Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Tuning Slide: The World in a Note

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

The more you get into music, the more you discover that
a whole note becomes the whole world.
- Trumpet Camp 2015

The Music Lesson is a wonderful musical philosophy book by bassist Victor Wooten. Early in the book Victor's "mentor" Michael asks him if he remembers the Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who. "Do you remember what the poor elephant found inside the little speck of dust?"

"There was a whole civilization living inside it."
"Exactly," [Michael] said, pointing at me. "Notes are the same. If you listen closely, you can find a whole world living inside each one. Notes are alive, and like you and me, they need to breathe. The song will dictate how much air is needed."
At the end of trumpet camp last year we heard the same thing in our closing session as quoted above.

Months ago, as I put together the themes for this blog year, I sent Mr. Baca an email asking for an explanation, a line or two that I could riff on. He was always too busy.

Actually, I think he was doing me a favor. He was letting me figure it out on my own. I would schedule a post on the subject, then push it back. A few weeks ahead, I would say,

"Nope, Mr. Baca hasn't answered me yet."

I would push it back again. It seems I needed to discover the world in a note for myself.

To understand how the world exists in a single note is not something that can be clearly taught. It is one of those things that makes sense only when you have your "Aha!" moment. Sure I've been given clues and ideas about what it means, but, hey, I can be a little slow. The answer was right in front of me all the time. It was shown over and over on web sites and articles. It showed up every day I picked up my horn to practice.

A couple weeks ago it came to me. Clear as the bell on my trumpet. It came together when watching a video of Wynton Marsalis on the website- Arban Method. (Video at bottom of post.)

Long tones. The boring, bane of every trumpet player.

I remembered Mr. Baca at Big Band Camp telling me to take the tuning slide off and just play that single tone, basically, "G" on the staff.
  • Play it; 
  • listen to the sound;
  • center it; 
  • hold it; 
  • just let the air go through; 
  • listen to the sound;
  • keep it centered;
  • Now do it again.
In that note is the whole world of trumpet music. In that note will be every note you play.

Now, put the slide back in and do it with "G". It's still there. THAT note hasn't changed. The trumpet does the work.

Play up the scale. Every note is still that single buzzing tone- the single note of the world. Play down the scale. The same thing is happening.

With every long tone, you play that same single tone. It is, in essence, the foundation of every note on the horn. As long as you keep that in mind, and the physics and philosophy of the buzz note, you will have the whole scale.

How simple.

One of our local PBS stations is currently rerunning the Ken Burns series Jazz. It's amazing how much different the series is 16 years after first aired. I am hearing and seeing things that were irrelevant to me when I first saw it. In last week's episode one of the commentators was discussing the revolutionary genius of Louis Armstrong. (An understatement!) He was describing how Armstrong took "pop" songs and interpreted them for his jazz bands. No one else was doing that. They played them straight. Armstrong, the commentator said, went to the very essence of the songs. He would often distill it all to one note (!) playing the tempo and swinging the groove. One note! The whole song in that single note.

When I started this trumpet journey last summer I thought the purpose of doing long tones was to build chops. If I did long tones on a regular basis I would improve the embouchure, increase my range, build endurance, develop breath, and learn to center each note. All of which is true. But now I have a hunch these are the important results of finding the whole world in the single note on the horn.

Most instrumentalists face the same task. We can't make chords on our instruments like a pianist or guitarist (or even banjo player) can. We have one note at a time to work with. At first we learn the notes. We discover the ways to play each individual note. It has its place on the scale and we play it. We do our version of "chords" when we move to intervals, playing thirds and arpeggios. But it is still only one note at a time. (Ignore overtones for this discussion.)

Somewhere along the line we begin to hear differently. We begin to discover the world in our trumpet, the voice we talked about in an earlier post that is uniquely ours.

And it's all in that single note we can only play one at a time.

Let's move away from music for a moment and get philosophical. My goal in this blog is as much to "tune" our individual lives as it is to "tune" our musical chops. This is as true for who we are and what we hope to do or be each and every day.  That single, buzzing "G" is our individual core. It is our personality, our skills, our hopes and dreams. If we try to focus too much on these and seek all the answers we will quickly become unfocused. Our lives simply responding to the next "thing" or next "crisis" or even next "dream."

But what is your "G" tone? What is your world in a single note at the center of your soul? What's in your heart? How does that define what you can do and how you do it? Take the time to center on that. Meditate on it. Learn to live it and let it guide you no matter what is happening.

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