Know Your Role

Another semester is upon us and many students are making up for lost time over the holidays. Practice rooms are filling up again, new goals are being formed, and rehearsals are getting underway for the next concerts. I’m looking forward to the next few months that will include recitals, masterclasses, jazz clinics, recording sessions, chamber music, operas, and numerous university concerts.

One of the best things about playing in various styles, ensembles, and settings is that I’m challenged to play different roles. Each opportunity to perform presents unique challenges and musicians must navigate the social dynamics of these situations alongside musical considerations. Student musicians will enjoy fruitful careers if they become adept at moving between jobs that include soloing, chamber music, and ensemble playing. Many of you will transfer these performance skills into your teaching to provide future students with informed rehearsal and practice techniques.

As a soloist, you are tasked with leading. You might be in an large or small ensemble or with an accompanist. No matter the setting, your interpretation of the music must be previously formed. Come to rehearsal with phrasing in mind. Be confident in dynamic decisions but be prepared for a give and take. Have musical reasoning for decisions in your preparation. This will help you communicate with a conductor or pianist. You can be sure that they want to help you succeed, but they also have a responsibility to bring the supportive parts into an orbit with the soloist that makes musical sense. Confidence will steady your nerves but ego should be left at the door. When all eyes are on you, avoid the trap of thinking that the audience is there to be in awe of your skill. People who have invested their time to listen to you simply want to be taken on a musical journey that lifts them from the mundane of the everyday. Explore your voice in an effort to find originality.

I began playing chamber music in the 7th grade. I’ll never forget the fun challenge of performing with a trio at my first solo & ensemble competition. Subsequent years brought opportunities to perform with numerous chamber ensembles, and I still enjoy any chance to work with friends and colleagues without a conductor dictating interpretation. I was fortunate to study with Charles Villarubia for a period of time at the University of Texas. His coaching of my brass ensembles was instrumental in how I now approach chamber music. Many schools are well intentioned but are often loaded with course requirements allowing very little time for this critical skill area to be developed. The skill is working well with others. You can have opinions and can offer them, but you must be able to listen to others to create a product that represents the group. An orchestra is constructed in way that allows each person to be quickly replaced. An argument can be made for the lasting influence of some principal players, but the vision of the conductor will remain throughout their tenure. A chamber ensemble that is firing on all cylinders will miss you if you suddenly fall ill. It takes time to replace a talented violinist or horn player. Their sound has to fit into the group voice. They have to get along with everyone. It helps if their public persona is one that can connect with audiences, market the group to concert presenters, and be relatable to students. All of these areas weigh more heavily on a group’s success than how high or fast the first trumpet can play. Strive to be the person others would be delighted to work with and the musical product will reap dividends. Your musical contribution will be important and your preparation or lack thereof will be on display in every rehearsal. You shouldn’t have to stop and ask your neighbor what they are playing in a particular measure if you know the music. Listen to quality recordings. Study scores. Understand how your part fits into the whole. Understand how each pair of instruments work together. Understand how all voices interact and how specific harmonies will affect intonation or points of tension. In sum, be prepared and be cool.

Performing in a large ensemble can be a rewarding experience that stretches your capabilities. We must be willing to make a consistent effort to bring the conductor’s vision to fruition. If you are a section leader, think about the example you set to your section mates in music and conduct. Provide clear and informed playing for others to follow and match. If you are sitting next to the section leader do everything in your control to help them sound their best. Be supportive and not distracting if they are performing a solo. It doesn’t matter if you think you can play it better. Serve others and your opportunity will present itself in time. Be prepared to fill in on a solo if needed on a moment’s notice. It does happen! If you are playing 3rd or 4th part your contribution is also crucial in the success of the section or larger ensemble. You’ve heard the pleas of teachers calling for more volume from the low end. You’ve heard that you have to be more articulate or play shorter to match the principal. I love playing 3rd trumpet in an orchestra and have no problem giving all of the credit to the principal. Listen with intense focus to the principal player’s articulation, pitch placement, and phrasing. Adjust to find them sooner than later. Many great leaders in various fields rose in position by doing grunt work without complaint (playing 3rd trumpet isn’t grunt work), giving credit to everyone around them, and talking less.

