The $100 investment that keeps on giving

Before you buy another mouthpiece, spend some money on something that will improve your sound and musicianship far more than an equipment tweak. Good musicians do a great deal of music listening, whether examining their own performances, finding new interpretations, or taking the mind off of something. To me, having a quality music playback system is vital so that one may hear everything music has to offer.

It’s often not feasible to own an extravagant audio system with large speakers, an amplifier, and source components. A college student living in a dorm room has limited space (and probably a limited budget). Apartment dwellers have neighbors to deal with, and let’s face it, with the advent of iPods, cell phones, and tablet computers (I’m typing this on my iPad) many of us listen with portable audio devices. Headphones are great for all of these situations.

Now, most headphones that come with a portable device are merely something to stick in your ears. They have mediocre sound quality at best and are made with cheap materials. I’ve used various types of these cheap headphones and have always wanted something more (clarity of sound, real bass response, better quality materials that don’t break if you drop them or trip on the cord). For $100 a company called Grado Labs has the answer.

The SR 80i is a rugged, retro looking headphone that has some serious sonic punch. The plain-jane appearance is a disguise, the truest statement of function over form. Simple round ear speakers have replaceable foam pads that sit on the ear. Easily adjustable, the spring steel headband and ear speakers swivel and pivot to accommodate almost anyone. A stout cable of good length is fitted with a high quality gold plated 1/8″ jack (a 1/4″ adapter plug iis included) and is connected securely to each ear speaker. The sound that comes forth is remarkable. Grado is known for a warm, punchy, and detailed sound. These headphones give you all of the details (superb articulation, clarity, and pitch definition) while retaining lush musicality. They have a sense of drive and timing that rivals many high end home stereo systems. Best of all, they sound GREAT plugged into your favorite portable device. Some high quality headphones require an amplifier to achieve a decent listening volume and obtain their best sound. While the SR 80i indeed sound better with an amplifier, it’s simply not necessary. Your iPod will spring to life, immersing you in sound you never thought possible.

You can use this “costly high end home stereo” when the neighbors are home, fold it flat when not in use, and not be terribly concerned with theft (remember the simple, retro looks?). You can also practice while wearing Grados because of the open-air design (they don’t block out exterior sounds). The only drawback of the open-air design is that you can’t mow your lawn and listen to music or crank your tunes in a confined space (everyone will be able to hear your music).

I’ve had my pair of SR 80(precursor to current model SR 80i) for 11 years, including six years of college. My pair has been dropped, sat on, cord tripped over, and smashed in a suitcase over and over. I don’t recommend that kind of harsh treatment, but they are still going strong. I love them and I think you will too.

For tight budgets, be sure to check out the entry level Grado, the SR 60i. For those wanting higher performance, Grado makes several models above the SR80i but I strongly recommend using a dedicated headphone amplifier to unlock best performance. I recommend buying them here.

Air: Fuel for your brass instrument

When it comes to brass playing and teaching, I believe concepts of air usage are underrated. I’ve noticed this with new private students, clinic situations, state solo/ensemble contests, and observation of various student and amateur ensembles. Many music teachers are unable to address every playing issue that their students may have. I feel if one issue can be addressed, it should be proper breathing habits.

The number one culprit is shallow breathing. Many brass players simply inhale (and exhale) far less than necessary. These players often breathe with their upper chest rather than breathing “low”, using the entire abdomen. A shallow breath simply exchanges a small volume of air, which presents many potential issues, including: low level of oxygen/CO2 exchange for fueling the body’s cells, weak or poor trumpet sound due to lower than required amount of air flow for efficient lip vibration, and introduction of tension into the body from having to push or force “negative” air out of the lungs to complete a line or phrase. Playing a wind instrument requires a large amount of body resources (organ functions, clear thinking, muscle usage, etc.), using large amounts of oxygen. A deep, full breath supplies the necessary oxygen and provides the amount of air required to produce an easy, resonant sound. There must be a smooth, even, uninterrupted flow of air moving past the lips to create a rich tone that is easily malleable. “Smooth” or “even” air comes from a relaxed (natural) exhale, not a forced or “pushed” exhale. Experiencing this is simple:

Take a deep breath and exhale slowly until you are comfortably out of air, back to your normal resting point. Take another breath (inhale) and exhale to the same point. Now “push” out the remaining air in your lungs. Notice the tension that builds in your body as you force out the air. You simply cannot remove this air in your lungs without using muscles of the abdomen, chest, or back. That air is what I refer to as “negative air”, and should not be used to play a wind instrument.

Having the lips (chops) in a placement for maximum air efficiency is also important. Brass players used to shallow breathing rely on the embouchure more than necessary. They will often have tension residing in the lips from trying to play outside of their comfort range. Mouthpiece pressure and/or clamping down of the lips will often temporarily result in a higher range, but this comes with discomfort in the lips, chest, and abdomen. You will often see excess swelling of the lips and strain or tension in their body language while playing. Working on better breathing (first) and relaxing the embouchure (if the better breathing doesn’t fix this automatically) frequently results in quick and substantial improvement. There isn’t a textbook embouchure placement for efficiency-don’t go looking for one or have your students place the lips and mouthpiece in a certain “correct” position (every player is different). Let correct breathing be your guide. If the mouthpiece (size and position) and lips are in the “ballpark”, great breathing habits will improve a player’s performance every time.

Exercise the brain too!

