Monday, December 28, 2009

Fifths and Tonics

"Six years of college and now I've gotta play this - a hand full of isolated peeps, pops, and poops? Bring on some Mahler, Strauss, or Stravinsky, but not a whole week of Haydn and Mozart! All of my training, and all I get to show for it is a bunch of tonic and dominant. Give me a break." Have we not all thought that at some point?

A modest portion of fifths and octaves may often be all you'll see for a week or longer, so you might as well settle in and get comfortable. Look at it this way, with so few notes to play, you'll be saving on valve oil. You could probably even leave your third valve at home, and maybe the second as well! Your handicapped horn could be quite the conversation starter during rehearsals! In fact, you may be thinking, "why not just bring a bugle to work?"

Don't be thinking that this repertoire is without its challenges. In many ways Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart can be more difficult than a Bruckner symphony or Strauss tone poem. With nowhere to hide and little room for error, your ability to blend, your intonation and control are on display big time. This music quickly separates the ok from the great players. Myron Bloom used to say that playing Mozart is the best way to learn control.

Although we may only play five, six or seven different pitches all night, we must control all of them perfectly. We act as percussion and reinforce points of melodic lines. We'll get our one or two shining moments, but mostly we are to behave behind the scenes as energetic helpers for the winds and strings. We're seldom in the spotlight, but if we do poorly, all will notice. Let's consider ourselves artistic surgeons, drummers with a skilled touch, and graceful swordsmen.

Enough grumbling and dreaming. How about practicing a good portion of your sessions with Mozart on your mind. Play softer, in tune, and don't play so much. Play many isolated high notes, yes lots of peeps and pops, but no poops, just good clean shortish notes. Control intonation even on individual eighth notes, well spaced and in perfect rhythm. Play long whole notes softly with diminuendos, followed by repeated eighth notes a beat apart. Do all things as if auditioning for a Mozart/Haydn orchestra. Play effortlessly and accurately. Make it a game. Can you play just a few Mozart-style notes perfectly? How about wearing a white wig to rehearsals? Nah.

Get the librarian to let you have a sneak peek at any of the Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven Symphony trumpet parts. Play exactly what's on the page. There's a nice groove to this style of orchestral playing. Learn to fit in and enjoy. You'll be longing for this kind of a break after a long Mahler week. It's the perfect reset therapy after long blows. The fun for trumpets in Mozart is finesse, rather than force. Tonics and dominants matter.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Second-Class Music?

Why is it that you etudes are always restricted to the practice room? That's the only place we ever hear you! Seems like you can never find your way onto the recital stage. Too bad, because some of you are way too good just to be practiced and shelved. You should have an audience. But no, you are destined to remain lowly etudes with no titles, only a number, prisoners in the music world, and to be stashed away in trumpet students' lockers.

Rarely are you considered artistic. You are only an assignment on the professor's to-do list. You simply occupy space in a book, and only one page at a time, no more no less. You are an uninspired piece of boredom. You function merely as a project for the featured key of the week, or for your 12 lines of nonstop triple tonguing. Don't even think about inspiration or fame. We've heard the Bach Cello Suites, and you're no suite.

Let's liberate some deserving etudes from performance quarantine. Instead of the usual recital fillers, how about finding some gems from the etude world that ought to have a hearing, and giving them some respect. Here are just a few possibilities:

Bitsch - 20 Etudes. #1 could be a flashy opener. #17 is expressive and lyric. #20 is cool played in one, with a loud straight mute. You could combine three or four or more of these etudes together. Think of your own titles for each movement. These will be more inspiring as you think of performing them. Give each a story of some sort.

Caffarelli - 100 Etudes for transposition has a good supply of musical possibilities. #66, 40, and 70 are favorites. Even the Sachse - 100 Studies for transposition has a few. You could have a transposition feature on your recital including a selection of contrasting styles all transposed in different keys. Amaze your professor with your initiative and creativity! Who says you can't be musical and transpose at the same time?!

Reynolds - 48 Etudes for Trumpet has many nasty studies that you may prefer to keep in the practice room. There are several however that you could group together as an unaccompanied solo work on your next recital. Consider mutes too. If you are inclined, you might consider writing piano, percussion, or whatever accompaniment you like.

Tap the etude literature for solo possibilities. Audiences usually have to attend, so let's keep it entertaining, challenging and creative.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hard Lessons

Some of the most difficult lessons we must learn are not about endurance, sight-reading, or transposition. Those are relatively easy. More challenging are those unexpected humiliations inflicted by people and situations out of our control. They can stifle the very reason we want to do what we do. It could be criticism, energy-draining attitudes, or any unforeseen scenario that threatens our confidence. Learning to expect them and to deal positively with them is crucial.

Criticism can be our best teacher. When we bristle and get offended, there likely is some truth to it. We would do well not to react, but to improve. Use criticism as motivation for the next practice session. A hard to please teacher or conductor may be just what you need to make you a better player and person.

Prepare yourself for any negative attitude before it comes. It may be yours or your neighbor's. It's still dangerous because it is poisonous. Your passion for playing must be strong enough to withstand the disgruntled, the discouraged, and the critical. Counter with good playing, not anger. Let it develop in you strength and leadership. It is not your clever cutting reply, but the quality of your playing that will speak loudest and inspire others to follow.

Adverse playing conditions are arguably the hardest obstacle. Sounding great with no help means you are able to sound great with no help! A cello soloist I know used to practice in the winter with the window wide open. In the hot weather he closed all doors and windows and put on a heavy coat. No bad hall was going to get to him. Whether it's a gym or a closet, there you are, and you must sound great.

