14 December 2012

Conditioning Best Practices for Tuba Player(s)

[Update 11/28/14: Wow. This entire post is garbage. Almost all of it, anyway. Sorry everyone. I really have been tied in quite the knot over this during the last several years. Things have brightened just a bit recently, and I will be publishing a brief corrective today, hopefully one which ages better than this one has as my investigations continue. I am leaving this up only for the sake of curiosity and historical accuracy.]

One of the most valuable aspects of returning to school has been the opportunity to begin a sort of empirical investigation of how to stay in tuba shape. The frenzy of my undergraduate years, which often included an inhumane amount of daily tuba playing (as often at my own behest as that of the institution) was tremendously productive in many ways, and yet because it was more or less impossible to get out of shape under those circumstances (and also because I was younger and more resilient), I left school with no reliable method or plan of attack for maintaining this level of conditioning, or even, as I realized just a few years ago, any real understanding of how conditioning works.

I hasten to clarify that I am not referring here to matters of embouchure, airstream or any other external "product" or the physical technique of producing it, but rather to the internal chemical and mechanical condition of the muscle and soft tissue surrounding the mouth which, to a greater or lesser degree depending on your level of Jacobsian mysticism, mediates one's physical ability to create those external results. I'm a long way from a thorough clinical understanding of this sort of thing, nor am I finished with my anecdotal investigation of the various factors through the more tractable lens of musical results. However, I thought it would be worth inventorying and sharing the strongest of my suspicions as they stand today. Consider this list subject to revision and highly personal.


•Play for an absolute minimum of three 20 minute individual practice sessions every day. At least one should be longer and involve "feeling the burn" in your corners (i.e. where the muscles are; the center of the embouchure contains very little muscle and any pain or discomfort there is a major red flag). Two half-hour sessions at early and late hours have occasionally been sufficient, but usually not for an extended period of time, and especially not if what happens in between them is physically and/or mentally taxing.

•The most reliable way to "feel the burn" is to play music with no or very few breaks and lots of large intervals: Bach suites, jazz saxophone transcriptions, walking bass lines, running patterns and licks in all transpositions with a metronome, etc.

•"Feeling the burn" can range from working up to the point where you just begin to feel it and then stopping all the way to what I've heard weightlifters refer to as "total failure," when your muscles simply can't fire anymore. The happy zone on any given day is probably somewhere in between, so listen to what your face is telling you, not just that day but in terms of the larger patterns of how your chops have felt day by day for the preceding couple of weeks.

•Don't count rehearsal time as maintenance time unless it is so taxing that further playing that same day feels counterproductive or injurious. If this is the case, you've already given your muscles all they could handle that day.

•Space practice sessions evenly throughout the day. Don't play within an hour of your sleep: 1-2 hours after awaking is ideal; up to 4 hours before falling asleep seems tenable, though later seems to work just as well. Keep in mind that if you are a daily practicer, the longest you go without playing on a daily basis is between your evening session and the next morning; keep an eye on this time and don't let it get too terribly long one way or the other. Leave more time between your first and second practice sessions each day than between your second and third.

•At least 6 uninterrupted hours of sleep are absolutely required for a full recovery. Sleeping in shorter blocks for any amount of time is virtually useless to the muscles even if it is highly restful mentally.

•The most common interruptions are noise and nature calling. Therefore, I sleep with earplugs and limit food and drink to the extent possible after 8pm. Salt, alcohol and caffeine all will have you pissing your brains out a matter of hours later, so keep fairly dry, fatty, completely unsalted snacks handy in case you're really hungry late at night: unsalted sardines, extra firm tofu, dried fruit and nuts can be all consumed in satisfying quantities without precipitating a piss-fest. Two sips of wine a hour or two before bedtime can be relaxing; the alcohol will also dry you out a bit provided you leave enough time before sleeping for it to do its work, and it is also an appetite suppressant if you're feeling excessively snacky at an inconvenient time. Salt is just dangerous. Don't mess with it. Seriously. I cook primarily with Bragg's Liquid Aminos, which is (are?) miraculously low in sodium, and just a pinch of iodized salt here and there.

