Thursday, October 30, 2008

Treadmill on the Incline

It's just what you asked for, your very own Life Style Treadmill! It comes complete with lengthy practice manuals and a lifetime guarantee. The fine print warns that you will wear out before it does! Nevertheless, you accept the challenge, and it quickly becomes the focus of your life. You're on it 24/7.

But what happens when that treadmill seems stuck in the inclined position? Instead of walking on air, your every step is a painful uphill climb. Or worse yet, that exhilarating jog has become a joyless drudgery. Soon you're thinking, "How could this have been so much fun, and now so much work? And everything hurts! Do I really want to keep doing this?" Congratulations! You have just run into your first wall.

Playing trumpet can be just as rigorous as a long uphill jog. Various degrees of burnout are quite common at music schools. In fact, it might as well be in the small print of every course description: WATCH OUT FOR THE WALL! The problem is that we didn't expect it. After only a few months you are seriously tempted to rethink your commitment to your ongoing warfare with your trumpet.

Be encouraged. You are fortunate to have just experienced a microcosm of reality. It happens after school just as much as in school. Start learning to deal with it now and prepare yourself. Those oncoming walls have their way of blindsiding you. Our job is to expect them and to learn to avoid their damaging physical and emotional effects. A wall can ruin your music making. You must tear down that wall! (or avoid running directly into it)

In my opinion there are two things that will help overcome debilitating discouragements. The first is a mindset that is committed to a daily routine of basic fundamentals regardless of how you feel. You can't wait for winds of inspiration to blow before you ever tackle your work. On the other hand, you don't beat yourself up, but you regularly develop those basics that will make you great.

The second is the most powerful. It is what got you were you are so far. It is your love for music. Without that, you cease to be an artist, only a mechanic. Go ahead and be the mechanic, but also be the musician. An intense passion for music can be the most effective weapon in sustaining you through stressful times. Your musical message must be stronger than the steep road in front of you. Use the looming walls out there to motivate you to develop your musical instincts and skills before you ever encounter the opposition.

One last thought. It's not about how great you become, but how much you love what you do. It is those who will have the most impact. Few seem to really enjoy their work. Be one of those who do. Keeping alive your love of music will sustain you and give you much to share. Keep running. You're not done yet. That wall may be the best thing that you ever ran into!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Filling Up Space

Conservatory practice rooms have their purpose and even a benefit or two, but there is a big problem with them. There just isn't enough space in there, physically or acoustically. Sometimes there is barely enough room for a mute change. If you want to switch mouthpieces, you first have to leave the room. Take a deep breath, and your shoulders are touching both walls. After a couple of long tones all of the air is stale, and in mere moments everything in there smells as bad as it sounds.

What's more, all of your notes are dead on arrival. Because there is no resonance, the only feedback you get is the slap in the face from your notes ricocheting directly off the wall, which soon describes your playing. Breathing tends to become shallow since everything is plenty loud in there. Consequently, the lips can be forced to do way more controlling than necessary. It isn't long until Frankie Fatigue and Sammy Smashmouth once again barge into the room to keep you company for the rest of your day. Assignment: find a way to get rid of them!

With that said, these cubicles do offer a great benefit. You can hear everything! All flaws are quite audible and exposed. We now have no excuse for ignoring weaknesses. Such a completely unforgiving acoustic teaches us honesty and humility, revealing that we are not as good as we imagined. That miniature stage presents us with our urgent practice agenda. It's clean up time!

Let's move to the concert hall. Look around at the space that needs to be filled up. Your sound will have to travel all the way back, all the way up, and to both sides in a split second! First lesson is to breathe accordingly. Your sound must have presence, projection, and resonance. Good air flow, and lots of it, will be the key to your survival. With a destination for your sound in mind, you will be able to shift much of the work from your chops to your air. Chops squeeze, lungs blow.

The stage also is the arena for music-making, whereas the practice room is the classroom for working. Since playing is more fun than working, and performing is more fun than practicing, your challenge is to bring the stage into your practice room. Add play to your work. It then becomes not about where you are, but how you are thinking.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Visiting Houghton College

Late October in upstate New York has got to be an artist's perfect getaway. If you never dabbled in water colors for lack of the right scenery, or ever dreamed of picturesque outdoor photography, consider camping out at Houghton College in the fall. It is a 125 year old Christian Liberal Arts College founded as a Seminary in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition.