Ours is a coddled generation demanding the easy way with constant pats on the back. Politically correct thinking so prevalent today is that no one fails, and everyone wins. We insulate ourselves from hard reality, so that the truth smarts when it finally comes. Learn to take the hits so that your great music will thrive anywhere.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What Christmas Song . . . .

a. has a descending major 7th? Hint: "have your . . . ."

b. has four consecutive descending thirds? Hint: M3, m3, M3, m3

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Daily Lesson with Ernest Williams

Who was Ernest Williams, and why do we hear so little about him today? His Modern Method is sadly becoming a lost treasure. Some have preferred it to the Arbans Method. He was one of the greats in the trumpet and cornet playing world way back in the 20th century. Mr. Williams was as competent a teacher as he was a performer. He also was Director of the Ernest Williams School of Music, conductor of his University Symphonic Band, teacher at Juilliard, principal trumpet under Stokowski in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and renowned cornet soloist with the Goldman Band under Goldman himself.

My first teacher, a pupil of his, lectured us kids about the great Mr. Williams at every lesson. We were respectful of course, but what did we know? We did benefit however from strict adherence to his well-organized approach to technique-building. We were forbidden from practicing solos until the daily regimen of scales was completed. I'm sure my parents knew well every page of his book, and when I graduated from high school they must have been relieved that all of those scales, arps, and chroms would finally be leaving our N.J. home.

I like his repeated instruction between each chromatic line on page 155. "Do not attempt to play the following line until the preceding line sounds pure and free." Today it could be said many ways. "Do not even think about continuing until you go back and fix what you just messed up." Or, "Dude, NO!" Mr. Williams' effective one-sentence lesson can still stop us in our messy tracks. Repeated furious and out-of-control attempts are never useful. Being the gentleman that he was, I can imagine him calmly saying: "Slow down. Listen, and control what you are doing, one note at a time. It must sound pure and free."

Let's listen in as he might have given instruction for a student beginning work on the Honegger Intrada. I can imagine him demanding that the first two notes be connected and clear before climbing up to the F at the top of the phrase. "Play just the first four notes cleanly, connected and in tune. Good. Add two more. You may now attempt four more notes and continue only if you can maintain control and quality." As soon as the notes begin to come faster than they can be controlled, he suddenly interrupts, "Do not proceed until the preceding notes sound pure and free!"

What great advice! Mr. Williams' one sentence can be our daily lesson. Enough said.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Playing for a Living?

It seems like we struggle with half of our brains tied behind our backs, and yet wonder why our trumpet-playing is more boring than rewarding. We go about our days cleaning, dusting, mopping, scrubbing, polishing and maybe even doing a thorough job of it. Yet half of our brain often lies dormant as our most productive weapon is bound and gagged. The Seven Dwarfs seemed to have learned this lesson in spite of their handicapped temperaments. They "Whistled While They Worked" and sang "Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go!" Can that fantasy become reality?

Our assignments involve lots of technique work for sure. You can't avoid a thorough focus on basic issues of playing even for a single day. But how can they become a welcome challenge without a total meltdown of musical enjoyment? That's the difficulty.

This is not about being an obnoxious Pollyanna in the workplace, but rather in the practice room. The secret to a rewarding music career is learning to enjoy the work (as much as possible.) For example, can octave work also be considered a musical project? Can arpeggios be artistic? Must all scales only function as wallpaper designs in a score? How about slow warm-up slurs? Do they have to be a-musical? Where does it demand that all very high notes must sound strained and too loud? Does intonation-fixing have to be musically void? Are static notes useful in recitals? Can concerto work be more than an accuracy contest? Is it possible to transpose and sound good at the same time?

You've heard it said about some players that they did not seem to have a musical bone in their bodies? For others, it seemed that they could not play an unmusical note even if they tried! It must be a matter of developing musical instincts. A rewarding music career is not just about an awesome technique, or a beautiful expressive tone. A successful musician, no matter what the venue, is one who learns to enjoy working musically on a daily basis. Without the fun, it is only a job. Play for a living.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Are You Hireable?

The defining questions in the minds of the audition committee: "Can we hire this person? Do we want to listen to him/her every day? Will the maestro go for this kind of playing?" Of course there are also those usual matters of sound quality, intonation, blendability, and musicianship. Those must all be givens, but are any stand-out qualities being communicated? In short, what will be their instinctive reaction upon hearing you? Deal or no deal?

Never mind the audition scenario. Let's visit your practice room. Would the committee want to offer you a nice contract based on what they heard outside your practice room today? Is your practice marketable? Will your notes sell? Or as Erich Kunzel asked a new young arranger on his first job, "Hey, kid. Are you any good?" (He was about to find out!)

Why not begin your next practice session with the mindset that all that you are about to play matters? You are being listened to and evaluated. Don't freak. Just enjoy why you're there. If you don't, they won't. Purify your notes and clean them up. Prime time may be nearer than you think. Very nice performances can happen in the practice building. Why not amaze your friends!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Flying Safely Under the Radar

Most trumpet players don't have trouble being heard. Problems tend to happen when we have to not be heard! Owning the stage is not always our job description as much as it is to blend and get out of the way. Remaining relatively unnoticed is often our most difficult assignment. Can you do it?

Performance in low decibels does not mean playing with low intensity. Soft does not mean boring, tense, or tentative. The trick is to perform comfortably and agreeably in all dynamic ranges. (Oh, to always be at home, home in the range.)

Imagine that you are a great operatic tenor-in-training, just itching to belt out your favorite romantic aria. However, instead of the concert stage, you are on a baby-sitting job with the sleeping child within earshot. You just gotta sing because it's in your blood, but it has to be very soft. Can you do it?

