Saturday, April 28, 2007

Making it Official

Thomas Schippers was conducting the first rehearsal of the CSO's new season. A full orchestra transcription of Clementi's 4th symphony was to begin the rehearsal, not exactly an old familiar warhorse, but a challenge none the less. It was September 15, 1975, and I was there! It was officially day #1 for me as principal trumpet. Adrenaline was flowing even though it was only Clementi, and those first concerts went well.

That first weekend of concerts came and went, like they always do. As a 28 year old it was especially exciting. Schippers could manage to make any score that way. You knew great music was going to be made, but it was often hard to get your arms around it. Reading precision in his moves was a challenge. He was all about creating a beautiful forest. Nuancing the details of the trees was our responsibility. Frustrating as that could be, he was usually forgiven because we knew that the end product was going to be successful. I am sure the extra pressure improved our skills. One occasionally was reminded of racing through a tunnel with no lights on! We always came out of it unscathed finding the audience applauding wildly. Amazing!

Today is my last official day with the CSO. Hundreds if not thousands of rehearsals and concerts have come and gone, maybe "millions and millions!" Therapy for some of the slugfest weeks was always "it will pass". What a job when you consider that symphony work is different every week and the menu is never the same. Better than "it will pass" is "what can we do in this music that will interest listeners?" Instead of just getting through it, enjoy the challenge of creating great moments of music.

My last official assignment is on that same stage. No longer "a new guy," "one of the guys", or one of the "old guys" in the orchestra, I join the rank of "retired guys". I must simply show up for a brief moment that too will pass. The notes have all been played and the concerts are history. They are all also memories that I can recall in an instant. Only those and the friendships remain along with much gratefulness for the privilege of contributing to great music-making for 31 years.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Leaving the baton

A large package arrived yesterday full of programs of concert schedules, special recitals attended, visiting artists, the complete Carnegie Hall series, etc. My mother had sent her musical updates from New Jersey sharing the many options for all interested in the arts in the New York area. A musician living in New Jersey is like a kid living next to the toy store! So much available!

Tucked away in all of her program treasures was a small envelop with two pictures of my great grandfather taken in the early fifties. I was about six at the time. He was retired from his job and was pictured laughing with his two very favorite daughters. I had heard bits and pieces about him and like any youngster was not able to grasp a big picture of anything, or would not. They had told me about him, and while I tried to be polite, it didn't have any impact, one of the many tragedies of youth!

This weekend I officially retire from my job. It is interesting that these pictures arrived after all of these years just on this day! How I wish I could have talked with him about so much that we have (had) in common. Separated by two generations we lived in the same world and on the same musical page, but never knew each other. His job? He had been first trombone with the John Philip Sousa band, and had also held principal jobs with several orchestras.

I leave the CSO with many stored memories of musical highs and experiences. But after the trumpet baton has been handed off to another, I would like to be pictured like my great grandfather, enjoying his family and able to share with the following generations some of that with which I have been richly blessed.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pinpoint Control

Alison Balsom put on a clinic today at the rehearsal for this weekend's CSO concerts, a clinic of clear attacks, soft entrances and finesse. We talk often of the extremes, and tend to be drawn to the fireworks and jolts of pizazz. While she played with all the flair and energy needed for the Haydn Concerto, she also showed the amazing pinpoint control of entrances that marks great artists. You had to hear it!

Those fantastic starts to phrases grabbed our attention as we listened and watched. Arturo Sandoval among many others can dazzle with incredible high range and power, but Alison owns the pianissimo entrance. I enjoyed catching the response of my colleagues. One seemed to shake his head in disbelief. Another couldn't resist open smiles and nods of approval. "Her playing sparkles", said another. She made you want to get to the practice room and test new levels of low decibel playing! Now that's not politically correct in many macho brass circles, but it is an essential requirement for that huge pay check earned by concert soloists of her caliber.

There is always a reason that soloists have careers! Many skills will be on display. You will hear something worth your attending. How many can we note, absorb, and make our own? That is the question. These will be the techniques we can be proud of.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

So Much Music, So Little Time!

There was a final comment made by guest artist Charlie Vernon the other day at CCM that almost got by us as the hour was up and some headed to classes. He might have started the session with the observation, but chose rather to let his brilliant playing speak for itself.

