About Me - December 31, 2015

Thirteen-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

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

THE TRAVELS CONTINUE

Like last year, I spent the better part of 2015 traveling. This year I returned to some of my favorite cities, including NYC, Portland (Oregon), London, Barcelona, and Paris. I also visited some new countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, and Ireland. And I'm especially pleased to report that I survived driving on the left-hand side of the road during a month-long road trip through England, Wales, and Scotland. Prior to the trip, I had expected the single-lane roads of Isle of Skye to be most frightful, but nothing quite compared to driving 40+ mph through the narrow stone-lined roads of rural Wales.

norway

I absolutely love traveling and I intend to continue traveling for some time to come, but it has been difficult to maintain my trumpet practice routine when I'm away from home. When I first started traveling three years ago, I didn't bring a trumpet, and I had a really tough time getting my chops back afterward. After that first trip, I resolved to always bring my trumpet when I travel and I've been pretty good about practicing for at least 30 minutes every day.

Although I've been able to get time on the horn while traveling, I've really struggled when it comes to practicing ear training and jazz improvisation. Those struggles aren't due to a scarcity of time, however. Rather, they're the result of poor intonation and the inability to hear myself when I'm practicing quietly.

STRUGGLES WITH INTONATION AND VOLUME

When I travel, I typically stay in rented apartments or hotel rooms. To keep the volume down to an acceptable level, I always need to practice with a mute. The best mute I've found thus far is still the Dennis Wick adjustable cup mute. Unfortunately, when I'm playing at my quietest level, it can be a little hard to hear myself, especially if I'm trying to play along with a recording or one of my ear training tools.

The other problem I face when practicing away from home is intonation. The Dennis Wick mute plays fairly well in tune, but I can't say the same about my Colin Pocket Max pocket trumpet. Although the pocket trumpet has fairly decent intonation through most of my playable range, it suffers quite a bit with notes below the staff, especially those which require the 3rd valve. The volume and the intonation issues might be tolerable in isolation, but together they make it rather difficult to hear individual pitches clearly.

Since I always bring my Colin Pocket Max pocket trumpet on multi-city trips, I decided that a good first step would be to try and find a pocket trumpet with better intonation. I've often heard that Benge pocket trumpets are among the best, but used ones are expensive and hard to find. Kanstul allegedly has a good pocket trumpet too, but those are similarly expensive and rare. Wanting something in the $750 or less range, my research suggested that the Carol Brass pocket trumpet might be the best option.

A couple of months ago, I went ahead and bought a used Carol Brass pocket trumpet from eBay for about $500. I've been using the Carol Brass pocket trumpet exclusively for the past 6 weeks (I'm in Paris right now!), and the intonation is much better than my older Colin Pocket Max pocket trumpet. While I'm fairly happy with the Carol Brass pocket trumpet so far, I still need to fix the problem I have with hearing myself clearly when I play with a mute.

Earlier this year, I bought a 3rd-generation Yamaha Silent Brass mute, which I had hoped would fix the problem with hearing myself. As you may know, the Yamaha Silent Brass mute is a very quiet mute that uses a microphone to pickup the sound so you can hear it clearly using headphones. You can even mix in an additional audio source so you can play along to recordings. When I first tried it, I thought it was the perfect solution, but as soon as I tried playing pitches below the staff, I ended up with horrible intonation problems. Argh!

I've tried using the Yahama Silent Brass mute off and on throughout the year, but I've come to the conclusion that it just won't work for ear training and improvisation due to the intonation issues. All hope isn't lost, though, as I did stumble upon a new idea during my most recent trip. Using a set of iPhone headphones as a "microphone" along with my Dennis Wick mute and the Yamaha Silent Brass audio module, I can hear myself without the intonation problems of the Yamaha Silent Brass mute. It's a bit hacked together at the moment, but once I get home I'm going to experiment with a better microphone and mute configuration. I'll let you know if I come up with anything worth sharing.

2015 ATLANTA TRUMPET FESTIVAL

Once again, I attended the annual Atlanta Trumpet Festival this year and I participated in the adult trumpet ensemble. Over the years, I've had mixed results with my playing at the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble. The ensembles always play classical tunes, but since I don't play that type of repertoire in my daily practice routine, my chops aren't always up to the task. This year I decided to prepare a bit more and during the month leading up to the festival, I devoted about 10 minutes a day to practicing trumpet etudes. That seemed to do the trick, as I played better than I had played during any prior Atlanta Trumpet Festival. If I had more time, I'd definitely keep up the etude practice, but it isn't feasible when I'm traveling.

