Do You Translate The Hard Keys?

No Time to “Think Of It As”

One of the nice things about having over three decades of teaching experience is that I sort of have my finger on the normal, most common pitfalls students face as they try to progress with their musical studies. Many of those pitfalls often feel to the student as if they are they only ones who have ever had this problem before. Fortunately, that’s not the case. I feel as if it is partly my responsibility to let the students know which of those speed-bumps is normal and which are not.

One of the things that almost all students struggle with is something I call the “think of it as” approach to reading the more difficult keys. The students almost always have a tendency to cling stubbornly to that which is familiar at the expense of their musical progress.

“Think of it as” is when students translate the notes from what they really are to notes that they are already familiar with. Instead of thinking in their minds that they are playing an A Sharp, they choose to “think of it as” B Flat. For a test in a music theory class, that’s probably good enough. But when you are performing music, or trying to prepare music to a high quality level, there is no time to translate the notes that way.

Mixed Up Madness

One of the biggest problems with the “think of it as” approach is that we lose track of which notes we really are playing when the music calls for extra accidentals. Let’s say you are playing a piece of music in the key of B, five sharps. Then within that key, the composer has also written B Sharps, D Flats, G Naturals… you get the picture. In this context, the “think of it as” approach will fall apart completely. Instead of making the music easier, those students have succeeded in making something that was only marginally difficult into something unreasonably inaccessible.

When we train our musical minds correctly, we begin to actually think in the different keys in much the same way people can think in a different language. Being able to do this is only difficult for a short period of time. Once you establish good practice habits, you can think confidently in each of the twelve keys within the space of one year. Some people get there even sooner than a year.

Then, from that perspective, the growing trumpeter can now digest and process added accidentals without any confusion or difficulty.

How To Get There

The way we accomplish this is first by practicing the Tonalization Studies on a regular basis. The primary function of the Tonalization Studies is to encourage the students to begin thinking in all twelve keys.

When the going gets tough and it seems like you just can’t help but to “think of it as,” you may want to follow the example set by one of my current adult students, Mr. John Addicks. The following is an excerpt from an email he recently sent me:

Today I started out with what we discussed and it is helping.
I am verbalizing the notes and fingering them at the same time and then I play the Tonalization.
So far I have only had to go back once on each of the first three (1,2,3) and none on the fourth (4) #5 (back 3x), #6 (back 3x), #7 (back 2x).
When say back 1x, I mean I went back to the previous set of notes preceding where I made a mistake and then played onward to the end.
It is seeming automatic without allot of thinking what the note is and which valve to press down. Saying out loud the notes slowly (A# B C# D# E#) and fingering them as I say it, for me, I am making much better progress. And I am not getting frustrated. If you count each note as 1 beat I’m playing them at 80 BPM.
Yes I know we are not going for speed. However, the faster I play the better my subconscious is relating to the key signature with the above resulting mistakes. I see the note and I play it w/o having to think which note & which valve.
Mr. Addicks gets it! He is beginning to master the keys on the far side of the cycle of fifths. For students who struggle with those keys, I strongly recommend following the procedure he outlined in his email. Instead of just playing the Tonalization Studies right away, say out loud the names of each note as you finger through the exercise. This verbalization will go a long way towards helping you begin to think in those more difficult keys instead of trying to translate the notes the way so many less successful students do.
Congratulations Mr. Addicks! Keep up the good work!
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Robert Glasper and HSPVA at Discovery Green

Annual Fall Tribute Concert

I’ve been asked to help out in the trumpet section at the HSPVA Jazz Ensemble’s performance at Discovery Green tomorrow (Friday 10/26). I’ve been helping the trumpet section this way, when needed, for over twenty years now. I began teaching jazz improvisation as a class at HSPVA in the early 90’s and have been helping them out ever since.

The ensemble will be opening for one of its most successful alumni, Robert Glasper, who has become one of the top names in jazz over the past decade. His new release, Black Radio, has been well accepted and very popular.

The following is an email announcement I received from Bob Morgan with all of the details for the event (Thanks Doc). If you can make it out, please feel free to stop by and say hello. I look forward to seeing you there.

From Bob Morgan:

‘lo all!
Wanted to make sure you knew about the annual fall tribute concert to HSPVA this Friday at Discovery Green; details:
Friday, Oct. 26; 7:00 pm (admission free!)
Discovery Green park downtown (across from Geo. R. Brown Convention Center)
(best parking is underground, entrance across st. from convention center; $ 12)
Opening group: this year’s excellent HSPVA Jazz Ensemble # 1, the also-excellent Warren Sneed, director!
Robert (‘PVA, ’97), piano/keyboards
Casey Benjamin, alto sax/vocoder
Derrick Hodge, bass
Mark Colenburg, drums
Yours truly and Eric Ladau (KUHF-FM), emcees
Perhaps you’re aware that Robert’s group is one of the hottest jazz items on the planet at the moment. In fact, they are interrupting a multi-night engagement at L. A.’s Royce Hall (UCLA campus) to fly to Houston/back to L. A. for this gig. Go to Robert’s website for further info.
I hope to see you there!
PS Robert will be featured this Friday on KUHA/KUHF’s “The Front Row.”
(Sorry for the short notice, but, you know, retirement is very time-consuming…:-)


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Youtube: Lake Street Dive

Mike Middleton posted a link to one of their videos on Facebook.

