Trumpet Technique - December 16, 2006

The comeback journey

Having already shared my comeback story with visitors to this site, I get quite a few messages from other comeback players looking for advice and encouragement in their own comeback journeys. So, I thought it might be useful to write a blog entry that combines most of my advice (however good or bad it may be) so anyone can access it.

THE COMEBACK TRUMPETER

A comeback trumpeter is anyone who returns to the instrument after they stop playing for an extended period of time. From the messages I've received, most of us share a similar story: we played trumpet throughout high school or college, we then quit playing due to class-load or the start of our careers, and then several years later we got the urge to play the trumpet again. Conveniently, this desire to play again was strong enough for us to forget exactly how demanding it is to play the trumpet. Reality, however, sets us straight in no time at all …

Regardless of how well we used to play, we're going to sound terrible for the first few months as we recondition our embouchures. Not everyone is prepared for this fact, and it's during these first months that many of us will consider quitting once again. "I didn't think it was going to be this difficult," and "I don't think I'll ever sound good again" are pretty common thoughts, so you're not alone if they've crossed your mind once or twice, or even a thousand times! While battling these negative thoughts, it's important to remember that brass instruments, and especially the trumpet, are uniquely demanding in that the key mechanism we use to play them (a buzzing embouchure) isn't normally used in day-to-day living. Consequently, it's quite natural that our embouchure has atrophied through disuse and it's also natural that it will take time for the muscles to rebuild.

THE GREATEST CHALLENGE

Speaking of time, it's about time I mention the greatest challenge facing comeback players: time. With a demanding career, a spouse, and children, it can be extremely difficult to find that hour or two we need each day for trumpet practice. I actually have it relatively easy since I work at home and I don't have any children. I can only imagine how hard it must be if you have a long commute and/or if you have kids that you need to feed and cart around (or whatever it is that you need to do with kids). Needless to say, it's A LOT harder to find practice time now than it was when we were younger.

Due to the scarcity of quality practice time, your rate of improvement as an adult will probably be much slower than when you initially played. I say "probably" since adults tend to focus better and generally take practicing more seriously than kids, but the fact is, if you can only practice 30 minutes a day every few days then your rate of progression will be slower than it was back when you could always practice an hour or two each day. In my case, while I almost always have time for my warm-up and fundamentals, I don't always have time to practice ear training or jazz improvisation. Last week, for example, there were only 3 days where I had enough time to practice jazz improvisation, and even then I was only able to practice improvisation for about 15 minutes each of those days. I'm confident that I can continue to improve at this rate, but I know it's slow going. Regardless of your exact situation, don't let your slow progress discourage you. Instead, relax and enjoy the journey.

I suppose one good thing about the trumpet is that it's actually best to practice in short sessions rather than one long stretch, at least while you're still building up your chops. So, don't worry if you don't have an uninterrupted hour to devote to the horn. In the beginning, two or three 15-20 minute practice sessions might be sufficient. In my case, I do my first two trumpet sessions (warm-up and fundamentals) between 7:30 and 8:30am. That's all I need to consistently improve my overall playing ability. After work, I'll add another session for ear training and I'll finish out the day with jazz improvisation.

GET A TEACHER

One advantage to being a comeback player is that it affords us a stress-free opportunity to address problems with our embouchure that plagued us the fist time around. If you used to have an inefficient embouchure that limited your range, or if you used to have a weak/pinched sound, or if you lacked flexibility, well here's your big chance to develop a new and improved embouchure. And that's where the guidance of a great trumpet teacher is invaluable.

Regardless of how good you used to be, and regardless of how capable you feel on your own, I strongly suggest that you take at least a few trumpet lessons when you begin your comeback journey. Assuming you can afford it, these lessons should be with the best teacher in town, somebody known for producing the best students in the area. Ideally people will refer to this teacher as a "chop doc" who specializes in improving inefficient embouchures. Since you're essentially starting over again as a comeback player, you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you don't begin with the best possible embouchure and guidance.

