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Do You REALLY Know it?

September 25, 2017

When I ask new students if they know all of their major scales, I usually get “yes” responses.  Then I pick up my horn and say, “Okay, let’s play them.  First me, then you.”  It’s at that point that I can tell by the look in their eyes whether or not they really know them.  Most of them know how major scales are built, and can tell me how many flats or sharps are in the key signatures.  That’s a great start to REALLY knowing.

Let me ask you a question:

What’s the 13th letter of the alphabet? 

Right now, most of you are either thinking (or singing to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star): “A-B-C-D-E-F-G” while counting on your fingers.  If I asked you if you know the alphabet, you would most likely answer yes.

I want a deeper knowledge of scales and music.

This brings us to memorization.  For some, memorization has become a bad word.  For others, it’s an absolute necessity.  This is where the problems begin.  Memorizing data without understanding it is useless.  For example, if you can tell me that the Ab major scale has four flats, and they are Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db, but still can’t play an Ab major scale, you still have work to do.  Having no data at all will make your job much harder.  If you don’t know how to build an Ab major scale, you’ll probably have a hard time playing one.

There are things that need to be not just memorized, but truly learned so that you can progress.  There is information that you need to own.  And here’s a secret- the more you own, the better.

Smartphones have made it very easy to not know anything.  If you need directions, a recipe, stats from a football game on Saturday, or the name of that person on that show that was that other character from that movie- there’s an app that can help you.  I say this as someone that uses my smartphone regularly for these purposes.

When it comes to music, I want you to start taking responsibility for REALLY knowing your material.  Let’s start with scales as an example:

  1. Can you play all of your major scales from memory?
  2. What about minor scales (natural, melodic, and harmonic)?
  3. What about modes?
  4. Can you play them in 3rds?
  5. 4ths?
  6. You are, of course, playing them over the entire range of your instrument, right?

If you’re thinking- wow, that’s a lot!- you’d be right.  So where do you start?  Simple-with something, anything, that you know that you don’t REALLY know.  Set aside a little bit of time every day to get better.  That little bit of time, every day, will add up quickly, and you’ll start seeing results.

Once you start working in this way, you can start seeing music in a bigger picture.  You won’t be looking note-to-note; you’ll be seeing phrase-to-phrase.  And once you starting taking the responsibility of REALLY knowing music, your performances will improve, and your growth will skyrocket.

I love etudes.  I use them in my practice and in my teaching.  In the abstract, learning any one etude for your lesson isn’t the most important thing in the world.  Students will often ask the questions (especially when it comes to advanced math): “Do I really need to know this?” and “Am I ever going to use this again?”  Although you may not be asked to play etude #19 in public at any point in your career, the cumulative knowledge you gain by taking the time to REALLY know each piece assigned will, over time, help your overall musical growth immensely.

There are always more ways to practice, and always more information to learn.

This is why being a musician is the best way to live.

 

 

 

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Smart(phone) Practice

September 1, 2017

The school year has started.  For a lot of you, that means back to lessons and ensembles, with a whole lot of new music for you to prepare.  When preparing music, you need to pay attention to detail, work out the technical and musical challenges, and make sure you’re playing your instrument fundamentally well.

Don’t forget to practice performing!

Too often musicians spend so much time preparing a piece, they leave performance out of their practice.  Once the piece has been studied, the “hard parts” are worked out, and the phrasing has been decided, the practice session ends.  There needs to be one more step.

Practice performing the piece.

How, you might ask?  Good question.  For those of you with smartphones (and I think that’s a lot of you), try adding this to your daily practice.

  1. After the “normal practice” of your piece, put your phone on your music stand, and video record a performance of the piece.
  2. DON’T WATCH IT YET!
  3. When you are ready to practice this piece next (at least one day later), watch the video.
  4. Notice what you did well, as well as what needs work.  Delete the video.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4.

Adding this to your daily practice gives you the opportunity to show yourself exactly what others see in your performance.  That’s why you don’t watch the video immediately.  When you give yourself that day, something that you might have not noticed could stick out, while something else that bothered you in the moment might be no big deal.  You might also notice aspects of your performance that you hadn’t considered before (posture, hand position, funny faces that you make while playing).

Since you are the only one watching the recordings, it’s up to you to be completely honest with yourself.  If not, it’s like cheating at solitaire- sure you may have “won,” but who cares?  Holding yourself accountable for daily performance can certainly be frustrating, especially at first.  Done correctly, you’re gaining valuable performing experience that will have you better prepared when you next step on stage.

