Trumpet mastery is like writing a fugue

Facsimile of Bach’ Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, beginning of movement III

Do you like fugues by J.S. Bach? I do. But writing a fugue is a compositional challenge, because you cannot just write anything for a subject and then expect the fugue to work out. Once you start putting the counter subject in, and then layering on a third voice, and maybe a fourth voice, each with its own countersubject, then you will have to go back and revise the subject, so that the imitative entries make sense. Then as you change the subject, the other entries have to change. If it doesn’t work out, then you have to revise again. Of course, this is even more true for a cannon (a stricter type of composition where there are no deviations from imitation).

By the way, if you want to really learn how to write a fugue, your best bet is to find an old book by George Oldroyd called “The Technique and Spirit of Fugue,” published by Oxford University Press and designed to help music students at Oxford write a fugue for their examination. Try to find this book in a good music library and make a copy for yourself, because it is out of print. 

But why is composing a fugue like gaining trumpet mastery? Because their are many psychological/pedagogical components to master. And once you start making an effort in one area, the other areas are affected and they will need redirecting. This process continues for the rest of your life. For me, the basic components of trumpet mastery, and trumpet satisfaction, can be divided up in this way:

  1. Awareness of the larger musical world as it was, as it is now, as it probably will become
  2. Awareness of yourself–your personality, your capabilities, your probable potential
  3. A goal to achieve: what niche do you want to occupy? This must be constantly revised as the realities set in. There should be an almost perfect match between the optimistic ideal and the practical necessities.
  4. A process to achieve that goal. This process must be full of time commitment, focus commitment, organizational commitment, a commitment to quality control and a commitment of effort. This is almost always made better by working with a great teacher
  5. A positive way to react to real results. Things will not happen the way you want. You will try and you will fail. In the failure, you will rise like a phoenix and try again (hopefully). This cycle can be very short: you practice a passage, and you fail. But you think about how you can do it better, then you try again. Thousands of times, until you get it. This cycle can be long: you perform a recital or an audition and you have an implosion. You want to hide under a rock, but you must crawl out and schedule another performance or audition and try again. The best is to keep your cycles of “failure/trying again” as short as possible, so that you can have a little more control. Your resiliency is key here. Each personality reacts to failure differently, but push yourself to optimism and happiness. This is really the reason I am doing a year-long Trumpet Happiness Project.

Most trumpet methods focus on number 4 (the process). This seems natural, since they assume that you already know the musical world and yourself and that you want to join the legions of working musicians who have gone before you into glorious orchestras and bands. You will need to constantly revise your goals to somehow connect with the realities of the musical world as it is today. What is it that people want from musicians? What is it that you think you can give to the world audience? What are your limitations now? How much can you improve to achieve your goal? Keep asking yourself these questions, just like Bach kept wondering about his counterpoint from beginning to end. The more you do this kind of recalculation, the more you can see the problems before you even get there. Just like Bach saw much of his composition in the whole before he finished–but if he didn’t, he had the technique to get himself out of the corner he painted himself into.








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Give to music

Happiness comes from many sources, but charitable giving can be a big source of your happiness. What are some ways that you could give to musicians at this time of year? 

  1. Give to your local church and earmark the donation for music ministries. 
  2. Give to the Combined Federal Campaign (U.S.A. only). You can run a quick search for “music” in their Catalogue of Caring, which might turn up some charitable organizations that connect with you and your feelings of charity.
  3. There are public radio stations all over the United States. Many of them are asking for donations. 
  4. Kickstarter, Patreon, Indiegogo (not too much for trumpeters here). There are others. 
  5. Go hear live music. 
  6. Drop some money in a busker’s hat.
  7. Pay for recorded music on a platform like iTunes. 
  8. Buy a CD that’s on sale at a concert. 

Please respond by commenting with your favorite charity!

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100 reasons to be grateful

This is the 100th post on Trumpet Journey. As part of my Trumpet Happiness project, I’d like to shout out 100 things I’m grateful for. I’m not sure why, but being thankful helps me feel happier. 

I’m grateful today for:

  1. A cat that keeps company with me during my 5:00 a.m. warm-ups
  2. Parents who encouraged me and loved me
  3. Trumpet teachers

    Michael Johnson, trumpet teacher at the University of Alabama from 1971 to 2003.

