Mahler 6

What a week! Last weekend the CPO played Mahler 6, and now at last I'm starting to feel mentally recovered. The physical demands of the piece are heavy, and the mental demands are immense. There are so many solos, especially in the last movement, that I found it very easy to get into the intense focus that such passages require. But it really hits you when the piece is finished that your mind needs to recover as much as your chops!

It's a strange part. The first three movements feel like a balanced diet of trumpet playing: strong orchestral style, extroverted lyricism, sensitive passages, soft and loud articulate passages. But in the last movement, even though there are different types of challenges, there are so many short loud solos that things get to feeling a whole lot less balanced. Mahler writes fortissimo very frequently in this part, and often when my instinct said a single forte would have sufficed. But Mahler is the boss, and I guess he was okay at writing for the trumpet. The trickiest day of the week was Thursday, when we rehearsed the last movement first, then went back. Recovery from loud playing is often a more pressing challenge than the loud parts themselves. 

We had a really strong trumpet section that made it a super fun week. I should especially mention Jay Michalak and Dan Mills on 5th and 6th, with B-flat trumpets pulled out to A to be able to play those super low Ds. 

And now it's time for me to go play The Marriage of Figaro, quite a contrasting day at the office!

Routine: Keeping it Fresh

As promised, here’s a follow-up to this previous entry.

Sound production is the best place to start, because it serves the purpose of a warmup in addition to being the basis for everything else we do on a brass instrument. This broad category includes making a resonant and clear sound in all registers, in all dynamics. Mouthpiece buzzing (and lip buzzing, if you're into that) are the natural place to start. The mouthpiece is the ultimate sound production diagnostic tool, so use it! I like to buzz in all registers of the instrument, from pedal notes to the upper register, as high as I'll be playing on the trumpet. Then on the instrument exercises like the old standbys by James Stamp or Vince Cichowicz are just what the doctor ordered. The quantity of these exercises as well as how far along you choose to go in terms of range are variables that will let you tailor the demands of this segment each day. As with anything, you know best what you need. For example, when I'm getting in a lot of loud playing at work, I don't feel the need to do much at home; whereas when I've got super soft things to play I make sure to check in a bit more frequently.

Flexibility is the next area I like to tackle. Broadly defined, it's the ability to go from one state of sound production to another. Changing notes and dynamics are the two obvious ones, but you can get as detailed as you like. Dynamic exercises like swells, forte-pianos, subito dynamic changes in either direction, all fall into this category. More popularly, this area also includes "lip slurs", a term that I don't particularly like. In Allen Vizzutti's New Concepts for Trumpet book, there's a very good section of these exercises which he titles "Smooth Tones" which I think is a great label. Some good exercises with varying degrees of difficulty are Bai Lin, Michael Sachs's fundamentals book, and the Charles Colin flexibilities book. 

Articulation is the last big area to touch on. The interruption of the airstream with the tongue is a fundamental skill. Ideally this will also function as sound production work too, because it's essentially the same thing with the simple addition of the tongue. Exercises here can be simple Arban-type exercises, simplified and elaborated versions of those exercises (like those spelled out in the Sachs book), all the way to complex multiple tonguing etudes, such as some Charliers. I generally like to keep this simple, but if it’s a growth area for you the door is open.

Lastly, I like to touch on the piccolo trumpet in the first session every day. I’ve got a lot of thoughts about the little thing, but those are another post altogether. For this session, a short amount of time on the horn, addressing all three areas already discussed, will keep you in touch with the instrument and will help to build a base level of condition that will serve you well when you really have to ramp up your piccolo practice for a specific work. 

By having a variety of options to address each of these areas, you can tailor the weight of your first session of the day appropriately for the demands of the day, your general condition on the instrument, and specific needs, either to address what you’re up against in the next little while, or general growth in your playing. For me, I have a routine that I like most of the time during the orchestra season, but when I’m getting back in shape from a period of reduced workload or off the trumpet altogether, I start up very simply and gradually ratchet up the degree of difficulty for each of these areas. It’s a great way to not only get back in shape safely and effectively, but also to see tangible signs of progress, which is always helpful. 

