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The Secret to High Notes- Part 4

January 18, 2019

Welcome to Part 4 in my continuing series on The Secret to High Notes.  Should you have missed Parts 1-3, and shame on you if you have, you can find them here:

The Secret to High Notes-Part 1

The Secret to High Notes-Part 2

The Secret to High Notes- Part 3

The problem I want to focus on today is that we’re stuck in a system that is propping itself up.  A lot of teachers and players have never conceived of, or worked on, the entire range of the trumpet as fundamental pedagogy.  Since they haven’t done it, they consider it “different.”  Then there are players who play in the upper register that might not have great fundamentals in other areas, like sound production.  These people will also tell you that the upper register is “different.”

So, to grossly overstate for clarity’s sake:

The “legit” players will say that they would have to give up sound quality for high range.

The “lead” players will say that they would have to give up high range for sound quality.

And since Teacher X or Player Y says it, and they’re good, it must be true.

It’s not true.  

Let’s take a look at the Arban’s book.  If you’re a trumpet player, you should already have, and know, this book.  There are sections that address a number of very important issues for trumpet players.  It is an excellent book that should be in every trumpet player’s library.  That being said, Mr. Arban wrote this:

One may easily ascend as high a B flat, but the B natural and the C ought to be made use of very sparingly.

Even with E.F. Goldman adding that high D had become commonplace, and Claude Gordon adding that the range of advanced players extends to double C and above (in their editions of Mr. Arban’s book), the exercises never changed.  Since Mr. Arban thought of C as the top of the trumpet range, and that it should only be used occasionally, his entire book reflects lack, ignoring the upper range of the trumpet.

I regularly see people post some version of:

“90% of music is below high C”,

which may or may not be true, but doesn’t seem like a good excuse to not be able to play 10% of music.  The post is usually accompanied by the idea that everyone should focus on playing the trumpet fundamentally well, and not worry about high notes.

There is also a lot of “pedagogy” out there trying to show you why high notes are different, and how to be able to play them.

Because the pedagogy has been so “either/or”, trumpet players continue to believe it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  There are so many great players, playing a wide variety of styles, that play with great sounds throughout the range of the trumpet, it’s shocking to me that people still cling to the idea that high notes are somehow “different.”

If you’ve read Parts 1-3, you’ll see this concept again and again:

The entire range of the trumpet is one thing.  

Once you conceive of range this way, then the fundamental approach to the horn clarifies, as the focus is to play the trumpet one way, allowing yourself unlimited potential growth, and much more musical freedom.

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Big Picture vs. Little Picture

September 4, 2018

As it’s the beginning of the school year, now is a great time to think about how and why we practice.  If you’re in school, there is a lot asked of you.  There are the time commitments of being in all of your classes and rehearsals.  Then there’s the work associated with classes, rehearsals, and lessons.  All of that is important.  But if you only focus on what’s right in front of you, it’s possible that you can get frustrated and lose track of why you’re doing what you’re doing.

This can happen in our daily lives, especially while we’re in school.  It can be frustrating to sit in a practice room working on whatever is most difficult for you (for me it was piano- learning the proper fingerings for scales made me want to throw the piano out the window).  It is very easy to go to the “will I ever really need this?” question about any single aspect of school or work that you find tedious or difficult.

That’s because all of that is the Little Picture.  Don’t get me wrong- the Little Picture is important.  This is what you’re doing right now for the immediate future: homework, learning music for an upcoming performance, learning material for your lessons.  You want to do well in school, sound good in performances, and be prepared for your lessons.

Here’s the hard part- You shouldn’t let the Little Picture obscure the Big Picture.  The Big Picture is the overarching reason you’re doing all of this work.  You get to decide what the Big Picture is.  Please let me offer some advice:

  • Make the Big Picture a concept, not a goal.
    • If you make your big picture a goal, like winning a certain job, then as soon as you achieve it, you’re done.  My big picture is to be a great trumpet player, musician, and teacher.  If my goal was to play lead on Maynard Ferguson’s band, I would have been done with my Big Picture before I was 30.  If it was teaching trumpet at a great music school, then I would still have been done before I was 40.  Make no mistake, those are things I wanted to do and am happy to have done.  But those were all Little Picture things.
  • Stay aware of both the Little Picture and Big Picture.
    • When you lose sight of the Big Picture, it can feel like what you’re doing is pointless, and you’ll never get anywhere.  My career is going well, but it wasn’t exactly a straight line.  I worked at America Online for a short period of time, taught kindergarten for a year, and worked for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Education Department.
  • Invest heavily in every Little Picture.
    • As hard as it can be, take every step in your potential growth seriously.  I have lots of rules.  One of those is:  Knowing is generally better than not knowing.  When you encounter those parts of your education that you don’t like, don’t care about, find difficult, or any combination of those- take the time to do the work and, even if you never see any concrete benefit from it, you’ll be the better for it.

