An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

June 1, 2012 Trumpet Technique 6 Comments

ITG 2012 and learning tunes

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.

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 definitely better.


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.


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!

April 28, 2012 Jazz Blog 0 Comments

Dave Douglas - master class

dave douglas master classIn 2008, Dave Douglas and I traded a few emails regarding his thoughts about ear training. That correspondence eventually led Dave Douglas to write an article about the practice of ear training, which he published on his blog. Since that time, I haven't communicated with Dave Douglas directly, but I have continued to read his blog and listen to his music. And he remains one of my favorite modern-day jazz musicians.

When I heard that Dave Douglas was going to be in town for a concert with the Georgia State University big band, I knew it would be an ideal opportunity for me to finally meet him in person. After asking around, I learned that he was going to be teaching a few master classes prior to the concert. I would have loved to attend his class on improvisation or his class on the music business, but due to previous commitments the only class I could attend was about composition.


Over the years, I've written about twenty original tunes. Almost all of those compositions were written during a period of a few years, back when I lived in Chicago. The first few tunes were for a funk group that I played in during my second year of college. Once the funk group disbanded, I joined a jazz combo and I wrote a few more tunes for that group to play. The jazz combo lasted for about a year, and when it ended, I quit playing the trumpet and took up the guitar as my primary instrument. I also began playing the drums in a rock group.

The rock group inspired me to write a dozen more tunes. I never did anything with those tunes, but in my youthful imagination, I was quite positive they'd someday make their way onto my debut singer-songwriter album; an album which critics would inevitably compare to David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars." If not for its similar stroke of genius, then perhaps because it shares the same number of tracks.

Anyway, while sitting in Dave Douglas' composition master class, it dawned on me that I haven't composed any new music since I started playing the trumpet again, back in 2002. Why haven't I written any new music in ten years? I guess the best response I have is, "Why should I write something new?" I mean, what's the point? I'm not playing in public anymore. I'm not in a band. And I'm not going to record an album. And if I did record an album, I'd probably just rip off a bunch of Mace Hibbard's tunes (that guy can write!). My point is, if I wrote music today, nobody would ever hear it, so why bother?

To be clear, when I talk about "composition" I'm referring to the act of creating and writing down a new piece of music. While the act of improvisation also includes the creation of new music, there is a big difference: Improvisation is instantaneous. When you're improvising, you don't have the luxury of editing, nor can you think something through for a few days. In composition, however, you can take your time, changing your mind as often as you like until you're satisfied with the final product. Given this significant difference, composition uses a unique set of skills that don't really apply to my goals as a jazz improviser. At least, that's what I thought before the master class!


As I'd learn in Dave Douglas' master class, there are several ways in which composition can improve my skills as a jazz improviser. My favorites include:

Finding my sound

Most great jazz musicians have a unique sound or style of playing that sets them apart from everyone else. I'm definitely not a great jazz musician, but I'd still like to have an original quality to my playing that I can call my own. At least, I'd like for my sound to be characterized by something other than my inability to play above the staff. For the time being, that seems to be my trademark!

Due to the fact that improvisation is instantaneous, it can be difficult to develop a unique sound entirely while improvising. If I have an idea in my head that I'd like to play while improvising, I have a split second to think about it before it comes out of my horn. And if the idea is beyond my ability to play accurately by ear, I'll probably just ignore it and play something simpler. But what if something about that idea might help me develop as a musician and get me closer to my sound? This is where composition comes in handy.

By composing on a regular basis, we're more likely to have original ideas at a time when we can work them through and figure out all the notes. Those original ideas could very well be the building blocks for our original sound; a sound that might go undiscovered through improvisation alone.

Learning about other compositions

Since I don't write my own original music, I spend most of the time improvising to somebody else's compositions. Sure, I can read music and I can play along with chord changes, but that's all on the surface. Will I notice how the composer develops a simple motif from the first two measures through to the end of the piece? Will I understand how the chord progression supports the melody during the bridge? Subtle compositional nuances become more obvious when you're in the practice of composing yourself. Or to put it differently, it takes a composer to know one.

Familiarity with the art of composition will help us to more fully understand the intentions of other composers. As a result, our improvised solos might mesh better with the music and sound more like part of the composition and less like we're just blowin' through the changes.


