Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dealing with the Monster

Whatever your career passion, be it music, business, sports, you name it . . . there can come a price to pay for total immersion. The rush of saturating ourselves in the fast lane on a one track pursuit can dead end us in a place we never saw coming. That thirst for success and recognition can become the monster that consumes us.

Witness Peanuts comic strip writer Charles Schultz. Life seemed perfect back in the early 60's, made to order. His family enjoyed an idyllic homeland with all the country surroundings one could dream of, the fruits of intoxicating success. Seeds were being sown however - seeds of his family taking last place so that the all-consuming career could continue to prosper. Success grows and has its way of demanding more and more time and energy. It never seems to retreat. How does one say no to the next grand opportunity? It becomes natural to escape family responsibilities in order to give attention to what got them there.

But fast forward 30 or 40 years and that happy home is history. To say that the business flourished is understatement. Peanuts had given him all the world could offer, but at the price of shattered relationships within his own family. Acknowledging even himself that the career never satisfied, Schultz's last days were spent with tragic questions about life, its purpose and its worth. He said he felt like he was Charlie Brown and never got to kick the football. Someone had always managed to pull the ball away at the last minute while he flew head over heels and crashed.

In our drive to do well, even to excel, it is vital to step away often, to see what and who is ultimately most important. Balance is the over-simplified answer, easy to say, hard to remember, especially in the daily pursuit of our God-given talents and abilities. How much more successful and happy would be the man who excels as much with his own family as in his work. What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and looses his own soul, and his own family?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Absorbing Great Music

Remember the most recent music that grabbed your attention and wouldn't let go for days? Was it Mahler, Strauss, a Mozart opera, or Phantom of the Opera? Everyone has his own top ten list. James Levine warned us as students before an all-star cast performance of Don Carlo, that it would be a long time before show highs would subside, if ever. He said, "Enjoy this. You'll be walking on air for days." He was right. Hearing those arias to this day still pierce like a knife. Music does that, probably better than anything else.

I can still hear Mel Broiles demonstrating Caffarelli etude #66 transposed to D trumpet, boldly echoing all over Lincoln Center from an open window at the Met. Our brains archive thousands of files of great playing. How is your library? I wonder if there are more instances of great music happening every day than we realize. Be alert for them, and file them safely. You'll be needing to recall them often.

Yesterday the majestic strains of Fanfare for the Common Man could be heard echoing down the corridors at CCM. Today I paused to hear a performance of a Brahms Violin Sonata filling the Atrium. Last week a Charlier etude was being practiced for all it is worth while overlooking Lake Michigan. Five trumpets could be heard being coached through The Rite of Spring by Charlie Geyer. Next door the Rhapsodie Espagnol trumpet section was being rehearsed by Chris Martin. So much to hear, so little time!

Great music has its way of adhering itself both to listeners and performers. Extra special musical moments always leave lasting impressions. Seek them out. They are there waiting to be discovered and to be shared. Audiences love when that happens.

Picturing Entrances

C.S.O. trumpet colleague Doug Lindsay offers a great improvement on an Arban book term that probably has contributed to the stuttering and bungling of trumpet entrances for decades! He points out that the word "attack" of the note could well be replaced with "release" of the air. Brilliant! We subconsciously picture attacking entrances rather than a timed release of air onto them, a much more natural function. Attacking notes makes us think of explosive bursts of air, while releasing air gives us greater control for a variety of articulations. Finesse is possible in "release" whereas clubbing happens with "attack".

Not that clubbing doesn't have a large place in the arsenal of brass weaponry. But the point is how to control entrances with the greatest of ease. We've got the odds stacked against us when we consider how imperceptibly the violins can sneak in, and how unnoticed the woodwind players can ooze into their notes. Trumpet entrances are not so easy. Ever notice how the violin players can float the bow quickly over the strings (flautando), and yet still play very softly? A good visual for our fluid air movement even in pianissimo. Some thoughts, or images to think on while doing nothing:

Think of heavy aircraft landing on the runway without skidding and burning too much rubber, a graceful landing without bumps. Note also the small downward drop compared to the great forward thrust. Or how about pushing a child on a swing? No jerks, just smooth in-rhythm gentle shoves. Take bowling - an athletic windup followed by the silent release of the ball on the wood floor with no thuds or bounces. Like the plane, the main direction is forward, not downward. Or for those of you seniors, think lawn bowling, or boccie - old guys slowly rolling a not-so-heavy ball only a short distance. Then there is shuffleboard. Who in his right mind would think of striking the disc instead of giving it a smooth forward push?

