Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spanish Christmas

Looking for something new and exciting for your next recital? Check out Matthias Hofs playing A Spanish Christmas by Wolf Kerschek. Fabulous playing. It must be nice not to have to wrestle with fast mute changes!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Controlling the Bludgeon Instinct

If this is you, don't change, just stay in control. Killer instinct, yes, but know how and when to unleash it. Learn to wield that trumpet skillfully. Power with precision pays nicely.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Playing Your Part

There's a time to lead and a time to follow; a time to be seen and a time to be part of the scenery; a time to be heard and a time to be part of the herd; a time to take charge, and a time to support the charge; a time to blast and a time to blend. Music-making is about leadership and teamwork.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Scalpel or Jackhammer?

Imagine looking up from the operating table as a patient awaiting your heart surgery only to see what appears to be an annoyed jackhammer guy in hard hat fast approaching you all irritated! This will not likely be pretty, you're thinking, as it's pretty much the wrong approach!

Some music demands especially skilled and patient precision, not impulsive brutal stabbings. It's gotta be finesse over force, bulls eyes rather than javelins. You can pound the pavement another day.

Oh, the tools and mindsets of the business! Sometimes it's Haydn, Johann Strauss and Waldteufel. Another time it's Richard Strauss, Mahler and Star Wars. Stay handy with both jackhammer and scalpel!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What if it Ain't Broke?

Your embouchure - if it's not broken, why worry? One need not worry, but with only one square inch of valuable flesh serving as the foundation of your career, one ought to be careful. With so much focus on breathing, support and all the good mechanics required for solid playing, we can easily neglect proper care for that exact point where the music meets the horn.

Suggested reading on the subject of embouchure care is a book entitled Broken Embouchures by Lucinda Lewis. That title makes any brass player cringe, but better for you to cringe now than for your chops to cringe later. It comes in two volumes full of spot-on advice about lip injury prevention and rehab. Should be a must-have for all brass players with lips.

Just as young orchestra players are rarely too concerned about the pension provisions in the master contract, so too the young and mighty tend to dis any advice on embouchure care and maintenance until the unthinkable happens. "Hey, I always just pick up the horn and blow. Got the killer instinct, man! I'm no wimp!" Sound familiar?

Beating the lips into submission is one of the mindsets I was raised with unfortunately. Mind-over-lips has its place but also has its consequences. Denial of our limitations is not the strategy for improvement. When your lips scream at you, you need to listen. A wise approach to playing is not a warrior approach nor is it a wuss approach. Finding your balance is critical for long term lip life. Chop-protection is as valuable as chop-building.

Speaking of building, why not research some exercises that strengthen the lips? Your goal is to bulk up the chops and to increase the distance between the mouthpiece and the teeth. The Lewis book has some excellent exercises for this. They can be done apart from the horn. You can work on your firmer embouchure while driving, walking and even talking.

One teacher recommended his students walk between classes with corners anchored, lips tensed tightly as if holding a straw, while saying "I AM a trumpet player, I AM a trumpet player." Pucker and point the lips, freeze, relax and repeat. You could start with a straw, then a pencil, and for serious weight-lifters, a screw driver! More is better, right?

Another exercise to strengthen the "smile muscles": hold a straw (or pencil) only with the teeth while smiling widely for as long as those around you can stand it.

Remember that your lips must be at least as strong as your left hand. Remind your hands to lighten up. Give your chops a break and allow them do their work. At the end of the day, your chops should still be in tact. Don't squelch your lips, strengthen them.

Friday, December 03, 2010

This Must be You!

This could be you with perhaps nothing outwardly suggesting that a superstar is in the house. The audience almost defies you to move them. Low expectations abound. Fine! It's better that way, you say. You are ready.

With nerves on edge you pace. Doubts scream in your mind, "Who do you think you are! You have no business going out there on that stage. You have nothing to say that has not already been said much better than you'll ever say it!"

But you have none of that. This is why you're here, for moments such as this. These are your working conditions, and you'll be getting used to them very nicely, thank you.

Now, it's your turn. The crowd awaits. Play your part well, connect with the audience, and move the skeptics.

Nice job! Let's see if you can even make more improvement in the next show! What do you think? Even better, yes!!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Some Healthy Choices

O.K. the eating frenzy is over. You're thinking, no more sweets, no junk, no more sugar-induced colds. Help! If you are now more convinced than ever to get healthy, you may want to apply that obsession to trumpet practice. Consider good intakes of some items that are sure to improve rather than tear down your playing? Here are a couple of healthy suggestions for your practice menu. Get a head start today on your '11 resolutions.

