Chops and Data: Can Tracking Our Habits Lead to More Consistent Playing?

“What gets measured get managed.” - Peter Drucker

If you’re a musician, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of playing a few notes on your instrument and immediately saying one of these two things to yourself: “Wow, I sound great today! Score!” “Man, l sound awful. What’s going on?” We all have good days and bad days, and I recently got to have them back to back. It was kind of a doozie. Here’s how it went down.

Home Alone? Woohoo! Practice Time!

This past weekend, I was home by myself. Sarah was out of town and I had no major commitments, so I did what “Responsible Late-20s Jonathan” does when he has free time: got some work done! Fortunately, “Loafer Early-20s Jonathan,” with his afternoon pajamas and video game marathons, was nowhere to be seen. (Man, I love that guy, but it’s probably good we don’t hang out much anymore.) I read, I cooked, and I spent plenty of time practicing the trumpet. Those of you who have read through my lip injury saga may remember that being able to play more than 20-30 minutes per day is still pretty new for me, so I was excited to get some real work done on the horn. Everything went great on Saturday and Sunday. My lip felt strong, my sound was resonant, and my endurance was respectable. For the first time in two years, I even spent some time practicing the more taxing “high trumpets” - piccolo and E-flat - and lemme tell you, I laid down the law on some Haydn Trumpet Concerto. And then I had a beer. Life was good. On Monday, though, I didn’t sound so hot. Something was a little off. And Tuesday? Bleccch. I sounded terrible and felt worse. Nothing was working, and I mean nothing. I couldn’t play softer than mf, my lip felt like it was made of mashed potatoes, and my range topped out at about an E. Fourth-space E. Wednesday was no better, and it wasn’t until Thursday that things started to get back to normal. What caused this three-day disaster? Now, I know what you’re thinking: “You played too much over the weekend, doofus. You just got done telling us about it.” Okay, okay, I played more than usual on Saturday and Sunday, maybe 2 hours each day instead of the 60-75 minutes I’m currently used to. So I can chalk this one up to overplaying, but that got me thinking: What about the other “bad chop days” - the ones that aren’t tied to anything obvious? We all have these days, but for injured players, the bad days tend to be even worse than usual. What can I do to identify potential causes? I can keep track of any daily activity that may affect my trumpet playing, that’s what. I’m playing for keeps, baby!

“Nice spreadsheet, nerd!”

For the next month, I’m going to use spreadsheets to track a whole host of different factors in my daily life. Man, just typing that sent a little thrill up my spine, because although I’m terrible at higher-level math, I love spreadsheets. Love ‘em. I even keep my to-do list in a spreadsheet, with tasks sorted by context, date entered, and date due. Yes, I am a big, big dork. Some of what influences how we feel is obvious: I don’t need to tell you, for instance, that drinking 6 PBRs and falling into bed at 3:30 AM on Saturday night is going to make for a rough Easter Sunrise service (and leave you with what a friend of mine calls “party chops”). Still, I’m hoping to discover a hidden cause or two during this month-long experiment.

Spreadsheet #1

Spreadsheet 1 This first one tracks several things, but here’s the important stuff:

  • What I’m practicing
  • When I’m practicing, to the minute
  • Total daily practice time, to the minute
  • Where I’m practicing (which affects how I perceive my sound)
  • How my lips feel, on a scale of 1-5
  • My tone quality, on a scale of 1-5

I’m only one day in, but already I’ve noticed something - I practiced for an hour and 42 minutes yesterday, apparently, but I would have guessed it was only an hour and 15 minutes. It’s very possible that I’m underestimating my “horn-on-face” time.

Spreadsheet #2

Spreadsheet 2 This second spreadsheet tracks “big picture” factors:

  • How much sleep I got last night
  • How many alcoholic drinks I consumed last night
  • How much protein I consumed yesterday (important for repairing tired muscles). I get this data from a calorie tracker app I use.
  • Average “lip feel” from that day’s sessions
  • Average “tone assessment” from that day’s session
  • Minutes spent exercising (and what type of exercise)

To Be Continued!

I’ll be reporting back to you with my findings (edit: here they are!), and I’m happy to share the above spreadsheets with anyone who’d like to try something similar themselves. In the meantime, if I may be so bold, I’d like to ask a favor: If you’ve noticed anything in your own life that seems to help or hurt your playing, please tell me in the comments (click “Leave a Reply” at the top of the page). Especially if it’s something I haven’t listed above.