In a relatively short amount of time, the world has seen an explosion in the amount of information that is readily available on just about any subject imaginable. Of course I’m talking about the Internet here, and while that may at first seem to be a wonderful thing for the hungry mind, this amazing abundance has come with a seemingly greater amount of misinformation, diametrically opposed viewpoints, and heated discussions on a variety of subjects, especially in the arenas of religious and political debates.
As any trumpet player knows who has done a Google search for more information about mouthpieces, the upper register, embouchures, etc., the world of trumpet playing is not immune to these problems. We see the human condition at its best…and its worst. There is a generous outpouring of both knowledge and opinion, but also rants and insults that do nothing to advance the progress of the true seekers. Whether we are an aspiring trumpet player, a conscientious voter in an important national election, or someone looking for the meaning of life, we all face the same challenges of finding the answers to our questions in this vast sea of information.
So where does one begin? How do you find the Truth? All of the great explorers had a clear mission before they departed on their journey, whether it was to find a new trade route, discover gold and riches, see a distant planet or moon up close, or to just learn what was over the next hill. The best of them planned as carefully as they could, and assembled the supplies and provisions for their journey. The lucky ones had an experienced guide that was familiar with the territory. My aim here is to provide you with some food for thought (if that could be considered a provision)…some ideas that may help light your way. Much of this could just be called common sense, but that is often considered to be a rare commodity these days. However, even a small part of this kind of thinking can go a long way towards helping us find our way.
First, let’s talk about some of the dangers that can be encountered as you fire up your search engine. Know that in spite of all of the information online, it is a poor substitute for one on one study with a gifted, knowledgable teacher. These days it seems that many people are not only looking for a bargain, but also want something for nothing. You’ve heard the saying that you get what you pay for. Let me add to that by stating that is not entirely true, for valuable insights do exist on the internet. However, when someone does not pay for a gem of information, the danger exists that they may not even recognize and appreciate its value, and are likely to then simply discard it. This could especially be true if that information is not in keeping with their own opinions. More on that later.
There are several online interviews with great players, and by far, most of them acknowledge their teachers. Bone2Pick (shown on the right, with host Michael Davis [r.] talking with trumpeter Alex Sipiagin), Sarah’s Horn Hangout, and Brass Chats are three of the better YouTube series. Hearing these world class players talk, you begin to realize how serious they were about becoming a great musician, and the kind of dues they paid along the way to get there. Granted, many of the players interviewed began their studies before there was an internet, but even the top young players talk about seeking out the best teachers, not the great discoveries they made while surfing the web.
Some of the biggest problems you will encounter are not “out there,” but rather are within you. There is a disturbing trend with attention spans these days, which may be at least to some degree brought about by our instant society. Having quick access to a large amount of information often encourages scanning, rather than the deep reading that leads to the understanding and the retention of concepts. During lessons, I’m surprised at the small amount of information a student has retained after reading my blog posts. As many of you know, teaching demands a lot of repetition, and I can say with certainty that my best teachers were patient with me as I struggled to grasp a concept or skill. In doing so they helped to supply what was missing in my awareness, and kept my attention focused on the problems until they were resolved. I wonder if could have done that on my own (or at least as quickly), especially at that stage in my career.
The New York Times ran an article by Timothy Egan (1-22-16), which referred to a Microsoft survey of Canadian media consumption. The study concluded that the average attention span (which was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted”) had fallen to eight seconds (a shorter attention span than goldfish), down from 12 seconds in the year 2000. A quote from Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, was quite telling… “The true scarce commodity” of the near future, he said, will be “human attention.” Long story short, make sure you have really given your full attention to the information that is presented before making any decisions about its validity.
You will encounter ideas that are not in line with your current understanding, opinions, and way of thinking. When faced with these kinds of encounters, a common reaction is to just immediately dismiss the information and its source (or as most of us have seen, lash out at someone on the internet). However, you should consider that if you really want to improve, you must change in some way…whether it be that you adopt an entirely new concept, or that you approach your current way of practicing with a much greater level of awareness. Continuing with business as usual will only keep you where you are at the moment. Growth IS a form of change, and so you must acknowledge that Truth.
Also keep in mind that most things are not black and white…there are gray areas. As the old saying goes, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” By avoiding generalizations, you may find that there are ideas of merit presented by someone you may disagree with on every other point. Conversely, someone who you really respect might have an idea or two that does not hold up to closer scrutiny. No one teacher has all of the answers.
