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Coping With Change As Brass Players Age

Brad Howland

Brad Howland

Here are four areas of change that brass players should be aware of, for success performing in the later stages of life.

I recently watched a 1992 Tom Selleck movie called Mr. Baseball, in which an aging baseball player has trouble adapting to change, is traded to a Japanese team, and must learn to accept what is happening to him and "fix the hole in his swing" before he can realize his dream of returning to the major leagues (and of course, get the girl along the way). It wasn't a bad flick, and it spawned a few thoughts about what can happen to brass players that don't accept the aging process and learn to cope with it.

Some brass players in their forties or fifties seem to fall apart, losing their jobs in the process, while others appear to find a way over this hump, extending their careers to retirement and beyond. Why is that? Well, here are a few possiblities...

Diminished Lung Capacity

Most brass players are probably aware that lung capacity shrinks with age, but I bet many would be surprised at how soon the process begins and how fast it can progress! The lungs stop growing and capacity starts to decline after the age of twenty.

"Vital capacity declines progressively with age. As a rough rule of thumb, there is a linear loss of 5 to 20 percent of functional ability per decade...From age 20, vital capacity (VC) decreases progressively..." (American Society of Anesthesiologists)

5 to 20 percent per decade after age 20—yikes. That could mean that a person in their fifties might have only 51.2% (using the declining balance method of calculation) of what they had in their twenties! However, we know it is possible to cope even with massive changes like these, our shining example being the tuba player Arnold Jacobs, who played wonderfully right up to the end, despite significant loss of lung capacity due to illness.

Solution: Learn to breathe more often and in such a way that the breath is part of the musical phrase. Allow the chest to expand outward and upward, striving to play on the upper 2/3 of the lungs wherever possible. It's much harder to fill up again when the lungs are depleted past their relaxation point (the point where you must begin to push to expel more air, or suck to inhale more air – about 1/3 full for many people).

Appearance of "Holes in Your Swing"

It's possible that inherent flaws in your technique will become apparent as you get older. In your early days you relied on youth and energy to cover up these flaws, but with age it will become increasingly difficult to do so.

Here's an example written about before: I have known more than a few players that suffered from a tendency to lock up at the beginning of notes or while playing. When they were young their considerable natural talent enabled them to pursue careers in music, but later on they became increasingly troubled by this problem, to the point of losing their jobs (or worse).

Other technical flaws that might haunt a brass player later in life: tight breathing due to friction in the oral cavity, deficiencies in double or triple tonguing technique, inability to trill, reliance on muscle strength alone for the high register, the list goes on.

Solution: The first and most important step – as Mr. Selleck found out in Mr. Baseball – is acceptance of the problem. You can't get anywhere if you deny there is a problem in the first place. Then look to your mentors/teachers for guidance. Seek help, always be open to learning something new, and do the work you need to do.

Changes in Mental Perception

This change might be just a personal example (I haven't noticed anything written about it elsewhere), but I feel that as I get older tempos are beginning to seem faster. In other words, I hear the tempo of a piece in my mind slower than it should be.

Solution: Practice regularly with a metronome or Dr. Beat every once in a while, or play along with a recording of the piece.

The Need to Work Harder to Maintain a Certain Level of Playing

Some of my colleagues in the orchestra (great players all) have told me that they need to practice more to maintain the same level they were at in their college or university years. I'm not sure why this would be true: perhaps it takes more personal preparation when you don't have a teacher guiding you along, or perhaps they just perceive that they need to work harder when in fact they don't! It's also possible that standards naturally get higher as one ages and it takes more work to get there.

Solution: Make sure to set aside the time for personal practice. You can't let other responsibilities intrude upon your practice: kids, marriage, pets, non-music jobs, music jobs, whatever. Book a time each day to practice, make it a number one priority on the daily To Do list, set goals for each practice period, and keep working towards those goals.

Those are the four changes related to age that I can think of at the moment. There are probably more, but if you work on these things, you could go a long way towards getting back into the major leagues!

About Brad

Brad Howland is the Principal Trombonist of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.

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