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

November 16, 2021 About Me 4 Comments

Taking jazz and trumpet lessons

It's been four years since my last journal entry, when I announced my move to Manhattan. Needless to say, a lot has happened (to us all) since then, but for this update I'm going to focus on my musical development over the last two and a half years.


First, some background for those who aren't already aware . . .

Long ago, when I graduated high school, my dream was to become a professional jazz musician. I knew that I wasn't nearly as good as my jazz heroes, but I naively assumed that college music school would somehow transform me into a "great" player. Unfortunately, after two years at two different college music schools, I was only marginally better, and I could see that neither school had the potential to take my playing to the next level. Frankly, neither school that I attended had much of a jazz curriculum beyond combo and big band classes at that time.

Towards the end of my second year of music school, I decided it was time to make a change, so I switched to the business school and majored in finance. During that first year of business school, I had a business idea and taught myself computer programming in order to make it a reality. That business idea didn't actually go anywhere, but it did inspire another idea, and the eventual co-founding of my first tech startup.

Twenty years and two more startups later, I was burned out with the tech industry and ready for a change. Over the next four years, I traveled extensively, and thought about where and how I'd like to spend the next chapter of my life. As I mentioned previously, the "where" ended up being Manhattan.

After moving to Manhattan, the first two years were mostly spent settling in and remodeling our apartment. While my days were busy, my nights were free to explore the New York jazz scene. On average I saw two or three jazz concerts each week (and still do). As most of you know, the level of playing here is incredible. It's basically the best of the best, night after night. While seeing so many fantastic musicians could have left me feeling discouraged about my playing, I instead felt more inspired than ever to improve as a jazz musician.

By the time our apartment remodel was completed, I knew exactly "how" I wanted to spend the next chapter of my life. I would devote myself full-time to music, and finally get the jazz education that I never received when I was in college. To be clear, I'm not trying to become a professional jazz musician. I would, however, like to see if I can become (almost?) as good as one. Or at least as good as someone people call when the "good" players aren't available!

Rather than spend a fortune on a top music school that I probably couldn't get into anyway, I decided to take private lessons with the best teachers I could find. And that's what I've been doing for the past two years. For a while now, I've wanted to share my experiences in those lessons, but I've been too busy practicing. Seriously! I now practice a mix of piano, trumpet, and ear training for a total of four or five hours each day. I still have a year or two (or twenty?) before I'll be where I want to be in my playing, but for the first time, I feel like I might actually get there.


For the past two and a half years, I have been studying with Nadje Noordhuis and Garry Dial. Nadje Noordhuis is my trumpet teacher, specializing in embouchure issues and playing efficiency. You can read more about my lessons with Nadje in this post. In my lessons with Garry Dial, I'm studying ear training, jazz improvisation, jazz piano, and much more.

December 29, 2017 About Me 6 Comments

Fifteen-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

It's now been fifteen years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years.


As with recent years, 2017 began with a focus on travel. My wife and I spent the first few weeks of the year in Utah, driving through its national parks. It was our first time in Utah and it was one jaw dropping view after another. We've been to the Grand Canyon and other places in Arizona, but Utah really blew us away with its abundance of beautiful scenery. Prior to making the trip, we were concerned that snow might close some of the roads, but we managed to go everywhere we wanted without issue. And best of all, due to the cold weather, there weren't any crowds.


After Utah, we travelled to Mexico. I'm embarrassed to say that this was only my first visit to Mexico. Needless to say, I loved the food, culture, and historical sites. I also had several opportunities to practice my Spanish with the friendly locals. During this trip, we visited Mexico City, Merida, and a few coastal cities on the Yucatan Peninsula. I look forward to exploring more of Mexico in the future.

We had planned a few more trips for this year, but as you'll read below, new priorities arose after our Mexico trip.


The last time I redesigned this site was back in April of 2010. A lot has changed since then in the world of web design and development. One of the biggest changes is the shift towards a mobile-first approach, where sites are now primarily designed to be used on phones and tablets. If you've ever tried to access my old site on a mobile device, you've likely noticed that it didn't scale very well on smaller displays.

For several years I've wanted to redesign this site, but my time and energy has been focused on travel. Earlier this year, however, I volunteered to redesign the website of an independent jazz record label. I really enjoyed the design process and when it was over I thought, "Hey Rick, what about redesigning your own site?"

