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

December 21, 2009 About Me 9 Comments

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 - 15 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

October 25, 2009 About Me 6 Comments

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 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


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.

October 28, 2008 About Me 5 Comments

Six-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 has now been over six years since I started playing the trumpet again. You know what that means, don't you? That's right, it's time for another anniversary article!


Most people focus on periods of five or ten years as 'milestone' years, but in my case six years is actually more significant. That's because six years is roughly the same amount of time that I had played the trumpet prior to my freshman year of college, when I had my big blowout. The 'blowout' occurred during a period where I was practicing 6-8 hours a day. The inside of my lip split open and the outside developed a nasty blister. My lip eventually healed, but my embouchure never fully recovered. The year after the blowout I dropped out of music school and quit playing the trumpet for seven years. I guess you could say the blowout was the beginning of the end of my trumpet-playing career.

With six years back on the horn, it's tempting to compare my current playing to my playing right before the blowout. But that would be an unfair comparison. For starters, I had much more time to practice back when I was in high school. By my senior year I was practicing my trumpet 3-4 hours ever day. Now it's a major accomplishment if I can get two hours of practice in a single day. I also have a lot more distractions and stresses in my life now. Oh, to be young again... sigh.

Even though I was a stronger technical player at the end of those first six years than I am now, I'm definitely a much better overall player today. One important improvement that I've made is with my embouchure. When I started playing the trumpet again, I made some modifications to my embouchure which have resulted in a much more efficient setup. That allows me to use less mouthpiece pressure when playing and I can still get a big full sound. In fact, I've got any bigger sound now than ever before. And best of all, I now know how to use that sound to make music. I don't have any jazz recordings from those first six years, but let's just say they pale in comparison to what I can do now. I've still got a long way to go, but I'm well aware of how far I've come.


Over the past year I've averaged about 30 minutes of ear training practice each day. Without a doubt, those ear training sessions are responsible for the bulk of my improvement as a jazz improviser. Before I started to practice ear training, I could barely play two notes by ear. Now, however, I'm able to hear and play multi-measure phrases accurately by ear. I'm not nearly as consistent as I need to be, but I feel like my improved ability to play by ear has me on the brink of a new chapter in my jazz improvisation journey.

To keep up with my improved aural skills, I've modified my ear training routine a little over the past few months. I used to begin each ear training session with intervals, but now I start with 4-note random melodies. Also, while I used to use major scales as the source for my random melodies, I now use all 12-notes of the chromatic scale. Introducing the full range of half steps has really pushed my ear to differentiate between similar note sounds. I typically play 4-note melodies for a few minutes, adding an extra note once I've demonstrated that I can play a majority of 4-note melodies accurately by ear. I'll then add one additional note at a time until I reach 6 or 7 notes. At that point, I'll move on to simple songs or jazz licks. If I have enough time, I might add modulation to the various melodic exercises. Lastly, I wrap up my ear training practice with a few minutes of listening to and playing back random chords by ear. Of course, I do all of these exercises with my free online ear training tools.

It's important to modify elements of your practice routine so they keep pace with your developing skills. In the case of ear training, it would be a waste of time to practice intervals (2 notes) if you're already able to accurately play 3- or 4-note melodies by ear. You'd be much better off practicing longer phrases that challenge your current abilities. But, it's also important that the new exercises aren't too challenging (don't try going from 4 notes to 12 notes). When determining how hard to push yourself, think back to 'the edge' diagram that I shared from the Thomas Hooten masterclass. Practicing at the edge of our current abilities gives us the greatest chance for improvement. Here's that diagram in case you missed it:



I'm pleased to report that both my range and endurance continue to strengthen. Neither is where I want it to be, but at least there is noticeable progress. Last year at this time, I was just starting to be able to play C's above the staff while improvising. Now I can hit several of them each day and I've even managed to hit a few D's. I'm still using a little too much mouthpiece pressure in order to hit these higher notes, but at least my upper range is improving.

Consistency is my main enemy right now. There are days when my chops are great and I can play through my entire range for 15-20 minute stretches with little fatigue. And then there are days when I can barely play anything above the staff, even when my chops are fresh. I know that most, if not all, trumpet players battle with consistency so I'm definitely not alone on this. I just need to improve my overall playing so I can still play at a decent level on those bad days.


