Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Practicing for the Marathon

William Wilberforce gave some good advice which can be very useful for those facing the audition season. "I daily become more sensible that my work must be affected by constant and regular exertions rather than by sudden and violent ones." I don't think he had trumpet players in mind, but certainly his philosophy brings a balanced perspective and encouragement to all of us given so easily to the frantic, furious, and frenzied approach to life. Last minute cramming of excerpts rarely works.

John Piper in Roots of Endurance writes that a "coronary" Christian is better than an "adrenal" Christian. Too many bursts of adrenaline produce let downs. Great surges of energy are usually followed by great downward spikes. The "coronary" life style on the other hand, is marked by consistency. Regular dependable behavior is the heart beat of the latter, and he definitely has the endurance advantage. And that is one of the must-haves for trumpet players.

Thinking about marathons: A music career is indeed a marathon and requires enormous discipline. Remember the childhood story of the tortoise and the hare? Nothing wrong with talent, speed, and great instincts, but both runners require disciplined training in order to survive the long haul. Daily distractions are not likely to deter the runner who consistently focuses on his game.

Be patient and not weary in daily well-doing. Rewards of persistence are down the road. Skills are not perfected in one or two lessons. A regular agenda of doing what is required will pay off. I might add that it demands more than a mere punching the time clock. The goal is learning to enjoy working towards the mastery of the skills of our profession.

Disappointments, struggles, and even failures are part of the journey. Expect days that are cold and prickly. The goal is not just about your check list. Remember your passion for making great music. Isn't that where your race began? That drive not only empowers your practice of disciplines, but gives you the benefit of enjoying your run.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Just Gimme Five!

How reliable are you at starting? Are you like a sluggish lawn mower requiring several sputtering chugs to get going? Or are you like a prize race horse at the start of the Kentucky Derby chomping at the bit and ready to bolt? ("They're off!)

Most of us feel that we can compete with the great ones once we get going, when we are good and ready. "Wait. Give me half a dozen false starts, and then I'm good." Wrong.

Unfortunately, the audition committee doesn't have that kind of time, and the audience didn't pay big bucks to hear us eventually get it right by the tenth try. So the bar suddenly is raised a bunch. Nail it now, or don't bother! The reality is that all of our bullets count. There are no practice rounds allowed! That's why your first notes matter. The Cleveland guys years ago would aim at picking up the horn cold and being able to play the week's hardest lick perfectly.

Look at your trumpet, resting there in your left hand. In the course of your music demands, it must morph into a high powered rifle, or even an AK47. Cool! Keep watching though and before your very eyes it becomes a sharp needle deftly inserting itself into a mosaic of percussion and screaming woodwinds. Next it camouflages itself to blend back into the winds (our least favorite assignment!). Whether it's a blunder bust belch, or a soft wispy moment, we must be on it. Our conductor is Jack Bauer yelling at us "DO IT NOW!"

Target practice, anyone? How about playing only the first five seconds of each passage? For audition preparation, just start the very beginning of each excerpt, capturing immediately the correct mood, articulation, intonation, rhythm, dynamics, etc. Nail it from the get go.

A weary audition committee might only listen to your first few notes before returning to their magazines. You can win with great entrances! Remember, don't finish anything for now, just start it! You're not running the mile, just getting a good jump off the starting blocks. How many times can you nail it with almost no prep time? You will soon become a quick-draw musical machine!

Friday, January 21, 2011

More Valuable Than a Chair

It was August at Interlochen in 1965 at the National Music Camp. I had managed to maintain my first chair status in the Band and Orchestra in spite of weekly tryouts and challenges to my reign. Week after week the defiant challengers had been successfully beaten back only to slink back to their lowly ranks at the bottom of the section. Competition was intense and our emotions were definitely very much involved. After all, this was war, dog-eat-dog, survival of the best, etc. Such was our mindset for better and for worse.

Well the day eventually arrived. Perhaps a little over-confident and under-prepared, I was dethroned by a better-prepared and fired-up challenger. With eyes closed and a show of hands, the verdict was announced: "MOVE HIM DOWN TO THE SECOND CHAIR." Surely, the voting had been rigged! What could they have been thinking or hearing? Such humiliation! How could life go from so very good to horrible in a single moment? Just like that there was no joy in Mudville. I had struck out and life might as well have been over forever.

