Music Practice

Physical Therapy for Musicians

On the 21st, I went with Wes Thompson, a student of mine at Messiah College, to Shulman & Associates Physical Therapy. He’s been having some soreness in his face, most likely brought on by overuse, and he’s gone to Dr. David Shulman for treatment. It was an interesting experience. So often musicians have a “must do” attitude; they make it happen, no matter what the cost. It was great to see that there are people and a facility devoted to helping them rehabilitate when the (physical and mental) cost is too high.

Wes began his appointment with a massage from Dr. Shulman. The doctor discussed the muscles of the face, specifically how brass musicians tend to focus their attention on the orbicularis oris and its ability to pull back the corners of the mouth while ignoring the fact that the muscle works in all directions. (I once heard Joe Alessi describe the muscles of the embouchure as a fireman’s net. The firemen pull in all directions to keep the net taught.)

Muscles of the face


The massage began with the large muscles around the cheeks and eventually moved to the lips. We talked about Denver Dill, a trumpet player who went through embouchure surgery and rehabilitation, and Lucinda Lewis, who has written the books Broken Embouchures and Embouchure Rehabilitation.

Wes and Dr. Shulman

Doctor Shulman emphasized that players should be working toward strength, flexibility and endurance. His suggested path to getting there includes rest and practice away from the instrument. He recommends a routine that includes twenty minutes on the instrument and 10 minutes off, with 10 minutes of “nerf” playing (singing, humming) occasionally substituted into the twenty minutes of playing.

The therapy continued with the application of kinesio tape, an electric muscle stimulator and a heat pad.

Wes with kinesio tape

Shulman & Associates has a card that contains useful information. Particularly useful is the “Slippery Slope of Overuse:”

  • Tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Disability
Players tend to ignore tightness and keep going until they are pretty fatigued. Playing past the fatigue can lead to pain. Continuing to play while in pain will eventually lead to disability. Much of what we talked about seemed to have a close relationship to Alexander Technique. Specifically the idea that playing inefficiently or even in pain can begin to feel “normal.” Changes to that established way of playing, no matter how “bad” it is, will feel “wrong.”

Shulman and Associates

Dr. Shulman’s practice has the added benefit of a partnership with David Fedderly, tuba player in the Baltimore Symphony and noted brass teacher. After finishing the session with Dr. Shulman, Wes headed to a private room to work with David Fedderly. David started with an old joke: “The National Institute of Health did a long drawn out study of musicians and rats and could only find one difference… there were things the rats wouldn’t do.” As musicians we’re taught to say “yes” regardless of whether we think we can handle all the work. Saying “yes” supposedly leads to more opportunities, experience and, sometimes, money. But saying “yes” to everything can also lead to overuse.

Wes and David Fedderly

Once the overuse occurs, the player falls into the habit of playing in pain and needs to retrain to become accustomed to playing comfortably. David described an embouchure injury recovery like a back or leg rehabilitation: just because the muscle is healed doesn’t mean you can use it like you once did… yet. Getting well requires patience and small steps. Beyond that, once a physical recovery has been achieved it’s likely the mental recovery will take much more time. Fear and anxiety can, for some, build up while attempting to use the injured area. Attempts to use the muscle result in failure… failure becomes expected… the mindset becomes habitual.

“Breaking a habit” is really creating a new habit and Mr. Fedderly emphasizes the habit of using sound and relaxation as your guide. He encourages the player to listen for the fundamental in the sound, in Wes’s case by asking him to allow himself to “play poorly.” By doing so he gets in the way of something we’ve all experienced… by trying to sound good we create more tension and actually sound worse.

I was glad to witness Dr. Shulman and David Fedderly in action. The duo is taking their act on the road: Dr. Shulman is spending the week at my alma mater, Rice University (which has a fantastic relationship with The Methodist Hospital Center for the Performing Arts), and both of them will be at the University of Oregon at some point this year. From what I understand they hope to share their knowledge with more performers across the country.


Advice Music Practice Trombone Uncategorized

The Little Things

I often think of a story I once heard about Cal Ripken Jr (possibly apocryphal): to help avoid hand/wrist injuries he could be found slapping his hands against the asphalt after practice to build callouses/thicken bones/become generally more badass. The point being that he was going that extra step to condition himself for play… and in his case, condition himself so well that he would earn the record for the most consecutive games played. A record that had stood for 56 years.

It leads me to ask myself “what little things are other musicians doing?”

There are stories about Christian Lindberg, trombonist, and Bill VerMuelen, horn player, repeating high notes hundreds of times.

John Marcellus, Professor of Trombone at the Eastman School of Music, developed an intense routine of upper register lip slurs.

