About Me - October 16, 2014

Twelve-year anniversary

All of my anniversary articles: 2 years - 3 years - 4 years - 5 years - 6 years - 7 years - 9 years - 10 years - 11 years - 12 years

It's now been twelve years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. Here's another anniversary article.

MORE TRAVELING IN 2014

After my first trip to Europe in 2012, when I didn't play for a month and it took me two months to rebuild my chops, I now bring either my regular trumpet or a pocket trumpet anytime I travel. When traveling, I don't practice nearly as much as I do when I'm at home, but I manage to put in enough time to keep my chops in decent playing condition.

I've done quite a bit of traveling this year, beginning with an amazing trip to Chile. After Chile, I spent a month in Manhattan, followed by six weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Rockies. And this past weekend, I returned from five weeks in Spain!

toledo, spain

Although the traveling puts a damper in my progress on the trumpet, I have had a few rewarding playing experiences while on the road. When I was in Portland over the summer, I had two playing opportunities. The first was with the clarinet-playing owner of our AirBnB rental, and the second was with a drummer who I met at one of Portland's many food truck parks. My favorite jam, though, occurred while I was in Patagonia, with Torres del Paine national park in the background. I don't know if I'll ever top that.

PLAY BY EAR ANDROID APP - THE END

As I mentioned at the end of last year, I decided to make the Android app available free of charge after hearing about some problems with newer OS versions. The problems persisted and after receiving a dozen or so emails, I removed the Android app from Google's app market earlier this year. I don't own any Android devices, and since download numbers were so low on the Android app, I couldn't justify the time and expense of its maintenance. If you're one of the former Android app users and you're looking for an ear training replacement, I'd definitely suggest my online ear trainer. It's what I use.

PLAY BY EAR IPHONE APP - PROBLEMS WITH IOS 8

If you've used my Play By Ear ear training app with iOS 8, then you've surely noticed that the audio isn't working when pitch detection is enabled. After the first exercise plays, the microphone turns on for pitch detection and it fails to reopen the audio channel for subsequent playback. I haven't used my Play By Ear app in a while, so I didn't realize there was a problem until I began receiving your emails. Thanks for letting me know!

Fortunately, it didn't take too long for me to identify the culprit and I've already uploaded a fix to the app store. Assuming Apple approves the update, it should be available within the next few days. While I was making changes to the app, I also improved the pitch detection algorithm and I modified the layout a bit so it stretches to fill larger iPhone displays. Hopefully you'll enjoy the new changes.

JAZZ IMPROVISATION LESSONS - THE OUTCOME

About a year ago, I started taking jazz improvisation lessons with one of my friends from the Atlanta jazz scene. In last year's anniversary article, I wrote that the lessons had me feeling discouraged about my playing. And if anything, I felt that I was playing better before I started taking lessons. I wish I could say things improved over time, but that just isn't the case. After several more months of lessons, I realized that the teacher's approach wasn't working out for me and we parted ways. The teacher and I are still good friends, but the experience was a classic example of how everyone learns differently.

Jazz Improvisation - May 16, 2014

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2014

recordingThis page contains my jazz improvisation recordings from 2014. As you'll hear below, these jazz recordings feature such highlights as cracked notes, poor note choice, unsteady rhythm, and meandering phrases! And that's why recording myself is so important. It's the best way to evaluate my playing and to chart my progress over time. I don't expect that I'll ever become a great jazz trumpet player, but I am anxious to hear how much better I can get with practice. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

All of my jazz improvisation recordings: 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2012 - 2014

MAY 16, 2014

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #50, Nardis

As I explained in my 11-year anniversary article, in 2013 I bought a new laptop and I lost the ability to use my old Firewire recording interface. That's why 2013 passed by without any new jazz improvisation clips. At the end of 2013, I solved this issue by buying a new Scarlett 2i2 USB recording interface. And after waiting six months, today I finally decided to use it!

In this clip, you'll hear me play a solo to "Nardis," a tune written by Miles Davis. Actually, since Miles never recorded "Nardis" and since Bill Evans played "Nardis" all the time, I figured it was actually Bill Evans who wrote "Nardis," with Miles snagging the publishing credits. In this YouTube video, however, Bill Evans sets the record straight. Miles Davis wrote "Nardis" for Cannonball Adderley, but the tune because associated with Bill Evans when "no one else seemed to pick up on it."

