Sunday, December 18, 2011

Building Skyscrapers One Floor at a Time


"Do not attempt to play the following line until the preceding line sounds pure and free
." - Ernest S. Williams, from his Modern Method for Trumpet

If Mr. Williams were with us today, we might well hear him advising his students as they begin to practice on the piccolo trumpet:

"Do not attempt to play a higher note until the preceding notes sound pure and free."

This is the foundation for building a secure high range in Piccolo Trumpet Studies. I like Mr. Williams' patient reminder, as he points upwards out the window saying, "Skyscrapers are built one floor at a time."

Piccolo Trumpet Studies, 106 of them, available for $18. plus $2. mailing at:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Saturday, December 03, 2011

New book - Piccolo Trumpet Studies

Piccolo Trumpet Studies was written to provide easy-to-moderately difficult practice material for piccolo trumpet players of all levels. While it is tempting to plunge right into Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, the Magnificat, or the B Minor Mass, this book attempts to build range and high note control gradually, one short study at a time.

The goal in this book is to focus on control, tone, ease of playing, and intonation with the same security expected on the larger trumpets. Improvement requires consistent practice with adequate rest. Several organized practice sessions can be more beneficial than one mighty slugfest, and short etudes are more conquerable than those that are lengthy and too difficult.

Release date: December 12, 2011

Price: $18. plus $2. shipping


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

What to Pack for the Audition

Job hunters need to have in their portfolio five qualifications that will make the employers' selection process easy. Unfortunately these skills cannot be jammed into your suitcase at the last minute. All-night cram sessions just prior to the interview/audition will not work. These winning qualities will best be evidenced when they have been carefully ingrained over time. They must become automatic.

Not only will you win points at your audition, but you will also have great confidence under pressure. No need to be overwhelmed. All five are quite doable. The good news is that you have daily opportunities to be building these attention-grabbers as much as you like. Keep all five on the front burner, well-prepared, simmering, and ready to serve.
Audition committees are looking for these, so pay attention and don't disappoint. Guaranteed - if you impress listeners with each of these, your job hunt is over.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Charles Saenz at CCM

Pictured are Trumpet Professor Charles Saenz and pianist/accompanist extraordinaire Solungga Fang-Tzu Lui, both from THE Bowling Green State University in Ohio. They visited CCM last week for a master class and recital. What a perfect kick start for the fall quarter on the very first week of classes! Beautiful playing and first rate coaching.

Charles plays with confidence, accuracy and wonderful musicianship. What a treat to sit and listen. Mr. Saenz's program began with Shchedrin's In the Style of Albeniz played with perfect agility and character. Their performance made you think "seductive subtlety". Wouldn't be surprised to see this work programed on a number of this year's recitals. It's a fun piece with nifty challenges.

Torelli's Sonata G1 in D major was next without the customary piccolo trumpet tuning difficulties!! It was gracefully played and nicely controlled. Trills and details had clarity, and phrasings were graceful.

Martinu's Sonatine was next. This work is not on many top 10 lists to my knowledge, but definitely worth studying and performing, especially for those looking for some interesting non-standard rep. This Sonatine definitely merits a closer look.

Mr. Saenz continued with the Karl Pilss Sonata. His approach which focused on refinement and style made this work more appealing and worth putting on the front practice burner. He demonstrated a nice flow over those rough angular lines. It sounded well sung.

Ravel's Habanera concluded the recital. This little piece likewise seems to be getting more fame of late. It's a nice classy filler for a recital, but not as easy as it may first appear. Great recital program and performance!

Things learned and general bullet points taken from the master class in no particular order:
  • Breathe bigger and in time.
  • Be bold.
  • Begin phrases well.
  • Control vibrato.
  • Intensity should match the musical line.
  • There can be a slight space between quarter notes for energy and clarity. Be able to use variety of articulations by design, not convenience.
  • Chains of sixteenth notes need direction.
  • All lines must have purpose.
  • Problem spots are usually preceded by a lack of total control just ahead of a danger zone. Be secure before the scary moments come upon you.
  • Legato matters. Smooth and well shaped lines are impressive.
  • Play listening games. Pick an issue and listen for it. For example: Monday - starts day; Tuesday - releases day; Wednesday - dynamics day; Thursday - shape, phrasing and intensity day; Friday - accuracy day. Saturday - football and change of pace day; Sunday - take a break day! Be creative but be productive. Every day - keep it fun and challenging.

Friday, September 16, 2011

An Event Like None Other

Welcome to new and returning CCM trumpet students! One might expect some stress-free social or any instrument-free event to ease the transition from beach to books, and from travel to toil. But no, your unglamorous first assignment even before day one? Take an audition. The sheer shock of it! Congratulations to all of you for shaking off summer and tackling Berlioz, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, de Falla, as well as your solo/etude of choice. Some thoughts on days like this:

An audition can be like having to swallow bitter medicine. Or, like being rudely searched at airport security, or being forced to endure a root canal without Novocain, or being required to play the Buckeyes with no helmets on. If not a physical pummeling, audition-playing can definitely be a mental one. The contest can be embarrassing, humiliating, and even discouraging. That's the bad truth.