 

 

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Ownership

May 19, 2017

It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard:

“I aced that test.”

or

“I played great.”

And from the same people:

“The teacher gave me a D.”

or

“Umm…my valve stuck…the print was too small…with Venus in retrograde there was just no way.”

It’s very easy to take credit for the good stuff.  When everything is going well and you’re getting positive feedback, ownership is a piece of cake.  It’s when stuff starts going poorly that ownership gets more difficult to assume.  It’s not unusual to look for excuses, or someone else to blame.  Resist that urge.  You must own all that goes right along with all that doesn’t.

Remember this:

A bad performance doesn’t make you a bad person.

Musicians, like many other professionals, often tie their work to their overall self-esteem.  This is very dangerous.  Playing trumpet well does not make you a good person.  Taking pride in a job well done is very different than believing that, because you happen to play well, you’re a gift for the world to enjoy.  On the opposite side, a bad concert doesn’t make you some kind of sub-human never allowed to see sunlight ever again.

While it’s natural to feel good after playing well and not as good after playing poorly, what you do with those feelings is very important.  If you take your good performance as a sign of how great you are, it’s unlikely you’ll keep getting better.  And if you believe your bad performance proves every negative thought that has ever entered your head about yourself, it’s also unlikely you’ll grow from that.

The first thing my students hear from me after finishing playing something is usually, “How do you think that went?”  The answer to that question will show what the student noticed about that performance.  I want to know what the student thinks went well as well as what needs work.  Because most of the time we spend practicing is alone, it’s vital that we learn self-diagnosis.  Once we figure out what was good and what still needs attention, we know what to practice.  At the end of most lessons, my students hear, “So you know what to practice?  And how to practice it?”  When the answer to both questions is yes, I let them go, looking forward to hearing them the following week.

To truly enjoy the gratification that comes from a great performance, and you should, you must completely own the frustration of those performances that weren’t your best.

One last thing- the day after that performance, no matter how it goes:  Get back in the practice room.  There’s still plenty of work to be done.

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Trust

January 27, 2017

For people seeking good information, an online search often seems a reasonable place to start.  When you’re looking for movie times or a piece of trivia this works fairly well.  When searching for more important information, like how and where to get help on the trumpet, this system doesn’t work nearly as well.  I just did a search for “great trumpet teachers” and the first two results were an online forum discussion and an a list of the “Top Colleges for Trumpet Performance” which I find dubious at best.

To find good information takes trust.  There are plenty of people online offering all kinds of solutions to problems you might not have even known that you had.  If you just give them your time and money, all of your problems will be solved.  This seems to attract enough people that these offers keep coming.  As these kind of schemes have become more prevalent, the people running them have gotten better.  Now you’ll hear a lot of the “right words” that might lead you to believe that “well…there might be something to that….maybe I should give it a try…”  Instead of offering you a Double C if you just buy this magic mouthpiece, you now need to invest a lot of time and money so that you can unlock “The Secret.”

Here are a few ideas on what to do with the unknown people and ideas:

  1. Look for facts.  Very often, people that are untrustworthy speak in very general terms.  It makes them hard to pin down, as they’re not lying because they haven’t really said anything at all.  Look for phrases like, “…too many to list…” “…all over the world…” and “…thousands of students…”  These kinds of generalities have no real meaning, and could be hiding an absence of real experience.  Look for: professional gigs, professional teaching experience, and professional affiliations.  These are by no means a guarantee of greatness, just a good starting point to know whether the person you’re dealing with exists in the real world, or just online.
  2. Look for evidence.  If someone is proclaiming themselves to be a great player or teacher, there should be ample evidence to back it up.  Search for recordings and successful students to see what this person has been doing.
  3. Learn what’s going on in your world.  The trumpet world, like a lot of others, is relatively small.  It’s not difficult to find out who the successful players and teachers are in any area of the world.  Do some homework: most orchestras have websites listing their personnel.  See if the trumpet players have personal websites.  The same goes for professional big bands.  Go see live music in your area and find out the names of the people in the sections.  After a while, you’ll start seeing the same names over and over again.  The same goes for colleges, which all have websites listing their faculty.  Find the best young players in your area and ask them if they are taking lessons.  If so, find out the name of their teachers.

