O.J.'s Trumpet Page Interview

Interview with Greg Spence

Greg Spence

Welcome to The Brass Herald, Greg!

It is an absolute thrill and honor to be asked to participate in this wonderful publication and I look forward to sharing some of my experiences and discoveries about the craft of brass playing.
You work as a trumpeter in Melbourne, Australia. Tell us a bit about your trumpet background!
I studied at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne.  This was an improvisation course with a focus on free improvisation, something at the time (1993) I had never heard of.  I was from a Brass Band background with a limited knowledge of jazz but I had experienced a small amount of big band so the concept of improvisation was not foreign.  In high school, I was playing cornet, not trumpet, so I did music in my final year.  Sadly I started my final year on flugelhorn and changed to cornet mid-year, but, my teacher didn’t inform me that the repertoire was different (and much more difficult) for cornet so on the day of my final exam we discovered the music I had been practicing ALL year was not correct!  I had a four-hour drive from Wodonga in country Victoria to Melbourne to learn a completely new repertoire, which included difficult Arban studies and other solos.  It was a daunting day but in retrospect a great learning experience to prepare for the “professional industry”.    

In a band with James Morrison, you played Scream Machine. What type of music do you play? 
Well, I managed to pass my final year music subject and thanks to my parents, I had discovered the music of a young Aussie jazz prodigy named James Morrison.  This was just after my “discovery of jazz” when by complete accident I heard on late night radio Lee Morgan playing “Sidewinder” and a guy playing something that sounded like trumpet, only much higher; it turned out to be Maynard Ferguson playing “Fireshaker”. These two tunes had such a massive impact on me that they still live in my head to this day.  James played at a function my parents were at and they proceeded to buy me his first album “James Morrison at the Winery”; to this day I can sing that album from start to finish.

I have the utmost respect for players that specialize in orchestral playing, but I remember hearing orchestras early on and thinking that I prefer to listen to jazz and big band.  I must say that these days I get as much pleasure from listening to recordings of the great Bud Herseth playing the opening to Mahler 5 as I do to the best lead players, jazz players etc.  It is all trumpet playing and I admire those who make beautiful music. 
James was my hero through my late teens and early twenties.  Every time he would appear on TV, I would be waiting to record it to VHS. I have to this day a video that I named “GOD”, which has a couple of hours of James snippets.  I first saw him perform at the Albury Performing Arts Centre when I was 16 and he was simply astounding.  I sat front row and seeing his trumpet, trombone, saxophone etc. etc. sitting on the stage before the gig; you could never get a more excited bunch of teenage music lovers.  When he came out and played...well, anyone who has had one of “those musical epiphanies”, this was mine!  I went home and played for hours after that concert but soon discovered that what he was doing was not all that easy!

Twenty years later, I was fortunate enough to tour with James and, believe it or not, we played at the Albury Performing Arts Centre where I first saw him.  He bought me to the front of the stage for the end of the night trumpet duel and here I was looking down at that same seat I was sitting in 20 years before.  I would not have cared if the world had ended that night, gigs do not get much better (and I played well...phew!)

Having raved about all of that, I love the trumpet and the variety of sounds it can make.  I have played next to Bobby Shew, Wayne Bergeron, Geoff Payne (Principal MSO) all legends of their styles of music and I want to be able to do what they all do.  I have been lucky enough to play with Orchestras, Big Bands, Latin Bands, Jazz Combos and Brass Quintets in all styles of music and I strive to sound as appropriate as I can in all styles.  I love TOP, EWF, Blood Sweat and Tears but I am equally happy listening Maurice Andres or Wynton Marsalis.  My favorite jazz guys are Lee Morgan, Clarke Terry and Maynard Ferguson especially in the 50’s and 60’s.