The good truth is that we must admit that auditions are perhaps the best learning experience available. Learning to get through the negative emotions is a large part of the challenge. In about ten minutes you just showed yourself exactly where you need improvement. You are forced to confront reality straight in the mirror. If we want to like what we see (and what we hear), adjustments must be made. Auditions hand us our agenda for specific practice. The best part of the day should be your assessment of your performance, your very own sheet of will-dos.

One more important item: mastery of the instrument is our goal of course, but our motivation is not just technical ability. Musical expression, drama, energy, style, and story-telling will go a lot further in sustaining your interest than just checklists of technical details. The former approach helps tremendously with nerves. Your mission is more about the musical message than it is about trying to reach note perfection. Effectively communicating music to the committee and the audience is what this business is about. In fact, how about less "business" and more artistry?

The Auditions: an event like none other.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Dumpster Day!

This is a great time to rent one of those enormous Rumpke dumpsters! Let's call it the Trumpke dumpster. Haul it right up to your practice room door and load it up. In goes junk, garbage and all manner of notes, chipped, cracked, dropped, bumped, banged, flattened, roughed up, broken and smashed. Totally clean out that practice area. From now on it's each note in its place. No clutter, no junk.

You have too few notes to waste, if any. Your daily notes should be destined for eager ears, not the garbage heap. Before sending out your huge quantity of daily notes, consider where they will end up, land fill, or pay dirt! This can be a very fun project each day. You'll be playing less, and listeners (including you) will be enjoying it more.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Loudest AND the Best!

Know what? Almost nobody in school plays loud enough! Good is nice, but good and loud is more impressive and memorable. Judicious and generous jolts of power win fame, money and applause. You must be able to play full out on a moment's notice yet be able to segue into a gorgeous pianissimo. Can you do it? Are you practicing for it?

Playing soft enough is the usual goal which none of us ever feel we have reached. But let's not focus so much on the soft dynamics that we forsake the ability to totally fill the hall with savage, fearless, amazing, shocking, voluptuous trumpet playing!!! Almost every major symphonic work calls for you to meet that demand. Are you preparing?

Where is that CCM player this year? Anyone ready? Warning: If it's going to be loud, it had better be very good and well controlled. Caution: You are entering the no-split zone. The mistakes stop here!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Running in Your Own Lane

"Look at that runner! No way I'm ever going to catch up! I'm not even close. But hey, look how far ahead I am of the runner at the back of the pack." Comparing with others breeds pride and inferiority, and is a distraction from our game plan. Just run.

Looking sideways or behind isn't the best strategy in running your race. Sure, learn from and be motivated by others, but avoid the trap of evaluating your worth by comparing with others. Your most difficult challenges will be with yourself, so don't be worrying about the next guy's strengths and weaknesses. We've got enough stress as it is. Run well in your own lane. Be consistent and diligent. Put on blinders and just go.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Darts, anyone?

Which best typifies your playing, a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, or Darts? Do you tend to stab blindly in the dark when you play, or are you working on the skill of directing each note to its target? Thankfully trumpeters, like dart players, don't wear blindfolds, so there is hope.

Too often instead of a poised, focused approach on the trumpet, we hurriedly grab a few sips of air and then proceed to lunge viciously in the general vicinity of the notes, hoping to fasten them to some target. Valiant attempts? Yes. Bulls-eyes? Not likely.

Here's the game: Your air stream must simply meet the phrase head on, and remain focused for each note. So, take a good appraisal of the phrase, breathe accordingly, and release your air directly onto its targets, not above or below. If the notes were candles, you want lights out with one breath. It's probably not going to happen with a blindfold on. If you're still thinking pinata, you're in the wrong game.

You want to impress your listeners, observers, and yourself with your accuracy and control. Again, your air must meet and support all of the notes. We're not talking over-thinking each entrance or analyzing ourselves into paralysis, just putting enough air on the notes, period.

As you prepare to toss that dart towards the center of your dartboard, observe your natural instincts, and do likewise when you have horn in hand. An unfriendly game of darts anyone?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Using Swan Air

Every brass player knows instinctively all about Shotgun, Fireworks and Spitfire style air techniques. Those are what we are famous for. But few have perfected the delicate skill of Swan Air. This breathing technique is needed big time in every audition, every slow movement solo, and for keeping day jobs. We're talking very slow and steady air movement. You are to exemplify the graceful, gliding swan. Ducky Duddle splashing and splattering won't get it done.

Want another picture? Consider a single burning candle. Now blow carefully at it without extinguishing the flame. It must flicker steadily for as long as you can keep it moving. Prize for the longest flickering. Can you do 15 seconds? The longer the better, but it has to be steady. No jerks allowed.

After mastering this very therapeutic and relaxing exhale exercise, you are good and ready for those deadly pianissimo excerpts: Schumann 2, Academic, Mahler 3 chorale, etc. Remember: very deep inhale followed by your very slow release. Swim gracefully and don't make waves.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Case Closed!

Due to the summertime heat advisory, all CCM trumpet cases should look like this until further notice. No practicing permitted. Don't even think about it. Case closed!!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Roller Coastering

"Step right up. You're next. Take your seat, please fasten your seat belt. Here we go. Hold on!"

