tenet (ten' it), noun: a principle, doctrine, or belief held as truth

Welcome to my blog! Here I will share some of my thoughts on horn playing and teaching, which I think about a lot, and maybe some other things, too. Since my job (which thankfully, allows me to do a lot of playing and teaching) keeps me very busy, as does my wonderful family, I may not write frequently. My goal will be quality, not quantity!

Please share your comments.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Let's Get Physical

I hope the title of this blog entry reminds you of the Olivia Newton John song. :o) Alas, I'm showing my age. I did just have a birthday recently. I actually got to perform with her a few years ago, when she did a pops concert with the Macon (GA) Symphony - that was fun! It was the biggest crowd we ever had! She didn't wear the 1980's work-out gear, though.

Anyway, besides having a birthday recently, I also had surgery on my left shoulder to repair some cartilage that was torn in my car accident last September.

So, my left arm is in a sling for at least a couple more weeks. This makes my life VERY hard and frustrating, but I'm doing my best to maintain a positive attitude.

I started trying to play the horn again a few days ago, after an 11 day lay-off. I've had several of these little "vacations" from the horn in the past; getting my chops back is only a small part of the equation this time. That is usually frustrating enough by itself. But this time, I've got my left arm to rehab at the same time. At first, I could only play for 15 or 20 minutes; not because my chops were so flabby, but because my arm and shoulder hurt. Today, I've practiced 2 sessions, totaling a little more than an hour, and my arm has improved. But, it's still uncomfortable to play, and I have to be careful to keep as much weight as possible off my left arm. I've found that I can turn 90 degrees to the left in my chair and rest my left elbow on the back of the chair. Sometimes I also cross my legs (don't tell my students!) so I can actually rest the bottom of the bell tail on my left thigh. This allows me to play the horn, but my posture--and breathing--are greatly compromised.

My chops will bounce back much sooner than my shoulder. I started physical therapy this week, and will have to do it for 3 to 6 months! Hopefully, by the time I'm given the OK to quit wearing the sling, I'll be able to hold the horn in my usual posture.

Anyway, the inspiration for this post is that I was reminded in a big way that playing the horn is a physical activity. I would be willing to bet that many students don't ever think much about physical exertion below their chin while playing. The truth is, we're using a lot more muscles than just those in our embouchure when we play. We use our arms. (I don't think of the horn as a heavy instrument, but now I can hardly hold it!) And, we use muscles throughout our torso, front and back, to inhale and exhale properly. (At least we should!) We can get so wrapped up in thinking about what's happening in the mouthpiece that we take the rest of our bodies for granted. Pay attention to your shoulders, your arms, even your legs and feet if you're standing, and of course, your breathing. Make sure everything's working efficiently, and not detracting from your music-making. When you're performing, how you look matters too, but that's a topic for another time.

So, the REAL reason for this post is to remind us that we need to work hard when we breathe and when we play. I don't mean the kind of hard work that creates unnecessary tension. I just mean don't be lazy! Even when I'm not recovering from surgery, I can sometimes get lazy with my breathing. I know I've asked every one of my students to "take a bigger breath" and "blow faster air" many, many times. After a long rehearsal, concert, or practice session, you should be worn out - and not just in your face!

"Work hard" is sort of a mantra of mine. A "swing thought." I used to have a small piece of paper taped to my practice stand that had 3 of these swing thoughts on it: "No Bumps" reminded me to play with smooth slurs, "Lock it in" encouraged me to fix mistakes only once, and "Work Hard" kept me going when I felt lazy or tired. I want to work hard by giving everything I've got to my practicing and playing--physically, mentally, emotionally.

Actually, "work hard" is a phrase that serves me well in many areas of my life. Like I said, I can be lazy if I'm not careful. When I go to throw something away and the garbage can is full, instead of cramming it in there, I can work hard and take it out. Instead of leaving my cereal bowl on the counter, I can work hard and put it in the dishwasher (why are you snickering, Mom?).

And it's not just about chores. I plan to work hard at my physical therapy exercises to get my shoulder back to 100%. If you're a student, you should work hard on all your assignments. It's about having higher standards for yourself than anyone else sets for you. It's about enduring a little unpleasantness now to achieve a worthwhile goal later.

Any level of excellence or success that I've achieved is because I made the choice to work hard instead of taking the easy way. I hope you'll do the same.


  1. Dr. Bennett, that was an excellent article about working hard......it applies to all of us. Keep up the good work and wish you a speedy recovery.

  2. Its surprising how many problems that are initially self-diagnosed as embouchure problems actually turn out to have an underlying cause below the chin!

    My mother was a violin teacher. One day when she was out riding the horse threw her and she broke a shoulder. But as a private teacher, she had to continue giving lessons as soon as she was able.

    And it is remarkably difficult to teach violin to little children without demonstrating it. So even with one arm in a sling, the violin would have to be held (initially at a rather unusually low angle!) in order to demonstrate how to play.

    The physiotherapists at the hospital were amazed at the speed of her recovery and how high she could lift her arm relatively soon after the bones had healed. They wanted to know what exercises she had been doing. For the next appointment, she took the violin in to show them.

    Good luck with your recovery and rehabilitation!

  3. Take heart, "Lucky" continued to play too! :-)


    Pictures of the Frazier Horn Choir: