Improving Endurance on the French Horn

Brass playing is often compared to sports or athletic activities.

While I don’t think anyone would assert that playing a brass instrument is exactly like playing football or basketball, there are similarities between any sort of physical exertion and the mechanisms used by a wind player.

Like an athlete, we have to keep our muscles in good shape. We can’t play on them for hours without a break. Additionally, a gentle warmup, ample hydration, and plenty of rest are necessary to keep the lips working well for a long time.

Like an athlete, we also have to balance a variety of factors in our practice and preparation.

Just like an athlete can’t only focus on getting stronger or getting faster, brass players must develop a balanced set of skills. A brass player known only for playing high or loud will quickly find that their phone stops ringing.

Requirements for Improving Endurance

For students, one of the most challenging skills to develop seems to be endurance. That’s because endurance is not just one skill, but a set of skills working together.

In order to have good endurance, a brass player needs:

  • A moderate level of strength.
  • A well-developed, consistent breathing technique.
  • Good posture and body mechanics.
  • Good fundamental technique on the basics of playing.

Most players seem to focus only on the first item – strength – and end up either frustrated at their lack of endurance or with some sort of injury. While a certain amount of muscle and lip tension is required for playing a brass instrument, most players use too much tension in their embouchure.

Not only does excess tension tire out your lips very quickly, but it also impedes your airflow. Your air is – by far – the most critical ingredient in wind instrument playing.

The other two aspects of good endurance (good posture and good fundamental technique) are ways to support good, consistent breathing and airflow. After all, it’s hard to breathe in well if you’re not sitting up straight, and it’s impossible to blow a strong, consistent airstream if you don’t take in enough air!

Brass Playing Endurance == Athletic Endurance

I was reminded of this similarity between what makes an efficient brass player and what makes an efficient athlete while listening to a podcast episode by Dr. Andrew Huberman, who tackles human physiology and performance from both a scientific and practical perspective.

He had on a guest, Dr. Andy Galpin, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton, to discuss fitness, diet, and exercises in a 6-episode guest series. Episode 3 focuses on both fat loss and gaining endurance, and Dr. Galpin dropped several quotes that fit just as well for brass players as for athletes.

Here are the three that jumped out to me (and why I like them so much):

For better endurance, fix (in this order) your breathing, your posture, your technique.

As I mentioned above – your breathing is the most important thing to fix. Knowing what a deep, relaxed inhale and a focused, continuous exhale feel like will tell you how to adjust your posture and will improve your technique almost automatically.

Efficiency trumps force for endurance.

I’m reminded of Dave Krehbiel’s quote from his Orchestral Excerpts for Horn CD – “You can’t make it sound easier by working harder.” It will sound easier when it is easier. If you feel like you’re working too hard, stop and make sure your breathing, posture, and technique are good.

Nose breathing is magic.

While the exercises aren’t for everyone, I (and many of my students) have found a lot of success with the combination of nose breathing and air attacks. These are two foundations of the Carmine Caruso method as demonstrated by Julie Landsman, and they are effective for fixing minor embouchure issues.

Final Thoughts

Like almost all playing techniques, endurance is challenging to teach via a blog entry. If you’ve got questions about your breathing technique, your posture, or any other French horn topic, don’t hesitate to contact me. Whether it’s a simple question or you want to schedule an online (or in-person) lesson, I’m happy to help you however I can!