More sports: think about the quarterback rather than the batter. Why? One releases the ball while the other hits for a living. Trumpet players must be able to do both. I wonder if our terminology needs some adjusting, our mental pictures more focus, and our practice habits greater efficiency. We need more forward-directed air, and a less percussive tongue. The tongue focuses, but it is the air that fuels the notes regardless of speed. Let's perfect our air releases so that they match the many demands of the music. Attack the problem, not the note!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Control Freaks Wanted

Ever thought or yourself as being a control freak? Well, isn't that a good portion of our job description? The top orchestras are full of them. Audition committees covet them. Perfect control of our product is always the goal. It should be high on our priority list in daily practice, in every piece, in every phrase, and with every note. It includes pitch, rhythm and dynamics. Even spontaneity and flexibility of interpretation must be carefully disciplined.

By finals, all the out-of-control freaks are on their way home. Only the machines are left, and the most musical machine wins. And that is the next criterion: musical control freaks. The search is narrowed considerably by this point. Only a few seem to survive this rugged scrutiny, and only one gets the prize.

How did this amazing control get acquired? Did it get injected into the auditioner a week before the audition? How about that great musicianship? It obviously can't be suddenly ginned up. When did it start? Answer: long, long ago.

The good news: control is quite doable, but it must be a daily priority. In time, control becomes the norm, rather than luck. The odds increase for us when musicianship is nicely controlled and dependable. Life on the wicked stage becomes much less traumatic and natural. Great control of the basics produces freedom for the musical expression to flourish. Great playing isn't a freak of nature, but the wonderfully disciplined skill of a very valuable control freak.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Popular Mechanics

Alright class. The curriculum for this course focuses only on mechanics, physical and mental skills developed to a high level. All of you emoting romantic types need not register. (A few students quietly slink out the back door.) As I said, this quarter we want trench men, ditch diggers, and top athletes with a single focus: stamina and absolute control. Espressivo, cantabile and rubato are not part of this class description. Those will be included in other courses. If I see or hear of any of that stuff, you get expelled on the spot. Got it?

Now then, here are the tools you'll need immediately: a minidisc or the latest state-of-the-art recording devise, the loudest most obnoxious metronome in captivity, a decibel meter, and several breathing devices. You will also want to have a berp of some sort, that's a buzzing extension for you freshmen.

Once you have all of these, you will need to brush up on your algebra. I want you all thinking math. All problems solved with no errors. You get paid for right answers. You get docked for mistakes. I want the agility of football players adroitly scampering through the tires on the practice field, each with incredible footwork, wired instincts, and superhuman conditioning. Got it? Think basic training for the Marines, climbing walls, running marathons, etc. This is endurance, alertness, dependability and cat-like agility training in high gear. By the way, you'll need all parts of your brain to be actively involved. No wimps will survive.

Here is your assignment: Concone book - the easiest, slowest, softest and smoothest playing possible. Next, fermatas with dim. to pp. Then incredibly fast multiple tonguing. Impeccable rhythm is a must-have. Extreme register changes with the ability to turn on a dime. Computer-like sight-reading. Awesome extremes in dynamics all well under control. All entrances secure every time. And all of this with flawless intonation.

Our goal: incredibly clean, accurate trumpet playing. Clean players get a lot of attention in auditions. Call it control freaks, that's what we want. You will be popular mechanics. Any questions? Class dismissed. Get to work.

"We are what we practice."