If you can operate this way, you can’t help but continue to grow.

Now get to work.  And never forget why you’re doing it.

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Accountability

August 23, 2018

If you know me, you know I’m a sports fan.  If it’s competitive, generally I’m interested (except soccer, which is ridiculous).  Once, when I was on the road in Jakarta, I was in my hotel room practicing and my roommate (not a sports fan) walked in- glanced at the TV, which had the Asian Badminton Championship on- then looked at me with exasperation.  I took the horn off of my face and said, “C’mon, I hear Malaysia has a real shot at a medal this year!”  He was not amused.

Way too often, musicians compare themselves to athletes.  I’ve already discussed how ludicrous that is here:  Musicians Are Not Athletes.  One of the aspects that musicians and athletes share is accountability.  To oversimplify, I’ll put it this way:

You must practice to get better

My job is teaching trumpet at a university.  That means teaching college students how to become professional musicians.  There’s a lot that goes into this.  It’s not just playing the trumpet well.  It’s also about how to conduct yourself in the professional world.  With that comes a lot of accountability.  Not just for how you play in an ensemble, but for your actions and interactions with others.  Sort of like a coach.

Here are the facts of what happened at Ohio State recently:

  1. Urban Meyer, the head football coach, denied knowing about domestic abuse allegations against one of his assistants.
  2. After a report came out stating he did know, Mr. Meyer wrote, in an open letter to “Buckeye Nation”, : “I have always followed proper reporting protocols and procedures when I have learned of an incident involving a student-athlete, coach or member of our staff by elevating the issues to the proper channels. And I did so regarding the Zach Smith incident in 2015. I take that responsibility very seriously and any suggestion to the contrary is simply false.”
  3. An investigation by Ohio State found: “Although Coach Meyer and Athletic Director Smith failed to adhere to the precise requirements of their contracts when they concluded that they needed to await a law enforcement determination to file charges before they reported the otherwise disputed claims of spousal abuse against Zach Smith, they did so based upon a good faith belief that they did not have sufficient information to trigger a reporting obligation or initiate disciplinary action in the absence of law enforcement action.”
  4. Urban Meyer was suspended for 3 games.

So let me see if I can sum this up for you quickly:

  1. Urban Meyer lied- “I didn’t know”
  2. When caught in that lie, he lied again- “Okay, I knew, and I reported it”
  3. When the University caught him in both lies,- “Okay, I knew and I didn’t report it”- he’s given a slap on the wrist.

This isn’t the kind of accountability Urban Meyer demands of his players.

In short, Urban Meyer is not being held accountable for his actions.  Ohio State has made the cowardly decision that winning football games is more important than their integrity, and in this case- an abused wife of an assistant coach.  Even at Ohio State, the majority of the football players are not going to the NFL.  What these college students are learning is that if they win enough games and make enough money for the university- the rules don’t apply to them.

Shame on you, Ohio State.  Your players and fans deserve better.  I hope they ask for it.

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Confidence

June 28, 2018

Recently I met with a high school student who was visiting IU.  As he was packing up, he asked me if I had any advice on developing confidence.  As our time was short, I hope that my answer didn’t come off as flippant.  I told him:

No one can give you confidence.  It’s something you have to build.

As a teacher, I can give advice and tools to help build confidence, but eventually the student has to take ownership.  If I give a student tools and exercises, telling them that once they complete them that they will be confident, I’m lying.  What is most important in the process is that the student is aware of how they’re doing.

I try to make confidence into a logic problem.  Let’s say there is an etude a student has never seen.  I will ask how confident they are in their ability to perform the etude.  Usually, it’s fairly low.  Then I will give the student one week to prepare it, with tools on how to prepare.  After the week, I ask how confident they are.  Some will say very confident, while others will still say they are not confident at all.  What’s the difference?  The students who used the preparation time to not only learn the etude, but understand and believe that they are able to play the etude, have done themselves a great service.  Too many people ignore the second part.

So here’s the logic:

If you are practicing something, you should be getting better at it. 

If you’re getting better at it, you should have more confidence in your ability to perform it.  

So….if you believe that you are practicing well, but you’re not gaining confidence, you have one of two problems.  Either:

  1. You aren’t practicing as well as you think, or
  2. You aren’t paying attention to the progress you’re making.

It can be easy to focus on the nuts and bolts of:

  • playing all the right notes in the right order
  • playing dynamics
  • playing in good time
  • playing musically

because all of those things are important.  Too often we focus exclusively on what still needs work, instead of also including what has improved.  Make sure you’re looking at the big picture.  After working on a piece of music, ask yourself if it’s better than when you started.  If the answer is yes, then give yourself some credit for doing good work, and realize that you should now have increased confidence, as you know you’re heading in the right direction.

