Perfect!

The concept of being perfect can be an admirable goal for a brass musician. We all dream of concert performances where we perform with no split notes, spot on intonation, a resonant projected sound throughout, etc etc etc. But the truth is that we are all human and this isn’t going to happen every time.
Whilst not having the goal of progressing as a musician will put a limit upon how far you can ever progress, I believe that striving for absolute perfection can have a massively detrimental effect on your life as a trumpet player.
Years ago when I had just graduated from music college and I was beginning to find my feet as a freelance musician this was a lesson that I had not yet learned. As it happens I didn’t realise at the time that was moving away from focusing mostly on classical playing and becoming much more of a commercial player. When you first venture into the profession nobody knows what sort of work they will find (unless you have a laser beam focus on your end game like my college tutor Philippe Schartz!) and my moving into pit orchestras and function bands required that I learned new techniques and how to handle vastly different equipment. At this time, as well, my practise schedule had dropped significantly from the hours and hours a day I previously had for blowing hot air down a tube. The thing that really knocked me for six, though, was that I had unrealistic expectations of perfection in my performance. One split note early on in a gig would ruin my experience of the entire show. From the first out-of-tune high D until I hit the sack 4 or 5 hours later I would be ruminating about my failures as a musician and how I wasn’t going to make it. This went on for years.
Thankfully this story has a happy ending, but that can be saved for another day. The reason I have chosen to address this topic now is that I recently read an article by Clint ‘Pops’ McLaughlin in his BbTrumpet News Quarterly Ezine (Volume 14, June 2015) and wish to recommend that you read it yourself. In the article Pops talks about the difference between a “live recording” and a real live performance and how sometimes it is the minor imperfections that make music what it is. Follow this link: BbTrumpet News to read more.
Writing this introduction has made me think a lot about this topic which I am now sure that I will revisit. Please check back for Part Two!

Download Trumpet Fantasy

A short while ago I posted a recording of the piece Trumpet Fantasy by Matt Dury. Take a quick look here if you haven’t seen it (opens in a new tab so you can listen whilst you read this!)
Recently I was honoured that Matt decided to dedicate the work to me.  Whist that is great, it is not the purpose of this post. I wish to share with you that you can now purchase a copy of this music for yourself. Below is a link to a website where, for the menial price of $3, you can download the sheet music and learn to play it yourself.
Personally I see this method of self-publication to be one of the best ways that an independent music professional can get their work out to the world. Often musicians are only exposed to the generic mass-produced books that are promoted by the exam boards and that is a shameful dis-service to the international music community. My rant about the music education cartels is yet to be published so you’ll have to keep checking back for that one!
Now, do your bit for independent music professionals and support my friend by buying his music!
Click here. Many thanks.