He had just finished playing for a large majority of the 60 minutes he was allotted. The hour was all about trombone at its best. Everything you could ask of a trombone was demonstrated, and more. All of the bars were hoisted higher, and we heard new limits for decibel extremes. As mentioned yesterday, his mechanics were in excellent repair along with beauty of sound.

Oh, the parting comment. He implored us to enjoy the vast repertoire of great music written for us even as brass players. That was it! Here was a piece so difficult that who knows if it will ever be played again by anyone else. The point taken was that in this piece he had found incredible beauty and opportunities for record-breaking playing. The vision of great playing trumped all obstacles. I say "even" brass players because we often fail to imagine the possibilities of music-making within our reach. It isn't reserved for opera singers and violinists. Arnold Jacobs, one of the best tuba players ever, made his instrument perform. Or rather he performed through his instrument. He was the instrument. He just happened to be playing a tuba. The music is in the musician and not limited by the instrument.

Brass music can be much more than tonic and dominant fanfares, occasional loud blats, and marches with cracked stingers at the end. I wonder if we go through our music life with an inferiority complex? Why do they always stick the brass in the back of the orchestra? Maybe we should think, practice and play like we were concert masters all sitting on the front lines!

I like his challenge first demonstrated and then encouraged, to explore the wealth of tremendous music at our disposal, and to enjoy playing like never before. Great brass players must be great musicians, and great musicians must love their work!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

For the Love of Music!

Tornado season struck Cincinnati today! Bass trombonist Charlie Vernon of the Chicago Symphony picked up his alto, tenor, and bass trombone and just about blew everyone out of the room! For sure bass trombone players know very well how to put on their blasting helmets and do some serious damage. I say damage respectfully, as that is one of the necessary skills required of all brass players. He had it under complete control. In addition to shear power, we heard gorgeous quality of sound, awesome dynamic contrasts, nice intonation, and the prize of the day - beautiful music making! More impressive than his technical control is the obvious power source of his amazing accomplishments. It was "talent on loan from God", and he simply played as if to say, "I love this job!"

What a concerto he played! The terrain of the musical landscape is full of huge obstacles and monstrous range jumps with stop-on-a-dime demands. Close your eyes and you can imagine the largest ocean-liner clearing the harbor for entry. Next there followed soft choirboy soprano choral lines way up there. But I particularly enjoyed the energy and lighthearted humor that he showed in the rests. He seemed to be saying, "this piece is great fun to play!" His rhythm is machine-like but not at the expense of breath-taking expression. Far more than a music computer, we saw unabashed passion and relentless drive. No mountain is too high for this guy, and no valley too low! This unique composition might have been subtitled, "You will have to be able to do it all. Fasten your seat belt!"

The highlight of all the highlights, in my opinion, was his almost whispered comment on what was happening during some of the rests. "This is the most beautiful music I've ever heard!" He was setting the scene for us just like the announcer softly but excitedly describes the final winning putt in The Masters Golf Tournament. Most of us just count the rests, thinking only of our next entrance. No, Charlie gave the impression that he was on the most thrilling ride of his life. "All aboard. You're riding shotgun, guys. Everyone take a deep breath. We're flying right over Niagara Falls. Next movement, on your right, there's the Grand Canyon! You may now exhale. Now on to Yellowstone where we will observe the force of those geysers!"

Charlie Vernon finally landed us back in Cincinnati. Thanks to Mr. Vernon for a great trip!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Place of Praise

Busy with classes, busy with rehearsals, assignments, papers, research projects, boards, recital deadlines, lesson agendas! The treadmill gets faster and bumpier. "Do this, now do that. No, do it this way, not like that! Bud does it like this, never like that!" Such is life in the university trumpet world. Comparisons and great expectations with the bar rising as we speak.

The pressure is tough, stressful, and necessary. But is something missing from the picture? I wonder if the injection of something else at just the right time and in just the right amount, might prove the spark that motivates students to super-excel. Wise use of this ingredient could easily shrink some of those hurdles and propel runners to run faster and jump higher.

Recently one of our students returned from an out of town "root canal" of a weekend. It was an audition, board, sit-in rehearsal, interview experience that was probably quite nerve-wracking. It was scrutiny under the high powered microscope required these days in order to land a job in a good university. You have to have it all: orchestral repertoire, soloistic flair, chamber music sensitivity, thorough knowledge of the music field, as well as favorable people skills to boot! A lot of hats to wear comfortably in order to get that first paycheck!

