Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More Spikes!

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

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

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

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sirens and Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Mr. Smoothy

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

What Rests Are For

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

Rests in trumpet solos are for . . .

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

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

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Fueling Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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