So now I have a new website design! I will readily admit that this new site doesn't have all of the testing and polish that I'd normally like for a product launch. I hope to address problems quickly, but please let me know if you run into any issues. I'll also note that while most of the site works well with mobile displays, I haven't done much with the online ear trainer. Over time I'd like to have a mobile-friendly interface for that, but it's a sizable project and I haven't had the time to take it on.


In 2001, my wife and I moved from Chicago to Atlanta. I'd like to say that decision was the result of careful consideration, but it came down to this: my wife was tired of the long Chicago winters and she thought she'd like to give Atlanta a try. When we moved, I thought we'd live in Atlanta for 5-7 years before moving to someplace more permanent, but then my career took over and Atlanta became our home for the next sixteen years.

A lot has happened during my sixteen years in Atlanta. I started playing the trumpet again, I befriended members of the local jazz community, I built this jazz blog, I started promoting jazz in Atlanta on this website, I created a few ear training tools, I joined a weekly jazz jam session, I started skateboarding again, I built a mini-ramp in my backyard (so much fun!), I quit skateboarding after spraining my ankle (not fun at all!), I started doing yoga, I learned Spanish and (some) French, I started drawing & painting (this site's Lee Morgan image was drawn on my iPad), and I participated as a co-founder in two very demanding tech startups.

In 2013, after co-founding three tech startups and nearly 20 years as a professional software engineer, I decided to take a break from my career. Since that time, my wife and I have been spending most of our time traveling. For the first time in our lives, we visited countries in Europe, Central America, South America, and Asia. I've loved every moment of our travels, even that time when I got the flu in Paris. Well, maybe I didn't love that, but if you have to have the flu somewhere, you could do worse than Paris!

Initially, we were traveling simply for enjoyment, but after a couple of years we began to think about where we'd like to spend the next 5-10 years of our lives. To help choose our ideal city, I made the following wishlist of amenities: international airport, robust jazz scene, ability to walk to jazz clubs, great restaurants, public transportation, cultural diversity, appreciation of the arts, proximity to friends and family. Oh, and it would be nice if the city is close to water.

The front-runner was an obvious choice, but that city has one major drawback: cold winters. Actually, there are plenty of other drawbacks (like, the outrageously high cost of living), but since cold weather drove us out of Chicago many years ago, that was our primary concern. To see if the weather would be a deal-breaker, we visited our front-runner for the past four years, staying for 6-8 weeks during the winter months. Regardless of how cold or snowy it would get, we'd always find ourselves wishing we could stay longer. And that's how we knew we had found our future home.

I bet you'll never guess which city we picked...


Five weeks ago, we moved into an apartment in Chelsea. It's definitely smaller than our old home in Atlanta, but it has an ideal room for me to practice my trumpet. In fact, it's so well insulated that I've been playing without a mute! I definitely didn't think that would be possible when we first began our apartment search. And best of all, I'm now within an easy walk to about a dozen of New York's best jazz clubs.


I don't know what the new year will bring, but I look forward to settling into our new home and making of the most of everything New York has to offer.

Happy (almost) New Year!

December 31, 2015 About Me 2 Comments

Thirteen-year anniversary

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It's now been thirteen years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. Here's another anniversary article.


Like last year, I spent the better part of 2015 traveling. This year I returned to some of my favorite cities, including NYC, Portland (Oregon), London, Barcelona, and Paris. I also visited some new countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, and Ireland. And I'm especially pleased to report that I survived driving on the left-hand side of the road during a month-long road trip through England, Wales, and Scotland. Prior to the trip, I had expected the single-lane roads of Isle of Skye to be most frightful, but nothing quite compared to driving 40+ mph through the narrow stone-lined roads of rural Wales.


I absolutely love traveling and I intend to continue traveling for some time to come, but it has been difficult to maintain my trumpet practice routine when I'm away from home. When I first started traveling three years ago, I didn't bring a trumpet, and I had a really tough time getting my chops back afterward. After that first trip, I resolved to always bring my trumpet when I travel and I've been pretty good about practicing for at least 30 minutes every day.

