An Easy Way To Improve Your Tone and Health

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I’m sure that most of you clean your horns at least once a week. SURE YOU DO!! I have to admit that the hygiene routine on my instruments is not what it should be but one area you should address at least once a week is your mouthpiece.

Studies have been done to determine how much of a health risk is to neglect the cleanliness of a trombone mouthpiece and it was found that many trombone performers are now contracting respiratory infection because of unclean trombone mouthpieces. It is true that a trombone player is at a greater risk from infestation than a trumpet player for the simple reason that moving a trombone slide from 7th position to 1st position forces air not only through the bell but also back through the mouthpiece and into the face of the player. Fortunately the direction of the air on a trumpet is only in the direction; towards the bell. Even though we trumpet players are at less risk of germ transfers, it is always prudent to play on a clean instrument.

I have mentioned in other posts the importance of scrubbing the inside of your mouthpiece with a mouthpiece brush and even using toothpaste on such a brush. The added abrasive in toothpaste will cut any build-up on the inside and will renew the “new mouthpiece” feel to your air stream. I have also mentioned that you should “never” use this toothpaste application on the lead pipe for fear that the grit in the toothpaste could eventually make its’ way into the valve section and damage your valves. Well, I have changed my mind on that thought. If, after swabbing your lead pipe with the toothpaste mixture on a brush, and meticulously flushing such lead pipe with ample amounts of warm water, you should be fine and the super clean air passage will blow your mind.

Just remember, “Be sure that you have rinsed the lead pipe completely” before beginning you playing.

Becoming a More Musical Performer Part 3

The Construction of Musical Phrases

A musical phrase is similar to a sentence in a story. Both are part of a larger whole and is important in effectively telling of the story. By themselves, each will have little impact but when combined with other sentences or musical phrases, the story becomes complete. Too often when players approach a solo, they only consider getting from the first note to the last with the least amount of errors. What true artists strive for is to carefully construct a dialog of information which will comprehensively inform the listener of the complete musical story.

How is a musical phrase constructed?

Just as a complete sentence has to have proportionate and supportive sections, so is the case for musical phrases.

Below I will illustrate this condition with a well known song which includes four phrases. I will try to demonstrate the function and relationship of each part to the final song.

Download example sheet here Part 3 Phrases

The form of most musical compositions can easily be recognized by the construction of their musical phrases. A song is most often written in an AABA form which represents four sections made up of two basic melodic ideas. The first phrase, labeled A,  is stated and then repeated to form an AA combination. Then new material is added (B) which then forms an AAB structure. Finally the first A material is added again to complete the AABA structure. Most traditional music is constructed in a similar fashion and once you are able to recognize the form or structure of a composition, you will more easily understand how each section relates to the others. Knowing this relationship will increase your musical ability to perform your music more effectively.

Here are some suggestions on how to make your performance more musical by utilizing musical form.

  • When repeating a phrase, never play the second time through the same as the first time.
  • You can add interest to your repeated sections through the use of contrasting tempi and /or dynamics.
  • Usually the contrasting section will stand out as a contrast to the other phrases.
  • When we play higher, we most often play faster and when we play lower, we play slower.
  • When we play soft, we generally will play slower and when playing loud, we tend to play faster.
  • When playing phrases, think of the end of the phrase as ending with a comma rather than a period. This will tend to connect your phrases more musically.

With this information you will now need to spend some time looking over your last exercise sheet for it contains much information to absorb. Your final example includes both intensity as well as tempo information. Following one line will not be difficult but trying to

follow both may be more difficult. My final suggestion to you would be this, “Concentrate on the small stuff and have fun.”

Becoming a More Musical Performer Part 2

Musical Changes in Tempi

Tempi can be altered just as dynamics in order to be more musical. Many times we play a solo as if we were playing a march. We start at this tempo and we will stick to it to the end, regardless of what anyone thinks. When I speak of improving musicianship through the speed of a performance I am not concerned with the beginning tempo and the major changes at new sections. What I will be addressing in this post are the subtle tempo changes within a phrase and in some cases between adjoining notes. These are the subtle stretching and shrinking done by the true artists to make that little difference between the average and the musical.

What is the difference between stretching and slowing down and shrinking and speeding up?

