Building accuracy and confidence: playing the trumpet (or any other brass instrument) is like shooting free throws…

Building accuracy and confidence: playing the trumpet (or any other brass instrument) is like shooting free throws…

Playing a brass instrument is like shooting free throws…

Steve Nash is the second-best free-throw shooter of all time at 90.43%… just behind Steph Curry, depending on the week!

Nash shot 90% on his first free throw and 91% on his second free throw. That one percentage point difference is smaller than the other players in the top five who were all 3-5% worse on their first free throw. The first free throw is harder because the player needs to access long-term muscle memory. Once they have shot their first, the muscle memory is pulled from their short-term memory which lends the higher percentage to the second shot.

Why was Steve Nash’s first-shot percentage better than the other top shooters of all time?

He practiced his motion three times before EVERY free throw, so he was accessing his muscle memory from his short term memory (see photo).

What does any of this have to do with music??

Think about how many times we put up our instruments and don’t imagine hitting the first note – we focus on any number of other things our excellent teachers have asked us to think about:

  • Breathing
  • Clear Articulation
  • Pitch
  • Character
  • Dynamics
  • The list could go on, and on, and on…

We just performed Frau Ohne Schatten and in the middle there is one of those Straussian head scratching entrances in the second trumpet. Totally calm moment with soft trumpet octaves, then a sudden tempo change, introduced by the 2nd trumpet with an exposed solo entrance (full disclosure: I had it with clarinet, but as he said, “I’ll just ghost you”. – gee thanks!). Yet another one of those trumpet moments where you either feel like a hero or a dog with its tail between its legs. Here’s what it looks like (I can’t share the sound clip per BSO rules…):

Some notes on the trumpet are squirrely like rock climbing – you need just the right foot hold to safely keep climbing. I’d say A-flat is definitely one of those notes for me. It has a narrow slot and is easy to miss it high or low! In this case, instead of stepping or reaching calmly up to its little notch on the trumpet, you are leaping there! After an initial clam or two, due mostly to not understanding the tempo change, I settled into my routine on and off stage. The first thing I did was ask Mike Martin to play the last couple of bars of the soft thing so I could focus on the A-flat. Then, in the preceding section, I imagined what it feels like to nail an A-flat… over and over, and over. Accessing that muscle memory is the key. All the while I was breathing slowly to try to slow down my heart and calm the nerves. Off Stage, when I was warming up or practicing, I would randomly come in (in character, and in the new tempo) and play the lick. I got more consistent and nailed all the performances, I’m happy to say. Since we are playing it on an upcoming tour, I am glad to have figured out how to dial this one in!

  • Playing any instrument is a mini-athletic event.
  • Carmine Caruso said it takes nearly 200 muscles to play one note on a brass instrument – that’s nearly a third of the muscles in the body.
  • Playing music requires tremendous coordination and timing.
  • With brass instruments, many of these actions occur internally so we cannot see them, BUT THEY ARE THERE!!

What if there was a way for us, while we are sitting in an audition or performance to do the same thing as Nash’s practice free throws? I actually started doing this a few years ago before touchy entrances in the orchestra and my percentage of ideal attacks went up dramatically. This leads to more confidence, less stress etc. I try to do it all the time now when I am practicing.

For your next challenging entrance try this:

  • Raise the trumpet up nearly to the lips
  • Feel the time – maybe even tap your toes.
  • Hear the pitch – imagine what it feels like to play that pitch
  • Take the breath that matches the entrance
  • Articulate with the energy that matches the character
  • Repeat several times before the entrance
  • Practice it this way on and off stage
  • In the performance, DO WHAT YOU HAVE PRACTICED!
  • For the love of Rodney, don’t try anything new at that moment!
  • Watch and listen as your percentages go up!

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The Best Zoom Settings: Learn More in Your Lessons

The Best Zoom Settings: Learn More in Your Lessons

Written by benwright2021

In

I have met and worked with many fantastic trumpet players since spring of 2020 via Zoom: American, Canadian, Asian, Australian, Spanish, and British players; older players and younger; amateur and pro. I feel lucky to have been able to help so many people from the safety and convenience of our respective homes/countries. Even now that it is safer, I am still thankful for the Zoom interface and its ability to reach far and wide. 

I wanted to share some info on how you can make your distance learning lessons go smoother from a technological standpoint.

Often I hear people say: I need FANCY equipment to make zoom lessons work, right?

No!!!

Are you among the people that have expanded their minds and improved their playing over the last year by taking lessons with experts all over the world via Zoom? I know that for many of you the answer is yes, but just in case…

Do you need a mixing board, preamp, condenser mic, DSLR camera in 4K, internet at warp speed, and/or supercomputer to make trumpet lessons work on zoom? 

Nope. Can you use just a cell phone on 3g or slow WiFi? Well… sorry, no. 

Here’s what I use: MacBook Pro (2018), Apogee Mic (that’s the model name, but you can use any plug and play USB mic in my experience to excellent effect as long as it has a way to adjust gain control), corded Ethernet connection to Verizon Fios, and an Apple AirPod in one ear with a corded backup nearby just in case.

 

I’ve made excellent connections with my online students using similar setups with GREAT results since March of 2020. 

Does it help to have some setup tips? Yes- here’s a great zoom setup guide. 

Make sure you are running the latest Zoom version by clicking Check for Updates (any time Zoom doesn’t work well this is your first place to check :

Once you are sure you have the latest and greatest version of Zoom, open Zoom and select the cog wheel in the upper right corner:

Once into the settings menu, select “Audio” on the left and check or uncheck the options as shown below:

Click on “Advanced” at the bottom of the screen. On the following page, set echo cancellation to Auto.

Next, select Video on the left side of your settings window and uncheck HD – this will ensure that more of your internet bandwidth will go to your audio feed and reduce lag.

