Teaching come back students

One day I got a phone call from one of my student's father. Normally, when parents call a private lesson teacher, it's to cancel a lesson. Well, not this time. This father began telling me that he is the music minister at his church and seeing his daughter do so well with the trumpet, he had rekindled his desire to take it up again, after twenty-five years of not playing. He was calling me to ask if he could begin private lessons, also.

I began teaching him the following week. Right off, at the start, I noticed an uncontrollable twitching/spasm in his lips while he played. This twitching was bad enough that it had a horrible effect on his sound. After a few months of lessons, trying everything I knew to try, this student gave up....discouraged and disappointed.

Ten years later, while speaking with a music therapist, I learned that this was most likely caused by some sort of nerve disorder. In most cases, this type of disorder is caused by a head injury. Knowing this, I realized that there was nothing I could have done to help that student, but that doesn't help me from feeling as if I had failed as a teacher.

He was my very first come back student and I've taught many others since. Having failed so badly with him caused me to take a greater interest in come back players. I began to notice how they were the same as my other students how they were different. In most ways they were the same. Scales are scales. Etudes are etudes. Learning and excelling on the trumpet has certain physical and technical requirements and those requirements are equal to all players, young or old. But meeting those requirements soon becomes LESS equal when you take other, non-musical aspects of that persons life into account.

All of my come back player students were fathers with real, full time jobs. Time was a significant issue. Students, in school, have many more opportunities to spend time on their instruments than working fathers do. For some of these come back players to spend even an hour a day on their instrument is a huge sacrifice. Many of them can barely manage to put in fifteen minutes of practice each day.

And this doesn't even include time spent playing in ensembles. In my opinion, everyone who plays a trumpet should perform somewhere. Most of my come back students played in their church orchestras. But this takes lots of time each week. Most rehearsals of this time consume an entire evening. Many working fathers cannot afford to give up an entire evening.

Time Management

So the first issue I would like to address is a general one. There are ways to salvage your trumpet playing by getting the most out of even the smallest amounts of practice time.

Practice Every Day

The first step and perhaps the most important step to take is in creating an actual, written down schedule. I know this sounds like something that a band director would tell some junior high school students, but it's true. Practice every day, even if it means only practicing for five to ten minutes on some days. Get the horn out and make yourself spend at least a minimum amount of time on the trumpet.

For those of you who have read my books, this may sound as if I'm contradicting myself. I have been out spoken in the past about taking days off from the instrument. Well, this is a little different. It's important to prescribe the right medicine for the proper symptom. When I recommend taking time off, it's in the context of practicing too much. For the students I'm referring to now, come back players, practicing too much is never a problem. The problem is that, with the trumpet having to take a lower priority than the student's job and family, it's easy to neglect your trumpet studies completely.

By practicing every day, you are enforcing a habit. This is a very important thing, not only for practice purposes, but it also shows the people in your life that you are very serious about playing the trumpet. I've found that the more consistent people are in their practice habits, the more respect they receive from their family members and the people they work with. This leads to fewer and fewer distractions in the long run because people who respect your practice time won't be as inclined to interrupt it.

So, that's my first point, practice every day, even if only for a minimum amount of time. The reason for this is less physical than it is mental, psychological and social.

Use Check Lists

Then the problem becomes, "how do I cover all the things I need to cover in such short practice sessions?". Well, this isn't just a come back player's problem. I face this problem every day. The STUFF that I practice couldn't possibly be done, all in one day. In fact, what I do in my practice sessions sometimes takes years to complete.

My solution to this problem is in using check lists. I have a list of everything that I practice. As I finish something, I check it off the list.


This does two things. First, it helps you to know, before you begin practicing, exactly what needs to be done in that particular practice session. Since time is such a big problem, it's important to not waste that time trying to figure out, "what should I practice?". These check lists help me get straight to work.

Secondly, keeping check lists helps us keep an over all concept of which direction we are heading in our practice sessions. It gives us the "Big Picture" of everything that we want to get done. That way, if something doesn't get finished in one session (something which happens to me all the time), you know, by having a complete concept of your goals and direction, you know to pick up where you left off and continue with that work until it's completed.

Without the check list, you may get half way through something on one day only to inadvertently start an entirely new project in your next practice session. When this happens it usually means that the work you did in the previous session ends up being for nothing, wasted time, wasted effort.

