Daniel Louis Duncan, Trumpet

Daniel Louis Duncan, Trumpet

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Training the right instinct responses

When focusing on the inner workings of the trumpet, technique, air, tongue, rhythm, sound, etc..the one thing I don't find discussed enough is instinct response.
Huh??  You may say...Well, I teach about this a lot!  This, to a certain extent, can apply to all musical instruments, but for the trumpet it is a vital discussion.  While talking recently with my trumpet mentor, Charlie Schlueter, he said something to me that I say all the time to my students, "there's nothing natural about playing the trumpet".  I had to laugh because he was reminding me of all the gems of wisdom that came out of my 3 years of studying with him.

Instincts serve us well for the most part in everyday life.  Unfortunately, certain instincts and body function instincts are the opposite of what a trumpet player needs to be able to count on to play well.

This will be an ongoing discussion here.  So, I will begin with some basics.

The most basic instinct we have is the fear/flight mechanism.  That adrenaline rush that happens when we are at risk, either physically/verbally.  This same mechanism reacts similarly when we perform.  Much has been written about this issue so I won't focus too much here.  This instinct can reek havoc on our abilities to breath and not be tight.

Other instinctual impulses connected to our senses are a problem with trumpet playing.

The one I will discuss first is sight.  Without knowing it we see a high note and instinctually blow up, and even worse assume because it's "difficult" to play high we must play with force to "get the note out". Why in the world would we assume there is a correlation with where a note is on the page and which direction we should blow?  To the subconscious this makes perfect sense, but boy is it wrong.  This is where guru's like Jimmy Stamp say, blow down for high notes and up for low notes or "when your up your down and when your down your up.  Why is this powerful.  Well....it makes the analysis of tongue position much easier.  But, only if that conception works for you.  Meaning, when you
blow up does your tongue drop and vis a versa does your (back 2/3rds) tongue elevate?  For others, analyzing the specifics of what the tongue does works best.  Most important here is that none of this is natural, thus our subconscious cues have to be retrained. Is your sense of sight sending you strong assumptions?  If so, what do you do to re-train correct trumpet behavior!  I give my students specific drills just for this problem.

The second one I will discuss is air flow related to our subconscious impulse to regulate speeds of air with sight again.  I consider my air flow in all registers and all volumes to be fast!  How much is released is a matter of tongue placement and control.  This is not natural, so it must be a calculated retraining of our impulse to change air speeds based on what we see or assume.  Keeping the air speed fast at all times makes playing so much easier and dependable. Especially, when there are dynamic changes and tempo changes.  Slowing your air down in andante and slower tempos is a big problem.  The same goes for soft dynamics and longer valued notes.

This should peak some interest to discuss more.....

In future posts I will discuss more in depth air and tongue control as well as note grouping.

Parts II,  III,  and IV on this topic can be found by tapping on the number.

