Things have been a little slow on this jazz blog lately. My last blog post was a jazz improvisation recording from August 4th, and I haven't written an actual blog article since June 1st. I'm not a particularly active blogger, but even for me, writing only one article in four months feels like I've been slacking. Even worse than my lack of blogging is the fact that I haven't practiced the trumpet very much during the past four months. In fact, I didn't play the trumpet at all during the month of September.
So what have I been doing lately? I've been slacking. Um, I mean, I've been traveling! I spent the month of July in Portland, Oregon and for the entire month of September, I traveled through Europe. What does this have to do with trumpet playing and jazz improvisation? Frankly, not much. But since I'm long overdue for a new blog article, I'm going to force a connection anyway!
In the first of my "Lessons from Traveling" articles (yes, there will be more than one), I'm going to talk about my attempts to practice while traveling. I'll also discuss some of the pros and cons of taking a break from trumpet playing.
PRACTICING THE TRUMPET IN PORTLAND, OREGON
My wife and I have visited Portland several times over the years (my mother lives in a Portland suburb), and each time we visit, we wish we could have stayed longer to experience more of life in the Pacific Northwest. As of this year, we both work from home, so we can theoretically work from anywhere. With that in mind, we decided to spend the month of July working and vacationing in Portland.
I brought my trumpet to Portland so I could maintain my normal practice schedule. But even with the best of intentions, I barely practiced at all. Actually, the first week I was pretty good. I practiced at least every other day and tried to maintain my normal mix of practicing trumpet fundamentals, ear training, and jazz improvisation. As the trip progressed, though, I'd end up skipping more and more days. And during the last couple of weeks, I didn't practice at all.
The lack of practicing was mostly due to our accommodations, a one-bedroom apartment that we rented in Portland's Hawthorne District. Since we were staying in an apartment building, I had to play with a practice mute so as not to irritate our neighbors. Playing with a mute is nothing new to me. I always practiced with a mute back when I was a college student, living in a tiny apartment in Chicago. I had forgotten, though, exactly how much I dislike playing with a mute.
Some trumpet players are impressed by high notes. Others like to hear feats of technical mastery. The quality that's most important to me, however, is a player's tone. My preferred trumpet tone is warm, bold, and expressive. The last thing I want to hear is a pinched, thin, or muffled-sounding trumpet. Unfortunately, that's exactly what I get when I play with a practice mute. I can tolerate this lackluster tone in short doses, but after a couple of weeks in Portland, I didn't want to hear it anymore.
I knew a mute would deaden my tone, but I was surprised by the intonation problems of the sshmute, which I purchased earlier this year at the ITG conference. During my initial tests on the mute, I thought the intonation was pretty good. As I'd learn during my Portland trip, though, the intonation gets quite a bit worse in the lower register. Who knows, it might be bad in the upper register too, but with my terrible range, I don't spend much time up there! While the intonation issue might not hinder the practicing of trumpet fundamentals, it does pose a problem when practicing ear training and jazz improvisation. If a "good" note ends up sounding "bad" because it's out of tune, then it's hard to tell if I'm actually playing the intended pitches.
(NOT) PRACTICING THE TRUMPET IN EUROPE
My employer offers a one-month sabbatical after you've been with the company for seven years. Having recently passed the ten-year mark, I figured it was time for me to finally take them up on their offer. Neither my wife nor I had visited Europe before, so we decided to use the sabbatical to spend the month of September traveling through a few European countries. We started in London, and then made our way through Paris, the Swiss Alps, Milan, Florence, Cinque Terre, Genoa, Nice, Les Baux-de-Provence, Costa Brava, and Barcelona. Not a bad way to spend September, eh?
When we began to plan for our trip to Europe, I thought I'd bring a pocket trumpet in my bag so I could keep up with my normal practice activities. After our Portland trip, however, I knew that I probably wouldn't end up practicing very often, so it would be a mistake to lug a horn from city to city. A pocket trumpet might seem small and portable, but since I was only bringing a single backpack for all of my stuff, every inch (and pound) really mattered.