Remember, we're talking about the value of time here. The time you spend practicing will be far more valuable if you complete a project before moving on to the next one. This eliminates the "hit and miss" kind of practicing that can happen in a less organized practice session.

Don't Sacrifice Rudiments

I had one student who was a doctor. He told me:

"I could teach you in a few hours how to remove a person's appendix. I'd show you where to cut and what to do. It's simple. You wouldn't be a doctor, but you could perform this one operation. That's how I want you to teach me to play trumpet. I don't want to practice all that boring stuff that other teachers make me do."

Well, that student didn't take lessons for very long. We kept running into "problems" in his playing in which the most obvious solutions were "boring". He didn't want that. He wanted the "magic wand treatment".

You cannot get around the rudiments. As I said in one of the first paragraphs, the trumpet has certain physical requirements. Those needs must be satisfied.

However, it's not as gloomy of a picture as it may seem. In my opinion, the rudiments that a player should cover include:

Long Tones
Lip Flexabilities

These are the bare minimum. I also recommend:

Lip Buzz
Lip Bends
Flow Studies
Pedal Tones
Multiple Tonguing

But these, for someone with very little time to practice, may be to luxurious to spend too much time on them. But I strongly recommend the first four rudiments. Do them every day. I know, that can be boring too, but there are alternatives to exercises. For example, many people have played lyrical studies instead of long tones, with great success. Some people have even replaced long tones, in their practice sessions, with jazz ballads.

Do you see what I mean? It is so very important that you should practice these rudiments, but it really doesn't matter what form these studies take. If you're working on a solo which has lots of tonguing, you can use that instead of tonguing exercises. The main point is that you really shouldn't neglect the rudiments because of the severe effects it has on your playing.

Long Term Musical Memory

One of my come back players was by far better than the other come back players that I've taught. He's a lawyer and decided to do something for himself for a change. That something was to play trumpet again. From the first lesson, I could tell that he was already doing very well. But he thought it was awful. He kept referring to how well he played in high school and how badly he wished he could play that well again.

Consider this:

When I was in eighth grade, my school band made a recording of our final concert. This was in Hawaii. The following Summer, my family moved to the main land, to El Paso, and my copy of the lp was supposed to be sent to me in the mail. Well, I never received it. I had very fond memories of that performance. I had a really big solo and I always wished I could hear that solo again.

Almost twenty years later, I decided to get in touch with my band director from that band to tell him that I was a professional trumpet player. I thought he might like to know. Well, while I was on the phone with him, I mentioned that I never received my copy of that lp. I mentioned that I was certain that none existed any more, but he corrected me and said he had several and he sent me a copy within the week.

I thought I was a good trumpet player in jr. high school. I've always wondered why I've had so much trouble making the kind of progress I used to make back then. After hearing that recording, I realized that my memory had tricked me. What I remembered about how I sounded back then was nothing more than a mirage.

And this was not the first time this has happened to me. In fact, it seems to be an on going reality in the life of any musician. Our memories are not "rock solid" and for some reason, they do change over time. This is exaggerated in the context of music.

Applying this to a come back player, it's important to note that a person's musical life doesn't end when they retire the instrument. Music is all over the place. It's on TV, in the movies, at the restaurants and involved in just about every aspect of our lives. What we consider to be "good music" changes as we get older because of the thousands of new, musical experiences we have in our lives.

In most cases, our memories from when we were younger, playing in school bands, are not memories of sounds, but memories of accomplishments. When we have a successful performance, we remember how good we did, but we don't necessarily remember how it sounded. We remember how much we liked it, how much we enjoyed it, but the actual memory of the sounds doesn't last as long.

Leave the Past in the Past

So, don't judge your current playing based on how you think you used to play. Your memory is wrong. You may remember that you had greater range, but perhaps (unknown to you) it was with a sound which you wouldn't find acceptable today. Perhaps you remember that you had better technique, but maybe you were sloppy back then and didn't know enough about music to recognize it. I understand that, for many come back players, reliving the past is a big reason why they picked up the instrument again. But this is not the way to "relive" that past.

