Kyle Millsap: “We Must All Hear the Notes/Music We Intend to Play Before It Can Come Out of the Instrument”

In this new interview we have Kyle Millsap, Assistant Professor of Trumpet and Jazz at Texas A&M University-Kingsville (USA). Prof. Millsap was willing to share his grand pedagogical experience, as well as an extremely interesting exercise, in PDF format, to help center pitches.
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Where do you come from? That is, we would like to know 1) where you grew up as a trumpeter, 2) who were your most important teachers, and 3) what your professional and pedagogical trajectory has been until today.

I grew up in Kansas in a family of engineers and teachers. My grandmother has a degree in studio art, but that is about as non-mainstream as my family got. Band was supposed to be the extracurricular activity to keep me from getting hurt in sports, but I still managed to accomplish that from time to time. My family valued music and had the mentality that if you are going to do something, do it well, whether that is music, engineering, or brushing your teeth. I had the opportunity to play in the Wichita Youth Symphony Orchestra, Wichita Wind Ensemble, and Mid-Kansas Jazz Band, and had lessons with the trumpet professors at Wichita State while in high school. It made for busy weekends, but gave me a lot of experience and has been a model for the rest of my career. I studied a year with John Hagstrom while he was at WSU (pre-CSO) and there are things from the lessons I had with him 20+ years ago that I still use today in my playing and teaching. A couple of my teachers in college, Kevin Hartman and Judy Saxton got me down the pedagogical path I have followed, both being students of Mr. Cichowicz. From there, I sought out teachers and places where I could work on performing and teaching in all areas of trumpet playing. I studied with Leonard Candelaria and John Holt at UNT (MM) and David Spencer at the University of Memphis (DMA). They all followed a similar approach that Kevin and Judy had started me on, so while I had six teachers through my three degrees, they all had the same root philosophy, just approached it in different ways. I think that has been an advantage in teaching because it gives me an A, B, C, D, etc. way of getting the same message across to my students. The diversity of the schools and their areas also helped me keep working on developing on chops in classical, jazz, commercial, and chamber settings.

I was able to really cut my studio teaching chops (outside of grad school) at Murray State, teaching trumpet in Eric Swisher’s studio as an adjunct instructor. He was a great mentor and gave me a lot of latitude with the students he assigned me. I taught there for five years and believe that the kind of apprenticeship an adjunct position is can be invaluable if treated properly. For three of those five years, I also taught at the University of Memphis, one as an adjunct and the other two as the full-time Visiting Assistant Professor of Trumpet doing a sabbatical replacement. That turned out to be an interesting mix with urban student’s part of the week and rural students the other — different backgrounds, same goals, but I could not use the same message to get the same results.

That led me to where I am now at Texas A&M University-Kingsville in what is a job tailored to my main skill set. I teach studio trumpet and have taught additional orchestral repertoire and jazz lessons, direct one of our four big bands, lead the studio’s trumpet ensemble program, and started the jazz trumpet ensemble program. I also perform in the Kingsville Brass Quintet, the local symphonies, and some area jazz and rock bands.

Every trumpeter has his methodological preferences. What type of exercises or methods do you emphasize when practicing and teaching, and why?

I stress simplicity to my students. Sing, buzz, play. I feel all performers can exhibit characteristics we associate with people described as “natural” players — that ease in which sound is created and minimal effort exerted when playing. We can all breathe (I have yet to teach a zombie) and we can all sing, so let the body do its job and focus on constructing a beautiful melody. To help my students do that, I stress the concept of everything being a long tone. The warm-up is structured to emphasize this. I use mouthpiece playing to both promote steady airflow and point out how close all the intervals we play really are. Octaves look wide, but when played on the mouthpiece, there is no effort needed to slide up and down. If you can conceive of everything you play as one big pitch bend, the trumpet responds the way it should. We just must stay out of the way of what we can do. Through a lesson it is a matter of reminding students of this concept. When a student starts struggling, it is time to stop, take a full and relaxed breath, and get back to playing.

I draw heavily on their ear training classes. There are no magically musical properties in the trumpet — I cannot just press down a button and have a note come out. We must all hear the notes/music we intend to play before it can come out of the instrument. I will do exercises where students sing a little melody, repeat it on the mouthpiece how they sang it, and then mirror that on the trumpet. Usually they discover they were a half step from a good key, but over time, they strengthen the connection between ear and mouthpiece/trumpet.

Those are the underlying principles in most of what I do in the studio. I do not spend a lot of time talking trumpet concepts, but focus on musical ideas and what makes a musical performance. I use drones with the Cichowicz long tone studies to help students learn how to play their intervals correctly (play in tune) and how to keep their sound resonant from low to high. With my freshmen, I have a set curriculum, with each week mapped out, to help with the transition from the structure of high school to the flexibility of college. For this, I use the Clarke Technical Studies, Concone Complete Solfeggi, and Vizzutti Melodic Studies. It is important to catch any old high school habits quickly and work them out and these books always do a great job at highlighting inefficiencies and promoting proper playing habits.