Could you tell us about how and why you started playing the trumpet?
Honestly, I went to the local band because for some reason, I wanted to play sax.  It was a brass band so they encouraged me to learn music, play cornet and move to sax in later years.  I believed their propaganda and look what happened, 30 years later and still playing brass.  They told me to buzz my lips together and after a couple of weeks gave me a mouthpiece to “buzz”.  I could not do it, only air came out, but my sister could do it, so I spent hours forcing my lips closed so they would buzz; I had to beat my sister no matter what! I slowly progressed and after 12 months joined the senior band.  These were great days for a 13 year old.  I really looked forward to band practice and I loved the learning experience.

I only got my first trumpet after I heard James, Maynard and Lee for the first time when I was 16 or 17.

What teachers did you have?
I was pretty much self-taught with the exception of the buzzing at the brass band.  I did not have a “lesson” until I got to VCA.  I learned from a legend in the Melbourne music scene, Reg Walsh, for a couple of years and from Melbourne jazz wildman Scott Tinkler.  I then had scattered lessons with several local players.  I had a couple of lessons with Norm Harris from the Daly Wilson Big Band and some great chats with Robert Simms from the Melbourne Symphony.  Given my sheltered musical upbringing in the country, I was totally shell shocked when in my first year at VCA, so I took 12 months off to tour the country with a Blues Brother band and to get my head together.  I was struggling with my playing and knew I had serious issues but the people around me said that I sounded great.  I remember Charlie Davis saying to our big band leader, to “watch out for this guy” after he heard me play.  That bothered me as I was really struggling to improve and felt that I was doing many things wrong.

It was in my year off when I met Bobby Shew.  I had a one-hour lesson and my words to him were “I think I am doing things wrong!”  I was getting headaches on gigs and working REALLY hard to play.  After this one-hour lesson, I left saying to myself, “Greg you were right, you are doing things really wrong!”  I could not believe what Bobby told me and although most of it did not make sense to me, I knew what he was saying was correct; and totally contrary to EVERYTHING I had ever been told.

It was this one-hour lesson in 1994 that set me on the path that I am on now. 

You have a method called «Mystery to Mastery" (MTM / M2M). Why did you call it that?
That is a great question! To me, trumpet was a complete mystery because it seemed no matter how much I tried, I could not emulate the amazing feats of my heroes.  I actually had a moment during my years at VCA that I told myself to be cool with the fact that I would never make it as a player because I was not physically able to play correctly.  You see, I would articulate notes with the tip of my tongue sitting behind my lower teeth and would use the middle of my tongue to start notes.  Everyone was trying to change this but I physically could not.  I stumbled across “Brass Playing Is No Harder Than Deep Breathing” by Claude Gordon and my life changed instantly.  The moment I read that he, H. L. Clarke and J. B. Arban all tongued the way I did; I went cold and then got very, very excited.  I learned to embrace rather than fight something I did naturally.  That is the reason I wrote the book.  Initially it was just for my students, but I was determined to share what I had learnt on a bigger scale because I did not want others sitting at home going through the torment that I went through.

I have copped a bit of flack about the Mystery to Mastery name.  I remember driving along thinking that I need a name for the book.  I did not even want to put my name on it but my editor demanded it!  Just out of the blue, it hit me, the trumpet is a mystery and I want to master it... Mystery to Mastery, that has a nice ring about it.  There was no ego or arrogance about it, just something nicer than My Trumpet Book! 
What are some of the most important ideas in your method? 
The more research I do, the more I am able to focus on what stops people from being able to do what they want to do on brass instruments.  In a nutshell, and I know this sounds cliché, but the instrument must be an extension of your body; it is an extension of your voice.  The sound that can be created when you allow the air to interact with the lips, the same it does with the vocal cords when humming or singing, is simply amazing.  Amazing results can be achieved when we learn to give the instrument what it needs (thanks to the laws of physics) rather than fight it.
The big hindrances to improvement is forcing too much air and pinching the lips tissue that should be loose to oscillate.  People do things with their body when they pick up an instrument that they would never dream of doing when singing.

