Practicing trumpet mindfully

Somehow it had never occurred to me before this week that two of the things I’ve frequently wished were consistent habits of mine — mindful meditation and trumpet — could be combined. Then everything changed.

Why did it take so long for me to bring these two things together?

Practicing trumpet can be boring

One of the major stumbling blocks I’ve run into every other time I’ve tried to get back into playing trumpet is that some of the most useful exercises can also be the most boring.

Take, for example, long tones. Long tones involve taking a huge breath and playing a single note for as long as you can. With the wrong attitude, this type of exercise can be extremely mentally painful.

“How long until this note is over?”

“How many more do I have to play?”

“This sucks.”

If all you’re thinking about while you’re practicing trumpet long tones is how much you’d like to be done with them, it’s just not going to be very much fun, and you’ll never want it to be a regular habit because it’s so literally dreadful.

Mindfulness involves “boring” things

When people think about meditation, they often assume that it’s boring. It definitely involves things that sound boring.

“Hey, would you like to spend 20 minutes with your eyes closed doing nothing but concentrating on your breathing?”

There are lots of reasons why mindfulness can seem annoying. The real point of mindfulness, though, isn’t about doing interesting things, or having transcendent experiences. If that’s what you’re hoping to get out of meditation, you’re going to have a bad time.

Meditation, as I understand it, is more about training our brains to be able to focus on present-moment experiences. The reason meditators so frequently use the breath as an object of concentration for this practice is because it’s so simple, straightforward, and always with us. It might sound boring on the surface, but if you’re doing it right, it’s actually very difficult to keep your attention focused for even 5 or 10 seconds at a time. That difficulty, and the constant effort to return our attention to the breath, is the core to mindfulness practice.

Meditation is like doing pushups for our brain, and not just figuratively. There are lots of physical changes that are associated with long term meditation practice.

Meditating on trumpet long tones

Long tones, for me, are a wonderful object of attention to use in meditation. Much like the breath, there’s a lot of really interesting nuance to find when you focus all of your attention on the tone you’re producing, the way the trumpet feels in your hands, and the buzzing of your lips.

This week, I’ve started meditating again for the first time in a long time, by using long tones. I start by playing a low F# (the lowest standard note the trumpet can produce) and work my way up to the highest note I feel a little bit uncomfortable with, pushing myself just a bit more every day. Then I come all the way back down to low F#. On the way up, I try to play as evenly as possible. On the way down I try to use as much air as possible.

This takes my embouchure from relaxed and loose, up to a bit tighter (and physically demanding), and then back down to loose again.

The last couple of times I’ve blown a few pedal tones at the end of the routine with the help of my trombone mouthpiece. I pretend like this is to loosen up my lips even further, but honestly it’s just fun

Between each note, I do my best to take a couple of mindful breaths, and I always try to keep myself in the moment. As with any meditation practice, I fail at this a lot, but I keep trying.

When I’ve tried to get into meditation in the past, I’ve always tried to focus on my breath, and it never really worked out all that well for me. I think it’s much easier to get distracted, and I would also frequently get tired and almost fall asleep. Ok, I actually would fall asleep sometimes.

This trumpet exercise, something that would have once made me feel mostly agitated, is now serving two really important roles in my daily routine.

But does that count as “real” meditation?

Who cares?

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