Monday, November 26, 2007

Building Sky Scrapers

O.K., your piccolo has been basically a dust collector in that huge bag o' horns which you've been lugging about campus for a long time. Now it's time to take it out and get it ready for daily use. A thorough cleaning is always good starting therapy. There is something about a clean horn that is positive, sort of like the new beginning on January 1st.

Next, with valves and slides working you're ready for the laying of some good sound foundations. Nice and easy notes below and in the staff must become your automatic, secure, home territory. You will depend upon those great basic low and mid range notes as you launch slowly upwards.

Noodle around in that safe range, and don't stray! Make good friends with all of the notes in that range. Rest often, and return again to your safe haven. Stay low and don't try to get high! Blow straight into the mouthpiece, no over-biting. Keep it natural. While you're at it, play in tune. The audience doesn't care that it's a piccolo. You will have to match the organ, strings, and others who will support you. Clear tone, good intonation, and no squeezing, at least not yet.

Gradually extend the range to C or D only. Up and down with scales, Clarke patterns, little harmless melodies, NO BACH. Rest often. Your goal: easy release of air, total control of attacks, sound, entrances and intonation. Insist on all of these. A weak foundation will create problems for the upper floors.

Try to look like it's not a big deal. A deadpan approach is the plan. Great sound, very little work. The work will come later. We want to postpone the work for way up there, not down here. Support well, but don't over-support. Just flow the air through as easily as possible. Blow without the trumpet, then copy that.

Your foundation shouldn't take much time to lay. You already know how to play. Just secure the bottom of the structure. Soon your building will be noticed from afar. For now, you plug away at ground level. Add a brick at a time, a note every few days, no spikes. Put on your hard hat and get to work. Actually, think of it as your easy hat. Soon it will be your high hat.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Ultimate Trumpet Teacher

Are great trumpet players born, or do they acquire their skills? If so, where? What city, what school, and who are their teachers? What is the magic formula, the secret button, or the special equipment? How does fame happen?

Maybe it's the environment. It is said that being around greatness breeds greatness, and skills can be absorbed by osmosis. Take enough lessons, attend enough concerts, and travel to every brass conference, and then maybe it will all come together. Or, I know. It must be intense and careful listening that eventually sends fabulous notes soaring out the bell. Or is it the incredible amounts of practicing? Is it all or non of the above? Either talent is there or it isn't. Which is it?

My high school guidance counselor suggested that I ask my trumpet teacher if he thought I should go into music, and if I was good enough to pursue it. The reply from my teacher, "You go tell your guidance counselor that nobody can determine that. It is up to you how much you want to make of it. And further more, he said, it's not where you go (to college), but how inspired you are to work hard.

Wherever you go, there you are. You take your abilities, dreams, and determination with you. The best university music department cannot guarantee your success. And the loneliest uninspiring location cannot hold back one who is bent on developing great musical instincts. So the externals can prompt and stir creative juices, but it is that which lies within that determines our course.

When it comes right down to identifying the greatest influence on our musical journey, it is the player himself who must ultimately be his own best teacher. There are only so many hours of lessons one can take. Teachers can only hold our hands for so long, and then we are left to ourselves. The hours we spend alone with the trumpet far exceed all other stimuli. The successful player is the one who soon learns to instruct himself, and who is able to maintain his motivation. The training wheels are eventually removed, and we must confidently ride alone. Some learn this quickly. Others catch on in time, but some never learn.

The good news is in recalling all the instructions we've received and the wealth of how-to information available. Vacchiano used to say, "Nowadays we trumpet players know too much to make a mistake." Our job is to put to practice all we've learned, and begin to implement it into our playing.

Monday, November 12, 2007


There is some very fine playing happening with CCM trumpet students lately. Solos, orchestral work, and small ensembles can be heard, as well as the daily grind of etudes, scales, and arpeggios. With recital season starting up after the holidays, there will be plenty of must-hear performances. Breaks are never really breaks when huge requirements lurk on the other side of vacation, so no one will be straying too far from the horn.

As pieces are starting to take shape, I was reminded of the simple requirements we have as performers. You can count on one hand the elements that need to be there for a successful performance. Of course there is good pitch, sound quality, musical phrasing, dynamic interest, steady tempos, and the right sense of style. But if you could only practice one thing, what would it be? I say start with producing a bunch of clean, polished, nice-sounding notes. In fact, forget the bunch, and start with just a few great-sounding notes.

