Friday, February 22, 2019
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Tackling the Tough Licks

by Michael Blutman

The Other 99.999%

If you are the 0.001% of trumpeters who can play excellently without practicing, stop reading right now . . . and congratulations! For the rest of us, we will encounter challenging licks (musical phrases) which require creative problem-solving strategies.

Below are some of my favorite strategies. You can learn and apply methods from musicians on any instrument, dancers, actors, athletes, etc.--not just trumpeters.

You Can Play Anything!!! (If You Adjust a Few Things)

Some licks take a few minutes, hours, or days to tackle; others take years. No matter how challenging, any lick is approachable right now if you adjust a few variables.

Here are some suggestions:

Adopt the mind-set: “I can play any lick excellently right now . . . if you allow me to adjust the speed, range, and/or volume.”


I had a great elementary band director, Frank Bonasera (East Meadow School District, NY). “Combinations” were the heart of his teaching approach. Here is an example of a "Basic Combination" from G to Low C:

Feel free to add quarter triplets, eighth triplets, sixteenth notes, etc.

I rediscovered Combinations while in graduate school, trying to tackle an angular passage for a quickly-approaching performance. I did combinations on every tricky interval. This helped me really hear how each note connected through the phrase. Combinations have become a mainstay in my practicing ever since; I often use this method with tricky intervals.

Altering a Combination’s range, dynamics, and/or articulations provide infinite variety. Adapt your Combinations to tackle specific challenges.


When we encounter a tough lick, we often repeat the entire phrase lots of times. However, recent brain research confirms that we learn best, and quickest, when we break phrases into smaller parts (“chunks”). This sometimes means practicing just two or three notes at a time!

While “chunking” is touted today because of research validating its effectiveness, this strategy has been utilized by intelligent athletes and performing artists for centuries. See Daniel Coyle’s, The Talent Code, for a more in-depth discussion of the science behind this method.

Doing a Combination on a tricky interval is an example of “chunking.”

Dissecting a Phrase: Rhythm, Notes, Wind, Play

Another method for approaching a tough lick is to break it apart into its main elements: Rhythm and Notes. 

1)  Rhythm: Count the rhythm, say “tah,” play the rhythm on one note, buzz a mouthpiece, etc. 
We are only concerned with rhythm; don’t be concerned about the notes in this section. 

2)  Notes: OK, now figure out the notes! Hold out each note (always striving for a great tone). Iron out tricky intervals with Combinations. If a note is out of your range (too high or low), start with a more reasonable note; then, gradually move toward the written note (or beyond!).

Singing and buzzing the mouthpiece are also great ear training methods. Many great brass players utilize a “Sing, Buzz, Play” sequence.

3)  Wind: Now, coordinate the rhythm and correct fingerings . . . without ruining your lip. Play exactly as you normally would, but with the mouthpiece away from your lips. Blow a “wind pattern” of the phrase. Some prefer to sing the phrase with the correct rhythm and fingerings. Either is fine.

4)  Play: Now you should be able to play the phrase, with whatever speed/range/volume variables you have adjusted.

Intelligent Practicing

Exciting repertoire will present us with musical and physical challenges. Intelligent practicing requires both, 1) a clear image of how the music should sound eventually, and, 2) a realistic understanding of your current technical abilities. Musical goals should always guide your technical practicing. 

When I am intelligent enough to follow my own suggestions, I am rewarded with real, tangible progress. Best of luck . . . now go tackle some tough licks!

About the Author

Michael Blutman is a trumpeter and educator in New York City. His diverse performance credits include: Sting, National Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, American Symphony Orchestra, American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera, David Parsons Dance Company, Jonathan Batiste Big Band, Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and many others.

As an educator, Michael works for Nassau Suffolk Performing Arts (assistant conductor and brass coach), Usdan Center for the Arts (trumpet professor), Fusing Culture and Curriculum (coordinator and teaching artist), maintains an active private lesson studio, and has been a clinician for several colleges and high schools. Email Michael at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

About the Editor: Lisa Blackmore is Adjunct Professor of Trumpet at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Adjunct Professor of Trumpet and Horn at East Central College in Union, Missouri where she also teaches Music History and World Music. She is a member of “Cadre” at Missouri Baptist University, teaching trumpet and assisting with the concert band. Lisa earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) in Trumpet with a minor in Music History at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, where she received the Graduate College Dissertation Award in Musicology. Dr. Blackmore also holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and SUNY-Stony Brook. She previously served on the faculty at Lindenwood University and under her direction, the Lindenwood Trumpet Ensemble performed at the 2007 ITG conference at the University of Massachusetts―Amherst. Her private studio teaching has resulted in students performing in the St. Louis Youth Symphony and various Missouri All-State ensembles.

Lisa is a member of the Stonehenge Brass Trio and Confluence Brass. She was a bugler with the Missouri Military Funeral Honors Program from 2008-2013 and performed Taps at over 350 military services for Missouri Veterans. She performs with the Compton Heights Concert Band, and she is principal trumpet in the St. Louis Wind Symphony. She serves as a trumpet adjudicator for the Missouri All-State groups.

Lisa lives in Wright City, MO with her husband, Mark (also a trumpeter!) and their two cats, Chet and Ella. In her spare time she makes practice mutes and also enjoys reading and traveling.

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