Working on “Take the A Train” with a Beginning Improviser

Noah is a talented young trumpet student of mine who is just now entering his second  year of middle school.  We were making more time this summer to work on jazz improvisation, since up to that point, we had been concentrating on his trumpet and music fundamentals, and his school band’s music.  When there was time to work on jazz, I had only introduced him the concept of swinging 8th notes on a Blues scale and a simple Blues melody, and improvising over that tune’s Blues chord progression using the Blues scale.  At home he could practice these things with a recording I had posted on my website.  He had also played the “Pink Panther,” originally on a pass out sheet I had given him that placed the melody in the key of that same C Blues scale, and then in a school band arrangement that was in E minor.

As is often the case with beginning improvisers, Noah had a fair degree of success with this approach, but would not always know where he was in the form of the twelve bar structure (while accompanying him on piano, I would periodically stop and ask him where we were).  However as things progressed, we added simple arpeggio exercises that helped attune his ear to the sound of the passing chords (see this progression of exercises, as it applies to “Take the A Train” below).

Most of this was done during the previous summer, so when the opportunity to return to jazz studies came up again this summer, I asked Noah if there was another song that he would like to work on.  He surprised me by picking “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a tune that his middle school band director had played for the class earlier that year.  This was a big leap for Noah…a longer form song with a challenging melody and a greater variety of chords.

However, Noah is talented, and was not afraid of the work that lay ahead.  In his usual fashion, he tackled the challenges of the melody head on, and eventually could play the wider intervals, and became accustomed to the sounds of flatted 5ths, 9ths, etc.  He also understood the music theory that supported the spelling of the chords and the applied scales that mirrored the sound of those chords.  We made a simple “map” of the tune, to put all of the chord and scale spellings in front of him.  An empty map is seen below, with only the melody and chord symbols, and empty staves available  for other uses (also see my blog post on “Mapping Out a Jazz Tune”).

Next we tried the aforementioned process of outlining the chords with swinging 8th notes, beginning by playing whole notes on the root of each chord as the chords passed in time (see Example A, which shows measures 5-8 of the tune).  That way he was not only able to become more aware of the sound and form of the progression, but to also remember to keep up the momentum of his airstream, in order to support a good trumpet sound.  We then added a Root-3rd pattern with swinging 8th notes (Example B), and then as he was able to perform this with our priorities of good time and air, we progressed to a Root-3rd-5th pattern (Example C, which introduces a rhythmic variation by starting on the offbeat of beat 1), and then a Root-3rd-5th-7th pattern (Example D, which introduces an inversion of the A7 arpeggio, for smoother voice leading).  We didn’t try running the applied scales, because I didn’t want to present him with too many note choices for his improvisation yet.  Experience has proven to me that can often be paralyzing to a young improviser.

Having said that, I had Noah first try taking a solo only using the notes of the chords.  While he had some degree of success in following the chord changes, it sounded more like an exercise.  Rather than hearing phrases that extended over the measures (just as the tune’s melody does in such a simple but effective manner), his playing was reduced to playing in “little boxes” (my term for the measures), which tends to only satisfy the vertical elements.  In other words, the playing is following the chord progression, but the horizontal aspect (the shape of the lines, and how the stream of notes relate to each other) is almost (or is completely) non-existent.  Also gone was the sense of swing, the correct air support that would make Noah’s sound sing, and any kind of rhythmic diversity.  As bad as all of that may sound, I blamed those deficiencies on the teacher (me!), not Noah.

To get that much needed horizontal aspect of the music working, we briefly discussed and experimented with “shapes” (see my blog post, “Using Shapes to Improve the Structure of Improvised Solos and Compositions”), using one of the open, spare staves of the tune’s map we had made.  We only went as far as composing a gently ascending line of whole notes, and having Noah then play it over the accompanying chord progression that I provided on piano. This is a great way hear the effect (and need) for a strong sense of the horizontal, but we still required something else that would get him into the realm of improvising a more complete solo.

The answer was to reduce the amount of note choices even more, in order to encourage and increase the creativity…what I call “doing more with less.”  This sounds good, but how was it accomplished?  We had a tall order to fulfill…improve the airflow (and therefore the sound), have a stronger sense of time and swing, follow the chord changes (and therefore keeping his place in the progression), AND sound cool!

With all of the chords and scales spelled on the map’s staves below the melody, I helped Noah search for two easy to play, closely spaced notes that would sound good over any of the chords in the tune’s A section.  What we came up with was E and F#, which were near the bottom of the treble clef staff, and were both in the same respective overtones of the two different trumpet fingerings (2nd, and 1st and 2nd valves).  I didn’t want to have Noah just trust the theory that suggested these two new notes would fit over all the chords, so I had him play those notes on his trumpet, while I played each of the chords on the piano.

What he could immediately hear was that although the notes he played were always the same, their relationship to the harmony changed every time I played a new chord.  For example the E was the 9th of DMaj7, the root of both E7b5 and Emin7, and the 5th of A7.  The F# was the 3rd of DMaj7, the 9th of both E7b5 and Emin7, and the 13th of A7.  Although the relationship of the two notes was the same over the E7b5 and Emin7, Noah could easily hear how they sounded different as the quality of those two chords changed (with their different 3rds and 5ths).

Next up, I had Noah play back and forth between the two notes with swinging 8th notes.  Valve-wise this was simple, since he only had to wiggle his first finger as he alternately moved from 2nd valve to the combination of 1st and 2nd valves.  That simplicity allowed him to concentrate on keeping the sound full, and to make the notes swing.  I also had him try the articulation pattern of tonguing on the off beats (which added a slight accent to bring out the syncopation of swing), and slurring into the downbeats (which were then held their full value, to help emphasize the phrase, rather than the single notes).

With those important priorities of air and time in place, I had him play the swinging 8th notes again, while I accompanied him on piano.  Right away you could hear the emergence of music making, since the notes were played with clear intention, confidence and authority.  He was making a musical statement, and he could hear it!  Another interesting benefit from this approach was that Noah always knew exactly where he was in the form of the tune.  No matter when I stopped playing and asked him where we were, he always answered correctly.  Because he had mastery over those two notes, he was able to listen more…an important skill for any improviser to have.

Although Noah’s smile showed that we were on to something, we knew that eventually he would need to introduce more variety into this approach.  After all, he was not really improvising.  To remedy this, I had him occasionally leave out an 8th note (which also gave him the opportunity to breathe!).  See Example F for a general representation of what Noah played.  This immediately introduced the element of surprise, since it was impossible for me as the listener to predict when the rest would occur.  This approach also produced syncopation when he rested on a downbeat, for his next note came in on an offbeat.  As soon as Noah heard the jazzier sound, he immediately “played” with the concept in creative ways.  He was off to the races!

Another easy way to introduce variety and surprise was to hold out a note at the time of his choosing.  Once again this introduced greater rhythmic variety, with the opportunity to create more syncopation as well.  The held note also highlighted its particular harmonic relationship with the accompanying chord.  Noah could hear this as well, which informed his spontaneous decision making even more.  He was able to keep his place as he held the note (a challenge many young improvisers have trouble with) because by now his feeling of a swinging, underlying subdivision was firmly internalized.  Things continued to get more interesting, not only because of the variety and harmonic interest, but because his sense of time, and use of solid, fundamental air support delivered his ideas with musical authority (Example G is another approximation of what Noah was playing).

Since things were working well, we discussed occasionally adding a 3rd note choice over each chord.  Choosing from the possible chord and scale pitches, Noah decided to use A over the DMaj7 and A7 chords, a Bb over the E7b5 chord (hip choice, Noah!), and G over the Emin7.  Example H shows one possible result following those parameters.

                                                                                                                                                                      I should mention that Noah followed one of my suggestions, and got the iReal Pro app, which generates a rhythm section for play along practicing.  You can type in the desired chord progression, set the tempo and rhythmic feel, and even mix the levels for each of the accompanying instruments.  It is available on all major platforms, and there are several reviews on YouTube.   https://irealpro.com

It was then time to look at the bridge of the song.  Noah discovered that the same two pitches could be played over this entire section of the tune, but we decided to find two other notes that would work.  In this way the beginning of the bridge, where a GMaj7 is heard for the first time, presented an even greater contrast…highlighting the importance of the composition’s new material.  While the pitches B and A would have worked (except during the bridge’s final A7b9 chord, which demanded a Bb), Noah chose a C# and B (the C# was in the G Lydian mode, one of the optional scale choices), and delighted over the more exotic sound of the raised 11th (pretty good ear for a middle school student!).  The A7b9 chord at the end of the B section still required that Noah change his B to a Bb, but Noah relished making that change, and hearing its distinctive sound.

With all of the success he was having, we tried one more concept…bringing out simple voice leading between the chords.  We concentrated on the most common voice leadings, the b7 of a min7 chord moving to the 3rd of a Dom7th, and the b7 of a Dominant 7 chord going to the 3rd of a Major chord.  Again, we used the map of the tune to write out those voice leadings, to make it easier for Noah to see when they occurred.  Examples I and J show the way those notes appeared on the map, and how this concept can be used with Noah’s approach.


Of course there are many other concepts we could still try, and many of them are listed in the “Improvisation Lessons” category of my blog.  The point of this post is to show a few effective approaches for a beginning improviser that are simple enough to allow them to prioritize the important elements of time and sound, and that reduce the number of pitch choices to the degree that encourages more creativity.  They can also hear and play longer phrases, which is more native to the way we speak and communicate.  In this environment, it also becomes easier to hear how the pitches relate to the underlying chord of the moment, and to hear the overall harmonic structure of the tune.  All of these things combined make it more fun for any student, gives them a greater confidence in their new world of improvising, and inspires them to want to do more.  Great work, Noah!

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Learning How to Make the Conversion to and from Braces: An Opportunity for All Trumpet Players to Improve

 

what-to-eat-after-getting-bracesDuring the very early stages of this blog I wrote about playing the trumpet with braces, but after recently reading how some of the internet trumpet teachers approach this challenge, it seemed time to review            some very important information that is often overlooked, and that needs to be included on this subject.  Clear information on how a trumpeter (not just one with braces) completes the human part of the instrument before playing is usually discussed far less than what he or she should play, and those priorities should apply to someone converting to braces as well.  Acting without that knowledge can have a huge impact on anyone’s ability to grow as a player.  All of my students have actually improved after getting braces, so I would like to share some of the principles that led to their success, and give all trumpeters who are looking to find ways of improving some ideas to consider for their own playing.

