Friday, June 27, 2008

Trumpet Week at OU

Nestled in the gentle hills of eastern Ohio is a jewel of Americana - THEE OHIO UNIVERSITY. The city of Athens is just what one might envision for the ideal college experience - a busy university life in a quaint small town setting. Atmosphere is everything. This has to be one of the best college venues in the country. But alas. So many colleges, and only one life!

This week was the annual Trumpet Workshop led by Professor John Schlabach. Eighteen trumpet students, mainly high schoolers, were privileged to receive non stop info on all things pertaining to trumpet basics. This was THEE clinic on proper use of air. Generous samples of many top-notch trumpeters were played and discussed. Daily sessions were geared to instilling correct technique mixed with the musical mindset of past greats Arnold Jacobs and Vince Cichowicz.

Mr. Schabach is a rare gift to the teaching profession. He has the exuberance and love of music that has not lessened with time. His excellent rapport with students, communication skills and thorough knowledge of the business made for a fun week of learning. He started the week with a fine recital displaying mature musicianship and character. His grad assistant then sung through a beautifully effortless performance of the Tartini Concerto. The recital demonstrated getting it done. The next day we settled in to talk about how it's done.

Highlights of the conference: the look on the faces of many students as they heard recordings of Mahler 5, Maurice Andre, Gabrielli brass choirs, Mendez, Hardenberger, and many others for the first time. There were many other firsts: purchasing an Arban book, the Haydn Concerto, trying a flugelhorn, a C and an E flat trumpet, or piccolo. It was nice to see improvements happening in only a few days, and seeing them realize "I can do this. Now I know what I have to do." There was also a wonderful evening concert by the college community band on the green in the town square. Great music-making is in no way limited to just the top orchestras.

Motivation is crucial, but it can die without a daily how-to strategy. We need a good set of tools for the job. Skillful use of those tools facilitates great music-making. This week was profitable for both. "GOOD TEACHERS TEACH; GREAT TEACHERS INSPIRE!"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Coaxing the Embouchure

The world tunes in for the Super Bowl, but few were there in July and August to witness those two-a-day workouts in the ninety-degree heat. Even before the first day of training camp, personal conditioning had been a priority. Millions will watch the World Series, but few see the rigors of daily batting and fielding practice. We have been conditioned to idolize the MVP for that game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer, but have not been shown his thousands of practice shots alone in the gym. Highlight clips show us only the perfect product, never the painstaking preparation. The tip of the iceberg is glamorized while the long road to the finals is forgotten.

Conditioning for a career in music is no different. Good prep is a daily and a life-long requirement. Each day it is like learning to play all over again. Picking it up exactly where we left off the night before never seems to work. The body requires gentle coaxing back to life, and the lips are not exempt.

I listened outside the door today as some high school brass players were warming up en mass in one room. Strains of concertos by Mozart, Strauss, and excerpts competed with each other. The battle was for quick control of the chops, the heroic trial-and-error approach. The mentality of beat-it-into-submission is not the best agenda for an 8:30 A.M. warm up. But then again, we've all been there. Maybe last night it was working, but something happens to chops over night, and we must begin carefully all over again the next day.

I admire Hakan Hardenberger's approach to playing. That amazing ease, endurance and control were not just planted there at birth. The talent and musicianship were, but like the rest of us, he is required to take the long tedious journey of training. The secret to musical greatness is enjoying the learning process. Anyone can enjoy playing well from time to time, but few like learning to do it. This older video of Mr. Hardenberger playing Telemann gives us quite a lesson on delicate training of the embouchure.

Many have addressed the warm up in detail. My observation is that the loudest and fastest warm-upper is rarely the best player when it comes time for the performance. The slow-and-soft approach seems to get it done for many great players when it comes to starting the day's playing. The non-stop-listen-to-me method never gives the lips time to recover and fatigue sets in quickly. The constant repetition of try-and-try-again is also tiring and annoying to colleagues. Don't waste notes. You have only a finite amount of them, so pace yourself. Easy does it. It's a long haul. Make sure your lips are ready to work for you, not against you.

Just think: you'll be getting paid for right notes that sound good, period. Prepare accordingly. Those first notes are preparing you for the ninth inning of Game Seven of the World Series. Your road to success begins right there in the practice room all by yourself.

Monday, June 16, 2008

An Outside Job

There is something about your trumpet and the outdoors. Our practice is usually cranked out throughout the year in the same room with the same acoustics and the same scenery. Much of our music-making is an inside job played next to walls and under ceilings - with the exception of marching band which doesn't count. Now that summer is here, we have the chance to change the scenery. As soon as the cicadas terminate themselves, it will be safe again to go outdoors and inhale.

It was 1957, my second year of playing the trumpet back in New Jersey in the fourth grade. I remember stepping out in the back yard that spring, and blasting some jazz licks at the nearby track team as loud as I could. I stopped a few runners at first, but since I didn't know when enough was enough, they soon ignored me. It didn't matter. I was having great fun. Playing outside was cool.

