Saturday, April 26, 2008

"I know that. Why don't I do it?'

There we are, coasting along just fine. Our playing is good, and so is life. Suddenly a few nasty passages begin to become troublesome and demand our attention. Simply ignoring them has failed to produce any improvement, and muscling our way through them isn't working. Neither does repetition - something about expecting a different result without ever changing anything? Those gnarly intervals seem set on remaining obstinate and refuse to be conquered. What is a trumpeter to do (besides yelling and throwing things)?

Here are a few suggestions that always yield results in the shortest amount of time. They are not new or amazing over-night cures, just remedies that work, but require consistent attention. In addition to mind-over-matter brute strength, which does have its place, you can get used to making these procedures a regular part of your routine as well.

The last thing we usually try is PLAYING VERY SLOWLY, I mean really slow. Try half tempo, so that you can totally focus and hear each note. Usually the tongue has become brutal, sluggy or pecky. Over-articulating is often the problem. We resort to using a sledge hammer to kill ants. The sledge hammer has its place but should not be over-used. When playing painstakingly slow, we immediately notice the lack of quality and center of the notes.

That leads to the next item: CLEANING UP THE SOUND. Sound quality generally suffers with speed. Play each note slowly with your best tone. No junk notes allowed. You ought to be able to sound just as good as your heros, if you play slow enough. So we've got slow accuracy, and now greatly improved sound.

Next is mouthpiece BUZZING. This perhaps should be the first resort. Insist on perfect intonation with your buzz. Very few seem to avoid modulating when buzzing even the shortest passage. Sit beside the piano while you plunk out the notes, checking your buzz for clarity and exact pitch. So now we have slow motion, high quality and a nice-sounding buzz.

Is anyone still there? Another item we all hate, but it works - and that is SINGING. Whether you have a good singing voice or not, it doesn't matter. Sing the passage in tune and in rhythm. As this improves, it will help your concentration when you return to actual playing. We easily get careless about slotting notes. Hence, pitch, quality and volume are hampered.

In short, if you can't play it, SLOW IT DOWN, listen for SOUND QUALITY, BUZZ IT, and SING IT. Take your time. Impatience is the root of the problem.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Never Good Enough

Double tonguing is one of those techniques that always seems to need attention. No one ever graduates from DT-101, as it has a way of appearing on each year's curriculum and in each week's concerts no matter how long we've been in or out of school. So we might as well get good and used to generous doses of that boring but so necessary section in the Arban book - pages 175-190.

Whoever heard of having to begin a note with a K, trying to articulate from the middle of the tongue, half way back to the throat? No wonder our double-tonguing is so easily handicapped. But it must be done. The trick is to mimic the clarity of the T so that no one can hear the difference, not even you. Painstaking slow practice does work, and that just might be the fastest route to mastery. Ironic that speed is accomplished slowly. Sadly, few have the patience. After all, there is absolutely no joy in trying to pronounce a T sound with a K at a snail's pace. And who has the time?

I remember a colleague at Eastman who was so exasperated with his spastic DTs, that he went on a K-only binge! Absolutely nothing but K attacks. His goal was a massive tongue-strengthening program. Heroic intentions, but he quickly developed a severe stuttering malady and had to spend two weeks in the infirmary.

There is almost no trumpet rep that ignores double-tonguing. First of all there is Ravel's G Major Concerto for Double and Triple-Tongued Trumpet with piano accompaniment (as I call it), the humility check. Then there are those particularly awkward passages in which the 16ths start with the K, or weaker note, like the solo in Capriccio Italien.

Equally hard is having to go from double to triple instantly. Example: Pines of Rome. As soon as you turn the first page, having executed high speed multiple tonguing with flying colors, Respighi's mighty tongue-twister challenges the trumpet player's self-control, often rendering him flummoxed and perplexed. Ottorino seemed to say, "You think you're good? Try this!" For me, he usually had the last laugh.

The list is endless: solos, orchestral works, chamber music, brass quintets, bugle calls, etudes, etc. Multiple tonguing is inescapable, and likely yours needs improvement. It is one of those "unmusical" items that tends to get neglected because it isn't fun to practice. Avoiding the unfun stuff soon makes the fun stuff not so fun. Learn to master the boring stuff, so that your playing isn't.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Three Weapons

It is amazing how effectively these three weapons can dwarf those pesky obstacles of boring playing, stifled air flow, and fear. Those many musical markings that fill the score provide the way of escape from performances that are flat, lifeless and which fail to resonate with the audience. The air stream that carries the music must be energized and unstoppable, never losing intensity. Finally, the power source which drives the whole process is confidence.

So problem #1: labored, boring, uninspired, trumpet-playing. Remedy: Observe every musical detail printed by the composer (who never intended any of the above problems to be performance practices!) Ingrain those details without the trumpet. Sing, buzz, fingers only, but at all costs, absorb the music intended. Thoroughly convince yourself of the composer's intent before plowing into the piece.

Problem #2: quick fatigue and burn out. Reason: obstructed air being forcing into a tiny aperture. Remedy: Find the point(s) of constriction and free up the flow of air. Usually this happens somewhere just behind the mouthpiece. Sing, buzz, blow w/o the horn. Copy that ease when attaching the trumpet. Insist on minimal fatigue and easy release of air from gut to bell to audience. Eliminate sips of shallow air intake. That is always the first sign of constriction. Learn to sound great while working less.

