State of Practice, State of Backtice

Well what a busy February it’s been!  I just got done a marathon set of gigs playing with the West Philadelphia Orchestra, Three Men and Three Women in Black (Johnny Cash tribute band), and the every ebullient Polkadelphia.  I also recently picked up some private students on piano, which has afforded me a massive new set of challenges.

However, there’s some unfinished business I want to go over.  A few months back I began posting about my new adventures in creating a good practice space, finding a good practice method, and following through with my practice schedule.  And back in October, I posted about several health issues I had run up against, most pressingly severe back pain.  I also outlined a few of the solutions I was trying to remedy the situation and get my back on track.  Since then there really haven’t been any updates.  So allow me to bring you up to speed.

So let’s start with the practice space.  Allow me to give you a virtual tour:


Door open

I had the lens flares professionally installed.

Opening the door reveals…

Practice room

Let’s get this out of the way first of all.  That’s the chair.  The glorious Wenger Musician’s Chair that I’ve been craving for years.  It’s quite tall (which is good, because I am too), very sturdy, and very comfortable.  In fact, the thing I notice most about playing in it is that I don’t notice anything at all playing in it.  With my old squeaky, low, and rickety chair, I was constantly adjusting and feeling where it was inadequate.  Now I just practice.

Next up, notice the oversized mirror in front of the chair.  I used to use a thin door-hanging mirror, but this is so much better.  Not only is the angle consistent so I’m always seeing myself in the same perspective, but I can see my whole body now.  This is huge, as the tuba is unwieldy and often awkwardly positioned.  I can see what I’m doing and make immediate adjustments.  I also like that it’s wall-mounted rather than leaning up against the wall.  This allows me to get really close and pay special attention to my embouchure.

Aww… it’s a nice window.  I use this to get distracted by the colony of feral cats that hangs out in my backyard.

The tangle of wires includes a space heater, which is sometimes my biggest motivator for going to practice.  I keep the rest of my house at a balmy 57 degrees, so having a 70-80 degree space makes practice so much fun.

That beautiful rug at the bottom was a thrift store find.  Together with the wall hanging (coming up soon), it absorbs some of the sound in the otherwise wooden room.  I was finding that I had a hard time hearing myself while playing and needed to dampen the reverberating sound, and this does the job nicely.

Let’s look at more of the space.

More Practice Room

That’s the wall hanging.  I’ve been told by several people that it’s very “me,” but no one can explain why.  In any case, it absorbs the sound quite nicely.

The bookcase was added in to house my music (which for some reason was in a completely different room for a while). It’s in a bit of disarray, but it’s actually still well-organized, broken down by etudes, solos, orchestral works, and band binders.  On top is the invaluable metronome, of which one teacher once told me “If you aren’t using a metronome, you are wasting your time.”  The clock makes it so I don’t need to bring a phone in if I don’t want to.  And if you look very carefully…


There’s a fortunately very blurry picture of my touring days singing Sweet Transvestite.  Just to remind me of where I’ve been.

So that’s the space, and having a comfortable and inviting space is the first step towards having meaningful and productive practice.  Clearly though, it’s not the last step.

Firstly I’ve been conscientiously making the time to practice.  At the very least I go through a 15 minute practice routine each day.  Most days I follow it up with either another session or two of playing etudes, solos, or orchestral excerpts; or I have a gig for which I need to save my chops.  For those of you interested, here’s my 15 minute daily routine:

Mouthpiece buzzing and lip bends (to warm up and “stretch” the embouchure)
Long tones in the middle and low ranges (concentrating on tone quality and breath control) mm=60
Articulation in intervals across the middle and low ranges (concentrating on consistency of attack) mm=72
Lip slurs going from half notes to sixteenth notes (concentrating on smooth transitions between notes) mm=72

Wow, looking at that I notice no work on the upper range.  I’ll have to change that.

