My practice partner is cruel and uncompromising!
Yesterday I visited an old friend, not a flesh and blood friend, but a silver and brass one. After a few years of playing mostly the new Yamaha Chicago C trumpet, I decided, on a whim, to play a bit on my old Bach 239 with a 25A pipe. It was great! Now, I am too old and experienced to blindly trust that initial change, but it did feel good to play the old horn again; after all, we have been through a lot together! It is likely that the reasons that I moved away from the horn in the first place will resurface, but it is also possible that I will find that my old home is my favorite home. Only time will tell.
We have now been back in school for 2 weeks at the University of Miami, and it has been a whirlwind as always. It is audition season again, and I am looking forward to hearing all of the auditions here at UM. I always enjoy getting to meet the people that come in whether they end up attending this school or not. It is always interesting to think that the next person to walk through my studio door may end up being a student for the next 4 years: someone I will get to know very well and work closely with. Of course, this may be the one and only time I ever see this person, which is strange in itself. By the way, If you are a student still looking for a home for next year, there is still time to apply and set up an audition. You can send an email here to get the process rolling.
Now that the beginning of the semester craziness is starting to subside, I will be able to post here more often (fingers crossed).
I was 9 years old, we moved into a house that had a music room. I spent many hours in this room during my teenage years honing my skills, trying to realize my dream of being a professional trumpet player. In this room there was also a lot of music – music that was filed away in an assorted mix of cabinets and drawers. There was piano music, tuba music, vocal solos, barbershop arrangements, and, of course, trumpet music. In my adolescent mind, the trumpet music was divided into two basic groups: music and weird trumpet books. Weird trumpet books were the books with strange diagrams, photos of men breathing by unnatural means, notes extending far above and below the staff, and they were always peppered with claims of improved sound, range, and endurance. I would thumb through these books, mystified. They contained no music, only mundane exercises – whole notes and half notes extending in all directions. I would read the text, try it for a while, and then go back to my regular music, convinced that there simply had to be something better I could be doing with my time. Now, two decades later, my philosophy toward many of those books remains the same. A select few of them, though, now hold hard-earned places in my routine, having proved themselves in the face of extreme skepticism.
The Carmine Caruso, Musical Calisthenics for Brass, is one of those books. It includes exercises I regularly use to increase strength, and I consider it an essential part of my foundation routine. How to use this book, however, is a matter of much debate. Many people have conflicting views and interpretations of what constitutes the “proper” Caruso routine. I don’t participate in that. In fact, I don’t even have a Caruso routine. Instead, I use this book as a collection of exercises – a resource for building range and endurance to the fullest extent. I will scatter these exercises throughout the day, usually using only one or two. If you are looking for the purest interpretation of Carmine Caruso’s ideas, you won’t find it here. Instead, you will find a guide to a practical and sure-fire method for increasing strength and, as a result, range and endurance.
The Caruso book has many useful exercises in it, but to be honest, I only utilize a few of them on a regular basis. Those that do get used, however, are more worn than that old pair of $7 bellbottoms that you found at your local pawn shop (not that I would know, of course). The exercises that I use 95% of the time are the first two in the book. These two exercises address the two basic types of strength: endurance and explosiveness. Explosiveness exercises are used to improve range. Endurance exercises are used to improve – you guessed it – endurance.
The first exercise in the book is commonly referred to as the “six notes” exercise. This exercise is a classic endurance exercise: it keeps the mouthpiece on the face for a long period of time with no rest, it involves notes that are in the middle register that can be played with minimal pressure, and it can easily be expanded (in this case repeated) as you get stronger. This exercise should be played with an absolute minimum amount of pressure, continually moving the horn away from the face. I do two versions of this exercise: a full version and a half version. If you are doing the full version, you should repeat the exercise as many times as possible until you are unable to keep the final C up to pitch. As the name implies, the half version should have roughly half as many reps as the full version. The half version I like to do in the morning at the end of my foundation routine – provided I have a rest of at least 45 minutes before I need to play again. The full version should be done at the end of the day, because believe me, you won’t want to play anything after you are done. Doing it at the end of the day also allows you to push yourself to total exhaustion without worrying about anything else you have to play that day.