Can you play all the loud licks in pp with equal enthusiasm, spontaneity, and control? Flying under the radar doesn't mean we are certain to crash. It means we still perform with maneuverability, flexibility, and musicality.

Why don't you build a large cut-out of a conductor's big left hand? Fix it to a bobble-head type contraption so that it waves and jerks at you while you practice, insisting that you stop your loud blowings. Get used to it. Our task is to comply and play beautifully no matter how far under the radar we must play. Can you do it?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Trills Matter

Sadly, trills are rarely perfected, but with some meticulous work they can and should be. Trill drill is definitely worth the extra effort. Trills can dazzle your listeners when deftly executed. Your goal is snazzy, spiffy, sparkling clear finger-poppings, performed exactly in time. Even if other details are imperfect, your impressive trills can save the day. There is nothing quite as satisfying as that grandiose, confident and well-executed trill at the conclusion of a great piece of trumpet music!

Sloppy trills however, can drain your energy and bore your listeners. Don't be thinking like a truck driver while your fingers furiously flap away for 8 to 10 beats on a single note. Think "flute, soprano, solo violin, butterfly" or anything that flutters gracefully. Remember: trills are not tremolos, buzzers, or anything Black and Decker. Nice trills have two recognizable pitches, usually a major or minor second apart. And there is a reason that the two notes prior to the resolution are called "grace notes!"

Be sure to monitor your speed. Too often trilling is too fast and too intense. The important note in a trill is the first note. The rest are throw-away and less important (as long as they are decent). The resolution is where you are going. Whether you start above or on the note, make sure it is impressive and clean. Never mind the textbooks, just do it nicely!

To stop the trill or not to stop the trill is the question that is usually answered by convenience rather than conviction. How about Plan A. That is: trill right into the grace notes without stopping. This is a bit harder to do as it involves a lot more coordination, but sounds great. Resolving the trill before the graces is O.K. but still sounds like Plan B.

Once you seem to have mastered trills, prepare them in horribly awkward keys! Since we only need to train 3 fingers, we might as well discipline each of them to work for us in any key.

Note: don't forget that for picc work, the 4th finger needs training too.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Posted Notes

Busy today with no time to carve out a "decent" practice session? Here's a touch-and-go list of items. Better to visit each one briefly rather than let them slip. Remember that although you are rushed, your playing does not have to be sloppy or hurried. In fact, you might be a lot more productive with less time to waste. Note: in the future this might be the norm rather than the exception, so learn to practice getting it done quickly. Caution: don't forget to rest, and remember to vary your dynamics. Include pp! Your goal is not just to get it all covered, but to finish in good shape, ready for anything.

No music needed:
  • LTs w/dims
  • Interval slurs (pick random intervals/play slow, smooth, in tune)
  • Scales (2 octaves - M - m (nat/harm/mel) - soft to loud to soft, and vv
  • Chroms - polished, even, fast
  • Arps - 2 octaves - M - m - A - dim7
  • Flex. - arps leapfrogged (be able to start at the top)
  • TT
  • DT
(Do you ever do the above on your small horns?)

Music needed:
  • Etude fragments
  • Solo movement
  • Transposition
  • Excerpts

Monday, September 28, 2009

Split Personality

A great trumpet player is not unlike a dog. He/she must be comfortable on a tight leash, but also able to break free and attack on a moment's notice. Picture a nice little doggy quietly and obediently roaming around on his leash. Then imagine a pit bull on a fast and viscous mission with no leash at all! Both have gotta be you, nice and sweet, but with your killer instinct always intact.

You must control a gorgeously suave and stealth Schumann 2 on an audition, and turn right around and belt out a belligerent Goldenburg like a hungry dog with a bone. Try to blast that mute right out of the bell and straight at the conductor! You are a well-trained savage, restrained on the one hand, but also able to deliver a cold-blooded pummeling on the other. For example, you can't play Mahler symphonies without great control of soft details as well as being able to nail all of those violent blasting eruptions.

Think about your airstream. It must be so soft and gentle that it can move a spider web without disturbing the spider. Then it must be so forceful and focused that it blows an entire stack of papers off the desk, scattering them all over the room. That's you - a gentle breeze and a ferocious hurricane!

One of your practice goals is to be comfortable in both dynamic zones. You are fast becoming a highly skilled wind machine. Make those boring practice sessions more productive by developing control of extremes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Avoiding Root Canals

It's day #1 on your orchestra gig. Life is good until you open the folder. There you are faced for the first time with Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture with the cornet part in A. Next, you have Tchaikowsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture with the trumpet part in E and F. On the second half is Ein Heldenleben, and you've got the E flat part! Any of these transpositions at first sight in a rehearsal could cause some degree of panic not unlike drilling with no Novocaine. You just don't want to be there, so now is the time to do something about it well before you get the gig.

The remedy for this situation is a good skill in basic transposition. You may think of this as root canal work because it's embarrassing to sound like a beginner when having to transpose something. It's like trying to run with your feet in concrete blocks. But some daily pain in the practice room is far better than humiliation on stage.

So let's keep a Sachse or Caffarelli transposition book on your stand for daily use. If this is your first exposure to this unpleasantness, here are the assignments: Transpose to A, C, D, E flat, E natural and F. Get familiar with these and then you can attack A flat, D flat, G, etc. Begin with easy stuff to gain confidence. How about a key a week?

Remember, you can do most of the grunt work without your horn! The issue is speed from page to brain to fingers, so you can save your chops for now. Try to like this, it is possible. It takes time but it does get easier. Transposition is a skill that is quite doable no matter how you play. Do it and conquer laziness! Not transposing well is a character weakness, not a disability. Daily drills will keep you from the drill.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Visiting Your Local Park Bench

Do you have a favorite quiet spot? Maybe it's a secluded park bench, that Adirondack chair on your deck, or a tree stump next to a creek? Wherever it is, the only requirement is that you do not bring your trumpet to your little hideaway. The trumpet only tends to ruin the party, so leave it home and keep this a fun adventure.