•Napping, while again often highly restful in every other way, is incredibly, gallingly destructive to the cycle of rest and recovery. My chops do not seem to differentiate between napping and sleeping: in other words, if I any more than doze off for a few minutes, it's as if I've "gone to bed" and my body hits the reset button. That is to say that if, for example, I have two practice sessions before 3pm, at which time I take a nap, awaking at 5pm, it is as if I have a new day on my hands, except (a) I had one too few practice sessions the previous day, (b) my body has not fully recovered from the previous day because I did not get at least 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep, and (c) I don't have enough time before I will be tired again to replicate a full practice day. Hence, I have essentially taken one potentially productive day and turned it into two unproductive days marked by the double-whammy of not enough sleep or practice, and two unproductive days in a row is generally four times worse than one. Further, this almost always leads to interrupted sleep for two or three more nights, which makes things even worse.

•Having said all of that, when the issue is fatigue and not underconditioning, it is likely that I will wake up from a long-ish nap with unusually loose, fresh feeling chops but very little endurance. I do this only in desperate circumstances because it tends to yield very good results in concert later that night; however, the long-term effect is similar to that described above, since you are still vastly undercooking your face and underrecovering two "days" in a row instead of one. I shudder to think how much of my life I've spent trying to get back into shape after doing this, so as miserable as it can be to be tired all day, I've started toughing it out until my normal bedtime almost no matter what.

•Eat a little bit of animal protein every day. It's clear to me now that my days as a strict vegetarian nearly ruined me. Perhaps it is possible to make this work, but I've found it much easier to simply reintroduce fish to my diet, which has lots of stuff besides protein that vegetarians don't get enough of. The rest of my current diet is very nearly strictly vegan across the board, so I'm not as concerned practically or philosophically with this single concession as I once would have been. While this was not the "magic bullet" I though it might be, it has in combination with the sleep guidelines made a significant difference in my conditioning. I began to suspect something was up years ago but couldn't confirm it. Rather, it was two separate incidents nearly a year apart which I couldn't explain, one at the tail end of a See Us Be Cute tour, the other when I moved to California last year. In both cases, the exigencies of travel meant that I (a) didn't practice much for several days, and (b) ate a ton of meat for being trapped at restaurants which didn't serve much else. In both cases, despite being completely exhausted and not in the best of spirits, I had indestructible chops two days later.

•Perhaps I simply have not mastered the craft of conditioning, but my final remark for now is that I have thus far found true consistency virtually unattainable, and in fact, even as an undergrad when conditioning per se was a non-issue and I maintained a near-fanatical devotion to routine, consistency was still a major problem. Some brass players insist that if you are consistent enough in the structure of your practice, it will translate directly to your conditioning; others maintain this is all in our heads and that if we so much as take note of how our chops physically feel, we have already lost the battle. I feel that both mindsets have let me down in a big way. My feeling has always been that there is a cycle of sorts at work; more recently, I've begun to suspect that one big piece to this puzzle which I have not yet mastered is ascertaining on a daily basis what my face needs. This probably sounds odd, but I have only recently learned to tell the difference between extreme fatigue and extreme underconditioning with a reasonable degree of accuracy: the physical sensations and musical results are remarkably similar. This is undoubtedly the source of some severe frustration in years past as it is then far too easy to mistake one for the other, which leads you to actually do the worst possible thing to your face that day. I will say that true days of rest are almost always conditioning setbacks, even if they are physically necessary to avoid injury; therefore, it becomes extremely important to avoid becoming this fatigued. Assuming this is attained, ideal conditioning seems to me to require a kind of scheduling flexibility that is almost impossible for most people, whether students, amateurs or professionals, since you have to react to subtle changes in your chops by adding or cutting practice sessions, or adjusting what you do during them and for how long. I know it's silly to get this detailed about it, but I've found the alternative terribly unsatisfying and counterproductive, and so I'm paying special attention these days to the Chop Cycle and trying different ways of gaming it to stay as strong and loose as possible. Did I mention that the parameters "strong/weak," "tight/loose," and "swollen/limber" all seem to operate independently of each other? It's quite a minefield, but I'm committed to figuring it out, hopefully sometime before my faculties start to erode from old age. To be continued...

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