 

That is it for Zoom settings.

As far as to use WiFi or a corded connection (called an Ethernet cable), always choose the latter as it will ensure the most reliable connection (especially if, like me, you have 11 year olds playing Minecraft on the wifi!). I bought a 50’ cable for mine to connect to the router from Amazon for under $20.

Once you have done these things, you can be reasonably sure that your Zoom lesson learning can be maximized! 

 

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The march from Shostakovich 5th Symphony

The march from Shostakovich 5th Symphony

Written by benwright2021

In

Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony has always been a favorite of mine to play – but, here’s the question? Have you heard his 4th Symphony? Check out the BSO’s recent recording of it to hear some crazy stuff! It never shows up on auditions and is rarely played, but it is big, brawny, and bristly in that awesome Shostakovich way. My colleague, Tom Rolfs, principal trumpet of the BSO, sounds incredible in all of the Boston Symphony’s Shostakovich cycle, but especially so in this piece.

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony sounds like a lullaby by comparison. 

Have you ever had trouble making the 16ths square enough in the march, while keeping the phrases long at the same time? This was an excerpt that I struggled with while in school – it is such a strange combination of square rhythms, long lines, and rests. It can take awhile to put it all together. 

The next time you practice it, play long marcato 8th notes during the half notes to subdivide. Take care to drive through them – if they are light or mechanical they won’t do you much good. We’re using them to not only keep the notes the right length but to ensure we don’t let the phrase go slack. Also practice the 8th note/8th rest/sixteenth figures as straight 8th notes to get the feel of the phrase better. You can also deliberately play the WRONG rhythm here – play triplets instead of 16ths and you’ll immediately know if you’ve been playing your 16ths inaccurately.  Don’t practice it with triplets more than once though!! Of course you can also practice the figure with 16th divisions. Notice in my rendition the crescendos that aren’t printed – these are traditional and really help drive the phrasing along. 


 

In my 7 and 12-week T5 programs, members get to play along with me with a feature I call Symphony Stage. Here is the march from the 1st movement of Shostakovich 5th Symphony with me playing all the parts. 

What are your plans for improving your playing this fall? If you’re looking for a one-stop learning experience where you get lessons, masterclasses, a community of similarly driven players, and much more, check out my T5 Fall Semester 2021 HERE.

 

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Principal trumpet excerpts from Alpine Symphony – Peak Efficiency Needed

Principal trumpet excerpts from Alpine Symphony – Peak Efficiency Needed

 Alpine Symphony – a need for peak efficiency – pun not intended!

In high school and then college, my friends and I were constantly trying to bang out the high Ds in Alpine Symphony with varying degrees of success (and bruising of the chops)! I was shocked when I finally realized that it wasn’t supposed to be crushingly loud at figure 68, but F and then (GASP) mf on a high D… But mine would only come out at the speed of PLAID (Spaceballs reference to light-speed for those of you under 40). 

For years, I thought the key was to build up my chops. I was forever working on flexibility and range and more often than not running into the same brick wall. I didn’t realize what the barrier was until very recently.

One of the things I talk with my T5 students is the idea that there is so much more to it than just the chops. My fancy name for it is integrated mechanics for the trumpet: learning to use your whole body to play more efficiently.

  • Arnold Jacobs-style breathing
    • Song and Wind concepts (insert hyperlink the book)
    • Breathing bag and Breath-builder (hyperlinks here too) techniques for ease of airflow
  • Alexander Technique and its benefits for trumpeters
  • Which muscles are needed to play and which are not
  • Singing – the best way to practice away from the trumpet to strengthen musical ideas and improve airflow and articulation
  • How flexibility is improved by understanding the proper function of the tongue
  • How various physical exercise habits have helped my playing

Here are some clips from the Sound Truth Library™ from Alpine Symphony that require focus on the techniques above to make it sound easy. Happy practicing!

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Carmen Prelude for Trumpet and LOW notes!

Carmen Prelude for Trumpet and LOW notes!

Written by benwright2021

In

LOW NOTES! It’s been a huge part of my professional life since leaving school in the late 90s. Having held two 4th trumpet jobs and two second trumpet jobs, I have always been comfortable below the staff and continue to be so. 

In every audition, you’ll have to show you can play in the basement and Carmen is the most commonly requested excerpt that covers that range. There are others: Shostakovich 5 and Piano Concerto, Beethoven 5 second trumpet, Dvorak 8 second movement, Tanhauser, etc, but the focus here is Carmen.

When I was in The Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra, Tage Larsen and I became good friends and remain so today. I remember talking with him about low notes as we prepared for the CSO fourth audition and what he said stuck with me: “Lets face it, they want the notes that are at the bottom of our range or off of it (in the case of low Fs) to sound like real notes. You don’t want people who play other instruments on the committee to look at the trumpet players on the committee and say, Hey – is that supposed to sound like THAT?” So with all excerpts that require that half step below low F#, take special care – MAKE IT SOUND LIKE A REAL NOTE!!!!

 

With Carmen, there are multiple ways to get down to the low F in terms of the fingerings and the slides – this video clarifies what has worked for me over the years (simpler is better, as you will see).

Think of playing the low F like a basketball player being able to dribble between their legs – you don’t want to try that skill out in a game for the first time. You would develop it behind the scenes until it is pretty consistent, and THEN use it in a game situation. It may still feel challenging when it comes to doing under the pressure of someone defending you, but at least it is a skill you have already learned. Same thing here – get the pitch and sound right on the low notes, THEN practice it more or less in context.

A couple of things to remember – we tend to play flat when we play below the staff and our pitch often sags as we descend.  Bear those things in mind when going through these drills and your low notes will start singing with that spinning sound in no time!

Get your free Carmen Prelude Drills !

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