T.O.C. (Time Off Chops)

I am writing this article from a ship balcony overlooking the rainy streetscape of Juneau, Alaska. As I packed for a weeklong cruise (as passenger, not musician), I debated whether or not to bring my horn. In the end I left it at home, calculating that in the close confines of a ship, the sounds of lip slurs might not be welcome. I did bring a mouthpiece, but that has mostly languished in the drawer. Sometimes a brass player has to pretend he is like a normal person who is not tethered to a length of pipe. But the respite from reality comes at a price.

Re-Conditioning. Getting back in shape takes just about the same amount of time that I took off. After a week, the process usually goes like this:

  • First Day Back: The chops feel fresh and rejuvenated but soft. The notes respond, but they are somewhat uncontrolled with more misses than usual.
  • Days 2 to 4: Response is compromised. Sound is not as clear, and range is forced. This is the “tough slog” period.
  • Days 5 to 7: Playing is mostly back to normal, but fine tuning is needed.

Patient Restraint. When getting back on the horn after a layoff, I dive right back into my normal practice routine, but keep range and volume demands moderate, pushing only so far as it feels comfortable and sounds reasonably clear. This restraint requires patience; I know what I am able to do when I’m in shape, and part of me just wants to power through. But I’ve learned that the quickest path to revival is to let my body dictate how much to dish out.

Back in Shape. Playing a brass instrument is no different than any other physical fitness routine. When you are in shape, the workout feels good. Your muscles are conditioned to expect and even crave the effort. When you are out of shape, the workout is a chore to be endured.

Still, there are events and opportunities in life that take precedence over practicing the trumpet. It’s tough to get away from the horn, but absence makes the heart grow fonder.

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