Trumpet Technique - December 1, 2013

Atlanta Trumpet Festival #10, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 10th annual Atlanta Trumpet Festival, at the Emory University campus. If you'd like to learn more about the Atlanta Trumpet Festival, start with my review from 2012. That article includes an introduction as well as some information about Kay Fairchild, the festival organizer, and her Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble.

middle school trumpet ensemble

Once again, I participated as a playing member of the adult ensemble. Not to toot my own horn, but I played better this year than I've played in any previous year of the Atlanta Trumpet Festival! For the first time, I even played one of the first trumpet parts (members pick there own parts and I normally pick lower parts). I can't say for certain, but I think the soft playing that I've done this year has resulted in a more consistent upper register and improved endurance.

TRUMPET CLINIC - HOW TO CLEAN YOUR TRUMPET

Each year, the Atlanta Trumpet Festival includes two master classes, or clinics. Usually the master classes focus on warm ups, or some other aspect of trumpet performance. This year, however, one of the master classes didn't have anything to do with playing the trumpet at all. Instead, it was a clinic on how to clean a trumpet, hosted by Rich Ita. If you've read my "equipment information" page, you might recall that Rich Ita repaired and restored my trumpet back in 2008.

As of this writing, I've been playing the trumpet for a total of 17 years. While I haven't exactly been the most diligent trumpet cleaner, I've certainly done it enough times to know what I'm doing. Really, though, how much is there to talk about? First you fill the kitchen sink up with soapy water. Then you take the trumpet apart and put it in the sink. After waiting an hour, or if your wife declares that she needs to use the sink (whichever comes first!), you remove the trumpet parts, grease up the slides, and accidentally drop one of them onto the kitchen floor.

To my surprise, the trumpet cleaning clinic ended up being one of the more interesting clinics that I've attended at any of the trumpet festivals. And as it turns out, I've been cleaning my trumpet improperly all of these years!

For my trumpet playing readers, here are some of the things I learned during Rich Ita's clinic on trumpet cleaning:

  • Wipe off the slides and valves before soaking the trumpet - After disassembling my trumpet, I always put everything into the water as-is. It's better, though, to use a paper towel to wipe off the grease and valve oil first so you'll have cleaner water and a cleaner final horn.
  • Soak the trumpet in lukewarm water with a little bit of mild dish soap - I always used very hot water, thinking that if it's good enough to wash dishes, it's good enough to clean my trumpet. In actuality, the hot water can cause some damage by eating away at the trumpet's finish. Similarly, you shouldn't use so much soap that you end up with lots of suds. That soap can also damage your trumpet's finish and result in flaking and/or pitting.
  • It's a good idea to put a drop or more of valve oil down your lead pipe - Our saliva has chemicals, enzymes, and bits of food which can corrode the inside of the trumpet. Putting a few drops of valve oil into the horn and blowing it through will coat the inside of the horn, acting a sealant against your gross disgusting germs.
  • If your valves are stuck, oil them, don't just mash them up and down - if you haven't played your horn in a while and a valve is stuck, or hard to press, don't press it up and down over and over again to free it up. Instead, remove the valve and add some valve oil. The valve was likely stuck due to crystallization of your saliva, corrosion, and that grande Americano you drank before practice. That stuff can be brittle and moving it around a lot without oil can scrape your valves. If you can't remove the valve because it's too stuck, you might try adding valve oil via one of the value's slides.
  • Don't oil your valves from the bottom - I've always known it's not a good idea to oil valves from the little hole in the bottom of the caps, but I never really knew why. As Rich explained, it's a bad idea because deposits, sediment, and other junk naturally floats to the bottom of our valves. When we turn the horn upside down and oil from the bottom, we are encouraging those deposits to make their way back into the valve casing where they might damage the valves.

As always, I'd like to thank Kay Fairchild, her son David Fairchild, the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble, and everyone else responsible for bringing us the Atlanta Trumpet Festival each year. It's an event that I always look forward to and we're lucky to have it here in Atlanta.

ADDITIONAL READING

All of my Atlanta Trumpet Festival reviews: 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2011 - 2012 - 2013

Trumpet Technique - November 17, 2012

Atlanta Trumpet Festival #9, 2012

Recently, I attended the 2012 Atlanta Trumpet Festival. It's the ninth year of the Atlanta Trumpet Festival and it's the fourth festival that I've attended as a participating member.

As I've written previously, the Atlanta Trumpet Festival is open to all ages, however the participants are divided into three groups. There's a middle school ensemble, a high school ensemble, and an adult ensemble. Each ensemble rehearses a handful of tunes, which they then perform on the second and final day of the festival. In between rehearsals, the festival hosts master classes and a vendor area where participants can try a variety of trumpets and trumpet accessories. If you're in the Atlanta area and you play the trumpet, you should definitely check it out.

high school trumpet ensemble

Rather than talk about the master classes and my perpetual inability to play simple concert band music, I thought I'd focus this review on the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble, some of its members, and the importance of music education.

ATLANTA TRUMPET ENSEMBLE

In 2004, Kay Fairchild created the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble along with nine of her high school trumpet students. Modeled after a similar ensemble from North Carolina, the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble provided a way for Kay Fairchild's students to play trumpet music in a group setting. Later that year, the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble hosted the first annual Atlanta Trumpet Festival, and both the ensemble and festival have been going strong ever since.

During the final concert of this year's trumpet festival, Kay Fairchild took a moment to update us on the present-day lives of the original nine members of the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble. Now in their twenties, most have graduated from college already, some have had children, one graduated from Julliard, two are middle/high school band directors, one is an officer in the Navy, and one of them recently secured a three million dollar grant to fund an after school music program for children in Philadelphia. Wow!

