Endurance, Pressure, and Loud Playing

Endurance.  Hmm…how hard can it be to write about that?  Just practice a lot and you’ll have it.  True, but it’s not quite that simple.

Endurance is affected by what kind of shape you’re in and how efficient you are in your playing.  Of course, higher, louder, and longer all take more energy than middle range, medium volume, and music with lots of rests.

In a nutshell, play as relaxed as you can and use as little effort as possible so that the endurance you have goes as far as possible. As a plus, you also get your best sound this way and have your best flexibility.  Use the air as much as possible to do the work — always take a full breath (unless the music is really soft), and breathe again before you get to the point where you’re squeezing the air out. This will help increase your efficiency.

On to the specifics…

[nextpage title = "Long-Term and Short-Term Endurance"]

There are two kinds of endurance:  long-term and short-term.  What’s the difference?  Long-term endurance is about how many hours a day you can play.  This typically includes rehearsals; you know that often you do not play the entire rehearsal, so 2.5 hours of rehearsal may not even be an actual hour of playing.  And it includes individual practice, but you can take a break whenever you need to, so it includes downtime as well.  It could include a concert, but most of us don’t have concerts on a daily basis.  And concerts are where we most definitely need endurance!

Short-term endurance is how long you can play stop without taking the mouthpiece off your face.  This requires that you practice non-stop without hurting yourself by using too much pressure.  I spend a lot of time working on my short-term endurance because I believe it also helps long-term endurance.

David Laubach studied for a while with Bill Pfund.  Bill told him to practice in 10-minute increments:  10-minutes basically non-stop alternating with 10 minutes of rest.  I asked David how this worked with long-term endurance; in reply, he asked, “How often do you have to play 10 minutes straight?”  My answer was never.  He said, “That’s right.  So, if you can play 10 minutes non-stop, and never have to do that, you should never get tired.”

There’s a lot of truth in that, but it’s not quite the entire story.  If you practice only 10 minutes a day, even though it’s non-stop, you are not going to be able to last through a 2.5-hour rehearsal and a 2-hour concert on the same day, especially if it’s a pops concert where the trumpets play all them time.  You’re going to need a number of 10-minute sessions to have the long-term endurance needed.

And, a few years later the Faculty Brass Quintet at Henderson played Ewald Quintet No. 3 immediately followed by Michael Tilson Thomas’ Street Song.  It was 20 minutes of almost non-stop playing!  Trust me — I used too much pressure getting through that performance!  So, 10 minutes of non-stop playing is a good start, but it’s not enough for all situations.

[nextpage title = "The Requirements of Endurance"]

Endurance is about practicing, efficiency, and pacing. You need all three to have good endurance.  Long-distance running provides a great analogy:

  1. I doubt there is anyone who would run a marathon without spending a lot of time getting in shape, which means you have to practice a lot to have good endurance.
  2. If you are running and your muscles are fighting each other, you will tire quickly, which means we need to be as relaxed as we can when we play (efficiency).  Breathing correctly is a huge part of efficiency.
  3. No one would try to sprint a marathon (26.2 miles), so if you play really hard, you’re not going to last very long (pacing).

Let’s discuss each point more fully.

[nextpage title = "Practicing"]

First of all, the better shape YOU are in, the better trumpet endurance you will have.  Your playing muscles are all part of your body, so it makes sense that YOU need to be in shape for your playing muscles to be in shape.  Many years ago I practiced two hours a day and exercised one hour a day.  I felt that by doing this I had the same endurance as practicing three hours a day with the added benefit of being in good shape overall.  (I need to start doing that again!)

My own guideline is that one hour of practice gives you the endurance for a two-hour rehearsal; that’s because of all the time in rehearsal when you are not playing, listening to the conductor’s instructions or other sections reheare.  But, one hour of practice only gives you the endurance for a one-hour concert.  Since there is no rehearsing during the concert, you tend to play more consistently, and you tend to play harder.  Once the adrenaline gets flowing, it’s hard to keep from doing whatever it takes to make the music sound great.

It makes a difference what kind of music you’re playing, too.  Brass quintet and brass band typically require much more endurance than band, orchestra, or big band because there are so few rests.  If you have a brass quintet or brass band performance coming up, you need to be practicing short-term endurance.  Big band lead playing has a lot of high notes, so practicing a lot of middle range music and ignoring the high range will not get you in shape to play lead trumpet.