The message sparkled right there at the top of the bulletin board, written with silver thumb tacks: "WE ARE WHAT WE PRACTICE". A student almost needn't unpack to play for his lesson. Just take some solemn minutes there while gazing at the writing on the wall. Think about it. What's the status of our musical health? What have we been taking in, and what kind of quality are we giving out?

I felt like the guy walking through the gallery in Pictures at an Exhibition. Everywhere you looked there was a story, a lesson, a song. You could almost hear it all. There was a pic of the Chicago brass section, complete with Phil Smith (with long hair), Charlie Geyer (with more hair), Will Scarlet (with less hair), and of course the master himself, along with all the other brass masters in Chicago for so many years. Everywhere a huge chunk of trumpet history, a quote, an historic program. If only the walls in the NU trumpet studios could talk, or play! But indeed the halls are still alive with music and brilliant teaching. No need to herald the success stories of their grads.

But I digress. The subject: practicing. At one point Barb Butler commanded a student: "When you wake up, the first thing is, When will I practice today? Organize the day for that priority, and structure the practice to cover all the items on the agenda." Not "just do it", but "you must do it". I laughed to myself, thinking: You will have fun whether you like it or not! Obviously, the students are getting the message and seem to be much enjoying the ride. That is what the audiences will pay for, and it all begins with practice.

The Value of Hate Practice

No, I'm not talking about hating to practice, or being so self-critical that we become disabled and stripped of confidence. The point of the simple comment offered at Northwestern by Charlie Geyer to a student was learning to be discerning in daily practice and not excusing a ton of bad notes. We think we are too hard on ourselves, but often the reverse is true. What we need to speed up the maturing process is to learn to recognize those same mistakes made day after day, AND then take the steps to solve them. He said, "If you hate it, you'll fix it." Before you can hate it, however, you have to hear it. (I didn't see anyone on campus without a minidisc.) That driven attitude is what I liked sensing.

Whatever the issue to be dealt with, the first step must be a fighting attitude. We need to play in tune, but first we must WANT to play in tune. We must CRAVE great intonation, and set out on a mission to get it. Or take soft attacks. We must learn to hate our own poor attack execution, AND enjoy the daily work needed to master that skill. Charlie recalled Herseth's great command of delicate entrances. What a way to learn, daily sitting within a few feet of text book examples! So many skills must be owned. The challenge is enjoying the challenge.

Let's practice being so annoyed with our high tolerance of our own unprofessional playing, that we become motivated to deal with problems effectively, one at a time, and once and for all.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Horn Player Adam Unsworth at CCM

With orchestra requirements today including ever growing amounts of pops repertoire, the skills of Adam Unsworth are treasures for any orchestra looking for someone who can do it all. As hard as it often is to get us stiff classical trumpeters to swing, even more rare is the swinging horn player. The mold was shattered, however, and the bar raised this week as Adam lectured, demonstrated and performed in concert and masterclass at CCM.

His impressive credentials include several major orchestras and now teaching responsibilities at Michigan. His double major on theory has proven practical as it forms the foundation for his jazz improv and secure technique. Scales of all kinds matter, as do arpeggios and chords of all sorts.

Most notable for me was his relaxed almost cool approach to the horn. Jazz or non jazz, it was effortless. As soon as air was released into the instrument, style emerged. Jazz is that creative, spontaneous, and freeing element that can be just the therapy we need, sort of like dessert after way too much broccoli! Someone once challenged Adam to end each day's practice with 20 minutes of fun. (Oh that we knew how to make that the agenda for the whole day!) Fun, that illusive ingredient for success and satisfaction! It's the fun part of playing that can open up sound, help flexibility, and free up one's approach. It also demands the kind of thinking and listening skills that can often be neglected by classical players.

I liked Adam's purpose-driven phrasing. Jazz has a way of demanding that of us, whereas it is easy just to plow into some excerpt or etude hoping to discover what we are supposed to do with it before we're done.

A teacher, Doug Hill, once asked Adam if he planned to "make a living or just have fun (with his jazz)." I'm thinking, "Why not both?" Obviously so was Adam.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Why Practice?