My teacher might have planted that thought when he casually suggested I should get out in a boat, try all the mouthpieces I had, and finally decide on just one. I think he was impatient with my indecision and hoped I would be less distracted out on some lake. I took it to mean, "get away from everything and make some music on that thing!" It is interesting, the comments and suggestions that can stick even at an early age.

In the summer after sixth grade it was 1961 and I was a camper at Brevard. It was called the Transylvania Music Camp in those days. The Blue Ridge mountains, dozens of streams and trees provided ideal surroundings for making music. I still remember all the lessons and repertoire we did on those benches next to the stream.

Interlochen in 1965 also was perfect for a boy and his trumpet. The lake and the pine trees were always agreeable listeners. Those trees heard us playing our hearts out every day. What a great place to perform Pines of Rome for the first time. Mysterious Mountain, Mahler 1st, Salome's Dance, Franck's d minor, and Firebird were all brand new to us. The beautiful outdoor scenery was an enormous aid in learning. What a scenario for introducing great music!

The 1968 summer was Tanglewood. It doesn't get much better. A lot of practice happened on that folding chair in the midst of a huge field. Working on a tan while practicing and hearing great concerts every week! Life was more than good! Ghitalla and Voisin gave us enough ammo to keep us fired up for all of those long dreary months in cold indoor Rochester. I knew that my memory would be my teacher for many months.

For the summer of 1970 the venue was Blossom. We endured Kent to get to Blossom on the weekends. It was worth the wait. There is nothing like the sound of the Cleveland brass ringing into the pavilion. You could almost see the sounds penetrating out to reach the huge audience. Woods, and wood was everywhere, inside and out. (Somebody had those acoustics figured out.) Bernstein conducted Mahler's 2nd that summer. Mahler is always Mahler, but he can be even better outside. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini somehow isn't quite as effective unless performed under the stars.

Summer festivals are getting started even now, but all too soon they will come to a close. It will be fall, football, politics and then back indoors for a long winter's nap. In the meantime, enjoy your summer. Don't leave your trumpet at home.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Great Musicians Produced Here

Once again I entered the ancient stone Fine Arts building on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. I found my way to his studio, but he wasn't there. But what did I expect? His final lesson had been taught years ago, and the applause of his last performance, like the artist himself, has long since died. Someone else now occupies that simple room where thousands of students of all instruments could count on being encouraged and inspired. Improvement always happened in that studio. If only those elderly walls could speak! They had observed every lesson while the master of producing music was wisely and patiently improving the musical world, one student at a time.

Standing outside, I could see that the old building has continued to decay, but at a much slower pace than that of its passersby. The old-fashioned manually-operated elevator is still there, functioning just as it has for the last eighty years. Time seems to have stood still even though the paint continues to peal and the windows are even more unwashed. The huge murals from another world are still fading while the engraved musical instruments continue to accent the hallway decor. In spite of its advancing age and disrepair, the old building was turning out great musicians year after year and functioning quite well. Why fix it? In fact, antiquity was part of the mystique of the place.

In the lobby however, I noticed a small posted announcement. The building was about to be closed temporarily for electrical renovations. I suppose even buildings, like musicians, require some surgery, new wiring, updated fixtures, overhauling of old parts, etc. prior to the inevitable wrecking ball. So the excellence continues as long as possible until eventually, the torch is passed, and others are chosen to carry on the work.

Fondly remembering the studio and the musical legacy of Arnold Jacobs and his investment into the lives of so many.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Simple Idea for a Quick Fix

Looking for something to latch onto during the June practice slump season? This won't take long, shouldn't be tiring, and could be your instant quality adjustment. In fact, that is the goal: first notes will sound great. Never mind the whole page, just pay attention to those first sounds. We're not going to sprint, but only practice bolting off the starting block in grand fashion every time.

Most of us are pleased if we can produce our best quality notes soon after we begin. But audition committees are not so forgiving. We will be expected to impress listeners with great quality instantly. Think of the horses at the start of the Kentucky Derby. That's how we are to produce - highly competitive from the get-go.

Begin by piling up a bunch of etudes, solos and excerpts on the stand. We're going to go from the top of as many as possible. Stop right away, and play no more than about three seconds max. No matter what the piece, the agenda is getting off to a great start. It will be very tempting to abandon this quick-stop plan as we are so accustomed to playing till we drop. For now though, we want to learn to listen for instant focus of tone, and develop the discipline to stop and make necessary corrections immediately.

Imagine two loud irritating obnoxious buzzers, just like you hear at basketball games at every time-out. Buzzer #1 will instantly buzz if your first note is stuffy, blipped, fuzzed, split, or unfocused to any degree. Buzzer #2 goes off if you continue playing, or as soon as your quality disintegrates. You will obviously be doing great if you can avoid activating them. Poor quality triggers the buzzers. Got it? The only thing worse than those buzzers are those dreaded three words, "Thank you. Next." So that's what this is about - staving off the hook.

So give it a try. Orchestra committees are looking for a few good notes. Bet you can't play just one!