How about a good helping of daily sweet starts? You need to be able to guarantee a great-sounding first note. Imagine being able to win an audition with just the amazing quality of the first note of every one of your excerpts! Wouldn't that be sweet?

Next, you may partake of some of those very expensive specialty starts, the high and the soft. Don't try to gulp them down. Approach each with calm care. Then let them melt in your mouth. Savor that ability to pick them off slowly, one by one, to the amazement of all who listen and watch!

No slurping at the table. Why are the upward slurs usually played better than the downward, especially in the low register? We tend to slur up and slurp down. Your job is to make legato intervals the clean, the pure, and the in-tune every time. Be sure to keep corners from sagging and relaxing so much that you can't recover your firm setting.

Great players have learned how to be successful with the simplest of tasks. Now open up Arbans and Schossberg (or the like). Confine your work to the beginner section at the front. Simple and boring is what you're looking for. No expressive shoulder-lifting, just precision. Goal: cold-blooded, deadpan control and accuracy - the mindset you'd expect from your heart surgeon!

See earlier posts on this subject:
  • Playing the 10-Second Game, 4/18/09
  • What a Way to Start, 4/11/08
  • Garbage-Free Zone!, 4/21/07
  • Playing the Dim Game, 2/6/07
  • Five Seconds Only!, 5/13/06
  • The Tip of the Brush, 5/1/06

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Trumpeter's Table

As you approach that smorgasbord, your attention is instinctively drawn to the stacks of luscious chocolaty desserts, the crispy fried chicken, endless turkey helpings, piles of buttery rolls, gobs of seasoned stuffing with savory gravy. What do you say we just skip the salads, the fruit dishes, and the artistic vegetable trays. A balanced meal? Well, some more convenient day perhaps.

The table of brass goodies likewise invites us to plunge headlong into the high, the loud and the flashy. That's where the fun, the fame, and the glamor is. After all, who wants to rehearse the low, the soft, and the boring while there's so much excitement to be had?

What do you consistently avoid? That which you neglect is probably the very thing you need the most. Does focusing on intonation taste like broccoli? Is working on soft control no different than a mouthful of cold cauliflower? Are scales and arpeggios unappetizing? Does transposition make you gag at the very thought of it?

Go ahead and enjoy the sweets and the glamor, but don't neglect to take in all the daily must-haves that will make you successful. As your mom used to say, "Eat it anyway. You just might learn to like it! And you'll thank me some day."

Thanks, Mom. I still don't like it, but I eat it anyway.

"That's my boy!"

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Clean Machine

Look at you - dressed sharply, well-groomed, appearing friendly and outgoing with pleasant disposition, and likely to make a positive impression even before that first excerpt or solo is played. Surely they will have your contract in hand, except for one thing.

Your observers must look at that grungy tarnished war-torn instrument of yours. Rubber bands are holding broken spit valve springs and have corroded the plating badly. Your moldy valve guard protector has long since failed to protect anything. Dents dating back to marching band days are still visible dulling both your sound and your reputation. Those sticky valves from those inadvertent drops (that someone else did) continue to cause havoc with fast licks. Aren't you tired of glaring angrily at your horn while you pound the valves with your fist so they won't stick? For some reason you continue to struggle with all of these annoyances.

Slides tend to stay put while the bore of your horn has now likely shrunk from a Large to a Mighty Small. Several years of meal fragments line the lead pipe, and the mouthpiece bore once gleaming brightly now is full of craggy lumps. Who knows what has been lurking secretly inside your trumpet for months or even years?

If you play like an angel you are allowed to have a horn that looks like hell. But since most of us are fallen players of various degrees, we cannot afford the luxury of a cool-looking civil war relic for an ax. We need all equipment in top condition and ready for scrutiny.

Hey, clean the horn! Chem flushes work wonders. Your trumpet will play better and look better. Keep it that way. Its maintenance is a reflection of its owner. Impressions matter.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Nicely-Toned Machine

Yup. That's you, looking good but sounding even better! Just as with a job interview where that first impression speaks volumes, so does your sound. Those first notes out of the bell matter.

Pop the cork and out sizzles your rich and amazing tone. Just as the fashion model presents a striking visual impression, so too your sound must grab instant attention. Listeners must do a double take as soon as they hear you.

