The Trumpet Mind…the Final Frontier

Vincent Cichowicz (1927-2006), trumpeter with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and renowned teacher at Northwestern University
Vincent Cichowicz (1927-2006), trumpeter with the CSO and renowned teacher at Northwestern University


“The battle is not man vs. the trumpet….. Its a battle between man and how far we can push us to make this wonderful thing we call music.”

-Vincent Chichowicz


I remember taking a couple of lessons from James Thompson in Atlanta many years ago. These lessons proved to have a big impact on me. One important thing he said that stuck with me was that “it’s not so much what happens with your chops, but what is going on in your mind that will get you to the very top level.

K. Anders Ericsson, Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University
K. Anders Ericsson, Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University

One of the most-referred-to theories about talent these days comes from the work of Anders Ericsson (often read about through Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers). Dr. Ericsson stated in 1990 that it takes about 10,000 hours (20 hours a week for 50 weeks a year for ten years, which comes to 10,000 hours) to become an expert in your chosen field–say, trumpet in this case. Basically, he was pointing to an inevitably high correlation between hours of practice and mastery, given enough hours (10K hours at least).


There is a very fine blog on performance psychology called The Bulletproof Musician written by Dr. Noa Kageyama. One recent article that became very popular was “How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?” (If you haven’t read this article and you have the time, you should read it.) This article contrasts Dr. Ericsson’s work with several anecdotal comments by world-class performers, who all seem to say, “don’t practice too much.” He explains the contradiction by pointing to “deliberate practice.” Instead of practicing mindlessly (setting yourself up for little improvement, lack of confidence, and boredom), Dr. Kageyama recommends a structured practice which is an “active and thoughtful process of experimentation with clear goals and hypotheses.” This involves checking on your playing in real-time and by means of recordings.

Kageyama’s mindfulness is critical, and Ericsson’s 10K hours is also inescapable. For a trumpeter in a world of amazing performers, we cannot keep up with the amount of practice that piano players, violinists and others are putting in on their instruments, because our embouchures will not support it. Naturally, we have to fully embrace Kageyama’s “deliberate practice.” In addition, I have one more thing to add: mental practice that minimizes your lip time on the horn or that gets you away from your instrument altogether.

My post on August 3rd points to a great need for ear training, and I truly believe that this type of study is of great importance for trumpeters because it demands much of our mind (our mind’s “ear”) and not too much from our “chops.”

In addition, I recommend mental practice. I fill up a lot of otherwise mindless moments of my life (sitting in traffic, listening to a boring speech, and other tedious times) by doing mental work related to the trumpet. Mostly, and most easily, this involves playing scales with my fingers gently pressing imaginary valves on my lap or chair. If I am alone, I will sing the intended pitches shamelessly, but as accurately as possible. If others are around, I “hear” the sound in my head mentally–which requires a great amount of concentration. I can even work on a thorough routine of articulation that goes with the scales or technical exercises (single tongue, “k” tongue, double tongue, triple tongue, etc.). I recommend trying this first with regular major scales, then minor, then some book that you may have memorized, such as Herbert L. Clarke’s Technical Studies. Jazz patterns, scales and formulas are excellent material for this type of mental practice. Beyond this, whole etudes and solos work great mentally. Working on fingers, articulation, and, most importantly, our minds, we can hone our skills mentally without ever touching the mouthpiece to our lips.



One response to “The Trumpet Mind…the Final Frontier”

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