Regrettably, I didn't see a teacher when I started my comeback journey. As a result, I wasted countless hours repeating old mistakes, fumbling from one embouchure method to another, as I struggled with range and endurance. Don't make the same mistake as me. Get a teacher!

THE REWARDS

Is all of the time and effort really worth it? It's easy for me to just say, "of course it's worth it," but really, it's up to each individual to determine. Personally, I've thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my comeback. Playing the trumpet and making music are both the most challenging and rewarding activities in my life. If anything, it probably wouldn't be that enjoyable for me if it were easy (although I wouldn't mind having the opportunity to find out for sure!). Also, jazz improvisation is the most satisfying creative outlet I've ever found. On some level, I believe I need to play. So, my comeback has definitely been worth all the effort.

Will your comeback be equally as rewarding? Well, there's only one way to know for sure… try it!

ADDITIONAL READING

For more about my comeback and how I've done over the years, you might want to read my anniversary articles:

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Trumpet players are fortunate to have an incredibly large online community of trumpet players at TrumpetHerald.com. At the TrumpetHerald site, you'll find literally hundreds of thousands of posts on just about every imaginable trumpet topic. They even have a forum dedicated to comeback players. So, it's a good place to ask questions and get additional assistance. But, as with any online forum, the value of the information there varies widely. It takes a bit of sifting to find the good nuggets…

Comment by Bob Inglis

Hi

I enjoyed your Blog, I have returned to the trumpet after almost fifty years, 2 years ago now. After the second attempt I found a great teacher in the next city. He is even older than Iam but has been a Pro since 1953. Playing for most of the great British bands.

My journey is similar to yours and I have one advantage as I started as a boy playing the Bugle for the local Red Cross boys band. The music was all learned by ear. My problem is learning to read music as we did not get too many lessons at school.

I am also using Gordons routines plus I use an ear trainer. I am still some way behind you but I manage to play in a local Big Band set up for all levels of players.

Next month I celebrate being 68 years young and God willing I've many years left to improve my technique.

I hope this helps any doubters.

Kind regards

Bob

Comment by Rick

Hi Bob,

One of my favorite things about running this site is that I get to hear from other comeback players and people who are learning to play an instrument for the first time. Their stories and their commitment to playing music is a tremendous source of inspiration for me, especially on those days when I can't play anything right...

Thank you for sharing your story with us and best wishes to you in your trumpet journey!

-Rick

Comment by Manny

Hi there,

Really enjoying the site. After a 20ish year break I decided to try an unaided comeback about three years ago. Rather predictably I hit a wall which I couldn't get over however much I practised. 2 or 3 failed attempts later I've finally bitten the bullet and found myself a tutor. Got my first lesson today. Excited! :)

Comment by Rick

Hi Manny,

I hope your first lesson goes well! Please let us know if you end up changing your embouchure as a result of the lessons. And if you do, it would be great to hear how that new embouchure is working out for you once you've got a few months of practice under you belt...

-Rick

Comment by Manny

Hi. Well it went quite well - not much blowing, mostly talked about breathing, timing, how much time I have to practise and my aims. He seemd pretty happy with my embouchure, but I guess we'll see how that goes.

BTW, I'm going to see Charles Tolliver play the QE Hall in about 3 weeks :)

Comment by Michael LaRue

Hi Rick and other comeback players.

My background I'm certain is very familiar to many others. I started playing the bugle as a youngster in my elementary school's Drum & Bugle Corp. I then started learning the cornet in higher grades and four years in high school. I performed in the concert and marching band. I stopped playing brass after high school graduation and focused more on guitar and harmonica which I also continue to play. I purchased a used Yamaha trumpet a few years ago and started learning and playing again after around 40 years. I'm 64 years now. I'm playing with a local community concert band and also a Big Band Ensemble that I play trumpet and guitar with. I start private lessons via Skype next week on Jazz trumpet and will hopefully learn more about improv. I'm a retired photographer and having a ball. I'm also teaching my 6 year old granddaughter how to buzz the horn. She does very well.

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