J.C. Higginbotham’s Solo On “Mint Julep”

Over a year ago I had started rehearsing with a band that was going to be performing Jelly Roll Morton’s tune, Mint Julep. I began transcribing J.C. Higginbotham’s solo from Morton’s recording, but when the pandemic hit we stopped getting together and I forgot to finish transcribing the solo. While recently going through some notes I found my transcription half completed. It’s not a terribly difficult solo to transcribe, so I powered through and got it finished. Here’s the recording for you to listen to Higginbotham’s solo.

I like this solo because it’s different from Kid Ory’s style from the same time period. Where Ory would have taken more of a “tailgate” approach, Higginbotham’s solo is more trumpet-like.

Here’s a PDF link to the solo if you want to print it out for yourself. As always when I post a transcription, I suggest that you don’t trust my work. The real value in learning solos isn’t so much to be able to play the notes from the page, but to train your ear and really pick up on the nuances that the soloist uses. There’s a lot in this solo that isn’t really possible to notate, but by repeatedly listening, singing, and playing along with the recording you’ll start to pick up on them and be able to incorporate them into your own playing more naturally.

The Evidence On Mouthpiece Buzzing Efficacy

Back when I was a high school and college music student my brass teachers never really emphasized nor discouraged mouthpiece buzzing. It didn’t seem to be a point of controversy. I knew that a lot teachers recommended it, but I didn’t really consider it more than doing it occasionally. As a doctoral trombone student, my mentor, John Seidel, did have certain exercises that he used that involved buzzing on the mouthpiece. These days there are many high profile brass performers and teachers who actively discourage it while others argue that it’s extremely valuable.

I’ve written about this topic before (here and here), but until recently I haven’t gone out of my way to get a decent look and see what empirical evidence is out there for and against mouthpiece buzzing. I did a quick search in a college library catalogue for “mouthpiece buzzing,” limiting it to sources published since 2000, to see what would come up in the academic and professional literature. I ended up finding 35 articles/papers that had something to say about mouthpiece buzzing, of which only 29 actually addressed whether mouthpiece buzzing was useful for teaching and practice. By no means is this a comprehensive literature review, but rather gives us a snapshot into what sort of information is available and what the state of current research is on the topic.

Rather than summarizing each reference, I instead just looked at the following five criteria:

  1. Does the article/paper empirically research the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing?
  2. Does the article/paper speculate on the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing with relevant and/or accurate information?
  3. Does the article/paper avoid speculation on the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing using anecdotal, irrelevant and/or inaccurate information?
  4. Does the article/paper properly cite sources or otherwise logically reason out its arguments for the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing?
  5. Is the article/paper pro-mouthpiece buzzing, con-mouthpiece buzzing, or neutral?

Note that I’ve phrased the questions in the above criteria in order to make “yes” answers show that a resource would be a helpful reference for objectively looking at the effectiveness of mouthpiece buzzing. Likewise, any “no” answers mean that this paper or article would not make a very good objective reference. That’s not to say that the paper isn’t good, it just won’t be able to objectively answer the question on whether or not mouthpiece buzzing is a positive or negative practice approach.

I also feel compelled to point out that I mostly skimmed these papers and articles, glossing over things that weren’t relevant to the topic of mouthpiece buzzing. It’s entirely possible that I missed or misunderstood some points in this literature and so you should take my evaluation of them with a grain of salt.


You’ll see in the below chart that the vast majority of papers and articles I found simply state their opinion on mouthpiece buzzing without citing any sources or backing it up with logical speculation. It largely seems that almost everyone simply assumes mouthpiece buzzing is useful and the rational comes down to either tradition or anecdotal support. Some of them contain surveys of literature and/or brass teachers that endorse mouthpiece buzzing, but this is a poor method to judge the effectiveness of a pedagogical approach – if the pedagogical tradition is already biased towards mouthpiece buzzing then we can assume most players and teachers will be similarly biased. That doesn’t necessarily mean that mouthpiece buzzing is bad, but the reasons for it are flawed. As you’ll note in my chart below, very few people have subjected mouthpiece buzzing to an honest test.