This past year included my first public trumpet performance since 1995. That first performance was at the 2007 Atlanta Trumpet Festival where I participated in one of the trumpet ensembles. I was really nervous at the time, and actually hadn't planned on playing at all until the festival organizer encouraged me to do so. There were plenty of things I didn't like about my playing during the festival, but the act of going there and participating helped open my mind to the idea of playing the trumpet with other people.

Were it not for my positive experience at the 2007 Atlanta Trumpet Festival, I don't know how I would have reacted when I was invited to join a weekly jazz jam session in January of 2008. I'm almost positive that I would have declined the offer. As it was, I was leaning toward declining until my much braver wife convinced me to give it a try. Hey, what did she have to lose?!

It's now been about 10 months since I started playing with that weekly jazz jam session. I've learned a lot about my playing during the sessions, mostly because they've helped me to address some of my weaknesses. For instance, the group often calls tunes that I wouldn't normally choose to play. These tunes might have unfamiliar chord progressions or some other quirk that usually steers me away. Playing with the group, however, forces me to play these awkward tunes and overcome some of the barriers in my playing. The results aren't always good, but at least I'm pushing myself to improve.

In addition to the weekly jazz jam sessions, I've also started to play jazz with my neighbor. He's a great jazz guitarist who really knows how to listen and interact with a soloist. The two of us have played jazz together a handful of times and each time I think it sounds better and better. These jazz duets have probably been my most enjoyable playing experiences this year.

Hopefully I'll continue to play in some of these groups and/or new groups over the coming year. As reluctant as I was to start playing music with other people, I'm really glad to have finally taken the plunge this year.


During the past year, I became a lot more involved with the Atlanta jazz scene, both on this website and by personally attending more jazz concerts and events. Every week I've attended at least one jazz concert, and some weeks I've been to as many as three or four jazz concerts. You can see clips from some of those concerts on the Atlanta Jazz Videos page that I started in December of 2007.

Getting more involved with the Atlanta jazz scene is definitely one of the most rewarding things I've done this past year. I've had the opportunity to listen to and to learn from dozens of wonderful jazz performances. And more importantly, I've come to meet and become friends, or at least friendly, with many of Atlanta's top jazz musicians. Sure, there are a few unsavory characters in the Atlanta jazz scene (e.g. Mace Hibbard), but by and large they're a great group of people and I truly feel privileged to be able to hear them play jazz on a regular basis. Sorry, Mace, I couldn't resist ;-)

If you're serious about becoming a jazz musician, or even if you're just an ardent jazz fan, I strongly encourage you to get to know the local jazz musicians in your city. Attend their concerts and talk with them in between sets. If you support your local jazz scene, the musicians will reward you with knowledge, motivation, and inspiration. Trust me, it's well worth the investment.

August 25, 2007 About Me 8 Comments

Five-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

I recently completed my 5th year of playing the trumpet since returning to the instrument, so here's my five-year anniversary article.


In last year's anniversary article, I wrote that my playable range had extended up to a Bb above the staff. Since that time, those Bb's have been getting easier and easier. Even better, I'm now able to hit a high C or two with relative ease each day when improvising. I've yet to include any of those C's in my jazz trumpet recordings, but hopefully they'll make an appearance in the not too distant future. Some of you may wonder what all the fuss is about, but given my struggles with range, a high C is definitely something to be happy about.

One thing I've noticed with the C's is that it's still difficult for me to hear them in my head when improvising. For that matter, it's even hard for me to hear a B (natural) above the staff. To clarify, I can certainly hear these notes if somebody else plays them, and I can hear them when I play them on my horn, but I have trouble hearing them in my head BEFORE I play them. This makes perfect sense when you consider the fact that for the past 4+ years I couldn't play higher than a Bb when improvising. My ears and my brain simply aren't used to the hearing higher notes in my solos and they're not used to thinking of these notes as viable playing options. I know it's just a matter of conditioning and in time I'll be able to hear high C's in my head, but I think it's an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.

I don't have much to report regarding endurance. My endurance had definitely improved over the last year, but I can still tire myself out quickly if I revert to my old habit of using too much mouthpiece pressure.


