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!
A MAJOR MILESTONE: SIX YEARS
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.
EAR TRAINING PRACTICE
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:
RANGE AND ENDURANCE
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.
PLAYING THE TRUMPET IN PUBLIC
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.
ATLANTA JAZZ SCENE
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.