Although I've been able to get time on the horn while traveling, I've really struggled when it comes to practicing ear training and jazz improvisation. Those struggles aren't due to a scarcity of time, however. Rather, they're the result of poor intonation and the inability to hear myself when I'm practicing quietly.


When I travel, I typically stay in rented apartments or hotel rooms. To keep the volume down to an acceptable level, I always need to practice with a mute. The best mute I've found thus far is still the Dennis Wick adjustable cup mute. Unfortunately, when I'm playing at my quietest level, it can be a little hard to hear myself, especially if I'm trying to play along with a recording or one of my ear training tools.

The other problem I face when practicing away from home is intonation. The Dennis Wick mute plays fairly well in tune, but I can't say the same about my Colin Pocket Max pocket trumpet. Although the pocket trumpet has fairly decent intonation through most of my playable range, it suffers quite a bit with notes below the staff, especially those which require the 3rd valve. The volume and the intonation issues might be tolerable in isolation, but together they make it rather difficult to hear individual pitches clearly.

Since I always bring my Colin Pocket Max pocket trumpet on multi-city trips, I decided that a good first step would be to try and find a pocket trumpet with better intonation. I've often heard that Benge pocket trumpets are among the best, but used ones are expensive and hard to find. Kanstul allegedly has a good pocket trumpet too, but those are similarly expensive and rare. Wanting something in the $750 or less range, my research suggested that the Carol Brass pocket trumpet might be the best option.

A couple of months ago, I went ahead and bought a used Carol Brass pocket trumpet from eBay for about $500. I've been using the Carol Brass pocket trumpet exclusively for the past 6 weeks (I'm in Paris right now!), and the intonation is much better than my older Colin Pocket Max pocket trumpet. While I'm fairly happy with the Carol Brass pocket trumpet so far, I still need to fix the problem I have with hearing myself clearly when I play with a mute.

Earlier this year, I bought a 3rd-generation Yamaha Silent Brass mute, which I had hoped would fix the problem with hearing myself. As you may know, the Yamaha Silent Brass mute is a very quiet mute that uses a microphone to pickup the sound so you can hear it clearly using headphones. You can even mix in an additional audio source so you can play along to recordings. When I first tried it, I thought it was the perfect solution, but as soon as I tried playing pitches below the staff, I ended up with horrible intonation problems. Argh!

I've tried using the Yahama Silent Brass mute off and on throughout the year, but I've come to the conclusion that it just won't work for ear training and improvisation due to the intonation issues. All hope isn't lost, though, as I did stumble upon a new idea during my most recent trip. Using a set of iPhone headphones as a "microphone" along with my Dennis Wick mute and the Yamaha Silent Brass audio module, I can hear myself without the intonation problems of the Yamaha Silent Brass mute. It's a bit hacked together at the moment, but once I get home I'm going to experiment with a better microphone and mute configuration. I'll let you know if I come up with anything worth sharing.


Once again, I attended the annual Atlanta Trumpet Festival this year and I participated in the adult trumpet ensemble. Over the years, I've had mixed results with my playing at the Atlanta Trumpet Ensemble. The ensembles always play classical tunes, but since I don't play that type of repertoire in my daily practice routine, my chops aren't always up to the task. This year I decided to prepare a bit more and during the month leading up to the festival, I devoted about 10 minutes a day to practicing trumpet etudes. That seemed to do the trick, as I played better than I had played during any prior Atlanta Trumpet Festival. If I had more time, I'd definitely keep up the etude practice, but it isn't feasible when I'm traveling.


I continue to participate in a weekly jazz jam session when I'm in Atlanta and I'm very grateful for that opportunity. During those sessions, however, I'm always reading from written music or I'm playing tunes from memory. Consequently, my playing tends to be a bit formulaic and underwhelming. I'd like to reach the point where I can rely totally on my ears in those jazz jam sessions, but my ears aren't quite good enough to handle complex melodies and rapid chord changes -- yet!

My ability to play by ear has gotten good enough, however, to play in non-jazz settings. The first of these non-jazz jam sessions occurred last year when I was traveling in Chilean Patagonia. That was the first time I had improvised with other people entirely by ear, and it's something I never could have done prior to practicing ear training. Since that time, I've continued to seek out similar improvised sessions and I've been lucky enough to participate in a few more since then.

