The rise, fall, and rise of an ex-trumpet player

Discussion in 'Trumpet Discussion' started by hdswriter, Nov 24, 2007.

  1. hdswriter

    hdswriter New Friend

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    Mar 25, 2007
    Columbus, OH
    I would like to share with you my unique history with the trumpet and the experiences that I have encountered as a result. This is simply an account of my particular failures and successes with the instrument that has, in a sense, haunted me my entire life.

    As a child I had been exposed to many instruments and it was obvious that I loved music, but it wasn’t until the age of 13 that I would fall in love with a beat up cornet that my sister bought me at a garage sale. I had been playing the saxophone in the school band, but there was never any desire to spend time with the instrument. The trumpet, however, was a different story. I seemingly rarely ever put the thing down. Even when watching reruns or Speed Racer it would be in my hands. Within a year I put the saxophone down and begin playing the trumpet at school.

    It felt like it came naturally for me. The band directors, however, were a little skeptical of my choice. You see, I was an upstream trumpet player with 1/3 on the top lip and 2/3 on the bottom lip and they felt I was learning the instrument incorrectly. I was a little stubborn as a youth, so I ignored their objection to my instrument switch and continued with the horn I had fallen in love with. After all, my progress was coming quickly. Right from the start I had a clear and pleasant sound and by 8th grade I was playing D above the staff comfortably.

    In high school, I was fortunate to have a band director with wonderful musical taste. The big band played wonderful Charts. Basie, Cone, Woody Herman, and Neil Hefti filled the huge 3 inch book. His son, who was a grade ahead of me, was a fine trumpet player. I still remember him playing Bride of the Waves as a freshman and nailing it. There were 4 of us in the band that were constantly going to concerts. It was a very exciting time. The big band trumpet section was kicking butt and we were getting a lot of compliments from some notable people.

    As you can imagine, with the charts we had in the book came the need for a pretty stout upper register and mine was coming along just fine, or so I thought. I was bitten by the Maynard/Chase bug and emulation was the order of the day. So, as a junior in high school this was were I was; I had a consistently strong high F and a very respectable sound, but flexibility was seriously lacking. I got around it by using legato tonguing when necessary. The other issue was that I was ignoring the fact that I was being pretty brutal with my chops. I thought they could take anything that I could throw at them. Well, the ignorant youth syndrome would be my undoing.

    Half way through my junior year in high school a split tone started to appear when I would get tired. That following summer, my playing started to simply unravel at an alarming rate. My band director hooked me up with a college trumpet instructor that had a respectable reputation. He was more along the lines of a “chop doctor†than a traditional college professor. We immediately started working on trying to focus the chops. Well, at this point, everybody and their brother was diagnosing my problem and all I heard was that I was using too much pressure. My senior year was a disaster. I had to have the 2nd trumpet play most of the lead stuff until we got to the shout choruses just so I would have some shops to do the screaming stuff. In short, my playing continued to deteriorate and depression was setting in. My life’s dream was to be a lead player with the Woody Herman or Basie big bands and it was slipping away rapidly.

    The summer before my freshman year in college, a decision was made that would change the course of my musical career. After a couple of tandem lessons with Carmine Caruso and my instructor, it was decided that the best course of action was to switch me to downstream (The side note here is that I will never understand why I wasn’t advised to put the horn down for a while and simply let the chops heal). I started with buzzing exercises on the mouthpiece for 2 weeks and then we went to the horn. I had a range of about a 6th. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mind had become my worst enemy. After hearing about pressure for two years straight, I was terrified to use pressure… ANY pressure. I was now trying to play “off of a buzz.†I was constantly buzzing before putting the horn to my face and then placing the mouthpiece while I was still buzzing. It was pretty pathetic.

