Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Trumpet or the Trumpeter?

I saw a quote somewhere recently to the effect that you wrestle with the trumpet all of your life. Often you win, maybe most of the time, but at the end of your days, the trumpet wins. Rather a pessimistic view, but true. I wonder if actually the wrestling match was never really with the trumpet at all. Maybe the real contest was the trumpeter wrestling with himself.

My dad being the perfectionist that he was, always stressed over getting it just right. He was very good at anything he set his mind to do. He was the best. My brother and I didn't realize it, but we inherited much of that "it just has to be perfect or it's no good" mentality. In looking back I see that he was more valuable than the wonderful work he did. He wrestled all of his life, and in the end, his work beat him. Is our worth so linked to our performance that people don't matter, including ourselves?

It becomes written on our faces that we're not good enough, it must be better! Musicians inevitably become way too self-absorbed, focused solely on perfection. It just isn't possible and it isn't going to happen. We vacillate between pride and inferiority measuring ourselves against each other in perpetual insecurity. Something is wrong with our picture. Life is bigger than our stage. Our long-term influence is more important than our short-term note-making.

We must give ourselves wholly to our work, and an honest work ethic is a must. But what will be more remembered, you or your playing? Music is a job to be done well and enjoyed, but not obsessed over. When it's all over, the trumpets will be sold, and all that's left will be the trumpet player. And no longer a trumpet player, only the person.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


I like the image my son Wes, a senior at CIM, used to describe his typical week of viola practice. He said that although things were going well, he felt like he had at least ten nails to hammer down. No sooner does he get one nailed down, and another needs hammering. Somehow all ten nails never seem to stay down! Some facet of technique always works its way loose and needs renewed attention. I'm thinking, "Welcome to the business. Welcome to life!"

I wonder if anyone ever gets all the nails down permanently. Rather than a discouraging reality, I see this as a positive. Talking with Serge Nakariakov after his rehearsal of the Arutunian Concerto with our orchestra, the first thing he said was how he needed to practice a few passages again. We thought he had played flawlessly, but he had noticed a couple of nails that demanded his attention.

A colleague once described the futility of ever perfecting it all. He said technique-maintenance is like forever fixing a wobbly table. You sand down one leg, and the next wobbles. The only time the table no longer wobbles is when all four legs are completely gone. Then you retire!

At school, students have lengthy lists and assignments that, although necessary, seem rarely to get finished. Accepting the reality of an endless job somehow relieves a lot of the pressure and anxiety. Nobody is perfect, and even those who seem to have it together wouldn't agree.

The reality is that the nails must definitely be attended to, but not obsessed over, and certainly not avoided. My advice for those who plan to make a career of it: start pounding and get used to it!

Our Weaknesses

Glancing through Barry Green's book "The Mastery of Music", I noticed a brief passage quoting guitarist Christopher Parkening. Having just severely injured one of his fingers only days before an important L.A. concert appearance, he considered whether to cancel or not. Finding encouragement in I Corinthians 12:9, "My strength is made perfect in your weakness", he went on to play what he describes as one of the best concerts of his career, despite his handicap!

Our own weaknesses, glaring back at us daily from the mirror in one form or another, can become the very issues God uses to show us his power when we sense we have little or none. To become painfully aware of our weak areas and deficiencies is the first step in God's making us aware of his very active role in our circumstances.

Be encouraged! We notice only our discomfort. He sees us on his potter's wheel, being shaped, matured, and conformed to His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. How easily we miss this process as it unfolds daily before our eyes! Oh for sure, the clay resists and doesn't appreciate the reshaping process. Usually growth hurts, but He is not yet finished with us. He has promised to complete that which He has begun.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The New Student Filter Trumpet

Imagine finally receiving your brand new STUDENT FILTER TRUMPET! This instrument has a very expensive grid installed inside the back of the bell. Is this for real or what? No matter how you blow it, a full pure tone emerges! Purchased at great cost, this new instrument will guarantee professional music-making every time it is played. A dull, unfocused, fuzzy note is a thing of the past. It just can't happen because you now own one of the rare and expensive SF Trumpets.

Unfortunately, this special trumpet will not be sold to just any students, only to those who graduate. Not to worry, the success record for the SF Trumpet is 100%. No one who uses this trumpet will ever again play like a student! All evidences of unpolished, out-of-tune, boring playing become history. Once the horn is in your possession, you can graduate from school and run straight to the stage.

Now this is not like the Emperor's New Clothes kind of horn, for this possession impresses every single listener, not just the naive. Sure to draw a crowd, this trumpet will pay for itself many times over. Idle passersby will stop to listen in jealous amazement! Audition committees will snap to attention as soon as you play. And, you will never again hear those dreaded words, "Thank you, next."

Incidentally, do you know what is engraved on the top of the bell as it faces the player? "A Student No More!" Buzzzzzzzzzzz! Your alarm clock sounds and it's time to get up for class.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Secret Weapon

One summer in the pit, rehearsing an opera that didn't feature any loud, showcase trumpet parts, we kept getting the annoying hand from the conductor that says, "you guys are way too loud!" You know the insult to one's personhood that is! Well, after over an hour of this contest, our stubborness vs. his hand, we thought we'd show him just who could hold the upper hand.