When I wrote songs in the past, I'd typically noodle around on a piano, trumpet, or guitar to find ideas. Or, I'd sing something and then try to figure out the notes on an instrument before writing anything down. Regardless of where the ideas came from, I'd always rely on an instrument to help me find the notes. In the master class, however, Dave Douglas asked us to compose entirely by ear. This isn't something I would have tried before, but it turns out to be a fantastic exercise for both composition and ear training. And based on what I've said above, that means it's also useful for improvisation!

Here's the exercise: Compose a few measures of music, using a single octave of a piano's white notes from C to C. That gives you eight notes to work with (C D E F G A B C). Write everything down entirely by ear, without using an instrument to sound out any of the notes. When you're done, sing the composition aloud.

Let me just say, I love this exercise! The mix of ear training, transcription, and sight-singing really challenges your aural skills and your imagination. And, it has an infinite number of variations. If your aural skills aren't strong enough to use all of the white notes, you could begin by composing with just two or three notes (e.g. C D F). For extra variety, you could base your note selection on one of the scale modes, or you could pick a random group of notes from a chromatic scale. Similarly, you can add rhythmic restrictions, like using nothing but quarter notes. Or, you could force yourself to change meters every bar. See, the possibilities really are endless!


With about forty recordings as a leader, and even more as a sideman, Dave Douglas has a large and varied body of work that spans a number of genres. For better or worse, though, he's often classified as an "avant-garde" musician. In truth, very little of his music actually fits into that genre. There's nothing wrong with avant-garde music, but there are definitely those who see it as a haphazard, random, and perhaps unsophisticated art form. And by association, those same people tend to think Dave Douglas isn't as serious of a musician as his more traditional contemporaries. But that most definitely isn't true.

After the composition master class, there was another master class that was really more of a listening session. Dave Douglas played a variety of music, some jazz, some 20th century classical, and some world music. At the end of the session, he played one of his compositions for the 2009 SFJazz Collective. While the tune played, he wrote the entire form of the tune on a whiteboard, showing how one section built upon another, with the soloists weaving in and out. In total, the tune had about twenty different sections that seamlessly fit together to form a fully composed and carefully crafted piece of music. It was beautiful, too.

As I contemplated all that I had learned in the composition master class and as I watched the form unfold on the whiteboard, I couldn't help but think, if Dave Douglas isn't a serious musician, I don't know who is.

January 15, 2012 Ear Training 4 Comments

Willie Thomas on ear training

willie thomas - MJT+3Below you'll find the first and only guest post to my jazz blog. I wouldn't normally accept guest posts, but this one is special. The author, Willie Thomas, is a jazz trumpeter and educator with over forty-five years of experience playing and teaching jazz. Over the years, he has performed and recorded with a wide variety of jazz greats, including the Woody Herman Orchestra, the Slide Hampton Octet with Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman, and the MJT+3 which also included Frank Strozier, Bob Cranshaw, Harold Mabern, and Walter Perkins. And in 1994, he was inducted into the International Association of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame thanks to his contributions in the field of jazz education.

On a more personal level, Willie Thomas, is indirectly responsible for my introduction to jazz. When I was learning to play the trumpet, my trumpet teacher was a jazz musician named Bruce Staelens. Bruce introduced me to jazz improvisation and before long I was hooked. Well, guess who introduced Bruce Staelens to jazz when he was a kid? That's right, Willie Thomas was Bruce's first trumpet teacher! He even gave Bruce his first trumpet; the same trumpet that I always admired and finally got to play when I reunited with Bruce in 2009.

Willie Thomas found my website a couple of years ago and sent me some encouraging emails about my playing. I didn't even know who he was at the time (he didn't sign the email with his full name), and I know he didn't know about my connection with Bruce Staelens. Small world, eh? Most recently, Willie and I have traded a few emails regarding his Jazz Everyone website. The site includes dozens of jazz lessons in the form of online tutorials, audio files, and videos. Use this link and you'll get a free ten-day trial: www.jazzeveryone.com/i-was-doing-alright. As you might imagine, when Willie offered to write a guest post on my site, I gladly accepted.

Without further ado, here's Willie Thomas' guest post about ear training.