"Well, how did it go?", I asked after it was over. "Give me a full report!" The student modestly summarized the events still very fresh in mind. But what followed was the wonderful result of that ingredient that so easily gets neglected. This student was made to feel at home all during the audition experience and was appropriately complimented for specific points of excellence. Genuine and well-deserved praise was offered. As a result, this student played the best lesson I can remember! It seemed almost like a new person, a new player, a motivated player!

Nothing comes over night, and confidence needs to be built over time. Respect must be earned and worked hard for. Pressure is good, but there is time and a place for praise because it can often accomplish far more than even honest criticism. Flattery never works, however, and is a sad counterfeit. But how often is genuine, well-deserved praise, admiration and appreciation given for things done well? Isn't that what is expressed by the audience at the end of the concert?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

No More Practicing!

One needed paper and pencil to capture all that Joe Burgstaller presented in his outstanding masterclass the other day at UC. Just one of the many memorable ideas and concepts shared was his admission: "I never practice." Immediately our brains were trying to compute that one. Then he followed by saying that he "only performs." What a great way of looking at our day! Even "practice" time can be reinvented when we consider it to be "performance" time!

What's the problem with practice? Nothing, if its purpose is performing. When we perform, the mindset should be playing for keeps, entertaining the listeners and having fun while doing the music. Practicing however, can easily be so problem-oriented that the nearest ER is soon jammed with trumpet students striken with "paralysis through analysis." So the goal before us is how to maintain a performance focus while still giving attention to developing the vital mechanics of trumpet playing. And that remains the music school question of the ages!

If that dilemma could be adequately addressed, then the marketplace would be saturated with thousands of highly qualified and continually motivated soloists. But then again there would not be enough jobs for all of us heros. There would simply be too many great trumpet players for one world to contain! The public would soon become board with so much brilliance and lose interest. But I digress.

Getting back to our question of creative productivity on a daily basis, let's begin by placing ourselves on stage, free, relaxed, and energized by the fun of the mission we are on! And that is performing music. Let's not forget it. How about something that will take some time and adjusting, but will be well worth the effort? How about down with "PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT", and up with "PERFORMING MAKES PERFECT!"

Monday, April 02, 2007

Antidote for the Slugfest!

It was one of those long grueling slug fest weeks of 24/7 pops. Doc Severinsen was the soloist for one those marathon Telarc recording weeks. Doc owned the entire week, and he provided us memories to last us a life time. I arrived at rehearsals extra early just to hang around, hoping to catch some warm up tips. Maybe something would rub off just by being in the vicinity! As the start time of the rehearsal approached we heard what we expected: fireworks, high, fast, loud and louder! No one was disappointed. Doc was here! And he would deliver as he always does.

The strangest thing however was what I heard that was almost as memorable for me as the fireworks. An hour or more before the rehearsal there emanated from his dressing room very soft muffled groaning sub tones below the staff, like Clarke's first studies but with no great tone intended. He was just "massaging his chops" as he told me be later. Sensitivity and responsiveness was the goal for those early morning sessions. It was almost like the mouthpiece was barely touching his lips. Nerve endings were being coaxed into action a little at a time. No one would have guessed who was in that dressing room. I say it respectfully, but it could have been a grade school beginner!

He took his time, rested, and then resumed his work gradually extending his range. Adequate time was being spent slowly preparing his embouchure for the fierce battles just ahead. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he could care less what listeners thought of his playing an hour and a half before the rehearsal.

Before long he was beginning to sound like himself. His air was totally under control and the lips were flexible, responsive and ready for air travel at supersonic speeds as well as whispering soft volumes. No doubt the slow soft regimen is one of his secrets. It's easy to hurry onto the stage having neglected the soft therapy necessary for engaging our lips in combat! And then we get felled by the first barrage of high and loud demands.

The rehearsals were long. The week was long. The concerts were long. The recording sessions were even longer. And the amazing thing about it all was that it appeared to be all fun for Doc, and it was! His drive, passion and stamina were something to behold. No doubt his love for what he was doing sustained him. But only a few of us noticed the painstaking drudgery of soft preparation that played that vital part in his music-making and his longevity.

Each of us must discover what secret weapons work best for us. Usually it will involve some careful soft therapy in doses we learn to prescribe for ourselves. It's probably wise to keep a supply of soft medication handy, and take it regularly.