So how do we know whom to trust?  Start with your personal relationships.  If you have a current private teacher or band director that you trust, they can be a great first step into a bigger world.  They have likely met, worked with, or know other teachers and players that they know are trustworthy.  This is the way you build your network.

I’m not here to call any people out by name, but am concerned by the number of “online experts” that don’t seem to have any standing in the real world.  The ease of taking a video and posting it online has created a population that posts so often that their online presence is hard to ignore.  This population can be the first seen by people searching for good information.  And that’s a big problem.  There are so many great players and teachers in the world that no one should have to settle for bad information, just because it’s so readily available.

And we’ve been over this before, but it’s worth repeating.  There are many people that are both great players and great teachers, but being a great player does not, by definition, make one a great teacher.  There are many people that choose to focus on one aspect.  There are many amazing teachers that are not world class players.  Being able to demonstrate isn’t the be-all and end-all of teaching.  Helping you grow is.

So please- Do some homework. Let’s make the online community one full of good information, support, and trust.

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The Secret to High Notes- Part 3

October 24, 2016

Welcome to Part 3 in our continuing series on high notes.

If you missed Parts 1 or 2, you can find them here:

The Secret to High Notes-Part 1

The Secret to High Notes-Part 2

There are a lot of wacky ideas out there about how to approach the upper register.  Let’s try and keep this simple.  I believe the goal is to play the entire range of the trumpet the same way.  More than anything else, this takes coordination.  We started building that coordination with half-steps.  We’ll continue today with lip slurs.

Today’s magic number is 5.  We’re going to start on low F# (yes-low F#!) and slur out 5 notes in this pattern: 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5.  Then do the same thing on low G, Ab, A, Bb, B, and C.  Here’s a demonstration:

Easy, right?  I thought so.

Next we jump up an octave and start of F# in the staff and do the exact same thing, using the fingerings 1-2-3 for F#, 1-3 for G, 2-3 for Ab, 1-2 for A, 1 for Bb, 2 for B, and 0 for C, so that we connect all of the partials of the overtone series:

The concept remains the same- take a easy breath and blow through the entire line.  Aim for consistency of sound and no air between notes.

Guess what’s next?  That’s right- we move up another octave, keeping the same concept:

The concept is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  This is the range of the trumpet where people start doing anything they can just to get notes to speak.  When they find something that works, they proclaim they’ve discovered “The Secret!”  And here’s the problem: sometimes these techniques can work.  But now you’re playing the trumpet in (at least) two different ways.  This makes playing music harder.

Now there’s one more step.  And this is where it gets really fun.  We’re starting on F# (fingered 1-2-3) on top of the staff, playing 1-2-3-4-5, then sliding out to the F# above.  I write “sliding” very intentionally.  This is the part of the horn where the valves don’t help very much, so we must blow out until we find the center of the note we’re looking for, building the coordination of how to find it into our entire body (which includes the ears!).  Continue through the rest of the valve combinations (G: 1-3, Ab: 2-3, A: 1-2, Bb: 1, B: 2,  C: 0).  This gets us all the way to double C:

I believe the sliding part to be very important.  It can be tempting to try and force that last note out by any means possible.  What I want is for you to build each note as a natural result of blowing consistently through the entire range of the trumpet.

A short word about equipment- I practice this exercise on the mouthpiece I use for lead playing (and yes-I use different mouthpieces for different jobs).  There are a lot of trumpet players that have a mouthpiece for lead playing, but they don’t practice on it.  This is a mistake.  If you want to feel as comfortable as possible on a mouthpiece, you should integrate it into your practice routine.  That means practicing both technique and music on it regularly.

This is an exercise you can do every day.  Place it at the end of a session in which you’re practicing fundamentals.  Play each step focusing on an easy breath, clear and full sound, and smooth transitions between notes (no air!).  Play until the top note doesn’t speak (this won’t always be the same each day).  It doesn’t take that long, but can help build the coordination so that your entire range is always available to you.

This exercise is offered as a simple way of building a consistent approach to the entire range of the trumpet.  It’s 4 steps to double C- how much simpler can it get?  Go back and watch the the first segment of each video.  Notice how similar the setup is each time.  If you’ll take the time to learn to play the trumpet one way, it’s actually considerably easier in the long run.

 

 

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The Importance of Being Self-Aware

September 22, 2016

Usually the first thing I do after a student performs something in a lesson is ask a question:

“What did you think of that?”

Often I get one of these two responses:

  1. “I thought it was good.”
  2. “I thought it was terrible.”

