Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Best Teacher in the House

The sign on your trumpet studio door proudly announces "The Best Teacher in the House!" All who enter anxiously look around to see which of the Monster Mentors of the Trumpet World might be visiting for the day, for the word has gotten out: this is MMTW day. But no, no one will be here today except for you and your Charlier book, and of course your imagination.

If only we had the power to transport any of the country's top trumpet gurus into our studio to sit right next to us while we practice! You know, those who are famous for turning top talents into high-salaried musical trumpet machines? Man, then we would really improve! Chances are, however, that much of the instruction we would hear is already in our practice room. And a lot of their expensive advice is already staring us in the face from our music stand, and charging us nothing.

Did you ever think of the printed page as your teacher? Look at all of those markings put there by the composer! They do more than just make the page look attractive and busy. Consider them the guiding words of your teacher. (They also provide the conductor his rehearsal agenda, a way to take up two and a half hours of your time. Imagine if the orchestra did everything on the page. Can you see the look on his face? That used to happen in Cleveland with visiting maestros.) The printed page cannot be ignored because it is directing you on your path to big bucks.

Audition requirements begin with some of these basics: control of volume, tempo and articulation. You can't advance without them. Then there are the musical demands which dictate style, emotion, sonority and musicality. All of these are printed boldly before your eyes. At this point the future finalists begin to emerge. Now here's the clean little secret: play the ink, and you'll get the job. If you disregard the street signs you go home. Don't even think about stopping at GO, or collecting anything.

Today we studied Charlier #17. What a nice piece of music - full of advice, instructions and just lots of neat things to do, all with a wonderful musical end in mind. I'm thinking: students really don't need a teacher. Go home, do what the page says, then come back and perform. Most advice only stresses what's on the page already. Students should put the faculty out of business. We should spend less time policing traffic violators, and more time coaching performers.

That sign over your studio should actually read: "The Best Teacher is on Your Stand", the printed page. Obey your teacher.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Perfect Artistry

Who says artistry is not perfection? And who says perfection is not artistry? Is not the total package PERFECT ARTISTRY?

Meet STUDENT #1 who is developing into a very fine trumpet player. Secure attacks are becoming reliable, sound is often great, rhythm and accuracy are more dependable, and the page-to-brain skill is improving weekly. This could be a diamond in the making - a potential semi-finalist! Even with ever-improving mechanical skills, this player still needs something else however. After all, there is no pay for only reaching the semi-finals. In addition to his technical arsenal, STUDENT #1 must now add artistry, drama, exceptional sound, and presence - elements that are less tangible but vital for success.

Now consider STUDENT #2 who is eager, energetic, and innately musical. Unfortunately this player has not yet learned to harness all that talent for his own benefit. He is too impatient for painstaking detailed practice. He'd rather be performing something. His MO is "Just Do It". His good musical instincts give him a decided advantage over others, but STUDENT #2 has much work yet to do. He definitely needs to hang with STUDENT #1. Lots of serious duet sessions would be a great idea for both.

Most of us are a mix of the above. We vacillate between thinking and playing. When pressured for technical accuracy, we tend to freak and any artistry flies out the window. On the other hand, when asked to jump into the music with abandon, we often forsake discipline in order to let it all hang out. Both result in a sloppy and quick crash 'n' burn. "Stop the tape! Cut!"

Two mindsets need to coexist - perfection and artistry. They are not exclusive to each other, but complementary, and must be practiced regularly. Why? Say the conductor taps his baton, peers back at the trumpets and suggests we give more attention to some detail. We readily comply because we have been trained to do details. Then he calls for more style or more of something difficult to put in words. We quickly sense his intent and respond because we are accustomed to thinking outside the details box. There's no panicking, just producing.

