Just over two weeks ago marks my first public performance with other musicians in over four years. And last Friday night, I performed two sets of Jazz tunes with several of my clients/friends in the Twin Cities, thus marking my second performance in recent years. Both gigs were extremely fun and I'm honored to have been given these opportunities.
Considering that I praise trumpet in every way, you may wonder why I haven't performed in many years and the explanation may surprise you. I have been suffering memory loss due to recurring strokes since I was a child. Yes, I am referring to a physical event where blood flow is blocked and my brain tissue is damaged. With every stroke, I lose short term and sometimes long term memories as well as many abilities most of us take for granted.
My last major stroke occurred in my sleep the morning of May 11th, 2012. I awoke to a strange sensation that I could not describe. After testing my fingers, toes, arms and legs, I determined that I had a major stroke and proceeded to call for help. This is when I realized I could not speak as the left side of my face and mouth did not move. So I texted Jen, my long time business partner in Harrelson Trumpets, asking her to take me to the hospital. It just so happens that she was on vacation with her boyfriend several hours from Minneapolis. It was then that I realized I would have to drive myself to the hospital.
You see, I lived in the HT shop for several years and on this morning I knew that an ambulance was unlikely to locate me within our industrial business park as I could not speak my location. And I had built a secret apartment within the building that was intentionally difficult to find. I was considering the possibilities of my situation wondering how much time I had before there was permanent physical damage to my brain. In my weakened state, I had lost the sense of time, but knew I had to get to the hospital.
Standing up was incredibly difficult as the left side of my body did not respond to commands. I balanced myself on my right leg and then fell to the ground. This happened several times until I reached the front door to the shop and then my truck. I didn't have time to practice driving nor did I know where to find a hospital as I was immediately lost when I left the parking lot. My brain no longer processed information based on memories of places, symbols and words. That was mostly gone and I could feel the last pieces of my mental ability fading quickly.
I truly do not know how I typed "hospital" into my phone gps, but somehow it gave me directions and I did my best to follow them. The gps computer voice said to turn left and I remember thinking to myself, "which way is left?". I had to look at the map from the top view and match it with the roads in front of me to better guess directions of left and right. Eventually, I realized I was completely lost. No matter how many times the gps gave me the next direction, I could not remember what was just said, nor could I guess if left was one direction or the other. But miraculously, I saw the hospital and drove across some parking lots to get there. Looking back on this day, that was the longest 8.3 miles I have ever traveled.
I pulled myself inside and attempted to tell the emergency room nurse that I was suffering a stroke. She handed me a clipboard and asked me to fill out some papers. When I looked down at the words, they looked like macaroni squirming around on the page as if they were living cartoons, all equally shaped and sized. I collapsed on the floor.
I'll save you the details of my hospital stay and eventual recovery and get back to the title of this entry, "Re-learning Trumpet". In the months after this event, I faced many challenges that may seem unreal to most of us. In just a few hours, I had lost almost my entire memory. I had forgotten how to read, write, walk, talk and play trumpet. I could not even interpret one single symbol. Looking at a stop sign literally made me dizzy and nauseous. Every symbol, no matter how simple, a letter, a number or a logo no longer had any meaning to me and would be interpreted the same way, as an organized series of cartoon macaroni squirming around. And the same was true of sheet music. I could not even remember the names of my friends and family members.
I picked up a trumpet on the day I was released from the hospital and sailed from low c up to double high c and immediately felt exhausted. A few days later, I realized I no longer knew how to play any songs, melodies or even a series of notes. That information was now disconnected from my conscious mind, inaccessible to my fingers. I had forgotten how to play trumpet even though the right side of embouchure still worked fine.
Strangely enough, the mechanics of just about everything remained while the organized conscious human commands were missing. I re-learned the use of my left arm and hand fairly quickly, but would easily smack it into walls and tools daily because my brain did not remember that I have a left arm. After careful thought and slow movements, I taught myself to use my left side again. In fact, I use my left arm and hand for tasks far better now than before the event. But it took patience, time, practice and very careful programming to recover so quickly. I can now close my eyes while holding my arms out to my sides and make any two finger tips meet in front of me. I know this sounds simple, but after enduring a major stroke, many people never recover this much facility.
