I am diligent about starting a project and finishing it the same day whenever possible. However, this is not always possible with most of my work as designing, prototyping, and then putting a new product into production is often a multi-day or even multi-month endeavor. This reality creates challenges that keep my mind active on multiple challenges every single day. Finishing the project is the goal, but it is completely necessary to start dozens of projects and finish them in a logical, not chronological, order.
Essentially, my life and work is a giant balancing act. I have an idea that's either based on a problem I, or my customers, have encountered or it comes to me subconsciously in my sleep. Then I sketch and define the idea on paper before discussing it with anyone. Jen is usually first to hear about these concepts as she is great at listening, even if she sometimes gives me no feedback. Then I either file it away in a notebook or dive in to make it reality.
In the case of Momentum, which was a spinning top I invented a few years ago, I jumped into this idea full force as a mental exercise. I had suffered a disabling stroke a few years earlier and my cognitive skills were still re-developing. I woke up one morning and told myself that I must do something challenging today. I designed, programmed and built the entire Momentum system without touching pencil to paper (and no computers). I did every bit of the math and engineering in my mind with my eyes closed to prove to myself that I was gaining mental strength after my brain trauma. The sketch you see above was made after I finished the entire system to document the dimensions.
I did something similar two years later with the Muse Modular trumpet design. However, this system was far more complex than Momentum so after months of designing and prototyping in plastic with 3d printers, I moved into more intense software (Inventor) to work out the details. The initial design of the modular leadpipe, brace mount system, bell crook/choke modular system and dimensions were done entirely in my mind with my eyes closed. For the Muse, this took me roughly two full days of silent meditation. Entering everything as imagined into the CAD system took roughly two months! If only I could program as easily as I can construct in my own mind.
You may now begin to see why I have more projects in progress than time as I do come up with great solutions to problems. Yet these solutions require a great deal of time and energy to put into production as physical products. Am I a product developer? A problem solver? An educator in brass playing? A machinist? An inventor? A businessman? An artistic designer? A production process developer? Or maybe I'm someone with a lot of ideas. What I do know is that my ideas have helped tens of thousands of brass players overcome challenges and that I love working with all of you.
It's been twenty-five years of progress from where I'm sitting and I want to experience another fifty years of this amazingly inspiring creative energy! I always take one thing at a time on each project, but am always working on dozens of projects at the same time. A paradox or progress?
Today, I am proud to begin our 25th Anniversary celebration. It was this time in February, 1996 that I began building the very first Harrelson Trumpet, which I will discuss in future posts. There are so many reasons this milestone is important to me. First, there was a very real chance I would not have survived more than a few years after the photo above was taken, in 2002. Second, it seemed everyone in the world belittled my ideas on improving efficiency, adjustability, versatility, and artistic hand (and machine) hybrid craftsmanship. And third, I was seriously considering the pursuit of a very different company (high efficiency automotive drive systems) at the time. Yet, here we are today creating solutions for thousands of brass players around the world!
Join me this year as I reveal my personal journey from being born on a military base in Louisiana, to growing up on the road with amazing parents (who drove semi-trucks for a living). You'll discover a passion for knowledge (and dumb mistakes), dedication to my craft (100,000 hours), heart ache (literally heart attacks), Cobra Kai style school fights (and martial arts discipline), self-taught machining, CAD/CAM, CNC, fabrication, acing the SAT and squeaking into a great college with poor grades to study brass acoustics, trumpet performance, and psychology, nearly losing everything to brain damage, re-learning how to walk, talk, and play trumpet, and much more.
I will be releasing a new blog entry every week throughout 2021 so be sure to bookmark this page!
Thank you to everyone who participated in sharing and backing our new HEVS product release. High Efficiency Valve Stems were an accidental discovery in 2016 that has proven to be a major advancement in trumpet design. I'm excited an honored to bring HEVS to you with shipping for Kickstarter backers beginning the week of December 7th, 2020. If you missed the Kickstarter, you need to sign up today or you'll miss the next big release of our new Captive Inlay Dichrolam finger buttons next month.
HEVS are currently available for Harrelson, Bach, Yamaha, Schilke, and CarolBrass trumpets. If we receive enough requests, we will consider a re-release that will include variations to fit Benge, Bauerfeind, Jupiter, UMI, Kanstul, Olds, Adams and perhaps others sometime in 2021. Availability will be updated here.
I'm taking a few minutes to share my gratitude with you in a little story we all wrote together...
