What Really Counts?

Joachim Kunze
Joachim Kunze

I have been playing the trumpet for quite a while, I’ve taught a number of workshops and I like reading trade reviews and internet forums.

And what can I say: some questions have been coming back for 30 years. People talking to seasoned players will come to the conclusion that these questions were already around 50 years ago: stamina, high-pitched notes, sound, embouchure and breathing techniques.

How do I improve my stamina? How can I work on those high-pitched notes? What does it take to produce a better sound? Could my embouchure be wrong? I won’t even mention the remaining questions, because that would keep me from writing about other subjects. The number of answers to these classic considerations grows year after year, and so do the related exercises and tips.

Practice, man, practice...

I still remember the days when the definitive answer was: practice, man, practice. And in a way it still is the definitive answer, because those who believe that it takes a mere 10 minutes a day to play like a pro will quickly realize that this is not the case. Assiduous practice only bears fruit when done right and if enough time is devoted to it. Nowadays, finding the time is one of the biggest challenges, especially for those who consider playing a brass instrument a hobby, who have a day job and are also expected to spend quality time with their family. This might be one of the reasons why the most burning questions never change.

Some players try to maximize their efforts in what little time they have to practice, true to the saying “less is more”. I’m not saying that they don’t have a point, because the job takes a lot of time, so do the kids, and maybe there is also some DIY that needs to be done around the house. And if there are other activities, the time one can devote to practicing the instrument is at a premium.

This calls for a clever solution. If you agree, your next question will probably be what it looks like. Well, I am sorry to disappoint you, because only a good teacher will be able to help you. We all need someone who is able to analyze what the specific challenges are and which exercises are best suited to address them. The wrong exercises may indeed aggravate the problem until you hit a point of no return.

OK, you say, how can I tell a good teacher from an average one? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that. What I do know, however, is that someone who has had to struggle time and again is probably more qualified as a teacher than someone with a natural gift.

What really counts?

Irrespective of the time you can devote to practice—practice itself or the wrong exercises are only mild impediments compared to the harm one’s mindset can do. It is indeed the mind that is most likely to force one to stop at a given challenge until it is solved in one way or another. This is clearly the wrong mindset, because it demands too much energy: never get upset about making the same mistake time and again—and never waste time philosophizing about it. This may lead to a downward spiral that produces evermore mistakes and problems. Even though I’m unable to provide definitive answers to this challenge, I would nevertheless like to give a few hints.

Let’s start with the easiest one: try to remain positive...

...and be patient. Drive those negative thoughts away while practicing. Never reason as follows: I have been practicing this piece for two weeks and I still can’t play it.

It is far more rewarding to say to yourself that after only two weeks, the piece is really coming along nicely. Rejoicing about small steps brings a lot more positive energy. I am still amazed by the surprise of quite a few brass players who, after playing something and listing all the mistakes they made, hear me say how impressed I am. Improvements and progress when playing a brass instrument take time.

The most important aspect is to realize that one has come a long way and that a lot of things have improved since. Stop staring at the goal and whining about how far away it still is. Try to enjoy the small steps you have made for a given tune, or for your embouchure technique. That is the best motivator you can think of.

I remember taking part in an Ironman Triathlon and feeling almost elated after swimming 3.8km, even though I knew perfectly well that I still needed to cycle 180km and run 42.195km. In sports, thorough training is obviously indispensable, but your mindset is even more important. This also applies to playing a brass instrument.

My advice:

Try to find a good teacher. Ask him or her to devise an exercise plan that caters to your specific brass-playing needs and aims. This will allow you to make maximum progress within your available timeframe.It also means that the teacher needs to be able to detect even the slightest improvements and to encourage the student to reach his or her goals.Changes and progress when playing a brass instrument take time. The most important aspect is to realize that one has come a long way and that a lot of things have improved since.Think positive and celebrate every step that takes you closer to your goal.Cheers,

Joachim Kunze