My lesson with Pops – Kurt Schulenburg

Date: Wed, 2 Jun 1999 07:43:27 -0500
From: “Kurt Schulenburg”
Subject: My Lesson with Pops

Hey all!

Well, I’d love to post the story of the ultimate trumpet lesson here on the list, complete with all sordid details, but the trip has left my brain more than a little dead.(Too many hours in Memorial Day traffic…) With that in mind, I’m going to give an overview–chock full of opinions and impressions–and one that is certainly all my spin on a reality designed to help ME with MY particular problems. Once my head clears a bit, I’ll be posting a more detailed story on my Web Page–no need to clutter the list with all of my subjective points of view. So, if you’re curious, check it out more towards Friday or Saturday…

I should start with the “why” of this idea–“Why did I travel hundreds of miles to take a six hour lesson from a complete stranger?” Well, this list has given me some insight to the teachers available out there–I have already written of my lesson with Nick Drozdoff back in December–and Clint Mclaughlin’s name was one that kept recurring in many areas where I was interested. Specifically, air, lips, set-up, range and sound. I’m sure Pops’ name has appeared in threads discussing technique, tonguing, etc., but these were not my areas of interest. A few threads had me nodding in complete agreement–the “Air,air,air not Lips, lips, lips” thread had us in an adversarial position. In short, he had opinions that sparked me.

A few e-mails, some calls to my wife, and then the travel agent, a few more e-mails and I’m suddenly booked from Chicago to Denver to Tulsa to rental car to Farmington, Arkansas. (I now live in Dallas Texas. Pops) Whew! I left at 3:00 PM Sunday and returned 1:30 AM Tuesday early morning. (There were several more direct routes, but none that fit the budget and time-table.)

Clint McLaughlin surprised me right away–he’s 41 years old (same as me–I don’t turn 42 ’til August…), much younger than I expected. He welcomed me into his home and proceeded to show me his world, boxes of trumpet material, several horns and cases, books and computers, and his Renaissance horns. All very cool, very homey. I was comfortable from the start. His family was exiting as I arrived, heading to a Memorial Day family bar-b-cue. They were, like Clint, very friendly and welcoming.
I won’t go into a blow-by-blow description (sorry…) but rather try to put into my words what I learned. I apologize if this steers anyone the wrong way–it is my interpretation of advice given to me to fix MY problems and may not be applicable to anyone else’s. Let’s hope that’s not entirely true.

First off, I have played for several years with both a high and low embouchure–they share some overlap of range, but it takes a second or two to switch between them. The overlap is around high C. The low embouchure can take me up to a G above that while the upper embouchure has a range from about G in the staff to a Double C, D or higher depending on generous you are feeling! I wanted to combine the embouchures, or perhaps lose one and extend the other. The upper embouchure, being very bright and difficult to control (both pitch wise and dynamically) was the candidate for extermination.

Pops thought that my lower embouchure was fine, only it needed a little tweaking to extend it to the range that I enjoy with the upper embouchure. I have been able to do three octave G scales with the low embouchure, but that high G always felt forced, too much arm pressure, no endurance or articulation, no ability to trill at the top of my range. Pops told me that Mendez said that a three octave G scale was only being played by about 1% of trumpet players. And I have to admit that wanting a larger range is mostly for my own fun–it certainly isn’t something that I am called upon to play. But, I really considered my usable range with the low embouchure to be about high A-C somewhere. (Useable range=a range where I can do it all, tongue, pp, ff, sixteenth notes–the whole gamut…at the end of the night. NOT squeaking out a half note Q# during my warm-up…) I did not have that.

I learned several things–although I had been pushing air from “the bottom” (and quite a bit of it) I was not “squeezing” the air from all sides. Also, I was taking a full breath every time–and blowing out all sorts of extra air at the end of a phrase or note. It truly scared me to take a big breath, blow half of it out, and then squeeze the h*ll out of it. But it does make a difference. I recommend trying it.

I also found out that what I considered to be corners were waaay too wide. I knew that they were supposed to be firm, but I was envisioning corners as being way out at the edges of my lips. In this regard, I think corners is a misnomer. While those muscles at the actual corners ARE flexed, the muscles to the inside (toward the center of the lips) are also flexed and firm. The “relaxed center” I kept hearing about is the part at the rim or even inside of the rim. Everything outside of the rim is considered “corners” or at least should be flexed. (Keep in mind this may vary with your mouth and mouthpiece setup.) Where my embouchure was probably as wide as the center of my eyes when I arrived at Pops’, I now am trying to line up the “corners” with my nostrils or eye teeth. This involved a sort of pucker, everything moving forward, “corners” squeezing in. I am not actually puckering the lips, that is, I am not turning them “inside out” as you might do in a “cartoon” kiss. The lips are more towards a puckered curl–although I am not actually rolling the lips in, it sort of feels like I am because I have to counter-balance the pucker. Once everything is firm (relax the center) you are free to pinch the center (the lips inside of the rim) independently of the corners (everything outside) that stay firm. Notice I am saying “firm” and “flexed” and not “tight”. By pinching the center, I am referring to a vertical movement of upper and lower lip, pressing together. Sort of like chewing, only no jaw movement at all. One of my problems: I pinch too much. Try this.

