Steve Baker

In 1979, as a sophomore in college, I received a call from an internationally touring jazz/pop band, asking if I’d be willing to leave school for a two-year tour. Interestingly, they took a chance on me without an audition, based on the recommendation of a keyboard player whose advise they trusted. I had two days to answer them, and five days before I had to fly to San Diego from my home in Louisiana, for a marathon crash-course rehearsal that preceded the first nine-month non-stop leg of the tour. (The emergency need for a replacement lead player was due to the fact that the previous guy ran off with one of the vocalists, got married, and gave up the road life.)

At first, my playing was impressive to the band, and especially to the woodwind guy. (This was fortunate for me, as he had not only lost a great player standing beside him every night, but also lost his best friend to the wiles of that evil soprano seductress who enticed his partner away.) But, the sudden change in my playing and practice routine, not to mention the grueling travel schedule began to take its toll on me. I was over-playing and under-resting. I was the only trumpet, with a woodwind player and bone man. Unlike all the years of section playing in school, I had no one to hide behind when fatigue set in. Even at 19 years of age, a guy needs a break. We were playing 6 nights a week, sometimes 2 or 3 shows a night.

About 8 or 9 weeks into the tour I was beginning to develop severe tone problems, and nightly my range was becoming more inconsistent. I don’t remember the name of the guy who saved the day, but he was invited by our woodwind guy to one of our shows in the SF Bay area, specifically to hear me, and assess my situation. He had played lead for Stan Kenton, and had been a student of Claude Gordon. (On a side note, he told me that CG had made him stop playing for 6 months before he would take him on as a student.) Anyway, he convinced me that I needed to get CG’s SA, and start a daily regimen of pedal tones. Here comes the irony. It worked . . . but I hated the process, with a passion! My tone and range fairly quickly returned, but I have to say that there is one quote from CG’s book that I wish I’d NEVER read . . . “There is no such thing as ‘no pressure,’ and it is beneficial to dismiss the subject from your mind.” – (Claude Gordon)

Well, I NOW think I understand what he was trying to communicate, but from that day forward I became an “ultra-pressure” player for the remainder of not only those two grueling years, but also up until an “accident” that pre-maturely ended my professional career.

At 25 years of age, I was working underneath my Datusn 280-Z, and dropped the rearend differential on my face. To make a long story short, my mouth was wired up for over two years. As it turned out, I COULD have continued to at least practice, and maybe even continued performing after a short while, but with the orthodontics on my teeth my “ultra-pressure” habit I’d developed turned playing into an extremely painful experience. After all the metal was removed, I gradually started working at playing again, but never found the satisfaction or rediscovered the lost abilities I’d enjoyed prior to the accident. I increasingly became involved in the business side of music, and five years later the horns went into permanent hibernation in my closet. This was 1992.

Fast forward to the fall of 1999. I’ve now been dreaming about playing trumpet for several months. Not figuratively. Literally DREAMING! And following these dreams, I was experiencing a certain and increasing level of guilt about not playing. I run out to the music store and bought new method books, dug old ones out of the attic, and put the horns in the bathtub to wake ’em up. Next, I fired up the search engines on my trusty Mac, searching for the latest info on trumpets, teaching methods, etc. I was specifically looking for advice to “comeback” players, and in the process of my search I stumbled upon: “A collection of Net Trumpet Lessons,” by none other than, Clint ‘Pops’ McLaughlin.

I read everything on both of his sites, wrote him an email asking for some basic advise, eventually speaking with him at length over the phone, and then I flew to Dallas for a couple of hours of personal instruction and evaluation. Now, as everybody here probably knows, ‘Pops’ instruction and advise to me DOES NOT include any pedal tone exercises, and he has certainly NOT advised me to dust off my old copy of Systematic Approach. And although I am convinced the pedal tone regimen I undertook 20 years ago saved my young professional career, I must say I am relieved that I’m not spending 15-30 minutes a day renewing those vows!

‘Pops’ has me free-buzzing 15-20 minutes daily. Doing “no-pressure” exercises. (Look, I KNOW there is no such thing as “no-pressure” playing, but the act of TRYING to play with no pressure is producing amazing results.) He is forcing me into an embouchure change, which is coming along slowly, and my experience vacillates daily between frustration, and significant and obvious improvement.

I’ve got to tell you. I didn’t touch the trumpet for EIGHT YEARS! ALL muscle development was GONE. Techique . . . muddled and rusty. Intervals . . . a joke. Range . . . non-existent. My first lesson with ‘Pops’ was on January 22nd, 2000. And just this past Monday night, barely a month later, I picked up my horn during the opening music of the Letterman show and played along with the guy in the CBS Orchestra. Note for note, loud, big wide shake and all. I flushed with pride, excitement, . . . and this is no exaggeration . . . I even teared up. I’ve got a long way to go. The embouchure change has not yet taken permanent hold. Practice time is still inconsistent. Fingering is still a tangled mess in many keys. Endurance is a long way off. Some days my tone sounds like a chain saw, and on others its as magnificent in reality as it is in those dreams. I may never perform again, for anyone other than my family and my dog . . . but I’m so happy to have back my Hey, Pops McLaughlin is very sick He may not live too long If you are going to do it, it had better be soon.old friend. It feels like a class reunion dance with your first love.

Thanks TPIN, for the daily input from so many fine and diverse contributors. I wish such a forum had existed 25 years ago.

Thanks Claude Gordon, for saving the day 20 years ago, when I thought I was about to lose my first fulltime pro gig. Because of that one student of yours, I saw the world, and have never regretted leaving school.

And a special thanks to ‘Pops.’ Because of your dedication to understanding ALL the possibilities in playing trumpet, and because of your own personal experience with a long hiatus and successful rediscovery, you were able to show me more in two hours than all my previous teachers had been able to convey over the course of 15 years.

Sorry this post was so long. But that’s my story, and of course, I’m sticking to it. 🙂
Steve Baker

Posted in Testimonials.