Usually, my audio clips are mixed down to "mono" so the trumpet and backing tracks are merged. I thought that Garageband did that for me in the past, but I couldn't figure out how to do it in the latest version. I don't particularly like the separation. It makes it too easy to nitpick my playing!

Ear Training - March 23, 2014

Ear training breakthrough

In 2002, when I started playing the trumpet again, I couldn't play anything accurately by ear. If I wanted to play something simple, like "Happy Birthday," I'd either need to have written music in front of me, or I'd have to work my way through the tune, picking out each note through trial and error. Mostly error.

During the next year or two, as I continued to rebuild my trumpet chops, I read several jazz interviews and jazz biographies, hoping to gain some insight that would help me to become a better jazz improviser. I learned a lot during that period, most of which you'll find distilled into my learning to improvise series. The most important lesson, however, was the importance of being able to play by ear. To help improve my ability to play by ear, I eventually built some ear training tools and I added at least a few minutes of ear training to my daily practice routine, which I've stuck to for the past nine years.

Over the past nine years, I've made noticeable progress in my ability to play by ear, but until recently that progress wasn't especially evident in my playing. That's because I couldn't do much with the earlier stages of my development. For example, the first time I could play "Happy Birthday" by ear in any key, I could only do so very slowly and with an unsteady rhythm (i.e. hesitating between notes). That was a major accomplishment for me, but it wasn't something I could really use in a jazz setting where I have to play at faster tempos and in time with a band.

Within the past few months, however, I feel like I've made a huge leap in my ability to play by ear. I can now listen to a jazz recording, and more often than not, I'll pick up my horn and accurately play the tune's melody or a phrase that I heard during somebody's solo. I can also listen to the rhythm section and enough notes will jump out (either from the bass or piano) that I can land on a chord tone or play something else that sounds good over the chords. I still need to improve my consistency and overall accuracy, especially at fast tempos, but I'm finally at a point where I can hear something in my head and confidently play it by ear while improvising.

PATAGONIA JAM SESSION

I recently traveled to Chile, where I spent five weeks, culminating with seven days at Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. Traveling is still relatively new to me, but so far Patagonia is the most mind-blowing place that I've visited. It's so beautiful and remote that I felt like I was on a different planet.

patagonia

Adding to the beauty of the region, we met several other travelers and guides who made us feel like we were at a home away from home. One day, while hiking to the base of the towers (torres), I told one such guide that I play the trumpet. He asked if I had my trumpet with me, and when I told him it was at the hotel, he said, "We should have a jam session! One of the other guides plays the guitar!"

Normally, I might have panicked or made excuses to get out of the jam session. After all, I'm not that good, I didn't know what kind of music they were going to play, and I hadn't been practicing that much during the preceding weeks in Chile. Any one of those excuses would have gotten me out of the jam session, but at that point so I was inspired by Patagonia that I said, "OK, let's do it!"

patagonia-jam-session

I don't know about you, but I'm a view guy. I'm captivated by beautiful views, and I can gaze at them for hours without a care in the world. With my pocket trumpet in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, I emerged onto the hotel's outdoor patio, took one look at the mountains you see in the above photo, and any fears I might have had about the jam session instantly vanished.

As we settled into our places, I introduced myself to the guitar-playing guide and another hotel guest who had brought his ukulele. I was still looking at the mountains when the guitarist asked us what we wanted to play. Transfixed by the view, I replied, "Whatever you want," to which the guitarist replied, "How about a blues?" I didn't pay attention when he mentioned the key, but once they started playing, I relied on my ears and played a passable solo over concert E blues. The ukulele player had a tougher time with his solo, but he hung in there and made it through the tune.

After the blues, the guitarist started to play a Chilean song that neither the ukulele player nor I had ever heard before. The ukulele player asked the guitarist for the chord changes and they spent a few minutes going over them. Once we started playing, though, the ukulele player was having difficulty remembering the chord changes and we had to stop once or twice. When we did finally get going again, I just closed my eyes and played another decent solo by ear.

By the start of the third tune, I was feeling confident about my ears and had decided to just play everything by ear that night. Unfortunately, the ukulele player wasn't faring as well. He struggled with the changes again on the third tune and I could tell he was getting a little frustrated. It didn't help that by this time we had a small audience of hotel guests and staff watching us! After three or four tunes, the ukulele player decided to call it quits and he took a seat next to his wife in the audience.

