Female Trumpet Players

Female trumpet players are uncommon but not rare. Most of my work is in small groups, and I rarely stand next another trumpet; yet the few I did see last year were women.

If I had to pick a “best trumpet player” out there, I’d go with Alison Balsom. She has a technical mastery of the instrument, and she manages to do plenty of brashness and flair without losing precision. The tone is pure, and—the real test—she just makes everything sound easy. Her version of Syrinx is positively ornithopteric.

I admit a personal dislike of style with Tine Thing Helseth—it’s in the way she attacks notes—but I love what she’s doing with TenThing. You can’t do that kind of work without a perfect internal clock. Check out the video of TenThing at Proms. Along those lines, also see the Seraph Brass, an all-female quintet with a rotating roster.

Gunhild Carling is in a class by herself. The proper word is “entertainer” rather than “musician”, but listen to her note-perfect renderings of Louis Armstrong—that is not trivial stuff. The average band player would be happy to have her skill on just one instrument. Cindy Bradley’s jazz work is modern and lush. Saskia Laroo has been doing interesting things with sequencers and EWIs—try her *TED talk.

We heard a lot about Cindy Robinson when she passed away last year, about her groundbreaking career as a session musician and a member of Sly and the Family Stone. She was hardly the first, of course—Clora Bryant and Valaida Snow, for two, played in jazz bands decades earlier.

But if you really want to go back, here’s an account of Olympics in ancient Greece:

“And there was a woman, too, who played on the trumpet, whose name was Aglais, the daughter of Megacles, who, in the first great procession which took place in Alexandria, played a processional piece of music; having a head-dress of false hair on, and a crest upon her head, as Posidippus proves by his epigrams on her. And she, too, could eat twelve litrae of meat and four choenixes of bread, and drink a choenix of wine, at one sitting.”

–Athenaeus of Naucratis, The Deipnosophistae

Trumpet dentistry

When I was a kid I broke my front teeth and got temporary caps. In high school I resisted getting braces because I was afraid they’d set me back, and competition for Allstate was pretty fierce. I don’t really regret that, because even if I’d pursued a career, there would have been time to do braces later when I would have been pursuing virtuosity rather than competition.
But when that convenient time came, when I was otherwise occupied and not playing for a few years, I didn’t have insurance. I finally got my teeth fixed in my forties, and it went badly. The new crowns looked great and were strong enough to play, but I couldn’t get air into the horn. They were too big; they were a wall.
So after looking at the “before” X-rays, and bringing the horn in to the dentist’s office, we fixed it. First, I’d always had a gap between my front teeth. I’ve seen discussions about whether a gap helps with high range, usually ending with the interview from Maynard where he says he got his gap fixed. The dentist looked at the mouthpiece and at how I was playing—she wished that I had see-through mouthpiece and lips—and concluded I needed only a very small gap at the bottom, about 1/8”. It doesn’t matter if the front teeth are closed up closer to the gums because air doesn’t go through there.
The other problem was just that the teeth were too long, so they made contact with the lower lip too easily. That was a simple matter of grinding a bit off the bottom. She explained that it was a really tiny amount, well under a millimeter. We went in stages, shaving a bit and then playing some more notes.
After the initial surgery, I was too sore to play for several days and really couldn’t do much for a couple weeks. So even when we fixed it, I couldn’t make a judgment on finer points of technique. Also, of course, I had to adjust my embouchure, so I practiced etudes for a couple months and finally went back to get a little more taken off and to make the gap a little wider.
I am still missing a few notes off the top of the range, but other than that things work about as well as before I made drastic changes to the landscape of my mouth.

Mortal Limit

We get better by practicing. An average lifespan provides some twenty thousand days without infirmity. So every day you miss, you’ve lowered the ceiling on your peak skill level.
Injuries and illness take days away from you. A healthy paranoia can reduce those. (So can an unhealthy paranoia; do I really need to put my arm in front of my mouth every time I step off a curb?) Naturally, you’ll need your friends and family to stay healthy as well.
Of course, the quality of practice matters. Staying at peak mental and physical condition takes time away from practicing, but it’s essential. So are vacations.
You also need exposure to other players—playing in groups, taking lessons, attending performances. And to really understand art, to have something to say and be able to say it eloquently, you need education and worldly experience.
Personally I’ve decided the world is a huge and complex place, and it would be sad to look back on life to see only one thing. You’ll notice that I’m not playing first chair for the Chicago Symphony.

Degenerate Key Signatures

Debate: Is Bb-Eb-F# a valid key signature?
An informal poll says “No”, though one respondent said anything should be possible in jazz. I have seen it used for the key of G harmonic minor, though certainly not on music from any major publishing house. It may be unfamiliar, but if I can trust that the piece strictly adheres to the scale, I can find it comfortable. There’s something to be said for a clean page, and frankly seeing an accidental that I already know is defined just distracts me.
Mark Levine’s approach to jazz theory uses melodic minor scales frequently. As a kid, I was taught that melodic minor is raised six and seven on the way up, lowered on the way down. This is an oversimplification, since melodies can move up or down in any interval. Levine defines the melodic minor as lowered third, raised six, and raised seven – in other words, a major scale with a minor third.
This leads to an odd set of key signatures. D melodic minor has one sharp—C#. The key of A melodic minor has F# and G# but no C#. G melodic minor has Bb-F#. So far I’ve seen those only in his textbooks.
I have seen illogical mixes such as Bb-C#-G# and, more absurdly, C#-D#-Fx. These were in a 20th-century piece, and they were in place for only a few measures. In the second case, with the double sharp, the music was transitioning to a sharp key; for consistency with the following measures, it was written with sharps instead of flats. Also, I play a transposing instrument, and the score had fewer accidentals. Even accepting those justifications, the key signature for G# Major would have been a lie since it reflected neither the melody scale nor the chords; in any case, since my part happened to use only a few notes of the scale during that period, the publisher simply saved ink and confusion by leaving the rest out.
I spoke with someone who ran a sheet music business on Broadway decades ago. He had a pretty low opinion of a copyist who would use such tactics. Nowadays sheet music software usually makes such things impossible. Still, I think it’s an object lesson that the sheet music is a representation and not the music itself.

