Burn, Baby, Burn

by Kirk Lundbeck

A marathon runner hits a wall at about the 20 mile mark. His breathing becomes labored, the muscles in his legs and chest begin to burn and his heart begins to race. Over the next mile he feels he can’t go on but he forges on. Shortly the burning sensation in his muscles lessen, his breathing becomes more regular and his heart stops pounding in his chest. He’s received his “second wind.” A woman is in an aerobics class and is working hard to keep her figure. She stays with the instructor’s direction as long as she can but the longer the exercise continues her calves begin to burn, her arm muscles are burning and she’s running out of steam. She stops, takes a few minutes to relax and takes a drink of water and then begins the same exercise again. This time it’s easier.

Whether we admit it or not playing trombone is an aerobic exercise. It takes controlled muscle contraction and relaxation and proper breathing to build stamina and endurance. It’s no different than working out on a treadmill or lifting weights. When someone wishes to create muscle tone at a fitness center the instructor will tell them to do minimal weight with lots of reps, this builds muscle tone and not bulk. As trombonists shouldn’t we be considering the same technique in order to build the muscle tone in our mouths and jaw? In order to build stamina and endurance in our playing we must consider this as one of the most important part of our practice sessions. We must learn to lessen the fatigue. In order to do this we need to understand why muscles fatigue. Fatigue is defined as the decline in muscle tension capacity with repeated stimulation. Motor unit fatigue is the result of many factors, each of which is related to the specific demands of the exercise that produces it. These factors can interact in a manner that ultimately affects either contraction or excitation or both. Fatigue results if the chain of events is interrupted between the central nervous system and the muscle fiber. For example, a significant reduction in the glycogen content of the active muscle fibers is related to fatigue during prolonged moderate exercise. This “nutrient fatigue” occurs when insufficient oxygen is available to generate energy through aerobic pathways. So in layman’s terms, lack of air support in trombone playing not only affects the quality of sound but reduces the muscle tension capacity which in turn reduces endurance and stamina. So air support not only gives you a better sound but it helps to keep the muscles used in the playing of your instrument filled with glycogen increasing stamina. I would certainly consider that trombone playing is prolonged moderate exercise. Maybe not in the treadmill sense, but all of us have felt “the burn” in our mouth muscles and jaw. In order to play with more endurance and stamina we have to “workout” those muscles. Here’s how:

Take any exercise in an Arbans, Kopprasch or other method book that is not too demanding technically and stays in the middle register of your horn. Make sure it is an exercise you can play and play well. It’s also lessens the monotony if it is an exercise you enjoy playing. Play it over and over and over again correctly until you begin to feel “the burn.” Then finish that attempt and take a short 5 minute break. Put the horn down, get a drink, whatever. Just don’t play! Then after the short break. Do the same routine again until you feel “the burn” once again. Take another and do the same routine a third time. This is like doing minimal weight and lots of reps. This repetition exercise works your articulation muscles, the muscles of the mouth, tongue, jaw and throat. Do the same kind of exercise with a legato exercise, like a Rochut or Edwards. Again, pick something not too demanding in register or technical ability. Play it over and over again until you feel “the burn.” Do this three times with breaks of 5 minutes in between each repetition. This works our legato playing muscles, those of the mouth corners, jaw and throat.

We use different muscle groups for different styles of playing. All those muscle groups must be worked in order to use them to their full potential. Think of a portion of each of your practice sessions as weight training, building tone in your muscles used in playing creating better endurance, more stamina and ultimately a better player.

Remember you have a finite number of opportunities to play your horn, always make the most of every one!