I WAS DOING ALL RIGHT

An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

September 2, 2013 Jazz Blog 4 Comments

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!

January 5, 2013 About Me 10 Comments

Ten-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 - 13 years - 15 years

It's now been ten years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. I had hoped to write this article before the end of 2012, but with traveling, work, colds, and other distractions, I didn't make the deadline. Oh well, better late than never.

LEARNING TUNES

After my jam session with Tyrone Jackson at the 2012 ITG conference, I began memorizing jazz tunes with the goal of having 40 tunes memorized by the end of 2012. I was off to a good start, but taking time off to travel caused me to have to relearn most of what I had previously committed to memory. Consequently, I only learned 22 tunes by the end of 2012. I'm okay with that, though, since that's 22 more tunes than I knew at the start of 2012. I'm going to continue learning jazz tunes in 2013, but I'll set a more attainable goal of learning 50 total tunes by the end of the year.

Here's a list of the tunes that I've learned thus far: Recordame, Caravan, Footprints, Cherokee, Ladybird, Blue Monk, Bessie's Blues, Straight No Chaser, Nardis, Sweet Georgia Brown, El Gaucho, What Is This Thing Called Love?, Impressions/So What, Summertime, There Is No Greater Love, Oleo, Have You Met Miss Jones, Watermelon Man, All The Things You Are, Song For My Father, Stella By Starlight, Blue Bossa

For each of these tunes, I can play the melodies and I can outline the changes by memory. When it comes to improvising over the tunes, I still have to consciously think about the changes to most of them, especially the longer tunes like Stella By Starlight and All The Things You Are. I am, however, becoming gradually more confident with these tunes and I'm finding that the initially challenging sections are becoming easier with each review.

ANDROID EAR TRAINING APPLICATION

In October of 2011, I released an Android version of my "Play by Ear" ear training application. While all of my other ear training tools are free, I decided to charge $1.99 for the Android ear training application. The decision to charge for the app was made in part to compensate myself for building an application that I'll never use (I have an iPhone). But for most part, I charged money because I was curious to see how many people are actually willing to pay for an Android ear training application. As it turns out, not that many.

Thirteen months after its initial release, 773 people have purchased the Android version of Play by Ear. By comparison, about 45 people install the iPhone version every day (some days over 100). That's about 16,425 installs of the iPhone ear training app per year. From these numbers, I think it's safe to draw the following two conclusions. First, the audience for iPhone ear training apps is considerably larger than the Android audience. And second, people prefer free apps. No surprise there.

As a result of these findings, I've decided to discontinue development of the Android application. I know this might disappoint some of you, but I hope you'll understand that continued development isn't the best use of my limited time. Sorry!

EMBOUCHURE AND MOUTHPIECE TROUBLES

When I wrote the article about traveling in 2012, I had only been back on the horn for a couple of weeks after not playing at all during the entire month of September. At that time, I couldn't play for more than 10 minutes at a time before my chops would give out. To be more specific, lately when my chops "give out," it feels like my upper lip stops vibrating. One minute my upper lip is responsive, and the next it feels flat and lifeless. I can't say for certain what's happening, though, and that's partly due to the fact that I never regained feeling at the very top of my lip (just under my nose), due to the root canal that I mentioned in my nine-year anniversary article.

As the recovery from my vacation continued, I practiced as usual but I wasn't improving at all. In fact, my chops were getting worse. After a few minutes of playing, I needed a lot of mouthpiece pressure just to play above a C in the staff. I still felt like my upper lip stopped vibrating, but for the first time I also felt like my mouthpiece (Yamaha 11C4-7C) was too small; as if it prevented me from buzzing. I'm guessing that after not playing for a month, my embouchure changed slightly, perhaps due to the root canal and new front tooth that I received at the end of 2011. Whatever the cause, my old mouthpiece wasn't working very well for me anymore.

The week before Thanksgiving, I visited Rich Ita's workshop to see if I could find a better mouthpiece. I initially tried some Warburton mouthpieces, but I couldn't find any combinations that worked for me. Next, I tried some Schilke mouthpieces. I didn't care for the first two or three sizes, but when I got to a Schilke 9, my playing really seemed to open up. The rounded rim was comfortable and it was easier to move around the horn. After trying a few dozen more mouthpieces, the only other mouthpiece that I liked was a Monette B7. The Monette B7 was even easier to play than the Schilke 9, but my tone sounded too thin. Unfortunately, that was the only Monette mouthpiece at Rich's shop, so I couldn't try any other sizes. In the end, I bought the Schilke 9.