Instinct Response part deux

I will address many instinct response issues ongoing.  Next, let's talk about multi-tasking.  It's a BIG asset for musicians.  Whether you are a natural or not there are things you can do to improve your abilities in this arena.
Assigning the task of rhythm solely (pun intended!) to the foot is vital for the trumpeter for two reasons.  Tapping your foot rhythmically and coordinatingyour release of the tongue together calms the instinct responses and allows the brain to focus better on other tasks.  What does that mean?  I'll do my best to explain because we will get into territory that is somewhat unexplainable to the sceptic because it is not tangible to the efact seeker.
Tap your foot to a consistent rhythm of about quarter equals 80.  Make sure you keep your heel locked to the floor and only move the first 1/4th to 1/2 of your upper foot.  The problem I find with most is the emphasis is too much on hanging the foot up in mid air too plong before coming down.  Think of delaying the movement of the foot up so you have to rush to get it down on time to the beat. This is "he be je be wise" a big deal!  You'll see me use that word a lot, so get used to it:-)  When you have a good grasp on this when you play, you will notice it has an impact on your focus of moving the air forward (every little thing makes a difference).
Now, once you feel you have mastered a good tap, take a deep breath and set up air compression.  What do I mean by that?  This is controversial stuff, so just please try it for a while and see if things help you.  I believe that the tongue acts like a valve releasing air much like an air compressor.  For an example, blow up a balloon to it's capacity, hold the opening closed, then release small amounts of air.  You should get a steady high pitched note.  stop, then release again.  Same note.  A compressor works the same way.  Fast moving air that is stopped and released once you hold down the valve.
Now, with the trumpet and your new mastery of foot tapping, count 4 beats inhaling deeply and fast on beats 2 and 3 using an "Oh" syllable (it may be a lot more air intake than your used to).  On beat 4 you will set up your compression with the tongue forward acting like a gate with the tip forward thinking of pronouncing the letter D (this should put the tongue in the right position).  Now comes the dicey part!  The right compression comes from a balance of the tongue pressing against the bottom back of the top teeth, not pushing too hard with the volume of air you just inhaled, and keeping the throat relaxed.
The foot and the tongue should acted to total solidarity at this point starting and ending (yes ending) together.  Once you have release the fast moving air with the tongue moving back only enough to let air through.  This is VITAL because our tongue naturally lies back too far for proper air control.  Then make sure the middle of the tongue drops down tip staying as forward as possible.  Say the word "dHOT" over and over again.  If the air pressure stays fast you should notice the pitch from beginning to end is consistent.  I would suggest trying this just on middle g starting with half notes, then quarters, then eighths.  While this is extremely difficult to verbalize on paper I hope this will give you some idea of how the air and tongue can work together to give you dramatic results.
More later.....

I use Richard Shuebruk Graded Lip and Tongue Trainers for Brass Instruments published by Carl Fischer "Tongue Training Grade 1" page 2 and 3 for working on this method.  If you read the top paragraph on page 2 he explains the same process as "like spitting a seed from the tip of the tongue".

Find Parts I,  III,  and IV  of this topic by tapping on the number.

Instinct response part 3

Continuing on my teaching concepts to retrain instinct responses I will focus this post on gravity.  Huh????  What does gravity have to do with air flow?  A heck of a lot!  I like to use the term gravity because I have found that students relate better to the understanding of gravity more than talking just about air flow alone.  There are many ways to approach this and it's individual for each teacher/student.
If you think about how you begin a note on the trumpet, say middle g for a whole note, what happens to your air after starting the note (as described in my previous post about set up)?  The support drops dramatically.  The higher the note the more dramatic the drop.  This is where instinct is a problem. Our subconscious focuses on starting but not on ending or as Jim Wilt of the LA Phil says "pinning the line".  I like the word "energize".
Think of jumping on a trampoline.  Similarly, once you bounce you float until you start to return back down.  Imagine starting a note, like the impact on the trampoline and when you feel the air delivery starting to wane (happens shortly after starting, especially on long valued notes) you energize the air keeping the flow moving forward until stopping the note with the tongue acting as a shut off valve, with the end of the note being the most energized.  Not with a dramatic "thud", but just to close the fast moving air.  This sets your tongue up for the next note to begin without any additional change.  Controversial, yes, but does it work.  Charlie Schlueter always told me to imagine another note after the end as if you are handing the note off to silence.

I try my best to find the common things that all good teachers seem to focus on and find my own method of how to express the inner workings of air flow and tongue positions.
Intrigued??  Try it.  Take some lessons if your in the area or via Skype.

You can access Parts I,  II,  and IV  of this topic by tapping on the number.

Mastering freelance chops

My career has been predominantly as a freelancer and private teacher.   While there is no glory is saying that, there is a lot to be proud of despite our industry not giving us much recognition.  Freelancers have no benefits, no paid time off, if we're sick we have to most always find our own replacements all while quite probably loosing that gig connection or moving down the call list.  You have to be in top form at all times because you just don't know when that phone will ring.  Vacations are usually with you horn in tow.  This is the career most of us end up with, and at least in the past, we were not prepared for this reality!
 Personally, I have been called to play a live broadcast of a Boston Pops concert to replace someone ill, but had to turn it down because I just had my gall bladder removed two days before.  Believe me, I was trying to think of any way I could maneuver myself on stage to play.  Then reality said, What!  You must be kidding!"
I was beat up one evening by 5 guys while I was in the middle of a 7 week run of a show at 1am after returning from a show.  I lost work and money and returned probably way too soon, but I had little choice.  There are many more stories, but these two were highlights.