Likewise, you’ll note that the vast majority of the literature I found falls into the “pro” camp towards mouthpiece buzzing, while only two ended up as “neutral.” I didn’t find any resources that were definitely against mouthpiece buzzing in this search, although I know of a few high profile teachers or players who are against it. A literature search for the term “mouthpiece buzzing” is probably going to be biased towards papers and articles recommending it, since authors who are against the practice are not likely to mention it at all if they are recommending another method.

A very large number of these resources got a “no” answer on Criteria 3 (does it avoid inaccurate speculation) because it claimed that the instrument functions as an “amplifier” for the buzzing lips. While this may be a good analogy for teaching and there is an element of truth to it, the actual physics behind the standing wave inside the instrument makes that idea too simplistic to logically speculate on the efficacy of mouthpiece buzzing as a practice method. This is one of those ideas that’s been repeated for so long that a lot of brass musicians accept it without question.

As an aside, one of the reasons I restricted my search to resources written in the 21st century is because in a recent Trombone Chat forum conversation one participant lamented that much of the discussion there revolved around pedagogy from 50 years ago or longer (specifically, that of Arnold Jacobs). That said, a great deal of the articles and papers I found cited Jacobs or even were specifically devoted to his pedagogy. Jacobs’s pedagogy is still dominant, at least in English language resources. While I feel there’s much that his approach has to offer players and teachers, there’s also much that needs revision and too often it’s the later that gets cited in support of certain pedagogical practices (you can read more of what I’ve written about Jacobs’s pedagogy here).

Out of the literature I found, there was only one study that made an attempt to measure whether or not mouthpiece buzzing is an effective practice tool, “The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine On the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Students,” by Jason Beghtol. In Beghtol’s review of the literature he doesn’t cite any other study that similarly tested mouthpiece buzzing, leading me to believe that it’s likely no one has done so before him. I think it’s very important to note that the results of Beghtol’s tests showed no statistically significant results between his sample population of students who were given mouthpiece buzzing instruction compared with his control group. Keep in mind that there were some limitations of methodology that make it difficult for us to draw up conclusions that will apply to the general brass playing population, but so far the only empirical evidence concerning the use of mouthpiece buzzing shows that it’s no more effective than not mouthpiece buzzing at all.

TitleCriteria 1Criteria 2Criteria 3Criteria 4Criteria 5
“Dr. Nathaniel O. Brickens: His Pedagogy, Career, and Influence On Trombone Performers and Educators,” Dunwoody Mirvil, 2008NoYesNoNoPro
“A review of the unique injuries sustained by musicians,” Michele Heinan, 2008NoNoYesNoPro
“Pedagogical Methods of Vincent Cichowicz as Witnessed by Larry Black, 1964-1966,” Brittany Hendricks 2013NoNoNoNoPro
“Developing a Solid Bass Trombone Sound,” Aaron Wilson, 2016NoNoNoNoPro
“A Guide To Daily Routines,” James Boldin, 2011NoNoNoYesNeutral
“Conrad Herwig Masterclass,” Antonio J. Garcia, 2014NoNoNoNoPro
“Endurance: Thoughts On Winning the Unwinnable,” Patrick Boyle, 2009NoNoNoNoPro
“A Lost Embouchure Found: A Journey Back From Focal Dystonia,” Ashley Gulbranson, 2014NoNoNoNoPro
“Empowering Musicians: Teaching, Transforming, Living,” William J. Dawson, 2016NoNoNoNoPro
“Starting the French Horn: Step-By-Step to Ensure Success,” Drew Phillips, 2019NoNoNoNoPro
“Song and Wind In Canada: The Impact of Arnold Jacobs’s Teaching on Canadian Tuba Pedagogues,” Jonathan David Rowsell, 2018NoNoNoNoPro
“A Pedagogical Approach For Developing the Endurance, Technical Facility and Flexibility Necessary to Perform Anthony Plog’s Concerto for Solo Trumpet, 14 Brass, and Percussion,” Michael Sullivan, 2014NoNoNoNoPro
“The Modern Trumpet Player,” Tony Carlucci, 2011NoNoNoNoPro
“Steps Toward More Effective Brass Blowing,” Chad Criswell, 2009NoNoNoNoPro
“Technique Tips: Accuracy,” Jeffrey Agrell, 2010NoNoNoNoPro
“From Blat to Beautiful: Help Your Trumpeters Develop a Great Embouchure,” Alicia Sanderman, 2004NoNoNoNoPro
“Making a Good Sound On the Trumpet,” Thomas Dust, 2007NoNoNoNoPro
“Embouchure Problems In Brass Instrumentalists,” Richard J. LedermanNoYesNoNoPro
“Five Basics For a Horn Embouchure,” Andrew M. McAfeeNoNoNoNoPro
“Euphonium Euphoria: Encouraging Great Sound and Facility from Your Euphonium Players,” Aaron WilsonNoNoNoNoPro
“No More ‘Bad Days’ – A Trumpet and Brass-Instrument
Warm-Up Routine that Works,” Christian McIvor, 2017
“Upper Register Training for Young Horn Players,” Drew PhillipsNoNoNoNoPro
“Endurance: Thoughts On Winning the Unwinnable,” Patrick Boyle, 2009NoNoNoNoPro
“To Bee Or Not To Bee: The Art of Buzzing,” Mike HeriottNoNoNoNoPro
“Teaching Beginning Trombone Players,” Todd L. Fallis, 2001NoNoNoNoPro
“Lessons Learned From the Slide Trumpet,” Chase Sandborn, 2003NoNoNoNoPro
“The Buzz On Horn Buzzing,” Jon Chappell, 2008NoYesNoNoPro
“Mouthpiece Buzzing,” Gillian MacKay, 2012NoYesYesYesPro
“The Effect of a Researcher Composed Mouthpiece Buzzing Routine On the Intonation and Tone Quality of Beginning Band Students,” Jason Beghtol, 2018YesYesNoYesNeutral