This comparison will be similar to the understanding of dynamics as apposed to intensity. Subtle changes in the speed within each phrase will add excitement to your performance and knowing when and how much will be discussed below.

Tempo indications- what are they there for?

Just as speed limit signs line our streets and highways to let us know what a safe speed would be for that pavement, so will the tempo indications on your music indicate how fast you would be expected to perform this number. The speed limit sign is there to instruct but sometimes the immediate conditions will dictate a different speed to drive. We live in Branson and when ice forms on the pavement, the speed limit sign means nothing. Driving on ice in hilly, curvy Branson is more than a challenge for even the best driver. My point is this, speed limit signs are general indications of speed and tempo indications are general indications of tempo but in both cases, conditions will dictate performance issues. To perform in a musical fashion, the artist must adjust to his/her musical style to the conditions of the phrase and composition.

Download this exercise Playing Musically Part 2 Tempi

Understanding this posts exercise sheet.

As in the previous post, I have included an exercise sheet intended to help you understand the concept of stretching and slowing within a phrase. Also as stated in the earlier material, we will be making changes so slight that you may not feel the difference at first. With time and practice, these concepts will become obvious to you and when you are listening to a great musical performer, you will recognize these practices and be able to understand them even further.

Download Exercise sheet Musical Tempi Changes

Notice that the 0 indicates a constant tempo, the + indicates a very slight increase in tempo and the – indicates a very slight decrease in tempo. When consecutive +s are indicated, each is slightly slower than the one before. Also notice in measure five, I have added an eighth rest before the eventual high note in this phrase. The reason for this rest is for impact. When performing this vocal solo, the listener is singing along to themselves and when you go for the high G in the phrase, the slightest hesitation will bring them out of their seats for that slight hesitation grabs their attention and when you finally come in on the peak of the phrase, the impact is very powerful and musical.

Suggestions on how to use your exercise sheet.

  • As you progress from one note to the next, feel the change but don’t force the change.
  • Play through this exercise sheet once each day for a week and each day continue to think the change in speed and slowly begin to lessen the amount of change. Strive to make your tempi change less obvious to your listener while at the same time keeping it obvious to yourself.

The next post will cover Preparation, Achievement and Completion of your phrases in order to improve your musical playing ability.

Becoming A More Musical Performer- Part 1

Dynamics vs. Intensity

Have you ever wondered why some musicians are more interesting to listen to than others? Have you wanted to learn the secret to true musical expression? Both of these questions should be asked from time to time as we practice our art. Playing music and playing music in a musical style can be miles apart and while pondering this issue, I decided to focus on just one aspect of musical playing- dynamics.

Playing with dynamics adds a greater depth to any musician’s performance. Performing a solo without dynamics is like eating a good steak without any seasoning. It still is a steak but without seasoning, it is not a good steak. Playing with dynamics is similar to eating a well seasoned steak. You may question as to why I’m so interested in dynamics. The execution of the correctly indicated dynamic is only the composer’s suggestion as to how loud or soft you are to play his/her music. Amateur musicians play the written dynamics and true artists play in between the suggested dynamics. To make myself more clear to younger or even less musical players, I will use the following example, Oh Come All Ye Faithfull.

Download exercise material here Dynamic vs Intensity exercise

Notice in the top line, I have indicated the most common use of written dynamics in this piece. This is the suggested level of loudness and softness for this number. The less musical players would be happy to perform these changes as indicated but to a true musical artist, these are only guidelines and to them, just the beginning. I have indicated fifteen dynamic changes in the upper line which is good. But to perform this number in a true musical style, you will need to add hundreds of subtle changes in order to make it sound musical. The difference I am speaking of is the difference between dynamics and intensity.

What is the difference between Dynamics and Intensity?

Dynamics indicate how loud or soft we are to play a passage. Intensity is the degree of importance we place on each and every note of that passage. Two notes can be played with the same dynamic and that is good. If you think of the first note as a pick up note to the second, then you slightly stress the second note more than the first. The reason for that change is that you want the second note to be more important than the first and this is what I am speaking of when I explain the difference between dynamics and intensity. Dynamics are general indications of changes in loudness and softness and intensity is the artistic side of dynamics.