What to bring? All you need is three fingers, your tongue, and your music, excerpts, solos, whatever. No equipment is needed, just you, nature and your natural musical instincts. We are going to perfect our input before it hits the horn. You must put quality in before you can expect a quality product. So begin to refine and energize your message. It must be so disciplined and driven that the horn won't have a fighting chance to resist. It will simply have to obey and cooperate with you.

Your goal is to get your tongue and fingers on the same page, or rather on the same note! They are often at odds with each other. They must become the best of friends. Take Fetes for example. That is a great exercise for our basic training. Both the tip of your tongue and the tips of the fingers of your right hand must articulate perfectly together. All four must be very athletic and coordinated. They must march in time. Sit there until you have them working together in perfect rhythm. Fingers are not allowed to fly high over the valve caps, nor are they allowed to flop sloppily over the top of the valves. It's about tips. You may use your left hand knuckles for valves.

Another favorite is Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. The whole piece is fair game for our boot camp, not just the opening. Begin slowly making sure the "T" of your tongue perfectly lines up with the "attack" of your fingers. Hey, good news! You only need to train two fingers for the opening! Only once will your third finger need to join in! Begin slowly, and eventually take this way faster than you'll ever need. How fast can you go and keep your "little attackers" in sync?

While you're at it, train the "K" as well as the "T". You will notice that your K is much more efficient when it is closer to your teeth. T and K must be good friends and must sound alike. Bring your sluggish K up to speed right there in the privacy of your articulation training zone.

Visit your "local park bench" regularly. Nobody will notice your mistakes but you. After a few intense and disciplined sessions, you will be able to amaze your friends. Remember, this is way more productive than a whole bunch of mindless blastathons. Brain beats blow any day.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Fred Mills Remembered

In the corner of a small room at Giardinelli's, Fred Mills sat patiently with me for a good hour as I struggled to find my next trumpet. He was very quiet but attentive, only offering brief advice when asked. Finally running out of steam, I asked if he would like to play them. Without any warm up he instantly played several very impressive and well-focused arpeggios, rendered his verdict, and handed the best horn back to me. I remember feeling like I had been hurling tons of mud at a brick wall. Fred just nailed it in less than a minute by skillfully throwing a dart at the bulls eye for me.

Some are talkers. Fred was a listener. In the few times I met and spoke with Fred, I remember him as a modest man who was always more interested in how you were doing than keeping you up to date on his own activities. When speaking of himself, it was always understated. I was impressed with him as a person and of course as a giant in the business. His terrific playing in the Canadian Brass spoke for itself. He seemed to get even better with time. An amazing list of accomplishments follows him.

An enormous amount of experience, wit, and friendliness was not far beneath that deadpan expression. Fred died in a car accident in Athens, Georgia. It was a sudden and very sad loss. He will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Pops Week with Erich Kunzel

It was one of those Tuesday mornings, the start of a ten-service week of the Cincinnati Pops with Maestro Erich Kunzel. There was to be a full complement of rehearsals, three concerts and two recording sessions. Our stands seemed awfully top-heavy with those thick red trumpet folders jammed full of repertoire. We had brought bags o' mutes, extra mouthpieces, and several trumpets all warmed up and ready for action. Approaching Music Hall even an hour early, one could see that his dark blue Mercedes with his EK Maine license plate was already there. Mr. Kunzel was always the first to arrive and the last to leave.

A typical Pops week meant you were going to have to work and play hard, loud and high, soft and sweet. You would be juggling mutes, switching horns, standing and sitting while quickly adjusting the music stand, trying to manage those fast segues from tune to tune, all the while being expected to sound great. Often a three-ringed circus with soloists, dancers, choirs, cloggers, aerialists, flame-throwers, you name it, would be happening right there on our stage. Try to play and concentrate when you and your colleagues were in some crazy costume with cameras in your face. It was literally lights, cameras and lots of action!

One of the most impressive gifts Erich had was his ability to organize and lead a recording session. He was Mr. Efficiency! There we sat looking at the long list of rep for the next three hour session often thinking "there's no way!" But there was a way, and he usually got it all done on time with maybe even a prerecording of some piece for the next album. Every minute of every break was used to quickly assess what needed to be fixed. Dashing from the podium to hear playbacks, he was always on a mission. Erich was great at that, working fast and efficiently under pressure. I always admired that he did not get rattled as the clock was ticking down.

Eventually the busy week would finally end right on the dot with the last tune in the can. With hair bedraggled, shirt wet with perspiration, water bottles empty, and all the scores in a disheveled heap, Erich's work for the week was done, and done very well. "Thank you, everybody!!" he would call, which signaled the official end of the week. Another Pops event had come and gone in its familiar whirlwind fashion. He made you work, but it was fun.

The stage hands would instantly descend onto the stage en mass like scavengers to quickly set up for the next set of rehearsals. String players scattered instantly. The busy librarians would gather up the remains of the week's work on carts like medics picking up the wounded after a battle. The massive amount of Telarc recording equipment would slowly begin to come down to be packed away.

The woodwind instruments would get swabbed and carefully placed back into their cases. The percussion guys would once again begin their long methodical take-down having just used every instrument they owned. There was the occasional murmuring from a few of us brass players, but all the hard work was worth it. We usually finished stronger than we began. Working for Erich was sort of like a high-powered body-building course. There were some aches and pains for sure. But hey, no pain, no gain. How hard could Mahler be after one of Erich's weeks! He made us unstoppable!

