BTB YEAR IN REVIEW: 2016 (Lessons Learned and DAILY’s Did)

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In 2016 I took some lessons, and did some other stuff too. This is the best shit. Seriously, the best shit.

At the beginning of 2016 I made a few goals.

“…I’d like to take a more general look at my (studies) as a musician, and work to find a way that my growth fits more seamlessly into my life.”

Boring.

As well as (paraphrasing), “I going to practice whatever the hell I want, make simpler plans that clearly define endings, record myself more, rest more, and get two private lessons.”

I believe to have basically achieved this.

Not like definitively achieved it, as in being able to bench press 300 lbs one time, but more like strongly influenced my modus operandi with a couple of easy psychological techniques and a hefty dose of The Skill of Chill.

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Let’s start with the lessons.

I am extremely fortunate to have had two lessons this past year with Jon Lewis. I reached out to Jon because I knew he was a successful studio musician here in LA, and at the time I wanted to meet with someone who could help me from a “classical/commercial” perspective.

Hilariously, I’ve more or less bailed on any classical or commercial “goals” I might have thought I had, and feel our lessons instead reinvigorated my inner Blackwell (of Blackwell’s Trumpet Basics), and gave me some new tools to really invest in.

Jon is a massive explosion of trumpet-knowledge. In the first lesson he gave me a run-down of some basic concepts he applies, including; thoughts on breathing, the attack, aperture, lip buzzing, mouthpiece buzzing, and ideas on tuning slide placement.

After our initial meeting I spent about 8 months purposefully not thinking too hard about it (slow digestion), and applied a comically small amount of what we had talked about…

…to massive current and potential benefit.

I did these two things (adaptations/simplifications of what I thought he was saying; not necessarily what he was actually trying to communicate):

  1. I started systematically pushing my tuning slide in further, while focusing on maintaining a pitch center.
  2. I started buzzing a G in the staff on the mouthpiece.

Comprehensive, I know.

Learning to play in the center of the pitch with the tuning slide further in helped me instantly in a few ways. I found it required my embouchure to engage and maintain a more active position while playing. Similar to the feeling of bending the pitch down a half-step, and keeping that same “forward-grip-energy” as you ascend back to the starting pitch.

To get the slide further in, I basically pushed in only as much as was visibly noticeable, and played on that setting until I was settled (anywhere from two weeks to two months), then pushed in a tiny bit more. I went this route, because, right after the lesson, I pushed the tuning slide in to about 50% it’s original resting place, and chopped out on a heavy lead gig a few days later trying to get the pitch down.

Experimenting with this technique has not only helped with my sound, but also made playing intervals in the staff much easier. The mouthpiece buzzing has also helped with similar embouchure engagement. One last point I’ll make is the position of the tuning slide seems to have an effect on the mix of overtones in the sound (same pitch, different sound). And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

He also mentioned something in passing about training ourselves to hear the difference between timbre and frequency, or pitch, and I feel that part of my ear opening up. I’m (sometimes) hearing something different than I used to in the sound. Like a clearer fundamental or something. Before, I may have misheard a very brilliant, bright, cutting sound as “sharp,” I’m now hearing different stuff, more clearly.

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And with that incredibly generalized statement I will now move on to, and describe in greater detail, the delightful fact that getting in the obscenely easy habit of buzzing one note on the mouthpiece during the day has since grown into a full-blown mouthpiece warm-up/practice. Currently, I have a little routine that aims to go as low as is comfortable, using scales and glissing across intervals.

For months, literally months, I was barely able to buzz a low D on the mouthpiece. These days I can get down to pedal C on the mouthpiece with additional resistance from this little film-canister gizmo I’m sticking the mouthpiece in (also introduced to me by JL).

I feel good and warm after using the mouthpiece for awhile (I used to feel absolutely terrible afterwards…or at least afraid) and getting into the low-range on the mouthpiece with the added resistance has introduced me to a few new sensations. Most notably the idea of letting the air “release” as the muscles of the torso relax after inhalation, rather than forcefully expelling it. I’m not exactly trying to do this (and remember, I’m working range down, not up),  but more just feeling it when it happens, and liking it.