What began as a trio had now become a duo. The guitarist and I continued playing for the next hour or two, never discussing keys or chord changes. He'd start playing, I'd listen for a few measures, and then I'd accompany him, playing everything by ear. I don't know if I actually sounded good that night, but our audience clapped after every tune and everyone seemed to enjoy a wonderful evening in paradise.

The next morning while strolling along the shore of a nearby lake, I saw the ukulele player and his wife. After exchanging pleasantries, the ukulele player mentioned how he was struggling to keep up with us at the jam session. His wife then chimed in, telling me that her husband was feeling discouraged about his playing. After three years of playing the ukulele, he thought he was getting pretty good, but he was totally unprepared for the jam session. And then he said, "Yeah, I can't play by ear..."

I smiled and said, "Please allow me to introduce myself." Ok, so I didn't say that. I did, however, tell him that I too couldn't play by ear at one point. I've worked on it over the years, and I've developed the skills over time. I then told him all about my site and my ear training tools. He was so excited that he downloaded my Play By Ear iPhone ear training app as soon as we got back to the hotel.

I have to say, it was amazing enough to experience the culmination of so many years of ear training practice at a jam session in Patagonia. To then have the opportunity to get somebody else started on their ear training journey -- wow, how cool is that?!

About Me - December 30, 2013

Eleven-year anniversary

All of my anniversary articles: 2 years - 3 years - 4 years - 5 years - 6 years - 7 years - 9 years - 10 years - 11 years - 12 years

It's now been eleven years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. In the tradition of traditions, here's another anniversary article.

JAVA APPLET STATUS

Ear training has been a major focus of my jazz blog since it first went online in 2004. I built my first ear training tool soon thereafter, and the most recent version of that tool is the online Java applet known as Online Ear Trainer 2.0. In recent years, I built my "Play By Ear" ear training apps for iOS and Android devices, but the free online ear trainer continues to be my favorite tool due to the rhythm section and sequence modulation features.

As much as I like my online ear training tool, I fear that it might have a limited future due to recent issues with Java applets (an "applet" is a Java application that runs in your web browser). In 2012, Java security threats were discovered which allowed applets to directly access a computer's file system. Web browsers initially battled this threat by blocking all unsigned applets, including my online ear trainer. Various Java patches have been released since then and all applets are once again allowed to run. Unfortunately, those applets now carry the burden of ominous security warnings that appear every time they are loaded. Update: as of Jan 17, 2014, my ear training applet is now signed so you should be able to accept the security warning once without having to see it every time the applet loads.

With the security problems, the general disdain for browser plugins (e.g. Flash), and the move towards HTML5 alternatives, I wouldn't be surprised if Web browsers stop supporting Java applets entirely in the coming years. If that happens, that will be the end of my online ear trainer. It's not all doom and gloom, though. A few weeks ago I began tinkering with a possible replacement that uses a new JavaScript MIDI engine. It might not be as powerful as my Java ear trainer, but I think it will be a decent substitute. Once I have something worth sharing, I'll let you know.

ANDROID EAR TRAINING APPLICATION GOES FREE

In last year's anniversary article, I mentioned the disappointing sales of my "Play By Ear" Android ear training application and my decision to discontinue its future development. I've kept the app in the Google Play/Market/WhateverThey'reCallingItToday store, though, since I think it's a useful app and it's still probably worth the $1.99 price. Or so I had thought until a few days ago.

Last Thursday, I received an email from somebody who had just purchased my Android ear training application for his Nexus 5 (Android 4.4.2). Upon starting the application, he saw an error message and then the application froze. This is the first I've heard of any problems with the Android app, but if it's happening to one person, it's probably happening to others. Since I don't have any android devices to test on, and since I don't want to spend any more time on the app anyway, I went ahead and refunded his purchase and I made the Android app free from this point forward. If I receive more complaints about the app not working, I'll probably take it down entirely, so get it while it lasts.

WHERE ARE THE 2013 JAZZ IMPROVISATION RECORDINGS?

Ever since 2004, I've been sharing some of my jazz improvisation clips on this jazz blog. The recordings are a valuable part of my jazz studies since they allow me to return to my jazz solos and study the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of my solos. And by sharing the recordings with all of you, you can marvel at the precision by which I have equally distributed the good, the bad, and the ugly in each solo. For the first year in the history of this website, however, 2013 has come and gone without a single jazz improvisation clip. Hopefully you've found another source of laughter to fill the void.