Our strategy: play everything as soft as possible, I mean everything! He seemed relieved to be able to do something with his left hand besides waving it to shush the brass. (Actually, I don't know if he knew what else to do with it.)

As uncomfortable as our new defense was at first, it began to yield amazing results, not only for the orchestra balance, but for me! The discipline of very soft playing, although with the wrong motive, was developing super-sensitivity for the chops! Having to play consistently under the radar with a tiny decibel level was just the needed therapy that most of us brass jocks resist by nature! The conductor wasn't dumb, and surely saw through our immaturity. Nevertheless, he accepted our game plan opting to have less brass rather than too much, (in his view).

The bottom line of our antics, rebellion, immaturity, pride, call it what you will, was that an important component of brass-playing was being practiced. And that is soft, pp control. Isn't this first-step to technique-building plastered on every page of the Clark Technical Studies? We so easily miss it, and therefore miss out on the benefits.

I remember Mel Broiles confiding to me years after I had studied with him that the secret weapon of great trumpet players was soft playing. This surprised me coming from him. I had always respected his power and endurance. To play softly seemed unnecessary. It just wasn't an important part of our arsenal! Fireworks and knife blades are the attention-getters, not the delicacies of soft woodwind finesse. It's all about pizazz, man, not pianissimo! (or so we thought) Not quite.

He also said that trumpet players get too late smart! Oh to have been alert to that "secret weapon" sooner! "Balance Mahler with Haydn", he would say. "Practice Mozart when you have to play Strauss." He left it to us to figure it out.

Didn't someone say, "Speak softly, and carry a big stick!?"

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Octave City

Vacchiano used to warn us that some exposed octave lies in waiting somewhere in every piece of music. "Therefore be ready," he said. It was our job to find them and have them ready. Item #2 on our to-do list is octaves of all sorts. (Item #1 was for dim-wits: the diminuendo. See last post.)

How many excerpt passages containing important octaves can you list on your practice menu? To get you started, how about: Zarathustra, Sinfonia Domestica, Death and Transfiguration, Mahler 5 and 7, Sheherazade and countless others. Continue the list and organize them for practice. Prepare them in different keys, rhythms and dynamics. Become an agile and accurate octave machine, an octave-pus!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Playing the Dim Game

I was reminded again today of the arsenal of attack weapons we need as trumpeters. Not only are many required, but they must be fired usually in a split second. Here's one that is often overlooked: It's our old friend and/or nemesis, the dim! Can you name at least ten standard pieces that require this skill? It's the diminuendo to nothing. Fermata with decrescendo a niete. Hold it forever. Get as soft as you possibly can. Floating into the ethereal. Call it what you want, but it always appears in the trumpet part in one form or another!

Well, how about practicing this disappearing act until it becomes natural! Pick a note, any note, and hold it with a long dim. without changing pitch or losing quality. To cut down on long hours of aimless practice, try isolating these needed skills and running through the list each day. Practice these items often. It doesn't have to take a lot of time. Just do it!

Practice item #1 is the diminuendo. Play the dim game (with your trumpet).

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Beautiful Sound? Who cares?

It's summer, and I'm going over to play with the neighbor kids. I'm lugging along my huge bag of marbles of all kinds, sizes and colors, hundreds of them. We had countless average ones, some weird clay ones, dull ones, cracked, chipped, etc. But our treasures were the beauties that we never traded. They were clear, bright, colorful, and were everyone's favorites, almost known by name. They were distinguished by their beauty.

Often we would line up all the very best marbles together in a row. They should have been worth millions, we thought! At least to us kids they were invaluable. Life was about having the most beautiful marbles on the block. And life was good.

Sitting intently through a Cleveland Orchestra dress rehearsal today, I remembered those childhood days of treasuring our most prized marbles. There on one stage were assembled some of the world's finest musicians just a few yards away. Each one extremely valuable, and each one seeming to shine as beautifully as any of our childhood treasures.

I was struck by the attention to their beauty of sound, evenness in balance, blend, flexibility and the overall skill of each player. Even in a dress rehearsal with only eight people in the audience, the musicians cared about what they were doing. Playing great is their business. Whether they felt like it or not, wasn't a factor. They play beautifully because that is what they do. That is why they are there. A great marble is always going to be a great marble!

Playing beautifully has unfortunately sometimes come to be viewed as something less than desirable. The ugly, blaring, and the grotesque phase of the job can often overshadow the need for quality. Gorgeous playing has come to mean effeminate or weak. But in Severance Hall that concept is shattered. Big bucks are paid for the best marbles. Beauty is more than sweetness and finesse. It is an attention-getting quality of sound appropriate for the context. It may be extremely loud, but yet it maintains high quality. Beauty then is what wins points. It sells. Beauty is marketable and extremely valuable.

I was reminded today in the rehearsal that in the race for quantity, never trade away your quality. Don't loose your best marbles!