In my continuing quest to become more fully conversant in approaches to trumpet performance that I did not pursue during formal schooling, I went to see Rich Szabo this past Saturday. Rich lives about 2 hours from where I live making the trip fairly easy for a day off.
I met Rich several years ago at an ITG convention. I was immediately impressed with him as he showed as much interest in an amateur trumpeter I brought to the convention as he did in me. I had intended to take a lesson from him for years but it never quite made it to the top of my list.
I arrived shortly after 11:30 AM and quickly was greeted by Rich and a very friendly Yellow Labrador. Rich and I talked for a while over a couple of cups of coffee. As we got down to the work at hand, Rich wanted to know why I had come to him. I told him that my current studies focused on addressing approaches to brass performance that I had not investigated fully during graduate school. Rich was a student of Jimmy Maxwell, a well-respected teacher if somewhat less well-known than Reinhardt, Stamp, Gordon, et al, who was himself a student of Herbert. L. Clarke. I was interested in learning Jimmy's approach and in getting Rich's take on my playing.
As we began working through Jimmy's approach, I was struck immediately by its resemblance to the methods of Gordon and Stamp. Like Stamp and unlike Gordon, Maxwell stresses the importance of mouthpiece buzzing. Many of Jimmy's exercises were similar to those found in Gordon's book. The mouthpiece buzzing simplifies the process, and, in my view, allows for a clear view of how well the ear-air-embouchure tandem is working.
Rich showed me the 3-step yoga breath that he learned from Maynard. Like many other approaches to breathing, it calls for a full, free breath. The largest difference for me in this approach was that the exhale requires the player to drop the shoulders that lift during the final "stage" of the inhale. Evidently, this aids in compressing the airstream, a view I had not considered previously. While my breathing habits are pretty good, I was surprised that as I concentrated on other elements of my playing, my "automatic" breathing was not a full as I had imagined that it was.
The mouthpiece buzz revealed that I used what I call a flat lip compression. That is, the majority of the lip closure came from an up and down movement of the chops with very little focusing inward from the sides. Rich advised me to grab the mouthpiece with the lips as I ascended. That was my "AHA" moment.
I have heard several good analogies for this phenomenon. But "grab" made the light go on for me. During several of the exercises, the new mechanism began to take hold, allowing the faster airstream to work well.
I had been adverse to using an "eee" syllable for higher notes owing to my frustration with the Gordon approach. But Rich's explanation of the Maxwell approach made Gordon's method understandable for me. The "eee" will not shut down if there is enough chop cushion in the mouthpiece for the speed to work. This is what Leon calls hissing.
Now, oddly, I learned much of the same info from the Gordon method in the 1970's. But the view that the lips will take care of themselves simply wasn't true in my case. My chops did not focus inward from the sides enough. But with the new approach, the Ah - eee worked like a champ.
Maxwell also emphasizes extremely soft practicing when using the Clarke Technical studies. I have been doing that for a while now and have seen its benefits in my own playing.
Because he had not warmed up before I arrived, Rich and I did several exercises in imitation. If you want to hear a lead player with astonishing sizzle, strength, and core to his sound, Rich is the man. His Double C is every bit as full as his 3rd space C. I know; I heard several of them.
We talked and worked for nearly 6 hours. Among Saturday's additional benefits, Rich's beautiful and gracious wife invited me to have lunch with them. A more encouraging and relaxing environment you are not likely to find.
Rich is the real deal. He is a fine player who worked through enough playing problems very early in his life to be a fine teacher. A Maxwell disciple, he approaches his practicing with a seriousness and determination that is to be admired. If Rich's group comes to your area, go hear him play. If you are looking for a fresh approach to playing the trumpet, take a lesson from him.
Saturday was both refreshing and enriching, well worth the 2-hour commute. I learned a new approach, clarified some things that I had learned much earlier, and got to hang with a great guy. What more could a guy want?