Mnozil Brass, Jason Harrelson, my month…

It’s been another crazy and enlightening month at Trumpet Planet towers. I’ve played a varied list of gigs; moved house; seen some of the best live music in the world; and experienced a huge growth in perspective regarding my understanding the functioning of the trumpet, resulting in affirmation of my practise goals and new ideas for my plans for the future.
My playing gigs this month have included performing with Fiesta Resistànce (an authentic Cuban-style Salsa band) in Cardiff, Dorchester Chamber Orchestra, a wedding for Funkty Dumpty (website here), and a morning mass at Downside Abbey. For me it has been a nice balance of classical and commercial playing (including improvisation too).
Whilst at one of the gigs another trumpet player and I had a few hours to spend talking shop and it was a pleasure to meet someone who agrees philosophically about preferring smaller trumpet equipment and aiming for an efficient technique rather than the ‘large bore plus more air power’ style that seems to be as popular as ever. (Note that Vincent Bach Corp has just released a trumpet aimed at the commercial market which is a large bore horn. This coupled with my other gripes about their other recent instruments, about which I’ve heard nothing but bad reviews, reinforces my opinion that this company really doesn’t demonstrate any forward development since Vincent Bach himself was making trumpets.) Although this opinion does exist in some circles in the commercial enviroment (Roger Ingram’s XO 1600i trumpet is medium bore design) it’s unusual to me to meet a classical player with this view.
This same trumpet player hastened me to take a look at Jason Harrelson’s blog (link here), and I’ve found it immensely interesting.
Jason Harrelson is a custom trumpet maker based in Denver (USA). The tag line on his website says “where science meets sound”, and I think this is a good definition of what makes his approach different. Jason takes his vast knowledge of physics and applies it to instrument design with the aim of creating the best trumpets in the world. He quite rightly highlights how most, if not all, other brass instrument manufacturers are making instruments based upon 19th century technology and discusses at length the way that his products address these issues. His writing and talks (on his youtube channel) about efficiency and lost energy have been of particular interest to me and have sparked a lot of thoughts about why some trumpets just don’t sound as good as others. On top of this it has reinforced my thoughts about the way a trumpet player hears themself when performing. I have talked with my pupils quite a lot about how practicing exclusively in small rooms gives a false impression of the tone that you are making with your instrument and at the moment I believe that the only way you can really know how you sound is to learn to make recordings of yourself.
Harrelson Trumpets also make and sell parts so that you can upgrade the efficiency of your own trumpet too. This is something that I think I will look into in the future if it looks unlikely for me to be able to save up for a Harrelson trumpet of my own.
During the last month I have been to three awesome concerts! The first of the three was Roberto Fonseca, a Cuban jazz pianist. He presented a varied programme with long improvised tangents. The stage was set up with a keyboard, organ and synth; as well as a sofa, radio and fridge, as you’d expect. And this arrangement enabled him to set the narrative for a musical journey that included some music from his childhood (introduced by a recording of his mother playing on the radio), a beautifully emotional rendition of Bésame Mucho and skilfully executed rhythmic piece using a loop machine.
The second concert I attended this month was Hugh Masekela playing at the Bath International Music Festival. Before finding out about this concert I had heard of Hugh Masekela – I knew he was a South African trumpet player, but that was pretty much it. In my mind had a vague connection with him and Paul Simon, but from what I have learnt on wikipedia this connection it is quite weak (they toured together on Simon’s Graceland tour, and Masekela recorded on one of Simon’s tracks in 1984 titled Further to Fly). I found this concert to be fun, full of energy and very musically interesting. For me one sign of a good concert is when it sets off my creative mind, making me want to go home and compose, which is exactly what happened at this gig. Hugh sang, played flugelhorn and directed from the cowbell throughout the concert.
Thirdly, I went to see Mnozil Brass in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall. This was a brilliant concert – it was musically outstanding, theatrically entertaining and comedically brave! On top of this the audience was packed full of brass players I have met and played with from all over the South-West of England and South Wales. Players from the BBC and NWO orchestras, teachers, professional players and old college friends. The thing that was the most outstanding for me was the variation in tonal style, timbre and dynamics throughout the concert. Stylistically the members of this ensemble demonstrated switching between authentic orchestral sound to Russian folk music and Spanish traditional music. There were also moments of jazz and beautiful soft melodic playing. This level of discipline and control is extremely rare and was an amazing experience to see. If you have not heard about or seen Mnozil brass then I would recommend spending an hour on YouTube watching clips from their DVDs.
Hopefully I will have more months like this one. For me it has been full of everything that being a freelance musician involves. Performing, learning and listening. Without any one of these three elements I feel that I am doing it wrong. It’s also pretty fun. 🙂

A quote about tone from Trumpet Secrets

This is a quote from Trumpet Secrets Volume 1 by Jerome Callet and Bahb Civiletti. Sadly this book is now out of print but luckily I have it!

If the player tries to play with the clearest, most compact and brilliant sound, the player will produce overtones that will project the tone in the largest concert halls. Most trumpeters and trombonists are trying to develop a tone that is not truly characteristic of these instruments. The incorrect tonal abuse causes it to spread the tone too wide. When you play this way, with a “spread” tone, you cannot produce purity of sound for which your instrument was built, and you will always force your tone and over-blow.

Open your ears to the true trumpet sound.
~iii<0

Methods and Mouthpieces – are you a hacker?

Here I present to you what may be the two most loaded topics in trumpet playing and pedagogy.

It is often said that the instrument we chose to play says a lot about our personality. Another way of expressing this is that your instrument chooses you, not the other way around. This is the reason for the ample supply of jokes about violists, french horn players and operatic sopranos; or indeed comments such as “you’re such a typical brass player” or “aren’t classical guitarists weird?”. Well I don’t know about the last one…

Over the last 15 years as I have ventured down the path of being a professional trumpet player I have found that, regardless of an individual’s actual personality, some things appear true in all of us. Trumpet players, despite being the hippest and most necessary part of any ensemble, are complete geeks. Other more appropriate terms may be tweakers or hackers (in the lifehacking sense – see wikipedia definition here, no reference to computer security intended). Although there may be those who disagree, I will state here that this stems from the fact that the trumpet is one of the most difficult instruments to master and maintain a high level of playing on. Equally I believe that this is why it is also one of the most rewarding.

