Tuesday, September 25, 2018

That Time I Took 211 Days Off

Part 1
By Sarah Paradis, Trombone

On January 2, 2018, my doctor told me to stop playing trombone until I was 36 weeks pregnant, which I was to reach in May 2018. Not all pregnant brass players need to stop playing their instruments, but I was a high risk pregnancy, so my doctor was taking extra precautions.

I effectively got a mandatory doctor’s order to take four months off the horn. And more than that if I’m honest, because I simply did not feel like starting to play again when I was 36 weeks pregnant, and I definitely wasn’t in a place to play for the first 4-8 weeks of my son’s life. As far as I was concerned, it didn’t sound realistic for me to be playing the horn again for seven months.

Seven months is a long time! The longest break I’ve ever taken since I started playing the trombone in 1992 was about 6 weeks after my first son was born. And the next longest break wouldn’t be longer than two weeks. Seven months is more than half a year!

Mentally, I didn’t mind too much about this break because I knew it was something I had to do for my health and especially for the health of my baby. It hurt my ego a bit because I couldn’t play with Mirari Brass Quintet, I couldn’t take any gigs, and I missed out on an audition for my local symphony. But again, my family’s health is more important than any gig, so it was clear what I had to do.

I definitely became a more creative teacher during this time. There were so many times that I knew I could show my students how to play something, if only I could play my horn. Once I picked up the horn and played it for a 6th grade student, and quickly regretted it. I lacked the control that I was used to, and it just didn’t feel good. A few times I buzzed in attempt to demonstrate, and again I kind of wished I hadn’t. Instead, I sang A LOT. And I turned to good recordings A LOT. Also, my ability to verbally describe a sound grew. I created new analogies and visualizations to use to communicate with my students. It was frustrating at times (read: every time), but in retrospect I am sure I grew as a teacher and a musician.

We welcomed our son Henry on June 1st, 2018. He was healthy and we were all very happy! However, like most babies, he didn’t sleep the way adults like to sleep, so the first 4 weeks were very rocky. “Survival” is a word that comes to mind. After that, we found a rhythm, but coming back to trombone seemed very far from a reality. To be honest, it just wasn’t high on the priority list. My sons needed me and I needed to take care of myself by resting as much as possible.

Fast forward to mid-July, when I was invited to play in Opera Idaho’s production of West Side Story in September. I took the gig and suddenly my comeback plan needed to be defined.

For once, I felt like I had a large amount of time to really come back to the horn in an intentional, meditated way. So, I decided that I was going to do it right. I was going to plan it out, follow my plan, keep a journal, and take my time.

In this blog I will detail my comeback process. I’ll talk about the books I used, the plan I followed, and I’ll include excerpts from my journal.

Part 2 will cover the first three weeks of my comeback.

Part 3 will cover the last two weeks and my re-entry into “real life” playing.

Part 4 will summarize the lessons I learned.

Thank you for joining me!
Part 2

After deciding that I would play my first gig in mid September of 2018, my next step was to plan my comeback. I knew exactly which book I needed to buy:

“Common Sense for COMEBACK CHOPS: A Trombonist’s Guide to Playing After an Extended Time Off” by Ken Ebo

Kind of like it was written for me, right?

There are plenty of reasons people take an extended time off the horn. Ken’s experience was that he was in the military and got deployed for a year of non-music work out of the country. He wasn’t allowed to bring his horn. Other people need to take time off for medical reasons, chop injuries, or any array of other life circumstances.

I think it’s important to make a clear distinction here. I am talking about planned, extended (more than a month) off from the horn. I am NOT talking about randomly taking multiple days off the horn in the middle of a period of time that you are working or in school. I believe the two are very different circumstances. As a brass educator, I think it is very important to play daily, promote healthy playing habits, and perform regularly throughout the school year. As a music student, it was imperative that I play every day, or very close to it. I’m not advocating large amounts of time off in those circumstances. A day off here and there can be good for recovery, but I wouldn’t suggest taking more than 3 days off per month if you are trying to maintain your chops and grow as a brass player.


The book arrived in mid July and I began to look into it. I used Ken’s model to help me plan the length and pacing of my comeback. He had a few preset plans, but I made a “custom” plan that took full advantage of the 40 days I had until the gig. I decided to spend 30 days getting back in shape, and then spend 10 days practicing the rep for the gig. It took me a few tries to get my plan so that it felt manageable but still allowed me enough rest and enough time at each stage.

(You can click on the picture for a clearer view)

You can probably imagine the content of each stage. I can’t go into it because Ken probably wouldn’t like it, but I was very thankful for his book. If left to my own devices, I would definitely want to A) move too fast, B) not rest enough, and/or C) play things that were too demanding too soon. By following his book, I only allowed myself to play the exercises in each stage. Nothing more, nothing less.