Although the current members of the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble are still in high school, they have already demonstrated a strong work ethic and a will to succeed. As Kay Fairchild pointed out, they have a demanding schedule that includes daily trumpet practice, ensemble rehearsals, ensemble concerts, marching band rehearsals, and marching band performances. And with all of those commitments, most of them still manage to get straight A's in school.

After learning more about the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble members, I began to wonder if there are any secrets to their success. Perhaps they're the product of great parenting. Or maybe Kay Fairchild deserves most of the credit as an excellent mentor and trumpet teacher. Or maybe there's something about playing an instrument that teaches kids how to succeed and accomplish their goals in life. Nope... couldn't be that!

LEARNING DELAYED GRATIFICATION THROUGH MUSIC EDUCATION

When it's effective, music education teaches students a lot more than simply how to play an instrument. Music students will develop a greater appreciation of the arts, as they're exposed to music that they wouldn't normally hear. Music students will learn to be more compassionate as they try to play musically and blend in with an ensemble. And as Stanford Thompson, a founding member of the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble, tells us in the video below, music students will learn to accept and appreciate the invaluable concept of 'delayed gratification.'

Before I talk about delayed gratification, I think it's important to look at the dangers of instant gratification, especially as it affects children. As we all know, instant gratification is the sense of fulfillment that we get when something is easily obtained. I suppose the classic example of instant gratification is winning the lottery. With just a dollar and a few lucky numbers, you can win more than you'd make during your entire career. In pursuit of this goal, millions of adults throw away dollar after dollar as they pin their hopes and dreams on dumb luck. Thankfully, children aren't allowed to play the lottery. Children do, however, have plenty of temptations that promise instant gratification. For most kids, the main draws are television and video games. Other kids, especially those surrounded by bad influences, might turn to more sinister temptations like alcohol, drugs, and crime. There's nothing wrong with (legal) instant gratification in moderation, but if your aspirations are limited to things that come easily, then you probably won't achieve very much in life.

The opposite of instant gratification, delayed gratification, suggests that the rewards for your efforts will come at some future point in time. This concept of delayed gratification exists in every phase of learning to play an instrument. If you're just beginning to play the trumpet, for example, it will take several month of practice before you develop a clear tone. After that, you've got many more months of slurs, articulation studies, and so on before you can play simple trumpet repertoire. And if your goal is to play something like the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, then you're really in for the long haul -- I still can't play those turns near the end of the third movement!

Even though it will take many months and years to become a great musician, students will achieve many small successes along the way. The small successes of learning a new scale and mastering a simple etude are milestones of progress. These milestones prove to students that all of the hard work is actually paying off. And, more importantly, these small successes motivate students to continue working toward their goals.

Of course, this lesson in delayed gratification extends far beyond music. Future goals, like attending college, getting a promotion at work, or starting an after school music program, will no longer seem unattainable because the students have a solid framework for achieving success.

In the days that followed the Atlanta Trumpet Festival, I thought about this notion of delayed gratification as it relates to all of the middle and high school students who participated in the festival. While I'm sure many of those kids enjoy playing the trumpet, there are probably a few who only play the trumpet because their parents force it upon them. I think it's those kids who really stand to benefit the most from the Atlanta Trumpet Festival. Spending a couple of days with dozens of their trumpet playing peers, and listening to professional trumpeters play things they never thought possible, those kids just might feel inspired enough to take the trumpet more seriously. And once they're hooked, who knows what they'll accomplish.

ADDITIONAL LINKS

If you'd like to learn more about Stanford Thompson and his after school music education program, you might want to visit the Play On Philly website or his personal website. You also might enjoy this video from his presentation at TedXPhilly.

All of my Atlanta Trumpet Festival reviews: 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2011 - 2012 - 2013

Trumpet Technique - June 1, 2012

ITG 2012 and learning tunes

Last week, I attended the 2012 International Trumpet Guild (ITG) conference, in Columbus, Georgia. I had never been to an ITG conference before, but since Columbus is only 110 miles from Atlanta, I felt compelled to make the trip.

In total, I spent three days at the ITG conference. During that time, I attended several concerts and master classes with topics ranging from tips for comeback players, to the history of the cornet. My favorite master classes included a presentation by Dave Monette and an outstanding clinic and performance by the Atlanta Symphony trumpet section. The latter provided another opportunity to hear Thomas Hooten in person (I first heard him at the 2008 Atlanta Trumpet Festival). In general, I'm not much of a fan of classical trumpet playing, but listening to him as he played one gorgeous piece after another brought tears to my eyes. I can't imagine being that good at anything.

Here's a photo from Joe Gransden's Big Band, led by Gordon Vernick, with soloist Andrea Tofanelli.

andrea tofanelli

I suppose I could share some notes from the trumpet master classes, or tell you about the practice mute I bought, but I'm sure most of you aren't interested in a bunch of trumpet talk. On second thought, I will tell you about the mute, since it might save you some money. A few months ago I purchased the Best Brass plastic practice mute so I could practice in hotel rooms when I travel. It's a very quiet mute, but the poor intonation makes it all but impossible to use while ear training. I've wanted to find something better for my needs and ITG's large collection of vendors made it easy to try one mute after another, back to back. By far, my favorite mute was the sshhmute, which is a about half the price of the Best Brass mute. The sshhmute isn't as quiet as the Best Brass practice mutes (plastic or metal), but the intonation is solid, especially for a mute. Having already used the sshhmute during a few practice sessions at home, I know it will serve me well when I travel.

JAM SESSION WITH TYRONE JACKSON

Much to my surprise, one of my favorite Atlanta jazz pianists and friends, Tyrone Jackson, was also at the ITG conference. As I'd learn, he was there to accompany all of the jazz-related performances, including the outstanding young jazz trumpet competitors (keep an eye out for Marquis Hill, Josh Shpak, and Anthony Stanco).

