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Healthy Habits From High Altitude Clarinetists

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Ten questions on musician health and wellness with the clarinet faculty of the University of Northern Colorado




Dr. Lauren Jacobson, Professor of Clarinet at the University of Northern Colorado



1. How do you stay healthy as a performer and avoid common musician injuries?

For the whole body, I try to prioritize sleep, nutrition, and hydration. For clarinet playing, I have a stick roller created for marathon runners that I use on my forearms before and after playing to warm up the muscles - this helps get rid of old lactic acid in the tissue and get the muscles properly warmed up. I take an epsom salt bath several times a week and take magnesium supplements often - magnesium is known for supporting muscles. And, perhaps most importantly, I train my body to play as efficiently as possible. Soft palms, minimal finger movement, and use thorough, methodical practice to reduce tension when performing technical passages.


2. You have played extensively at high altitudes for years as a musician in the Denver area. How do you adapt to high altitude with your equipment, clarinet routine, and personal conditioning? What are other habits that help with higher elevations and your performing?

My primary adaptation for high altitude performance is playing softer reeds. I use a Vandoren M30 mouthpiece with a strength 3 reed, which is a half to whole strength lower than I would use at sea level on that mouthpiece. I also am very picky with reeds - I don’t believe in “practice reeds” (reeds that are sub-par but deemed ok to use in practice). I eliminate about 7 out 10 in a new box, ensuring that the reeds I use at all times vibrate well. In addition, I find that focused voicing (tongue position) and thoughtful phrase planning use limited air more efficiently, and enable me to make most phrases as normal. And on passages that are extra difficult to make in one breath, such as Shostakovich 9 movement III solo, I take a “Colorado breath” to make it happen!


3. What keeps you mentally healthy as a classical musician?

Getting outside, plenty of sunshine, gardening, getting enough sleep, and regular days off! I ensure I have at least one full day off a week, and I take at least 2 weeks off a year from playing and practice. In practice, it is important to remember to be kind to myself, and in performance I remind myself to be grateful for the ability to share music with others. These things help me maintain perspective.


4. Can you describe your best exercises for breath support?

Voicing exercises are the primary practice I do for breath support. I practice a lot without the register key, and often do voicing exercises to ensure I am using air efficiently. I am not a big long tones person, as I have found they can actually increase tension. However, during warmup exercises such as slow scales or scale patterns, I often taper to niente to finish each pattern, giving my lungs time to empty naturally.


5. What do you do for fitness and strength?

I do some aerobic exercise such as running, hiking, or walking, and I do yoga 1-3x a week for strength. While my exercise routine is not always consistent, I have found that playing at altitude is easier when I am in good aerobic condition, and less tense when I am regularly doing yoga to work on alignment and mobility.


6. What nutrition helps you as a classical musician?

I eat mostly whole-foods, meaning I limit processed foods, and I eat plenty of fruits and veggies and drink a lot of water. I enjoy food and cooking and eat a variety of kinds of meals. I drink tea rather than coffee to reduce caffeine. Before a big performance, I avoid super salty foods to prevent excess saliva. An apple or banana is my favorite pre-performance snack.


7. What do you do to stay calm and centered before a big performance?

I like to arrive an hour early to ensure I have plenty of time to try a few reeds in the hall, go to the bathroom, have a snack, and mentally prepare. I am a believer in visualization, and my preparation for a big performance, whether it be concerto, recital, or solos in an orchestral concert, I mentally practice the repertoire many times, envisioning exactly how my body and mind will feel in performance, in addition to highly detailed phrasing visualization. It takes a lot of mental energy to do this, so I do it in small bits, 20 minutes max, and well under tempo, perhaps 40-50% tempo. Right before a performance, I reinforce this by visualizing the biggest passages backstage, or simply visualize walking out, bowing, and my first note, slowly on repeat to remain focused and calm before the performance begins.