I've been playing on the Schilke 9 mouthpiece for a little over a month now. At first, I liked the mouthpiece, but then I inevitably reached a period where it felt like it was harder to play than my old mouthpiece. The same thing happened with the GR mouthpiece that I bought in 2009. I did at least like my sound on the Schilke 9 (I don't like my sound on the GR), so I decided to stick with it for a while longer.

I've now reached the point where I mostly like the Schilke 9, but I'd also like to try some slightly larger Schilke mouthpieces, just to see if those feel any better. I already own a Schilke 15, so I know that's too big. Of course, I'd love to try another Monette, but I can't bring myself to spend all of that money on a mouthpiece unless I know for sure that I'll still play it after a couple of weeks.

November 17, 2012 Trumpet Technique 0 Comments

Atlanta Trumpet Festival #9, 2012

Recently, I attended the 2012 Atlanta Trumpet Festival. It's the ninth year of the Atlanta Trumpet Festival and it's the fourth festival that I've attended as a participating member.

As I've written previously, the Atlanta Trumpet Festival is open to all ages, however the participants are divided into three groups. There's a middle school ensemble, a high school ensemble, and an adult ensemble. Each ensemble rehearses a handful of tunes, which they then perform on the second and final day of the festival. In between rehearsals, the festival hosts master classes and a vendor area where participants can try a variety of trumpets and trumpet accessories. If you're in the Atlanta area and you play the trumpet, you should definitely check it out.

high school trumpet ensemble

Rather than talk about the master classes and my perpetual inability to play simple concert band music, I thought I'd focus this review on the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble, some of its members, and the importance of music education.

ATLANTA TRUMPET ENSEMBLE

In 2004, Kay Fairchild created the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble along with nine of her high school trumpet students. Modeled after a similar ensemble from North Carolina, the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble provided a way for Kay Fairchild's students to play trumpet music in a group setting. Later that year, the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble hosted the first annual Atlanta Trumpet Festival, and both the ensemble and festival have been going strong ever since.

During the final concert of this year's trumpet festival, Kay Fairchild took a moment to update us on the present-day lives of the original nine members of the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble. Now in their twenties, most have graduated from college already, some have had children, one graduated from Julliard, two are middle/high school band directors, one is an officer in the Navy, and one of them recently secured a three million dollar grant to fund an after school music program for children in Philadelphia. Wow!

Although the current members of the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble are still in high school, they have already demonstrated a strong work ethic and a will to succeed. As Kay Fairchild pointed out, they have a demanding schedule that includes daily trumpet practice, ensemble rehearsals, ensemble concerts, marching band rehearsals, and marching band performances. And with all of those commitments, most of them still manage to get straight A's in school.

After learning more about the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble members, I began to wonder if there are any secrets to their success. Perhaps they're the product of great parenting. Or maybe Kay Fairchild deserves most of the credit as an excellent mentor and trumpet teacher. Or maybe there's something about playing an instrument that teaches kids how to succeed and accomplish their goals in life. Nope... couldn't be that!

LEARNING DELAYED GRATIFICATION THROUGH MUSIC EDUCATION

When it's effective, music education teaches students a lot more than simply how to play an instrument. Music students will develop a greater appreciation of the arts, as they're exposed to music that they wouldn't normally hear. Music students will learn to be more compassionate as they try to play musically and blend in with an ensemble. And as Stanford Thompson, a founding member of the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble, tells us in the video below, music students will learn to accept and appreciate the invaluable concept of 'delayed gratification.'

Before I talk about delayed gratification, I think it's important to look at the dangers of instant gratification, especially as it affects children. As we all know, instant gratification is the sense of fulfillment that we get when something is easily obtained. I suppose the classic example of instant gratification is winning the lottery. With just a dollar and a few lucky numbers, you can win more than you'd make during your entire career. In pursuit of this goal, millions of adults throw away dollar after dollar as they pin their hopes and dreams on dumb luck. Thankfully, children aren't allowed to play the lottery. Children do, however, have plenty of temptations that promise instant gratification. For most kids, the main draws are television and video games. Other kids, especially those surrounded by bad influences, might turn to more sinister temptations like alcohol, drugs, and crime. There's nothing wrong with (legal) instant gratification in moderation, but if your aspirations are limited to things that come easily, then you probably won't achieve very much in life.

