The Best Advice, Part I: Frank Gabriel Campos
As I wrote last week, this series is meant to explore concepts and advice I’ve received from trumpet players with whom I have studied privately. In some cases, I will be quoting teachers verbatim. In others, I will paraphrase. These entries are not intended to represent the pedagogical approaches of the teachers I reference. Really, my purpose here is to draw attention to the way my own interpretation of the guidance of these great teachers has affected me, continues to affect me, and has emerged in my own teaching, sometimes seemingly unchanged, and sometimes radically different despite its origin. Some pieces of advice have been like seeds, waiting in dormancy for the rain of heightened self-awareness to penetrate the arid soil of my own hard head. Because each teacher has given me so many things to experiment with and think about, I will probably cycle back around at some point to explore other examples of “the best advice” in the future. Let’s turn to this week’s teacher, Frank Gabriel Campos.
I think some background is in order. I was very fortunate to get to study with Frank Campos at Ithaca College from 2003 to 2007. I first took a lesson with Frank some time around September or October of 2000, as I entered my senior year of high school. As a student at the Skidmore Jazz Institute that summer I had been advised by both Vince DiMartino and Jon Faddis that, since I lived in Ithaca, I should try to get some lessons with Frank. After returning home, I accosted him after a gig he was playing on the Ithaca Commons and asked if he would be willing to teach me. Thankfully, he said yes. I got a tremendous amount out of my work with Frank that year, including an early sense of what it means to teach from a place of generosity. After Frank found out I was paying for the lessons myself with an after-school job, he went out of his way not to charge me a couple of times, such as when a fire drill interrupted us. He invited me to attend several repertoire and pedagogy classes where I got to witness the workings of his Ithaca College trumpet studio. After a false start attempting to go to college for something other than music, I found myself back in Ithaca, taking lessons from Frank again, and eventually auditioning into his studio as a music major at Ithaca College. I did not audition anywhere else.
In our first lessons together, Frank helped me to recognize the parasitic tension that crept into my playing as I ascended above the staff (I’m sure nobody reading this can relate to that!) and immediately drew my attention to moments when my quality of sound was relatively good and relatively bad. Up until this point, I had not been particularly aware of either of these issues of unwanted tension and inconsistency of sound, let alone of how intimately entangled they were. A question that I heard often from Frank throughout my years as his student was “Is that the very best sound you can make?” Here’s a hint: The answer was never “Yes.” The literal-minded might process this as an example of a trumpet student who doesn’t have a good sound and whose teacher is telling him to improve it. On a certain level, that is what was going on, and in my first or second lesson with Frank, he prescribed to me by a James Stamp exercise that he taught me by playing it back and forth with me. In the Stamp book published by Éditions Bim, a version of this exercise appears at the bottom of page 3. Frank had me play each iteration first on the trumpet, then on the mouthpiece alone, and then on the trumpet again, with the instruction to stop playing at any point where I found myself forcing (as evidenced by a decrease in quality of sound and an increase in tension, particularly in the neck, shoulders, and upper back). Not being so literal-minded myself, I see more deeply into the value of the exercise and, more importantly, this particular approach to playing it.
Learning how, why, and when to stop is one of the most valuable and elusive lessons in becoming more effective at practicing. As I write this, I am certain that all around the world, thousands of trumpet students are locked in practice rooms doing many reps of sloppily executed technical drills with poor form and a strained sound and wondering why they aren’t getting better faster.
Simple exercises allow us to concentrate on concrete goals, and train us to notice details much more readily than complex exercises. For someone as prone to being scatter-brained as I am, this kind of work is an absolute necessity.
At the time Frank was showing me this exercise and pointing out the very real fundamental problems with my playing, I was the kind of person who thought that being able to intellectually understand something like playing the trumpet would lead to mastery. I came into my first lesson with him having bought into some mythology I’d been fed about “airspeed” and believing that all sorts of half-true ideas would be my route to playing the trumpet better. By kindly and gently disabusing me of these nonsensical beliefs and transitioning me over to a path of learning to play the trumpet better by systematically and regularly attempting to play the trumpet better, with growing awareness and mindfulness in the moment, he helped me out of the dead-end street that many call “paralysis by analysis.”
Over the years, it has been rare for me to encounter a student that doesn’t need some attention drawn to inconsistency of sound and parasitic tension while playing. Not all of them have been as trapped in their heads as I was when I first stepped into Frank’s teaching studio, but they have all benefited from learning to be more aware of the times when their quality of sound worsens, and from learning to relax in the right places when playing. Of course, by working on these issues, they can’t help but learn to be more present in the moment, and that is something that is good for more than just playing the trumpet.
Stay tuned for The Best Advice, Part II: Clay Jenkins, coming next week. As always, I welcome your questions and comments below. Thank you for reading!