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

December 30, 2013 About Me 1 Comment

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 - 13 years - 15 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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

December 1, 2013 Trumpet Technique 0 Comments

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.


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.


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

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!


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.


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.


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".


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.


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.


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!


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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 - 2022

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.