The beginnings of Harrelson Trumpets was not the beginning of my life. At age 19, I found myself inspired by the world around me. I was enrolled in a world class music program studying musical composition, math and trumpet performance. My jaw dropped every time I sat in one of our daily student recitals as I was surrounded by truly amazing young musicians. I was aware of the rich history and culture found within so many contrasting genres of world music. Every piece of music or folk song transcribed for orchestra became an aural representation of an entire period, place or people.
I was also very much aware of how science, technology and innovation had shaped the world for the past several hundred years. My Dad helped me see the world from the perspective of an engineer and inventor from a very early age. Rather than telling me how things worked, he would ask me questions that would provoke thought, wonder and excitement. By the time I was 12 years old, I pretty much saw the world as a playground for people who like to make useful (and sometimes not so useful) things. At age 19, my yearning to learn more about science manifested as I combined this with my interest in trumpet.
The desire to disassemble my first trumpet back in 1996 in hopes of understanding more about acoustics and then put it back together with a new and improved design was the first big step for Harrelson Trumpets. This was the culmination of music, history, science and so much more. And today, this has evolved into our micro-culture and society populated by thousands of brass players from over a hundred countries who have come together to listen, learn, share and grow. I could not be more grateful and touched as all of you have contributed to my own growth and understanding of music, science and culture. You have transformed me.
There is another element that persistently influenced my life perhaps more than any other. And this aspect of my life brought more pain and joy than most people understand. It created a reality where I would lose my memory, sometimes for only a few seconds and other times for months. It would render me without vision or mobility sometimes on one side, other times completely. It would cause mind bending headaches that were often a daily reality allowing me to master my meditation skills. And it literally left me out of breath when I thought I may suffocate.
Suffering heart attacks, strokes and pulmonary embolisms due to birth defects was my own struggle. One that I embrace and cherish, as odd as that may sound. Each of us has our demons as they say. And each of us must choose to look deep down inside and choose to do whatever is necessary to overcome those challenges that seem to hold us back. As my life partner and fiance, Jolene so often says, "we have the ability to choose" and often times we convince ourselves we have "no choice". She would be the first to argue that your ability to choose can most certainly change your life.
Choosing to get up and try again after a major medical event was always the logical choice for me personally. I would spend days in bed recovering all the while dreaming of the beautiful sky with clouds floating by in the sunshine. I could hear birds outside or sometimes people doing things and I would think about how I would do anything to recover and go live a beautiful life. Then I would recover, begin living my life and have another medical event only to repeat the cycle.
Fast forward three decades and things began to change. Even though I suffered serious memory loss almost every year, I found ways to hold onto what I had previously learned. I took better notes and I eventually came to discover my physical limitations could be overcome by diet, daily habits, exercise and a little help from modern medicine. While I will never be "cured", I am stronger and more confident in my ability to live a normal life than ever before. And THIS is one of my major achievements in life.
Some of you were there with me as I struggled to understand how and why my body and mind were so fragile. My Mom did everything should could to put me in front of the best doctors and specialists, yet this approach yielded not lasting results. Thank you Mom. My Dad struggled to understand and opened me up to the possibility that I could mentally overcome these challenges. While this did not improve my physical limitations, it did teach me to master my mind so thank you Dad. And my sister Jenn Harrelson did everything she could to help me laugh along the way.
And all of you have seen the results of my struggles whether you realized it or not. My clients and students have shown me great patience over the years as I have recovered time and time again. Deadlines were pushed back and many orders delayed, yet some of you were kind and patient. Of course, there were a lot of people who simply became angry or upset and wrote me off entirely, which is their loss. But so many of you called, emailed or visited sharing kind words of hope, inspiration and gratitude.
I am so very thankful for every single one of you who took the time to reach out to me in a positive way over the past 25+ years.
I especially want to thank Jen, who stood by me to keep Harrelson Trumpets alive when I could not even read, write or walk. She has been an incredible asset to our company and our clients for the past 20 years. Every day, Jen makes thoughtful decisions that affect each and every one of our clients. And she has literally grown our reach exponentially allowing countless musicians around the world to discover our unique approach to brass playing and instrument design. Jen loves this company more than most of you love playing trumpet. And now she's taken on the challenge of running our VMC and CNC lathes regularly, freeing up more of my time for hand work.
