WindWorks Trumpet Academy › Forums › WindWorks › Low-level plateau
In seven days from now, I’ll have been enrolled in Windworks for a year. I’m finding that a deflating thought, given the small amount of progress I’ve made. I know Windworks is meant to be more about what goes on in my head than about playing “exercises”, but for what it’s worth I’ve been playing the Windworks exercises that seem to be the right level for me for 45-60 minutes a day, 6 days a week, since I enrolled, so it’s not lack of commitment at that level that’s holding me back. Presumably there’s either something unproductive about my mental or physical approach, or I’ve hit a (fairly low) natural limit to what I can do.
It would be really encouraging to hear from anyone who’s been through this (feeling stuck at a low level of performance for a long time) and then managed, by dint of some mental or physical alteration of approach, to make further progress in their trumpet playing.
I’m very sorry to hear that you’re having difficulty.
For what its worth, we’ve all been there–that’s why we’re here.
It would be helpful if you could describe where you’re at with your playing and what your goal is.
I think its important that we constantly remember that WindWorks is not a set of exercises that you play to develop muscular strength, or even coordination.
It is a way to approach the instrument in order to experiment and learn through trial and error (in a structured approach) what is resonant and efficient and what is not.
If we experiment with the approaches Greg describes and don’t achieve a “point of difference” (feel / hear an improvement in efficiency and/or effectiveness), we must consider whether we truly are following what is recommended.
Most of us are here, more or less, because of range. So I anticipate that will be your main frustration.
What helped me a lot is writing out the different WindWorks mantras that scroll along the bottom of the main page, along with some related ones I found elsewhere:
1. Shape changes pitch; air is for volume and long tones
2. Less air is required the higher we play
3. The notes are closer together the higher we play. For example, ascending in the open (no valves) position, we can ascend from High C to Double G in G Major: (C, D, E,F#, G).
4. We want the lips to interact with the air column like the vocal chords. We don’t flex our vocal chords to sing higher; if we do, its inefficient, uncomfortable/painful, doesn’t sound good and limits our range.
There are others, but those are the key ones that really helped me have the confidence and abandon to experiment playing above the staff at a softer volume and with less air than I was previously. I was at the point that I was willing to give anything a try, even if I doubted it would work.
Surprisingly, it did work–I could play above the staff easier than I ever thought possible and played my first ever High C. Now I’m working on understanding how to get to Double G, which is the point at which the mouthpiece is an amplifier of the mouthpiece buzz and therefore it seems to be a different animal somewhat.
It takes time, and it’s not as simple as walking up a flight of stairs or following a map, it’s a personal voyage of discovery each of us must figure out for ourselves.
Hope that is helpful, for what its worth.
Hi John. It’s so kind of you to take the time to write such a detailed reply to my posting.
As for where I’m at, here’s my situation, as I see it:
In terms of the Windworks course structure, I’ve got as far as the Moderato descending double harmonic exercise. I can play the semi-quaver part of that exercise at 80 bpm, and sometimes a bit faster, but not at the 100 bpm that Greg has set as a target.
I started playing trumpet aged 42, and am now 69. The only group playing I do is with a trad/swing practice group that meets weekly. In terms of range, I would like to be able to play a G on top of the stave comfortably and reliably, but I can’t, particularly in a real playing environment. Even playing at home on my own, I struggle to play even the first dozen or so of the Arban “Art of Phrasing” melodies with anything like comfort, or indeed, sometimes, at all. Just writing this now, I find I feel deeply ashamed of how little I’ve managed to do, but that’s how it is.
One inbuilt difficulty I’m up against is that I have a degree of essential tremor that I’ve had since I was a child (my dad had it too, and one of my sons also) that a neurologist has described as being “mild to moderate”. Lately I’ve taken to playing sitting down using an ErgoBrass device to help me steady the trumpet (imagine a monopod resting on the same seat I’m sitting on, loosely coupled to the base of the trumpet pistons, and you’ll get the idea) and this does help me quite a lot.
