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

January 11, 2004 About Me 11 Comments

My playing history - the blowout


Since I was one of the top high school trumpeters in the state, it seemed only natural for me to continue with music when I went to college. So, I enrolled at the music school at the University of Michigan.

As I mentioned in "the beginning", I averaged about 3 hours of practice a day during my senior year of high school. Once college began, I figured I should continue to increase my daily practice time and within a few months I had reached 5-7 hours a day. There were plenty of days where I'd even practice as many as 8 hours. The logic behind these marathon sessions stemmed from my high school experiences. The more I practiced in high school, the better I got. So, it only made sense that the same logic would apply to me at college. Also, I quickly learned that it's extremely cold in Michigan, especially for a kid grew up in Florida. It's so cold, in fact, that once you brave the icy walk to the practice rooms, you tend to want to stay there until you can feel your toes again.

Unfortunately, my lengthy practice sessions didn't produce the results I was looking for. After a few months, my upper lip developed a bb-sized blister on the exterior and the inside of my lip became bloody where I had already formed creases due to excessive mouthpiece pressure. My lip eventually healed, but my playing ability would never be the same. From that point on, I'd always experience some degree of lip pain while playing. Also, while I used to practice for hours on end, I could no longer play for more than 30 minutes before my lip became too fatigued to play. Making matters worse, I often forced my lip to play by using more and more mouthpiece pressure.

Despite the problems with my lip, I was still committed to becoming a professional jazz trumpet player. I was so committed, that after one year at Michigan, I transferred to DePaul University in Chicago so I could live in a big city with more playing opportunities. Before long, I met some other music school students and became a member of a funk band and a jazz combo. For several months, both of these bands had steady gigs once or twice a week. Even though these weren't fancy high-paying gigs, it really felt nice to perform around town in front of other people (even if they were waiting in line for coffee!). Unfortunately, I enjoyed playing live so much that I continually pushed my lip beyond its limits.

At the end of my first year at DePaul, it was clear to me that I wasn't going to be a professional musician. I simply didn't have the chops for it. Also, I was also keenly aware of how difficult it would be to try and make a living as a musician. It would have been extremely difficult even at my peak (my peak didn't even come close to the level that most pro's play at)... but with a weak lip, there'd be no way. So, at the end of my sophomore year at college I dropped out of music school and entered DePaul's business school.

With a more strenuous business school schedule (there isn't much homework in music school!), and since I had to work full-time to make ends meet, I gradually stopped playing the trumpet altogether. During the next seven years, I picked up the trumpet only a handful of times.

On to chapter 3... the comeback

Comment by William Cooke

I just stumbled onto your page while wasting time at work. Your comback story is great and really hits home with me. I too was a high school all-stater, college trumpet performance major (university of houston, Jim Austin, teacher). By age 19 I was playing alternate with the Houston Symphony (second alternate).

The pressure just about killed me. I don't really remember the piece, but I was playing my C (Bach 229) on a piece in F and I flubbed a note. The guest conductor (have blanked that too) stopped the entire orchestra and said, "second trumpet, shouldn't that have been a concert F in that last passage?"

"Yes sir, I said immediately." The next day I changed my major to exercise physiology and I didn't touch a trumpet for 10 years. I went on to earn a PhD in physiology. I taught at Michigan Tech (being a Michigan alum I know you know where Houghton is!).

Seems they have a symphony there - both faculty and students are welcome. It's called the Keweenaw symphony and I was asked to join. The first concert we played Academic Festival - now I know you're a jazz guy so you might not be familiar, but after checking out your website and seeing your dedication to trumput - you just might be familiar. Intonation is the key... I barely made it through.

So I started practicing again. Clarke technical studies, Arbans characteristic studies - the works. When I started i'd last maybe 10 minutes.

Skip ahead three years later and I'm principal. I'm even in a brass quintet and sounding quite good if I do say so myself.

It was a long road. I'm still not back to where I was as a freshman in college - I'm 41.

Good for you, I say; and good for me too. The trumpet is an incredible instrument but it is not forgiving. Neglect it and it will make you pay.