This discussion of roles includes jazz ensembles, combos, marching bands, orchestras, concert bands, and small groups. Playing in a horn section for a funk band has a lot in common with the chamber music experience. Practice to perform with the skill of a soloist. Your effort will be appreciated by your peers and audience. You will also become someone others enjoy working with and that can be a priceless advantage.

Jazz for the Classical Trumpeter

I am a product of the classically rooted music school, and I have enjoyed many rewarding musical experiences thanks in part to this education. My background in classical music theory, history, and performance prepared me to perform and teach at a professional level. I love sitting in the back of a great orchestra or performing chamber music. I equally love directing a college jazz ensemble every week and working with private students on soloing over chord changes. My interest and love for jazz developed alongside my study of orchestral music from the very beginning. Formal instruction in jazz came in fits and starts for many of those years, so I gradually found my own path.

I have played in numerous big bands, funk bands, and rock bands. I developed an ear for style, groove, and some of the vocabulary. Teaching has been the biggest motivator for me to improve my jazz skill set. Many students in our educational system come to this music with trepidation and an anxiety fueled by a seeming lack of direction.

Maybe you are in that boat and would like to enjoy playing jazz or explore improvisation. I hope you continue this journey. Be patient and enjoy the small milestones of progress. I’ll share a few thoughts on how you might build a structured approach to develop confidence in performance.

To start, begin listening now! There are so many resources to hear great music, so open your ears and absorb stylistic elements that you’ll put into use. I have taken a liking to Apple Music but you might prefer Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube. My CD collection stopped growing years ago, but my vinyl records continue to creep across more shelf space. There’s something special about listening to Miles Davis on vinyl. A few trumpet players I recommend checking out are Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Art Farmer, Avishai Cohen, Roy Hargrove, and Christian Scott.

Before even getting into chords, transcribing, or worrying about transposing licks, make sure that all major and minor scales are in your muscle memory. Do the ground work and memorize all 12 major scales. I’ve had so many students who think they can skip this step and simply struggle further. The bebop tonguing pattern will also help you swing these scales. When you’ve learned all 12 keys, play a simple melody by ear in every key. It doesn’t have to be jazz. It could be Happy Birthday, Mary had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle…etc. Play around with the style and you’ll soon find that you can add character to the simplest of melodies through blue notes, bends, growls, or rhythmic alteration.

Keep turning the pages on your scale study to include blues, bebop, and modal scales. Turn your daily Clarke technical studies into blues or whole tone exercises. Enlist a partner to trade phrases with you in a question-answer format, and try to use only the notes of a particular blues scale. I do this with younger students and find they enjoy the challenge of trying to make few notes sound rhythmically interesting. We start with 2 pitches and expand up the scale until our phrases encompass the entire key. 

Transcribing solos is a fantastic way to train your ear. Don’t worry about perfection in your notation. You might try using an app like Transcribe+ to help you slow down passages or isolate difficult sections. Rapid licks and scalar figures can be intimidating but unlimited replays along with trial and error will get you to a playable product. My first transcriptions were of Roy Hargrove ballads. Don’t let Clifford Brown be your first attempt! I recommend starting with Miles Davis’ solo on So What. It’s a great tune to develop phrasing, gain fluency with triads, and understand how to swing. It also has extended sections that remain static on one chord. It can be challenging to produce interesting material when the harmonic progression stalls, but the lessons learned will serve anyone looking to play in a funk or soul band on the weekends! Christian Scott even has an app called Stretch Music that includes his entire album with the ability to slow the tempo, isolate different instrumental tracks, and refer to the sheet music.

Classical musicians primarily learn a Roman numeral system of chord labeling. It’s imperative that you familiarize yourself with the leadsheet symbols used in jazz and pop. You’ll quickly appreciate the logic behind its ease of use. You must be able to see a symbol and immediately identify the chord tones implied. These pitches will serve as landing pads in their assigned bars. You’ll want to learn commonly used progressions such as II-V-I. Play the roots of each chord in all 12 keys. Play the complete chords through the progression in all keys. Play licks along the same progression in all keys. You get the idea!

Fake books are a great resource to learn standards so pick one up and keep it on your music stand. I’ve also made use of transcription books full of solos by Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, and Louis Armstrong. These books cut out the work of transcribing for you, and you can quickly learn the licks of the masters. Don’t fall into the trap of simply memorizing these solos for the sake of it. Find passages you enjoy and practice transposing them to all keys. Alter phrases and take them in new directions.

