How effective is my practise?

As an instrumental music teacher the subject of practise is one that I discuss almost on a daily basis with all kinds of people. Usually it’s with my pupils or their parents but it is a topic that comes up in social situations too. Maybe I’m chatting with someone about cookery, open source software or learning a language; eventually the subject of practising to learn new skills will creep into the conversation. I also tend to talk a lot about podcasts and YouTube videos as I can be quite an obsessive consumer of these at times. I find it quite mind-blowing how much you can passively learn over time just from listening to others talking about their passions and interests.

One YouTube channel that I’m a bit of a fan of is that of Mike Boyd. Mike constantly tasks himself with learning new skills and in the past few years has learnt over fifty-two new skills. These vary from the frivolous, such as spinning a ball on his finger or doing a wheelie on a bike, to more serious skills such as swimming a mile in freezing cold water. Mike, it appears, is a real master of mind and body… or is he? I think that if you were to ask him then he’d probably say no. What Mike seems to be master of is practise.

A recent video that Mike put out featured his wife Kim, who learned to juggle as a test to see whether or not Mike learns skills faster than the average person. You can watch this video here, but please remember to read the rest of this article… you haven’t gotten to the good bit yet!

This video really got me into thinking about how I describe the process of practise to people. I’ve done it in a couple ways in the past and neither of them have been particularly effective.

I’m not a fan of the traditional model of music practise that is sold to keen beginners when they take up an instrument. By that I mean getting your instrument and music out, standing in a room alone and repeatedly struggling to get better at the work you’ve been set for half an hour per day, every day. My modus operandi goes like this: I leave instruments and mouthpieces lying around in most rooms of the house. Whenever I walk into a room, get bored whilst sat at the computer, am forced to wait the labourious ninety seconds for the kettle to boil, etc., I pick up an instrument and I start to play. This way I do between five and ten minutes of practise repeatedly throughout the day. This is how I learnt to play when I was young and playing along to the radio in this way is how I learned to play by ear and later developed that into perfect pitch. Another way this system can work is to have a trumpet or cornet nearby when watching television. Whenever the adverts come on you can play for a few minutes. Working like this I would set goals to achieve in that short time and it’s a very effective way to add a little pressure to your mini practise sessions. I’ve told many of my pupils about this way of working. To date I’m only aware of one of them who has actually tried it. I know this because after six months his trumpet had been dropped and knocked off of tables so many times that it needed replacing… #facepalm.

Another thing that I’ve often reserved for more experienced players is simply describing how many hours of an average week I would spend playing my cornet or trumpet between the ages of twelve and sixteen. During that time I attended brass band rehearsals twice per week (four hours). I played in two bands at a Saturday morning music club (two and a half hours). I had a weekly lesson (half an hour) and a couple of lunchtime music groups at school (one hour). In an average week I was engaged in musical activities for a minimum of eight and a half hours before personal practise. And that’s an average week without concerts on the weekends or county brass band or concert band courses to attend. There actually weren’t very many of these minimal “average” weeks. Telling people this information rarely inspires them to try harder so these days I just save it for someone who needs a scare.

In Mike Boyd’s videos he places a counter on the screen so that the viewer gets to see how much time he has dedicated to practising his new skill. In the video above it took Kim just over four hours to learn to juggle three balls continuously for over thirty seconds. She did this over the course of eight days, which is an average of half an hour per day. If Kim were to have only spent ten minutes per day, six days per week, practising then it would have taken a month to achieve her goal. In all likelihood it would have taken longer because a basic familiarity with the task would have taken much longer to settle in her mind and muscle memory.

The problem with this comparison is that it isn’t simply one thing that you are trying to learn when you pick up a musical instrument. What if the skill that you are trying to master is playing one scale from memory and it requires four hours of continuous practise? Well, if you were to practise one scale at a time for ten minutes per day then you could learn all twelve major scales in a year. But after eleven months do you think you’d remember the first scale that you learnt to play? Maybe. (click this link to learn more about my method of teaching scales. There’s also a book about it in my store.)

Here’s another example: a student has an exam coming up in two months and they still cannot play the required music from beginning to end without stopping. If they practise for ten minutes per day, six days per week, then as far as playing time is concerned the exam is eight hours away. It is 9am, could they take the exam at 5pm and pass?

All in all I think there’s a lot of perspective to be gained from doing some simple maths relating to instrumental practise. It’s a great way of understanding how much work needs to be done but also a good way of allowing yourself to accept your limitations in terms of progress. Are you having trouble with double tonguing? How many hours have you invested in nothing but trying to improve it? Maybe you could learn it in four hours of dedicated practise. But something else that Mike Boyd does is research. If you’re struggling to do something on your instrument then it’s best to find out how others do it before you waste time practising the wrong way. It takes longer to over-write a bad habit than to form it correctly in the first place.

The most important things are motivation and enjoyment. Enjoyment can even be used as motivation! I always tell my pupils that it’s fun to be good at something and you get good by setting goals. So, what are you going to learn this week?

Do you know why?

Introduction

In recent months I have been teaching pupils about the Tongue Controlled Embouchure over Skype. This has been a really valuable experience for me as a teacher because it has enabled me to refine resources and see how a number of people respond to using them over time. For those that I am teaching their fees pay for three things. Access to resources without cost, the lesson itself, and a summary email in which I write in greater detail about the concepts that we have covered in the session. Something else that I’m gaining from the experience personally is affirmation that these techniques really work. It isn’t only that I happened to have stumbled across an esoteric method that works for me but I have taken this knowledge and managed to package it together in a way that is really helping people to improve their trumpet playing technique. That’s a good feeling.

A subject of conversation that tends to come up with some pupils fairly frequently is the one of how this information compares to the more traditional approaches and whether similar benefits would be found from practising any set of progressive exercises. Specifically there are three techniques that keep arising and those are to be the subject of this post. Since my switch to TCE I’ve adopted a pretty hardcore means to trimming down aspects of trumpet practise to make sure I get the most out of it. I have a simple rule that governs what I believe to be a no-nonsense strategy: If you’re practising a technique and don’t directly observe improvement to some aspect of your playing within two weeks you’re either doing it wrong or it doesn’t work.

Having this strategy means that you need to have a pretty fixed idea about the definition of improvement. At my stage of playing I keep an eye on a few things, in this order:

  1. Quality of tone
  2. General ease of playing
  3. Maintenance of or improvement in range

I actually think that these few things are all linked so I know just from listening whether I’ve upset the balance, or improved it.

With that in mind I invite you to ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you know why you play pedal notes? What are they actually doing to your embouchure, and how is this benefiting your playing?
  2. Do you know why you practise bending notes off pitch centre and how (or if) it is improving your playing?
  3. Do you know why you buzz on the mouthpiece? Do you realise that in physical terms mouthpiece buzzing is not the same as playing your instrument and the ways that it could actually adversely affect your embouchure?

