We are players of a gorgeous concatenation of copper tubery that regales one and all with an ineffable sound that is by turns noble, heroic, sensuous, romantic, and glorious. The road to mastery is long and elusive, perfection an unreachable mirage, but we persist day to day, captivated by the instrument’s beauty and joys of performance, wary of the pitfalls that await the instant we think we’ve conquered the beauty/beast.
There is a price for our dedication and devotion. Long hours of practice tax the body.Performance situations stress the organism (i.e. us) with repeated high octane shots of the modern drug of choice: adrenalin. If preventative maintenance measures are not integrated into our daily routine, things (i.e. us) will start to break down. We are careful about P.M. in other areas of our lives: we change the oil of our cars regularly, we vacuum the house, go to the dentist and hygenist. But somehow, we don’t always think about PM for ourselves as part of daily practice. There are different ways to go about this. Below are a couple of possibilities.
Mental: A simple focus exercise can do wonders for a pervasive feeling of being calm, alert, and able to focus on the task at hand. 1) Sit upright. A chair is fine, but don’t rest against the back. The point is to stay alert and to let the spine carry the body weight. Slouching takes away the spine’s ability to carry the weight and shifts it to the muscles. If you can sit in the lotus position on a mat, that’s fine too, but not necessary. Then: close your eyes and either think of a neutral, mellifluous word (e.g. “one”) or put a slight rasp in your breathing and watch your breath go in and out (if you’re in a public place and don’t want to close your eyes, pick out a spot on the floor or wall and gaze at it). Take a quick inventory of muscle tension from toe to topknot. Let your breath help release any tension spots you find along the way. Then take a minute or two or five and focus on your word or breath or spot. When your mind drifts away from it, gently bring it back. When time is up (you may peek if you wish), take some deep breaths, open your eyes, and feel renewed, refreshed, and ready for action (i.e. more practice…).
Physical: Work some kind of sweat-inducing exercise into your daily schedule four or five times a week. What about during daily practice? Two ideas here:
1) Stand up, stretch arms and legs and torso. Perhaps do some quick strength exercises that have low space requirements: push-ups, dips (lower yourself from the chair edge), dumbbell curls or rows, jumping jacks, jump an imaginary rope.
2) Fingertip face/head massage. Make small, forceful circles with your fingertips on the back of your neck, working those muscles along the spine and where they attach to the base of the skull. Work around the sides to the ears (give them some attention as well) to the temples, moving down to the jaw. Spend a bit of time on the big jaw muscle – you want to keep TMJ at bay as long as possible. If you practice/play a lot and you neglect to work on the jaw muscle this way, it can provide you with some excruciating pain that will shut down your playing (and even chewing) eventually, necessitating jaw muscle massage from a specialist that will make the guest treatment at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib seem like a Hawaiian vacation. Continue on under the jawbone with the thumbs, then switch to the forehead, working your way down around the eye sockets, then down the sides of the nose. Give the area around the embouchure some gentle but determined attention, then swing back up to get under the cheekbones. Jump up to the scalp and give it a vigorous fingertip wiggle everywhere. Conclude with a “face wash” motion with the palms of both hands on the entire face. Take a deep breath and feel fresh and renewed. If you have a like-minded friend, trade neck and shoulder massages. I learned how to do massage in my twenties, and developed my own “through the clothes” technique to help friends and colleagues. There was many an intermission in operas and orchestra concerts where colleagues would come to me with rock gardens in their necks and shoulders and plead for me to work on them (flutists and violinists were the worst, holding the instrument up all the time).
One more thing, but you’ll need help: now and then (wouldn’t every day be lovely?) get a professional whole body massage. I prefer deep tissue work that is not terribly comfortable (you do get used to it), but makes your body smile for a couple days afterwards. Massage brings a vitamin that the body needs on some fundamental level, and needs to be revisited regularly as an important measure of preventive maintenance for the musician (and everyone else).