Performing in High Altitudes

by Kirk Garrison



Traveling to different parts of the country and the world to perform is an experience shared by musicians at all levels of proficiency. Differing climates – from desert to tropical – with extreme temperature change can create a litany of problems. For wind players and singers, some of the most common and persistent problems occur in high altitudes.

It is inevitable that you will notice changes in your body and how your energy is exerted when you travel to high altitudes. There are a lot of common-sense preventative measures that will aid in coping with the difficulties encountered by all musicians, especially by wind players and singers.

Maintaining hydration is perhaps the most important factor in staying healthy in higher altitudes. By the time you feel the effects of dehydration, it is probably too late to recover quickly. I increase my water intake two to three days before heading to the mountains and drink twice as much water as usual while I am there.

Consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and use of sedatives and tobacco should be avoided. The effects of alcohol are amplified because of changes to the flow of oxygen in the bloodstream. Anything that has an effect on respiration and hydration, which are both critical to wind players, will result in diminished ability to perform.

The intensity of the sun increases as you ascend in altitude. If you are performing outdoors, sunscreen and hats (and perhaps sunglasses) are a must. Keeping your lips from drying and cracking is also very important. Lip balm with a high sun protection factor (SPF) works best.

Being physically fit certainly helps, but it won’t completely alleviate the effects that high altitudes have on the body. I have traveled to perform in the Vail, Colorado area for more than a decade, and since losing weight and becoming much more physically fit in recent times, I have noticed that the effects were noticeably lessened.

These common-sense coping measures for high-altitude areas are very helpful, but they are not enough to guarantee that you’ll be on your “A” game during your entire performance. One important factor to consider is that the higher you are above sea level, the lower the density of the air. Not only is your body affected by the lack of oxygen and moisture in the air you breathe, but the sound that you are accustomed to producing and hearing at lower altitudes is drastically changed. With this change, many of us inadvertently made radical adjustments in our methods of tone production and phrasing to recreate the sound to which we are accustomed. Sound is projected much more efficiently in air with less density and moisture, so you must learn to resist the temptation to overcompensate for the disappearing acoustic cocoon of your sound.

A few days before traveling, add a specific series of exercises to your warm-up routine, and do not stray from them. Long tones and lip slurs are a great place to start. In order to stay consistent, use a method book such as Max Schlossberg’s Daily Drills and Technical Studies for Trumpet. The long-note drills on the first pages of the book are excellent.

First, play a series of long tones like you normally would, paying particular attention to how everything feels and sounds. Then use a couple of foam earplugs and repeat the exact same exercise. With the earplugs in, most of what you will hear is internal vibration as opposed to the sound coming from outside your body. Try to emulate the exact feeling you had playing the long tones without them. Do this with several exercises so you can establish a confident understanding of how to play a bit more “by feel.” To make the earplug-exercise experience more musical, find a short piece you are very comfortable with from Jean-Baptist Arban’s The Art of Phrasing or a jazz standard (preferably a ballad) that you like.

We would all like to arrive at our high-altitude performance destination 24 to 36 hours early to adjust to the new conditions. But most of the time, we arrive the evening before or the day of the gig and have to adjust quickly.

Upon arrival, start drinking water. Put in the foam earplugs and play the exact set of long-note drills you played in the days before your departure. Although the lack of oxygen may make you feel a little winded, try your best to emulate how it felt to play in your home climate. Remove the earplugs and repeat the process. At first, it helps to point your bell at a reflective surface to get instant feedback on what is happening. As you start to feel comfortable with your different sound without making unnecessary adjustments, gradually move away from the reflective surface. Stay relaxed and think only of projection, not volume. Although it will sound and feel different, these preparatory measures will greatly enhance your ability to perform in this challenging situation.


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