Now attach a junk-note filter to your bell so that nothing bad can get out. Actually, that filter should be clipped onto your mouthpiece so that nothing bad gets in! No, in reality it begins before that, in your brain. That's where those great notes must start. Great music begins well before it is heard. Then you have something to play.

The next step is to slow the music way down, and listen. No bumps or stuffy notes are allowed. Insist on preparing each note for recording. Get it smooth, in tune and listenable and it will sell. A bunch of junk won't.

Audition committees are looking for a few good players. If you can get used to producing quality with small assignments, you'll have a good chance at the same success with larger ones. It begins by polishing one note at a time.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

When the Sky Falls

What is it about trumpet playing that it can be so very, very good one day, and so very, very bad the next day? Or at least it feels that way. If I had the answer to that universal brass stumper, I could retire and make millions. I've got the retired part. Now for a stab at an answer, and then the millions.

When life is good behind the mouthpiece, heaven surely must be smiling too. But when the chops rebel and send up the retreat flag, it seems as if the sky is falling and there is no place to run for help. We sit staring at the music stand with a beat up embouchure while those pages of music glare back at us unsympathetically. In just one day the joy of playing can quickly turn into worry over even being able to get the notes. Because injuries happen, major and minor, learning from them is vital.

Two things to consider. One is the I-told-you-so review of what brought on the problem. Some abuse must have been going on the day(s) before. Examination should include a careful look at the warm up, adherence to basic correct playing, the hours on the face, and the general approach. Probably in the heat of the musical battles there was little or no attention paid to good fundamentals. I remember how much fun it was blasting away in our high school marching band. It was great to be able to contribute to the thrills on the field, but having swollen lips for the next three days was no fun all. All the adrenaline and inspiration in the world is no protection from injury. In fact, too much of it is most likely the problem. The tendency to overdo it when everything seems to be working is usually the main cause of injury.

Just as important as seeing what went wrong is organizing what to do to avoid repeated damage. A couple of suggestions learned the hard way: stop when it feels good; rest often; relax hands and upper body; don't give 110% so often; eliminate lip dominance by making something else take the majority of the workload; and avoid stoppage of air at the lips. Strive for less quantity, and more quality. Balance loud with lots of soft, and always play with tomorrow in mind. Supply and demand is the rule for air flow. Air is our fuel for the journey. We don't want to get stranded.

A stoic mind-over-matter approach needs to be wisely balanced with taking good care of your equipment. The lips must be able to produce not just for one big concert, but for a whole career. Fortunately, the body heals in time, and those storm clouds eventually get blown away.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Working Less

Many times it felt like we were racing past scenery at break neck speeds, muscling through Arban characteristics, plowing ahead on Sachse transpositions, and heroically taking on Haydn, Hummel, Hindemith, or whatever solo we could get our chops on. Life was fun. We played all day, went to dinner, and came back for more punishment! Youth and inspiration is a great combination.

"What do you want to hear today? I can play anything." That was the mindset for those early years as we students elbowed our way past each other out of school and into jobhood. It was mind over chops and passion over patience. I'm reminded of the famous line in that old Cagney movie? - "Look at me, Ma, I'm on top of the world!" Never mind that in the very next scene he crashed and burned.

Like young Cagney, most students could use a healthy dose of that conquering attitude. A daily purpose-driven agenda is a must for any student attempting to someday shed that label. But there soon comes a time when the student discovers that his chops can't lick the world forever. One of my teachers claimed that those Julliard trumpet heroes could sound just as good as any pro, but only on their good days. The pro understands pacing, efficiency and reliability. Trumpet playing is about sounding good tomorrow too. For survival there needs to be a transition to maturity in a hurry, and the sooner the better.

A few quick thoughts on achieving long-lived dependability: Try to stay fresh, and don't burn out every time you practice. Don't be sweating everything. There's always plenty of sweaty passages in every performance. Reduce excessive embouchure movements. Avoid chewing notes. Keep any motion minimal and internal. Upper body should be as relaxed as possible, including fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, even eyebrows. Rest more often than you want. Simulate life on the stage. Hot licks must be ready, but they are usually kept on hold for long periods of time.