The opposite of instant gratification, delayed gratification, suggests that the rewards for your efforts will come at some future point in time. This concept of delayed gratification exists in every phase of learning to play an instrument. If you're just beginning to play the trumpet, for example, it will take several month of practice before you develop a clear tone. After that, you've got many more months of slurs, articulation studies, and so on before you can play simple trumpet repertoire. And if your goal is to play something like the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, then you're really in for the long haul -- I still can't play those turns near the end of the third movement!

Even though it will take many months and years to become a great musician, students will achieve many small successes along the way. The small successes of learning a new scale and mastering a simple etude are milestones of progress. These milestones prove to students that all of the hard work is actually paying off. And, more importantly, these small successes motivate students to continue working toward their goals.

Of course, this lesson in delayed gratification extends far beyond music. Future goals, like attending college, getting a promotion at work, or starting an after school music program, will no longer seem unattainable because the students have a solid framework for achieving success.

In the days that followed the Atlanta Trumpet Festival, I thought about this notion of delayed gratification as it relates to all of the middle and high school students who participated in the festival. While I'm sure many of those kids enjoy playing the trumpet, there are probably a few who only play the trumpet because their parents force it upon them. I think it's those kids who really stand to benefit the most from the Atlanta Trumpet Festival. Spending a couple of days with dozens of their trumpet playing peers, and listening to professional trumpeters play things they never thought possible, those kids just might feel inspired enough to take the trumpet more seriously. And once they're hooked, who knows what they'll accomplish.

ADDITIONAL LINKS

If you'd like to learn more about Stanford Thompson and his after school music education program, you might want to visit the Play On Philly website or his personal website. You also might enjoy this video from his presentation at TedXPhilly.

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

October 13, 2012 Jazz Blog 3 Comments

Traveling - taking a break

Things have been a little slow on this jazz blog lately. My last blog post was a jazz improvisation recording from August 4th, and I haven't written an actual blog article since June 1st. I'm not a particularly active blogger, but even for me, writing only one article in four months feels like I've been slacking. Even worse than my lack of blogging is the fact that I haven't practiced the trumpet very much during the past four months. In fact, I didn't play the trumpet at all during the month of September.

So what have I been doing lately? I've been slacking. Um, I mean, I've been traveling! I spent the month of July in Portland, Oregon and for the entire month of September, I traveled through Europe. What does this have to do with trumpet playing and jazz improvisation? Frankly, not much. But since I'm long overdue for a new blog article, I'm going to force a connection anyway!

In the first of my "Lessons from Traveling" articles (yes, there will be more than one), I'm going to talk about my attempts to practice while traveling. I'll also discuss some of the pros and cons of taking a break from trumpet playing.

PRACTICING THE TRUMPET IN PORTLAND, OREGON

My wife and I have visited Portland several times over the years (my mother lives in a Portland suburb), and each time we visit, we wish we could have stayed longer to experience more of life in the Pacific Northwest. As of this year, we both work from home, so we can theoretically work from anywhere. With that in mind, we decided to spend the month of July working and vacationing in Portland.

I brought my trumpet to Portland so I could maintain my normal practice schedule. But even with the best of intentions, I barely practiced at all. Actually, the first week I was pretty good. I practiced at least every other day and tried to maintain my normal mix of practicing trumpet fundamentals, ear training, and jazz improvisation. As the trip progressed, though, I'd end up skipping more and more days. And during the last couple of weeks, I didn't practice at all.

The lack of practicing was mostly due to our accommodations, a one-bedroom apartment that we rented in Portland's Hawthorne District. Since we were staying in an apartment building, I had to play with a practice mute so as not to irritate our neighbors. Playing with a mute is nothing new to me. I always practiced with a mute back when I was a college student, living in a tiny apartment in Chicago. I had forgotten, though, exactly how much I dislike playing with a mute.

Some trumpet players are impressed by high notes. Others like to hear feats of technical mastery. The quality that's most important to me, however, is a player's tone. My preferred trumpet tone is warm, bold, and expressive. The last thing I want to hear is a pinched, thin, or muffled-sounding trumpet. Unfortunately, that's exactly what I get when I play with a practice mute. I can tolerate this lackluster tone in short doses, but after a couple of weeks in Portland, I didn't want to hear it anymore.

