Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hakan Hardenberger at CCM

The musical well is very deep for trumpet master Hakan Hardenberger. Whether it was Hummel, Kagel, or Hertel being played for his master class, he had an enormous reserve to draw upon as he wonderfully critiqued solo performances by UC trumpet majors. No one got a kind pat on the shoulder, but rather a swift but well-placed kick. The guys were put through the wringer, as it should be. Each gave his best and so did he. I was reminded of the black cloud monster in TV's LOST that literally hurls its victims about at will. Thanks, we needed that! Way overstated, but this was just the medicine that yields the results of inspiration, a bigger vision for the music at hand, and of course improvement. All of that happened tonight.

Bravo to Rory, Matt and Steve, each responding well to technical and musical challenges as Mr. Hardenberger continued to raise the bar. He's a tough coach, but one who's on your side. I wondered if he'd ever considered coaching football!

A few musical highlights: Be convinced about what you want to say well before delving into a work. Know how you want it to sound. Learn as much as you can about the composer and the period in which he wrote, and so bring authenticity and depth to your performance. Find the tension/release points within phrases. Organize and prepare those dramatic moments for the audience to recognize. Use appropriate theatrics to keep the listeners involved. Avoid boring one-dimensional playing. Create the intended atmosphere.

Imagery was a big item. Rory was advised to catch some of the UC basketball game going on later that night. Hakan wanted him to observe the dribbling ball, (for the pulse and buoyancy of his eighth notes). The trampoline was referred to several times for obvious reasons. Diving off the board pictured momentum, spring and direction. The floating glider fit perfectly for Steve in those amoroso phrases in the Hertel. Rory played better while walking, (pulse, direction). (I'm sure he was relieved. I recall him being asked to hop around while playing Tartini!) Matt gave his all on the very difficult Kagel, yet still left the stage a better player.

Some nuts and bolts practice items: The first note must be absolutely secured before continuing. Lots of very slow soft practice was recommended, emphasizing the word VERY. As a violinist sees and feels the shift on the finger board, we must securely master interval changes, automatically guaranteeing each note. Soft attacks must be wrestled with until they become a natural part of our technique. As in all kinds of music, intonation is critical to greatness.

The huge amounts of time Mr. Hardenberger spent practicing in his 40 years of playing is a big reason for his success. There are no short-cuts. Hakan said that as a boy, if he was awake he was playing the trumpet!

Mr. Ghitalla always reminded us that we will play the way we are. We can only offer the audience some of what we have inside. Again tonight, Mr. Hardenberger challenged us to build our reserve. That reserve will consist of all we invest in our study of, practice of, and love for music. Music talent is a gift. Our musical instincts can easily become dwarfed unless stimulated and stretched. Our thanks to Mr. Hakan Hardenberger for doing that, and generously sharing of himself and his extraordinary gift.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Strengthening strengths

It makes sense, what we've been told. "Work on the weakest areas of your playing, fix deficiencies, address problems, conquer fears, etc. Never mind practicing those things you do well, just work on that list of things you don't do well." No professional is professional without a continual focus on that ever-present agenda. Perfection is the burning goal. However, we've also heard, "go with what got you there." A home run hitter is counted upon to deliver his thing, and that isn't bunting.

In such a competitive profession, it's good to remember that it is the knock-out punch, the slam dunk, the grand slam in the bottom of the ninth that wins points, games and fans. Fundamental skills must be automatic, but it is the fireworks in all their various forms that win hearts. In all the boredom of drills and mechanical work which must be secured, it is rejuvenating to include some of that killer instinct, the wow, and the final exclamation point in our daily routine. It's needed therapy for listeners and performers.

This was demonstrated in this week's concerts by the CSO in a spectacular program that featured all sections at their best. Brass, winds and percussion were quite busy doing what they do. Visiting principal trumpet Mark Ridenaur of the Chicago Symphony was the hero. That was how it's supposed to sound. The roar of the crowd as he stood for the first bow said all that needs to be said. Bravo to Mark for his outstanding contributions to great music making!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bill Campbell's m/c and recital at CCM

There are great players and there are great teachers. William Campbell, trumpet professor at the University of Michigan, is both and more. He is a seasoned quality musician with impressive credentials. But what especially stood out to me was his ability to motivate and inspire. He had no lack of helpful advice for the two students who played for him. We all got a free lesson. Wonderful musicianship is there and cannot be hidden. You walk away encouraged about music-making.

Joining him on their mini-recital was trombone professor David Jackson, also from the U. of M. He was about great breath control, delicate flexibility and gorgeous expressive legato playing, as in Ravel's Habanera. The two complimented each other perfectly in works of Ewazen and Blacher. Mr. Campbell's La Mandolinata of Bellstedt was finessed, brilliant and accurate. It was fun to listen to them both.

In our brief session today we heard Mr. Campbell's wisdom on organizing daily practice, (a lengthy fundamentals session, a performing straight through session, and a projects session where detailed slow work finishes the day). Also stressed was critical listening and the importance of using a quality recording device, the role of air in matching the line, and the value of long-haul consistent preparation.

Some more points: finger pressure, vibrato intensity, volume matching the period of the music, a goal for each session, buzzing for pitch and quality, head movement, finding the "sweet spot" of each note, pacing, confidence (not being afraid to miss a note), massive multiple etude practice (Brandt, Top Tones, Bitsch, Bodet-Bach), etc.

Highlights: "Give yourself enough time to prepare to be your best. The most prepared win the jobs," the implication being that hard work can surpass lazy talent. But the keeper for me was his prodding to achieve a magical musical moment: "Speak to my heart!"

Friday, January 04, 2008

A Convincing Job

Looking back at the many recording projects we have had over the years, I remember a strong motivation that helped us get through a lot of "challenging assignments." There we sat staring at those trumpet folders bulging with charts, ready to be recorded within three hours. Required was accuracy, intonation, balance and all of that stuff. But more than survival in a mistake-free zone, we were expected to contribute style, flair, elan, or, as Jimmy Levine used to say, pizazz.

So what goes through your mind when the tapes are rolling, as they used to say, or when the stage grows instantly silent before the baton comes down? Back up a second. What's the goal, and why are we here? To get the notes, collect the check and go home, or something more?

Successful music performance is about being convincing to the audience. Before great trumpet playing can grab the listeners' attention, the player must first have a firm grasp of the music as well as the notes. Otherwise the pressure will trump the trumpeter. Although that sounds overly simple, it can be neglected. The antidote is remembering that our purpose is entertainment, musical story-telling and drama. Listeners expect all the right notes, but their emotions must be stirred as well. With this in mind, we have a greater chance of making music, and we become armed with our greatest weapon, confidence.

Our job as students of music performance, at whatever level, should be to so strengthen our concept of each piece, that we own it, and can't wait to project it to listeners. As in political debates, I'm reminded that passionate principled communication wins the day. It's not enough to lay out even the best of plans. People want to be completely convinced.