You know what to expect. Fright happens on rides. That's part of the deal. Scary goes with the territory. Oh that the ups and downs of trumpet playing could be as much fun as a roller coaster ride, but that depends upon your perspective. The key is knowing what to expect and learning from your experiences.

Ever notice how much more traumatic that very first ride on the racer is? The next one is much easier as you learn to manage the bumps rather than just survive. If you quit at first fright, you never get to enjoy. Hey, next time, hands up, no fear!

Downward plummets happen in life too. Failures, coming in second, third, or not at all, is part of the adventure. Remember that today's winners were yesterdays losers. The wise losers hang around long enough to win the next time. Precious lessons are ready for the taking for those who look to ride again. Don't go home. Get back in line.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stop Already!

"Stop or you'll blow your brains out, or worse yet, your chops!" Woodwind players can always buy more reeds, but brass players can't buy a new box of lips. Easy does it with those non-stop workouts.

You've certainly got a metronome, tuner, and maybe even a decibel meter in the practice room, but how about a timer? You need something that regularly signals that it's time to rest and come up for air. The chops need a break and some fresh blood circulation. Muscles are strengthened by resting as well as by exertion.

Mandatory resting might seem like advice for wimps. Hence, you rarely see a timer in a trumpet player's bag of goods. For us obsessive/compulsive types some sort of stopping device should be a must-have.

Andre is reported to practice many times a day in brief sessions. Vacchiano advised us to put the horn down while the embouchure still feels good. Strategic resting preserves chops while impatient blasting tends to destroy them quickly. Try practicing a little a lot rather than a lot a little.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

When Soft Speaks Loudly

Keep this picture in mind as you practice this week. You do not want to be constantly seeing the maestro's shushing gesture or the palm of his left hand. His "softer, trumpets!" indications are not always this kind and gentle. You can keep him off your case and out of your face with a simple strategy.

Your strategy: a daily generous dose of playing softly! Warning: side effects may include lack of breathing and/or boring playing. If so, take a breath and sing normally. Low decibel work should not mean loss of support or interest. The softer you play, the more you must sustain air and line. The goal is not just being quiet, but playing quiet beautifully.

Develop the skill of controlling a quiet product. Train yourself to be comfortable in pianissimo dynamics.The benefits for you are confidence and favor with audition committees. The soft excerpts are often the deal-breakers in finals. Many wield the big stick, but few can also speak softly.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Enough Money in the Bank?

Your audition is in two days! Ready or not, you're off to the airport. You leave home allowing plenty of extra time only to learn that your travel agenda is going to be adjusted slightly. Your road to the audition/competition will now include all of the following unplanned obstacles:

1. Due to late departure, you will not be able to make your connecting flight in Chicago.
2. Your checked baggage will not be accompanying you.
3. You will be stranded at O'Hare as all remaining flights are now canceled/delayed due to severe weather.
4. You must search for a hotel for the night.
5. Precious funds are evaporating.
6. Congratulations. You're about to be sleepless in Chicago.
7. Jet lag is starting to kick in and you still have one more time zone to go.
8. Junk food normally avoided for auditions is becoming your only option for survival.
9. You're sensing a strong urge to bail. Why bother?
10. Once having landed in Cincinnati, you still have a two hour drive to Louisville!
11. More than a day later you finally arrive at the audition site with less than an hour to warm up!

Is this not the worst audition nightmare scenario imaginable? Probably, but consider this: by the end of the day, this competitor advanced to semis, then finals, and then won third prize in a nationwide guitar competition. Just think if there were no obstacles. He might have won the whole thing, you say, or he might not have even placed at all. Sometimes obstacles keep us from being too consumed, but that is another topic.

The point: He survived heroically because he had enough money in the bank. His reserve was still in tact regardless of the externals. A smaller account might have been overdrawn by any of the above distractions. You can usually plan on one or more of these audition scenarios to present themselves. You will have no control over any of these, but you can protect your musical treasure from robbery. If your message has been properly prepared, it will survive!

Tornadoes Zero. Jeremy Collins Won!!!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Off the Charts Loud!

Committee Comment:
"That was the loudest and most electrifying trumpet-playing we have ever heard! It was never forced or out of control. We must hire this person!"

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

'Tisn't the Season

"What, me work?!" That's the mindset that tends to accompany these warm weather months. Oh to have a conservatory in Iceland where the grass is browner, the snow is deeper, and the outdoor distractions aren't!

Productive practice should be unaffected by weather, moods, or environment. We function well when we can put aside the many external and internal issues that discourage daily work. Consider yourself a year-round practice robot who consistently does what is needed regardless of obstacles.

It would help if we were as dumb as the trumpet! (No comments needed). The trumpet scolds us: "Would you please just play without all of the drama! Blow, slur and tongue. How hard is that?"

Of course this is ideal and not real. A variety of interferences are daily in attack mode and seek to prevent us from performing our basic chores. It is encouraging to remind ourselves that basic maintenance is not dependent on feeling like it. Quality playing can still happen even when you're uninspired, tired, angry, depressed, or distracted. Consider each of these intrusions to be perfect training for life on the job. Conquer them now, or they will conquer you later.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Music Sets Your Agenda

Connecting practice to performance is the challenge. Knowing how to make very nice use of the precious time we have so as to yield great shows, that is the task! Some learn this early, some late, and most never get it. (I think I fell somewhere in the latter two groups.) Don't you love it when you see and hear someone who has grasped how to practice and play? Look around. They exist. Observe, listen and learn.