You might wonder after going through this exercise what I personally think at this point. My opinion on mouthpiece buzzing hasn’t changed. There are probably some situations where it can be a useful tool, when done a certain way. It’s also possible that doing it wrong or too much can actually be counterproductive. I think it’s very likely that when done correctly and moderation that it’s not really all that more useful than practicing other things that have less risk of working against how we want to actually play the instrument, so I’m going to continue to avoid it in my own practice and use it sparingly in my teaching.

Why You Shouldn’t Be a Fake Book Player – And a Couple of Reasons Why You Should

Eric (no last name that I can find) published an article on jazzadvice.com that makes a very compelling argument that jazz musicians should not read tunes out of a fake book. For the non-jazz musicians out there, a “fake book” is a collection of lead sheets (melody and chord progressions) of standard jazz compositions. Often you will find players using them on gigs or in rehearsals. Eric argues that using them is a crutch. He describes three pitfalls of using a fake book.

I) Ignoring your Ears
The main problem with fake books is that they allow you to play tunes and create solos without using your ears.

One of Eric’s points here is that by using your eyes to read the music you’re going to turn off your ears. Fair enough, but my classical music colleagues typically read music on their performances and they are always advocating using your ears and listening to what you are playing and what’s around you at the same time. Granted, they are not improvising, but there’s probably a happy medium in there that we can use.

II) You don’t really ‘Know’ the tune
When you rely on a fake book, you never get to the point where you “know” the tunes that you’re playing.

Back in the day I worked as a trombonist on cruise ships. On one ship I worked on we had two cruises a week, two shows each night. I ended up playing the same show four times a week, and some of the dance sets we played used the same book even more often. It got to the point where I had much of the music memorized, even without consciously trying to.

Maybe I’m different from some folks, but I naturally get to know tunes just by playing them over and over again.

III) Limiting the music
When you can only play the tunes in that fake book on your music stand, you’re not only putting yourself in a box musically, you’re limiting the music itself. But, what exactly does that mean?

Eric’s article was published in 2014, but even then I think I was beginning to see the use of tablets and phones as PDF readers become prolific on gigs. Many people (including myself) have what would be 1,000s of pages of sheet music stored on a tablet instantly available for when a tune is called that isn’t memorized. Sure, there are tunes that just aren’t in those books too, but we enjoy access to sheet music these days that just wasn’t possible in the days of fake book hard copies.

