The Carmine Caruso Legacy

I think that the concept of a saxophonist and former violinist becoming one of the most well-respected and well-known trumpet (and brass) teachers is a fascinating one. His callisthenic approach will be well-known to many readers through his publications, but in addition to this concentration on the physical synchronisation of different muscle groups, he also built a reputation on positivity and for really nurturing his students.

So many top players over the years attribute a huge portion of their success to Carmine Caruso – I was fortunate enough to be able to gather the thoughts of four of these fabulous players, in order to get to the bottom of how their experiences with Carmine influenced them and their careers: Marvin Stamm, John Thirkell, Randy Brecker and Markus Stockhausen.

Why did you go to study with Carmine Caruso?

MARVIN STAMM:  I had just settled in New York City in late 1966 and was beginning to be a part of the jazz and studio scene. I mentioned to friend and fellow trumpet player Burt Collins that I wanted to continue to study and work on certain aspects of my playing. Coming off the road, I was bothered by a few things that I felt needed to be addressed. Burt told me about his study with Carmine, that he was a trouble-shooter and problem-solver. He also mentioned a number of players who had been helped through studying with Carmine, among them the great lead player Al Porcino and others, and he felt Carmine would be the teacher to see.

JOHN THIRKELL:  I was at Leeds College of Music when I first came across the Caruso Method. I had studied several other method books – Claude Gordon, Louis Maggio etc. – but something about the concise and prescriptive nature of the Caruso appealed to my sensibilities. Do A and B will happen, then do C and D will result, and so on. That kind of regime somehow clicked with me and I quickly became a devotee. My then trumpet teacher was, I’m afraid, very much against such perceived radical methods but I think that only made me more determined. I’ve always been (and still am) one for swimming against the tide.

RANDY BRECKER:  I was playing in the Duke Pearson big band in ’66 and the other 3 trumpet players, (Marvin Stamm, Burt Collins and Joe Shepley) had studied with him and swore by him and said I should see him to improve my range.

MARKUS STOCKHAUSEN:  In January 1978 I came to New York. It was a winter with heavy snow. New York was peaceful and quiet. I contacted Marvin Stamm, whom I admired from his recordings with the Pat Williams Orchestra. I told him that I would like to have lessons with him. He denied and said that instead I should go to his teacher, Carmine Caruso, which then I did. Nevertheless, I had a good time with Marvin, he took me several times to studio sessions and gave me the opportunity to feel the scene, to meet other players like Alan Rubin, Lew Soloff, and also, I witnessed a rehearsal with the Maynard Ferguson Band in some hotel, a great experience at the time.

What were your impressions of the first lesson?

MARVIN:  Carmine was one of the most positive thinkers I have ever met, and he strived to infuse this positive attitude into all his students. Any progress, any improvement, no matter how small, was recognized as progress and needed to be appreciated in that light. My impression after my first lesson was that I had really found the teacher who could help me over whatever obstacles I felt were a problem.

JOHN:  My overriding memory of the first lesson was how energizing it was. He had the uncanny ability to make you feel like you could achieve absolutely anything, and he removed much of the worry I had associated with playing and practicing. He always said that, if you are following his instructions implicitly and not making progress, then the fault was in his teaching rather than in you. That idea was incredibly liberating and allowed me to focus on the process rather than worry about any innate ability. Just do it! I felt that sense of positive energy every single time I came out of a lesson.

Also, I couldn’t believe how little I actually played. I would say in the 90 minutes I was with him, I played probably no more than 15 minutes maximum, the rest of the time being taken up with the explanation of his theories and the idea of allowing your body to adapt and find the solutions rather than you consciously trying to find them. That was a common thread in all of the lessons and I would go as far as to say that he was as much a psychologist as he was a trumpet teacher. He talked you into playing well. There is a common idea that, as a trumpet player if you think you are going to miss it, you’ll miss it. Caruso, as with so many other things, turned that into a positive by inculcating the idea that, by knowing that you will hit it, you’ll hit it. And the more you know it, the more you’ll hit it.

RANDY:  Well he had those airline noise-reducing huge headphones on the whole time and talked a lot… and said a bunch of surprising things about how to approach his exercises (don’t worry about your sound, don’t worry if you miss a note etc.