I knew a mute would deaden my tone, but I was surprised by the intonation problems of the sshmute, which I purchased earlier this year at the ITG conference. During my initial tests on the mute, I thought the intonation was pretty good. As I'd learn during my Portland trip, though, the intonation gets quite a bit worse in the lower register. Who knows, it might be bad in the upper register too, but with my terrible range, I don't spend much time up there! While the intonation issue might not hinder the practicing of trumpet fundamentals, it does pose a problem when practicing ear training and jazz improvisation. If a "good" note ends up sounding "bad" because it's out of tune, then it's hard to tell if I'm actually playing the intended pitches.

(NOT) PRACTICING THE TRUMPET IN EUROPE

My employer offers a one-month sabbatical after you've been with the company for seven years. Having recently passed the ten-year mark, I figured it was time for me to finally take them up on their offer. Neither my wife nor I had visited Europe before, so we decided to use the sabbatical to spend the month of September traveling through a few European countries. We started in London, and then made our way through Paris, the Swiss Alps, Milan, Florence, Cinque Terre, Genoa, Nice, Les Baux-de-Provence, Costa Brava, and Barcelona. Not a bad way to spend September, eh?

When we began to plan for our trip to Europe, I thought I'd bring a pocket trumpet in my bag so I could keep up with my normal practice activities. After our Portland trip, however, I knew that I probably wouldn't end up practicing very often, so it would be a mistake to lug a horn from city to city. A pocket trumpet might seem small and portable, but since I was only bringing a single backpack for all of my stuff, every inch (and pound) really mattered.

The day before we left for Europe, I felt guilty about not playing the trumpet for an entire month, so I threw an old mouthpiece into my backpack. Surely a little mouthpiece buzzing would be better than not playing at all, right? I know the answer to that question is "yes," but I don't speak from experience. As it turns out, the mouthpiece never left my bag. After ten years of diligent trumpet practice, I didn't play at all for an entire month.

THE FEAR OF NOT PLAYING

I've played the trumpet for about eighteen years. Eight of those years were back when I was a kid and the other ten are from my trumpet comeback. Throughout all of that time, I've been painfully aware of two rules of playing the trumpet: First, I won't be a decent trumpet player unless I practice. And second, if I miss more than a few days of practice, I'll pay for it in the practice room.

While all musical instruments require a certain amount of ongoing practice, I do think wind instruments, and especially brass instruments, place a unique demand on our bodies. For starters, there's the awkward coordination of our lungs, fingers, and mouths. If any one of these components gets out of sync with each other, we'll start to sound sloppy as we crack notes, miss articulations, and stumble through difficult passages. And if all of that isn't tricky enough, brass players also have the misfortune of needing to buzz into a mouthpiece. Most of us use our fingers, lungs, and mouths on a daily basis, but there isn't exactly a normal everyday activity that mimics the act of buzzing a mouthpiece. That's why it's so important for us to practice on a regular basis. If we don't use it, we lose it!

THE DOWNSIDES OF TAKING A BREAK

Physical Atrophy: After each trip, I immediately resumed my normal trumpet practice routine. During the first couple of days, my tone was pinched and strained, as I had to force my lips to buzz again. And once they did buzz, my accuracy was atrocious. I'd repeatedly over- or under-shoot notes by an entire partial.

I've been able to regain my tone after about a week of practice, but the real challenge is endurance. As of this writing, I'm a couple of weeks into my recovery from the Europe trip, and I can only play for about ten minutes at a time before my chops give out. I know from my Portland trip that it will probably take another week or two before my endurance returns to its normal state.

Mental Atrophy: A recent goal of mine has been to learn jazz tunes. I've made some progress toward that goal, but with each break, I end up undoing a lot of that effort. Various sections of the tunes have become hazy in my memory, so rather than learn new tunes, I've been relearning tunes that I had already knew. I had hoped to learn forty tunes by the end of the year, but that seems unlikely at this point.

I know I could offset the physical and mental atrophy simply by buzzing and reviewing tunes in my mind. That definitely was my intention prior to these trips. But once I got away, I lost the motivation to practice as my mindset shifted into "vacation mode." As I travel more, I'll definitely have to work on this. These extended trips have been wonderful, but I'd really like to avoid the subsequent month-long rebuilding periods.