This has turned into another lengthy article, partly because successfully playing with braces requires a greater understanding and command of several important skills.  This is a vast subject.  I’ll begin this article with a few thoughts about the requirements for a successful conversion, and then suggest an easy first step for this process.  More details are presented the further you read, so I think there is value in reading this post in its entirety.  I’ve intentionally repeated myself several times…as needed when the context changes, and to underscore key, important points.  Many of the ideas presented here can be found in other articles on this blog, but appear here in a somewhat more condensed version.  Hopefully some of the new wording in this post may provide a few more insights to those who have read some of the earlier articles.

let-go-of-the-steering-wheel1To play a specific note at an exact moment in time (which is one of music’s top priorities), takes control, but the inexperienced player will more than likely gravitate to destructive forms of tension (mainly mouthpiece pressure and upper body tension) in an attempt to achieve that control.  Using misguided tension for control is a normal human instinct (think of the driver who grips the steering  wheel more tightly on an icy road, which has no effect at all on the tires’ traction).  For a trumpeter, that approach can produce a chain reaction of  what I call “knee jerk” responses…a vicious circle of problematic habits that too often lead to the physical abuse and frustration that many players experience during their music making.  However, it’s not just the players with braces who experience this phenomenon…they are just more sensitive to the downsides and side effects of it.  This sensitivity is the very thing that gives the player with braces an opportunity to improve, and show the rest of us trumpeters some important points to remember.

The mouthpiece pressure that causes pain in the lips also inhibits both the vibration of the top lip (the trumpeter’s reed), and the flow of air.  This in turn eventually enlarges the lip aperture (which can then affect efficiency, sound quality, and then invites even more mouthpiece pressure).  This is true whether or not the player has braces.  Excessive mouthpiece pressure is used to compensate for the lack of embouchure structure, and  a relaxed, supporting air column.  The solution to this problem is to create a “frame” that focuses the embouchure, protects its center from the pressure (and the pain), and allows the air to flow and the top lip to freely vibrate.  Relaxed, natural breathing that produces an unstoppable momentum of airflow is also essential, as is the ability to create the proper interface between the embouchure and mouthpiece.

hk-tr101-38-p02This “frame” is much like a mini tramp…the strength and bracing must be on the outside, encircling the center.  If constructed properly, this allows the lip aperture to be more focused, flexible and resilient (or the tramp’s center to be more “springy”).  Placing crossbeams at the center of a mini tramp may make the frame stronger, but then the center becomes useless for its intended purpose.  In the same way, mouthpiece pressure may initially seal the lips with the mouthpiece, and somewhat focus the lip aperture, but in the end the center cannot function properly.  However a great mini-tramp does not guarantee complete success.  The user must learn certain essential skills, foremost being the ability to keep their body weight properly distributed within that frame while they exercise…just as trumpeters learn how to retain the balance and coordination of their own kinds of skills, all the while navigating the challenges of music making.

Other than the very light contact of the mouthpiece as a reference for the seal, you should be able to build this frame without the aid of the mouthpiece.   That close proximity of the mouthpiece will also help to set your horn angle and jaw position before playing (here the lower jaw comes forward to align its teeth with the upper row of teeth, with the two rows 1/4” apart), and aid in making sure that you have the correct weight distribution of the mouthpiece (which should favor the bottom lip and the corners).  More mouthpiece weight on the center of the top lip invites a host of problems, of which pain is but one of the early warning signs.  The eventual “landing “ of the mouthpiece on the lips should be quite uniform in contact all the way around the rim, with just a little less pressure on the top lip and the embouchure’s center.  If the mouthpiece is not placed in this way, its pressure will continue to come in to make up for any lack, which usually then increases the pressure at the points where the contact was first made (most often on that top lip), and therefore doing nothing in the process to correct the lack of uniformity.


SETTING THE EMBOUCHURE

cocktail-drink-strawsBefore going any further, here’s a simple way for a student to get a feel for setting the embouchure, but it still would be best if a qualified teacher can help supervise.  I would recommend getting a skinny straw…the skinniest you can find, with a diameter too small for milk shakes or smoothies (the cocktail straws seen on the right would be perfect for the job).  First set the teeth 1/4” apart, with the lower jaw vertically aligned with the top teeth.  Then place just the tip of this straw at the center of the embouchure, and hold it with the lips (with the straw pointing straight out from the mouth).  Take care not to squeeze the straw at the center of the embouchure, but instead imagine that it is being held by two pairs of scissors, each of which have their “screws” right at the corners of the mouth, and the tips of their blades facing towards each other.  More information on the Scissor Action is presented below, but for now just hold the straw using a slight grip felt at the corners of the mouth.

two-scissorsOnce the embouchure is set and held properly, let go of the straw with the hand and begin blowing air through the straw, making sure the air only goes through the center of the straw, not out the sides, and that the straw does not blow out of the mouth.  Keep the jaw in position, and make sure the straw is still being held in the same way it was first grasped…using the corners of the embouchure with their “Scissor Action.”  The throat, tongue and upper body should be completely relaxed.  A variation of this exercise is to remove the straw and blow in the same way…keeping the Scissor Action engaged, and observing in the mirror to see if the position is still being properly held.  I call the exercise “Focusing Air,” and will refer to it often in this article.

For the next step, you will need to make sure the trumpet’s tuning slide is removable…a good idea, as you will soon see.  Begin bringing the horn in, so as the mouthpiece comes closer to the lips, the straw will go through the center of the mouthpiece.  The mouthpiece will then gently land on the lips, touching the bottom lip first.  When finished, it will look no different than normal trumpet playing, for the straw is now hidden from view, but make sure that the lips are still holding the straw as described above.  Resume blowing air through the straw as before.

Even with light mouthpiece pressure, some players initially let go of the straw when the mouthpiece touches and they begin blowing, so if the straw goes into the leadpipe, you can  easily recover it by taking off the tuning slide.  The muscles that are used to hold the straw are the same ones that made this “frame,” so this pre-playing exercise is a great way to develop not only the concepts of proper muscular coordination and playing with less mouthpiece pressure, but also the mental image that will eventually preside over one’s entire approach to playing.

A downside of this straw approach is that the walls of a skinny straw are pretty rigid, and so themselves do not give any feedback as to whether or not the center of the aperture is being closed during the process of holding the straw (and focusing the embouchure)…or if it is the straw that is keeping the aperture free for the flow of air.  The player must learn to know exactly what is happening.  One way of checking  is to do a soft Free Buzz (no mouthpiece) at the center of the embouchure, and watch in the mirror how this is being accomplished.  There should be no lip eruption or squeezing at the embouchure’s center, but instead, the lips should be hugged up against the teeth and gums in a way that allows the center to remain relaxed and free…evidence that the invisible “scissor action” (that begins at the corners) is engaged.  Don’t worry if the buzz is not produced at first…all that is being done here is to make sure the right muscular coordination is being used.  More on the topic of Free Buzzing is discussed below.

Next, remove the straw from between the lips, and bring in the trumpet again, pretending that the straw is still being held at the corners of the embouchure, and that the lip aperture is still small.  Make sure that the trumpet still “lands” on the set embouchure in the same gentle, manner, with the teeth lined up as before.  As the air is blown through the embouchure and trumpet, listen to the sound, or if there is no sound yet, listen to the sound of the air.  Does it sound free flowing, like a sigh?  If the air does not have this quality, before increasing the airspeed, first make sure that the aperture is not blocked… with either too much mouthpiece pressure, poor weight distribution of that pressure, or if the lips have lost their scissor action and have begun to squeeze at the center.  In other words, take off the brake before adding more gas.  It  may not feel like too much mouthpiece pressure, but remember that the lip aperture is now much smaller, which will make it more sensitive to the air (which will greatly help efficiency), AND mouthpiece pressure.  Too much pressure is not only defined by pain, but also that which inhibits airflow, or what makes the position want to release.

When I tell a student with braces that they are still using too much mouthpiece pressure, they sometimes look at me like I’m crazy…after all, their lips don’t hurt anymore.  But even though they had learned to eliminate enough pressure to avoid the discomfort, the remaining pressure (and it’s distribution) was still enough to cause problems…in most cases provoking the embouchure into releasing too much of  its formation.


TESTING THE NEW SETUP

Do not begin by trying to play any specific note, or trying to get the sound to start immediately.  Attempting that kind of control could invite the body to force things, based on old habits or impatience (which is often how bad habits are formed in the first place).  Instead, just repeat the wind pattern that was used when blowing through the straw, maintain the image of holding the straw with the corners of the embouchure, and see what happens.  Think of yourself as a trumpet or mouthpiece maker at first…more concerned with accurately following the blueprint of the design.  The first attempts at playing should be geared towards testing and observing the mechanics of the setup, and how it performs at this stage with just a natural, relaxed, and consistent flow of air (even if there is no sound produced, or if the sound is bad).   If there is something that was overlooked, it will be much easier to find what was missing with this approach.  Staying relaxed increases both awareness and patience, which are priceless commodities for anyone.  Forcing a note to play will most likely alter the position in some way, which only makes it harder to find out what was initially missing in the setup.  How a note begins (what I call the Genesis of Sound) determines everything else that follows in music making.  The time invested in taking this initial step correctly will pay dividends later, which is why I am always encouraging high degrees of awareness, and strictness of form.

Think more about HOW you are playing the instrument…not WHAT you are playing.  Start with a breath attack (thinking “Ho”…no tonguing) to help preserve the position, and to insure that the embouchure can immediately feel its relationship with the air, and know exactly what to anticipate.  Breathing should be completely relaxed, with a balance and no pause between the inhale and exhale.

