Morning practice (with a practice mute)

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I once heard a potentially apocryphal story about a musician who was asked to play a morning concert. His response was “Ten o’clock? I don’t even throw up before noon!” Whether or not this episode occurred, there’s certainly some truth to it. Musicians do not work a traditional 9-5 schedule. When I was on tour, we’d look for dinner around 11:00 after getting out from playing a show, and in most towns, all the restaurants were already closed. So, more often than not, we’d go to a jazz bar and eat greasy food and listen to other musicians work. And those musicians didn’t get off of work until much later than that. The professional demands of a musician’s career just do not facilitate morning productivity.

However, there’s an argument to be made for an early morning practice session. It may not be my best hour of the day – my brain is fuzzy, and my chops are fuzzier. But, if I wait until I’m fully conscious to begin my practice, there are naturally fewer hours remaining afterward. Because of the physiological realities of worthwhile practice, there’s a certain amount of time I simply must have in order to fit another practice session in. Waiting until noon or later for my day’s first practice session usually means forgoing a practice session later in the day.

Just in terms of muscular development, exercise frequency is key. So, I’ve taken to doing a morning practice session before anything else. I’m in no position to do any musical interpretation that early, so I don’t bother getting any repertoire out. But, if I do a routine that’s pre-structured, I don’t have to think. I just have to follow along and exercise my embouchure. Currently I’m doing an Adam routine most mornings. Last summer, I did a mouthpiece routine before I even got out of bed. The choice of routine is personal, but getting that first practice session in sets me up to fit more practice time into the rest of my day. And, as an added bonus, my embouchure is be all warmed up for the afternoon and I don’t have to waste any of my most productive hours reminding my face how to get a decent sound.

In my current schedule, I have to get my first practice in around 6:00 AM. That’s before my next door neighbor wakes up, so I really can’t play on the open horn. To keep the peace, I use a practice mute. There are many high quality practice mutes on the market; among the half dozen or so big names, I’m not sure that one is markedly better than another. I personally use a Bremner Sshhmute, and I like it quite a bit. One of the best features is that it’s made out of durable plastic. It will not break or dent no matter where it gets dropped. In general, practice mutes can be controversial. Intonation is flawed, airflow is constricted, and sound quality is altered. It’s not the same as practicing open. Practicing open is nearly always to be preferred, when it’s a possibility. But, sometimes it’s not socially acceptable, and practicing with a mute is better than not practicing.

There are some benefits of the practice mute, though, and as long as I’m dealing with the limitations, I may as well capitalize on the advantages. The practice mute not only reduces my horn’s volume to an acceptable level, but it makes it very very obvious when I’m buzzing on pitch and when I’m out. The mute causes the horn to feel very dead if I’m even slightly off the center of the partial. I think it’s a great way to practice making sure my buzz is right on the money. Also, all my air is directed out of one little hole in the mute. By putting my hand in front of that opening, I can feel my airflow and easily tell when it wavers or stops. The mute provides a perfect way to work on continuity through slurs and register changes. Last but not least, because there’s no way to play loud, the mute removes any incentive to work too hard. Efficiency becomes the name of the game, which expands my dynamic range in both directions when I take the mute out.