Another day, another warm-up, more scales and arpeggios, another bunch of etudes and assigned solos. Oh, and range extension, attacks, soft stuff, endurance, articulation work, and then off to rehearsals. Of course you must attend to your list of weaknesses, followed by sore chops, and tomorrow more of same. Soon we conclude, "what's the point?"

That is the mindset that we battle. So cumbersome and difficult is the journey at times that the reason for playing at all is often obscured, lost, or deemed no longer unattainable. Leave it to John Madden to bring us refreshing perspective on Sunday Night Football. "This team has yet to show that it can overcome adversity. And that is the mark of greatness." The goal line often seems so far away that many become sidelined, injured, and discouraged. Yet great players find a way to win.

For young musicians in pursuit of a career in music performance, the hardest challenge is learning to enjoy and manage hard work. Being able to function efficiently is the skill that separates the dreamers from the achievers. Those who succeed are not always the most talented but the hardest workers. They have disciplined themselves to break down problems and to work them out methodically.

The goal line is not just getting the big job. That's just the beginning. Obstacles are conquerable when the pursuit of winning is strong enough. Remember why you chose to do what you do, and rekindle the excitement that got you where you are. The wise student learns how to be disciplined, how to be inspired, and how to inspire others. It is all about learning to perform and liking the process. And that is our mission. With that in mind, why not practice!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Going to See the Wizard

What does a lion, a tin man, a scarecrow and a brass player have in common? Give up? Whatever their needs, surely they will be met by a Wonderful Wizard. Even Dorothy eventually received her request, and was somewhat surprised at the simplicity of the answer.

Brass-playing students are granted entrance to The Emerald University, all in search of their needs. Busily hastening about, they search for that which is missing, those techniques and talents for which they have been deemed deficient. Surely some Wizard will eventually bestow a certificate of valor upon them, and pronounce them fit for whatever journeys lie ahead.

The four year trek through E.U. is no easy assignment. Fraught with frightening forces full of failure, the days can get quite dreary. Wicked witches of discouragement, intimidation, and fear have been known to render inept and unfit many young would-be men and women of brass (and silver). Although they usually enter valiantly, they often exit void of that which they never really lost, like the cowardly lion.

Who can take away that which lies within a man? No one. The only weapon of those wicked witches is their lies and deceptions. They scream at us in our thoughts: "That which you need, you've never received. You don't have what it takes to succeed in this business. Look at all the others. You don't compare to them. Your tonguing stinks. YOU, your range is lousy. And YOU, my pretty! You will have that stage fright for the rest of your life. NO ONE will hire you! Give up. You'll NEVER get out of Kansas! Hahahaha . . . !"

We need to see that the elements of success are internal. They are there, and they always were there. They just need feeding, the right nourishment, generous encouragement, and time to mature. You already have all you need: COURAGE, HEART, and a BRAIN. You are free to use them as much as you wish.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Warning: Pitch Police Ahead!

"Intonation, trumpets!" That dreaded comment that we have become accustomed to shrugging off as irrelevant will no doubt come back to bite us sooner or later. But who wants to work on their intonation? There you sit paralyzed playing a dead tone trying to freeze the needle on the tuner. Try as you will, it still shakes and wobbles as if to laugh at the futility of pitch perfection. It says sharp or flat, but absolutely avoids hitting dead-on in tune. So why bother.

My pitch isn't that bad, we reason. Years of training our ears to allow for faulty tuning have come to blind us to recognizing that clashes are our fault. We stumble ignorantly through solos and excerpts, all the while setting off sensors and alarms that summon the pitch police with their sirens blazing.

Sensitive woodwind players are quickly shocked and deeply offended by our proud indiscretions. "The brass are out of tune, AGAIN!" Conductors wring their ears and wince at us, but to little avail. Finally the baton angrily taps the conductor's stand, and the one-by-one tuning game begins. Faces get red, tones gets tense. And since the ailment has been untreated for so long, fixing the problem is often beyond repair. Confidence is shaken. We forget about the fun of playing great music, and a serious case of musical goo quickly sets in.

