Taking Apart My Playing

It’s been a long time since I’ve practiced this consistently. If ever. Maybe there was a point in college when I was trying to step up a few grades, before my junior year. But then discouragement set in, I wasn’t getting the assignments and placements I’d been hoping for, and I focused my attentions elsewhere. But that’s a different story.

Today the assignments and placements are there and rather than having to reach to get them, I’ve got to reach to be able to fulfill them. Hence the big new year’s resolution to play every day.

Besides just the every day routine, I’ve added some things and tried to put a few more into clearer perspective.

Note: This is just me. Your mileage will vary.


First, the warmup. I’d tried several over the years including the 6-note Caruso, Stamp-like pedal tone exercises, lip slurs from Advanced Lip Flexibilities, and a few others. But what’s really working right now is a simple exercise derived from Michael Sachs which is found in the Rowan Boot Camp materials. Just the first one, which incorporates free buzzing, mouthpiece buzzing, and playing on the horn.

Now over a there’s a lot of dogmatic push-back over the whole concept of mouthpiece buzzing. The argument goes that practicing buzzing on the mouthpiece will eventually make you a fine mouthpiece buzzer. That kind of thinking fits nicely into a bumper sticker, but there’s no solid reasoning behind it. You might argue against a boxer jumping rope, because it will eventually make him only a fine rope-jumper.

Or that a baseball batter is wasting his time hitting off a tee because it will only make him a good tee-ball player.

But I digress.

All-told this Sachs exercise incorporates maybe 20 seconds of each kind of buzzing, but it does wonders to set my embouchure for efficient sound production. If I can maximize the volume through the mouthpiece, I know I’ve got a setup that uses my air the best. I then follow up with a one of the basic lip slur exercises, and then a two-octave tonguing arpeggio exercise.

Changes in practicing

I’ve started pushing the Arban and Clarke books past their printed ranges. Working on the Arban double- and triple-tonguing exercises past where they top out is proving to be more useful than just going after speed. So I’ll take the first exercise in the chapter, where it goes F to F, and run it. Then I’ll do it in F#, then in G, then Ab, etc. until I run out.

I’ll also try to get at least one day a week in where I really work it, in multiple sessions. This isn’t easy when you’ve got a full-time job that isn’t playing trumpet, along with all the other responsibilities of being an adult. Things like cooking, cleaning, laundry. But it works well for me to play for 20 minutes, get up and move a load of wash, play 20 minutes, hang stuff up, another 20 minutes then do some prep work in the kitchen.

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This lets me cover a bit of everything — lip slurs, articulations, long-tones, excerpts — with fresher chops than trying to do it all at once.

What it helps

Endurance. Well duh. I’ll still get tired, but the notes will still come out. More like a new resilience. More about that in the wrapup below.

Consistency. By keeping the “feel,” and no matter what Tom Waits says you can totally lose the feel.

More comfortable in the higher range. This is different from better range.

Reduced stiffness. I noticed this especially this week doing a run of “Don Giovanni.” There’s a long layoff all through intermission and the first six or so numbers of Act II. Then you have to come in on a short two-bar soft lyrical bit.

The kind of thing that used to be impossible because of the stiffness, now no big deal.

What it hasn’t helped

My range is no better than it was. As I said above, I can do more with the range I’ve got. But I don’t have any more notes up there than I did before.

Trumpet playing is ultimately an athletic activity. It’s important that it be artistic, but like being a ballet dancer playing a musical instrument is intensely physical. Going back to the lip-buzzing analogy, any physical activity can benefit from breaking it down into its components and working them individually.

And as I found many times with my cyling, in the spring after a layoff it’s grueling work to do things that you did with ease the previous fall. You don’t notice it the same way on the trumpet — with its smaller and more specialized muscle groups — the way your legs would ache and you’d have trouble climbing the stairs afterwards. But it’s the same thing. And how after a few weeks of riding all of a sudden I’d start to feel the “snap” come back into my legs. And not long after that the great feeling of knowing you’re tired, knowing that your legs have really been pushed, but somehow they keep turning the cranks.

And I feel like that’s where this regimen is taking me.

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