Is your playing distinctive? Is it recognizably you? What distinguishes you from your competition? Sure, go for accuracy, but don't forget that people are listening. You want to be offering generous treats of expensive ear candy every time you play!

Pretend that your every note is being monitored even from those first sounds of the day. You have no notes to waste. Your warm up is careful and systematic, but not without plenty of attention on well-focused tone. Show your listeners the results of your summer tone-up.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Buzz it

A great buzz makes for a great tone. An unfocused airy buzz makes good tone-production harder. Simply place the mouthpiece so that the center of the lips can freely vibrate. Anchor your corners, and direct the air straight into the hole in the mouthpiece. Focus the best buzz possible. Your goal is purity on your mouthpiece first. Then just add large doses of artistry.

Now using as little pressure as possible, buzz one note at a time, eliminating extraneous fuzz from your buzz. Go for the core of the pitch, the most resonant sound you can muster, always with minimal embouchure effort. Hold mouthpiece with only two fingers and one thumb, no fists. Air pressure must be greater than arm pressure.

Begin with sirens, slowly glissing up and down, pausing briefly on the lower and upper pitches. Remember, no junk, no stuffy questionable notes, just well-centered pitches, nothing less. Developing a soft response will be more helpful to your embouchure than just belting and blasting. Learn finesse and control in soft first.

Next, buzz short simple tunes, college fight songs, Christmas carols, etc. Keep the whole song well supported with a steady air stream. Each note must be clear and exactly in tune. Modulating cannot happen. Check with the piano often to ensure stable pitches. Notice how clean the tone is on the piano, starting instantly and not wavering? Copy that.

Determine that any eavesdroppers will be mightily impressed by your buzzings. Your listeners must admire the clarity of tone you are able to produce with just a four-inch piece of metal!

Daily conscientious buzzing will greatly improve your ear and your sound. Check with your mouthpiece often during the day. Whatever the passage, you will be able to control it when you can buzz it.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Sweep it!

Sweep it! Not your room, but your notes. One word is often better than a lecture. Make your progress simple and fast. How many one-word instructions can you recall that trigger immediate playing improvements, both for yourself and for your teaching? Studio flash cards, anyone?

The word "sweep" works nicely, not as into the trash, but into the audience. A good conductor's sweeping gestures are effective in drawing out broad expansive phrases from the orchestra. No conductor to look at? Visualize a yard full of dry leaves being cleared away by a power blower. Jump start that thing, and let it do what it's designed for. Our playing needs to be wind-swept, avoiding pokes and jabs. Just breathe and blow.

Our goal is fluid air no matter how angular the phrase. Nasty clusters of awkward gnarly notes can easily cause your air to get stuck somewhere behind the mouthpiece. Keeping a forward direction with a steady supply of free-flowing air always brings improvement. Tone opens up and embouchure tension is reduced.

Inhale, then release without holding back. The phrase must start before it is played. Intake and outgo must be free and in time. Your product must be musical, but your air must be dumb. Jerks, hiccups, and bumps will happen in the music, but not in the air stream.

Remember: Air rules.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Accepting the Ratio

Recently I was a fly on the wall as I overheard some basic advice being shared for someone facing an upcoming audition. It's so simple that it seems not worth mentioning, but being simple, it caught my attention. The student was feeling overwhelmed by his huge scary excerpt list, yet felt a certain weight lifted as he considered: "You don't have to feel good, you just have to work!"

We expect the trumpet to behave itself every day, and that each practice session must be joyful and triumphant. And then as soon as reality hits we think that something must be terribly wrong with us. One famous orchestral trumpeter revealed that he actually felt like playing maybe 10% of the time! He must have learned early that success on stage and in the practice room is not dependent upon feeling good. (Imagine the announcement just before the the concert: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry to announce that the trumpet section will not be present tonight because they are not feeling well.")

The number of warm 'n' fuzzy days are going to be far less than the cold 'n' prickly ones. The ratio is just not in our favor. We must get used to it. Good practicing does not require that we feel good. We simply have to be organized, efficient and productive. Just do it.

Note: the better organized, efficient and productive we are, the better we will feel.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Things You Love To Hear

What would you like audition committee members to be jotting down as they listen to you play? We want to keep their job easy. No need to make them write a lot, only a few superlative adjectives and you're hired. How quickly can you impress them?