Tyrone Jackson and I got to hang out one night and we chatted about the fact that he's never heard me play. I assured him that he wasn't missing much, but in spite of my warnings, he generously offered to get together the following day for a brief jam session in one of the empty practice rooms.

Although I was thrilled to finally play jazz with Tyrone Jackson, this jam session got off to a rocky start. I won't go into a lot of detail, but there were some peculiarities that neither Tyrone nor I could have ever expected. For me, those peculiarities turned what should have been a casual session into an awkward and tense playing environment.

Things got even worse, when after a couple of tunes, a random trumpet player walked in and decided that he wanted to use the practice room after us. You might think he'd let us know his intentions and then wait outside, but no. Instead of leaving, he sat down and watched us play. After we played one tune under his watchful eye, I asked him if he'd like to join us on a Bb blues. He explained that he's only been playing for a few years and therefore isn't ready for a jam session. I encouraged him to give it a try anyway, but it was clear that he wasn't interested. Fair enough. Tyrone and I proceeded to play the blues tune, but rather than sit there quietly, the random trumpet guy took his horn out of his case and started to play. At first I thought he was going to try and improvise with us. But that wasn't what happened. While Tyrone and I were doing our best to enjoy a Bb blues, this guy was running through his warm-up, playing chromatic long tones and slurs. Seriously?!

I could go on and on about how odd things were at the jam session, but none of that excuses how poorly I played. For starters, I couldn't even think of any tunes to play. And when I did think of something, I'd forget the melody and have to drop out for a few measures until my memory kicked in again. My playing was just as bad while improvising too. I'd forget the changes to tunes that I thought I knew, forcing me to try to hear everything in real-time. While my ability to play by ear has improved tremendously over the years (thanks to ear training), like anything, it's hard to access those skills when I'm nervous and anxious about my performance.

On the drive home, I had plenty of time to think about my terrible playing during the jam session. While there were some extenuating circumstances, I knew that my poor performance was nobody's fault but my own. Plain and simple, I wasn't prepared. For several years now, I've taken a leisurely approach to my jazz studies, especially when it comes to learning tunes. Much like I wrote about composition in the recent Dave Douglas master class, I've basically felt that there isn't a compelling reason for me to learn tunes. I'm not in a band and I'm not playing in public, so why bother memorizing a tune when I can simply read from a chart?

This lazy attitude toward learning tunes might have been fine for some of my comeback, but things have begun to change. For the first time since my return to the trumpet, I actually feel ready to start playing in public. I don't know exactly how or when that desire will materialize, but I know it will be a lot easier if I can confidently play a few dozen tunes by memory. Learning tunes by memory will help me to better internalize the changes of each tune so I can focus less on reading and more on actually making music. And even if I don't play in public, I would like to be better prepared for wonderful opportunities like last year's Thanksgiving jam session and this recent jam session with Tyrone Jackson.

NEW ADDITION TO MY ROUTINE: LEARNING TUNES

Back when I was in college, I had a list of over one hundred tunes that I had memorized. Each day I'd go through the list, picking five to ten tunes to run through. I'd start by playing the melody and I'd end by playing the changes on a piano. I was confident enough with these tunes that I could play any of them without written music at my poorly attended coffee shop gigs.

Now that I want to learn tunes again, I've decided to revive the "list of tunes" approach, although I am going to make a few changes. For starters, I'll practice each tune's melody while playing with a metronome on two and four. After playing the melody, I'll continue with the metronome as I outline the chord changes on my trumpet. The end result will be similar to the bass line exercises I learned from Mace Hibbard. Once I've outlined the changes, I'll improvise over a few choruses with just the metronome as my accompaniment. And lastly, I'll spend a few minutes improvising to each tune with the aid of an Aebersold backing track.

At the beginning of each day I'll pick a few tunes from the list, and I'll practice them one after another as I've just described. The following day, I'll move on to the next batch of tunes and when I reach the end of the list, I'll start back at the beginning. This continual review of the full list will help to ensure that I don't forget anything. I'll also work on one or two new tunes each week so the list constantly grows. By the end of this year, it's my goal to have learned at least forty tunes. I'm off to a pretty good start, having committed the following tunes to memory just this week: Recordame, Caravan, Footprints, Blue Monk, Cherokee.

Although I've only been doing this new routine for a few days, I already feel like a better player. My practice sessions aren't any longer now, but they are much more focused. I have well-defined goals, and with each new tune that I add to the list, I have a tangible sign of progress. It's also been refreshing to discover how easy it is to learn tunes now, as compared to back when I was in college. When I was in college, I couldn't play by ear at all, so I had to learn every melody note by rote memorization. Now, however, my ability to play by ear allows me to use a combination of memory and aural skills to learn everything much faster. It's so much easier now, I dare say it's fun!

Trumpet Technique - November 10, 2011

Atlanta Trumpet Festival #8, 2011

Last weekend, I attended the 2011 Atlanta Trumpet Festival. This was the 8th year of the Atlanta Trumpet Festival and it was the 3rd festival where I performed in the adult trumpet ensemble.

high school trumpet ensemble

If you haven't been to the Atlanta Trumpet Festival before, here's a brief rundown. The festival is open to all ages, however the participants are divided into three groups. There's a middle school ensemble, a high school ensemble, and an adult ensemble. Each ensemble rehearses a handful of tunes, which they then perform on the second and final day of the festival. In between rehearsals, the festival hosts master classes and a vendor area where participants can try a variety of trumpets and trumpet accessories. If you're in the Atlanta area and you play the trumpet, you should definitely check it out.

Following are my notes from the master classes and final concert:

LEW SOLOFF MASTER CLASS

For those who don't know, Lew Soloff is one of the most successful studio and big band trumpet players around today. He has performed with a wide range of bands including Machito, Gil Evans, the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He's also fairly well known for his work with Blood Sweat and Tears. That's him playing the trumpet solo on Spinning Wheel.