PLAYING MUSIC WITH OTHER PEOPLE

I continue to participate in a weekly jazz jam session when I'm in Atlanta and I'm very grateful for that opportunity. During those sessions, however, I'm always reading from written music or I'm playing tunes from memory. Consequently, my playing tends to be a bit formulaic and underwhelming. I'd like to reach the point where I can rely totally on my ears in those jazz jam sessions, but my ears aren't quite good enough to handle complex melodies and rapid chord changes -- yet!

My ability to play by ear has gotten good enough, however, to play in non-jazz settings. The first of these non-jazz jam sessions occurred last year when I was traveling in Chilean Patagonia. That was the first time I had improvised with other people entirely by ear, and it's something I never could have done prior to practicing ear training. Since that time, I've continued to seek out similar improvised sessions and I've been lucky enough to participate in a few more since then.

My favorite session to-date occurred a few months ago, while I was in Portland. I found myself with two guitarists, one of whom I had met while traveling in Spain last year. The two guitarists were in a band together and they had several original tunes that they had written over the years. During our jam session, they'd start playing one of their tunes while I listened. As soon as an idea jumped out to me, I joined in, playing a fully improvised melody. I wouldn't say that everything I played was great, but on a few of the tunes, I played better than I've ever played before. I just thought of an idea and executed it perfectly by ear. And I mean, perfectly! Practicing ear training can be frustrating and tedious at times, but experiences like this have proven to me that the effort is totally worthwhile. I can't wait to see how well I'll be able to play a year from now!

About Me - October 16, 2014

Twelve-year anniversary

All of my anniversary articles: 2 years - 3 years - 4 years - 5 years - 6 years - 7 years - 9 years - 10 years - 11 years - 12 years - 13 years

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

MORE TRAVELING IN 2014

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

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

toledo, spain

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

PLAY BY EAR ANDROID APP - THE END

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

PLAY BY EAR IPHONE APP - PROBLEMS WITH IOS 8

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

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

JAZZ IMPROVISATION LESSONS - THE OUTCOME

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

About Me - December 30, 2013

Eleven-year anniversary

All of my anniversary articles: 2 years - 3 years - 4 years - 5 years - 6 years - 7 years - 9 years - 10 years - 11 years - 12 years - 13 years

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

JAVA APPLET STATUS

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

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

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

ANDROID EAR TRAINING APPLICATION GOES FREE

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

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

WHERE ARE THE 2013 JAZZ IMPROVISATION RECORDINGS?

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

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

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

JAZZ IMPROVISATION LESSONS

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

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

Happy New Year!

About Me - January 5, 2013

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

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.

About Me - December 23, 2011

Nine-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

As 2011 comes to a close, it's time for another anniversary article. It's now been nine years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. I could make a comment about how I can't believe nine years has passed already, but I'm going to save the nostalgic hyperbole for next year. After all, ten years is an eternity. Nine is but a blink of an eye.

LAST YEAR'S ANNIVERSARY ARTICLE

When I write these anniversary articles, I usually begin by re-reading the previous year's anniversary article. By reviewing the previous year's challenges and goals, I can measure my progress over the year and make sweeping generalizations. It's something I look forward to every year. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I realized that I forgot to write an anniversary article last year. I'm not sure how I managed to skip a year, but I suppose there's no sense beating myself up over it. Let's just say nothing special happened in 2010. But 2011, wow, what a year!

EAR TRAINING

In 2004, I launched the first version of my free online ear training tool. Over the years I've added new ear training features and tools, including my online song randomizer and "Play By Ear," my iPhone ear training app. This year I added another ear training tool, an Android ear training application.

I enjoy building ear training tools, but sometimes I'll get carried away and spend all of my free time working and end up having to skip some of my practice routine. This imbalance really hit home while I was working on my Android ear training application. A couple of weeks had passed and I realized that I had spent dozens of hours working on the ear training application but only a few minutes actually practicing ear training. While my aural skills have improved over the years, I still can't play everything accurately by ear, and until I reach that point (which may never come), ear training needs to remain a focal point of my daily practice routine.