Not fun. Well, intonation unfortunately and fortunately is vital to great music-making. Learning to stay attentive to intonation without obsessing on it is the key. We have to remain alert to it on a daily basis. Correcting tuning problems doesn't have to cripple the musician inside. The challenge is to improve our performance skills, and to produce flawless tuning, as much as is possible. And it is possible.

No magic piece of advice or expensive machinery will solve the problem. But there is good news! There is hope. Good intonation is an inward skill that can improve and be developed. Slow work, more listening, and singing will do wonders for the most hideous offender. This project can be a fun journey, but that depends upon you. Great pitch is one of those abilities that separates the pro from the student. It's O.K. to be a student, but we can't stay there. The pitch police are just ahead, and their fines are severe.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

What Are You Thinking About?

Pick up the horn. Play, warm up, noodle around, get comfortable. Nothing wrong whatsoever with a wise, careful beginning to sessions. But now with that accomplished, it's time to sound like a first class player.

What's up? Charlier, Irons, Caffarelli, Mahler work, Neruda, or even scales and arpeggios. Whatever is on the stand, it doesn't matter. The days of junior high playing are history, so get over it. Filter all the junk out beginning with your first note. Listen similarly for all notes in the phrase because it's all supposed to be good.

Now here's the key: As valuable as a no-junk mindset is, you can't survive unless you add to it a monster musician. Otherwise you'll die of boredom, or your listeners will. The monster will dictate the quality of playing, and will quickly take care of the junk. We work feverishly on eliminating the junk, and still fall short because the hero of the day never gets to the stage. The hero inside must first be tamed, unleashed, and allowed to rule. This includes practice sessions, rehearsals, concerts, and valuable time spent away from the horn.

Remember the first time you heard Mahler 5? The next thing was a bee line to the practice room to imitate what you heard. The monster performer trumped the garbage man. Garbage is quickly shunned when the monster rages.

So, what are you thinking about, making no mistakes, playing perfectly clean, or about how wonderfully you are about to play? You decide. The horn will respond accordingly. Great music starts long before it is ever heard.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Doug Lindsay speaks at UC

"How many of you are seriously planning to be playing after graduating?" Getting right down to business, Doug Lindsay, acting principal trumpet with the CSO, shared generously with a group of jazz and classical brass students for nearly 2 hours. The agenda was mechanics and fundamentals, the invaluable nuts and bolts of successful playing. Many practical helps and concepts were discussed and demonstrated. Several students played for him and received his excellent critique and friendly encouragement. Each one improved amazingly after only a few comments and a couple of "do it like this" demonstrations. A well played note is worth a thousand words!

Playing a brass instrument is not rocket science, but 5 essentials, he points out, are vital to master: chops, air, tongue, reading skills (brain), and heart. Obviously a fine teacher as well as a polished performer, Doug explained his approach to what he says is the best way to earn a living imaginable, other than golf.

Some of his helpful shop talk hints: Use firm corners. Aim the air squarely at the hole in the mouthpiece with both lips sharing the work load somewhat equally. Air should be gently released to start a note, rather than "attacking" it, so as to avoid the all too familiar "thud" or sputter. Avoid being glued to the printed page, but look ahead. Even look away from the stand and into the audience. Consider the forest rather than inspecting every leaf. Learn to enjoy what you do. Nurture and bring to work the attitude of loving your work, loving the music. Like others who have presented classes in recent months, Doug stressed the importance of art of listening. Listening to all kinds of music with discerning ears.

Concerning articulation, more often than not, the tongue is over used and interferes with tone. Clean precise articulation is needed and was wonderfully demonstrated. The main topic of the day turned out to be air, and how to use it right. Playing the "air trumpet" was a great teaching and self teaching tool - blowing and articulating without the trumpet.

He had some excellent intuitive suggestions for a jazz improv solo: the use of silence, more variety of dynamics and busyness, color, and ways for maintaining the audience's interest.

I was pleasantly reminded of the ease and relaxed approach that is a mark of great brass players. After holding a high F, he was immediately able to pull the horn down and quickly resume talking as if playing was no big deal. For Mr. Lindsay it isn't. As always, Doug sounds great and makes it look easy.