Lew Soloff discussed a variety of topics in his master class, but I was naturally most interested in his thoughts on jazz improvisation. He began by saying he doesn't like the academic approach used in most classrooms. All of the emphasis on theory tends to produce students who view improvisation like a math equation. That was certainly my experience as a younger player. Since I couldn't play anything by ear back then, I relied entirely on jazz theory to decide which notes to play. This resulted in meandering solos that rarely made any sense. It's as if I decided to finish this paragraph with a bunch of random keywords. Lew Soloff improvisation jazz mouthpiece trumpet. See, the words might be right, but there's no meaning!

lew soloff

Lew Soloff stressed the following as key elements of jazz improvisation:

  • Intention: Mean what you play. Don't just play notes to play them. He gave an example of playing high notes in a solo. It's ok to play high if the notes are relevant and meaningful to your solo, but if you're only playing high to show off in front of an audience, then it's pointless. I'd say the same rule applies doubly for circular breathing.
  • Tone: The sound of each note should convey emotion and meaning. Miles Davis is a perfect example of a player who could play a single note and instantly evoke a somber mood. The nice thing about tone is that you don't have to be able to play high, fast, or loud in order to work on your tone.
  • Rhythm: In most cases, rhythm is more important than note choice. It doesn't matter what notes you play, if the rhythm is off, it won't sound good. You can read more about the importance of rhythm in my Learning to Improvise - rhythm article.

At the end of Lew Soloff's presentation, a seventy year-old festival attendee asked Lew if he has any advice for a comeback player who hasn't played in decades. This is a question that I get fairly often since I'm a comeback player myself. In my case, it was only seven years that I stopped playing the trumpet, but many of the challenges are the same regardless of how long you've been away from the horn. It was nice to hear that Lew Soloff's advice echoed what I always tell people. A comeback player should take lessons with the best teacher than can find, especially if they weren't a great player in the past. As Lew put it, lessons with a good teacher will help you "get it right this time."

ERIC YATES MASTER CLASS

Eric Yates, professor of trumpet at the University of Alabama, gave a master class on trumpet fundamentals and practice tips. He covered a lot of ground in his discussion, but the part that resonated the most with me, was how he deals with frustration in the practice room.

It's easy to get upset with ourselves when we fail to improve or when we can't play something as well as we'd like. If we're not careful, we might even find ourselves spiraling into an abyss of despair. To help him overcome these negative thoughts, Eric Yates carries an old photo of himself in his trumpet case. The photo was taken when he was just a child, smiling ear to ear as he held a cornet for the first time. Looking at that photo, Eric thinks about how far he's come as a musician, and how important music has been to his life. The photo might not erase all of his frustrations, but it does remind him to be kind and patient with himself. Anything less would be unfair to the boy in the photo.

ALPINE HORN

Like previous years, the middle school conductor, Charles Jackson, did a fantastic job of keeping things fun and exciting for the large group of middle school students. The highlight was definitely the inclusion of an alpine horn. It looked neat, but more importantly, it sounded great, thanks to the wonderful playing of the young trumpeter shown in the photo below. As soon as the tune ended, the entire audience was on its feet to show its appreciation.

middle school trumpet ensemble

PLAYING IN THE ADULT ENSEMBLE

During the nine years that I've been playing the trumpet again, my primary goal has been to become a good jazz improviser. I don't think I'm all that good yet, but I'm definitely much better now than I was when I was in college. But when it comes to playing classical music in a group, I'm about as good now as I was when I was in eighth or ninth grade. That's because I no longer practice things like following a conductor, sight reading, and sectional playing.

Aware of my shortcomings, I typically try to pick easy parts to play when I attend the Atlanta Trumpet Festival. While this tends to be a good strategy for minimizing mistakes, it can get a little boring to play nothing but "background" parts. Frankly, I don't know how French horn players do it! This year, however, I felt I was finally ready to play something more challenging at the festival. I no longer have the range to play first trumpet parts, or for that matter, second or third parts (some of these pieces had ten or more parts), but I did find some parts with prominent sixteenth note runs and other passages that were difficult for me to play. I knew I'd be pushing myself to play this music, but the challenge definitely exceeded my expectations.

The decline of my concert band chops was readily apparent when even simple things like time signatures caught me off guard. For example, one of the pieces was conducted in two. Every time we played it, I'd accidentally count to four at some point and get lost. That happened every single time, even during the final concert. Another piece went from 4/4 to 3/4 halfway through. Guess what I did there? Yep, sooner or later I'd count to four in the 3/4 section and get lost. I wonder what my ninth grade self would think if he knew that decades later I'd have trouble counting to two and three!

To say I was nervous prior to our final concert is an understatement. Sure, I was worried that I'd get lost, or that I'd crack some notes, but all of that was trivial compared to the anxiety I felt about two measures of sixteenth notes that appeared in the final tune of the adult ensemble's concert. The two measures began on a G at the top of the staff, on the and-of-four, and I was the only person playing for the first few beats. The range and speed of the run was challenging enough for me, but it was really the and-of-four part that kept messing me up. During rehearsals I don't think I ever played it correctly. It was so bad, that during our final rehearsal, the conductor stopped everyone and basically said he didn't know what else he could do to make sure I came in on time. I thought for sure he'd ask somebody else to play it.

When we started playing the final tune during the concert, I kept telling myself, "Who cares if I mess up? Nobody will notice. Besides, we're all here just to have a good time. Don't worry about it!" But then I thought about the conductor and the look of frustration he gave me earlier in the day when I couldn't play the solo. And then I thought about the ninth grade version of myself who would have nailed this on the first try. And the next thing I knew, I counted to four in the two section! We were just a handful of measures away from my solo entrance, and I had managed to lose my place in the music.

