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Playing Well With Others

November 6, 2015

The past month has been great.  Aside from getting married (which was a truly great day- but not really the point I’m writing about- but bringing up last month without mentioning it seems wrong- oh well, back to my original point, which I haven’t started yet), I had the pleasure of filling a few different musical roles.  October started with a Tromba Mundi tour that ended in Carnegie Hall.  Last weekend I was in Houston to play lead for a Pops show with the Houston Symphony.  And this weekend I’ll be the guest soloist with the Indiana Wind Symphony.  This has me thinking about how we function in ensembles, and the responsibilities for each role. Problems in ensembles often occur because people are either unaware of their roles, or unwilling to serve in them.

There are three settings that make up a majority of our performances.  They are: Soloist, Chamber Musician, and Ensemble Member.  Much has been written about how to work well with others (show up on time, have proper equipment, have a pencil ready, etc.), so today we’re going to focus on the musical responsibilities.  All three share this responsibility:

Show up to rehearsal prepared

Rehearsal is not a time to learn your part.  Rehearsal is the time to put parts together and make decisions about how the music will be played.  The better prepared each person shows up, the easier it is to get meaningful musical work done.

1.  Soloist

As a soloist, you dictate the musical style.  It is your job to be clear, both when playing and speaking, to the other musicians about what your vision of the music is.  Your job is to be a great leader.  Being a leader isn’t just telling others what to do- it’s also listening to other opinions and being someone people want to follow.

2.  Chamber Musician

What I mean by this designation is anytime you are performing in a group of any size without a conductor or designated leader.  Here your job is to be part of a team.  Your responsibilities include offering your opinions as well as listening to others to build the best possible musical product.  Being flexible is very important.  It’s okay to have disagreements.  How those disagreements are handled can dictate the future of a group.  Learning to work well in this situation is one of the most valuable skills you can have.  You want to be someone others want as part of their team.

3.  Ensemble Member

As a member of an ensemble with a conductor or designated leader, your job is to commit to that leader’s musical vision- whether you agree with it or not.  Be the person that helps get everyone on the same page.  If you do this, you will be someone that people want to work with.

Looking at these three descriptions might have you wondering which one you would like to be.  My recommendation is to be all three.  The more you appreciate each role, the easier you understand how others operate.  If you are a soloist, think about how you communicate with your ensemble.  When you are in a chamber setting, consider that others in the group could feel just as strongly about something as you do, and yet not agree with you.  As an ensemble member, know how difficult it can be to run a group and keep everyone moving in the same direction.

If you do this, you can be someone people always want to work with, no matter what the circumstances.

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“In addition to,” not “Instead of.”

September 23, 2015

Now that it appears to actually be Fall and school is going full speed ahead, practice time is at a premium.  I’ve written about Time Management before, and though this topic is related, today the discussion focuses on what you want to accomplish.

I’m a big believer in versatility.  Versatility, for our musical purposes, means capable of playing in a wide variety of musical styles and musical settings.  It does not mean there must be a compromise in how you play.  There are still people out there that insist that each player is only allowed to do one thing well.  They will throw around the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” to those trying to do more than one thing.  They are wrong.

Before you say, “but what about Player X?  That player only does one thing, and does it exceedingly well,” let’s be perfectly clear.  As a player, you get to decide what kind of music you want to play.  Some might choose jazz.  Some might choose orchestral.  Others might choose integrating Tuvan Throat Singing with trumpet.  Just because a player you respect has chosen to focus exclusively on one style does not mean that is the only way to achieve excellence in that style.

Here’s what my performance schedule looked like for one week in June:

Wednesday June 10- Solo Recital – Bert Truax School of Trumpet Camp

Saturday June 12- Faculty Brass Quintet Concert – IU Summer Music 2015

Sunday June 13- Music of Simon and Garfunkel – St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

These are three very different performances, all happening in the same week.  To be able to do this takes us to the title.  When people are looking to expand their musical horizons, that means something new must be introduced into the practice regimen.  When introducing something new, it can be easy to remove something that you’ve been practicing to make room.  This is “Instead of” practicing.  While practicing the new material instead of something else, you might be gaining some ground on the new stuff, but you’re losing ground on the old.

If you want to be versatile, it means more practice.  Being able to play a variety of styles requires regular practice on everything you want to be able to play.  That’s “In addition to” practice.  I know there is only so much time in each day, so you must be smart about it.

