Music for the soul

I just went to a memorial service today. The deceased–she was a trumpeter and the wife of a friend of mine at work (a trombone player). When musicians lose someone from their own group, be prepared, because the music for that service will usually be unforgettable. There was beautiful singing, both solo and choir, an oboe solo, a brass quintet, solo trumpet, solo flugelhorn (and that was where I cried), organ, guitar, and, most touching and appropriate for the occasion, a magnificent trombone choir. If you have never heard a first-rate trombone choir in a church, you should definitely hear this when you can. It’s stunningly beautiful.

And the whole experience was reaffirming for my own life-choice in being a musician. We musicians are so lucky to be able to give music to those who are experiencing important things in life. Things like bar-mitzvahs, marriages, dramatic entertainments, graduations and, of course, funerals. Music is not an optional luxury. It is the essence of our lives.

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Periodicity: why stress and recovery are like a sailboat

Diagram of a sailboat tacking

“Serious” trumpeters. I’m speaking mainly to you, because you are the ones who are stressing your embouchures to their limit, too often. I want to encourage you to get on the periodicity train (and get off the stress train). Think of your “periodicity” that I have been writing about over the past few days NOT like this: stress = progress and recovery = regression.

Instead, think of periodicity as being more like a sailboat that must sail into the wind. How does a sailboat do this? By tacking. Think of the headwind as the general resistance to growth as a trumpeter–the tendency to stay at the same level of ability (I wrote about this in a blog about homeostasis). If you want to get better, you have to move your boat upwind. But with a sailboat, you cannot simply sail upwind. You have to change your angle back and forth, left and right, until you have accomplished your goal. Think of stress as a tack to the left and recovery as a tack to the right (or “port” and “starboard,” if you prefer the nautical terms!). With this in mind, now you can see that stress is not progress. It is simply one of the two directions that you must tack. Recovery is equally important. It is the tack in the other direction. In this way, you can (and should) feel as proud of your recoveries as you do of your practice sessions.

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Periodicity and happiness

Yesterday, I wrote a blog about periodicity–about the necessary fluctuation between stress and recovery that enables a trumpeter to get more embouchure strength.

What happens if you don’t practice enough? What happens if you’re periodicity emphasizes too much rest? Then you never adapt to a higher level of playing skills or physical stamina on the trumpet. High notes will be a problem. Learning new scales and repertoire will take a long time.

Josh Waitzkin, who reached the top not only of the chess world but also of the Tai Chi world, speaks to the necessity to push yourself. He writes, “Growth comes at the point of resistance,” in his book The Art of Learning. You must plunge into the mess that is music and the trumpet with a bit of anxiety over what is, to you, the unknown. It must not be only a rehearsal of things you already know. You must periodically challenge yourself to the core.

Do you know all of your major scales? Do you need to learn a new solo? Would you like to memorize a piece, but think you can’t do it? Do you want to transcribe a solo, but you are not crazy about the work you need to do?

In all of these cases, you should probably choose the path that expands your abilities. You should choose to stress yourself to help you grow as a trumpeter.

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Vocalises for trumpet

Have you ever noticed how angular and difficult music that was written originally for trumpet is? There is almost always a fanfare-type of element in it. For quite a while, trumpeters have gotten around this by stealing songs. From singers. This opens up a whole world of repertoire that has yet to be exhausted. Selecting a vocal song to play on a recital is not only a musical “breath of fresh air,” it can also provide a less-demanding piece–a piece during which you can recover some of your stamina.

Perhaps the easiest type of song to transcribe is the vocalise. Vocalises are pieces without words that were originally written for singers (the idea is that the singer can just say “Ah” or “Oh.” There are many vocalises that have already been made into trumpet study editions, such as by Bordogni (24 Vocalises) and Concone (Lyrical Studies), but these are almost always published without the piano accompaniment. I recommend that you get an edition that has the accompaniment, so that you can actually perform these vocalises in public!

Some vocalises have more of a tradition for actual performance by trumpeters:

S. Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise:

Or G. Fauré’s Vocalise-Étude:

There is a marvelous album of vocalises recorded by Ray Mase. Here is one example–a Lento by S. Prokofiev:




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Goldilocks and trumpet practice

I have often used the childhood story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to illustrate an important concept about trumpet practice. In the story, Goldilocks comes upon a cabin in the woods belonging to three bears: Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. The bears have gone outside for the time being, letting their soup cool down, so Goldilocks enters. She tries various things in the cabin to see what she likes the best: chairs, soups and beds. In trying the soups, one of them, for Mama Bear, is too cold. Another, for Papa Bear, is too hot. But the third soup, for Baby Bear, is just right.

Because this story is so familiar with all students, I have been encouraging my student to focus on the “Goldilocks” degree of difficulty for many years. I have recommended that they practice in a way that is just right for them. The one that isn’t to difficult or too easy.

Writing yesterday about homeostasis, however, I realize that I have not been perfectly accurate in this analogy. The best plan of attack for the trumpeter who really wants to improve is not the soup that is “just right.” The best plan is to try a soup that is just a little hotter than Baby Bear’s soup. No, it shouldn’t burn too much, like Papa Bear’s soup would do. And, of course, Mama Bear’s “soup” should only be sipped when purposefully resting (this would be easier-than-normal practice, such as when on vacation or when recovering from injury). But drinking Baby Bear’s soup, as-is, is a recipe for homeostasis, for entrenchment in the same ability. Goldilocks, and all musicians, should take Baby Bear’s soup and pop it into the bear-microwave for about a minute. It should SLIGHTLY burn, but not damage the mouth, when sipped. Improvement happens only with this hotter-than-Baby-Bear soup. Over years, this improvement leads to mastery.

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