Getting Back in Shape

These last six months have been a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had my open-heart surgery on May 22nd, and with just a few bumps in the road I seem to be more-or-less through to the other side of this experience. I'm posting this blog entry on both my main trumpet blog (accessible from the links up top of the page) and as the last entry on my heart surgery and recovery blog that I've kept, which you can find here.

Coming back to playing the trumpet after this long off has been exciting and interesting. I sure missed it, and I still miss being at work playing with the orchestra. The most important thing though is to make sure that I get my playing to a strong and very healthy place before I do get back on the job, as it's hard to make adjustments when the schedule is so heavy. 

Since I got some good advice from my teacher Andrew McCandless in my undergrad, I've always believed strongly in the power of taking some time off. Be it a day when you're feeling beat up and your schedule permits it, a week over the Christmas holidays, or six weeks over the summer, I've found that I always come back recharged, feeling fresh, and ready to play my best. It has been my experience, and especially that of my students, that taking well-earned time off is the time when long-term gains are realized and habits can be tweaked in a positive direction, and it's this last idea that has been of particular interest to me this time around.

Physically speaking, I don't think there's a great deal of difference between taking six weeks or five months off (given that I've healed up well and playing the trumpet hasn't exposed any problems with my recovery from surgery). Mentally though, there is a huge difference. All my deeply entrenched habits are looser, more malleable, which is a great opportunity but also a minefield. It'll never be easier for me to fix things, but if a new problem creeps in to what I'm doing it'll become a dominant habit very quickly. I've specifically targeted two long-time weaknesses of mine: starts, and my right hand. 

For as long as I can remember I've had trouble starting first notes, and I've done a lot of work to understand the problem and fix it. My goal was to only do it the right way from day one back on the trumpet, and I've had a surprisingly easy time of it. Now it's my habit, and don't take it for granted. Aside from being diligent with everything I start, at the end of my first session every day I now have a little routine to really solidify what I've developed. I play the first few notes of Mahler 5 and Pictures, I start a couple of passages from the scherzo of the Barber Symphony No. 1 which is coming up in a few months, and I finish with the solo from Copland's Outdoor Overture, which is especially telling due to the downward slurs at the beginning. 

I think most trumpet players have a lazy right hand, especially the third finger. I was able to do some focused work before I started playing the trumpet again; right-hand work doesn't mess with a healing sternum. In everything I'm playing now I'm trying to be very mindful of being strong and direct with my hand, especially routine things that I do every day like flow studies and the great Clarke-style piccolo trumpet studies by Chris Gekker, which are particularly good for the right hand. 

The plan is to work hard between now and the end of the year, take a bit of time off as I usually would over the holidays, and consolidate all this good work I've been doing for my return to performance in January. I think it's a good, healthy plan and I really believe that I'm going to sound better in the near future than I have in the past. 

Please don't hesitate to reply to this post to ask specific questions about getting back in shape after a hiatus like this. There's so much nuance to it that's hard to articulate without the focus of a specific question.


We've all got holes in our playing. Big or small, we know some of them well and some sneak under our radar. 

A big one for me is a sluggish right hand. I realized it for the first time several years ago getting back in shape after having broken my right pinky in a bike crash. I knew that it'd take some time to get strength, speed, and coordination back, but in the process I realized for the first time how far behind the rest of my playing my right hand was. I'm working on it every day. 

Another small hole for me has always been two fast thirty-second notes before a string of triple-tongued eighth-note triplets. Think the loud fanfares in Mahler 1 or at the top of the second page of Pines of Rome. Slowing down the articulation for the second note of the first triplet has always been a huge stumbling block for me. 

Well next week I'm playing Mahler 1, and I've taken this as an opportunity to work on both things. I've been using these simple practice variations, the same thing for both keys the fanfare is in. [Edit for clarity: it's the D-flat major version that's so tough for the right hand. It's great to have the two right next to each other, so if the D major is fine but D-flat major stinks, you know what the problem is.]

AZ Mahler 1 practice variations.jpg

First the original as a reference, then a basic skeleton. Add triple tonguing, then get to those pesky 32nds. This is the place to really work on making sure the fourth and fifth notes are slow enough. Then a variation using the same fingerings as the real passage, but shrinking the intervals to reduce the flexibility challenge; this is the place to make sure your fingers and tongue are coordinated. The last variation adds half of the flexibility challenge back, then you're ready to go back to the original passage.

So many challenges like these 32nds aren't really that big of a deal, but it's easy to skirt around them over the years. A bit of focused work can sort things out most of the time, but the critical steps are to identify it, understand exactly what's going on, and decide to do something about it. 

I've decided this season to redouble my efforts seek out as many of these holes as I can, and find ways to fix them. How have you noticed and fixed things in your playing? Please share your experience in the comments, I'd be interested to hear. 

Asked and Answered

Someone wrote in with a few questions based on my earlier post about routine (here), and I thought I'd share my response with everybody. Here you go!

Q: Can you suggest some exercises or routines for the following? Playing on a horizontal airstream?

A. When it comes to thinking horizontally, I find that the old Stamp idea of thinking up as you go down and down as you go up is right on the money, and I've got a few tools I like to use to work on that. In my fundamental practice I like to find exercises that I can invert the shape of, and end up with a pair of matching exercises. I then try to play one while thinking very clearly of the other in my head. For example, the following pair of exercises from Alan Vizzutti’s book New Concepts for Trumpet:

The goal of all this is to keep everything right at eye level, never feeling the need to reach up or down. Either a strict inversion of an exercise or just finding something with a reverse contour can be helpful. Intervallic passages can often end up with an opposite shape by displacing some notes by octaves. 


