I know one musician who never takes a day off from practicing. Every time she goes on vacation she brings her mouthpiece with her and plays 30 minutes a day to keep the embouchure in shape. I know the feeling: the embouchure gets out of shape so quickly. After a mere two day break, it can feel like you are incapable of playing a phrase without leaking air.
Most of us, however, like to take some time off throughout the year. If we take two weeks off during the summer, it does not mean that for the rest of our lives, we are two weeks behind where we would otherwise be. Time off from playing presents us with unique opportunities to learn how to play our instruments better and forget bad habits.
I think that an inability to take time off from playing betokens a lack of trust in oneself. While we might temporarily lose the muscle tone in our mouths and fingers while we are on vacation, we can quickly get it back if we truly understand how to play our instruments. Trying to get back in shape without external guidance tests what we really know. If we can get back to our normal level of playing within a week, we have learned to stand on our own two feet without the assistance of a teacher. Such an experience firms our understanding of how the instrument should be played, and this understanding helps us make better progress in the future.
In addition, when we come back from a break, the weakened muscles present us with an opportunity. Bad habits can be difficult to change when we are in the midst of practicing continually for lessons, concerts and auditions. When we temporarily forget how to play, we also forget our bad habits. These habits can come back, of course, but the process of getting back into shape lets us be mindful of these habits and reduce their effect on our playing.
This summer, I took 8 days off from playing. After those 8 days, I had two weeks to get back into shape before any engagements. I practiced carefully during those two weeks to ensure that I was using my embouchure, air, tongue and fingers properly. In addition, I had two bad habits that I was trying to rid myself of. The first was a tendency to tighten the throat while I was playing, the second an involuntary rising of the left shoulder. During my first practice, I found that the throat was remarkably relaxed. I tried to keep it that way by not practicing anything too difficult, which would distract my attention from relaxing the throat. During the first week after my break I practiced only scales, arpeggios, tonguing exercises and long tones. My familiarity with these exercises allowed me to concentrate on the relaxed throat I wanted to have. I practiced for only 20 minutes at a time, moving gradually between 40 minutes of practice the first day and 2 hours a week later. Whenever I felt a bad habit coming back, I stopped and resumed practicing a few hours later.
How did I do? This past month has felt great – my throat has felt relaxed and my shoulder stationary. I felt that I was able to regain my level of playing on my own, but it took a lesson with a former teacher to remind me that my tone could be sweeter. Recently I have felt that my left shoulder is starting to rise up while playing. Bad habits die hard! However, the fact that I went so long without this problem has given me the confidence that I can figure out how get my shoulder to relax again.