Alvin Tofler’s famous book, “Future Shock,” foresaw the problems associated with having too many choices, and our internet influenced society of today surely magnifies the dilemma of that prediction. He also stated that associating with group thinking is a common way to avoid the decision making process in the midst of an overwhelming amount of information. Blindly following the philosophy or methodology of our friend, peer group or “tribe” takes a lot less energy than making an informed decision after researching all of the options. That is fine if you are happy with the way you are playing, but if you have greater aspirations then you must be prepared and willing to consider that there could be more ideas to investigate.
The comfort we can derive from tribal thinking is based on the history of our survival instincts, and that phenomena is still evident today, even in its more benign forms. A preseason survey of NFL fans revealed that majority of them believe that their team will win the Super Bowl that season, and yet we know that way of thinking produces only a small percentage of people who will see their favorite team become champions. If you want to really succeed with tribal thinking, then you must choose your tribe very carefully.
A few years ago, Discover magazine had a very interesting article, “A User’s Guide to Rational Thinking”, which I thought would give me pointers on how to deal with those irrational people who disagree with my viewpoints. As soon as I began to read I encountered the bold heading, “The Irrationalist in You”, which declared how we are all programmed for irrational thought. Here are a few quotes and paraphrases… “People don’t think like scientists: they think like lawyers, they hold the belief they want to believe and then recruit anything they can to support it.”…and yet scientists are often more adept at fitting the evidence to their group identity. We have a “…tendency to filter facts to support our pre-existing belief systems- (it) is the standard way we process information.” “…much of our thinking is heavily influenced by our pre-established social or cultural groups.” “We’re very good at detecting motivated reasoning and biasing in other people, but terrible at seeing it in ourselves.” I would add to that insightful list, “We often stubbornly adhere to our ways of thinking to save face…to avoid being proven wrong.”
More Guidelines and Tips
All of this suggests that the biggest obstacle to overcome during our search is ourselves, and that we should keep a clear an open mind (what is known as the “Beginner’s Mind” in Zen practice). Knowing this, what are some strategies that can help us determine what is true, and what is “fake news.” I haven’t seen any fact checking websites related to trumpet playing, so it is incumbent upon each of us to be impeccable during this process. If the internet is going to be your only source of information, then you have to be able to discern what is valuable from what is misinformation. You must also be being able to patiently and carefully test the most promising concepts. Are you up to the task?
What follows in no particular order are a few more guidelines to keep in mind (and I have no doubt that you will discover more if you follow these). For the most part, I have purposely avoided specifics, or going very deep into the hot topics of trumpet playing. Although this blog already has many of my own thoughts on those subjects, here I’m not trying to be another voice in the crowd of experts, would-be’s and charlatans on the internet. What I feel is more important are general truisms that could work on subjects even beyond learning how to play the horn. I’ve made many of the kinds of mistakes described here, and so I can speak from some experience. Oftentimes I will present opposing viewpoints, just to encourage you to check out both sides of the debate.
As mentioned before, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with too much information. When facing the daunting task of choosing an approach or who to listen to, or trying to at least narrow the field, first know that the order in which you tackle your challenges will have a lot to do with your success. Without following that directive, it would be like trying to study a respected book on calculus without first mastering basic arithmetic and algebra. Looking for a better mouthpiece, embouchure, upper register, endurance, tonguing, etc. without a firm grasp on the fundamentals of posture, relaxation and breathing will make it harder to judge whether or not the internet advice you come across has any validity. Establishing the proper priorities will do wonders for giving you a clear sense of direction.
Be leery of highly opinionated proponents of a certain way of playing, that offer no credible reasoning why another way of playing does not work, or why theirs does. It is common for someone without much knowledge of a subject to formulate a stubborn opinion. A strong opinion, or one communicated with much bravado or flowery language does not make it right.
Look for what opposing viewpoints might have in common, and if there are any universal truths in all methods that you can rely on. If there is an approach to trumpet playing that is not in line with the way you learned to play, and yet there are many great players and teachers who endorse it, you should discover what aspects of that approach are beneficial, and most importantly, why they have produced results. If you are critical of a methodology, you must be able to prove the basis for your thinking. Before passing judgement too quickly, or diving into any debate or confrontation, be open and ask yourself, “What are the reasons I might be wrong?” After all, what is more important to you…finding the information and understanding you seek, or proving that your way of thinking is superior to someone else’s? Why does an approach not work for you and yet does appear to be beneficial for others? Or why does something work for you, and yet not for someone else?