Pano Tuner

A tuner isn’t just a fish that comes in a can.

I’ve also added another tool to my arsenal after being (very nicely) shamed by my good friend and first teacher Jay Krush.  When I played for him recently, he started the lesson by saying “and of course you’re using a metronome and a tuner every time you play, right?”  Metronome, check!  Tuner… oops.  While I’ve been paying more attention to the adjusting the intonation of my instrument, I hadn’t gotten specific with it to see how close/far I was.  So I downloaded an app called Pano Tuner after downloading and discarding about 20 apps that couldn’t properly register the tuba’s low range.

It has been an absolutely ear-opening experience using the tuner.  I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am that it took me this long to embrace it.  I now use it every day for my routine, and often when I play the other material as well to see where I am. Also as a result, I’m adjusting my slides more often as I play, which is very entertaining to watch for those of you in the audience.

And as an absolute shocker, I’m sounding a lot better than I did before.  A friend recently commented to me that I was in good form for a show, and I told him “I’ve recently discovered that if I actually sit down and practice my music, I tend to sound a lot better when it comes time to perform.”  One of those silly revelations filed under “why didn’t you know this before?”

I still have lots of improvements to make, but I’m on a track towards being the sort of musician I want to be.  Woo hoo!

Now, onto my back issues.  When I last posted, an ice pick was deeply lodged in my shoulder blade with almost constant pain.  I went through a list of the therapies that I was trying to alleviate the pain and fix the problem.  They included exercises, massage, an acupressure mat, a strange hook thing, Alexander Technique, and a handcart for my equipment.

After several months of working through the pain, with a relapse or two thrown in, I am feeling great.  Here’s what I think helped the most:

  1. Acupressure Mat.  While this had the least long-lasting effect, taking the pain away for even 20 minutes was really important.  I would lie on this on my floor before going to bed, and then fall asleep.  In 20-60 minutes, I’d usually wake up and make my way to bed.  It was very relaxing and therapeutic.
  2. Yoga. I had a breakthrough a few months back in which I started trying yoga classes again after taking a 2 month hiatus.  My first class back, I had a lot of shoulder pain and had to modify my poses.  The next day I was very sore.  The following day I felt fantastic.  I think I had to push myself to strengthen my muscles.
  3. Alexander Technique. This is the opposite of the acupressure mat.  It had the least short-term effect and the most long-term effect.  Taking a detailed look at how I stand, sit, walk, and play was incredible.  I learned that my idea of good posture was in fact straining my body (I blame the ATTENTION of marching band).  Now that I’ve had a few months of it, I take note of it in the many arenas of my life.  Big shoutout to my teacher Ann Johnson.

Then there were things I didn’t expect that were helpful:

  1. Swimming.  In yet another “why didn’t I realize this” moment, I started swimming again after a 7 month break (lost my swimming privileges when I left my old job).  Turns out that the 2 days each week I had been swimming for 8 years was in fact beneficial to my body.  When I stopped and didn’t replace it with something else, my body started to fall apart.  Now that I’m swimming twice a week again, I feel extraordinarily better.  It has once again become one of the most important things in my life.
  2. Mattress pad.  I had been waking up each morning incredibly sore, particularly if I slept on my side.  In fact, I had to train myself to not turn to my left side in my sleep, or I would be in terrible pain after about 5 minutes.  I had a spare foam IKEA mattress that was a lot softer than my current mattress.  After putting it on top of my spring coil mattress, I found I could rest more easily on my side with more support.  I know a lot of people say a firm mattress is the way to go, but after I put on the soft mattress my morning soreness went away.

So here I am today, well-practiced and fitter than I was.  In a more comfortable room with a better chair.  And constantly trying to improve.  There are days in which I wonder if I’ll meet the high standards I set for myself across my life.  Then I think about Pablo Casals’ response after being asked why he still practiced so hard while he was in his 90’s.

“Because I think I am making some progress.”


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