Let's start at the end. Picture the mob of players on the infield at the end of the World Series, or the massive celebrating at the finish of the Super Bowl. How about those trophies proudly held high? Whatever plasters an inspiring picture in your mind, go for that every day.

For us music geeks, motivation could be as simple as anticipating that instant foot shuffling of orchestra colleagues after you finish an impressive solo. Or a bunch of "nice job, man!" comments after the concert. Or, getting that solo bow that is a must after Mahler. You want to hear more than just "Wow, you got all of the notes! Good job!"

Anyway, back to audition prep. Can you control what they will write about your playing? How about earning comments something like:

  • nice playing!
  • great sound
  • perfect rhythm
  • awesome energy and style
  • amazing control!!
  • very accurate
  • really clean articulation
  • fearless!
  • no problem with soft stuff
  • endurance will not be a problem with this person
  • YES!
Grab a few passersby and invite them to listen to you. Ask that they write down a few adjectives describing your work.

How well did you do? Do you like what you heard?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Driving somewhere this summer? Or maybe just vegging out on your deck, or lingering way too long at Starbucks? Here's a way to ease your guilt for getting less accomplished on your horn than you'd planned. You can actually make some progress without ever lifting a mouthpiece. All you need is your steering wheel if driving, or your knuckles if vegging, and your three valve fingers.

Some of you can remember when car steering wheels had grooves for a nice sure grip. (Those were also the days when drivers grasped the wheel with both hands at about 10 and 2 o'clock and adjusted the wheel every few seconds, but I digress.) The steering grips may have since disappeared, but fortunately knuckles have not, so we are without excuse.

We always get graded on tone, style, and endurance, but we rarely get points for amazing finger technique. It's a pity. Fingers should get more respect. Let's make August National Fingering Month. Actually, they need more time than that. What do you say to the International Year of Fingers! We had better also be training the fourth finger to avoid being crippled on pic repertoire.

So we are out to nail and pound with amazing skill. Right hand fingers should fit perfectly into left hand knuckles causing an audible slapping sound. Likewise, secure, loud strikes on steering wheel is the goal. If you're greatly annoying the family, you're getting somewhere. Remember that your fingers must have an attitude too! Fingers matter.

Now, what to thump? You'll need all twelve major scales, two octaves up and down, in thirds and fourths with varying rhythms. Don't avoid the minor scales with all three forms, natural, harmonic and melodic. Next, all arpeggios - major, minor, augmented, and diminished with the 7th. Be polishing all of your chromatics daily. Can you do them in seconds, that is, up a whole step, down a half step? Octave work is fun. Rushing is permissible, and speeding is encouraged.

Once your fingers are well warmed up, you may begin testing a movement of a solo. With all of this activity you'll notice the tongue wanting to get involved. Fine. Just make sure it is perfectly in sync with finger tips. You are welcome to sing along.

Drive safely.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Health Care

Two key components to your success are you and your horn. Taking good care of business requires consistent maintenance of both. We often pay more attention to the condition of the trumpet than to the condition of the trumpet player. Being in good physical condition alone won't give us a high A in the Brandenburg, but being in shape definitely helps as we train. We might as well give ourselves an edge.

Here are two simple suggestions for improving the person behind the mouthpiece during these summer months. Considering that we make the music, and the body delivers it, let's hone both. Why not consider this summer as basic training for the fall and winter schedule? We're talking better health and a better message. Let's do a bunch of two-a-days, or more. Get a good head start before the games begin. That freight train of demands arrives just after Labor Day, so get ready.

Think ahead. You've got placement auditions, ensembles, lesson requirements, recital prep, all squeezed between a few too many classes. Oh, and having time and energy for a life also matters. We want to improve the tone of body and soul. Our target: decent athletic shape and great musical intentions, both quite doable but not without some discipline.