If this sounds overly simple- good.  It’s not complicated (that doesn’t mean it’s easy!).  I’ve found that people like to make concepts that they find difficult as complicated as possible.  Making difficult concepts as simple as possible helps me know that a solution is not only possible, but something I can achieve.

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Criticism

April 2, 2018

As a trumpet teacher, part of my job is giving criticism.  The relationships I have with my students are ones built on mutual trust, so my criticism is usually taken for its intended purpose- to help students improve.  After a student has played something, my first question is usually, “So, how did that go?”  The reason I ask this is so that I can see if the student and I are on the same page before we continue.  If the student says, “pretty good,” and I agree, I will let them know as we discuss how to get from ‘pretty good’ to ‘great.’  If I disagree, I will say something like, “Actually, I thought that did not go well.”  Or, “Hmmm…I thought that didn’t sound good at all.”  After that, I will explain why I thought what I thought, and ask why the student thought it was “pretty good.”  Then we work towards making it better.

Because we have good personal relationships, it is easy to have these kinds of conversations without hurt feelings.  If I think that your performance of Brandt #2 was not very good, that has nothing to do with you as a person.  It has to do with your preparation and performance of that etude.  If you’re working with someone you trust and can put your feelings aside, honest criticism will be a tremendous benefit.

Criticism can be very helpful in growth.  If you are offered an honest assessment of how you are doing, and how it could be better, this can eliminate a lot of wasted time.

There are two big problems I’d like to discuss today.  First up- Unwanted Criticism.  This can happen in a number of ways.  The easiest way is to post anything online…about anything.  Someone will quickly let you know what you should have done, and how much better you should have done it.  Another favorite of mine is the older student.  As an undergrad, there were always “experts” around to let me know what I “should” be doing. These are often the people to tell you how much better everything used to be.  Let me be very clear here- classmates and colleagues can be a great source of information for growth.  I encourage my students to play for each other to get good feedback.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  This is the person who, although is in the same place that you are, is somehow an “expert” on everything, and is happy to let you know it.

I deal with all unwanted criticism the same way- The Smile and Nod.  Here’s what you do:

  • Manufacture your best smile
  • Aim it at the Unwanted Critic
  • Give a small nod in their general direction
  • Walk away

The second big problem- Malicious Criticism.  This might be easier to find, as, if you’re reading this, you have internet access.  There are people that seem intent on hurting other people with their criticism.  The difficult part: it can work.  If you’ve invested a lot in a particular project just to have someone come along and viciously attack it, getting your feelings hurt is not unreasonable.  So- how do you deal with malicious criticism?  I have two suggestions.

  1. Ignore it.  If someone is going out of their way to hurt you, showing them that hurt only feeds them.
  2. If you just can’t let it go, try this- write them a thank you note.  Be as nice as you can in thanking them for taking the time to give such a thoughtful critique of your work.

There are people out there that seem to think that the only way to look good is to try and make others look bad.

So- where can you go for criticism you can trust?  Good question.  Experts.  Look for people that actually know what they’re talking about.  There is more information now, that is easily available, than ever before.  Not all of that information is equal.  It’s worth doing the little bit of extra work to make sure the information you’re getting is from a source that is reputable.

 

 

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Nuance

January 14, 2018

Being a huge trumpet geek, I regularly read trumpet related websites and watch trumpet videos online.  It’s amazing how much great stuff is out there.  That’s not what we’re discussing today.  Today’s topic is about what gets lost in too many online arguments and videos.  If you went to one of these sites and asked “what mouthpiece should I play?”, amazingly, people who have never heard or seen you play will tell you exactly what mouthpiece you should use.  Some of those same people will demonstrate their “knowledge” by saying one thing, like how important a good sound is, then demonstrate their “expertise” by not being able to produce a good sound.

I do not argue with these people.  In fact, I choose not to engage with them at all. What I’d like to discuss today is what’s missing from so many online discussions.

Too often, online discussions become black and white arguments, with no room for the many shades of gray that can exist.

There are a lot of online discussions about equipment.  I use my equipment because it works really well for me.  When I read online discussions regarding equipment, some people quickly resort to trashing horns and mouthpieces that don’t work for them.

Here’s the problem:

There are lots and lots of great horns being made right now.

There are also lots of terrible horns being made.

For example, if someone writes online that all Bach trumpets are garbage, that person should immediately lose all credibility.  I don’t play Bach trumpets, but that doesn’t mean they’re not any good.  There are brands of trumpets out there that I do believe to be of bad quality.  We need to be able to clearly articulate that difference.

Just because I say I like the color pink doesn’t necessarily mean I hate the color orange.  

I believe we can be better. For some reason, we seem to be losing the ability to discuss anything with any level of nuance. Too many discussions turn into online yelling matches, where the person with the most time on their hands can get the last word, and proclaim themselves “right.”

