Feb 9, 2006

Six months in Chicago, by Chris Martin

I thought I would write about my experience playing with the CSO for the past six months in an effort to share with Jay’s loyal readers a few things I’ve learned. I knew when I moved to Chicago to begin this job that it would be challenging, and nothing could have prepared me for how much I would learn in such a short time. From the first week of concerts at the Ravinia Festival last summer, I knew this would be like no other orchestral job. My first concerts were Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies performed back-to-back evenings. Along with the excitement of these concerts came the realization that my playing would be undergoing a few changes to grow and fit into the CSO brass tradition. This article is about some of the changes I’ve made in my approach to trumpet playing, practice techniques, and overall musicianship. This is my ninth year of playing professionally in an orchestra. When I made the move to principal in the Atlanta Symphony five years ago, it was a quick learning curve: adjusting to the new ensemble, new volume levels, workload of principal playing, etc. The adjustments upon moving to Chicago have been even quicker and the challenges greater. They focus on some of the most fundamental aspects of playing. In the past six months, I have spent a great deal of time on three key areas: sound, stamina, and dynamic contrast.

I have always listened to recordings of great players since the time I was a small boy listening to LPs with my father. The majority of my orchestral records are by the CSO, as I am sure most brass players would say. I have found myself revisiting those records (CDs) almost everyday in the last six months. I have spent many hours listening in an attempt to get into Mr. Herseth’s musicality, phrasing, pacing, and most of all his sound. I am a firm believer in the brain’s incredible ability to retain, learn, and evolve based on healthy input and repetition. In terms that apply to musicians, it is not enough to listen to a great player once, twice or even five times and be able to copy their sound. As with all endeavours, success is the sum of hundreds of positive actions repeated over time. The more I listen to Mr. Herseth’s recordings, the easier it is gradually becoming to assimilate certain aspects of his musicality. Will I ever sound exactly him? Absolutely not. No one will, and that is a certainty. But, no one will ever sound exactly like you or me either. Jay has been an incredible colleague as I have worked on this. One of the most helpful pieces of information he has given me is the fact that Bud spent so much time playing the rotary valve trumpet. I have taken his advice: adding regular, daily sessions on both Bb and C rotaries to my warmup and practice sessions. I have seen big gains in accuracy as well as noticeable improvements in the clarity and presence of my sound on piston trumpet. My legato, specifically the “pervasiveness” of my air to use Jay’s term, has improved greatly thanks to my increased practice on rotary valves as well. Jay’s assertion that piston valves allow trumpet players to relax the airstream during valve changes is absolutely accurate, and if you don’t own a rotary valve trumpet, Jay’s spare trumpet/trombone slide cream idea from his “Trompete!” article is an excellent substitute for this legato practice.

I have also added sessions to my routine focused solely on building on stamina. As Professor Barbara Butler says, “to be a poet on the trumpet, you must also be an athlete.” Trumpet playing is a physical activity sometimes akin to marathon running as in a big Bruckner Finale movement and sometimes like power lifting as in a short, intense passage from Zarathustra. Stamina is defined as an enduring physical or mental energy and strength that allows someone to do something for a long time. My stamina-builder is very basic. It consists of about three sessions a week, sometimes more depending on the symphony workload. The session lasts between an hour and ninety minutes. I break the session into “cycles”. One cycle is an extended period of playing at high intensity (between 20-30 minutes for me) generating a very high fatigue level followed by a rest period of about 15 minutes. I emphasize the extreme importance of smart practice: listen to your chops! I don’t do these sessions when I feel at all fatigued or injured. When I began this practice, I was able to do about two to three cycles per session. I am now up to four or five. The key is to reach failure through extended passages that allow almost no recovery within the actual music. The recovery comes during the second part of the cycle. I have always found Shostakovich symphonies to be some of the most physically demanding pieces to perform, because of the very long stretches of high intensity effort required with barely enough rests to take breaths. This kind of practice session addresses just this challenge. I do not recommend this kind of high stress practice for young players, but for someone with a very high level of trumpet fitness, it can bring great gains. Again, the key is to reach a level of fatigue such that you maximize muscle failure without any potential for injury. During this practice, I focus constantly on the aerobic feeling of healthy trumpet playing: relaxed, open inspirations deep and low in the chest coupled with the “pervasive” flow of air through the instrument, the kind of playing that my father says gives you a “free and legal buzz.”

The CSO brass for decades has been world-renowned for producing more power than anybody around. What is equally impressive to me, the new guy, is how incredibly softly my colleagues play. Jay is a true master of dynamic contrast. Sitting next to him has helped me add a few decibles plus and minus on the top and bottom of my dynamic control I assure you! Jay plays at soft dynamics that would terrify most brass players, and he does so always with a singing, ringing sound. The risks he takes are inspiring to all of his brass colleagues, and he has encouraged me to lower my safety net through diligent effort in my own practice room. I now spend a lot of time on long tones, Rochut etudes, and Concone with the goal of not only increasing my control of extremely soft dynamics, but adding a lyricism and portamento-style connection to dynamic levels I would not even have used in performance six months ago. The goal is always to have the same quality of sound at all dynamic levels. I visualize my sound as a cylinder extending out from my bell and expanding as it travels. This expansive action does not cease at any dynamic. Even at ppp, I imagine my sound still expands to fill every corner of the room. I really enjoy camping trips with friends, and one of my favorite things to do out there is to play my horn (when I’m sure fellow campers won’t come after me with a shotgun, that is). There is nothing like the feeling of relaxation and freedom this gives me. But, it’s also a great learning environment. Playing really loud outdoors is great fun, but playing very softly with no reverberation is good practice. It clues you in immediately to impurities in your sound, and most of all, it is a wonderful way to visualize this expansion I’m talking about. Try it sometime. Take your horn outside, and play both very loudly and very softly. Visualize your sound rising out of your bell and trying to fill all the space around you. When I get back indoors to my practice space, my airflow is always healthier and my soft playing is inevitably more relaxed.

All of this practice and technical work is toward the obvious goal of having the technique disappear completely from the performance: leaving only a powerful musical statement that will move the listener. Mr. Herseth has always been the embodiment of convincing, powerful storytelling through music regardless of the technique involved. That is the definition of a master, and I look forward to the privilege and responsibility of following in his unparalleled tradition for many years to come. I would like to thank Jay for inviting me to write this, and remember the phrase I have taped to my practice room wall: “never, never, never give up.”

Chris Martin
Principal Trumpet
Chicago Symphony
February 6 2006

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