Teeth and Trumpet

Things have finally settled down a little bit since our move to Fabulous Las Vegas and it’s about time to start the posts again:

In this post I’m going to tackle something I don’t like thinking about:  Teeth.  My biggest fear (and probably the biggest fear of most wind instrument players) is having something happen to my teeth; whether it’s getting kicked in the mouth inadvertently by one of my kids and knocking one loose or an accident much worse.  Ugh…the yuck shivers set in…

Let’s move on to something that is under our control.  Someone had advised me a long time ago that it’s not good to practice right after waking up because your teeth can be loose and it can cause shifting.  I was reminded about this recently when a Facebook friend had posted a status mentioning dissatisfaction about playing early in the morning.  I had always blindly followed the advice about not playing upon waking up because it made sense; I had suspicions that the slight shifting in my teeth were caused by playing early in the morning while using too much pressure when I was playing in marching music ensembles long ago.

After a tiny bit of research (thanks to the aid of the search bar on my web browser), I found this article:  My Tooth Feels Loose.  While it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for (it did mention about teeth being looser in the morning), it did give a couple good reasons for loose teeth (trauma and grinding) and good advice (to see your dentist immediately if you do have a loose tooth).  I recommend taking a look at it.

I recently had a bunch of dental work (mostly removing and replacing old silver fillings) and it reminded me of how valuable your teeth are in relation to playing a musical instrument.  I was reminded of several things during this ordeal:

  • TAKE CARE OF YOUR TEETH AND GUMS.  Brush and floss everyday and see your dentist every 6 months…you don’t want to end up with the trumpet issues that Chet Baker had in the late 60’s (staying away from smack and drug dealers also helps:  Allmusic.com – Chet Baker bio).
  • Give yourself an hour or so in the morning before practicing.  This lets your mind and body wake up and lets the teeth settle in if they loosened up during sleep.
  • Adopt a minimal pressure approach to playing if you haven’t done so.
  • Learn and always use proper marching technique instead of relying on mouthpiece pressure to make your playing smooth while marching and playing if you partake in marching bands, drum corps, military bands, etc.
  • Do a warmup of some sort instead of just jamming the horn to the face to make it happen.
  • Schedule extensive dental work more than 4 and a half hours before a 4-hour rehearsal…ugh…lesson learned……….

Thanks for reading!


Your Brand

What comes to mind when you hear the brand names of Coca Cola or Pepsi?  I won’t dive into personal tastes, but if you happen to like either of these sodas or pops or soda pops (had to acknowledge multiple regions here), then the words good-tasting, consistent quality, good value (depending where you are and how broke you are), and entertaining advertisements are some that can be associated with these brands.  Now think about the branding of names like Exxon (especially after the oil spill), Enron, and Monsanto…

Q:  What does this have to do with music or playing an instrument?

A:  Everything.

Really?…why?  Think of your musician self as a product for a minute here; what are some attributes both musical and non-musical that apply to your brand name?  Be honest with yourself.  If you can say words/phrases such as:  consistent sound/intonation/accuracy, always has a presentable and appropriate appearance, always on time, always prepared for the gig, can play any style, can read well, acknowledges/interacts with the audience, and improvise in multiple styles appropriate for the situation, then you have built yourself a highly-reputable brand.  If thoughts of being habitually late, wearing jeans and a tux-printed t-shirt at formal events, trying to play every known Coltrane lick at a dixieland gig, and/or consistent ear-covering-evil-eye glares from the saxophone section enter into your mind, then chances are that your brand may need some work.

The topic for this blog post comes to you because I was recently reminded about my brand name/image that I portray.  Fortunately, this time it was good.  I go out on cruise ship gigs once in a while over the school breaks when there aren’t many gigs on the books and am currently on one in Alaska at the time of writing this.  Princess Cruise Lines now has an electronic appraisal/review that each manager gives to every musician at the end of their contracts.  These appraisals are saved in the company database and are accessible by any music manager and the head office.  They cover everything from your performance to appearance to interaction with the guests to adherence to company and safety policies.  I had forgotten about this until my manager came up to me upon joining the ship and said, “I see you worked with blah blah blah; well, our band just got better with you here”…and I hadn’t even played a note yet!

