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Pedagogy

September 10, 2019

Since it’s the beginning of a new school year, it seems like a good idea to talk about pedagogy.  With so many resources available today, it can be difficult to separate what may help you from what is just garbage from what could actually harm you.  To aid you in your search for good pedagogy, I’ve put together a list of five warning signs.  If you encounter any of these, think hard before proceeding.

There are so many great teachers out there, I wish I didn’t feel the need for this post.  What I have noticed is that, in the online community, the people that post the most can gain some credibility.  This is not okay.  Just because someone has enough time to keep posting does not mean they know anything at all.  In the trumpet community, several of the most well-known pedagogues have virtually no online presence.  Unfortunately, in the absence of those people, others with far less knowledge and expertise are attempting to fill the online void.

With that in mind, here are five warning signs.

1. Shortcuts

If you find a teacher that is telling you they’ve got a shortcut to getting better, be wary.  Regardless of teaching styles, there is no substitute for practice.  When I started thinking really long-term about playing the trumpet, I started asking older trumpet players I respected what and how they practiced.  Without exception, they all talked about the importance of practicing fundamentals.

There are “teachers” out there that advertise shortcuts to big improvement.  Unfortunately, what they’re selling doesn’t exist.  Although there are certainly smart ways to practice, there is no substitute for good practice.

There are no shortcuts.

2. Guarantees

If someone guarantees that you’ll be able to do something you can’t do now in a specific time period, especially if the time period is short, run away.  Individual progress isn’t something that is easy to measure or predict.  There are people that will have a lot of growth right away, while others working just as hard will take longer to get to the same place.  There are times when people will feel like they’ve hit a plateau and just can’t get past it, despite really productive growth up until that point.  Learning is not a straight line, and every person is different.

I have seen young players ask questions online like:

I need to be able to play a high C in 3 weeks.  How do I do that?

Invariably, people answer.  This makes me cringe.  No one answering has met, heard, or seen the player.

When someone is offering you a guarantee, especially if they’ve never heard you play, they’re lying to you.

3.  Secrets

This is my favorite.  I have been very fortunate to study with great teachers.  None of them ever pretended that what they knew was any kind of proprietary knowledge that only they had.  I often talk to my students about the “Trumpet World”.  Often it is to show them just how small it can be, and how interconnected we are as trumpet players.  Tromba Mundi, a professional trumpet ensemble of which I am a member, is made up of six college professors.  We are in a perpetual discussion about all things, including pedagogy.

Good teachers talk openly about their teaching.  They happily exchange theories and practices.  They want what they teach to continue and grow.

If someone tells you that they have the secret, and they’re the only one that can give it to you, the secret they have is that they’re a bad teacher.  Let’s make sure that doesn’t stay a secret.

4. Gadgets and Equipment

If someone tells you that using a specific gadget or buying specific equipment will magically enhance your trumpet playing, hold on to your money.  This is somewhat related to #1- Shortcuts.  A few years ago I did a presentation entitled “The Emperor’s New Clothes- Gadgets in the Trumpet World” at the International Trumpet Guild conference.  I caught some flak afterwards from some that, I believe, missed the point I was trying to make.  So I’ll try again here.  Too often, the people using gadgets will say things like:

” If you don’t have time to practice, just use….”

“I was running late, so I just used…..”

“I didn’t want to take my horn with me on vacation, so I used….”

Here’s the truth:

Using gadgets is not a substitute for practice. 

If you’ve found something that you think can help in addition to your practice, go for it.  If you think that you can use something instead of practicing, you’re making a mistake.

Equipment poses a more complex problem.  As you grow and evolve as a musician, it can be difficult to know how and when to address whether or not to make a change in equipment.  For today’s discussion, let’s keep it simple:

There is no magic equipment.

If someone tells you that all that stands between you and immortality is a specific mouthpiece or trumpet, they’re trying to steal your money.

5.  “Schools”

When I write “schools”, I do not mean actual schools, like the one at which I teach.  Schools can be wonderful places to learn.  What I mean by “schools” is the rigidity of basing all pedagogy from the mouth of one person.  It is somewhat related to #3-Secrets.  This is the most complicated part of this post.  Please stick with me.

In a lot of cases “schools” start with one person doing a lot of really great teaching.  I not only have no problem with these people, I have tremendous respect for the work they did.  My problem comes from thinking that any one of them was the only person who could teach.  This leads to thinking that your “school” holds the secret, and no one else really understands.

The history of the “Trumpet World”  is filled with great teachers.  Lots of great players have come from these great teachers.  Lots of great players have also come from other places, studying with people that aren’t nearly as well-known.  We all know this.  But there are segments of the “Trumpet World” that act as if only “Teacher X” really knew how to teach.  This is simply fiction.