It may be surprising to hear what first plays, and how easily a note can be produced.  If enough care was taken in setting up, and with the reduced mouthpiece weight, a trumpeter often comes in higher than what they were expecting.  If these players tried to play a “recommended” note, they might have compromised the playing formation (again, based on their previous habits), and in doing so will lose the advantage of experiencing a better way of playing.  It is better to play any note that is naturally produced with good form and air, than to play a prescribed note with bad form.  The control we are going for here is of the FORM and the AIR, NOT over what note should be played.

The softer and more easily it is for the note to sound, the more you are setting the stage for relaxed, efficient playing….always a good thing, whether or not you play with braces.  Spend a much time as you can playing in this effortless way, in order to become more familiar with the approach, and to begin developing these new habits.

If there still is no sound, there are some other intermediate steps that can be taken.  So often, players overdo the Scissor Action, using far more tension than is required…tightening and even closing, rather than focusing the lip aperture.   Just continue to easily blow air past the position and wait for the tension to release, without relinquishing the basic coordination that made and should continue to hold the position.

Woman reaching for toes

Woman reaching for toes

Think of the proper way to relax a muscle…like learning how to relax the hamstring muscles by gradually moving towards touching the toes.  The legs remain straight while reaching for the toes (the form), all the while relaxing into the stretch by exhaling…releasing both the air and tension at the same time.  This action cannot be forced, and nothing can be done to relax the hamstring muscles if the knees are allowed to bend.

Another thing to try is singing an easy note (like the trumpet’s second line G) with a full, resonant voice, with the syllable “O.”  This is a great way of presetting the air column for playing (but you can choose any note that is easy to sing, as long as you know what the pitch is, so it can be matched on the trumpet).  You don’t have to have a great voice, just makes yours as deep and rich as you can.  You will notice that it takes a certain volume to get the sound to really ring, so don’t be shy about it, and get the note to immediately start with that kind of quality.  After singing a few long tones in this way, then translate that kind of air to the horn.

Sometimes all that is needed is to take off some of the mouthpiece pressure, and making sure that there is less of it on the top lip.  If the embouchure releases its form at this time, then chances are it was being held together with the playing weight, rather than with the embouchure muscles (the equivalent of letting go of the straw).  Practicing Focusing Air with the horn as close to the lips as possible (without actually touching them) is a great way of seeing if the embouchure begins to anticipate the mouthpiece contact by releasing its form, or if it begins to squeeze at its center (which are both really mental errors).  The embouchure should be preparing more for the air, rather than the playing weight.  This “No Weight Blowing” (my term) is another perspective from which to observe how the embouchure and air are working together (and how relaxed the body is), and is also a great way of resetting and rejuvenating an embouchure fatigued by too much mouthpiece pressure.

A soft Free Buzz at the center of the embouchure (with the “Ho” breath attack) could be attempted, even if sound isn’t actually produced.  This requires efficiency (do not force the buzz to start!), where the frame has set the lips in a way that does not produce any tension at the center.  Although some players may be unsuccessful at getting the buzz at first, this process more often brings them closer to the form which will allow a note to play when the trumpet is added.  The resistance of the horn and its associated feedback loop (a topic for another day) may be all that is then needed for sound production.  Just make sure that this exercise is observed in the mirror, to insure the right form is still being adhered to.

Noted teacher James Stamp’s Two Finger Mouthpiece Buzz (where just the mouthpiece is held very lightly between the tips of the index finger and thumb, and is performed with the “Ho” breath attack), is a great way of transitioning to the light playing weight of the mouthpiece.  Again, what makes this effective is how the buzz is achieved (no forcing!).  As with the Free Buzz, even if the buzz does not occur at first, attempting it with good form (no lip eruption or squeezing) brings the player closer to sound production, and that could immediately occur as sound as the horn comes in contact with the lips.  As before, prioritize how this exercise is performed.  Students with braces can easily tell how uninformed or careless mouthpiece buzzing (where the lips erupt outwards) makes things worse, and that they have lost a feeling of cushion in the process.

When ready, long tones (which should be practiced using the entire breath, and without letting the chest collapse) are a great way of learning how to maintain the balance of coordination and relaxation.  It is most important that you listen and feel carefully…that you sharply increase your awareness while performing this seemingly simple exercise. Any fluctuations in pitch, sound quality and continuity, tension and relaxation, etc., signify a loss of control of form and air.  It is easiest to fix problems when they first occurbefore they get worse and become the cause of the knee-jerk reactions, and symptomatic problems most trumpet players have to deal with.  Gradually expand the pitch range higher and lower from where the notes first want to speak, but only if the playing is effortless (remember that you are prioritizing how you play over what you play).  Alternating frequently with Focusing Air, the Free Buzz, No Weight Blowing, the Two Finger Mouthpiece Buzz, or the Straw Exercise are great ways to refresh the new physical habits and your mental image, as long as good form is retained during the process.

Soft tonguing on a single pitch can be introduced once a long tone can be played with the kind of control that produces a long, clear, and steady note.  I recommend tonguing with the “Toe” pattern, which allows the tongue to immediately return to its state of rest position in the mouth, and is the least disruptive to the airflow.  Better yet, first try tonguing with Focusing Air, starting with a “Ho” breath attack…just to see if the balance and coordination is still being retained after adding this one extra skill to the system.  Listen for the clear ”T” of the attack, and the uninterrupted flow of air through the entire breath.  Tonguing practice could also be done with No Weight Blowing, Free Buzzing, or the Two Finger Mouthpiece Buzz before actually playing the horn…still making sure that the form is strictly followed.  The order of these exercises was chosen as a way of gradually moving into playing, all the while maintaining the consistency of good form (which is the best way to develop good habits more quickly).  For that reason, they should be returned to frequently during the practice session.

Once ready to actually play, start with a breath attack (no tongue, just the word “Ho,” with an immediate, full start to the air).  When it sounds and feels like that first note is stable, begin tonguing slowly…observing closely that the form and airflow are following the guidelines listed above.  Listen to make sure that the notes are clear and connected, and that the attack of the tongue is clean…meaning that the air is flowing freely (save for the briefest of interruption by the tongue), and that the lip aperture is focused and free.  Make sure that the tongue isn’t striking between the lips, which is most often the sign of:

  1. Too much mouthpiece pressure (especially on the top lip), which effectively closes the lip aperture, causing the tongue to go between the lips in order to open the lip aperture and facilitate airflow.  Allowing the mouthpiece to come in at playing weight before the embouchure is even set  is a very common problem, and is the root cause of many symptomatic problems.  As with the Straw Exercise, the embouchure should be set before the playing weight of the mouthpiece.
  2. joseph-clayton-clarke-oliver-twist-bill-sykes-sits-at-a-table-with-a-bottle-of-boozeThe body’s anticipation of that excessive, poorly distributed mouthpiece weight,  Think of how a dog can cower at the sight of a stick or hand that has beat it before…an embouchure that has been frequently exposed to abusive weight, will learn to start making adjustments to that weight in advance of the mouthpiece placement.  Regardless of the reason, for a trumpet player, an unfocused lip aperture only increases the dependence on mouthpiece weight.
  3. The lip aperture was never set properly to begin with, either because of  reasons #1, #2, impatience carelessness, or lack of knowledge.  If the aperture is too big, now the tongue has a bigger job, for in order to produce a clear  attack, it first must interrupt the airstream (so when it pulls away, the returning airflow has a clear beginning).  A bigger lip aperture requires a more extreme action from the body to accomplish a clear attack…either by tonguing between the teeth, using more pressure, or both.

Another sign of excessive weight or imbalance is a “ chewing” jaw when tonguing, or one that suddenly recedes or opens.  Use the clues listed above to find the root cause of that improper tonguing action, which will then make it so much easier to address the problem.

These are some of the body’s attempts at freeing up a closed lip aperture, and are among the ‘knee jerk” reactions I mentioned at the beginning of this article.  For a trumpeter (with or without braces), the majority of fundamental problems can be fixed by properly setting the embouchure and exposing it to a flowing airstream before full placement of playing weight.  Learning how to make and maintain an embouchure in this way, one learns the initial feelings of coordination and balance that reduce dependence on excessive mouthpiece pressure, which then effectively sidesteps the spawning of related problems, and moves the player closer to effortless, enjoyable music making.  It is much easier to retain balance than to regain balance.

Tongue slow enough at first to judge if the airflow is consistent, if the position is being held, if the weight amount and distribution is correct, and that the sound quality is both good and consistent.  This continuum of tongued notes should sound as full and connected as the long tones.  If successful, gradually increase the frequency of the attacks, keeping the tongue relaxed and low in the mouth (again, by imaging the word “Toe”).  I strongly recommend resetting the embouchure often, and to continue by alternating with the earlier exercises listed above (with little or no mouthpiece contact) and long tones, either with or without tonguing.


MOVING ON

If successful, gradually progress to more complex actions.  The routine that I am suggesting here is not written in stone, but should illustrate a gradual, methodical process of testing the position, all the while prioritizing how things are being played over what is played.  It is impossible to notate an exact version of this routine.  That is because the final choice of what is played needs to be determined by the current needs of each player, each and every day they play.  What is played should always decided in the moment, based on the success or problems that will be experienced along the way.  Besides, it is more important to listen, feel, watch and judge what’s going on, than to mindlessly succumb to the distraction of staring at a written exercise on a page of paper.

bowling-swingThere are different wind patterns for every musical gesture, but they all require a relaxed, flowing airstream with an unstoppable momentum.  This refined yet natural exhale requires a preceding and matched, relaxed and flowing inhale.  The entire in and out “swing” of air should be uninterrupted (much like a bowling swing), and can be practiced alone first, then with the embouchure formation, and finally with the horn.  If there is a loss in sound quality, form, or the feeling of general relaxation, hold out the pitch where the problem first occurs, in order to more easily determine the root cause of that problem.  More often than not, the problems can be traced to improper breathing and air support, failure to set up properly first, or too much mouthpiece pressure.  Remember that if the root cause is not addressed first, its symptoms can at best only be fixed temporarily.