I doubt there are very many players who have not had to be painstaking learners of practice discipline. The naturals still need training and maturity, so be encouraged. They were where you are, but they have moved on.

The "never get it" group spins their wheels at great speeds while all the time basically stuck in the same ditch. They sometimes experience bursts of inspiration, but only to be followed by fits of frustration. Zeal-mustering eventually looses the battle. Hate when that happens, but learn from it.

Learning to organize your work comes after trial and error. In that sense, error can be a great teacher! Failings can be our greatest wake up call. Congratulations, you have just given yourself your personalized practice agenda! As a colleague once commented, "it should be obvious what to practice next."

Let the demands of the music set your practice agenda. Take Ravel's Piano Concerto in G for instance. What's needed? A thousand repetitions, maybe two thousand? No. You'll soon loathe the piece. How about first practicing clean single, double and triple tongue patterns on shortish Clarke-like etudes? Start with diatonic patterns and proceed to include gradually greater jumps. Be able to bust in with dead on accuracy. Don't play a lot sloppy. Play a little cleanly. Daily work is not as good as daily wise work. Pretend the greats are watching and listening as you are slugging away. Will they be impressed with your approach, or will they shake their heads and proceed to the next person?

Consider the Brahms Academic Festival Overture. We don't need loud bursts of bumps and bangs. Obviously required are smooth soft lines, in tune with pure tone and chorale-like direction. Got it? Now practice accordingly. Use slower than needed speeds for control, softer than needed dynamics for control, and higher than needed range for extra control. Set your own strategy, and play with impressive musicianship. It's not brain surgery, but it requires some modest daily brain work.

The Trumpet Shall Sound from Handel's Messiah presents different but similar challenges. Before attempting to scale the heights, you must first master the low range. What does the audience expect? Givens are a pure sound, unobjectionable intonation, clean starts to all notes, and a sense that you are in control of 100% of your product. Begin to build that kind of comfort range and grow it gradually. Only go as high as you are satisfied with your results. The piccolo trumpet cannot be tamed instantly, but must be carefully trained over time. Beware and approach with care. (Paste that on your pic case.)

Don't shove "the music" aside until you've mastered all technique. Instead use the demands of the music to motivate you to master a wise daily strategy. You can go from teacher to teacher with hat in hand, or you can come up with your own brilliant approach to each piece. Get guidance, but you must ultimately figure out your own way.

If you are not the "thinking" and "organizing" type of player, just think of this. Your very own Great-Note-Monitor has just now been attached to your bell, and it is activated. It is recording and processing all of the notes you are playing. Will you be proud of the readout?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hanging With the Doctor

Seen the Doctor lately? Sounds like not! If your pulse is unstable, fluctuating, erratic, you are past due for a visit. Just as we don't ignore heart irregularities, so why allow bad rhythm, unsteady tempos, rushing and dragging to threaten our musical lives? Needed badly: a steady ticker!

Prescription: one Dr. Beat. His subdividing options were not available years ago. Remember having to balance that large wooden tic-toc triangle thing on a flat surface? The beat was never perfect, always sounding slightly peg-legged. Even the nifty plastic jobs were frustrating. Drop it once, and it forever limped.

Now with a simple click you can have the perfect Dr. Beat on your case and in your face right next to your ears as loud as you can stand him! The more obnoxious the better. That way the medicine might work and the beat might stick.

Another problem with elderly metronomes was that they could easily be drowned out by exuberant brass belting. In fact, considering the high decibel level required for so much of our demands today, it might be good if someone came out with a DR. BANG! Each click would sound like an empty garbage can being pummeled by a baseball bat! Hey, put it on a dotted quarter note = 120 in 12/8 with subdivided eighth notes and enjoy!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More Spikes!

Whatever jolts you to double down on improvement, go there and go often! Spikes in your playing need to happen regularly. Life is depressing when motivation disappears. What is it that produces in you an on-fire mindset? Is it attending a brass conference, hearing a great concert, an amazing recital, or listening to Strauss, Mahler, Gabrielli? Certainly you can't walk away empty after hearing great solo playing. Whatever works, do it. Your assignment is to search out greatness and camp out there.

Nothing particularly motivating you today? Take charge. In between spikes, why don't you get to work on bolstering up those dreadful downward spikes? Bring up your low levels so that nobody ever knows you're having a bad day. Daily lighten your load of guilt by chipping away at your nemeses. Then treat yourself with some challenging musical entertainment.

There will always be spikes, but you want them to be more frequent and less deep! Your output depends upon your input. Feed yourself.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sirens and Songs

Imagine that you are a great artist stranded on a remote island with no horn, just your mouthpiece. Not to stress. You have all you need to get a whole lot accomplished before the next boat arrives with your trumpet. Wait till they hear what has happened to your sound! Here's a free and easy remedy for that grainy fuzzy tone. Who knows? After they hear the results of your having no trumpet, some remote island might become the site for the next worldwide brass convention!