I started out with one session a day at first. It was only 10-15 minutes of playing, with lots of breaks in between every exercise. I always started with 10 reps of breathing on the incentive spirometer, then 1-2 minutes of buzzing. Then I’d play. Ken advocates buzzing frequently, so I’d go back and forth between playing and buzzing (and resting) for 15 minutes. By then my chops felt really tingly, and my time was up, so I’d pack up the horn until the next day.

The incentive spirometer: due to my pregnancy, my breathing muscles were all messed up. My lungs/diaphragm/abdomen had been cramped and unused for brass playing for a long time. My lung capacity felt drastically diminished, so I used the incentive spirometer to measure my lung capacity and attempt to improve it. When I started, I was at 2.5 liters, and by day 10 I was getting to 3.25 liters.

I got really detail oriented with my practice sessions so that I could stay focused and complete my tasks without any distraction. I timed my sessions with the timer on my phone, and stopped when my time was up. I turned the phone on to airplane mode so I wasn’t tempted to get distracted by social media or email. I kept a detailed journal and logged everything that I played. These were all great habits that I try to incorporate into my daily practice now.

In my journal, I had a column for my PLAN for the day, then another column for my ACTION, or what I actually did, and a third column that tracked my daily minutes of practice as well as my max incentive spirometer volume. I wrote notes about my sessions underneath. Over time the PLAN became the same every day: Breathe, Buzz, Play. The ACTION column simply kept track of how many times I did each and for how long. Here is a shot of my journal from days 3, 4, and 5.

“What was it like to get back into playing after that long?”

The greatest thing was: I sounded the same. Day 1, I played my horn and nothing had changed about my sound. What a relief! I suppose that part really was like riding a bike.

Another great thing was that I hadn’t lost any technique. What I had lost was endurance and control. These took the full 40 days to get back, so I couldn’t access my technique until I was through the program, but it was there. Once I had regained my “fitness,” I could access the articulation, flexibility, and all other technical ability that I had previously had. *whew*

The not so great, but expected, reality was that I had no endurance. My facial muscles were good for talking and eating, but definitely not good for playing an instrument. Completely gone. In the beginning, I also had no control. I could hold a long note pretty well, but couldn’t manipulate much past that. I remember, around day 4 or so, playing a simple slur exercise that Ken had in stage 1. I played it for my older son, and it was...not good. I was surprised and embarrassed...and worried. “Oh no! This is something I should be able to do!” But I learned soon that thoughts like these will come, and you have to let them go. It’s the great expectation that you have to leave at the door, and just trust the process. For 40 days, in my case. You can have the same standards that you have when you’re in shape, but you have to be OK with not meeting those standards. It takes a lot of patience. A lot.

It’s almost like meditation. You’re supposed to allow thoughts to enter you mind, see them for what they are, and let them go.

Allow the substandard sounds to happen, notate what they are, and let it go. Rinse and repeat, day after day, always aiming for the sound you have in your head.

I hit a bump in the road during week two and came down with a bad cold. This cold, mixed with very inconsistent sleep, left me feeling pretty terrible, but I only had one day where I really was unable to play (day 10). After that, the short practice sessions were manageable.

At the end of 3 weeks, I was feeling somewhat normal... sometimes. I had regained control of slow slurs, and I played my first “high B-flat.” However, I was still having difficulty playing a steady tone in the second partial (low B-flat), and hitting fatigue after 25-35 minutes of playing. To be honest, I had thought that I would be completely back to normal after three weeks of playing, but I wasn’t. It was important that I didn’t judge myself for this reality. Any guilt or doubt would only hinder the process. So, just like in meditation, I noticed that I wasn’t fully back to normal, and I let it go. I got back to work, following the plan. I had to trust the process.

This is how many minutes I spent on the horn per day for the first 3 weeks:

Week 1: 15, 15, 30, 30, 55, 40, 45
Week 2: 0, 55, 0, 55, 60, 65, 70
Week 3: 100, 50, 70, 80, 0, 75, 95

The fact that I had an 8-week-old baby to care for ultimately helped the process, I think. While I always felt like it was a struggle to find time to play (this baby liked to sleep ON me for his naps), the baby’s frequent sleep schedule actually worked quite well for my short practice spurts. I had to play in a practice mute the majority of the time, which wasn’t ideal, but it worked out. I tried to play on the open horn once a day to make sure I was maintaining a resonant sound.

If I hadn’t had a baby at home, my comeback would have looked different. Specifically, I think I would have tried to play more each day from the beginning, which probably wouldn’t have been a good idea. I liked the pacing of my plan. I liked it while I was playing it and I like it now, as I look back on it. So I suppose I owe the baby a “thank you” for helping me manage a healthy comeback! :):):)

Join me in Part 3 for the last 2 weeks of my comeback and my “re-entry” into real life playing!

And then in Part 4, I will summarize the lessons I learned in the process:)