Thursday, November 26, 2020

Items of need

I remember sitting in the audience at a recital by the Juilliard String Quartet. It was our first week as freshmen at the Eastman School of Music. Our class was full of superstar wannabes chomping at the bit. It felt like the opening gate at the Kentucky Derby! My self-imposed assignment that night was to observe and to note the skills needed to be a successful musician.

We all brought strengths to the table but also lots of baggage and abilities needing serious attention. How we were going to deal with our deficiencies in four years was key. 

The Quartet was amazing! Each player displayed enormous energy, showmanship, expression, dynamic contrasts, overall drama, and a sense of mature musicianship. But also, the often ignored skills of impeccable intonation, fantastic rhythm, blending, supporting, leading, and overall control. 

That night I came away with a long list of "items of need." High on my list was: control of each entrance, intonation that doesn't cause wincing, technical wizardry, and accuracy.  Further unpleasant realities: sloppiness, often out of tune, unsteady, unreliable, boring at times, insensitive, and in spite of that, an egotistical attitude! ESM faculty had a lot of work to do!

And so, although perfection is not possible, neither is the lack of diligent effort. The best students practice not what they want, but what they need. The sooner we learn to deal with our weak areas the faster we will improve and be approved. A one trick trumpet player will not go far. Fundamentals must be secure in order to build star quality playing. Take inventory regularly. Listen constantly to the best in the business. Study how they do what you can't, just yet. The fun is in this kind of pursuit. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Performing Etudes

A great performance is more effective than a thousand words. In lessons, Mel Broiles would often perform whole etudes of Sachse, Caffarelli, Charlier, or The Art of Phrasing arias from the Arban book, always with impressive artistry, power and finesse. Nothing needed to be said. That was how it was to be done.

In addition to fiery playing Mel would share his typically blunt but effective advice. Two of his comments I'll never forget. He scribbled an equation on the back page of the Sachse 100 Studies book which read:

1. A GREAT TRUMPET PLAYER = BLOW plus BRAINS. "With both, you can go twice as far." Much later I figured out what he was saying.

2. This was his comment after my mediocre attempt at a dramatic etude: "If there's no pizzazz in the practice room, you can't expect it to be there on the stage!"

Performing Etudes is written in honor of Mel Broiles, former Principal Trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Mel was a master at inspiring and motivating his students. Musical inspiration is just as vital as right thinking and efficient breathing. With all three, you can go three times farther! Performing in the practice room makes performing on the stage a lot more dramatic and a lot less traumatic.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Neglected Component of Success

How many spikes of improvement in your playing have there been lately? Sure, long term progress is the goal, but what about a bunch of sudden bursts of inspired, attention-getting trumpet playing? Why wait? Why not aim for sounding amazing today?

A bassoon colleague once suddenly turned around in an especially energized rehearsal and marveled, "Wow, what did you guys have for breakfast?"  That's the response you want.  

Every day we dutifully go through our prescribed routine, checking most of the boxes, and then calling it another day at the office. Well, not good enough. Life is too short to postpone dramatic improvement. An abrupt shift in our thinking can produce gratifying results before the day is done. It depends on us, how we think, and what we do about it.

The vital component of success is learning to shrink the gap between what we want to sound like and the way we actually sound. How we think we sound is usually not what others are hearing. Critical listening is necessary to give us "real ears."

That means we make a practice of recording ourselves. It means seeking and receiving brutally honest feedback from others, rather than ego-stroking flattery. It means constantly refreshing our concept of sound with the best of recordings and live performances. It becomes our passion to get there quickly.

When we fail to crave spirited dramatic playing, we delude ourselves into accepting the mediocre. We too easily settle rather than struggle. We grow comfortable with being just average. No job was ever awarded to the average. Just OK is not OK!

Friday, December 20, 2019

Healthy Embouchure Matters

Back in the golden age of famous cornet soloists, the great Herbert Clarke revealed his secret for developing and maintaining a healthy embouchure. Although pretty much neglected by everyone under the age of 25 (and often beyond), his book contains the remedy for much of what ails today's trumpet players. Actually it is not a secret, for the answer is right there on every page of his Technical Studies.

Clarke's little book still stands today as a primary go-to resource. Although many have the book, few use it as intended. His prescription for a pummeled and unresponsive embouchure is staring at us on every page of his Technical Studies. Whether building technique or restoring after abuse, it still works. So what's the answer?

The remedy is pianissimo. By insisting on a soft dynamic, impurities of sound and deficiencies of technique quickly manifest themselves, making obvious the needed corrections. Fortissimo playing tends to obscure a multitude of problems, but quiet smooth playing quickly reveals weaknesses.

I remember Mel Broiles being asked what single skill defines a great trumpet player. His answer was surprising. Knowing his powerful and distinctive playing style, we expected him to tout a superhuman endurance, the most powerful and penetrating sound, or an amazing ability to transpose accurately on sight, or a dazzling high range, or a high degree of drama, or even the most ravishing trumpet sound on the planet. But no. Mel simply said, "Great players can play soft." He gave us a memorable lesson in only five words!

