After the turkey and gravy has been digested, the focus turns to our New Year’s resolutions. I spoke recently around the country about the need for goal setting and how we can use summer as a chance to think about the aspects of our playing we can improve on. Carrying on in that vein, today I thought I would talk about building our range and stamina.
There are always solos that have a note that seems like it’s unattainable - it’s like trying to birdie the hardest hole on the golf course. Sometimes it’s easier than we think, and often it’s as simple as thinking about it from a different perspective. We put so much emphasis on high notes, and how they might make or break the piece, but the reality is that they are no more important than the lowest note. By simply changing our perspective on how much pressure we put ourselves under, we can suddenly relax into these higher passages, and not get so stressed about that Super H at the end of the piece!
Working on range and stamina are two very different but vital aspects of practice. I tend to work on them both at the end of my practice time, and never on the same day. Range development is the art of slowly building up those notes at the end of your range with the same technique and ease as those in the middle. Stamina development is being able to do that for a long time.
The key to a strong and efficient upper register, is a strong and efficient lower register, and vice versa. Don’t think you can have one without the other! Work on your low register with as much vigour as you do on your upper register. I find the best way is go in and out from the middle of the range to the extremities of your range, i.e. start in the middle and work downwards, concentrating on your sound, embouchure, air and facial expressions all remaining the same - calm and relaxed. Do this in a comfortable mf dynamic. As you do this into the upper register, keep the sound calm and even. Use your scales as a good way to practice this, going down or up a semitone at a time. As you get to the edge of range, repeat these scales many times, but don’t go further until it feels comfortable. You may feel something changing in your setup, so head back to the comfortable area and remind yourself what you need to do.
This aspect has to be done carefully and always with a good long warm down afterwards. Building up your stamina requires shortening the amount of time you need to feel fresh again – i.e. you play a high phrase and feel tired, you rest for 5 minutes and then you can do it again. Ideally you want to get this down to a matter or beats or bars rather than minute.
I use an Etude book, and I play the Etudes in Tenor Clef (they are written in Bass Clef), this makes them quite high, but you can use other methods as long as you are doing sustained playing in the upper register. I will start at number 1 in the book, and play until I am spent, the point where I can’t pitch those notes any more, and I take a 30 second break. I make a small asterisk at the point and then go again from that point, I repeat this 10 times. The amount I can play is getting smaller, but over time those amounts are increasing. Don’t force anything, keep it natural and calm, and stop when you are really tired - but ultimately the harder you work, the more benefit you will see. Make sure you do a good warm down and some low buzzing at the end of this one, it hurts!
Building your range and stamina takes time and patience, and ultimately discipline. Keep working hard and correctly and you will go a long way.