I’m very familiar with “The Use of the Self” (the book whose introduction Greg read from extensively earlier this year in a video) and in fact took lessons in Alexander Technique for around six years, so I do understand, at least intellectually, how difficult it can be to step outside established psycho-motor habits that ‘feel right’ but are actually counter-productive. My intellect tells me that the root cause of my problems must surely be some entrenched habit or habits that I’m clinging to because they ‘feel right’ (but aren’t) – but I’m sure finding it a challenge to get myself out of this particular rabbit burrow, which I’ve been stuck in now for years. I’m very conscious of that old line about insanity being doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, but I’m finding it hard right now to be creative about varying my approach. Vary what, exactly? I just don’t know.
You’re very welcome. I am very grateful for what progress I have experienced and hope I can pay it forward.
I can relate to struggling playing above the staff. I started playing at 8 and despite countless lessons with reputable teachers and countless hours of practice, I never really learned how to play properly and didn’t even realize that. I didnt understand how the instrument really works. I chose to major in business instead and stopped playing for decades. A couple years ago, at 48, I started again and found myself on YouTube–which had just helped me with some home projects.
I saw Greg and some others show and talk about how playing above the staff is easier than we’re making it, that we tend to overblow, etc.
The bit about how less air is required the higher we ascend and how the notes (slots) are closer together the higher we ascend resonated with me.
I played a G below the staff, followed by a G on the staff and noticed the difference in difficulty. Based upon the fact that less air is required the higher we ascend and shape changes pitch, I experimented with engaging the aperture corners to tighten the aperture and achieve the pitch above the staff. I backed Off the air, playing softer above the staff as demonstrated on YouTube. Greg and the other(s) seemed to barely move playing octaves, where I was lowering the bell / leaning my head back to roll my lower lip under and thin out my lips, tightening my throat and clamping my lips–that wasnt working.
I was willing to miss the note by a mile, in fact I thought it wouldnt work. Instead, the note came out, then the A above the staff (after playing the A below and on the staff) which was a note I only ever occasionally could reach on a good day in ideal conditions.
It was soft, but not a squeak; it was clearly a note and part of my range.
Part of it too, was mental. I did not believe that Greg or the others had some sort of physical difference that made them able to achieve those higher pitches; I believed it was merely coordination. I tried to sort of mimic what I saw them do (I.e. barely move).
Based on what you describe above, I think you may not be relaxing the lips enough. I think you may be slightly engaging / tightening the lips, which we can get away with in the lower and middle registers (but the sound isnt as good /resonant, and it doesn’t feel as good / efficient).
That could be why you’re finding it difficult to play harmonic slurs quickly / efficiently. That is an important key to it and an indication that we’re playing efficiently, or not.
Have you done the thing where you pull the horn away from the mouthpiece as you play to see if there is a buzz or not? I did that often in the beginning and feel it helped me stay on track, keep me from going back to old habits, trying too hard, clamping, etc.
The other main thing I did early on was focus mostly on Passive air–achieving pitch changes in harmonic slurs with a Passive Release of the air. This is key as well, as I was used to using my air to kick the higher harmonic once I got towards the top of the staff. I spent months primarily focusing on using Passive air released into the horn. It took a lot of focus not to kick the air. I mainly did harmonic slurs on the staff, but did some slurred Clarke scales as well.
Just watched the Moderato Descending Double Harmonic. Good stuff. I think I only got to 92 or so on that. I didn’t linger, I moved on to see what else was in store, figuring I could / would come back.
Ran across a great video in the course–in Allegro, called Fear Factor Forcing and the one after that, Expectation Kills Experimentation. These were key to me. Some days I did better than others. The problem often was I would diligently focus on Process, have a great day then subconsciously set Expectations for the next day and torch everything, overdo it, “gladiator trumpet”, etc.
I focused a lot on sound and feel too–does it feel and sound as efficient / resonant as possible? Could it be better (“1% rule”).
Hope that helps Peter; I know you can do it if I can. You just have to experiment open mindedly and observe the successes and failures– we learn more from failure, so try to embrace that when it happens.
Playing involves much more indirect engagement of the lips rather than direct flexing of the lip tissue; it may feel a bit different at first and insecure, but in time it feels more secure as you build confidence from successfully engaging from the outside corners of the aperture to change pitch, like the ligature on a reed instrument or a drum head. We want the only tension to be outside the air column at the edge of the mouthpiece, the middle of the lips needs to be as relaxed as possible to vibrate as fast as possible.