[nextpage title = "Efficiency"]

Pat Sheridan, the virtuoso tuba player and one of the authors of the Breathing Gym told me the story of Ifor James, who played horn in the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble.  Ifor claimed that if you practiced one hour a day for three days in a row, that’s a strong as your chops get.  Everyone he talked to said he was wrong, so Ifor finally hired doctors to do the research and find out.  The result?  Ifor was correct.  Embouchure muscles are sheath muscles, and they’re different than arm and leg muscles.  (Honestly, I don’t understand the difference, but I take the point on trust.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t ask Sheridan whether what you’re practicing makes a difference, but it has to — one hour of low C’s a day cannot be the same as an hour of double C’s per day.

Okay, so if you’re practicing one hour a day and that’s as strong as your chops get, how does that translate into playing hours and hours per day like the pros do?  Air.  You have to be using air efficiently and letting it do the bulk of the work.  To support that statement, I once heard Maynard Ferguson say that his body got tired before his chops did.  That means his blowing muscles were doing the bulk of the work.

Here’s another point — Arnold Jacobs told Pat Sheridan who told me and now I’m telling you that when your chops feel tired, it’s because you are not using your air properly.  When Sheridan told me that, I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever hear.  I thought, “When I get tired, it’s because I’m out of shape, or I’m pushing the mouthpiece into my lips too hard, my breathing is not the problem, etc., etc.”

Sheridan is a member of Mensa International, which places him in the top 2% of intelligent people.  Arnold Jacobs was one of the most brilliant men I have ever met; seriously, when he decided to take up a hobby, he didn’t take up golf or chess, he decided to study medicine!  That is NOT normal!

One day I was practicing and my chops felt terrible, so I decided to test this theory.  I made myself breathe really well — big breaths and often.  Nothing happened…ha!  I was right!  It’s not the air!  I kept breathing well and after 5 minutes, my chops felt great.  So, I was wrong!!!

Efficiency is about using your air.  Without it, you will not have good endurance.

[nextpage title = "Pacing"]

I had a friend who told me he had “muscle car” that was so powerful that it burned 20 gallons of gas in 4 or 5 quarter-mile starts.  Twenty gallons of gas to go a mile or so?  Not too efficient, and expensive!  Obviously, his car was wide open and he ran out of gas quickly.  The same thing happens to us — if we play as hard as we can, we will “run out of gas” in a short period of time.

Some time back I got curious about the speed difference between sprinters and marathon runners.  Sprinting is like racing the muscle car — speed is the only concern because you’re not going that far.  So, how fast do sprinters run?  I went to Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge!  The first thing I learned is that there is a 60-yard dash that is so fast that the runners don’t even breath while they’re running.  That didn’t seem like a good analogy for brass playing, so I went with the 100-yard dash.  The record time for men is 9.07 seconds, set by Asafa Powell from Jamaica in 2010.  That translates into 22.55 miles per hour.  At the end of the 100 yards, there is nothing left — the runners use up everything they have for speed.

So, what about marathon runners?  To run over 26 miles, you have to pace yourself, so how fast do they run?  The current record (2017) is 2 hours, 2 minutes, and 57 seconds, set by Dennis Kipruto Kimetto from Kenya in 2014.  How fast is that?  It’s 12.79 miles per hour.

The fastest marathon racer runs 56.7% as fast as the fastest sprinter, but the marathon runner goes 461.5 times farther!!!  Obviously, pacing makes a difference!  (Plus the fact that marathon runners train differently than sprinters; but that alone can’t account for a 460-fold increase in distance!)

If you play as hard as you can, you will not last long, but if you limit yourself to 50-60% of what you can do, you’re going to have a LOT more endurance!!!  How do you do that?  Primarily by decreasing volume.  Keep your bell out of the stand, raise it when you really need to be heard, breathe well, and stay as relaxed as possible.

But, what if you need to play harder than 50-60% of what you can currently handle?  Then you need to get into better shape!

[nextpage title = "How to Build Endurance"]

Clifford Lillya, my teacher at the University of Michigan, said that you have to rest to build endurance.  Somehow, that didn’t quite make sense…it sounded like the best way to have endurance was to not practice, and I knew that was wrong!  I finally figured out that it meant knowing when to rest and taking a break at that point.