So what should we do? I have a few ideas.

1) Decide what’s important to you.

Before venturing into what could be an online mine field, take a minute to ask yourself if that particular discussion is worth your time. A lot of us have had initial reactions that, possibly, could have been tempered by a little time.

2) Will getting involved do any good?

This is a big one. If you see someone spouting what you believe to be absolute malarkey, ask yourself if your involvement can actually help. There are people that seem to enjoy confrontational tactics, and are emboldened by anyone who dares to challenge them. Any “discussion” only serves to entrench them in their own beliefs.

3) Stick to the subject at hand.

It is amazing how often I see that “but what about” argument deployed. You could be discussing whether to play Bb or C trumpet on Shostakovich, and then someone writes, “but what about playing rotary on Brahms!” Sure, lots of people choose to play Brahms on rotary, but that has nothing to do with the discussion at hand.

4) Realize that other people could have something valuable to say.

If you’re not interested in hearing other opinions, then don’t get involved.

5) Not all opinions are equal.

We’ve discussed this a bit before (You’re Not Always Entitled to Your Opinion), but it’s especially important to remember online. There are a lot of people using the internet to proclaim themselves experts. Please do some investigating and find out if the “expert” has any real expertise.

6) Know when to get out.

If, once you’ve engaged, you are dragged into something that you know can never be productive, it can be difficult to leave. It’s natural to want to try and convince others that you are right. Use this: “Unfortunately, I see now that we cannot have a productive discussion. Obviously we are not going to agree. This is my last post on the subject.”

My friends will tell you that I really enjoy a good argument. I also enjoy the exchange of ideas. If we can start acting better online, then the people who want to tell everyone else how wrong they are will have no one to argue with. Then we can open the door to real online discussion. I look forward to arguing with you soon.

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Make the Commitment

October 23, 2017

Playing the trumpet is easy.  What I mean by this is that the concepts involved aren’t complicated, and that anyone can do it.  I can teach anyone how to play the trumpet in 30 minutes.  Playing the trumpet well takes a considerable amount of practice.  No one plays at a professional level right away.

As you’re working to learn more and get better, it’s important to remember a few things.

Understanding a concept is just the first step in being able to demonstrate it

Your practice time should be spent putting the concepts you learn intellectually into practical use.  As we discussed with Scales, knowing that the Ab major scale has four flats doesn’t necessarily mean you can play it.  Similarly, knowing that getting a full sound throughout the entire register of the instrument is vital is not the same as doing it.

Oversimplifying can be as bad as overcomplicating

It can be easy to think- “oh, I just need to do this one thing, then everything else will fall into place.”  When faced with the frustration of that not working, it’s easy to make the leap to- “it’s just too difficult…you have to be born with it…if only I knew the secret.”  As a teacher, I go out of my way to make things as simple as possible.  Notice the “as possible.”  That’s the important part.  Oversimplifying can lead to not getting the result you want.  Overcomplicating can lead to quitting in frustration.  I don’t like either of those outcomes.  It’s critical to understand what you’re working towards, and to proceed down the simplest path to get there.

There are no shortcuts

This is a big one.  There are still people out there making outrageous claims about near-instant improvement.  Growth takes time.  If you are not willing to invest the time and energy necessary, find something else to do.  If you’re spending time looking for a magic solution, you’re wasting time you could be spending getting better.

With that in mind, your work should show improvement.  If you’re practicing dutifully and not seeing any improvement, it’s time to look for a new path.

Commitment

This brings me to the title of this entry.  On the surface, some of what is written above might appear to be contradictory.  I’m saying that trumpet is easy, but takes time.  I’m telling you to look for the simplest path for growth, but not look for shortcuts.  I believe that anyone can understand how to play the trumpet in 30 minutes, but being great at it takes much longer.

Too often, people seem to be looking for a checklist of exactly what they need to do to get where they say they want to go.  It’s almost never this simple.  True learning is not a straight line, or a destination.  It’s a long term investment in yourself and a process for continued growth.

No one else can make this commitment for you.  You can take words of encouragement as motivation.  You can also take people telling you “you’ll never make it” as motivation to prove them wrong (this is not my favorite, as it is working from a negative place- I prefer to leave the “you’ll never make it” people behind and forget them).  Ultimately the commitment is about only one person- you.  Once you decide to make this commitment, (and I mean this in the nicest way possible) others don’t matter.  As a student, it can be difficult to be around a lot of other people on similar paths to yours.  You might see people winning auditions, competitions, and jobs that you really want.  Remember this: someone else’s success is not your failure.

Once you’ve made the commitment, there’s no need to advertise it.  Your commitment isn’t to anyone but yourself.  If you are truly making a change, your actions, and the results of those actions, will speak louder than words ever could.