Posts Tagged ‘trumpet’

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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 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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Coordination

March 12, 2015

Last week I wrote:

It’s not all about strength.

It’s about coordination.

I keep reading what “the secret” to playing is.  So far the highlights are:

  • Air!- Whatever the question is, the answer is MORE AIR!
  • Tongue- The amount of physical manipulation of the tongue discussed on a regular basis is staggering.
  • Lips- 50/50, 2/3 up 1/3 down, 1/3 up 2/3 down, roll in/roll out….

Let’s take a quick look at each:

AIR

Air is certainly needed to play trumpet.  But how much?  Ah, that’s the question.  If you’re a regular visitor here, you know I consider myself a Radical Moderate.  Too often people seem to think every trumpet problem is a nail, and air is the hammer.  Here’s how much air to use- enough air to meet the resistance of the trumpet, but not more.  When you hear a trumpet sound that rings a room, that fullness is, in part, because of the air meeting the resistance.  Here’s a picture to give you an idea of what I’m talking about if what I’ve written so far is too vague, Goldilocks style:

  1. Stand facing a wall.  Reach out your hand so that your fingers barely touch it.  That’s not enough air.
  2. Stand facing a wall.  Punch the wall.  That’s too much air.
  3. Stand facing a wall.  Put your hand against the wall and lean forward.  That’s just right.

TONGUE

Your tongue is certainly necessary to playing the trumpet.  So- what is the tongue’s job in trumpet playing?  I ask this question in clinics and get all kinds of crazy answers.  As I like to make things simple, here’s the tongue’s job description:

  • When wanted, give notes a clear beginning.

That’s it.  For those of you wanting to tell me how much more the tongue does, please keep reading.

LIPS

Lips are certainly an integral part of trumpet playing.  Before we get to the job description for the lips, let’s address some common concerns about placement.  Because there are so many different shapes and sizes, there are no absolutes here.  These are general guidelines:

  • Put both lips inside the mouthpiece
  • Put the mouthpiece centered on the lips (not necessarily exactly center, as everyone’s face is different)

So what do the lips do?

  • Vibrate.

That’s it.  The reason to put both lips inside the mouthpiece and center the mouthpiece on your lips is to allow the vibration to happen.

COORDINATION

As you can see, we can’t play trumpet without Air, Tongue, or Lips.  So the secret can’t be just one of them.  The secret is getting them all to work together.

Let’s start with Air.  Trumpet players can be so crazy as to make breathing difficult.  Breathing is so easy that babies can do it.  Breathing is so easy that you can do it in your sleep.  Let’s not make it complicated.  You take air in; you blow air out.  That’s it.

Let’s add the tongue.  Take a nice easy breath, and coordinate the tongue as you blow out so that it gives a clear beginning to the outward blow without stopping the airstream.  If you’re worried about tongue placement, generally speaking, the tongue will work the same way as when you’re speaking.  If it helps, you can say “Ta” or “Too” to get started.

Now let’s get the lips vibrating.  I like to use the trumpet, but others like to start on just the mouthpiece or leadpipe.  There’s no wrong answer here.  With the corners of your lips firm, take a nice easy breath, tongue the beginning of the outward blow as the middle of your lips start vibrating.

Anyone can do this is no time at all.

The hard part is taking the time to keep it this simple when difficulties arise.  Often problem-solving involves focusing on one of the above subjects.  And this is where it gets difficult.  Sometimes the problem can be solved with more air.  But when students here “more air,” they often overcompensate by overblowing.  Teachers have telling students to arch their tongues since the dawn of time.  At times, that can be (at least) part of the solution.  But everyone’s mouth, tongue, and teeth are different sizes and shapes.  So students overdo it.  If a student’s tongue is arched as high as possible with no air, there’s more frustration on the horizon.  There are teachers that want to make sure everyone’s embouchure is exactly right.  And there are students who need help in this way.  But there is no “exactly right.”  That’s why it’s important to work with the student in front of you, from wherever that student is.

It all comes back to coordination.  We need to keep practicing these simple concepts to get everything working together for the best possible result.

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The Power of I Don’t Know

January 19, 2015

Regularly, new students will ask me, “Am I playing the right mouthpiece?”  My answer is usually, “I don’t know.”  This answer often surprises them.  I explain that because we are just starting to work together, I’m still learning their strengths and weaknesses, and planning how to address them.  That might include equipment.  It might not.

I don’t know.

It’s important to be aware when “I don’t know” is the best answer.

In college football we’ve been told all year that the SEC is the best conference and that the Big 10 is not very good.  In the bowl games this year, the Big 10 went 3-1 against the SEC.  So which is the better conference?

I don’t know.

We’re given long term weather forecasts daily.  You can open the weather app on your phone and get one right now.  I’ve done this a number of times when planning travel.  It’s astounding how often and wrong the forecast can be.  Why?  Because even with the best information we have today, predicting the weather is not an accurate science.  So what’s the weather going to be like in 10 days?

I don’t know.

Although sports and long term weather forecasts are trivial when compared to teaching, they provide excellent examples of how reticent people can be to admit how much they don’t know.  As someone who has (rightly) been accused of being a know-it-all, I hope I can help you learn this lesson.  When put in a position of leadership, it can be easy to feel the responsibility for knowing..well…everything.  Should you take on that impossible responsibility, you can quickly alienate those around you that could help because they know things you do not.  You can also lose the trust of those you lead.

Here’s my message for you this week:  I don’t know can be the best answer you give.

Teachers can have a hard time admitting there are things they don’t know.

Students can have a hard time not getting an immediate answer to a question.

Teachers- Please be honest with your students, which includes admitting what you don’t know.

Students- Be respectful to your teachers.  Realize they are real people that can’t be expected to know everything.

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Level of Expectation

January 7, 2015

Here’s one of my least favorite phrases:

Good enough

What that means to me is that it’s not as good as could be, and that it’s okay to settle for less than an optimal result.  I’m not okay with either thought.

Level of expectation can be a difficult topic of discussion, as everyone is in a different place.  So I will try to be as clear as possible.  There are many times when I’ve witnessed players of all levels finish a performance and say something like:

…but that’s not how I play.”

Here’s the truth:

That is how you play.

If you’re unhappy with your level of performance, it’s likely that you should be unhappy with your preparation.

Too often, people dutifully spend time in the practice room hacking away until it’s time to be done for the day.  When a performance comes around, they think the mindless practice (“But I practiced 2 hours a day every day this week!”) will magically transform into a higher level of performance.  That’s not how it works.

If you truly want to raise your level of performance, it starts with how you are practicing.  Here are some guidelines to help you get started:

  • Before you start practicing, have a idea of what that session will accomplish.
    • It could be as simple as figuring out where you’re going to breathe, or increasing the tempo by 5 beats per minute on a particular piece or passage.
  • When you have accomplished what you set out to do, move on.
    • If you finish quickly, set another goal and continue.
    • If it takes a while, then it’s time for a break.
  • Practice performing.
    • If the performance is the first time you’ve played that piece all the way through without stopping, you have not set yourself up for success.
  • The quality of your practice, not the quantity, is the most important aspect.

Now comes the hard part.  You’re practicing dutifully, holding yourself accountable, and making real progress in the practice room.  The next performance comes around, and you’re still not happy.  That’s okay.  Take each performance you get as a check-up on how you’re doing.  Be honest with yourself about what’s getting better and what needs work.  Then get back in the practice room.  Repeat this…forever.  If you do it right, you’ll get better and better while still realizing there will always be reasons to practice, and the process of learning and musical growth is neverending.

And you’ll know what I tell my students on a regular basis:

Good enough…isn’t.