Don’t Be a Button Pusher

Too many of us learned to play trumpet like this: “Press 1 and 2 for ‘E.’” or “’C’ is open.”  Of course, this is all true, but we all know that simply pressing the valves doesn’t get the note out.  Unfortunately, many students try to play as if that’s all that they need to do. 

Pressing down the correct fingerings make it possible for our instrument to vibrate at the desired frequency.  However, without the correct vibration, it won’t quite work.  Sure, you might get a sound out and the instrument may get you close to the pitch, but we want something better, right?

Tips for recovering button pushers

  • Sing – Yes, the only way to really verify that you know the pitch you want to make is to sing it.  Practice this:
    • Finger a line of music on the trumpet while singing it.
    • Sing the first note of a line, then play it through.
    • Stop before a specific note and sing it instead of playing it.
  • Buzz – Our lips can too often become passive spectators in the process.  They must be an active part of the process.  Much like singing, practice these things:
    • Finger a line of music on the trumpet while buzzing it.  (You’ll need a B.E.R.P. or similar device to do this.)
    • Buzz the first note of a line, then play it through
    • Stop before a specific note and buzz it instead of playing it.

I still remember my shock when I fully realized the challenge of playing trumpet.  I had to know — hear! — every pitch that was supposed to come out of my instrument.  There began my journey towards not just getting the notes if I was lucky but confidently hitting the center of each pitch and fully resonating on every note.  There are a lot of benefits to playing this way including increased technical speed, endurance, range, and more.  Join me on this journey that’s part of my practice every day as a trumpet-playing musician — not a button pusher!

Seven Steps to a Successful Audition

Over the years, I’ve helped numerous collegiate and high school trumpet players prepare for auditions of all sorts.  Whether it’s a major career audition or the annual audition for your school’s band,  here are seven practical suggestions that capture the process from preparation to audition to reflection:

  1. Practice creatively.  Use all of your “tools” to practice good rhythm, pitch, sound, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, etc.  Clap, sing, buzz, say, and blow the music to hone these things.  Slow the tempo down until you can play it perfectly, and practice small sections at a time.
  2. Perform often.  Make time in your daily practice to simply perform.  Stop trying to fix things and simply focus on making music.  Ask your friends, family, band director, dog, and others to listen to you play.  Even more important than getting their feedback is the opportunity for you to have an audition experience.  (Plus, Mom will always think you sound great!)
  3. Record yourself.  Certainly you’ve heard a teacher say, “You can’t be listening to me if you’re talking, too!”  The same is true with an instrument. While we’re playing we can’t listen as well as when we only listen.  Plus, it gives your chops a needed break to listen back to what you’ve played.
  4. On the day of the audition only think positively.  While you’re preparing for the audition in the weeks and days beforehand listen critically to yourself most of the time.  Then on the day of the audition vigilantly dismiss the voice inside you that offers doubts and criticisms of your playing.  Remind yourself of what you do well.
  5. Don’t try to win the “warm-up competition.”  Listen to your warm-up, not the others’.  The other guy always sounds great warming up, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is how you play in the audition.  Don’t play too much before the audition, and focus on preparing yourself to share enjoyable music!
  6. Focus on breath.  Breathing fully and comfortably not only keeps us relaxed, but helps the production of sound to work freely.  Make sure to add breath marks to your music and practice these ahead of time.
  7. Learn from the experience.  Take some time after the audition to reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and why.  Regardless of the outcome, take something away that you can use to improve your music for the next performance.

Let me know how these help you not only audition well, but more importantly, become a better musician!

auditorium chairs comfortable concert
Photo by Pixabay on

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (soon, please)

aerial view of sports stadium during daytime
Photo by Tim Gouw on

In recognition of what would’ve been opening day for Major League Baseball today, here’s a simple duet to play at home with a family member or with me playing one of the parts.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame trumpet duet

Duet Demo Recording:

Play-Along with 1st Part:

Play-Along with 2nd Part:

Download music and mp3s

Why Bother to Use Leadsheets When Preparing to Lead Worship?

simplified-sample-ccMany contemporary musicians in church today use lyric sheets with chords written above the words.  There’s nothing wrong with these chord charts.  In fact, they’re very helpful in providing basic reminders of lyrics and chords for musicians who already know the tunes.

However, there are significant limitations compared to full leadsheets – notated music on a staff that includes all the same things (lyrics and chords) but with helpful details such as more exact melodic and harmonic rhythms.  The fact that leadsheets require some ability to read traditional notation might discourage some musicians.