If you studied with one of these teachers and are thinking:

“Hey, wait a minute, my teacher was great.  Why is Joey attacking my teacher?”‘

I’m not.  It is likely that I really like your teacher.  The point I’m trying to make is that just because your teacher was great doesn’t mean others weren’t.

If you think that only one person could teach, and that person is now dead, that means that your pedagogy is now dead too.  This is unacceptable.

Pedagogy should be an ever-evolving process, growing as needed with each generation.  We take what our teachers gave to us and, combined with our experiences, pass on what we know to our students.

 

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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.

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Time Management

February 13, 2015

I have this discussion at least a couple of times a year:
Student:  “I’m sorry…I just didn’t have enough time to practice this week.”

Me:  “Hmmm….why not?”

Student:  “Well, I had a lot of homework, and this project due, and a test.”

Me:  “Okay, that does sound like a lot.  How many credits is a class?”

Student:  “3.”

Me:  “And how many credits are your lessons?”

Student:  “Oh…I see where you’re going.”
(the answer varies, from 2-6, depending upon major)

Me:  “Yes, if you want to major in music, practicing is no longer extra curricular.  It’s a class, and one of your most important, as you are a music major.  I’m not saying your other classes aren’t important…I am saying that practicing is at least as important as any other classwork.”

I know that adjusting to college can be difficult.  Learning how to manage time is something professionals struggle with regularly.  With that being said, here are some pointers that you may find helpful.

You Can’t Cram Music

30 minutes a day is better than 3 hours on Sunday.  Short, regular practice sessions will consistently give you better results in the long run.  You don’t need to learn whatever you’re practicing just for your lesson…you need to learn it to keep improving.  If you spend one extremely long practice session trying to get it under your fingers, and skip the rest of the week, you may get through your lesson, but you haven’t really gotten any better.

If You Really Want It, There’s Time

There are plenty of people in the world that live with the thought of “what if…”  Don’t be one of those people.  If you really want to be a musician, that means prioritizing practice as a part of your day.  Not just when it’s convenient.  Not when it feels good.  Always.

Play the Long Game

It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of practicing and playing.  Remember the big picture.  For example, there’s not a lot of music I practice that is written for the flugelhorn, but I want the flugelhorn to feel and sound as comfortable as any other horn I play (and for those of you that know me, you know that’s a lot of horns).  So every morning I practice a technical exercise on the flugelhorn.  Today it’s Clarke #7.  It takes about 10 minutes.  It might be the only time I play flugel today. So you might think “Is the 10 minutes worth it?”  Well, let’s think big.  In any non-leap year let’s say I miss those 10 minutes 5 times (because I’m so lazy).  That means I’ve practiced flugelhorn 10 minutes x 360 days.  That’s 3600 minutes, which is 60 hours of flugelhorn practice a year.

That’s all for this week.  I’ll be up in Indianapolis today playing two concerts.  Giordano’s has just opened a store in Indianapolis, and I feel duty bound to check it out.  Expect a full report soon.

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Musical Snobbery

February 4, 2015

On Sunday, like a lot of people, I watched the Super Bowl.  I could spend the next few thousand words breaking down the game and trying to answer such questions as:

  1. How many people who criticized the Seahawks for throwing on 2nd and 1 at the 1-yard-line also criticized the decision to run a play with only 6 seconds left in the first half?  They’re both bad decisions…one of them just happened to work.
  2. Why didn’t the Patriots take a Time-out after the 4-yard run to the 1-yard-line at the end of the game?  That was a huge error on the Patriots part that I have not read much about..because of the interception on the next play.
  3. Why did Nationwide have to kill that cute little kid?

But instead I would like to discuss the musical performances of John Legend, Idina Menzel, and Katy Perry.  That’s not exactly right…what I would like to address is the response to their performances.

On the morning of the Super Bowl, I woke up in Bismarck, North Dakota, having just finished a terrific 3 days as part of the U. Mary Jazz Festival.  Five of us from the festival were on the same 6:30 a.m. flight.  As we were discussing the game, one of my colleagues brought up the singing of the national anthem by Ms. Menzel and the halftime show by Ms. Perry.  I said, “If you miss it, all you have to do is hop on Twitter and Facebook as soon as it’s over to read how terrible it was.”  And we all laughed.

To be clear, I’m not going to discuss Sunday’s performances.  Today’s topic is about how people, especially musicians, react to such performances.

As I checked Facebook and Twitter after the pre-game performances of Mr. Legend and Ms. Menzel, it was astounding to me how many people were trashing these two relatively short performances.  After halftime I read the same vitriol leveled at Ms. Perry.  This got me thinking:

Exactly what is this kind of criticism supposed to accomplish?

Don’t get me wrong- I’m all for blowing off some steam, and I’ve never been accused of lacking strong opinions.  But as social media has become more prevalent, I’ve watched classical and jazz musicians go out of their way to attack musicians in the Pop world for…well…apparently- being successful.