Even with the occasional gaps in my practice schedule, I've continued to make decent progress with my ear training studies. Last year I'd begin each practice session with 5-note chromatic melodies (random melodies using any note). Now, however, I'll start with 6-note chromatic melodies and then move onto jazz licks, simple songs, and melodies based on scale patterns. You'll find the scale pattern melodies in my Android ear trainer and in an upcoming update to my iPhone ear training app. Hopefully they'll make their way into my free online ear trainer early next year.

After the various melodic ear training exercises, I'll spend about ten minutes each day improvising over random chord progressions. While I'm not always able to play interesting jazz solos over the random chords, I am at least able to play something that makes sense. Practicing the random chord ear training has really improved my ability to hear unfamiliar music and improvise. It's a skill which came in handy during a recent Thanksgiving jam session (more on that later).

ROOT CANAL

When I was eight years old, I relocated one of my two front teeth during a game of tag. I used the word "relocated" instead of "lost" because I didn't actually lose the tooth. One moment it was in my mouth, and the next moment it flew through the air and landed in a pile of dirt after smashing into the back of another child's head. Ever since that time, I've had a false tooth (aka "crown") as one of my front teeth.

As you probably know, the two top front teeth are extremely important to trumpet players. When we cram the trumpet mouthpiece into our faces, these front teeth push back against our lips so we don't accidentally swallow the trumpet. This is something we all try to avoid.

I've had two different crowns over the years and the most recent one came loose earlier this year when I bit into a carrot. I went to the dentist the following day and he told me that the base of the crown had eroded and probably wouldn't support the tooth much longer. He then gave me two options. He could glue the crown back into position and it might hold up for a year or two, or he could perform a root canal and give me a solid foundation that would last the rest of my life. Actually, now that I think about it, he didn't say it would last for the "rest of my life," but I prefer optimism when it comes to dental procedures. Needless to say, I asked him to just glue the tooth back in.

Unfortunately, after a few months, the tooth came loose again, and we were forced to do the root canal. Truth be told, the root canal didn't actually hurt. Well, at least not as much as I expected. That's because each of the three separate procedures began with two extremely painful painkilling shots (oh the irony!) delivered directly into my gums. I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure it only takes two shots because the nervous system shuts down in fear of a third. Anyway, once the operating area is numb, you barely notice the drilling, grinding, and sawing of your gums. Nor do you give a passing fancy to the dozen pipe cleaners that are successively reamed into the empty canal as your head shakes violently to and fro. Oh, and I almost forgot that charming little blow torch which singed the canal shut with an audible sizzle and a poof of smoke.

REDUCED MOUTHPIECE PRESSURE

Did I mention there were three root canal procedures? Oh yes, I did. The three root canal procedures were spaced over a period of about six weeks, during which time my old crown was gingerly glued into place with temporary cement. It was so fragile that I ended up dislodging it four times even though I had tried my best to be careful.

I was determined to continue practicing the trumpet during my six-week root canal odyssey (three procedures!), but I knew that I'd have to use a lot less mouthpiece pressure to avoid knocking out my front tooth. At first, I could barely play anything near the top of the staff, but as the weeks progressed, my embouchure strengthened and I was able to play through my normal playing range. It's kind of funny because I've tried to dial back the pressure many times over the years. But no matter how hard I'd try, I'd always use a little too much pressure when necessary, simply because I could. Now, however, that wasn't an option. I was forced to use less pressure than ever before and it ended up improving the overall strength of my embouchure and airflow.

ETUDES, ACCURACY, AND ENDURANCE

In my 2011 Atlanta Trumpet Festival article, I mentioned the difficulty I had playing the classical trumpet parts. After writing that article, I decided to add ten or fifteen minutes of etudes to my daily practice routine. It's been about a month since I've been doing this and I'm already pleased with the results. The combination of etudes and my reduced-pressure embouchure have resulted in noticeable improvements to my range, accuracy, and endurance. Nice!

For my etude selection, I'll try to find something that I can't immediately play and then I'll focus my practice on each of the trouble spots. My current favorite is the first characteristic study in the Arban's book. In one single page, it seems to hit all of my weaknesses. Four weeks ago, I could barely make it through a single measure without an error. Now I can usually play the entire piece with only a few mistakes.