The day before we left for Europe, I felt guilty about not playing the trumpet for an entire month, so I threw an old mouthpiece into my backpack. Surely a little mouthpiece buzzing would be better than not playing at all, right? I know the answer to that question is "yes," but I don't speak from experience. As it turns out, the mouthpiece never left my bag. After ten years of diligent trumpet practice, I didn't play at all for an entire month.
THE FEAR OF NOT PLAYING
I've played the trumpet for about eighteen years. Eight of those years were back when I was a kid and the other ten are from my trumpet comeback. Throughout all of that time, I've been painfully aware of two rules of playing the trumpet: First, I won't be a decent trumpet player unless I practice. And second, if I miss more than a few days of practice, I'll pay for it in the practice room.
While all musical instruments require a certain amount of ongoing practice, I do think wind instruments, and especially brass instruments, place a unique demand on our bodies. For starters, there's the awkward coordination of our lungs, fingers, and mouths. If any one of these components gets out of sync with each other, we'll start to sound sloppy as we crack notes, miss articulations, and stumble through difficult passages. And if all of that isn't tricky enough, brass players also have the misfortune of needing to buzz into a mouthpiece. Most of us use our fingers, lungs, and mouths on a daily basis, but there isn't exactly a normal everyday activity that mimics the act of buzzing a mouthpiece. That's why it's so important for us to practice on a regular basis. If we don't use it, we lose it!
THE DOWNSIDES OF TAKING A BREAK
Physical Atrophy: After each trip, I immediately resumed my normal trumpet practice routine. During the first couple of days, my tone was pinched and strained, as I had to force my lips to buzz again. And once they did buzz, my accuracy was atrocious. I'd repeatedly over- or under-shoot notes by an entire partial.
I've been able to regain my tone after about a week of practice, but the real challenge is endurance. As of this writing, I'm a couple of weeks into my recovery from the Europe trip, and I can only play for about ten minutes at a time before my chops give out. I know from my Portland trip that it will probably take another week or two before my endurance returns to its normal state.
Mental Atrophy: A recent goal of mine has been to learn jazz tunes. I've made some progress toward that goal, but with each break, I end up undoing a lot of that effort. Various sections of the tunes have become hazy in my memory, so rather than learn new tunes, I've been relearning tunes that I had already knew. I had hoped to learn forty tunes by the end of the year, but that seems unlikely at this point.
I know I could offset the physical and mental atrophy simply by buzzing and reviewing tunes in my mind. That definitely was my intention prior to these trips. But once I got away, I lost the motivation to practice as my mindset shifted into "vacation mode." As I travel more, I'll definitely have to work on this. These extended trips have been wonderful, but I'd really like to avoid the subsequent month-long rebuilding periods.
THE BENEFITS OF TAKING A BREAK
No doubt about it, I won't improve as a trumpet player unless I practice regularly. There are, however, some benefits to taking a break.
Fresh approach: When I'm practicing regularly and working on the same routine every day, there's a potential for getting into a rut. For me, this occurs mostly in my jazz improvisation studies. A musical phrase cements itself in my mind and I'll end up playing some variation thereof over and over again. The next thing I know, I'm playing the same lick every day, just because it's familiar. By taking a break, I can forget some of these licks and patterns. And with any luck, when I return to the instrument, I might have some new ideas that I wouldn't have had otherwise.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder: I love jazz and I truly enjoy playing the trumpet (most of the time). Unfortunately, though, music and trumpet playing don't come very easily to me. It takes a lot of work for me to improve as a trumpet player, and sometimes it feels like a chore to pick up the horn and practice every day. I won't say that I ever feel burnt out, but I do occasionally feel a lack of motivation.
I'll admit that I didn't exactly miss the trumpet while I was sipping wine on the bank of the Seine in Paris, nor did I think about the trumpet while I swam in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy. But, as my Europe trip woefully wound to a close, I did take consolation in the fact that I'd soon get to play the trumpet again. Now that I'm back on the horn and my chops are nearly back to their old form, I definitely feel a renewed sense of motivation to practice and improve as a trumpet player.
Of course, I could reap these benefits without taking an actual break from the horn. For example, if I spend a few weeks practicing classical etudes instead of jazz improvisation, it will be like taking a break, but I won't suffer the downsides of not playing. I don't know, though. A few weeks of nothing but classical etudes doesn't sound like much of a vacation to me.