Tone journey: relax

I little while ago, I started blogging about improving your tone. I started with trumpet equipment and then moved on to mouthpieces (remember the “clocking” post?). Today, I want to begin exploring ways that we can improve tone with the way we use our body to play. In my opinion, this is where the biggest gains come from. By upgrading your trumpet, you might have a 10% improvement. Mouthpiece accounts for more tonal change–perhaps as much as 10-40%, depending on the differences. But what you do with your embouchure, your breathing, and your body make up the rest.

The main point in today’s post is to relax. Muscles in the torso, throat and mouth are the most important to your playing, but other muscles can also be important. If they are engaged correctly, at the minimum amount of tension they need to do the job of playing trumpet, then this is perfect. Unfortunately, we often have too much tension. An excess of tension causes endurance and range problems, but, more important to our topic, it causes our tone to sound too stiff and harsh. I want to give you a two-step process to improve in this area.

  1. Recognize where the tension is. Do this when you are playing–when you don’t have to think too much about notes. Long tone warmups are great for this. As you play, let your mind scan your body. Focus your attention on different body areas, from head to toe. Is there enough (or too much) tension? Recognize problem areas consciously–earmark the areas. If there are too many problem areas, then simply start with one and focus on that one.
  2. When you get ready to play the next note or passage, habit is likely to take over, and the tension will come back. Instead of conceding to this habit, pause for a moment. Direct yourself to let go of the tension. Perhaps use a mental model to make it easier (e.g., thinking that your problem muscle is made of jello). Play when you are ready with this new direction. Don’t worry about trumpet playing (missed notes or sloppy response for example) for now. Just focus on your new direction to let go of tension. After a while, you should be able to play something simple without the habitual extra tension.

Keep this process going in your daily warmups. A reminder to relax in the morning will help for the rest of the day. As the days and weeks go by, you begin to change the way you play. Your mind will be more relaxed. Your tone will sound more relaxed.

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Ain’t no mountain high enough…

Last week, I did a small vacation with my 17-year-old son in Summit County, Colorado. We decided at the last minute to try hiking to the top of Gray’s Peak, a “14-er” (a mountain that is more than 14,000 feet high).

There was one major problem with our plans: the three-mile road leading up to the trail head was too rough for my Prius, so we had to walk this road. In my mind, I thought that three miles wouldn’t be too difficult, but these three miles were mostly at a 5% incline and were starting off at 9,500 ft. in altitude, so they took twice as long as a normal walk (and exhausted us). We didn’t start the actual trail until 10:30. And, unfortunately, we were still a mile away from the summit before we had to turn back–storm clouds were threatening our safety. I think we could have made it to the top if we had started sooner and had a 4-wheel drive that would get us to the trail head.

This scenario reminded me of big trumpet projects. Recitals, major performances, competitions, and auditions all need some amount of competency and preparation. Of course practicing a lot is important, but a trumpeter can only practice so many notes per day. Starting early enough helps tip the scale in your favor. Try to set aside a month or two to really prepare for an audition (even more time for a solo competition).

If you already have prepared in previous lessons the orchestral excerpts that will be asked on an audition, then you have a first layer of preparation. Then it is much easier to spend the month before your audition in polishing the excerpts and working on your mental focus. The same is with solo competitions. You have to already develop some core repertoire before the competitions is announced. Otherwise, you will spend too much time in the initial phases of preparation to be really competitive. Pieces like the Haydn, Hummel, Tomasi, Honegger, Hindemith and Enesco are often required in trumpet competitions.

And remember the advantage to having an SUV to take you to the trail head? Similarly, there are many advantages we can seek out as we prepare for our trumpet “summits.” Lessons with good teachers. Practice buddies can be a real boost. Recording yourself. Good equipment functioning well (do you need to take any trumpets in to be repaired?).

And don’t overlook advantages that are seemingly irrelevant, like your choice of valve oil. Your posture. Clearing up things from your schedule that detract. Or even “clocking” you mouthpiece (yesterday’s post). If we can combine many tiny advantages, then the cumulative impact will be great.

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