The Last 17+ Months
Well, folks, it seems time for full disclosure with regards to the last 17 + months.
I offer this blog as, hopefully, an inspiration to anyone going through similar challenges (I can think of one peer who is). Things will get better.
On June 7, 2020, I suffered what I was told was a minor stroke. I was told that everything would “back to normal” in 8 to 12 months. However, that was with respect to gross motor skills. Finer skills, like, speech, handwriting and certainly trumpet playing might take a little longer. However, the assurance of a complete recovery was heartening, to say the least.
I communicated with two people who went through this experience. One is a friend who is a big band fan. We run into each other periodically when he is in the audience at gigs. He told me it took him three years to feel completely back to normal. I consulted with another trumpeter who went through it and he told me it took him two years. I started recording again at 6 months and at just over 17 months, I am already starting to exceed my standards at the physical game of trumpet playing. I feel I am a bit ahead of the curve.
There were some problems, though. First, the discouragement and depression was staggering. They can’t really prepare you for how it feels to sense progress at a glacial pace. From day to day it was almost impossible. There were times I was wondering if I would ever play again.
I took up the EVI – electronic valve instrument. At first, I rationalized that if I couldn’t play trumpet again, at least I could move into the world of techno music. However, my loving wife, insisted that I DON’T pick one up until I had made progress in my recovery on trumpet. She had COMPLETE faith in my ability to get on the horse, so to speak.
So, I started playing/recording again at six months. It was a struggle to do much, but I was able to record a solo track on my take on Maynard Ferguson’s Country Road chart. It is out there in cyberspace. The take that is on there is about take 200, but I got it, finally. That act gave me hope and helped me get past the depression.
Then in the spring of 2021, I got underway with another project. This was recording Steve Wiest’s college band chart, “DD Quizbone.” That was even more heartening as I played ALL of the parts, including saxes (on EVI) as part of my recovery. Yes, I did hire a rhythm section to record those parts, but the progress was definitely there.
What seemed important would be to outline exactly what I’ve been doing to “build back better” with respect to my music, and my life.
First, I think the physical part is significant.
The Physical Game:
They had no idea that triggered the event, but my nature is that when something goes wrong, I FIX IT and fix it permanently!
The first step was to get back in shape. I did this with diet and exercise. I cut out ALL fast food and ALL heavily processed foods. I also NEVER add salt or sugar anything. I eat mostly fruit and vegetables and whole grains. I drink at least two liters of water a day. While I do occasionally schedule “cheat food”, even then, I try to max out at 2000 Kcal a day. I also use the NOOM app to help me monitor things.
Exercise? I do a variety. I ride a stationary bike. I walk/run. I do kettlebell workouts. I do general calisthenics. Finally, I have a community center membership so I can do resistance training on the weight machines. I make sure I get at least an hour a day in of some sort of activity.
I lost about 50 pounds, so far, with ten more to go.
Aside: folks, DON’T let yourself go! No matter where you are in life, eat healthy food and be active. DON’T be lazy about this. I was, and regret it.
I think the physical aspect of my recovery is important to my recovery as a trumpeter. I feel, more strongly than ever, that you can be at your best as a trumpeter if you are in shape.
The Trumpet Game:
Well, this all happened near the beginning of the pandemic. Nobody was working, so it was the perfect time (?????) to rebuild my trumpet playing. I decided I want to build back better. I made the decision I would change my approach to embouchure and breathing. I had spent my entire professional trumpet career working WAY too hard. Yes, I had good range, but it was inconsistent and even though I used less pressure than my early days, I STILL pressed way to hard. The result was that, when I went to ascend into the upper register, I was stopping things up. By pressing too much to keep my lips vibrating at the higher pitch, I was jamming my lips together and making it EXTREMELY difficult to get enough air through my lips to bring the volume. I had a moderately effective altissimo embouchure, but I was rendering it ineffective by pressing too hard against the mouthpiece. The net result was that I often felt like my head was going to explode when I went up and had serious breath control problems. This had to end.
I was bound and determined to use MUCH less air and not have to feel like I was blowing up a hot water bottle when I was playing. There were several resources that got me going.