PLAYING JAZZ IN PUBLIC - AGAIN

In 2008, I began playing at a weekly jazz jam session that took place in somebody's house. I enjoyed playing in the group at first, but it became less rewarding as time went on. Specifically, I felt there were too many people in the group and since some of them didn't practice, the skill levels were all over the map. After about a year, I stopped attending the jam session and returned to my solitary jazz practice routine.

Earlier this year, the leader of the in-house jam session contacted me and invited me back into the group. This time around, the group is about half as large as before, and all of the guys are serious about playing jazz. I decided to give it a shot and have been attending every week for the past six months. It's great to play jazz with other people again, and I'm grateful to the leader for asking me back each week.

THANKSGIVING JAM (SESSION)

Last month, one of my closest friends in the Atlanta jazz community, Mace Hibbard, invited me to his house for Thanksgiving. My wife and I have attended Thanksgiving at his house before, so I figured this year would be the same as always. We'd go to his house, hang out for a while, eat a potluck dinner, and that's pretty much it.

The week before Thanksgiving day, I happened to be chatting with Mace when he mentioned that this year he'd have a "quite a band" over for Thanksgiving. He then went on to explain that Melvin Jones (trumpet), Kevin Bales (piano), Rodney Jordan (bass), and Justin Chesarek (drums) were all scheduled to attend the Thanksgiving get together and that I should bring my horn in case they end up having a jam session.

Ever since I started playing trumpet again, it's been a dream of mine to play jazz with some of the better players in town. I had always assumed, though, that the dream wouldn't come true for another ten years or so. And now Mace was telling me that it might come true within ten DAYS... and these guys aren't just the "better" players in Atlanta, they're some of the best in the entire southeast... and one of them plays the trumpet... and I'm still playing on a temporary tooth!?

Were it not for the confidence I've developed from my ear training studies and the weekly in-house jam session, I might have intentionally knocked my tooth out just to avoid playing with these guys. Instead, I put my horn in the car and told myself that regardless of how good or bad I sound, I couldn't turn down this opportunity.

As you've probably guessed, I survived the jam session. We played five or six tunes, most of which I had never played before. Thankfully the changes weren't too tricky and I managed to figure things out by ear. I didn't play my absolute best, nor did I play at the level of the professional musicians around me, but I definitely didn't embarrass myself either. And that was something to be thankful for.

Thank you, Mace, Rick S (the jam session guy), and everyone else who helped make 2011 the best year of my comeback journey!

About Me - December 21, 2009

Seven-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

As the year comes to a close, it time for another anniversary article. The following article marks the end of seven years since I started playing the trumpet again.

MY PRACTICE ROUTINE

For the past few years, I've been working on the same basic exercises every day when I practice. I'll start with a ten-minute warm-up, followed by twenty minutes of slurs, interval, and articulation exercises. About a month ago, I was re-reading my 2009 Atlanta Trumpet Festival article and decided it was time for a change. Following Kevin Eisensmith's advice, I'm now incorporating the practice of new literature in my daily routine. Every other day, I'll focus on a few etudes or characteristic studies (e.g. Arban's, Jacome, jazz transcriptions, etc). On the in between days I'm still doing my old set of exercises. Hopefully the new material will bring new challenges and improve my rate of progress. It's probably too early to tell how this will impact my playing, but I do know that some of the characteristic studies that were giving me problems a month ago have already become easy to play.

JAZZ LESSONS

This year I took my first jazz lessons since I was a jazz studies major in college. Two of the lessons were with jazz trumpeter, Joe Gransden, and two were with jazz saxophonist and educator, Mace Hibbard. I recognize that I have a lot to learn from other musicians, but I also know that I don't have enough free time to take regular lessons. Actually, I have enough time for the lesson itself, I just don't have enough time to thoroughly practice the lesson material. For example, it's been about 6 months since my first lesson with Mace Hibbard and I still haven't worked through bass lines in all 12 keys. I mention this every year, but the scarcity of time remains the biggest challenge in my comeback journey.

EAR TRAINING

I'm always amazed at the progress I'm making with ear training. It's especially fun when I hear a tune or part of a jazz solo and I can just pick up my horn and play it perfectly. I can't always play the notes accurately by ear, but each year it's getting easier and easier. Thanks to the jazz lick mode of my free online ear training tool, I'm now able to hear and play more complex melodies that contain altered tones. If you're an aspiring jazz musician who needs help with ear training, be sure to give the jazz lick mode a try. Just look under the "Each box is a..." dropdown of the Melodies tab.

