Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Being a Trumpet Player

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
Today I start volume two of The Tuning Slide. I come refreshed with new ideas from another Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop week. I have been doing some exciting reading and experiencing insights into music, life, and the connections they make.

Over this past year I have found myself moving from an okay amateur trumpet player into a somewhat more accomplished amateur. I have spent more time practicing and playing than I ever would have thought possible. As the year progressed I found it more and more difficult to MISS a day of practice. Since mid-April, I have only missed one day- a long day of travel and meetings. As a result I have discovered that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

In some of my reading I came across a fun and insightful description of trumpet players. It came from pianist and composer Jonny King's An Insider’s Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz (1997, Walker). After talking about other of the jazz instruments, on pages 61-62 he tackles the trumpet. Here is part of what he had to say.
The Egomaniacal Trumpet Player
Among musicians, trumpet players are reputed to have the biggest egos. As the other musicians see it, they’re the cockiest guys on the bandstand. They… try to take over every tune and every gig and musical situation. Of course, such sweeping generalizations couldn’t possibly be true for all trumpet players, but the trumpeter’s reputation might be justified to a certain extent. You probably have to be somewhat brash to think that you can lead a quintet or power a big band’s brass section with a pint-sized horn with only three valves….
Well, yes. That is our reputation, but at least he has the insight to see where some of it comes from- a pint-sized horn that powers a whole band. He goes on to give us some pretty heavy support:
The technique of playing the trumpet is bewildering to the rest of us. The horn is a small curved piece of brass (or other, more exotic metal finishes) with a mouthpiece the musician blows into and a “bell” that fans out from the horn and projects notes and sounds. The mouthpiece is a small metal cylinder into which the trumpeter must blow his tightened, purse lips. … The trumpet is an extremely physically demanding instrument, and you can’t lay off for more than a few days without seriously compromising your chops.
I had never thought about it that way. I started playing in 1961 at age 13. I don't remember any of the early fights with learning or how awful it must have sounded to my parents. And that bit about compromising your "chops" is one of the more famous issues to a trumpet player. Yeah. Wow. He understands.
Once you get a full head of steam and force air into the horn to create notes, how do you determine the pitches of those tones? By combining different amounts of air pressure, changing lip positions, and pressing down different combinations of the three valves, the trumpet is able to sound about three octaves worth of pitches. Most people are fairly blown away by the prospect of trying to control dozens of different notes with barely perceptible changes in lip positions and valve alterations. 
 As I was writing this, I was listening to Lee Morgan do everything described in that last paragraph- and then some- on the amazing "Just One of Those Things". He made it sound so smooth and easy- using only those barely perceptible lip changes and valve combinations.

When I initially read that description, I did react with surprise. After a while you just pick up the horn and start playing. It becomes second nature. It is natural and you don't think about why and how you do what you do. To describe it as King does gives a whole new dimension to what we do.

But, and this is important, I think, when we get that nonchalant or even carefree about our playing, we can find ourselves at a loss. That may have been the underlying secret insight I got a year ago at Shell Lake. In a brief moment of instruction from Bob Baca my whole way of looking at what I was doing as a musician changed. I know now that part of what happened was to take what had become natural and allow it to grow and change. When we are satisfied with how we are playing, we can get stuck and not move on.

For years I had been somewhat satisfied. I believed that perhaps this was as far as  I could ever get. I was wrong. I am grateful I was wrong. I also found that it takes patience and persistence to move on to new levels. The suggestion that I could have a daily routine of long tones, chromatics, and scales brought me back to basics. In playing those long tones I have to listen, not just blow them. I have to hear the chromatics move. I have to be aware of the steps and half-steps of the scales. Yes, I am memorizing the scales; I am become familiar with the shape and movement of the sounds. But I don't just rattle them off so I can get on to something else.

THAT was a whole new understanding of practice and the road to improvement. It has worked- and for that I am grateful. And, yes, it does lead to second-nature playing because these routines and exercises become deeply ingrained in my brain and neural wiring. It is my whole musical self learning, melding, and growing together.

That's how we learn and grow in anything important. But we can never be lackadaisical about it. All these are gifts. Yet if we don't use them and improve them, we can get stuck. I like where music has taken me. I can hardly wait to see what's next.

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