The five students you meet in hell

After visiting the five teachers in the Underworld, you’re in heaven, trying to get some good practice, but you’re just not feeling it. Gabriel drops by to play duets, but you just can’t keep up. You say, “I don’t know if I need to play these duets, Gabriel–they probably won’t get me a job up here in the clouds.”

“You know,” Gabriel says, “we should take another trip down to lava land–you know, the Underworld. There are five more trumpeters I want you to meet. Each has an interesting and tragic story. They’re the five students that you’ll meet in hell. I think it’s good to get this out of the way on the last day of 2017”

So, down you fly to that terrible place, where bad trumpeters have to live for the rest of eternity, and we met the five trumpet students of hell.

  1. Teddy. Teddy practiced his songs that he liked. Always from the beginning. Always the same speed (although he couldn’t be sure, since he never used a metronome). Once he could play his tunes, he stayed at that same level and never got better. But Teddy kept at it–even during his whole career as a car salesman, where he would play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on his coffee break in the back room.
  2. Morris. This student was pretty smart, and he was sure he was always right about the way to play. He never really agreed with his teachers, and this made him feel a little important. Interestingly, Morris could never arrive on time to his lessons. This made his teachers frustrated. Realizing he could no longer be satisfied in the world of trumpets or even music, Morris went on to be an excellent lawyer. As a lawyer, he always could to prove his point.
  3. Buddy. This trumpeter tried to get everyone’s attention with his little excerpts and licks. He also loved to take things up an octave when he could get away with it. Poor Buddy just wanted some attention. At least every five minutes. But no one could give him that kind of attention. Even his mom stopped taking his calls, and then he grew depressed about the whole trumpet thing. Buddy went on to be a personal trainer, where he got lots of superficial compliments every day.
  4. Chet. This guy somehow had enough money to buy all of the really great trumpets, mouthpieces, and other cool equipment. He also collected tens of thousands of recordings–even vinyl records that he played on his fancy sound system with vacuum tubes. He was so busy with his equipment, he never really got a chance to focus on his playing, so that he could get better. Chet went bankrupt and had to sell a lot of his equipment at a big loss, but he knew so much about equipment at that point, he got a job at a music store selling trumpets. For the rest of his mortal life, Chet sold a lot of trumpets to those other guys that reminded him of himself.
  5. Joseph. Joseph was really a good guy, but he spent all of his time hanging with his friends to the detriment of his playing. He craved belonging to a group, so much so, that he joined a social fraternity on campus. With all of the initiation obligations, the parties and the completely un-musical set of friends he made at his fraternity, he started to drift away from music. He became a business man, but always thought there was something missing deep inside.

Gabriel looks at you after visiting the five trumpet students in hell, and asks, “What did you think?” You say, it seems like these guys just never really grew up. They never overcame some sort of immaturity. It was this lack of growth that has kept them in trumpet hell. If they had listened to their teachers, worked on their problem areas, approached the trumpet as a musical instrument, rather than a physical challenge and stuck with it, they would have gotten better. I don’t know if they would have gotten a job playing trumpet, but they would have gotten better and been better people for their growth.”

Gabriel smiles, grabs you by the hand and up you both go, back to the land of clouds and eternal music. Once there, you say, “Hey, Gabe! Do you still want to play duets?” He nods, gets his trumpet out, and you both start playing that duet, keeping at it into 2018. (Happy New Year!)

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The five teachers you meet in hell

Unfortunately, while trying to save the conductor from falling off his podium, you (a mediocre trumpeter who has never been able to enjoy a performing career) have, yourself, fallen into the pit on your head and died. Too bad. Gabriel has mercy on you and decides to let you in heaven, if you promise to practice very diligently every day. But before going to heaven, you are led on a brief visit to trumpet hell. There, you get to meet the trumpet teachers who held you back from being a good trumpeter. They are the five trumpet teachers you meet in hell. (Author’s note: these are fictional characters, and any resemblance to real trumpet teachers is unintentional.) 