Question: So what is it that you “hack”?

Answer: Methods and mouthpieces (and lead pipes, tuning slide curve, water key design, weighted valve caps…. the list goes on…)

Question: What is it you are trying to achieve?

Answer: The holy grail? A small change that will make everything easier forever more… OK, seriously, a better tone, easier high notes, increased flexibility, cleaner articulation, better intonation, increased stamina… basically a trumpet that plays itself.

Question: Can you not achieve all of these things through practise?

Answer: Hacking is my practise.

And there is the point of the blog post. This is how after playing the trumpet for 22 years I make practising scales, flexibility, articulation, range builders and long notes interesting. On top of this endless game of moving the goal posts I constantly find that reading method books and trying different equipment reveals to me all of the preconceptions that I have about playing and how to break them down. It helps me to make massive leaps forward when I find something that works and I  have safe places to go back to when something isn’t working as it should. This is also why I am a multi-genre player. If I stick to any one style of music for too long then I stop learning from it and begin to lose interest. I love the fact that one day I’ll be playing on a dub record and the next day I’ll be in a chamber orchestra, or wedding band.

And yes, there are trumpet players who aren’t like this. Often you’ll find those who are interested in various methods, but not in changing their equipment and vice-versa and sadly those who never change a thing. It is my opinion that they are missing out. They are missing out on being the best player they can be. I don’t believe there is any such thing as “good enough”.

I’ll end this with a quote. This comes from an article that the great Bobby Shew wrote in 1997. It is currently available on his website:

Don’t be afraid TO TRY!! Better to explore and discover than to keep your head and mind buried in the sand of tradition (and misinformation).

Trumpet Fantasy

Last year a friend and colleague of mine wrote this piece of music and we made a recording. Seeing as I haven’t posted it on here yet I think it’s about time that I do.
The piece is called Trumpet Fantasy by Matthew Dury.
Update: the sheet music for this piece is now available for purchase. Click here for more detatils.
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To hear more of Matt’s compositions head over to his new website! http://www.newsongmusic.co.uk/

An analysis of tone

Playing the trumpet with an appropriate tone is something that has arisen more than other topics in my trumpet-playing life. There have been a variety of reasons for this. Some of them are related directly to choices or changes in equipment and others are related to the fact that I could be playing in a salsa band one night and a chamber orchestra the next, or a brass band: all of which are thought to require vastly different tonal qualities.

When I first began playing the trumpet at the age of thirteen I had been playing a cornet for a few years already and like many young people who play both I bought a mouthpiece for the trumpet that was similar to my cornet mouthpiece. Not appreciating the difference between the two instruments at the time I had made a mistake – my trumpet now had a dull, spread tone. Years later when I was studying at music college I bought a mouthpiece with a shallower cup than my standard-issue Vincent Bach 1-1/2 C because I could play in the high register for a little longer. My teacher was not at all pleased, saying that I now had a thin/bright sound.

I do not intend this article to be about equipment and those who know me also know that I do have quite unorthodox views on equipment anyway, so I shall now steer things in a different direction. The important question to address is which words we should use to describe the tone of a brass instrument, and what those terms mean. I will also state my opinions about which are desirable qualities and give examples. I am going to present a series of terms in opposing pairs. As with colours, we cannot recognise black (no colour) without the opposing white (all of the colours combined).

Bright/Dark vs Brilliant/Dull

This is probably the easiest place to start and maybe the most loaded aspect of tone that we need to deal with. I feel that it is important and most effective to talk about the sound of a trumpet using the terms brilliant or dull rather than bright or dark because the terms brilliant/dull describe resonance whereas bright/dark actually relate more to pitch. The definition of a brilliant tone is one that is rich with high overtones and is very resonant. In a large room it would echo well as there is a lot of energy in the vibrations. In my opinion this is a desirable quality. A dull tone is one that lacks vibrancy – it is often referred to as mellow but I disagree: a flugelhorn has a mellow tone, but it must still be vibrant, not flat in sound. A dull sound is in technical terms off-centre or out of tune with the resonance of the instrument and is often the result of over-blowing – ironic really because people over-blow in order to make their sound carry.
Here are some examples:

A “dark” sound: http://youtu.be/a53s4jyCqqU?t=1m40s

This music begins with the low-pitched brass instruments. Wagner’s music is often described as needing a dark tonal quality. I think that in performing each part with the intended instrument will result in this quite sufficiently. When the trumpet has a solo at 2:21 you will notice that it does not have a dark sound at all (because that is not the trumpet’s role in the ensemble!!).