RANGE AND ENDURANCE

At the 2009 Atlanta Trumpet Festival, all of the clinicians mentioned that they practice playing high as a regular part of their daily practice routines. To date, I haven't done much practicing in the upper register aside from some slurring exercises, so I decided to add scales to my daily practice routine. After a ten-minute warm-up, while my chops are nice and fresh, I play ascending two-octave scales until I'm unable to comfortably reach the high notes. Sometimes I can't go any higher than a two-octave D major scale, but at least twice a week my chops reward me with a nice two-octave E or F major scale. I've even had a couple of days where I can play a three-octave G scale. Frankly, the high G is a barely audible squeak, but it counts!

I've made a little progress with endurance, but my chops still tire out after ten or fifteen minutes of jazz improvisation. That's because I focus entirely on playing the notes at the expense of chop preservation. In other words, if I hear a G at the top of the staff in my head, I'm going to play that G even if it means I have to use excessive mouthpiece pressure. I know, I know. Bad, Rick.

EMBOUCHURE CHANGE

At the advice of Alex Yates, I made some changes to my embouchure a couple of months ago. This single embouchure has replaced the various roll-in states that I used to play on as a result of trying the Balanced Embouchure method several years ago. While I prefer the simplicity of using a single embouchure, it hasn't exactly revolutionized my playing or anything. In fact, I think I play a little worse now than before. Then again, I'm so used to playing poorly that I might have forgotten exactly how bad I was! Anyway, I've been working to strengthen the corners of my embouchure (I even bought a PETE), so maybe the new embouchure will improve as time goes on.

YET ANOTHER MOUTHPIECE UPDATE

As a final treat for the holidays, I now present you with another fascinating mouthpiece update! As you may recall, I bought a new GR 65M trumpet mouthpiece in October. I used the GR mouthpiece exclusively for 6 weeks and I'm sorry to say that I liked it less and less as time went on. The GR mouthpiece made it a little easier to play notes in the upper register, but in an odd twist of fate, I found myself struggling to play notes below the staff. My beloved low register, which had always welcomed me with open arms, was turning on me!

I might have stuck with the GR mouthpiece for a little longer, but I couldn't ignore the way it thinned out my sound. I hadn't noticed the thin tone when originally playing the mouthpiece because I had tried it in a room with vaulted ceilings and dazzling acoustics. In my small practice room, however, the thin sound was instantly apparent and undeniably unpleasant.

After six weeks on the GR 65M mouthpiece, I was so annoyed by the thin sound that I decided to do a sound trial with the GR and some of my other mouthpieces. I selected a few of my old mouthpieces, including the Yamaha 14B4 that I was playing prior to switching to the GR mouthpiece. I asked my wife to listen as I played some jazz lines on each mouthpiece. I started with the Yamaha 14B4 and then played the GR mouthpiece. Within 5 notes my wife told me to stop playing. In her ever so delicate manner, she said it sounded terrible, except she used more colorful language. I repeated the test a few more times, varying the order of mouthpieces, and every time my wife cringed at the thin sound of the GR mouthpiece, while she consistently preferred the warm tone of the Yamaha 14B4. And there you have it. Since it's such a hit with the ladies, I'm back on the Yamaha 14B4.

This experience has definitely taught me that I can't evaluate a mouthpiece in a single playing session. Like all trumpeters, my chops respond differently each day. Some days I can play high with greater ease, some days I have more endurance, and some days I can barely play anything well at all. I can't really tell how a mouthpiece will perform long term unless I can try it on a variety of these chop conditions over a period of several days. And I definitely need to try the mouthpiece in my practice room. Now if only I can find a mouthpiece with the sound of the Yamaha and the efficiency of the GR. The search continues.

About Me - October 25, 2009

Bruce Staelens - Seattle reunion

When I was twelve years old, I started taking trumpet lessons with Bruce Staelens, a trumpet player and jazz musician located in Orlando, Florida. Each week I'd look forward to my lessons, but mostly I was looking forward to the last 10 or 15 minutes, because that's when we'd practice jazz improvisation.