On the exercise sheet that you have downloaded, the top line has the dynamics added and on the bottom line I have indicated numbers above each note. The top line indicates the general dynamics and the lower line indicates the suggested intensity of every note. Your dynamic scale includes p, mp, mf, f, ff. Your intensity scale includes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. We have already doubled the number of changes in our dynamic offerings. Dynamic indications will affect all the notes in a single phrase but every note in the same phrase will have a number of intensity added to it which means a phrase of twelve notes might have the same dynamic but that same phase could have twelve changes. When you think back to the most musical performance you can remember, which scale do you think the artist was using, i.e. dynamics or intensity?

Suggestions on how to use your exercise sheet.

The top staff on your sheet represents what the composer has suggested for dynamics and the numbers above each note on the lower staff represents the intensity I would suggest for the same melody. Follow the suggestions below and strive for perfection in your observance of these numbers. The number 1 is the least intense and the number 10 is the most intense. Remember to observe the numbers as units of intensity not dynamic levels.

  • Set your metronome (if you don’t own one, get one) for mm 60. There is a reason that you will be playing your piece that slow, trust me.
  • Begin your piece at forte level but after your first note, you should be reading the numbers, not the dynamic levels.
  • As the numbers get large, so will your intensity. As they diminish, so will your intensity.
  • The amount of change between each consecutive number will be so slight; it is almost like you are thinking a change rather than an obvious change. Great musical performances are constructed on the less obvious and the non musical performances are based on the obvious changes.
  • As you progress from one note to the next, feel the change but don’t force the change.
  • Play through this exercise sheet once each day for a week and each day continue to think the change in intensity and slowly begin to lessen the amount of change. Strive to make your intensity less obvious to your listener while at the same time keeping it obvious to your self.

The next post will cover the use of slight tempo change to improve your musical playing ability.

Three Easy Steps to Becoming a More Musical Performer

One of my most technically advanced students was without doubt the least musical. I have also had the privilege of working with students who exhibited great musical sensitivity and were technically challenged. Wouldn’t it be great to be one of the gifted who has been able to combine both attributes? There are many who exhibit this gift and we, mere humans watch in envy at their ability. Enough with the poetic license, lets get to the good stuff.

Great musical performances do not happen by accident. Every accomplished performer has spent decades striving for perfection in their art. What makes the difference between the great players and the rest? It isn’t the ability to play each note in tune at the correct interval. It isn’t observing the articulations and dynamics. Anyone can do that with practice. If it isn’t the obvious, it must be the less obvious differences which widen the gap between them and us.

What are the less obvious differences between the gifted and the less gifted?

I mentioned earlier that one of my students was an incredibly gifted technician as far as trumpet playing was concerned. I remember at the end of the one Spring semester, this student asked me if I could assign material to him to work on over the summer. I obliged and sent him home with the most difficult trumpet solo I had ever owned. Noticed that I said owned for on my best day, I could not have played it at even an acceptable level. At his first lesson the next Fall semester, he asked if I would like to listen to his solo which I had earlier assigned. Not even remembering the assignment, I responded, “Yes, I would like to hear what you have prepared”. I recognized the first note as he began but after that, I couldn’t keep up with his performance of the number. He not only had learned the extremely difficult solo but was performing it faster than I could read the notes! This was an amazing student and also one of the most unmusical students I had ever worked with. The flip side of this humbling experience would be the student who even before playing a note, could give you the feeling a warm tropical breeze brushing over your face. This student could take in air, and you had the feeling that their first note would be the most beautiful sound in the world. Unfortunately after his/her first note, you realize that he/she had no technical ability to sustain this inspiring musical moment.

Musical performances can be broken down to just a few elements which affect the final out come.

  • The right note
  • The correct intonation of that note
  • The appropriate articulation for that note.
  • The correct dynamic for that note.
  • The proper release of that note.