My favorite session to-date occurred a few months ago, while I was in Portland. I found myself with two guitarists, one of whom I had met while traveling in Spain last year. The two guitarists were in a band together and they had several original tunes that they had written over the years. During our jam session, they'd start playing one of their tunes while I listened. As soon as an idea jumped out to me, I joined in, playing a fully improvised melody. I wouldn't say that everything I played was great, but on a few of the tunes, I played better than I've ever played before. I just thought of an idea and executed it perfectly by ear. And I mean, perfectly! Practicing ear training can be frustrating and tedious at times, but experiences like this have proven to me that the effort is totally worthwhile. I can't wait to see how well I'll be able to play a year from now!

October 17, 2014 About Me 1 Comment

Twelve-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

It's now been twelve years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. Here's another anniversary article.


After my first trip to Europe in 2012, when I didn't play for a month and it took me two months to rebuild my chops, I now bring either my regular trumpet or a pocket trumpet anytime I travel. When traveling, I don't practice nearly as much as I do when I'm at home, but I manage to put in enough time to keep my chops in decent playing condition.

I've done quite a bit of traveling this year, beginning with an amazing trip to Chile. After Chile, I spent a month in Manhattan, followed by six weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Rockies. And this past weekend, I returned from five weeks in Spain!

toledo, spain

Although the traveling puts a damper in my progress on the trumpet, I have had a few rewarding playing experiences while on the road. When I was in Portland over the summer, I had two playing opportunities. The first was with the clarinet-playing owner of our AirBnB rental, and the second was with a drummer who I met at one of Portland's many food truck parks. My favorite jam, though, occurred while I was in Patagonia, with Torres del Paine national park in the background. I don't know if I'll ever top that.


As I mentioned at the end of last year, I decided to make the Android app available free of charge after hearing about some problems with newer OS versions. The problems persisted and after receiving a dozen or so emails, I removed the Android app from Google's app market earlier this year. I don't own any Android devices, and since download numbers were so low on the Android app, I couldn't justify the time and expense of its maintenance. If you're one of the former Android app users and you're looking for an ear training replacement, I'd definitely suggest my online ear trainer. It's what I use.


If you've used my Play By Ear ear training app with iOS 8, then you've surely noticed that the audio isn't working when pitch detection is enabled. After the first exercise plays, the microphone turns on for pitch detection and it fails to reopen the audio channel for subsequent playback. I haven't used my Play By Ear app in a while, so I didn't realize there was a problem until I began receiving your emails. Thanks for letting me know!

Fortunately, it didn't take too long for me to identify the culprit and I've already uploaded a fix to the app store. Assuming Apple approves the update, it should be available within the next few days. While I was making changes to the app, I also improved the pitch detection algorithm and I modified the layout a bit so it stretches to fill larger iPhone displays. Hopefully you'll enjoy the new changes.


About a year ago, I started taking jazz improvisation lessons with one of my friends from the Atlanta jazz scene. In last year's anniversary article, I wrote that the lessons had me feeling discouraged about my playing. And if anything, I felt that I was playing better before I started taking lessons. I wish I could say things improved over time, but that just isn't the case. After several more months of lessons, I realized that the teacher's approach wasn't working out for me and we parted ways. The teacher and I are still good friends, but the experience was a classic example of how everyone learns differently.

December 30, 2013 About Me 1 Comment

Eleven-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

It's now been eleven years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. In the tradition of traditions, here's another anniversary article.


Ear training has been a major focus of my jazz blog since it first went online in 2004. I built my first ear training tool soon thereafter, and the most recent version of that tool is the online Java applet known as Online Ear Trainer 2.0. In recent years, I built my "Play By Ear" ear training apps for iOS and Android devices, but the free online ear trainer continues to be my favorite tool due to the rhythm section and sequence modulation features.

As much as I like my online ear training tool, I fear that it might have a limited future due to recent issues with Java applets (an "applet" is a Java application that runs in your web browser). In 2012, Java security threats were discovered which allowed applets to directly access a computer's file system. Web browsers initially battled this threat by blocking all unsigned applets, including my online ear trainer. Various Java patches have been released since then and all applets are once again allowed to run. Unfortunately, those applets now carry the burden of ominous security warnings that appear every time they are loaded. Update: as of Jan 17, 2014, my ear training applet is now signed so you should be able to accept the security warning once without having to see it every time the applet loads.