My first reaction was to panic about getting lost, but that soon gave way to laughter. It seemed hilarious to me that I was worried about being able to play a passage and now I didn't even know where it was anymore! Thankfully, the measure leading up to the solo was conducted in four so I just waited for that. One, two, three, and the conductor's arms rose to signal beat four. I took a deep breath, got ready to play, and to my amazement, I finally came in at the right time. I couldn't believe it. For the first time, I played it perfectly (note: if I didn't play it correctly, I don't want to know about it). As we approached the end of the tune, I once again thought about the ninth grade version of myself. This time, however, I knew he'd be proud. Feeling I could do no wrong, I reached the final note of the tune, took a deep breath, and totally missed it.

THANK YOU TO THE ATLANTA TRUMPET ENSEMBLE

I've now attended four Atlanta Trumpet Festivals and this year's was definitely my favorite. Of course, it wouldn't have gone so well were it not for the outstanding efforts of Kay Fairchild, her son David Fairchild, and the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble. The Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble always does a great job running the event, as they assume the roles of musicians, tour guides, and roadies to make sure it all runs smoothly. I'd also like to thank the clinicians and conductors, especially Mark Clodfelter, the adult ensemble's conductor. Thank you for not giving up on me!

ADDITIONAL READING

All of my Atlanta Trumpet Festival reviews: 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2011 - 2012 - 2013

Trumpet Technique - October 11, 2009

Alexa Yates - GR Mouthpieces

Earlier this year I had a lesson with one of Atlanta's best jazz trumpet players, Joe Gransden. During that lesson, I got to try his Monette trumpet and wrote an article about the experience. Reader comments to that article eventually led me to switch from a 7C mouthpiece to a larger Yamaha 14B4 (3C) mouthpiece. I've been relatively happy with this new mouthpiece, but continue to wonder if it's the ideal solution. After all, I've only tried a handful of mouthpieces over the years and there are literally hundreds of alternatives to choose from.

My search for a better mouthpiece took a new turn about a month ago, when I was introduced to Alexa (Alex) Yates by way of Joe Gransden's Facebook page. Alex Yates is a professional trumpet player living in the Atlanta area. She also happens to be a mouthpiece consultant for GR Mouthpieces. As my trumpet playing readers may know, GR Mouthpieces is a boutique company that specializes in high-end mouthpieces. I've always heard good things about their mouthpieces, but frankly their dizzying array of options has always scared me away. GR Mouthpieces even jokes about their complexity with the following text that appears in bold type on their "Mouthpiece Tutorial" page: Caution - Do Not Venture Here Unless You Want Your Brain To Hurt! That's why they have consultants, like Alex Yates, who specialize in matching mouthpieces to trumpet players.

Interested, but not entirely sold on the consultation, I sent Alex Yates an email to learn more about the consultation process. She told me that the consultation lasts 1.5-2 hours, after which time 99% of the players leave with a new mouthpiece that matches their embouchure, playing style, and horn (the other 1% don't buy a mouthpiece). That's a great track record considering she's done hundreds of these consultations. Alex also told me that regardless of whether I buy a mouthpiece or not, "You will come away feeling much more in-the-know about how to listen to yourself, allowing your chops to respond to the air and play naturally in sync with your body." Sold!

Following are my notes from the consultation, which occurred yesterday.

some of the GR mouthpieces at the consultation

THE MOUTHPIECE CONSULTATION

The mouthpiece consultation began with me playing a few G's in the staff on over a dozen different mouthpieces. For each of the G's, I used an air attack (a "Pahh" sound) and Alex listened as I played. We eliminated any mouthpieces that felt uncomfortable and kept those with which I was most easily able to get a clean attack. After the air attack sequence, we moved onto excerpts from classical etudes. The excerpts covered a variety of skills including low slurs, large intervals, articulation, and varying dynamics. With each excerpt, Alex noted my reaction to the different mouthpieces and tweaked the list of potential candidates.

The mouthpiece selection process felt a lot like an eye exam. Initially it was easy to eliminate mouthpieces since she tried a wide range of possibilities. But as time went on and the list grew smaller, I had a hard time picking my favorite. This was especially true when we finally arrived at two options that I really liked: 65M and 65C. At that point I alternated between the two, improvising jazz lines for about 15 minutes. I still couldn't make up my mind, though, so I asked Alex to choose one for me. She suggested the 65M, and that's what I bought.

DID I FIND THE PERFECT MOUTHPIECE?

As of this writing, I've only had the mouthpiece for one day, so it's way too early to tell how much I'll like it long-term. I can at least say that it doesn't sound as good in my tiny practice room as it sounded in the vaulted ceilings of Alex's trumpet studio. It still sounds pretty good, but now it seems a little thin, which isn't ideal since I like a nice warm trumpet sound. I really wish I could have tried the 65C at home so I could compare the mouthpieces in their normal setting.

The new mouthpiece is definitely easier to play on than my old mouthpiece, but at this moment that means it's actually harder to play. For example, on this new mouthpiece it feels like the notes slot much closer together. In other words, it takes less effort to go from one note to the next. In the long run, this added efficiency should improve my endurance and overall playing level. But since I'm not used to it yet, I'm overshooting some notes and/or missing their center. Alex told me it would take a couple of weeks to change my motor memory to lock into the new mouthpiece, so I knew this was coming. I just need to be patient during this adjustment period. Hopefully, once I've adjusted to this mouthpiece I'll also get a warmer sound.

CHANGING MY EMBOUCHURE

While the mouthpiece selection was the primary focus of the consultation, I think I'll benefit the most from Alex's assessment of my embouchure and use of air. The embouchure part came early in the lesson, when she noticed I was rolling my lips in to play the classical etudes. The roll-in is something I've been doing for several years now, ever since I first read about it in the Balanced Embouchure method several years ago. Here's an article about my initial experiences with Balanced Embouchure.