8. How do you cope with performance anxiety during a performance?

I get quite nervous in performance and always have. I remind myself to breathe, and stay focused on the music. But the most helpful thing for performance anxiety for me happens in preparation - each practice session should be calm and focused, no panic practice! I monitor how my body and mind feel during practice - if I am feeling anxious, practicing too fast, or not paying attention mentally, I stop that session and begin again later. Practicing with a calm body and focused mind builds these habits into the body, so that even if I am feeling nervous in performance, the body has logged hours of calm and focus on that repertoire, and can perform well regardless of any shenanigans. Having experienced this many times perpetuates confidence in the process, it really works!


9. How do you guide and support your students in terms of mental and physical health?

Regarding physical health, I often ask students about their sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If they are feeling poorly it often helps if they can make even a small adjustment in one of these areas. Eat a yogurt for breakfast instead of skipping the meal, bring a water bottle with you to class, make a commitment to go to bed 45 minutes earlier on weekdays, etc. It is hard as a student, but thinking of oneself as an athlete and making it a priority to care for your body is an important part of being a musician.


For mental health, one of the biggest things for a classical musician is to separate self worth from performance. How you perform in your lesson, what place you get on an audition, whether you messed up your solo in your concert - these are completely separate from your worth as a human being. You are worthy regardless of anything to do with your instrument. I also require students to take 24 hours off a week for rest and rejuvenation, including no homework (e.g. 7pm - 7pm on the weekend). Finally, it is important to learn to monitor the inner judge - the critical voice in the head during practice. Once we can monitor it, we can work on transforming that voice from a mostly critical and often downright mean voice to a kinder, more balanced and neutral analytical voice. This is a key step in caring for one’s mental health and sets a habit for longevity in the field.


10. What is your clarinet superpower?

I suppose my practice philosophy and technique gives my musical phrasing a certain thoughtfulness and therefore impact - I really think through every note and nuance. In teaching, I value mindful practice that combines systematic work with creativity and playfulness, and I love pushing students to take risks on stage - to really go for it and let go.



Michelle Orman, Principal Clarinetist of Opera Colorado and Colorado Ballet Orchestra



1. How do you stay healthy as a performer and avoid common musician injuries?

I am a dedicated yoga practitioner and in the yoga that I do, our warm-ups consist of wrist and forearm in depth stretching. I find that this helps me in yoga, and I also do these before and after practice sessions. If things get painful, I go to my physical therapist.

2. You have played extensively at high altitudes for years as a musician in the Denver area. How do you adapt to high altitude with your equipment, clarinet routine, and personal conditioning? What are other habits that help with higher elevations and your performing?

Ok this is going to take a bit of time. The first thing is keeping my horns warm and humidified. I purchased a Lomax heated and humidified double case some years ago and I keep my horns no lower than 48% humidity and plugged in all the time unless I am playing them. Even on a gig when we take a break, they go right back in the case and the case is always plugged in. I also oil my horns once a month very lightly. I swab out my horns often as I practice and play and at the end of every session I swab them out like I’m never going to ever see them again I also purchased Altieri insulated clarinet covers and in cooler conditions (especially pit playing) any horn that is sitting on a stand is covered. That goes for bass clarinet as well. If the pit is truly cold I wear wool fingerless gloves on my hands to avoid injury.

Reeds hate high altitude and they hate cold dry conditions even more. I purchased several Lomax HumidPro reed cased and I know they are a game changer. Reeds should be kept at 54-60% humidity for ideal performance. In the Humid Pro reed case, they are stored on their sides and this avoids warping. The cases are truly airtight unlike a ziplock bag. I also soak my reeds for two solid minutes on their sides, so the water goes all the way through the tubes of their cane. They do not float at the top of the water container. This makes a huge difference in vibration and water saturation. I never use sand paper/only a reed knife. I find that it loads up on the reed and causes trouble with vibration. I keep a piece of glass in my case and rub my reeds flat on that glass after I soak them, and I rub them again as I dry them before I store them away. When playing at high altitude and or dry conditions a reed can dry out in your mouth. I keep a super thin laminated insurance card on my stand and place it between the face of the mouthpiece and my reed (carefully). I then rub the reed with my thumb and this flattens it out again and polishes the outside of the reed. It kinda gives the reed a face lift and it is way more responsive. This works 100% of the time. I find that I take bigger/deeper breaths about a measure before I come in on any entrance. I stack the air and let the air become buoyant in my body. This produces a block of sound and makes for more secure and comfortable entrances every time. A lighter reed at higher altitude is a must.