HEAR IT, FIND IT, PLAY IT - by Willie Thomas

As a young trumpeter in 1945 with a penchant for playing jazz, my ear was glued to every Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie or any other record I could beg, borrow or steal. At 14, I was a respectable player for my age, with four strong years of private lessons and band under my belt. I had plenty of written music for my lessons and band, but back then there wasn't anything written that could help a young or old jazz wannabe. Jamey Aebersold was only 6 years old! So for jazz, it was get it off those records, hope you could find some cats that would let you try it out at a jam session and then head back to that turntable for more listening, imitating and memorizing.

That process still plays an essential role today in the process of learning to play or improvise jazz music. Jazz is a language that has been aurally acquired since its early disciples began searching for the right notes to play with the chords they heard in church. However, a vast amount of material has been researched, developed and published to help the young and older jazz players build their jazz chops. "Ear-training" at some point along the way, became a pedestrian term for the process of learning to play what you hear. As I've experienced in my some 40 plus years as a jazz educator and author of the modestly successful Jazz Anyone Classroom series, it's not so much about training your ear as it is about training your fingers to find the notes to play. (Rick's note: in other words, the goal of ear training is to be able to play what you hear on your instrument. It isn't enough to be able to hear an interval and say it's a perfect fourth, fifth, etc. This is why my ear training tools focus on call-and-response with your instrument.)

For most students at various ages and ability levels, the trouble is not about hearing the music, it's all about finding those notes on your instruments and controlling them at various tempos. For sure, if you can't find it, you ain't gonna play it, dude! So, at the tender age of 80, after a lifetime of playing jazz with some of the best players in the world, i.e. Slide Hampton, Freddy Hubbard, George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Bobby Cranshaw, Harold Mabern, Wynton Kelly and the list goes on, I have discovered that you can listen all day long and not get a lot better as a player until you can quickly and automatically find all of the notes on your ax and play them with good time in every key.

Through continued research, I've discovered that constant repetition with small groups of notes around various tonalities starts building the kinetic responses that make it easier to find and connect notes, ultimately leading to better replication of patterns. It's the fingers that have to be trained to quickly find the notes you're hearing. One of the incredible qualities of Charlie Parker, Dizz, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and the rest of those early pioneers was their ability to initiate and craft new ideas with a new language (be-bop) as it was being created. This was a result of having certain patterns down so cold that when a new idea came to mind their fingers were trained to automatically find those notes and play them. The neural response that controlled their fingers were so well conditioned they were able to play almost anything they heard. This came through constant playing and experimentation. They lived the music.

This provided the surety of pitch relationships that enabled them to manipulate this basic vocabulary into an endless variety of ever fresh ideas every time they played. This was their genius. I have recently tapped into a system of practicing what I hear or have heard and building it gradually with a practice routine that is continuously varied. I randomly pick difficult things I hear, repeat them over and over until I get each little fragment of a that jazz lick under my fingers once and for all. I practice everything with an Aebersold Play along rhythm section, playing with a metronome is like learning to dance with a broom. Part of the eternal quest is finding and playing everything with impeccable time. My daily routine starts with Cherokee in all keys, Volume 61, then there is a variety of things I do with each tune in every key on Volume 68. I'm very close to putting a series of these hear it, find it, play it exercise on my JazzEveryone.com web site. So, if you're intrigued by any of this, stay tuned. And by the way, the only time you own those fingers is when they get slammed in a car door! Ouch!

December 23, 2011 About Me 2 Comments

Nine-year anniversary

All of my anniversary articles: 2 years - 3 years - 4 years - 5 years - 6 years - 7 years - 9 years - 10 years - 11 years - 12 years - 13 years - 15 years

As 2011 comes to a close, it's time for another anniversary article. It's now been nine years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. I could make a comment about how I can't believe nine years has passed already, but I'm going to save the nostalgic hyperbole for next year. After all, ten years is an eternity. Nine is but a blink of an eye.


When I write these anniversary articles, I usually begin by re-reading the previous year's anniversary article. By reviewing the previous year's challenges and goals, I can measure my progress over the year and make sweeping generalizations. It's something I look forward to every year. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I realized that I forgot to write an anniversary article last year. I'm not sure how I managed to skip a year, but I suppose there's no sense beating myself up over it. Let's just say nothing special happened in 2010. But 2011, wow, what a year!


In 2004, I launched the first version of my free online ear training tool. Over the years I've added new ear training features and tools, including my online song randomizer and "Play By Ear," my iPhone ear training app. This year I added another ear training tool, an Android ear training application.

