Tidying up

With apologies to cartoonist Eric Lewis…

I have had an incredible run of luck lately.

Two weeks ago, I won my first orchestral audition in 24 years–I’m now the principal trumpet of the Fort Collins Symphony, a leading regional orchestra in Colorado. A few months before that, I won my very first tenure-track teaching job at Colorado State University–also in Fort Collins. Almost a year before that, I retired from a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, DC. These were all big, really big, items to check off in my bucket list.

This summer was filled with other big-ticket events in our lives: the graduation of my oldest son from high school, playing in the Vintage Band Festival in Minnesota, the 25th wedding anniversary of my wife and me, and the retirement of my wife (also from the U.S. Navy Band).

When this type of external growth comes down the pipeline, I think about my internal approach to life and music-making.

Driving to New York City and back recently, my wife and I listened to an Audible recording of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I had never seen her on TV and only vaguely knew about her work up to that time. Kondo’s approach is not conventional. Basically she urges her readers to focus on discarding quite a lot–because most of our possessions don’t really mean that much to us. Sometimes we cling to the past or we fear the future, and these mental states hijack our mind into reactively keeping too many things and things that simply do not “spark joy.” She has a few basic rules:

  1. Commit to tidying up
  2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle
  3. Finish discarding first
  4. Tidy by category, not location
  5. Follow the right order
  6. Ask yourself if it sparks joy

This was the perfect book to listen to together for my wife and me as we were getting ready to move from the DC area to Colorado. It resulted in about 150 bags of unwanted things thrown away; about 20 boxes of books donated to our local library; about 15 boxes of documents that we didn’t need–shredded or recycled; donated furniture that had served its purpose; my CD collection given to a former colleague. All of these things had served us well, and we were grateful for them, but we were ready to let them go. We were ready to focus more on who we really had become.

Kondo writes about her method as being life-changing to her clients. They are happier, more successful and more focused. Her book made me wonder if some of her principles could be adapted to trumpet playing. Her first two rules certainly made sense–we have to totally commit ourselves to our trumpet craft and we have to imagine the best version of ourselves as trumpeters. I think it’s always a good thing to ask yourself, “does trumpet playing itself spark joy in my life?” There is no right or wrong answer for everyone. Just the correct answer for you. What kind of trumpeter do you want to be? If trumpet playing sparks joy in you and if you really see yourself as a jazz, rock, band or orchestral player, then great! You’re reading the right blog!

But if you are like me, you probably have lots of hobbies and interests. You have reached an impressive level of mastery in some of these areas. This is normal. But at some point, instead of amassing more skills and interests, you can ask yourself what interests resonate more naturally with who you really are. Yes, it’s good to have a few other skills that can compliment your trumpet playing, but when they begin to sabotage your growth, reconsider them. Do your other interests really spark joy? Keep coming back to that. And if you’re not sure, it probably doesn’t spark joy. Move on and let that half-baked dream go. Don’t waste trumpet time!

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Saving lip time

“We can only play so many notes on the trumpet”–Bernard Adelstein, former principal trumpet, Cleveland Orchestra

Have you ever wanted to practice more, but your chops are just too tired? Have you tried to taper down your lip-time for an audition or performance, but you still want to practice? Then it’s time to expand your practice modes. Time to start practicing without playing the trumpet. Here’s a short list of things you can do!

  1. Listen. Listen to all kinds of music in general, or listen to your own piece(s) as you are preparing them. In fact, you can record an audition list or a solo ahead of time, and relax as you hear the best version of yourself play. Confidence building and mind-sharpening.
  2. Sing. Sing the music you want to play, and this frees up your mind from all of the fingering and technical limitations of the trumpet. Try to stay on pitch, checking yourself out with a piano, tuner or drone. One way I like teaching jazz, is when I ask a student to sing a chorus or two. Then, when she gets back on the horn, she sounds so much more spontaneous and sophisticated.
  3. Work on fingerings. Either on the trumpet or just on your lap. Combine finger practice with listening or singing.
  4. Vocalize your articulation practice. Herbert L. Clarke, our patron saint of technique, said that he would practice tonguing while walking to and from his rehearsals every day. Practice single tongue, “K” tongue, double tongue, triple tongue, and even exotic tonguings such as groups of five (for Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale).
  5. Breathe. There are whole books and videos on breathing (such as the famous Breathing Gym). Explore them. Relaxed, natural breathing is the way to go. In fact, hitting the actual gym or the “road” to do aerobic exercise is fantastic for you breathing and overall playing.
  6. Organize. Sit down and think about how you practice. Plan your future practices. Keep a journal. These things don’t require lip time, but they make your practice sessions much more effective.
  7. Meditate. Be still, and as random thoughts appear in your mind, gently let them go. Practiced frequently enough, you are improving your attention and focus, which will improve your ability to stay calm in performance.
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