After long tones, slurred scale fragments could be a good way to continue practicing the connection and balance between the flow of air and the focus of the embouchure.  Think of these scale fragments as more complex long tones…a single phrase, rather than a series of individual notes.  This is where many players drop the ball, so to speak…where the mere act of changing valves is enough of a mental distraction to cause them to let their air support sag.  That drop off naturally occurs for everyone as the air flows out of the body, but for a trumpet player it signifies a loss of balance, and immediately provokes the body into having to find a way to compensate for that lack of air support.  This unconscious “knee jerk” response needs to be avoided, for it usually manifests as tension…either in the form of increased mouthpiece pressure, tension in the throat or upper body, or both.  Even if the player is from the school of using tongue arch or embouchure manipulation for ascending and descending, those actions need to be matched with enough air support to keep up the momentum of the airflow as the resistance at those points change.

While most of us are taught to increase air support when ascending, descending through the range of the horn cannot be associated with a loss of energy.  Unfortunately, most beginners (and many other players), tend to follow this route, and while it may allow the pitch to drop, it is then usually accompanied with a noticeable loss of sound quality.  Going hand in hand with that is another knee-jerk reaction, where the embouchure structure begins to erupt, and the mouthpiece pressure then steps in to hold things together.  This chain reaction then leaves the player at a big disadvantage when moving back to the upper register.

The solution is to make sure that the starting mouthpiece weight is light enough to allow more room for the top lip to vibrate (think of how a sub woofer speaker has a much longer excursion, and requires more power than the mid-range speakers and tweeters).  The pronounced lip eruption often seen when players descend into the lower register is usually a sign of the embouchure trying to make more room for the lips in order to generate the longer wave forms.  Since the lack of air support is accompanied by mouthpiece weight (usually at the middle of the top lip), the only place the lips can go to achieve the necessary freedom of motion is out at the sides of the mouthpiece.

steam_train_corfe_castle_station_1In trumpet playing terms, the Scissor Action needs to remain intact, but the blades are not “cutting “ as much.  This allows the lip aperture to slightly widen, and more air to pass through it.  This alone would actually slow the airspeed, and so the air support must fill the larger aperture…which helps to stimulate the Scissor Action into retaining the form of the embouchure.   Because the “grip” of the scissors is still intact, it can immediately respond in balance to any changes in the quality of air.  The throat should be wide and the tongue low in the mouth, in order to create big resonant chambers for the trumpet to amplify, and to help produce an unstoppable mass of air support (think of how hard it would be to stop even a slow moving train).  Playing in the low register correctly helps to develop many of the skills that are needed throughout the range of the instrument.

Begin anywhere on any scale where it is easiest produce sound with the proper form, and gradually slur (no tonguing yet) in the direction that allows for the most success.  Make sure that the sound is consistent and continuous before moving to the next note,  and that the air has a momentum to it that sounds like even a single pitch is leading somewhere.  Four pitches are usually enough to test how well things are working, while longer scale fragments are more likely to distract the player from maintaining a high enough standard of air, sound and form.  Smaller fragments (2-3 notes) are OK…remember that the priority is the quality of notes, not the quantity.  If successful with the fragment, return in the opposite direction, back towards the starting note.  There could be a gradual and undetected loss of balance, even when playing the shortest of fragments.  A good test to see if this has occurred is to compare the starting note of the fragment to that same pitch when it is eventually returned to (another good reason to play fragments with a low note count at first).   If that note is easier or harder to maintain than when it was initially played, or if it sounds better or worse, then the player (and/or teacher) must discover the reason why, before moving on to playing something more complex.  Remember, that alternating with the more simple exercises performed without the horn (described above), or playing long tones are great ways of refreshing the physical setup and mental image (as long as they are performed consciously).

If all is well, the same fragment can be performed with tonguing, using the same sensibilities.  If successful, begin the scale fragment on the same starting note, but this time slur (up or down) in the opposite direction of the original fragment.  Again, the number of notes to played should be determined by how well the fragment is being played, meaning that awareness should be developing at the same time as the trumpet skills.  Introduce the variations of tonguing and returning to the original note as described above, remembering that the purpose here is to still be building very specific fundamental habits.  Aimless blowing on any series of notes cannot accomplish that purpose.  The relative simplicity of the “What”…merely playing a few notes in a small scale fragment, causes many players to lose concentration.  However, even the best players find the challenge in improving their playing skills at the most fundamental levels.  Their experience has shown them the rewards that come from focusing their attention on “How” they are playing the horn, which also engages and elevates their powers of concentration even more.

Effortless transition through the instrument’s overtone series is at the heart of great trumpet playing (this is sometimes referred to as flexibility).  Slurring on this pattern of harmonic intervals (where all the notes in the slur use the same fingering) is one of the best ways to concentrate on the essential skills of coordination that need to be developed.  Having said that, it is also important to know that if practiced incorrectly, these slurs can lead to bad habits just as easily.  Most of the intervals in the overtone series are much larger than those that are encountered in the major and minor scales, and so the margin of error allowed to retain the playing system’s balance decreases as the intervals and range of the slur increase.  This means that awareness must also increase…you have to pay more attention to how you are performing these exercises.  Scales have hidden slot (overtone) shifts (where the scale is ascending, yet the accompanying valve change is lengthening the horn…or the scale is descending, but the valve change is making the trumpet shorter), which requires that the slot change happens precisely as the valve change is made (see the blog post “Critical Points to Consider when Practicing Scales and Arpeggios on the Trumpet” for more information).  For this reason, there is an advantage to practicing these slot changes on the overtone series first.

One way around that approach’s challenge is to remove any rhythmic constraints for the slot change…not making the jump happen at an exact moment in time until the proper coordination is learned.  I have my students first practice the correct wind pattern for ascending or descending…making sure they are always relaxed during the acceleration process, and that when descending, the air retains a healthy mass and momentum.  We also watch what the embouchure looks like (the horn is not up at the moment)…making sure that the position does not ever squeeze at the center or release its basic form.  It should be mentioned that there are a lot more variables involved when moving through the range of the horn.  Explaining more of the possibilities would be best saved for another article (although some are dealt with in other blog posts).  Here, the focus is on a few of the concepts that will help the player with braces with the first steps of their transition.

The aforementioned Two Finger Mouthpiece Buzz is a great way to begin learning the fundamental skills required of these kinds of slurs, since the basic tube of the mouthpiece is too short to have an overtone series by itself.  With the mouthpiece alone, slurs sound more like a siren, and with the very light mouthpiece pressure, it is easier to hear and feel the immediate relationship between the air and embouchure.  There is still a challenge to do this without the instrument attached, since some of the efficiency is lost.  However, we are only looking to develop a discernible relationship between airspeed and pitch…the interval of the slurs does not need to be dramatic.  Even though a little more effort may be involved, it tends to bring out how the balance of form could be lost (for the weightlifters, imagine how easy it is to learn the body’s tendencies to “cheat” as the muscle becomes more fatigued at the end of the set).  I should mention that although words like effort and fatigue have been used here, the priority is to remain as relaxed as possible during any of these exercises.  The “cheating” to be avoided here is lip eruption, squeezing the embouchure at its center, more mouthpiece pressure, tightening the throat, etc.  Instead, listen for and feel the sound of free flowing air, and its relationship to an embouchure that remains both focused and relaxed at its center.

Whether the slur is practiced with the mouthpiece alone, or with the horn on the overtone series, the approach is the same as when playing the scale fragments….start in the range where the form is best, use a breath attack, choose the direction which promises the greatest success, play small intervals at first, and then return to the starting note.  If successful on all counts, explore slurring in the opposite direction, and then returning to the starting note, all performed with the same level of excellence.  Also, freely alternate with the wind pattern, first with Focusing Air and No Weight Blowing, to make sure the working relationship with the air and the embouchure has not been disturbed by the mouthpiece.

At this point, the player is ready for some music, although it would be best to begin with small excerpts that are at the level of the preceding exercises.  Oftentimes reading music can be a distraction to a player who is still developing the good habits of air and form.  The mere act of staring at a page, discerning the fingerings, rhythms, articulations, dynamics, etc., can take one’s mind off of the underlying physical fundamentals needed to support the music.  Start with small phrases at first, that can be easily be played without the music, in order to increase awareness of sound quality, the relaxed “swing” of the breathing and continuity of the phrase, the clarity of the tongue, the amount mouthpiece pressure and its distribution, etc.,…all of the fundamental aspects of form and air that had been previously worked on.

Gradually progress to phrases with more difficulty, but only if things are  going well, and be wise in the selection of music.  Continue to alternate with Focusing Air and No Weight Blowing, to keep the chops fresh, and the mental image clear.  If these do not refresh the form and make playing easier, then rest is prescribed…take a break.  With all of the details described in this article, you can see that a young player would greatly benefit from the guidance of an experienced teacher, but hopefully players without braces can also see the merits of this approach.


MORE INFORMATION

Most of the ideas in this section have been mentioned earlier in this article, but bear repeating in this context.  It should also be interesting to note that the same kind of care used to initially set up the embouchure and get a sound carry over when trying to solve other performance issues.   The fundamentals of good trumpet playing are called fundamental for a reason!

Some students that may first enjoy an easier production of the higher notes then find that they cannot play as well in the lower range.  This can be due to several things:

  • The quality of their airstream.  It’s common to find that students let their air sag as they go lower, losing the energy of support.  This actually provokes the lips to follow suit, losing their seal and shape, and therefore encouraging the use of mouthpiece pressure to hold things together.  Try singing a resonant sounding low note with the vowel “O,” and notice how wide the throat is, how the tongue is relaxed and low, and the kind of momentum required of the airstream.  It helps some players to imagine the warm breath that will fog up glass.  The trumpet requires the same kind of mechanics from the body (use “Ho” for the breath attack).  This does not mean that the throat will narrow as you return to the middle and upper registers (!), but instead is a good example of how playing correctly in the low register can help you learn some of the skills required to play throughout the range of the horn.
  • The amount and distribution of the mouthpiece pressure.  A lot of players drop their head as they go lower, which usually shifts the weight of the mouthpiece to the top lip, which is the reed of our instrument.  It might be an unconscious way of trying to keep the top lip down below the top teeth…both exposed to air, and in closer contact with the bottom lip, but this action has more harmful side effects than benefits.  If the top lip is receiving more weight, it is harder to keep it vibrating (especially if the airstream is sagging), which then encourages the bottom lip to lose its Hugging action…part of what sustains the underlying shape of the embouchure.  Dropping the head also constricts the air passage at the throat, which affects the momentum of the air, and the resonance of the sound.
  • Too much tension at the center of the embouchure.  The concept of an “M” shaped embouchure is often misunderstood.  The slight feeling of inversion that occurs is what helps “catch” the air and aid in the resiliency of the top lip, but it is only part of the Scissor Action,  which also keeps the top lip relaxed and exposed to air (down below the top teeth).  This also keeps the corners sealed with the mouthpiece, the mouthpiece pressure seated more on the sides than the center, and the point of least resistance (for the airstream) at the center.  Trying to create the gentle contact and inversion of “M” by squeezing the bottom lip up at the center, will close the center, not focus it.  A closed embouchure will react by releasing it’s shape…inviting the return of mouthpiece pressure.

