Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Blame the BSO

Back in the 60s as an eager junior high/high school student, I was still tuning in to "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best". I was quickly transitioning into a trumpet geek however. Blame the BSO among others. What a thrill to catch the Boston Symphony TV broadcasts from Symphony Hall! Each concert was an event. Compared to the high-tech polished productions of today, those black and white shows were pretty basic with only a few simple camera shots of each section. Even so, there was fire coming into our New Jersey home as the trumpet section took their turns in the spotlight. Voisin, Ghitalla and the guys were awesome. They say Mager who preceded them was something else. I often wondered if there had been a musical personality gauge on stage when those guys had auditioned. Something like a Geiger counter, or a seismograph ready to sense some radiant presence! "Maestro, this guy is off the charts! . . . Great, higher him! That's what we're looking for!"

As a mild-mannered quiet boy from suburban New Jersey, these pros from Boston blew me away and woke me up to the world of the symphony orchestra. I was full of imagination and ripe for hero-worship. The BSO trumpets were packed with pizazz, bursting with energy, and just plain looking for a musical fight with any section who would dare to take them on! That was how I saw it anyway. They reminded me of bumper cars at the carnival, belligerantly elbowing everyone else out of the way, and driving wherever they pleased. It seemed like they could make the instrument actually talk, squalk, and when called for, even bark out the notes into the hall in their distinctive angry fashion. During one extreme close-up of the trumpets, I was sure I could see flames and fierce-looking faces etched on the sides of their bells. It had been noted that smoke vapors could at times be seen emanating from the end of their horns! Wow!

I don't care if it was a Brahms symphony or a Mozart overture, it was never boring. In my view, this was more exciting than going to see the Yankees play. And those were the days of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, and company. I had every one of those bubble gum cards! Too bad orchestras don't sell bubble gum cards of their players! If I were manager of the BSO back then, why we'd have great action poses of the brass heroes on every bubble gum card, extra bubble gum for the brass cards, and free bazooka bubble gum trumpet mouthpieces for all the students who attended . . . and. . . .

"Phil, time to get up. You'll be late to school!"

Friday, May 26, 2006

An Idea For The Next Bad-Chop Day

One summer at Blossom I overheard John Mack the former principal oboe of the Cleveland Orchestra say something to a chamber music ensemble he was coaching. "Don't worry about your great days, there will be plenty of those. Work on improving your bad days." I like that concept. You don't have to be having a great day to improve! That gives new hope and purpose for many discouraging spinning-your-wheels sessions. Yes, I may feel terrible, but that doesn't have to stop me from accomplishing something.

Progress often happens slowly. If you were to plot your progress over time, it likely would resemble the plains of Nebraska rather than the jagged mountains of Colorado. As we would make that long tedious road trip on vacations with the whole family from Ohio to Colorado, the little ones especially would become impatient with flat terrain. Where's the mountains, grandpa? Are we almost there, our 5-year-old grandson would ask? Yes, Andrew, we're making progress. But it doesn't feel like it, he complained!

True, it didn't seem like we were gaining any altitude at all, but it was happening imperceptibly as long as we kept moving westward. A simple thought, but maybe you can find some reason to take heart on many of those seemingly unproductive days. Improvement happens if we're steadily moving in the right direction. We don't have to notice it. We just have to move.

A couple of suggestions for such days: practice in short sessions, soft sessions, and sweet sessions. That is, play some of your favorite go-to music that cheers you, something fun. Soft playing is great therapy for the embouchure. Here's an ideal day to practice some of those pianissimo passages that usually get neglected on very active playing days. Don't get trapped into blowing a slug fest! Set a timer and stop playing. Rest the chops. Play little a lot, rather than a lot a little.

Find your own creative ways to improve when you don't necessarily feel like it. Take a weak area and break it down. Work systematically to bring that area of your playing up to a higher level. Rather than always practicing what you do well and avoiding your weak areas, decide to attack problem areas daily.

It may take a little time before you have a mountain top kind of day, so you may as well be steadily improving in the meantime. Enjoy the plains. Your mountains are just ahead! (Mountains indeed, but that is a topic for another day.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

How good are you today?

You are only as good as your worst day!

