Saturday, December 29, 2007

All-time Unfavorites

#1. Schubert's Half-Finished Symphony - because of its dinky themes that go nowhere and end as soon as they begin; also for the bad memories of countless student performances, all out of tune. (Not excluding some non-student performances). Sharps seem to be bad keys in which to try to play in tune in.

#2. First movement of Mozart's 40th. It lumbers, meanders, and just recalls bad memories of out of tune plundering and rushing students. Fortunately, trumpets were never required to add to the problems.

#3. Almost all of the variations of Enigma. Three are still in favor, but probably just two.

#4. The cello movement of Carnival of the Animals, along with all the rest of them.

#5. Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. All you get is B and E, and all of our B's are sharp, or else they are too flat from over-correcting. The E's are also free-for-alls. Besides, the soloist always takes it way too seriously.

#6. All works with narrators.

#7. Stravinsky's Circus Polka. (a waste of a good composer)

8. Second movement of Brandenburg.

#9. First movement of Organ Symphony.

#10. Radetsky March
with hand-clapping accompaniment. Just once, let's have a new year's concert without this piece. If absolutely necessary, prepare the audience not to drag. Percussion section should be instructed to shoot all offenders on sight.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Busy but Empty

I heard this short summary of frenetic holiday events, and thought that it could well describe much of our daily trumpet practicing: "busy but empty!" Just as an abundance of activities doesn't define Christmas, so too a frantic flurry of practicing doesn't produce great performances. We'd certainly hate to hear the assessment of our music-making that I heard years ago. "You are spraying the air with thousands of notes of highly questionable value, somewhat impressive, but not really usable. Nobody would buy them." I went home a bit deflated, but challenged at the same time.

The glitzy trimmings of Christmas celebrations can appeal outwardly, but only serve to hide the emptiness that often haunts us and even overwhelms us as soon as the last bowl game becomes history. How strange that the Lord Jesus Christ, the very center of the holiday, is often the most neglected Person in season and out. Maybe it's a stretch to link holiday festivities to poor practice habits, but musicians have been known to think in stranger ways, if at all.

Christmas is about God's intervening to claim those who were dead in trespasses and sins, completely unable to revive themselves. "For He hath made Him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." (II Cor. 5:21) What an exchange! He has filled our emptiness with Himself. It is and always has been His work and not our own. This redemptive work of God has probably prompted our over-attention to all the externals in celebrating what He accomplished in the hearts of men.

The thought is pretty simple. Our misplaced attention on the outward has distracted us from seeing His Son, and the extent of His internal work, which lasts way beyond the lights, sales, and bowl games. My trumpet lesson back in the day was about learning to have a perspective on quality, depth, and a message to an audience. So while we can be quite busy, we are never empty, for "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us." (II Cor. 4:7)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Our Forgotten Weapon

Not that this weapon is totally forgotten, but it is often neglected and not fully developed. Every profession is defined by certain necessary skills and abilities. Athletes must be athletic. Mathematicians must figure. Pilots fly. Bowlers roll. Managers manage. Politicians must know how to be vague, etc. So what about musicians that are hard of hearing? Very strange.

Take trumpeters. What do we do? Blow, finger, play high, play loud, play soft (if we must), play fast, play slow (if we must), blow, and blow some more. We take a breather, and then do it all over again. No wonder they stick us in the rear of the orchestra! We must do something to break out of our penalty box. We need more than the above to be competitive. It's a long way from the back of the stage to the solo spot up front. And it's a long way from the marching band to the recording studio. What's missing? That something is the skill of listening. Granted, a certain level of talent goes a long way.

We think of those obvious skills that identify trumpet players: confidence in those aggressive dominating passages; fearlessly blasting those fiery jolts of decibels right by the defenseless string players; and spraying the air full of rapid-fire triplet pellets over the heads of greatly annoyed woodwind players! Ah, the sheer joy of it!

But alas, necessary as all of that is, (after all, it is when we do our thing and do it well, that the audience realizes why they came) - yet those are not enough to do effective battle on the stage. Our secret weapon is sensitive listening. Like high rising antennas, it monitors all neighboring activity. Listening controls decibel levels. It governs balance. It adjusts intonation. It is tuned in to sound quality. Like sight, it operates peripherally. It makes us alert to rhythm, without which, good ensemble is guesswork. And it lets us focus during practice by allowing us to accurately copy the good, eliminate the bad and the ugly.

Discerning ears will enable us to greatly strengthen our other weapons. Without good hearing skills, we are hampered and hamstrung. Listening is our silent weapon, but when it is developed and utilized regularly, it is heard by all.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Big Question

That's a very good question! I'm so glad you asked that! I love it when students really want to know the answer, (without prompting). The question? "What is an audition committee looking for in these excerpts?" Where do we start?

Preparing to compete for a high-paying job obviously requires a lot more attention than just running through a short list of popular excerpts for a class assignment. Call it getting ready for zero mistake tolerance in front of a very discerning audience. When students come to the point of being serious about preparing for job competition, not just getting through it for experience sake, but with the expectation of nailing it, then reality is at the door. It may be that reality is facing up to the fact that another field would be a better and wiser pursuit. Often however, the question says, I think I can do this. Show me what still needs to be polished. I'm ready to work. Let's go for it!

The result is often amazing. The ears begin to open and practicing becomes much more focused. The grid of competing tends to quickly filter out student-like mistakes. Rhythm, intonation, and dynamics begin to become our weapons rather than nagging duties on a dry checklist. We simply must have these skills, and it becomes a welcome challenge to perfect them.

Running the risk of over-simplifying the needs of good audition prep, I will just pass on advice shared by some who have been very successful at this. Before the performing must come the discipline. You need your tuner, your metronome, and your decibel meter. Put them on the stand and obey them. Over ninety percent of your work can be prepared with the diligent use of these devices, especially the first two. They will insist that you perfect those basics of the music. The machines will hone rhythm, dynamics and intonation which are musicians' tools. And what good is a musician without his tools?!