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.”

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.

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

At the age of twenty four I had been playing the cornet/trumpet for thirteen years. I had achieved my A-level music at Wells Cathedral School and I had a Bachelor’s Degree in classical music performance on the trumpet from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Having studied for six years with the top players and teachers and received masterclasses with some of the best players in the world I had never, at this point, had anyone explain the details of scales and modes to me, how they spell out the relationships between the twelve major keys and how ridiculously easy they would have been to learn if I’d only understood a few simple facts. Frankly I find this ridiculous and I can only speculate that the reason I had never been taught these simple facts is because the people who had taught me didn’t know them either. This is not in any way a criticism of my teachers; it is, however, a criticism of the way that music and music theory are taught in this part of the world.

When a pupil of mine has been playing for a couple of years, and is hopefully around what we may refer to as a “Grade 3” Standard I will start to teach them precisely how easy it is to learn all of the major scales just by understanding the way that they relate to each other. On the ABRSM Grade 3 trumpet syllabus is the scale of E major so I will begin by asking them to play that scale to me. I then explain that if we were to change one note (flatten the seventh) then it makes a different kind of scale, called a mixolydian scale. At this point it is usually within most people’s capacity to play a scale with one different note. I will then demonstrate that if you were to play the ascending part of this E mixolydian scale but on the way back down only play as far as the A it actually sounds more finished than if I were to carry on to the E I started on. This is a golden moment in aural training where the pupil can hear the function of V7-I in melodic form. This is very important in any genre of western music. This is a lesson that I was never taught. Provided the pupil can then play E mixolydian and finish on the A then I tell them that in fact they’ve just been playing the notes of A major, but starting on the dominant (fifth degree of the scale). So we follow on by playing the A major scale. To date I’ve never had a pupil who, using this method, cannot (without the music) then be guided to play around the circle of fifths all of the way from E major (four sharps) to A-flat major (four flats). Over time all that is then required is that we fill in the remaining three scales and the circle is complete.

By learning about the theoretical function of the mixolydian scale and its practical application a fairly inexperienced pupil can soon lose all fear of playing music in any major key. On top of this there is the advantage of repeatedly hearing the V7-I movement around the circle of fifths and learning how each key naturally guides you into the next.

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: [purchase_link id=”1088″ style=”button” color=”green” text=”Purchase” direct=”true”]