I enjoy building ear training tools, but sometimes I'll get carried away and spend all of my free time working and end up having to skip some of my practice routine. This imbalance really hit home while I was working on my Android ear training application. A couple of weeks had passed and I realized that I had spent dozens of hours working on the ear training application but only a few minutes actually practicing ear training. While my aural skills have improved over the years, I still can't play everything accurately by ear, and until I reach that point (which may never come), ear training needs to remain a focal point of my daily practice routine.

Even with the occasional gaps in my practice schedule, I've continued to make decent progress with my ear training studies. Last year I'd begin each practice session with 5-note chromatic melodies (random melodies using any note). Now, however, I'll start with 6-note chromatic melodies and then move onto jazz licks, simple songs, and melodies based on scale patterns. You'll find the scale pattern melodies in my Android ear trainer and in an upcoming update to my iPhone ear training app. Hopefully they'll make their way into my free online ear trainer early next year.

After the various melodic ear training exercises, I'll spend about ten minutes each day improvising over random chord progressions. While I'm not always able to play interesting jazz solos over the random chords, I am at least able to play something that makes sense. Practicing the random chord ear training has really improved my ability to hear unfamiliar music and improvise. It's a skill which came in handy during a recent Thanksgiving jam session (more on that later).


When I was eight years old, I relocated one of my two front teeth during a game of tag. I used the word "relocated" instead of "lost" because I didn't actually lose the tooth. One moment it was in my mouth, and the next moment it flew through the air and landed in a pile of dirt after smashing into the back of another child's head. Ever since that time, I've had a false tooth (aka "crown") as one of my front teeth.

As you probably know, the two top front teeth are extremely important to trumpet players. When we cram the trumpet mouthpiece into our faces, these front teeth push back against our lips so we don't accidentally swallow the trumpet. This is something we all try to avoid.

I've had two different crowns over the years and the most recent one came loose earlier this year when I bit into a carrot. I went to the dentist the following day and he told me that the base of the crown had eroded and probably wouldn't support the tooth much longer. He then gave me two options. He could glue the crown back into position and it might hold up for a year or two, or he could perform a root canal and give me a solid foundation that would last the rest of my life. Actually, now that I think about it, he didn't say it would last for the "rest of my life," but I prefer optimism when it comes to dental procedures. Needless to say, I asked him to just glue the tooth back in.

Unfortunately, after a few months, the tooth came loose again, and we were forced to do the root canal. Truth be told, the root canal didn't actually hurt. Well, at least not as much as I expected. That's because each of the three separate procedures began with two extremely painful painkilling shots (oh the irony!) delivered directly into my gums. I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure it only takes two shots because the nervous system shuts down in fear of a third. Anyway, once the operating area is numb, you barely notice the drilling, grinding, and sawing of your gums. Nor do you give a passing fancy to the dozen pipe cleaners that are successively reamed into the empty canal as your head shakes violently to and fro. Oh, and I almost forgot that charming little blow torch which singed the canal shut with an audible sizzle and a poof of smoke.


Did I mention there were three root canal procedures? Oh yes, I did. The three root canal procedures were spaced over a period of about six weeks, during which time my old crown was gingerly glued into place with temporary cement. It was so fragile that I ended up dislodging it four times even though I had tried my best to be careful.

I was determined to continue practicing the trumpet during my six-week root canal odyssey (three procedures!), but I knew that I'd have to use a lot less mouthpiece pressure to avoid knocking out my front tooth. At first, I could barely play anything near the top of the staff, but as the weeks progressed, my embouchure strengthened and I was able to play through my normal playing range. It's kind of funny because I've tried to dial back the pressure many times over the years. But no matter how hard I'd try, I'd always use a little too much pressure when necessary, simply because I could. Now, however, that wasn't an option. I was forced to use less pressure than ever before and it ended up improving the overall strength of my embouchure and airflow.


In my 2011 Atlanta Trumpet Festival article, I mentioned the difficulty I had playing the classical trumpet parts. After writing that article, I decided to add ten or fifteen minutes of etudes to my daily practice routine. It's been about a month since I've been doing this and I'm already pleased with the results. The combination of etudes and my reduced-pressure embouchure have resulted in noticeable improvements to my range, accuracy, and endurance. Nice!