Musicians must build their marketability in a competitive field. Even orchestral players are challenged in today’s programming that increasingly features pops concerts. This requires a different style of playing than Pines of Rome! Music educators are going to enjoy higher retention rates in their programs if they can establish or maintain a regular jazz ensemble. Beginning your study of jazz might just open the door to your most rewarding musical experience yet!

Preparing for Nerves & Developing Confidence

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, my trumpet professor, Ray Sasaki, told me it's natural to feel nervous and that we should embrace anxiety because if you don't feel any butterflies then something is wrong. We all have a keen desire to perform at our highest level so that everything we have (hopefully) practiced will come across effectively on the stage. Unfortunately, we often wed our self worth to the final result in the concert, audition, contest, recital...etc.

I find that when I am struggling with something on the trumpet it is all too easy to begin ruminating on the negative aspects of the issue. The mind can lead us down a rabbit hole and needlessly attach more weight to the current struggle than necessary. We all have individual strengths and weaknesses but we must identify our motives that drive us to perform. Do you love to share beauty with others? Do you want to provoke introspection and emotion in your audience? I hope these motives will take precedence over the desire to impress others with your technical skill. Be mindful of the tendency to let self-criticism overshadow healthy self-assessment. 

Preparation that is built on a focused routine will serve you going into any performance. It is also important to randomize your routine to maintain a heightened sense of focus. You have probably heard that you should eat a banana, get plenty of sleep, and stay hydrated. This is all good advice. Performing on an empty stomach can bring on lightheadedness. Eat for your health and enjoy the benefit to your playing. I would not recommend a late night trip to Arby's the night before a big performance. We might prefer our water to be ice cold, but try drinking warm water and see how you feel. Warm water will eliminate toxins circulating in the body and enhance blood circulation that relaxes the entire body. It will also open your respiratory tract if you have a cold or cough. 

Find or create opportunities to put yourself out there. Perform your recital pieces, jury solos, or duets with friends at a senior center/nursing home. Propose a piece to play in a church service. It doesn't have to be Christmas or Easter! Record material you are practicing and listen critically. Ask teachers, friends, and family to listen to a piece you are preparing or simply something you like to play for fun. Put together a small chamber ensemble and organize outreach performances at local schools. Elementary school kids will build your confidence like no other! Arrange a performance at your local shopping mall and get ready to see a lot of smiling faces. You may feel a few nerves in these situations, but the level of stress would be mild allowing your coping skills to develop as you gain experience. Visualize a performance in your mind to internalize the process. This includes breathing, posture, pacing, and reviewing the ideal sound concept. You can even expand the visualization to include the entire day leading up to the event to plan what kind of day helps you reach optimal performance. Write keywords in your music that can trigger focused attention on specific areas of your playing. 

Meditation can serve as another component in freeing ourselves of negative rumination. In the weeks approaching an important event, take time for yourself 3 or 4 days a week to simply let go. Sit for 20 minutes, close your eyes, focus only on the breath and how its cadence is steady and relaxed. Imagine the breath filling the stomach like a balloon in a cyclic motion. Don't force the air in or out but let the body function naturally. The mind will want to wander sooner than you think. I found this out at Buddhist monasteries in Japan and South Korea as my stomach began growling! Don't judge yourself for this. Just gently bring yourself back to the breath and enjoy these moments to relieve the mind of its constant duties. 

At the performance, remember that the audience is already in your favor. They wish you well and support you in this effort. Remain visibly calm. If standing, place your feet square with your shoulders in a balanced stance. Hold the instrument with a healthy grip. Squeezing the instrument sends tension up the arms and across the shoulders while sending a signal to the brain that you're about to lift a heavy weight. If your hands shake let the adrenaline run its course. Dwelling on nervous energy will only make it worse in the moment. I was once performing the national anthem in front of 20,000 people. I could feel my legs begin to shake as the adrenaline surged. I focused on returning my mind to breathing efficiently. A full breath is your ally in slowing down your heart rate.

Enjoy the journey of preparation because it is largely why we do what we do. Take stock in all of the steps that you climbed along the way before taking the stage. Our routine lends purpose to our day and discipline to our lives. The final result will vary based on countless factors, but trust your air to carry you along with the butterflies.