Blow a relaxed mp second line G. Your abs should be relaxed, you don’t need them for this register. The blowing is very small, just enough for the G to drop out of the bell and fall on the floor. Now, WITHOUT pushing more air, play louder. Yes, about a forte to double forte. No fair tightening the stomach muscles or squeezing the chest. Keep the air the same. How? Most likely you were able to do this–you accomplished it by dropping your jaw a bit, creating a larger aperture, ALLOWING the air to move through. This is an exercise that Pops showed me to help me relax my pinch, to control my jaw opening, to be aware of the aperture and it’s effect on volume and range. Try it on a 3rd space C. Play with it.

Another thing that we discussed was tongue placement for articulation. Pops’ told me that, at least for basic articulation, that it didn’t matter–it’s going to move around (and should) depending on your mouth and the register you are playing in. To some degree, the tongue arch will limit some options in articulation (at least as far as WHERE your tongue goes), but mostly you tongue the note where it is comfortable and rapid. The anchor tongue (Pops felt) might create difficulties in double tonguing. (I didn’t agree, but, hey, I can’t double tongue worth a squat, so who am I to argue?)

I also discovered that when I could relax and play high C with all of this going (squeeze air, firm corners, press center of lips together gently, jaw open slightly more than I’m comfortable with–currently) that high F was available by arching up the center front of the tongue (not the center back as I have done for years, often forcing air up into my sinuses for some really marvelous headaches…) I suspect that I was sort of blowing the whole wad with this movement–not keeping anything for high G or even double C–but it was sort of interesting that it felt like the tongue arch was the ONLY change I was making between the two notes. More practice research needed here.

Pops is allowing me more arm pressure at this stage than I am comfortable with. I detest pressure ’cause I’m a wimp and it hurts! (Oh, yeah, it screws up your playing in the long run, too.) He does make it very clear that if I must use pressure, to transfer it to the bottom lip (rather than the top one) by pivoting the horn. I can do this, but one of my goals is to get rid of this pressure entirely. Not there yet, but Pops certainly is.

Oh yeah, majorly important. It’s time to put pressure on this guy. WE NEED TO HEAR POPS! Trust me on this–the man can PLAY. And I heard very little, mostly just demonstrations that rattled my teeth and turned my head around! I have never sat in front of a trumpet bell putting out as effortless and as loud an F above double C as I did yesterday. It’s one thing to hear that MVC wave file, another to hear essentially the same range (with more power) tossed off like it was nothing. (No offense to MVC–I want to hear more of him, too!) So, a call to arms! Let’s request tunes! Let’s donate studio time! Let’s order some CDs! Seriously–the man is phenomenal. I know that there are other players with similar abilities, but this man is a fine teacher, one of the best. I think he needs to understand the sort of enthusiasm that his playing can generate in his students. It is important for all teachers to realize that much of their teaching abilities will be wasted without reinforcement–and short of another odyssey to Arkansas, there is no audio record of this particular teacher. IT CAN MEAN SO MUCH TO THE STUDENT, 5 YEARS, 10 YEARS FROM NOW. “I studied with the guy who recorded this.” “Hey man, listen to my teacher. I know that I’ll be able to do that someday!”.

I know I am forgetting things–got up for work 3 1/2 hours after going to bed last night. I’ll run through my notes and get something on the web site by the weekend. The address is there, after my signature. (Enjoy the Duke Levels while you’re at it!) What a great experience–well worth every minute! I encourage you to do it, too. There are several great teachers on this list who do similar lessons–seek them out. I have found them generous, warm, giving. Do I now have a continuous range from Double Pedal C to the Quad C? No. My range has not really extended itself yet–but what I am doing feels like the start of a new path–one that a Great Player has already trodden. I don’t expect it to be easy, but it does seem fairly simple. There is much work in front of me.

That’s it for now–gotta knock off the 10 pages of Arban’s each day. One more thing about Pops: he’s merciless! ; )

Kurt Schulenburg



Posted in People, Practice routines, Testimonials.