Mouthpiece Buzzing

This is a topic that is a little over discussed already. To date the trumpet community is still pretty divided on the topic. So far as I can see there are basically three opinions:

  1. Good: Buzzing is completely invaluable, Bud Herseth used to do it an hour a day, therefore so should you.
  2. Bad: Buzzing causes problems like too much lip tension and overblowing. It is also not the same thing as when you play the instrument.
  3. Ugly: It’s pointless. Don’t do it.

In a masterclass with trumpeter Jim Watson I remember him once saying that he wouldn’t waste time practising anything that he wouldn’t need to do on stage. The attitude would eliminate the need for mouthpiece buzzing, and echoes the thoughts of some other popular schools of trumpet pedagogy. Those who support buzzing believe that you are refining both your aural skills and your embouchure co-ordination. Some also use mouthpiece buzzing as a way to improve breath control.

Having spent a lot of time doing this myself I wouldn’t really deny that people could benefit in these ways from the practice, but in recent years I have come to believe that buzzing on the mouthpiece can have negative consequences too. The famous American teacher Bill Adam advocated the practice of buzzing pitches on the lead pipe. Because there is a column of air in the lead pipe your lips are vibrating in sympathy, more similarly to when you play the whole instrument. In order to keep this true, however, there would only be about four notes that you should play on the lead pipe and many who buzz in this way are bending things all over the place by trying to play scales and melodies.

This is the problem with mouthpiece buzzing in general. Because of the length of the tube there is no pitch centre. Therefore your lips cannot vibrate in sympathy with the column of air and it is necessary for you to tense the lips and overblow for any tone to be produced. If this approach lines up with your understanding of how to play the instrument then your stamina and range are going to be quite seriously restricted. It’s basically a brute force approach to playing.

The Buzzing Book by James Thompson describes how buzzing on the mouthpiece will enable a player to develop their aperture and air control in order to enable them to play in pitch centre, but considering that there is no pitch centre without a length of tube this seems to be a bit of a contradiction. Whilst reading through this book for research I stumbled across a pitch-bending exercise that I once saw a student practising as part of their warm-up. When I asked them about it they couldn’t explain why they were doing it or whether they felt that it helped them to play better. I would argue that even the uncertainty is reason enough to stop doing it, but this person was not my pupil so I only hope that our conversation provoked them to quiz their teacher for further details. Many of the exercises in Thompson’s book are recommended that you play first on the mouthpiece and then on the trumpet. I’m sure that they can help people by increasing awareness of how it feels to play the instrument when doing these exercises but I also think that many are confused into believing that there is an esoteric muscle development or tissue manipulation that will improve their sound and other aspects of playing over a long period of time. Personally I just don’t think that’s true.

There are other methods of buzzing without the instrument such as free “loose-lip” buzzing, spit buzzing and Lynn Nicholson’s Rimpet/HMH. These are also interesting techniques, but I’d go way over my word-limit if I started on about all that!

Pitch Bending

Pitch bending is the process of playing a note and then using the embouchure to force the pitch away from the resonant centre until you reach the pitch of a different note. As a brief co-ordination exercise it can have value in teaching people to hear and feel what it is like to play in tune verses playing out of tune. However, as part of daily practise I think that it is pretty detrimental. I’ve heard it said in a lecture that note bending “trains the fine muscles in your lips to improve control and tone”. I’d love to know exactly which muscles they are. In fact I’m very confident that no such muscles exist and this was somebody’s attempt to explain something they don’t understand by talking nonsense until everybody listening is in such awe of their “knowledge” that they submit to believing that they just aren’t experienced enough to understand.

Consider the idea that by bending notes off pitch centre there are two things that need to take place:

  1. You are forcing the lips to work against the physics of the instrument.
  2. In order for the lips to vibrate contrary to the resonant frequency (pitch) of the air column you need to blow more air.

Even without my critical analysis of the technique please answer me this question: Why would you want to dedicate time and effort to improving your ability to play out of tune with a bad sound? Do people not have enough intonation problems without them spending time cultivating the ability?

As with the mouthpiece buzzing, these sorts of exercises can help somebody to hear and feel what it is like to play on pitch, but as a mundane routine without measurable improvement I cannot see any longer-term advantage. Many people are promoting the idea of wrestling the instrument under control as though it’s a battle of player vs trumpet. None of the world’s best players think that way.

Pedal Notes

As you may have seen in a previous post of mine playing pedal notes is a part of the TCE practise routine. However the method that I teach is vastly different from those you see in the school of Louis Maggio, Claude Gordon or James Stamp. These, the more traditional advocates, define pedal tones as including pitches moving chromatically downwards from the trumpet’s lowest available pitch and spending time cultivating a strong pedal C, among other things. I’ll spare you all the rant about why I believe pedal C to be a pointless venture as I’m sure you could find it elsewhere in my writings, but we do need to think for a minute about how these pedal notes are produced.

The first step to playing pedal notes is to find the first pedal note, F. This is first achieved by playing a low F-sharp and bending it downwards by a semitone. Once this “lip position” is secure then you have to fight the instrument to produce this same pitch on the “correct fingering”: just the first valve. When you were playing the F on all three valves you were only bending the pitch off centre by a semitone. When you play it with only the first valve you are now bending the note off centre by a Perfect 4th. When settled with this procedure you can keep adding valves to find your way chromatically down to pedal C-sharp. The pedal C is a whole different beast because you are actually bending a pitch, which is an octave lower than the low F-sharp, upwards by a tritone. It is hard to do because your lips want to vibrate in sympathy with the air column at a pitch an octave higher (i.e. low C). Anyway… we now have enough information to see that yet again the general theme here is forcing the instrument to produce notes off-centre, working against how the instrument is designed to function and in all likelihood overblowing as a means to grapple it under control.

What it really brings into question however, is why people believe there to be benefit to doing these things. When you play pedal notes in the traditional way the instructions given are often pretty strict about maintaining the same embouchure as you descend. Whereas with einsetzen/ansetzen exercises the player discovers a balanced lip position, develops efficient use of air and learns how to play across their range with minimal mouthpiece pressure. There don’t appear to be any detailed justifications for the traditional method at all. Is that why people are divided about whether or not we should bother doing it? There’s just no evidence that it works. There is often illusion to relaxing the lips and aligning the jaw, but both of those things are contradicted when you consider that tradition approaches to playing also advocate tight mouth corners and tongue level (using the tongue level to manipulate pitch results in movement of the jaw). Jeff Smiley has a section in his book where he describes how many mistake cause for effect when coming up with playing techniques. However you should strive to make up your own mind. Apply the strategy above and see whether or not you see measurable short-term improvement.

Conclusion

So there we have it… if nothing else this post is intended as food for thought. Even if it serves no purpose than to force those who take a different approach than me to consider and justify the reasons that they practise these things then that justifies me taking the time to write it. But it would be really good if some readers can take the time to honestly look at the time and effort you put into your maintenance routines and ask yourself:

“Are these exercises actually making me into a better player? Have my tone, power, range and endurance been the same for a decade or more? Do these exercises help me at all? What would happen if I were to just stop doing them?”