Again, learning how to play the lower register correctly will help the player in so many ways…not only how to avoid the discomfort of playing with braces, but also how to improve one’s sound, efficiency, flexibility and even upper range.  However, it still comes down to How one approaches that range of the horn.  Many players become careless when playing the pitches they may have first played as beginners (like low C), succumbing to the temptation to overly open the lip aperture and erupt the lips…and in doing so, only perpetuate the same problems they inherited from that way of playing.


More Thoughts About Braces

The hardest part of this transition has nothing to do with trumpet playing, but are the kinds of things everyone goes through with braces.  The initial pains people feel are related to the tension in the mouth as teeth are forced to begin moving to their new positions.  Also, the inside of the lips and cheeks will be tender from the friction against the braces created by normal activities like talking and eating, until the inside of the mouth begins to toughen up.

I don’t recommend playing with wax, or any of the lip guard products that are out there, unless you have an immediate playing commitment that does not allow you any time to address a better way of playing the instrument.  Those kind of solutions mainly address the symptoms (the pain), rather than the causes.  Reduce the pain by improving your playing habits, then use any remaining discomfort as a little reminder of how well you are progressing, and if adjustments still need to be made.

When finally playing more efficiently, most of the pain comes from the wires that stick out into the back of the cheeks, so be sure to tell the orthodontist that you are a trumpet player.  They have a tool that can trim those wires in the back so they are flush with the braces.   If  you forget to mention this at the time the braces are first installed, here would be a good place to make use of the wax the orthodontist will first give you, placing it over the ends of those wires until the next visit, when you can have those wires trimmed.

wheel_torqueSome students find that the braces inhibit their ability to bring the top lip down, so it is 1/8” below the top teeth edges…placing the lip line (where the lips touch) halfway between the top and bottom teeth.  In those cases I found that they had begun the Hugging action…too much too soon, which was already holding and immobilizing the top lip against the teeth and gums (and of course the braces).  Because the top lip coming down is only a part of the Scissor Action, remember that it should occur at the same time as the hugging action, the sealing at the corners, the focusing toward the center, and the improvement of weight distribution.  This is much like following the “star pattern” when uniformly tightening a car’s wheel after changing a flat tire, except that with the Scissor Action, all of its actions occur simultaneously.  However, the analogy still holds true…if one lug bolt (or action) is screwed all the way down before the others, the wheel will be askew, and the other lug bolts will be effectively locked out from their needed role in properly aligning and securing the wheel.

Sometimes braces are placed on one set of teeth first, either the top or bottom.  Whatever the program the orthodontist is following, the trumpet player’s jaw position must be adjusted to insure that the distribution of the mouthpiece weight favors the bottom (55-60%), and the lips themselves are aligned with each other.  I’ve had students who have had to change their jaw position several times while they had braces, and always making this adjustment greatly helped them to maintain a consistency in both their comfort and playing.

When the braces come off  there will be a different challenge…the additional space between the teeth (and gums) and the inner cheeks, where the braces used to be.  The solution is simple…take up the “slack” with the Hugging action.  This of course begins with the initial setup, which will set the example for what you will continue to do while playing.  Going hand in hand with this change is the need to make sure that it occurs in a way that does not disrupt the balance of the entire playing system, which should still allow the throat and upper body to remain completely relaxed.

The early warning sign of too much pressure…pain, will be missing, so it is helpful to find other symptoms to alert you to this problem.  As mentioned before, a good way of judging the amount of pressure is your ability to hold your “frame” in place.  This ability is not only based on strength, but also balance.  If the embouchure is feeling the mouthpiece weight (either the amount, it’s distribution, or both) more than the supporting air column, the set will feel the urge to release.  Also listen to the sound…does it “wobble” or lose its continuity?  The balance between air support and playing weight could now be favoring  the weight.

Some students report a “slimey” feeling on their teeth after the braces come off.  This is nothing to worry about, and that sensation will soon pass.


MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE SCISSOR ACTION

 

two-scissorsThere are three things that occur simultaneously with the “Scissor Action”:

  1. The top lip comes down (and continues to be held down) at a point 1/8” lower than the top teeth as part of a Hugging Action (described below).  This keeps the top lip below the top teeth edges (and therefore exposed to air), and in contact with the bottom lip.  The initial downward motion should first begin through the act of relaxation.  This contact is first felt at the corners (just like where the blades of our imaginary scissors first start to cut…closest to their lever’s fulcrum, at the screws).  This action replaces the misguided effort to keep the lips in contact with each other by dropping the head, or raising the bell angle (or both), which usually puts more mouthpiece pressure on the top lip.
  2. The bottom lip does not come up any more than 1/8” above the bottom teeth (which is related to the squeezing action at the center of the lips), but instead “hugs” towards the bottom teeth and gums (all around the arc of the mouth, but is anchored at the corners).  This action is the one most involved in replacing the mouthpiece pressure, and “catching” or compressing the air.
  3. The lip aperture begins to narrow from the sides toward the center, effectively focusing it, and keeping the center of the embouchure as the point of least resistance.

Sometimes I have students perform this action with their teeth lightly touching.  Even though the trumpet is not normally played in such a position, it has a few of advantages that help with the set up:

  • It is easier to see if the teeth are aligned.
  • You can more clearly observe where the lips first come into contact with each other in relation to the teeth (remember that this should be 1/8” below the top teeth), and if they touch each other first at their center or their corners (they should meet at the corners first).6916f8ef90d81241e5aecc80fd804638
  • It helps to learn the difference between the proper Hugging-inverting action and the misguided “sucking in” of the lips (where they go over the teeth edges and into the mouth).  All of the Hugging-inversion should happen in front of the teeth.
  • By eliminating the 1/4” gap between the teeth that will be eventually used during playing, the facial muscles get a better sense of the form they need to take (imagine how a latex mask is made by allowing the material to dry while it is hugging against the face, and how there should be no air pockets to distort the final form).  With the gap gone, there is something more substantial to hug against.  Once the jaw returns to the 1/4” gap, the embouchure muscles remember their proper form (this is much like how temporary forms are used when making the foundation for a house…helping to hold the concrete in place until it dries).dsc4745
  • It makes it easier to tell if the top lip is coming down due to muscular (correct) or jaw action (incorrect).  If the jaw is dropping to pull the top lip down, you would feel that the teeth are no longer in contact.

 

Once their position is set, I often have the student then blow air through it…a test and see if the embouchure is relaxed enough to allow the air to pass through its center, and if the embouchure muscles are strong and coordinated enough to maintain its basic form with varying degrees of air support.  Attempting a soft Free Buzz in this way could also be very informative.

No one action predominates here…they all act in a balanced, coordinated unison, which allows everything to occur with only the minimum amount of tension needed for the moment.  The more relaxed you can be, the more malleable your face will be…making it easier to make the setup.  This approach can be easily overdone, which can produce problems of its own, so concentrate more on relaxation and coordination than strength.   big_thumb_b8304cb07b01385dc02bcc4a2e829355Think about the blueprint for a high performance race car.  A powerful engine might be thought of as a top priority, but more important is the power to weight ratio…a lighter car does not need as much power as a heavy one, and will be much more nimble.  Either way, the weight of the engine must be properly distributed.  There will be major problems if there is a high center of gravity, and there must be adjustments made if the entire weight of the car is not balanced, but favors either its front or the back (can you imagine how the car seen above would perform on a track with all kinds of twists and turns?).  The geometry of the suspension is also critical, as are the brake and tire choices, and the gearing ratios of the transmission.  Of course there are more variables, but you get the idea…this is a system that requires that you consider its every component, and their relationships to all the others.

If properly coordinated, the lips should first contact each other (sometimes called the “lip line”) at the halfway point of the 1/4” teeth aperture (1/8th of an inch below the top teeth edges, and 1/8th of an inch above the bottom teeth edges) in one step.  A common mistake is first bringing the bottom lip up above the top teeth edges (part of a squeeze), and then trying to bring this point of contact back down to where it is centered between the teeth (obviously two steps).  The problem here is that this initial, go-to action of the embouchure muscles remains ingrained in the mental software…a mini ticking time bomb that can lead to a closed center and the bottom lip’s loss of hug (which can be just as destructive as excessive mouthpiece pressure or poor weight distribution).  Remember that you will hold the position with the same muscle combination that made it, so be careful that you are very aware during this process.

Not only do the lips meet from corner to corner at this midway point, but their hugging should equally align them, where no lip inverts more than the other.  This aids in the stability of the position, without adding unnecessary tension.

flexing-bicepsThe lips will begin to seal with the mouthpiece at the corners in a way that also creates a platform for the mouthpiece to better contact there, thereby protecting the center vibrating top lip even more.  Think of how a muscle changes its shape when it contracts, and you will get the idea of how the Scissor Action can help to create this advantageous shape.  Once the embouchure is set, any increase in tension below the corners becomes more isometric (with the exception of the narrowing of the lip aperture), where the position only locks in place more (rather than moving the embouchure in any direction).  It is the corners of the lip aperture which focus towards the center…the corners of the mouth remain at their natural width, neither smiling back nor pooching forward.

Remember that although you are making a sturdy frame, it houses a very relaxed yet resilient reed at its center…one that allows air to freely pass through, as it leaves its sometime compressed state in the oral cavity.  The throat, tongue and upper body should also be completely relaxed.