Navigating freelance chops is a tricky business.  The "big guys" so to speak, perform under the best of circumstances for the most part.  Wonderful acoustics, the same colleagues every day for the most part, a chosen genre (classical, jazz, solo, or pop).  These scenarios constantly push them to new heights because they are surrounded by amazing musicians that challenge them.  As a freelancer I have always dreamed of that great Orchestral or Soloist gig that would fit my personality better than freelancing.  That never transpired for me so I continue to make the system I'm not as comfortable with fit for me.

There are weeks when I have been playing shows like Legally Blonde for several weeks and have a run of B Minor Mass thrown in between.  Now, while both are about playing high notes, the style of playing could not be more different.  Instrument and mouthpiece choices become crucial!  Finding the right sound and approach for the job at hand and delivering with confidence is key.

The best advice I can give is to prepare for this type of career now!  This is the norm these days.  You will most likely end up in the freelance arena either permanently or at minimum for an extended period while attempting getting into another arena.  Good jobs are more scarce than ever.  Reinvent a new way to present yourself and your art.  Try dearly to be true to yourself and your creative spirit.

Being a great player is a matter of discipline, yes, but practicing efficiently and effectively is key.  That is the elusive part!!

It took me years to overcome, and I still work on this!   Two things:  you don't have to be THE best virtuoso and you have to be ok with you!  I am in no way a Zen Master, but a Zen student.  Zen and trumpet work nicely together.  Learning to prepare then let go is the challenge.

Part 2 and Part 3 to this article can be found here and here.

My Teaching Concepts

My goal as a teacher and coach is to reduce the process to as few steps as possible. Playing a brass instrument can be daunting, mainly because the process of controlling your air and your tongue is not something that comes naturally to the majority of us. We won’t even talk about the coordination of the valves and rhythm! Let’s just address getting things started.

When we are in total control of our air speed and tongue position there is not much more that we need to do. While this may sound simple, believe me it is not! BUT, the first step is to understand the process, and then work on applying it with absolute consistency.

There are many camps of thought on how to simulate a thought process that will help you achieve the same result. Most of my teachers used some form of “vowel” syllables to aid the tongue in finding its way. Samuel Krauss used a variety of syllables for different sounds and registers. Early on in my training I found his process a bit overwhelming and advanced to put into practice. It was complicated! Over the years I have come to understand his philosophy better. The most important break through, in my own understanding of this air and tongue ratio, was from Charlie Schlueter.

Charlie Schlueter, retired Principal Trumpet of the Boston Symphony, has reduced all of the complicated methodology into a very simple word that sets the tongue and air into perfect harmony, in my opinion.


Just say it! Your tongue is set up to start a note; the word itself sets the air into motion and then delivers it to an END with the tongue. This keeps your tongue forward which will aid in keeping your air flow from slowing down and making notes unstable. Your next note is now set up to begin with no additional movement involved. Now, try this same word without speaking the word, use only air and push the air forward to the end. Another favorite analogy is from the tongue training exercises of Richard Shuebruk. He states that your tongue needs to be trained for strength and speed. "The action is like spitting a seed from the tip of the tongue." Key to beginning the mastery of this is to remember that the jaw stays absolutely in place with NO movement. Practice this by talking without moving your jaw with your lips slightly parted. This will show you how the tongue and air can do it's job without any movement of the jaw.

Mastery of this sent my playing on levels I could not have imagined as well as my teaching skills. Don’t get me wrong, there are many other skills to develop within this method, but this is the fastest way to get things happening correctly, I believe.

If you are interested in trying my method which melds this above concept and applies it to the methods of Adams, Stamp, Cichowicz, and Caruso, Jacobs, etc.. take a lesson or two with me and give it a shot. All of my students show great progress in their playing when they apply these methods AND practice!