I am sure that we did not fully appreciate all that we had in Erich Kunzel's leadership. It was easy to take it for granted when we were accustomed to it for so many years. He began each week with a loud and upbeat "Good morning, everybody!!" He tapped the baton and we immediately began delving into the huge stack of stuff. The week closed with "Thank you, everybody!!" I will never forget those weeks. On August 1st, he conducted his last concert. We will miss him.

Thank you, Erich.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

No Cash for Clunkers!

Playing trumpet is not a sit-back-and-give-it-a-go endeavor. You shouldn't sound like you are lounging on a couch watching TV with your legs crossed. You have to stay on this thing or it rules you. To be a master at it, you must be constantly mastering it. A casual half hearted approach won't get it done. You must tell the horn what to do. If you tell it nothing, that's how you will sound.

Two things are needed in your daily work: a good note and a good phrase of good notes. You need a centered, ringing, vibrant core to each note with no muffling or pinching. Even if slow is the only way you can do this, fine. You can play faster later. Next, you must know what you want to do with your nicely polished notes. They have to do something, go somewhere, say something. Each note must have intensity, direction and drive, not static and decaying boredom. Listen to the opening of Mahler 5, Pictures, Pines, or the Leonore calls. That's your goal: all good notes that make sense fitting into the phrase.

So, this is not brain surgery. All you need to do is play good notes and a good phrase. "No problem. That's what I do", you say? Well, listen again. Chances are you are a bit careless and not used to listening for and expecting first-rate quality from yourself. You don't need a ton of notes, just a few very good ones. Get used to producing top quality sounds even on the first notes of your warm up. You will get paid nicely at the end of the day if 95% of your note-production is juicy, sparkling, rich, resonant, focused and clear! There is no cash for clunkers!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Precious Tools

There you are roaming the aisles of your favorite music store again. You've got enough money to select only two items on your cart? What'll it be? You could go for a nice shiny mouthpiece, that new pricey etude book, a weighted valve cap, a buzzer, or dozens of the latest toys and gadgets.

If I had to choose only two tools that would bring me the best return, I'd go for a metronome and a tuner. Good rhythm and great intonation matters. You may have an awesome sound, admirable high notes or enviable stamina, but if your tempos are unsteady and you're always a bit out of tune, what good is it? How about committing to camp out with these two must-have companions every day and see what happens.

Now don't be complaining about the cost. It's a one-time purchase! You will have just saved yourself the price of many lessons. These miniature teachers will spare you the agony of hearing your professor yell at you for the same two issues lesson after lesson. "Fix your intonation, and please keep it steady!!" Let's put your professors out of business with these little tools. What's more, tuners and metronomes never complain. They just click and point. Some may even flash at you, but they never stamp their foot, or get irritated. Such a deal!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Purpose of Warming Up

The reason for a warm-up is to warm up! It should not be a burn-up or a fired-up session. If you tend to crash, then it is not a warm-up.

I remember one brass player many years ago in another country who warmed up so furiously and for so long, that he had to rest from his warm-up before attempting to play anything on stage! Something was horribly wrong. (He is no longer with us.) I would stand within earshot, and was in shock and awe at the amazing feats that were being attempted as he began his day. He would blow non-stop through dozens of excerpts, hardly pausing to empty the spit, and then proceed to plow through several concertos. My lips would hurt just listening.

Unfortunately his assignment once in the orchestra was nowhere near as demanding. Usually his part only required that he play a limited number of tonic and dominant notes with good intonation and tone. Is that too much to ask? Evidently. He would struggle feverishly and still wonder why his playing on stage never seemed to improve. That which was "too easy" to bother practicing was what he needed most. Often we ignore the obvious.

The purpose of the stage is not to practice or to go through your complete warm-up routine. The audience pays to hear the show, not endless valiant attempts before it starts. Even before rehearsals, the stage is not the forum for repeated trial and error sessions at full volume. As with the private warm-up, discretion rules, for your own preservation and for that of others. Great players shine when it counts.

Whatever method of limbering up works best, do it carefully and wisely. It can include some bold and confident beltings, but it must be balanced with modest samplings of all the stuff you are required to do. You must be prepared to do it all, and then to do it again, concert after concert. Warm up accordingly.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

But Where's the Sizzle?

There you sit in the trumpet doctor's office with your mouth wide open, saying "ahhhh". With his tongue depressor he peers deep inside inspecting for open throat and esophagus. "You're fine. Just checking for unrestricted air flow. By the way, you might want to have those tonsils, wisdom teeth and molars removed. They'll have to go for the sake of your flow."

Next he examines your equipment, piece by piece, first making sure that your deep-cupped mouthpiece is properly bored out to accommodate massive air movement. Your lead pipe also must allow for floods of air traffic. Your rounded tuning crook and the fattest of bells also aids in the mission of huge-is-cool. And why not? Your sound is sweet, luscious, mellow and fat.

Reality often is that in spite of all these very nice adjustments that definitely improve sound and ease of playing, there can be side effects. For instance, you will likely have to deal with flat tops (of phrases), tubby tendency, lack of projection, unstable intonation, less than crisp articulation, and endurance limitations. These usually surface in extended passages, large ensembles, difficult solo works, and high decibel requirements. In short, the horn seems bigger than you are. These problems can be overcome, but at a cost of a lot more effort. Sizzle can happen, but it's hard with a cannon.