My longtime readers may notice that I haven't mentioned Balanced Embouchure in quite a while. I haven't said anything because I don't know if I actually did it correctly. Although, I guess I could say that if I did do it correctly, it doesn't work for me. I base this on the fact that I now have three different embouchures: one for notes below the staff, one for notes in the staff, and one for notes above the staff. When I play classical etudes, I constantly reset my embouchure based on the range I need to play. Obviously this doesn't work well for large intervals, and it doesn't work at all for jazz since I need to play all around the horn without stopping and starting again. When I play jazz I typically end up using the middle embouchure and excessive pressure for anything above the staff. That explains why I can only play jazz for 15 minutes or so before my chops begin to wear out.

Anyway, when Alex saw my rolled-in embouchure and all the horn pivoting and jaw movement I do when I normally play, she advised that I stop doing all of it. As she put it, it's all causing unnecessary fatigue and although some people can excel while doing all of that stuff, I've already proven that I'm not one of those people. Instead, Alex suggested that I use a single embouchure with strong corners and let the air do most of the work.

The embouchure itself is formed by saying "hmm." The goal is to keep the corners in that position throughout all ranges of the horn. That means I shouldn't relax my corners and puff my cheeks, and I shouldn't drop my jaw and loosen things up when I play low notes. She also gave me a couple of exercises to help strengthen my corners. I'm definitely going to give this new embouchure a try over the coming weeks and months. It may not be the ideal embouchure for everyone and it might not even be an improvement over what I already do. But, since I know that my current embouchure isn't working, I think it's worth trying something new.

THANKS, ALEX!

I'd like to thank Alex Yates again for the consultation. As you can see, I learned a lot about my embouchure and came away with a shiny new mouthpiece. I'd definitely recommend her services to my trumpet player readers, even if you don't intend to buy a GR Mouthpiece.

ADDITIONAL READING

Trumpet Technique - September 21, 2009

Atlanta Trumpet Festival #6, 2009

Over the weekend, I attended the sixth annual (2009) Atlanta Trumpet Festival at Emory University. It's a two-day event featuring concerts from guest artists, trumpet master classes, ensemble rehearsals, and trumpet vendors. Here's my review of the festival:

high school trumpet ensemble

ENSEMBLE REHEARSALS

The Atlanta Trumpet Festival has three ensembles for the festival participants. There's one ensemble for middle school students, one for high school students, and one for adults. The ensembles meet a total of three times to rehearse concert pieces in preparation for a performance on the final day of the festival. Within each ensemble there's a fairly wide range of experience and talent. For example, in the high school ensemble you'll see All State trumpeters playing alongside 1st-year students. Similarly, in the adult ensemble you might find semi-professional players sitting next to jazz trumpet bloggers who only play concert band tunes once a year (like me!).

Playing in the adult ensemble reminded me of when I was in high school band. Back then I was actually very good at playing concert band repertoire. I was a great sight-reader, and I had no trouble reading syncopated and otherwise complex rhythms. Well let me tell you, that time is long gone. So far gone, and so seemingly implausible, you'd think it never even existed. Like when unicorns roamed the earth.

In both of the tunes that we rehearsed, there were sections that I never quite managed to play correctly with the band. I even practiced the music at home, but it didn't matter. Once I got in the group and heard all the other trumpet parts, I'd always mess something up. At least I had the good sense to not play during those sections rather than throw off the performance. It was at least a little comforting, though, when our director (Mark Clodfelter) told us that these were the most challenging tunes he's ever tried with a group like ours. Of course, he might have said that just to pump up our deflated egos, but I'll choose to believe he was sincere. Regardless, I enjoyed the challenge and hope he returns next year with equally punishing tunes.

For me, the highlight of this year's festival came during a rehearsal with Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He was the featured soloist on a tune and the adult ensemble had the good fortune to be his backing band. As I wrote previously, Thomas Hooten is the best classical trumpeter that I've ever heard. Every note is stunningly brilliant. The rehearsal was a rare opportunity to hear him up close. For once I was glad that we as a band weren't perfect. Every mistake meant stopping and repeating, allowing us to hear Thomas play again.

RAMON VASQUEZ - DRUM CORP & BREATHING EXERCISES

Ramon Vasquez, professor of trumpet at Auburn University, led a master class where he discussed his experiences playing in drum and bugle corp. The class began with a brief introduction to the various instruments allowed in drum corp. To my amazement, until 1990 they were forced to use 2-valve instruments that limited the number of playable notes (e.g. the trumpets couldn't play an Ab). And, if you can believe it, 2-valve instruments weren't even allowed until the 1970's! Apparently the addition of each new valve was fraught with a lot of controversy. It's a good thing brass instruments only need 3 valves. Can you imagine what a clarinet corp would have to endure (you know, because of the number of keys)? Even worse, can you imagine listening a clarinet corp? I'd apologize to my clarinet readers, but I know none of them would stoop so low as to read a blog article about a trumpet festival.

ramon vasquez

After discussing the drum and bugle corp instruments, Ramon Vasquez focused on some breathing exercises that have helped him to play at the intense volume levels demanded by the drum corp. The exercises are similar to those found in The Breathing Gym. They're all designed to help players develop an efficient and powerful airflow. Good airflow allows the air to do most of the work, saving you from excessive mouthpiece pressure. Following are a couple of the exercises. For all of them, use a metronome and relax your body (don't shrug your shoulders).

  • Flow Exercise: Inhale fully for 4 beats and then exhale fully for 4 beats. Don't stop or hold your breath at any point. Keep the air constantly moving. After 4 repetitions of the 4-beat in/out, switch to 2-second cycles where you inhale for 2 beats and exhale for 2 beats. You should move as much air in 2 beats as you moved in 4. Repeat it all several times.
  • Lung Expansion: Inhale fully for 4 beats. Then after each of the next 4 beats you'll take another small breath of air. The next 4 beats you'll hold all of that air in and then finally exhale for 4 more beats. Repeat it all several times.