A. Range is a byproduct of quality sound production. If your best sound consistently tops out at a high B-flat but you can squeak out a high F, you should spend your time figuring out what you need to do to play a great-sounding B-natural. When you get your sound production really dialled in, range will follow along with endurance.

Q:...More clarity in articulation?

A. Articulation is about two separate components, sound production and the tongue. Clarity problems can result when either isn't working properly, or when the two aren't coordinated. Is your tongue interrupting the airstream cleanly and consistently? Perhaps your notes just aren't responding how you want them to? Or maybe it just sounds messy and everything is fine when you break it down into components? All of those scenarios mean something different is the trouble. When you can diagnose the specific cause of the problem you know what to focus on.

Q:...Maximize my practicing with limited time?

A. With limited time to practice, having a clear plan and discipline is the way to make progress. If you need to get as specific as breaking your 25 available minutes for the first session of the day into 5 minutes of buzzing, 10 minutes of sound production on the horn, 5 minutes of flexibility, and 5 minutes of articulation, commit to that and keep your eyes on the clock to keep yourself honest. It's amazing what you can get done when you actually stay on task! With limited time to practice there's no reason not to have very intense practice sessions that contain very little rest, you'll have lots of time before your next session to recover.


Hope that's helpful to some of you. Feel free to write in with any other questions, I'll be happy to tell you what I think!

Paradigm Shift

It has been some time since last I posted here, but not without good reason. At the beginning of this orchestra season a new little tyrant has entered my life, and for the purposes of this blog, has really messed with my routine. I was once told that if I was ever going to have kids I should make sure I had everything about the trumpet figured out first, but since I didn't manage that I've got to do my best to keep making progress under the new regime. I've already learned a few things.

Most fundamentally, never before has being efficient with my time been more important than it is now. There are so many new pressures on my schedule that I need to make the most of the time that I have. Even when there aren't tasks to be done, I'd rather get the same amount done in less time so I can play with the baby more. If I practiced in my undergrad with the efficiency I've found in the last month who knows how I'd sound now!

Plan as you might, all sorts of non-optional interruptions are going to happen, some just for a minute and some for hours. Understanding my routine and fundamentals lets me divide things up as I need, to be able to feel confident about my practicing even if I can only catch short bursts throughout the day. If I have break up my first session of the day even into four small sessions, I know that I've covered all my bases.

Like it or not, the practice mute is an important tool. I saw this coming, and spent some time this past summer working out exactly where the line was between things that can and can't be effectively achieved when using a practice mute. For me, my basic routine is all doable, as is much additional technical work, note-learning, and endurance-specific practicing. Some things just aren't smart to try, like working on anything relating to sound or style. The piccolo trumpet practice mute that I got for a performance of George Benjamin's piece At First Light in my undergrad has come in very handy, too. 

On the rare occasion when both absolute silence is necessary and I don't need to sleep or deal with a non-practicing issue, I've been looking ahead and writing out practice etudes for myself, something I've done for many years to address specifically challenging passages. Not only do etudes like this provide a great way of wrapping my head around the challenges of a given passage, but they make the actual practicing so amazingly efficient that I really should do a lot more of this sort of thing.

I'd probably write more here, but the boss awakens and I'll gladly attend to him. Maybe he'll teach me brevity, among other things.

Canadian National Brass Project 2015

Last week was a blast. Playing and teaching with such a group of great musicians and great friends was always going to be a treat, but it's always refreshing how much of a boost it can be to how you think about your practicing and performing. 

The CNBP was in residence at the National Youth Orchestra of Canada during part of their session at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. There was so much teaching going on that it was impossible for me to soak it all up: multiple masterclasses, lessons, and rehearsals running concurrently. I attended the daily trumpet masterclasses my colleagues were teaching, but I wish I could have heard everyone else's ideas too. I taught some lessons (not just to trumpet players) and took part in a few panel discussions on topics ranging from what constitutes professional conduct in the workplace, to what it's like to get a job and start working full-time in an orchestra. 

After a few intense days of rehearsal it was time for our first show, at the Toronto Summer Music Festival. We lifted the roof off of Walter Hall at the University of Toronto, the audience responded amazingly to what we were doing. Since I grew up and went to school in the Toronto area I saw lots of familiar faces, which is always a treat. 

The next night we were playing opening night of the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. We had done a slightly reduced programme the night before, as we were followed by another scheduled concert, so this was the first real go through everything. It was a good show, and as is usual we celebrated accordingly. 

Back to Waterloo we went the next day for a joint concert with the NYOC brass and percussion. The percussionists played some Varèse, the NYO brass played some standards, we played some of our tunes, and we finished with some pieces together, NYO players sitting in the section with the pros. I recall my own experiences doing that sort of thing, the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra sitting in with the Toronto Symphony and such, so I can only hope that the students got something similar out of this experience. 

The next morning we recorded a few pieces for grant applications promotional purposes. All through the week the pressure had been on to play my best for my colleagues, but recordings are something else entirely. When playing music that's as difficult and high-risk as some of what we were up against, a recording session is a real crucible. I'm really looking forward to hearing how it turned out.

Up to Parry Sound we went, and got a much-needed recharge before our final concert the next day at the Festival of the Sound. I had never been to Parry Sound before, and while the town was much as I had imagined, I was delighted to see such a wonderful performing space as the Stockey Centre. I had the pleasant surprise of seeing some unexpected friends at intermission too, making a good day even better. 

As soon as the show was done people were off in a hurry to catch flights for far-flung rehearsals the next morning. The week felt like a whirlwind, but I've got memories, notes, and inspiration to last a good long while. If you've got a chance to hear or take a lesson from anyone involved in the project, I'd absolutely recommend to do it. Though nothing is certain, hopefully we'll all be back together again next summer for another great session!