  4. A teacher who enjoyed playing duets with me
  5. A trumpet teacher who knew all about how to play first trumpet in a major symphony orchestra
  6. A trumpet teacher who said funny, quotable things
  7. Band directors who encouraged me
  8. My first orchestra job which opened up a world of strings
  9. My first listen to Richard Strauss’s tone poems on a record I checked out from my public library in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was slack-jawed.
  10. A mother who insisted that whatever I did, I had to have lessons
  11. A dad who recommended that I do what I love 
  12. A brother who let me have his old trumpet
  13. Same brother, who taught me how to play my first note
  14. Same brother, who taught me how to free buzz (a little incorrectly, but, still, pretty good)
  15. A bugle, given to me for a Christmas gift when I was probably 10
  16. A shameless inclination to show off when I was young
  17. An unquenchable desire to learn music from my very first memories
  18. A great piano that I could learn how to play on
  19. A grandmother and great aunt who would play piano a lot
  20. A trumpet teacher who inspired
  21. An inquisitive personality
  22. The U.S. Navy Band Brass Quartet

    U.S. Navy Band Brass Quartet performing National Anthem at Orioles Baseball Game

  23. A great junior high school band director 
  24. A great junior high school jazz band
  25. A diverse high school marching band
  26. Good competition at all levels
  27. Mentors
  28. A chance to study with two legendary orchestral players
  29. A chance to study with a legendary baroque trumpet soloist
  30. Two summers at National Repertory Orchestra, which gave me so much experience
  31. A long drive to Colorado on my own, on the back roads, where I got a chance to jam with a blue grass fiddler
  32. A principal trumpet job
  33. The U.S. Navy Band
  34. The Navy Band for letting me audition when there wasn’t an audition
  35. Listening to the Cleveland Orchestra every weekend
  36. The opportunity to study in The Netherlands
  37. The nearly four year long honey moon in Europe
  38. Galicia, Spain
  39. Sitting next to a trumpeter who had perfect pitch
  40. All of those thousands of little conversations trumpeters have during rehearsal
  41. All of those funny conversations waiting for a hearse to show up
  42. The gorgeous beauty of Arlington Cemetery
  43. A family who understood my insane practice schedule
  44. In-laws who understood my insane practice needs
  45. The right woman
  46. An intelligent woman–who is willing to proof my writing
  47. Poetry
  48. Navy medicine
  49. Two boys
  50. Two boys who challenge me every day 
  51. Two boys with big hearts
  52. Two boys with big ears
  53. Two boys with different personalities
  54. A friend who spent his time helping me learn how to play jazz
  55. Friends who have listened to me talk about my crazy ideas
  56. A terrible gig at the Kennedy Center that turned out to be my first composition commission
  57. A music contractor who lived around the corner from me who helped me get my first gigs in Washington
  58. The late J. Reilly Lewis
  59. Coffee
  60. The Navy Band “family”
  61. My lovely, old house–big enough for my family, close enough to work
  62. A housing bubble that helped me slide right into my house
  63. Practice mutes
  64. Trumpeters of the past who took the time to write methods, etudes and solos

    Jean-Baptiste Arban

  65. The baroque trumpet
  66. The cornetto
  67. The cornet (19th-century)
  68. The cornopean


  69. Leaving a party just to check out the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble
  70. The Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble
  71. Long friendships from playing Renaissance music
  72. Running when I was young, walking now
  73. Learning how to keep track of my finances
  74. A friend who has refused to join Facebook, but who sends me emails all the time
  75. Ideas that have come to me when I am bored
  76. Melodies that have come to me out of the blue
  77. A recording device to capture ideas quickly
  78. Trumpeters willing to share their time, advice and stories on this blog
  79. Double record albums with artwork and information about the music and artists
  80. My first record player

    I loved my first record player.