And here’s why it’s a problem:

Trashing these performances only alienates you from your potential audience.

Regularly there are discussions among musicians about why audiences are so small, especially for classical and jazz performances.  We are constantly amazed that the rest of the world has not figured out how great we are.  Then, when presented with music that the rest of the world actually listens to, we lash out.

These kinds of reactions make us look:

  1. Jealous- We’ve never played sold out stadiums, or sold millions of records.
  2. Out of touch- We have no idea what music people are listening to.
  3. Bitter- We should be much better known.

So…what should we do?

  1. Stop telling people they are stupid for liking what they like.  Generally, when someone is told they have bad taste, he/she will get defensive.  Now you’ve created a barrier between you and that person that will be difficult to negotiate.
  2. Show people what you like, and why.  I’m a big believer in education.  If you know someone likes Performer X (that you don’t find particularly appealing), you can share Performer Y with them (as you believe Performer Y has much more to offer) and explain why you like Performer Y so much, and what you think the differences are.
  3. Remain open-minded.  It’s too easy to say that “everything is terrible.”  With an open mind, you just might find some Pop music that you like.  Listen with your ears, not your eyes.

Every generation seems to tell the next one, “Our music was great, and yours is terrible.”  And it’s never true.  There is always plenty of good and bad to go around.

Should we want audiences to grow for what we believe to be good, it’s important to engage in conversations about what people like and why.  With that information, I think we can expand some musical horizons, and do everyone some good.

With that in mind, watch the Grammy Awards this Sunday.  Usually the show is full of performances, many by people you may not have heard of.  Watch with an open mind.  This is the music millions of people are listening to.  It’s worth learning about.

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Radical Moderatism

January 29, 2015

I’ve heard all of these:

“Play the biggest mouthpiece you can.”

“Play the smallest mouthpiece you can.”

“If you’re not in New York or LA, you’re not really doing it.”

“New York and Los Angeles suck.”

“Play one mouthpiece for everything.”

“Switch mouthpieces for each situation.”

“You must choose between playing classical and jazz.”

“You have to be able to play everything.”

And my favorite:

“Player X is the best in the world.”

“Player X is terrible.”

We seem to exist in a world of extremes.  In most situations the extreme answer being the most viable solution is rare.  Much like our current political climate, as soon as a discussion begins people must choose one of two sides which are often pushed to an extreme.  So in my continued effort to get the online world to be more representative of the real world, I am starting a new movement- Radical Moderatism.  That’s right, should you join me we will do our best to investigate what questions we want answered, and come to a reasonable solution.  Let’s start with the five polarizing statements above.

1)  Largest vs. Smallest mouthpiece:  It’s an argument as old as time.  You want to play more orchestral literature?  Unless you’re some kind of lightweight that can’t handle it, you need the Macho Mahler 5000.  The rim is slightly larger than a tenor trombone mouthpiece, and the throat is big enough drop a golf ball through.  You want to play lead?  You must get the Double C Express.  The rim is just smaller than a French horn mouthpiece, and the cup is a bit shallower than a contact lens.  It’s the rare player that gets optimal results from an extreme approach.  The best answer is usually somewhere in the middle.  When looking for equipment it’s important to find the balance between the best results coming out of the horn with the right amount of work going into the horn.

2)  If you haven’t made it in a big city, you haven’t made it.  Another worthless statement.  There are great players all over the world.  The difference in the big cities is that there are usually more great players and more live music.  But here’s something I don’t hear talked about a lot.  There are also more bad players in big cities precisely because they’re big.  So being in a big city doesn’t say anything about one’s playing.  Not being in a big city doesn’t mean anything about one’s level of play either.

3)  One mouthpiece vs. switching.  This is one of the dumbest arguments in the trumpet world.  Like most useless arguments, there is no right answer here.  There are world class players on both sides.  The problem is how adamant both sides are about being right.  Here’s my advice- if you’re going to regularly use more than one mouthpiece, you should practice on it every day.  The most common problem I see people have when switching mouthpieces is that they are much more comfortable on one, as it is their main piece.  So whatever they switch to is not nearly as comfortable, which usually results in (at least) sound and tuning problems.

4)  Narrow vs. broad focus.  This is the one that bothers me the most.  There are great and terrible players on both sides of this fence.  It’s amazing to me that, because one player has been successful doing one thing at a high level, that an assumption is made that the only way to reach that level is to do only that one thing. Should you wish to pursue a career doing one thing, that doesn’t mean others cannot reach the same high level while pursuing a career with more variety.

5) Great vs. Terrible. I’ve heard this argument several times- always involving professional players. Just because you are not a fan of a certain player does not mean that person can’t play. And just because you are a fan doesn’t make that player great.

