Sunday, June 12, 2011

My Lesson With Ingrid Jensen

It’s long overdue, but I’m finally doing an entry on my lesson with the Ingrid Jensen! I met Ingrid years ago, when I was first starting out as a jazz player and attending classes at the University of Tennessee. I learned that she was teaching at a jazz camp in Spartanburg, SC, so I jumped in my car and drove up to take a lesson with her. I ran into Ingrid again when I performed in the Carmine Caruso Competition in 2005. That was the first time I heard her perform live, and it absolutely blew me away. She played all over the trumpet, playing really original lines that I hadn't heard before. When I moved back to New York in 2009, I knew I wanted to reconnect with her to pick her brain a little more. As it happens, she was just about to participate in a new series of videos on a website called The site provides online videos of established players giving lessons, and Ingrid invited me to sit in on the video as her student. She did a great job with the lessons and the video is chocked full of useful information. It will be available soon as a download or as a DVD, so be sure to visit the website to buy a copy and to support Ingrid and this great company. After having a couple of on-camera lessons, I also met with Ingrid at her apartment in Astoria, Queens to follow up in more detail with what we talked about in the previous lessons. At the time she was well into her pregnancy and was playing as great as ever.
For those people who aren’t familiar with Ingrid Jensen, here’s a quick Cliffs Notes on her musical background. She was born in Vancouver and raised in Nanaimo, Canada where she grew up in a musical family and was exposed to jazz and classical music at an early age. When she finally left Canada, it was to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Like a lot of serious players, she decided to move to New York after her studies and jump into the musical fray. After years of hard work, she has built a name for herself as one of the new creative voices on the trumpet. Most people are familiar with Ingrid from her work with the Grammy winning Maria Schneider Orchestra. She is also involved with the IJQ with Geoffrey Keezer, Project O, Nordic Connect and a number of other projects. But, she is just as busy, if not more so, as a leader and has released several CD's for the ENJA and ArtistShare labels. (Be sure to visit her website here and support her music by buying a CD!) She continues to tour the world as a performer and clinician. Here is a feature on Ingrid on Canadian TV:
Ingrid is one of the few people around today with a truly unique playing style, but she also has her own personal way of practicing and teaching. As an educator myself, I find taking lessons from different players to be a fascinating study in how very different strategies can be equally effective. At the same time, I have found that at the core of any good teacher is an emphasis on fundamentals. It's just that different teachers package or present these fundamentals in very different ways. For instance, some players and teachers I have studied with are very methodical in the way they practice and organize their time, sometimes to the point of tedium.
Ingrid on the other hand has a much more Zen-like approach to playing the trumpet and to approaching music in general. Although the use of the word "Zen" has become a bit of a new age cliche in recent years, it really does describe Ingrid's approach to a T. Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes experiential knowledge and intuition over theoretical knowledge. Ingrid never mentioned the word Zen, but it was the first word I thought of when trying to describe her approach to music. We didn't talk a lot about method books or pedagogical philosophies. Instead, she showed me several simple but effective exercises are designed to naturally move the player in the right direction through focused repetition. Ingrid is a highly intuitive player and both her practice sessions and her playing style felt very fluid, flowing naturally from one thing to the next.