After the first note we then move on to the next note and continue through the piece. How simple life would be if that was all great playing required. The example of the first student I gave was exceptional at performing the list above. He seldom missed a note, had the correct intonation as well as the correct dynamic and eventual release. So why did his playing stink? Great musical performances are judged not by the obvious but by the less obvious and for that reason I will be addressing the felt or implied, rather than the obvious changes in our quest for true musical playing. I will be using three basic areas for my suggestions-

1.      Part 1 Dynamics

2.      Part 2 Tempi

3.      Part 3 Preparation, Achievement and Completion

How To Learn To Improvise From A Book

My first post in this series dealt with the contrasting characteristics of musicians wishing to learn to improvise jazz. The first example was the musician with the creative attitude for life and the second deals with the type of person who is more analytical. Learning to improvise jazz tends to fall in these two camps and if you are the type of person that enjoys plotting your trips with suitcases filled with maps, this is the post that might help you the most.

Improvisation can be taught through exercises which develop repetitious phrases and rhythmic patterns which when placed in the correct chord, can be defined as jazz improvisation. A very good friend of mine once said, “How can you practice improvisation when improvisation is to be spontaneous”? That is a very good question. How can you practice something which is supposed to be created for the first time? The truth is, improvisation is the relocation of patterns which you have learned either on your own or have heard others perform. These patterns when placed at the appoapriate chord location are called jazz improvisation.

I suggest that you purchase Volume 1 and Volume 2 from the series “A New Approach To Jazz Improvization” by Jamey Aebersold at this time.

Learning the chords

Knowing and understanding the notes, voicing and function of chords is vital when you are learning to improvise jazz. Many theory books have been written on this subject but for this post, I would direct you to the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Improvisation series of books. I recommend that you purchase Volume 1 first for the explanation of the notes and voicing of chords. The reason this series has been so popular through the ages is the fact that you will have a full rhythm section available when you have the urge to practice.

For those of you who are not familiar with this series, let me walk you through the makeup of most of the first volume.

  • Read this first– General information on the book.
  • Right Brain- Left Brain– Mostly a repeat of what I have covered on this topic.
  • Introduction– Repeat of what I have covered on this topic.
  • How to Use– This is the meat of the process and includes information on chord structure, symbols and recorded track information.
  • A guide for practicing any scale, chord, pattern or idea– This is the most important material in the instruction section and needs to be understood before beginning to practice the material.
  • How to begin playing with the recording– The CD includes a prerecorded rhythm section which you will be playing with. Due to the fact that instruments are pitched in different keys, the book has included transposed music for each instrument, i.e. trumpet (Bb), alto sax (Eb), guitar (C), etc.
  • Eighth note exercises and swing– This is very valuable to anyone who does not understand the concept of the word “swing”. This section will give you all the patterns that you will need to start your new career as a jazz musician.
  • Additional Resources– Although there are many suggestions for additional materials you should check out, you must realize that this series was first published in 1967 and because of the development of the Internet, this material is grossly out dated.
  • Beginning to improvise for the first time– This is the most important material in the book. Read and understand everything in this section.
  • Check list– Common since material.
  • Extending your range– Common since material.
  • Developing creativity– Good information.
  • Starting a phrase or melody– All good material.
  • Music fundamentals to keep in mind when improvising– Very important and should be reread as you get further into the book.
  • What does “to hear” really mean? – Common since material.
  • Practice Procedure for memorizing scales and chords to any song– Very important.
  • Beats 1 and 3 are most important in building melodies– Very important and well written material.
  • Recommended transcribed solos books– Helpful but more material can be found on the Internet at this point.
  • The Bebop scale– Required reading and understanding.
  • Ear training– Required reading and understanding.
  • Pentatonic scale and its use– Very, very important!
  • Chromaticism– Very, very important!
  • Playing the Blues– After reading this section of Volume 1, I would suggest that you now begin your practice in the second Volume which is called Nothing But Blues. The reason I have made this suggestion is that by now you are getting bored reading and would like to get started playing. From the material you have already covered, you should be able to make an attempt at improvising and Volume 2 is more than enough to get you on the road. After you have spent a few days playing along with your personnel rhythm section, I suggest that you come back to Volume 1 and continue reading the remainder of the fist book.

Once you have completed both Volumes 1 and 2 of this series, the next book in this collection which I would recommend would be Volume 3.

The knowledge and application of the ever present II-V7-I chord progression will help you to get around in most song form tunes. After that I would suggest Volume 76 which will help you start building your jazz library as well as giving you more good ideas on improvising jazz. After mastering this material, I would expect to be seeing and hearing you on stage with the best jazz musicians. At least that is my wish to you.