During the question and answer portion of Ramon Vasquez' master class, one of the high school students asked for advice to develop more endurance for his chops. Ramon suggested mouthpiece buzzing as one of his favorite methods. When buzzing, hold the mouthpiece at the end, use as little pressure as possible, and try buzzing an entire tune. I'm definitely going to spend a few minutes each day buzzing long tunes like "All The Things You Are" and "Stella By Starlight" to see if it helps my endurance.

KEVIN EISENSMITH - DEVELOPING A PRACTICE ROUTINE

Kevin Eisensmith is professor of trumpet at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and as of October 1, 2009 he'll become the president of the International Trumpet Guild. You may recall that he gave a master class on overcoming performance anxiety at the 2007 Atlanta Trumpet Festival. This year's presentation was titled "Developing a Practice Routine."

Each day, Kevin Eisensmith practices with three goals in mind:

  • Warm-up: This is the time to reacquaint yourself with the instrument, remembering the things you learned from the previous day's practice session. Kevin's warm up starts on G in the staff, followed by 1/2-step slurs for about eight counts each. His warm-up takes 5-15 minutes with as much resting as there is playing. It was interesting to hear that Kevin doesn't like to do long tones in his warm-up. He thinks it inhibits blood flow to hold a single note for a long period of time. Of course, this contradicts a lot of conventional wisdom about the importance of long tones.
  • New Literature: Kevin Eisensmith recommends spending five minutes a day on sight reading and up to 10 minutes on each piece of new music you're trying to work on. He enforces this 10-minute maximum because he feels we only have a 10-minute attention span. Anything longer than that and our minds begin to wander.
  • Developmental Practice: At this stage, Kevin works on the core techniques needed to master the trumpet. This would include lip flexibility, articulation, and finger dexterity. Each exercise is practiced with an "ER" modifier. "ER" includes fastER, loudER, highER, softER, slowER, lowER, longER. For example, you could take a C major scale and play it at a soft volume, then play at it at a fast tempo, then add a second octave. You could even do all three at once. The next day you might try the C major scale at a louder volume and slower tempo. This developmental practice should last a minimum of 20-30 minutes each day.

Kevin Eisensmith believes that we should practice every single day. Since our muscles begin to atrophy after 48 hours on non-use, taking a single weekend off can undue some of our progress.

PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT

We've all heard the saying "practice makes perfect." As Kevin Eisensmith pointed out, that really isn't true. If you practice something every day and you're always doing it incorrectly, then you aren't approaching perfection. Instead, all that practice is reinforcing bad habits and making those bad habits permanent. I can certainly relate to that as I continually battle against all those years of practicing with excessive mouthpiece pressure. I never developed an efficient embouchure, and often I wonder if I ever will. Are those bad habits truly permanent? Probably not, but they are certainly hard to change now.

NOTHING I'M SAYING IS RIGHT

After cautioning us against playing long tones, Kevin Eisensmith quickly stated, "Oh by the way, nothing I'm saying is right." And that's when I stopped taking notes. Just kidding. Kevin was simply saying that there is no single right way to play the trumpet. Instead, there are an infinite number of ways to approach the instrument (or anything in life) and what works well for one person may not work well for another. In Kevin's case, long tones aren't the most effective way to warm up. But for somebody else, long tones might be the key to their success.

Coincidentally, an illustration of "nothing I'm saying is right" came up during the first day of the Atlanta Trumpet Festival. That morning, we had a warm-up session led by Mark Clodfelter, professor of trumpet at University of Kentucky. Mark began the warm-up telling us that the first note he plays on his horn each day is a G at the top of the staff. He went on to say how the first note sets the stage for our chops and if we start on a low note, we're not preparing ourselves for the full range of the trumpet. Then, later that same day we were all in a master class with Kevin Eisensmith who told us he always starts his day a full octave lower than Mark, with a nice easy G in the staff. So who's right? You could say they are both right since what they're doing works well for them and their students. Or, you could say neither of them is right because there's no single correct way to warm-up. Turns out, both answers are right!

FESTIVAL CONCERTS

The first night's concert featured several trumpet solos and duets by Mark Clodfelter, William Stowman, Ramon Vasquez, Kevin Eisensmith, and James Thompson. As usual, the outstanding Rebecca Wilt accompanied them on piano. Rebecca sounded so good that I found myself wishing she got to play a piece by herself without all those darn trumpets getting in the way. I know, I know. As a trumpet player I should want all trumpets, all the time. But, honestly, I prefer to have some other instruments in the mix for variety.

On the second and final night of the Atlanta Trumpet Festival, the various ensembles performed for their friends and family. We were also treated to a performance by the Studio 5 Trumpet Quintet, comprised of various trumpet professors from Alabama colleges. All in all, I thought it was one of the best 2nd day concerts that I've seen at the festival.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

As usual, I'd like to see at least one jazz trumpeter at these trumpet festivals. While there weren't any jazz performances this year, the festival's organizer did assure me that they definitely plan to include more jazz in the future. Hopefully next year jazz will make its return (Joe Gransden gave a great master class recently... hint, hint).

I'd like to thank Kay Fairchild, her son David Fairchild, and the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble for their excellent work in putting together another entertaining and educational trumpet festival.

All of my Atlanta Trumpet Festival reviews: 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2011 - 2012 - 2013

Trumpet Technique - April 19, 2009

Joe Gransden lesson, trying a Monette

As I’ve mentioned in my anniversary articles, I’ve struggled over the years to increase my range and endurance on the trumpet. My range has pretty much topped off at a C above the staff, and I can’t play that high unless my chops are fresh. Some days, I can only reach a Bb above the staff. Endurance is also a constant enemy, as my chops start to give out after just 15-20 minutes of jazz improvisation.