I was talking to my High Brass Methods class about this subject in the early 1990’s, telling them the way things work:

  • You start playing and aren’t tired — you are not building endurance because you’re simply benefitting from previous work.
  • You continue playing and start to get tired, but only you know you’re getting tired — I attended a series of master classes by Dale Clevenger, retired principal horn in the Chicago Symphony; during one of the sessions, he said that this is a very special time because this is when you build endurance; rather than fearing it, you should welcome it.
  • You continue to play and now people can tell you’re tired — your tone gets worse, you tend to play sharp, you push the mouthpiece too hard into your lips and lose flexibilty — I’m sure you know what I’m talking about!

Following this description, Todd Skaggs, one of the students in the class, said, “You should call that ‘the point of decline,’ where you start to go downhill.”  I agreed with him and have called it that ever since.

And that’s when I understood what Mr. Lillya was talking about, probably 15 years later.  When you reach the point of decline, you need to rest.  If you stop before that, you don’t build more endurance; after that point, you risk hurting yourself and becoming really good at doing things incorrectly.  When you reach the point of decline, you need to stop!  Even if there are only two lines until the end of the piece or two minutes until your practice session is over.  STOP!!!  NOW!!!!!!

[nextpage title = "Proper Tiring"]

So, what’s the right way to be tired?  You need to play well while you’re tired and the tiredness should be in the corners of the mouth, NOT beneath the mouthpiece!  When you start to sound bad or are tiring under the mouthpiece, it’s time to rest!

The embouchure works by isometrics — the pull of the cheek muscles (including the buccinator or “trumpeter’s muscle”) is balanced by the pull of the pucker muscle around the lips (orbiculoris oris) and the chin muscles.  When these muscles get tired, we feel it in the corners of the mouth.  Why do we feel tired in the corners?  I don’t know, but that is how it works.  (Sometime I feel soreness in my chin muscles from practicing harder than I’m used to, so I know they are an important part of this equation.)

All this pulling firms the lips up so that they’ll vibrate.  Higher pitches require more firmness; if the lips aren’t strong enough, we crush the lips between the mouthpiece and the lips.  Or, if the lips are too tired to pull strongly enough, we push too hard to make up the difference.  We get firmness at the cost of shutting off the blood supply to the lips, and we run the risk of hurting our lips.  I should add that the tolerance to pressure varies widely between individuals; people with a high tolerance can get away with using more pressure.  It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

When you start to push too hard, there is one thing you can try to help yourself, which will also build your endurance:  fight back.  When you start to push too hard, consciously firm your corners and reduce the pressure on your lips.  Quite often, rest is just a minute or two away in a rehearsal or even during a concert.  If you can keep from hurting yourself, you’ll bounce back quickly.  Once you hurt yourself, it can take hours or even several days to heal.

So, it’s important to get tired in the corners first; when the middle begins to get tired, take a break.  If you don’t, you’re building your left arm muscles and not your embouchure muscles.  Take a short break as soon as you start to get tired under the mouthpiece — maybe only 5 minutes or less.  This allows the body to bring nutrients and oxygen to your face muscles and remove waste products and lactic acid.  Take a drink of water — it will speed up the recovery.  After the short break you should feel much better.  Practice again until you start to get tired under the mouthpiece, and take a break again.  BUT, if you come back after the break and are still tired, you need to take a much bigger break.

Remember this:  if you hurt yourself, you have to heal before you can build endurance.  You may win the battle, but you’ll lose the war.  Rest when needed!

[nextpage title = "End of the Piece Endurance"]

As you well know, most pieces place the highest notes at the end.  It only makes musical sense, but from a trumpeter’s perspective, wouldn’t it be great if they were all at the beginning?  Not going to happen, I’m afraid, unless you write your own music.

So, how do you build your endurance so that you can nail the high C at the end?  Practice backwards — I call it “layering in.”  Let’s assume that the last note is a high C with a fermata; you start by playing that note and playing it with a great sound and the power that you need.  If you want, you can back up a measure or two in front of the last note to work up to it.  Once that’s established, you back up a few bars and play to the end.  If it goes well and you sound like Doc Severinsen on the last note, you can back up a few more bars.  If you don’t sound like Doc, there’s no point in backing up; you’ll just end up sounding bad on the last note and creating the “muscle memory” and tonal memory to produce a bad sound.

You have to wait.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of doing things right, so you can go for it several times to see if you can get it.  A good rule of thumb would be three times — if you can’t sound like Doc after three tries, you have to wait.  It may take several days, but at some point you will nail the last note and you can “layer in” a few more measures in front of what you just played.  There’s no forumula — look at the music, take an educated guess about how much to layer in, and see what happens.  If it’s not working, shorten the “layered” part until you sound like Doc on the last note.  Continue the process until you can handle the end of the piece with everything in front of it.  (If there is a significant amount of rest before the end, you probably don’t need to go back any further than that.)