With the caveats that I’ve presented, let’s look at the benefits Eric mentions for learning tunes by ear.

I) Improving your ear
By getting away from the fake book, you’ll not only improve your ear, you’ll actually be using it.

Learning a tune by ear also has the added benefit of memorizing it faster (at least for me). Sure, it will take you longer (initially) to be able to play the entire melody, but that melody and the changes will get into your long term memory quicker and stick with you longer.

II) Knowing a tune intellectually and aurally fosters creativity

Creativity is dependent upon a certain level of proficiency and freedom.

I think most of us improvise more creatively when we know the tune really well.

III) Listening and interacting when you perform
One common theme that you see with players or groups that use books to perform is that everyone ends up staring at the book. Every player is in their own world and focusing on their own part. They’re all playing at the same time, yet no one is playing together. As a result there is little to no musical communication within the group.

Again, I would like to point out that in the classical world musicians strive to listen and interact with each other while reading their sheet music. Granted, there are different aesthetics going on in classical music compared to jazz. Instead, I think it’s a matter of attention.

We can typically only concentrate on a one or two things at a time, but performing music requires us to have control over multiple things at a time. Musicians will need to have technical mastery over their instrument, play together with other musicians, concentrate on time, harmony, melody, etc. Effective multitasking in and of itself isn’t about developing the ability to think about many things at once, it’s about having such command over the task that attention isn’t required, it’s automatic. That’s why having a tune committed to memory is so useful. By not needing to concentrate on the sight reading it frees up your mental energy to concentrate on listening and interacting with your fellow musicians.

And therein lies my best case (weak as it is) for learning to read lead sheets. Many of the “ear” players I gig with are not great sight readers. Don’t get me wrong, they can be some of the most creative musicians to work with, but when I get with them on a gig that requires reading they struggle. Jazz musicians who are solid sight readers don’t need to take up such mental energy trying to follow the lead sheet because their reading is to the point where it’s automatic. Those musicians can get on a gig with my big band and sight read one of my original compositions while listening, interacting, and improvising creatively. I don’t think it’s just the act of reading the music that is limiting a jazz musicians playing, it’s the mental focus of reading that’s pulling their attention away from listening and using their ear.

All that said, Eric’s article is a great read and the advice he offers is golden. Check out more of what he wrote and start (or continue) memorizing tunes. While you’re at it, take a tune you don’t know and haven’t heard before and force yourself to play over it by sight. Two sides of the same coin.

Editing Audio Mixing In Video

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has created software that can take a look a a video of musicians and isolate the sounds of specific instruments to make them louder or softer.

Pretty neat. Right now it appears as if it’s limited to just two different instruments, but I’m looking forward to the time when they will be able to take an audio file and isolate specific players. I want to be able to take a Duke Ellington Orchestra recording, for example, and be able to accurately transcribe the exact voicing that Ellington wrote. One band I perform with regularly will recreate classic traditional jazz recordings and sometimes it’s very difficult to hear specific instruments because of the early recording technology used. Software like this could make it easier to boost the instrument sound that we’re having trouble hearing or turn down the instruments coving up what we’re trying to transcribe.

Weekend Picks

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post some weekend picks for you. Here are some random music-related sites for you to browse this weekend.

Do you like brass band music? Do you like drinking? If you like both, you probably would love Serbias Guča Trumpet Festival. The Dragačevo Sabor Trubaca brings in more than half a million people to a small village in Serbia for a wild weekend of brass bands and drinking.

It is believed this Balkan brass tradition emerged in the early 20th century, around the time Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League to battle the Ottoman Empire in 1912. “During the Balkan Wars, and then during World War I, military bands came through the area, playing mostly brass instruments,” Smith says. “These instruments were adopted by the Balkans, who created brass versions of pre-existing folk songs. In Serbia in particular, they embraced brass music to the extent that they consider it their national style of music.”

You can read more about it in A Frenzy of Trumpets: Why Brass Musicians Can’t Resist Serbia’s Wildest Festival.

If you are studying aural skills or teaching ear training it’s nice to have a repertory of familiar songs to help you recognize intervals.