My equipment? A 1939 New York (Bronx) Bach; and yes, it is sweet.

Enjoyed your page very much. If you're ever in San Antonio TX, please look me up and we'll play some duets.


Blow man, blow.


Comment by Rick

Hi Bill,

As you mentioned, the trumpet certainly is an unforgiving instrument. This fact can lead to a great deal of frustration for comeback players, as we'll undoubtedly spend at least a year or two sounding MUCH worse than we did in our prime.

Hopefully, stories like yours (and maybe mine) will give other comebackers the encouragement they need to stick with it. The reward of playing music again is well worth the effort!

Thanks for sharing your story. I hope to hear from you again.


Comment by Al Waldchen

Hi Rick,

First, I want to thank you for your site.... some very, very helpful stuff here, even though I'm an alto sax guy, not a trumpet guy.

Bill Cooke's story about coming back prompted me to write. I started playing at 13, and advanced rapidly through high school, all state band, rock bands, etc. Then I put down the horn at 20, and didn't pick it up again until 39 years later. At 59, I started trying to make a comeback. Even tho alto sax is much easier technically than trumpet, it still took me 2 years of hard work to get back to where I was at 20. Now, 3 years later, I'm moving forward again, and it's one of the best decisions I ever made. Working hard on ear training.... it's tough, but it does get easier.

Like you say, if music's a part of you, it's well worth the effort. I plan on rockin' in the rest home! It's never too late to come back to something you love.



Comment by Glenn

Nice site, Rick.

Like Al above, I play sax. Like you, I studied at university, quit, then restarted.

Even though I started out from a jazz interest, I switched to legit in university, becoming a composition major. I felt like a sponge, soaking up more and more music studies, but halfway thru my Masters studies I reached my saturation point. I declined my acceptance into a PhD program, and within a year had quit composing, playing, and for 2 years even avoided listening to music.

Some 8 years later I started composing again because PCs started coming equiped with soundcards, and MIDI made it easy to experiment writing rock, which I had never done before.

But it wasn't until years later, 13 years since I quit, that I gathered enough enegry to start playing again. I found a college big band that rehearsed in the evenings. That at least got me playing again, and the following year I joined a septet that was part of the college program as well. I was now playing with people that were born around the time I was their age.

Being a composition major, I leaned the theoretical route. Rather than developing a ear training program, I wanted to build a collection of approaches to jazz scales for myself to use. I later tidied it up and created a single PDF file: http://jazzscales.gtmproductions.ca/Jazz Scale Demo.pdf

I'm still working at it, now focussing on the memorization, transposition and hearing changes by ear parts. As I said, nice site, and it's good to read about others who have gone a similar start-quit-restart route.

Good luck!

Comment by Giz

Enjoyed reading of your travails, which many other trumpet players go through. It's nice to know I'm not the only one! However, in all the discussion of equipment and methods, I don't remember reading anything about breathing. I think some investigation into proper breathing techniques may be what you need to move all your hard work along. Getting the breathing right doesn't come right away. Proper breathing is the one thing most pros agree on - the air has to be right to achieve your results - the chops alone can't do it. Good luck!

Comment by Rick Nelson

I am self-teaching and taking up trumpet - I could not believe that I could hurt myself and wonder how long I'll have to lay off. I also play sax and shenai. I'm not sure if my injury was caused by my aging chin causing crossed front teeth - I thought I had got around that problem. I love playing trumpet but last night I was blowing it out along with some Skerik's Septet ditties and felt tingling but didn't realize I'd done damage until mid-day today. Is there a way to revover more quickly - I keep biting at the "pimple" and the white part is gone - but that might not be a good thing. My lip muscles were getting really strong and the "blister" occurred just over the more back-placed lower front tooth where most of the vibration in my lower lip happens when I'm blowing too hard. I recall I was also experimenting between upper and lower lip ratios when I was blowing out to get different tonal qualities like DixieLand, Blues, and HonkeyTonk.

Whst do you think of a dental peice of silicon to get the front lower teeth back in alignment without those tooths sharp edges or differences in lip spacing being exposed?

