Endurance is often a reathig problem. It can be frustrating when you can only practice 20 minutes or when you worry during a gig that your endurance might not be strong enough to get you through to the last note…
Play more economically
The most important concept in building endurance is that you learn to play more skillfully and waste less of your power, which means you will have more endurance! Instead of jumping right into endurance exercises, first strive to unlearn habitual, excessive, and obstructive tensions. This can be done in two ways:
First, be in a relaxed state of body and mind before playing. Then be aware of how this state changes while you’re playing. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking, e.g., about playing this slur exercise, that makes me tense my shoulders while playing it? If this shoulder tension wasn’t part of my subconscious ‘plan’ of what must be done to accomplish this task, my brain wouldn’t be sending directions to those shoulder muscles to contract.” Thanks to this long-term strategy, I use a fraction of the effort while playing as I did two, five, or ten years before.
Second, examine the details. Observe a movement in great detail and make precise improvements. An example would be breath support. In this example, ask yourself, “Could my abdominal muscles be more relaxed before and after playing? Could I synchronize the beginning of the tone and breath support better? Is the effort appropriate, concerning pitch and volume?” When you practice exercises for dosing of air pressure, you can observe the movements of the tongue in slow motion. Is there too much tension? Are your vocal cords involved, even though they should stay out of it? And so on. By examining the details and making appropriate adjustments, you can experience a dramatic increase in how effectively you play.
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Don’t waste your power
I am amazed to see some trumpet players give their best to be completely exhausted before the rehearsal or concert begins. They play as high and loudly as they can; they play loooong notes (exhausting!). The list goes on. If you’re doing any of these things, here’s my advice: Stop it!
Particularly in wind bands, there’s a collective warm-up at the beginning of rehearsal which has only one effect on brass players: lip fatigue. I conduct a wind band, and I make sure the most exhausting pieces are played at the beginning of rehearsal. I also refuse to schedule a three-hour, so-called “sound check” right before a concert, which clarinet players feel would be a great idea. Maybe you can pass these ideas along to your conductor.
It’s also not a good idea to practice for 4,000 hours on the day of the concert. Just play a couple of minutes, if that makes you feel more comfortable. Don’t try out the high, demanding phrase 27 times right before the concert just to make sure it really, really works. By doing so, the probability that it will work in the concert decreases because your muscles will already be tired.
And the last point I want to make here: if absolutely necessary, you can, of course, skip that long pianissimo note–which nobody can hear anyway because the saxophones are drowning it out! You might also shorten the half-note a tiny bit to relax.
Benefit from breaks
Another tactic is based on your heart’s endurance strategy. The heart muscle can work consistently over many, many decades because it immediately relaxes after activity. It truly helps to be able to relax completely, even if it’s just a small break. The concept here is to make a habit of completely relaxing when you breathe in. Let go of any tensions and get back to a neutral, relaxed state. Small tensions tend to accumulate, and after a while, you end up with an enduring tension that diminishes your endurance. So, it’s a good idea to train yourself to automatically “push the reset button” on a regular basis.
Practice the most exhausting stuff at the beginning of a rehearsal session. This way, you incrementally learn that it’s relatively easy. The opposite of this smart approach is to practice scales starting with C major, C# major, D major, etc. When you finally reaching the high C or above, it’s really hard to play because of the 10 minutes you spent playing before that.
It’s the same with pieces. The high phrase at the end might be difficult only because you are already exhausted. If you always start at the beginning of the piece, you will link “exhausted” to this phrase. It would be much smarter to practice it at the beginning to connect it to a feeling of success. The next step would be to start with the phrase right before it, in other words, to include it, step by step, into the whole context.
We all have blind spots like this. We are unaware that we’re not practicing smartly, so it can be a big help to get feedback from time to time and to think through your routines.
Finally, and only now, it makes sense to additionally build muscles – as the cherry on top. We’re especially talking about lips and tongue here. There are lots of effective exercises available including “bodybuilding” for lips and tongue.
There are no shortcuts to acquiring better endurance. Learning to play more efficiently in combination with muscle building is a feasible option for everyone. Now, choose one of the ideas presented in this blog, and add it to your practice routine.