Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Candles in the Wind

Ever watch a young child trying to blow out birthday candles? Flames flutter but few are extinguished. Why is that? Then you lean over to help get it done with just one well-placed puff as all are amazed. Maybe it's the Blowing-More-Than-Focusing Syndrome, or also the dreaded Bad-Aiming Disability. Your intentions are great, but aim and focus is poor. To get the job done it takes too many tries, more than enough air, and frustration. But there is a cure.

Sometimes our trumpet-playing is a lot like bad candle-blowing. We huff and puff ourselves into quick fatigue, and still miss most of the notes. We often over-blow and aim at clusters of pitches rather than nailing them individually. We need that skilled parent leaning over next to us saying, ready, set, go, as we guide some well-directed air to its target. On your mark, get set, blow.

The candles go out when the right amount of air hits the middle of each flame. Notes get nailed when the right amount of air hits the center of each pitch. Think of taking care of one candle at a time. No second blows allowed. With both candles and notes, your air must make good contact with its target. Now make a wish, and blow 'em all out!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Looking for an Adventure

The difference between great music and not quite so great music, is that great music is full of great music. It's not hard to find. Not so great music requires great music makers to ensure that it happens. George Szell said that if you are playing the music of composers other than Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, you must work harder. We can certainly object to so short a list, but the point is understood. We are on a mission to discover the music in the music. This then becomes our life-long adventure.

We are usually pretty good at recognizing musical intentions when the trumpet is not present. Now put a horn to our face, and creativity stops. The focus shifts to the difficulty of mechanics. The very instrument we love quickly becomes our enemy. Instead of being the conduit of our best musical intentions, the trumpet turns around to bite us, and stifles the whole process. Why is that? And what can we do about it?

Suggestion: Look at the advice given by the composer at the top of the page. Start there. How about assigning your etude, concerto, sonata, or symphony passage a theme, a storyline, a mood, or even words? A horn player colleague used to sing his own unforgettable lyrics to Brahms and Bruchner symphony fragments. Those passages suddenly came alive!

There is music on them thar pages, but you are required to discover and draw it out. A good imagination is all it takes to free us from musical paralysis. Instead of thinking another concerto, we think "Bull fight arena, scene 1", or "German tanks unstoppably meandering through the dense brush", or "A hazy sunset viewed from your high-rise veranda in Spain", or "A high speed sports car racing though European mountain terrain accompanied by your best friend!" Nothing is just notes. Everything is programmatic.

Charlier etudes and Arban Characteristics offer much more than boring studies. How about some of these pictures? A bicycle with an obnoxious dent in the frame of the front wheel, acting like a relentless metronome; a Frenchman cycling through the streets of Paris cheerfully waving to pedestrians; the morning of a fawn suddenly interrupted with fanfare by the hunter; a pastoral movie scene; a great unaccompanied flugel solo ideal for a recital; fireworks shooting up and then cascading downwards in slow motion; a merry-go-round horse rolling way up and down; swirling bees in a frenzy; loud and angry accents on off-beats; participating in vocal auditions at the Met. The list is endless! There is enough music just in trumpet etudes to equip any trumpet student to compete anywhere. Adventures are awaiting.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Sign of a Trumpaholic

What are the signs of a trumpaholic? Appearances may be deceiving. Don't be fooled by those tiny headphones always seen en route to the next class. Or by all the talk about the newest releases by European trumpet soloists. Or by the impressive collection of platinum-plated mouthpieces and bags o' mutes. Or by all the shiny high-priced trumpets in those multiple state-of-the-art strapped gig bags. Or by the complete library of all the latest trumpet fads on everything from The Art of a Full Inhale in .06 Seconds, to The Amazing Benefits of Blowing your Mouthpiece Backwards.

The best proof of whether someone is honestly a trumpaholic is found on the stage of the recital hall. How good is the playing? Or even better, how much improvement has been happening? Trumpaholics get better. Being a trumpet jock is cool. It's nice when you love your work. Youthful enthusiasm is a great weapon against boredom and burnout. Never lose it. But it's what comes out of the bell that has clout, earns paychecks, and speaks loudly (and softly) to listeners.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


What do brick-layers and trumpet players have in common? Some would say both are unskilled blue collar laborers lacking in artistic abilities. Sometimes maybe. It's not so much a question of ability however, but of integrity.

Accuracy is a reflection of character. A mason's work does not allow for sloppiness. Weak foundations will cause disasters, and that kind of worker is not likely to be rehired. Precision matters. We trumpet players seem to think that we can get away with laying the notes down any old way. We tend to slap together our notes of etudes, excerpts, and concertos, paying not enough attention to the quality of each note. Would that we had the commitment to the precision of master builders!

Imagine a huge pile of bricks just dumped in your front yard and ready for your grand building project. You've studied your blue prints, so you know pretty much where you're going. You have your manual and electric saw, chisel, hammer, mortar, trowel and all the equipment needed to get the job done. Then your hard work begins. You want your finished product to be functional and of aesthetic value. Others will appreciate not only all of your labor but your eye for detail. They will marvel, and you will be proud of your work.

So the good news is that our work is not so much talent-based as it is attention-based. Whether you're building a patio or a concert hall, playing a scale or a concerto, each individual part matters. Spend lots of quality time with those bricks, and treat them with care. Whether builder or artist, working with bricks or notes, your success is in the details.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Put Progress on the Fast Track

One of my boys' teachers at CIM suddenly stopped to ask him this question in the midst of his lesson. "So, what's the goal here?" Play all the notes in tune, he guessed? "No, to be gainfully employed!" He let that glimpse of reality sink in for a moment before continuing the lesson.

Considering that life as a student will end in a matter of months, it should be sobering that reality is fast approaching. In fact, it is already here. It is not likely that you will suddenly turn into a monster trumpet player over night. Evidence of that talent should have already surfaced, and it must be fed and trained on a daily basis in order for survival. That becomes our job description: monster-training. In fact, you should be a monster-in-progress.

No matter what your major, you should be committed to finishing your schooling with honors. That first paycheck depends upon it. A certain amount of partying and/or laziness seems to be what happens in school. But keep in mind that those are not job requirements. Have a life, but also keep a realistic perspective on the competition that lies ahead. Let's put some serious progress on the fast track.