I’m not saying this to brag or anything; I am just thankful that my professional approach to every gig I take is being noticed.  It also created a little more pressure to keep everything at a higher level and to strive for improvement.  This cruise ship situation is nice because you know immediately or right before it’s over if you’re doing the right thing or not.  In other gigs (on land), you won’t know if you’re doing something wrong until you haven’t gotten a call for a gig in 4-5 months.  A long time ago, I played poorly (not going to say why) on one $10 reading/fun gig that I thought people didn’t take seriously.  When it came time for a friend of mine to move on from a steady decent-paying cover gig, he recommended me as his replacement.  One of the other members of that band was on that $10 gig and remembered that one time I played like crap.  Despite my friend going to bat for me, the guy said to not hire me.  That guy (not my friend…obviously) had the reputation for being a bit of a wanker as the Brits say, but that’s not the point here.  I learned my costly lesson.

You make or break your reputation every time you pick up your instrument.  If people hear you playing something bad or you sound like you’re needlessly showing off when you’re warming up in front of others, they instantly base their opinions on that.  If you’re at ITG and pick up a horn or multiple horns at each single table in the vendor area and play as loud and high as you can on each instrument, people instantly base their opinions on that.  If people hear you messing around and not playing what’s on the page when you’re supposed to be doing so, they instantly base their opinions on that. Would those opinions be good or bad?

My hope is that you do not become a timid player because of this stuff going through your head.  The idea is to become self-aware, not self-conscious.  The great news is that if you have less than desirable adjectives associated with you or your playing, you can resurrect your image through diligence and constant awareness (and practice).  Brand awareness is the reason why you see lesser-experienced players (using this terminology to be polite) playing great gigs while some top players get fewer calls.

As cattle ranchers used to say, happy branding!  (disclaimer:  I do not know if they actually ever said that.)

More Air!!!…?

“More air!!!”, the teacher shouted.  The student that stood 3 feet away took the largest inhale humanly possible; posters were pulled off the wall, the music stand swayed back and forth, the walls were flexing and cracks formed, the earth’s rotation slowed ever so slightly, and the teacher dug his nails into the tiled floor to avoid the gravitational pull towards the inhalation vortex.  What should’ve happened next was that the student then played the loudest, best-sounding G on top of the staff ever!

What really happened at this point:

The over-zealous student started choking as he tried to turn that monstrous quantity of air around to funnel through his cheap knockoff of the stock Vincent Bach 7C mouthpiece.  The result through the horn after he was finally able to put his lips together was a sputtering of the most brash-sounding tuning C in the history of tuning C’s that fell to a 2nd line G before all sound ceased.  The planet then returned to it’s homeostasis, leaving the teacher scratching his head while thinking, “but that should’ve worked; that’s what my teachers told me to do.”

“Try again!”, the teacher exclaimed, since there was nothing else to do at this point.  The student then inhaled, slightly less than before for fear of choking, and played a 4th space E.  Realizing that he was too low because the teacher was repeatedly pointing his finger towards the ceiling, the student forced his remaining air through the horn while a white-knuckled hand grip caused the metal mouthpiece to ground the lip flesh into hamburger against his front teeth.  A very small, Peter-Griffin-impish-laugh-sounding top o’ the staff G popped out.  The teacher smiled and said, “You did it!”  While recovering from tunnel-vision, the student etched out a smirk around the mirror-imaged white half-circles that would turn red and remain branded to each lip hours later.

When/where did this take place?  This grossly exaggerated story probably happened as far back as Biblical times when shofar players were trying to sound as terrifying as possible in order to scare the opposing army, and still continues today on the trumpet or cornet in band rooms across the world.  Don’t believe me?  Go to your local school, or maybe the one or two beyond that if the band director doesn’t use the “more air” line or actually explains it in more detail.

What do they mean when they say “more air”?

Some are implying faster air to play higher notes.  Some are implying more volume of air to play with a fuller sound.  I might be willing to bet that half who say the phrase probably have no clue and are reciting what they heard someone else say.  I cringe when I hear someone say, “more air” because the student is left up to his/her own devices and more often than not, fails (in addition to now thinking that playing the trumpet is hard).