Here’s how:  Make a list.  That’s right- make a list of all of things you want to be able to do.  It can be technical- “I want to be able to play a Double C.”  It can be musical- “I want to be able to actually swing.”  It can be general- “I want my piccolo trumpet playing to sound like Maurice Andre.”  It can be specific- “I want to be able to perform the Chaynes Concerto.”

Once you’ve made your list, you have a blueprint of what you need to practice.  This list is added to the daily practice that you’re already doing which includes: fundamentals, stuff your teacher assigned you, and music you’re responsible for performing.

Here’s where most people make a huge mistake and give up.  They start at the top of the list, and might get halfway through it on Day 1.  On Day 2 they start at the top of the list again, and might get just past halfway through.  Try this instead.  Wherever you stop on Day 1 is where you start on Day 2.  Wherever you stop on Day 2 is where you start on Day 3.  You get the picture.

Too often, we get wrapped up in the short term thinking that we need to learn to do something…NOW!  If you can start thinking long term, then you’ll be working steadily and consistently…and getting better at all of the things you want.

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The Simplicity of Auditions

September 2, 2015

It’s back to school time.  In addition to a new Trapper Keeper (yes!), that usually means auditions.  As someone auditioning, your job is simple.  You have exactly two things to do.

1)  Play your instrument well

To audition well, you must be fundamentally sound.  Think of this as your Music Delivery System.  Without great Sound, Articulation, Flexibility, and Facility, your best musical intent will go unheard.  This is why practicing your fundamentals is so important.  The better your fundamentals are, the easier it is to play (especially challenging material) musically.

2)  Make great music

This may seem obvious, but it needs reinforcement.  Too often I have heard from people that they “didn’t miss any notes.”  While that is certainly a good technical feat, it’s not a good answer to the question, “how did you play?”  Playing all of the right notes in the right order in good time is not the same as playing musically.  If you’re playing solos and/or excerpts, did you:

  • find great recordings?
  • listen to them over and over…and over?
  • play along with the recordings? (if you’re matching everything- sound, pitch, style, etc.- with one of your favorite players on a great recording…you’re on the right track)

With solos and excerpts, generally there are accepted ways to play.  In other words, “it goes like this.”  Learn “how it goes” and be able to do it fundamentally well and musically.

With etudes there may not be reference recordings, so you’re left to make sure your audition is musical.  Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • study and obey all markings on the page- tempo, dynamics, articulations, etc.
  • consider what it should sound like (majestic, somber, joyful, etc.)
  • commit to both the style you’re performing and to every marking on the page.

That’s it.  Don’t make it more complicated than this.  Here’s why:

You are not in charge of anyone else’s playing, or of judging the audition.

For some people, this is the hardest part.  You can play your absolute best and not get the result you want.  You can win an audition not playing your best.  The results and the other people involved are not your responsibility.  If you try and take that on, it will likely get in the way of the only two things you need to do:

1-Play well.  2-Play musically.

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What I Did Over Summer “Vacation”.

August 18, 2015

It’s that time again.  My lovely hometown of Bloomington, Indiana is being overrun with moving trucks, nervous parents, and new students.  Target looks like a warehouse of dorm supplies.  A new school year is upon us.

That means it’s a good time to take a quick look back over the summer and see what, if anything, got done.  When you live on an academic calendar, the year breaks into three distinct parts:

FIRST SEMESTER- where we can use the excuse, “but it’s just the beginning of the year” way too long…right up until “well, it’s almost Thanksgiving, so the semester is basically over.”

SECOND SEMESTER- where we can start with “but I just got back from Winter Break” until Spring Break is in view.

and

SUMMER- where “but I was in school all year…I’m just going to take a little time off” can leave you heading back to school wondering what happened.

So let’s take a look back at this Summer and see how we did.

Summer can be the time you can really focus on what you want to be doing.  During the school year, your responsibilities also include what your teacher is giving you and what you’re playing in ensembles.  Part of your regular practice should always include what you want to be doing as well.  Summer can be a time where this gets more attention.

There were three projects I was really looking forward to this summer.

First was being part of Bert Truax’s Trumpet Camp.  It’s a terrific camp in Dallas.  Bert brings in a different guest artist, with a different performance emphasis, each day.  The guest works with the students during the day, and puts on a recital that evening.  Being brought in as a lead/commercial player makes programming the recital difficult, as I am working with only a pianist.  I took this opportunity to program works I’d never performed before, but always wanted to play, that would highlight stylistic versatility.  I included two movements of Toot Suite (the C trumpet and Flugelhorn movements), and the unaccompanied piece I Remember… by Dana Wilson.  My experience at the camp was fantastic, and the recital was very well received.