For my etude selection, I'll try to find something that I can't immediately play and then I'll focus my practice on each of the trouble spots. My current favorite is the first characteristic study in the Arban's book. In one single page, it seems to hit all of my weaknesses. Four weeks ago, I could barely make it through a single measure without an error. Now I can usually play the entire piece with only a few mistakes.


In 2008, I began playing at a weekly jazz jam session that took place in somebody's house. I enjoyed playing in the group at first, but it became less rewarding as time went on. Specifically, I felt there were too many people in the group and since some of them didn't practice, the skill levels were all over the map. After about a year, I stopped attending the jam session and returned to my solitary jazz practice routine.

Earlier this year, the leader of the in-house jam session contacted me and invited me back into the group. This time around, the group is about half as large as before, and all of the guys are serious about playing jazz. I decided to give it a shot and have been attending every week for the past six months. It's great to play jazz with other people again, and I'm grateful to the leader for asking me back each week.


Last month, one of my closest friends in the Atlanta jazz community, Mace Hibbard, invited me to his house for Thanksgiving. My wife and I have attended Thanksgiving at his house before, so I figured this year would be the same as always. We'd go to his house, hang out for a while, eat a potluck dinner, and that's pretty much it.

The week before Thanksgiving day, I happened to be chatting with Mace when he mentioned that this year he'd have a "quite a band" over for Thanksgiving. He then went on to explain that Melvin Jones (trumpet), Kevin Bales (piano), Rodney Jordan (bass), and Justin Chesarek (drums) were all scheduled to attend the Thanksgiving get together and that I should bring my horn in case they end up having a jam session.

Ever since I started playing trumpet again, it's been a dream of mine to play jazz with some of the better players in town. I had always assumed, though, that the dream wouldn't come true for another ten years or so. And now Mace was telling me that it might come true within ten DAYS... and these guys aren't just the "better" players in Atlanta, they're some of the best in the entire southeast... and one of them plays the trumpet... and I'm still playing on a temporary tooth!?

Were it not for the confidence I've developed from my ear training studies and the weekly in-house jam session, I might have intentionally knocked my tooth out just to avoid playing with these guys. Instead, I put my horn in the car and told myself that regardless of how good or bad I sound, I couldn't turn down this opportunity.

As you've probably guessed, I survived the jam session. We played five or six tunes, most of which I had never played before. Thankfully the changes weren't too tricky and I managed to figure things out by ear. I didn't play my absolute best, nor did I play at the level of the professional musicians around me, but I definitely didn't embarrass myself either. And that was something to be thankful for.

Thank you, Mace, Rick S (the jam session guy), and everyone else who helped make 2011 the best year of my comeback journey!

November 11, 2011 Trumpet Technique 1 Comment

Atlanta Trumpet Festival #8, 2011

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.

high school 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:


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

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, 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.

middle school trumpet 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.


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!


All of my Atlanta Trumpet Festival reviews: 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2011 - 2012 - 2013

October 6, 2011 Jazz Blog 5 Comments

Steve Jobs: 1955-2011

steve jobs

In 1980, I used a personal computer for the very first time. The computer was an Apple II Plus and it was one of two computers at my elementary school. At the time, nobody aside from hobbyists and engineers knew anything about computers. So even though I was only in second grade, I was experiencing personal computing for the first time along with everyone else.

I'll never forget that feeling I had when I ran my first program. After typing a few lines of BASIC code, the computer screen flickered and lit up with text racing infinitely before my eyes. The program was just a simple GOTO loop that I had copied from a book, but it still felt incredible to know that I had made the computer do something. It was even more exciting when I realized that I could change the text, and the number of loops. So not only could I make the computer do stuff, but I could make it do anything I wanted! Before long, I was totally hooked and the teacher would have to beg me to get off the computer.

For the remainder of my elementary school years, I spent as much time on the Apple II Plus as I could. By the end of my fifth grade year, I had written the better part of a Zork-like text-based adventure game, complete with animated cut-screen graphics. At the time I thought it was an impressive accomplishment, but in reality it was terrible. I mean, you can't really have any fun when typing E(ast) instead of W(est) results in "You were killed by a wolf." Little did I know it, but those early years on that Apple II Plus ended up paving the way for my eventual career as a software engineer, which I've been doing full-time since 1995.