Sometimes as brass players we forget to involve the brain as much as we should. Obviously, the brain is always active coordinating our breathing, lips, and fingers so that we may make a good sound and play the right notes at the right time. But, what about choosing the right note when playing a tune by ear or improvising a jazz solo? Is it C or C-sharp? How do you know? What about that little “thing” that Louis Armstrong adds to the ends of his phrases or long notes? Is it a shake? Lip trill? Maybe it’s vibrato? There’s a trumpet solo in the first movement of Mahler No. 5 marked molto portamento. What does that sound like? How do you play it? What about Tommy Dorsey’s slide vibrato on I’m Getting Sentimental Over You?

Dedicate 15 minutes of your weekly practice to playing by ear. Start out simple by playing easy songs (Amazing Grace, Happy Birthday, simple jazz tunes, etc.) from memory, trying to get as many right notes as possible on the first try. Try a different key. How about a song from the radio? Working on a solo or excerpt? Memorize the notes of a phrase and then get out of the music. Sheet music can trap us to just the notes on the page. Listen to a recording and imitate it. Find the music inside that phrase and get it to come out of your bell. Ignore the rhythm and tempo (gasp!) for a minute and just get the music. You can go through it with the metronome later. I guarantee your “batting average” will increase, and more importantly, your playing will have shape and begin to tell a story.

Amaze yourself by improving areas of your playing you’ve forgotten or haven’t discovered. It seems like brass playing is measured with a speedometer and altimeter. There’s more to playing an instrument than how fast or high you can play. Sure, that stuff helps, but is that why we play?

Song and Wind – Charles Vernon style

I stumbled across an excellent YouTube video of a masterclass given by Charles Vernon, bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He speaks on a variety of brass concepts in regards to Song and Wind, a methodology of the late Arnold Jacobs. The main ideas in the video include having a sound concept in your head, good air movement, and using rhythm to coordinate all physical aspects of playing (breathing, embouchure, articulation, and valve or slide movement). Enjoy!

The studio!

I’ve recently re-vamped my home studio. This is “the laboratory” for lessons, practicing, study, or anything else music. I’ve recently added a web cam (this is the view)-more pictures to come!

Time to change your practice routine!

I’ve realized over the past couple weeks that I am long overdue for changing the material in my practice rotation. It’s always a good idea to “switch it up” every three to six months, so that you keep your mind, chops, and fingers fresh. Too often I forget, only to find my playing on a plateau (or in a little rut) for a few weeks. Finally, something hits me and the light bulb goes off. Time to find something new to practice!

So, I’ll say goodbye to Clarke, Irons, and Charlier and hello to Gekker, Colin, and Bousquet.

Happy New Year!

Find time to play with great players

Successful trumpet playing is easier if you have a great model to follow. Putting yourself in situations where you can play with high level musicians is one of the fastest ways to conceptualize and reinforce many aspects of making music.

I’ve found recently that sitting in an orchestra section has re-opened my eyes (ears) to what great articulation, a resonant sound, and leadership can do for trumpet playing. This weekly reminder has helped me with some aspects of my playing that I have let slide over the last few months to a year.

There are dozens of other concepts to learn while playing with a great player. Style, dynamics, control, balance, blend, intonation, and pace are just a few of them.

Take a lesson, play some duets, or “zero-in” on the principal of your section the next time you have rehearsal. I guarantee you’ll learn something to incorporate into your own playing.

Mouthpiece Buzzing Anyone?

I am way overdue for a new topic. It suddenly occurred to me (as I sit at my computer at 1:00am) that I am buzzing my mouthpiece. I started to wonder why I was doing it and realized it would be a good topic, so here goes.

There seems to be a love/hate relationship with trumpet players regarding mouthpiece buzzing. I know some people who absolutely swear by it, insisting that it is paramount in their success with the trumpet. Others have told me that it couldn’t be a better waste of time. While I think I can see why some feel it’s a waste of time, I find myself in the “it’s useful” camp. It certainly helps me in a few key areas:

1. Focusing the “buzz” for maximum efficiency and immediacy.
I find that buzzing a steady pitch very softly with a breath attack brings my lips together in the optimal playing position. I find if I am doing this on a somewhat regular basis (a few minutes a few times a week) I can start (or stop) notes with virtually no effort. For me, the less effort required to start a note, the less effort required to sustain the note (better efficiency = better endurance). Immediacy increases greatly as well, meaning easily starting and stopping notes at a lower dynamic. I suppose that efficiency and immediacy could be one in the same, or you could call this technique “finding balance” on the most fundamental level. It depends on how you look at it.

2. Continuity of air stream.
Mouthpiece buzzing has helped me with my air usage as well. Being able to hold a steady pitch (on the mouthpiece) has more to do with air than anything else. I also listen and feel for disturbances in the air stream when doing slow interval slurs. If the balance is right there will be no pitch, volume, or tone fluctuation while performing a slur. Exaggerated crescendo/decrescendo exercises on long tones expose air issues too.

3. Quality of sound.
Purity and richness of sound can be affected by mouthpiece buzzing. After doing some soft buzzing (as discussed under #1) my sound has a greater presence of overtones. Move overtones gives your sound more color and projection, adding to playing efficiency. Listening to the actual sound of the buzz can help too. I believe the more buzz sound (or tone) and the less “air” sound a person has, the purer the trumpet sound will be. The “air” sound means that some part of the embouchure is not buzzing efficiently (or not at all). This contributes to the distortion (or “junk” as I call it) in the center of a trumpet sound. Listen to the sound of other players. Chances are good that you will hear it to some degree or another. One of the greatest examples of a pure sound is Bud Herseth. Find a video clip of him buzzing his mouthpiece. It’s all buzz and no air. I don’t know if Bud practices mouthpiece buzzing, but I certainly think there’s a relationship of having a pure mouthpiece sound and a pure trumpet sound. If practicing mouthpiece buzzing gives you a better buzz………………….