Rest As Much As You Play

There is a concept for practicing brass instruments that is fairly well known, but probably not done correctly by most of us – when practicing, rest as much as you play. Those instructions are fairly clear, but hard to implement and also leaves a lot of room for interpretation. What does it really mean to rest as much as you play while practicing?

My interpretation of this advice is to break that up into two concepts. First, when in the midst of a practice session when I get done with an exercise routine or piece that I’m practicing I will try to put the instrument down for the same amount of time it took me to play it before moving on to the next routine or piece. So in a 60 minute practice session I might only have the metal on the mouth for about 30 minutes of that hour, but it’s 5 minutes on, 5 minutes of rest, and so on. In actuality, there’s perhaps even more rest time than playing time if you count the very short breaks I’ll be taking built into whatever I’m practicing. Solo rep has rests in it, many technique exercises have repeated “sets” where I’ll take the mouthpiece off the lips for a moment and then move on to the next set, etc.

The other interpretation I have of resting as much as you play is to then put time between practice sessions. In general, I rarely practice more than an hour at a stretch, so when I come back to another practice session I make sure that I have an hour of not playing between. With my current schedule that’s not a problem since I usually am able to practice for an hour each morning and if I don’t have a gig or a rehearsal that evening will put in another hour in the evening. Back when I was a graduate music student I had a more demanding rehearsal and practice schedule and would organize my practice time around my rehearsal schedule so that I could put at least an hour in between each playing obligation.

The basic idea here is that while practicing you should always be refreshed enough to play correctly. When fatigue sets in it’s very easy to slip into habits that aren’t very helpful. Some of these habits will seem like they’re working, to an extent, but it’s often not until the next day where it feels stiff and unresponsive. Resting as much as you play both in a practice session and throughout the entire day helps you avoid that.

It’s also worth mentioning that players will respond differently to how much you rest and play. If you’re familiar with the basic brass embouchure types, players belonging to the two downstream types will typically find that they can play for longer periods of time, but when they finally get tired they will need a nice long break to recover. In contrast, players who belong to the upstream type find that they can get tire quickly, but all it takes is a short break to recover. These are generalizations and you can find exceptions, but they can be used to your advantage if you understand your embouchure type and how to play correctly for that type. For example, as an upstream player I find that practicing in shorter spurts of just a few minutes at a time, then resting for a few minutes, can get me through more challenging materials better than trying to go through everything as quickly as possible.

It’s important, at least at first, to be more diligent about this. Take out your phone and time yourself on how long it takes you to get through something you’re working on. Then set a timer for that amount of time and rest before you play again. Better still, record yourself and then listen back to it in its entirety. Hearing how you sound while not in the act of making music is great feedback. Another fine way to duplicate this is to find a practice partner working on similar things as you. If you’re working on technique routines, for example, you play an exercise and your partner plays it back, then you move on to the next one and go back and forth. If you’re practicing solo repertoire you can alternate phrases with each other, or play the same phrase back and forth. If improvising you can trade choruses, 16, 8s, or 4s. Rest for a few minutes between each set that you’re doing.

If you already practice this way, let us know in the comments why you’ve adopted this approach and how it’s worked for you. If you don’t, tell us why you’ve chosen to not do so or try it out for a week or three and then let us know if you felt a difference.