Dear John, I truly wish every trumpet player dealing with issues could read this post of yours. Your insight is wonderful, your experiences are real and well explained and your effort in helping others is truly heartening. Thanks is not enough. Best Wishes, Greg
I would encourage you to schedule a Skype session with Greg! He is a phenomenal teacher–so perceptive and insightful. Sometimes, we may think we’re doing one thing, and, in actuality, are doing something completely different. Greg’s course can require some very deep work that goes far beyond the exercises.
If it’s any encouragement, I have been working with Greg on an extremely challenging issue, which will come to light at some point here and elsewhere. The issue has emotional, psychological and physical components. I studied with Greg 3 years ago for about a year–resonated deeply with his approach. The playing issue I developed later led me back to this course and additional study with Greg. I am now seeing his concepts with a fresh perspective. I am starting to understand more about how ideas and emotions in one’s head about playing can compromise sound, technique and efficiency, and translate into one’s playing mechanics. The fact is that his approach is working to undo and heal a serious playing challenge. I’m literally rebuilding, and am proof that Greg’s concepts are powerful and effective. My sound is opening up dramatically–yes, there really is a “concert hall” you can feel–and old ideas about force and exertion are starting to crumble.
It can be difficult to sufficiently step outside ourselves and take stock of what’s really going on with our playing. We may not spot the seeds of problems. Don’t give up or reinforce the belief that you are limited to what you can do now without results or improvement. Talk to Greg.
Hope this helps. Wishing you success on your journey!
Great post, Wildflower! I was thinking of following up with a post saying the same thing when I saw your post and Greg’s response above.
Great to hear your knee surgery is over, Greg, hope you have a fast and full recovery! And thanks for your kind words, I would be thrilled if anything I contribute in a post helps someone figure something out on their journey while I’m still on mine.
I had a couple additional thoughts on this on the drive in this morning, for what its worth:
Less is More – As Greg says, we must constantly ask ourselves can I do 1% less work for 1% better sound / more efficiency.
I believe playing the trumpet is actually, the way our lips interact with the air and mouthpiece a natural process when done efficiently. It’s when we over think it when we get into trouble.
I realize now, that I get in my own way sometimes when playing. Its when I approach the horn with a good mindset, no expectations, more like an objective observer mentality.
And physically, I try to start out playing with as little engagement of my face muscles and relaxed lips and release air into the horn.
I used to mountain bike a lot, 4-5 days a week. I learned that when I was facing a steep uphill climb not to give up too early or worry about it being hard until I felt my lungs gasping for air, my heart pounding or legs burning and couldn’t go any further. More often than not, I made it farther up the hill than I expected before struggling too much and was able make it the rest of the way there. I focused on relaxing, being as efficient as possible, keeping a good rhythm that I could sustain.
Playing above the staff, I realized, was not as hard as I thought and the people who could do it were no different than me physically. I just needed to be more efficient at it; it’s coordination, not strength or power. For me, the concept of Sympathetic Oscillation was key–the higher I figured I could play before my lips began actively buzzing in the mouthpiece, the higher I figured I could climb from there and/or the more endurance I would have, etc.
On the descents when mountain biking, especially on steep and loose terrain (California is a desert…), when we lose traction and start to slide around / skid, the human instinct is to clamp down harder on the brakes, which stops the wheel(s) completely, which of course makes things worse and gets you hurt. The same is true for road cyclists, motor cars, etc. Although counter-intuitive, when we start to skid its usually better to let off the brakes a bit to allow the wheel(s) to regain traction and regain control.
That’s how playing is for me now, when I’m playing a note above the staff and it’s cracking or is not a good sound, I relax my lips or even open the aperture slightly and more often than not, the note gets better. Tightening the lips harder and blowing more used to be my instinct, but I have realized that is a concrete wall I dont want to bang my head on any more…
Hopefully that helps you or someone. All the best, let us know how it goes–I think Skyping with Greg is a great idea, he’s lived this personally and came out on top and can explain it better than anyone I have seen.
Greg, John and Wildflower (though in no particular order): you have all been so kind and generous in giving your time to a stranger.
I’ve been feeling my emotions very close to the surface as I’ve been writing about this (some mix of shame and rage/frustration, I guess) and that seems a pretty clear sign that I’m not approaching my playing with a particularly helpful mindset. Wildflower’s mention of possible emotional and psychological components getting in the way certainly rings true as a possible component of my own situation, as does John’s wondering aloud about whether I might be playing with lips insufficiently relaxed.