Usually the truth is somewhere in between, so I’ll ask more detailed questions, like:

“What were you happy with?”

AND

“What still needs work?”

Once both of these questions are answered, a clearer picture of what to do next can emerge.  Too often, there is a tendency to focus on only one of them.  When feeling particularly good, it can be easy to ignore details or small mistakes because of how much is going well.  When feeling bad, it’s too easy to throw your hands in the air with an attitude of “I suck!” and walk away.  Neither of these approaches is ideal.

It’s too easy to think that because something went well for you that you’re through with it.  Here’s what I want you to do:  Once you’ve practiced something so that you believe it to be ready for performance- record the performance.  If you have a smartphone, video record it.  Wait until the next day to watch and listen to the recording.  When listening and watching the next day, ask yourself this question:

Would I buy that recording?

If your honest answer is yes, then it’s time to move on to another piece of music.  If not, then you have to answer one more question:

Why not?

Once you’re honest with yourself about what is lacking in that performance, whether it is technical, musical, or both- you now have a plan for what to practice.

But remember to recognize what was good about your performance as well.  If, when asked why you wouldn’t buy the recording, your answer is “Everything!”-that’s not productive.

The caricature of the cocky trumpet player is one with which I’m sure we are all well acquainted.  We may even know some people that come close to that awful stereotype.  There do seem to be some players that think that whatever comes out of their bells is amazing by definition.  It seems obvious why having this kind of attitude is a bad idea.  It makes a player difficult to work with, unpleasant to be around, and generally a bad colleague.

There is a good part of that caricature.  It’s the confidence.  Having confidence is a good thing.  Cockiness is just confidence taken too far.

On the other side of the spectrum are the players that don’t think they do anything well.  They have an easy time recognizing what others do well, but can’t recognize that they have any strengths.  These people are also bad colleagues, because, although they might appear to be easier to work with by constantly deferring to others, their constant putting down of themselves makes them difficult to work with and generally mopey people to be around.

Humility is a good thing.  The idea of “I’m terrible and everyone else is great” is humility taken too far.

Both in the practice room and in working with others, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is vital.  In the practice room it will keep you focused and getting better.  In your professional career, it will make you someone people want to be around, as you will be confident in your abilities, while recognizing the strengths of others around you.

 

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Distractions

August 30, 2016

Now that school is back underway, it’s time to get to work.  And that means practice.  And practice means concentration.  And concentration means focus.  And focus…focus is hard.

Anything that gets between you and your work is a distraction.  This could be some of the obvious suspects- checking FaceBook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit…even Google Plus+(okay…not Google Plus+).  Another prime example is the diversion- “I can’t practice in this room…it’s a mess…I should clean it up first.”  Then you spend the next 90 minutes looking through old pictures and books, not even getting the room straightened.  For some, the most difficult distraction is internal.  You get to the practice room, get your instrument out, open up a book, and think- “Hey, I wonder what my friends are doing later…we should probably make dinner plans…I’ll text them…then right to practicing.”  Then you’re texting for the next 30 minutes, getting nothing done.

So what should you do?  Good question.  First:

Set aside reasonable amounts of time each day where practicing is your only job.

These do not need to be long periods of time.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say some variation of, “I was in the practice room for 8 hours straight yesterday.  I am so awesome, and obviously vastly superior to everyone else on the planet.”  I’m always dubious of claims of number of hours practiced, as it’s an odd thing to brag about.

Second:

When you close the practice room door, know exactly what you wish to accomplish.

Too often people go into a practice with little or no idea of what they want to get done.  They walk in knowing they’re supposed to practice for a certain amount of time, so they’ll look at the clock and make sure that much time is spent in the practice room.

Try setting a goal.  It could be as simple as: “I want to be able to play this etude through without stopping,” or “I want to play this exercise 1 metronome marking faster than yesterday.”  Should you achieve your goal, leave the practice room.  If you still have mental focus and time, make another goal and get back in there.  If not, that session is over.

Lastly, and this is important:

Make time for your distractions.

I hope that you have interests other than practicing.  Set aside time for those as well.  I have a number of puzzle games on my phone that I enjoy.  I’m also a sports fan (Go Spurs Go!), so watching, reading about, and discussing sports is something that I somehow manage to find time for.

The beginning of the school year is a perfect time to build great habits.  Take the opportunity to set aside the times when you know you can be really productive.  And don’t forget that you also need time that’s just for fun.

Please let me know how you’re doing.