I recently completed my 5th year of playing the trumpet since returning to the instrument, so here's my five-year anniversary article.
RANGE AND ENDURANCE
In last year's anniversary article, I wrote that my playable range had extended up to a Bb above the staff. Since that time, those Bb's have been getting easier and easier. Even better, I'm now able to hit a high C or two with relative ease each day when improvising. I've yet to include any of those C's in my jazz trumpet recordings, but hopefully they'll make an appearance in the not too distant future. Some of you may wonder what all the fuss is about, but given my struggles with range, a high C is definitely something to be happy about.
One thing I've noticed with the C's is that it's still difficult for me to hear them in my head when improvising. For that matter, it's even hard for me to hear a B (natural) above the staff. To clarify, I can certainly hear these notes if somebody else plays them, and I can hear them when I play them on my horn, but I have trouble hearing them in my head BEFORE I play them. This makes perfect sense when you consider the fact that for the past 4+ years I couldn't play higher than a Bb when improvising. My ears and my brain simply aren't used to the hearing higher notes in my solos and they're not used to thinking of these notes as viable playing options. I know it's just a matter of conditioning and in time I'll be able to hear high C's in my head, but I think it's an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.
I don't have much to report regarding endurance. My endurance had definitely improved over the last year, but I can still tire myself out quickly if I revert to my old habit of using too much mouthpiece pressure.
FINDING TIME TO PRACTICE
In my "Comeback Journey" article, I wrote that finding time to practice is one of the biggest challenges facing most comeback players. Well, time has definitely been taking its toll on me lately. Since my first practice session begins at 7:30am, I'm usually able to practice fundamentals. More often than not, I can get in an ear training session as well. But lately, my after-work jazz improvisation session has been nearly impossible to squeeze in. For example, I recently went two weeks in a row with less than 30 minutes of jazz improvisation practice. It's awfully hard to improve when averaging just two minutes a day of practice! While those two weeks were an exception to the norm, my workload still makes it difficult for me to get in sufficient practice time. At least I am improving and I suppose any rate of improvement should be welcomed.
Speaking of improvement, I continue to make great strides with my daily ear training practice. Last year I wrote that I was using my ear training tool to play 7-note melodies by ear at 150bpm. Thanks to my new "Jazz Lick" melody option, I'm now playing 8- and 9-note melodies by ear at 150bpm or higher. I give the jazz licks a lot of credit for this advancement since they provide a somewhat familiar (i.e. not totally random) melody which is easier to remember. Since the melody is easier to remember than totally random notes, I can spend more effort on playing by ear and less effort on trying to remember what the melody sounded like in the first place. I still practice totally random melodies in my ear training sessions, however, just to keep things fresh.
I've also spent more time improvising with my ear training tool. I'll use the R(hythm)Section feature to generate random major and minor II-V-I progressions of 48 measures in length. I then start the ear training so it's playing around 100bpm or slower. Without looking at the key, I then listen and sing notes that fit in with the key. From there, I might do a little vocal improvisation (scat singing) or I'll just pick up my horn and improvise by ear. The important thing is that I sing each note to myself before I play it. I might not always play the right notes on my horn and I might not always sing notes that fit in perfectly, but at least I'm trying to do so. By consciously forcing myself to hear first, then play, I'm ensuring that I'm truly using my ears to guide my playing rather than relying on pre-learned patterns or theory.
In last year's anniversary blog entry, I mentioned that I have good days and bad days with ear training. On good days, my ear training sessions are a breeze. I can play most of the exercises perfectly by ear and I feel great about my progress. On bad days, my ear struggles to lock in on pitches and I make lots of mistakes. Well, after another year of practice I still have some bad days, but at least they are becoming fewer and farther between. Also the magnitude of the mistakes I make on those bad days is less severe. Where I might have once missed 50% of my attempts to play by ear, I now miss about 30% or less. And, more importantly, I'm now much less hard on myself on those bad days. If I do make a mistake, I shrug it off and continue to practice. It's been about 3.5 years now since I started to practice ear training daily, and I've now got the perspective to know that bad days are just part of the journey. As long as I continue to make forward progress in my ability to play by ear (and I certainly do!), there's no need to worry about a few speed bumps along the way.
MY JOURNEY THUS FAR
I still have a long way to go but I'm finally reaching a point where I feel like it's all starting to come together. Sure, my rate of progression isn't as fast as I'd like, but during these past five years I've made some great improvements in my playing, my ability to play by ear, and in my overall musicianship. It's been a great journey thus far and I can't wait to hear myself five years from now!