3. What keeps you mentally healthy as a classical musician?

Yoga is the number one thing. It teaches me focus, deep breathing, relaxation, and all the things a clarinetist needs to be successful. It slows my brain down which helps in performance and relaxes me. My practice sessions are thoughtful, relaxed, productive, and always varied. I don’t sit down and just start practicing music. I like to go through three or four technique books and choose little snippets. I also always practice in front of a huge mirror. I don’t get bored or lonely that way. One day I sit at a right angle, one day I sit at a left angle, and one day I sit straight on in front of the mirror. I pay special attention to my left thumb angle and where it sits on the register key/thumb hole, and I pay special attention to where my elbows are and what they are doing. A study was done long ago that showed that people can sit in a quiet room for 3x the length of time if they are in front of a mirror. I think that helps me stay in the practice room longer and happier. I also record a snippet of my practice time on my phone every session. It’s just to check in. It’s like looking at the back of your outfit in the mirror to make sure you look good. It’s the same idea, it keeps me on track and helps me reach my goals. It’s sometimes amazing to hear what you’re not aware of.

4. Describe your best exercises for breath support?

Here are the rules:

1. Totally relaxed upper body.

2. Pull the air into the bottom of your gut and stick your gut out.

3. Fill up with air in a relaxed manner.

4. Don’t move your chest.

5. Let the air build in your body and be buoyant.

6. Now blow and make sound with that gorgeous air stream.

5. What do you do for fitness and strength?

Yoga does everything. I go 4-5x a week. I breathe deeply to my fullest extent the entire time and I give 120%. I also stay relaxed and mentally focused. Yoga=a good clarinet experience.

6. What nutrition helps you as a classical musician?

BANANAS!!!!!!!

Good sources of lean protein, electrolyte water, and I carry packets of almond butter in my case in case I need a little something.

7. What do you do to stay calm and centered before a big performance?

Once again, yoga or I listen to the Calm app. Jeff Warren gives great meditations. And I move in slow motion. Once I get heated up and all tense it’s about impossible to come down. I always get to the gig 45 minutes early to stay focused and centered.

8. How do you cope with performance anxiety during a performance?

I think of gratitude. I make a gratitude list. It sounds corny but it works. I also can hear Harold Wright in my head. And everything takes care of itself for the most part

9. How do you guide and support your students in terms of mental and physical health?

Read all of the above!!

10. What is your clarinet superpower?

I’m a double lip embouchure player. That means I’m not a biter. Which means I don’t get very tense, and sound comes out very easily. And also as a double lip player, I have a higher tongue position by nature which helps with really fast tonguing, which is one of my favorite things to do.



Jason Shafer, Principal Clarinetist of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra




1. How do you stay healthy as a performer and avoid common musician injuries?

I think the most important overarching concept here is AWARENESS. I’m amazed at how many colleagues and students will ignore a problem and just hope that it will go away…and inevitably, the problems always get worse when they’re ignored. I saw an OT once for some mild hand pain, and she continually thanked me for coming for treatment before my problem had gotten severe. So I think being continually self-aware and checking in with ourselves is of paramount importance!


2. You have played extensively at high altitudes for years as a musician in the Denver area. How do you adapt to high altitude with your equipment, clarinet routine, and personal conditioning? What are other habits that help with higher elevations and your performing?