With information about modern approaches to playing being freely available online I believe that it’s only a matter of time before we realise that much of the teaching techniques, gimmicks and accessories that we used in the twentieth century were just a stepping stone to what we have now and that players can just stop wasting countless hours in the practise room cultivating destructive skills and instead spend the time playing challenging music.

~iii<0

A Follow-up on Tone, Cornets and Mouthpieces

The purpose of this post is a brief follow-up on some previous articles. It’s a bit of a rant, but in this case I feel it’s necessary.

I have recently seen some people discussing one of my posts on an internet forum and there are a couple of things that I would like to address. The post in question is titled Trumpet vs Cornet, and why it’s important. If you haven’t read that then click here to have a quick look. Some people had expressed confusion about a statement I had made in terms of cornet embouchure and because I was happy with the blog post at the time of publishing I don’t want to re-write it. What I’ll do instead is give a less formal summary of the main point in that article to make sure that it is clear.

First of all it is worth me pointing out that this is my opinion, and it is also more of a philosophical point than one describing an instrument’s limitations. I must stress, however, that this is an opinion that I have developed over a period of twenty-five years as a performer on both the trumpet and the cornet, seventeen of which I have been a working professional player in a variety of genres of music. I am also a specialist embouchure and technique teacher who works with people around the world. I write these things because I am trying to help people to improve their understanding of the instruments they play so that they don’t waste decades trying to smack a square peg into a round hole. I genuinely believe that somebody can improve their playing instantly by changing their ideas because I have done exactly that. The vast majority of people out there discussing trumpet playing on the internet are sharing old, dated concepts and they are very defensive of these ideas. I have worked on my playing with really forward-thinking teachers who have decades of experience proving that traditional trumpet teaching simply does not work for the majority. Now that I’ve said this piece I will leave it up to you to decide whether you wish to take notice of what I have to share and good luck to you if you don’t.

In the Trumpet vs Cornet article my main points were these:

  1. Modern trumpets and cornets are more similar than different and one of the main ways to distinguish between them is the mouthpiece. Despite that fact, players love to use the same type of mouthpiece for both and as a result limit their abilities on both instruments.
  2. Taking a historically informed approach to performing on these instruments has lead me to believe that whilst it is the correct decision to switch to a shorter cornet (E-flat soprano being the most common) to facilitate playing with finesse in the high register it is not the correct thing to do on a trumpet.
  3. The tonal qualities of these two instruments should be noticeably different to a non-musician. The cornet was designed for lyrical chromatic playing in the low and middle register and in contrast the trumpet should sound brilliant and strident. It is those qualities that facilitate playing well in the high register on the trumpet but it does require far greater embouchure control. Simply switching to a shorter instrument makes a strong embouchure seem unnecessary, but you’re really just hiding from your problems…
  4. Many players out there make a great cornet sound on the trumpet and wonder why they cannot play well in the high register. This is my answer to that question.

Point 4 on this list brings us full-circle back to the issue of appropriate mouthpiece selection. And that in turn brings up the issue of correct tone concept.

The sound that a brass instrument produces is a composite of the fundamental pitch and a series of overtones above it. When a player makes an effort to play with a “dark tone” they are effectively putting a premium on the fundamental pitch and killing off the overtones. This is making the sound less resonant. Also, if there are no high overtones then they are not available to be excited and therefore producing high pitches on the instrument is much more difficult. Whenever a trumpet player starts chatting with me about blending with trombones I always ask them when they last heard an oboe player talking about making their instrument sound like a bassoon, or a violinist trying to sound like a cello… Even in the homogenous sound of a brass band it wouldn’t work if the soprano cornet was trying to sound like a flugelhorn.

Generally people believe that there is a trade-off to be had between having a pleasing sound and being able to play well in the high register but I believe this to be a misnomer. Something that I mentioned in my article about mouthpieces was that as a general rule those who favour large mouthpieces really struggle to produce a good tone on something smaller, but the opposite is rarely true (In his book The Balanced Embouchure Jeff Smiley writes about this being a byproduct the embouchure’s ability to “focus”). I think that at this point in time there are so few people that use really small equipment to play classical music that there simply aren’t enough use cases for comparison, however there are plenty of experienced professionals out there talking about this idea. There is a pretty widely-discussed article by Jens Lindemann on the topic, and also there have been recent podcast interviews with people such as Mark Gould and Jim Pandolfi when the subject of players not understanding trumpet sound comes up. As a final example, here is a quote from an article by Mark Van Cleave on the same subject:

It is unfortunate that many players and teachers automatically go for the wide/deep cups to produce a big fat orchestral sound. It is interesting to know that some of the players that DEFINED the orchestral sound such as Harry Glanz played a Bach 6C through out his career in New York. and Adolph Herseth won his job in Chicago playing a Bach 7B. Herseth went to a larger cup later in his career in order to accommodate scar tissue that he had developed due to an automobile accident he had in the early 50’s which severely injured his chops. Funny thing… Shortly after Herseth made the switch to a larger mouthpiece (for physical reasons), orchestral players in Boston and New York began to go larger as well. I can’t help wonder what THEIR reasons were.

So anyway… Just to top all of this part off I think I should also point out that all of my statements here are in reference to using an instrument in its most common setting. I am capable of producing the same range of notes on a cornet as I am a trumpet, and I can play the same range of notes on a Schilke 24 as I can on a 6A4a but I wouldn’t be able to practise baroque concertos on a standard B-flat trumpet (which I do) if I were using a Bach 1C for everything (which I don’t) and nor would I be able to produce an appropriate sound in a salsa band. I never need to play above high C or D on a B-flat cornet so I’m going to pick equipment that helps me sound best on a lyrical cornet solo. It’s all about making informed choices and realising where you got your information from.

If a guy in a shop is telling you that something is a “Best Seller“, is that just because he told the same thing to the last fifty people that walked through the door? The biggest brass retailer in the south-west of England only stocks mouthpieces that players traditionally buy – that’s why people only buy those mouthpieces from them… if they want something better they go elsewhere. Never listen to a salesman for specialist equipment advise because their area of expertise is sales, not music. There are great players who also sell equipment, but they can always demonstrate why they’re telling you something. Ask for a demonstration. If somebody cannot show you why their advise is correct then it probably isn’t.

Finally I should be addressing the fact that I was accused of historical inaccuracy. When I make statements on this blog I back them up with quotes and references to books. I go out of my way to find examples of the ideas I share being discussed by those in both the traditional and alternative pedagogical circles. I even pride myself on this fact. I always make a point of inviting people to comment on my blog posts and would welcome questions from the genuinely curious or even those who disagree if they’re willing to engage in rational conversation. If there are errors then I am more than happy to edit or retract statements I’ve made. It was the ability to admit that I didn’t know enough that put me on the path of learning that has resulted in this blog being possible.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope that my thoughts on the subjects addressed are now clearer. If in doubt please comment below, get in touch via contact button.