The second exercise in the book, called “Seconds”, is an explosiveness exercise. Explosiveness exercises are characterized by a continually expanding range and extensive use of the upper register. This exercise is no exception. There are detailed instructions in the book regarding this exercise; follow them religiously, for the way you do these exercises determines how much benefit you will get from them. If you don’t follow the instructions closely, then you will likely not be able to maximize the benefits of the exercise. I work to minimize pressure during this exercise, but unlike endurance exercises, I do permit a degree of pressure as required. The key here is to balance the effort going out (air), with the amount of pressure coming in. Don’t press more than you blow. I do this exercise either at the end of my skill set – as long as I have a break of at least a couple of hours – or at the end of the day, prior to the full “six notes” exercise. The “Seconds” exercise includes a 15 minute period between the first and second times through the exercise. The instructions indicate that you can play during this period as long as you don’t do any similar type of exercise. As hard as it is to believe, this is actually true. I will often fill that period practicing some articulation exercises in the lower register, initial attacks, or even playing light etudes. It has always been surprising to me how useful that 15 minutes can be.
In addition to the instructions I have mentioned above, there are some general concepts that must be applied in order to get the most out of these workouts. First of all, each of these exercises includes whole rests every third bar. What you do during these rests is absolutely critical. I refer to the rests as “playing rests”; you should keep the embouchure fully engaged throughout the rest, just as if you were playing. The only difference is that you are not moving air out through the instrument, but rather, in through the nose. This means that the embouchure will be “playing” for the entire length of the exercise, not relaxing until you are finished. In the case of the “six notes” exercise, be sure not to relax the embouchure between repeats.
The second concept to keep in mind deals with the text in the book. There are repeated instructions to not “worry about what you sound like.” This comment is often misunderstood, and is a point of some contention amongst Caruso-ites. Some people interpret this to mean that you should play with no regard for how you sound, and while that may be useful in certain circumstances, I don’t recommend that approach as a general rule. Instead, I take the instruction at its literal base: I care about how I sound, but I don’t worry about it. I always try to sound good, but when the sound begins its inevitable deterioration as the muscles tire, I make sure not to make any substantial adjustments to change it. I make every effort to maintain my sound, but I don’t worry about it when that becomes impossible. This allows me to push myself as far as I can possibly go physically, while preventing me from doing it in a way that is inconsistent with the way I normally play.
You can apply these same concepts to other exercises in the book and reap many great benefits. Armed with these exercises and a little insight into how to use them, you will be able to make substantial gains in range and endurance, and there are certainly no trumpet players that I know that would not be interested in that. It was seeing those same improvements in my playing that rescued this book from that dusty old shelf of weird trumpet books in the first place, and it has been a great addition to my arsenal ever since.
The last few days I have raised by my practice time to 4 hours a day. It makes me feel like I am back in my undergraduate days again! It feels good to get in some good solid face time, but I couldn’t be doing this without the strength foundation I laid as I was playing myself back into shape. There is a lot more to playing the trumpet than strength, but without it, you won’t be able to refine your playing to the degree needed to play your best.
As of my last post, my strength was good, but I felt lacking in technique and refinement. Since then, I have focused heavily on etudes from the Charlier and Henri Chavanne books. I’m sure almost all of you are aware of the Charlier, but I imagine the Chavanne is known by very few of you. This book was introduced to me by my wonderful mentor, Ray Crisara. It has been a book I continually come back to in order to address basic playing skills. The book is humbling, but not in its complexity; rather, it simply challenges you with its simplicity. I highly recommend it! The full title is Vingt Cinque (25) Etudes de Virtuosité by H. Chavanne. In the good old days this book was contained in a single volume, but now you have to buy Volumes 1 and 2 to get all 25 etudes. Go figure.
The result of the extensive etude work has been to bring the refinement back into my playing. I have focused on keeping the volume levels down, tempos down, and playing with absolute control. Now I feel like I am back in shape and ready to face whatever may come my way, and that is a very good feeling!