Booked for the Evening

Composition in the Metatarsals

Scotty Barnhart advocates transcribing jazz solos in real time because he’s heard too many note renderings that lack the spirit, which is really the point after all. The improviser that sounded so good was to some extent thinking about the notes but in the moment was feeling it in the lips, diaphragm, fingers, ears and eyes. That’s where the music lives.
As I’m learning piano charts from sheet music, it’s pretty obvious which ones were improvised and then written, and which were composed on paper and left for the pianist to master. You can feel it in your tendons. It ultimately lets you see into the composer’s mind, to really get what they were thinking and experiencing while writing.
It also makes it easy to work out fingerings, phrasing, dynamics, and generally the musicality of the piece. Maybe you can learn that by studying sheet music–I had a composition professor who never even listened to the notes he put on the pages–but following in someone’s fingersteps connects you to the piece directly.
I’m learning lessons that I probably wasn’t ready to learn when I was trying to learn them. I find they’re showing up in other areas of performance. I haven’t been writing while pursuing this project, but I’ll bet it informs some of that work too.

Piano Repertoire

So, these are the pieces I’m practicing nowadays:
Moonlight Sonata (just the well-known adagio part)
Ashokan Farewell
Music Box Dancer
Linus & Lucy
Prelude in C (Well-tempered)
Fur Elise
Chopin Prelude Op. 28 No. 20

Music Box Dancer is giving me problems because the left hand leaps around doing arpeggios across multiple octaves. I don’t think I like the effect. As for Beethoven, I was rusty at reading that many sharps, but it came back. He isn’t afraid to expect players to have large hands 🙂

Piano Year One

I realized recently that if someone asked me to play the Moonlight Sonata, I couldn’t do it. I’m hardly a concert pianist, but I ought to be able to do the early canon. I went to mutopia.org to get some sheet music, and I went to my local music store for some others.
Actually, that’s inaccurate. I went to several music stores before I found one that had a selection of sheet music other than some school books. It’s becoming a lost business, apparently.
Anyway, I’ve been pleased at how easily it’s come back. I read better than I thought I would. On trumpet, I can sightread pretty much anything I need to, but that’s one note at a time…
In high school, I’d get home and go straight to the piano. I’d play until the world was set right–sometimes two songs, sometimes two hours. I still have the same piano, and it still puts the world right.

Standard Solo

Sometimes my bandmates mock me, all in good fun, on Black Orpheus. I always play the same solo, verbatim, and frankly some of us think of that more than the melody when we call the song. Maybe that’s a bit hoary, but I figure it’s something I gradually perfected over a year or two of playing it.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong–or in fact original–about having a standard solo for a song. That’s all Ornithology is, and often people study and transcribe the solos on favourite hero recordings. It’s something I can play cleanly and with a sure hand, and I don’t have to worry about a creative off-night.
That isn’t the only song where I’ve worked out “my” solo, and on several other songs I have a partial chorus–I always do the same thing in the second eight bars, or some such. Same with harmonies – I always play the same harmony on Black Orpheus and Blue Bossa and any number of other tunes.
And yes, sometimes I decide to mix things up and not play my standard solo. I find that having gone through the exercise, I know the song better than others where I’m still experimenting or just prefer to keep it open-ended. Most importantly, though, I know a prepared solo is going to have musical sense and structure. A good off-the-cuff solo does too, and you have to taste your freedom to discover something better than what you have, so I don’t think it’s good to ossify on more than a small percentage of the book.

The Most Beautiful Melody: Misty

The A section is pretty straightforward, largely arpeggios and some conventional scalar passing tones.  There’s little dissonance beyond major sevenths.  However, although the phrases are arpeggiated, the overall line starts out chromatic: landing on the major seventh, going down a half step to the third of the minor v, then down an half step to the third of the IV.  It takes a whole step down for a brief suspension on the fifth, and then it goes to a 3-note motif in the major scale: 3-4-5 on the I, 3-4-5 on the vi, 3-4-5 on the ii (with an octave jump and implying the 4) and 3-4-5 on the V to end on the 3 of I.

All of that is rendered more interesting by chord substitutions and turnarounds, but the melody on its own stays pretty tightly in the key.

The bridge, on the other hand, creates tension and keeps it building on a single chord for two bars, resolves for two, builds tension on a single chord for two, and spends two bars in a normal turnaround.  I do a lot of substitutions, but they don’t change the tonality: instead of Bbm – Eb7b9, I do an edim-Bbm, and for the amin7sus I do some diminished chords that all spell out the same.  The A section comes back in predictably.

Overall, it’s probably the use of arpeggios with mid-stream octave changes that obscure the simplicity of the melodic idea without losing its comfortable familiar consonance.  It wouldn’t work without the tension, and cramming all of that into a few bars in the B section is perhaps overcompensating.  I don’t really see a lyrical reason for the contrast, but it makes a nice overall arc to the song.