Some options to think/talk about instead of “more air”:

For a higher notes:
You do need the air speed to be faster in order for the lips to vibrate.  Some of the ways this can be done is with more lip tension, mouthpiece pressure (not recommended), chest compression, and tongue position.  There are many good books/videos/teachers available that discuss one or more of these in detail (some I’ve looked at include:  Carmine Caruso, Cat Anderson, John Lynch, Bobby Shew’s Yoga Wedge Breath, Nick Drozdoff, Carl Fischer, Patrick Hessions, Jerome Callet…some work, some definitely do not work for me).  You can also sometimes get faster air/higher notes by forcing a huge volume/quantity of air through the horn, but you’re probably going to be overblowing, will notice a finite upper limit without being able to squeak out anything above, and won’t sound good on low notes immediately after playing high.

It’s entirely possible to play soft high notes.  I talked to Joey Pero (Vegas trumpet player, toured with Maynard) on a break at a rehearsal about playing high and he demonstrated the most beautiful-sounding and barely audible high G I’ve ever heard.  On top of that, he wasn’t working hard to do it.  He had everything mentioned above in perfect balance.  I also took a lesson with Walter White (trumpet player, not Heisenberg) awhile ago and he did something similar.  Chris Botti is another player that has a great sound while playing soft.  He isn’t playing in the upper register in this song, but you can see how close he got to this woman’s ears and she wasn’t taken aback by it:  Night Sessions Live, 2002.  It is worth noting that this was almost an hour into the concert.  It is also worth noting that if that woman wasn’t his girlfriend before the show, she probably was after.

“Cold air” vs. “warm air”:

“Cold air” happens when it’s moving fast and you’re playing higher.  There tends to be less moisture in the air stream and if that happens in the lower register, the sound could wind up less full.  “Warm air” is achieved by thinking of “fogging a mirror or window” (this is over-used as well, but it’s one of the easiest analogies to have a beginning student that has no idea what a good trumpet player sounds like play with a better sound).

There are many trumpet players who sound like they’re playing the trumpet when they switch to flugelhorn.  This is because they don’t make the mental and physical switch (sound concept and opening the back of the oral cavity and throat to an extreme “fogging position”).  You will also notice great-sounding classical and jazz players who are limited in range to a D or Eb above high C because they’re trying to continue to “fog” as they reach their upper limit (disclaimer:  this isn’t always the reason for limit in range, as there may be several other factors as well).  This “fog” concept is also why the flugelhorn’s practical range is high C; if you’re playing it properly, it’s more difficult to play higher than that accurately.  It is possible to play higher than a D/Eb while “fogging”; Malcolm McNab is a perfect example of this.  He plays the most rounded sounding double C ever possible on his Exquisite album.

I may have mentioned in a previous post, but what works for me may not work for you, hence why I don’t say, “go study with Bobby and learn the Yoga Wedge Breath” or to learn any other method I’ve worked on.  I also do not make any claims that these ideas are entirely mine; I’m sure someone else has arrived at similar conclusions through similar studies and experimentation…heck, I bet someone else has even come up with a similar hypothetical situation as my opener.  No plagiarism intended!

While I’m not consciously thinking about the techniques while playing, elements listed in this blog post are happening in the heat of the moment.  Which ones?  I have no clue sometimes and if I do, it’s well after playing for the night.  The key is to work on something until it becomes automatic.

I hope that you don’t stop searching for ways to make playing the trumpet more efficient/easier.  Easy = fun = less limitations = more fun.  Let your air do the work; however, more is not always the answer!

Musicality vs. Mechanics

I started out writing this blog entry with the intention to talk about the importance of tongue position and how it saved my butt recently, but as the few functionally remaining brain cells started firing, I started asking myself a bigger-picture question:

What’s the best way to approach playing the trumpet?

I’ve heard some teachers say that if you’re approaching playing muscially, then you’re doing the right things mechanically.  I’ve also heard other teachers say that if your mechanics are working properly, then you can do anything you want musically with a piece.  What side is right?

Both…and neither…

I can see both, but why neither?  That is because I’ve heard amazing musically-oriented players who are limited with certain technical aspects such as range and endurance, and players who have technique out the wazoo but are as musical as a $10 toy electric piano demo button.

In thinking about it further, there is no right answer because we are not all the same; nor do we think exactly the same way for each piece, style of music, or playing situation.  While I can only speak for myself based on what I know works for me currently and in the past, you can try the same approach and it could yield completely different results.  Those teachers who try to tell you that their way is the only way are only correct about themselves.