Hoping to strengthen my embouchure, I recently took a lesson with one of Atlanta’s best jazz trumpet players, Joe Gransden. Among other things, Joe advised me to spend some time buzzing on my mouthpiece every day and he also suggested that I play long tones at very soft volumes. The goal with both of these is to improve my airflow and focus my aperture. It’s only been a week since that lesson, so it’s too early to see any noticeable improvement, but I am optimistic.

TRYING A MONETTE TRUMPET

While improving my embouchure was my primary interest for this lesson, I have to admit that a close second was the opportunity to play Joe’s new Monette Prana 3 trumpet (you can watch Joe trying his new horn at the Monette shop in this video - Joe's parts starts about a minute in). As you may know, Monette trumpets are handmade, very expensive, and are generally considered to be the finest trumpets you can buy. You’ll find Monette trumpets in the hands of many top trumpet players, including Wynton Marsalis, Irvin Mayfield, and Terence Blanchard. Never having played a Monette before, I think you can understand my desire to see if they really live up to all the hype.

monette trumpet

At the end of my lesson, Joe Gransden graciously handed me his Monette trumpet and one of his Monette mouthpieces (you have to use a Monette mouthpiece on a Monette trumpet). Unfortunately, the Monette mouthpiece was quite a bit larger than my normal 7C mouthpiece. Generally speaking, larger mouthpieces offer a bigger sound, but they also make it harder to play high. Having just played for an hour and using this larger mouthpiece, I wasn’t expecting much when I brought the horn to my lips. Oh, I should also mention that just moments before I was barely able to play an A above the staff on my normal trumpet and mouthpiece.

My first note on the Monette was a C in the staff. I began at a normal volume, but the horn was begging for more air. So, I took a deep breath and really pushed the air through the horn. The horn instantly opened up, producing a large warm tone. Starting at the same C in the staff, I then went up a third, to an E and then up to a G just above the staff. The G was strong, filling the room with sound. Almost without thinking I went from the G, up to a C above the staff. This was without a doubt, the loudest, fattest, high C I’ve ever played. I couldn’t believe it was me playing, nor could Joe Gransden, judging by the look of total surprise on his face! I was so shocked by the high C, that it didn’t even occur to me to try playing higher. I’m fairly positive, though, that I could have kept going at least up to a D. After the high C, I tried a little jazz improvisation on the Monette, but that didn’t go nearly as well. I felt like I was huffing and puffing to support the notes, but I just couldn’t get enough air into the horn.

I gave the Monette trumpet back to Joe, and picked up my Bach to compare my range. Had my chops miraculously strengthened, allowing me to play a strong high C on any horn? Nope. I couldn’t play a high C on the Bach, nor could I even play a solid G above the staff with my tired chops.

While it’s tempting to think that a Monette trumpet and/or mouthpiece is the answer to my problems with range and endurance, I think the take-away here is that I need to work more on air support. The Monette forced me to use more air. When I gave it the air it needed, the notes came out almost effortlessly, and when my air stream wasn’t strong enough, it was hard to play in any range. Hopefully the buzzing and soft long tone exercises will help to get me on the right track with air.

UPDATE: APRIL 4, 2009

After receiving several comments suggesting that my 7C could be restricting my airflow, I asked Joe for the size of the Monette mouthpiece that I tried. It was a B2S3, which according to this chart is similar to a Bach 1 1/4 C. Interestingly, prior to my chop blowout, I always played a Bach 1 1/2 C. It wasn't until my second year of college that my trumpet teacher told me to start playing a smaller mouthpiece, a Schilke 15. During my comeback to the trumpet, I tried a few mouthpieces, and settled on my Yamaha 11C4-7C which I've played exclusively for a few years now.

I think I'll take your advice and experiment with larger mouthpieces. I can't find my old Bach 1 1/2 C anymore, though, and the next closest mouthpiece that I have is a Bach 3C which isn't very comfortable for me. Since I like the feel of my Yamaha so much, I think I might buy a new one of those that's comparable to a Bach 3C and/or 1 1/2 C. I'll definitely let you know how it goes.

UPDATE: MAY 13, 2009

I recently purchased a couple of used Yamaha mouthpieces on eBay. One of the mouthpieces, a Yamaha 14A4a is apparently similar to a Bach 3, but the "A" cup feels really shallow to me and thins out my sound. I don't care for the mouthpiece at all. I should have waited for a 14B4 to become available since that's Yamaha's equivalent to a Bach 3C (you can refer to this page for comparisons).

The other new mouthpiece I purchased is a Yamaha 17B4, which is similar to a Bach 1 1/4 C. The 17B4 is a real contrast from my normal mouthpiece (Yamaha 11C4-7C... too many numbers!). On the 17B4 I can get a nice big sound with a full lower register, and it feels good to get more air through the mouthpiece. Unfortunately it also requires a lot more work. Notes feel farther apart than on my normal mouthpiece and I find myself using more pressure against my lips for the upper register. That's no good. It may be a situation where I just need to give myself more time to adapt to the larger mouthpiece, but perhaps I'd be better off with something a little smaller. It is interesting, though, that after playing on the 17B4, my normal mouthpiece feels very restrictive, like I can barely get air through it.

I have also been experimenting with an old Bach 5C mouthpiece. On the 5C I feel like I can get a decent amount of air into the horn, but the mouthpiece itself isn't comfortable on my embouchure. Specifically, it feels like the inside rim isn't rounded off as much as the Yamaha rims, so the Bach creates more of a pressure point on my chops. Consequently, I can only play on the 5C for a few minutes before I start to feel pain and fatigue.

The search continues...

UPDATE: MAY 22, 2009

A few days ago I got a Yamaha 14B4 mouthpiece. Of the various new mouthpieces I've tried, this is definitely my favorite. I'm going to gradually spend more and more time on this mouthpiece over the coming weeks before coming to any conclusions.

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