I love jazz and mostly play with mutes - but I was trying to build up my lip and got a little out of control.. :) I'll know better if there is a next time.



Comment by Rick

Hi there, Rick N.

For staters, you should DEFINITELY rest so your lip can heal. Playing on an injury will likely make it worse. Next, you mention that you are self-teaching yourself trumpet. Based on the fact that you've already injured yourself, I think it's safe to say that you should seek professional instruction (in person). The important thing at this stage is to make sure you've got a good embouchure and basic playing technique. That foundation will support you through all of your trumpet playing days. It's also pretty hard to change that foundation once it's established so now's the time to get it right!

As far as silicon goes... I suppose you could try. Many people use something like that if they have braces. This would be a good thing to bring up with your trumpet teacher ;-)

Take care,


Comment by karim

hey man great site. i to am i comeback player , so i know your pain.

you are sounding good and making progress. your ear is fine, and you play with good ideas , but i would get into more of that it playing. the blues. tap more into your soul , and continue to your chops up. with that,someone who feel your pain later.

Comment by Peter


I'm 56 and have been learning to play trumpet, and improvise, the last 12 or so years, and am constantly surprised by how "slow" my progress seems, even though I work at it pretty hard for someone who's also working full time.

I have found your site a real inspiration.

On the subject of a "blowout", I recently attended a brass workshop session in Melbourne, Australia (my home town) that Bobby Shew ran. He also had a blowout story. Seems that in his twenties or so (I think) he found he was hurting himself so much with his playing that he just had to give it up, and did so - and stopped listening to jazz, too - for about nine months. After that, he decided he try again, but this time developing a whole new approach to the instrument. I can't say that I can explain what was different with his new approach, but I was interested that he, too, hit a big wall.

To repeat, this site is a real inspiration, and I really appreciate all the work you've put into it.

Comment by Rick

Hi Peter,

One of the recent JazzTimes magazines had an article about famous jazz musicians and some of the setbacks they experienced in their careers. Part of the article discussed Terence Blanchard and the problems he faced with his embouchure around the time he was playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. It seems that he too hit a wall which required an embouchure change. While the "blowout" isn't something that all trumpeters experience, it certainly is nice to know that even fantastic players have gone through it and come out better on the other side...

I'm glad you're enjoying the site and thank you for taking the time to write!


Comment by Ben


What a great website. Thanks!

I can relate to your blowout story. I took up the clarinet aged 10 and became gradually more skilful and more committed, playing principal in the top band and orchestra at school for my last two years. However I always felt on the edge of breakdown; altissimo (especially staccato) and shoulder/neck tension appeared to be irresolvable problems, no matter how assiduously I practiced. Although he was a phenomenal player, my teacher at the time always gave me the same advice (increase lip tension), which proved useless.

Despite being passionate about music theory, composition, performance - everything! - and contemplating a music degree, I started studies in law the first year out of school. I kept up one hour's practice per day but found this lonely and frustrating, since all my problems were persisting. At the beginning of the next year, I decided to stop playing clarinet altogether.

That year became a very depressing one. In the space of just over a year I had gone from respected highschool player to lonely obsessive practiser to nothing! And it felt horrible.

Only at the end of last year (two years after stopping) have I taken up the clarinet again. I've been greatly encouraged by the John Davies / Paul Harris book Essential Clarinet Technique, which gave me a more accurate understanding of the source of my difficulties and has allowed me to develop a relatively stable articulated altissimo.

However now, at 21, I still struggle (almost minute by minute) with the question of whether to give up the law thing (which I despise) and enrol in a music course. It is very confusing from the outside to read conflicting accounts of e.g. the tolerability of wedding gigs, and I toss and turn over my choice of specialty: clarinet, composition, or jazz piano? My solution for this year is to continue my studies and seek as much experience as possible in those fields. So far I am finding that overwhelming and it is going badly. But here's hoping for a happy story to tell one day.

I'm sorry to use your blog as an opportunity to vent. However I am comforted to think that the comments appear in small font and that some frustrated clarinetist may stumble upon this and learn about Essential Clarinet Technique: really an invaluable book!

Once again, thanks Rick,


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