~iii<0

Trumpet Mouthpieces: One or More, Big or Small, Should do it?

One or More, Big or Small, Should do it?

A discussion by Richard Colquhoun about the differing attitudes towards choices of
trumpet mouthpieces for performance and their use in pedagogy.

Introduction

In April 2016 I travelled to Belgium to meet with Bahb Civiletti. Bahb is one of the world’s pre-eminent baroque trumpet players and his The Art Of The High Baroque album features some of the only recordings ever made of certain solo repertoire on a natural trumpet (the fruits of him having studied with Jerome Callet and Friedemann Immer can also be heard on his YouTube Channel). Over the time that I spent with Bahb one topic of conversation that came up a few times was that of trumpet mouthpieces. I was quite keen to hear Bahb’s opinion on this topic partly because it is often a point of contention between trumpet players, but also because Jerome Callet asserts quite a strong ideology in terms of mouthpiece choice and I was curious whether this had rubbed off on Bahb at all.

When asked he joked about people’s obsessions with trumpet mouthpieces and told a story about how he once challenged a room of people to find a mouthpiece that he couldn’t perform the first sixteen bars of the third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto on; apparently they couldn’t (including a french horn mouthpiece). On a more serious note he stated that one could learn to play anything they want to with any mouthpiece and that the only reason you may have to change is to get an appropriate tone colour for the music you’re performing. He also recommended to avoid discussing mouthpieces with other trumpet players as these things always end in an argument. Since the popularity of my article about Vincent Bach mouthpieces I’ve been trying to write a more general follow-up and, like many of my articles, I have a number of failed attempts in my drafts folder. The other day I met with some trumpet-playing friends and the inevitable debate began. By the time the discussion had finished there was no clear movement in anybody’s opinion. Plenty of good points were made but these decisions tend to be intrinsically tied to deeply held opinions based upon very different levels of experience, exposure to ideas, and goals when playing the instrument. What you will read here is my attempt to describe a few conflicting attitudes that people have towards choice of mouthpiece that I hope will be helpful not only to make informed decisions, but also in understanding why no choice you make will ever please everyone you meet.

Idea 1: One Ring To Rule Them All

A particularly prominent voice in the trumpet pedagogy world is Claude Gordon. Claude’s philosophy is that once you have addressed all aspects of playing technique in a systematic, progressive way then you will be a competent player and that all abilities are inevitable. He says in his book Brass Playing Is No Harder Than Deep Breathing that an aspiring trumpet player should buy one good mouthpiece and stick with it. This is a conclusion that he came to after spending much of his playing career searching for the “perfect mouthpiece” and his intention behind the advise is to warn others not to make the same mistake, which would be to believe that a change of equipment is of equal value to quality practise. His recommendation for a sensible mouthpiece is one with and open backbore, longer v-shaped cup and a wide throat. Claude talks against using mouthpieces that feel tight, or provide resistance. Claude Gordon’s general rule is that the physical side of playing should be focused mostly on wind power, which goes a long way to explain his ideas about mouthpieces. In musical terms, students of the Gordon school believe that all variations in tone that you may want can come from your intentions as you play. This is a very common idea that Arturo Sandoval does a good job of demonstrating it in this video.

Jerome Callet is another famous American trumpet pedagogue. In his teaching he puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of correct sound. To him there is only one correct sound that one should strive to make on the trumpet, regardless of the genre of music you play. He teaches that in attempting to create “a big orchestral sound” many players force their tone to “spread”, which in turn leads to over blowing. His philosophy puts a premium on efficient use of air, stressing that Harry James (often used as a model for tone) only used as much air as was necessary to get the job done. On the subject of mouthpieces Jerry also believes that players can and should only use one mouthpiece. Contrary to Claude Gordon’s teaching, disciples of Jerry favour mouthpieces with shallow cups, long tight backbores and small throats. Callet also alludes to the need for a mouthpiece design to be “balanced”, but I’ve never found an explanation of what he means by that.

Idea 2: The Right Tool For The Job

Whilst consistency is important in your practice and goals as an instrumentalist many believe that choosing one mouthpiece to use forever is likely to cause a player problems if they play a wide variety of music. If you were to only use a shallow mouthpiece such as Schilke 14A4a then you may struggle with soft entrances in an orchestral setting or even making a characteristic sound. Similarly if you always play on a wide bowl such as a Vincent Bach 1X then you are going to need a lot of physical effort to play lead trumpet in a big band. Many players take pride in the so-called strength they’ve built up over years of playing on inappropriate equipment and believe that others are cheating if they aren’t punishing themselves in the same way. K.O. from Stomvi discusses his point of view nicely in this video. Of course some may surmise that the best option would be a middle-of-the-road mouthpiece, thus getting no assistance from your mouthpiece for either job… paraphrasing Mark Van Cleave I’ll just say that average [mouthpieces/ideas/methods] produce average results and average trumpet players. Trying to use logic simply to avoid exploration will only result in missing out on the fruits of knowledge.

Bobby Shew is possibly one of the most accomplished trumpet players alive today. He explains in this article how he spent years believing that you could play everything on one mouthpiece, avoiding getting caught up in the decision making traps. Eventually he came to realise that trying out different equipment and learning to use it can be extremely beneficial. This is something that I will explain in greater detail later on. I wanted to quote a lot of Bobby’s article, but I’d rather you just go and read the whole thing. I’m just going to take this part:

The use of an improper mouthpiece equates with trying to drive nails with a screwdriver – Bobby Shew

Roger Ingram studied with Bobby Shew when he was younger and has a very similar attitude towards choice of mouthpieces. On his website he sells a set of six mouthpieces, all of which are intended for specific jobs. The really interesting thing is that he says that he doesn’t even bother to try playing high parts on any but the smallest of these (despite the fact that I’m sure he could nail a killer Double High C on a bucket!!). In his book Clinical Notes On Trumpet Playing Roger recommends that when playing lead trumpet you should use the “smallest mouthpiece you can get away with” and for orchestral playing you should use the “largest mouthpiece you can get away with”. His chapter on mouthpiece selection is actually very interesting and he firmly believes that what works for one person will not work for another. He also talks about consciously placing more or less lip in the bowl of the mouthpiece before you play in order to adapt to the size.