Although some may have changed since this article was posted in 2013, it gives you some practical advice for dealing with flying with your musical instrument. As always, check ahead when traveling with your instrument.

Lastly, remember to Be Like Bill. See more of Bill here.

Why Is Sheet Music Necessary For Music Education?

Robbie Gennet, a “songwriter, musician, educator and journalist,” tried to make the case that learning to read music notation is irrelevant for music education. His case is that none of the following musicians learned to read music:

All four Beatles. Elvis Presley. Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy Page. Eric Clapton. B.B. King. Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Bee Gees. Eddie Van Halen. Robert Johnson. Slash. Angus Young of AC/DC. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Adam Jones of Tool. James Hetfield of Metallica. Danny Elfman. Stevie Wonder. Dave Brubeck. Andrea Bocelli. Wes Montgomery. Jimmy Smith. Charles Mingus. Erroll Garner. Irving Berlin. Chet Baker. Pete Townsend. Tori Amos. Jerry Garcia. Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain. Taylor Swift. Bob Marley.

Many of the commenters on the article have already deconstructed Gennet’s argument and offered many strong reasons why learning to be musically literate is not only useful, but necessary in most musical professions. His rationalization is similar to saying one could become a great actor without learning to read a script. It’s certainly possible, but very limiting to learn your lines and communicate with your colleagues without being literate. Similarly, you will limit your musical abilities and possibilities if you eschew learning to read music. Gennet wrote:

As a musician, your ability in most live situations to quickly transpose a piece or adapt to sudden deviations is way more valuable than being locked to an inflexible script, as is your ability to stretch out and at times improvise.

He creates a false dichotomy here. Your ability to read notation has no bearing whatsoever on your abilities to adapt and improvise. While Gennet lists some exceptional jazz musicians in his list of musically illiterate musicians, by and large jazz musicians both work hard to be able to sight read and perform from sheet music as well as to improvise and deviate from the notation. They are two sides of the same coin, not two mutually exclusive skills. Many orchestral musicians, trumpet players for example, also work very hard to be able to transpose sheet music by sight as well. Learning to read notation is integral to this skill.

Furthermore, I call shenanigans on the list of musicians Gennet claims did not read music. As some of the commenters on his article have pointed out, many of those musicians had other folks in the background that were highly musically literate helping them out. The Beatles, for example, had George Martin notate parts for their recordings. Others, such as Charles Mingus, Danny Elfman, and Dave Brubeck may have not learned to sight read well, but certainly were musically literate.

I don’t know Gennet’s music or his musical literacy, however my suspicion is that his article will get used more as justification for musical illiteracy, rather than evidence that ear training, transposition, and improvisation are useful tools for creativity. Shame on Gennet, as a proclaimed educator, to rationalize illiteracy of any kind.

Developing Perfect Pitch (or not)

A very small part of the population has what is commonly called “perfect pitch.” More properly known as “absolute pitch,” individuals who possess it inherently know what pitch is being played and can sing any give pitch without a point of reference at any time. It offers an advantage to musicians, however our current understanding strongly suggests that this is a skill that needs to be developed before the age of 9 and can’t be learned as an adult.

That hasn’t stopped a lot of folks from trying to train adults to acquire perfect pitch. A lot of these are probably scams, although some may be good ways to teach ear training. One common approach is to train your sense of pitch memory so that you always have a point of pitch reference.

A recent study investigated this by training subjects to their working memory for pitch recognition. After going through a training program that offered corrections and reinforcements, subjects scored significantly better on tests where they were asked to recreate and label pitches. Lead researcher Howard Nusbaum said:

This is the first significant demonstration that the ability to identify notes by hearing them may well be something that individuals can be trained to do. It’s an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one’s mind.

I agree with what Richard Moss wrote in the same article. There is a pretty vast difference between the perfect pitch abilities of someone who acquired it in childhood compared with those of individuals who have developed it in adulthood. Nusbaum, et al, seemed to acknowledge this in their article abstract, noting that “the performance typically achieved by this population [acquired at adulthood] is below the performance of a ‘true’ AP possessor.”

Take a look at the following graph, from Absolute pitch: perception, coding, and controversies, by Daniel J. Leviton and Susan E. Rogers.

