October 17, 2010


NU has been notorious for developing trumpeters that win symphony jobs.

What's the secret? Is it just because their reputation attracts those students who are already gifted enough that they'd win jobs no matter where they chose to go to school? Are Charlie and Barbara cutting shady back-room deals with orchestra conductors (who, as I understand it, have final say in the acceptance or dismissal of a candidate)? Is there some sort of special training program here that produces not only good players, but those who know how to win? All I can tell you is what I've experienced so far...and I can tell you that I am really encouraged by that experience.

One of the most significant insights I've gained is about my warm up. A couple weeks ago (I know, I'm really behind in my story telling) Barbara Butler gave a class about how to warm up. Many approaches to this vital part of every trumpeter's routine have been developed by top players and educators and she stressed that we should learn and adopt techniques from all of them as we create our own personal tool set. This should almost go without saying.

What came next in the class was what really made a lightbulb turn on in my head. She brought up the fact that as we all begin our days of playing, it is easy to fall into the habit of defining each day by the quality of our chops. I can't tell you (maybe Rob can though:) the number of times I've warmed up and thought either, "Wow! My chops feel awesome! I feel like I can play anything!" or, (perhaps more frequently), "Ugh...my lips are really horrible today...this sucks! I can barely play anything at all."

Barbara asked the class (and admittedly, these are not word-for-word quotes, but they are as true to what I remember as possible), "Do you think Chris Martin [principal player with the Chicago Symphony...only a couple years older than me] has bad-chop days? He can't afford to have bad chop days! Do you think he can stand up before Mahler V starts and ask maestro Mutti 'um...my lips feel pretty crappy today...do you think we could skip over some of this stuff?' No, he can't. He'd lose his job. When I've got a string of Brandenburg performances coming up do you think I can say on the second night 'Man, my lips are really stiff...I'll just have to sit out this concert'. Of course not! As professional players we NEVER have bad-chop days."

When she said this I remember thinking, "Yeah right! How is that possible? We all have bad days now and then."

She continued: "As a professional player, there are no good days or bad days--there are only DAYS. When you warm up for the day, it is your responsibility to make sure your air, body, lips, and mind are BALANCED so that you are ready for anything. You can think of your chops as a sort of 'house' and when you begin each day--no matter what happened the day before...whether you had a great performance or you had to play really heavy or whatever--you always start from the beginning--building your 'house' from the ground up, brick by brick."

She then went on to illustrate each "brick": it's purpose and place within the greater structure. She stressed that once you lay each brick it's possible that further building might occasionally put stress on the lower levels and that you'll have to "circle back around" and maintain the integrity of your structure throughout each practice session. (I'll get to what the specific bricks are in a minute).

She said to all of us seated in the auditorium "In order to make it as a professional player you have to have four things:
*One, a natural gift--which all of you DO have or you wouldn't be here.
*Two, a good work ethic--which again, we're assuming you have at this level and if you don't, then go home...you're wasting our time and yours. (Barbara can be so wonderfully blunt!)
*Three, and this is probably the most important, the ability to approach your playing--and your practicing--with intelligence.
*Four, perseverance."

About this "intelligent" practice, here's what Richard Shuebruk says in a method book Chris Martin sent to me, "Any person who hopes to attain excellence in anything must be intelligent as well as industrious. He must not only do certain things, but know why he does them. Unless he is intelligent and industrious he has no right to expect Success." And, in an earlier section of his introduction, "Anyone who wishes to do a special kind of work very well must give those parts of the body which perform the work a special kind of training. All work is training in a sense, but certain kinds of work do more good than other kinds, therefore we should do those things the most which give us the best and quickest results. Digging in a garden is fine for exercise; if one does enough of that work he will grow strong of course, but it will not train him to be an athlete. Special work requires special exercise and the training must always be kept up if the worker expects to keep his ability. An instrumentalist is a specialist."

So, each exercise of the daily warm up should have a clear purpose and address a specific issue. It is foolish to waste a lot of time just playing through stuff...it is absolutely necessary to know WHAT IT IS YOU ARE SPECIFICALLY ACCOMPLISHING at ALL times. One should not play the same tired routine every day, but creatively address each specific aspect of trumpet playing in order to achieve balance.

