I’ve written about various people at the festival that I had not known prior to their event. Ed’s talk was different. I’ve been a fan of Ed Neumeister for many years, notably from his work in the Thad Jones Mel Lewis band. His beautiful performance on Butter was one of my favorites. He’s a very eclectic musician with a resume that includes being a renown jazz player, writing for film, conducting orchestras, as a professor of trombone at the University of the Performing Arts, Graz Austria, and to my knowledge, the only trombone player to give a Ted Talk.
But this day at Julliard, Ed would talk about practicing.
Ed told us he was a student of the martial arts, and I believe he mentioned Tai Chi and Qigong. He talked about his philosophy of warming up. In fact, he argued against even calling it warming up since practicing is “getting ready” to perform. So what is warming up? “Getting ready to get ready?”, he asked. From the time you take your first breath to play for the day, it’s just all performing.
He asked each of us to close our eyes and breath deeply. As we breathed, he had us visualize our breathing. Watch it go in and then go out. He said he spends several minutes each day doing this meditation prior to putting horn on his mouth. He asked us to take as deep a breath as possible, then “sip” in small extra quantities of air to fill our lungs as much as possible. He then had us release the air evenly through the opening in our lips as if we were playing. Obviously, proper breathing is of paramount importance to Ed’s practicing. Whenever he is about to play a note, he takes a very purposeful deep breath. I saw him breath this way in his other performances throughout the week.
At the conclusion of the mediation, Ed talked philosophically about practicing. He encouraged us to again think of this playing time as a performance – and an important one at that. Rather than churning through fast lip slurs and interval exercises, he played through some simple melodies. Long notes over a slow tempo.
To his way of thinking, there’s not just one routine. Your practicing/performing is based on what you need for that time. Maybe you need to work on your tonguing, maybe on range, maybe on breathing. Related to his eastern meditative philosophy, he encouraged each of us to be aware of what we need to work on at any given time – and that’s the playing you do on your own time that most people call practicing.
To put my own interpretation on Ed Neumeister, I would characterize him as present. Many of us are avid time travelers, our minds swirling about with what we must do later, or why we did something earlier, not really being in the moment. At those times we are going through the motions of our current activity without being present enough to realize what we are doing. And if we conduct our solitary performances (practicing) within our time machine, we aren’t aware enough of how we sound to make the necessary improvements. “I did those exercises.” Check the box. “I played those etudes.” Check the next box. How was your practice? “Great, I practiced for 5 hours.”
I asked him if he spends time working on his plunger technique. After all, he is widely known for his great ability with a plunger. Later in the festival he and Wycliffe Gordon performed a duet of Stompin’ at the Savoy with each of them on plunger. It was brilliant! He talked about the hand position and making different sounds. Like Wycliffe, he uses a small mute inside the bell AND a plunger. Apparently he has quite a collection of mutes, having spent a lot of time searching for the perfect mutes.
It was a terrific hour listening to this master share aspects of his personal playing philosophy with us and hearing him play. To hear some of this for yourself, visit his site where you can download his book and listen to several videos.