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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The enemy of your progress is homeostasis

Why do we get to a certain point in our playing ability only to reach a plateau? This plateau can be our physical ability, our motivation or the mental insight we need to play music. We might play our daily routine, but we do not improve. In fact, most of us get a little worse over time, even though we are playing the same routine every day. We cling to that routine as if it were responsible for our success, but it is our enemy, especially if we simply play through it without much thought.

Homeostasis is the tendency for any system, be it a body, a relationship, your mind or your musical ability, to stay the same. Systems want to stay the same, and they usually do not change with mere repetition. Systems change because different things–stressful things–happen to them, causing them to adapt.

If we are talking about muscles, they will stay the same size and strength until they are stressed. Then, when the muscle is required to work harder than normal, a chemical change occurs which causes it to adapt and grow stronger and/or bigger, but this change is very small if this stress only happened one time. If, however, the muscles are repeatedly stressed at the right frequency and at the right amount, then they will slowly adapt to the demands placed on them. They will become stronger and stronger, always trying to achieve a homeostasis at the higher level. It’s important to point out the muscular system of homeostasis and how it adapts to stressors like a sensible work out plan, because trumpet playing is quite physical. We can learn to become fitter–especially in our breathing, articulation and embouchure strength–by thinking like a body-builder.

But the trumpet is a musical instrument, and it requires more than muscle fitness to play well. We also need musical skills at the highest levels. Just like physical homeostasis, our mind has a certain default ability that it wants to maintain. This is the “I just want to play in band without practicing too much” tendency that keeps us from improving. To improve, we must first have excellent mental concepts of what we want to sound like. This comes from listening to good music, especially trumpet playing.

Then we have to know where we are, compared to our ideal concept. Usually we can tell if we “miss notes,” but we might not be able to recognize our tone-shortcomings. We might not be able to tell that we are not phrasing well. To understand how we are doing, we need to have a guide–usually a teacher.

Then we need a plan of how to get from where we are to where we want to be. Because trumpet playing is so complex, we really do need a teacher to help develop a plan. The plan needs to be achievable but not too difficult. And at every stage and level of detail in the plan to improve, the same process must happen: we need to know what we want to do with this improvement; we need a plan; and we need to know whether we achieved this small goal. Getting feedback from a trusted teacher (or by listening critically to recordings of ourselves) will help us improve.

This process, repeated over and over, at the right level of intensity and on a regular basis, nudges our musical brain out of its current homeostasis and forces it to adapt. It does not feel fun–rather, it feels uncomfortable and challenging. We must become vulnerable to criticism and embrace it: this critical input is our only ticket to real improvement and mastery.

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Recital this Friday: Windows and more

Tia Wortham and me, Stan Curtis

This Friday at 8:00 p.m., EST, at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, I will present a recital with some friends–Tia Wortham, a fabulous soprano, Dr. Ben Keseley, the music director of St. George’s, and Dr. Ina Mirtcheva Blevins, an amazing pianist who is my colleague at George Mason University.

In addition to some unaccompanied pieces for trumpet–“Where are the rests!?!”–and an aria for soprano by Paul Hindemith, we will play three of my own compositions.

For more than 10 years now, I have been composing pieces based on stained-glass windows at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. This summer, my efforts have culminated with a recording project in the nave of St. George’s, where I have been collaborating with some of my close music colleagues to record five of these compositions, each of which relate to the themes and artwork of the windows. The particular themes for these five are the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. Sunlight, streaming through St. George’s windows, breaks into a prismatic rainbow, and for this reason, I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” Refraction, referring to the bending of light, such as in a prism, also speaks of my spiritual path, which has bent, and changed directions, finding me where I have been when I came to St. George’s and leading me to truer, more spiritual directions.

Creation Window

The short piece for soprano, trumpet and piano, called “Without Form,” is the musical setting for the Creation Window, and is my earliest of these window compositions. But the music started with a different text from a poem by T.S. Eliot called Little Gidding. After reaching out to the T.S. Eliot estate for permission, I was told that they do not want his poems set to music, so I was left with a song that needed new words. I turned to the creation story from Genesis, loosely paraphrasing with an eye to making a piece that musically depicted the Creation Window at St. George’s. Some of the music had to be changed, but I think the overall result was effective. Soprano, Tia Wortham, sang both versions of this piece and has continually helped me to better understand the craft of setting words to music. Indeed, many refinements of the text setting come directly from her not only for this piece, but for the other two vocal pieces in this album.

Epiphany Window

My Epiphany Window composition is derived from a concerto for trumpet and orchestra called Night Passages, which was my first multi-movement work for soloist and orchestra. This current version has only piano accompaniment. I play three instruments: flugelhorn for the first movement, B-flat trumpet for the second and third, and piccolo trumpet at the end of the third movement. It presents three different perspectives from the Epiphany window, which is depicted at night. The first movement of my composition is called “Night Fall: What the Stars and Camels Say” which musically represents the beginning of the evening, as the sun goes down and then the stars come out; “Night Walk” presents a frightening nighttime sojourn, and is subtitled, “The Magi Journey by Night”; and, finally, a Latin setting transports us in “Night Club; Dancing with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“Night Fall” begins with overlapping melodies and some shimmering figuration, depicting a spectacular sunset. The introductory lyrical theme, played on flugelhorn, features the downward melodic interval of a third. This opening theme gets lower and the accompaniment gets darker until “stars” begin to appear. Then the main theme of this movement appears, which originally began as a melody written for my son, who plays violin, as a kind of lullaby. The cadenza, normally an unaccompanied part of a solo composition, here is accompanied by piano. This effect is intended to evoke an ancient poet punctuating his verse with the strumming of a hand-held harp. Although I did not directly borrow from his work, Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending was an inspiration for this movement. In addition, much of the material is derived from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and J. S. Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen,” the eighth part of his Cantata 64. And actually, the melodic material from these two pieces, as well as the opening theme of this movement, gets reused throughout the other two movements.