In the rush to go for the big sound, be careful not to sacrifice penetration potential, or "pokability". Equipment can be geared for huge sound quality while you shoot for the richest, fattest, most beautiful, gorgeous, velvety sound possible. No problem with that, but make sure to keep it balanced with enough edge. A great sound must have its share of bright highs as well as dark lows and be able to travel farther than a few feet. So whatever your concept or equipment choices, remember you must do it all. Be able to wield the shot put and hurl the javelin, and you're playing is smokin' and sizzlin'!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Your Sparkling Red Shoes

What does Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and the conservatory trumpet student have in common? Hint: It has something to do with Dorothy's shoes. Remember that she had the power and ability to get where she wanted anytime she wished? She just failed to recognize that her ticket out of Oz was at her feet all along - those red sparkly shoes right there in her possession.

Unfortunately, unlike Dorothy, we need more than the wave of an angel's starry wand, or an emotional wish to instantly arrive at our destination. A tough mission is involved, an arduous journey not unlike her assignment to capture the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. The road is treacherous and full of obstacles for sure. We might even have enough courage, heart and brains for the task, but what will take us there? Where are our "magic shoes"?

(HARP GLISSANDI) Why, your ticket out of the conservatory can actually be found right there in your own music case. Yes, it has been there all along! You needn't have looked anywhere else! The pathway is The Yellow Brick Road on which all great trumpet players must travel. I'm afraid there are simply no shortcuts. The secret to greatness is found in a very ordinary but very special book. You have had it with you every day, but have not known it or used it properly.

You must play it correctly however and do exactly what it says, for it has the power to make you into a great trumpet player. Ignore this book and its instructions, and you will remain captive in the Emerald City from which there is no escaping. Your "red shoes" is your very own book entitled Technical Studies by Herbert Clarke. You are now free to use it and find your heart's desire.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Your Cutting Edge

What do you think? Which is more important, being able to produce clear, well-defined fronts of your notes, or having a voluptuous sound? Actually, both are part of the same thing. If it's a quality note, it starts that way.

Like percussion instruments the trumpets must be able to function as rhythm kings. Good drumming is about definition, and so too the brass needs to be clear, energetic and on the beat, not blurry and behind. As attractive as a pleasing tone is, most conductors can be satisfied with clarity and precision from the brass.

We've played the 10-second game before for audition preparation. That is, playing only the first phrase or so of each excerpt in order to gain instant control. Now we need to play the split-second game. That is, play only the very start of the first note, nothing more. A warm up note is not allowed. The first note must be a winner.

Here are a few pictures that might help sharpen up your entrances: the beating of a snare drum, the banging of the glockenspiel with a steel-balled mallet, a pin prick, the uncorking of a wine bottle, the tip of a sharp long thin sword, the tongue of a rattlesnake, the anchor point of a compass, the tip of a syringe, etc. You get the idea. It's about nails, sharp ones. A cotton ball penetrates nothing. Choose a dart. Don't think about the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Think Dracula! Unleash your killer instinct as you perfect the clarity of every note.

So, go ahead and have your nice sound, but put an edge on it and be able to slice it up into tiny pieces able to project well into the audience. Before sauntering onto the stage, catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Frown a bit, stick out your tongue as far as it goes, and bring it to a point. That tiny tip is about to do battle. It's the one instrument that didn't cost you anything, so train it, sharpen it, and use it!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Benefits of Feeling Lousy

You don't have to be inspired to improve, but you do have to be organized and improvement-oriented. If you always wait until you are fired up with your concert face on, you will likely be doing more moping than practicing. Moments of awesome music-making are probably not going to happen every time you open the case. So get used to it, and plan on making improvements regardless of how you feel.

This should be good news. You can build your playing even on a bummer of a day. Feelings don't have to govern progress. Decide what issues need addressing and plan to cover them wisely and consistently. Now, rather than a checklist to complete, your daily goal is improvement and consistency. Your assignment is to get better as fast as possible. If you are not getting better at a noticeable pace, practicing is a waste of your time.

Let's pick at random three typical "issues" that you can work on no matter how good or bad you may be feeling. First, everyone must have a good DT. How about mastering an even double-tongue by next week! Why spend a whole year trying to remove it from your Nemesis List? Fix it now so it is even and clear, with your tongue front-and-center. Get your K to sound like your T. You don't need 20 teachers. Just do it. We have so much material for reference. There is no excuse for faulty tonguing. Lots of dumb players have mastered it, so it is doable.

Next, let's take on the Tubby-Unfocused-Dead-Sound problem. You're most likely dispersing your air stream rather than focusing it on a smaller target. Tighten corners, direct the air straight ahead, no blowing down, and no puffy cheeks. Buzz the mouthpiece at a mirror. Try to pin a $20 bill to the mirror with only your buzzed note! Next, create a nice fog on the mirror with as high a note as you can. Think more Lazar, less tuba. Whatever it takes, you must conquer the TUDS problem. Also, a less heroic, more conservative mouthpiece cup size could make a big difference.

Finally, there is the Universal Fatigue Disease. Make this as uncomplicated as possible. Stop playing before you observe symptoms! Don't go where the disease is rampant. Keep chops healthy. Don't make them work so hard. Develop endurance without getting sick. Build your strength zone instead of venturing into the danger zone every time you play. More brains, less macho. UFD can be avoided. See to it.

Don't feel like practicing? You're missing the point and the chance for progress!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer In Attack Mode

Exams' in the can. The grades are made, and the horn's in the case. Right? Hope not. This is the time for a few months of stress-free uninterrupted practice that can elevate your playing and make you competitive! Put the pressure on. No one else will. It's just you and these summer days.

What do you want conquered by fall? Brandenburg? Start climbing, but be careful. It's a long way up. Don't fall. And don't get hurt!

Excerpts? Listen to the recordings. Listen again. Then listen to recordings.