Second was a Faculty Brass Quintet concert at with some of my colleagues at IU.  We’ve talked about doing something like this in the past, but our schedules never line up exactly right.  This summer it finally happened.  We got together for several rehearsals over a three week period and put together quite a program.  Having Jeff Nelsen as the hornist, we included some Canadian Brass pieces- the Little Fugue in G Minor and Beale St. Blues.  With Dan Perantoni playing tuba, we played pieces written for the St. Louis Brass Quintet- Tony Plog’s Four Sketches and Joey Sellers’ arrangement of Sweet Georgia Brown.  Carl Lenthe brought Enrique Crespo’s Suite Americana No. 1 to the group.  It’s a very challenging piece that is well worth the effort. John Rommel and I do a fair amount of recording together in Indianapolis, but getting to play with him, Jeff, Carl, and Dan in this setting was truly a treat.  I hope it’s something we’ll do again.

Third was a recording project with Tromba Mundi.  This will be our third recording, and on it is a wide variety of music for trumpet ensemble.  Several of the pieces on the recording are brand new and written especially for us.  I always enjoy the time we get to spend together, and the week we had in August was no exception.  Those of you who know me know I like playing a wide variety of horns on a daily basis.  The bass trumpet has become a fixture in the group.  On this recording I played six different trumpets: Bb, C, Eb, piccolo, alto, and bass (what…no flugel?).  As much as I did not enjoy carrying all of these instruments around, I did enjoy the opportunity to record with each of them.  I’ll let you know when the recording is out, but (shameless plug alert!) we are playing in Carnegie Hall on October 7.  Come on out and hear us.

These three experiences would all be much more difficult to accomplish during the school year.  And that’s not to say that the rest of the summer was spent with my feet up.  I had a great time playing with the St. Louis and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestras, and teaching at Performing Arts Institute and Birch Creek Performing Arts Center.  Getting the time to prepare and perform a full solo recital, a brass quintet concert, and a trumpet ensemble recording leaves me feeling that my summer was well spent.

I hope yours was as well.

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The Power of Mental Focus

May 13, 2015

In the time I’ve been teaching trumpet lessons, I’ve worked with students of all ages, interest levels, and experience- beginners getting their horns for the first time, high school students, professionals, come back players, and of course college students.   For the long term growth as a musician and trumpet player, one of the most important concepts (and sometimes the most difficult to teach) needed is mental focus.

When I first started teaching beginners, this is what I told them:

“If you practice everything I give you, the stuff you are responsible for in band is going to be pretty easy.  You’re going to sound really good in band, and your director will be very happy with you.  Your director and the other kids in band will think you’re very good.  But we’ll know the truth.”

Then I would explain to them what I meant by “the truth.”  The truth is that our playing is always changing.  Done right, our playing is always growing.  In the big picture we need to do two things:

  1. Practice how to play the horn. In other words- fundamentals.
  2. Practice what to play on the horn.  In other words- music.

(There’s a lot of overlap here, as fundamentals should be played musically, and playing music can certainly inform our technique and spur fundamental growth…but that’s a discussion for another day.)

So “the truth” is that there is always work to be done on our playing.  Always.

There are two reasons I told my beginners this.  They are:

  1. to give them confidence when playing in a group, whether in a performance or rehearsal, that they have the tools necessary to do a terrific job.
  2. to stave off the stereotype of the “cocky trumpet player” by letting them know that there’s always more work to be done.  When things go well, it’s a result of good practice, and not because they were anointed by magic fairies at birth with a special potion that made them the greatest players the world has ever heard.

This worked well. Since I started teaching college, it has surprised me how many students get this backwards.  I hear how their thought process in rehearsals and performances focuses on what is lacking, and the thought process in the practice room focuses on how good everything is.

I found this troubling.  So, like always, let’s start with the easy stuff:

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses

This seems like a simple enough statement.  Here’s why I bring it up.  When in a group, it can be easy to focus on someone else’s strengths, especially if they are your weaknesses.  This is a quick road to Insecureville, which is right next to Underconfident City.  Once you arrive there, it’s very difficult to play your best, as you will be telling yourself how much you can’t do.  Similarly, there are those that like to focus on someone else’s weaknesses, especially if it matches their strengths.  This is the express lane to Conceitedton, which borders Cockyberg.  Once you arrive there, you are so sure of yourself you don’t play your best because, no matter what comes out of your horn, you’ve already convinced yourself you’re the greatest thing since the invention of nachos (mmmm….nachos).