And today, I want to thank Jolene for her friendship, love, encouragement, honesty and laughter. She and I met just 7 months after my last major stroke that left me nearly disabled (over 8 years ago). Jolene has patiently listened to me learn to read again and she's witnessed many misspelled words! She has been there as I re-discovered the outdoors hiking, skiing, kayaking, swimming and just taking in an amazing sunrise or sunset. She has held my hand as I have lost my vision and balance for minutes, hours or even longer and knowing she is there really does make everything so much better. But more than anything, Jolene is a thought leader and her focus on mindfulness encourages me to be a better person, leader and friend every day. She has taught me once again that I have a choice every time I choose to act on anything and that there's always room for better choices.
Today is my opportunity to give thanks to all of my loved ones, friends, family, colleagues, team members and clients. You have trusted me time and time again. You have freely given me your experience, expertise, wisdom and faith. And for this and much more, I am forever grateful.
I have custom fit thousands of trumpet players to new mouthpiece configurations. And I have gained a wealth of knowledge from those very same clients. They taught me what works for one person may not work for anyone else. And what works for most is really just a mediocre average that could easily be improved upon on an individual basis. The most important lesson from working with such a diverse cross section of our industry? Every single person is different and reaching your potential requires much more than dedicated practice and passion.
Some of you will disagree with just about everything you will see in today's video...
Comments, criticism and questions are welcome!
Having built a brand from the ground up, I have devoted a fair amount of time and energy to this question. I began experimenting with trumpets and, what eventually became known as Standing Wave Efficiency, in 1992. My first experiment involved soldering weight to a set of Bach Stradivarius bottom caps to reduce anti-nodal vibrations on specific partials. My friends though I was crazy. And my parents did not approve of defacing my prized possession, the Bach 37 built 30 years prior, which they gave to me for a high school graduation gift. In complete disregard to all warnings, I began disassembling the Bach brand name by disassembling Bach professional trumpets.
For the previous few years, it had been drilled into my head that all great trumpet players only perform on Bach trumpets because they are the best. This "fact" was something I never questioned. My band director told me that Bach was the best and it seemed true considering all the best players I knew at the time also played on Bach. This brand name was synonymous with the best available brass instruments.
My perspective changed after I was given my first Bach Strad 37 a few months before setting off to music school to pursue a Bachelor's of Music degree in Trumpet Performance. My Dad had purchased my particular Bach 37 from my uncle and it was in need of repair. He spent his savings having it refurbished to "like new" condition in clear lacquer before giving it to me. When I opened the case, I was amazed at how new the horn looked even though it was built in the 1960's. I knew that my level of performance would improve immediately because I know held the holy grail of trumpets!
Fast forward three months to auditions for Band and Orchestra in college. I'm struggling to play my audition pieces as well as I did on an old beat up cornet that had been lent to me from my grade school music teacher since 5th grade. I could not for the life of me reach wide intervals as easily and my tone became distorted and harsh as much lower dynamics than I had remembered. I was convinced that the problem was me and never once considered that my Bach trumpet could be holding me back. In fact, I was completely disappointed in myself for letting down my family who worked so hard to buy me this instrument. How could I be failing with this amazing Bach trumpet in my hands?
The surprise of my life came during that week of auditions. And the next events changed the course of my career and trumpet design as we know it worldwide. As I was standing outside the audition room giving my chops a break from practicing, I met another freshman trumpet player also auditioning for the Symphonic Band that day. His name was Dave and he has been one of my best friends ever since. Dave asked me about my horn as he immediately recognized it was built decades earlier than his brand new 1992 Bach Stradivarius 37 finished in polished silver plate. To make a long story short, we exchanged horns and both returned to our practice rooms to test them.
In my mind, I was thinking that both horns are the same model, but Dave's horn is in silver so it will probably sound brighter than my horn. I had been working on the Hindemith Sonata, which is a very dark piece full of emotional outbursts in the form of wide interval leaps, sudden dynamic changes, bold statements and after thoughts to be executed with very light finesse. I played the first two lines and was in complete disbelief! Dave's Bach soared on every note in a way that allowed me to phrase on a musical level I had never before achieved. It was not overly bright, but mature, vibrant, dark, warm and brilliant all at the same time. This horn was alive in my hands and I felt like a wizard who had discovered a spell that gave my trumpet playing an operatic voice. I was in love with this horn.
A few minutes later, Dave knocked on my practice room door and hand my old, but somewhat new, Bach to me and said something to the affect of, "yeah, I've heard great things about those vintage Bach trumpets, but I don't see why anyone would want one." And I couldn't agree with him more. My horn was a dud. It did not resonate like his horn and I found myself, for the first time in my life, questioning the brand name Bach. How could one Stradivarius play so amazingly well and the other play so very, well let's just say not amazing in any way?