  81. My parents record collection
  82. Duolingo
  83. Movie music
  84. People who have volunteered their time to help me
  85. Those hour long lessons which turned into two hours
  86. The late night trumpet hangs
  87. Suzuki piano accompaniments I got to play
  88. Bach. Oh my God, Bach. 
  89. Haydn, who deigned to write a concerto for the trumpet
  90. Italian trumpeters who redefined the harmonic structure of music because of the limitations of their instruments
  91. Jazz trumpeters who redefined the direction of music
  92. An old professor who let me send Finale files to him across the country so he could give me advice
  93. Invitations to perform which seem to come out of nowhere
  94. Young Suzuki students who are just wonderful
  95. Patient and resourceful Suzuki teachers I have observed
  96. A Swedish woman who decided to start up Suzuki trumpet 
  97. A patient and thorough recording engineer
  98. A church choir that has taught me a little about singing and the choir experience
  99. A singer who was willing to re-text and offer solutions to my untutored vocal writing
  100. Readers from all over the world




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Is a trumpet happiness project worthwhile?

For the last ten days, when I would tell someone that I was doing a “trumpet happiness” project, I got a lot of blank looks and then stammering attempts to alleviate the craziness that has come upon their friend, the trumpet-blogger-trying-to-go-new-age. 

Of course trumpet playing is a narrow discipline with concrete goals, methods and results. Why muddy it up with self-help notions? The extreme competition for a very narrow and low-paying job market, the lack of opportunities of self-actualization, the solitary struggle to master the craft of playing, and the limits of our physical body highlight the need for my happiness project. 

Obviously we can simply practice more than anyone else, win a great job, and then be happy with our reward. Forever and ever. 

But that doesn’t ring completely true. Getting a job is going to give you pretty good bump in your happiness, yes. But for your long-term happiness, I’m going to suggest a few other things. And I will try to explore ways I can do these suggestions over my year-long project.

  1. Improve yourself as a trumpeter and musician in a deep way, right down to the bones. Deliberate practice. Here’s a great article about one musician’s improvement that I think is pretty inspiring. 
  2. Relish listening to music. Think how you can do things like your favorite musicians/trumpeters. 
  3. Gratitude for the people that got you to your trumpet playing level, and gratitude for the opportunities you already have. Playing music (and especially on the trumpet!) is awesome. 
  4. If you have opportunities for trumpet experiences, try to take them. Trumpet equipment–maybe not so important.
  5. Take a moment to enjoy what you are doing right now. Even as you play the most boring rehearsal, or the most miserable gig. What can you focus on, in the present moment, and enjoy?
  6. Develop musician friends. Not just “Facebook friends.” Real friends that you can share your experiences with. 
  7. Give your advice and help pretty generously to the next generation of trumpet players. 

In thinking about this last point, I remember, when I was in undergraduate school at the University of Alabama, how a certain professor–very talented–always seemed so busy. She could hardly take the time to talk about anything. At the time, I was greatly impressed. I figured that to be a really good musician, you must limit access to people who might waste your time. I wanted to emulate her.

But, now I realize I want to do the opposite. I want to be the person to listen. To mentor. To help those who haven’t gotten as high, yet. Because I truly believe that the same patience that you need for yourself (to practice, to learn, to compose), must be practiced at all times of your life, so that when you get to the practice room, you’ll be ready to patiently help yourself. 


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A day of rest

Rest, or cut back on your practice, once a week to feel refreshed

One of the best brass musicians I ever met was a trombone student at Indiana University back in the late 1980s. Francisco Rosario Vega, one of many talented musicians from the island of Puerto Rico, was technically flawless, had a great tone and he had an enormous amount of stamina. One day I asked him what was his secret about his stamina. He told me that he rested every Sunday. That rest gave him back the resiliency that he needed. Francisco went on to become the principal trombone of the Royal Seville Orchestra in Spain.

Although I have tried resting one day a week, it has not been great for me, at least so far. I have found that my fine motor skills suffer too much. What has worked better for me is to play only a very little amount, with the result that I am refreshed without feeling too regressed the next day. 

What can make this rest, or near rest, day even better is to try an inspiration quest. This could be as easy as listening to music that is new to you. Or you could go on a hike. There are so many possibilities. 

The main thing to realize is that we can’t keep demanding of our embouchure heroic efforts every consecutive day. We have to embrace a cycle of stress and recovery. Stress is practice and performing. Recovery is rest. Without rest, our muscles cannot do well, nor can our brain be inspired.

Relaxed, rested muscles and an inspired mind can definitely help us to be happier trumpeters.  

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