Chops of Steel
Sure! People notice when you are in shape at the beach or the gym, but the kind of muscles I am talking about (the orbicularis oris to be precise) sadly don’t get the visual attention your biceps might. The muscles around the mouth of a brass player are incredibly well-toned, but you can really only hear that - not see it. These highly specialized muscles make everyone smile, frown, pucker and kiss, but besides those actions, they are not used a lot….unless you are a brass player. When not utilized, these muscles atrophy incredibly quickly. Practicing is how we work out these muscles that people colloquially refer to as our “chops”. Frustratingly, even after only one day of not playing, we can notice a difference. Our chops require constant use to maintain strength for endurance and precision to better control minute movements that accurately pinpoint the notes on our instruments. When lifting weights, the muscles are pushing isometrically against the gravity of the weight itself. When we play brass instruments, the pressure of the mouthpiece against the muscles around the lips needs to be supported as well. The use of supportive airflow and the build up of muscle tone in our facial muscles allows us to play for long durations.
Nobody could just decide to run a marathon without training. Similarly, we cannot play an operatic marathon such as a Wagner opera without practice to strengthen this needy muscle group. Like baseball pitchers or any athlete, we warm up and stretch these muscles before we work them out, so even before we are working in the pit, we are working at home. Right now, nearly all of us in the live music industry are not working onstage, in a pit or anywhere for that matter, but we are still at home practicing. When we return to work full time, we cannot just flip a switch. Like any specialized skill, it needs to be maintained at the highest level.
Personally, to keep in shape, I have been playing a wide variety of music from etudes to solo works to chamber music (by myself). To synthesize the feeling of playing in the orchestra that I miss so much, I strap on headphones and play along with recordings of symphonic and operatic works that push my range, endurance, technique, air usage and more. I just play differently when I have the headphones on and respond to a recorded orchestra. This performing “muscle” also needs to be exercised, so I remind myself of what it is like to play in an ensemble and adjust automatically to what I hear like I do when I am performing with my wonderful colleagues and friends.