I have wanted to record some clips this year, but I lost the ability to do so when I bought a new MacBook Air at the end of 2012. Until that point, I was using an MAudio recording interface with the FireWire port of my computer. The MacBook Air doesn't have a FireWire port, though, and since I spent a good portion of this year traveling, I wasn't in any hurry to find a new solution.

A few weeks ago, I bought a new Scarlett 2i2 USB recording interface, so I can finally record myself again. Unfortunately, this development coincides with a bit of a detour in my playing, which I'll discuss next.

JAZZ IMPROVISATION LESSONS

Three months ago, I began taking private jazz improvisation lessons with one of Atlanta's top jazz musicians. My goal was to focus on ear training, mostly to get a fresh perspective from somebody with many years of ear training research and teaching experience.

I'd like to say that I'm enjoying the lessons and I'm playing better than ever, but unfortunately that isn't the case. If anything, I'm more discouraged about my playing than I've been in a while, and I feel like I've lost some of the progress that I had made prior to taking lessons. Maybe this is one of those situations where the teacher has to break down his student before he can build him back up again. You know, like the totally awesome 80's movie, "North Shore," in which a hot-shot surfer (also named "Rick") ditches his 3-fin surf board in order to first master the tree log board, the long board, and every other shape, at which point his soul-surfer teacher allows him to return to a modern surf board just in time to (nearly) win the Banzai Pipeline competition. If you haven't seen the movie, I doubt you'll understand. But suffice it to say, I'm hanging in there for now, with the hope that Nia Peeples will make an appearance.

Happy New Year!

Trumpet Technique - December 1, 2013

Atlanta Trumpet Festival #10, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 10th annual Atlanta Trumpet Festival, at the Emory University campus. If you'd like to learn more about the Atlanta Trumpet Festival, start with my review from 2012. That article includes an introduction as well as some information about Kay Fairchild, the festival organizer, and her Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble.

middle school trumpet ensemble

Once again, I participated as a playing member of the adult ensemble. Not to toot my own horn, but I played better this year than I've played in any previous year of the Atlanta Trumpet Festival! For the first time, I even played one of the first trumpet parts (members pick there own parts and I normally pick lower parts). I can't say for certain, but I think the soft playing that I've done this year has resulted in a more consistent upper register and improved endurance.

TRUMPET CLINIC - HOW TO CLEAN YOUR TRUMPET

Each year, the Atlanta Trumpet Festival includes two master classes, or clinics. Usually the master classes focus on warm ups, or some other aspect of trumpet performance. This year, however, one of the master classes didn't have anything to do with playing the trumpet at all. Instead, it was a clinic on how to clean a trumpet, hosted by Rich Ita. If you've read my "equipment information" page, you might recall that Rich Ita repaired and restored my trumpet back in 2008.

As of this writing, I've been playing the trumpet for a total of 17 years. While I haven't exactly been the most diligent trumpet cleaner, I've certainly done it enough times to know what I'm doing. Really, though, how much is there to talk about? First you fill the kitchen sink up with soapy water. Then you take the trumpet apart and put it in the sink. After waiting an hour, or if your wife declares that she needs to use the sink (whichever comes first!), you remove the trumpet parts, grease up the slides, and accidentally drop one of them onto the kitchen floor.

To my surprise, the trumpet cleaning clinic ended up being one of the more interesting clinics that I've attended at any of the trumpet festivals. And as it turns out, I've been cleaning my trumpet improperly all of these years!

For my trumpet playing readers, here are some of the things I learned during Rich Ita's clinic on trumpet cleaning:

