This past weekend, I attended the fifth annual (2008) Atlanta Trumpet Festival at Emory University. Below you'll find my review of the festival and some notes from the master classes. While this is no doubt of more interest to trumpet players, I'd encourage everyone to read the notes from Thomas Hooten's masterclass. His tips on getting the most out of your practice session apply to any instrument -- and just about any goal for that matter.
TRUMPET ENSEMBLE REHEARSALS
The Atlanta Trumpet Festival has separate ensembles for middle school, high school, and adult trumpeters. As always, there are no auditions. Participants select the parts they want to play and are encouraged to play different parts on each tune. On one tune the best players might be playing 1st trumpet and on another they could be playing 6th or 7th trumpet. This rotation of parts allows younger and/or less experienced players to sit next to and learn from better players.
If you've read my review of the 2007 Atlanta Trumpet Festival, you know that last year was my first time playing the trumpet in public in over a decade. It was such a positive experience that I felt compelled to participate again this year.
While my range and endurance have improved since last year, I didn't want to press my luck when it came to picking music. So, rather than blow my chops away on the higher parts, I opted for the lower charts for every tune. Little did I know, the bottom trumpet parts were probably just as demanding. On one tune, for example, there were several entrances where we had to come in on a low G at a very soft volume. That's a lot harder than it sounds, especially when cottonmouth sets in.
Last year I addressed some of the shortcomings that I noticed about my playing during the Atlanta Trumpet Festival. Notably, I struggled with my limited range and found it hard to blend in with the ensemble. Since I stuck with low trumpet parts this year, I didn't end up testing my upper range at all, but it was definitely easier for me to blend in to the overall sound of the ensemble this year. Mostly this had to do with my improved ability to hear intonation issues between myself and the other players. I credit the jazz jam session that I've been attending each week for helping me with group intonation. No offense to that group, but it's quite common for one or more people to be significantly out of tune. That forces me to really pay attention to my pitch, adjusting as needed while we play.
KEVIN LYONS - BECOMING A VERSATILE MUSICIAN
Kevin Lyons, a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led a discussion about being a versatile musician. Versatility will allow you to play a variety of musical styles (classical, jazz, salsa, etc) thereby increasing the potential number and types of gigs you can play in as a professional musician. A versatile trumpet player himself, Kevin Lyons spent a couple of years playing jazz with the Glenn Miller Orchestra prior to joining the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
As Kevin Lyons pointed out, when learning various styles of music, the most important thing you should do is listen. If your goal is to play gigs in a salsa band, get some salsa recordings and listen to them over and over again. Listen closely to the phrasing, accents, and rhythms. Listening affords you the ability to really zero in on the nuances that identify a particular style of music. These nuances can't be taught in written music, you can only learn them through listening. Listening to recordings is perhaps the most frequent type of listening you'll do, but Kevin Lyons also stressed the importance of attending live concerts. At live concerts you'll not only get to listen to fantastic music, but you'll also learn how musicians interact with each other and with the audience. You'll also have a chance to meet local musicians and begin the valuable stage of networking.
Once you begin to absorb the sound of a particular musical style through listening, the next step is to record yourself playing the music. Ideally you'll be able to record yourself playing a solo or phrase for which you also have a professional recording. You can then compare your solo to the original to ensure that you're closely emulating the style of music that you're trying to learn. If you don't sound like the original, the recording should help you to quickly identify those aspects of your playing that don't match up. As Kevin Lyons mentioned, recording yourself makes it much easier to find and fix problem spots in your playing. And that's precisely why I record my jazz improvisation solos.
I enjoyed Kevin Lyon's discussion and also appreciated his laid back attitude. It can be very intimidating for young and/or beginning players to talk with such accomplished musicians, but Kevin's friendly demeanor really took the edge off. I also liked it when one of the middle school kids asked Kevin to define the word 'gig.' Kevin replied, 'A gig is a professional job that you get paid for. And a professional job that you DON'T get paid for is called a gag.' Now there's something you don't learn in school!
THOMAS HOOTEN - GETTING THE MOST OUT OF YOUR PRACTICE SESSIONS
Thomas Hooten is the principal trumpet in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He's also the best classical trumpeter I've ever heard in person. During his discussion, Thomas played an excerpt from Mahler's 5th Symphony that was so stunningly beautiful that I it gave me goose bumps. Thomas Hooten's brilliant playing was well matched by the insight he shared during his masterclass about getting the most out of our practice sessions.
Thomas began the discussion by drawing an image like the one you'll see below:
The dark circle in the middle of the diagram represents those things that we've already mastered in our playing. The large dotted gray area beyond that represents things we can do occasionally but with inconsistency and/or lackluster results. And the area beyond the large circle represents things we can't do at all. When practicing, many of us attempt to do too many things that are floating around in the middle of the dotted area. We'd have a much greater chance of success, however, if we focused on things that are right on the edge of what we've already mastered. For example, if I'm trying to learn how to improvise at faster tempos, I won't make significant progress if I start practicing Giant Steps at 300bpm. The mix of fast tempos and challenging chord progressions is setting me up for failure. I'd be much better off playing a tune I already know at tempos that narrowly exceed my current comfort level, gradually increasing the speed as my competency grows. This concept of setting attainable goals is nothing new, but it's still something most of us fail to do because we're in too much of a hurry to improve. Next time you find yourself trying to do too much too soon, remember this diagram and focus on the edge of that inner circle.