Too often, having a discussion with someone that disagrees with you pulls both of you to extremes. It’s time to recognize that the truth usually exists somewhere in the middle. Let’s meet there.

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Why You Should Have Been at the ITG Conference

May 27, 2014

Last week the International Trumpet Guild held their annual conference in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. It was spectacular. As I like to simplify everything, this post will deal with the three reasons you should have been there.

1. The People

The conference is a great time to reconnect with old friends. This year I was happy to be able to spend some time playing and hanging out with Al Hood. Al is the Professor of Trumpet at the University of Denver. We first met in the summer of 1982 at a 6-week summer jazz camp at the Eastman School of Music. Where else could we find the time to spend some time together and do some playing? There were many other friends there, but I mentioned Al as I think I’ve known him the longest.

This year was filled with world class players, many of whom I’ve never had the opportunity to see. When I walked in to the rehearsal for the opening concert, Tine Thing Helseth was playing. Never having seen her play live, I walked up and sat in the front. She sounded fantastic, and was the first of many players that I got to see for the first time.

The ITG conference is a great place to make new friends. This year I was featured on both a panel demonstration/discussion on lead playing and as a soloist with the Philly Big Band. Also playing on the panel was the leader of the Philly Big Band: Matt Gallagher. Although this was our first time meeting, Matt instantly felt like an old friend.

2. The Presentations

The variety and high level of music and music making was truly astounding. A short (but nowhere near comprehensive) list of what went on included: Trumpet Ensembles- Trombamania, Tromba Mundi, The New York Trumpet Ensemble; Classical Soloists- Eric Aubier, Chris Gekker, Terry Everson; Jazz Soloists- Sean Jones, Marquis Hill, Graham Breedlove; Historical Performances- Gabriele Cassone, Crispian Steele-Perkins, Friedemann Immer. There were an unbelievable amount of world class performances.

There were also great classes. My good friend Scott Belck gave a class on how to read waveforms as a practice tool. It’s amazing how different notes can look in that format. Tony Kadleck and James De La Garza talked about what it’s like to be a Broadway trumpet player.

3.The Stuff

With the number of music stores, especially that carry professional equipment, declining, the ITG conference is probably the best place in the world to try out stuff. The exhibits were spread out this year with the floor plans clearly laid out in the front of the Conference Program. Having the exhibits in several rooms works very well. Noise can always be a problem, so spreading everyone out helps.

I like to keep up with what is available in the trumpet world. Although I’m very happy with my B&S trumpets, I was happy to try out all kinds of horns. I talked with a gentleman that has half of his trumpet encased in wood and an interesting theory on why he believes that to be the way to go. Bach has recently (re)discovered the #1 bell design by Vincent Bach, and brought 2 prototype lead/commercial horns built around the “new” bell. Hub van Laar, whose horns I’ve never had the opportunity to even try, brought several trumpets and flugelhorns. There’s no other place you could compare and contrast a couple of different G trumpets, play test multiple plastic trumpets (I’m sticking with my Tiger, and not just because it’s the only brand making pink), try out horns with the person who made it right there, like Fred Powell (whose horns are terrific), as well as find every accessory you could imagine.

Interestingly enough, trumpet players will work hard to find what’s wrong instead of celebrating what was right. It’s too easy to ask why Player X or Player Y wasn’t included (especially if you’re Player X or Player Y). I was featured this year, but attended the conferences in Grand Rapids last year and Minneapolis two years ago and found both to be very enjoyable. Take a minute to consider how much goes in to putting on this conference, and how far in advance the planning is done. It’s quite the balancing act of players, exhibitors, presenters, and all of the demands and egos of each.

I look forward to seeing you next year in Columbus, Ohio.

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Why Wait?

October 4, 2013

There is a Prudential commercial on the air now that asks:

“If you could get paid to do something you love, what would you do?”

The commercial goes on to say that this is what your retirement is for.  The first time I saw this, I was astounded.  Is this what people think?  We should toil away for the majority of our adult lives, saving enough to then pay ourselves to do what we want once we retire?  This is a terrible way to live.  

The initial question grabbed my attention, which is what it’s supposed to do, but for this reason:

I do get paid to do something I love.  

I’m teaching my students to figure out what they want to do next, then work to get there.  Notice I say what they want to do NEXT.  You may not have the same career goals at 21 as you do at 41.  This can be difficult.  Not everyone knows what they want to do.  But remember this:

Not making a decision is a decision

There are plenty of people in this world that, by putting off making a choice, end up having their career choose them.  So they end up working for most of their adult lives in something that they’re not even sure how they ended up doing.  

Don’t be one of these people.  Spend some time figuring out what you want to do.  Then work as hard as you can doing it.  

I’m not saying that it’s easy.  I’m saying that it’s worth it.