Here are the "bricks":

1. AIR: more specifically "ready air". Warm up "from tip to frog" (a string-playing reference to using the whole bow). Remember that contact (where the air meets the lips meets the mouthpiece) is the area of power. There are a few great breathing exercises that get air flowing quite nicely--start with these.

2. RESPONSE: Use mouthpiece buzzing to ensure immediate vibration. This is one area that has made a big difference for me since I've tried it with that specific purpose in mind. I've done mouthpiece buzzing off and on in the past with negligible benefit. After hearing from some players that there really is no point to mouthpiece buzzing because the lips don't actually vibrate the same way when you add the horn, I stopped doing it altogether. I agree--there is no point of buzzing the mouthpiece just to follow a routine, but the benefits (for me) were instantaneous when I began buzzing with the idea of response in mind. Now I buzz a little bit throughout the registers--sometimes tonguing (which was something I never did before, but find very helpful now) sometimes slurring. If I have issues making notes speak as I continue my practice, I stop and try to play the problem passage with the mouthpiece alone. So far, this has always been able to bring my response back where it needs to be and I have hugely reduced the occurrence of "air balls" in my playing.

3. TONE: play beautifully! Play something slowish and really focus on achieving a brilliant sound. Make sure this sound carries through throughout all the registers. And yes, for me that means the pesky high register. In fact, for me that especially refers to the high register. Because that is where I have most trouble, I should make sure to go there in the first 10 minutes of my warm up. That is not to say that I should be screaming out high notes after 5 minutes of buzzing, but that I should use those previous two bricks to facilitate a natural extension of my comfortable range into the upper portions of my range (from concert g on top of the staff to concert c or d above the staff). It is also necessary to make sure you can have a good tone throughout the dynamic range. Can I play a forte low f# followed by a piano high a flat?

4. MOVEMENT: flexibility. This brick is great for connecting things and building strength. Flexibility should be considered both tongued and slurred. It refers to the ability to play lip trills as well as the ability to play a 2 octave scale from low to high c with fluidity and good sound. Can you believe that?! Try thinking of approaching the high range as an issue of flexibility...for me this has moved mountains!

**An important question: Is articulation a separate brick? Are dynamics a separate brick? Is range a separate brick? Or can one effectively multi task during warm up to save time and balance the embouchure? With the amount of stuff I've had to learn since I've been here, multi tasking in my routine has been a lifesaver!!!

5. A good way to round off a warm up/balancing session is to play a lyrical etude or flow study. This is a great way to connect everything you've laid down thus far in the routine.

Other important notes:
*MAKE SURE FUNDAMENTALS ARE COVERED DAILY (scales, arpeggios, clarke's etc.)
*PLAY OFFENSE (get at the issues before they get in the way)
*DON"T SHY AWAY FROM THE HARD STUFF (make a list of everything that is difficult for you and then jump right into that stuff! If you're really bad at coming in on a high note at a soft dynamic practice that...don't waste precious time just playing through everything you can do easily)

And of course, ALWAYS PERFORM. Every time I pick up the horn I should play as though I'm on stage.

Feel free to take or leave anything I've said here. For me personally, keeping these ideas of balance, intelligence, flexibility etc. in mind as I practice has made a big difference. This stuff has been key to (first of all) my very survival at NU, and I've also noticed marked improvements in all aspects of my playing just 2 weeks since that warm-up class took place.

I should say one more thing. REST IS VITAL!!!!!!!!!!!!
Intelligent practice is efficient practice. If you're doing things right, you shouldn't have to spend 6 hours in the practice room per day to get a lot accomplished.
Muscle is not built while you lift weights, but during the down time between work-out sessions.


  1. Wonderful entry! I've been hoping to get some chance to talk with you this week but I've not had such an occasion. This Blog entry gives me a great picture of how you're doing in school. Are you feeling well? How are you in general? E-mail me when you can. I love you!!!!!! I MISS you!!!!!!

  2. Great internet trumpet lesson. I'm thoroughly enjoying your experiences there. Thanks for posting.

  3. that is a wonderful routine. i am trying to decide of those same "bricks" would apply to a vocalist, but i think they do. and you are right, positive practice is efficient practice. since i do pop music i don't have etudes and whatnot, but i could probably think of other things to do to exercise my voice :) thanks for posting :)