Idea 3: Mouthpieces As A Teaching Aid

A very common teaching practice that I’ve written about in the past is the idea that as pupils progress they should be moved on to bigger and bigger mouthpieces. I wrote about why this isn’t logical in reference to Vincent Bach mouthpieces because of the inconsistencies in design and manufacturing, but if a player were to use mouthpieces of a different brand then that argument would be negated. Another reason that it doesn’t make sense, however, is the idea of strength. Imagine that you start out playing on a Yamaha 11B4. As you become a stronger player you move on to using a Schilke 14, but you’re not strong enough for that mouthpiece so you have to work to build up more strength. Once you master your Schilke 14 you “graduate” up to a “professional mouthpiece”. That could be a Yamaha 16C4, Schilke 17D4d or 18, Vincent Bach 1C, Monette B2, the choices are endless. Unfortunately you’re not strong enough for these mouthpieces yet so you have to work to build things up again.
This process is so ridiculous that I am beside myself just writing this explanation. Every time you begin to make progress you’re slapped back to the beginning by the wisdom of “this is how the big boys do it”. It’s not only the constant punishment for practising that annoys me though. The definition of strength in this situation is the ability of the lips to resist an ever-increasing volume of air that if you weren’t using in the first place you’d never need the strength to resist. It was the opinion of Renold Schilke that anybody, whether they’ve every played before or not has strength to resist as much air pressure as required to play any note on the trumpet (refer to this article for more information).
Large mouthpieces are really good at hiding poor technique, whether that be allowing the lips to collapse into the cup (usually), poor articulation (dwah dwah dwah), or just relying on air to compensate for lack of embouchure training (definitely). Large mouthpieces do not teach you to play properly and more importantly they allow you to play incorrectly. Some people will make them work through realising that just because you can use power it doesn’t mean that you should, and everyone else just suffers and starts to believe that not everyone is cut out for playing the trumpet. It is this sort of trouble that makes people lean in the direction of Claude Gordon’s school of thought – get a sensible mouthpiece and work on your technique. When presented only with these two options, Gordon is absolutely the better choice. There are, however, many other, more modern, approaches.

A relatively recent movement in the trumpet pedagogy sphere is Lynn Nicholson. In the last couple of years he has released a number of video tutorials and mouthpiece design that constitute what he refers to as the Mindless Hardware Methodology. The idea behind the MHM is that using a small, v-cup mouthpiece with a very high alpha angle for short periods will force you to learn correct playing habits because playing incorrectly simply won’t work on that equipment. No thinking or analysis is necessary. Whilst this is an extreme example, this idea is not one that I’m opposed to.

Players who frequently use small shallow mouthpieces will often point out that they are still capable of using deep mouthpieces whereas the reverse is very rarely true. Users of bigger mouthpieces complain of their lips hitting the cup on shallow mouthpieces and not being able to make a big tone. These are both things that are the results of technique and not the equipment. Usually players of larger mouthpieces allow their lips to collapse into the mouthpiece, effectively making it shallower as the distance from their lips to the base of the cup is reduced. Lips in this position are not effective at resisting the air stream and the only solution is to use more air, which makes the problem worse. It is much more difficult to create the compression required for playing high, or making a big tone, when using large volumes of air. Jerry Callet always recommended that people learn to play with shallower cups because you know straight away if you’re over blowing or using too much pressure. How? because the sound stops coming out of the trumpet! Although Jerry would say that once you are making a correct sound you can play anything; Bahb Civiletti points out that as you’re capable of playing bigger gear then you can choose to do that to appease the tastes of others. At the end of the day the conductor is in charge.

I started out playing on a small cupped mouthpiece by accident. Without knowing the significance of what I was doing, I immediately learned how to keep my lips out of the cup to make the mouthpiece work for me. Had I not, I probably would not have been able to produce much of a sound, if any at all – Roger Ingram

Food For Thought: Change Your Trumpet Or Change Your Mouthpiece?

Recently I went to watch a concert that was given by an ensemble called Spiritato! They are a group of musicians who perform music from the 17th century on authentic period instruments. There were four hole-less natural trumpets in the ensemble, all pitched in D. Two of these instruments were playing high clarino parts and the other two lower tromba parts. Interestingly each member of the section used a different sized mouthpiece. The players of the lower parts had mouthpieces of the size that you’d expect to see in a trombone and the players of the higher parts had mouthpieces that were much smaller. This approach seems to echo the “Right tool for the job” philosophy, and is historically accurate. Also worth noting is that their sounds all blended together nicely as each player made a tone that was appropriate to the pitch they played at.

Since the advent of the valved trumpet, in the classical trumpet field, it is pretty standard practice to switch to smaller higher-pitched trumpets when the music ventures above the stave. People often tend to use a smaller mouthpiece to match their smaller trumpet and this practice was also recommended by Vincent Bach in his older catalogues (as can be seen here: 1 2). It is a generally accepted rule that the B-flat trumpet, being the largest commonly used, produces the most pleasing tone and also has the best intonation of any valved trumpet. Why do players not simply move to their smaller mouthpiece and maintain a richer sound, rather than changing the whole trumpet? Players don’t realise that the true advantage they get from using the smaller trumpet is that they have a more brilliant, focused sound and sharper attacks. These are the properties that they are often trying to avoid on the B-flat trumpet in the name of having a “dark, orchestral sound”. Allowing your sound to be brilliant, focused and articulate comes with the added bonuses of greater control and range (this simple argument completely changed my trumpet playing for the better!).

People use the C trumpet in the orchestra so that they can make the right sound on the wrong mouthpiece – Jerome Callet

AOB? The Biggest Lie Of All

The final thing that I’d like to mention before leaving you to get on with your day is a myth and lie that is often sold to aspiring players by shops and mouthpiece manufactures. This is an idea that is often sold (literally) to people to keep them trying new equipment when practise and lessons would suffice. I have chosen to represent The Biggest Lie in the form of a graphic. Don’t believe what it says!

 

Conclusion

After all of this, do I regret forgetting Bahb’s advice and starting a conversation with my friends about choices of mouthpiece? No.

In a recent podcast Hunter Maats was talking with Bryan Callen about why he gets into arguments with people about their beliefs. He points out that it is the only way to practise clearly articulating your opinions under pressure. The disagreement is relevant because not only may you learn something you didn’t know from someone else’s point of view, but you find out quickly if your arguments hold water. I may have suffered a bit (a lot) of cognitive dissonance upon hearing the improvement in my friend’s playing since taking lessons from Jeff Purtle, but it showed me what has been missing from my practice lately and helped me to finally write this mouthpiece article, which has been brewing for years. Thanks guys!

~iii<0

Trumpet vs Cornet, and why it’s important

Introduction – My Story

Being a professional high-brass specialist and growing up in England with our brass band tradition I have been juggling performing on the cornet and the trumpet for my whole playing life. The first brass instrument I played was a cornet and I was extremely excited to take this beaten-up, smelly heap of metal home from school and try to make sounds come out of it. I played in the Wells City Band and it wasn’t for a few years that I even saw a trumpet. My first real exposure to a trumpet was when I joined a big band at the age of twelve. They looked weird! Too long, and sounded harsh. It wasn’t long before I got a trumpet of my own, but it wasn’t until the age of sixteen that I switched from being a cornet player who owns a trumpet into a trumpet player who also plays the cornet. I had recently begun some lessons with Wells Cathedral School head of brass Paul Denegri because I was planning on auditioning for a place at the music school. On his advice I had been to the local trumpet dealer and bought a Vincent Bach Stradivarius trumpet.

