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.
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!