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.
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 solid, especially for a mute. Having already used the sshhmute during a few practice sessions at home, I know it will serve me well when I travel.
JAM SESSION WITH TYRONE JACKSON
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.
NEW ADDITION TO MY ROUTINE: LEARNING TUNES
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!