I’m sure after a while I’ll be spouting off some opinions on the subject here, so you’ve got that to look forward to.

Our lessons also inspired me to develop a daily regime of isometric exercise for the muscles of the embouchure (more below), and I can see tremendous value in systematizing and practicing your breathing at some point along the way.

I highly recommend a meeting with Jon if possible.

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Moving on.

Many of you are aware of the fact I’m currently preaching the grandiose benefits of a DAILY. A DAILY is any simple, daily practice that eventually turns into a habit.

Now the thing that’s important about the DAILY is the DAILY itself, not its contents. Its power lies in taking that tiny piece you’ve carved out in the day, and using it for whatever you want down the road.

If you can find a preexisting habit chain, changing, adding and subtracting habits is even easier.

For example, I had a morning habit-chain that ran like this: Floss, brush teeth, apply shaving cream, shave (with some variation in order).

Oh wait, did I mention that I’m getting married in May?

I’m getting married in May. And since I have a history of being uncomfortable smiling for photos, I started “smiling” (it’s not a happy smile), after brushing my teeth, for about 20 seconds.

Pretty soon I was smiling like a god-damned fool. After I shave, after I floss, brush teeth, think about going to the bathroom, etc, etc.

I can hold a smile for a really long time. It’s awkward.

And while you might think that last bit of information was motivating enough in itself; dig this.

Once I decided to start doing more embouchure-specific isometrics, trading out one of those “smiles” for a “pencil exercise” was pretty damn easy.

These days my little morning routine looks more like this: Floss, smile, brush teeth, Mouth-Thigh-Master-Thing, apply shave cream, jaw isometric, shave, pencil exercise (with order variation), and it’s working out like gang-busters.

I started each isometric with a 10 second static-hold, and added one new exercise every four weeks. I do it every day, without thinking about it, first thing in the morning. Strength, endurance, agility and aperture control are on the rise.

You’re welcome.

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I also made a trumpet DAILY (some people call them routines but f*ck that), that I started just over a month ago, and just recently added bullet-number three.

  1. Imagine, then sing, then play a low C and low D as a meditation. If I imagine and sing the incorrect pitch, I “fix” the mistake by listening to both. Wash, rinse, repeat.
  2. Listen to closed (within one octave), 3-note voicings on Garage Band’s brass synth patch. Also as a meditation. Waiting for the individual pitches to become clear. Smiling.
  3. Slowly improvise (play by ear) over the harmony to Joy Spring (60-80 bpm) for 5 min.

The two listening meditations are the current assignments I’m working on from David Lucas Burge’s Perfect Pitch Super Course. Perfect pitch seems like a pretty decent thing to have going for you, so I’m all in. I’ve worked with DLB’s Relative Pitch Super Course in the past and got life-altering results.

Number three I added because Warne Marshe (one of the greatest jazz improvisers ever IMO), suggested his beginning students practice “slow improvising” with a metronome for half of their practice time. As you advance, you dedicate a higher percentage of your practice time to improvising. Warne was so bad-ass, I’m committed to making every other addition to my DAILY improvisation based.

I’m doing other playing too, of course; articulation, ii-V’s, finger technique, gigs, etc. But when the shit hits the fan, all I gotta do is my DAILY, and I’m good to go.

Besides, systematically developing perfect pitch and hard-wiring the brain to the horn through improvisation sounds pretty damn good to me.

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While I could blab on endlessly about the other random shit I did all year, I’ll end with how rewarding it’s been to connect with some of you during this process of figuring out how BTB works.

I invite anyone who would like to contribute to the resourcefulness of BTB to send me a personal e-mail with something about your trumpet story.

All the best to you in 2017,

James Blackwell

JamesMBlackwell@Gmail.com