Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Searching for Explosives

The alarm clock goes off at six A.M. but you are already half awake because today is audition day! Must get to the airport 5 hours early. There's no time to warm up or practice because you've got a very important date and you can't be late! Unfortunately your sky high confidence is fast evaporating as all this traveling is not the way to prepare to play your best. All that careful rehearsing and mock auditioning now seems of no avail, but you are hoping that something will happen to make it pay off when it counts.

Endless lines of travelers are doing a good job of soaking up all that extra time you allowed. It will be a close call getting to the gate. Nobody is in a hurry but you, while everything else is in slow motion.

At last it is your turn to advance past security. But wait, you are summoned to step out of line to receive a special puffing from that explosives detector, or whatever it is. Oh well, heroes can take it, as you sing John Williams' solo to yourself.

"Please stand still, sir." And then a gigantic puff of high powered air shoots at you as your shirt blouses out, your pants fill up with the gusts of air, and your hair shoots straight up. "Wait, we need to do it one more time, sir." Another enormous puff happens as though you have now been officially zapped and energized with special powers and abilities. They wave you through as no explosives were found. Or where there?

Many hours later you arrive at the hall with case, bulging gig bags, a half dozen mutes, pouches of mouthpieces, and your heaviest suitcase. Your arm aches, your head aches, and your lip is stiff because you haven't warmed up. Then you run into all the people you hoped would never be there. Why did you even come? Everyone else plays better than you. And besides, they were all runners-up in the Cleveland audition. What a waste. Why bother! Go back to Kansas!

Nevertheless, you unpack, have a brief but very surprisingly good warm up, and soon find that you are next. You pray that you won't hear that word again. Walking on stage and springing open your quad case, you proceed to play the audition of your life! Every excerpt is like brushed gold, just like the recordings. Your tone is awesome, attacks secure, and your softs and louds are all there. It's nail-it city with nary a crack, air note, or blip!

Then you hear a stirring from behind the curtain. "Yes! Bravo!" followed by vigorous applause from the whole audition committee! "Harry, we are finished for the day. Please bring this contestant down to meet the maestro. Sir, that was some wonderful playing. That's just what we are looking for. When can you be available? How much money will . . . . "

As you try to conceal your excitement and open your empty date book, you suddenly hear your jangling alarm clock jolting you back to reality. What? Oh no! It's six A.M. and time to get up and get to the airport. Today is your audition day. Hope you get searched for explosives!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mettle Detectors

You know those metal detectors at airport security? That checkpoint where potentially dangerous items must be detected and then disallowed before you can proceed? Occasionally you may even be one of the fortunate few to stand there in that silly door frame while you are suddenly air-blasted by that machine that checks you for explosives! It matters not that you feel violated and humiliated as all can see that hole in your sock to boot! You must be absolutely up to snuff with no bad stuff. Security staff's mission is to search out and eliminate any items hazardous to your safety and to those around you.

Having survived that ordeal and after still further review of your credentials, you are then allowed to reclaim your shoes, belt, laptop, phone, spare change, and mouthpiece. You are finally pronounced good enough to go. You may now approach the moving sidewalk. (Watch your step as you approach the moving sidewalk.) By now you are fatigued and irritated, and you're still not even on the plane. Is this not very similar to a day at the auditions?

Getting yourself to the audition is almost as bad as playing it. In auditions only the best survive the grueling process, and you can be fairly sure they have no suitcases full of bad notes. The scanning process is thorough. Mettle is detected, but here it is desirable. You have passed scrutiny and have been found sound.

Thought for this snowy non-day: prepare to be completely evaluated and sifted. The committee wants to find a clean, strong candidate with no hidden or undesirable baggage. Our task as students is to anticipate this testing and to begin to eliminate all items that won't fly.

Incidentally, you've got more time to think about it. Your flight has just been delayed!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Notes to Go

"The reason people go to concerts is to hear great trumpet-playing." That simple statement by William Vacchiano in a lesson years ago seemed to me either the dumbest or the most egotistical comment I'd ever heard. But as I thought about it, I realized that I got way more than my money's worth from him that day.

That quote has served to invigorate and motivate many a self-doubting trumpet student facing performance pressures. Our purpose is simple. We are on a mission to give the audience something memorable. Or how about unforgettable? They paid. We can't disappoint. They are expecting all the notes and then some. It's the "and then some" that can be the key that frees us from our nerves and fear of making mistakes. We're there to give, not to be critiqued. When we serve up the notes with accuracy and an appropriate dose of style and flair, the job is well done.