  • Wipe off the slides and valves before soaking the trumpet - After disassembling my trumpet, I always put everything into the water as-is. It's better, though, to use a paper towel to wipe off the grease and valve oil first so you'll have cleaner water and a cleaner final horn.
  • Soak the trumpet in lukewarm water with a little bit of mild dish soap - I always used very hot water, thinking that if it's good enough to wash dishes, it's good enough to clean my trumpet. In actuality, the hot water can cause some damage by eating away at the trumpet's finish. Similarly, you shouldn't use so much soap that you end up with lots of suds. That soap can also damage your trumpet's finish and result in flaking and/or pitting.
  • It's a good idea to put a drop or more of valve oil down your lead pipe - Our saliva has chemicals, enzymes, and bits of food which can corrode the inside of the trumpet. Putting a few drops of valve oil into the horn and blowing it through will coat the inside of the horn, acting a sealant against your gross disgusting germs.
  • If your valves are stuck, oil them, don't just mash them up and down - if you haven't played your horn in a while and a valve is stuck, or hard to press, don't press it up and down over and over again to free it up. Instead, remove the valve and add some valve oil. The valve was likely stuck due to crystallization of your saliva, corrosion, and that grande Americano you drank before practice. That stuff can be brittle and moving it around a lot without oil can scrape your valves. If you can't remove the valve because it's too stuck, you might try adding valve oil via one of the value's slides.
  • Don't oil your valves from the bottom - I've always known it's not a good idea to oil valves from the little hole in the bottom of the caps, but I never really knew why. As Rich explained, it's a bad idea because deposits, sediment, and other junk naturally floats to the bottom of our valves. When we turn the horn upside down and oil from the bottom, we are encouraging those deposits to make their way back into the valve casing where they might damage the valves.

As always, I'd like to thank Kay Fairchild, her son David Fairchild, the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble, and everyone else responsible for bringing us the Atlanta Trumpet Festival each year. It's an event that I always look forward to and we're lucky to have it here in Atlanta.

ADDITIONAL READING

All of my Atlanta Trumpet Festival reviews: 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2011 - 2012 - 2013

Jazz Blog - September 24, 2013

Jazz podcasts

During my lunch hour, I like to go for walks and listen to jazz podcasts. Podcasts are also great for those times when I can't find anything good to listen to on the radio. In the interest of sharing, here are my favorite jazz podcasts.

MARIAN McPARTLAND'S PIANO JAZZ

marian mcpartlandYou probably know all about Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz radio program, but just in case, here's a brief summary: During each show, one or more guest artists join Marian McPartland for an interview and a live performance in her studio. That's one way to describe her show. You could also say it's the best show of its kind, ever, in the history of the world.

A professional jazz pianist herself, Marian McPartland began her career in the 1940s and she led her own band throughout the 1950s in New York City. Unlike most radio and podcast hosts, she didn't just study jazz history, she lived it! While chatting with legendary jazz musicians on her radio program, Marian's recollections are often as fascinating as those of her guests. And her guests are truly the best of the best. During the 25 years that she hosted her show on NPR, she's interviewed and performed with Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and several hundred more of the best musicians of our time.

Over the years I've listened to several of Marian McPartland's radio programs, but there are so many that I missed. And only a limited number of the older programs have been available online or as albums. With Marian McPartland's recent passing, however, it appears that NPR is beginning to make more of the old programs available. I say "beginning to make... available" because the list seems to be growing by the day. I first started downloading the old programs a couple of weeks ago and there are more than twice as many available today. For now, you can't easily download all of them as podcasts, but you can listen to them online. Here are the various places where you can access the recordings:

Online - this is where you'll find the largest number of programs

Go to the official Piano Jazz at NPR.org page. Once you've opened the NPR page, click "View Full Archive" near the bottom of that page. From there click the "Previous" links to access the older shows. Although you can't download all of these as podcasts for offline listening, the site works well from a mobile device so you can still take this with you wherever you have network connectivity.

Podcast via NPR app - about 30 programs are available here

In the NPR application for iPhone or Android, click the Programs button, then scroll to "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz." From that page you can add them to your playlist and play them from within the NPR App

Podcast via iTunes - about 15 programs are available here

Here is the iTunes link for Marian McPartland's podcasts in iTunes.

GORDON VERNICK'S JAZZ INSIGHTS

gordon vernickI mentioned Gordon Vernick's jazz podcast a few years ago, but since that time it has changed locations within iTunes. Since the old location stopped receiving updates, I assumed he wasn't making any new podcasts. While chatting with Gordon a couple of months ago, he told me that the podcast is still going strong, so I looked it up and found the new iTunes location. If you had subscribed to his old podcast, you're in luck. There are dozens of new recordings. I especially enjoyed the ones on Tito Puente, Nat King Cole, and the new Miles Davis podcast. Also, if you're an aspiring jazz musician, be sure to listen to the recording with Joe Gransden. Joe Gransden is one of the most successful gigging jazz musicians here in Atlanta, and in that podcast you'll hear about all of the work it takes to achieve that success.