While Steve Jobs and the Apple II are responsible for getting me interested in computers as a kid, their influence was initially isolated to just those first few years. Steve Jobs had left Apple in 1985, and when he returned in 1996, Apple was a floundering underdog in the computer industry. I didn't even know a single person who owned an Apple computer back then. So when Apple began the "Think different" ad campaign a year later, with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jim Henson, I remember thinking it was pretty arrogant. "How could Apple (and Steve Jobs) possibly compare to the greatness of these icons? Apple will never be relevant again..." Boy was I wrong. In the next fourteen years, Steve Jobs led the rise of Pixar, and along with his stellar team at Apple, he brought us the iPod, iTunes, MacBook, iPad and iPhone, forever changing the way we experience movies, music, computers, and phones. Apple became the wealthiest public company in the world, and almost everyone I know (including myself) owns a Mac or some other Apple device.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been a full-time software engineer since 1995. To many people, computer programming is a geeky activity performed by introverted guys, in dimly-lit rooms (yes, it's just like jazz). While there definitely are some geeky people who program, I don't see programming as a geeky endeavor at all. Instead, I view programming as an art form. It's a magical way to create something out of nothing. I can start with a rough idea in my head and before long I've got something interactive that actually works. And as Steve Jobs and the past decade of Apple products have shown us, the final product has the potential to enrich and forever change our lives.

No, I'm not a brilliant programmer, nor are my applications life-changing. But, like so many other computer programmers and user interface designers, I constantly strive for the elegance and refinement that Steve Jobs cultivated in Apple products. For example, when I worked on my iPhone ear training app, I kept thinking about Steve Jobs and all of the changes he'd want to make. I knew I didn't have the time or skills to make it as good as he would have wanted, but I had to try -- I hope he never actually used it! And I know many of my peers feel the same way about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs raised the bar for all of us, making us want to design the best software possible.

It saddens me to think of a world without Steve Jobs, but I know he'll be a constant source of inspiration in my life. Anytime I think it's too late to do something great, or that I have to accept the status quo, I'll think of Steve Jobs. And I'll think different.

Thank you Steve, for everything. Sorry I ever doubted you.

August 21, 2011 Jazz Improvisation 10 Comments

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2011

recordingThis page contains my jazz improvisation recordings from 2011. As you'll hear below, these jazz recordings feature such highlights as cracked notes, poor note choice, unsteady rhythm, and meandering phrases! And that's why recording myself is so important. It's the best way to evaluate my playing and to chart my progress over time. I don't expect that I'll ever become a great jazz trumpet player, but I am anxious to hear how much better I can get with practice. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

All of my jazz improvisation recordings: 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2012 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016 - 2022

AUGUST 21, 2011

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #59, Caravan

For the past few months, I've been playing weekly (and weakly!) with that in-house jam session from a couple of years ago. We've played "Caravan" a few times, and since I haven't totally hated my playing, I thought it would be a good tune to record and share on this site. No, this recording isn't of a group performance. It's just me and an Aerbersold track, and actually, it was quite a bit more challenging than playing with live musicians. With a live group of musicians, I can play a short phrase and leave some space for the rhythm section to respond with a rhythmic hit or a variation on my riff. Obviously, the recording won't respond to my playing, so those same short phrases end up sounding kind of empty and pointless.

After a few takes, I settled on the two choruses that you'll hear in this recording. As you might notice, my chops sound pretty tired. I've been having a lot of problems with chop fatigue lately and I'm not sure what to do about it. I'll also talk more about that in my upcoming anniversary article.

APRIL 25, 2011

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #53, Joy Spring

It's been over six months since I shared my last jazz improvisation recording, so here are two full choruses of Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring." I first tried playing "Joy Spring" back when I was in college, but I really struggled to play over the shifting chord progressions. This past weekend I decided to give it another try and was pleasantly surprised to find that I could keep up with the changes and play something that didn't sound entirely tragic. I think that sums up the two choruses that you'll hear in my recording from last night: not entirely tragic.

The first chorus is a bit sparse and somewhat pleasant sounding. In the second chorus I thought I'd channel my inner Clifford Brown and try some faster lines near the end. Unfortunately, it appears that I don't have an inner Clifford Brown. Or if I do, he hasn't practiced in a very long time. The first of the fast phrases is actually pretty good, but by the third and final attempt it's downright comedic as the notes spill out of my horn in a jumbled mess.