Saturday, March 22, 2008

No More Boredom in Study Hall

Totally bored during my high school study halls, I decided to make good use of the time (as far as I was concerned.) Rhythm being the iron-clad building block of music that it is, and must be, I determined to begin practicing and perfecting it as much as possible. It seemed like it was the most learnable part of a music career, and I was setting out to nail it. My schedule said "Study Hall", but I was enrolling myself in "Rhythm 101".

So, as I stared at the ceiling with my mouth half open in what must have looked like a brain-dead stupor, little did our study hall monitor realize the rhythmic genius that was being developed right before her eyes. She must have thought that ours surely was the most handicapped of the slow learner classes in the entire state of New Jersey. I liked letting her think that. Anyway, onward I continued with my maniacal project!

First: establish a rock-solid tempo and don't change it. Keep it exactly like a machine for a couple of minutes. Next, tap or say eighth notes, 2 notes per beat. The best results came by saying "dut" for every note. It strengthens tongue muscles and develops coordination. After an unbearable length of time doing that without speeding or slowing, I would go to triplets, three equal notes to the same beat.

In case we couldn't remember how to do triplets, our H.S. Band Director told us to say "mulberry" for triplets and "huckleberry" for sixteenth notes. (I determined never to say mulberry or huckleberry ever again.) Then from triplets I went on to sixteenth notes, 4 to a beat. Then it got harder - 5's, then 6's, or two groups of triplets, and further if possible. (Come to think of it, he never told us what to say for quintuplets.)

That was all warm up. The challenge came next. Two measures of quarters, followed by two measures of eighths, followed by two of triplets, followed by sixteenth notes, quintuplets, and finally sextuplets. Then without pausing, I'd reverse it, never stopping or changing the tempo. Now, speed it all up, as fast as you can say "dut-dut-dut-dut".

Next one could go at random from triplets to quintuplets to quarters, etc, etc, all with a steady beat. A friendly neighbor could make hand signals to you indicating what subdivision to do next. (Why was he always telling me to do only quarter-notes with his finger?) By now the study hall monitor would approach with stern looks of disapproval. Evidently I was making noise with my "duts". I hated it when my sextuplets got interrupted by study hall monitors.

But onward I would persist. Next, tapping quarter-note triplets, four on three, five on four, and six on five, as far as you can go. It helped to chart those superimposed rhythms on graph paper. You can also recognize the sound of the beat patterns as they bounce against each other. This was very cool. Maybe my math would improve. . . .

And then I would try to . . . . BELL !!!!!. . . . Study Hall's over. On to Algebra. (Hope he lets us study quietly.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

To Think or not to Think

Which advice works best for you? "You're thinking too much. Just play!" or, "Think about what you have just played. Listen to yourself. It's a mess!" For some, the need is refinement and detail work. Others desperately need to loosen up and consider the music. While some need to get to the practice room, others need to get to the stage. Obviously both are necessary.

I remember Arnold Jacobs insisting on the playing mechanics being studied and well executed, but he never stopped there. All the parts must serve the musical whole. The actor studies the script, practices his lines, prepares the delivery. But when the curtain goes up, it's showtime. His responsibility is to become his character. Practice is over as it's now all about performing. Both types of preparation are vital. The key is learning to use both to our advantage.

The nature of school curricula seems to be heavy on practice and light on performance. And that is probably as it should be. There is a season for learning, and there is a time to play. The most effective learning however takes place in concerts. Showtime teaches us what we need to do in the next practice session. Performances provide our practice agenda. We need a good balance of both practice and performing. All practice and no shows make Jack a very dull trumpet player. And all show and no practice also makes Jack a very dull trumpet player.

Sometimes it is best to think more, but sometimes it is better to think less. Think about that. What a life! We work, and then we get to play. Not a bad profession. In most jobs they never get to play.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Nightmares Happen

No matter how well prepared we are, those worst nightmares have a way of happening anyway. These are probably quite mild by comparison, but here are some well remembered heart-racing moments.

Orchestra stands for a bow at the end of the concert, and my chair slips over the protective lip on the riser. We sit and I tumble all the way to the floor. Do I climb up or stay there obscured by the riser until the applause stops?

It's a Carnegie Hall Pops concert, and as usual we are juggling three or four horns as well as a bevy of mutes. One very fast Harmon mute change was so fast that the mute never made it to the bell. It was frantically fumbled and literally thrown all the way through the viola section where it rolled around and around next to one of the cellists who was staring at it quite alarmed. It then got slowly passed back to its red-faced owner.

The trumpet case felt unusually light that day. Getting to the opera rehearsal and opening the case, I found only my piccolo trumpet. No time to go home. Puccini doesn't sound right an octave higher, but the rehearsal must go on. I made it through the entire three hour rehearsal, and the conductor was never the wiser.