Post card photographers must have a field day there. No photo shopping needed. Nature remains as it has always been, still unaltered by a single McDonalds, KFC, or even a Starbucks. Once over the shock of that reality, life can nicely settle down to what really matters. At Houghton, it is all about being in the ideal surroundings for lots of intense study, practice and worship. In such a place, how could you not?

The campus is pristine, and the students appear to be thriving in their distraction-free zone. The new music building is first rate, modern, classy and bright, and seems built to encourage all who enter. One is struck by the friendliness of each student as well as the school's dedication to excellence. Quality abounds.

Three trumpet students played for a brass meeting in the auditorium. First up was a lyrical study from one of the new etude books by Phil Smith. It was played with beautiful tone and expression. Wider contrasts of volume and operatic expression was the goal. Goal reached!

Next was the Lied by Bozza. Emphasis was on focus of tone quality and intonation. It's always nice when those two happen.

Finally we heard parts of the Concertino by Jolivet where there were high marks for confidence! Mr. Jolivet was our instructor that night as all that was needed he had already printed in the music. Who doesn't need to pay more attention to dynamics, tongue-finger coordination on fast notes, and centered intonation? We always get better when we observe major details. With each player, more efficient air flow made them sound better. It takes much patience, but practicing under tempo is worth the effort. Slow motion reveals our flaws. Nicely done!

Dr. Paul DeBoer, professor of brass instruments, must be doing many things right at Houghton. His students are obviously being well trained as the learning curve is fast and adjustments were made quickly. Fine people and fine musicians are being graduated from Houghton College. You get the correct impression that everything about the school matches its surroundings perfectly.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Noodling Matters

If you must noodle, you'd better make it good. Actually, it better be great! No super-fast, sloppy warming up allowed. Who wants to hear it? Especially in an audition, you want to make a great first impression. Don't broadcast your lack of attention to quality with a few careless licks. You don't want to hear those dreaded three words, "Thank you. Next", at least not so soon. So put on that gold crown, because you are about to perform on your King Trumpet, the Midas Edition. Nothing comes out of it but pure gold. That includes your noodles, all of them!

You're thinking, "I'm just stretching and bending." Well then, stretch and bend nicely. Imagine a preacher stepping to the pulpit before his sermon to test the volume level of his microphone. What would be the reaction if he were to let fly a bunch of off-color phrases unfit for the ears of his congregation? We've all heard what happens when a politician is unaware that his mike is on! Sadly, although he didn't intend for all of his words to be heard, those are often the most remembered. It all counts!

What if you went down to Great American Ball Park to see batting and infield practice before a Reds game? Immediately you are shocked at all the strikeouts and errors. One batter mistakenly lets go of his bat as it flies straight into the stands. First base is being overthrown consistently. Runners are tripping, and outfielders dropping fly balls by the bucket. "These are only warm ups" you say, "but still we paid for this!"

You've just boarded your Delta flight for Chicago (for musical reasons only). Then you hear the announcement. "Fasten your seat belts. Our pilot is going to warm up the plane first. He likes to test the runway a couple of times before taking off. Please bear with us. It may be a bit jerky before he is ready."

Our next scenario of horrors is at Bethesda Hospital in Cincinnati where you are witnessing your own heart operation! The young surgeon appears very nervous and highly unskilled as he approaches you. He quickly proceeds to make his first incision into your chest as if he were using his Black and Decker drill! The attending physician tries to calm you down. "Don't worry. He needs to warm up a bit. Once he's ready, he is really good." We get the picture.

You hold in your hand much more than an instrument. Your trumpet can preach the most eloquent and powerful sermon ever heard without you ever uttering a word. It can so speak as to mightily move hearts and minds. You are that highly talented and trained athlete who performs to the acclaim of multitudes. You are the pilot that can skillfully transport your listeners to many distant lands in an instant. And you operate with the precision of a surgeon who contributes to mankind by his invaluable life-changing ability. Your work matters.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Marshall Scott at CCM

Guest artist Marshall Scott of Western Kentucky University took the Trumpet Studio Class today at CCM. Playing really cool flugelhorn and classy intimate jazz, he and his terrific accompanying guitarist played several original tunes, spoke about the business and took questions.

