Balancing Acts

I often think that playing the trumpet is all about balance. When I notice that a student is having difficulty with some aspect of playing, or when I notice that I am, this difficulty can often be boiled down to some sort of imbalance. Identifying one imbalance or another can sometimes result in noticeable or even near-miraculous improvements in the short term, but these effects can be fleeting for a number of reasons, the primary one being force of habit. Other reasons why “knowing what’s wrong” is not all it takes to improve on the trumpet include the tendency most of us have to overdo whatever change we think we need to make (check out Jake’s Method by Don Jacoby for more on this) and the tendency to continue thinking of an old weakness as a current weakness even as it becomes a strength. Perhaps the most critical reason that “knowing what’s wrong” can fail us is the fact that all of our trumpet balancing acts must be in balance with each other. Not unlike a game of Jenga, every removal of a problem results in new patterns of relative weakness and strength at the fundamental level. Over time, unlike in the game, as our tower grows taller and our new habits grow permanent and balance within the system against all our other habits, it is as if all of the blocks we have removed grow back, allowing us to build our structure taller and taller, with no limit to how far we can go.

Here are some of the balancing acts involved in trumpet playing. Use your imagination and experience to consider how adjusting one area can affect one or more of the others.

  • Hand position (as it impacts dexterity, angle at which mouthpiece most easily reaches lips, use of 1st and 3rd valve slides, comfort of left hand, and more)

  • Using air freely but not aggressively in most circumstances while producing sound

  • Inhalation (sufficient vs. excessive)

  • Firmness vs. “Tension” (in embouchure, abdomen, hand grip, etc.)

  • Posture (upright vs. stiff; “comfortable” (read: familiar) vs. efficient)

  • Whole body attitude (relaxed but ready)

  • Basic sound (brilliant but warm; compact but not brittle; clear but not soulless)

  • Tonguing (precise vs. militaristic; light vs. indistinct; consistent vs. inflexible)

It is impossible to consciously control and balance all of these in the moment of playing, but useful to consider them from time to time while developing and refining one’s ability, hence:

  • Thinking vs. doing

I will always recommend putting product before process. Students who attempt to analyze every little aspect of their playing as an approach to development generally find themselves in a long series of downward spirals and on a quest for one magic pill after another. As with any repeated behavior, this becomes a habit, and these students end up experiencing this ineffective waste of time and energy as a comfort zone. I don’t mean to say that all intellectual consideration of the elements of trumpet playing are futile and that we should avoid them. However, we must maintain a balance between our need to control via our thoughts, and the reality that good trumpet playing requires automaticity. In order to be able to experience the most desirable performance, in which we simply pick up the instrument and translate internal conception into external sound, we have to practice telling our minds to shut up and let us focus on the matter at hand - just playing.

Nikola Tomic2 Comments