To give you an example of Ingrid's unique approach to practicing, she uses a drone machine to augment her warm-ups and lessons. When she first pulled this little machine out, I have to admit I didn't know what to make of it, but I soon found it added a whole new dynamic practicing. By providing just a single tone to play off of, I felt like I was creating music at all times, even when practicing things like mouthpiece buzzing, which seemed inherently unmusical before. All of a sudden, the note I buzzed on the mouthpiece became a part of a musical exchange with the drone. By changing my note, I was creating new intervals and thus forming musical ideas.
A lot of players tend to separate their time between practicing the trumpet and practicing music. Ingrid explained that her goal is to include music in all aspects of playing. She uses the drone for everything from mouthpiece buzzing to long tones to working out her ideas on the trumpet. The constant reference note that a drone machine provides can also alert players to mistakes in intonation and sound quality they might not have noticed while practicing on their own. On a more subtle level, the drone had an effect on the lesson as a whole in that it tended to put me in a sort of calm, receptive frame of mind. Of course, humankind has been using the drone for thousands of years to achieve this effect, and John Coltrane even learned to incorporate it into jazz, but I had never thought to incorporate into a practice session.
Once I saw how Ingrid practices and teaches, many of the unique aspects of her playing style that I wondered about began to make sense. Her approach to the trumpet is very similar to the way Kenny Werner plays the piano. Werner actually wrote a book several years ago called “Effortless Mastery,” and Ingrid’s approach falls right in line with many of concepts laid out in this book. Both have styles that are very chromatic and very fluid. They also seem to have an effortless command over their instruments. When Ingrid plays, it is obvious that her body is very relaxed. There is none of the tension or straining that most people accept as a fact of life when playing the trumpet. Over the years, she has learned to find the path of least resistance on the instrument so that she can focus on expressing her musical ideas instead fighting through her horn. She gave me pointers from everything from how to stand without tension to how to practice with a lead pipe to find the center of the note. All of the lessons focused on simple ideas that emphasize playing freely without unnecessary tension.
I found it fascinating how Ingrid incorporates some of the established practice methods into this philosophy. She has studied everything from the Alexander Technique to the Caruso Method (from trumpeter/teacher Laurie Frink). She even studied with Bill Adam himself. Instead of sticking religiously to these methods as they were originally presented, she has learned to bring them into her own style of teaching. For instance, both the Bill Adam leadpipe routine and the Caruso Six Notes can both be utilized with the drone to add a new twist on these already great exercises.

The same goes with her approach to improvisation. When I asked her about how she comes up with her highly original chromatic lines, she didn’t give me a heady diatribe about chord superimposition or scale theory. Instead, she showed me a simple exercise: Take a simple grouping of four notes and then practice playing just those notes in as many variations as possible. Next, play these notes over different drone notes to get a feel for how the character of that note grouping changes in relationship to different tonal centers. Add a few chromatic connecting notes here and there, and this note grouping will evolve into a series of unique musical ideas that you can use to move in and out of the chord changes. By creating these sorts of limitations, you will find you come up with lines and interval combinations you might never have discovered before.

Recently, Ingrid began investigating different ways to optimize her equipment. After many years of playing on a Bach, she has switched to a Monette horn. She explained that her goal is to have a trumpet/mouthpiece combination that plays in tune without relying on adjustments by the player. Because players tend to subconsciously adjust on certain notes that play out of tune, they end up reinforcing bad habits. These bad habits can make them prematurely tired as well as deaden the sound of the trumpet due to the fact that the player is buzzing off center to adjust for intonation. Ingrid explained that in order for your sound to really open up, you need to be playing in the resonating center of the note as dictated by the trumpet.
As you can tell, I learned a lot with my time with Ingrid. Here are some main points that I will definitely keep in the back of my mind as I practice in the future:
  • Always practice fundamentals: buzzing, long tones, lip slurs, etc.
  • Look for the path of least resistance in when dealing with the rumpet; focus on efficiency in your playing so that the trumpet is a vessel of your ideas, not an obstacle for them.
  • Stand with good posture to avoid tension in your body. (Too much tension can actually lead to injury.)
  • Make sure your equipment is working for you, not against you. Experiment with different equipment so that your horn blows freely with good natural intonation.
  • Create a practice session that allows you to focus in on your weaknesses while still making music at all times.
Remember, Ingrid's website is if you'd like more information on this great artist. Now on to the ten questions!
When did you begin to play trumpet and when did you begin learning jazz?