Lighter reeds, free-blowing mouthpieces. A healthy diet, staying hydrated, and paying attention to my body, particularly when I’ve been traveling to sea level and I’m returning here. This might seem a little odd, but I found a great benefit in taking a low dose of ibuprofen three times a day for about one day before coming back to altitude, and continuing through the first couple of days of being at altitude. Supposedly it helps thin the blood, which helps the adjustment to altitude. I always recommend this to people coming to altitude!


3. What keeps you mentally healthy as a classical musician?

Self-awareness and willingness to seek support. I’m amazed at how many of my students are resistant to going to see a therapist, but I think it’s absolutely vital to understand that it’s OKAY to seek mental health care. Who we are as people is who we are as artists. If we aren’t caring for ourselves as human beings, we cannot be effective artists.


4. Describe your best exercises for breath support?

I credit Jan Kagarice and Devin Bennett, who helped me heal from focal dystonia, for their knowledge here. For me, it is practicing the concept of an inhalation being a relaxation. In other words, our inhalations cannot be “active,” where we pump air into our bodies. This stimulates the nervous system and generally causes tension. By practicing inhalations as true relaxations, we can support a healthy nervous system. I find the best way to practice this is to place a hand on the stomach and sing for a bit, and then when I stop singing, I feel my stomach gently release outward and my lungs naturally fill with air – NOT air being forced in. This is best to really practice with someone guiding you that understands this.


5. What do you do for fitness and strength?

I should be doing more!!! Mostly light cardio exercise, either at a gym or hiking/walking. I struggle with muscle training because I feel that my body mostly needs recovery from playing the clarinet muscle-wise, so I generally only tolerate cardio-type exercise instead of resistance training.


6. What nutrition helps you as a classical musician?

I think monitoring my protein intake and leafy greens intake makes a difference in my energy and ability to recover from intensive performing. Hydration is important as well – not just water but also electrolytes.


7. What do you do to stay calm and centered before a big performance?

See answer to next question.


8. How do you cope with performance anxiety during a performance?

This is perhaps my greatest passion at the moment. I’m currently studying to get a Master’s degree in Performance Psychology, and aim to achieve a certification from the American Academy of Sports Psychologists as a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) in about a year or so. It has been a bit crazy to try to get all of this coursework and fieldwork done while still performing full-time (and teaching too!) but it has been such a passion of mine that the work and study has felt like fun.


The answer to this question, and to the previous one, is both tremendously complicated and terribly simple. On the simple side, I find that the most important skill for all of us to develop is the ability to redirect our attention to the music. No matter what is bothering us (and it can be so many things!) we can perform well if we are skilled at guiding our attention back to the music: to the moment, to our emotions, to what we are trying to express. On the complicated side, SO many things can get in the way. Our small and large insecurities, our complexes about our weaknesses, our comparison to others, our worries about the ramifications of a performance…the list goes on.


We can’t ever “get over” performance anxiety. We must learn to live with it: to perform at a high level even when we feel anxious. I hope that by the time I finish my degree and achieve my certification, I can be a resource for the musical world to help with this. We ALL struggle with it!!!


9. How do you guide and support your students in terms of mental and physical health?

I’m so glad you are asking this. I’m amazed at how many teachers just don’t ever ASK their students about their mental and physical health. To me, a student cannot be successful without continually working to strengthen both the mental and physical sides to their health. I start by asking, periodically and genuinely, how they are doing. If they are struggling, I refer them to appropriate places (doctors, counseling centers, etc.) and follow up with them to assure that they are seeking support. Of course I support them myself as well, but I also think it’s important for teachers to realize their own limitations and refer to the experts.

In short, I ask them AND I follow up. Most importantly, they have to know that I care about them deeply as human beings even more than I care about their clarinet skills.


10. What is your clarinet superpower?

Honestly, as I answered above, I hope that my superpower will continue to be the passion I have for understanding performance psychology and applying it to music performance. I already feel I have this passion and skill, but with years more of training and experience, I aim to make this power a true superpower!


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