A test of how successful we are is how memorable the performance is. What will the crowd take home? With that goal of audience satisfaction in mind, we are armed with all we need to deliver great notes to go!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Air Force

Today's trumpet studio class was a very nice demonstration of the force of air, as two grads prepare to go off into the wild blue yonder to audition for two openings in the U.S. Air Force Band. They survived three rounds in preparation for the real thing in another week and a half. Pretty much unscathed by nerves and a discerning audience, they played with spirit and confidence. They also graciously received some tough constructive comments. Receiving criticism is never easy, but such is the military. Criticism is the making of a man, and honor is preceded by humility. So far, very good.

We had a lesson on the importance of crystal-clear attacks, velvety smooth lyric lines, and the need for accuracy and control. Both students have prepared well and have gotten stronger. Any professional brass position requires accuracy, mature musicianship, and stamina. All of that we heard today. Nice work! But tomorrow they must be able to do it all over again - let it all hang out, but gather it in for another day.

Trumpet vacancies! Job description: ACCURACY, STYLE, and ENDURANCE.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Smiling, Puffing, and Chewing

Trumpet-playing and smiling are not good bedfellows. They just don't get along. They get too tired of each other. Definitely, your playing can be light-hearted and jovial, and bring a smile to the audience, but not to your embouchure. Your corners can't be getting all happy. For the lips, playing is serious business. Firm corners, relaxed center. Don't be thinking about the Joker. Picture the Hulk!

As long as we're on the mushy embouchure, cheek-puffing is also a no-no. The air can't be shooting in several different directions inside your mouth. You'll lose endurance, flexibility, and control of intonation. Air must be aimed directly into the mouthpiece. Cheeks are just as important as the rest of the body, in fact more so as they are the last to focus the streaming air to its destination!

And then there is the chewer, nibbling and adjusting the embouchure with every rise and fall of the line. He looks like a squirrel with his nut. Save the chewing for meal times. How about freezing that embouchure into place. Set it, and keep it there. Remember: iron-clad firmness at the corners, but relaxed and flexible in the middle! Also, others must marvel at how calm and relaxed you appear as you play. But on the inside - fire and amazing efficiency!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Setting Your Pace

Here's a non-brilliant concept for improving endurance. Take that upcoming recital, or one of those strenuous brass concerts in which survival is the issue. Good practice involves just as much the right mental preparation as physical. The right kind of approach and mindset will produce the best results. It's not a matter of energy, but how it is used.

Look at that crazy guy speeding down the highway in the snow and ice! Just up ahead we'll likely find him stuck in the ditch. Having lost control, he is quickly sidelined. Look at that marathon runner way out in front of everybody immediately after the starting gun! We'll soon watch him huffing and puffing himself into premature exhaustion as everyone passes him by. Now listen to that audition contestant blasting his solo and all of his excerpts in the warm up room non stop! We'll soon see him trudging sadly back to where he came from. Each of these did not finish because of energy failure - not the lack of it, but the misuse of it.

Playing is an athletic event that requires pacing. Had the driver, the runner and the audition contestant been able to conserve their energy, they would have finished as planned. A tense mindset burns up too much energy, while a wise relaxed approach uses less of it and is more productive. The impetuous, the driven, and the frenzied usually defeat themselves well before the end of the day.

Suggestion: Drive to get there, not to be the first. Run to finish strong, not to impress everyone from the get-go. And play your best, but so as to be able to repeat the performance tomorrow. As you prepare, pretend that the event is actually twice as long, and pace yourself accordingly.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Staying in the Toy Store

As I was talking with a symphony veteran today, I perked up to something that he said. When I asked what keeps him going after so many years in the business, I could have heard, "I need the money, the medical benefits, the pension", etc. Instead he responded quickly, "I still love it. I'm still a kid in a toy store!"

That's the winning mindset. That's what has kept his quality playing pouring out year after year, and that shrinks obstacles. Perfecting his game hasn't come with a dampening of enthusiasm. We all claim that we love music, but soon find how easily our love for playing can grow old and cold. It's sort of like "for better or worse, in sickness and in health", and sadly, "for richer or poorer". Time and pressures test commitment.

You can tell when you're listening to a kid in the toy store. For that kid, it is art, not a job, a game, not a routine, fun, not work. The kid is still there in all of us. It's fun for everybody when that happens.