When striving to play the trumpet at a high level, you may soon realize that on some days you feel like anything is possible and on other days it may feel like it’s a struggle to get anything to work. Throughout my college education I often heard trumpet players say, “I’m having a bad day on trumpet,” excusing their playing. Sure, some days you have to work harder to sound great, but if your goal is to play professionally, ask yourself these questions: Do you think the audience will excuse poor playing because you do not feel 100 percent on trumpet that day? Similarly, will your colleagues, who depend on you playing at a professional level every rehearsal and performance, excuse less than great playing? No. Audiences want to relax and enjoy a beautiful performance, for which they purchased tickets. As far as colleagues go–I am fortunate enough to work with musicians who understand that we, as humans, will never be perfect and they forgive most flaws. However, they still depend on every member of the section to do their job well at every rehearsal/performance.
As professional musicians (or aspiring professional musicians), we must move away from the notion that there are good and bad days. Every day must be treated the same, with the expectation that you will sound great regardless of how the trumpet feels. This is not to say that there won’t be days that the trumpet feels terrible and you immediately want to put it down and quit; or, that your lips may be extremely swollen and sore from a week of pop shows and you can barely play above the staff. The simple fact is that you have a job to do and you need to perform at the highest professional level every day.
So, how do you play well when you are having a “bad” day?
1) You need to come to the understanding that the trumpet may feel different each day and that some days require more physical and mental exertion in order to attain a great, consistent sound. That is OK–you are not having a break down if you have to work harder to play. With this, you must discover how to prepare yourself physically and mentally for the performing and practicing that you are required to do on that day/week. For me, this means that every day I go back to the absolute basics of trumpet playing during my brief warmup. I start by making sure that my airstream is relaxed, without tension, full, and strong, by slurring scalar patterns starting in the middle and proceeding as quickly as possible to the upper register. After I determine how those exercises sound and feel, I play exercises that will help prepare me for the day. Please note – I don’t like to dwell on how the trumpet feels, but in some cases it can be a useful aid for determining which exercises will prove beneficial. – For example, if I feel stiff, I will spend some time playing lip slurs or two octave arpeggios to regain my flexibility. If I feel unfocused and loose, I will spend more time playing articulated exercises to regain the focus of the sound. Also, if I find that there is an aspect of my playing that does not feel easy and relaxed, I will break down the technique and work on it until it sounds the way I want (usually I can trace it back to an air issue, or unnecessary tension).
2) A consistent routine, or maintenance work, helps greatly with consistency on the trumpet. This is another way of saying, cover all of your bases. On a weekly basis, you should cover every technique required to play every style of music. For example, cover single, “k,” double, and triple tonguing, lips slurs, lip trills, shakes, extreme registers, delicate playing, powerful playing, etc. – Notice that I did not say to cover each technique every day. – For the sake of variety and balance, I prefer not to work on the same techniques on back-to-back days, unless I find myself struggling with one specifically. For example, I will alternate double and triple tonguing days, but will work on single tonguing every day. I also do my routine work at the end of the day, after my playing obligations are done. The reason for this is; I want to sound fresh when playing my job or when practicing etudes, solos, or excerpts. When I work on maintenance at the end of the day, it often proves therapeutic and will help me recover physically from the day’s playing. It also helps me set myself up for the next morning. However, I spent years doing maintenance in the morning, with success, and have within the last year reversed it with great success. It is a personal decision, but is worth the experiment.
3) Learn to ignore how the trumpet “feels,” and focus on how it sounds. When things are not working on trumpet, often the best solution is to focus purely on sound. Make sure that you take a good breath and then hear your best sound and play without worrying about the physical problems. Often, by focusing on the end product (sound), the technical issues will work themselves out. It is important when approaching the trumpet in this manner to not physically fix your problems, but to simply stop, collect your thoughts, and try again. This may seem counterintuitive, but the less you worry about missing notes and more your focus on the approach and sound, the faster you will recover.
4) Sometimes, it may be best to put the trumpet down for a few hours and focus on something else. When I find that I become frustrated with trumpet, usually my playing turns into a downward spiral. It is then when I must force myself to walk away and try again later (My wife can attest to the fact that I don’t do this as much as I should). When you are mentally flustered, the chances of you having a good practice session, or performance diminish greatly. So, either gather your thoughts quickly, or take a break and come back when you feel ready.
5) Confidence. When you are in a performance setting and nothing feels good, having a healthy dose of confidence will help. You will likely not have time to fix your problems, so remember that you sound great and that the audience wants you to play well. In the rests, think back to all of your successful performances and greatest accomplishments. When you feel better mentally, you may find that you have the required adrenaline to make the trumpet sound great. Worrying about your playing will never help you play better, and it will only clutter your thoughts.
Overcoming “bad” days on the trumpet is mainly about focusing more on how you sound, and less on how you feel. Thoughtful maintenance work, and understanding your tendencies and habits can help prevent problems before they arise. Refuse to make excuses for your playing, and always strive to become the best musician possible.
This blog will mainly be used to discuss aspects of trumpet playing. Please feel free to comment on any post or email me with questions or topics.