These are bad places for your mind to dwell.  Here’s how mental focus can help.

When practicing, focus on your weaknesses

Again, this may seem simple.  For a lot of people, closing the door to the practice room and really admitting to and working on a weakness can be very difficult.  Once you really commit to this kind of focus while practicing, you’ll see the benefits.

Which brings us to:

When performing, focus on your strengths

When it’s time to play with others, your mental focus needs to shift. Finding the mental place of being confident without being cocky can be a challenge.  Your mental focus will be most beneficial if it is focused on what you bring to the performance.  If you’ve been practicing well, this can help, as you’ve built a habit of playing the instrument well fundamentally and musically in the practice room.

The Circle of Growth

If you can take charge of your mental focus, you can build a circle of growth.  At the top of the circle is practice.  Since you’re focusing on your weaknesses in the practice room, you’re getting better and better at the instrument, building your confidence in what you’re able to do.  At the bottom of the circle is performance.  Since you’re focusing on your strengths in performance, your performances become better, building upon the good habits you’ve build in the practice room.  After your performance, you take what didn’t go as well as you’d like in the performance into the practice room and treat it as a weakness to be worked on.

Keep doing this.  Forever.

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The Case Against Buzzing

April 22, 2015

Buzzing seems to be a divisive topic in the brass world.  Some consider it an absolute necessity.  Others say it’s useless.  Although the title of this article may lead you to believe I’m against buzzing, I’m not.  I am against bad technique.  And there are some dangers in buzzing to watch out for.

First let’s clarify what we mean by buzzing.  There are 3 large categories:

  1. Free buzzing- Making sounds with only the lips.
  2. Rim buzzing- Using only the rim of a mouthpiece (or a mouthpiece visualizer) to make sound.
  3. Mouthpiece buzzing- Using a mouthpiece to make sound.

Now let’s move on to the fun part.  When buzzing in any of the ways mentioned above, you are not doing exactly the same thing as when you are playing the instrument.  When free buzzing or buzzing on a rim, the sound is made at the lips.  When on a mouthpiece, the sound comes out the end of the mouthpiece.  As soon as you put the mouthpiece back into the horn, the sound comes out of the bell.  This difference is significant.  The instrument provides a certain amount of resistance that obviously does not exist when buzzing.  This brings us to:

DANGER #1: Creating Resistance

When looking for the same exact feel as playing the instrument, some people will resort to creating their own resistance.  Often, this is done in the neck.  People will tighten up their necks when buzzing to get the same feel of resistance.  Sometimes this can be easier to see than to feel.  If you’re concerned, buzz while standing in front of a mirror, and look at the side of your neck.  Once you start doing this while buzzing, it can be difficult to stop doing when you’re playing.

A really good exercise that I’ve seen several people use in buzzing is making a siren sound.  First, take a nice, easy breath.  Next, buzz a comfortable low pitch and gliss up and down.  The aim is to make both the feel and the sound very free.  While playing the trumpet with this smooth, consistent blow, we build the coordination of seamlessly moving from the center of pitch on one note to the next.  Since the lips, rim, and/or mouthpiece provide no help in finding the center of pitch, we are now at:

DANGER #2: Placing Notes

The siren exercise shows how buzzing does not help finding the middle of any one pitch.  But when people move to playing simple melodies or exercises that require specific pitches, often they will look for the same feel of certainty as they get when playing the trumpet.  This can lead to a slight hitch just before the initial attack, and/or, tonguing too hard (to put that note in place).  When working with specific pitches, sit at a piano and play the note first.  If you don’t have a piano, most smartphones have tunings apps that will also play any specified pitch.  Get it in your ear, then take your best shot.  Should you miss, gliss to the center of the pitch before moving on.  When moving between notes, start by thinking of each interval as a gliss.  If you want to have beautiful intervals in the music you play, start by blowing from one note to the next, making each interval a mini-siren.  As you get better, you’ll be able to make the transitions quicker without placing them.  Then, when you make the transition to playing the instrument, the trumpet will actually make it easier when you are blowing from note-to-note.

