Wind-and-song Wednesday

Herbert L. Clarke, one of the most admired cornetists and brass teachers in history.

Trumpeters are reluctant advocates of breathing exercises and concepts that our low brass counterparts fully embrace. The reason? I think it has to do with the way we use our breathing for the trumpet–the highest range instrument of the brass family. We use less volume of air and more air pressure than horns, trombones, and euphoniums, not to mention tubas! So, while it is nice to participate in the Breathing Gym exercises, or whatever program is getting tuba players to play in a relaxed way, it isn’t directly addressing the real issues trumpeters have. We have to look at a completely different school of thought that was offered up years ago by such great trumpeters and cornetists as Rafael Mendez, Claude Gordon and Herbert L. Clarke.

Real improvement comes mostly from expanding the demands we place on the capacity of a single breath. How FAR can we go in one breath? How focused can we remain, even when our lungs are at the end of their breath? I know, I hear the grumbling now from all the doubters out there: “if you play to the point where your lungs are shaking, then you are practicing poor air support and reinforcing bad tone!” I hear you. BUT, it is the effort in expanding our capacity that allows us to play on better air for longer stretches of music.

Who could play the whole Mexican Hat Dance in one breath? Rafael Mendez, that’s who!

Let me quote from Rafael Mendez’ Prelude to Brass Playing (Carl Fischer, 1961, 2005, p. 13):

To help you attain correct breathing habits and to build up the chest, lungs, and muscles, the following exercises are recommended:

1) Regulating the breath (you will need a watch)

Stand erect…. Inhale deeply…. Timing yourself, blow out a small stream of air…. How many seconds? 15? 20? Breathe correctly and try again. Add five seconds…. In 80 seconds of blowing out, try holding the diaphragm steady for 10 seconds, the allow ten seconds for it to recede, and the final ten seconds for lower ribs to return to normal. Keep adding five seconds each time. You can get this up to 60…70…80…90…100 seconds and over by exerting will power. Will power can be your greatest ally in music study. Right here is where you start to exert it. [emphasis mine]

And of course Clarke is always advocating to play his exercises in one breath, and if there are repeats, to see how many repeats can be made in one breath. See his Technical Studies for this kind of advice.

Claude Gordon, great high-range pedagogue.

And Claude Gordon, who was a student of Clarke, and who has helped a lot of players play great in the high (and low) register, advised the student to play long tones “as long as possible with a crescendo at the end. Hold the note until all the air is gone and longer (until your stomach shakes).”

I think Clarke had the best additional advice to make sure this kind of practice would not hurt the player or result in poor tone: always play softly. And I agree with this advice, especially on technical kinds of practice. Soft playing, with a metronome, intentionally trying to improve by small increments of speed and of duration of breath. This is basically working on our physique, our technique, but most importantly of all, our mind focus.

Now, go out and play some “Clarkes” with more reps than ever!! (softly)

No tags for this post.

Great American sounds: Colorado Symphony

Colorado Symphony trumpet section September 26-30, 2018 (l.-r.): Stanley Curtis, assistant (extra); Justin Bartels, principal; Philip Hembree, assistant principal; Patrick Tillery, associate principal; Jeff Korak, fourth (extra)

This weekend, I played extra with the Colorado Symphony, a great orchestra based in Denver, Colorado. Conducted by Brett Mitchell, the program was Duke Ellington’s Three Black Kings, George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, and John Adam’s City Noir. The orchestra sounded marvelous, and it was nice to play in the trumpet section with Patrick Tillery (Associate Principal), Philip Hembree (2nd/Assistant Principal), and Justin Bartels (Principal). Jeff Korak, Second Trumpet for the past 20 years in the Columbus Symphony (Ohio), was also playing extra.


John Adams, “City Noir,” excerpt from 1st trumpet part, showing demanding rhythm.


I got to play fourth on the Ellington and assistant principal on the Adams. Sitting next to Justin was such a treat for me on the Adams, which is an 18-page-long, very demanding part with a huge solo in the third movement.

“City Noir” 1st trumpet excerpt showing part of extended solo in third movement



Justin’s command of the instrument as well as his huge tone was inspirational, especially considering he played the very famous solo on the Gershwin in addition to the Adams on the same program.


Special mention of the some of the rest of the brass section in the Colorado Symphony is required: principal horn Michael Thornton and principal trombone John Sipher (who had an amazing lyrical extended solo in the Adams). Must also mention bass trombone Gregory Harper and principal tuba Stephen Dombrowski who laid down the bass lines so well.

The only disappointment of the series was the audience turnout. Without a big repertoire piece on the program (Gershwin not really being in that category), Denver couldn’t mobilize enough enthusiasm to fill Boettcher Concert Hall. Not that Denver doesn’t like the Arts. They seem to embrace museums, interesting architecture and vibrant shows all over the town (see some of my photos below).

I’m new to Colorado (with the exception of playing in the National Repertory Orchestra for two seasons, many years ago), so I used all of Friday afternoon to walk around the downtown Denver area, taking in some of the really distinct vibe of this city. I think you’ll find some of my photos interesting.

No tags for this post.