Air circulation must be natural and sufficient for what's required. I have an old profile picture of Herseth playing. I call it "breathing for dummies." It has an arrow beginning deep in his lungs, proceeding up through his throat, out the embouchure and into the lead pipe. It is a simple illustration on how to blow the trumpet. You take a breath, and then you release it into the instrument! Why do we make it so difficult?! So often we compress the air and cause a bottleneck at the lips, and then we wonder why tension comes out.

Our goal: sound great and work less.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Conquering the Disease

Ever hear of that hidden disease that can thrive for years in musicians' brains? It can become well entrenched in time, and very cleverly avoids detection by its carrier. The smoke screen is, "Don't think too much or you'll come down with an acute case of paralysis-through-analysis." We soon become convinced that trying to perfect minute details is a waste of time. Too much attention to all of those tiny specifics just might kill the spirit of our performance. Don't distract me with things I don't hear. Besides, it takes time and it's fatiguing. I'm just going to breathe, blow, and try to get through it, we claim.

Some truth lies in that argument. After all, the big picture is our concept of the forest, not the leaves. Maybe the don't-bother-me-with-details approach works for the one-in-a-thousand who is so gifted and instinctive that he never needs to work out problems. But it's likely that such a cavalier nonchalant trumpet player never existed, although we are supposed to convince ourselves and the audience otherwise. Carefree playing demands a lot of careful work.

To think that great trumpet playing will just eventually happen is like thinking that skyscrapers will just appear. Every polished product was first a work in progress. The building of a Petroushka, a Pictures, or a Mahler 5 is like a construction job site. Every piece must be cut, crafted, and fitted exactly according to the blue-print. Enjoying the finished product depends upon precision. Quality control must happen at all stages en route to performance. Everywhere you turn, labor over details happened. The building of effortless, accurate trumpet playing doesn't develop over night. Each facet takes time, and requires the effort of a detail guy, you.

Assembling a nice ballerina's dance requires that each phrase be perfected. It is possible. There aren't that many notes, only 163 to be exact. We just lack the mindset to break it apart, clean it up, and begin the slow process of putting it together. If hard-hat guys in construction can do it, why can't trumpet players?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Tie-Breaker

Mock trumpet auditions today at CCM. Four competitors played Leonore 3, Pictures, Scheherazade, Academic, Mahler 5, and Petroushka, six must-haves needed to advance to round two. There was some fine playing by each one. Written and spoken critiques followed, along with the desire to get another shot at it, which is a good sign. Another couple of at-bats, odds are, will produce a hit or two, maybe even a home run. And that's the point, learning to belt out a lot of hits under pressure.

Lessons learned: need for control in spite of nerves, accuracy, steady rhythm, clarity of articulation, intonation, control of dynamic extremes, ability to make an impression, and the rest of the usual list of things that all of us always need to work on. Nobody plays perfectly, and it's nice to remember that everyone is in the same boat. However, the struggle is to see who can get out of the boat first! First one out wins!

A review in the Enquirer of last week's Chicago Symphony concert had a few phrases that caught my attention. There were some high praises for the principal cello solo as well as a comment about the oboe playing that seemed to be just what we were discussing briefly in our mock auditions today. It was said that the cello solo showed "immense sweetness of tone and warmth of expression", causing the piano soloist "to grin from ear to ear the whole time." About the oboe: "it was the most relaxed lyrical oboe solo ever heard."

Now of course, nobody expects trumpet playing to be only about lovely, relaxed lyricism. We must have our killer-instinct helmets ready for battle on a moment's notice. By the way, isn't it interesting that composers usually depend on those in the rear of the orchestra when those visceral statements are required? Maybe the demands on the brass are greater than those of our woodwind and string colleagues as far as extremes are concerned. But, even in those high decibel visceral climaxes, there must be a core of enormous quality of sound. Regardless of dynamics, that sound must be noticed by critics and be able to make headlines in concert reviews.

It's difficult to pinpoint one single quality that wins auditions. But maybe high on the list would be sound and the ability to make an impression on the listeners that distinguishes the best candidate from the rest. Most will make mistakes, but the one who is accurate and sends the best overall message has the best chance of winning. Quality is that tie-breaker.