What is Systematic Practice?

Preface from Trumpet Harmonics by David Bertie

Trumpet Harmonics is a wholly appropriate title for this book because as trumpeters, we play a tube that resonates according to overtones, or harmonics, of a fundamental frequency of that length of tube. This fundamental frequency is referred to as the pedal tone (or the first harmonic) and changes length as we utilize valves and slides when playing. The other notes we produce should be multiples of that frequency and in tune with each other. My experience in amateur radio introduced me to radio waves and their harmonics. An antenna can be forced to operate slightly off from resonance but doing so uses more energy and you lose ERP (Effect Radiated Power).

Similarly, some brass players find it challenging to slur harmonics, due to not sufficiently developing their wind power, wind control or tongue level, resulting in a feeling of tightness. These players use too much energy to produce a sound lacking resonance. Resonance will have a sound that is full, free and a feeling identified with the slotting of notes. The synchronization of tongue-level and increased wind power when ascending, helps the player experience the feel of ease that unlocks the beneficial aspects of endurance, range, and agility.

The types of exercise found in this book are essential to developing the skills referred to above. Claude Gordon’s teaching approach was unique in that it avoided mouthpiece buzzing except for the absolute beginner or an embouchure change, and only then to establish an initial sound and mouthpiece placement. His terse explanation for omitting buzzing in any form was that “it doesn’t feel the same as it does with the instrument. We play the trumpet!” I would add to this, “it can’t feel the same” because we need to feel, and experience, the resonance that comes from playing harmonics produced by the whole instrument.

Additional playing mantras Claude Gordon would encourage his students to consider when playing included: “watch the tongue”; “let the air do the work”; “the tongue channels the pitch”; “let the air save your lip”; and “hit it hard and wish it well!” None of these statements can be realized without developing the dual synchronization of ascending crescendo with the unique tongue-level position for each note. Once perfected, the player will feel something tangible as their precision and range improves.

Systematic practice requires both macro- and micro-approaches. On the macro-level we progress through the various books available but on the micro-level, we mine the depths of the exercises by practicing models (defined here as articulated variations) in addition to the more common activities of slurring, tonguing, K-tonguing, multiple-tonguing, and all possible combinations of these. Models train tongue-level to learn each note with a security and reinforce the similar use of air with all models. Pages 157 and 178 of Saint-Jacome’s Grand Method for Cornet (pub. Carl Fischer) perfectly demonstrate the diversity of practice opportunities offered by models. The acute sense of precision gained by practicing these exercises simply cannot be obtained any other way.

Transforming playing ability takes time on each exercise. This produces consistency and adaptability. Consistency is gained with familiarity and models on each exercise. Adaptability is gained from periodically changing material instead of playing the same warm-ups or routines indefinitely.

Too much material can defeat the objectives of flexibility. Moving through a book too quickly can spoil the transformation that happens from repetition over time. Habits are reformed even if the metronome remains the same or higher notes are not added. Depending on the amount of practice undertaken by the player, a week or two is usually a minimum amount of time to spend on an exercise, however, some exercises may take months to truly master. The patience and tenacity of the dedicated player will be rewarded.

Wisdom is gained from experiencing what the great books have to offer and noticing how they can fit with each other. With creativity, we can eventually add to what others have learned before us. Looked at on the macro level, Bai Lin’s book becomes a hybrid of Walter Smith’s Lip Flexibilities (pub. Carl Fischer) and Charles Colin’s Advanced Lip Flexibilities (pub. Chas Colin). Only through practicing numerous, successive times through a book, can its true worth be revealed. By creatively adding pedal tones, expanding the range, or writing models in a systematic manner, the dedicated player will gain much more from the material studied.

Trumpet Harmonics has been derived from Del Staigers’ Studies in Flexibility (pub. Carl Fischer) and if you compare that book to this one, you can see the various missing steps that David Bertie has filled in. David’s use of the three different fermata symbols is more specific in explaining rest periods the way Claude Gordon used to prescribe them. Rest is essential to prevent fatigue and avoid tearing down the strength one is striving to build.

Tongue-level technique can not only be further developed using books like Trumpet Harmonics but also in arpeggio studies like the Colicchio brothers’ Nu Art Studies (pub. Chas Colin) and similar material. The brass players’ library of books should contain every book obtainable of this category. For example, works for trombone like Ernst Gaetke’s Daily Lip and Tongue Exercises (pub. Zimmermann) and Pedro Lozano’s Lip Training (pub. qPress) can be systematically developed to beneficial effect for trumpet. Scott Belck’s recently published Progressive Lip Flexibilities (pub. Scott Belck) combines new flexibility material with contemporary mixed-meter interest. I recommend you purchase all these books and experience the rich music within. Systematic practice is a lifelong pursuit and should be progressive, patient, and persistent.

Jeff Purtle, South Carolina, USA, 2021