Lockheed SR-71 landing with drag chute (S/N 61-7972). (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lockheed SR-71 landing with drag chute (S/N 61-7972). (U.S. Air Force photo)

This setup is much like the design of a drag chute…it must catch air in order to achieve its intended purpose, but requires a hole at its center to take some of the stress off  (and to keep the position from coming apart).  If the center hole enlarges too much, the chute loses its effectiveness.  Our embouchure can catch, focus and compress this flowing air.  The better we can catch and compress, the less we have to blow, plus the free center allows the air to pass and the top to vibrate at a very specific (and therefore controllable) point.  Imagine what happens to the shape of the chute as the airspeed decreases.  At first there is less tension on the cords, but below a certain speed the chute loses its shape entirely.  Similarly, the best designed embouchure will lose its effectiveness below a certain speed, underscoring the fundamental need to keep the air flowing!

There is a certain amount of embouchure strength involved here to start with, but it should always be minimal…just enough to get the job done.  If you are having trouble  maintaining the position, first make sure you are not under or overblowing, are not closing the center with excessive weight or poor weight distribution, and then, are not squeezing the position’s center.  All of these actions can trigger a response in the body to release the position.


FINAL THOUGHTS

What works for the student transitioning to braces works as well for the player who is looking for ways to improve.  The process of upgrading the design of the human part of the instrument not only aids with the performance aspects of trumpet playing, but music making as well.  Results go hand in hand with one’s ability to follow the blueprint described here, which should give the player positive feedback for not only the time they have invested, but also for the value of acquiring more knowledge, and elevating their awareness.

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2016 Denver Jazz Trumpet Consortium

2016 Jazz Trumpet ConsortiumAl Hood, who teaches trumpet at Denver University’s Lamont School of Music, and directs their Lamont Jazz Ensemble, has once again put together an event for lovers of jazz and trumpet.  Here’s some information he recently posted that could be of interest to any of you who share his interests!


Hello Jazz Fans!!

The 2016 Denver Jazz Trumpet Consortium, featuring Yamaha Artist BOBBY SHEW is about to get underway August 1-4 and there are a couple of spectacular Denver performances you will not want to miss!

The first is at Dazzle Jazz Club on August 2nd at 7PM and will feature Bobby Shew and the DJTC Faculty (Brad Goode, Greg Gisbert, Pete Olstad, Gabe Mervine and Al Hood) with a phenomenal rhythm section! Get your tickets here:

http://dazzlejazz.ticketfly.com/…/1231345-trumpet-great-bo…/

Following that at 9PM in the “Dizzy Room” will be ALL of the trumpet attendees of the consortium populating the Tuesday evening Jam Session – for a night of “total trumpet mania!”

Then the FINALE concert of the DJTC will take place Thursday eve August 4th at 7:30PM at Newman Center’s Hamilton Hall. This concert will feature Bobby Shew, all the trumpet faculty, all 35 consortium attendees, a fabulous rhythm section AND the H2 Big Band! Not to be missed! Tickets here:

http://ev9.evenue.net/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/SEGetEventList…#

Please share this with other jazz & trumpet fans!


And here’s a video which will tell you a little more about the Jazz Trumpet Consortium!

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Opening of a “A Remarkable Life”

A Remarkable LifeWay back in September of 2014, I had blogged about an independent film that I had written some music for earlier that summer…just one brief, but pivotal scene.  Since then, “A Remarkable Life” has had some success in various film festivals (including Colorado’s own Breckinridge Film Festival), and is now opening in a few select theaters across the country this Friday, May 27th.  In my original post I had promised to let everyone know when and where the movie would be released, so at long last, I can share that information with you now!

  • In Denver: Harkins Northfield 18
  • Boston: Apple Cinemas in Cambridge
  • New York: Cinema Village
  • In L.A.: Laemlle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills opens next week, beginning June 3rd

In the words of the film’s writer-producer-director, Vohn Regensburger:

“I hope you can make it out to the theater over this weekend in Denver and bring some friends! We are living and dying on the box office returns and hope to get another week if we can generate enough ticket sales. I really appreciate the help!”

Here’s a trailer to pique your curiosity, and I hope to see you at the movies!

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Composing and Recording Music for Film

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New Website Up and Running!

Website HomepageAfter the normal growing pains associated with any kind of change in personal technology, my new website has launched!  It offers a much more streamlined, current look, and easier access to all kinds of information about my private teaching, audio files from past work, and free sheet music from my library of reharmonizations.  It also has a better interface to related articles in my blog, and will be able to grow, as my performance and recording projects progress.  I’ll still be making a few tweaks as I view the website on various devices, but it’s basically ready to roll!

bob-gillis.com

 

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Website and Email Transfers

website-and-email-hosting-servicesHere’s a quick note about my new website being set up with a new host, which will also impact my email.  I’m hoping that everything goes smoothly, but you never know.  The process should start on Thursday, May 12th, but in case you have any problems contacting me via email, here’s another address you can use:  bob-gillis@centurylink.net.

This blog will be unaffected, and I’ll post here again soon as everything is up and running.

This was all started in motion by Apple’s decision to discontinue their iWeb website building software.  First it was a loss of Google maps, but then more importantly, its ability to play music files on some computers.  Also, once I retire my current computer, I will no longer have control over the current website.  The new site will remedy these problems, plus offer a better look and more functions that will benefit all of us.

 

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Reharmonizing and Arranging a Song for a Student: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

VanderVander has been studying trumpet with me for a few years now, and due to his family’s busy schedule, had accumulated a lot makeup time.  To try and help him recover some of that lost time, I came up with the idea of having him come over to my home studio, where he could record a couple of songs.  Although Vander’s middle school does not have a jazz band, our own work together revealed that he had a natural talent for improvising melodies, so I thought it would be fun to document some of that creativity on CD. Vander and his family were enthusiastic about the idea, and so we tentatively planned to do something in the spring.

Essential ElementsIn the meantime, during one of his regular lessons I saw the need to try a simple, melodic duet, and yet the only music we had on hand that day was in his old “Essential Elements” book from grade school.  None the less, I found “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,”  which seemed to fit the bill perfectly (not to mention its jazz credentials…an African American spiritual, that was also used as the basis of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac”).  Since the song was not technically demanding, we were able to concentrate on sound and phrasing, and Vander rose to the occasion.

Later, as I began making more plans for the recording session, I thought it would be nice to have more than one piece on that final CD.  “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” immediately came to mind, but I thought to add a few modifications that would provide Vander with a greater learning experience.  The first idea was to reharmonize the song using chords found in the jazz vocabulary, ones with what I call a higher “hip factor.”  Here the melody’s relation to the melody is a little more complex, where instead of those notes being the root, 3rd, or 5th of the underlying chords, they functioned as the chords’ upper extensions…like the 7th, 9th, 11th or 13th.  Those upper extensions could also be altered (for example#9, b9, #11, etc.).

The idea behind this reharmonization was to expose Vander to a greater harmonic vocabulary, and to have him hear his trumpet voice playing a key role in those more sophisticated chords.  I also wanted to challenge Vander with a less familiar key signature, and so modulated the key from Concert Eb Major to Concert E Major (six sharps for a trumpet player!), beginning at the tune’s second section (Letter B, below).  Then the lesson plan expanded even more, so he could also hear and experience the emotional effect of harmonic modulation not only once, but twice, when the arrangement’s tonal center returned to Concert Eb Major in the song’s third section (Letter C).

There are some important skills that must come into play during the performance of this arrangement.  While the jazz-blues tune we will also be recording has a steady, swing feel, the tempo in “Swing Low…” will be allowed to fluctuate, in a conscious way that will help to serve the music by allowing the phrases to breathe a little more.  We will have to listen to each other more carefully, and know our parts so well that our eyes are not buried in the printed page of music.  We will listen more than we will read…a formula that always promotes better music making.

Finally, just a couple more perks.  I have the arrangement closing with the trumpet using a harmon mute, a favorite of many great jazz players.  Not only does it have a unique sound, but the player must also adjust to its added resistance, weight (mine is a copper bubble mute that weighs even more than the aluminum ones), and intonation (these mutes can play on the sharp side).  Also, I used the notation software Finale’s Jazz font…a different look that some students have not been exposed to (although I just learned that Vander has seen it before).

What follows below are some comments about the reharmonization and arrangement, along with the two pages of the score.  The piano part will be improvised, following the written chord symbols.  A printable PDF of the score is available near the end of this post.

  • There is now a four measure introduction, based on some of the melodic fragments of the melody.  I saw this inclusion as a way of discussing how an arranger works with the song’s themes to expand and strengthen the work’s form.
  • Measures #12 and #20 have quarter notes that are pickups to the next phrase.  These notes were not in the original piece, but serve here to lead into the harmonic modulations.
  • For a slight change in mood, Letter B begins with poco piu mosso (a little more motion, meaning a little faster), has modulated to a new key one half step higher, and has two measures of an ascending chord progression.
  • Swing Low, Sweet Chariot- Score- page 1
    The ascending melody beginning in measure #23 is accompanied by rising chords with their own ascending bass line that continues past the melodic high point.  This combined with the three accented notes in measure #25 create the piece’s climax.
  • The last two beats of measure #26 are played an octave higher than the original melody, to provide a little variety, and to help sustain the climax expressed in the preceding measure.
  • Although measure #30 first cadences in the arrangement’s original key (Concert Eb Major), there is a feeling of modulation as the muted trumpet states the theme a step higher than the key would suggest, thanks to playing on the upper extensions of that chord (#11, 9, Maj 7 and 13), which suggest a Concert F Major 6th chord.
  • Measure #31 has an ascending chord progression for the first 3 1/2 beats, and is combined with last two beats of the melody transposed an octave higher (just as in measure #26), to help provide even more of a lift.
  • The chord in the final measure has actually resolved to a new tonal center a whole step higher (F Major), and yet the muted trumpet is trilling on the #11, which could suggest a key yet another step higher (Concert G Major).  All of these actions support the feeling that the chariot continues to rise…to paraphrase the lyrics; towards the heavens and home.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot- Score- page 2

The score above is shown as two JPEG files, but clicking Swing Low, Sweet Chariot- Score will give you a printable PDF of the entire two page arrangement.

swing_low__sweet_chariot_by_with_wings09Even though they will not have their own recording session, I have other students who will benefit from playing this piece, so thank you Vander, for being the impetus behind the entire project!