Greatness actually does strike all of us on occasion! We honestly consider that on any given day, with all circumstances in our favor, we could compete with the best in the business, and often, rightly so! The great trumpet hero somewhere inside each of us does emerge from time to time, but how often and for how long, that is the question! Why not invite your inner hero to participate in our day-to-day music routine and to hang out with you as long as possible?

Have you noticed how your Petroushka was flawless yesterday? And Mahler 5th is always awesome in the basement practice room? And your great endurance is usually a memory? We remember well that elusive affair with great chops and the I-can-play-anything mindset. If only we could recall those high moments when required, and be able to deliver with confidence like the great relief pitcher sauntering to the mound in the 9th inning to save the game night after night! Our success depends upon being able to use our skills consistently.

Two keys are vital in successful music-making over an entire career. First is the mastery and maintenance of all those seemingly boring basics: clean slurs, a beautiful focused sound, secure attacks, excellent intonation, flawless rhythm, effortless flexibility, high speed tonguing, great range, and control in all dynamics, to list just a few. Good mechanics bring job satisfaction and make you to become a highly valued team player. Constantly battling with the basics makes you a liability to your colleagues and a drainer of precious energy, theirs and yours. There is a great sense of accomplishment however, in seeking to execute all musical instructions perfectly. The concert then becomes a challenging game as you strive to play absolutely everything on the page! Instead of just getting by, you refuse to let anything get by you!

The other key to long-term survival is the ability to stay motivated with an energetic musical message that will withstand years of obstacles and discouragements. Reality is that there will be down times when inspiration seems to have run dry. Great players either have never experienced this, or else they have learned to disguise it. Certainly the latter must be the case. The spark of inspiring playing must be routinely practiced so that artistic greatness is normal and not left to chance. Simply, you have to sound enthusiastic even if you are not. Your musical vision must be stronger than any obstacles, internal or external. A very high percentage of your daily notes must be performance quality.

Here is where good basics hands over the baton to musical energy, drive, style and flair. The race is not finished with basics alone, for there are more laps left to be run. They get you into the race, but artistry finishes and wins at the end of the day. The transcending element here is the musical demands of the composer. Throwing yourself into the musical message gets you out of your doldrums. Hence you realize that you are the actor, the messenger conveying something very important to the audience. Listen often to the best for inspiration. There is no time for self-absorbed boredom. The audience is waiting, and you should be on a long term mission to deliver.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Are you in The Twilight Zone?

Does anyone remember "The Twilight Zone"? Ah, the 60s! . . . well. "Imagine, if you will", walking into a game of the farm club of the New York Yankees. You purchase your ticket, buy your hot dog, find your wooden seat, and get set to watch the future stars of the big leagues. Then to your amazement, something is very wrong with the picture before your eyes! The players are committing way too many errors. They seem strangely unprepared, and not nearly ready for prime time.

Do not adjust your TV, the problem is on the playing field! You see, these would-be greats have rarely if ever watched the real live New York Yankees play a major league game in Yankee Stadium! Impossible, you say. Baseball is what they are training to do. It's their passion, their goal, their future livelihood! No, what you see is real. You have just been taken out not to the ballgame, but into The Twilight Zone!

In the following scene you are entering a concert hall in a prestigious music school. You've purchased your ticket, found one of the many empty seats available, and get set to listen to the concert. Then to your amazement, once again something is very wrong with the picture before your eyes and ears! Why, these players are making way too many mistakes. They seem strangely unprepared, and not nearly ready for prime time.

The announcer interrupts the concert advising you that the problem is on the stage. You see, these would-be musicians have rarely if ever attended or listened to a major symphony orchestra concert, and they are not familiar with the music as it should be performed. Impossible, you say. Music is what they are training to do. It's their passion, their goal, their future livelihood! Unfortunately, what you heard is real. Once again, you have entered not the concert hall, but The Twilight Zone.

This scenario is intended to be motivational, not judgmental.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Did You Catch That?

Deep in the balcony students' binoculars are transfixed on the orchestra stage. The famous horn solo is approaching! Next, the beautiful flute cadenza followed by that very long and winding bassoon solo. Inevitably, the entire brass will impact the audience right between the eyes. Tonight each section will have its shining moments.