MARKUS:  With Carmine I had seven lessons. Each time he would write me the next exercise on a little sheet of paper. So, in the beginning I just had the six notes I think, and at the end of the month the full system. His book was in preparation and had not yet been released, and he did not care so much about it, I had the expression. His teaching, though he had a system, seemed very individual.

His room was dusty, with old book shelves full of music, and a fan. The heating was hot, he just wore an undershirt, and often put on his headphones while I played, the kind they use in airports. Now I can understand him very well, because also for me the trumpet often is loud to my ears, and I use some plugs or phones when I play or teach a lot. He was very kind with me, like a father. His eyes were loving and distant at the same time. He was very patient, but clear, to the point.

What were the big changes that you found from the way that you had previously approached the trumpet?

MARVIN:  I’m not sure there were big changes in my approach to the trumpet. What I was looking to find were solutions to a problem, and I believe any big changes were more in my thinking—that is, in discovering how and what to practice to overcome these issues.

Problem-solving, of course, is most always a slow process. The time during which I studied with Carmine took place before cell phones, tablets and laptops, even the Internet, so everything moved at a slower pace than it would today. Musicians’ expectations of progress were based on the “long view” rather than how much could be learned in the short term. Carmine had a unique ability to recognize and analyse individual problems, so the exercises he gave were designed for each student to assimilate corrections into their playing slowly, without disrupting their ability to continue working while at the same time finding answers to their musical problems. The exercises were also meant to become permanent solutions that would serve the players throughout their performance career. So, the big changes happened over time and in small increments.

I approached Carmine to help overcome the “break” I had at the top of the staff—to close the space in that area so as to provide a smooth path from top to bottom. Meantime, Carmine also saw problem areas that he could fix while helping me with what I perceived to be my only impediment. I was using movement or manipulation with my hands for one thing; another was playing a note before properly setting for it, kind of like “jumping on a running horse.” Carmine also knew that I wanted to build stamina and broaden my sound, thereby making my lead-playing stronger and more effective. All this we achieved over time. Patience was the key to the results I desired.

JOHN:  The idea that, whilst practicing the Caruso method, you should not worry at all about musicality or the sound. This was purely calisthenics. Building muscle. Pushing the body a tiny bit further every time and allowing it to find a way to cope. Rather than make arbitrary changes in order to achieve an objective, by pushing the body it will find its own way to cope with the added demands. Again, this is incredibly liberating and allows you to stop worrying and just focus on the process.

Tapping the foot is also a big part of the method – that and the breath attack on the first note of an exercise – the idea being to train all of the disparate muscles required to play a note to come together at the exact same time. Again, subliminally training the body to automatically synchronise everything.

RANDY:  Better high register and more flexibility.

MARKUS:  His exercises focused my embouchure and gave me strength and endurance and developed my high register.

Could you feel a big difference in your playing immediately after starting studying with Carmine, or was it a slower process to see results?

MARVIN:  Some things were immediate, but the bulk of what I wanted to achieve was a slower process.

JOHN:  I think I pretty much felt a difference straight away, but this was probably more a result of the incredible sense of self belief which he gave you. You came away from a lesson feeling that nothing was impossible and that certainly manifested in the way I played thereafter. That confidence removes much of the doubt that holds back progress and I found myself playing with much more abandon. On a more physiological level though, pretty soon I found my range, not necessarily expanding that much but certainly becoming much more solid and dependable and I think that was as a result of the muscular development.

RANDY:  Pretty fast I must say.

Were there any aspects of the teaching that contradicted what you had been working on previously?

MARVIN:  Yes and no. His approach was quite different. Carmine was very “up front” that he was not working on students’ musical values, but on their physical attributes, striving to solidify a structural approach to playing the instrument. He told his students NOT to put aside playing etudes, solo pieces, practicing Arban’s, Schlossberg, Colin or other methods. He always stressed to me the importance of mixing in his studies with all the others that I had been working on, especially the musical ones.

If there were any contradictory elements to Carmine’s approach, they might be the use of nose-breathing, the long-settings, and the tapping of one’s foot to create the rhythmic movement of moving from tone to tone.

Nose-breathing allows one to have no movement of the corners of the mouth when taking a breath, thereby making possible a long setting, a consistent or constant placement of the horn to the lips. Tapping of the foot to set up the “time” meant that when moving from one tone to another, the only thing one had to be aware of was to consciously move “to the beat,” thus eliminating having to think of the many other elements of playing the instrument—the tongue, air, and muscles. Only moving to “time.”