I was hooked with the first one. Great sound!

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Why Should Musicians Get Organized?

I started practicing with logs over two decades ago. I feel they are so important that I often say that if I didn’t write what I practiced in a log, then it doesn’t really count as practice time. But knowing the power of practice logs is a constant source of frustration for me with the students. There seems to be an assumption among the students that anything that requires organization must not really be fun. So I struggle to communicate to them just how much more fun they can have playing music if they begin logging their practice sessions.


The problem with not using logs is that your practice will never have the focus and direction you need to be the best you can be. Without logs and journals and being organized in our practice, our minds focus on whatever is most immediately obvious. I think this is why so many trumpet players end up focusing so much on their chops. If all of your practice is based on whatever you think about when you begin, the worries and concerns of having the chops to get through a gig dominate your focus. Then nothing else comes to mind as you pound away at a problem that would be better left alone.

Measuring Progress

Also, when you don’t use logs, there is no way to measure your progress other than by feel. Unfortunately, how you feel about your progress is typically inaccurate. Sometimes you will feel good about your practice because it feels like you spent a long time working on something. Other times you will feel bad because the time you invested doesn’t seem to be producing any results. Meanwhile, the issues that were most important for you to address have slipped from your focus and remain neglected.

When you feel like you have made a lot of progress without using logs, it is purely emotional. How do you know you made progress? When your chops feel good you feel like you made progress. When you had fun playing your trumpet for thirty  minutes, it will feel like you made progress. But I have seen how this works after three decades of teaching trumpet. I know that we have a natural tendency to practice the things that make us feel good. We are reluctant to tackle those musical issues that frustrate us. So when we judge a practice session according to how good we feel about it, this is the musical equivalent of lying to yourself.

Feeling Frustrated

In contrast, sometimes it works the other way around. When we refuse to use logs and to be organized in our practice sessions, we tend to judge our lack of progress based on the fact that we continue to FEEL frustrated when we do those things that need to be done. Once again, this feeling is inaccurate. We cannot feel our progress because our minds continue to grow with our technique. In other words, the objectives and goals we want to reach are always in front of us, moving forward as our abilities move forward. If we judge our progress according to the way it feels, it is normal to feel stagnant as we move forward.

The key to success as a musician is to remove feeling from the practice equation. Save all that feeling stuff for the band stand! When you are practicing, it is important to remain objective. Do not pursue happiness in your practice sessions. Instead, pursue accuracy, pursue competence, pursue versatility. But for those, you must be organized.

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Youtube: Beautiful Keyed Trumpet Performance

I found this beautiful video on Youtube and just had to share it. This is a keyed trumpet, the middle step between the natural trumpet (no valves, no keys) and the modern valved trumpet. Enjoy!

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Eyes On Tomorrow Concert

Dena sent us this announcement (thanks, Dena):

Eddie Lewis – Trumpet, Tom Borling – Keys, David Klingensmith – Bass, Seth Paynter – Sax and Richard Cholakian on Drums.. this is the amazing band that will be performing with me at the “Eyes on Tomorrow” Concert for Greater Peace in the Next Generation… you will not want to miss this.. tickets are on sale now.. don’t forget there will be a live auction and some amazing items are on display. Alyse Black and the Mambo Jazz Kings will also be there.

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Life Builders: Cesar Morales

Cesar Morales – Sax Virtuoso

Next in my Life Builders series es mi compadre Cesar Morales, perhaps the most virtuosic saxophonist I have ever met. Although we work together only rarely anymore, I worked more with Cesar in the 90’s than I did with any other sax player. The first time I ever wrote about Cesar online was in my “First Impressions” collection of stories on my old website. In that story I recalled the first time we met. I had heard so many wonderful things about Cesar and he said he had heard good things about me. But when we met, I was wearing tights and Cesar was dressed up like an elf! Ha! We’ve been having lots of laughs ever since.

In the early 90’s, Cesar and I worked together with Angelucho and his Copa Cabana. The following is a video from one of our gigs together with that band. This was taken at the Houston International Festival. The horn section is Ed Lowe on tombone, Cesar on sax, Luis Juarez  and I on trumpet.

Soon after I started working with Angelucho, I also began working with Cesar in the Ricky Diaz Orchestra.  This was the first big band in Houston to call me on a regular basis. I still work with Ricky occasionally and had the pleasure of recording a CD with him this past summer. It was actually a recent gig with Ricky Diaz that inspired me to write about Cesar for this Life Builders post. Every time I work with Ricky, it feels like a family reunion.