Eyes and ears prepare to take it all in. Undercover recording devices are turned on despite the risk. Then on cue, the solos pour forth with all the style, voluptuous sound, and panache one could want. The spotlight shifts from solo to solo, section to section. Like the awaited entrance of a glamorous Hollywood icon, the stage is now owned by one person at a time. All attention focuses on these soloists.

At last the final movement of the symphony races to its awesome climax. The last held note is milked for all the gusto available! The bows follow, solo and corporate. The audience then files out to return to their lives. But hopefully the students have stored enough inspiration and renewed love of their instrument to last them. They will remember the fireworks, but they may not have noticed some equally valuable skills that were clearly on display for any who would take note.

The featured excerpts were delivered, but so too was the control of every delicate entrance by every member of the orchestra. Chords were struck together, in balance and in tune. Pianissimo attacks were repeatedly executed flawlessly. All players were on the same page with rhythm and articulation. For two hours you were pretty much in a mistake-free zone!

In short, most of what contributes to successful performances is the control of the "nuts and bolts" of music-making. Great basics are the building blocks of great performances. The exciting solos are only part of the picture. What good is a cake with only icing? How valuable is the ball player who hits home runs, but who is a poor fielder? Great musicians have control of all facets of technique as well as impressive communication skills. Let's aim at being able to catch every detail on the page.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Where are we going?

Paavo Jarvi is great at signaling that the musical line needs direction. He would encourage us not to let the notes "get stuck." They must go somewhere, they can't just sit there. Call it energy, shape, or to use an old boring term, phrasing. In fact, isn't there a whole section in the Arban book dealing with that? Without this ingredient, music becomes just notes in time and space, a wonderful math problem to be contemplated, a treatise to be admired, a score to be studied. When given direction and style, the printed page becomes art.

Take a movement, a passage, an excerpt, or even just a phrase. What expression was intended? Where is the high point? When should there be vibrato or no vibrato? Can you show motion without changing the tempo? Can you imply a dynamic change without a big fluctuation in decibels? Do the dynamics highlight the phrase? What mood are you wanting to set, and what message are you sending, if any? Are you a computer or a flamboyant first violinist in a great string quartet? Are you matching the intention of the composer, or just trying to get all the notes? Are you involving your listeners? Are you just doing your job, or are you totally involved and loving every moment? And if not, can you convince your audience that you are?

After the nuts and bolts are in place, consider where you are going. Often the technical difficulties will take care of themselves when we aim at the target. The message is the music, not the notes.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Trumpet not needed!

There it is, that audition excerpt list staring back at you from your stand. You've been working through those orchestra fragments for weeks. However, something just might still be missing. It could well be that element in your playing that will make the committee want to advance you to semis. Suggestion: put the trumpet back into its case! For now it is not needed. Let's focus on just one thing.

Often the most deficient skill in auditions is steady rhythm. Good news, it should be the easiest to remedy. Most can play fairly well, but the beat is unsteady. Hence the audition committee shrugs and doubts that you can be trusted. You need not eliminate yourself for this reason. Instinctive rhythm should be a given. Of all things to miss on an audition, it should never be the tempo or the rhythm!

Start by clicking on the metronome obnoxiously loud with subdivisions if possible. Make sure you have a reasonable tempo for the excerpt. Don't be sent packing for your bizarre speeds. Internalize the beat and mark it by tapping with finger or pencil. Do this with absolute precision! With or without the metronome, you should be precise. Can you produce the tempo for each piece instantly without the metronome, and maintain it?

Next, you may add right hand fingers in exact sync with your metronome. Snap them on your left hand knuckles. That's why we have them, you know. Practice precision fingering at the right speed. Try this on the steering wheel while driving. Next, coordinate your fingers with your tongue. Tongue and fingers must be friends. Rhythmic perfection is your mission. Daily pulse out each piece with ever-growing confidence and insistence. Even slow excerpts must have a steady pulse. Be sure to subdivide to avoid rushing or dragging.

