Thursday, September 12, 2013
Getting Back in Shape
Help! I've had a few weeks off and I'm really out of shape! The new season is looming so I've got to get it in gear.
The first day back on the bassoon is always a blast! I reconnect with how much I like making a sound on the instrument and I'm inspired to read through some fun repertoire.
Then comes the next day. . .
My embouchure is shaking, my tone is unsteady and my fingers don't do what I want them to. My reeds are feeling worn out.
Now the hard work begins! I wish I could just pick up where I left off, but that isn't possible. I've lost ground and need to get it back. Very humbling!
I've tried just practicing a few scales and the repertoire I need to learn in the immediate future, but often find that's not enough to get me in tip-top shape by the first rehearsal.
I need to focus on some physical and mental things that I take for granted when in shape.
BREATHING AND SUPPORT
Even though I'm in excellent physical shape (training for a marathon right now), in some ways, the act of breathing and supporting while playing a wind instrument is specific to that activity.
There are some things that carry over from cardiovascular exercise to wind playing, but things like controlling the exhalation of air over a long period of time, holding the support while doing so, etc. do not.
You can lose a little ability in this area even with a short break from the instrument.
Perhaps the best way to get back these skills is to practice long tones. Focus on the control of the air and embouchure/reed at all dynamics and all registers is mainly what we do as wind players. Yet it's often overshadowed by things that are more fun or rewarding such as practicing solos, etc.
There are many long tone studies out there. You could easily make up your own. I have my own on my website.
For younger players and those who are not physically active there are many ways to raise awareness of how your body works while breathing and supporting the sound.
I like to use a Voldyne spirometer to help bassoonists learn to increase and control the volume of air they inhale. You can make up exercises using this device and others such as the Breath Builder.
Arnold Jacobs, legendary tubist with the Chicago Symphony for many years demonstrates the use of the Voldyne spirometer in the video on this page. You will need Windows Media Player to play this.
Another device I've found helpful is the Breath Awareness Trainer or BAT. This is sold by MG Double Reeds. With the straps and baffle around your abdomen you can really feel what happens with support during a breathing cycle. It's especially interesting to notice the difference in support needed for high vs. low notes, loud vs. soft dynamics.
Another skill that wanes a bit when I take time off has to do with hearing and vision. No, I'm not going blind or deaf, but my ability to hear what I want before I play it and my ability to use my eyes to feed my brain just the right amount of music at just the right time drop a bit.
This can be practiced, too, of course. For the critical skill of hearing exactly what you want before playing it and hearing the pitches as you play, long tones are best. With all technical difficulties removed you can really focus on imagining the sound you want and then trying to produce it. Try this with your eyes closed to block out visual distractions.
Sight reading works best for setting up the visual assembly line of moving information from the page through your eyes to brain and then fingers, tongue, breath apparatus, embouchure, etc.