The guilt began to set in. My Dad spent all of his money buying and refurbishing that Bach trumpet so I could succeed as a musician. I felt terrible as I now understood that his money was spent on something that did not live up to the name. Bach was no synonymous with questionable quality, sometimes amazing and other times not good at all. I was crushed. And I had an audition in 15 minutes!
to be continued...
Having working with thousands of trumpet players over the years, I'm often asked for advice regarding range, endurance, tone, technique, etc. However, I am very rarely asked about mouthpiece pressure. In reality, most trumpet players' concerns are directly related to the space between the mouthpiece and teeth. Rather than focus on mouthpiece "pressure", I prefer to discuss the distance required to vibrate the lips. This video will guide you through concepts that may seem completely new, yet directly related to our overall performance success.
I'm asking you personally, what is your greatest challenge as a musician? Is it finding the time to practice? Or maybe it's connecting with the right musicians to make an ensemble really click?
This question has driven much of my life since I was in high school back in the late 80's. Once I got hooked on playing trumpet, I found myself running into more and more challenges that were seemingly beyond my capacity. I wanted to play high, fast and loud like many others, but my greatest goal at the time was simply making beautiful music that would captivate any and all listeners. You see, my challenge was embouchure. I suffered loose teeth and mangled lips due to excessive mouthpiece pressure and I would have done anything to correct this issue.
As a young man, I became obsessed with overcoming my challenges on trumpet and helping my colleagues with the same. First, I studied the physics of brass playing and corrected my embouchure. Then I studied the physics of brass instruments and redesigned the trumpet hundreds of times in search of the perfect balance between efficiency and resonance. Then I studied the psychology of trumpet players to eventually create the world's only mouthpiece with modular cup and throat variations both in dimension and shape. Yes, this innovation is directly related to the psychology of how trumpet players hear themselves! And this led to introducing the variable performance system (VPS) allowing complete adjustment of flexibility, slotting, air flow, and resonance. What is my greatest challenge as a trumpet player today? Finding the time to practice and perform!
Take a few seconds to think about your three greatest challenges as a brass player? Write these down.
What if I could help you with just one item on your list? Would you want to learn something new that may lead to you overcoming that challenge? Are you willing to learn something new? I can only help you if you are truly interested in breaking your paradigm. I've done this for thousands of trumpet players over the past 25 years. And I wake up every morning excited to get into the shop or showroom to work directly with my clients on their challenges. In fact, it was working with so many amazing people that led to my own success as a musician, inventor, trumpet designer and brass coach.
I'm ready to help you tackle the first challenge on your list. Comment below and share what you would like to do better so that your audience will be entranced by your next performance.
Harrelson Trumpets was built on trust. From the very first day, I have been committed to helping musicians achieve success by providing solutions to their performance challenges. This requires a great deal of trust in terms of vision, process and results. Without trust, we have risk. And when risk is high, we tend not to do business. My name is on every Harrelson product and I back up my name with my high quality craftsmanship, customer support and response to your feedback and needs. This is how we build trust.
The very first trumpet I ever built for a fee was returned and refunded in 2002. I spent weeks working on a trumpet for the very first paying customer when I lived in Northfield, Minnesota. This customer was paying $900 for me to cut down a gently used UMI Benge Bb trumpet (which I provided) to play in the key of C with early SWE technology upgrades. I had done the math and cut the horn up, then re-assembled everything to the best of my ability. Nervous to deliver my first horn, I did everything I could think of to make sure this went just as planned. The customer called me a few days after delivery and said the horn didn't play in tune for him. I offered a full refund and took the horn back.
The early days of my company were filled with learning opportunities. I made a lot of mistakes and responded by improving the process, approach and results again and again. Having built over 2000 trumpets, I have a great deal of experience with every major make and model trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn as the first 300+ builds were modifications to some extent. Some were complete rebuilds where I only re-used the valveset and/or bell while others were re-built numerous times in the name of science. Yet every single instrument I have touched has one thing in common. I gained the trust of my customer by providing service and results that outweighed the price of the horn.
In the video below, I share with you why trusting the Harrelson team is a wise choice on your journey to take your playing to the next level...
Having custom built mouthpieces for thousands of trumpet players, I have some insight I would like to share with you. Despite the great number of professors and self-proclaimed experts spouting that equipment cannot solve range and endurance challenges, my experiences working with players of all levels has proven that Rim shape and Cup depth are almost always contributing limiting factors. By adjusting these two components, I have witnessed amazing breakthrough moments by players almost daily for the past two decades.