Later, Cesar and I worked for several years with a band called Salsamerica. This was a variety, top forty band that did half Spanish music and half English. Working steady with Cesar in this band was a very important learning experience for me.

Walking Encyclopedia

I remember before I met Cesar, people used to tell me that he was a walking encyclopedia of tunes. Guess what…they were right!

Most of my students know that I place a lot of importance on expanding repertoire. I emphasize this with my students simply because I value the idea of having a vast collection of tunes in my own career (See one of my earliest posts titled “What Defines Us?”). This is true regardless of whether you want to be a soloist or someone who just enjoys playing in band. The more literature we know, the more of a blessing we can be to those who we serve through our music. And my desire to know so many tunes is directly inspired by Cesar.

As I said, Cesar and I worked together for most of the 90’s. With Salsamerica we did everything from jazzish dinner sets, to Motown, to Tejano, to Salsa. Working with Cesar in this context, where we were called upon to perform music from such diverse genres, I got to experience his wealth of repertoire first hand. I saw just how many tunes this man has bottled up in his head and I was inspired.

This inspiration has been the driving force behind that part of my pedagogical approach. It was Cesar who taught me that it is our repertoire that defines us as musicians, and that when we know more tunes, more solos, more compositions, we then become more valuable as working musicians. It may be different in academia, but in the streets, our repertoire is our most valuable commodity as musicians.

What a Difference a Day Makes

I remember one gig with Salsamerica when Cesar motioned to me to take the lead on “What a Difference a Day Makes.” I shook my head and told him, “I don’t know it.”

Afterward, Cesar pulled me aside and asked, “How could you not know this tune? We play it on almost every gig with Ricky Diaz.”

My response to him was not satisfactory. I told Cesar, “I don’t play the melody on Ricky’s gig.”

Cesar pointed out that I should be paying attention to the melody on every tune I play, regardless of what part I am playing. He was right. I have tried to take his correction to heart ever since. Just because I don’t play the melody does not mean I should be ignorant or unaware of it.

Amazing Solfeggio

One of Cesar’s amazing talents is that he can solfeggio anything he can play. And when you hear how fast he can play, that is just short of miraculous. The only other person I ever knew who could do anything even close to this is Curt Warren. The difference between the two is that Curt uses movable “do” (if I remember right) and Cesar uses a more European fixed “do” that he learned as a child in Mexico. So Cesar uses “do” for all the C’s, regardless of the key. And he also uses “si” instead of “ti.”

Before I ever met Cesar, a good friend of mine, Jessie Duran, said that he was going to take solfeggio lessons from Cesar. The stories Jessie used to tell about Cesar seemed too fantastic to be true. But every bit of what he told me was right on.

This too had an impact on my playing. Cesar established a musical truth for me that I may have learned too late in my career if I had never worked with him. I learned from him that ear training and technique go hand in hand. Technique is not just a matter of wiggling your fingers. Your technique can only be as useful as your ears. If you cannot hear what you are playing, then your technique is nothing more than “pyrotechnics.”

A Transference of Technique

Cesar plays so fast all the time, and working with him several times a week for many years meant that I got to hear him use that technique in a musical manner. I remember a long time ago, Tony Campise said in a clinic that he played the way he did (lightning fast) because that’s what he was hearing in his head. Well, after working with Cesar for so long, I realized that this was contagious. I began to hear things that way as well. I went through a period when almost everything I played in an improvised solo was fast.

When I moved to Houston, I had very little speed at all. I remember being intimidated by how fast everyone here was playing. But working with Cesar for those years, I began to hear “fast.” I began to speak that language.

Granted, I don’t play like that so much anymore. Okay, well, sometimes I do, but not as often as I used to.

But the point is that Cesar showed me how to take all of that stuff I was practicing and make it sound good in a solo. So I have him to thank for pointing me in the right direction.

Thank You Cesar

As always, I have typed several pages of text about what Cesar means to me and I know it’s time to stop and close this post, but there is so much more I could say. I have touched on the main musical points. There are many other ways that Cesar contributed into my life. I am so grateful to be able to call him my friend.

I know Cesar doesn’t do the internet thing, so I won’t end the way I normally do. I just want you all to know that Cesar is very dear to me. I miss working with him. We had so much fun together and I only hope that I can touch other people’s lives the way he has touched mine. You know….spreading the love around a little.

I want to close this post by encouraging everyone who reads this to acknowledge someone who has contributed to your life. That’s what these Life Builder posts are all about. Yes, I want to acknowledge these people who mean so much to me. Yes, that is the most important thing. But I can do that privately (and I actually do it privately more often than I do it on this blog – now that I’m trying to be better at that). So I want everyone to use this as an example so that you can tell the people who made a difference in your life that they are important to you.

Mother Teresa once said that the poverty in America is the poverty of loneliness. When you tell people that they made a difference in your life, it makes them feel more like life is worth living. So please, take my example and do something with it.

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