Sorry, nothing profound here, just hopefully a couple of useful and helpful reminders for sound improvement. No need for the horn yet. Let's go first for sirens and songs.

Gently buzz siren-like glissandi, holding the mouthpiece with maximum of three fingers and very little pressure. Produce absolutely clear tones in a very soft dynamic without any fuzz whatsoever. Start in an easy register for comfortable ups and downs while always maintaining purity of tone. Fuzzy lack of center and ghost areas in your register mean you simply need to get better at this.

Increase your range only if you earn an all-clear to proceed. Carelessness with your buzzing guarantees notes without ring or focus, but a pure buzz will produce a pure trumpet tone every time.

When you get to the highest note of your siren, freeze briefly to make sure there is no straining or embouchure collapsing before you slide back down. Avoid pinching and squeezing for the upper sounds. Air speed ought to increase as you ascend. Rest frequently. Reenter on pitch and increase range gradually. Your goal is embouchure comfort and tone center. Keep adding higher and lower notes to your siren range insisting on quality and ease. Don't neglect full breaths.

Remember, less pressure, more tone. Just place mouthpiece and blow. Note response should resemble the piano which speaks as soon as it is touched.

Next you're ready for songs. Still using just the mouthpiece, minimal pressure, and a conservative dynamic, you may pick your tunes of the day. The simpler and the shorter the better. No modulating and no jamming mouthpiece into the embouchure permitted. Pure artistry and amazing effortlessness. Enjoy this. The next boat arrives shortly. Bummer.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Mr. Smoothy

It's the fifties in New Jersey and I knew what I was in for, another drive to visit my Uncle Bill! I'm like only 9 or 10 years old and just starting trumpet lessons, but I knew I'd have to sit in front of those enormous Fischer speakers and listen to ancient scratchy recordings of Charlie Spivak and His Orchestra! "Now Philip, I want you to sit here and listen to this!"

My brother and I badly wanted to go outside and play in the huge back yard that had a homemade wooden double bench swing that my grandfather built himself to occupy his mind while my dad was in the army during the War. We loved that old swing! But no. We sat obediently in my uncle's den as he played cut after cut of his beloved trumpet hero. He loved that smooth romantic playing, and he would watch me in vain hoping that he might ignite some spark of interest on my part. I'm certain he concluded that his trumpet-appreciation efforts were wasted. How's a kid that age going to appreciate record playing? All we wanted was to play space ship on Papa's swing, but he tried.

My great grandfather, I was told many times, played first trombone in Sousa'a band. With every visit to uncle Bill I would hear stories of his fabulous playing. Spivak and my great grandfather had similar styles so they said. He was quite the eccentric, my great grandfather, but his amazing playing excused his behavior, but that's another story. (See Spivak's "Hop, Skip and Jump.")

Anyway, here is a nice sample of what my brother and I failed to appreciate at the time. This one is entitled "Stardreams" by Charlie Spivak and His Orchestra. The music is from another era for sure, but his approach and expressive legato are still to be admired. I like his comfort in the upper register. Those weren't high notes. That was home.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

What Rests Are For

Why are there rests in trumpet solos? Anybody know? They actually just make us uncomfortable as we stand there anticipating our entrance. Incidentally, the worst piece for this scenario has got to be the first movement of the Hummel Trumpet Concerto. It must be 25 minutes before we do anything, just standing there on display trying to look impressive! Sounding good is hard enough. Anyway, here are a bunch of possible purposes for rests. Any of these sound familiar?

Rests in trumpet solos are for . . .

  • emptying your spit valve as many times as possible before you have to play again.
  • tensing up and not moving a muscle.
  • letting the audience know you are scared.
  • trying to impress the audience that you are not scared.
  • concentrating like mad.
  • adjusting your glasses.
  • rubbing your lips as if in great pain.
  • loudly blubbering your lips as you try to get blood back into the embouchure.
  • seeing if you can oil your sticky third valve before the next entrance.
  • moving the tuning slide a thousandth of an inch with great concern.
  • frowning with disapproval.
  • turning away from the audience to violently empty the spit.
Probably none of these were intended by composers, so, any other suggestions, class? Sammy? "It's so we can like rest our chops, man!" Very good, Sammy. You are close. Jermaine? "They are so that we can sort of like feel the moods of the music?" Good, Jermaine, but there could be an even better reason. Sally Sue? "So I can look at my boy friend in the audience?" Well, I'm sure he's a good motivation for you. Any other ideas? Horace? "The resting portions of concertos function as further opportunities for the composer to use thematic material with varying instrumental colors, range contrasts and/or harmonic shifts, modulations, and transitions." Yes, yes, thank you, Horace. "You're welcome, professor."

All of these are right, class. But have you considered the rests as a chance to quickly refocus, to take a breath, and to restart with enough support to get through the next passage with no damage done to you or to the music? Think of the rests as service stations along the highway. You'll be more alert and rested if you make full use of them. Your ideas are all good, boys and girls, but the most important is to prepare yourself for what lies ahead.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Fueling Up

Imagine filling your car up with gas for a long road trip. You're off and running smoothly. Eventually your gas gauge approaches E, and you must pull over to refuel. For some unknown reason you hurriedly fill the tank only half way before continuing on your long drive.

