Practice Tests

For two weeks now I have been testing all of my students to see if they understand the practice procedures I’ve been teaching them for so long. We advertise that our students don’t just learn how to play music, they learn how to practice. That way they can learn any new piece of music without my help, long after the lessons are over. I believe I do a good job at teaching students how to practice, but it is very important to check them from time to time. That’s what the recent tests are for.

These tests over the past two weeks have shown me precisely were the students’ weaknesses are. I am proud of them all because they demonstrate a basic understanding of the practice techniques I’ve been teaching them. For the most part, they are all doing a pretty good job. When I do find weaknesses in the way they practice, I work with them and show them what to do to practice even better.

So far, so good. I am pleased with the changes the students have made in such a short period of time. Bravo! These are the times that make my work so enjoyable.

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Book Review: Pentatonic Scales for Jazz Improvisation

Title: Pentatonic Scales for Jazz Improvisation
Author: Ramon Ricker
No. Pages: 84
Difficulty Level: 4 – 7


37 Pages of explanation, theory and analysis followed by 40 pages of exercises.

The exercises include “Diatonic Exercises”, “Chromatic Exercises”, “Exercises on II – V – I”, “Exercises on Turnarounds”, “Exercises on the Circle of Fifths”, and “Exercises on Altered Pentatonics”.

My Comments:

More than just a pentatonic pattern book, Ricker is successful explaining chromatic, outside improvisation in the beginning pages. He explains degrees of chromaticism and how to use the pentatonic scales to communicate with a purposeful dissonance. Having read the text many times over, since my high school years, I believe it was Pentatonic Scales for Jazz Improvisation that first pointed me in a less diatonic direction.

The exercises are not idiomatic to the trumpet, so certain adjustments must be made. I recommend taking a look at the overall concept of the exercises and then using your understanding of that concept to rewrite them (in your head) to match our range.

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Chops Express

Chops Express is our most recent book. For many years I have been teaching students how to shorten the Daily Routines for those days when there isn’t enough time to do a full routine. Now they don’t have to make any modifications. They can get a full routine done, complete with all the levels of the Physical Trumpet Pyramid, in about 15 minutes per day.

Another difference between Chops Express and Daily Routines is that Chops Express has more text explaining what to do with the exercises. I went out of my way not to include that kind of text in Daily Routines.

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Book Review: How to Improvise

Title: How to Improvise
Author: Hal Crook
Copyright: 1991
Number of Pages: 185

Difficulty Level: 4 to 7


Here’s a fifty / fifty mix of text and musical examples.

In How to Improvise, Crook offers a detailed regime which I have no doubt will make a great player out of anyone who follows his directions specifically the way he presents them. The subjects covered in this book are musically all encompassing. I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s plenty of “technical stuff” to work on here, but all of it is musically oriented.

There are five major sections in the book covering over forty specific areas of study (too many to list here). Some subjects covered include pacing, phrase lengths, rhythmic density, stretching the time, motif development, syncopation, over the bar phrasing and many more.

My Comments:

I remember a road trip to Austin with David Caceres when I had an opportunity to talk to him about his influences and studies. I wanted to understand how he became the player he is today. When I asked him what jazz books he has studied from, he said he didn’t use very many books except “How to Improvise” by Hal Crook. This was a huge contrast to my own background. I have studied from a great many jazz books, but I’ve never been even half the player that David is.

It was about two years later when I finally ordered Crook’s book from Jamie Aebersold. As I do with most books, I read it cover to cover first. then I went back and began doing all of the exercises. I had to modify the durations from those listed in the book because I simply didn’t have the time to invest the way Crook has it laid out. But even with spending only a fraction of the time on each exercise, an entirely new philosophy presented itself to me. Questions were answered and finally the last pieces of a complex puzzle were in place. I cannot over stress the impact this has had on my playing.

“How to Improvise” is different from every other improv method I’ve ever read in that it doesn’t deal as much with harmony and jazz lines as it does with how to actually develop a good sounding, musical solo. There are so many books available with scale patterns, bebop lines, ii V I licks and stuff like that. And I’m not saying that these things are bad. I’ve had success with them in my own playing. But something was always missing and I found that something in Crook’s book. Through How to Improvise, I learned how to use all of those scales and licks to put them into a good sounding solo.