THE BENEFITS OF TAKING A BREAK

No doubt about it, I won't improve as a trumpet player unless I practice regularly. There are, however, some benefits to taking a break.

Fresh approach: When I'm practicing regularly and working on the same routine every day, there's a potential for getting into a rut. For me, this occurs mostly in my jazz improvisation studies. A musical phrase cements itself in my mind and I'll end up playing some variation thereof over and over again. The next thing I know, I'm playing the same lick every day, just because it's familiar. By taking a break, I can forget some of these licks and patterns. And with any luck, when I return to the instrument, I might have some new ideas that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: I love jazz and I truly enjoy playing the trumpet (most of the time). Unfortunately, though, music and trumpet playing don't come very easily to me. It takes a lot of work for me to improve as a trumpet player, and sometimes it feels like a chore to pick up the horn and practice every day. I won't say that I ever feel burnt out, but I do occasionally feel a lack of motivation.

I'll admit that I didn't exactly miss the trumpet while I was sipping wine on the bank of the Seine in Paris, nor did I think about the trumpet while I swam in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy. But, as my Europe trip woefully wound to a close, I did take consolation in the fact that I'd soon get to play the trumpet again. Now that I'm back on the horn and my chops are nearly back to their old form, I definitely feel a renewed sense of motivation to practice and improve as a trumpet player.

Of course, I could reap these benefits without taking an actual break from the horn. For example, if I spend a few weeks practicing classical etudes instead of jazz improvisation, it will be like taking a break, but I won't suffer the downsides of not playing. I don't know, though. A few weeks of nothing but classical etudes doesn't sound like much of a vacation to me.

August 4, 2012 Jazz Improvisation 7 Comments

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2012

recordingThis page contains my jazz improvisation recordings from 2012. 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 - 2015 - 2016

AUGUST 4, 2012

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #108, Recorda-Me

Ever since my poor performance at the International Trumpet Guild conference, I've dedicated a decent chunk of my practice time to memorizing tunes. One of the tunes that I've memorized is "Recorda-Me," by Joe Henderson.

Before I recorded this jazz improvisation clip, I promised myself that no matter how bad I up sounding, I'm still going to share something from the recording session. As you'll hear in this recording, I stayed true to that promise!

The two choruses don't really fit together at all, but that's because I didn't like what I played in the first chorus. This happens a lot when I record. I'll try an idea, and if it doesn't go anywhere, I'll move on to a new idea in the following chorus. Typically, in these instances I'll only post one chorus, but since neither of these are a winner in my opinion, I decided to share them both.

Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I've been out of town for the past 5 weeks. I brought my trumpet with me, but I only ended up practicing about once a week. Consequently, I'm still a bit rusty as I work to rebuild my chops. Isn't it convenient that I always have an excuse when I don't like my playing? Yes, it is convenient.

MARCH 13, 2012

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #33, El Gaucho

Today I'm sharing two choruses of me improvising to Wayne Shorter's composition, "El Gaucho." In the first chorus, I was trying to capture some of the light and floating qualities of Wayne Shorter's recorded solo. I'm not sure it comes across all that well, but there are a couple of spots where you can hear faint glimpses of Wayne's trademark style in my solo. Or maybe you'll think, "That guy tried to play like Wayne Shorter and failed miserably." In either case, you thought about Wayne Shorter while listening to me. Mission accomplished.

In my nine-year anniversary article I mentioned my recent root canal and how I thought the temporary tooth had strengthened my chops. Well, it appears that I may have celebrated too soon. I've had my new crown for a couple of months now, and all the progress I thought I had made seems to have vanished. The new crown has subtle differences in shape from my previous crown and those tiny differences seem to have made a big difference in my playing. I'm not exactly rebuilding my embouchure, but I am struggling to recapture what little upper range I had just a few months ago. I guess it's mostly a matter of endurance. Where I once could play ten minutes of notes above the staff during each session, I can only play five minutes now. You'll hear a nice example of my post-five-minute range during the second chorus of my solo.

June 1, 2012 Trumpet Technique 6 Comments

ITG 2012 and learning tunes

Last week, I attended the 2012 International Trumpet Guild (ITG) conference, in Columbus, Georgia. I had never been to an ITG conference before, but since Columbus is only 110 miles from Atlanta, I felt compelled to make the trip.