In less than an hour you must stop again. This time you quickly pump only a couple of gallons. In mere miles you frantically pull off the road, this time adding a measly two pints of gas. At the next station it's just a few dribbles of precious fuel before plunging back into traffic. Soon your long journey is no longer any fun for you or for your engine which is now straining to run on the fumes.

My dad always warned not to let the gas gauge go below half. " Keep the tank full", he said. I took that as a breathing lesson. "The car does not run as well on the bottom of the tank", he would lecture. "It strains the engine." Likewise the brass player has to work much harder when only a small supply of air is used.

Say your long road trip is the off stage Post Horn Solo from the Mahler 3rd Symphony. After a very large intake of air you pull into traffic ever so stealthily, joining the onstage C in perfect harmony. Your good air supply is serving you very nicely, and you are in control and loving it. At the end of the very first phrase however you get a bit rattled as there is so little time to refuel. A hint of panic flashes across your mind as you know you did not get enough air for the next passage. That high A is approaching up ahead, and you only took a sip when you needed to guzzle!

This bad dream has only just begun, for the notes are coming at you faster than you can keep them filled with air. You've got another page and a half to go and already you are gasping! You look around, but there is no assistant in sight! You must learn to survive.

Arnold Jacobs maintained that brass playing is less about chops and more about wind. We don't have chop problems, we have air deficiencies. "Your embouchure is starved for air", he would say. A full intake of air must be followed by an efficient release of the air. There seemed to be nothing that couldn't be remedied by a good dose of wind and song. His first suggestion for my running-out-of-gas dilemma: "Phil, make sure all of your breaths are as full as the first one."

The trick is to learn to be comfortable taking full breaths even if they must be very fast. We will not always have the luxury of a full service rest stop. Mel Broiles used to remind us that the best players can take in the most amount of air in the least amount of time. It is about fuel and efficiency. The greater the fuel supply, the better will be the efficiency.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Focus, Please!

Almost a great picture. We wouldn't want to show out-of-focus prints to our friends, so why do we expect them to buy a bunch of fuzzy notes? With just a little extra attention we can produce a marketable crystal clear product.

Simply focus. Expect clarity and insist upon it. Adopt a no-junk mindset. A carefully centered mouthpiece buzz one note at a time does wonders. Start slowly and listen. The ear must be as critical as the eye. A free-flowing air stream must hit the center of each pitch. The sharper and flatter edges of the notes are not acceptable. Improvement happens better at slow speeds, so hold the camera still. Take aim, focus, and shoot.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Avoiding Speeding and Crashing

Remember the Charlie Chaplin movie where he is assembling widgets on a moving assembly line? All is fine until someone turns up the pace of the conveyor belt. As more and more widgets are advancing he inevitably looses control as widgets begin to fly everywhere. An hilarious moment for the audience, but desperation and panic time for him. We know the feeling, unfortunately.

Faster is rarely better, especially when control is vital. Details simply become a blur as the brain is unable to keep up with the excessive speed. Sightseeing while driving is a nice springtime activity. Ever notice how an attractive passerby can quickly bring traffic to a near stand still as brakes screech and heads turn? There you have it. Details are caught best at slow speeds.

Picture yourself behind your mouthpiece cruising down the page at a respectable speed. Suddenly the line of notes takes some rough turns with a few very awkward leaps. Next you wonder if you observed correctly those accidentals as you raced by. Not to worry, without skipping a beat you plow onward hoping to salvage something of the general idea of the piece. The notes are beginning to come at you faster than your brain can convert them to sounds. Soon like poor Charlie, you begin to crash into the trash.

A wise guitar instructor was a big help to me months before we were to record Stravinsky's Petroushka. He was disciplining his guitar student to play at half speed to develop security and control. I didn't think it was possible to play the Ballerina's Dance that slow, nor that there would be any value in it. Then I tried it. Sure enough, even at half tempo I was missing notes! Seemed impossible to do, but true! My new goal was to play only as fast as I could guarantee 100% of the notes in tune with clear tone.

Then began the long process of gradually picking up the pace, but only if all notes were securely on board. Eventually this process will pay off for you. In fact, no need to stop. Keep accelerating. Play beyond the required tempo. Too slow and too fast are great technique builders. Try it. You'll be amazed at the things you had been missing, and at the things you'll notice yourself able to control. Give your brain a chance to catch up.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Practicing for the Marathon

William Wilberforce gave some good advice which can be very useful for those facing the audition season. "I daily become more sensible that my work must be affected by constant and regular exertions rather than by sudden and violent ones." I don't think he had trumpet players in mind, but certainly his philosophy brings a balanced perspective and encouragement to all of us given so easily to the frantic, furious, and frenzied approach to life. Last minute cramming of excerpts rarely works.

John Piper in Roots of Endurance writes that a "coronary" Christian is better than an "adrenal" Christian. Too many bursts of adrenaline produce let downs. Great surges of energy are usually followed by great downward spikes. The "coronary" life style on the other hand, is marked by consistency. Regular dependable behavior is the heart beat of the latter, and he definitely has the endurance advantage. And that is one of the must-haves for trumpet players.

