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:
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.
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!
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.
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.