In total, I spent three days at the ITG conference. During that time, I attended several concerts and master classes with topics ranging from tips for comeback players, to the history of the cornet. My favorite master classes included a presentation by Dave Monette and an outstanding clinic and performance by the Atlanta Symphony trumpet section. The latter provided another opportunity to hear Thomas Hooten in person (I first heard him at the 2008 Atlanta Trumpet Festival). In general, I'm not much of a fan of classical trumpet playing, but listening to him as he played one gorgeous piece after another brought tears to my eyes. I can't imagine being that good at anything.

Here's a photo from Joe Gransden's Big Band, led by Gordon Vernick, with soloist Andrea Tofanelli.

andrea tofanelli

I suppose I could share some notes from the trumpet master classes, or tell you about the practice mute I bought, but I'm sure most of you aren't interested in a bunch of trumpet talk. On second thought, I will tell you about the mute, since it might save you some money. A few months ago I purchased the Best Brass plastic practice mute so I could practice in hotel rooms when I travel. It's a very quiet mute, but the poor intonation makes it all but impossible to use while ear training. I've wanted to find something better for my needs and ITG's large collection of vendors made it easy to try one mute after another, back to back. By far, my favorite mute was the sshhmute, which is a about half the price of the Best Brass mute. The sshhmute isn't as quiet as the Best Brass practice mutes (plastic or metal), but the intonation is definitely better.

JAM SESSION WITH TYRONE JACKSON

Much to my surprise, one of my favorite Atlanta jazz pianists and friends, Tyrone Jackson, was also at the ITG conference. As I'd learn, he was there to accompany all of the jazz-related performances, including the outstanding young jazz trumpet competitors (keep an eye out for Marquis Hill, Josh Shpak, and Anthony Stanco).

Tyrone Jackson and I got to hang out one night and we chatted about the fact that he's never heard me play. I assured him that he wasn't missing much, but in spite of my warnings, he generously offered to get together the following day for a brief jam session in one of the empty practice rooms.

Although I was thrilled to finally play jazz with Tyrone Jackson, this jam session got off to a rocky start. I won't go into a lot of detail, but there were some peculiarities that neither Tyrone nor I could have ever expected. For me, those peculiarities turned what should have been a casual session into an awkward and tense playing environment.

Things got even worse, when after a couple of tunes, a random trumpet player walked in and decided that he wanted to use the practice room after us. You might think he'd let us know his intentions and then wait outside, but no. Instead of leaving, he sat down and watched us play. After we played one tune under his watchful eye, I asked him if he'd like to join us on a Bb blues. He explained that he's only been playing for a few years and therefore isn't ready for a jam session. I encouraged him to give it a try anyway, but it was clear that he wasn't interested. Fair enough. Tyrone and I proceeded to play the blues tune, but rather than sit there quietly, the random trumpet guy took his horn out of his case and started to play. At first I thought he was going to try and improvise with us. But that wasn't what happened. While Tyrone and I were doing our best to enjoy a Bb blues, this guy was running through his warm-up, playing chromatic long tones and slurs. Seriously?!

I could go on and on about how odd things were at the jam session, but none of that excuses how poorly I played. For starters, I couldn't even think of any tunes to play. And when I did think of something, I'd forget the melody and have to drop out for a few measures until my memory kicked in again. My playing was just as bad while improvising too. I'd forget the changes to tunes that I thought I knew, forcing me to try to hear everything in real-time. While my ability to play by ear has improved tremendously over the years (thanks to ear training), like anything, it's hard to access those skills when I'm nervous and anxious about my performance.

On the drive home, I had plenty of time to think about my terrible playing during the jam session. While there were some extenuating circumstances, I knew that my poor performance was nobody's fault but my own. Plain and simple, I wasn't prepared. For several years now, I've taken a leisurely approach to my jazz studies, especially when it comes to learning tunes. Much like I wrote about composition in the recent Dave Douglas master class, I've basically felt that there isn't a compelling reason for me to learn tunes. I'm not in a band and I'm not playing in public, so why bother memorizing a tune when I can simply read from a chart?

This lazy attitude toward learning tunes might have been fine for some of my comeback, but things have begun to change. For the first time since my return to the trumpet, I actually feel ready to start playing in public. I don't know exactly how or when that desire will materialize, but I know it will be a lot easier if I can confidently play a few dozen tunes by memory. Learning tunes by memory will help me to better internalize the changes of each tune so I can focus less on reading and more on actually making music. And even if I don't play in public, I would like to be better prepared for wonderful opportunities like last year's Thanksgiving jam session and this recent jam session with Tyrone Jackson.