ADDITIONAL PODCASTS

Here are some other shows that I enjoy, but for one reason or another, I can't recommend them as much as the ones I mentioned above.

  • NANCY WILSON'S JAZZ PROFILES - The great vocalist, Nancy Wilson, hosted a long-running program on NPR called "Jazz Profiles." This is a fantastic program, but I can't really recommend it as a podcast since so few of the shows are available outside of the NPR website. A few years ago, a handful of the programs were available in iTunes, but I can't seem to find any of them anymore. Hopefully NPR will make more of these shows available on iTunes and/or in their mobile app.
  • NOISE FROM THE DEEP - this podcast, by trumpeter Dave Douglas and his Greenleaf Music label, features interviews with various jazz musicians. This relatively new podcast has ten segments thus far. I've listened to about half of them, and I'd definitely recommend them to any fans of Dave Douglas and/or his Greenleaf music label. This jazz podcast probably doesn't have the mass appeal of the aforementioned podcasts, though, since this one features lesser-known and/or up-and-coming jazz musicians (some of whom play free/experimental music). It's worth mentioning that the interviews seem to be done by Skype or telephone, and I sometimes find the poor audio quality to be a bit distracting.
  • JUDY CARMICHAEL - JAZZ INSPIRED - this podcast was recommend by "Marlon" in the comments. Judy is a stride pianist and her podcast contains interviews along with recordings from her featured guests. The guests are mostly jazz musicians, but you'll also find interviews with magicians, actors, directors, and other members of the entertainment industry.
  • JASON CRANE - THE JAZZ SESSION - this is another recommendation from "Marlon". Jason Crane is a DJ and his podcast features interviews with a wide variety of jazz musicians. This is definitely worth checking out.

YOUR SUGGESTED JAZZ PODCASTS

If you know of any other great jazz podcasts, please share them in the comments to this post. As they come in, I'll add them to this section.

Jazz Blog - September 2, 2013

Traveling and trumpet practice

My wife and I both work from home, so we can theoretically work from anyplace with Internet access. With this in mind, we've dreamt of a future where were can pick up and go to a different state (or country!), rent an apartment, and divide our time between working and exploring our new surroundings.

Last year we took the first of these extended trips. The first trip was a five-week visit to Portland, Oregon and the second trip was a month-long journey through Europe. I absolutely loved both of those trips, but they were terrible for my trumpet playing. During the first trip I barely practiced and I didn't practice at all during my month in Europe. I would have hoped to rebuild my chops in a couple of weeks after those trips, but it ended up taking several months of frustrating practice sessions before I was back to my pre-trip level of playing.

Wishing to avoid another lengthy period of chop rebuilding, I promised myself that I'd maintain my daily practice routine on all future trips. After all, I'm already bad enough on the trumpet -- I can't afford to get any worse!

VISITING AMSTERDAM

After visiting Europe for the first time last year, both my wife and I couldn't wait to return. We weren't quite sure where we wanted to go, but we ended up picking Amsterdam for its beautiful canals, architecture, arts, and bicycle-friendly culture. We rented a lovely apartment near Prinsengracht and Reguliersgracht, bought a couple of used bikes, and quickly found ourselves falling in love with the city. I have so many wonderful memories from our month in Amsterdam, but one of my favorites was from a bike ride towards Bimhuis, the main jazz venue. As we approached Bimhuis, we saw dozens of people enjoying the afternoon sun, drinking beers, and sitting on the waterfront at Hannekes Boom, an indoor/outdoor bar. We stopped for a few drinks ourselves, and happily lost an hour or two as we dangled our feet over the lapping waves and watched the boats go to and fro.

I know, I know. You're all thinking, "Enough about Amsterdam. Let's get back to trumpet talk!" Ok, you win.

PLAYING A POCKET TRUMPET

A couple of years ago, I bought a Colin Pocket Max pocket trumpet so I could easily put it in my luggage and bring it with me when I travel. Expectations fell short of reality, though, and it hasn't gotten much use, neither at home nor in my travels. I decided to change all of that in Amsterdam, so I made a small wooden case for my pocket trumpet and I packed it into my check-in bag.