But I think there are several good reasons for worship leaders to use leadsheets.  Here are a few:

  • New Music: Leadsheets allow musicians to play an entirely new song without first hearing it. We are no longer bound by whatever is most popular.  Instead, we can include songs in our services that are lesser known or even brand new, perhaps written by someone in your church.  Chord charts require that musicians have heard the song before, often over and over again.  It leads us to prefer songs that get played repeatedly on the radio or in a limited repertoire of congregational songs.
  • Efficient Rehearsals: Leadsheets tend to answer many more questions than chord charts do. Rehearsal time, then, is not wasted simply trying to learn the song.  Thinking through the form of a song on paper is a good way to make decisions about form and other elements before getting to rehearsal which makes more room for working together to hone the quality and creativity of our leading.
  • Better Singing: A mentor of mine spent a decent amount of time creating his own leadsheets for the worship teams at our church. It helped the worship leaders agree on things like words and melody with the ultimate goal of leading worshippers to participate more fully.  It also allowed for multiple teams to lead a song in a predictable way.  The proof was in how well the congregation sang on Sundays!
  • Creative Freedom: It seems like chord charts would allow for more creativity. In my experience, however, they tie teams to a particular recording that might not match the context of your congregation, service, or space.  Instead, try making your own leadsheets.  This naturally leads us to make some decisions, such as “What exactly is the melody that we’re singing together?” or “Is it helpful to repeat that section so many times?”
  • More Participants: Just as some musicians prefer learning aurally, other musicians prefer to learn music by reading it on the page. String and wind instrumentalists, for example, are often used to reading notes on the page or improvising from a leadsheet.  Vocalists, too, can benefit from notating simple harmonies.  This is becomes more and more helpful when there are multiple singers involved and rehearsal time is in short supply.

Let me be clear, I’m not against learning music by ear.  The ability to play what you hear is just as important as playing what you see.  The musicians I admire most have incredible abilities to do both well!

No written medium can capture the whole musical picture.  And we can be just as tied to the details written on a page as we are to how a certain musician performs a song on a particular recording.  Leadsheets for a single congregational song that are more than a page or two often suffer from too much needless repetition or convoluted repeats.  Keep it simple.

My hope is that the points above help you to consider what can be gained from using notated leadsheets with your church musicians in order to better serve your congregation and worship God through music.


Resources for Vinson’s Echoes of the Hollow Square

04002947-wlSadly, the ACSI Mid-America Music Festival had to be cancelled this year.  I was really looking forward to working with the high school band musicians on the piece Echoes of the Hollow Square by Johnnie Vinson!  It’s such a fun piece to explore with multiple layers of things to learn from.  Here are a few resources so that bands or individual students can dig into this piece some more.  I’ve put an asterisk in front of the points and resources that I think cover the most important aspects of this piece.

Background information:

*Echoes of the Hollow Square is based on four American hymn tunes from the 19th century: The Morning Trumpet, Hallelujah, I’m Going Home, and Warrenton.  These songs appeared in songbooks, such as the “The Sacred Harp,” that used shaped notes.  These were part of a system of note reading that used a simplified form of solfege (think Do, Re, Mi).  It was helpful for teaching singing and allowed Christian communities to sing together in four parts.  The “Hollow Square” refers to the traditional formation used in these gatherings in which each of the four voice parts were situated facing one another with the song leader in the center.

*Basic program notes:

*Sacred Harp:

*Shape-note singing:

*Shape-note songs used in this piece (excerpts from the Sacred Harp):  Note that the melody is in the third line (tenor) part.

Sacred Harp books (primary sources of various editions):

Composer’s website:

Hymn text composers and writers:

Lowell Mason: An important figure in early American church music and music education.


*Publisher’s performance with score:

*I’m Going Home performance:

Note how the first notes are intoned and how everyone first sings it through on syllables before adding the text.  Also, it is common for the leader and singers to gesture up and down with one arm with the pulse.

Modern Sacred Harp gatherings:

A performance of the final movement of the work that I directed with the Csehy Summer School of Music Band:  Even smaller bands can do a great job with this piece!

More ideas:

*This piece is available in where students are able to play along with a recording of the whole piece, adjust the tempo for practice, and record themselves.

Discuss the musical aspects of Sacred Harp singing: There are distinct qualities to the singing that may strike us as odd or even non-musical, such as the timbre (tone) of the voices, strong rhythmic pulse, and relative lack of phrase shape.  Also, the harmonies and voice leading is unique compared to traditional principles of classical music.  This may lead to broader discussions about folk music and its place in culture.  Also, in what ways does the composer reflect these qualities in timbre, tone, harmony, etc?

Discuss the content of the hymn texts:  How does the music reflect the text?  What biblical themes are shared by all of the hymn texts?

There are so many other connections that can be made with this piece.  I’d love to hear how your students interact with it and include more of your ideas.  Send me an email:!