You need an energy source like the strum of a guitar or the hit of a drumstick, for us that is air.  You need something that vibrates like a guitar string, a drum skin or vocal cords, for us that is our lips.  You need something for the sound to develop or resonate in like a drumhead, a human head or a guitar body, for us it is the brass instrument.  Sadly as human beings, unless you are one of the real lucky ones, the way we go about creating sound is by force, strength and strain.  The real problem on trumpet especially, is that the sound suggests extreme physical exertion.  Therefore, as a beginner, force and tightness does get some limited results for the short term but does not establish good habits for developing advanced skills. The most important part of the MTM method is the Step-By-Step approach that allows the student to recognize when they are heading down the limited path of physical manipulation, which is essentially trying to defy the laws of physics.

You are building on other teachers and methods. Can you tell us about some of the most influential of them?
Brass instrument have been around for hundreds of years so one would be a fool to try to come up with something new.  Having said that, there are several things that I have discovered and developed that I had never heard of before, be it exercises or concepts, only to be told by someone oh yeah, that’s like what so and so said.  Nothing is new, it has all been done before, BUT you can change thought processes through visualization and sensation development.  Our belief systems are very strong and to discover how to overcome problems requires one to surrender existing preconceptions.

My main Influences are:
J. B. Arban: Exercise No one; play with all of the strength and brilliancy possible.  What do you think he meant? Long tones, loud, slow, breathing every bar. He wants to get you moving some air and some sound happening.  Traps: Loud full sound can be generated very efficiently when air is not forced and lips are not pinched however, people generally tend to tighten their lips and blow REALLY hard to play loud; this is an inefficient and ultimately destructive process.

Bobby Shew: Spit Rice. Protrude the tip of the tongue through the lips to create an aperture, remove said tongue and let air fill the gap.  PLEASE do not think I am talking about articulation here! 

Arnold Jacobs: Do not blow against the resistance of the instrument.  Holding the instrument stimulates old habits... hence the use of many of the Wind products that I use. The psychology of lips vibrating sympathetically on a stream of air. Please read Song and Wind for yourself, there are far too many brilliant Jacobs’s ideas for me to go into here!

Claude Gordon: His ideas regarding tongue position were intended to take the focus away from the lips.  His ideas regarding tongue position were very insightful and helpful.  Sadly, I get “poo pooed” by some certified Claude Gordon Method teachers because I dare to look beyond tongue movement alone.  Some of the commonly accepted ideas about the tongue position determining pitch are scientifically flawed and were not at all what Gordon would have intended; I know this from talking directly to several of his students.  I love his books and ideas. For me, his teachings were very helpful as far as drawing attention to the certain physical aspects of playing, especially the tongue, and that opened the door to further exploration.

Rafael Mendez: Besides his incredible virtuosity, he says, “Never push the air more than you would in normal conversation”. That comment and the idea that the lips are the vocal cords of the instrument inspired the humming and singing exercises in book 2.

Bill Adam:  You must have a vivid mental picture of want you want to sound like.  The power of visualization is slowly becoming an accepted method of teaching.  A new MRI machine can plot the change in neural pathways when new skills are learnt; THAT is insanely exciting when it comes to changing brass playing habits.  Visualization and sensation development is key in the MTM method for developing new, more efficient skills.

Louis Maggio:  The Maggio monkey is a simple yet very powerful picture.  My “AaaaahOoooh” exercise is a combination of Maggio, Jacobs and Bobby Shews’ spit rice.  It is all about getting the lips out of the way and allowing them to RESPOND to the airflow.  After much research, I finally discovered that, as I expected. The lips do not actually have to entirely close each vibration to excite a sound wave.  That is very important when talking about lip oscillation and sound production.  It gets us away from the idea that we have to force the lips to vibrate to create sound.

Bernoulli: The velocity of air or water passing through an aperture is determined by the aperture itself, not what happens before the aperture.

Arthur H. Benade: the Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics. Just read it!

