March 26th, 2006 § § permalink
I have spent a great deal of time writing articles and blog posts on this website that deal with how to structure a daily fundamentals routine. That is important, and I stand by what I have written. However, it is also necessary to point out that a routine mustn’t become a portal we must pass through in order to be able to play the trumpet. It is so easy for us to become so bogged down by routine, that we never actually get to practicing music. And it is in music that we will still face our biggest challenges, and see our greatest opportunity for development.
When you look at some of the greatest trumpet players — past and present — you don’t always find a long, diligent, unwavering practice routine. I keep thinking about what my trumpet teacher, Ray Crisara, used to tell me about his routine: “I would just show up 15 minutes or so before a session and play through my daily drills. It would take me about 12 minutes to be ready to go. Of course, if I didn’t have 12 minutes, then I would have to be ready in whatever time I had.” This is important to remember amongst a lot of discussion about foundation routines and skill set routines. Just imagine how much music you would be able to play over the course of your life, if you only spent 12 minutes a day on your fundamentals. Sometimes we make this whole trumpet playing thing a lot more difficult and complicated than it needs to be.
It’s food for thought…
March 22nd, 2006 § § permalink
Sometimes the hardest thing about practicing is simply starting. At the end of a long day it is sometimes difficult to find the motivation to practice. On a night when you feel tired and rundown it is difficult to summon the energy and discipline to practice. If you actually make yourself get in there and get to work, though, you will soon find yourself energized and motivated. What better reason to practice could there be?
March 21st, 2006 § § permalink
Control points. Every trumpet player has them, but few consciously use them. That’s unfortunate, because proper use of your control points can transform your playing. Does this seem a little bit too much like those infomercials for the “Perfect Club”? Have no fear; I will not infomercialize trumpet technique. I will, however, do my best to give you some idea what control points are, and why you should care.
We are all keenly aware of our embouchure corners. Likely, we know what things we can do (or not do) with our corners to facilitate our playing. Really though, the corners are just half of the picture. The job of the corners is to stretch the lips out, like a smile, and if there is nothing on the other end to counteract them, then we do indeed form a smile. This may look good for the school picture, but it is no way to play the trumpet. What we need is something to balance the stretching muscles in the corners, so that we can form a vibrating surface with the lips. The muscle that provides that balancing force is the “puckering” muscle (yes, that is the scientific name, unless of course you count orbicularis oris, but you likely won’t remember that, so I’ll stick with puckering).
It is this balance between smiling and puckering that creates a usable vibrating surface for playing the trumpet. This vibrating surface is crucial. Obviously, the entire lip doesn’t vibrate; only the middle portion does. Outside the mouthpiece, the lips are anchored together tightly; no vibration is allowed. Inside the mouthpiece there is at least a portion of lip that vibrates, thus creating sound. It would follow, then, that there are two points where the lip transitions from a vibrating surface to a non-vibrating surface, one on each side of the vibrating surface itself. These points are what I call “control points”. You could also call them “anchor points”, or “points of the holy transition”, or really just about anything. Whatever you call them, though, they are an extremely important key to an efficient and effective embouchure.
Many players will talk about keeping the corners still while playing, but it is my firm belief that it is keeping the control points still that creates the best results. While we are playing there is a great deal of tightening and loosening of the embouchure. This tightening and loosening is essential to changing the frequency of vibration, and, as a direct result, the pitch that is created. But when there is so much tightening and loosening of the embouchure muscles, there is potential for the vibrating surface to be disrupted by motion. It is this motion that becomes public enemy number one for trumpet players, and it is this motion that can be curtailed by the control points. Ideally, the muscles would tighten and loosen with no movement in or out (or left and right if you prefer). This would allow the tension of the vibrating tissue to change without any alterations to the size, which means that the change in frequency could be readily controlled. In contrast, if the size of the vibrating surface is altered along with the changes in tension, then it is very difficult to control, and the result is reduced accuracy, control, and quality of sound.
It follows then, that if we keep the control points fixed in place, the physical size of the vibrating surface remains largely unchanged. Only the tension of the tissue is changed, allowing it to vibrate at various frequencies, and allowing us to play different notes on the trumpet. With the control points stabilized, the result will be improved control and accuracy over what pitches are produced.
If you made it through all of that technical mish-mash, then you will rejoice in the fact that what you actually do with that information is quite simple. First, do exercises that will develop the muscles that control the control points. The best strength exercise I know for this is discussed in my earlier article, One Long G. Second, simply concentrate on holding the control points in place. Don’t allow them to collapse inward while playing in the lower register, and don’t allow them to extend outward while playing in the upper register. Concentrate on the stability of the control points instead of the stability of the corners. The corners are important, but in my experience, if the control points are stabilized then it doesn’t seem to matter what the corners are doing. If you think about the fact that the control points are holding the size of the vibrating surface in check, then it becomes obvious that the corners have a secondary, rather than primary, function in the embouchure.
This article is short, and that is on purpose. Take the time to let what you’ve read seep in a bit, and then reread it. Try applying some of the concepts I’ve mentioned, and then read it again. Over time, you will be able to actually feel the presence of the control points in your embouchure, but this may well take time. When you are doing your daily foundation routine, concentrate on stabilizing your control points. This concept will help you make substantial improvements in your playing, especially in the areas of accuracy, flexibility, and sound. Have patience, though — like all great concepts, it takes a lot of work to get anything out of it. Remember, true improvement is a matter of acquiring skill, not knowledge.
March 11th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink
It is the first day of spring break; I live in Florida. These two facts cannot be ignored. Today I took the day off (much deserved, if I say so myself) and headed out to a typical South Florida destination…
I know, it’s probably not what you were thinking when I mentioned Florida Spring Break.
