I started my last (incidentally, my first) blog post with what I expected to be a somewhat controversial statement:
The most important thing I taught myself to do on the trumpet was to learn to play in the high register.
Maybe people were just being polite (and yeah, I’ve blocked some annoying people who just argue with everything, so we should account for that…), but after reading comments from folks on Facebook (thanks, by the way), it seems there is a little bit of shared truth in what I said.
Some of the supportive comments I got included quotes from a couple of friends said to them by their teacher, Mr. Ray Crisara, one of the great trumpet players and teachers of all time:
“A trumpeter who can’t play high is no good to anybody!”
– Mr. Crisara to Jack Burt, Prof. of Trumpet, University of Maine (Thanks Jack!)
“Young man, no one ever learned to play high notes by not playing high notes.”
– Mr. Crisara to Chris Carrillo, Prof. of Trumpet, JMU (Thanks Chris!)
These two quotes highlight why I think the upper register is important. First off, it's just part of what we must do, like it or not. Anyone who knows me very well as a trumpet player knows that multiple articulation (triple/double tongue) has always been a weakness for me. It’s one of those things that I’m still trying to figure it out. Sure, I can do it… but it’s just never been something that has come easily to me, so I’m always on the lookout for tips on how to improve that aspect of my playing, If I want to play music for a living, I have to do it; I can’t just bypass it. (Believe me, I’ve tried!)
Second – playing in the high register opens you up to a lot of music unavailable otherwise. I would argue that (just based on the way composers wrote for the instrument) that a solid upper register is a prerequisite to playing Baroque trumpet at nearly any professional level (imagine being a Baroque trumpeter and having to turn down every J.S. Bach's B Minor Mass or even Handel’s Messiah that comes along because you didn’t have the high register… Would it really be worth pursuing if you couldn’t play those most standard of pieces?) I guess you can play 2nd or 3rd trumpet in an orchestra without a high register (not sure how you'd win the job...) but one day, you're probably going to need to cover a principal part, play assistant, or perform one of the many pieces calling for non-principal chairs to play well above the staff... And sure, you can be a decent jazz player with not much of a high register, but again, it severely limits your options. Why not expand what you can do on the instrument, so that you never have to say no when you’re lucky enough to get called for a gig? (This is also one of my arguments for increasing your versatility, which I’ll talk about in a future post…)
Third – It’s fun. People like high notes. I'm sorry, but it’s true!
So, if I’ve convinced you to come along for the rest of this silly little ride, great! If not – hope to see you next time when I discuss something else more to your liking!
(You still there…? OK good, they’re gone!)
First, a caveat: I am not saying you should do what I did, THE WAY I DID IT. Most of what I did as a teenaged trumpet player was wrongheaded, musically questionable at best, and frankly, potentially physically damaging to my embouchure. I’m lucky I got through that period without permanently injuring myself. I’m only telling that part of the story to illustrate what I went through to arrive at the much healthier relationship to the high register that I (hopefully) have today.
…and second, some background to maybe explain why I believe some mildly uncommon (ok, they’re not that uncommon) things about playing the trumpet that have worked for me:
I grew up in Southern Illinois, south of a town named Carmi (pop. 6500), out in the country. It was a very isolated area, culturally speaking. The closest orchestra, the Evansville Philharmonic, was an hour away. My brother and I never went without anything we needed, but with my dad (successful but working hard) self-employed in HVAC while driving a school bus nine months a year, and my mom (also working hard) feeding and clothing and raising two kids while taking care of our home and the yard, there wasn’t much time or extra resources to get me to concerts or lessons in high school. Now, in their defense, sure, if I had really begged for them, I’m positive they would have gotten me regular trumpet lessons. But other than the week each summer I would go to Eastern Illinois University’s jazz camp (that I loved), I was honestly sort of happy to just teach myself… (I would soak up so much advice, pointers, and practice materials during that camp week that I could keep myself going for months just practicing that stuff. I also wore out multiple copies of Jamey Aebersold’s Jazz Aids handbook.)
Like most small towns, we had a history of good musicians who came through our school system before me (I graduated high school in a class of 121, if that gives you any sense of scale.) And I had a band director, Steve Bell, who was very passionate about music and was (and still is) a very good trumpet player who gave me a really good start on trumpet, and taught me a ton. Except for 2 years in middle school where Mike Croghan was my band director (whom I also respect greatly), Mr. Bell was my only band teacher. (They both also gave me recordings of great trumpet players whom I wouldn't have known about otherwise.) The internet by the time I graduated high school in 1995 was barely in existence: certainly not yet delivering every recording of every piece of music ever written to the phone/computer/TV in my pocket, which also hadn’t been invented yet. No access to instructors giving tips on the trumpet on YouTube, no misguided former university professors writing ill-advised blogs…
Anyway, other than the summer jazz camps, I started to get pretty bored, musically speaking. I played a piece every year for solo contest, but never went to All-State. (I wasn’t even aware that All-State existed then.) And despite Mr. Bell’s efforts, our band and jazz bands weren’t all that great, so I could mostly sightread that music in rehearsal and not really have to practice it. All of this time to myself out in the country led me, out of some part inspiration (the other desperation?) to start learning to play along with recordings.
Again, I’m dating myself here, but CDs and CD players weren’t that cheap or easy to find when I started playing the trumpet. Accordingly, when I started this process, I used a cassette tape player. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the tape player played everything back a half step too high, so I just figured out all these tunes as they sounded, a half step high. This led me to some uncharted territory.