Piccolo solos? Practice your piccolo. Play mostly other stuff. Master the horn first. Play the solos later. In the meantime, study the solos.

Poor sight-reading? Play a bunch from the Develop Sight-reading book. You can work on this without the horn probably better than with it. Either way, do it and don't ignore it. You must do this very well on any playing job.

Limited solo rep? Stack your stand with 20 or more solos. Organize your plan of attack and begin.

Horribly slow transposition? Make friends with the 100 Studies of Sachse and Caffarelli. Put the horn down and work the fingers. The problem is page-to-brain, and brain-to-fingers. The lips don't have to transpose.

Crummy attacks? Do thousands of starts. Maybe millions and millions.

Wavy, out-of-control vibrato? Do none and then very little. You have to be able to pierce like a Lazar. You can quiver like a sax some other day.

Awful intonation? Get your tuner, listen, sing, correct.

Bad rhythm? Live with the metronome stuck on on.

Sloppy embouchure? Look at Dick Tracy. Don't be chewing all over the place. Put it up there and don't move. Move inside only. All parts of the lips should share the work load.

Unmusical and boring playing? Check out CDs of great opera people. Sing. Conduct. Make gestures that fit the music. Then sing some more. Don't play boring. Please!

Always playing everything forte? Insist on ppp all the way to fff and back. Do it all. You'll need it.

Clumsy multiple tongue? Open Arban. Go slow and go fast. Do it. Then do it faster. Even faster. Now double tongue scales as fast as possible. How about your chroms? Polish 'em up before September. You may need some valve work done at a good shop.

Crippled arps? Double and triple the arpeggios in Arban. Very fast, no stops. They're everywhere. You might as well master them.

Be your own teacher this summer, or pretend you're being coached by the stars. You don't need to go somewhere, but you do need to go somewhere in your mind and in your progress.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Night of Remembrance

CSO Principal trumpet Robert Sullivan gave a wonderful recital at CCM last evening to a large audience. The program included beautiful playing (of course) of Bernstein's A Simple Song, Copland's Quiet City, Jack Gallagher's Remembrance of Robin, Joe Turrin's O Come and Dwell in Me, and Eric Ewazen's brand new Eternal Spring. The program was full of moving and brilliant music performed in honor of Robin who succumbed to Sarcoma.

Chris Philpotts complemented Bob on the Copland, matching nuances and phrasings perfectly. Cristian Ganisenco likewise supported Bob in Turrin's poignant duo for trumpet and trombone. Julie Spangler was an awesome accompanist in each work, playing very difficult piano parts as easily as her quite natural improv skills on the Danny Boy encore. It was a great evening of music-making and tribute.

We can thank Bob for pioneering a few more very neat pieces for the trumpet repertoire. The Gallagher, Turrin, and Ewazen pieces are here to stay and worth getting a hold of as soon as possible. The Remembrance is a toughy, and indeed challenging, but was made to sound doable last night. Cristian and Bob were in sync and demonstrated soft beautiful blend and control in the Turrin.

Finally, Ewazen was Ewazen! How could one not like his stuff? It is always enjoyable at first hearing! The music to Eternal Spring arrived only a few days before the recital, like 3! One would never have known that months of prep had not preceded the show. Lesson: learn it and be able to sound great immediately! Other lessons taught last night: control, intonation, clear articulations on the fast stuff, range, and most importantly, communication. They were all nicely in play last night. Bob's heart-felt flugel-playing on Danny Boy was the perfect closer for a very special evening of musical rememberance.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jeremy's CIM Recital and Graduation

Freezing some special moments in time

May 18, 2009 Mom, Dad and Jeremy Senior recital with Jason Vieaux

Graduating Guitar Guys and Jason After Jeremy's Senior Recital

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Looking for Trouble

Great trumpet players not only know how to stay out of trouble, they know how to get into it! The issue is not if, but where. Crashing on stage is obviously not the place. The best place to encounter troubles is in the practice room. A good evaluation of the practice session will give an indication of whether there's trouble ahead or not. Honest and productive practice should include a daily assault on those pesky issues that we tend to avoid. Unfortunately, ignoring them will not make them go away, for they only become emboldened and soon grow into monsters.

"Yeah, but who looks forward to a daily confrontation with his or her own weaknesses? Should not music-making be about having fun? Trouble-shooting doesn't sound like any fun at all." Well, who promised that any career is all about having fun anyway? Actually the challenge is learning to enjoy conquering difficulties. Success overcomes obstacles, and winning requires a strategy, a plan of attack. It is not a question of work vs. fun. Our task is to organize and execute a wise practice agenda and to stay with it.

Take inventory on areas needing improvement. Draw up your battle plans, the things you will need to play to make improvements. If it's entrances, practice entrances of all kinds. If it's range, begin gradual upward and downward work. If it's too much lip pressure, then insist on less lip pressure. If it's fuzzy sound, then fix it one note at a time. If it's bad rhythm, then develop your metronomic instincts. If it's sloppy intonation, then listen and watch your tuner. If it's poor sight-reading, then sight-read. It really isn't brain surgery. It just requires an honest assessment and plan of action. Very little will improve if no plan is in place.

Signs of trouble serve to highlight our practice agenda. Let's look for trouble and deal with it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Playing the 10-Second Game

Audition season is here and excerpt boards are coming up. As you are collecting your ready-to-go lists, how about playing the 10-Second Game? Seeing as you'll likely only get one chance per excerpt on audition day, you might as well begin to sharpen your entry skills.