Thinking about marathons: A music career is indeed a marathon and requires enormous discipline. Remember the childhood story of the tortoise and the hare? Nothing wrong with talent, speed, and great instincts, but both runners require disciplined training in order to survive the long haul. Daily distractions are not likely to deter the runner who consistently focuses on his game.

Be patient and not weary in daily well-doing. Rewards of persistence are down the road. Skills are not perfected in one or two lessons. A regular agenda of doing what is required will pay off. I might add that it demands more than a mere punching the time clock. The goal is learning to enjoy working towards the mastery of the skills of our profession.

Disappointments, struggles, and even failures are part of the journey. Expect days that are cold and prickly. The goal is not just about your check list. Remember your passion for making great music. Isn't that where your race began? That drive not only empowers your practice of disciplines, but gives you the benefit of enjoying your run.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Just Gimme Five!

How reliable are you at starting? Are you like a sluggish lawn mower requiring several sputtering chugs to get going? Or are you like a prize race horse at the start of the Kentucky Derby chomping at the bit and ready to bolt? ("They're off!)

Most of us feel that we can compete with the great ones once we get going, when we are good and ready. "Wait. Give me half a dozen false starts, and then I'm good." Wrong.

Unfortunately, the audition committee doesn't have that kind of time, and the audience didn't pay big bucks to hear us eventually get it right by the tenth try. So the bar suddenly is raised a bunch. Nail it now, or don't bother! The reality is that all of our bullets count. There are no practice rounds allowed! That's why your first notes matter. The Cleveland guys years ago would aim at picking up the horn cold and being able to play the week's hardest lick perfectly.

Look at your trumpet, resting there in your left hand. In the course of your music demands, it must morph into a high powered rifle, or even an AK47. Cool! Keep watching though and before your very eyes it becomes a sharp needle deftly inserting itself into a mosaic of percussion and screaming woodwinds. Next it camouflages itself to blend back into the winds (our least favorite assignment!). Whether it's a blunder bust belch, or a soft wispy moment, we must be on it. Our conductor is Jack Bauer yelling at us "DO IT NOW!"

Target practice, anyone? How about playing only the first five seconds of each passage? For audition preparation, just start the very beginning of each excerpt, capturing immediately the correct mood, articulation, intonation, rhythm, dynamics, etc. Nail it from the get go.

A weary audition committee might only listen to your first few notes before returning to their magazines. You can win with great entrances! Remember, don't finish anything for now, just start it! You're not running the mile, just getting a good jump off the starting blocks. How many times can you nail it with almost no prep time? You will soon become a quick-draw musical machine!

Friday, January 21, 2011

More Valuable Than a Chair

It was August at Interlochen in 1965 at the National Music Camp. I had managed to maintain my first chair status in the Band and Orchestra in spite of weekly tryouts and challenges to my reign. Week after week the defiant challengers had been successfully beaten back only to slink back to their lowly ranks at the bottom of the section. Competition was intense and our emotions were definitely very much involved. After all, this was war, dog-eat-dog, survival of the best, etc. Such was our mindset for better and for worse.

Well the day eventually arrived. Perhaps a little over-confident and under-prepared, I was dethroned by a better-prepared and fired-up challenger. With eyes closed and a show of hands, the verdict was announced: "MOVE HIM DOWN TO THE SECOND CHAIR." Surely, the voting had been rigged! What could they have been thinking or hearing? Such humiliation! How could life go from so very good to horrible in a single moment? Just like that there was no joy in Mudville. I had struck out and life might as well have been over forever.

As I had apparently been unable to conceal my pouting bitter attitude, one wise conductor on the staff took me aside to give some advice that was far more important than sitting first chair that week. "Phil, no matter where you sit, it doesn't change how you play. Give someone else a chance and don't worry about it." The lesson was one that helped my return to some stability that week, and also would echo as a reminder for similar struggles in the future.

A seating change perhaps showed me a lot about who I really was. Emotional stability and self worth does not depend on the position we occupy, for we are more valuable than a chair. Our identities are so easily linked to our achievement. In fact, humility and teamwork are probably learned better by playing second fiddle. I have observed that often the real heroes are the section players.

Life is full of bitter defeats, but they can provide the very lessons we must learn and could learn no other way. Someone said, "If mountains were smooth, no one could climb them."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nachos or Machos?

What do Clark Kent and Fred Flintstone have in common? Did you know they were both trumpet players? Which appears to be the best? Hard to tell?

Physical conditioning alone doesn't determine musical excellence. It's true that there are many larger than life heralding heroes. And it often appears that bigger is better. Some would even boast that the success of big cheese trumpet machos is in all those huge helpings of cheese nachos!

With that said, an honest look at the demands of trumpet playing might lead us to another conclusion. Considering the athletic demands of our profession, it makes sense that training includes attention to the physical as well as the musical. Yes for sure, musical determination can trump physical obstacles, but why put even heavier demands on ourselves?

We spend big bucks for instruments and equipment, but do little to strengthen the player. Why not pay attention to more than fingers, lips, and tongues? With the goals of greater efficiency, endurance, and control, it makes sense to lighten our load to make the job as easy as possible.

Let's shed the baggage that holds us back, and prepare to run the race in great shape. Strengthen the messenger. SUPERMAN RULES!