Is it possible that Rim shape and Cup depth changes could unlock your potential to play higher and longer? The answer is quite possibly yes, but often this depends on a full range of factors including your approach to producing tone and your willingness to break old habits.
Finding the correct Rim shape requires some experimenting with variations based on your personal history. I typically collect information on what has and has not worked for you in the past including the time periods in your life that major changes occurred. For instance, telling me that you regularly played above high C through your late teens and 20's before taking 20 years off the horn is very helpful. You may go back to your original "go to" mouthpiece only to find it feels limiting. The reality is that your body, dental structure, physical approach and mind set have changed since your last successful period of playing.
Why do we expect everything to work with generic equipment in the first place? Seriously consider this question for a moment before reading any further. Would you expect your grade school shoes to fit you today? Take that concept a step further. Would you get on the highway and drive 75-85mph every day in the same car you drove when you were 18 years old? If you are 18 years old, would you drive that fast in traffic in this 1970 Buick?
Common sense would tell most of us that what worked in the past should work again, today. Why fix something that isn't broken is what I've head from most educators and professors. It really bothers me that these words are spoken in the context of a private lesson where the student (you) is clearly stating that something is not working properly to produce your personal range and endurance goals. The arrogance of such a statement is 1) dismissive and 2) lacking in understanding of your personal situation. You are there, after all, to overcome challenges with the assistance of a paid professional. Yet this attitude is persistent in the western world of trumpet playing and teaching.
So let's first admit that something is in fact "broken" and that we intend to diagnose the problem by exploring all contributing factors of tone production. Now let's list these contributing factors so we can get started.
1) Your specific approach to tone production (your technique in forming an embouchure and setting the air column into motion)
2) Your physical nature (state of your lips, tongue, dental structure, lungs, etc.)
3) The instrument determining the wave length variations and amplification (design, length, condition, etc.)
4) The physical design of interface between the player and instrument known as the mouthpiece
5) The environment in which the tone is being produced
Once we break down the system into components, it become clear that every contributing factor is somehow related to another factor. Considering the environment, if we are playing underwater we will surely have trouble creating a tone due to the lack of air. A more realistic concern is playing in a very cold building with an organ that is low in pitch until the room warms up. While this is inconvenient, it is unlikely to be a major contributing factor to tone production, but I have encountered players who have difficulty getting their lips to vibrate against a cold mouthpiece.
Now let's consider the instrument determining the character of the standing wave and amplification. You've probably heard that "insert name of famous trumpet player" can easily play a double high "insert note" on his/her "insert name of make and model" trumpet. And you've probably also heard something similar to, "Well that player could play that high on a garden hose". In reality, this is not entirely true. In fact, the success of anyone playing a specific range of notes on a trumpet or a garden hose is directly related to the design and integrity of the instrument. A garden hose 50' in length will play completely different than one that is 10' long. Likewise, a trumpet designed with a very small venturi, leadpipe and bell will play completely different than one designed .005" larger on the venturi, .020" larger on the leadpipe and with a faster tapered bell. In fact, it is quite possible that many players will find success on one of these variations while almost no success on the other when producing a specific type of tone color. Playing on the instrument that does not match the player's natural or preferred impedance can in fact reduce range, endurance and degrade motivation to play in general.
For now, let's assume the environment is acceptable and the musical instrument in question is a perfect fit for the player. What can go wrong at this point? You could have a flawed approach to your physical performance technique, deficiencies in your physical nature or have mismatched mouthpiece design factors. Can we overcome our technique challenges? Yes, of course we can by educating ourselves on the factors involved and working on them thoughtfully over time. Can we change our physical nature? In most cases, the answer is no. We almost always have to work with what we're given with the exception of dental work and muscle development. And can we change the mouthpiece design? Yes.
Of the three major factors that limit range and endurance, making changes within the design of the mouthpiece is the most straightforward approach to experiencing results quickly. In fact, the reason many players require many years to achieve measurable results in terms of range and endurance is directly related to the player building up embouchure and technique to overcome the mismatched design of a generic instrument interface (mouthpiece). By finding the best shape and size early on in the process, players can achieve results more quickly as they work towards strengthening their technique.
In my next blog, I will discuss the advantages and pitfalls related to various mouthpiece Rim shapes and diameters. Cup depth and shape will be presented in a dedicated blog entry as well. Until then, please comment with your experiences and questions below. If you are ready to explore the advantages of a custom mouthpiece fit to your personal needs, give me a call at 303.657.2747 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.