The last big problem to tackle today is one of my favorites: range.  There are those who say that to be able to play the note on a trumpet, you need to be able to buzz it.  I have not found this to be true.  To be able to do so brings us to:

DANGER #3: Physical Manipulation

When it comes to range, trumpet players will do all kinds of crazy things to try and play higher.  I’ll be happy to revisit how I believe range to just another aspect of playing that can be improved with dedicated practice and good technique, just like sound, articulation, flexibility, and finger dexterity, another time.  But for now, I want to warn you about the dangers of wacky physical manipulations to make higher notes come out while buzzing.  The first one is covered above in DANGER #1.  Part of trumpet playing, and this includes playing in the upper register, is blowing against the resistance of the trumpet.  Without that resistance, especially in the upper register, people will lock up their necks to get it.  There are several examples on the internet.  Another physical manipulation to watch out for is stopping your air.  Ideally, when playing the trumpet, you take a nice easy breath and, coordinated with the tongue, blow right back out.  The air does not stop.  But some will demonstrate upper range, especially while buzzing, by taking a breath, holding it, then using the tongue to release the air and put that note in its place (see DANGER #2 above).  This technique might get the note to speak, but the sound will be thinner and trumpet playing has now gotten harder by adding two steps: 1) stopping the air, and 2) restarting the air.  The last physical manipulation I want to warn you about today is mouthpiece pressure.  Generally speaking, I don’t see a lot a problems with too much pressure while playing the trumpet.  The problem certainly exists, but I don’t think it to be as big of a problem as others.  Mouthpiece buzzing, especially into the upper register, is a different story.  Trumpet players will mash that mouthpiece as hard as they can to get higher notes to speak.  One way to combat this is to hold the mouthpiece with your thumb and index finger at the spot where it meets the trumpet.  If you’ve been playing any length of time, there’s already a line there.  Use it.

As you can see, I don’t hate buzzing, or think it’s inherently evil.  It can be valuable if practiced well.  Dedicated is good.  Smart and dedicated is better.

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How To Pick a College

April 8, 2015

While at the National Trumpet Competition a few weeks ago, a young woman asked me:

“Does it matter where you go to college?”

My answer was:

“It depends.”

Here’s what I meant by that:  Going to a school with a great reputation doesn’t guarantee success.  That’s one of the reasons choosing a college can be so hard.  Since there are so many factors that go into choosing a college, and every person is different, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way:

  • There is no best school
  • There is no one school that is right for everyone
  • Great players come from all over the place

Knowing this, choosing a college becomes a very complicated and personal decision.  Even the variables that go into the decision making process are not the same for each person.  With all of that being said, here are a few helpful hints on how to go about choosing a college.

It’s a Two-Way Street

The process of applying to college can be overwhelming.  As an applicant it’s important to remember that although schools are certainly looking for what they perceive to be the best students, you are also looking for the best school for you.

It’s Not Just the Teacher

For years people have been saying that you should choose a school solely based on the private teacher that you believe to be the best for you.  As a private teacher, I appreciate the importance of the one-on-one relationship that should develop between student and teacher, and believe it to be very valuable.  Although I agree choosing a teacher that you believe in is important, it shouldn’t be the only part of the decision making process.  Finding a teacher, program, and environment that are going to provide you with the opportunities to get you where you want to go is vital.

Find the Right Fit

Armed with the knowledge that college isn’t picking you- you are picking a college, and that it’s not just a single variable that should make your choice, how do you choose?  I’m glad you asked.

Finding the right school is like finding the right pair of shoes.  If you choose your shoes based on what everyone else is wearing, you might end up with sore feet.  If you’re a runner, wearing a pair of wing tips probably isn’t the best way to go.  When looking at colleges, look for the right fit for you.  Look for a school that can help you get where you want to go.  It will have the major(s), teachers, ensembles, classes, and opportunities that match your goals.

To get the best information will require some work on your part.  Please ask questions.  Ask questions of faculty.  Ask questions of current students.  Ask questions of former students.  The students will be the people best equipped to tell you what going to school is really like.  The faculty should be your best source of information about what will be expected of you once you’re on campus.  When you’ve made the right decision, going off to college can feel like going (to a different) home.

Commit

Now that you’ve done your research and decided on a college, make a commitment to being a vibrant member of your new community.  Your best chance of getting all you can out of your time is to invest fully in the experience.  Take full advantage of all that is available to you.

Done right, you’ll be amazed at what can happen in just a few years.