A “bright” sound: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSHxFybELNY

This is a soprano cornet player called Peter Roberts who has a beautiful and vibrant tone. This, particularly when he plays softly, is the kind of sound that is often described as bright, when people just mean high in pitch. Again, I would argue that people use the word bright because he is playing a small instrument. Were he to play lower notes on a B-flat cornet then I’m sure he would not sound bright at all.

A brilliant sound: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGi3Mlh4esk

Here is a clip of Sergei Nakariakov playing the Arutunian Trumpet Concerto and displaying what I would refer to a brilliantvibrant tone.

My final argument on this topic comes in the form of logic, and a two quotes from Jerome Callet. The trumpet is the highest pitched instrument in the brass family. It is therefore not it’s job to produce a dark or dull sound. The position of the trumpet in graphic equalisation terms is to occupy the upper frequencies.

“Herbert Clarke said in 1920 that there’s no such thing as a dark sound on a soprano cornet or trumpet and if you try to make that then you’re actually gonna make things harder for yourself.”

“If you listen to a good violinist the tone is sharp and clear and brilliant; the violin doesn’t sound like a bass fiddle.”

Focused vs Spread

The definition of a focused sound is one that has a very distinct pitch. Just as with the brilliant/dull description this is a term best learned by example. You can hear in the previous clip of Sergei Nakariakov, because of the strengths of his attacks in the fast notes, that he has a very focused sound. Strong attacks are an important factor in hitting the tonal centre of a note, especially when playing fast music.
Here are some further examples of a focused sound:

Example 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Fo4TKMknzg

This is a trumpet solo played by Wayne Bergeron, I urge you to listen to this guy as much as you can for a real experience of how every note he plays has an even tone quality right across the range of the instrument.

Example 2: http://youtu.be/Gd3DMG0lXto?t=1h32s
Here is a clip of trumpet player Jon Faddis discussing trumpet sound. If you have the time to watch this whole interview then I believe the knowledge and experience of Jon Faddis to be completely invaluable.

Example 3: http://youtu.be/7qiRWgqNhac

This is a recording of Maurice Andre. It is a perfect example of a clean, compact sound. I firmly believe that these three examples clearly demonstrate the correct trumpet sound. Coupled with a greater understanding of the terms above you can vastly improve your playing in any genre by striving to sound this way (and stop using the wrong terminology whilst you’re at it!!).

As a general rule brass players will try to spread their sound for two reasons. Firstly so that they can blend with other players – they do not realise that instruments blend as a result of good intonation and centred pitch; rather, they spread their tone in an effort not to stand out in an ensemble which ruins intonation by playing off centre. Secondly it’s a matter of power. Players do not understand that being powerful and being loud are two different things. Power comes from a compact core sound – something that is ruined by hard blowing.

Pure vs Brassy/Sizzle/Razz/Airy

The definition of a pure tone is one without any distortions and should be one of the primary goals in terms of desired sound on a trumpet. All other sounds are a direct result of deficiencies in technique or equipment. Deficiencies can also mean inefficiencies – that is wasted energy, which will result in loss of stamina, poor intonation, reduced range and often damage to the player in one form or another. I think it is important to note that learning to add to your tone for the purpose of expression is important and I wouldn’t discourage it; but these are performance techniques and should not be the only way you can play.

The thing that many people call a brassy (or even rasp-like) sound; which is much more of a feature of a trombone due to its cylindrical design; is actually a distortion caused by over-blowing. There are times when it is used to sound exciting, but quickly becomes tiresome to listen to.

My final musical example is actually of a natural trumpet played by Bahb Civiletti and demonstrates a pure tone. http://youtu.be/xyCgghWWLCw

Full/Round vs Thin

I believe the terms FullRound and Thin all to be misnomers. They are words that are frequently used in place of more descriptive terms and it is essential to notice that they are also quite contradictory in nature.
I would define a full sound as meaning one that is both dark and rich in overtones – this is a contradiction.
I would define a round sound as being one that is brassy (over-blown), focused (distinct pitch) and broad (aka spread, i.e. not focused). That is another contradiction. Generally both full and round just mean loud. Have you ever heard of a soft yet full tone? It doesn’t make sense.
The word thin just equates to weakness. Often used to describe a tone that is high in pitch yet unsupported or airy; not a resonant tone.