If you arrived at Music Hall early enough when he soloed with the Pops, you could hear Doc Severinsen warming up softly back stage in his dressing room. It was quiet and unimpressive at first, but everyone knew that the fireworks would erupt in due time. Great playing begins each day with a soft and secure foundation. Doc's patient low decibel warmup was as important a lesson for us as was his spectacular explosive trumpet playing to follow. A soft patient warmup matters.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Aunt Gloria's Hat Boutique!

Old lady clerk: "Why hello! Welcome to Aunt Gloria's Hat Boutique, home of the finest headwear in Cincinnati. What can I show you today?"

You: "Well lady, my teacher said I need more style, more color, and more personality in my trumpet playing. It was strongly suggested that I get accustomed to wearing different hats. So here I am." 

Very well then. Let me show you four hats that should definitely impress your professor. 

How about this one over here? Full disclosure however. This one is not very popular. I've had no sales in recent memory. Young folks especially are not interested in wearing this hat for some reason. One student complained that it "creeped him out", saying it "stifled his artistic creativity."  However, try it on. I'm told it works wonders when it's worn daily. And I think it will go nicely with your ears. It's our lovely PERFECT INTONATION HAT!

Now walk this way, and I'll show you another. This is our coveted BEAUTIFUL SOUND HAT. Its amazing, but if you don't keep it on, quite frankly, your sound will stink badly. All sorts of junk will quickly pollute your tone. Here, try it on. Oh my! Yes indeed, you look gorgeous!

The next hat is a strange one, a bit of a chameleon actually. It will morph instantly from sharp and prickly, to suave and smooth depending on the music you are playing at the moment. It gives you subtle finesse as well as cutting-edge boldness! Your playing will take on shades of vividness you never knew you possessed! Put this on when you feel faint of heart, and watch what happens. This hat is my favorite, the CLEAR ARTICULATION HAT.

Now let me show you our best selling hat! These are flying off the shelves. However I must warn you that there is a disclaimer that is usually ignored. Side effects of overuse include high likelihood of injuries such as: swollen and/or split lips, loss of front teeth, strained esophagus, back problems, bowel blockage, and in some cases, severe infertility. But never mind that. This hat does wonders for your ego! Wear this as you enter the warm up room at your next audition. Fellow competitors will marvel and gawk with envy at your nonstop screeching power! Yes, you guessed it, our HIGH NOTE HAT.

You: "Gee, thanks, Aunt Gloria! I'll take all four." 

Aunt Gloria: "You are quite welcome. Remember, never go hatless!" 

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

All notes on display!

Imagine that all the notes you played today were on display in the window of your local jewelry store. Your advertisement reads: TOP QUALITY GEMS - REFINED, POLISHED, PURIFIED, READY FOR PURCHASE, AVAILABLE IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES - BOLD, BRAZEN, BRIGHT, SPARKLING, RADIANT! 

Ideally, a crowd of gawking passersby are standing amazed and eager to purchase large bundles of your valuable notes. "Wow, honey, look at those! They're gorgeous! Each one of them is perfect!"

Your job is to flood the market with an endless supply of solid-gold notes, always keeping in mind that cheap junky notes just won't sell. A daily commitment to refining and polishing is simply what you do. Being able to display a great product is worth the painstaking effort. Few are good at it because few have the clear vision and patience required. Rarely do you hear students carefully preparing each note, one by one.

What constitutes a high-priced note? Each has great quality of sound regardless of size. Each is clear and well-defined, with accurate pitch. Each great note fits properly into its phrase.  Fuzzy edges and unfocused tone are immediate disqualifiers.  If listeners were taking melodic dictation, they must easily be able to notate what you are performing. Your music critics will honestly use adjectives like clean, clear, vivid, solid, secure, stunning!

When your brain is programmed like that, your embouchure will start to cooperate, and your product will improve dramatically!

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Powerful Weapon Against Nerves

"I don't know what happened. I thought I was totally prepared, but as soon as I walked onto the stage, I froze and felt paralyzed. Even after all of those hours of preparation, nothing seemed to be working as intended!" 

Although stage fright can be devastating, it is not a permanent or life-threatening ailment. Be encouraged. You can begin to exchange fear for confidence even under enormously high-stress situations.

So, what's the antidote for those "deer-in-the-headlights" moments? Is it more practicing, deeper breathing, more singing, more listening, more mouthpiece-buzzing, more thinking, or being super-resolute? All of those are important, but very likely your secret weapon has not been adequately utilized. 

Simply put, your enthusiasm for what you are about to perform must be greater than your nervous doubts. By instilling this mindset firmly on a daily basis, you will be building an effective strategy that will withstand the paralyzing trauma of stage fright. 

Bottom line. Strengthen your passion for music. Approach each etude, each excerpt, and each solo with a zeal for its musical message. Resist boredom. Inspired beautiful playing always matters. This applies even to your warm up. Aiming for musicality and expression is what fuels your success on stage and enables you to overcome nervousness. 

Your job is way more than just producing notes. It brings into play the very reason we are invested in music. Without a strong consistent dedication to music-making, we become easy targets for the assaults of the dreaded nerve giant.