Practice nailing just the first 10 seconds of each excerpt. We are going for exact tempo, clean first notes, the right style, dynamics, intonation and all of the usual requirements that separate the men and women from the boys and girls. This is more important than you might think. Most audition committees can pick out winners in no time, and that goes as well for losers. Even though you may redeem yourself nobly as you continue playing, your attentive listeners may have already checked out and returned to their magazines. It's all about making a great first impression.

Remember, we're looking for perfect entrances. Don't get carried away and practice the whole excerpt. Be able to start on a dime. Control-players get paid well. Let's imagine a loud "ka-ching!" resounding each time you get off the blocks in fine form. Anyone ought to be able to compete with the greats for 10 seconds! Go for it. You can do this!

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Sitting Duck

Learn how to nail this one item consistently, and you will greatly increase your odds on advancing to finals. Neglect it, and you'll likely be playing one-and-done on audition day. We're talking about knowing the speed limits of each excerpt.

Before auditioning we need to be very familiar with tempos. Going too slow gets you stopped. Exceeding the limit also gets you pulled over. But worse yet, they catch you rushing, and you're eliminated and sent home on the spot. The good news is that you can work as hard as you want on this, and your chops will never get beat up. In fact, you don't even need your trumpet. Anyone can master it, and because it's an internal skill, nothing hurts! Let's fast forward to audition day and see how well you have prepared your tempos.

Picture yourself at the audition carnival, sitting on top of a trap door over a large tub of water with an L on it. You will be expected to play every excerpt at the right speed for the audition committee. They will be watching and listening intently as they seek to knock off each contestant with bad tempos. (You are still wondering why there is an L on the tub.)

Someone calls out "Bartok Concerto, second movement!" You must instantly play the right tempo or you get doused. But you're ready, and you nail that Allegretto scherzando perfectly! No stuffed panda prize for that dude! You're still there standing, or sitting proud.

Next, "Outdoor Overture!" Even though it calls for a speed limit of 76, for some unknown reason you panic and play too fast, and then rush badly all the way down the two octave scale. Click, and you hear the music to "splish, splash, I was takin' a bath!" You hear the laughter as the audition committee is having themselves a good old time.

The audition monitor hands you a towel and props you up again for another chance. Next, a jury member barks "Schumann 2". Being under-prepared, you panic. Paying little attention to intonation or rhythm, your bad tempo selection quickly triggers the release button. Once again you are listening to your unfavorite tune of the day while plunging headlong into that large tub with the L on it.

Now that's two strikes against you. Maybe you can redeem yourself with the next one. "Heldenleben, the E flat solo!" Your heart begins to simulate the percussion intro, and you can't feel your legs or much of your upper lip. Nevertheless, you stab in the dark valiantly with atrocious accuracy and horrible intonation. Nerves and stiff chops seems to have short-circuited your thinking as your tempo is way too fast. The famed battle scene is not happening, and instead of deftly wielding your weapons, you are taking a lot of hits. (They should have heard me yesterday!) Click, you hear the music again, and that once proud sitting duck now feels like a dead one.

"Alright, thank you. Next candidate!" Now you know what the L is for as you slink to the stage door slipping and sliding away.

Of all the things that might go wrong, your tempo selection should never be one of them. Start with a good steady correct tempo which will be the rock solid skeleton on which you build everything else. Don't be a sitting duck for the tempo police.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Just the notes, please!

Consider this project. You are free to ignore all dynamics and phrasings. You may forget about any tempo markings, and put that metronome in a lock box. Finishing your whole piece is not a requirement, in fact don't even think about it. You're going to play just one note at a time. You may even become brain-dead to rhythms and all things musical. For now you are allowed to be totally clueless except for one thing.

Let's pretend that you will be awarded $50 for every right note you manage to produce. (Do try to give each a decent sound - no bricks allowed). Inasmuch as there is no time limit, all you have to do is sound great, one note at a time. Take as long as you want between notes because this is only about quality. In fact, quantity is your enemy. If you once again get impatient and start spewing out strings of questionable notes, then you instantly get docked $100 for every one of those notes in question. One clam cancels out two good notes. You can't afford many losses. You will quickly drive yourself into bankruptcy.

O.K. For all of those who are independently wealthy, or for whom losing a bunch of money means nothing, let's try another approach. You will have attached to your bell a high-voltage electric bad-note zapper. Talk about being wired. Jolts of super-charged electric shocks will instantly channel through your horn and go directly to your chops and well beyond at the slightest hint of a junk note. If your notes fizzle, your chops sizzle! It'll be all pain and no gain! All dross is your loss. You will learn quickly that money and pain can be great motivators.

Here are some highly motivational signs for your studio practice room:


Just the good notes, please.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Watch Your Speed

With recitals, boards, and auditions once again just around the corner, we unconsciously rev up the speed of practicing and usually do more wheel-spinning than getting anywhere. "More and faster" seems to be our instinctive defense against deadline pressures, when just the opposite is much more productive.

This is nothing new, but try making yourself play in slow motion and see what happens. Insist on exact pitch and clear tone no matter how short the notes. At the pace of a snail, you can easily eliminate air notes, fuzzed, and pinched notes. You will also be able to get a better feel for all the intervals, chords, and patterns just as a pianist positions hands to cover even the widest leaps. Instead of stabbing in the dark, you will be able to pounce with accuracy.

You must be a cat deftly scampering all over the place in pursuit of mice. But notice that the cat is first motionless as it stakes out its prey. It thinks about it, plans the strategy, then proceeds with caution. Stalking very slowly at first, it then gradually picks up speed en route for the kill.

Know where you're going before you get there. Your brain must precede your tongue and fingers. Not only will the mechanics be better coordinated, but you will give your musical ideas a chance to happen. So, set your metronome on "boring", and clean it up. You can speed later.