Once you do this, you need to take it a step further.  My “theory of relavity” is that the hardest thing you’re playing is not necessarily going to be there every day, so you have to practice harder than what you have to play.  By doing that, what you must play is relatively easy and you can pretty much guarantee it, even on a bad day.  Back to our hypothetical high C — when you can play all the way to the end and nail the C, hold it longer than necessary, at least twice as long.  After you hold the C for a couple beats, go up to a D and hold it.  Or, put a shake on the C.  Anything that is harder than what’s written.

When I first figured out this process, I was dismayed that it took several weeks to work through it, but it was worth it because I could play the entire piece and nail the last note.  Many months later, I ran into another piece that was giving me problems with the last note.  Bummer!  I was going have to spend more weeks learning how to nail the last note on this piece.

But, I didn’t.  It only took a few days, and that’s when I realized that it’s about learning to pace yourself, to stay relaxed along the way to the end, to completely relax during rests, even if they’re only quarter notes, and to breathe well.  Once you go through this process, life is better!

Here’s something else — Dr. Wes Branstine, my former colleauge at Henderson, once told me that when you think you’re so tired that you can’t go on, you still have half of your strength left.  Since then I’ve read that he was wrong — you actually have 2/3’s of your strength left!  Now, how does that make any sense???  Why does the body tell us we’re exhausted, but we’re not???  I have no earthly idea, but if you ever done manual labor you know that you can get really tired, take a few minutes off, drink some water, and be ready to go back to work. So, apparently we weren’t as tired as we thought.  If it works for our arms and legs, it works for our embouchure as well.

Years ago I played the Tomasi Concerto at Henderson.  It ends on a high D concert after three long, tiring movements.  I had practiced layering in so I could nail the D, but during the recital I was tired as I came to the end, probably from spending too much energy on the rest of the piece.  To my surprise, I nailed the D, even though I thought I was too tired.  Dr. Branstine was right, plus I had trained my mind and muscles to do things correctly at that point in the piece, and that’s what happened in spite of how I felt.

[nextpage title = "Volume"]

Higher, louder, and longer make us tired.  We’ve still need to talk about volume — strangely enough, the key to power in trumpet playing is relaxing.  If you are trying too hard, the throat begins to close, and you can’t get the air into the mouthpiece. The result is that you force and the sound distorts and the tone gets smaller.  Practice simple, slow melodies with a really good sound, and then bring the volume up just a little by moving more air but staying very relaxed.  After a few days (or even several weeks), increase the volume a little bit.  If you repeat this process a number of times, you will get a much bigger, more powerful sound.  (See this article by James Clear on the importance of 1 percent improvements.)

Be careful to balance the louder playing with softer playing. Also, do a lot of playing between mezzo forte and forte. This will help you stay relaxed and keep you from being too tight when you play loudly.

[nextpage title = "Excessive Pressure"]

Pressure is required to play trumpet — if you don’t have a certain amount of pressure, air will leak around the mouthpiece.  In spite of stories about playing high C’s on trumpets hanging from a string or just laying on top of an upright piano, pressure is required to play with any kind of volume.

Pressure is also necessary to isolate the tissue in the mouthpiece from the lip outside the mouthpiece.  I learned this from Arnold Jacobs — the brain sends the signal to the lips via the 7th cranial nerve.  The signal goes to the entire lip, but we don’t want the entire lip to respond on the trumpet.  The bite of the mouthpiece (where the rim turns down at a right angle into the cup) isolates the lip inside the cup from the rest of the lip so that only the lip inside the mouthpiece responds to the nerve signal.  Without sufficient pressure, there is no isolation.  FYI, if you have a moustache, you will press harder than necessary because the moustache interferes with the isolation.  I had that problem, so I keep my moustache trimmed so that the bite of the mouthpiece rests on the skin of both lips.  You may have seen brass players that shave their top lip but still have a goatee or beard.  They do that for the same reason.

So, what if you’re using too much pressure?  And, how much is too much?  What you need to avoid is excessive pressure, pressure that causes the lips to swell, be bruised, cut by the teeth, or stiff the next day.  Unless these are happening, you are not using too much pressure; it any of these symptoms show up, you’re using too much pressure.

