Monday, September 29, 2008

For as Long as These Lips Shall Last

It's not fair. Only two lips and so many notes! Boat loads of notes keep coming at us, by the page, by the concert, and by the season. It's like a video game with those evil invaders ever advancing. Faster and faster they come, seeking whom they may devour. But as long as those lips shall last, they are wonderfully victorious with the celebration of brilliant brass playing. At least, that's our goal. So it becomes a matter of survival, and a fight we must learn to keep winning for as long a time as possible.

James Chambers, former Principal Horn with the N.Y. Philharmonic, used to say that a Bruckner Symphony was like a contest between his left arm and his chops. Wasn't it Dizzy who philosophized that the trumpet player wins for a season, but in the end his horn will always have its way? We learn to conquer the horn, but eventually we find that the horn has conquered us.

We have all experienced that battle between the instrument and the embouchure. How we welcomed the challenge of owning sheer stamina, that showcase of raw power and heroism. It's lips over matter, and mind over lips! For as long as we're able, we're on top of the world. A Hero's Life was surely written for the brass. That's why they feature us on risers! Don Juan is only about us, and the heights of the Alpine Symphony are all reachable all the time. Life is King Conn from atop the Trump Towers! Whether it's The Titan or The Symphony of a Thousand, we say "bring it all on!"

Glorious as it can be, life is also short, and those Mysterious Mountain tops are eventually followed by A Quiet City. Our themes becomes less about Star Wars, and more like Trumpeter's Lullaby, the Blumine Movement, or the final verse of Send in the Clowns. Tchaikovsky's Pathetique has its triumphal third movement, but it is always followed by that slow and final journey down into its tragic depths of b minor.

Take care of the tools you have been given. Handle with care, pace yourself, and play wisely. We want to be able to finish with the final movements of Mahler 1, 2 and 3. That's the way to go.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Too Broad a Brush

Having heard some twenty-plus trumpet auditions the other day, I was left with a mental picture of an exterior paint brush! Granted, the hearing of auditions can make you fidgety and ready for a change of scenery free from excerpts. But all sanity was not lost. The task was to prepare comments and helps that would be more effective than, "you got nervous, ran out of air, your intonation was questionable, articulation was fuzzy", etc. - the usual feedback from committees whose advice you want and also don't want to hear. So setting aside the good displays of musical playing that happened, consider my paint brush vision.

Imagine looking over the shoulder of the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet. There he is all dressed with beret, stiletto cigarette, full-cut white shirt half unbuttoned, with one hand on hip, as he squints at his easel and prepares to begin his masterpiece in oil. You watch in horror and humor as he takes out his Sears $2.99 six-inch exterior house paint brush and seriously attempts to create and define those famous French subtleties!

You clear your throat and respectfully offer your suggestions about his equipment and concept. "Here", you say, "try these", as you open a bag of expensive fine-tipped brushes which you purchased from the local art and supply shop. You don't dare say it, but you're thinking, "how can you do all the refinements and details with that monster brush? What is going through your mind, monsieur?" "Ah, oui!" he exclaims. What was I thinking?"

This is not a rant on equipment that is too big, but a visual for a concept of trumpet-playing that is one-dimensional and not suited for the refinements and cutting-edge details that are required in every solo and orchestral work in the repertoire. You might suggest to Mr. Monet that he take a trip to the Louvre to study the masterpieces. Have him ask himself what his concept is that he intends to portray, and how his choice of equipment will enhance his work. Chances are, that six-inch paint brush will be used very sparingly.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What good are auditions?!

There's nothing like an audition to jump-start your playing, or to bring it to a stand-still. Those ten minutes under the gun can teach us more about ourselves and our needs than ten private lessons. Look at it as a reality check, and an incentive to organize a more productive practice routine. This business is about competition, so here's your chance to get used to it. Auditions can either make you or break you. The choice is yours.

A side note: every professional audition should not be taken just for the practice. Your goal is gaining experience, but also building confidence. No one wants to skulk home from every audition trip wearing an L. So only go if you plan on winning. In the meantime, take advantage of as many mock audition scenarios as possible. Now back to that audition room. . . .

There we stood with all of our musical strengths and deficiencies exposed. Humiliating? Well, consider that audition experience as your lesson assignment. It just handed you your agenda, or it should. One colleague used to say that it should always be obvious what to practice. So don't get discouraged, get motivated!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Matter of Conscience

"Intonation is a matter of conscience." So said Pablo Casals, the great cellist. This seems at first an unlikely connection, linking the conscience to the refining of musical skills. His point was that unpolished playing is not so much a technical matter as it is first a character issue. It is diligence and integrity on display, or the lack thereof.

Could it not also be applied to a performer's control, accuracy, dynamic range, alertness to ensemble, quality of sound, or whatever is required? We have come to tolerate and even expect too many imperfections as normal. We allow second-rate playing in the practice room, and yet we expect ravishing displays of artistry on the stage. Odds are it won't happen, and odds are you won't have fun. Learning to use one's conscience as a guide in perfecting the musical product just might bring a fresh new approach to our practicing. We realize that sloppy playing is more a reflection of our character than it is an indication of a lack of talent or ability.


Our flawed performance tells us that we were too forgiving in our preparation, not taking the demands of the music seriously enough, and not being honest with ourselves. We are used to thinking: "That part is too hard, this section never goes right anyway, and it's just a bad note on the horn." We listen to our own excuses, and therefore guarantee inconsistency when it counts.


Listening to our conscience begins by slowly breaking down the music and carefully rehearsing the required techniques so as to guarantee the highest degree of accuracy. For every one mistake, ten right responses are needed to erase the failure from our minds. We practice so that the odds will be greatly in our favor.

Our musical conscience screams at us that notes, phrases, intonation, etc. need our attention. Turning a deaf ear in the practice room results in our becoming blind to our weaknesses. So when under the pressure of performance, we rely upon our preparation, such as it wasn't. And we wonder why the concert went poorly.


Apply honesty to your trumpet practice. Listen to and obey your conscience. Remember, you only have so many notes. Don't ignore them.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Expecting the Best

Have you heard about the new teacher who was expecting to teach the most advanced students in the school? What she was not told was that hers was to be a class of only average or below average students. They wanted to see what would happen.

"These kids will be great to teach," she thought. "I'll not have to deal with bad attitudes, discipline, and poor results. These students will be glad to be there and eager to learn. This will be the ideal teaching situation. The job will be as it should be - fun, challenging and rewarding."

That semester everything went exactly according to plan. The students were responding to the enthusiasm of their teacher, and enjoying the challenge. As much was being required, much was being accomplished. By the end of the semester the grades were as high as interest and morale.

How could only average students achieve above average results? The students had confidence in the teacher because the students knew that their teacher had confidence in them and demanded results.

We have heard that we only get out what we put in, but we often only put in when we expect to get something out. The best teachers accept the challenge of getting the best out of less than the best. They consistently invest their best without prejudging the response. Whether taking or giving lessons, success depends upon attitudes and expectations. In short, you get what you expect.