It's been about two years now since my comeback. I thought this would be a good time to comment on my progress and playing experience thus far.
I've worked on a few new methods during the past year or so, including the Balanced Embouchure and Caruso's Musical Calisthenics For Brass (I continue to practice both of these methods daily). I haven't seen any dramatic results, however I have become a lot more conscious of my embouchure, especially the use of excessive pressure. Now, when I feel like I'm pushing too hard, I'm quicker to make corrections and/or rest.
I'm still most comfortable below an E at the top of the staff. During my morning warm-ups and exercises, I can play a few C's above the staff with little pressure, but I only have a few of these in me each day. After that, I have to use excessive pressure to play anything above the staff. So, yeah, my range is (still) lousy.
I've been working daily with the Flexus book for a few months, primarily the slurring exercises. I've also been working on my single and double-tonguing speed on Clark studies. While working on my technique, I take extra care to make sure I'm not falling into the old habit of excessive pressure. My progress is gradual, and I still crack/miss several notes, but at least I'm trying to use a more comfortable embouchure setting than I've used in the past.
It's been about nine months now since I've added ear training into my daily practice routine. My ear has really opened up during this period, and it's getting noticeably stronger all the time. Pitches, intervals, and chord changes... everything is becoming easier to identify and play.
I'm really surprised at how well I've been doing since adding random melody playback to my routine. While listening to jazz recordings, I'll hear a short phrase and the notes will jump out at me. If I pick up my horn, I'll surprise myself by playing the notes perfectly, without previously knowing the key or the starting note. This doesn't happen all the time, but the experience is becoming more common.
I believe that my development as an improviser is largely dependent upon my progress with ear training and overall technique. Ear training will tell me the notes to play (i.e. the ability to play what I hear), and a solid technique will give me the chops I need to actually play those notes. Fortunately, at the present time, I don't hear myself playing a lot of notes above the staff.
There are other things that I've done to work on improvisation, including note limiting and freeform improvisation exercises. I haven't spent enough time on these things (yet), so I'm not quite sure how much they've helped my playing.
In general, I do feel more confident about my improvisation. I'm proud of some recent recordings, particularly My Funny Valentine and the two Granted clips, but I still hear a lot of room for improvement. Currently, I'm only able to play about 30% of my ideas (maybe not even that high of a percentage). I think ear training will be the key to strengthening that number.
As I've already written in my comeback journal entry, the first six months of my comeback were basically wasted on old habits... so if I discard that period, it's only been a year and a half since I've been (hopefully) doing things right. With that in mind, I suppose I have done quite well in a relatively short period of time.
Most importantly, I feel like I'm finally beginning to make music. For the first time, I feel like my improvisation is representative of what I want to play (not all the time, but sometimes!). Going forward, my primary goal is to tighten the gap between what I want to play and what I'm able to play.