Thank you in advance for the time that anyone takes to read this.
The last time I posted on TM, I had just failed miserably at my first attempt to play in an ensemble. Unfortunately or fortunately, I had selected a university wind ensemble to give it a go. I had been on the comeback trail for about two years at the time, and things seemed to be working physically so I thought I would take the leap. I was demoralized at the time and TM was so encouraging. I basically went back to the woodshed. In retrospect, the mistakes I made were all rooted in how I approached the trumpet.
The approach taken by my first trumpet teacher was to start each day with a 40 minute warm-up routine that reconnects you with the trumpet. The trumpet is supposed to become a natural extension of your body to play music effortlessly. The basis of the warm-up is learning how to breathe and manipulate the air with the tongue. The warm-up is simple: long tones, slurred harmonics, lip flexibilities, and tonguing. Every exercise is viewed as a variant of long tones because it is all about maintaining a constant flow of air.
This approach took me very far, very fast. It really connected with me as a former bodybuilder. Bodybuilders can be very dedicated to the mind-body aspect of developing precise technique to maximize gains. However, this is where things went wrong. The physical aspect of playing is all I ever thought about. I became obsessed with trying to figure out how to do harmonic slurs and lip flexibilities. I just hit a horribly frustrating wall. I read every book that I could find, watched endless hours of videos on YouTube, and e-mailed a number of experts. (A special thanks Pops McLaughlin and Clyde Hunt). Every time I put the horn to my face, all I could think about was what I was “supposed” to be doing with my lips and tongue. It was classic analysis to paralysis. Reading and playing music became that much harder.
In the meantime, my job situation changed and I discovered that there was a symphonic player working close by and that he was willing to take me on as a student. His approach was very different. He forced me to consider the “musical mind” first. An analogy was made. Singers do not actively control their vocal cords; they just focus on the music.
Trumpet players should just focus on music and the physical things will take care of themselves. The embouchure and tongue will naturally do what they need to do to make music. He demonstrated this with the following exercise. I was asked to play a very simple scale pattern. Then, he asked me to sing the pattern. I alternated between singing and playing the pattern over and over, each time decreasing the time interval between the two. There was a surreal moment where every distraction and thought disappeared and I did not know whether I was singing or playing and the sound just opened up. It was close to a meditative, even mystical moment. Damn eerie.
From that first lesson onward, the approach was to play with the musical mind. Warming-up consists of Herring Etudes. A favorite quote in my lessons is “rhythm and timing are job #1”. I am learning to play the Etudes subdivided and read ahead of where I am currently playing. I was taught to conduct while counting through a piece before I play it. I now practice with a piano, singing through a piece in pitch before I pay it. Listening to recordings before I play something whenever possible is also important. Any physical problems (i.e., lip slurs, tonguing) are developed within a musical context by turning the difficult phrase into an exercise. I have been encouraged to count and conduct as much as possible outside the practice room, so make every attempt to read some music with my morning coffee. I have to rededicate myself this all the time as it is easy to let this go.
About those harmonic slurs and lip flexibility exercises. I sat in front of the piano and played through Chase Sanborns’ Flexibilities (pp 124-130). I sang them first. Next, I just closed my eyes, cleared my mind of anything and everything about what my lips or tongue where “supposed” to be doing. I sang each line, then planted and played before I could think about what I should be doing. I blew through the 7 pages like they were nothing. It was easy and effortless. In retrospect, everything I learned through reading and watching YouTube videos had gotten in my way. I tried to consciously control something that should have been as natural as signing a note. I have finally learned that the lips and tongue will do whatever they need to do, like the vocal cords when singing. It was just like Greg Spence says in his video. You can read and learn about what you are supposed do but when you actually can do it, you understand the information in a very different way. It is his “coffee moment”.
I have also recently introduced to some pieces where there are a number of notes above the staff. My teacher believes that it is time. Singing the phrase and playing it an octave lower have been very helpful for sure but higher notes are indeed difficult. My teacher then showed me that there is a technique to playing high notes by playing a DHC rather effortlessly. We then went over something called “squeak” tones. It was emphasized that we don’t play that way, but it is an exercise to teach us how to use air flow and compression in a relaxed way. The goal is to work those principles into our regular playing. It was recommended that I do them “a little bit” each day. Progressing through Clarke’s I (or, any other music piece) as soft as possible is another valuable exercise. I have used the trumpet part for Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring from the Doc Severinsen CD as a beautifully musical way to approach it.
The way I approach squeak tones is to play the target note on the piano and “falsetto hum” to get it in my head. I then close my eyes to treat it like shavasana at the start of Yoga. I start off very quietly and easily at high C. Very slowly I would arch my tongue higher as I would do in harmonic slurs. I increase the air flow to meet the resistance associated with air compression. If use to too much air “and” tension in the embouchure the sound disappears. It is critical to feel how to back off the air pressure and relax the embouchure just enough for the sound to reappear. This happens with each successive harmonic up to F (so far). High tension and over blowing will lose the notes. It became another “coffee moment”. It is a VERY weird paradox between high effort to compress and focus the air through a small area, but relax enough for the notes to actually sound. I only spend a few minutes on this; I am not going to make the same mistake twice.
When I went to play the music, the higher notes seemed much easier. Whether it was a technique, psychological, or some combination of the two, I am not sure. I always hated it when an expert says: “Hey, if I can figure it out anyone can, so you can do it too”. I guess this is actually true. The trumpet can be a very lonely process because no matter how perfectly it is explained; you have to keep practicing until you have your own “coffee moment”.
I love everything about playing the trumpet. I picked it up after 35 some years (I am 52 now) and I have been practicing with a vengeance to make up for lost time. I was determined to try again to play in the wind ensemble. I have been blessed with the best teachers. I have been blessed with the best trumpet friend who for a year and half met me every morning before work. We worked on technique and wood shed Wind Ensemble repertoire. While first chair, he voluntarily took on third chair duties to sit next to me so that I could overcome my fears on playing with university Wind Ensemble. I was blessed further with a conductor who for a second time was so kind and welcoming that he photocopied my third parts. I worked on them before the first rehearsal so I wouldn’t be paralyzed by sight reading. He even took the pressure off by saying it was OK to just sit in the trumpet section and listen.
It has been nearly five years since I started back. The first concert was as a dream comes true. My wife, children, in-laws were in the audience. I had some really exposed parts where only the two of us were playing and it came off exactly as practiced. I am still high from that night. It is appropriate to reflect at Christmas because, yes, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
If there are any lessons learned from the past five years. Focus less on the physical aspects of playing. Play from the musical mind by singing and counting through what you want to play first. The physical things will take care of themselves, but if need be work on them within a musical context. If you sight read as much as possible you can become a valuable member of any group because “rhythm and timing are job #1.