    To say the least, my instructor really had no idea what to do with me. The first half of my freshman year in college showed absolutely no progress. I had a very recognizable trombone player pull me aside in a parking lot to try and talk to me about my chops with trombone in hand. He said, “just put it up to your face and blow.†He blew a few notes and then told me to stop thinking about it so much and just play like I did when I first picked up the trumpet. His words were lost on me. I was so confused and so far gone that such a simple concept was impossible for me to grasp. Well, what seemed so effortless a few years ago, now seemed foreign and a total mystery. I had to do something.

    February of that freshman year, I was in the practice room making another futile attempt to play the trumpet. It was at that moment, when I almost threw my Benge against the wall that I decided to put the trumpet away. I personally knew another player a few years ahead of me who had also crashed while in college. He picked up the sax and became a wonderful player. So, I thought, anything is better than this and it would at least be a vehicle for playing music. I went home that weekend and blew the dust of the old alto sax. I practiced hard and finished college with a degree in Jazz Performance.

    I spent the next 18 years as a professional saxophonist and feel extremely fortunate to have had a very nice career. Nine of those were even full time, playing with some name bands and groups. I put the horn down for good when my wife and I had a child. Interestingly enough, it was easy to put the saxophone down, but I was missing playing music a great deal. More importantly, I was still missing the instrument that I had always loved and I had always felt like I had unfinished business.

    Every now and then, during those 18 years as a saxophonist, I would pick up a trumpet and see if I could get it to work. I could never play it for more than a week before getting frustrated and giving up. However, now that the sax was on the shelf, I all of a sudden didn’t have the commitment to the sax practice regimen and could maybe spend some time with the trumpet with a clear conscience. I was always an incessant practice-a-holic and spending time on another instrument meant that I was neglecting the sax.

    After a year or so of not playing anything at all, I started playing the trumpet again, but this time seemed to be different. There seemed to be a clarity of thought that accompanied my attempts to be a downstream player this time around. This time, I just “put it up to my face and blew.†It hasn’t been quite that easy, but the overall concept has been there. That was one year ago.

    My playing has come in stages. The first was to let the mouthpiece sit were it wants to. I kept trying, for some reason, to keep it more on the bottom lip. Once I let it move on its own when setting the chops, my sound just clicked in. The second issue was giving up the thought that the chin has to be flat. After playing clarinet for so many years, I naturally tried to force a flat chin and had more space between my teeth than what was necessary. Getting over that hurdle made a huge difference in my sound and strength. The latest discovery for me, about 6 months ago, was the role of the tongue in flexibility. On sax, the tongue is usually pretty low in the mouth and doesn’t require a lot of movement when moving from one register to the next. Now, I let the center of my tongue assist my chop strength when slurring. Even when playing earlier in my life, I used mostly chop strength for slurring, but it never quite worked as well as it should have. Flexibility is coming along very well after that revelation.

    My playing, overall, has progressed a great deal and I couldn’t be happier. I am taking care of some unfinished business and having a blast doing it. I really wrote this as a form of therapy for myself and a possible way to connect myself, in some small way, with the trumpet community until I’m ready to get back to playing out in one form or another one of these days. I honestly felt a great deal of loss when I felt as if I would never play the trumpet again. I even spent time with drums, piano, and guitar in the past trying to duplicate the fondness that I felt for trumpet. Luckily, my search is over.

    I hope, also, that this story can show young players what dangers can be lurking when you get carried away with the pursuit of range. Be nice to your chops and they’ll be nice to you. ;^)

    For those of you who have read this, thank you for your time and patience.

    Best Regards.

    Note: The signature quote is probably what got me into trouble in the first place :-)
     
  2. rowuk

    rowuk Moderator Staff Member

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    HDSW,
    your story is for sure not unique in the trumpet world and in principle a word of warning to everyone that maintains "do what ever works for you" opinion (that I generally disagree with) as well as the players that over intellectualize the mechanics of playing.

    It is my experience that even IF a band teacher wanted to redirect the energy of a reasonably successful young player to a new embouchure or even taking a couple of weeks off, they do not have a chance! The motivation at that age is so great that "reason" is hardly ever an issue. They also need as many "independent" players as possible and you fit into that category.