I always had this idea in my head that switching between the two instruments was a problem because they felt different and like many people I followed the advice of the local dealer and bought a mouthpiece for my trumpet that was the same as the one I use on my cornet. That was a big mistake. Firstly, the two instruments feel different because they are different; secondly, by using a mouthpiece on one that was designed for the other you are going to achieve the effect of neither; and thirdly, the difference is a good thing! It would be so much more confusing for them to feel the same but behave differently. I think that the problem lies in the expectation of being able to do the same thing with tools that were designed for different purposes. More on this later.

I showed up to my trumpet lesson, proud of my new trumpet, and the only thing I can remember is my teacher looking at me and saying “that doesn’t sound like a trumpet”. Those words still echo in my mind to this day and I had no idea what he was talking about!

So, here’s a blog post that will hopefully provide the information you need to understand and appreciate the difference between these two instruments and aid you in related decision-making to make your musical life easier. Knowing these things really does make my job easier.

A Bit of History

Putting these two instruments into context requires that we look back in time and understand why they were created, and what they were used for.

The history of the trumpet is a long story. Ed Tarr spends this first seven chapters (about 150 pages) of his book The Trumpet just getting up to the point that I’m starting at. But there are only a few important points that we need to take from all of that to help us get to grips with the instrument’s purpose. In culture the trumpet has always had somewhat of a split personality. The primary role of trumpet-like instruments is that of a signal. Usually this is imagined in a military setting and can basically be thought of as performing fanfares. To be played loudly and heard over a long distance (quality of tone is not an issue!). The secondary role of the trumpet is its place in art music. Performing high-pitched florid melodies, akin to the human voice in timbre and demanding a very delicate control of the high register.

Whilst you continue reading, listen to this music in the background and really soak up the sound of the baroque trumpet. This music is performed by my teacher and friend Robert J. Civilietti, an American trumpet player. He was the first, and to date only, person to make recordings of this repertoire on the baroque trumpet. Joseph Riepel Concerto in D performed by Bahb Civiletti

Whilst the trumpet during the 18th Century was undoubtedly a beautiful instrument it had one big flaw – there were huge gaps in the available notes in the low and middle registers meaning that you could not play chromatically, or even diatonically over most of the instrument.

A major distinction between the trumpet and the cornet is that the trumpet evolved over time whereas the cornet was invented. In the first quarter of the 19th Century there were various instruments developed using different types of valves or keys that finally enabled a high brass instrument that could play melodically in its lower register with a consistent sound quality. This is something that composers wanted and players, who by this point had lost the upper register skills of their predecessors, jumped at the chance of playing lyrical melodies on these instruments. This loss of ability is something that happened because composers in the classical period had been treating the trumpet very differently to the past and there was no-longer any need to develop such skills. It was also not popular to perform period music in those days.

With the development of tonguing techniques and popularity of Theme and Variation Solos the cornet became a very popular soloist’s instrument. Cornets found their place in wind bands and with the advent of saxhorns in the 1840s the brass band was then possible too. There was some use of cornets in the symphony orchestra as well, but that’s a story I’m saving for later.

Physical Differences and Similarities

Physically speaking the modern cornet and piston-valve trumpet are very similar. The text-book differences are these:

The taper of a cornet should be at least 2/3rds conical and 1/3rd cylindrical. The conical section from the mouthpiece to tuning slide is longer on a cornet, which should give it better intonation. The valves for adjusting the length of tubing are farther along the overall length, which can affect how smooth their action feels when they’re pressed. By comparison the opposite end of the design scale would be a rotary-valve trumpet, which has about six inches of tubing from mouthpiece to the valve-entrance, meaning that the effect of pushing the valves feels more immediate.
Because of this the tubing has four 180 degree bends in it, whereas a trumpet only has two. This is a major factor in creating the characteristic sound of the cornet. The bell on a cornet is shorter, usually has “shepherd’s crook” shape to its curve and generally has less of an exponential-curve-style flare to its shape.

It is generally said that in comparison a trumpet should be 2/3rds to 3/4ths cylindrical over its length but this is residual knowledge of the crowd and relates more to the dimensions of the baroque trumpet than to a modern trumpet. In the first half of the 20th Century short trumpets in B-flat (modern piston-valve trumpets) and the cornet evolved quite rapidly, taking aspects of each other’s design to improve their own. By the 1960s there were instruments available that on first glance were physically indistinguishable from each other apart from the mouthpiece. This chart shows that for the most part neither the cornet or the modern trumpet is more conical than the other and in some cases the reverse is true (it would be unfair to include a link to that chart without a link to the brilliant article that accompanies it by Robb Stewart. The link for that is here). The trumpet is straighter in appearance and often has more dramatic flare to the bell. These things contribute to its “more free blowing feel”, focused sound and livelier overtone series.

The most significant development for the piston-valved trumpet (and difference from its rotary-valved cousin) was the addition of a leadpipe.

The first section of tapered tubing between the mouthpiece-receiver and tuning slide vastly improves intonation on the modern trumpet, and also contributes greatly to the resistance profile of an instrument, allowing for much better control (slotting of harmonics) in all registers. Renold Schilke used leadpipe design to vastly improve the intonation of smaller, higher pitched trumpets and Schilke is still the best-known brand for D/E-flat and piccolo trumpets today. Various instrument makers such as Rudy Mück, Schilke and Callet Trumpets, experimented with conical sections or varying bore sizes of trumpets to further improve their response and intonation. This is sometimes marketed as “Step Bore”, but is little more than a nod to the fact that modern trumpets aren’t, and never have been, mostly cylindrical in design.

The next most obvious difference, and one of the most important, is the mouthpiece. There’s a lot of chatter about mouthpieces so I’m just going to give some general rules without a lot of explanation.

Firstly let’s state this: The trumpet is the only brass instrument that uses a bowl shaped cup in its mouthpiece design. The original trumpet mouthpieces had a defined angle at the point that the bottom of the cup meets the throat, this point is called a shoulder. That hard shoulder is something that gave the baroque trumpet its characteristic sound, and also assisted with note production on a simpler instrument. The cornet, which was designed to be a little horn (that’s what the word means!) should be played with a small, deep mouthpiece with a V-shaped cup. This is something that gives the cornet its characteristic sound – but also creates the limitations that many players of both instruments find disturbing.

I am going to go into more detail about sound concept in the final and most important section of this article. Before I do so, however, I need to write about two mouthpiece manufactures that have, in my opinion at least, gone against the traditional design of cornet mouthpieces to the detriment of the instrument’s use in modern times.

The first of these is Vincent Bach. I have a long article titled What to know about the Vincent Bach mouthpiece that you may wish to read. In that article I mention how Vincent Bach began making very popular cornet mouthpieces with trumpet-shaped cups and longer shanks. This may have made the instrument more comfortable to play and assist some people with the upper register, but it also served to lead people into making a sound that was not characteristic of the instrument they were playing and I would speculate that this would lead those same people to switch to trumpet playing in the long term if that were an option. This opinion is in part influenced by articles that I link to in the blog post above. Part of me believes that using a traditional “cookie cutter” cornet mouthpiece forces the player to learn to play with proper technique whereas a trumpet-style mouthpiece allows for someone to have some degree of success with poor technique and a brute force approach.

