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!
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).
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!