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:

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. 

Q:...Range?

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!

CNBP Update

Just a quick update from the Canadian National Brass Project session. We've been at it for almost a week now, and we've played three of our four shows this year. This is such a fantastic group of players, and it's been amazing to hear everyone play and teach! Things have been busy, so I haven't had time to blog about it. I'll do so when the session is done and I'm thinking back over it and going through my notes. More to come!

Piccolo Trumpet

Every year in late November you feel a knot in your stomach. It nags, it distracts, maybe it even keeps you awake at night. But there’s no putting it off. You dig out the dusty case, undo the latch and hear the foreboding creak of the hinge, and behold your neglected, vengeful piccolo trumpet. 

Does this sound familiar? For a lot of people, Messiah season is the only time that the piccolo trumpet gets attention in the practice room. No wonder the results are often less than what we might like. The piccolo is like the scary dog next door when you were a kid: terrifying when encountered only fleetingly, but a great friend once you get to know each other. 

Once you accept that the piccolo trumpet is a real instrument just like your C trumpet and begin to treat it as such, rather than a toy that by its very nature feels bad and sounds tinny, real progress can begin. Most things don’t change much from playing big horns, like technical facility, articulation, and musicianship; but sound production, which is always the highest priority, needs to be calibrated for the smaller instrument. Sure, we often draw on different styles of playing on piccolo than we do on big trumpets, but there’s no essential difference in how those styles would be applied on either horn. One other thing we need to do on the piccolo is make sure we’re able to play in tune in all keys, something that is often overlooked. 

We can address production on the piccolo the same way we do on big horns. Most people will be playing a smaller mouthpiece on piccolo than they usually do, so it’s best to start with mouthpiece buzzing to get comfortable with the different interface. Make sure to buzz the entire range of the instrument, which means on the piccolo that you’ll eventually be going well above the break on the mouthpiece around high D or so. Get used to working through it, smoothing it out. Next, I like to do some Stamp or Cichowicz exercises, making sure to get comfortable in the pedal register of the instrument. I haven’t yet figured out how to make pedal notes on the piccolo trumpet sound palatable, but they’re a great way to find a free, resonant vibration of your lips in the smaller mouthpiece. 

Many of the exercises we frequently think of for big horns don’t transfer well to the piccolo. One exception is the book of 70 Little Studies by Clodomir, many of which can be adjusted to fit the piccolo, though given this treatment many become quite difficult. My very favourite resource is Chris Gekker’s 15 Studies for Piccolo Trumpet, which contains not only Clarke-style exercises in every key tailored specifically for the piccolo, but insightful and well-written text on most aspects of piccolo playing. Phil Collins has written a book of etudes for piccolo practice as well. Many baroque pieces are simple or well-known enough to make good practice material too. 

We’re usually required to play the piccolo either in the baroque style, or in a powerful orchestral manner, think Rite of Spring or Bolero. The demands are very different, but luckily practicing those two different styles make for a well-balanced diet on the instrument.

I know a lot of people think otherwise, but for me it’s very important for me to practice the piccolo trumpet every day. I like to touch on it at the end of my first session of the day, and most days I try to come back to it for part of a second session. When I started on the job, I found my playing in general improved by leaps and bounds, but whenever I needed to play piccolo I felt like it hadn’t improved at all. No wonder, I hadn’t been practicing it to keep the quality level with everything else. Since I got in the habit of picking it up, it has caught up with the rest of my playing, and sometimes I even think of it as a strength. 

Finally,  another benefit of playing picc every day is that I find it helps me be more comfortable in the upper register on my big trumpets. Playing high is a big part of my job, not to mention something on most trumpet players’ minds. When I can improve several critical areas at the same time I know that I'm doing high-value practice, and that's always something to shoot for.