Practice Makes Perfect!

This page has been edited for bad language!

This has been a tough week! A high profile solo gig in Birmingham, cornet in Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet etc several times, Ensemble 10.10 gigs (hard stuff, too!), Shostakovich/Berio/Britten programme, teaching and preparing my practice for the next onslaught of repertoire. Keeping in shape on the trumpet is difficult, has to be done; the work is also a chore, curse and a joy at the same time…

I Don’t Practice Pedal Tones!

Bill Houghton Principal Trumpet of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the time) – “… Don’t do ‘wicky-wacky’ methods!”

Just lately, I’ve been posting a lot of research and opinions on how to practise/practice and the psychology of inspiring oneself to get better. Why have I taken such a keen interest? Well, I teach, for one thing. Not a lot, I admit! Another reason, despite entering the ‘middle-aged’ period of my life, is that I am still constantly striving to improve my playing. Each day, especially on the trumpet, presents a completely different set of challenges, needs and goals.

I Don’t Practice Lip Slurs/Flexibility!

The great John Wallace on warming up, “… I don’t really do anything. I just start playing.”

Students and interested observers, who I discuss my chosen profession with, always say ‘but you must be good already!’ Alright, I’ve got this far – I’m in demand, currently – I’ve won stuff – I get composers writing stuff – my students do well. For professional players, it is even more important to keep preserving and honing skills. I have seen too many let things slide a bit and then really struggle to get back to peak performance ‘fitness’. I hope to guard against that situation happening to me.

I Don’t Practice ‘Caruso’!

International Baroque trumpeter and great teacher Michael Laird, “… Don’t you learn the things I set you?!”

All those points are fine, but my earlier statement about ‘chosen profession’ is particularly relevant. An aspiring student should be no less determined than an established artist. No one enters the field of classical music for money. I wanted to earn a living, for certain, but commercial interests have always been more about exposure or performance opportunity than financial gain, for me.

I Don’t Practice ‘Maggio’!

The Great Tuba teacher & Brass Pedagog Stuart Roebuck, “.. I’m ‘chuffed’ to bits with that playing, lad. That makes me proud.”(Bizarrely, he was talking about piccolo trumpet playing at the time)

Fortunately, I have enjoyed forty years studying the trumpet, as of this year. This most troublesome instrument has given me forty years of tears and joy. In deed, professionally, many hours have been spent earning money by playing ‘music’ far removed from the ideal. I would say that 80% of my time has been engaged in activities which have nothing to do with my desire for taking up the trumpet in the first place  or that place me upon the pinnacles of classical performance that I aspire too! Much of professional playing is like that. There is no shame in admitting that some work is less rewarding than some other work sometimes. The good stuff, however, more than makes up for everything. Our old second trumpet, Des Worthington, used to have a saying for paid work that was unexciting – ‘musical navvying!’ I would say that it is musical navvying that is the main difference between amateur and professional playing. Amateur music making should be for fun. Professionals have to fill the diary with whatever income comes along…

I have Bought All The Available Method Books – Waste Of Money!

“… The most important to remember when you get a brilliant student, is to keep your mouth shut!” – Iaan Wilson, Professor of trumpet Royal Academy of Music, former Principal Trumpet Ulster Orchestra, Sub-Principal Trumpet BBC Symphony and sub-Principal Trumpet Royal Opera House.

Having said the above, I am not suggesting for a single minute that some work is less worth trying to attain perfection for. That attitude wouldn’t do for a professional, who will only be regarded as being as good as his last performance. This is especially so in the kind of high profile work that orchestral first trumpets, chamber players and soloists participate in. Everything must be as good as the performer can produce at that given time and that takes damned hard work! Of course, mistakes do happen and I can’t think of any performer I have met who is entirely satisfied with his or her work. Even when it sounds perfect to other observers. When teaching, if the tutor doesn’t give the student everything possible, the pupils will get bored soon enough and move on to other professors.

The Great Trumpeter John Wilbraham – “… Don’t F*ck Up The Easy Bits!”

Despite all the current cut backs in the arts and the threats to the classical music profession, and the livelihoods of so many performers at stake, I wouldn’t change a thing. I have always wanted to be a trumpet performer from about the age of seven and have never really seriously considered any other line of profession. Fortune has smiled and I have enjoyed a hitherto long and varied career. Hopefully, my career will continue for a long time to come, too. Because of this, I never try to discourage pupils from chasing a livelihood from playing the trumpet. I have had such a good time that I think there is no reason why they shouldn’t try too. Even if they don’t make it, at least they can say they gave it their best shot. As it is, many of my students have done well in the trumpet trade and they make me very proud.

“…I Don’t Care How You Do It, Or What  Method You Employ, So Long As It’s Right.” Jerry Schwarz (yes, it’s Jerry with a ‘J’ and Gerard with a ‘G’)

The two questions I get asked more than any, by aspiring brass players is how to build a career and how to maintain a career. Before I can give answers, I always think about the advice the great actor Robert Mitchum used to give, “… Always turn up on time and know your lines!” Simple but so right. Always turn up on time and know the music as best as humanly possible. I always encourage students to keep their game as clean as possible, technically, too. I remember receiving some career advice from trumpeter Graham Ashton when I was at college, “… In this business nobody likes a pain in the arse!” One can think of many such phrases.