Problem #3: timid, unconvincing playing. Remedy: Develop an attitude of confidence. Confidence in what? Confidence in one's ability to execute all details of the musical message with the greatest of efficiency. Call it a highly skilled killer instinct! Trumpet playing is all about confidence. Without it we are in the wrong business. Confidence only comes when we have a solid concept of the music. That's half the battle. The air then carries that message quickly to the listeners with no loss of energy. Much attention is required to transfer this inspiration to the audience without wipe out.

So the music, the air, and one's confidence are interrelated. Breakdown of any one can quickly result in the appearance of those unwanted pesky colleagues - Mr. Boring, Mr. Stuffy, and Mr. Timid. These guys tend to return as much as you allow them. To keep them at bay, stay motivated by continually absorbing great music, keeping your air ways open, and practicing confidence. Mr. Music, Mr. Air, and Mr. Confidence will always deal the death blow to these enemies.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Brandenburg, anyone?

Thought this trumpet player's first performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. would be of interest. Julian Kaplan is a student of Mark Clodfelter at UK in Lexington, and is playing with the Lexington Bach Consort. Here is some very nice playing on one of the most difficult pieces most students never tackle - so good, he gets applause after the first movement. The third was also well done. The editing meister would love your playing - very little for him to do! Bravo, Julian!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Already famous in Europe!

Meet Bob Sullivan, already getting the job well done on tour with the CSO. He will begin officially next fall, but will be playing principal as scheduling allows until then. Janelle Gelfand catches Bob in between concerts in a brief article in today's Enquirer.

By the way, you can hear the orchestra play Mozart 39 and Rite of Spring on their concerts after they return next week. Be there!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Multi-tasking the Warm up

Looking for something more challenging to add to your warm up? Alright, how about ingraining some finger memory into your opening routine? Pick a key, any key. That's your key for the day for each of the following items, all two octaves: SCALES (major, minor - three forms, chromatic, whole-tone), ARPEGGIOS (major, minor, diminished 7th, augmented).

Requirement #1 - fingering secure at all speeds
Requirement #2 - play evenly with good tone, tongued and slurred
Requirement #3 - don't look or sound fatigued

Tomorrow you get to pick another key! For those not digitally challenged, try leap-frogging scales in thirds. Same idea for the arpeggios. Pause to rest. It's supposed to be a warm UP.

Friday, April 11, 2008

What a Way to Start!

It's been a whole week now, and I'm still hearing Michael Sachs making those flawless entrances. After his recital, masterclass work, and Q & A at the OH ITG, he continued to play gorgeously on Charlier #2 and #6 as he play-tested several new Miles B flat trumpets. Every beginning all afternoon was clean and secure. Although he was talking and occupied with leading the class, that did not distract him from doing what he is paid to do every time he picks up the horn - execute music.

Alright guys, this quarter we'll be raising the entrance bar! You all heard him do it. Now go and do likewise. You don't need spoon-feeding and brain-surgery mindsets. Let's just do it. Figure it out. I remember asking Mr. Vacchiano to give me a detailed description on how to make an attack. I even had pencil and paper ready. He looked a bit irritated and said, "Well, the tongue and the air meet at the same time." That was it! I think he sensed that was all the detail I could absorb.

As simple as a perfectly executed attack may sound, it certainly requires a ton of diligent practice, obviously. One could make a game of trying to refine the entrance process for quality and consistency. Pick it up and play the first note of your piece, hundreds, thousands of times. Good news: you can't get tired playing only the first note. Hey, if it's just the air joining the tongue, it can't be that hard. Get started!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Michael Sachs at OHIO ITG

Graciously hosted by Charles Pagnard, Principal Trumpet with the Dayton Philharmonic, the Ohio chapter of the ITG today showcased trumpet ensembles from Wright State, Cedarville University, Miami, Capitol, Bowling Green, Ohio State, and the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory. With all the music available for just trumpets, Trumpet Ensemble Class could easily stand on its own as a legitimate course in every college music program.

A highlight was a mini concert by the Dayton Philharmonic trumpet section which presented unique arrangements of their season's repertoire. Professor Alan Siebert was secure and musical in his performance of Eastwind Variations from his solo CD. Ashley Hall beautifully played her flugel on a moving sacred medley from her new CD. And the Carillon Brass gave an energetic presentation of selections after lunch that denied naps to anyone present. Cincinnati's Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies (Piano and Trumpet), Kim Pensyl, led a session on improvisation.

Several masterclass sessions were held that featured some of Ohio's brightest young trumpet talents. Their mastery and musicianship was impressive as well as their ability to quickly implement suggestions offered.

The main draw was Mr. Michael Sachs, Principal Trumpet with the Cleveland Orchestra. Condensing two sessions into one, he spoke and demonstrated for almost two hours, answered questions, and without warm up launched into a recital performance of Torelli and Haydn. Mahler 5th, Pictures, Pines, Mahler 3rd on a posthorn, whatever he played, that was how it's supposed to sound. Each piece was brilliantly played with warm, rich tone, and the cool, well-calculated precision of a first-class artist. You gotta love his approach.

Mr. Sachs is as gifted in articulating how to play as he is in just doing it. We were treated to a generous sharing of the vital details of his approach to warm up, practice and playing. It was great to listen and learn. He could have continued all weekend, and if so, fine. That is why we were there, and he didn't disappoint.