Scott is accomplished in classical as well as jazz playing. If we were to take a peek at his music stand back in his home studio, we would find music the likes of Scarlatti, Beethoven, Holst, Haydn, Charlier, Arban, Sousa, as well as dozens of charts for gigs, and musicals, and everything else trumpet. Call him Professor Versatile. His hat rack surely has many pegs, and his Kentucky license plate ought to read "PLAZALL"!

Mr. Scott is an experienced and versatile musician who teaches as well as he plays. His resume includes working at Interlochen and in other positions where he gained valuable experience teaching students of other brass instruments. Commenting after a student's nice playing of a Concone study, Marshall offered good suggestions on shaping, vibrato and tone. The quick fix worked yet one more time. Buzzing the mouthpiece for clarity always yields the results of more resonance, better tone and pitch center.

Marshall is a humble, down-to-earth musician who loves what he is doing. It was a pleasure to hear him in the all-to-brief hour allotted.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Breathing for Us Dummies

Brass playing, what a profession! We spend six years of college or more learning how to put air through a piece of metal. Basically we are all just wind machines. Some blow hard, some soft, and some seek to blow the house down. And there are huffers, and there are puffers. There are squeezers and there are pinchers. There are sprayers, and there are flinchers. Sometimes we blow hard, and sometimes we can actually blow soft! We come in countless varieties and shapes, but we all share our dependency on air.

Before we can establish a reputation for a great exhale, we must learn to be comfortable with a great inhale. The exhale is going to be crucial, for hopefully it will carry a great cargo of musical goods. No one likes to see or hear them crash and burn, so fuel up well. Because the journey is usually longer than expected, the inhale will have to at least match the volume of the exhale, ie. enough fuel to get to your destination.

Assignment: No horn, no mouthpiece. Just get used to large intakes followed by fabulous exhales. Think of the music that will be supported by your awesome exhaling!

Four exercises: 1-fast intake, slow release. 2-slow intake, fast release. 3-fast intake, fast release. 4-slow intake, slow release.

Observation: Most embouchure problems suffer from a lack of enough air, rarely an over abundance. Simply, the lips become oxygen-starved. The cure is cheap! Let us not forget the key ingredient of our existence. It's O.K. to be an air-head!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bowling for Notes

What does a bowling alley have in common with a music conservatory? Hopefully not much, but consider for a moment a split screen profile of a great bowler taking his steps as he releases the ball. On the opposite side of the screen we are listening to and observing the textbook embouchure trumpet player as he makes his grand entrance on that first note. Before we consider our two pros, let's first look at our wannabes - pros in training.

You don't even have to watch a bad bowler to know he's bad. How do you know? You can hear him even at a distance. The give-away is that thud-clunk as the ball bounces a bit, loses speed, and heads for the gutter. Team mates shutter and wince. And so does he.

Next, the camera moves to our conservatory trumpet dude as he/she proceeds to smack the first note as if with a sledge hammer. The poor note never gets a chance. It sputters and immediately loses energy, volume and direction. Even with the practice room door shut, the trademark of our artist still-in-the-making is obvious. Passersby shutter and wince. And so does he.

Our hidden microphone has told us all we need to know. It says to us, "It's the attack, stupid!" Is it fair to say that those consistent smack downs by both contestants will leave many of the pins and notes uncovered? In vain we play and bowl, and wonder why we get low marks and no bucks.

Think about the approach, power, and finesse of a top bowler. There may be a good firm start as the ball meets the floor, but it is graceful and controlled as he aims for all 10 pins. Likewise the trumpeter begins with momentum, power and control. There may be a good firm start as he begins, but the sound is clean and focused as the air follows through to cover all of the notes.