Marcellus - High Register Extensions

Rafael Méndez, trumpet player, would practice rapid articulation for minutes at a time, allowing him to do this:

David Waters, former Professor of Trombone at Rice University, broke down vibrato into a meticulous exercise to develop control (others do a similar exercise):

Waters - Vibrato

With so many skills to master most musicians have devised at least one unique approach. I’m pretty sure that if Cal Ripken was hitting his hand on the sidewalk it wasn’t the only thing he was doing. He had an intense routine of many “little things.” Each of the musicians above has/had an intense routine of many “little things:” fundamentals, exercise, score study, singing…

What little things do you do?

Advice Music Practice

Impediments to Progress: Holes and Loops

David Waters, my professor in grad school, referred to deficiencies in technique as “holes.”  Just like a depression in your yard, the hole could be filled with the right tools and some hard work.  Others call them hurdles or obstacles.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not as easy as going to the shed and grabbing a shovel.  Sometimes you are not aware of the hole, sometimes the motivation isn’t there to fill it and sometimes it seems like no matter how much you put into the hole, no amount of work will hide it.  It’s the last scenario I will address most but I’ll also touch on the first two.

Being aware of an issue is the first step.  That may be obvious but the issue itself may not.  Continuing with our “hole” metaphor, if we don’t get into the yard and look we’ll never know there’s a hole to be filled.  Musically speaking, we listen to recordings and attend concerts to discern what others are capable of, we talk to others (friends, teachers) and they tell us what we should be able to do.  Then, if we have enough motivation, we start addressing it.

A dissertation unto itself.  Here are just a few points.  There’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic being motivation that is tied to a task and exists within the individual performing.  Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the performer: money, fame, competition, cheering crowds, fear of punishment, etc.  In our “hole” situation intrinsic motivation would be love of manual labor or the joy we get from a beautiful yard, extrinsic motivation would be getting paid to do the work or a fear of someone tripping and twisting an ankle.  There are beliefs about the relative merits of each: studies show that both can be beneficial but the lasting effects of intrinsic motivation usually trump extrinsic.

The Black Hole:
Occasionally we encounter a hole that just can’t seem to be filled.  Try as we might the problem remains.  This is far from uncommon.  Here are just some thoughts on why this might be:

Fear of Success
This is a form of self-sabotage that will keep us from achieving all that we can. Think about this in depth before you go any further.  Fear of success can take a few forms:

  1. Fear of lost friends/relationships
    The belief that, if we improve, others will resent it and we’ll lose them in our lives.  Think about athletes who “make it big.”  They go from unpaid high school or college players to multimillionaires overnight but their friends and family haven’t changed.  It’s easier to see how someone could be afraid of losing those they care about in a situation like that but it can happen in the less lucrative field of classical music as well.  (“Will my friends resent my ability?”)
  2. Fear of responsibility
    The belief that, if we are successful it will be expected of us again.  Showing that we’re good at something puts pressure on us to be good again and again, which then causes people to look to us when they need something done, which adds more responsibility to our lives…. something not everyone can handle.
  3. Fear of reaching our potential
    The belief that, if we do our best it still may not be good enough.  Simple as that.

You haven’t made it a priority
Be honest with yourself, have you really prioritized the issue?  Too often, I see frustration in others over a particular habit they can’t change or skill they can’t do that could be alleviated if they would make the issue a priority.  For instance, if they are having difficulty with air flow they spend their time practicing their solo repertoire without touching on exercises to address the problem, hoping the problem will work itself out on its own.  It should be your goal to spend so much time working on your weaknesses that they become your strengths.

Unreliable Sensory Perception
 This a concept from Alexander Technique that, in short, means we can’t trust ourselves.  Our habits are so engrained that even things that hinder us (that we even know to be detrimental) will feel ‘natural’ and ‘right.’  This makes it difficult for us to change the habit.  An outside perspective (teacher, mirror, recording device) can help you become aware of when you’re not being efficient.

Trapped in a loop
While at Rice University I took several courses on performance psychology with Dr. John Eliot.  There are many great things from those classes that I still use on a daily basis.  This “Performance Circle” is one of them:

By following the arrows you can trace the path of performance and find places where you can become trapped in your efforts.  Some people are inclined to get stuck in a “training loop” in which they feel hard work is the solution to their problems, others will get stuck in a “trusting loop” in which they feel that their creativity will pull them through.  To escape either try applying techniques from the other loop.  Without doing so you run the risk of burnout or never achieving what you’re capable of because of fear.

Think about your personality.  Do you feel that hard work is always the solution?  There’s a possibility you should think more creatively about your performance.  Do you feel like you can achieve your goals using your natural ability and your imagination?  A little elbow grease might improve your performance.

To bring back our hole metaphor… imagine we have a hole in our backyard that we can’t fill no matter how hard we try.  Maybe there is a spring at the bottom of the hole that washes the water away.  Thinking creatively we’d realize we need to block the spring first.  No amount of sheer hard work was ever going to solve the problem.  Alternatively, contemplating the nature of the hole will never get it filled without some hard labor.