Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Why You Still Suck at Trumpet

Blog 112: Why You Still Suck at Trumpet

For anyone that's ever picked up the horn, you're probably not surprised to hear that trumpet is one of the hardest instruments around and I'd venture to say that at least part of that has to do with how people approach the instrument.  It's the reason trumpet players are usually the weakest in any band that they're in and the reason why so few of them actually ever improve their technique.

If I may backtrack to my time pre-moving to New York City, I think I made a lot of mistakes most overly-ambitious young trumpet players make; the first was thinking "The more you practice, the better."  While we've all heard stories of musicians practicing 8+ hours a day, if you're a young trumpet player who isn't already at a certain physical level that's just simple impossible and you're going to be doing more damage than good in attempting to up your hours in the practice room.  Like a weight-lifter attempting more weight than he's ready for, you'll most likely just hurt yourself and then have to rebuild.  As a second point, I'd say developing an awareness of how physically tired you are is important too.  It takes maturity, patience and confidence to know when to walk away and rest during your practice routine.  That's a hard lesson to learn for most….and I'd say most people never learn it.

Back when I was in college and without a teacher, I remember doing a lot of google searching, hearing what different pros were practicing, buying dozens of trumpet books and just diving in.  I'd work through one book of flexibilities one day, another book the next, spinning my wheels and never going anywhere.  One of the books I purchased was Laurie Frink(my future teacher)'s Flexus.  Since I'd heard Laurie was the best in the world I assumed that working my way through the book would make me an awesome trumpet player.  WRONG.  Despite my incredible discipline and daily practice I made very little progress and what I learned later was that I made 2 mistakes.  The first was assuming I was more advanced that I actually was, chalk that up to pride and ego.  I breezed through the early exercises, viewing them as easy and moved on to the stuff that I was barely able to play.  What I didn't know at the time was I had overestimated where I was at, and my actual foundation was weak.  Just like a building, you're not going to get very high without a good foundation.  The second mistake I made was since I had no teacher, I assumed every week I could just move onto the next exercise in the series. WRONG.  When advancing on trumpet, you expose your body to a new technique and then it adapts to make what you're asking of it achievable.  Sometimes this is a quick process and sometimes it takes a little longer.  With no teacher or guidance I was making a lot of assumptions on where I was at in this process.  I didn't understand what sounds coming out of the bell where progress and what were destruction.

Another mistake I made was not following basic principles that I later learned from Laurie herself; keep the mouthpiece on your lips, breathe through your nose so to not disrupt the embouchure, and tapping your foot to coordinate the physical demands in time.  All the tweaking, second guessing, and adjusting was negating the entire concept around the exercises, thus rendering them useless and destructive.  Since studying with Laurie and now teaching as well, I am so mindful to all sorts of bad habits, and I think having had nearly every bad habit in the book and learning how to fix them has made me a better teacher, in fact at this point I might even be a better teacher than player.  I am quick now to spot bad tendencies amongst my students and get ahead of them.  Every trumpet player needs a good teacher.  A good teacher doesn't just tell you what you want to hear.   A good teacher doesn't give you a daily physical routine that is easy.  A good teacher asses your current ability and knows what to prescribe to get you to the next level.  A good teacher continues to raise the bar and give you something that you're able to touch but not yet grasp.  There are many good players that have achieved a certain ability on the instrument, but that doesn't necessarily make them good teachers.  Any trumpet player/teacher that has no method or just gives you a "few things to check out" is NOT a good teacher.  So be careful.  In my mind, I will forever be a Student of the trumpet and my trumpet routine continues to evolve through objective self-assessment and continuing to raise the bar in a controlled fashion.  Looking forward into Flexus, there are still just a few advanced exercises that I'm working towards but can't yet play, fortunately I know what steps I need to take to get me from point A to point B.  I do my routine patiently as I continue to expand and improve my technique.