Larry Meregillano Compression Training System:
Larry reached out to me on FB, though he did not know what happened. During lockdown he developed a system for working on compression of the air within the mouth, essentially developing the use of the tongue and working on tongue placement. It also allowed me to practice a lot more quietly. Rather than try to explain it myself, here is the link to his website. You can read about it directly from him.
Charlie Porter Videos:
Charlie Porter is a BRILLIANT jazz trumpeter. I never thought of him as a high note artist, nor does he sell himself as one, but he has some remarkable videos demonstrating his techniques for range development. He covers five + octaves. It is very impressive and his instruction are very clear and understandable. Furthermore, these are out there completely FREE! Here is a great example.
Practicing Large Intervals to Open Up The High Register:
Ralph Salamone True Power Trumpet Fitness:
I saved the most significant for me for last. I am actually studying with Ralph. I take two lessons a month and a few days after each lesson, I do a short follow up.
Ralph’s system is very much based on the teachings of Jerry Callet. He is a protégé’s of Jerry. He has HUNDREDS of videos on his Youtube channel and on virtually ALL of them he picks up his horn and just goes running up to double high C and beyond. He can do it stone cold and every day.
Also, as a teacher he is a perfect combination of being relentlessly positive and yet not mollycoddling his students. If you do anything wrong, he will just shut you down and make you fix the tongue position with spit buzzing.
That last sentence is important. SPIT BUZZING and compression. Once again, I will post some links. You really need to hear from him.
Here are some examples.
His Youtube channel is called True Power Trumpet Fitness:
Power Spit Buzzing:
At three minutes he does a three octave glissando from low C to DHC, with one hand. He makes it look easy.
Ralph has been helping with my comeback a great deal. He only charges $40 a lesson. For an instructor who works with pros, this is INCREDIBLY reasonable. He works with SKYPE, but it works.
He ONLY works on chops. For musical aspect, you’ll have to work on your own or work with an instructor who addresses your needs. However, if you are working on your chops, this guy can help you. Furthermore, he GUARANTEES results.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Dave Harrison of Wedge Mouthpieces. He has worked with me to redesign my mouthpieces in an effort to navigate the comeback.
My final comment in this blog post will be about emotions. What I went through put me on a staggering emotional roller coaster. I would vacillate between hope and despair. It felt like a bucking bronco. I wondered if I would ever be really happy again – a free spirit.
This would manifest itself in frustrating ways on the first few gigs I did on the comeback trail. One gig, I would feel fine and the next gig, I would break down in tears. That is not exaggeration or metaphor. I would dissolve into tears. This would be exacerbated if my gig peers were hard on me for clamming or misreading.
If you are going through an experience like this, you might feel the same way, but DON’T despair! You WILL get through it.
Here is what I have done. I hope it helps you.
First, I make DARN sure that the gigs I take right now are with understanding folks. That take the fear factor out of the picture.
Second: I refused lead or solo parts for a long time. I did the best I could to sneak back in.
Third: On gigs that went WELL, I just had fun and felt gratitude.
Fourth: On gigs that went BADLY, I strived to take a very detached point of view. “That didn’t work. What strategies can I employ, in the spur of the moment and long term, to get out of the mess.”
Fifth: LOVE your way through it and LAUGH at yourself! You love to play or you wouldn’t try for the comeback and LAUGH at the mistakes, recognizing that this will get fixed.
I can’t emphasize the love part enough.
I am not going to get into religion explicitly, here. I don’t feel qualified.
I AM religious, but this experience has left me a TOTALLY changed man, in that regard. I am still searching. I still pray. I still believe in God. To borrow from Rene DesCartes, “He thinks, therefore WE are.”
I don’t mean to short change this, but you will have to come to your own terms with this. I do say, KEEP THE FAITH.
I am doing FINE, now. I currently awaiting for a dental implant for a lower tooth right behind my embouchure, but with Ralph’s help, my playing has taken a quantum leap forward, even with the gap in there. When I get my temp veneers, I expect it to be even better. Now, to get to work on ear training (thanks to Rick Beato) and jazz improv. Remember, the plan is to build it all back better.
If you are struggling with some sort of life changing event, take heart. You can figure your way out.