“… It’s A Damn Sight Tougher At The Top, My Boy!” – David Mason

My principal teacher when I was a Foundation Scholar at the Royal College Of Music, was David Mason, who had done just about everything. In fact, he really had done stuff that many could only dream: performing for Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, playing piccolo trumpet on The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ single, played the 15 page solo flugel horn part at the premier of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 9, etc. He used to say turn up on time, he was always neatly dressed, he was always in great shape playing-wise (always snatching a quick five or ten minutes here and there to do a little maintenance practice – even at the end of his career), he would say, “… Play in tune, in time and try to generally fit in with what’s happening around you.” More great advice!

“If You Split Notes In An Audition, Forget It: They Won’t Employ A ‘Cracker Of Notes!” – Ray Allen

He was known as a prolific practiser. However, he would always give me a telling off for doing too much work on ‘the chops’. This is a conundrum for me. Almost that too much practice is as bad as too little. I wonder if there will ever be an answer to this.

“… F*ck Up Something Hard! They’ll Say, Never Mind, That Bit Was Hard. F* ck Up Something Easy And They Will Call You A C*nt! – John Wilbraham

What do I do regarding maintenance? Not much really! Personally, I attended a masterclass in 1985 by the great virtuoso Allen Vizzutti. I was the one who asked him about warming up, technique etc. He stated to me, in front of the class, ‘Oh, no! I knew everyone would get this wrong!’

“… Shit Happens, Lad, And There’s F*ck All You Can Do About It!” – The Great Maurice Murphy

Vizzutti, who is as good a technical player as anyone could every hope to be, went on to explain that he only ever did two 40 minute practise sessions a day. I said ‘is that on a concert day.’ He looked at me as if I was mad! “… Nooooooooo!” I’ll take that to be a no, then.

“… You Should Be Too Busy Sounding Good To Even Notice Or Think About That!” – That Wonderful Tunesmith Trumpeter James Watson

As already stated, I asked about “warming up!’ He didn’t seem to have much of an opinion about it. I remember him saying that the lips went to were they were supposed to go after about ten to 15 minutes of general playing anyway. He demonstrated  lots of Herbert L. Clarke exercises, but in various modes/minor keys etc not printed in the Technical Studies book. Apparently his friend and mentor Doc Severinsen does loads of these exercises too… Doc starts the Clarke  book and finishes it every day! Every trumpeter would like to be as good as Doc (and as rich!).

I find that I have to play music not exercises! Don’t play exercises all day. That’s not the reason you took up the trumpet. I spent years practicing drills and never playing tunes. Get into music instead!

Routine practice makes a routine player! I have heard this for as long as I can remember. I seem to need a bit of routine at the start of the day, actually. Just in case of an emergency, I start without a prescribed warm up at least once a week. As Vizzutti says, the lips go there anyway. It doesn’t matter! Books are not necessary either. Another teacher of mine at college, Stan Woods used to invent his own exercises and studies.

John Wilbraham (a truly great player!) – “… Yes, well, Brendan: you can practise your scales: you can practise your tonguing; and your arpeggios: but you can’t take into account playing like a c*nt!!!”

Despite ‘knocking’ warm ups, Vizzutti soon after brought out a series of study books prescribing just that. They are very good. Personally, I do a warm up. However, I am currently making it smaller and smaller. I don’t really practice many technical excercises anymore, preferring to regard the music I have to learn for work and solos I want to play as ‘technical enough’ for any trumpeters needs. I always think back to how meticulously David Mason used to prepare the material he was paid to play for money and I try to be as neat and tidy and perfect as him. I put my own stylistic stamp on top, also. I can play as high and low as I need, I can play for ages without getting as tired as many.  There are things that bother me, some things will haunt me to the grave! However, most things get technically easier as time passes. I don’t need technical books.

Neither do you!

The Great Trumpeter Mark David, “… There are no secrets!”

Is it necessary to warm up at all?! I don’t think so, but I do about 15 minutes anyway. When I have all the answers and am able to bottle the magic formula guaranteeing success, for sale, I’ll let you know…

The Great Trumpeter Alan Stringer, on being asked how to improve a colleague’s solo passage, “… I think you need to play with more Joy!”

What do you  do?! Feel free to comment below…

I Don’t Practice ‘Stamp’ Or ‘Claude Gordon’, either!

“… There is sufficient technical study in these orchestral excerpt books. ” – Richard ‘Bob’ Walton ( former Principal Of London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, Philharmonia and co-Principal BBC Symphony)

Let it Flow, Let it Flow, Let it Flow – Brendan’s warm-up!

About brendanball

Professional Trumpeter: Soloist, Orchestra Player, Chamber Music, Contemporary Music & Education.
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4 Responses to Practice Makes Perfect!

  1. Simon Porter says:

    Great stuff here Bren – are there any trumpet players who aren’t characters? You need to meet my mate Bob Walp someday – he’s got tons of similar stories with an American accent.

  2. Pingback: A Nifty Arpeggio Study… | Brendan Ball's Blog

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  4. Mark Thompson says:

    Just stumbled across your blog Brendan, its so refreshing to find someone talking so honestly and openly about trumpet playing there are a lot of bullshitters out there in internet land who are only interested in selling their own “magic” methods to gullible amateurs. The message I shall take away and pass on to the kids who I teach in brass band is to keep it simple, concentrate on the sound and enjoy yourself, thank you.

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