A few months ago, frustrated by inconsistency in my playing and still recovering from lip surgery, I decided to embark upon an experiment: for thirty days, I would track everything in my life that might influence my trumpet playing. This included:
- what I played: which exercises/pieces, in which key, on which trumpet, and at what tempo
- the total minutes I played each day
- how many hours of sleep I got the previous night
- how many grams of protein I consumed the previous day
- how “fresh” my chops felt on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being best)
- the quality of my sound on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being best)
- how much coffee I consumed each day (measured in five gallon buckets. Kidding.)
- how many alcoholic drinks I consumed the previous day
- how many minutes I exercised each day
- general notes on the day’s playing
I somehow tracked all these factors for one month, and I might as well say this up front: I did not unlock the Super-Secret Key to Great Trumpet Playing Every Day No Matter What.
I did, however, discover some interesting connections and correlations I would never have thought of otherwise.
What Surprised Me
Total Minutes Played
One of the first things I noticed during this project is that I was underestimating the number of minutes I was playing per day. I kept my tracking spreadsheet open during my practice session, and as I sat down to play my first notes, I typed the current time in. When I finished what I intended to be a 60 minute practice session, I’d often see that it had been 75 or 80 minutes.
I had the same experience when looking at my total minutes played for the entire day. Between two daily practice sessions, teaching lessons and the occasional rehearsal, I was playing much more than it seemed.
Taking Days Off
There’s no easy way to say this: I was taking more days off than I thought.
Before this project, if you had asked me how often I skipped a day of playing I would have told you “oh, once a month or so.” Yeah, it turns out it was closer to once a week.
On one hand, I’m officially an amateur player right now – that is, I’m not in school and I’m not playing for a living. Still, my goal is to get back into professional-level shape, and taking a day off once a week is not going to get me there. This was a big kick in the pants.
What Affected My Playing
Disclaimer: I am about as good at statistics as I am at taxidermy, but I do know that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. In other words, just because Thing A and Thing B tend to occur together doesn’t mean one causes the other. They could both be caused by Thing C, for example.
However, given what we know about how muscles work, I don’t think it’s much of a surprise that two of the big factors that seemed to influence my playing each day were how much sleep I got and how much I had played the day before.
This was a major factor in how the day’s playing went. When I got seven or more hours of sleep, I tended to play better and feel better, and on days when I sounded and felt really great (giving myself a 5/5 rating on “lip feel” and “tone,”) I had averaged seven hours or more the previous two nights. This seems to confirm what we already know: sleep makes a big difference in how we play. I suppose I already knew this, but seeing the data laid out in front of me really drove the point home.
Total Minutes Played Yesterday
This is the biggest factor most of us consider when trying to figure out why our chops feel fresh or tired, and it was no surprise to me that the day after a heavy day of playing, I didn’t feel or sound my best.
Interestingly, I often felt and sounded better than usual two days after a heavy day or 1-2 days after a day off.
This is something I’ve noticed in my playing before: if I play too much on Monday, I’ll pay for it on Tuesday, but on Wednesday I’ll feel great. This jibes with what we know about muscle recovery and strength building in general, of course. A heavy workload breaks down the muscle fibers, and they are rebuilt slightly stronger than before.
Days off were more complicated. As I mentioned, I discovered I was taking way more of them than I thought, and this was affecting my consistency. I did notice an interesting “bounce-back” effect from a rest day, though, sometimes the first day back on the horn and other times the day after that.
What Did Not Affect My Playing
While exercise almost certainly has long-term benefits for the brass player, neither strength training nor cardio appeared to have a major immediate effect on my playing. In other words, I didn’t seem to play any better if I’d exercised in the last 24 hours than if I hadn’t, though I certainly felt better in general.
I was also in decent shape to start with, though, so there wasn’t much of a change in overall fitness during the 30 days. I don’t think we can draw any useful conclusions from this part of the experiment.
Protein, Coffee, and Alcohol
I also did not notice much correlation between my playing and the amount of protein, coffee and alcohol I consumed.
I ate plenty of protein throughout the experiment (averaging a higher-than-recommended 93 g/day) and my daily averages for coffee and alcoholic drinks came out to around 2 servings of each per day. I could stand to drink a little less of both, but my diet patterns were pretty normal during the experiment, so it’s no surprise that no major correlations jumped out. Even when I went out with friends and had 3-5 drinks, my playing showed no ill effects the next day.
Now, this all might have been different had I been living entirely on Top Ramen and Reese’s Puffs while drinking six cups of coffee before noon and putting away half a dozen beers during a night out. But my college days are firmly in the past, and I’m looking to keep it that way.
The Benefits of Practice Tracking
This experiment has been a real eye opener for me. Although I didn’t make any earth-shattering discoveries, having to pay such close attention to exactly what I play and how I play it has made me much more efficient in my practicing, and with a full-time job and many other commitments clawing away at my practice time, I’ve got to make every minute count.
I liked this project so much that I decided to make it permanent, and I’m still tracking my playing every single day. I’ve stopped keeping track of non-musical factors like sleep, coffee, booze and exercise, but I can’t imagine practicing without keeping records now.
If your practicing has gotten a little unfocused lately, I encourage you to try some basic tracking for a week or two! It takes minimal effort, but the payoff is significant. Oh, and here’s a stripped-down version of the spreadsheet I used, if you’d like to use it to get started:
You don’t have to go all-out like I did, either. A great place to start is with the basics:
- start and stop times for each practice session
- what material you practiced
- general notes on how you feel and sound today
Please share this article with anyone you think might enjoy it, leave me a comment if you have time on your way out the door, and take care of your chops!