There is a hill on my regular neighborhood circuit that is about a half-mile long with an average grade of between 4% and 5%—closer to 5 if you ask me. In my current meh state of fitness, I’m less concerned with the speed at which I go up that hill than I am about my cadence tempo. I want my legs to pound out “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and to achieve that tempo these days means that I’m in the small chainring and the second-biggest cog.
Eventually, to increase my strength and endurance, I’ll move that gearing to small chainring/third-biggest cog next week. Then after that, the fourth-biggest, and so on, week after week, until I’m on the big chainring. I have to remember that the leaves will be changing colors and coming down by the time I get to the big chainring.
I know that this keeps me healthy although I’ve suffered on and off with panic disorder for years and awareness of my heart rate is a trigger. That’s another story for another time. The meds are great.
The challenge of this hill reminds me of excerpts like the “March to the Scaffold,” one of the muted licks in Wozzeck, and the bass trumpet part at the end of the first act of Das Rheingold. They begin in an easy range and climb way, way up, testing your timing, your breath, your endurance, and your confidence.
The key to mastering parts such as these is not to go into the practice room and hammer away at them for an hour. That doesn’t help anyone—not you, not your neighbors. Take the time to start in the small chainring and one of the bigger cogs. Tempo isn’t an issue in the excerpts I used as examples, of course; it’s range, flexibility, and timing of your breath and embouchure. Do you have the Berlioz coming up on a school audition and are only comfortable with a high B-flat? Fine. Work up to that point this week and produce your best sound always. Next week, work up to the C. Then maybe the next week, go for the E-flat.
Methodical practice like this yields the best results. Maybe my articulation and timing aren’t good enough for the Chicago Symphony or the Berlin Philharmonic, but I can work methodically to improve them to the best of my ability. I’m not 14 anymore and I no longer aspire to ride in the Tour de France, but I can work to get up that hill in a bigger gear and feel better about myself.