All excited about my lesson in Chicago with Arnold Jacobs, I couldn't wait to get back to Cincinnati and apply some of those neat concepts in the next rehearsal with Maestro Schippers. The lesson was about learning to warm up in a shorter amount of time and being much more efficient, etc. He had warned that I wouldn't always have the luxury of a lengthy warm up. I had forgotten to reset my watch from Central to Eastern Time. As I walked into the rehearsal, the orchestra was already tuning. I had ice cold chops and no warm up at all! Of course the first entrance required trumpets. Not a good day.

Tours always seem to be accident-prone. On one New York trip I lost a camera, a back support cushion, a watch, a razor cord, and a D trumpet! Amazingly I got the trumpet back.

The Carnegie Hall stage has only one entrance, and exit. Once you're out there, there is no turning back. (There's a lesson there somewhere.) The huge food selection at one of those 24-hour buffets that afternoon turned out to be a bad idea. We battled our way through Heldenleben that night, and I was sure I was going to have to make a mad dash though the entire orchestra to get off stage, and not for the off-stage trumpet calls. The battle was intense, but we finished it and I made it just in time. Not a good night, but it could have been a lot worse.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The First Lesson with Vacchiano

Just as the trained physician accurately diagnoses the ailment and prescribes the cure, so too the experienced teacher is able to quickly zero in on a student's greatest need. Taking out his pad, the doctor jots down the pages from his Arbans Book of Remedies, makes sure he is properly understood, and sends the student on his way to practice. No need for flatteries or pleasantries. Problems are identified, and steps listed for healing are prescribed. Now just go do it.

Such was the case at my first lesson with Mr. Vacchiano in 1965 at the old Juilliard School on Clairmont Avenue in New York City. It was the most unlikely neighborhood for top-notch music instruction in that cultural center of the world. But be that as it was, that was where one went to improve. I was still an obnoxious self-confident high schooler, but I was well rehearsed for this anticipated moment, and determined to show him a thing or two about my pyro technics and exuberant trumpet playing, such as it was.

After an etude performed at great-neck speed, (the one in c# minor, in one) from Caffarelli's 16 Etudes of Perfectionment, and an overly emotional opera excerpt from The Art of Phrasing in the rear of the Arban Book, Mr. Vacchiano quietly turned to page 125 in Arban. With his pencil he tapped an impossibly slow tempo and commanded me to play staccato 8th notes, one line at a time.

Completely humiliated and frustrated, I failed to even come close to pleasing either of us. Every note could be heard for what it was, consistently sloppy. How could all of my preparation come to naught? After addressing a few personal observations about my approach to the trumpet, he sent me on my way. "Come back in two weeks when you can play one line on page 125 accurately."

I applied myself diligently to this new kind of discipline. I did it only because it was he who had assigned it. It must be worth doing. Still it was a lesson I needed to have taken again and again throughout my career. Unfortunately it is one which tends to be blown off by most students. "Bring on the concertos and the bravura excerpts, but don't ask me to play 12 notes in a row, clean, slowly, in tune, and perfectly accurate. What fun it that?"

I was beginning to learn that my concertos and excerpts would never mature and be ready for prime time until they were preceded by the slow discipline of preparing one perfect note at a time. I had given maybe 10% attention to fundamentals, and 90% blowing in the wind, albeit very impressive blowing so I thought. But the challenge was to receive the instruction that required attention to the excellence of details.

Precise instruction - great teachers know how to administer it, and great students learn how to receive and apply it.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Different Kind of Fireworks

There we sat, about five of us finalists in the BSO dressing room awaiting the verdict from the audition committee. Thee Roger Voisin was retiring from his amazing career with the orchestra. I felt a bit guilty even being there as a possible replacement for one of the giants that had been a hero of mine for so many years. As we all sat together chatting somewhat uncomfortably for what seemed like hours, the room suddenly burst open. It was not a committee person with the announcement, but it was the exuberant one himself, R.V.

"Hi, boys! I just wanted to see who to give my key to." He grinned as he held high his locker key, as if the highest jumper would get it. No one would be the first to speak, although inwardly we were all yelling, "Give it to me. I'll take it!" Next he opened his locker, picked up one of the trumpets hanging on its hook and proceeded to play something for us.

Many times I had heard his remarkable ability to bury an orchestra. I have also heard about his picking up the high horn cold and knocking off the opening of the last movement of the Brandenburg. So I expected some fireworks right there in the locker room. But he had a different kind of fireworks in mind for us. He had a knack for injecting the needed ingredient of the moment, and his mission was again about to be accomplished.

His C trumpet already had the necessary Bach black mute installed, so he proceeded to impeccably execute some multiple-tongued nasty fast French flourishes. I don't know if it was Debussy, Bozza, or the Toy Soldier March, sad to say. But it was fast, very soft, absolutely clean, and very impressive. Then he sort of winked at us, hung the horn back in its place, and turned to leave saying, "Let me know which of you boys gets the key." He seemed to have put us all in our places.

I can still hear those prophetic words. That man indeed possessed many keys which he was always willing to impart to the most eager receivers. Even in those final days with the orchestra, Roger Voisin was still leaving lessons for those who would take them. We were impressed that he probably could have auditioned that day and won his own job back!