My favorite part of the jazz improvisation sessions was getting to hear Bruce play. I'd stare at the bell of his old Benge trumpet with its faded lacquer, as I listened to some of the hippest jazz lines that my young ears had ever heard. And then it would be my turn to play. I'd always play horribly (I'm less horrible now), but my shortcomings motivated me to practice more so I'd play better next time. And really, I didn't even care how I played. I was simply thrilled to have the opportunity to play jazz with Bruce.

At the end of my freshman year of high school, our band director discontinued the high school jazz band. Nobody I knew was even remotely interested in jazz at the time, except for Bruce. So, not only did Bruce introduce me to jazz in the first place, but he also helped sustain and nurture my interest in jazz at a time when it could have easily faded. That interest in jazz has continued to grow over the years, enriching my life to this day, 20 years later.

THE MIDDLE YEARS

The above might be familiar reading if you've read the My Introduction to Jazz article, but there's a little more to the story. After five years of lessons with Bruce, he got a gig traveling with a Broadway show. His departure was sudden. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye and I completely lost touch with him. I didn't get to tell him when I made it into the all-state jazz band as a senior in high school and I didn't get to tell him that I was going to study jazz in college. And I definitely didn't get to thank him for introducing me to jazz so many years earlier.

In total, eighteen years passed without any communication with Bruce. About once a year I'd search for him online but I never found any information. That all changed in 2008, however, when I searched again and found his newly constructed website.

Once we regained contact, we traded a few emails and I finally got the chance to thank him for introducing me to jazz. I also told him about my jazz blog. Since then, he's read several of the articles and I'm pleased to say he's remained a regular reader. Honestly, that's about as good of an ending as I had hoped for this story. But it gets better...

seattle from the space needle

SEATTLE REUNION

A couple of months ago, I began planning a vacation to visit my mother in Portland, Oregon. The trip would also include two days in Seattle, a city that I've always wanted to visit. After booking hotels and airfare, I searched for jazz clubs in Seattle with the intention of seeing a good concert during my visit. My search eventually led me to Tulas.com, a Seattle jazz club's website. As I looked at the concert calendar, I noticed Bruce's name and immediately remembered that he had moved to Seattle a little over a year ago, where he continues to play jazz and teach private lessons. He wasn't going to be performing during my visit, but I contacted him to see if we could get together for dinner or something. To my delight, Bruce not only agreed to dinner but also offered to drive my mother and I to his house afterward so we could play some jazz together! How cool... oh, and by the way, you can catch Bruce and his big band at Tula's on the first Wednesday of every month. If you see him, say hi for me!

The big night of our Seattle reunion finally arrived last weekend. As planned, we went to dinner and then over to his house. I had told Bruce beforehand that I was just going to bring my mouthpiece, which I had hoped to use with one of his extra trumpets. So there I was, mouthpiece in hand when I saw a familiar trumpet on the floor of his practice room. The lacquer was almost entirely worn off, but I instantly knew it was Bruce's old Benge trumpet. When I asked him about it, he said he took it out of storage and cleaned it up just so I could play it. I know it might not seem like a big deal, but it really meant the world to me. All of those memories of staring at the horn, listening to those great jazz lines, came flooding back to me. And now, nearly twenty years later I held that very same trumpet in my hands as I prepared to play. It gives me chills even now.

In total we played 5 or 6 tunes in Bruce's living room that evening. My mother and Bruce's wife watched from the side as Bruce and I traded solos. That part also brought me back to my childhood since my mother would always wait for me outside of the practice room to take me home after my lessons when I was a kid. Although, this time she could finally hear us clearly and this time I actually sounded pretty good! Well, maybe not all that good. It was about 1am Eastern time, I was tired from traveling, and had just finished a few glasses of Bruce's home brewed jazz-inspired beers (the Miles Davis "Prince of Darkness" was my favorite). But whether I played well or not, it was a fantastic night and a memory that I'll always treasure.

Best of all, I finally got to thank Bruce in person for introducing me to jazz. Were it not for Bruce, I'm sure that I wouldn't have developed such a strong passion for jazz music. Without that passion, I wouldn't have created this website nor would I have created my free online ear training tools. And without that passion I would never have returned to the most frustrating and fulfilling part of my life: playing jazz trumpet. And I have Bruce to blame, I mean thank, for it!

Thank you, Bruce.

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