You have changed focus on the teaching from a printed book to eBooks and using YouTube and the Internet a lot. How has this changed the way you teach?
The joy of the eBook is that I can refine ideas and I can share them immediately to the subscribers.  The exercises are the same but the very powerful thought processes behind them are forever evolving.  I figure as a teacher, if you stop learning, you should probably stop teaching.  Nothing can ever be taken as gospel and things can always be explained more clearly.  We all learn differently so catering for all is an eternal quest!

You have students from several places in the world. How do you manage to teach them?
I have had people travel internationally to have lessons, which is actually hard for me to get my head around as I am merely sharing a collection of thoughts based on many accessible sources.  Skype is far more effective than I could had ever anticipated.  Originally I said, let us just try, I am not sure how good it will be so no cost if it is no good!  Although it is not the same as being in the room, the quality of Skype is sensational and I can certainly pick many gremlins when people play.  You must remember that the hardest thing about teaching the trumpet is convincing people that it is easy to do.  I can easily pick when people are closing off their body resonance or if they are kicking the air when they are articulating or doing harmonic slurs.

I have been known to teach at 7am and 11pm to cater for International time zones.

You sell some breathing equipment, like the Breath Builder, etc. Do you use any of that yourself?  How? 
To reprogram new habits, it is desirable to train the body and the mind.  As Arnold Jacobs says, holding the instrument stimulates old habits.  Train the body what it needs to do, then add the instrument and DO NOT COMPROMISE THE PROCESS.  I had a student today say, “My God, this bloody WindTunnel is incredible”.  I use all of the Wind products because they are good.  I spend hours getting them made, not because I want to be a retailer but because they work and I want to share their benefits with people.  When people discover them, they begin to learn the power of the body, away from the instrument.  When you incorporate the instrument to a well-trained mind and body, the results are mind blowing.  The body emits frequency and the body/trumpet system is one oscillating air column.  Sound occurs when the resonance of the oral cavity and breathing system adds to a particular harmonic or overtone of the instrument.  If the body frequency matches the pipe exactly with a perfect balance of airflow and aperture corner tension, you get perfect pure resonance.  If the body is out of position (incorrect SHAPE), it fights the harmonics of the instrument creating interference in the air column resulting in backpressure in the body.  To compensate, the player then blows harder to force the note to speak, thus throwing the balance of flow and tension into further chaos.  Of course, the result is an unpleasant sound that is very difficult physically to produce; this is not the ideal playing scenario - it is like forcing a round peg through a square hole.  It is far more desirable to know what a note feels like, away from the instrument, and then add the instrument and let nature and the laws of physics take care of the rest.

The visualizer rim and the separate leadpipe are probably the best reprogramming tools.  I use them daily to reinforce the new sensations after my 15 years of tightening my lips and buzzing.
Greg Spence

You are a Yamaha artist - tell us what «axes» you use?

I use a Yamaha 8310z Silver Bb Trumpet with a Marcinkiewicz Bobby Shew 2 mouthpiece and a Xeno 9335NY Silver Bb with a Curry 3C.  I have a Kanstul custom Flugelhorn and Kanstul Piccolo

What are your plans for the future?
I am in the process of editing M2MII into a hardcopy.  It is currently only for sale as an eBook with about 3 hours of video demos of the exercises and miscellaneous topics. It is an incredible amount of work running the site and writing the book whilst trying to make a living teaching and playing, but I hope to have it out this year.

I am designing an MTM iPhone/iPad app with a couple of IT guru friends.  It will address the basic MTM concepts and allow students doing grade exams to develop their technical requirements with an efficient technique.

Most importantly, I want to continue to develop as a player and a teacher.  The more students I see, the more experimenting I do and the more I research, the closer I feel I am getting to develop an approach to brass playing that allows student to be their own teacher.  Armed with the right knowledge and given a little direction, I feel it is possible for anyone who really wants it, to progress to their desired level of proficiency allowing them to make the Mystery History!

o.j. 2014 - This interview was first published in The Brass Herald, July 2014, Issue 54.