The Sunday Football-Related Music Post: Practice Makes Perfect

You may wonder if football and music go together all that well, or at least music created by football players. The answer is no, and as a result I  have a fairly broad definition of “football-related” for this series.

The major and obvious reason you don’t find a lot of football players moonlighting as musicians, or for that matter musicians moonlighting as football players, is that to excel in two such divergent fields as music and football would require more time than actually exists. To be really good at either takes all of your effort and dedication, at least during the stage of life football players inhabit.

To illustrate this, I asked my youngest, a professional symphonic musician, to describe his practice routine for me. I also dug up some information on NFL training. They differ (greatly!) in the details but not in the amount of time and effort required.

Here’s my son’s routine as he sent it to me. I fear he inherited his mother’s tendency to loquacity. I tried to cut it down a bit, but in the end decided you need the full flavor:

A typical week for me is six days of work, with Sundays off, and has a cadence from initial prep to performing concerts, usually on Thursday through Saturday. Although earlier in my career I did not do this, I have begun to take every Sunday off, in recognition of the need for an extended period of complete physical rest.

Playing the horn is an athletic endeavor, although it involves smaller muscles, and thus less cardiovascular exertion than most competitive sports. Said muscles are primarily the maxillofacial muscles, and are subject to fairly extreme strain. Thus there are physical limits to the amount of playing that can be done in a given time period. Good rule of thumb is about four hours of total time playing the instrument (as opposed to rehearsal time, which does not involve constant playing) as a maximum, with occasional extensions beyond that. Any more on a regular basis risks injury to the facial muscles or soft tissue of the lip, which can be career ending.

Practice involves essentially four aspects: 1) Basic physical conditioning (i.e. maintaining the physical ability to perform at your current capability), 2) Acquisition of new skills (i.e. playing higher, lower, softer, improving tone, etc), 3) incorporation of newly acquired skills into your regular performance envelope, and 4) specific preparation for a concert/audition. Of these, only #1 can be done without a high level of concentration, and even then only in certain circumstances. Since there are some limits to the mind’s ability to maintain elevated concentration in any given day, this time must be managed and effectively used as well. In my experience, a typical limit is about 4-6 hours per day.

In order to manage these issues I follow a number of patterns in my practice. An ideal week looks a bit like this:

Monday: Ideally I will have a free or light day in the orchestra—often we play two children’s shows on the morning. I will then look to put in about 1.5 – 3 hours of focused practice: warm-up/short technical routine, an extended routine including scales, long tones (builds endurance and tone production, serves as a basis for addressing problems), etude work, advance preparation of orchestra parts (usually touch up work for the current week plus prep for the following 2 weeks), a small patch of audition preparation, and some work on solo repertoire.

Tuesday: Frequently a heavy day in the orchestra with a double rehearsal (five hours of rehearsal, not including the break). Warm-up begins the day, usually about 20 minutes of touch up work on that week’s repertoire. Following the rehearsal I will try to get another 30-60 minutes of practice in, with a bit of etude work and some technical exercises that contrast the type of playing I am required to do that day in the orchestra (i.e. if I have to play Bruckner which has lots of loud sustained playing, I will do flexibility exercises in a soft dynamic, etc.).

Wednesday: Another heavy day in the orchestra, almost alway a double rehearsal day. Again, warm-up, and touch up work. Usually by Wednesday I have identified a problem in the orchestra repertoire for that week which needs to be addressed. Following the rehearsal I try to find an additional 30 minutes of focused practice for future repertoire.

Thursday: Often a day with a rehearsal and a concert, or a double rehearsal. I begin to taper, and will typically play only warm-up, plus 15 minutes or so of touch up practice. If it is a double rehearsal day, I will do more practice.

Friday: Almost always a concert day. I will warm up, and then try to do no playing aside from the rehearsal and concert. If I have a morning rehearsal and evening concert, I will essentially do my warm up twice. At times with a heavy workload, for example with an audition to prepare, I will practice for an hour after the concert is finished.

Saturday: Typically the lowest ebb day. I generally try to rest from the Friday concert until my warm up for the Saturday concert.

Sunday: OFF, except in case of an unusual need for specific practice.

On all days except Saturday I try to spend at least an hour doing score study, and frequently use car trips or walks as a chance to listen to upcoming repertoire. I also try to read source material as background for the music we are playing, and listen to different horn players and any master class material I can find.

