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I’ve seen in multiple places that professional trumpet players feel like they need daily, or nearly-daily practice in order to maintain capability, let alone improve.

How long is it feasible for a professional trumpet player to go without practicing before it becomes detrimental to their playing? Will a two or three day break truly be noticeably detrimental?

(Inspired by this question)

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    About six pints, the ones I've worked with… though some will deny it - & claim they're fine after 8 ;))
    – Tetsujin
    Jul 3 at 19:04
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    Follow up: how do tuba players have honeymoons? Jul 3 at 19:43
  • 4
    @Tetsujin I know french horn players who'd say they're not fine until the sixth pint ;-) Jul 4 at 0:03
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    @ToddWilcox - who, in their right mind, would marry a tuba player..?
    – Tim
    Jul 4 at 9:36
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    @ElizaWilson, to be honest, that was the intent of my question, but it might be too late to change or specify that Jul 4 at 18:43
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I won't (nor could) speak as a trumpet player, but I'd like to give my own general answer as a musician.

As many of us, I've been stuck in the last year and a half due to the current pandemic. Not only phisically (as a classical percussionist, I do not own many of the instruments I'd usually play) but even mentally: I struggled with the whole "ok, I should practice... but for what purpose? I'm not gonna play for a lot of time anyway".

Then, that time came. Finally, I got a small gig, and we started rehearsing on last June. I admit: I didn't practice for a long time, not even weekly. For some periods, the only occurrences of actual "playing" were during online lessons. There were months in which I was seriously wondering if music was still part of my future.
That didn't help.

But, then, that "first" gig finally came. I got only a few days notice, so I thought that trying to "get back in the loop" wasn't very practical: there wasn't enough time to seriously "rebuild" something, and - knowing myself - I'd have probably struggled with more psychological issues than technical ones ("Oh, see? You're not as good as you thought you were! Just give up!"). I decided to consider it as an experiment: it was a small gig, I knew I was going to play relatively simple parts, I could afford that.

And you know what? I did.

To my surprise, my sight-reading was much better than I was afraid of (note: I asked for parts, but they didn't send me anything).
My technique wasn't that bad. On the contrary, despite obvious physical limitations caused by the lack of constant practice, I found my playing as well "technically done" (and not because I wasn't used to listening anymore, since I listened to a lot of music in this lockdown time, and I did a lot of depthful listening analysis too).
My overall playing was actually good. And, please believe me, I'm not bragging: friends and colleagues agree that I'm usually too much self-critical.

How is that? Well, obviously I didn't require a perfect technique "fitness" for that gig. But, most importantly, my expertise (as a learner and as much as a teacher) is so deep-rooted thanks to my experience that I was able to overcome any gap in my long lack of practice.

So, how long can you go without practicing?

Well, that depends. Obviously, there are aspects that do require constant practicing. And that can differ depending on the instruments (there are some instrument families for which you "loose more" within the same period of lack of practice). Also, the higher level you get, the finer perception you got: when you're a beginner you hardly get any difference if you were practicing constantly or if you stopped for a couple of days.

That said, I'm clearly not "as good" as I was two years ago. If you're a sprint racer, you can't expect to be good unless you do your daily training, not to mention if you stop running for months.

BUT, if, for some reason, you stopped for any amount of time, it doesn't mean that you're restarting from scratch.
If your mental training was good, you'll get back there in a very short time. That's because you know how training (and your training) works, you know how to fix problems, how to "debug" issues.

I've known players that struggled if they didn't practice daily, as much as others that were able to play as wonderfully as they were 2 weeks before, even after doing absolutely no practice at all in the meantime.

Another aspect to keep in mind is that we do need rests (just like in the music we play ;-) ). Sometimes, even taking a complete pause for some time is a good thing. It let your body (and mind) rest and elaborate, and when you get back to your instrument you can actually learn something more.

So, finally, keep practicing as much as you can and as much as your practice is actually useful and benefits your playing. But, if you stopped, don't worry about "how bad will I be after that": just go back to practice as soon as you're able to, and focus on that only. Unless you take that "rest" time as an experience about yourself, focusing on "what I should've done" or "what I lost in the meantime" is almost always useless.

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    While a valuable insight, I don't think this answers the question - as far as I know, brass instruments have some particular physical demands on the player and if they don't practice some muscles which are barely used other than to play their instrument will atrophy to a point where they are simply physically unable to perform as well or for as long. I doubt it happens after a few days (based my knowledge of athletic training theory), though (after a few days without practice your muscles would be peaking).
    – Nobody
    Jul 4 at 9:46
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    @Nobody "I doubt it happens after a few days" I'm not sure this is correct. I know top class alpine skiers who blow their ACL have an electric stimulus machine strapped to their thigh as soon as possible (even while still on the slope) to counter atrophy of one of the key muscles which could delay their return to competition by several months if not countered immediately. Tourists who don't get this treatment lose 90% of strength in that muscle within 48 hours. Jul 4 at 10:08
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    @BrianTowers Usually muscles don't atrophy that fast - in particular most training plans include several days of (near-) rest before any competition because the muscles are in fact strongest 1-3 days after the last hard training. Not practicing is more like taking a rest from training than like ripping a ligament. But my point was just that I would like to hear from a trumpet (or similar) player's experience.
    – Nobody
    Jul 4 at 15:52
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    I met professional trumpet players (who also played in world known orchestras) with both experiences: some say they cannot stop even one day, others don't worry too much if they take some days off. But that obviously depends on lots of things. In general (but this is valid for almost any instrument) it's obviously better to have a continuity: practicing 45 minutes a day is better than doing 3 hours after three days off, not only for your physical technique, but also for your mind. Jul 4 at 17:03
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    As a long time player of piano and guitar and a more recent player of clarinet and French horn - it's very different. For piano and guitar you have to develop your muscle memory. For woodwind and brass wind instruments, you have to develop your actual muscles. And they do fall out of shape very quickly. Both of my teachers, who are trained professionals in woodwind and brass wind playing confirm this. Jul 6 at 4:13
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@BrianTowers beat me to the quote I was going to use, but the trumpet players I've worked with all have expressed the need to play daily. I found that after a particularly intense gig, a day off way helpful — even necessary. The thing for me that suffers first when I take a break is endurance. That can drop in a matter of days of no playing. However things like tone and technique for me can withstand longer periods away.