In my "Comeback Journey" article, I wrote that finding time to practice is one of the biggest challenges facing most comeback players. Well, time has definitely been taking its toll on me lately. Since my first practice session begins at 7:30am, I'm usually able to practice fundamentals. More often than not, I can get in an ear training session as well. But lately, my after-work jazz improvisation session has been nearly impossible to squeeze in. For example, I recently went two weeks in a row with less than 30 minutes of jazz improvisation practice. It's awfully hard to improve when averaging just two minutes a day of practice! While those two weeks were an exception to the norm, my workload still makes it difficult for me to get in sufficient practice time. At least I am improving and I suppose any rate of improvement should be welcomed.


Online ear trainer - click to try!Speaking of improvement, I continue to make great strides with my daily ear training practice. Last year I wrote that I was using my ear training tool to play 7-note melodies by ear at 150bpm. Thanks to my new "Jazz Lick" melody option, I'm now playing 8- and 9-note melodies by ear at 150bpm or higher. I give the jazz licks a lot of credit for this advancement since they provide a somewhat familiar (i.e. not totally random) melody which is easier to remember. Since the melody is easier to remember than totally random notes, I can spend more effort on playing by ear and less effort on trying to remember what the melody sounded like in the first place. I still practice totally random melodies in my ear training sessions, however, just to keep things fresh.

I've also spent more time improvising with my ear training tool. I'll use the R(hythm)Section feature to generate random major and minor II-V-I progressions of 48 measures in length. I then start the ear training so it's playing around 100bpm or slower. Without looking at the key, I then listen and sing notes that fit in with the key. From there, I might do a little vocal improvisation (scat singing) or I'll just pick up my horn and improvise by ear. The important thing is that I sing each note to myself before I play it. I might not always play the right notes on my horn and I might not always sing notes that fit in perfectly, but at least I'm trying to do so. By consciously forcing myself to hear first, then play, I'm ensuring that I'm truly using my ears to guide my playing rather than relying on pre-learned patterns or theory.

In last year's anniversary blog entry, I mentioned that I have good days and bad days with ear training. On good days, my ear training sessions are a breeze. I can play most of the exercises perfectly by ear and I feel great about my progress. On bad days, my ear struggles to lock in on pitches and I make lots of mistakes. Well, after another year of practice I still have some bad days, but at least they are becoming fewer and farther between. Also the magnitude of the mistakes I make on those bad days is less severe. Where I might have once missed 50% of my attempts to play by ear, I now miss about 30% or less. And, more importantly, I'm now much less hard on myself on those bad days. If I do make a mistake, I shrug it off and continue to practice. It's been about 3.5 years now since I started to practice ear training daily, and I've now got the perspective to know that bad days are just part of the journey. As long as I continue to make forward progress in my ability to play by ear (and I certainly do!), there's no need to worry about a few speed bumps along the way.


I still have a long way to go but I'm finally reaching a point where I feel like it's all starting to come together. Sure, my rate of progression isn't as fast as I'd like, but during these past five years I've made some great improvements in my playing, my ability to play by ear, and in my overall musicianship. It's been a great journey thus far and I can't wait to hear myself five years from now!

November 6, 2006 About Me 0 Comments

Four-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

I recently completed my 4th year of playing the trumpet since returning to the instrument, so it's time to add another "anniversary" post to my jazz blog.


If you've been keeping up with my journal entries, you know that I've been struggling with range ever since I started to play the trumpet again. Two years ago, I wrote that an E at the top of the staff was the highest note of my comfortable range. Last year, my comfortable range expanded to a G at the top of the staff. Well, I'm pleased to report that the trend has continued (in minor thirds!), as this year my range has expanded to a Bb above the staff. You can hear a few of those Bb's and A's in my recent jazz improvisation clips.

My endurance has also improved during this past year. About a year and a half ago, I could barely play more than 15 or 20 minutes before I needed a rest. Not only would I need to rest, but also my range would drop down to an E at the top of the staff unless I rested for at least a couple of hours. Now, I can play about 20-30 minutes before resting and I only need a short 20-30 minute rest before most of my range returns. Since I rarely have more than 20 or 30 minutes free at any given time, especially during the week, my present endurance level suits me just fine.