March 7th, 2006 § Comments Off § permalink
You probably all know it. It is almost universal. But just in case you don’t recognize it, I am talking about the trumpet player’s handshake. You know the one. You stick out your hand, squeeze the unsuspecting fingers of your trumpet-playing foe, and confidently pronounce, “Hi, I’m better than you!” Now, this handshake is always told as a joke, but like many great jokes, there is some truth to it. If you have ever shaken someone’s hand at an audition, you know what I mean. There is certainly no ill will or malice (normally), but there is definitely tension, and the fleeting thought: I wonder if I am better than him.
When discussing the realm of trumpet auditions, this is certainly a viable question/concern. After all, everyone is vying for one, maybe two, spots. It seems pretty clear that the “best” trumpet player(s) are going to get the gig, while everyone else begins a long, lonely, soul-searching trip back to wherever they came from. The quest to be the best is certainly noble. Athletes the world over compete and train feverishly to become the very best, the top of the heap. In corporate America, people huddle in little cubicles for long hours, putting in the extra time, giving their projects that extra bit of zing, doing whatever they can to set themselves apart from their co-workers. This is a good thing, right? After all, it is important for us to do our best. Where would we be if we didn’t always strive for more: pushing ourselves, challenging ourselves? The answer is simple, it definitely is important for us to do our very best, but that isn’t the same thing as trying to be “the best”.
You are probably wondering how you could do your best without trying to be the best. It is a confusing statement, I agree, but there is one important difference between these two things. If you are trying to be your best it is all about you, your performance, your potential, your vision. When you start trying to be “the best”, however, it starts becoming more about other people. Your performance becomes graded on their scale rather than on your own. This kind of thought is absurd when you think of it in terms of a track and field event. After all, the purpose of the 100-meter dash is to cover the distance as fast as possible under your own power. The first one to complete the distance wins, simple as that. But making music is not the 100-meter dash. In fact, it isn’t an athletic event at all, and it only becomes competitive in the form of auditions and competitions.
Music is an art form. Performing music is an art form. The question of who is “the best” really has no place in a purely artistic forum. Consider these questions:
Who is the best painter, Van Gogh or Renoir? What about Picasso?
Who is the best composer, Beethoven or Mozart?
Was Mahler perhaps the best?
How much better was Mahler than Beethoven?
Are you squirming yet? How about these statements:
Maurice Andre was better than Bud Herseth.
Pablo Casals was better than Yo Yo Ma.
Bernstein was better than Karajan.
Now you are probably getting angry. Either that or you are nodding smugly, satisfied with your wisdom. Before you take the ego elevator to the next floor, though, you should know that I don’t believe any of those statements. To me, those statements are silly and irrelevant; they are a sign of simple thinking and an attempt to justify one’s self through a hierarchical ranking system. This kind of system works well in the domain of sports, where the activity is objective, and the goal is simply to win. But that is not the case with art or music. These are forms of expression and communication. They are things to be appreciated and felt, not won.
When we look at the trumpet community, however, there is an intense focus on being the best. It is as if we are all aiming for Olympic Gold in the trumpet pentathlon, striving to have the highest cumulative score in all the tests of trumpet skill: range, endurance, articulation, flexibility, accuracy. While this may be an interesting game to some, it isn’t art. There is no expression, no power of communication.
I am concerned about the future of a musical instrument whose community seems so disinterested in the art of making music. Stop and think for a moment. If you were to log on to a literary chat room and ask who was the best author, Marquez or Saramago, you would likely see a storm of responses discussing your shallow thinking and small IQ. On the other hand, if you post a similar question on a trumpet chat site, you would get a long list of everyone’s opinions and supporting facts: better tone, more projection, more musical, etc. This is frightening to me. If playing the trumpet is to actually be considered an artistic pursuit, then it is the trumpet players themselves that must treat it as such. Our minds should be focused on improving the quality of the music we perform, creating more artistic and creative concerts, and promoting the instrument through education and outreach. It is through these means that we will find in the trumpet a true artistic outlet and art form, and in so doing, we will be preserving a rich tradition for all those that play the instrument in years to come.
I understand that there is a practical side to what I preach. I know that many people are simply trying to get a job doing something they enjoy. To those of you who are in this category, it is easy to understand why you would be mostly interested in being more accurate, playing better in tune, improving endurance, improving sound, etc. Make no mistake about it; those are important elements in the pursuit of any type of artistic endeavor that involves the trumpet. The difference comes in the motivation, in the goal setting. If you are simply trying to win, then you almost surely will lose. Why? Simple. You are trying to achieve victory in an artistic pursuit, a pursuit that has, in its purest form, no real sense of competition. Sure, you may win a trumpet competition by making the fewest mistakes. But if that is your approach when you stand in front of an audience of non-trumpet players, they will almost surely sit on their hands and stare in bewilderment at the strange little game you are trying to play. It may be possible to impress the trumpet players on an orchestra audition committee with your execution, but it almost certainly is your musical expression that will win the votes and hearts of the other committee members.
What then should we do, if we are not trying to be better than everyone else? Isn’t it important to play accurately, in time, in tune, and with a good sound? Of course it is, but not because doing so will make you “the best”, or make you the winner of one audition or another. It is important because it will more effectively communicate your expressive qualities; it will help you paint more vividly the musical character of a given piece or phrase. Playing the trumpet at the highest possible skill level is not an end; it is a means. And that concept has more implications for the future of our instrument than any one of us could possibly imagine. So the next time you hear the “trumpet player’s handshake ,” laugh confidently and loudly, secure in the knowledge that being “the best” wins you only a giant stuffed animal prize to drag around the grounds of the next trumpet fair.