An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

June 1, 2012 Trumpet Technique 6 Comments

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 definitely better.


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.


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!

Comment by Adam

Would you mind sharing what tips you heard during the masters classes regarding comeback players? As a comeback trumpeter myself I'm interested in what they had to say...

Comment by Rick

Hi Adam,

There were two comeback classes, but I only attended one of them. I don't recall much in the way of playing advice (e.g. specific exercises, embouchure tips, etc). Instead, the class focused on setting goals and framing your practice around those goals. For example, if your goal is to play in a community band, you'll probably want to practice things like etudes, and sight reading. If, on the other hand, you just want to play for enjoyment, then sight reading might not be the best use of your limited practice time. Also, it was suggested that comeback players can benefit from a practice log to help with time management and to make sure that you're spending enough time on each of the items you intend to practice.


Comment by Adam

Those are all good points. I've just started playing again and right now I'm focusing on long tones for warming up and then playing scales 2 octaves and going through some Clark studies and then just playing my way through some simple etudes. I'm still trying to assess my weaknesses and strengths right now and I have no real goal I'm working towards. I'd love to develop some improv skills (I enjoy listening to your improv sound bites, you make it sound so easy) but I also really enjoy playing classical pieces. I'll figure it out eventually I guess.

Comment by Roman

I think youre a great improviser Rick.. even back in 2004 you werent bad.. dont be too dissapointed about not playing well with others. For your nerves, i know of a simple yet very powerful technique that you can use to remove specific issues, its called EFT it can remove any specific fear, anger, resentment, any negative emotion. You can learn all about it here for free.

www.GaryThink.com (click on EFT and tutorial)

Theres also a book called "Tapping the Healer Within: Using TFT to Instantly Conquer Your Fears, Anxieties, and Emotional Distress". I've been using it for a bunch of issues with great success and you can deal with your nerves before playing with others, test them with visualization and other testing methods to make sure that the therapy worked and then itll be much easier to improvise with others with more of what you've already got. If youre confused about it let me know i can help you with the set up statements or clarification. Its perfect for clearing such issues that youve described, could be anything from "I can't play with others, they're listening" to specific memories from your past for ex when you played with someone and they gave you a bad comment.. deal with the specific issues and memories and test them, and you wont be nervous when youre playing with others when you actually go out and do it.

Comment by Rick

Hi Roman,

Thank you for sharing the information on EFT. I've also read a few books about overcoming nerves and anxiety such as the "Inner Game of Tennis," "Inner Game of Music," and Kenny Werner's "Effortless Mastery." I'll admit that I understand the concepts better than I'm able to demonstrate them in real life, but in this case, I wasn't nervous prior to playing with Tyrone. I was actually really looking forward to it. It wasn't until the other people arrived and I was forced to play totally unfamiliar tunes on camera (I didn't mention that part in the article), that the anxiety set in. Had things gone at least somewhat according to plan, I would have been fine.

Anyway, thanks again for the suggestion and for the encouragement.


Comment by Al

Hi Rick,

It's interesting that you and I have a lot of the same experiences, and same techniques. For example, I have a checklist app on my iPod Touch (Mobilist), and I put the tunes that I've memorized on it. I check each one off when I play it, and when all are checked, I start again.

It has worked very well.

Another trick: When I played trombone, I had a Band in a Box jukebox set up, and I'd have it go through the heads, one chorus each, and play along with each one: Afternoon in Paris, Ain't Misbehavin, Ain't She Sweet, Alice in Wonderland, All The Things You Are, As time goes by, Autumn Leaves, Bewitched, Birk's Works, Blue Monk, Blue skies, Bluesy Thing, Body and Soul, Days of Wine and Roses, Do Nothing 'til You Hear From Me, Easter Parade, Easy Living, Five Foot Two, Fly Me to the Moon, Georgia, Girl From Ipanema, Have you Met Miss Jones, I Can't give you anything but love, I Left my Heart in SF, If I only had a Brain, It Might as Well Be Spring, It's Only a Paper Moon, Lady Madonna, Linus and Lucy, Lullaby of Birdland, Lullaby of the leaves, Misty, My One and l Love, My Romance, Night and Day, On Green Dolphin Street, On the sunny side, Paper Moon, Pennies From Heaven, Polka Dots & Moonbeams, Put on a happy Face, Robbin's Nest, Satin Doll, Scenes From Childhood, Someday My Prince Will Come, Stardust, Straight no Chaser, Sweet lorraine, Summertime, Take Five, Take the A Train, Tenderly, Til There Was You, Up Jumped Spring, Way You Look Tonight, Sophisticated Lady, Pink Panther, Moon river

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