No doubt, a major factor in my improved endurance is my use of less mouthpiece pressure overall. Sure, there are times when I'm improvising and I use a lot of mouthpiece pressure to nail a high note, but for the most part I've been good about using less pressure. When my chops tire and I can't hit a note without increasing the pressure, I (usually) put my horn down and rest.


My daily practice routine hasn't changed since last year, and since I've been steadily improving, I'm definitely going to stick with it. I may change parts of my routine as time goes on, perhaps to freshen things up or to add new challenges, but the basic types of exercises will remain the same. And that brings me to the following point:

Stick with your routine! - More than perhaps any other instrument, trumpeters are constantly looking for a quick fix to our problems. We want a higher range, a bigger tone, smoother articulation, etc... and we want it now. Often the "fix" manifests itself as an unending search for the right mouthpiece. Sometimes the "fix" has us switching trumpet methods, moving from Caruso to Adams, to Gordon, etc. These changes aren't necessarily bad, but I see far too many trumpet players moving from one thing to another without giving anything the time it needs to work itself out. So, unless a new routine is drastically ineffective, you should stick with it for at least two or three months before deciding whether or not to try something else. And, of course, with whatever you do, there's no substitute for practice!


It's been almost three years since I've started to work on ear training and the progress has been steady and extremely rewarding. About a year ago, I was only able to do 4-note random melody phrases with my ear trainer, and even then, they were at slow tempos and I made LOTS of mistakes. Now, I regularly practice 7-note phrases at ~150 bpm and I'm able to play the majority of them perfectly, without looking at starting notes or anything. Similarly, my accuracy playing simple songs by ear has improved along with my ability to play along with jazz recordings.

Unfortunately, I still have bad days/sessions where my ear doesn't lock in well and I make a lot of mistakes. I've found that once I start making a bunch of mistakes, I rarely self-correct because my critical side takes over and I start doubting my abilities. Those negative thoughts prevent me from playing to my potential and basically the whole session is a bust. I've read The Inner Game of Tennis, The Inner Game of Music, and Effortless Mastery, so you'd think I'd be able to shut off the negative thoughts and get back to business, but no. It's sad when you realize Homer Simpson has more control over his brain then you do...

  • Homer: All right, brain, you don't like me, and I don't like you, but let's just get me through this, and I can get back to slowly killing you with beer.
  • Brain: It's a deal!


Last year, I wrote that my journey with jazz improvisation was just beginning. I still feel that way, and it all revolves around ear training. As my ability to play by ear improves, so does my ability to play the ideas in my head. I'm constantly trying new things, making mistakes along the way, but edging closer and closer to finally making music!

November 13, 2005 About Me 9 Comments

Why I dropped out of music school

tuxedoEarlier, I mentioned that I quit music school after my second year of college (my first year at DePaul University). In that journal entry, I failed to mention the real tipping point…

Due to my chop problems and my lack of exceptional talent, I knew I'd never be a top-notch player. I was (and still am) light years behind similarly aged players like Nicholas Payton and Ryan Kisor. But even though I knew I couldn't attain their level of success, I still held onto the idea that I could make a living playing jazz in local clubs. This delusional line of thinking continued, until one night during jazz combo practice.

There was a local pro that helped teach/coach the jazz combos. He'd sit in with combo rehearsals once a month or so, giving students comments and suggestions. In my eyes, he was what we were aspiring to become. He put in the practice, he paid his dues, and he emerged as a full-time jazz musician.

On one of these nights that he was scheduled to join us, he failed to show up at the normal meeting time, so we started to rehearse without him. I had just finished taking a solo on our second or third tune when he walked into the room. The first thing I saw was his cummerbund. Then I noticed the black jacket, which he had draped over his shoulder. And finally, I saw the unmistakable black stripe that adorned his black slacks. Yes, he was wearing a tuxedo.

In between tunes, I thanked him for finally dressing appropriately for our rehearsal. He chuckled a bit, and then mentioned that he had just finished playing a wedding gig. My heart sank. I couldn't believe it. Our mentor, the guy that we were hoping to become, was playing in a wedding band?!?

The next day I started planning my new major. By the following school year, I had quit music school entirely and entered DePaul University's business school.

