I love cheese. (A little too often,) I can sit down and finish an entire block without realizing it. I’ve been thinking a lot about cheese lately. As cheese is to a mouse, what is our cheese as musicians? I had the great pleasure of working with Mireia Farrés over the course of a week and it has me reevaluating what my musical cheese is. It sort of gets at something I’ve been trying to find the words for for many months now. I think I finally have something of an answer to that.
It might be helpful to break down our practice objectives into three possibilities, each increasingly conceptual in nature, and each more indicative of advanced musicianship. I have a very interesting vantage point to all three.
The first, because I have one foot in the brass band world, which is full of wonderful people from all walks of life, who share a passion for music, but who do not make their living day in and day out doing it. There is kind of an old brass band mentality of a music director coaching a group until the notes are shedded and mostly in the right place. This stands in stark contrast to many professional orchestras, which frequently do not rehearse an entire piece at all. This is the first cheese location in the maze— right notes, right place. We can call this the, “Facsimile” cheese. There is nothing wrong with this. It is quite literal, functional, easy to repeat, easy to teach. And there’s no question that we need the right notes in the right place.
But bear with me because the next cheese location is deeper down the rabbit hole. And this is where a lot of mice get stuck. This happens to a lot of potential pros, and a lot of actual pros. We become very interested in what makes the trumpet work. We use words like air, tongue level, aperture, efficiency, articulation… you get the idea. The nomenclature of pedagogy. The trumpet becomes very impressive in itself, and we can be impressed with just how good someone can become at playing the trumpet. And before I get a boatload of hate mail, I dare not suggest that this is wrong. We certainly need this. Part of our brains are engineers who want to understand how to construct and deconstruct things. To control production, to understand. It’s part of what makes us human, in my opinion. This could be called “Technical” cheese.
Circling back to Ms. Farrés, she is in part a brilliant musician because she so instinctually starts where others are lucky if they end… this last place of cheesy goodness. To many, this might sound backwards, but I would challenge you to finish reading, and then I will include some mental exercises to try and see what you think. Because for many years, I wondered about how to make trumpet easier. It got me thinking about the question, “what is the reed of the trumpet? What is the ligature?” What do you think it is? If you said the lip, the mouthpiece, and the ring of muscles that surround them, you’re not wrong. That’s what I have said aloud often, even written about and published.
But let me offer an alternative idea that I believe is closer to the truth, and what I realized watching Mireia work and perform. Because the technical is rooted in the physical. At the end of the day, it is a kinesthetic. Let me explain why this is a problem. There is a hounding problem I often come across when meeting a great player who is playing great performances and having trouble winning or even advancing at professional full-time auditions. When possible, I try to pick their brains, to understand how they think and prepare. Because there is almost always something important missing that is hard to describe. Like a mall dummy that looks kind of human at a distance, but upon closer inspection is definitely not alive, not human. They are often quite perfect trumpet players. They have near-perfect performances. Great sounds, great accuracy, great intonation.
Sometimes people might say, “but there’s no magic.” I want to rail against that for a moment, because there is nothing inherently magical about music, and certainly not excerpts. It’s only magical for the same reasons magic appears to be magical— we are not privy to how it’s created. But composers, like magicians, create music from fairy dust. When we listen to Sibelius 2 with a score in front of us and the New York Philharmonic playing on a great set of speakers, we aren’t thinking about how to manage the trumpet. Instead, we are enjoying a beautiful line as it was passed between the strings and the bassoon. A slur over an eighth rest does not strike us as odd or unnatural, and we don’t think about how the cellists do it, just that it sounds wonderful.
And guess what happens after we pick the trumpet up when the New York Philharmonic’s recording of Sibelius 2 is screaming in our mind’s ear? Yes, we are playing the right notes in the right place, yes we are examining the how of it when necessary, but there is no alternative because our reed is actually our brain, resonating at the frequency of the New York Phil. This leads us to far more creative, far more effective and efficient answers to our technical questions. We still need to shed skills, but we don’t get stuck in the shed, so to speak.
There’s something to be said for how Europeans practice music. Ear first, in a phrase. This is an oversimplification of course, but we Americans do love our bootstraps. We sometimes can’t understand success without accompanying struggle. It’s not that the great trumpeters of Europe don’t struggle and work very hard to be good at what they love— they do. But it is hard to escape the feeling that we sometimes get stuck playing Guitar Hero, lining up the buttons and timing just right, without hearing the music in our head first. Going back to my analogy of the mall dummy. We will never be able to fashion a piece of plastic into a human. It might be believable, but it will never speak, ask questions of itself, or do anything that makes us alive. Creating another human is a biological process, not a manufactured one. On the same token, being a musician is a fundamentally musical process, not a technical one. We can use technique, but technique is a poor starting or ending point.
Chris Gekker sometimes talks about the “trumpet bubble,” a thing that happens when too many trumpeters are in the same room at the same time. I propose that one can still be too many! This is why practicing in a room alone (the American dream, really) can be surprisingly dangerous. I encourage us all to be creative and find ways of practicing that make us feel part of something bigger. So rather than waiting to do score study last thing in the day, we can do it first. And do a lot of it. Warm up with chords and harmonies, or with friends, or with students. Transpose everything by ear. After all, if we are striving to be better, what makes us think that we will achieve that with only our own ideas and devices and impulses, locked in a silent room alone? And sing. We can sometimes sing a passage a little closer to how we want it to go on trumpet, because it can take some of the technical considerations off the table, and also because we have a knack for creating problems that aren’t actually there when we play the trumpet.
And by the way, this is a skill that transcends classical and jazz genres. This is about cultivating and creating something in our heads as vividly as possible on our instrument of choice, in our genre of choice. This is why I believe it is very important to spend time in lessons talking about and listening to music together.
I could probably go on about this forever, because I think it is possibly the heart and soul of being a musician. But I’ve made my point and hope this has inspired some people to get out of the practice room for a few minutes, go take a walk, read a good book, listen to a great recording, study a score, or to try a different approach to teaching. If it does (or if you disagree!), please reach out and let me know.