and this is where musicality can inform physicality. If you are not intensely and intentionally phrasing, moving your notes into each other, you are going to feel more fatigue AND you are going to have a less effective performance. I find the most effective devices for building endurance are etudes by the likes of Bordogni and Blazhevich, studies that typically last a page or more and can be easily transposed. Many selections in the Bordogni/Rochut book can be exhausting as written: the phrases are typically longer than 4 measures, the range can climb quite high, and there is very little rest. Committing to working on these studies with a metronome without stopping is the first step to building serious endurance, especially if you are able to execute all your musical ideas throughout all 120 selections. When you feel comfortable, transpose the selection up a fifth, as if it was written in tenor clef or Bb treble clef. There is no excuse for young students to not learn how to read in treble and tenor clefs, and these skills can unlock new dimensions in our practice. This will only “hurt” if you focus more on the “high notes” than the music you have cultivated in the original key! Aim to move freely through the upper register with the same elegance as before, and you will find that secret sauce!
My first assignment of my undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama was to learn Rochut 17 as written, in tenor clef, and down an octave. It did not go well. I was far too focused on “hitting the high notes,” and not nearly focused on making music in the high range. Every note was a significant effort and I could not make it through the etude in tenor clef without stopping. My teacher, Demondrae Thurman, was so surprised by the difference between my original interpretation and my tenor clef interpretation, that the “Rochut-three-ways” was a regular fixture in my first year of study. I still use this technique today! Every day, I play the etudes that correspond with the date, the date+30, and the date+60 in as many registers as I can muster. Look for the secret sauce everyday, and endurance will become a non-factor in performance.