Carmine’s exercises might be considered by some to be contrary to the usual structural exercises as those utilized by Schlossberg, Arban, St. Jacome, and Charles Colin. The approach was certainly different. And though I did some work out of the Baermann Clarinet Method, this was not really for any technical aspect, but rather to work over the break that I hoped to minimize to the fullest. All the exercises other than the Baermann were Carmine’s. There was also a strong focus on using dynamics in his exercises, both in a typical and atypical manner. These were used to work the embouchure in a more arduous way, making actual performance of demanding music much easier.

JOHN:  The idea of not being concerned with musicality or sound was very different but you soon learn to separate out the Caruso part of your practice from the other, more music focused stuff. He would use the analogy of a footballer (American football, not proper football) working out in the gym with weights. Where were the weights during the football game? But the weight training was of fundamental importance to his performance on the field.

RANDY:  Well I always worked on my sound and sound didn’t matter when doing his callisthenic exercises.

MARKUS:  He knew all the struggles that I was going through at the time. My embouchure had to be dry while playing, at least the top lip, which had been a problem for me during concerts when I sweated a lot, especially with spot lights on me. His pedal tone exercises followed by the chord pedals gave me a wet embouchure, resulting in much better playing possibilities.

Did you continue with his methods exactly as prescribed, or did you need to adapt them to fit in better with your work schedule, etc.?

MARVIN:  No, I didn’t find a need to adapt anything to fit my work schedule. Carmine always stressed to practice his exercises as he prescribed in the lessons, but when performing in my work, approach things as I usually did. He said the effects of his exercises working their way into my playing would happen by osmosis—that it should happen seamlessly. In my experience, I found this to be true.

I tried to use his methods exactly as prescribed. As is the case with any fine teacher, however, if he felt at some juncture that a change in approach might be more beneficial, he would make the necessary change. I studied with Carmine six and one-half years and continue to include a number of his exercises in my daily practice, along with a number from Laurie Frink, Dennis Najoom, and the classic methods mentioned earlier.

JOHN:  For several years I followed his methods to the letter but in time, as I got busier and busier as a pro player, I slowly watered down the routine as it can be physically quite demanding, and it becomes more important that your chops are in shape for your session rather than completing the whole routine. The Caruso done thoroughly means you are pushing your body more and more and, by overdoing it you can leave your chops a little shredded. I remember explaining the lessons as taught by Caruso to Guy Barker and, being Guy, he went mad and practiced it for hours. Well, of course it did more harm than good, and he pretty soon gave it up. The idea is to go through the day’s routine, take a break then move on to your regular practice. These days I tend to stick to the 6 notes exercise as part of my warm up and maybe once a week do the full routine.

RANDY:  Tried just to do what he said to do, fit them into what I was already doing, but I applied his ideas about timing to other things I did like the Adam Routine warm up.

MARKUS:  At times I would overdo the exercises. Especially the soft-loud-soft, as well as the loud-soft-loud exercises were very strenuous to me when I did them on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I continued the exercises for quite some years, not always very regularly, but still. Within time I found my own way, a little more moderate, and surely not applying the full system, I am aware of that. I do the exercises only from time to time now, when I feel I need to focus my embouchure or prepare for a very hard trumpet concerto. Often just by doing the “Six notes”, the body remembers the whole thing immediately and I can play up and down without any further warm ups. The body actually is magic, how it can reproduce results that have been properly programmed. In fact that is the basis for Carmine’s system, as well as of others of course, that the cells have memory.

I would like to thank Marvin, John, Randy and Markus for their contributions here! Please visit their websites to find out more:

Marvin Stammmarvinstamm.com

John Thirkelljohnnythirkell.com

Randy Breckerrandybrecker.com

Markus Stockhausenmarkusstockhausen.de

Click here to purchase a copy of Carmine Caruso’s ‘Musical Calisthenics for Brass’ at Thompson Music

Markus Stockhausen’s “The Basic Caruso”, from which his quotes are taken above, is available here

Photo Credits: Bev Nathan (John Thirkell), Judy Kirtley ( Marvin Stamm), Gerhard Richter (Markus Stockhausen)

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