Beyond that, I structure lessons based on what the student’s goals are and tailor repertoire choices around that. I have a mix of classical performance, jazz performance, and music education majors in my studio, so that keeps my teaching varied. What it comes back to is creating the best sounds possible, the simplest way possible, and equipping students with the ability to replicate everything in the lesson when they are alone in the practice room. I have a course of study that highlights some more of the methods I like to use on my studio website or a direct link here.

Could you tell us what your daily trumpet routine consists of?

My routine is a mix of warm-up and technique prep to get ready to teach (most days) or whatever the gig may be. I start off with a few minutes with a Breath Builder to “wake up” my body to the type of air I need to use to play trumpet. Next, I move on to playing the Cichowicz long tone studies on the mouthpiece (descending) followed up on the trumpet (ascending). Every time I go up, I add a note to the sequence, ending on C’’’. From there, I do a rotation of Clarke studies (Study 2 in major, minor, and whole tone, and the diminished arpeggios), scales, lip slurs, articulation studies, and a few range exercises. I also make it a point to get through all of my trumpets during this time.

What brands of trumpets and mouthpieces do you use? Do you use them for any particular reason?

I use Yamaha trumpets for the “conventional” stuff (B-flat, C, D/E-flat, piccolo, flugelhorn). They have all been tweaked a little for my playing and what I need to do, but otherwise, I have always been more comfortable on Yamaha instruments and able to get the sound I want. I also use a Ricco Kühn rotary C, Naumann Baroque trumpet, and an Olds Ambassador cornet.

As far as mouthpieces, I use a Monette mouthpiece on the big horns and piccolo. I like a Curry for my flugelhorn. The cornet has an interesting story. It is from the 1940s or 50s, I believe. My grandpa knew I was looking for one and purchased it in an antique store for $25. I could never find a mouthpiece that fit it properly until I called Terry Warburton to see if he could help. It apparently needed an “old Olds” taper. He made one for me, and I had him cut the shank a little short because while it was in tune, I could not get it to play sharp and that is how some groups I was playing it in liked to play.

Do you use any equipment that is beyond what we would consider normal? (E.G. a Delrin top, bent mouthpiece, bent trumpet receiver, different bell configuration, etc.)

All my equipment is pretty normal. I think a gold-plated mouthpiece on a silver-plated trumpet is about as “out there” as I get.

Where can a student, that would like to study with you, find you? Where do you teach?

My contact information is available through the Texas A&M University-Kingsville website where I am Assistant Professor of Trumpet & Jazz, tamuk.edu/music, or my professional website at millsaptrumpets.com. E-mail is usually the best contact format. I feel guilty when my inbox gets too many messages, so I try to answer quickly.

What can a student expect from you? And what do you expect from the student?

I always ask my students what their goals are. That is a two-sided question. First, I legitimately want to know what their goals are to tailor their lessons to help them achieve the desired outcome. Second, I want to know if they are serious and focused enough to have expectations of their playing.

I work to guide and inspire my students through everything we are doing. The guidance is largely in the form of equipping them with the tools needed to teach themselves. During eight semesters of lessons, and fifteen one-hour lessons per semester, I get five full days of instruction with a student to go from high school to graduated. I work to make sure they understand what we are doing in their lessons so they can take that to the practice room and continue the lesson through the week. Repertoire is chosen to help funnel them from a broad understanding early on, to a focused outcome when they leave.

What I expect is that my students come prepared to learn each week. Not being new to teaching, I know this is not a utopia where they will be as prepared to perform as they should be (one can always hope, however), but if they are ready to learn, usually something can be salvaged. Be willing to work hard towards the goals, stay the course on what we are accomplishing, even if the results are not coming fast enough, be curious about what is possible, and challenge personal bests to always be better. Be excited about trumpet playing. After all, it could be math class.

In your experience, what is the one common problem young players have today?

I would say young players could stand to be more curious about the right things. By that, I mean finding recordings of great performers to listen to as models, seeking out new music to learn beyond what is assigned in the lesson, and even experimenting with the music they are assigned to see what would make a musically pleasing performance. Most tend to wait for instructions from their professor. I tell my students that the difference between a professional and a student performer is not necessarily the level of technique or difficulty of the repertoire, but that the former tells the audience what the music is saying while the latter asks if it is right. I want them to convince me what they are playing is right. It may be how I play it, or not, but I am will to agree to “artistic differences” if they are confident in what they are playing.

Do you have any exercise you would like to share with the subscribers of Trumpet Magazine?

This is an exercise I do everyday in my warm-up and frequently have my students do for a variety of reasons, such as when they are out of tune with themselves, their tuning slide is too far out, they are reaching for notes, their sound is uneven, or they are consistently chipping notes.

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