  1. Mitch. Mitch was a good member of academia, earning many accolades for his research and his service to the music school. In his hell-room, he has framed pictures of all the people he worked with in his career. He had so many stories, and he told them all of the time. When you asked him for help, he pointed you to the Charlier book and said, “Take two Charliers and call me in the morning!” This he said as he left your lesson early, because he had a golf game to play with the director of the school of music.
  2. Albom. Albom stopped practicing a decade before you took lessons with him. But, because he still needed to make some money, he kept on teaching. Since he could never demonstrate any of the music you bring to him, you couldn’t ever get an idea of how you were supposed to sound. He recommended resting a lot so as to always be fresh.
  3. Eddie. He was the nicest teacher you ever had. In fact, he was so nice, he never said anything bad about your playing. He always said “Great job!” When you asked what should you work on for the next lesson, he said, “Whatever you’d like!” He never knew deadlines for competition applications or when district auditions were, so you never did these sorts of things.
  4. The Captain. A retired military musician, who was the meanest teacher you ever knew. He never let you speak in lessons, and he never taught a minute past the end of the scheduled lesson. He always criticized your preparation–“Well, that’s because you didn’t practice like I told you!” He called you names–“Only an idiot would play this passages the way you just did!” You were so humiliated, that you didn’t have any interest in practicing between lessons. He had some interesting stories about how, when he was young, his teacher always made him cry.
  5. Mickey. When you started taking lessons from Mickey, you remembered that there was a girl trumpeter who had a lesson  right before yours. She always left the lesson, which was behind a closed door with no window, without a smile. She looked down to the floor. She quit not too long after you started. Mickey borrowed your trumpet once to “test it out.” He returned it with different valve slides. When you asked him about it, he sounded surprised and said he had made a mistake. It turned out that the slides were on his trumpet, and he switched the slides back right then, while he laughed a weird kind of laugh.

Thankfully, Gabriel leads you back out of hell, gives you trumpet, a metronome, a tuner and a digital recorder. He says, “Tomorrow, I’ll wake you off of your cloud bed at 7:00 a.m. to help you learn a great warm-up. In the meantime, see if you can record this Brandt etude for me to listen to tomorrow. We’re really glad you’re here with us. Now, let’s get some practicing done!” Gabriel flies off, playing one of the lost fanfares of Gottfried Reiche.

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Rules of trumpeting, part the fourth

  1. No red rule. The top of the inner rim of the mouthpiece should not be in the soft, red part of the lips. It should lie above, on the skin. You can check this after you have played for a minute or two: after you remove the mouthpiece, look in the mirror to see where the rim impression is.
  2. 70% rule. This rule says that, when under pressure, your quality (or reliability) of performance will drop to about 70% of normal. Keeping this in mind, try to set your quality control high enough, so that this drop in performance will still be a great experience for your audience.
  3. Honeymoon rule. This rule says that after a relatively small amount of time, new equipment will not work as well as you thought it would when you got it. For instance, a new mouthpiece, which seems to help with high notes, eventually will show its drawbacks in pitch or tone quality. A new trumpet, which helps slot your notes, will eventually show that it is not as flexible. There is almost always some tradeoff with equipment. Avoid extremes unless your job absolutely requires it.
  4. Paralysis of analysis. This term has been around for a while. This speaks to those who analyze the mechanics of brass playing in detail, hoping to find ways to improve. Unfortunately for them, this can become a fruitless struggle for the conscious brain to try to control a process which must ultimately be controlled in an intuitive, subconscious way.
  5. Reality check rule. We cannot improve as trumpeters unless we know what we are doing in reality. It’s very hard to know this by merely playing, because our mind quickly substitutes what we want, for what is. In other words, we put lipstick on the pig of our playing without realizing it! Using a tuner, a metronome, a trusted friend, a teacher, or, my favorite, a recording device, will help you understand how you actually play right now. Then, once you know yourself, you can start to improve.
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More rules of trumpeting (part 3)