I knew, theoretically speaking, that there were other keys… (This is around 6th or 7th grade, I think.) But I hadn’t really learned any scales yet that weren’t C, G, F, Bb, and maybe D. (Minor scales? What are those?) So, when my tape player played back to me Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” in concert F#, I just sort of figured out the fingerings for all those notes and learned it that way. (I still sort of like it a half step high, but those octave concert C#s are really squirrelly!) Anyway, I recorded a Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Band album off the radio (on the easy listening station in prime time in the early 90s – how times have changed!) and tried to play along with it, plus a random Duke Ellington compilation I think I found in the bargain bin at K-Mart that turned out to have a lot of the same music as the album Ellington Indigos. I think the first thing I transcribed was another song I’d taped off the radio – Lee Loughnane’s classic trumpet solo from the Chicago tune: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” I remember I was young and weak enough technically that I didn’t really know what key it was in, and I couldn’t really play the higher or faster runs in it. But I was sort of playing this thing that was popular, which was pretty cool. From there, I was off. (Of course, as we know, giving a young trumpet player attention is the quickest way to ensure repeat efforts!)
I’ve told this story other places many times before, but the other significant thing that happened around this time was that Mr. Bell took a group of us to hear Maynard Ferguson when I was in 6th grade, in Evansville, at the AFM Hall. My friend Matt Stahl (a waaay better trumpet player than me at the time) and I spied two seats in the front row, right in front of Maynard’s microphone. Even though neither one of us had ever really ever heard of Maynard, let alone heard a recording of him, we practically ran up to the front, grabbed the seats (it was general admission), and were absolutely captivated by what we heard come out of his bell. From that night forward, ALL I wanted to do was to play like Maynard.
I was hooked. But I didn’t really know how to deal with that pesky little How the hell am I going to figure out how to play high notes problem standing in my way. By this point in my development (late sixth grade, 2-plus years into playing the trumpet), I had one thing going for me: the beginnings of a pretty good ear, from being able to (kind of) transcribe those other solos – those songs from the Ellington album, the Chicago tune, the Doc album (even though the high notes there also perplexed me, too). Without any other strategy, I just started trying. Somehow, a few things popped out. Occasionally, a new note came out that hadn’t been there a few moments earlier, and sometimes that new note stuck around the next time I went to practice. Week by week, my range increased a little bit. By 7th grade, somehow, I could play a double high C.
But I didn’t really do this very well. At first, I built up soooo much back pressure that I’d often get a bloody nose. (In 7th grade band with Mr. Croghan – at nearly every rehearsal – if I made an ill-advised attempt to play something up an octave, I’d get a nosebleed almost every time.) At home, practicing in the garage (because, well, can you imagine how annoying this must have been to my parents? Good lord. I don’t blame them ONE BIT for making me practice in the detached garage – which, btw, was really detached – like, 30 yards away or something like that), I had space to myself, where I knew I wasn’t really bothering anyone except the cows in the pasture across the fence. (Those damned cows were always busting through our neighbor's barbed wire fence to eat our vegetables out of the garden. You can imagine how silly it looked when my brother and I would have to have to go chase them out every time...)
Anyway, in the garage, I could go for it – I could have the boom box turned way up to 11 and really give it a go. And if it wasn’t good, I’d do it again, and no one got annoyed. (I think I did confuse a few bubbas driving by in their pickup trucks, though… What the heeeyyyull was that?!?) Sometimes I’d play so long that I hurt my lip. I’d use so much pressure that I’d get a little cut and leave blood in the mouthpiece. (This was, of course, stupid. DON’T DO THIS!) No one could tell me otherwise, though. If I’d had a teacher regularly at that time, and they told me how bad of an idea this was, I probably would have ignored them. (I was that obsessed with this.) Little by little, though, I got a bit more efficient at it (because, well, pain is a good motivator), and I figured out how to play in the upper register with a little more ease and maybe slightly less back pressure.
This all got better as I got older, and especially when I went to college, had regular trumpet lessons, and was surrounded by peers who helped keep me in line. But even into grad school, when I was studying with Jim Thompson, one of the greatest teachers in the world, the old habits would come back and I would still occasionally nearly black out. This happened once when I was playing the last note – a double high A – of “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed” with the Eastman Jazz Ensemble and Clay Jenkins, on a concert featuring music from the entire Miles Ahead album. I hit the note, but when I released it, the world started to go black. My friend Eli Asher, standing to my left, noticed me start to get woozy and stuck out his right arm (while he was still playing), helping me remain on my feet. Thanks Eli!
Once again, I’m veering off topic. My point is that I learned to play in the high register by keeping my ears open and learning to play what I heard. Slowly but surely, my body taught me how to get there, even if the process was ugly and not in a straight line. I think it might even be best if, at first, you don’t know the name of the note that you're trying to play. (Haven’t you ever played a note higher than you intended without trying, and then when you realized what it was and tried to repeat it, it was harder, if not impossible? Try this, especially if you have a mental block about getting above a certain threshold.) Also, I’d guess that most trumpet players who have a fairly solid basic technique can at least squeak out something higher than what they’d consider their normal, useful, readily available top note. So, to paraphrase the great Clark Terry, keep on squeakin’ on. Maybe that little squeak will turn into something you can control and connect to the rest of your range.
Just to repeat this one last time, I’m not condoning the undesirable habits themselves that I described above. Please don’t do it the way I did it. It hurt, and I had to undo a lot of things. I’m lucky I didn’t do any permanent damage to muscles or the nerves in my chops. And it’s always better to do anything slowly and correctly the first time, if you can, so take your time on this process of discovery. But do try to figure it out for yourself, letting your ear guide you. For me, even though the process was inefficient and sort of a dead end, it eventually led to a better way. A wise person once said, “You can’t lead anyone somewhere you’ve never been.” But because I’d already experienced what it’s like to play in the upper register (even badly), I could re-navigate there, since I knew where I was going. By teaching yourself, you can create a different path: one that is easier, more efficient, and more connected to all your other fundamental technique.
See you next time –