If an article or teacher describes an exercise that will make you a better player, you must know not only why it can help you improve, but also understand how to do any highly touted exercise correctly. Going through the motions (like merely playing the notes) without the proper form can actually spawn bad habits, but practicing those same notes in good form will help to produce growth. An example of this is shown on the right, where the top two photos show a young woman attempting a bicep curl. However, bending her back and then swinging the weight up not only takes much of the load off of the bicep muscles, but risks injury to the lower back. The bottom two photos show the exercise done with a straight back, which helps to isolate the biceps more, and in turn protects the lower back. The correct form is essential, and is more important than the amount of weight used. Although exercises may seem like a physical activity, when done properly they are actually more of a mental exercise, since it is the mind that must concentrate on maintaining the form.
Along the same lines, physical therapists have their own definition for the term, transference. Again referring to the pictures above, the goal of the person doing the workout most likely is to get stronger, or to improve muscle tone. But as is often the case, that goal is often unknowingly changed (or transferred) to merely getting a certain number of receptions of an exercise instead, regardless of form, which can actually be counterproductive. Knowing that transference is a very real and common mistake we all have the capacity to make should help remind you keep your focus on the true goal.
Even great players have been known change their approach to the instrument, sometimes even after they achieved admirable success in their field. Many of them have later admitted that their bad habits were getting the best of them. This suggests that while they were able to make great music, they recognized the need to find a better way of playing if they wanted to continue their life in music performance. For that reason, be careful of what aspect of a great player you imitate. Don’t just assume that an impressive trumpeter has it all figured out. Having said that, it is a rarity to find a player that is a master of every genre of music. This is not a criticism of an obvious virtuoso’s playing, for those individuals who specialize in a certain style of music set the standards for all of us!
Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie is seen performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, June 30, 1967. (AP Photo/Frank C. Curtin)
Instead of merely criticizing one aspect of someone’s playing (like Dizzy Gillespie’s extremely puffed cheeks) try to realize how that habit came about, what benefits it was trying to produce, and what a better alternative could be. Also know that Mr. Gillespie has an incredible legacy, which continues to inspire trumpet players to this day. The world of music is so much richer because of him.
Does a method help you with all aspects of your playing? For example, does it only provide an increased upper range, but nothing to improve your low register, sound quality, flexibility, response, or endurance? Before making any judgements, read more below. Also ask yourself, is a certain approach a quick fix, or does it offer a reliable way to continuously develop your potential? To help avoid the detours of short term solutions, judge your own improvements against the highest ideals, rather than only comparing them to your previous level of playing.
Remember trumpet playing utilizes a system of components, that must be perfectly coordinated. For example, correcting a receded jaw can (among other things) reduce the need for mouthpiece pressure, but if the mouthpiece pressure remains at its previous level, the jaw is more likely to recede again…or even open, or the embouchure may tend to release its formation, all as a knee jerk reaction to rebalance the system. Also, if you try to reduce mouthpiece pressure without realizing the reason you had to rely on it in the first place (like poor embouchure formation, or air support), the body may try to compensate by introducing tension in another part of the body (like tightening the upper body or throat, or unconsciously closing the teeth).
Concentrating too long on only one aspect of playing to the detriment of others, and not learning how to coordinate it into all of the system’s parts can make it harder to make something new an integral part your playing, and could also give you a false impression of the value of that component. Although it can be very beneficial to work on your weaknesses individually, make sure that you then test your work within the system, in order to get important feedback on your practice, and the current method you are trying out. For example, if your slurring is beginning to improve, you should experience an improvement with your tonguing. If this is not the case, then it could mean you are not practicing your slurring correctly. If you are trying to extend your upper register, that must be balanced with work in the lower register, and loud playing must be balanced with soft playing. If done correctly, this balanced approach to practicing helps to develop a more singular and consistent way of playing.
Just as balance is important in trumpet playing, so is finding a balanced approach to digesting all of the information you can come across. On one hand, the old saying, “Too many cooks spoil the soup” makes perfect sense, for entertaining too many viewpoints at once can lead to confusion, and an inability to establish a clear sense of direction (what some call “paralysis by analysis”). On the other hand, there is a more recent view (at least in my experience), that has another valuable piece of advice (and pardon my paraphrasing); “Read a book, and then read another book.” This suggests that one “book” on a subject (or method of playing), no matter how good it is, needs to be weighed against at least one other book in the field. One needs perspective.
Know that great players are not always great teachers, and great teachers are not always the greatest players. A great football coach doesn’t need to perform the skills he demands of his athletes, but he must understand all aspects of training, know the rules of the game, and be a great observer and communicator. Can a great football coach throw a ball 90 yards, or can all great running backs become a Super Bowl winning coach? Great players may not totally understand their success (or cannot clearly articulate how they do what they do). The famous teacher Carmine Caruso was not a trumpet player (he played saxophone), but was a gifted educator whose methods are still endorsed by many notable players.