With the security problems, the general disdain for browser plugins (e.g. Flash), and the move towards HTML5 alternatives, I wouldn't be surprised if Web browsers stop supporting Java applets entirely in the coming years. If that happens, that will be the end of my online ear trainer. It's not all doom and gloom, though. A few weeks ago I began tinkering with a possible replacement that uses a new JavaScript MIDI engine. It might not be as powerful as my Java ear trainer, but I think it will be a decent substitute. Once I have something worth sharing, I'll let you know.


In last year's anniversary article, I mentioned the disappointing sales of my "Play By Ear" Android ear training application and my decision to discontinue its future development. I've kept the app in the Google Play/Market/WhateverThey'reCallingItToday store, though, since I think it's a useful app and it's still probably worth the $1.99 price. Or so I had thought until a few days ago.

Last Thursday, I received an email from somebody who had just purchased my Android ear training application for his Nexus 5 (Android 4.4.2). Upon starting the application, he saw an error message and then the application froze. This is the first I've heard of any problems with the Android app, but if it's happening to one person, it's probably happening to others. Since I don't have any android devices to test on, and since I don't want to spend any more time on the app anyway, I went ahead and refunded his purchase and I made the Android app free from this point forward. If I receive more complaints about the app not working, I'll probably take it down entirely, so get it while it lasts.


Ever since 2004, I've been sharing some of my jazz improvisation clips on this jazz blog. The recordings are a valuable part of my jazz studies since they allow me to return to my jazz solos and study the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of my solos. And by sharing the recordings with all of you, you can marvel at the precision by which I have equally distributed the good, the bad, and the ugly in each solo. For the first year in the history of this website, however, 2013 has come and gone without a single jazz improvisation clip. Hopefully you've found another source of laughter to fill the void.

I have wanted to record some clips this year, but I lost the ability to do so when I bought a new MacBook Air at the end of 2012. Until that point, I was using an MAudio recording interface with the FireWire port of my computer. The MacBook Air doesn't have a FireWire port, though, and since I spent a good portion of this year traveling, I wasn't in any hurry to find a new solution.

A few weeks ago, I bought a new Scarlett 2i2 USB recording interface, so I can finally record myself again. Unfortunately, this development coincides with a bit of a detour in my playing, which I'll discuss next.


Three months ago, I began taking private jazz improvisation lessons with one of Atlanta's top jazz musicians. My goal was to focus on ear training, mostly to get a fresh perspective from somebody with many years of ear training research and teaching experience.

I'd like to say that I'm enjoying the lessons and I'm playing better than ever, but unfortunately that isn't the case. If anything, I'm more discouraged about my playing than I've been in a while, and I feel like I've lost some of the progress that I had made prior to taking lessons. Maybe this is one of those situations where the teacher has to break down his student before he can build him back up again. You know, like the totally awesome 80's movie, "North Shore," in which a hot-shot surfer (also named "Rick") ditches his 3-fin surf board in order to first master the tree log board, the long board, and every other shape, at which point his soul-surfer teacher allows him to return to a modern surf board just in time to (nearly) win the Banzai Pipeline competition. If you haven't seen the movie, I doubt you'll understand. But suffice it to say, I'm hanging in there for now, with the hope that Nia Peeples will make an appearance.

Happy New Year!

January 5, 2013 About Me 10 Comments

Ten-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

It's now been ten years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. I had hoped to write this article before the end of 2012, but with traveling, work, colds, and other distractions, I didn't make the deadline. Oh well, better late than never.


After my jam session with Tyrone Jackson at the 2012 ITG conference, I began memorizing jazz tunes with the goal of having 40 tunes memorized by the end of 2012. I was off to a good start, but taking time off to travel caused me to have to relearn most of what I had previously committed to memory. Consequently, I only learned 22 tunes by the end of 2012. I'm okay with that, though, since that's 22 more tunes than I knew at the start of 2012. I'm going to continue learning jazz tunes in 2013, but I'll set a more attainable goal of learning 50 total tunes by the end of the year.