Do you have any ideas about how to break down the technical demands of playing a brass instrument? I’m always looking for new insights into how this whole strange thing works, so please do let me know if you see holes in my ideas here. I know it seems like a dry discussion, but this is the behind-the-scenes reality of the field we’re in. Getting interested and curious about it is the best way to improve!

Vienna-Style New Year’s Day Concerts

It’s January 1st, and that means it’s time for a Vienna-style New Year’s Day concert. I played my annual today, which is a certain package that runs these across Canada and the States, which I’m sure many of you have played for yourselves. These concerts, without consideration for their place in the calendar or any other outside matters, pose a few unique challenges and opportunities. 

First of all, it’s a lot of music, and for the trumpets, a great deal of playing. After trumpet vacation, it’s a challenge to have the stamina to sound good all the way to the end. This also means it’s a great opportunity to get in a good block of face time to rebuild the strength that went away over the holiday, and hopefully more efficiently. 

This much playing on rotary trumpet is also a really great opportunity to get more comfortable on the instrument, which in North America often doesn’t get its due in the practice room. Even finding a functional and comfortable grip can be a challenge, especially in long waltzes where it feels like there’s not even enough rest to empty the instrument.

Since we’re playing a great deal of background material, it means it’s also a good opportunity to dial in reading and transposition skills again after the break. A huge challenge is dealing with the roadmaps of waltz cycles and polkas, which can be extremely convoluted and fast-paced. Getting good at reading these charts make pops arrangements a breeze!

When all is said and done, the first trumpet folder for a show like this is quite well-rounded: loud, soft, lyrical, articulate, high, low, really a bit of almost everything. It can be a great deal of fun, when things are working well. The Blue Danube is a perfect example, if cliché. Passages with the woodwinds, soft and loud solos, and throughout the piece great opportunities for very stylish playing. 

Any programme can be an opportunity to work on at least some parts of your playing. A show like this that we play every year can become monotonous, but by reminding yourself what you can contribute and what you can gain it can become a useful building opportunity, plus a much more righteous day at the office than it otherwise would be.

Routine: What and Why?

The first session of the day can often feel like a chore. Warming up can seem like a mindless routine and the benefits of your introductory appointment with the trumpet can often seem intangible. I would argue that this first session is the most important session of the day, because while sure, it is important to learn your repertoire, the most important long-term path to be on is one where you're constantly improving and avoiding injury. 

What's the difference between warmups and fundamentals? All warmups are fundamentals, but not all fundamentals are warmups. Just like working out at the gym or getting on your mat for your yoga practice, the safest and most effective way to begin is to start with movements that are productive, but also prepare you for the rest of what you're up against. For me, this whole idea combines with the goal of simple efficiency into the decision to always include a full routine in my first session of the day, unless there are extenuating circumstances. It does help that I'm a morning person and I thrive on routine. That being said, I think what I outline below is a flexible approach that can work really well for people who can't stand doing the same thing every day.

This key first session of the day should serve many purposes. Okay, sure, warming up. But there are certain boxes that you should always make sure to tick off. It's important to touch on all parts of your playing. When I have to play high Cs at work, I sure don't want them to be my first high Cs of the day. Through this comprehensive daily approach, it's also possible to improve your technical command of the instrument, build strength and condition, get the face time you need on the different instruments you've got on the go, and most importantly avoid injury by maintaining base fitness in your chops. 

So, the first session should touch on all the general areas of playing. As far as I can tell, everything falls in to three broad categories: sound production, flexibility, and articulation. By having lots of different ways to check off each of those boxes, ideally options at different levels of difficulty, intensity, and duration, you'll be able to tailor an effective and complete fundamentals session for each day.

More to come on this big topic.