Do you hear the music in your head?

Mental representation, according to Rene Descartes’ Treatise on Man. This drawing illustrates the visual representation in the brain. But as musicians, we can develop strong representations related to hearing.

The most valuable things to develop for trumpet expertise are mental representations of what you do and want to do as a trumpeter. These are mental “images” of what it is like to be a good trumpeter. The more complete, refined and concrete your mental representations are, the better a trumpeter you can become, because these mental images are the main ways that our brain interacts with the outside world.

One of the best ways to build your mental representations as a musician is to listen. As musicians, we need our representations to be related to sound and music, not necessarily images of the visual world. But how you listen is important.

  1. Spend lots of time listening to recordings, videos and live performances.
  2. While listening, be focused, use a critical ear and listen often. It’s okay to listen to one recording hundreds of times.
  3. Learning music solely by listening (“lifting”) is a time-honored tradition for jazz students. It can be equally useful for classical trumpeters. Getting rid of the visual sheet music your piece helps the musical part of your brain directly with your trumpet playing, cutting out the visual and analytical parts of your brain that can interfere with expert-level trumpet playing.
  4. Make recordings of yourself. Listening to yourself “from the outside” helps you to understand who you are, and who you can become, as a trumpeter.
  5. If you can be a trumpet “impressionist,” that is, if you can convincingly imitate another trumpeter (especially a famous one), then you have developed strong mental representations. Make a game of it!

There are other ways to build mental representations for trumpeters, but the best and most effective is by listening.

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Human motivation: mentors, buddies and groups

Practice can be lonely

One of the difficulties of slogging through thousands of hours of detailed-oriented practice is the loneliness that can be so much a part of this experience. This is a major negative for many trumpeters. Encouragement, motivation and competition from other people who care about what you do as a trumpeter will help you overcome this sense of loneliness. What types of people can help a trumpeter out through this lonely journey?

  1. Most importantly, you want to have a competent and caring teacher who will praise your efforts frequently.
  2. Young trumpeters often have nurturing parents who provide encouragement and even musical guidance between lessons.
  3. Siblings for children who also play music are perhaps the most influential of practice buddies. Sometimes it’s nurturing, sometimes it’s competition, but always it’s motivating!
  4. Hopefully your teacher has a large-enough studio to have group classes. These can really create a sense of community and foster growth.
  5. You should play in at least one ensemble.
  6. Bonus points to your happiness and development if you play in a chamber group. If you aren’t in one now, you should reach out and form a group with your friends.
  7. Is there someone who could be your practice buddy? If you can get a buddy, then you really have the support to get feedback frequently. You get someone who not only knows your playing well, but who will not settle for mediocre results.

It can be fun to play music with others

Keep in mind that when you perform, your audience is more like a support group than a jury panel. They want to experience what you have to say musically. They’re rooting for you!

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Why extend your phrases in practice?

In his book Daily Fundamentals for the Trumpet, Cleveland Orchestra Principal Trumpet Michael Sachs writes, “Avoid playing on one breath to the end of your air capacity. Playing on stale air leads to a squeezed tone and unwanted tension.”

I understand Sach’s advice and where he’s coming from. He doesn’t want you to sound tense, so he advises against playing to the end of your air capacity. But many decades ago, when technique was much more important to trumpeters, a different kind of breath control advice held sway. Here are some quotes from the good old days:

Herbert L. Clarke was amazing: he could single-tongue at mm. =160 for 90 seconds in one breath!

In Herbert L. Clarke’s Technical Studies, the famed cornetist writes: “Practice each exercise eight to sixteen times in one breath, keeping the lips and fingers flexible” and “Practice Etude III until you can play it in one breath” and “Mastery of the preceding material will have improved your breath control and endurance” and “Begin slowly and practice until you can play them many times in one breath.”

Claude Gordon, a go-to pedagogue that helped a lot of commercial trumpeters, said about long tones, “Hold the note as long as possible with a crescendo at the end. Hold the note until all air is gone and longer (until your stomach shakes).”

Rafael Mendez, one of the best trumpet soloists ever, was a fanatic breath control practicer. “Go at this practice with a vengeance. Don’t be satisfied until you are over the 100-second mark (of exhaling).”

I don’t think these masters of their instrument wanted to sound strained (as Sachs warns), but they did want to increase their capacity. If you practice H.L. Clarke in the way that he prescribed (in terms of breath control), over time, a few things will change that are very beneficial to your playing:

  1. You can play longer phrases.
  2. In order to play these exercises in one breath, you are forced to play softer. Softer playing is important in and of itself and, in turn, helps you play with more responsiveness in all dynamics. Softer playing also helps the lower register.
  3. You begin to focus more.
  4. You gain confidence.
  5. Your improved breath control improves your high range.
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Need motivation for practice? First things first.

Part of the problem of diligent practice, hours a day, carried out over many years, is that it does not feel good. There is a kind of arc which describes your natural tendency to be self-motivated.

  1. When you finally decide to play your instrument seriously, you have a honeymoon kind of motivation. Have fun with this, because it won’t last long.
  2. For the next decade or so, you will not feel very motivated if you are practicing in a serious way, because the improvement you get from purposeful practice does not outweigh the free time and relief you would feel if you were to stop playing in a serious way.
  3. If you stick with it, you get to a point where you are an expert. Your identity is intertwined with music. People recognize you for your achievement, and you finally understand that difficult practice is part of who you are. Also, your brain has actually been rewired to accept this practice as a norm. You will probably keep practicing once you reach this point.

Obviously, trumpeters may need help in the second step. One way is to set aside a dedicated practice time that will nearly always be there for you. The best time is the morning. Many of the best musicians get up early and practice before anything else happens in their day. Even though this practice time could happen later, the chances of some conflict with that later practice period are much higher. Having this dedicated practice time, especially if it is very early, will prove to be tiring, so you may want to take a nap in the midday.

I have benefitted from this motivation strategy perhaps more than any other one thing. I wake up at least one hour before the rest of my family. I have the coffee machine ready to go. I have my practice mute at the ready. It’s funny how this demanding commitment feels so great. It’s pretty close to bliss.

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An uncomfortable solution

What if you have reached a plateau in your playing? You simply can’t get that “Flight of the Bumble Bee” any faster. What can you do?

Try speeding up.


Try taking it to the next level, and see what goes wrong during your recordings of your attempts. Take note of the exposed weak areas. Devise exercises to pinpoint these weak areas, making sure that your exercises isolate in the most focused ways possible. During these pinpointed exercises, go very slow to get improvement, and gradually raise the metronome until you have reached your target tempo. Rest a lot in between your attempts.

When you incorporate the difficult passages back into the piece you are working on, you should now be a little bit over that plateau. Congrats.

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