By the way, what do you think a great trumpet player and a pro bowler have in common? They don't ATTACK, they RELEASE. Consider your beginnings to be releases, not attacks. You are now free to release the music inside you, rather than attacking it!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Notes on Wynton

Just as was to be expected, it was a packed Corbett Theatre for the Wynton Marsalis Masterclass at U.C. on Monday! What can one say that has not already been said about someone at the top of his game in both jazz and classical trumpet playing? His playing speaks for itself. And yesterday he spoke for himself just as articulately and warmly as he plays.

While that luscious Monette trumpet sat there all by itself on the chair, Wynton spoke of his life and his music to a huge audience who respectfully hung on every word, analogy, and bit of music history. Impressive is his broad knowledge of music, but it is his humor and humility that make him all the more admirable.

If you went to take notes, he gave you lots to consider. What to practice seems easy and clear, the way he broke it down. At the top of his list is breathing. Then comes clarity of the first note, tone and flexibility. What else is there? Good to hear him highly recommend the Fourteen Characteristics of Arban and tons of etudes. Some things never change. There are no shortcuts.

For a career like his, incredible dedication and persistence are required, probably way more than we realize. He recalled struggling with tendinitis from so much finger work on Perpetual Motion during his recording project with the Eastman Wind Ensemble. No one would have guessed. There isn't much money to be had in music, he warned. It's a lot of work, so you really have to love what you're doing.

A dominant message seemed to be his infectious drive and passion for music. As driven as he obviously is, his trademark is still that balanced, laid back and unstressed approach - perhaps a valuable secret to his longevity and success. He emphasized absorbing the best from many different artists, and not being so much about yourself that you can't learn from and appreciate others. We can thank whomever it was years ago that slipped Wynton his first recording of Maurice Andre! The rest is history.

I admire his fresh approach to music appreciation. He still gets a kick out of young kids trying to play for all they're worth. He likes to take in the sounds of a symphony orchestra tuning up, and savors the powerful belting out of confident brass music as it makes its way into a reverberant hall. He is one gifted man with awesome musical instincts. It was great to hear him speak and play. The sheer joy of the best about music is still there even after all these years. Today I was thinking during lessons, "What would Wynton say?"

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Finding Your Purpose

Making Your Marks

Which is the greatest, the one who achieves the most, or the one who has the most influence? We have become a hero-oriented society idolizing those at the very top of their profession. Our superstars have well served to motivate and inspire millions to compete for all we are worth. Drive, focus, intensity, and specialization are each the marks of greatness that separate the men from the boys. This mindset however is not without its destructive side effects.

At the core of each profession is its purpose. Does music performance edify or just serve the ego of the performer? When it is all about self the side-effects hidden in the small print begin to show themselves. The stress produced by comparison, pride and inferiority can ultimately interfere with the effectiveness of the performance and ruin the performer. When the goal is to give and to build others, the pressure and symptoms are greatly relieved and the message is more effective.

In considering your purpose consider also your odds. For instance, how many top orchestra principal positions will become available in the near future? You can count them on one hand, maybe two. To invest all of our energy on such a tiny window of "success" is beyond reason. O.K. how about section positions in a wider range of orchestras? A bigger pool for sure, but still extremely competitive. There are simply more competent brass players than there are positions to accommodate them. We have two options. We can give up and move to another profession, or we can readjust our perspective and redefine our purpose.

One one hand, there are those who will never be content unless they reach the top. Odds are, they won't. They will forever be condemning themselves and comparing themselves with perfection. That kind of life will likely be full of frustrations and self-imposed stress. In this case, a career move should happen sooner rather than later. It's a question of where one will be the happiest and most useful. Life is more than a title.

Evaluate areas that you are passionate about and pursue them. The world has a huge need for those who will challenge and inspire young people to find themselves and their purpose in life. For some being able to belt out a blistering high C is admirable. For others an equally legitimate life calling might be to inspire others to realize their potential in the many opportunities in the music field. The goal is to apply ourselves to excellence without making its pursuit an obsession.

The gifts and talents we have been given were not by chance. Our task is to go as far as possible with the tools we have, and to work diligently and see where it leads. We each run in our own lane. It's not that we might miss the mark, but that we proceed confidently preparing to make our own marks.