Con Kids: Your Favorite Athlete’s Favorite Athlete

Conservatory students at Oberlin are on their own sort of team — they deal with injuries, find a way to manage classes and practice, and compete. Unlike athletes, though,  figuring out just how much to practice is the hardest game for musicians to win.

Double-degree second-year Daphne te Boekhorst started playing the flute in fifth grade. Her practice schedule is methodical and unwavering. She aims to play her flute for precisely five hours a day — she practices for three hours alone, and then plays during an additional two hours of rehearsal for various chamber groups and orchestras. The consequences of playing any less than that are audible. 

“If you take one day off, you get two days worse,” te Boekhorst said. “So, if you take a week off, it takes two weeks to get back to where you were when you took that week off.” 

The clear parallel between the amount of practice time and level of success for a flute player makes striking the perfect balance a tricky undertaking. 

“The more you practice, within reason, the [better] you sound the next day” te Boekhorst said. “I know if I practiced alone for four hours a day, I would notice I would be getting better. You have to balance how much you want to get better with also your endurance and all of your other responsibilities.” 

As a double-degree student, te Boekhorst is in both the Conservatory and College — which means that, in addition to her five hours of flute playing a day, she manages workload for both College and Conservatory classes as well. Striking this balance is a tedious task for all musicians. Due to the different physical nature of each instrument and body, certain musicians can play long hours, like te Boekhorst, while others’ bodies prohibit extreme rehearsal. 

“Brass players can’t practice endless hours a day or it would make them worse, actually, because their instrument uses so much lip and minute muscle strength,” te Boekhorst said.

Conservatory second-year Sam Hart, a french horn player, can attest to this. 

“I could practice anywhere between two and four hours, depending on other stuff that’s going on or how I’m feeling,” he said. “The amount of air that a french horn player uses to make sound, and the pressure at which it is being blown, can be strenuous on lips.”

Conservatory second-year Isaiah Hammer explained why playing the trumpet is so physically demanding. 

“You vibrate your [lips], and the instrument purely projects those vibrations,” Hammer said. “That’s why trumpet is such a physically demanding instrument — you’re just wearing down the fatty tissue in your face every time you play.” 

An extreme toughness is necessary to be a musician at this level, and many musicians in the Conservatory struggle daily with maintaining their health. Hammer practices anywhere from two to five hours a day, depending on how well he’s feeling. He is currently attempting an embouchure change, an intense process of relearning his instrument to shift the placement of the trumpet mouthpiece on lips. 

“[An embouchure change] is fundamentally retraining the tiny microscopic muscles in your lips that have the muscle memory of, like, nine years of playing under them to vibrate in a totally different way,” he said. “It can make them very, very vulnerable to inner injury when they’re that insecure in their new setup, in their new position. You almost need a physical therapist.”

This embouchure change for Hammer comes at the end of “blowing out” his muscles. After practicing to an extreme limit in his first year at the Conservatory, Hammer must now manage this injury while still participating in big band groups and music classes. To accomplish this, he warms up to practice and then saves his muscles’ strength for rehearsals. 

The physical toll of being a musician weighs heavily on these Conservatory students as they continue to strive toward excellence. Even with the stress of trying to achieve their utmost potential or managing injuries, the community among musicians is not hostile. 

“I really appreciate that people don’t talk behind people’s back or measure themselves against other people in ways that would make people feel bad or have a competitive atmosphere,” te Boekhorst said. “It feels kind of like a team. I’d be very happy if any of them succeeded and I’m sure they’d be happy if I did.”

The camaraderie and friendly attitudes of the students make the mental and physical stress easier to handle. To be a musician, to persevere through the physical stress and to mentally stay committed to their pursuit, they must have not only a deep reserve of dedication, but also a deep love and passion for their instrument. 

“Nobody, nobody goes to a place like the Oberlin Conservatory if they don’t love playing music,” Hammer said. “No one’s going to put in this amount of time on the instrument if they don’t fundamentally love it in the first place and love making music.”