In reality, I've suffered dozens of strokes throughout my lifetime and several have been serious like the one mentioned here. I've also endured heart attacks and one pulmonary embolism. These are all due to two birth defects, one in my heart and one in my brain, both of which I had no knowledge of until this event in 2012. Before that time, I would go to the doctor time and time again complaining that I suspected having a stroke or heart attack only to be dismissed as a hypochondriac based on the seemingly physically fit state of my body. Never had any doctor tested me for a heart or brain defect based on my symptoms regardless of the fact that I continually asked for these tests.
So my life has been a 39-year-long series of building skills, knowledge, understanding and wisdom and then forgetting some or most of my progress on a one to two year cycle. Now that I am aware of my physical limitations, I follow a very careful set of rules that hopefully prevents most or all future events as previously mentioned. I am extremely fortunate to be alive and truly wake up every morning overjoyed that I will live another day of beautiful life experiences exploring all that this amazing world has to offer. I have always been that person you meet who is making the most of every minute as is inscribed in the leadpipe of my own trumpet, "Carpe Diem Oculus Aperire" which means Seize the Day with Eyes Open.
Many of you are re-learning trumpet or maybe you're learning for the first time. The rest of us are likely doing our best to continually learn new techniques, music, musicality, harmonic progressions, etc. We're all in the same situation, challenging our current knowledge and understanding to hopefully reach a new level of musical wisdom.
My life has been an extreme version of learning, forgetting and re-learning, which could be why I tend to see the fundamentals of physical realities so easily. I have forgotten the names, places and societal attachments of objects, processes and tasks so many times that I only see the physical reality. For example, I truly see a shirt as something you wear to cover your body and possibly keep you warm or cool depending on the weather. I have learned that button down long sleeve shirts are acceptable in more formal situations while t-shirts are less expensive thus better suited for building trumpets in since getting them dirty is more logical than dress shirts. This seems simple enough, but consider adding writing to the shirt. If my t-shirt advertises a company, I have to look it up to know anything about that company. I had to look up the wing symbol on shoes as I forgot the brand Nike. The same has been true of almost everything. I learned just last year that the Grammy awards are for music. I cannot remember the names of any other awards or with what professions they are associated.
Now apply this way of seeing the world to performing trumpet. I do not remember which music is popular, so I am learning to play all types of music at the same time. I literally turn on my XM radio or Pandora and choose any channel, then I listen and play along. I find myself playing AWOL Nation licks in my Jazz solos and I have no problem improvising with Cake, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Taylor Swift or Journey.
Apply this approach to choosing a mouthpiece. I do not easily recall why I have played previous mouthpieces so I simply use the one that achieves the best results. However, I have re-learned that I was originally taught to only play Bach mouthpieces. More specifically, I was told to play a Bach 1-1/2C as is written in the front of my Arban's book by my former instructor. However, Bach mouthpieces cut into my thin lips easily, reducing my endurance and my lips are clearly better suited to a slightly more shallow cup size. Further, I have six liter lung capacity and an aperture controlled embouchure meaning a larger throat is more comfortable offering me greater dynamic range. By forgetting who told me to play a Bach 1-1/2C and simply believing that suggestion, I have moved into a mouthpiece that far better fits my needs as a player both physically and musically.
How does this approach apply to proficiency on the trumpet? Well, ask yourself the following question, "What could you play if you forgot all of your previous mistakes?". My answer to this question is ANYTHING. I have literally forgotten the feeling of making mistakes in the practice room, in auditions and on stage for the vast majority of my life. And now that I play trumpet more often, I realize that my mind must have somehow been trained to deal with this reality as I still forget my mistakes in the conscious negative sense that many of us hold onto when attempting something difficult for the second, twentieth or even thousandth time. Forgetting that you made the same mistake over time is likely the key to success.