Since the concert season prohibits a lot of extensive practice, I try to take full advantage of our vacation weeks in the summer and winter to practice as much as I can, working on ‘non-essential’ things like etudes and solo repertoire, and also taking the chance to make more drastic technical changes to my playing, which could interfere with my effectiveness in concert if done during concert season. Last summer, for example, I prepared a couple recital’s worth of repertoire, and substantially changed the way I supported my embouchure during the June break in about 3 weeks of practice.

My warm-up is roughly 25 minutes, beginning with a low key stretcher exercise and working gradually towards the extremes of range and dynamics. It aims to cover most of the technical basics of the horn in a brief way, but incorporates some ‘challenges,’ whereby with concentration I not only maintain but make small daily advances to my technique.

If you managed to get through all of that, you can see that it only differs in what you might call “vehicle” from an athletic regime. In other words, the things you are working on are different, but it is a muscle training regime. And just as an NFL player has to consider matters of recovery and game preparation during the season, a horn player has to vary his or her practice routine according to how much other playing s/he will be doing that day.

Here’s a sample of Clay Matthews’ workout routine. This is just in the gym. As he noted to the interviewer in this article for, there are a lot of other things he does.

  • Cable External Rotation: 1 set 20 reps
  • Dumbbell Shrug: 2 sets, 8 reps
  • Dumbbell Flat Chest Press: 1 set, 10 reps
  • Machine Row: 1 set, 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Flat Chest Press: 1 wet, 8 reps
  • Barbell Military Press: 1 set, 8 reps
  • Chin-up: 1 set to failure
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 drop sets of 8 reps
  • Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise: 1 set, 20 reps
  • Fat Bar Curl: 1 set, 12 reps
  • Barbell Close Grip Bench Press: 1 set, 12 reps
  • Body Weight Squat: 1 set, 20 reps
  • Body Weight Wide-Stance Romanian Deadlift: 1 set, 20 reps
  • Bodyweight Reverse Lunge: 1 set, 10 reps each leag
  • Single-Leg Press: 1 set, 12 reps
  • Single-Leg Cable Romanian Deadlift: 1 set, 12 reps
  • Dumbbell Walking Lunge: 1 set, 12 reps
  • Single-Leg Press: 1 set, 10 reps
  • Single-Leg Cable Romanian Deadlift: 1 set, 10 reps
  • Bike Sprint: 1 set, 45 seconds
  • Dumbbell Walking Lunge: 1 set, 10 reps
  • Bicycle: 1 set, 60 reps
  • Singe-Leg Bridge: 1 set, 15 reps each leg
  • Side-Plank Hip Touch: 1 set, 15 reps each side

Impressive. But I’ll bet he doesn’t do those chin-ups with, say, BJ Raji hanging off of him:

Here’s more information about Matthews’ off-season workouts:

After the season I take a few weeks off to help me physically and mentally overcome the rigors of the season. Losing is never a fun deal, so you take some time off and hopefully get away a little bit to re-focus yourself coming back for next year [and] set new goals for what you want to accomplish.

For me it’s been very much the same offseason: working out, dedicating myself to the weight room and field work in the hopes of bettering my game.

My personal goals are always to improve upon my game from the year before and to improve statistically: sacks, TFLs, interceptions, whatever it is—big, game-changing plays. At the same time, I try to better myself as an all-around player, being a leader, being more vocal, and making big-time plays to really make an impact on the field.

I work out six days a week, Monday through Saturday, with Sunday being my day off. My days consist of everything from field work, to being in the weight room, mixing in yoga and Pilates, boxing, and sometimes MMA. We’re always mixing it up. We’re always developing our craft and improving upon our training technique.

My favorite day is Saturday, where I’m just in the gym. But I understand that there’s so much more than just being in the gym and lifting weights, whether it’s field work, working on my explosion, pass rush, and changing direction, or working on my core, glutes, and flexibility with yoga and Pilates.

Boxing and MMA helps work on my hips, full body, feet, and my hands, which correlates directly with being a pass rusher. They’re all so beneficial, but I think every football player loves being in the weight room.

If you want to see what a player’s week looks like during the season, click here to see the article in Newsday. It’s worth a look.

I think you can see my point. Edmund doesn’t have time to work at professional sports, although he does plenty to stay active, as this is part of the physical training for stamina. In the same way, Troy Polamalu played the piano for relaxation, and because he’s deep, but while he looks very impressive in this ad, sadly, it isn’t him playing. Instead it is someone (I was unable to discover who), who can devote substantial amounts of time every day to perfecting his or her craft. It’s fun to see Troy in tails playing the part of a pianist, but until a player retires, that’s about all they can do:


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