As I had apparently been unable to conceal my pouting bitter attitude, one wise conductor on the staff took me aside to give some advice that was far more important than sitting first chair that week. "Phil, no matter where you sit, it doesn't change how you play. Give someone else a chance and don't worry about it." The lesson was one that helped my return to some stability that week, and also would echo as a reminder for similar struggles in the future.

A seating change perhaps showed me a lot about who I really was. Emotional stability and self worth does not depend on the position we occupy, for we are more valuable than a chair. Our identities are so easily linked to our achievement. In fact, humility and teamwork are probably learned better by playing second fiddle. I have observed that often the real heroes are the section players.

Life is full of bitter defeats, but they can provide the very lessons we must learn and could learn no other way. Someone said, "If mountains were smooth, no one could climb them."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nachos or Machos?

What do Clark Kent and Fred Flintstone have in common? Did you know they were both trumpet players? Which appears to be the best? Hard to tell?

Physical conditioning alone doesn't determine musical excellence. It's true that there are many larger than life heralding heroes. And it often appears that bigger is better. Some would even boast that the success of big cheese trumpet machos is in all those huge helpings of cheese nachos!

With that said, an honest look at the demands of trumpet playing might lead us to another conclusion. Considering the athletic demands of our profession, it makes sense that training includes attention to the physical as well as the musical. Yes for sure, musical determination can trump physical obstacles, but why put even heavier demands on ourselves?

We spend big bucks for instruments and equipment, but do little to strengthen the player. Why not pay attention to more than fingers, lips, and tongues? With the goals of greater efficiency, endurance, and control, it makes sense to lighten our load to make the job as easy as possible.

Let's shed the baggage that holds us back, and prepare to run the race in great shape. Strengthen the messenger. SUPERMAN RULES!

Energize your Playing

Looking for something to freshen up your playing? Here is something that is sure to help. It's not about better articulation, better intonation, or better dynamics. Have you tried energizing the rhythms? When you insist on accurate rhythmic spirit, you will likely notice all the above will improve. Rhythmic character also makes your playing a lot more fun for your listeners. If they have to listen to you, they might as well enjoy themselves. If you aren't enthusiastic about your playing, they won't be either.

Take the first movement of the Halsey Stevens Sonata for example. Better than being satisfied by offering an impressive display of notes, you could seek to grab listeners' attention with snazzy, snappy rhythmic character. Even with all systems operating perfectly, your performance will only be average if your rhythm does not have some sparkle to it. You can deliver an accurate deadpan, low energy rendition, or you can command attention and win prizes. Improved rhythm always makes a better product. Whatever you notice in the music, fast or slow, reflect it with good rhythm.

The Kennan Sonata is another one that gives you a chance to capture the audience from the very first note. With no long extraneous intros to wait through, it's just breathe and blow up a storm, but keep it steady. Obeying all the speed change signs is tricky but worth your extra attention.

Another obvious opportunity for instant rhythmic involvement is the Tomasi Concerto. Immediately, you are thrown right into some flashy whimsical fanfares. It's like the uncorking of a wine bottle, or a sudden burst of firecrackers. How about the The Hindemith Sonata, famous for that steady unrelenting pulse. Establish the pace, breathe deeply, release the tongue and enjoy the ride.

Great rhythm should be automatic and contagious. The audience is there to catch it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Release the Artist!

(ramblings of a fellow frustrated trumpet player fraternity member)

Do you ever feel like your trumpet seems to get in the way of what you're trying to do? You know how the music is supposed to sound, but your trumpet always has other ideas. Why is it that the great artist-performer in us is so easily silenced by technical demands? At the first sign of trouble we forget about our mission. Our trumpet wins while our artistry never even gets to make an appearance.

The trumpet loves to play with your mind. It looks up at you sarcastically and threatens, "Don't even think about enjoying this music, or about injecting any drama. Oh no! You must first conquer that long list of technical issues that you carry around every day. I suggest that you wax eloquently at some more convenient time." And we buy it!!

You look down and grumble back with clenched teeth, "I'd be a fabulous trumpet player if it weren't for having to deal with you and your many flaws. You cost me a fortune and all you do is squelch my tone, pinch my chops, and thwart my marvelous music-making abilities! If it weren't for you I'd be an awesome player! If I still have any semblance of a creative artist remaining in me, it's certainly no thanks to you. And by now any instincts of musicianship must have been permanently dwarfed!" By day's end the artist lies bound and gagged while alas, our trumpet has won again!