Take that idea one step further. I don't even see mistakes as negative, ever. When I observe others attempting something challenging and see negative facial expressions along the way, I wonder what is going on and why. Has our world become so self-conscious that we are thinking about inadequacies within the performing experience?
I should also mention I do not watch television nor have I ever watched tv since banning it from my life when I was in 6th grade. From what I gather from family members, I stopped watching tv to prevent myself from being tainted with the unwarranted expectations of others. The story goes something like this, I heard a diet coke ad on tv and jingle said something about drinking it for the taste. I apparently did not like the taste of regular or diet coke and this commercial was so popular that I stopped watching tv. In fact, I stopped drinking soda altogether as a result of reading about the common ingredients and their effect on the human body.
Ask yourself why people drink so much pepsi and coke. Is it because of the taste or did the advertising seep into your reality over time? How many times do you estimate you have unintentionally heard a coke or pepsi ad? Is it possible that you consume some products based on the subconscious cues you have learned through clever advertising? Why don't you drink pure clean water since it is better for you? Now imagine erasing all remnants of social bias from your reality. I drink water at every single meal, every day of the week. I do this because it works best with my body and likely because I do not have any bias towards other commercialized beverage options.
Apply this to playing trumpet, but imagine that YOU are the source of your own advertising. Every time you've ever attempted slurring from C below the staff directly up to A above the staff is probably stored someplace in your brain. How many times did you play this particular slur perfectly? How many times did you land on a G or experience some form of an out of tune A? And how does your collective memory of these experiences reinforce your next attempt? Your history on this slur is similar to advertising. If you have a long history of playing it perfect, then your mind is most likely going to imagine another perfect instance in the future. And if you've missed it too many times, you may automatically doubt your ability to perform this consistently.
So how do you forget so that you may re-learn? Well, now that I don't have memory loss as frequently, it is easier for me to remember my own mistakes. However, I don't see missing a wide interval as a mistake. Instead, I simply hear where I landed in relation to my target and make slight changes on the second attempt. I almost always nail it the second time as I objectively gauge my efforts and fine tune my performance system. If I were to log in my brain one of two options; 1) a mistake or 2) a perfect score, then I'm operating on a scoring system rather than real-time feedback.
The difference between "scoring" your performance abilities and "real-time" feedback in the way we approach anything is extremely important. I suspect the reason many of us are scoring our abilities is that we compare ourselves to other players. Today, more than ever before, we can hear more great and poor examples of trumpet performance on YouTube, websites, blogs, forums and other online and live sources. But how does that teach us to perform better if we only compare? I'm all for learning to do something better, but my goal is to be me, not the other person I heard on the internet. Scoring every interval, attack, range, endurance and the like is not necessary and could be counter-productive.
I prefer "Real-time Feedback", which is to say I am listening to what is being performed by others and myself and then making small changes in my performance system to intuitively achieve results that reflect my intent. If I want to play a perfect slur from low C to A above the staff, I forget about everything in the world and monitor my air flow throughout my body. I focus on the aperture formed by my lips and remember the experience. If I overshoot the note, I make adjustments and let a little more air flow on the higher note. If I hit the G below the A, then I simply let less air out on the higher note. But I never think, "Oh man, that was embarrassing, I wonder how many people noticed I messed up that interval?". In fact, I don't really care what anyone thinks about me hitting the interval less than perfect. I simply listen while monitoring my body and adjust as I play all night long.
I know this blog entry is very different than my usual technical information-based entries. But I wanted to let you know that half of my approach to trumpet playing (and everything in life) is based on the human experience. Learning to forget what is not helpful to your progress is probably the most important concept you can ever incorporate into your life. I encourage you to forget negative reinforcements, replacing them with real-time feedback that is neither positive or negative. It is simply information you interpret to better the next experience.
Figuratively speaking, too many of us fall down when learning to walk and then simply fear falling again. Remember that falling down is nothing more than the result of gravity combined with the human experience and any of us can learn to run, jump, somersault, flip, cart wheel and with a human wing suit, we can fly. Imagine what you can do with a trumpet!