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Some Trumpet Practicing Guidelines From Another Discipline

CMP LogoAlex (one of my high school students who has been mentioned in this blog before), recently had to miss his weekly lesson in order to attend a summer camp.  This particular one was held by the Civilian Marksmanship Program, and so I was curious to hear what he thought of it.  When asked, his face lit up with a big smile, and then he described how much of the instruction he received in the classroom was almost word for word what he had been hearing in his trumpet lessons.  This didn’t surprise me, for both endeavors (shooting a rifle and trumpet playing) are disciplines, which require a large degree of study, awareness and practice.  I then asked Alex to recount as many of those guidelines as he could, thinking that they would not only be interesting to hear, but also that they would underscore some of the principles a trumpet player (or other musician for that matter) should be familiar with.  Viewing these ideas from another perspective could also help trumpeters compare their own practice routines with those of the marksman, to see if they approached their music practice time with the same degree of seriousness, intention and single mindedness.  Here are the ones that Alex remembered (shown in boldface), followed by a few words concerning their application to trumpet playing:

  • You must have a clear mental image.  It all starts with the mind.  Is your mind sending precise signals to all of the parts of the body associated with trumpet playing?…posture, jaw and tongue positions, lip alignment, aperture size shape and location, mouthpiece placement, weight distribution, breathing, etc.  Plus, do you have a concept of the sound you want to resonate, the tempo and subdivision of the music, and what you are trying to communicate musically?  Clarity requires more data (like more pixels in a picture), and imagery is a great way of storing that data (a picture is truly worth a thousand words…or more).
  • Be completely relaxed, with tension in only the right places.  A clear mental image helps with this.  The muscles that are required for the job can work more efficiently if the opposing muscle groups to good playing are relaxed.  Independence and coordination help to keep wasted energy to the minimum.  The mind needs to be relaxed too, with no conflicting or distracting thoughts.
  • If a mistake was made, you must know exactly how it occurred.  Why did you miss that note?…not enough air support, too much mouthpiece pressure or poor weight distribution, an unfocused lip aperture, not hearing the pitch in your head before you played it, an incorrect fingering, etc?  Every problem has its own solution, but the first step is correctly identifying it, and knowing its root cause.
  • If you notice a problem with your form before you pull the trigger, you must stop, and start completely over from the beginning.  If you are not set properly before you begin to play your first note, you will be inviting the body to come up with its own knee jerk reactions to compensate, and that usually means tension in all of the wrong places.  Worse yet, is that you begin to acquire or perpetuate bad habits, which moves you in the opposite direction you want to go.  Starting over from the beginning gives you a chance to replace the misstep with a more positive course of action, clarifying that mental image all the more.
  • After working on various aspects of form individually, everything must eventually become a single autonomous action.  The best way to do this is to begin with the most fundamental steps, where you can observe the entire playing system in action, and where your chance of coordinating all of the newly learned functions is the highest.  For a trumpet player, critically observing how you start a note will reveal how balanced and coordinated the entire playing system is.  Gradually introducing more complexity (which is done during a proper warmup) will help insure that all of the components continue to work as one.
  • When performing, don’t overthink.   By the time it comes to perform, your mind should be on the music.  The time for practicing is over (at least until the next practice session), and you must become a conduit for the music.  Brainwave patterns have been shown to be completely different for practicing and performing, and so we must be clear in the role we are to assume.  If you have been practicing correctly, you should already be experiencing how that fundamental work has helped your musicality.

I’m sure there were even more analogies than Alex remembers, but seeing a little bit of this relationship between two entirely different disciplines should help increase your respect for some of the core principles that would be a part of any good trumpeter’s practice routine (or any other musician’s).

One very interesting observation I made during Alex’s lesson that day.  Although he had been away from the horn for an entire week, his initial warmup showed very positive improvements.  While he could not at first explain the reason why, we soon both agreed that he had spent the previous week in intensive study and practice…several hours each day.  The noticeably improved single mindedness that he developed that week was now being transferred to another discipline, his trumpet, and the results were obvious.  Of course, I couldn’t help but ask him if the hours he spent during the week at camp matched the hours he practices trumpet each week.  He again smiled at me, knowing that a good point had been made for increasing that daily practice time!

This also makes a strong case for the benefits we can acquire through our involvement with music (and why it should be offered in all schools!).  My students have noticed their grades, interpersonal relationships and general interest in the world improve as they began learning how to discipline and focus their mind on music, and develop their awareness and sensitivity.  There are many studies that support this relationship, but it is best when experienced first hand!

We should see that there are so many helpful analogies that can be drawn from other disciplines.  Artists, architects, weight lifters, swimmers, baseball players, golfers, bowlers, software designers, race car drivers, physical therapists, players, designers and builders of musical instruments (all represented somewhere here in this blog), plus many more…all would have their own guidelines that could resonate with us, and possibly give us new insights into our own field.

Thanks for bringing up this topic, Alex…I’m sure everyone can benefit from it!

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Mapping Out a New Jazz Tune

Music MapWhat kinds of things do you do to learn a new jazz tune?  Of course we learn the melody, but if you are planning to improvise on the tune and it’s chord changes, your work has only just begun.  I often ask students if they know the spelling of all of the tune’s chords, and the applied scales that reflect the sound of those chords, and the answer is usually…No.  Sometimes a school aged student has received some well intentioned advice from their band director, but are given only one, general scale to play with…which most of the time is barely enough to get things off the ground.  I often find adult students, even those who have been improvising for awhile, are only working with only a small number of tools, and are leaving the rest up to luck or “inspiration.”

The first thing I do with my students is make a “map” of the basic elements of the tune.  If I do it by hand during the lesson, this would made up of two staves (both in treble clef if it is for a trumpet student), with one stave for the chord, and the other for the applied scale.  If the tune is simple enough, the chord and scale are placed on the same stave, which leaves the second stave open for other uses, which are explained below.  I divide each line equally into four measures, so it is easy to see the phrases, and the general framework of the song, since most songs in the repertoire have four measure phrases.  If the phrases are of irregular length, like three or five measures, I will arrange the measures to reflect that the best I can…with three or five measures in the appropriate lines.  The example below shows just a fragment of the fifth measure (which would normally be placed at the beginning of the next line), only to show where the examples in some of the staves are headed.

Ideally, there would be more than two staves…one for the melody, and then more blank staves below to work with in various ways.  These blank staves can be used for drawing shapes, and visual lines, and experimenting with motivic cells (see the links to related posts below), and even writing a sketch of a solo based on these different approaches.  If there is more than one applied scale, you can either write it out on another stave, or (if there is only one or two notes that are different), make a note above or below those notes (see Stave 3.  If you have good notation software, like Finale or Sibelius, you can start with just a couple of staves, and add more as you need them, without having to write out the entire map again.

With all of this room to work with, you can include even more information, like Roman numerals that show the function of the chords, or experimenting with moving a melodic fragment by either transposing or rhythmically displacing it.  Piano or guitar players can write out possible voicings.  This process may at first seem like overkill (especially with all of the staves in my example), but it has a way of not only organizing all of the information in one place, but also of organizing and clarifying the mind…lubing the wheels if you will, so eventually there will be less of a need to think while improvising, and more time and opportunity to listen.

This map can be used during your practice, or during your first attempts to solo.  Having that information in front of you, makes it easier to access it in real time.  But eventually it will be memorized and internalized, which will take your soloing to the next level.

A map is a tool to help you find your way, or how its contents relate to each other, and so our musical map is no different.

Blues for Alice Map

Here’s  a brief explanation of the staves shown above:

  • Staff 1- The melody and chords…in this case the first four measures of Charlie Parker’s “Blues for Alice” ( in Concert Pitch), with an analysis of the chord progression using Roman numerals, and melody (using circled notes and a dotted line bracket to show a nice descending shape).
  • Staff 2- The basic spelling of the chords in root position
  • Staff 3- The spelling and labeling of some of the applied scales.  Things can get pretty crowded very quickly here, especially when there is more than one scale possibility per chord.  For those cases I’ll list the variations as accidentals above or below the note, or try to at least write out the scale name.
  • Staff 4- An ascending shape using chord or scale tones
  • Staff 5- A three note motivic cell that alters to fit the underlying chord and/or applied scale)s)
  • Staff 6- The same three note motivic cell with notes spaced (in ascending order) a 4th and a 2nd apart, this time moving in a more interesting way
  • Staff 7- A visually appealing line that can be translated into a musical line
  • Staff 8- Rhythmic scales, adjusting to fit an applied scale of the moment.  These particular rhythms come from the song, with the first two measures beginning in a different part of the measure than the excerpt’s original positioning.

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Rhythmic Scales

Rhythmic Scale GraphicJazz is one of the many languages of the musical world, and those who wish to speak it in a spontaneous way must be familiar with its vocabulary and grammar.  Complete command  of all the scales and chords that are the building blocks of the repertoire is one of the minimum requirements, but oftentimes while practicing these elements, the student neglects the rhythmic aspects of this music.

While I do advocate practicing scales and arpeggios with swing inflection, the initial way this work is approached is usually with a steady stream of 8th notes.  Not a bad thing, for that alone allows for plenty of opportunity to find the magic of the groove.  However, the language of jazz is rich in its rhythmic diversity, and while we have the opportunity to learn and absorb some of that while playing the written repertoire, I don’t always hear those rhythms improvised fluently by beginning, and even intermediate improvisers.  We can’t fault their inexperience, for the nuances of our spoken languages are heard even in the youngest children, right from the time they begin speaking in sentences.