Here's a list of the tunes that I've learned thus far: Recordame, Caravan, Footprints, Cherokee, Ladybird, Blue Monk, Bessie's Blues, Straight No Chaser, Nardis, Sweet Georgia Brown, El Gaucho, What Is This Thing Called Love?, Impressions/So What, Summertime, There Is No Greater Love, Oleo, Have You Met Miss Jones, Watermelon Man, All The Things You Are, Song For My Father, Stella By Starlight, Blue Bossa

For each of these tunes, I can play the melodies and I can outline the changes by memory. When it comes to improvising over the tunes, I still have to consciously think about the changes to most of them, especially the longer tunes like Stella By Starlight and All The Things You Are. I am, however, becoming gradually more confident with these tunes and I'm finding that the initially challenging sections are becoming easier with each review.


In October of 2011, I released an Android version of my "Play by Ear" ear training application. While all of my other ear training tools are free, I decided to charge $1.99 for the Android ear training application. The decision to charge for the app was made in part to compensate myself for building an application that I'll never use (I have an iPhone). But for most part, I charged money because I was curious to see how many people are actually willing to pay for an Android ear training application. As it turns out, not that many.

Thirteen months after its initial release, 773 people have purchased the Android version of Play by Ear. By comparison, about 45 people install the iPhone version every day (some days over 100). That's about 16,425 installs of the iPhone ear training app per year. From these numbers, I think it's safe to draw the following two conclusions. First, the audience for iPhone ear training apps is considerably larger than the Android audience. And second, people prefer free apps. No surprise there.

As a result of these findings, I've decided to discontinue development of the Android application. I know this might disappoint some of you, but I hope you'll understand that continued development isn't the best use of my limited time. Sorry!


When I wrote the article about traveling in 2012, I had only been back on the horn for a couple of weeks after not playing at all during the entire month of September. At that time, I couldn't play for more than 10 minutes at a time before my chops would give out. To be more specific, lately when my chops "give out," it feels like my upper lip stops vibrating. One minute my upper lip is responsive, and the next it feels flat and lifeless. I can't say for certain what's happening, though, and that's partly due to the fact that I never regained feeling at the very top of my lip (just under my nose), due to the root canal that I mentioned in my nine-year anniversary article.

As the recovery from my vacation continued, I practiced as usual but I wasn't improving at all. In fact, my chops were getting worse. After a few minutes of playing, I needed a lot of mouthpiece pressure just to play above a C in the staff. I still felt like my upper lip stopped vibrating, but for the first time I also felt like my mouthpiece (Yamaha 11C4-7C) was too small; as if it prevented me from buzzing. I'm guessing that after not playing for a month, my embouchure changed slightly, perhaps due to the root canal and new front tooth that I received at the end of 2011. Whatever the cause, my old mouthpiece wasn't working very well for me anymore.

The week before Thanksgiving, I visited Rich Ita's workshop to see if I could find a better mouthpiece. I initially tried some Warburton mouthpieces, but I couldn't find any combinations that worked for me. Next, I tried some Schilke mouthpieces. I didn't care for the first two or three sizes, but when I got to a Schilke 9, my playing really seemed to open up. The rounded rim was comfortable and it was easier to move around the horn. After trying a few dozen more mouthpieces, the only other mouthpiece that I liked was a Monette B7. The Monette B7 was even easier to play than the Schilke 9, but my tone sounded too thin. Unfortunately, that was the only Monette mouthpiece at Rich's shop, so I couldn't try any other sizes. In the end, I bought the Schilke 9.

I've been playing on the Schilke 9 mouthpiece for a little over a month now. At first, I liked the mouthpiece, but then I inevitably reached a period where it felt like it was harder to play than my old mouthpiece. The same thing happened with the GR mouthpiece that I bought in 2009. I did at least like my sound on the Schilke 9 (I don't like my sound on the GR), so I decided to stick with it for a while longer.

I've now reached the point where I mostly like the Schilke 9, but I'd also like to try some slightly larger Schilke mouthpieces, just to see if those feel any better. I already own a Schilke 15, so I know that's too big. Of course, I'd love to try another Monette, but I can't bring myself to spend all of that money on a mouthpiece unless I know for sure that I'll still play it after a couple of weeks.

December 23, 2011 About Me 2 Comments

Nine-year anniversary

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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!

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