Know that there is a lack of consistent and clear terminology in the trumpet world. Concepts like upstream-downstream, coming forward, “M,” “Pooh,” smiling. frowning, air support, tongue arching, facing, buzzing, etc., often mean different things to different schools of thought. While these terms may suggest a general concept, many times they are lacking in the details needed to be completely understood and successfully implemented. It is then up to you to understand what the differences are in the variety of different meanings, and to fill in the blanks.
I’ve seen some YouTube videos or blogs (including mine) that present some important ideas very clearly, but the subject is too complex to be contained in the limited space of a blog post or the allotted time of an internet video. For that reason, certain specifics or details are often left out, which can impact how well those ideas can be implemented. Just as one lesson with a great teacher is usually not enough, you must return again to the promising blog or video, make a list of questions you may have, then either contact the author, or look for more information from them or someone else with similar ideas.
I’ve used the analogy to high performance race cars before in this blog, and that analogy works here as well, in this case to illustrate how there can be different ways to become a successful trumpet player. Recently I had watched a comparison of three high end supercars on YouTube, the Ferrari LaFerrai, the Porsche 918, and the McLaren P1. These are all incredible cars with very different technologies, and yet somehow had lap times very close to each other. One car may have had certain strengths over the other two (acceleration, braking, cornering, etc.), but every car needed to still exhibit great performance in every category in order to keep up with the competition. For example, a car with tremendous acceleration but poor braking could not compete in this league at all. One car might be more suited to tracks with long straightaways, while another vehicle thrived on one with more twists and turns. Note: in spite of all of the variables involved in this testing, all cars were driven by one driver, and were required to use the same kind of tires and fuel.
Every manufacturer’s cars and equipment are subject to the same physical laws (gravity, wind-airflow, drag coefficients, friction, temperature, etc.). Each company had to continually look for ways to improve their weaknesses, and address them with exhaustive research and development, while building all of their parts to the highest degree of precision. Can you see how all of this applies to the trumpet world as well?
So let’s get back to the original question posed in this post’s headline…can you use the internet to find best way to play the trumpet? The answer is- yes…and no. Yes, because it may be in the realm of possibility…just like you could win the lottery if you have purchased a ticket. But if you are putting all of your eggs in the single basket of internet study, then the answer would be a resounding no…not only because the odds are against you, but because if you are truly serious about becoming a better player, this approach should only be one of several strategies used in the pursuit of mastery. In order to increase their odds of success, the best players usually have found a trusted mentor, have sought out instruction from several qualified teachers along the way, have had countless discussions with their peers, have listened to and observed every great trumpet player who crossed their path (live and on recordings), and most importantly, committed to thousands of hours of intelligent practice.
Awareness must become your sharpest tool. You will become more aware the longer you can keep your attention focused on the business at hand. This takes time and patience, which will in turn increase your knowledge. We need awareness more than we need information. Having said that, a mirror and the ability to record yourself (audio and video) are absolutely essential. These tools give you a perspective that cannot be achieved while playing, since they allow all of your energy to be concentrated on listening or observing. You need to be honest with yourself, and critical…but not in a negative, mean spirited way. Instead of being discouraged when you discover a problem of any kind, maintain a positive frame of mind by understanding that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is a problem.
When in doubt, simplify. If you are being challenged with an exercise or difficult piece of music, slow the tempo down, or work on a smaller section of the piece (see if you can find the exact point where you have lost control), or eliminate the articulation and play the phrase slurred first, or make up an exercise that helps you develop a skill needed to support the work at hand. Take smaller steps. Learn to be a creative problem solver.
Go slower, arrive sooner. I’m talking about more than just a slower tempo here. Take more time setting up, first think about what you are going to do or play before you do it, spend more time on a certain aspect of your playing or your music…go deeper into what you are doing, rather than just going through the motions.
Even though many of these ideas are more akin to scientific study, in the end, they must support our musical goals. One way of making the transition between science and art is by the way we practice. The same exercise you practice with the utmost care in execution should then be performed with as much musicality as possible. Transcend the notes to create something higher, and more meaningful. One student who I had given this directive to reported that her significant other (who never had much to say about all of the practicing going on in their home), commented one day on the beautiful piece of music she heard coming from the practice room. She did not realize that it was the same exercise she had already been listening to for several months.
Congratulations if you have made it to this point in your reading, for it shows that you have a greater attention span than most people, and that you truly desire to become a better trumpet player. I sincerely hope that the internet is just one small part of your program to improve, and know that if you are serious about this process, you will learn more about yourself…an important and integral part of any worthwhile journey.