Probably the coolest thing about this book is that, once you learn how to do the things he writes about, you then have the ability to be more economic with the material in your solos. I’ve heard so many people say that David Caceres “never runs out of ideas” in his solos. And the reason it sounds like that is because he doesn’t need as many ideas to make a good solo as most other players do. One idea can give him enough material to get through an entire chorus of a tune, simply by developing that idea instead of leaving it behind. And really, that’s how most of the best solos are anyway. Development is a key aspect of good improvisation. The irony is that it’s sometimes easier to develop one single idea – instead of having to bombard the solo with a constant flow of new ideas.

So, for the simple fact that this book covers an area in improvisation that no other books cover (to my knowledge), I have to say that I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who is serious about playing jazz.

The comments above were from the original review posted to my website over a decade ago. I still feel as strongly about How to Improvise today as I did then. I use concepts I learned from this book with all of my jazz students today. When I look back at my career as a jazz musician, I see my “coming of age” as being directly tied to Crook’s book.

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Texas All-State Jazz Trumpet Etude Three

Here is the third jazz etude:

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Staying in the Game

Hang In ThereI am hearing a lot of comments from my musician friends that times are rough right now. There’s very little work, which is typical for August in Houston, but they say things are worse than ever this year.

I’ve been making my living in music, in Houston for over two decades now. I have seen plenty of these ups and downs. This is not the first time I’ve heard other musicians say that this is the worse it’s ever been. They’ve been saying that since I got here.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to say that it’s all in their heads. I know the tough times they are speaking of because I went through all of them right along with them. Those tough times are real and a serious part of making a living as a professional musician.

So the question is, “What do you do about it?”

My answer has always been to just hang in there. The downs don’t last forever (nor do the ups). There is always an upswing with better times ahead. During tough times we plow and sow our fields so that the next good times, that are just around the corner, bring us a greater harvest. This means practicing more, writing more originals, networking, and even spending more time with our families.

This is where the people who have to be paid for EVERY little thing go wrong. If you can’t see the connection between the work you do now and the profits you make two years from now, you will never be as successful as you could be. Don’t worry that today’s gig doesn’t pay enough to invest twenty hours of rehearsal time. Those rehearsals will pay off down the road. Don’t worry that today’s gig doesn’t pay enough to justify a full fledged marketing campaign. The marketing you do during the hard times is worth ten times that same investment during the good times.

Invest in your art. Work on your craft. Tweak your business. Now is the time to move forward in your career, not back.

Hang in there!

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Book Review: The Complete Solfeggi

Title: The Complete Solfeggi
Composer: Giuseppe Concone
Editor: John Korak
No. Pages: 144
Copyright Date: 1998


Thirty Daily Exercises, Op. 11
Fifty Lessons, Op. 9
Twenty-five Lessons, Op. 10
Fifteen Vocalises, Op. 12
Forty Lessons, Op. 17


Includes a “Glossary of Foreign Terms” and “Listing by Keys”.

My Comments:

For the past several years, I have ended my “Daily Routine” each day by sight reading at least one lyrical study. I was able to read through about six lyrical books and still felt like there wasn’t enough material to keep up this daily habit. Then I heard about this book, a collection of well over a hundred lyrical studies by Concone. Problem solved. This book kept me busy for quite a while.

The reason I end my daily physical routine with a lyrical study is to sort of bring all of the physical elements of playing into one musical package. It’s a daily reminder that all of this physical and technical work is for a purpose and it helps me to make sure that my technical studies don’t cause me to stray from that objective.

The comments above are from the original review I wrote in 1999. I would like to add that my thoughts on this topic have matured over the past decade. I commonly tell my students and those who seek my advice that all physical work should be done for musical reasons. Today I understand why this statement is so true. They say we can only think of one thing at a time in the foreground of our minds. The same is true with music. The Daily Routines and Physical Trumpet Pyramid books book help us to push most of the physical aspects of our playing into our subconscious minds, but we need to spend time playing real music to push it the rest of the way down. It is so very important that we are able to focus completely on musical thoughts when we perform and that the physical stuff should be almost forgotten and automatic.

Practicing lyrical etudes is our first step in that direction.

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