The second manufacturer is more recent than Vincent Bach and is worthy of a long critical article of its own. It is Denis Wick. I once attended a talk given by the famous Denis Wick. He was a professional trombone player who, out of necessity, designed his own trombone mouthpiece because the sort of design he wanted was not available on the British market at the time. Denis Wick mouthpieces are very good for the trombone and at the time were probably the best available. Later on the company he created went on to design mouthpieces for all brass instruments. As far as some instruments like the Euphonium, Baritone and Tenor Horn are concerned they may well have done a good job, I don’t actually know. And like Vincent Bach it was a huge step towards standardisation of mouthpiece design.
For Trumpet and Cornet, however, these mouthpieces are some of the worst I’ve played. For the cornet the less popular, deeper, mouthpieces are similar to the original shape of cornet cup, but the throat is far too big and the internal diameter at the top of the cup is also far larger than you would ever find in an old cornet mouthpiece. The larger throat would serve to deaden high overtones in the sound, allow more air to play, and make the instrument much less agile overall. The more popular ‘B’ cup just looks like a scaled-down trombone mouthpiece – something most definitely not suited to a cornet. Because of their low price point for many years these mouthpieces have become the standard in the British Brass Band scene. Only in the last ten years or so are other companies now making “true cornet cup” mouthpieces that are more similar to the older designs. Denis Wick has since jumped on the band wagon by bringing out their Heritage Series, which I’ve been told on more than one occasion by one of their design consultants is just a direct copy of a vintage cornet mouthpiece.

At this point, if you’ve listened to the recording mentioned above then you may wish to try this recording of Philip McCann playing with the Black Dyke Mills Band. If you can tolerate his incessant use of vibrato, which is very common in brass bands, then it’ll give you a good idea of a cornet sound by comparison. (For the record – vibrato is not a bad thing, but when it is a mindless, ever present habit then I see it as a sign of a player putting their personal style above that of musical interpretation. I’m sure many would disagree!)

So what about the sound?

As you’ll know from reading my previous articles and the story above, playing with a correct sound is a very important topic for me. I believe that for developing players it is both a sign of good technique and a limiting factor in terms of development. Quite simply put, the day I stopped trying to make a dark sound on a trumpet my control, projection and general ease of playing improved markedly. It was by college teacher who wanted me to make this dark sound despite him using a C trumpet in the orchestra – go figure… The point I want to make is that when one is learning to play a trumpet or a cornet they need to understand the sound that the instrument was designed to make and its associated limitations as a result of that.

Not taking the context of an instrument’s origin into account, players will often try to use one instrument to create the sound of the other. Understanding that a trumpet is designed to have a focused, clear, projected tone is primary to developing on the instrument and a preoccupation with creating the diffuse sound of a cornet in the middle register will only serve to push the player to tiring their embouchure by working against the nature of the instrument. Trumpet players, especially in classical schools, will devote many hours to practising smooth lyrical playing in the middle and low register. Trumpet players more often than not will also play on large mouthpieces to facilitate this desire and never develop a reasonable high register, let alone a powerful one. This large mouthpiece compensates for a lack of accuracy in the embouchure which is necessary for creating a direct, well-projecting sound. Unlike cornet players it is very common for a trumpeter to switch to a smaller trumpet so that they can maintain control on the cusp of the high register without developing any accuracy up there on their B-flat instrument. These trumpet players are trying to use a trumpet like a cornet – relying heavily on valves and smaller instruments rather than developing a good embouchure. More thoughts about this can be found in this post.

Many cornet players will struggle with their higher register (the sound naturally becomes more diffuse the higher you play) whilst not taking into account that when the cornet was invented it was the normal thing to use a small soprano cornet in E-flat to play the higher notes (there is still one soprano cornet in a standard brass band configuration). In fact according to Jean Baptiste Arban the cornet in C was also very popular in the 19th Century due to its “distinguished sound” and ease of transposition for orchestral playing.

During the 19th Century the cornet began to replace the trumpet in some orchestras. There were many composers who, recognising the value of both instruments, wrote music that included both parts for the trumpet and the cornet but some composers and conductors disliked the cornet greatly. Hector Berlioz described its sound as imparting “platitude and odious vulgarism […] without the nobility of the horn, nor the pride of the trumpet”. The truth is that the low valved trumpet in F was no better an option because of its poor intonation and sound quality. According to Crispian Steele-Perkins the slide trumpet was still being used in British orchestras until the end of that century. In his book La Trompette et le cornet Merri Franquin recalls the following:

The problem occurred for the first time during a rehearsal for [Ernest] Reyer’s Sigurd at the Paris Opera [c. 1884]. In this opera, the cornets today still [c. 1922] play the [valved] trumpet parts. At the work’s read-through, in the orchestra, there was a solo entrance in the [valved] trumpet parts—entrusted to the cornetists—that climbed up to a sustained B-natural (concert pitch). When the note was not reached, Monsieur Reyer asked why, affirming that it had been played successfully elsewhere (he was alluding to the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels where Sigurd had its premiere). So we confessed to him that the cornet was incapable of replacing the trumpet in that situation. At the next rehearsal, the passage was transferred to the trumpet desk, by means of a momentary exchange of parts [where it was played on small C trumpets].

In his book Trumpet Crispian Steele-Perkins tells a story of a Slide Trumpet vs Cornet Battle that took place in New York in 1834. Apparently the limitations and abilities of both instruments prevented the two players from being able to compete by playing the same music, which in itself demonstrates the point that I’m trying to make. The outcome of the initial competition was a draw.

In Summary: What do I need to know when playing?
  1. The cornet was designed with the invention of valves in order to play smoothly and quickly in the middle and low register. It produces a pleasing sound in these registers and is very agile over the range of approximately two octaves.
  2. The trumpet throughout history has been used to perform fanfares and high-pitched melodies. It naturally has a more direct, focused sound than the cornet. It is meant to stand out in an ensemble and often creates a thicker, more brash tone in the lower register.
  3. The cornet is an instrument that creates a more diffuse sound than a trumpet. This means that it is quite pleasant to listen to and blends well with other instruments. However it also means that it lacks the focus and clarity that is expected of a trumpet and required when performing in the upper register.
Why is it important?

Last year a pupil of mine entered a popular UK music competition. Although he performed well and came quite highly in the rankings the comments he received from the adjudicator were nothing short of moronic. My pupil had performed a piece named Fanfare and Berceuse by Arthur Butterworth, a 20th Century composer, on a trumpet. In the remarks it stated “It could have been nicer if you had played with a more veiled tone”. Maybe it should be pointed out that this adjudicator was used to hearing and judging brass band [cornet] players, but despite being in a position of respect in the musical community was seemingly completely unaware of what a trumpeter, performing a fanfare or any piece of 20th Century solo repertoire should sound like. If it is your profession to judge musicians then you should at least understand the characteristic sounds produced by the instruments you are judging. Unfortunately this is just one of many negative experiences that this pupil has had with ill-informed teachers and brass band leaders.