  1. 10% rule. Don’t increase your playing load more than 10% a week. This rule, coming from the athletic world, is harder to comply with in trumpet playing, because it’s hard to know just how much effort you put into the trumpet on a weekly basis. Solution: you can journal your practice, keeping track of how much time you spend for each practice session. Tally up the total amount of time, and you will have an approximation of the effort you spend on the trumpet. If you want to dig deeper, you should make allowances for playing high and loud. Count extra time for these sessions, since these wear down the lips more. The take away: don’t start practicing too much without a large foundation of embouchure fitness built up. It’s especially important to remember this when getting ready for a recital or audition.
  2. Specificity rule. Practice the way you want to perform. Although playing fundamental exercises is important, they are not the pieces you will be playing in front of an audience. Set aside practice that imitates the performance you would like to achieve. If you have a Brandenburg Concerto coming up, then you need to practice playing this piece (with lots of rest in between to recover), but you should lighten up on the loud, orchestral playing. This also speaks to how some players loose some of their good tone by playing too much on the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece can be a great tool to help you play better, but if you play the mouthpiece too much, or if your mouthpiece routine is not integrated with regular trumpet playing, then you are focusing too much on the mouthpiece, which is NOT what you are playing for an audience. Same for lip flexibility, long tones or scales. Spend at least 60% of your time working on the music you want to perform.
  3. Slow beats fast. Every time. If you need to go faster in your technique, you must go slower to make the movements more efficient. This is not only to make things clean (which is very important), but this actually enables you to go faster, because extraneous movement is minimized. Your metronome. Get your metronome to help you regulate your speed.
  4. Goldilocks rule. This rule is similar to the “slow beat fast rule.” In the story of Goldilocks, she didn’t like the soup that was too hot or too cold. Only the soup that was just right. Similarly, in trumpet playing, we can’t go too fast, nor will we make much progress going too slow. There is a “speed of ease.” This is the soup that Goldilocks can eat, and this is the soup with which trumpeters can improve the most.
  5. Beginnings and ends trump middles. This rule speaks to the psychological importance of the beginning and the end of a piece of music. This is what your audience remembers the most. Polish your beginnings and ends to make them the shiniest.
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Rules of trumpeting (part 2)

  1. The 10K-hour rule. How many hours you will have to practice to start sounding great. It roughly translates to about 10 years of nearly 3 hours a day of deliberate practicing. This is the guideline (an average between about 7,000 and 25,000 hours) suggested by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson and picked up by pop-psych writer Malcolm Gladwell. While there is much debate, I think this rule is largely accurate. Another way of looking at this rule is, if, on average, a trumpet student takes 30 lessons a year, then that means it takes about 300 lessons of quality trumpet instruction to get a student to that level of mastery. However, winners of solo competitions (the top-level of performance in music) often have put in closer to the 25,000 hours benchmark. This is more like 20 years of very deliberate and difficult practice and maybe up to 800 lessons. The take-away: this is a marathon, not a sprint. If you have the enthusiasm to play a lot, and in a focused way, when very young, then this can be a great way to get to your destination. Try to get as big of a chunk of your practicing done when young, because when you are older, many responsibilities can pull you away from your work. With very young trumpeters, I believe the Suzuki method can be helpful in balancing practice and enthusiasm.
  2. Five times reading, five times from memory rule. This is a formula to memorize a passage. Read it five times in a row perfectly. Then play it five times by memory without a hitch. Then you have that passage memorized and can start stringing passages together. Playing with a recording can be really helpful as well.
  3. Familiar trigger rule. If you want to be “in the zone” when you perform, then you have to not only practice your music for the performance, but you should also think about the rituals and gestures in the minutes leading up to the performance. If you practice these gestures as carefully as you would your music, then you can trigger a greater sense of confidence in performance. Josh Waitzkin, the chess and martial arts champion, wrote of this in his book The Art of Learning (2007, Free Press). Here’s a brief overview of the process.
  4. Fix it away from the trumpet rule. When you are at an impasse in technique, taking on a different way of playing, or conserving your embouchure strength, then your best bet is to work away from the trumpet. Frank Campos writes about this concept frequently in his book, Trumpet Technique (2004, Oxford University Press). This could mean (but is not limited to) breath work, lip or mouthpiece buzzing, vocalized articulation  exercises, finger exercises, ear training, imagining playing in your mind, or just plain old listening to music.
  5. The Two-day rule. When you feel like you are playing with real pain for two days in a row, then you should rest for (at least) two days. After that, you need to ease back into your full strength. Injuries to the lips, tendons or muscles, if not attended to, can take much longer to heal, so it’s best to be prudent. A trumpeter cannot simply keep playing more and more. The pattern for improvement is always “stress-and-recovery.” Not just “stress and more stress.” Of course, good form in playing plays a critical role in being injury-free.
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