For me, warming up correctly both mentally and physically for the situation is key.  For most classical situations and jazz improvisation work, my warmup focuses mainly on relaxation, sound, and musicality.  If do my “lead warmup” before one of these situations, I find my sound isn’t as dark as what I would want to hear.  If I don’t have a desireable sound happening, then it distracts me from remembering/creating free-flowing improvised lines and ideas or from shaping the phrasing of a classical line.

For commercial, big band lead, and piccolo trumpet situations, my warmup is definitely mechanically-oriented.  This warmup focuses on making things happen with minimal pressure and relying on the tongue to do most of the work.  If I do my “classical warmup” or if “the machine” isn’t working correctly by the time my warmup is complete, then I’ll be fighting the horn the entire time through a piccolo trumpet concerto or a lead trumpet gig, no matter how much I’m trying to play musically.

When it comes down to any performing situation, my approach is always from a musiciality standpoint with an awareness of how it sounds and feels.  If something doesn’t sound or feel quite 100%, then I try to relax and make small, quick adjustments to play myself back in to the zone.  Air seems to be the biggest culprit (too much or too little), so that’s usually where I start.

Ultimately, if you want to become a solid player on the trumpet, you have to acknowledge the importance of and work on both musicality and mechanics every day.

Batter Up!

It’s baseball season once again and it reminds me of one of my favorite analogies used in playing the trumpet:

As you watch your favorite baseball player in the batter’s box, what do you notice about the stance?  He will have his feet planted firmly on the ground and they are shoulder-width or slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.  As he is waiting for the pitch, he looks loose and relaxed, yet balanced and strong.  If he was off-balanced and/or had any amount of unnecessary tension, a hit (if he was able to swing the bat in time) would most likely not go very far.

While we don’t crouch down slightly when we’re playing the trumpet or transfer our energy exactly like a ball player, a stance with feet shoulder width apart and straight but relaxed posture will lead us to more ease in the physical playing of the instrument, thus realizing the potential for better tone quality, endurance, range, etc.

I personally witnessed an example of this when I was watching a friend’s combo play at a small dive bar/restaurant in NYC several years ago.  The trumpet player in the combo went up to the mic to solo and stood with all his weight on his right leg with his left foot perched on top of his right foot.  My friend (and great trumpet player), Bryan Davis, leaned over to me and whispered something to the effect that, “he’s going to miss some notes”.  Sure enough, the player cracked the first note he was trying to play.  It wasn’t all that high either, somewhere between a 4th space E or a top o’ the staff G.  His sound didn’t have much fullness to it and his tone thinned out more as his lines darted above the staff.  On the next tune, the player happened to stand with a more stable stance when he went to solo and once again Bryan leaned in.  This time he said that we were about to hear the player sound better.  Sure enough, the guy sounded a lot stronger:  he didn’t crack any notes, had a better tone in the upper register, and he seemed comfortable throwing in more  double-time licks.

I’ll leave you with a great anecdote by Maynard Ferguson from the July 1993 DownBeat Magazine article, “Wanna Play High Notes”:  “Miles Davis once asked me what he was doing wrong in the upper register.  “Your legs,” I told him.”

Thanks for reading!

Ego & Trumpet Playing

This thought comes from part of a rant that I unloaded on my studio this semester:

Here’s an idea that has helped me break a plateau in my playing some time ago:

STOP ATTACHING EGO AND/OR SELF-WORTH TO YOUR TRUMPET PLAYING.  This means to not get angry if you’re not sounding like you want to on the horn on a particular day or be elated because you are sounding amazing in one session.  Still do your routine as best as you can and have faith in the process if it’s not happening that day…it’s not going to sound better every single day and some days will feel harder than others, but you should be working for an overall trend in improvement in sounding like the recordings you should be listening to and a greater ease/efficiency in all aspects of playing. (can’t play high if you’re forcing it or using pressure)

This also means stop comparing yourself to others, pushing attitude that creates drama around yourself or others, or vibing those more or less-experienced than you…basically anything that is manifested from your conscious or sub-conscious insecurity of knowing that you aren’t doing everything that you can or should’ve done to help improve your playing.  That stuff actually makes you and your playing appear worse and you will lose future professional contacts and/or friends.  There are several amazing musicians that I’ve considered having as guest soloists/clinicians in the future, but after meeting their ego in person, I will never subject my students to their self-indulgence.

Your happiness or bad mood should not be from trumpet playing…actually, just listen to that, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Be happy that you are given this amazing opportunity to be working on something the majority of people in this world will never have the chance to.

Good luck!

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