    The second point is the commitment to a new embouchure. There is not a factor in trumpet playing with more potential danger to waste time than trying to fix your chops. I would always recommend 2 or 3 months break before starting anything.

    Just for the record, your upstream playing probably had NOTHING to do with your problem. I'll bet it was breathing and pressure (in addition to body and tongue use) all along. A "minor" correction here could have perhaps saved a lot of frustration!

    The difference now is that you got a fresh start, your body has matured so your old "habits" do not come into play, and most of all YOU are in command not the playing situation around you (peer pressure in school causes us to do many things not optimal for our development!).

    In any case, you have found your way back into the fold and we are very happy for you! Welcome to TM!
     
  3. hdswriter

    hdswriter New Friend

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    Mar 25, 2007
    Columbus, OH
    Thanks for your reply and warm welcome to TM!

    When looking back on the situation as an adult, it's crazy the amount of playing we did in high school. I'm sure it's no different today. I'ts kinda of amazing young chops even survive it :lol:

    I totally agree with you about the pressure/breathing. My chops would get so tired, pressure was the only way I could produce at the end of the day and I was definitely expected to produce. I was also a lazy breather back then.

    It's a joy at this point in my life coming back to it and "being in command", as you put it. It's also nice bringing the culmination of my experiences on sax to the trumpet. The improv capabilties are already there, I just have to wait for the chops to catch up. :-)

    Thank you again for your input. It is greatly appreciated!
     
  4. stchasking

    stchasking Forte User

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    Jun 11, 2006
    I too, was taught incorrectly in Junior High. My elementary teacher and Junior high teachers were low brass players. I was told not to pinch. It wasn't pinching. It was locking in the corners and getting some meat into the mouthpiece.

    Since that time the Arban book has been edited to better explain the embouchure to low brass music education majors so they can properly teach high brass players.

    It is good to have you back in the trumpet world. Trumpet education has changed since you and I were in high school and the change has been good.
     
  5. hdswriter

    hdswriter New Friend

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    Mar 25, 2007
    Columbus, OH
    Thank you!

    I have had questions about my demise as a trumpet player for over 20 years. Now might be a good time to get some opinions.

    I found it interesting that aftering I was switched to downstream, any attempt to form an upstream embouchure is futile. It is as if I never played upstream at all. I am not concerned in the least since the downstream embouchure is now working wonderfully, but I do find it odd. If I remember correctly, the two weeks spent on buzzing, which was what initially formed the downstream embouchure, made it impossible to go back to upstream. Is this common?

    Also, what is the overall view in education today concerning a youth who shows up to 5th grade band playing upstream. Is it acceptable or is an embouchure switch imminent? There are certainly wonderful upstream players making a living on the horn. Are there inherent issues or deficiencies when playing upstream?

    Thank you for your time!
     
  6. stchasking

    stchasking Forte User

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    Jun 11, 2006
    I am now a down stream player. It took awhile to get there. Since you are in Ohio I would suggest talking to James Olcott. He is at Miami University. A question like you asked takes some one on one help to answer.
     
  7. hdswriter

    hdswriter New Friend

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    Mar 25, 2007
    Columbus, OH
    The question was more "in theory" as opposed to something that would be diagnosed for myself.
     
  8. rowuk

    rowuk Moderator Staff Member

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    Germany
    HDSW,
    generally up and downstream are dependent on the formation of the jaw: overbite (top teeth in front of the bottom)=downstream, underbite= upstream.
    The difference in successful players of both types is in the tongue position. I do not think that there is any research on failure or success rate when switching. In any case the goal should be to keep excess pressure off of the upper lip. This can be controlled by the angle of the horn in relation to the upper and lower teeth.
    I see no physical advantage or disadvantage per se. Most of the successful upstream players that I personally know, do not have a "symphonic" sound, but they do have an octave more upstairs............... I have not analyzed why this could be, But I assume it has to do with airflow.
     

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