Some of you might think it's foolish to put a trumpet in checked baggage. Honestly, I don't think it's a good idea either. I know airlines allow passengers to bring an instrument as an additional carry-on, but I didn't want to juggle three bags while navigating the train stations and trams upon our arrival to Amsterdam. I also didn't want to put the trumpet in my carry-on (a backpack) because it was already full of clothes and other essentials that I'd absolutely need if the airline lost my checked bag. Even though it was a bit risky to put the horn into my checked bag, I was fairly confident that my wooden case would protect it. Thankfully it made it to Amsterdam and back unscathed.

Pocket trumpets tend to be an interesting topic among trumpeters, so I thought I'd share my impressions of the horn. As mentioned, it's a Colin Pocket Max. I bought the horn on eBay for about $400. At that time, I had only played one pocket trumpet, a used Carol Brass pocket trumpet that I tried at one of the Atlanta Trumpet Festivals. I didn't care for the tone and intonation of the Carol Brass horn and I felt it was too expensive for a horn that I didn't love -- I think it was about $700. Shortly thereafter, I saw the silver-plated (and now nicely tarnished) Pocket Max on eBay for $400 and figured it was worth the risk, especially since I had read some good reviews for the horn. As I'd learn, the Pocket Max is a decent sounding horn, but it definitely has intonation problems once the notes get below the staff. It might have intonation issues above the staff too, but I don't spend a lot of time up there! Due to the intonation issues, I probably wouldn't want to play the Pocket Max in public, but it served me well enough during my month in Amsterdam.

PLAYING THE TRUMPET SOFTLY

As I mentioned earlier, we were staying in an apartment building in Amsterdam. Playing the trumpet quietly was foremost in my mind because the apartment walls were thin, and I didn't want to annoy our neighbors who lived there year-round. I brought a Harmon mute to help lower my volume, but even with the mute I still felt that I was too loud. At that point my only option was to try to play more quietly. Note: I own a sshhmute and a Best Brass practice mute, but I don't like either of them. They cause intonation problems, making it difficult to practice ear training.

Over the years, I've heard several people discuss the benefits of practicing the trumpet at low volumes. For example, playing softly was recommended in one of the master classes that I attended at the 2012 International Trumpet Guild conference. And Cat Anderson, Duke Ellington's legendary lead trumpeter, was such a firm believer in playing softly that he recommended playing a single note at a whisper tone for 20 minutes as part of a daily practice routine.

According to the experts, playing softly is supposed to relieve tension and mouthpiece pressure while simultaneously strengthening the embouchure so it's more focused and responsive. For me, reduced mouthpiece pressure is perhaps the most important benefit of playing softly. Most trumpet players at one time or another have used excessive mouthpiece pressure to force out a high note -- or in my case, a "D" in the staff! The extra mouthpiece pressure stretches our lips making it easier to buzz faster, thus increasing our range. And it works wonderfully. That is, until all that pressure cuts off the blood supply to our lips and our embouchure storms out of the room yelling, "I can't do this anymore!" That's basically what happened to my chops back when I had my chop blowout.

I had tried practicing softly in the past, but it wasn't until Amsterdam that I was forced to do it every day for an extended period of time. At first, I could barely get my lips to buzz while playing quietly. Over time, though, I was able to complete more and more of my practice routine while playing at a very low volume. By the end of the four weeks, I could play my entire routine almost as well as I can play it at normal volume levels. My range also seemed to improve, as I was more consistently able to play two-octave scales beyond high "C".

FOUR MONTHS OF PRACTICING SOFTLY

After my Amsterdam trip, I decided to continue practicing softly on a regular basis. I don't use a mute at home, but I do try to match that muted volume while working through my practice routine. I also purchased one of those adjustable Denis Wick cup mutes, which I used to successfully play quietly during a recent six-week visit to Portland, Oregon. The cup mute doesn't distort my sound as much as the Harmon mute, and because it's adjustable, I have more control over the volume and tone.

For me, the true test of any change to my routine is its impact on my jazz playing. I can measure that impact pretty easily by looking at my performance in the jazz combo that I play in each week. With the combo, there's always a point in the night where my chops become fatigued and I resort to excessive pressure in order to keep playing. I'm still reaching that point during the sessions, but it's occurring later in the night. Actually, last week it didn't even happen at all. Granted, that session was a little shorter than normal, but for the first time ever, my embouchure didn't give me the silent treatment on the way home!