Following are several more of Thomas Hooten's keys for success:
- You Perform How You Practice - if you don't take your practice sessions seriously, it will be obvious in your performances.
- Good Performers Are Consistent, Not Lucky ' when you're under-prepared you need luck to get through a performance. Proper preparation delivers consistent results.
- Don't Judge Yourself ' when we play poorly we sometimes become angry with ourselves and overly critical. These negative emotional responses cloud our judgment and inhibit progress. When problems arise, focus on the issues without taking it personally.
- Never Quit ' there's always a way to improve.
- Use a Metronome and Tuner ' good time and good intonation never go out of style!
- Practice Slowly ' don't play something at full tempo until you can play it at half tempo.
- Make Hard Sections Even Harder ' Thomas Hooten demonstrated this one by playing an excerpt with a very challenging leap to a high note. Since it's such a difficult passage, Thomas will practice the phrase while jumping to an even higher note. After that, the real/lower note seems easy. This one only works, however, if you can actually play the intended note in the first place.
- Take a Break After 30 Minutes of Practice ' after 30 minutes, fatigue sets in and it becomes harder to concentrate. Thomas actually sets a timer when he practices so he doesn't accidentally exceed 30 minutes. Once the time goes off he rests for at least 10 minutes, and sometimes for an hour or two.
- Experiment, Be Creative ' you don't have to do everything the same way all the time. Experiment with new repertoire, new approaches to existing material, and add variety to your daily practice routine.
- Keep a Practice Journal ' Thomas keeps very detailed practice journals so he can evaluate his progress over time.
- Practice Active Listening and Record Yourself ' Thomas basically echoed the same concepts I mentioned from the Kevin Lyons masterclass.
- Take Notes After Each Lesson ' if you're taking private lessons, your teacher may be telling you more things than you can remember during a lesson. If you record the lesson or take notes immediately afterwards, you stand a much better chance of retaining all of that information.
- Dealing with Nerves: Be Over-prepared ' a good way of dealing with nerves is to be so prepared that you don't have to worry about whether or not you can perform.
- Dealing with Nerves: Play for your friends ' many of us become self-conscious and nervous when playing in front of others. You and your fellow musicians can combat this by regularly performing in front of each other.
Here's one more tidbit about Thomas that I found especially interesting. While in college, Thomas said he had hit a wall with his playing. His teacher at the time, Armando Ghitalla, told him that he needed to change his embouchure in order to succeed as a professional trumpet player. On a leap of faith, Thomas took the advice, spent several months barely able to play as he adjusted to his embouchure, and look where he is now: principal trumpet of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra! This story interests me so much because I was a freshman at the University of Michigan when I first ran into major problems with my embouchure (the blowout). And guess who the head of the trumpet department was at the time? None other than Armando Ghitalla. I was a jazz studies major at the time and Armando Ghitalla primarily taught upperclassmen, but now I'll wonder how things might have turned out if he could have helped me with my embouchure back then. Of course, it's extremely unlikely that I would have become a fantastic trumpet player like Thomas Hooten, but perhaps I'd at least be able to play above the staff for 5 minutes before my chops give out! Sigh.
HOPING FOR MORE JAZZ IN THE FUTURE
Given the trumpet's pivotal role throughout the history of jazz music, it seems important to me that jazz should be represented at any trumpet festival. At last year's Atlanta Trumpet Festival we did indeed have jazz performances and discussions, but this year it was strictly a classical production. Whether the omission of jazz was intentional or simply a matter of scheduling conflicts (the festival date changed this year), it was a missed opportunity to expose the young trumpet players to jazz. You never know, jazz might be just the thing that keeps some of them interested in playing the trumpet. It certainly keeps me coming back to the horn. Hopefully next year jazz will return to the Atlanta Trumpet Festival.
Update 9/23/2008: The Atlanta Trumpet Festival director, Kay Fairchild, has informed me that jazz will indeed continue to play an important role at the festival. They actually had two jazz trumpeters scheduled to appear this year but things fell through when Emory University had to change the date on short notice.
Attendance at the Atlanta Trumpet Festival was down a bit since last year's record size, but there was still a decent number of participants in the middle school, high school, and adult trumpet ensembles. Each ensemble played well during the final concert and I'm happy to report that I successfully made it through those soft low G's!
As always, I'd like to thank Kay Fairchild, her son David, and the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble for all of the hard work they put into making the Atlanta Trumpet Festival possible. I look forward to participating again next year and hope more of my trumpet playing readers will attend as well.