A final thought on this. The markings on the page seem to fall into two groups - the tangible and the intangible, or the objective and the subjective. We have the tangibles: fortes, pianos, accents, tempo markings, etc. And then there are those intangibles: fieramente, espressivo, deciso, cantabile. Both groups of demands are required for first-rate music-making. Now is the best time to begin extending our comfort zones to daily include PERFECTION and ARTISTRY.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Three Stands

Furnishing your practice room? Suggestion: buy three heavy duty music stands with extensions for plenty of music, as well as three back-friendly chairs or else one very sturdy chair with wheels so that you can scoot from one stand to the next. Each stand must be visited daily. That's the point.

Why the three stands? Well, there's a problem that always identifies itself by the end of every day. And that is guilt over not managing to cover all of the items on our plate (our stand). There are those few who are so organized that everything from Schlossberg to Brandenburg gets rehearsed on a daily basis. But for the rest of us, there is that temptation to camp out on only a few items to the detriment of other urgent needs. The result is that by day's end many facets of playing have been neglected. This guilt trip can continue for long periods of time, often years. So the goal is to organize the practice room so that all gets practiced. A balanced plan of attack is the idea. Try the following in no rigid order:

On Stand #1 we have solos galore, some ready to sizzle in front, with the rest simmering on the back burner. Stack as many as the stand will hold. If you get bored, go the next piece. Bracket all of the nasty spots, organize your work, and avoid constant run-throughs. With multiple solos all within reach, it helps to keep works from getting stale or lost. It also keeps you constantly ready for a recital. Take your break.

On Stand #2 we have a bunch of etude books. Muscle-building endurance must be part of our agenda. Wise conditioning will build stamina for the shows. From this perch you will also include scales, arpeggios, flexibilities and all that Arban demands. Choose varied styles of studies and enjoy a similar but different menu each day. Take another break.

On Stand #3 we have tons o' excerpts. For legit players, this must have its place in daily prep. Crammers never make finals. On the other hand, Eddy Excerpt can't play anything except the same excerpts he always does, and he can't sight-read! Balance is the key. There are probably at least twenty-five must-have pieces required for every audition. Each must always be bubbling on the front burner. From this stand you will prepare and audition daily.

If your practice room is large enough you can make a good case for including several more chairs and stands. How about a Transposition Stand? (or dentist chair!) The Warm Up Stand could have only magazines, no music, and of course include a full view of the TV. This is surprisingly common for many who tend to over-focus. They welcome freedom from the printed page and thrive on distractions while starting the day's playing. Noodle now, concentrate later. How about a Sight-Reading Stand! We always forget about that vital skill.

Whatever your pleasure, the need is learning to cover all responsibilities responsibly. Plan for it.

Friday, May 02, 2008

In One Day

On a single day, at one point in time, a lifetime of schooling comes to a sudden halt. Just like that, it is finished. Assignments, lessons, and exams are all completed. Juries, finals, and recitals are done and gone, and the coveted degree has been earned and received. The rented apartment room that was for so long a cozy home now lies empty, somewhat cleaned and ready for the next talented sojourner.

So we close
the book on all that comes and goes with classrooms: the studying, the all-nighters, the activities, the great concerts, and all those cherished memories that go with us forever. They are now already part of the past, still painfully vivid and fresh.

We thought this day would never really arrive. Almost 23 years ago life was not anything about closure. Today was way out there in the future somewhere, even a bit burdensome, as college costs were growing ever larger. But the Lord provided as we had always heard. The money found its way to the school one way or another, and it was absolutely worth it all.

The final drive home today was a loud one, not just for the down pouring rain outside, but for the internal echoes that will not be silent of all the great music, people and close friends of the last four years. Graduation has come and gone.

The page turns quickly however, for in just five days the scene changes once more. Home which for so long was Cincinnati, and then Cleveland, will now become Atlanta. The classroom will be replaced by the concert stage, as that's where it was headed after all. It will be life in a much different lane, and the first page in a completely new book. But adjusting will happen as it always does.

We look back with enormous gratefulness at God's hand of blessings at every turn. Certainly a favorite Bible verse has proven true. "For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope." (Jeremiah 29:11)

Welcome home, Wes. Well done! May God continue to direct you all the days of your life.