Energize your Playing

Looking for something to freshen up your playing? Here is something that is sure to help. It's not about better articulation, better intonation, or better dynamics. Have you tried energizing the rhythms? When you insist on accurate rhythmic spirit, you will likely notice all the above will improve. Rhythmic character also makes your playing a lot more fun for your listeners. If they have to listen to you, they might as well enjoy themselves. If you aren't enthusiastic about your playing, they won't be either.

Take the first movement of the Halsey Stevens Sonata for example. Better than being satisfied by offering an impressive display of notes, you could seek to grab listeners' attention with snazzy, snappy rhythmic character. Even with all systems operating perfectly, your performance will only be average if your rhythm does not have some sparkle to it. You can deliver an accurate deadpan, low energy rendition, or you can command attention and win prizes. Improved rhythm always makes a better product. Whatever you notice in the music, fast or slow, reflect it with good rhythm.

The Kennan Sonata is another one that gives you a chance to capture the audience from the very first note. With no long extraneous intros to wait through, it's just breathe and blow up a storm, but keep it steady. Obeying all the speed change signs is tricky but worth your extra attention.

Another obvious opportunity for instant rhythmic involvement is the Tomasi Concerto. Immediately, you are thrown right into some flashy whimsical fanfares. It's like the uncorking of a wine bottle, or a sudden burst of firecrackers. How about the The Hindemith Sonata, famous for that steady unrelenting pulse. Establish the pace, breathe deeply, release the tongue and enjoy the ride.

Great rhythm should be automatic and contagious. The audience is there to catch it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Release the Artist!

(ramblings of a fellow frustrated trumpet player fraternity member)

Do you ever feel like your trumpet seems to get in the way of what you're trying to do? You know how the music is supposed to sound, but your trumpet always has other ideas. Why is it that the great artist-performer in us is so easily silenced by technical demands? At the first sign of trouble we forget about our mission. Our trumpet wins while our artistry never even gets to make an appearance.

The trumpet loves to play with your mind. It looks up at you sarcastically and threatens, "Don't even think about enjoying this music, or about injecting any drama. Oh no! You must first conquer that long list of technical issues that you carry around every day. I suggest that you wax eloquently at some more convenient time." And we buy it!!

You look down and grumble back with clenched teeth, "I'd be a fabulous trumpet player if it weren't for having to deal with you and your many flaws. You cost me a fortune and all you do is squelch my tone, pinch my chops, and thwart my marvelous music-making abilities! If it weren't for you I'd be an awesome player! If I still have any semblance of a creative artist remaining in me, it's certainly no thanks to you. And by now any instincts of musicianship must have been permanently dwarfed!" By day's end the artist lies bound and gagged while alas, our trumpet has won again!

Ironically our greatest challenge does not lie with the instrument but in learning to let the music out of the instrument. Music should motivate mastery. Technique is merely a servant. Somewhere deep inside you resides a great singer impatiently waiting to be released. Just start giving the commands, and out will flow stunning, crowd-pleasing performances. This must be our battle plan each day. Good luck with that!

(Speaking of singers - Oh to have been a voice major! The vocalist doesn't have to clean his instrument, oil it, shine it, grease it, repair it, ship it, or stow it. In fact, no one can even see it, and it costs a singer nothing to get one! What a deal!)

Trumping the Nerve Giant

Lurking behind the curtains or perched high on the catwalks, our old nemesis the Nerve Giant resides. Sneering silently, he watches for each contestant to make his and her way to the front of the stage. Today is audition day, and he is having himself a good old time. At just the right moment, he begins to make his moves on each unsuspecting victim. Quickly he pounces and inflicts his debilitating tactics on as many as he can. Strangely, he is never seen, but surely felt.

His first task is to suck up all of the oxygen from the stage, rendering normal breathing nearly impossible. Next he instills crippling fear as evidenced by those nasty involuntary lip, finger and knee tremors. The right hand then begins to clutch the valves, causing them to stick uncharacteristically. No matter how many times the spit valve is nervously emptied, nothing comes out! We have no air, no condensation, and no sound.

He effectively renders the confident, disconsolate. Our snarling excerpt enemy then retreats to the darkest corner, preparing to eliminate his next victim. His goal is to hear this verdict from the personnel manager at the end of the day: "Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we do not have a winner. We will have to hold more auditions sometime in the future." The phantom of the auditions howls from on high.

Fortunately, this all-to-familiar scenario has a very potent remedy. The Nerve Giant can definitely be defeated. He is vulnerable. It takes some time and resolve, but it can be done. In fact, he can be made to work for the contestant, not against him.

Many have suggested that the antidote is AIR. But no, this is only a tool. AIR by itself isn't enough to kill the beast. The best weapon against the Nerve Giant is PURPOSE. That is, an unshakable confidence in the message about to be delivered. If PURPOSE has become strong enough, and has been time-tested, it makes the contestant virtually invincible. Nerves only intensify the resolve. And when accompanied by a sufficient supply of AIR, there is no giant too scary, no part too high, no valley too low. Strong PURPOSE marshals all body parts to function in harmony, summoning enough adrenaline, concentration, and artistic instincts to get the job done regardless of nerve pressures. PURPOSE RULES!