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  • I think this answer points out the difference between trumpet players and other musicians. The muscles in the lips are extremely important to maintain in shape for trumpet players.
    – awe
    Jul 7 at 5:27
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The quote I'm familiar with is

If I miss a day's practice, God notices
Miss two days practice and I notice
Miss three days practice and the world notices

Doing a search, the closest I find to this is this quote from the great violinist, Jascha Heifetz:

If I don't practice one day, I know it;
two days, the critics know it;
three days, the public knows it.

So, I guess that means that 3 missed days and everybody will notice, at least at the top level. At lower levels I'm sure you can go much longer especially for easier pieces.

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I can't speak for every player of course. But I'd say there was a recovery time from even a couple of days off. You DO recover, of course.

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As in the majority of things, it varies.

On (odd) occasions, I've commented to students that their playing has improved since last lesson, only to hear ' Well, I honestly haven't had an opportunity to pick it up since then.' Sometimes, we need that break to let it all sink in. But how long need that break be, before it's detrimental?

Quite a few of the trumpeters I've played with say they lose their chops within a few days if not playing. So I'd imagine it's the same for all brass players. Reed - maybe not so much. There's obviously embouchure issues, but it's not the same.

Other instruments will have different issues. If I lay off, say bass or guitar playing for a week or two, it pretty well comes back after a couple of numbers. Same with keys. But is it just the physical aspect, or is there more to it?

Playing with others, there's the reaction involved, and maybe that should be a consideration. And the question ought to be not only what amount of down time becomes detrimental, but what amount of recovery time gets one back on form?

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    That’s true about the recovery, though there’s a reason I specifically asked about trumpet rather than all instruments. Two, actually. The first is because it was in regards to the Outdoors question I linked. The second is because I suspect that different instruments deteriorate in ability at different speeds, and I suspect that due to the physical nature of playing brass, that trumpet might be different than say, a string instrument. The physical endurance and limberness of the embouchure, for example. I appreciate the commentary for other instruments, though. Jul 4 at 8:49
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    I play tuba, and the "chops" as you say is not that easily lost, as it is for trumpet players, so it is not the same for all brass instruments. The smaller mouth piece on the instrument, the more you need to keep your lips in shape.
    – awe
    Jul 7 at 5:45
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I think it depends on many parameters.

In an absolute world, after a couple of days, you feel it. Playing music is first and foremost a matter of muscle memory, then a combination of strength, speed, accuracy, and flexibility. But you feel it in a way that only extends your warming up session, not necessarily harms your playing.

If you stop for a longer time (say, vacation time, less than a month), as said above, the first declining ability is endurance, then perhaps accuracy. You will need to recover for a couple of days, maybe a week, start slower to avoid tendinitis and burn yourself too fast.

The longer you stop, the worse the decay. For long breaks, you need to know how to train yourself again, which means solid experience.

But… I find that decay interesting. Stopping lets you mature things, start again new, break the routine. The most interesting part is in how you are going to compensate for that lack of technique. Think about how Arthur Rubinstein, Maria Callas or Ida Haendel, at the sunset of their career and with a fading technique, still could make a room cry. Losing a bit of technique forces you to try harder on the musical sensibility, ditch the "show off", forget the virtuosity (sometimes on the verge of vanity), maybe play slower, and do with what you have. I often prefer old artists for this reason, for the feeling they have nothing to prove anymore and they are just there for the music.

But then, everything above is to be taken with a grain of salt, because it really depends on what you play. Not all pieces out there are a technical struggle. But starting again, after a break, with Liszt or Paganini is probably not a good idea.

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    Tendinitis, Liszt, and Paganini are generally not concerns for trumpet players.
    – Aaron
    Jul 6 at 2:11
  • Paganini doesn't seem to concern Sergei Nakariakov unduly Jul 6 at 20:28
  • Right, because everyone knows transcriptions are forbidden. I guess everyone knows what I mean when I mention Paganini… Only the bike-shedders care. Jul 7 at 13:18
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What you lose over time is what my flute teacher from the CSO used to call "margin"—that is, the distance between how you perform on a good or a bad day.

A first-class musician who is in practice has good and bad days—it happens to everybody. The difference is that on bad days that musician sounds better than most other players do on their good days.

Top musicians can go for periods of time without practicing, and the practicing they do is different than the practicing students will do who are trying to become top musicians. It's more about maintenance at that level, except, say, when working on a new piece for performance.

So if you're an accomplished musician, on good days you still will seem mostly as good as your best even if you don't practice at all for a while. But your bad days will sound worse, and if those ever get to the point where that becomes noticeable, you will need to get your butt back in gear and start working again!

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