Remember one thing- As Rich Matteson once told me, “If it doesn’t sound good, move up or down a half step”.

Learning To Improvise Jazz Using The Creative Side of Your Brain

If you are the creative, spontaneous type of musician, you definitely have an advantage over the analytic or practical type of person. You are more able to create lines than the musician who is more characteristically able to re-create music from the page. I am not trying to convince you that there are no musicians who are able to do both (create and re-create music) for there are many. Wynton Marsalis and Allen Vizzutti are two very gifted trumpet players who are able to bridge the gap between the creative and the re-creative side of music. Unfortunately this honorable fraternity of musicians is not as numerous as most people think.

Step one to better jazz improvisation- Listen

There is no better way to learn how to improvise than absorbing the art through regular listening. How much you listen will determine how fast and how effectively you will be able to improvise. It is best to begin with the type of jazz you most enjoy listening to. If Dixieland is your bag, start collecting the best recordings from this area of jazz. If funk is your thing, start collecting the funk bands and musicians that you most respect and enjoy listening to. Once you have a fair collection of the jazz style you like best, start pulling out the musician and his/her best solos from that style.

Now that you have isolated your favorite musician and can pick out their best solo, you will now have to start the hard part of your assignment, i.e. transcribing the solo to paper. Before you put pencil to paper, you might want to check on line to see if your musicians solo has already been transcribed by someone else. For an example of what you need to do, I will walk you through a search to give you an idea as to where to begin. One of my favorite jazz musician is Charlie Parker.  One of his best solos was done on the tune “Perdido”. So type in Charlie Parker transcriptions and you find this site- Saxopedia. That was easy but you might want to do a solo which is less common and that is where the search really gets tough. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you have to do all the transcription yourself. That takes a lot of time but let me suggest how you can make the difficult a little easier.

How to transcribe existing solos

The easiest way I have found to transcribe solos is to download a free recording program called Audacity-http://audacity.sourceforge.net/ . Once the program has been installed, you will have to read the instructions on how to import audio recordings into the program. If you have trouble taking the time to read the instructions (and we have already determined that you are a click and see what happens type of person) you can view many informative videos on YouTube which will show you how the program works. Once you have your solo imported in the program, highlight a small portion and under the heading effects at the top, click on Change tempo. Slide the bar over to -30% and play it back. What you are doing is slowing the speed down to the point you will be able to write the notes as they are played back. You will have to experiment with the speed until you are comfortable listening and writing. Work with short phrases at first and remember that what is highlighted is the only section that you will be working with. Start with short phrases at slow tempi and you will quickly get on to the process.

What to do with transcriptions once you have them written out

Now that you have one of your favorite musical styles, favorite musician, favorite solo written out, the next job you have is to practice the transcription until you can play it from memory. This will also take some time and the closer you can get to replicating the notes and the true feel of the solo, the better improviser you will become. Some people have said that copying a solo is cheating and to that I would remind them “that was exactly how the great composers learned their skills”; copying the works of earlier great composers. Within every solo there are patterns which repeat at different intervals. Try to isolate these patterns and begin to practice them starting on different notes. Once you can play these patterns in any key, start applying them to different sections of your transcribed solo.

When listening to different musicians as they improvise, you should start recognizing their signature licks. If you recognize them and like them, start using them in your own solos. It is a fact that we all copy licks from better musicians just as comedians use jokes from better comedians. It is a way of life. Copy the best from the best and make it your own.

After you have collected transcriptions for your favorite musician, begin to branch out to other players until you can get a feel of what they are technically doing in their solos. Remember that your solos will be constructed from elements you have recognized from others and when you have built your arsenal of licks to the point that you can draw on them for reconstructing your solos you are on your way. All that is necessary now is time and devotion.

Remember that this approach to improvisation will be much different than your counterparts who learn improvisation from memorizing scales and the application. Your strengths are in the ability of recognizing and implementing riffs and licks which appeal to your musical tastes. You will have a better feel for improvisation and the modification of known patterns where as your counter parts will build only on practiced patterns and scales as applied to chord changes.