Ironically our greatest challenge does not lie with the instrument but in learning to let the music out of the instrument. Music should motivate mastery. Technique is merely a servant. Somewhere deep inside you resides a great singer impatiently waiting to be released. Just start giving the commands, and out will flow stunning, crowd-pleasing performances. This must be our battle plan each day. Good luck with that!

(Speaking of singers - Oh to have been a voice major! The vocalist doesn't have to clean his instrument, oil it, shine it, grease it, repair it, ship it, or stow it. In fact, no one can even see it, and it costs a singer nothing to get one! What a deal!)

Trumping the Nerve Giant

Lurking behind the curtains or perched high on the catwalks, our old nemesis the Nerve Giant resides. Sneering silently, he watches for each contestant to make his and her way to the front of the stage. Today is audition day, and he is having himself a good old time. At just the right moment, he begins to make his moves on each unsuspecting victim. Quickly he pounces and inflicts his debilitating tactics on as many as he can. Strangely, he is never seen, but surely felt.

His first task is to suck up all of the oxygen from the stage, rendering normal breathing nearly impossible. Next he instills crippling fear as evidenced by those nasty involuntary lip, finger and knee tremors. The right hand then begins to clutch the valves, causing them to stick uncharacteristically. No matter how many times the spit valve is nervously emptied, nothing comes out! We have no air, no condensation, and no sound.

He effectively renders the confident, disconsolate. Our snarling excerpt enemy then retreats to the darkest corner, preparing to eliminate his next victim. His goal is to hear this verdict from the personnel manager at the end of the day: "Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we do not have a winner. We will have to hold more auditions sometime in the future." The phantom of the auditions howls from on high.

Fortunately, this all-to-familiar scenario has a very potent remedy. The Nerve Giant can definitely be defeated. He is vulnerable. It takes some time and resolve, but it can be done. In fact, he can be made to work for the contestant, not against him.

Many have suggested that the antidote is AIR. But no, this is only a tool. AIR by itself isn't enough to kill the beast. The best weapon against the Nerve Giant is PURPOSE. That is, an unshakable confidence in the message about to be delivered. If PURPOSE has become strong enough, and has been time-tested, it makes the contestant virtually invincible. Nerves only intensify the resolve. And when accompanied by a sufficient supply of AIR, there is no giant too scary, no part too high, no valley too low. Strong PURPOSE marshals all body parts to function in harmony, summoning enough adrenaline, concentration, and artistic instincts to get the job done regardless of nerve pressures. PURPOSE RULES!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Music of The Great One

Every Saturday night in the mid 50's and 60's our family would turn on the television for The Honeymooners/The Jackie Gleason Show. Some honeymoon! Ralph and Alice would be having their Saturday night fights as Ed Norton easily had the audience in stitches just by bumbling into the room. The Great One himself, Jackie Gleason, was always in top form (for a guy in his condition.) It was always show time.

"A little traveling music" with Sammy Spear (or Ray Bloch) and the orchestra, and "away we went!" The show was funny, live and exciting, but I would watch especially to get my weekly trumpet lesson. I remember thinking that being the first trumpet on the Gleason show must have been the swellest job ever! Most of the trumpet work was played by Bobby Hackett, and "how sweet it was!"

I did not know that Jackie Gleason was a song writer, nor that he could not read or write music. Somehow his heartfelt songs found their way onto the printed page and into the hearts of millions. He produced the album Music for Lovers Only which holds the record for being on the Billboard Top Ten Charts for 153 weeks! It contains a collection of romantic ballads recorded with that luscious velvety Jackie Gleason Orchestra sound. Some pretty nifty trumpet work:

Melancholy Serenade (Gleason)

September Song (Weill)

The Last Dance

The Man I Love (Gershwin)

Friday, January 07, 2011

Ryan Anthony Master Class

Ryan Anthony, Principal Trumpet with the Dallas Symphony, generously shared for almost two hours today at CCM. He answered questions about preparation, concertizing, and some of his experiences while touring with the Canadian Brass. He patiently worked with three students on solo and orchestral repertoire asking questions and offering excellent advice. This weekend he solos with the Dayton Philharmonic in the Liebermann Trumpet Concerto.