Finale

I hope that you have found this article to be useful and informative. By adjusting my understanding of the role of a trumpet in an ensemble and by listening to great players, combined with the expert teachings of Jerome Callet, I have greatly improved my tone and ease of playing. For further information about Jerome Callet visit the Superchops website at http://super-chops.com/

Often the greatest knowledge lies in simple logic but as musicians we are fed an awful lot of mis-information during our learning that leads to confusion that can have detrimental effects on our playing for many years. The most valuable tool you have for your development as a musician is your own ears.

A quote about our practice

A great quote from the writings of Herbert L. Clarke. It is amazing how much of what he says applies to learners today:

In my practice I kept to the elementary, although I could play a lot of tunes when I first started and this even before a perfect scale was played – that is, played without making a mistake of any kind. How often do we think that our work is satisfactory when, after all, we merely blow into the cornet and make a noise without being perfect in every detail! One hundred percent alone is perfection. Ninety-nine percent only proves that one percent is missing in perfection, thus making the whole imperfect by just one per cent; therefore, when in his practice a player does not correct the slightest mistake immediately he logically is practicing to be imperfect.
I have heard many pupils play page after page of the instruction book, missing the notes here and there and making all manner of mistakes without correcting them, then say: – “well I played fifteen pages of exercises today.” There was no realization that even if only one mistake was made they had not played the fifteen pages, but simply “played at them.”

Understanding modes is all about perspective

As a music theory teacher I rarely come across a pupil who understands modes. Usually they have been vaguely introduced to the topic by a school teacher who has presented the topic to them by explaining that it was a technique used in the days before the tempered scale and that the modes were created by playing from different degrees of the major scale like so:

 
modes-wrong

Although these are correct examples for modes and one way they could be worked out, the point of reference for describing how they are created is completely wrong. If you were to ask someone who thinks in this way how to play a Lydian mode on F then their answer would be “that’s a C major scale”, which it is not. The correct answer should be “that’s an F major scale with a sharpened 4th degree/note”. In fact George Russell and Mile Davis would argue that a Lydian mode is the true starting point for any key, and that we achieve the Major scale or Ionian mode by flattening the 4th. In the following explanation, therefore, I shall do exactly that and you will see why.

The important thing to recognise is that, in modern music at least, each mode has a melodic function. It’s not just that we may choose to compose a melody using a particular mode so that it has a folk sound or creates a particular mood. For each chord we may choose to put into a sequence there is a mode that accompanies it that sounds good and enables us to move and resolve smoothly on to the next chord.

So here’s how it works: There are a couple rules to know and a couple of scales that are not modes of the major scale that you need to be shown. Having these extra couple scales helps you to understand the melodic function of the others.

There are two functions of a scale – tonic and dominant. A tonic scale goes nicely with our home chord.
So a C (maj7) chord, which includes the notes C E G (+ B). You play the major scale or lydian mode over this chord.

Flattening the 7th degree of a scale gives it dominant function.  Here’s an example:

 

perfect-cadence_trimmedThe extra scales you need to know about to aid understanding are the Lydian Dominant (Major scale with a sharpened 4th and flattened 7th). This is actually a mode of the Jazz minor scale (Like a major scale with a flattened 3rd and also known as the ascending half of a Melodic Minor scale). Knowing about the existence of these two scales just helps to fill in all the gaps when defining the function of the rest.

Here are the modes presented starting on the same note:

Modes

The vitally important thing to notice here (which is why the Lydian belongs at the top) is that every time you move from one mode to the next; Lydian – Ionian – Mixolydian – Dorian – Aeolian – Phrygian – Locrian; the note that you are flattening is a 5th lower than the last one you flattened; 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd, 5th, 1st; which means what? – It follows the circle of 5ths!
The circle of fifths is present in all aspects of western music.

Above each scale is a definition of it’s musical function – if it says “dominant” then the sound created will resolve nicely to one of the tonic modes. The Dorian mode is most commonly used over chord ii7 in a ii7-V7-I cadence. The half-diminished scale is the equivalent in a minor key – ii7b5, V7b9, i.
Also worth noticing is that the Dorian mode relates to the Jazz Minor in the same way as the Mixolydian mode relates to the Major scale (and that is the same as the relationship between the Lydian mode and the Lydian Dominant).

Please leave comments if you would like further explanation.