While listening to a recording of one of my student’s improvised performances, I could hear an obvious need for him to become more familiar with the chords and scales of the tunes.  His hesitation was hurting not only his ability to play longer phrases, but as a trumpet player, the singing quality of his airstream was also missing.  More striking though, was his underdeveloped rhythmic vocabulary.  This student is a good musician, with years of experience in the realm of classical music, so it seemed that he needed the direction of a better lesson plan from me…one that could simultaneously:

  1. strengthen his facility with the chords and scales
  2. help him create longer, more flowing phrases
  3. add to his familiarity with the music’s rhythmic vocabulary

We began by using music from his jazz group’s repertoire, in order to give him the added benefit of more practice time with those specific tunes.  Starting with the first chord (C7) of a C Blues tune they had been working on, I used the initial rhythm from another tune in the group’s set list…Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” (missing that excerpt’s 8th note pickup).  Example A (seen below) shows this rhythm applied to the C Mixolydian mode, our chosen applied scale for the Blue’s opening C7 chord.  Example B is the same scale, but is now descending, and played beginning a diatonic second lower.  Here there is no reason the ascending mode in Example A couldn’t have started on a low Bb, or the descending mode of example B played by beginning on the top E instead.  During an improvised solo, who knows what your entry point to the scale of the moment will be, so it is best to be able to play any scale in any direction, and from any one of its stages.  This helps the player to not only become more familiar with the scale, but to also hear how different it can sound, just by changing the starting note.  Also, since the rhythms will then be encountered at a different place in the scale, there will be a different set of fingerings to “drum” out each those “Confirmation” rhythms.

Rhythmic Scales- BlogSomethings to be aware of though, are the scale notes that receive more attention because of their length (like the low D and high E in Example A), or their position in the phrase (like the first or last note, the note before or after a large intervallic leap, or right before or after a rest).  These are “Hit Points” (a term used by Herb Pomeroy in his famous Line Writing class at Berklee), which are held accountable because they stand out more to the ear, and therefore have more influence on the harmony of the moment.  This subject is worthy of much more discussion and investigation (and comes up briefly under the subject of Avoid Tones in the following paragraph), but is more than I wanted to cover in this post.  For now, just make sure you listen to the sound of these Hit Points, in relationship to the accompanying chord.

Trying these ideas, the student was off to a good start, but what happens when you encounter a new chord, with its own supporting scale(s), before you have completed the scale and rhythm that you started with?  Since this scenario is very common when improvising over a tune, we have to develop the mastery and freedom that allow our improvised lines to continually and logically unfold from the linear perspective, all the while honoring the underlying harmonic structure.  Our lines can then be determined more by our creative choices, not by our limitations…like not being able to spontaneously switch to a new scale (and then possibly playing inappropriate notes), or having to curtail the execution of our idea.  Examples A and B show a C7 chord that lasts for two measures, but the actual Blues tune had an F7 in the second measure.  This was an easy fix (seen above in Example C), only having to change the final E in example A to an Eb…the lowered 7th of the F7 chord.  Just for fun, we also changed the F natural in the first measure to an F#, drawing from the C Mixolydian #4 scale (some folks call this scale in that first measure the C Lydian Dominant), which removes the scale’s Avoid Tone (F), that falls on a heavy downbeat and weakly conflicts with the E of the C7 chord.  Besides, the F# (Gb) is much more hip.  Example D has the same solution to a much longer lasting Avoid Tone (this time over the F7), and replaces that Bb with a B natural.

To illustrate other examples of Rhythmic Scales, we then tried a different tune, Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring,” and used the song’s opening rhythm (shown in Example E below, in the Bb trumpet’s key), right where it occurs in the tune’s chord progression.  What better source of rhythmic motifs, than from the tune you will be improvising over!  You can see that by starting the applied diatonic scale on the low D, it fits perfectly with the chords.  Some students have trouble playing the 16th note triplets correctly, in which case it is a good idea to have them leave out the second two 16th notes at first (in this case, the B and C in the brackets), until the rhythmic placement of surrounding A and D can be played and felt correctly.  At that point, bring back the deleted notes, playing them evenly within their rhythmic space, without disturbing the rhythmic placement of their adjacent neighbors.  During the more challenging passages, you must also listen carefully to keep the sound full and consistent on every note.

Rhythmic Scales- Blog 2Example F above shows the same rhythm, starting on a different note of the diatonic scale, and over the Amin7 (the key’s IImin7 chord).  Although that particular chord never lasts for more than two beats in the song, like I mentioned before, it’s still good ear training to hear all of the inversions of every applied scale in a tune through its entire octave, and to be able to go either up or down from every starting point using the rhythmic pattern of the moment.  Example E could be played over an Amin7 chord, and Example F could be played over a GMaj7.  However, always be aware of the sound relationship between every scale note (not just the Hit Points) and its accompanying chord (see the post, “A Casting Call for All Notes”).  Once you are finally playing in the context of a tune’s harmonic progression, change the scale notes accordingly, to fit the chord of the moment.  Having said all of that, switching the chords in Examples E and F as I just described would not warrant any change in the accompanying scale.

Example G below transposes the scale again within the key, but right after the longest note of the phrase, it leaps an octave and changes direction.  Predetermined variations like this can be tried after you are comfortable and consistent with running the scale in only one direction.  Example G is just one way of modifying the pattern, but still gives players a chance to drum out the same rhythm with the fingers (on valves, keys or a keyboard), and just gradually introduces a little more complexity.  Example H is just another example of how to create a variation, obviously just returning to the pattern’s original starting note after the first held note, and then changing direction once again after the last held note.  Example I just changes the direction of the original rhythmic pattern.  The important thing to remember when trying any variation, is to still keep the priorities of the swinging and singing line, with no mistakes.  Remember, How you are practicing becomes a permanent part of your playing!

Rhythmic Scales- Blog 3Example J below, from “Bolivia” already has Example H’s variation built into it (and is the tune’s actual melody), plus you can see the pattern moving up diatonically in the next two measures.  As you feel more facile with your thinking, you could also try moving up or down chromatically, or around the Circle of 4ths or 5ths (either chromatically or diatonically).  However, these are not “licks” you will try and regurgitate into your solo when you return to improvising.  Instead, you are internalizing the rhythmic language, consistently getting a great sound on your instrument, better familiarizing yourself with a lot of scales in new ways, and feeling the length of longer phrases.

Rhythmic Scales- Blog 4Example K, seen above, shows a way of incorporating arpeggios into this approach to practicing, borrowing the rhythm from “Straight No Chaser,” which seemed to work well with chords moving up a Perfect 4th.  All of these patterns are just a beginning, for the Jazz repertoire is full of wonderful rhythms that you can incorporate into your playing.  You can also try rhythms that you hear in the solos of great improvisers…anything that you would like to make a part of what will eventually become your own unique way of speaking the language.

Other Practice Guidelines and Suggestions:

  • Have the fingerings and rhythm figured out before you actually play the scale, so once you begin playing, there is no hesitation with the time or the air.  If you play a wind instrument, don’t blow at first.  Instead, just practice the pattern by fingering the keys or valves, listening to hear only one “click” per note, no matter how many keys are being pressed or lifted at the same time (except obviously, when there is no required change in fingerings…but in that case, still feel the rhythm of that silence).  This coordinates all of the fingers into a very concise rhythm, one which is then felt much more clearly, and in turn internalized and imprinted much more deeply.  Then, with your instrument held very close to your embouchure (but not close enough to make a sound), add the air and tonguing, coordinating them exactly with the fingers, while listening for a relaxed, overarching flow to the sound and feel of the airstream.  Brass players should make sure the embouchure retains its proper formation, and that the head and horn angles, and mouthpiece placement (as close as it is) are all correct.
  • Practice with a metronome, keeping the bar lines intact whenever you have to loop a section that needs more work.  A great alternative is to put the metronome’s clicks on beats 2 and 4, which mimics jazz’s backbeat (and the drummer’s basic closed high hat pattern).  Sometimes that is the strongest and most consistent rhythm you will hear in a playing context, so it is a good idea to be able to orient yourself to it whenever the first downbeat is not played or heard clearly.
  • Never sacrifice the time, or your sound in order to play the right notes…instead, to increase your note accuracy, slow the tempo down or do “Add-Ons” (refer to the link “Using Add-Ons to Learn a Challenging Passage of Music“).  Build good habits by establishing the correct priorities.
  • When you are ready to begin improvising, start by using a rhythmic scale pattern over the chord progression’s first two measures as a “launching pad,” and then improvise an answer to that idea over the next two measures, keeping the same virtues of time, sound and flow in your improvisation.  Then continue on to another two bar “launching pad,” and then alternate back to another improvised, two measure phrase.  This will help carryover your new skills into the context of soloing, and give you a way of comparing how well these new, higher standards are holding up when you improvise.  Always play phrases that last for a minimum of two bars, even if they contain only one or two notes (where the last note is held for the duration of the phrase, much like “Add-Ons”), all the while feeling the internalized beat.  For horn players, this helps to insure that the “swing of the air” (your inhale and exhale) is always relaxed, with a natural follow through.  This is what gives you the supported, “singing” sound we want, and helps to make sure that your sound is always leading somewhere …that you are always “telling a story” when you play.  Also see the post “Breathing is Like a Bowling Swing.”
  • In place of a metronome, you can try creating an accompanying loop with any apps you may have, that would allow you to hear the chord progression in time (or a smaller segment of it), or even just the roots of the chords.
  • Record yourself, in order  to help you listen more critically.  The better you sound, the more the rhythmic scale will transcend the exercise, and become music.
  • Write a solo over a tune’s chord progression, using no more than four rhythmic motifs (bonus points for using rhythmic motifs from the song, if they are suited to this approach), and by using any of the variations (adapting the scale to the chord of the moment, transposing, using a direction change etc.), but nothing shorter than a two bar phrase.  Then play your solo, critique it, and then write another…playing and critiquing it as well.  Eventually, this creative act will become more spontaneous, and the carryover to your improvising will be even more noticeable.

There is a lot of work described here, so don’t attempt to try all of these ideas right away.  Gradually add complexity, but only after you have had genuine success with the easier exercises.  Remember that the quality of your efforts is much more important than the quantity of material you can cover in any given amount of time.  Prioritize your time and your sound (and its free flowing, supportive air), and then the accuracy of every scale.  Again, practice makes permanent, so be careful of the kind of habits you are forming!

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