Gerard Presencer - A Modern Approach to Playing the Trumpet
(Warwick Music. Tutor book review by Sean Corby)
There is a great deal of mystique surrounding the playing of the trumpet. It is often referred to as ‘The Prince of Horns’, and with good reason. As the great Swedish virtuoso Hakan Hardenberger has said, it comes down to two things- ‘Airflow and lip vibration’. Every morning, he gets started by taking things to the ‘lowest common denominator’.
Whilst saxophone players can whip their horn out of the case, remove that big pipe cleaner type thing they keep in the bell, and launch headfirst into chorus after chorus of virtuosic flurries on the changes of Giant Steps, we have to parp and huff and puff, flap our lips, buzz our mouthpieces, and limber up like Carlos Acosta before we can even play a decent sounding note. I can’t play the piano, but I can walk up to any in the world at any time and go ‘ding’- playing the highest note, and ‘dong’- the lowest.
What goes in to learning the trumpet is a mixture of psychology and athletic endeavour. An inner game, and at times a frustrating physiological battle!
This is largely due to the proliferation of erroneous concepts on how the instrument actually works. In fact, it doesn’t work. As Hal Galper says ‘the instrument is an illusion’. It is the mind and body, trained in co-ordination that makes this piece of plumbing resonate and produce a musical sound.
There is no shortage of trumpet pedagogy, but as the legendary studio trumpeter and renowned teacher Claude Gordon notes in his ‘Brass Playing is no harder than deep breathing’, hardly any of the classic methods such as the Arban, St Jacome and Ernest Williams, include even one iota of instruction on HOW the body creates the music.
The great pioneers in communicating the science and psyche of brass playing include Arnold Jacobs, William Adam, Herbert L Clarke, Vincent Chicowicz, and Carmine Caruso, yet in reality, even their books or even their disciples, cannot come close to replicating the efficiency and value of actually sitting with them and taking a lesson. Each of us is different and only in an extended period of study with a mentor can one really make headway on a journey of mastery over the trumpet.
So, the question is; ‘Does the world need another trumpet method book?’ In my opinion, what we do need, especially in this country, are more teachers and mentors who are dedicated to understanding, and passing on, ways of really dealing with the mental and physical challenges of playing the trumpet. There are plenty, of all styles, who can help with the aesthetic side of things, but for various reasons far too few who are creative enough and open minded enough to really investigate what goes on in the mind and body of a trumpet player.
However, when someone who plays like Gerard Presencer says or writes something, it’s worthwhile listening and paying attention.
Gerard’s book is not for a beginner. It is for players who are already experienced enough to have veered towards jazz and improvising with their instrument. Like John McNeil and Laurie Frink’s classic ‘Flexus’, this book approaches the difficult challenge of maintaining one’s fundamentals of airflow, flexibility and articulation, whilst navigating the physical challenges that come with improvising. Often, when improvising, our emotions govern. No bad thing of course, you don’t want to be thinking too much when soloing, but at the same time, ‘technique’ or what some such as Robert Sullivan of the NY Phil’ prefer to call ‘mechanics’ often go out the back door.
I’ve been practicing out of this book for a couple of months and have not got beyond exercise 7. I’ve found the exercises, which I use as supplementary material to Flexus, Chicowicz Flow Studies, Chas Colins and Goldman, to be enjoyable, challenging and helpful. Gerard’s instructions are clear and I am certain that working with this method has been useful. I will certainly continue to practice from it.
The first page begins with a simple exercise that involves singing a series of legato passages in the low register, before transferring to the mouthpiece, and subsequently to the horn. Lip buzzing and mouthpiece buzzing divides the brass playing community in that some swear it helps prepare the physical apparatus required for playing the horn, whilst others feel it can create tightness and pinching of the lips. Personally, I’ve found it easier to turn to exercises 2 & 3 in Gerard’s book and warm-up from there. These are familiar low register articulation studies that really do help get the blood flowing through the lips and face, help to get a steady and supported stream of air going, and direct the tongue in to a position whereby optimum resonance is created thereby creating a desirable sound.
From there on, the book is laid out expertly and the exercises become progressively more intervallic and exploratory of various techniques for articulation, all geared towards developing a sound and feel that is best suited to playing jazz.
Again, students familiar with the work of Charles Colins and Herbert Clarke will recognise some of theses ideas and shapes, but with Gerard’s directions, can approach them with an aim of using the techniques acquired in more contemporary contexts.
Towards the back of the book, Gerard has written a series of etudes based on well known jazz ‘heads’ and ‘changes’ such as Evidence (Monk) and Au Privave (Parker) these are challenging, but if initially taken slowly and broken down into bite size chunks, will prove beneficial in developing the ability to play 8th note lines with good sound and feel.
To conclude, this is an excellent piece of work and will be of use to advanced students and pros alike. However, my view is that it would be most useful if accompanied by aural examples, both of specific exercises in the book being played and of passages where the techniques Gerard suggests are being utilised.
Of course, when all said and done, to really benefit, seek out Gerard for a lesson!
LINK: Interview with Gerard Presencer about A Modern Approach to Playing the Trumpet