NEW ADDITION TO MY ROUTINE: LEARNING TUNES

Back when I was in college, I had a list of over one hundred tunes that I had memorized. Each day I'd go through the list, picking five to ten tunes to run through. I'd start by playing the melody and I'd end by playing the changes on a piano. I was confident enough with these tunes that I could play any of them without written music at my poorly attended coffee shop gigs.

Now that I want to learn tunes again, I've decided to revive the "list of tunes" approach, although I am going to make a few changes. For starters, I'll practice each tune's melody while playing with a metronome on two and four. After playing the melody, I'll continue with the metronome as I outline the chord changes on my trumpet. The end result will be similar to the bass line exercises I learned from Mace Hibbard. Once I've outlined the changes, I'll improvise over a few choruses with just the metronome as my accompaniment. And lastly, I'll spend a few minutes improvising to each tune with the aid of an Aebersold backing track.

At the beginning of each day I'll pick a few tunes from the list, and I'll practice them one after another as I've just described. The following day, I'll move on to the next batch of tunes and when I reach the end of the list, I'll start back at the beginning. This continual review of the full list will help to ensure that I don't forget anything. I'll also work on one or two new tunes each week so the list constantly grows. By the end of this year, it's my goal to have learned at least forty tunes. I'm off to a pretty good start, having committed the following tunes to memory just this week: Recordame, Caravan, Footprints, Blue Monk, Cherokee.

Although I've only been doing this new routine for a few days, I already feel like a better player. My practice sessions aren't any longer now, but they are much more focused. I have well-defined goals, and with each new tune that I add to the list, I have a tangible sign of progress. It's also been refreshing to discover how easy it is to learn tunes now, as compared to back when I was in college. When I was in college, I couldn't play by ear at all, so I had to learn every melody note by rote memorization. Now, however, my ability to play by ear allows me to use a combination of memory and aural skills to learn everything much faster. It's so much easier now, I dare say it's fun!

April 28, 2012 Jazz Blog 0 Comments

Dave Douglas - master class

dave douglas master classIn 2008, Dave Douglas and I traded a few emails regarding his thoughts about ear training. That correspondence eventually led Dave Douglas to write an article about the practice of ear training, which he published on his blog. Since that time, I haven't communicated with Dave Douglas directly, but I have continued to read his blog and listen to his music. And he remains one of my favorite modern-day jazz musicians.

When I heard that Dave Douglas was going to be in town for a concert with the Georgia State University big band, I knew it would be an ideal opportunity for me to finally meet him in person. After asking around, I learned that he was going to be teaching a few master classes prior to the concert. I would have loved to attend his class on improvisation or his class on the music business, but due to previous commitments the only class I could attend was about composition.

MY EXPERIENCES WITH COMPOSITION

Over the years, I've written about twenty original tunes. Almost all of those compositions were written during a period of a few years, back when I lived in Chicago. The first few tunes were for a funk group that I played in during my second year of college. Once the funk group disbanded, I joined a jazz combo and I wrote a few more tunes for that group to play. The jazz combo lasted for about a year, and when it ended, I quit playing the trumpet and took up the guitar as my primary instrument. I also began playing the drums in a rock group.

The rock group inspired me to write a dozen more tunes. I never did anything with those tunes, but in my youthful imagination, I was quite positive they'd someday make their way onto my debut singer-songwriter album; an album which critics would inevitably compare to David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars." If not for its similar stroke of genius, then perhaps because it shares the same number of tracks.

Anyway, while sitting in Dave Douglas' composition master class, it dawned on me that I haven't composed any new music since I started playing the trumpet again, back in 2002. Why haven't I written any new music in ten years? I guess the best response I have is, "Why should I write something new?" I mean, what's the point? I'm not playing in public anymore. I'm not in a band. And I'm not going to record an album. And if I did record an album, I'd probably just rip off a bunch of Mace Hibbard's tunes (that guy can write!). My point is, if I wrote music today, nobody would ever hear it, so why bother?

To be clear, when I talk about "composition" I'm referring to the act of creating and writing down a new piece of music. While the act of improvisation also includes the creation of new music, there is a big difference: Improvisation is instantaneous. When you're improvising, you don't have the luxury of editing, nor can you think something through for a few days. In composition, however, you can take your time, changing your mind as often as you like until you're satisfied with the final product. Given this significant difference, composition uses a unique set of skills that don't really apply to my goals as a jazz improviser. At least, that's what I thought before the master class!