When you were younger, you approached the instrument with a fresh out-look. It was something new to you and you marveled at the sounds you could make. Each new thing you learned gave you more reasons to find joy in music. The way to relive this experience is to forget what you had done in the past and approach it with the same "freshness" as you did when you first began playing. Explore your playing like you did when you were a child. Rediscover these simple musical moments as if you'd never known them before. THEN, and only then, will you be truly "reliving the past".

Other Distractions

It always seemed to me that my come back students had far more mental and/or psychological problems than they did physical problems. Constantly judging themselves based on memories of their youth is one of the common ones, but there were many others. I had one come back student who was never satisfied with his playing because his daughter was so much better than he was. I had another student who was made fun of, by his friends and almost let this cause him to give up. Then there's the simple insecurity that comes with doing something you haven't done in a long time.

The trumpet playing "experience", for the come back player, is a very unique one. I hate to see those experiences tarnished by these kinds of problems. If you look at the common "root" of each of the problems that I've listed in the previous paragraph, you'll notice that they each involve comparing yourself to someone else. It's a kind of  competition and it's entirely unnecessary. This kind of competitive behavior is reactionary to your musical progress. I do agree that some forms of musical competition do help encourage musical growth. However, these kinds of competitive thoughts are more like jealousy than they are like real musical competitions.

Instead of competing with others, I recommend that you keep track of your own progress and base your self satisfaction upon whether or not you have achieved your own personal goals. Don't concern yourself with what other players are doing. Even if you are a "competitive type" of person, the best way to compete is to push forward, make progress. I know this is an old worn out example, the I LOVE Aesop's story about the Tortoise and the Hare. The reason I love it so much is that I am a living example of the truth behind that story and that I've seen many of my students who achieved great things through consistent progress.

Another suggestion I have is, instead of competing with other players, have fun with them. Invite them over for duets. Begin a brass quintet.....just for kicks. Something I used to do a lot of when I was at UTEP was to play Aebersolds with friends of mine. We traded choruses of our favorite songs and did this for hours. Even better than that, why not have a jam session? There are all kinds of ways to "have fun" with our trumpet playing buddies. Why not do these things instead of dwelling on who's better than who?

The Physical Trumpet Pyramid

I should mention that most of my come back students studied with me because they heard about my "method". I developed a concept which I call "The Physical Trumpet Pyramid". It's a VERY simple concept which outlines the dependencies of the different physical aspects of trumpet playing. It establishes sort of a hierarchy of physical aspects which aids us in determining what order the different rudiments should be practiced.

By following this order, the trumpeter can "rebuild" his or her playing from the bottom up. I personally use this concept, this order, on a daily basis. By doing so, I am, in a sense, rebuilding my embouchure on a daily basis. And this is the most common application of the Physical Trumpet Pyramid concept.

However, I also use the same concept to help come back players return to the trumpet. The main difference between this and the daily application of the PTP concept is that the come back players can spend as much as two months to get through the full outline. It's a more horizontal approach.

Using this approach, the come back player would work on only lip buzz for the first week. The following week, he would work on lip buzz first, then follow that with some lip buzz exercises. In the third week, the come back player would do lip buzz, mouth piece buzz and long tones. The concept is to add only one level of the pyramid, one step in the order, each week. By doing this, you are rebuilding your playing from scratch.

Beyond the initial rebuilding, can you imagine how beneficial a "daily rebuilding" would be for a come back player? For me, a person who makes my living playing the trumpet, this daily rebuilding helps me to ward off unsuspected bad habits. But for a come back player, the Physical Trumpet Pyramid structure helps reinforce good playing habits that aren't necessarily firmly established as of yet. It serves as a daily reminder. One time through the outline and you think to yourself, "oh yeah, that's what it's supposed to be like to play the trumpet".

The following is the order in which I do my rudiments each day:

Air Exercises
Lip Buzz
Mouth Piece Placement Exercise
Mouth Piece Buzz
Long Tones (w/lip bends)
Flow Studies
Lip Slurs
Articulation Studies
Multiple Tonguing Studies

The order listed here is taken from the concept of the Physical Trumpet Pyramid. The beauty of it is that it's just a list. You don't have to buy any books. You can use the books you already have and simply practice the exercises in those books in the order given above. It's as easy as that!!!!

Eddie "Tiger" Lewis