It is paramount as a musician that you develop your ears by listening to music and learning to be critical of what you hear. You’d be surprised how many highly-rated instrumentalists look better than they sound when you focus on the right things.

~iii<0

Minor Scales – How I teach them and why I use this method

One of the first posts on Trumpet Planet was an explanation of how I teach people to play major scales. It is a popular post and I still use this method to date with pupils surprised at how easy it is to understand key signatures when explained in this way. If you have not read that post then click here to have a look.

This is another post in the series about scales, modes and tonality and I am going to address two issues relating to minor scales. First of all a discussion about where all of these scales come from and then an explanation about how I encourage people to learn to perform them.

Why teach the harmonic minor scale?

The first step to learning about scales and tonality is understanding why we are learning it. What is the purpose of each scale? How will learning this scale make you a better musician/instrumentalist?

What is the purpose of a harmonic minor ‘scale’ (and why is it in inverted commas?)? The harmonic minor is a group of notes that spells out those which are to be used when writing harmony, hence the name. There is a rule in music theory that states that all dominant chords must be major. Using the key of A minor as an example, the dominant note of the scale is E and, in order to fulfil its function in harmony, a chord built upon that note must be major – meaning that the note G needs to be sharpened. When writing harmony in the key of A minor you will therefore need to use the following notes:

A harmonic minor scale with perfect cadence
A harmonic minor scale (top line) with a perfect cadence.

This isn’t, however, something that is ever used in writing melodies in the minor tonality. That is the domain of the melodic minor scale, hence the name. So why is it that anyone who plays an instrument that is only capable of producing one tone at a time (barring any contemporary performance techniques) would ever learn and practise this scale? It serves no practical purpose. The ABRSM do find examples of music that use the notes of the harmonic minor, but I challenge you to find an example of a melody that features that characteristic minor third (the sound made by moving from the written F to G-sharp above) that isn’t derived from some kind of folk music outside of the western classical tradition.

What’s up with the melodic minor scale?

The melodic minor scale is actually two scales crammed into one. This is because choice of notes in the minor tonality is a little more flexible than in the major. The third degree of the scale (median) must always be flattened compared to the major scale, but the sixth and seventh are flexible – you can flatten them, or not. Flattening these notes depends upon whether you’re in the dominant key area, i.e. if the melody is about to resolve into another key, or if it ends in the key of the scale.

The ascending part of the melodic minor scale is also known as the jazz minor and is the same as its major counterpart except for the flattened third. If you know all of your major scales then armed with this knowledge you can already play the jazz minor by changing one note – a skill you would have begun developing from using my mixolydian exercise. Incidentally, if you were to take the jazz minor and flatten the seventh degree in the same way that you turn a major into a mixolydian, then you would be playing the dorian mode. The dorian scale is a fundamental scale used when learning jazz improvisation. It is much more useful than playing the harmonic minor on a melody instrument.

c-jazz-minor
Ascending half of C melodic minor scale (a.k.a. jazz minor)

c-dorian-scale
Dorian mode on C, included for reference.

The descending half of the melodic minor scale is also known as the aeolian mode, or the natural minor. The name natural minor comes from the fact that this scale, like the major scale, simply follows the key signature – it is in its natural, unaltered form.

c-aeolian-scale
Aeolian mode on C, written in ascending form for easy visual comparison (a.k.a. descending half of c melodic minor)

I find it hard to understand why the scales that make up the melodic minor aren’t taught as scales in their own right, and why exam syllabi ignore the dorian mode completely. For an instrumentalist learning to play in modern times this level of understanding is important. Wasting time learning scales that don’t have a practical purpose (harmonic minor) and neglecting and/or short-cutting those that do matter seems nothing short of stupid to me. Criticisms of established systems aside, I’ll now go on to explain how I have people learn to play each of these scales.

So you wanna play in the minors, huh?

Let’s start with my justification. As a general rule, people learn scales because they are a requirement for exams. Obviously they are a staple strategy for working on the technical aspects of playing, but students are often at a pretty high level before this becomes their purpose for playing scales. Before that, it’s about exams. So picture this, if you will:

You are a student stood in a room with a panel of examiners behind a table and one of them asks you to play “A-flat melodic minor in thirds”. You perform the scale at the required tempo with the designated articulation. Well done. Does the examiner then ask you how you knew which notes to play? Of course not! That’s because it is your practical abilities that are being examined, not your knowledge of theory. Hopefully you can tell from reading this post so far that I do not discount the importance of music theory. What I do disagree with is the way that tonality is presented by exam boards.

Now, here is the theory, just so you know it: The tonic note of a minor key is the sub-mediant note of its relative major. That means: If you want to know the key signature of F-sharp minor, you just have to count down a major sixth (or up a minor third, whatever makes you happy) from F-sharp to A. F-sharp minor has the same key signature as A major. This much can’t be disputed. But if I want to play the ascending half of F-sharp melodic minor I’m not going to use a key signature with three fewer sharps than the major only to put two of them back again as accidentals! That is what conventional theory teaches you to do.

Here’s my system – it’s all about rules. Before you learn a minor scale you must already know the major scale that starts on the same note. Sorry about that, but learning major scales is easy if you know how. I defy anyone who could practice my major/mixolydian worksheet every day for three months and not know every major scale afterwards. Sure it might be hard at first but you will learn. Once you know a major scale then all you need is this:

  • Melodic minor scale(s), ascending (a.k.a. jazz minor) – flatten the third note of the scale.
  • Dorian mode – flatten the third and seventh notes.
  • Harmonic minor ‘scale’ – flatten the third and sixths notes.
  • Melodic minor scale(s), descending (a.k.a. aeolian mode) – flatten the third, sixth and seventh notes.

The word ‘flatten’ in this case only means ‘lower the pitch of the note by a semi-tone’.

So, would you rather learn four rules and get used to applying them to scales you already know, or individually learn twenty-four scales following a bunch of archaic, contradictory rules that don’t even apply to performing music and still not know the dorian mode at the end of it? At this point I realise that I may come across as a ranting crazy person, but I studied music for a decade following conventional understanding and it was only when I began teaching that I noticed how poorly things are usually explained to people and how needlessly difficult that makes the learning process. In teaching both brass instruments and music theory I constantly see the exam boards giving examples of music that have obviously been hand-picked to demonstrate their explanations of theory rather than updating the way that we approach music education.

The American music teacher Jeff Smiley once said in an interview:

Music educators are the gatekeepers of the system, any attempt at reforms must go through them.

I see it as my responsibility as an educator to try and push music education into the 21st century. This includes both my approach to teaching trumpet technique and music theory. Let’s find easy practical ways to teach people things that from this end of the telescope are easy, not confusing.

The information in this post has been written out in full to make up part of my book A Practical 21st Century Approach to Learning Scales FAST! which you can purchase directly from my website using the following link:
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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!

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).

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.”