Reed Clinic - Taking a Break

John Robert Brown

Throughout one's working life, to play a musical instrument is to be committed to a daily practice routine. It has to be all or nothing if you want to be the best. Whether you are a Sunday saxophonist, a weekend woodwind player or a casual clarinettist, the idea of being part-time conjures up grating aural images of deficient musicianship.

Sure, some instruments can be neglected more than others. I'll leave you to suggest which ones require the least consistent polishing. Drums, maybe? Perish the thought. It's pretty clear to any serious instrumentalist that improvement doesn't come through neglect.

Yet there are marvellous stories about famous players who, once established at the very top of the tree, could perform beautifully without seeming to make much effort to maintain match fitness. Tommy Dorsey was said to be able to be able to return from vacation, take his trombone from its case, and still play sublimely. There are similar stories about Harry James. Allegedly, James had an almost superhuman ability to transcend tiredness, excess alcohol or absence from playing. Seemingly, he was able to outplay every other trumpet player when the pressure was on, whatever state he was in. And only recently I read that Tubby Hayes would shove his tenor under the bed when he had other things to do. When he returned to playing, days later, his mercurial technique remained stunningly flawless.

But make no mistake; playing skills perish if they are neglected. Once, long ago, I played in a big band that was busy, playing six nights and three afternoons each week. We also undertook various broadcasts and concerts. Normally, we would have Monday off. On Tuesday night, when we hadn't played together for two days, there was no doubt that the band was slightly (very slightly), below par. No listener would notice, but we knew. Internal matching, particularly the give-and take of intonation between sections, was palpably below our best standard. There is a saying: 'I miss a day, I know it. I miss two days, and my section mates know it. I miss a week, and everyone knows.' It's true.

What I've described, in the examples of Dorsey, James and Hayes, is not their ability to beat the laws of nature. Even they couldn't defy the normal frailties of the human physique. In my opinion, what they did was know themselves. Each knew how to give of his best under the circumstances. How did they do it?

These days, the conditions of my own working life are such that, unless I lug a saxophone with me around the world, I have to accept that i can no longer play every day of the year. You may be the same. I've given the matter much thought, To my delight, I've realised that it is possible to hold on to some of my hard-won skills. I've worked out my own solution.

First, one must have attained a level of competence, and have played for a consider­able time, so that musical performance, together with the ability to hear harmony, is part of you. Artie Shaw, at 93 years old, hadn't played a clarinet since he was in his forties. Yet he spoke of still waking up in the night, mentally wrestling with the fingering of All the Things You Are in the key of E, in the high register! Long ago the clarinet, and his knowledge of melody and harmony, became part of his nervous system. It's second nature. That isn't lost easily.

Perhaps, like me, when you are driving or sitting in an aeroplane, you'll catch yourself fingering standard tunes, or idly making the finger movements for a classical piece you've played (maybe memorised) in the past. This is silent practice, silent rehearsal. In that sense, taking a break from the instrument is impossible. Do enough playing and practice and it remains with you, even when you haven't played for a while.

If you are in this category, then the great enemy for the experienced reed player who takes a break is lack of stamina. Leave the instrument alone for a week and, given a sensible precautionary routine - which I'll come to in a minute - what you lose is your endurance, your stamina, how long you can play. This will vary with individuals. I'm assuming that you have played for years, have a mature tone, and an excellent sense of pitch.

If your playing has never risen to a competent standard, I guess that what I'm describing will be difficult. Likewise if you have very sharp teeth, an extreme mouthpiece, or play in some unorthodox way. Then, more than the average person, you may rely on muscle tone to cope with your unorthodox setup. Therefore, endurance may be a problem. But given considerable experience, a middle-of-the-road mouthpiece, reed set-up, a centrally placed embouchure, and a medium bite, stamina need not desert you completely. What stays with you - thank goodness, is most of the fluency on your instrument, together with a version of your characteristic tone, and your aural ability.

So, what is this precautionary routine?

• Stick to the same instrument, mouthpiece, make and strength of reeds. Even use the same sling. If you don't change anything, there's less to cope with when you resume. This also means that you'll have much more confidence about tuning and intonation, about where the mouthpiece should be on the cork. To be securely at concert pitch does wonders for your endurance. Subconscious 'chewing' at the pitch is most fatiguing to one's embouchure.

• Don't tryout new reeds when you are in the fragile state of not having played for a while. Abrasive new reeds tear at your embouchure. They tire the muscles. Stick to something tried and tested until you are back in practice again. Similarly, avoid playing very high notes.

• Always keep your instrument in its case. Don't jam music, dusters, magazines or any¬≠thing else in with your saxophone or clarinet. Over a period of being out of use, such junk crammed in the case can slowly become injurious, squeezing keys and compressing pads. Keep the neck cork greased. This preserves it from drying out and becoming detached.

• Before you play, soak the mouthpiece and reed in clean cold water. Drench it. Do this at least half an hour before you first blow. It has a miraculous effect. Do NOT pour water into the instrument. If you have a leaky old wreck of a saxophone, it's sometimes very tempting to do this, as it can make an immediate magic improvement. Alas, like most magic, it doesn't last. If you do it, you'll probably find that within a couple of hours things are worse than ever they were before.

• Use plain commonsense. Plan! Play gently for short periods, during the few days before that long gig. However much you follow the above bullet points, accepting a five hour dance band gig on the first night after a fortnight's absence from playing is a foolish move. Most important is to play for a few minutes an hour or so before the performance. Although we all call this warming up, it seems to me to be a way of helping the blood circulate to those muscles which are going to be doing all the work. Maybe the theory is not the correct explanation, yet it works. Try it.

First published in Crescendo magazine, January 2003.
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