In retrospect, I probably overreacted to the wedding gig. It might have been a friend's wedding -- perhaps the wedding of a fellow jazz musician. Or maybe it was a really good paying gig where the band got to play music they liked, and the audience dug it. Or maybe he actually likes wedding gigs. Who knows? In my mind, though, it only meant one thing: to make it as a (jazz) musician, I'd inevitably have to take gigs that I didn't want, playing music that I didn't want to play, just to make ends meet. I knew I couldn't do that and still enjoy playing. I had to quit.

To all the happy wedding giggers out there, I apologize for the implication that wedding gigs are cause for reevaluating one's career path. I have nothing against the gig itself, it just isn't for me. I suspect many of you would feel the same way about having to stare at a computer screen all day ;-)

I'd like to close this entry by encouraging everyone to support live jazz in your city. It's not enough to simply see the national touring acts. Your local jazz scene needs you. Don't force them to play gigs they don't want!

August 15, 2005 About Me 6 Comments

Three-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

This month marks the end of the third year of my comeback. I wrote a progress report last year, so I figured I should continue the tradition...


When I started playing the trumpet again, I had major range problems. Even after a few months of practice, I could barely play an E at the top of the staff. In my quest for a solution, I came across the Balanced Embouchure method. I bought the book, read it a couple of times, and started working on the various exercises. There were some initial improvements, but even after a year, my usable range (i.e. not just squeaks) was limited to notes in or below the staff.

To this day, I still include a few Balanced Embouchure exercises in my daily routine. Compared to where I was a year or two ago, my range is unquestionably stronger now. A year ago I mentioned that I'm most comfortable at or below an E at the top of the staff. Now, that same comfortable range extends up to a G. That's right: G is the new E!

From time to time visitors ask me about the Balanced Embouchure method, especially whether or not I'd recommend it. I would recommend reading the book, but I'd caution anyone from thinking it's a quick fix. It's taken me 2 years to be able to play comfortably with a (somewhat) rolled in embouchure. Even now I struggle to keep it up. But, it's an important shift that has improved both my endurance and range. For that, I'm grateful.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also give credit to the Caruso exercises I've been doing for a little over a year, and to the Flexus book. Both of those things have really strengthened my chops. Especially Flexus. Those "flexandos" are killers!


One of my earlier journal entries mentions advice given to me by teachers and other players, most of which failed to improve my range. I've come to appreciate the fact that pretty much nothing would have helped me back then, due to my reliance on excessive mouthpiece pressure.

Advice such as "Play more high notes. The more you play them, the better they get", and "Range will develop over time, just keep practicing" was and continues to be correct. In my case, the advice didn't help because I constantly played with excessive pressure. The higher I went, the more pressure I used, even during practice sessions. Consequently, I never gave my embouchure a chance to strengthen itself. Instead, I ended up weakening and damaging my chops more and more every day. Oops!

Even if I could have figured out a way to practice with less pressure, I would have inevitably done damage later in the day, while in concert band, big band, or in my funk band. All of these bands required that I play precisely every time. It didn't matter how high the note was, or how my chops were feeling -- I simply had to hit the notes.

Today, I don't have any performance obligations, so I never *have* to push myself with pressure. I still occasionally use excessive pressure when improvising, but those instances are fewer and farther between than they were in the past. Most often, when I realize I can't hit a note, I stop trying. I'll either take things down an octave, or I'll just put my horn down and rest. Now that I'm using less pressure, I'm finally building muscles rather than tearing them down.


For the past year, I've tried to spend at least 25 minutes a day on ear training. I start with intervals, move on to random melodies, and finish with simple songs. On a good day, I surprise myself with my accuracy. Just a couple of weeks ago during my random interval session, I listened to and played (by ear) at least 20 intervals in a row without a single mistake. Similarly, my accuracy with random melodies and simple songs continues to improve. Unfortunately, I still have bad days where I struggle to lock in pitches. I'm extremely encouraged by my progress, however, and believe that those bad days will diminish in frequency as time goes on.


In many ways, I feel like my journey with jazz improvisation is just beginning. I've only recently been able to play my ideas accurately by ear. This ability has given me greater control over my playing and simultaneously given me the freedom to take more risks when I improvise. This is all very new for me and very exciting. I can't wait to hear my playing years from now!

About Me:  « Newer Posts Older Posts »