It would also appear that developing true absolute pitch as an adult is extremely rare, in spite of all the courses and effort folks often take in developing it. That’s not to say that working on your pitch memory is bad, any ear training is good for your musicianship. I would recommend, however, that you focus your ear training practice on skills that are practical for what you want to do. I would argue that it’s more important to focus your effort on pitch relationships, that is to say, relative pitch. Even folks with perfect pitch have to practice this and spend time on it, and this skill is much more critical than being able to recognize a pitch without a point of reference.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday and it has been a while since I’ve posted some random music-related links for you to surf this weekend.

Coping With Change As Brass Players Age is an essay written by trombonist and composer Brad Howland. Frankly, everything he mentions in there is good for brass players of any age.

An odd side effect of a mood-stabilization drug might actually be able to help adults develop absolute pitch. Read more about it on Want Perfect Pitch? You Might Be Able To Pop a Pill For That.

While this Music Timeline is short on classical music (meaning none) it is a neat interactive way to explore popular and jazz music styles.

Believe it or not, my own composing has been influenced by cartoon music. Here’s an old Warner Brothers cartoon that I love, featuring music written by the great Shorty Rogers, The Three Little Bops.

Marc Sabatella on the Harmonic Language of Standards

Mick, a trumpet/cornet playing friend of mine, and I were recently talking about jazz harmony. A while back Mick found a great resource on common patterns in traditional jazz (I wrote about it here, but the original page seems to have been deleted). That blog and our conversation reminded me of something put together by pianist Marc Sabatella called The Harmonic Language of Standards.  Sabatella’s discussion on jazz harmony was required reading for my jazz improvisation students. I think it’s a great summary of the harmonic language of jazz standards.

While only a summary of his more in-depth book, you can get quite a bit out of reading what Sabatella has made available for free on his web site. He has put together a very complete list of common chord progression patterns in a section about functional harmony. In my opinion, one of the most useful parts of it are Sabatella’s breakdown of common idioms. He divides basic chord patterns into five categories – cadential progressions, pre-cadential progressions, static progressions and turnarounds, transitional progressions, and modulations.

Just as we can usually break a song down into a handful of broad sections such as AABA, we can usually break down each section into a handful of these idiomatic phrases. The phrases I am talking about are usually around two measures each. At slower tempos they may be squeezed into a single measure, and at faster tempos they might take four measures each.

An understanding of these types of chord patterns really helps me memorize chord progressions because instead of thinking so much about individual chords I’m thinking of broader chord patterns. It also helps you come up with some new ways to think about chord progressions and reharmonizations.

Sabatella mentions an example he uses on how to apply these principles to composition.

I then discuss how to apply your understanding of chord progressions to substitution and reharmonization, using the standard My One And Only Love by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin as an example. Looking at just the “A” section, I first break it down into a series of eight harmonic phrases and then show how to go about performing substitutions using other idioms from the same categories as well as more direct application of the guidelines of harmony themselves.

This is a great exercise for composers. Take a tune you know and break down the chord progression by the common idioms. Make note of certain key centers and using those as a goal, write a new chord progression that continues to maintain the road map of common idioms. For example, if you take the A sections of rhythm changes you might start your A section on the tonic, write a static chord progression for three measures, transition to the IV chord in measure 4, then cadence back to I in measure 6. A static chord progression for 7 and 8.

Just to demonstrate, I came up with the following by intentionally being a little goofy with it and in the process I bent some of the parameters from the rhythm changes A sections. I often compose chord progression in this way, with target harmonic goals in mind and then try out different things randomly until I get something I really like. My solution:

|Bb7 Db7 |Cm7 Eb7 |Dm7 A7 |Abm7 Db7 |Eb7 E7 |Eb7 B7 |Bb7 Db7 |Eb7 Ab7|

[audio:http://wilktone.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Rhythm-A-Reharm.mp3|titles=A Section Reharm]

Not the greatest there is, but there’s some potential in there. Maybe I’ll come up with a bridge and a melody for it too and see what it develops into.

Try it out yourself. Read through Marc Sabatella’s Harmonic Language of Standards and then try reharmonizing standard chord progressions using those common idioms as a road map.