There’s an approach to weight training that I’ve been reading about that I think might have some benefits for brass musicians, particularly those who have limited practice time due to demanding work or family schedules. The basic idea is to do fewer repetitions of weight training, but to do so frequently. It’s sometimes called “greasing the groove.”
…Tsatsouline advocates lifting weights for no more than five repetitions, resting for a bit between sets and reps, and not doing too many sets. For a runner, this would be like going for a four-mile jog, but taking a break to drink water and stretch every mile. Tsatsouline’s book suggests spending 20 minutes at the gym, tops, five days a week. In this way, he claims, you grease the neurological “groove,” or pathway, between your brain and the exercises your body performs. It’s not exactly the brutal routine you’d expect from someone billed as a Soviet weight lifter. But Tsatsouline contends this is the most effective way to build strength.Lift Weight, Not Too Much, Most of the Days, Olga Khazan
This is obviously not a new idea for music pedagogy and practice. We already know that it’s better to practice 15 minutes a day (every day) over the course of a week than to spend a similar hour and 45 minutes one day over the week. It’s also pretty well established that our brains learn and retain information better with spaced repetition over cramming, but the concept that it’s better to train strength and/or motor skills this way often alludes our thinking when we apply it to brass practice. While many brass teachers advise students to rest as much as you play or never practicing past the point of fatigue, it’s really easy for us to get so focused on practice that we practice on tired chops, leading to reinforcing bad habits or even injuring ourselves.
What does “greasing the groove” look like and how can we apply it to brass practice?
One way to grease the groove is to just do the exercise whenever you think of it. Ben Greenfield, in Beyond Training, describes how he would do three to five pull-ups every time he walked under a pull-up bar installed in his office doorway. By the end of the day, he’d have performed 30 to 50 pull-ups with minimal effort.Lift Weight, Not Too Much, Most of the Days, Olga Khazan
I usually have one of my trombones out of the case on a stand at all times. When the horns are in my cases there’s an extra step to take it out and put it together before I practice. It’s not a lot of work, but if your practice time is limited during the day and you want to try this approach it helps to have your instrument ready to go. When you walk by your horn, pick it up and play a little.
These days my practice time is limited on week days due to my wife’s work-from-home schedule, so I absolutely need to carve out time to practice. But in the past I’ve found that practicing for a few minutes many times a day is a pretty effective way to keep my chops up. Practicing in this way you will never be playing while tired, so you won’t be resorting to those bad habits that can creep in when our chops are spent (excessive mouthpiece pressure, squeezing the corners too tight, etc.). It also can keep you mentally fresh every time you pick up the horn and play so that you can focus on what you’re practicing better.
Of course this isn’t the only way to practice and if you want to be able to play 2-3 sets of lead in a big band without tiring you’ll want to spend some time practicing over longer periods of time, but depending on your schedule “greasing the groove” might be a better way to practice. In normal times I usually have regular rehearsals and gigs that keep me playing for 2-3 hours with less breaks, so I don’t feel like I need to practice for hours at a time. I can usually maintain endurance by playing those rehearsals and gigs. “Greasing the groove” during these times does seem to help me build and maintain my correct playing form so that when endurance does become a factor I’m much more likely to play efficiently and it’s not usually a problem to play for long periods of time. In fact, I strongly suspect that for a few minutes at a time many times a day could improve your endurance even without playing your horn for hours at a time. And if you do have longer periods of time set aside for regular practice, resting as much as you play and spacing out your practice sessions over the day is good advice too.
Try it out and let us know in the comments how it works for you.