The next movement, “Night Walk” opens with a short and frightening motive that frames the repetitive and initially-relaxed bass line, over which I play long phrases, often interrupted by unpredictable outbursts. The bass line becomes more and more unstable until rhythmic and melodic chaos breaks out, representing a run from terror—possibly the fear that the Magi surely had of King Herod, or the panic Herod had when he heard of the prophecy of Jesus’ future as king of the Jews. After the framing motive returns, relative peace is restored to the end of the movement. Structurally, this movement traces the root structure of one chorus plus the interlude of Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” In general, each chord change in the original jazz standard is spun out over ten bars in my piece. Melodically, much of the melodic material is drawn from the bridge of Gillespie’s composition, while incorporating Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” from time to time. The movement finishes with the overlapping melodic sweeps that lead directly into the third movement.

After a short outburst from the piano, the trumpet introduces the melody, drawn from the main theme of “Night in Tunisia.” I used traditional Latin figurations, such as the “montuno,” derived from Cuban music, to make this movement feel like a salsa tune. The middle of the movement takes a brief look backwards to the opening melody of the first movement before launching into a small baroque-like counterpoint section. At the end of this short movement, I switch to piccolo trumpet with a variation of the main melody played in harmony with the pianist’s right hand.


Crucifixion Window

In 2012, I began to compose Advent, which, despite its name, is the piece I wrote to go with St. George’s Crucifixion Window. I was greatly moved by a poem of the same name by the American Poet Laureate Donald Hall. My intention was to provide a “Trinity” of variations for each of the three stanzas (three flexible interpretations based on the concepts of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Each stanza, therefore, has a set of three variations, making a total of nine iterations of the melody first sung at the beginning by the soprano. Regarding the text, “rood” in the first stanza is a cross; “Tenebrae” in the second stanza refers to a Christian religious service celebrated during Holy Week marked by the gradual extinguishing of candles; “Horror vacui” in the third stanza literally means “fear of empty space” and usually describes artwork which fills the entire space with visual detail. The original version of this extended aria featured an extremely unsettling phase-shifting mixed-meter melody between trumpet and piano with soprano singing in the rests, in an effort to imitate the artistic meaning of “horror vacui”, but an alternative, lyric, ending proved more effective in the long run.



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Long term happiness isn’t always fun

My trumpet happiness project will hopefully help me on my long-term happiness as a trumpeter and human being. A big part of happiness, as I consider my trumpet playing, is being able to play at better levels the longer I play the trumpet. But the rigorous kind of practice that alone can help me really improve is not “fun” when experienced. So, I wonder if there is a point in which happy trumpet playing is no longer possible.

Right now, to me, the answer seems to be that long-term happiness is fundamentally different than having fun. Fun seems like happiness, because fun and happiness are (seemingly) the opposite of sadness, anger, contempt or fear. Yet, fun is a temporary state that seems to have left me puzzled in the past. And certainly when I tried to pursue fun, I have often been disappointed. Fun often leads to frustration and even sadness or anger. However, when I have pursued happiness, I usually go through a growing phase with a deeper understanding of life and of myself.

I think we trumpeters will just have to get used to the difficult feeling of deliberate practice that actually improves us. We have to embrace it and its lack of fun. In doing so, we will find a deep happiness.

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What I’ve learned so far from Shelby Foote

I just finished volume one of Shelby Foote’s fantastic trilogy on the Civil War. Volume one takes the reader from Fort Sumter to the battle of Perryville. It’s a long volume (and the other two volumes are even longer!). Of course, I always like to imagine that I’m learning something about the trumpet, even when I’m far afield of the area of music. So, here is what I learned about the trumpet from reading Shelby Foote.

When you are down and out, the best strategy often comes from the Confederate book: be brave and go for it! No need to over think. No need for fancy equipment. Just believe in your cause (the trumpet in our case!), and you will succeed. For this to work, you must have grit!

But, in the big picture, the best strategy follows the Union. Have a just cause (or make one up, as Abraham Lincoln did with the Emancipation Proclamation). Why is it that you are pursuing music and the trumpet? Think about this philosophically. Are you trying to be a trumpeter for all of the best reasons? In addition, it’s best to have as many resources as possible. Instead of land, population, factories and money, I mean (for the trumpeter) resources like time to practice and develop. Enough money for trumpets and other equipment. Getting lessons is a big resource. Going to conferences and summer camps and festivals is a huge resource, and I count my summer camps at Brevard Music Camp and the National Repertory Orchestra as transformative. Having lots of friends and family support your trumpet cause is maybe the biggest resource.

Good luck, and win the war!

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