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.
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 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.
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.
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!