When you have absolutely had enough of this, then add singing with very exact pitches. This takes time and a lot of patience. If you can sing on pitch with precise fingering and tonguing, then you will have made huge progress! As you become more secure you can bring back the trumpet. Don't allow the horn to rob rob you of your rhythmic instincts and progress. You will find that a lot of style is achieved merely by great rhythm.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Taking Out theTrash

"Wince, You're on Candid Microphone"

On campus there has been a TV crew preparing a news feature on "The Practice Habits of the Poor and Not-Yet-Famous Trumpet Players at CCM." Your last practice session was recorded secretly, the whole thing, from the first fuzzy attack until the last blasted out-of-tune high G with that kiss at the end! Can you spell E-D-I-T? Too late. All of your notes matter, even when nobody you know of is listening. Next, they will be airing the secretly recorded practice routines of the ten top trumpet players in the country with a huge cash prize! Oh, if only you had been given a heads up!!

The point is, we waste too many notes, don't value them, don't care about them, and just don't bother to listen critically. Some of us err however in listening too carefully, being too self-focused, etc. The result there isn't so good either. But for the majority, I bet we just plain don't consider that the way we practice is the way we will play even when it counts.

Why not start tomorrow with an imaginary quality-note counter recording all of your practice? It monitors in percentages the acceptable vs. the unacceptable notes. How about finishing the day in the high 90's percentile? Actually, one bad note out of ten is still not acceptable, is it?

Money motivates. Say you get $100 for every note that will sell big, and get docked $50 for every note that, well, is a dud? There is also a legato sensor that monitors and rewards all fabulously smooth phrases, but releases a shrill basketball court buzzer sound when student-like notes are emitted! (Just like when you stole that shirt from Gap, and their alarm sounded, only worse!) The whole musical world will be listening with great interest, and you don't want to be embarrassing yourself. Isn't it time to throw out the trash? No one wants to hear it.

Slicing Your Loaf of Bread

What should your playing have in common with a loaf of bread? Answer: all the notes have the same quality regardless of how thinly sliced they are. Thin slivers taste as good as thick slices because they are cut from the same loaf. Your long tone is your loaf of fresh bread, and no matter how you slice it you should still have that same great sound.

Short notes deserve to have good tone too! Make sure they get a fair hearing. Just because they are short doesn't mean they should get pinched, chewed or swallowed. "Stop the tape" on all short notes for a quality check. Sometimes right hand finger pokes can be too aggressive and interrupt your evenness and tone quality. Regardless of how gnarly the phrase, steady air must keep all notes fed. Consider the organ. Sound quality remains the same regardless of length of notes.

Smooth air flow makes for smooth musical lines. Slurring an absolutely smooth half step interval is the standard for perfect legato. Copy that as more challenging intervals come at you. The clarinet seems to be a natural at being a legato machine. Observe your clarinet colleagues playing the big solo in Pines of Rome. You might as well take a free lesson while you are sitting there.

Reckon your air to be "dumb" rather than musical. Your air stream is merely your servant directing air onto all of your notes. Don't be doing hiccups with your air stream just because the music is nasty angular. You can be a jerk all you please, but don't do that to your neck, jaw, lips, shoulders and especially your playing! May all of your notes be swheat.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The tip of the brush

Great players never fail to impress by their finesse in the softest dynamics! Perhaps better known for their power surges, bolts of pizazz and shear volume, great players also can be relied upon to execute very delicate entrances and exits, the polished skill that marks them the cream of the crop.

One expects the fireworks and the overwhelming beauty of sound, but one usually forgets that every bit as necessary is the ability to drop a note skillfully into its place at the right time, at the right volume and in any register. Oh that agile, poised air column under the artist's perfect control, always on call and ready to serve the meticulous demands of the music!

Every great orchestra employs these athletes. For the best soloists, this subtle control is a given. But how easily is this art avoided and neglected in daily practice! For some reason this work is not fun, seems boring and unimportant. It is like the surgeon who loves heart surgery, but hates to practice perfect incisions. Once on the job however, this accuracy becomes the bread and butter of daily existence for both the surgeon and the musician.

How about the practicing of quiet, clean entrances of all kinds in all registers with the goal of 100% dependability? Be a perfect-note machine as well as the expressive artist. Use not only the broad stroke of the brush but also the fine tip for beautiful details!