Sunday, March 11, 2007

What should the audience be thinking?

Several students had just played some solos for Mark Ridenaur during his master class. Pretty nicely done! Always hard to play cold, but well done, guys. I was eager to hear with his ears. Where would he start? What was plan A for critique? I liked his answer. He didn't go straight for technique, phrasing, intonation, breathing, etc. (although he gave the necessary attention later to proper mechanics). His comment: "What do you want the audience to be thinking about?" In other words, devote more of your attention to your message, and don't worry about your delivery. Certainly the basics cannot be slighted, but I like his putting the horse in front of the cart.

This is encouraging. The first step is to have a firm concept of the piece as a whole, including each movement and each phrase. The trumpet is not even necessary while this step is being solidified. The first practice sessions are in the listening room. Getting the concepts firmly ingrained is the assignment. Careful listening, singing and imagination must follow. At this point you will know exactly what you want to say, and a vital portion of your preparation will have already been accomplished!

Then the trumpet work begins, shaping each section with the listener in mind. Jacobs always said "Tell a story! You are an actor on the stage." Often that visualization jump-started us students who seemed forever stuck in the Clark and Schlossberg books! (absolutely no offense intended for either).

The details may indeed fall into place at some point, but they may not translate the message to the audience nearly as powerfully as a shot fired over the footlights with some drama! As Jacobs would describe, "You have put on your grease-paint. Now get out there and pour your heart out!"

Paying Attention

Excellent master class yesterday given by Mark Ridenaur, associate principal trumpet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! He was asked a great question. "If you had your schooling to do over again, what would you do differently?" After taking a moment to think on his answer, he responded with a great on-point reply. "I would listen more, and pay more attention to what was going on around me."

A common problem in our schooling is "so much to cover in so little time!" Consequently, we put in many hours of practice, but find ourselves spinning our wheels and discouraged with the lack of real progress. Mark even confessed that up to 80% of his practicing while a student was unproductive. So the answer is usually not just more practice, but first knowing what to listen for. He talked about critical practice efficiency as well as an alertness to the skills of others.

Concerning private practice, he mentioned the consistent use of the metronome, tuner, decibel meter (for even sustained notes and phrases), and high quality recording devices on which side-by-side comparisons can be made with the best recorded passages. Real improvement came when he became serious about imitating the great players and correcting the areas of need that he heard in his self-recording.

Once in the Chicago Symphony the pressure was on to learn a lot of repertoire fast, increase and decrease dynamic range, polish legato technique, refine a variety of articulations, projection, tone quality, and survival abilities! Other than all that, it was easy! But I like the summary that begins the process for all of us: PAY ATTENTION!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Finding the Path of Least Resistance

One of the amazing things to me about great players is the apparent ease of their playing! They just look good. Today I asked a friend to tell me how a certain great player was doing. I like the answer I got: "He plays so relaxed and easily!" That assessment sounds so not profound. Yet isn't that how it should be? That short report gave me a free lesson.

There's the lesson: Start by making it look easy! Great conductors make "The Rite of Spring" look easy. Great high trumpet players make the Brandenburg sound effortless. The air just seems to flow quickly through the instrument and the music flies out. Our recording engineer was exuberant over the "singing like a bird" that my colleague did on the high B flats in "Star Wars." It just flew out there over the whole orchestra, and no guts were busted!

I wonder if most of us have been infected in varying degrees with the deadly "constricteditis disease"! Our air barely gets moving and it must begin a tight squeeze through the narrowist of pinchy, bending passages. When some of it finally dribbles out the bell, we are left exhausted, sore, faint, and faint-hearted! Our fingers are not quite in sync with our tongue so that the air must bump against the valves which further obstructs the flow. Sound familiar?

Playing trumpet shouldn't be rocket science or brain surgery. Surely the secret is finding the path of least resistance for the air. I guess you could say that the most successful players sound great with the least amount of effort. They turn all of their air into impressive results. Nothing is wasted. Their air is sent on a mission. The mission is great-sounding music, and it finds its path through the horn with the least amount of resistance.

"But what then?!"

One of the music majors in Cleveland talked excitedly with me this week about the looming big jobs out there as we looked out over the falling snow. We were dreaming, laughing, and serious as we shared our common passion, orchestral music-making. One of us was just finishing, the other just beginning. He could almost taste it success, practicing with the same determination as the scholarship football player conditions himself well ahead of the opening day game at Ohio State. Seeing the field of play, he seemed to be saying: Hey, I can do this! Playing all day is O.K. Life is good. You can't play enough because it is all preparation for the big game. Within two or three years, it's his opening day.

As I reflected on our time together, I remembered the thrill of the challenge, the passion for success, and the determination to be the best. It is long and tough, but a fun ride for sure. But what happens after you get the job? "What then!?" as the grandfather in Peter and the Wolf says.

There are only so many hours we can spend on the stage. How have we been prepared for the rest of the day? We excel on our instruments, but we also must deal with people and many other realities, pleasant and non. The "rest of our lives" often get left in junior high school somewhere, shoved aside and ignored, while we relentlessly pursued our single passion. The finances need to be managed, the house put in order, the soul attended to, our passions kept in check - all the things that didn't seem to matter when we were 20.

I hated the term, "well-rounded". I pictured someone who knew little about everything, and excelled at nothing! No thanks. Looking back however, I would choose a path somewhere between obsessive-compulsive and well-rounded, (but closer to the former). I would try to give the same attention to my non-music life issues. Otherwise I'm in for some unexpected shocks in the first week of the new job.

A respected colleague once said to me, as I visualized greener grass in a different orchestra job, "just remember, wherever you go, there you are!" How true. We bring to each situation all that we are, and all that we are not. Neither the job, the surroundings, nor the people, will change who we are and how we behave.