Mr. Anthony suggested becoming so comfortable with your range that you can consider it "your personal keyboard." That is, all notes should be on call and ready to be played as easily as on the piano, rather than using the tongue as a weapon to stab and jab. This concept should help to eliminate excessive stress about that upcoming high note. Just reach out and play it! Warm up should include all parts of the range, making sure that all notes have been touched.

Sustaining the intensity of a line is more difficult when wide leaps and rests are involved. Air flow through the whole phrase makes musical sense and helps with endurance. The music should continue to flow even when rests interrupt the overall line. Avoid chopped up and isolated line fragments.

Selecting your own adjectives describing the music is a great way to involve both player and listeners. There was noticeable improvement at this suggestion. Visualizing a storyline helps with character and style, enabling the performer to be in "a comfortable place." (Oh, to be able to stay there!)

Flutter-tonguing a nasty passage is a helpful first step for focusing. Likewise, slurring for tonguing.

Forte doesn't always mean a loud volume. Intensity can be independent of dynamic level. The quality of sound can be more important than dynamic focus.

Speaking of that comfort zone, Ryan reminded us of our mission. The audience expects to leave the concert remembering more than just a pretty good performance. Our job is to give them special things. Special things is what Ryan does so well! Just check out his recordings. Our thanks to him for being with us today.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Demands of Mahler's 6th Symphony

(This posting is in light of the upcoming concert of the CCM Philharmonia on March 11, 2011 honoring the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death.)

The 6th Symphony of Mahler (the Tragic) provides for trumpeters the ideal forum to display the full range of skills. The work is a four-act drama of extremes. Your playing will be bold, joyful and triumphant only to be followed by strains of throbbing melancholy. One teacher speaking of the Mahler temperament said that "his moods ranged from the depths of Dante's Inferno all the way up the the Third Heaven and back again." Such is the Mahler journey with lots of louds, softs, highs, lows and all points in between. Rather than getting spooked, eager trumpeters salivate at this kind of challenge. Consider the 6th symphony a colossal marathon or better yet, one of the trumpeter's triathlons!

Movement 1:

You get only one warm up note followed by that bold in-your-face entrance that tests both your diminished seventh skills and your fearlessness. Your part demands repeated sweeps of intense passion emerging beautifully out of nowhere. Sing, dominate, and then disappear gracefully into the winds. A prominent feature throughout the symphony is the use of low to mid-range notes. You must sound like a fine third trumpet player shooting out the low stuff with no loss of presence. If you need to, brush up on F and B flat transpositions, and be alert to the frequent changes.

Are you secure with strong high note diminuendos to pp? And how about those muted spiky militant march snippets that must penetrate through the entire orchestra regardless of dynamic markings?

Another fun item for practice - massive slurs of more than an octave. No cheating allowed on the articulation. Pound the valves and jerk the air slightly right in time. Very cool and impressive! Keep in mind your purpose: giving the audience many magic moments to take home.

Don't forget to prepare for those chorale-style soaring, sumptuous and expressive lines both soft and loud. They must be able to happen at any time.

Observe the large amount of dynamic and articulation instructions. They are not printed for the beauty of the score. They are there by design. Make sure they are evident. Obey the print. Don't soil the picture with bland colorless playing.

Movement 2:

Find related etude material to prepare for what is required in this movement: slow, long, smooth, sustained lines, both loud and not. Here's a good movement to really focus on well-centered intonation and sound quality. All the great playing you can do is useless if it is out of tune.

Movement 3:

In this Scherzo movement you will be busting in all over, with and without your sword. Have an attitude! Don't try to be pretty. Our roll here is largely percussive. Show snappy accurate rhythms. This is about focused sordino control. Prepare for this by sticking in the mute and practicing articulation studies. Lead the brass with your very steady and precise playing. Scherzo is the character. Short and clear is the technique. Volume, clarity, and accuracy rule the night.

Movement 4:

You get to announce your presence with a Zarathustra-like muted explosion landing on a high C sharp! Hold it until you turn purple. Be careful, it's a long one.

Again we have great interval leaps to command and control. With Mahler no interval is safe. Prepare! Three slow poignant trumpet calls linger in the upper range. Control the notes and the intonation and you will have partially earned your solo bow.

Again, rhythm is king. Give your utmost attention to this! Bad rhythm ruins everything.

The finale is a race to the finish. Stay strong throughout. Keep in mind what's ahead. Be ready, get set. Now bring it on. You live for this, so practice accordingly!