I’m going to take up Wildflower’s and Greg’s suggestion, and arrange an online session with Greg.
I must repeat, though: you guys are wonderful, and thank you!
You’re very welcome, Peter. Glad you are going to meet with Greg online–I can’t think of anything that would be more helpful than that.
I definitely can relate to your feelings of shame, rage/frustration. I’m sure everyone on this site, including Greg, have felt those same feelings; I know I have. There have been times I have wanted to quit playing for good or thrown my instrument across the room. But I’m very glad I didn’t.
Playing trumpet can be very frustrating, but can be very rewarding and fulfilling–perhaps more fulfilling the more difficulties we overcome.
Best of luck to you on your journey–you can play above the staff as you wish. It’s much easier than you realize it is; it only takes a bit of coordination, it doesn’t take developing strength of muscle or air power. With a little focus and experimentation, I believe you will figure it out your own way just as I did and many others have.
Dear John and Wildflower,
I had a MOST helpful Skype session with Greg yesterday, from which I came away with a very much renewed sense of hope based on a much clearer understanding (on my part) of just how far I need to go back to basics and reprogram all the parts of my ‘lizard brain’ that associate playing the trumpet with strain and effort and (in my case, anyway) a whole lot of physical shaking that is present only at a MUCH lower level when I, for example, gently buzz a leadpipe. Will be interesting to see, I guess, whether I can maintain the rational understanding and persistence it’s going to take me to get my ‘new house of trumpet playing’ ready for occupation, as I’m going to have to form some pretty different neural pathways, and that’s not going to happen overnight.
Just want to reiterate my deep gratitude to both of you for reaching out to me so generously – and to Greg, especially, for addressing my concerns in such a personal and caring way.
Thanks so much for the update, I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how it was going. Glad you were able to Skype with Greg and feel a renewed sense of optimism.
I’m still on my own journey as well, but am very grateful for how far I’ve come.
Lately, I’ve realized a new sense of how relaxed we can be and how less truly is more–the more relaxed we manage to keep the lips, the more resonant the sound and faster the vibration (higher the range).
A little more than a year ago, the week between Christmas and New Years, I had my last major setback.
I had worked up to a point that I was easily ascending to a point I never thought possible. Then, I took a few days off and started to struggle to a point which had become “easy”.
In hindsight, I’m better for the experience and am grateful now for the experience.
The past couple days, I’ve experienced a new sense of freedom and efficiency experimenting with how little we need to engage the muscles in our face to change pitch. Less truly is more.
I know if you experiment with the willingness to crack a note, not achieve the pitch you’re aiming for–to fail, you will learn as I have learned a better sense of how the instrument works.
So glad you connected with Greg and had a great lesson! Happy for you!
The reprogramming can be done, even in the most difficult of circumstances. YOU CAN DO THIS!! It takes continuous reinforcement, belief in the process, patience, deep work, non judgement and a burning desire to persist. I am learning these lessons myself…lots of reprogramming on multiple levels. It’s not easy, but it will be worth it, and a gift in the long run.
Stick with it, Peter, and keep that positive lesson glow with you!
It’s you who’s particularly set me on this path you know (with your suggestion that I contact Greg, and your own story), so I’m very grateful to you.
Right now two things are helping me keep the ‘positive lesson glow’.
First is that the part of each day when I’m ‘re-programming’ is just such a pleasant contrast to what has previously been my normal way of approaching the trumpet. OK, I’m hardly ‘doing anything’ in terms of results, but at times the sound comes easily and steadily, and when it doesn’t, I back off even more. It feels good.
Second, I sent Greg a couple of short clips of me playing just before we had our Skype session, so I’ve got a baseline there, in the form of two mp3 files, that are going to haunt me to the end of my days, and I’m determined to see if I can’t show some improvement, which I know is going to feel like going backwards a long way for possibly quite a long time. Those two files, though, are now like a mark in the sand for me, and a very motivational mark.
Best wishes, Peter
Good to hear, Peter. I have realized that when I have struggled, it has usually been because I was more focused on Results than Process, and when I refocused my energies on Process, the Results improved.
I had one of those days today, actually… But now I know what to do tomorrow…
Keep the faith and good luck. You Can do this just as well as anyone can.