I began playing trumpet in 7th grade when I was living out on Vancouver Island and going to Cedar Elementary School. I started playing left-handed for the first three months until the band director noticed. I grew up listening to Louis Armstrong picking out solos like Basin Street Blues. I was pretty much improvising from the beginning. My house was a jazz house. My mother was a stride piano player. We had stacks and stacks of lead sheets around the house, so I was playing piano and trumpet from the beginning. I learned all of the standards in their original form with the verses. It was a really great way to grow up.
What is your practice routine?
My practice routine is very sporadic. The most basic is just a 20-minute drone through a few different key centers related to tunes I’m about to play. I also practice with the metronome at the tempo of one of the tunes I’m about to play so that my head is getting into the music immediately. At home, it’s much more involved. I play etudes and focus on areas I need to build on. So the work is never done and the more I get into it, the more I have to work on.
What traits of the great jazz trumpet players of the past do you value the most, and what have you done to address those aspects in your playing?
It’s about the character of the players that got me into wanting to pursue being me. Clark Terry asked me once if I’d ever met Louis Armstrong and I said I’d never had the pleasure. He said, “Pops would have liked you,” and that was huge information fro me. Here I was thinking I didn’t have a right to go on stage with confidence. That made me realize that if you’re a good person, and really open, and pursuing your character on the instrument, then you are following in the footsteps of the greats, because that’s what they were about. They were all serious voices of character resonating from within. I’m a fan of people who really go for it and are really honest when it comes to playing and are not trying to be someone else.
What have you tried to do to make your playing unique?
Striking out on my own as as leader has helped to force me to find my own voice. Michael Brecker came up to me one day and said “I heard a trumpet player on the radio on the radio the other day. I could not figure out for the life of me who that was. The announcer finally said it was you Ingrid Jensen!” I went beet red and I was so embarrassed and humbled. That was around the time I had stopped taking gigs I didn’t like and focusing on doing only what I really loved. And it made me pretty poor, but it was worth it.
Hakan Hakenberger is a good example of this. He listened when his teacher told him he didn’t have to be an orchestral player. He actually encouraged him to be a soloist. And for him to accept that responsibility and go forth with it is a lesson for all of us. I still don’t get calls from people I wish would hire me because I know I could play their music well. But I don’t use that as a discouraging factor. I want people to hire me for being me, not for being just a decent trumpet player. I decided one day, that I could either keep being a sideman and playing club date bands in Jersey for the rest of my life, or I could put myself in this position where I am now responsible for a band. I went through a phase of losing a lot of money. I survived from day to day but it was the best time of my life. It took a lot of time meeting people and chipping a way to build a reputation. Initially it was a real sacrifice, and we live in a culture of instant gratification.
What equipment do you play and how much does equipment play a factor in your approach?
I play a gold-plated Monette XLTJ STC trumpet. The horn was originally designed for another player, but I fell in love with it and ended up taking it instead. I love Dave Monette's horns and mouthpieces and feel like I've really settled on my horn. Of course a horn won't make you a great player, but it's important to find a horn and a mouthpiece that gives you the sound you want and makes an already difficult instrument a little easier.
Do you subscribe to any particular systems of trumpet technique (Caruso, Reinhardt, etc.)?
I studied the Caruso Method and Bill Adams, but I don’t subscribe to any one school.
Do you practice classical music, and if so, why?
I do practice classical music for endurance and accuracy. I’ll play Bach duets with someone else or play etudes. It also helps with focus.
Do you play any other instruments? If so, how do you think that impacts your conception of jazz trumpet playing?
I play some piano. I wouldn’t perform on I but it gives me a connection with harmony, melody and counterpoint.
Do you have any particular advice for aspiring jazz trumpet players?
Be patient. It’s one of those instruments that a lot of people give up on. Invest a lot of time on making the instrument speak. Work on your posture. Work on things outside of the trumpet to help you feel relaxed when you play.
What do you think of the jazz scene today?
I don’t know. I don’t really feel like I’m in the jazz scene anymore. I’m a little afraid of it because it seems to keep things boxed up. It’s very limiting and very political, so I’m just fortunate that I get to do crossover projects. I love doing classical things. It’s what I grew up with. I’m hopeful because there’s a new crop of musicians writing original music and really going for it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily jazz. Even Duke Ellington was hesitant about using the word jazz. These new artists are still making great music with improvisational elements that relate to swing and groove though. I myself am a swinger at heart. I will always play music that has the heart of Basie, the spirit of Louis and the effervescence of Clark Terry. That’s in my DNA. It’s what I grew up with and it has made me who I am. But at the same time, I will continue to play in odd meters and experiment with electronics. It’s part of what I hear now and it’s part of society. Whatever people thing about it. I don’t care. I’m too busy having fun.


  1. Hey I just discovered this site, the information you post on here is fascinating I hope you keep it up

  2. Great write up, Thomas. I really like the idea of practicing to a drone.

    I'm really enjoying the rest of the site, too!