Prescribe for yourself your own regimen of daily physical exercise along with generous dosages of inspiring music. Do what is needed for you to function at your best. Control the body, keep the musician inspired, and you're good. Basically, listen and work out. Have a lot to say on your horn, and be organized enough to make it obey. Control of appetites just might help control of trumpet! Ignore your health (physical and musical), and it will go away.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Matching Classics

Match the song or lyric with the classical work:

1. Ring ringa-linga o.
2. My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer m.
3. Boom, whatcha do to me! n.
4. I'll be seeing you l.
5. Catch a Falling Star i.
6. A Groovy Kind of Love g.
7. Beach Baby d.
8. Good-bye, Cruel World h.
9. Hello, Muddah a.
10. Uptown Girl f.
11. I Can't Help Falling in Love b.
12. Alone at Last c.
13. All by Myself e.
14. Stranger j.
15. Lassie's Theme k.

a. Dance of the Hours - Ponchielli
b. Plaisir d' Amour - Martini
c. Piano Concerto #1 - Tchaikowsky
d. Symphony #5 - Sibelius
e. Piano Concerto #2 - Rachmaninnoff
f. Bolero - Ravel
g. Rondo from Sonatina in G - Clementi
h. Entrance of the Gladiators - Fucik
i. Academic Festival Overture - Brahms
j. Polovtsian Dances - Borodin
k. Faust - Gounod
l. Symphony #3 - Mahler
m. Estudiantina Valse - Waldteufel
n. Espana Rhapsody - Chabrier
o. String Quartet #2 in D - Borodin

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Look Outside!

Look outside. This is a great time to NOT play the trumpet! How about a nice long break? Don't even think about the trumpet, and don't be looking at it! There it sits in its case staring up at you shooting guilt and condemnation. Don't buy it. Shut the case, shove it under the bed, and go away. You will certainly return again someday, so consider this a healthy and deserved fast for your chops and your mind.

If you stay away from the horn long enough you'll be pleasantly surprised that your negatives tend to evaporate. However, when you return, do it slowly and patiently, and don't be looking to rediscover your weak areas. Enjoy the freshness of your clean restart. Play tunes you like rather than those studies you never seem to master. Buzz frequently. Play for fun. Touch all notes and then put it away. Several short sessions will be more productive than a long slug fest. If you get mad and frustrated, your vacation was in vain.

Remind yourself that you are not enslaved to the horn. You won't forget everything by taking a vacation. It will all still be there. Both you and your chops need to be rejuvenated. Don't be afraid to give yourself a break.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Getting Extra Input

Here's a suggestion for the summer. If no trumpet guru is available or within driving distance, don't put improvement on hold until the fall. Look for some help outside the box. The best advice can come from those who do not play the trumpet. Hard to believe, but true. Singers, woodwind players, string people, guitarists included, and percussion folks share the stage, so you might want to know what they listen for. A yea vote from each of them would be a nice goal. It would also go a long way to improve relations between instrument groups that often tend to feud with each other.

Arnold Jacobs' studio always had a steady stream of non-tuba players visiting in order to receive his expert counsel. Great music-making transcends any one instrument. How tragic to graduate from a school many of whose faculty are never consulted simply because theirs is a different department. It might cost you something to arrange a hearing, but it could be worth it. Money is no object. Take the initiative.

You may opt for a cheaper route. Invite your non-trumpet friends to sit and listen to your audition, solo, etudes, whatever. You want to play for critical ears that won't accept your being sharp on C and G. They don't buy it. Nor are they sympathetic to your chronic fatigue. They expect you to play what's on the page, no excuses. Be hungry for their honest critique, not flattery.

It's American Trumpet Idol! The jury has their checklist: stage presence, intonation, expression and sense of drama, dynamics, phrasing, confidence, etc. In short, should they invite you to return for another round? Does your performance get high marks? Does it communicate? Will the jury stand and applaud, or do you only receive a few courtesy claps. Your mission is to be a crowd pleaser.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Larger Window

How big is your window of usable playing? You might be quite capable of some first-class work, but chances are that few listeners will be around by the time you get warmed up and ready. You've got a great product, but an embarrassingly small window for showing it! It's a matter of increasing your efficiency so that any listeners will get an awesome impression of your playing no matter when they hear you.

Some have huge picture windows, but no one wants to look in. It's all mediocre. There's nothing worth listening to. You want to be able to confidently swing open the windows, inviting all to pull up a seat and enjoy. Whatever they'll hear, it's all good. No junk. Everything's in order.

Look! There's your professor hiding in your bushes! He's stopped by unannounced to spy on your practice habits. No problem. Nothing to hide. You respond, "Hey, what do you want to hear? I'm good." He is very pleased to agree.

Imagine that several audition committees from top orchestras are secretly visiting Cincinnati this week looking to invite someone from CCM to play a week in their trumpet section. You learn that your audition already took place via surveillance microphones! Whatever you played yesterday was your audition! Your window of usability had better be huge! It's show time!