THE IMPORTANCE OF COMPOSITION

As I'd learn in Dave Douglas' master class, there are several ways in which composition can improve my skills as a jazz improviser. My favorites include:

Finding my sound

Most great jazz musicians have a unique sound or style of playing that sets them apart from everyone else. I'm definitely not a great jazz musician, but I'd still like to have an original quality to my playing that I can call my own. At least, I'd like for my sound to be characterized by something other than my inability to play above the staff. For the time being, that seems to be my trademark!

Due to the fact that improvisation is instantaneous, it can be difficult to develop a unique sound entirely while improvising. If I have an idea in my head that I'd like to play while improvising, I have a split second to think about it before it comes out of my horn. And if the idea is beyond my ability to play accurately by ear, I'll probably just ignore it and play something simpler. But what if something about that idea might help me develop as a musician and get me closer to my sound? This is where composition comes in handy.

By composing on a regular basis, we're more likely to have original ideas at a time when we can work them through and figure out all the notes. Those original ideas could very well be the building blocks for our original sound; a sound that might go undiscovered through improvisation alone.

Learning about other compositions

Since I don't write my own original music, I spend most of the time improvising to somebody else's compositions. Sure, I can read music and I can play along with chord changes, but that's all on the surface. Will I notice how the composer develops a simple motif from the first two measures through to the end of the piece? Will I understand how the chord progression supports the melody during the bridge? Subtle compositional nuances become more obvious when you're in the practice of composing yourself. Or to put it differently, it takes a composer to know one.

Familiarity with the art of composition will help us to more fully understand the intentions of other composers. As a result, our improvised solos might mesh better with the music and sound more like part of the composition and less like we're just blowin' through the changes.

COMPOSITION AND EAR TRAINING

When I wrote songs in the past, I'd typically noodle around on a piano, trumpet, or guitar to find ideas. Or, I'd sing something and then try to figure out the notes on an instrument before writing anything down. Regardless of where the ideas came from, I'd always rely on an instrument to help me find the notes. In the master class, however, Dave Douglas asked us to compose entirely by ear. This isn't something I would have tried before, but it turns out to be a fantastic exercise for both composition and ear training. And based on what I've said above, that means it's also useful for improvisation!

Here's the exercise: Compose a few measures of music, using a single octave of a piano's white notes from C to C. That gives you eight notes to work with (C D E F G A B C). Write everything down entirely by ear, without using an instrument to sound out any of the notes. When you're done, sing the composition aloud.

Let me just say, I love this exercise! The mix of ear training, transcription, and sight-singing really challenges your aural skills and your imagination. And, it has an infinite number of variations. If your aural skills aren't strong enough to use all of the white notes, you could begin by composing with just two or three notes (e.g. C D F). For extra variety, you could base your note selection on one of the scale modes, or you could pick a random group of notes from a chromatic scale. Similarly, you can add rhythmic restrictions, like using nothing but quarter notes. Or, you could force yourself to change meters every bar. See, the possibilities really are endless!

DAVE DOUGLAS, COMPOSER AND MUSICIAN

With about forty recordings as a leader, and even more as a sideman, Dave Douglas has a large and varied body of work that spans a number of genres. For better or worse, though, he's often classified as an "avant-garde" musician. In truth, very little of his music actually fits into that genre. There's nothing wrong with avant-garde music, but there are definitely those who see it as a haphazard, random, and perhaps unsophisticated art form. And by association, those same people tend to think Dave Douglas isn't as serious of a musician as his more traditional contemporaries. But that most definitely isn't true.

After the composition master class, there was another master class that was really more of a listening session. Dave Douglas played a variety of music, some jazz, some 20th century classical, and some world music. At the end of the session, he played one of his compositions for the 2009 SFJazz Collective. While the tune played, he wrote the entire form of the tune on a whiteboard, showing how one section built upon another, with the soloists weaving in and out. In total, the tune had about twenty different sections that seamlessly fit together to form a fully composed and carefully crafted piece of music. It was beautiful, too.

As I contemplated all that I had learned in the composition master class and as I watched the form unfold on the whiteboard, I couldn't help but think, if Dave Douglas isn't a serious musician, I don't know who is.