Here’s a great example — I saw Bill Chase give a clinic.  He said that when he played with Woody Herman, he had to put ice on his lips as soon as the gig ended; if he didn’t do that, his lips swelled up so much he couldn’t play the next day.  One day he was recording a “jingle” for a commercial — the part only went up to E above high C, but he bent his trumpet leadpipe in half!  He said he knew he used too much pressure, but that really scared him and he worked hard on reducing pressure.

If you do use too much pressure, there is one way to fight back.  The old theory was that amateurs didn’t play as well as professionals, so amateurs used more pressure.  About 30 years ago, someone in England decided to test the theory.  They took a mouthpiece, sawed the rim off, attached a device that changed current according to the pressure used and epoxied the rim back on.  This allowed them to accurately measure the pressure being used.

There were two results:  first, it was not possible to visually discern how much pressure someone used, and secondly, professional trumpeters used MORE pressure than amateurs, not less.  (The one exception was Phillip Jones who did use less pressure than amateurs.)

I believe pros keep their embouchure firm so their lips are protected from pressure, much in the same way that tightening stomach muscles minimizes the damage from a punch to the belly.  As long as the embouchure is firm, damage is minimized.  So, if you start pushing too hard, firm up your corners to protect your lips.

[nextpage title = "Reducing Pressure"]

What if you want to reduce pressure?  There are several mouthpiece solutions, like Warburtons’ Special O.P.S., that will not let you use too much pressure.  And, you can practice in such a way that you decrease your need for pressure.

One way is to reduce pressure 10%.  Your embouchure muscles will have to work harder to make up the difference.  Once they adjust, you can decrease another 10%.  You continue this process until the pressure you use no longer causes problems.

Another method was taught to me by Dr. Arthur Swift.  To do this, hold your left hand vertcally with the thumb pointed up; then move your first finger to the right so that is next to the middle finger.  This produces a slight groove between the two fingers.  You then rest your trumpet on top of the thumb and the groove between the two fingers and start playing.  You can only use a little bit of pressure before the horn starts to slide.  Be sure to keep your pinky out of the finger ring and be careful that you do not pick up pressure from your left hand ring finger; it will tend to grab on the the valve casing to allow you to use more pressure.

I have practiced a lot like this over the years.  At first, you feel like you’ll drop the trumpet, but that goes away pretty quickly.  Your chops WILL strengthen and you CAN’T use too much pressure.  The only bad thing is that you can’t use your valve slides, so you will not play as well in tune.  I practiced like this the entire summer of 1990, just before I came to Henderso.  It was great!  (Once I got used to it, that is.)  I thought about continuing to play like that, but I could NOT stand playing out of tune, so I quit.  And I ended up using more pressure too much of the time.  It’s a continual battle!

[nextpage title = "Damage Control"]

Well, you did it.  In spite of everything you know, you used too much pressure.  Maybe you had too much playing to do for the shape you’re in, maybe you got excited and played too hard…these things happen, so what are you going to do??

You need to ice your lips down as soon as possible, just like Bill Chase.  Icing the lips prevents or reduces the swelling in the lips.  Once the swelling goes down, any pain decreases and the healing begins.  How do you ice your lips??

First, don’t put ice directly on the lips.  The easiest thing is go to a cold water fountain, the colder the better, and let the water run over your lips until they start to feel numb.  You may need to do this several times.    Another approach is to put water in a glass with ice and start to drink but don’t swallow.  Just let the cold water sit on your upper lip until it gets numb.  (The problem with this is that you tend to slop all over yourself and it is pretty difficult to ice the lower lip this way.)  Or, you can get an ice cube or an ice pack, put it in a thin cloth so the ice does not directly touch your lips, and numb your lips.

The sooner you do this, the better.  The longer you wait, the more swelling you will have.

Once the swelling is gone and stays gone, you can use heat to accelerate the healing.  I normally don’t do this, but you can use warm water (hotter than body temperature, but not TOO hot!) in a washcloth or cup.  Do not burn your lips!  That’s only trading one problem for another.  The reason heat helps is that the body brings more blood to the lips in an attempt to cool the lips down; as a result, the blood brings nutrients to the lips and takes away waste products.

If you have truly hurt your lips, they will be sore the next day and may even have a bluish tint caused by bruising.  If this happens, you need to take it easy in your playing if at all possible.  Mezzo everything — medium range, medium volume, medium length of playing with lots of rest.  I have found that easy playing helps the healing process; my theory is that working the lips increases blood flow and you get a lot of the benefits of using heat.

And, don’t do it again!!!!  (Yeah, right…but it’s a good plan, so try to stick to it!!)