Monday, March 30, 2009

A Sitting Duck

Learn how to nail this one item consistently, and you will greatly increase your odds on advancing to finals. Neglect it, and you'll likely be playing one-and-done on audition day. We're talking about knowing the speed limits of each excerpt.

Before auditioning we need to be very familiar with tempos. Going too slow gets you stopped. Exceeding the limit also gets you pulled over. But worse yet, they catch you rushing, and you're eliminated and sent home on the spot. The good news is that you can work as hard as you want on this, and your chops will never get beat up. In fact, you don't even need your trumpet. Anyone can master it, and because it's an internal skill, nothing hurts! Let's fast forward to audition day and see how well you have prepared your tempos.

Picture yourself at the audition carnival, sitting on top of a trap door over a large tub of water with an L on it. You will be expected to play every excerpt at the right speed for the audition committee. They will be watching and listening intently as they seek to knock off each contestant with bad tempos. (You are still wondering why there is an L on the tub.)

Someone calls out "Bartok Concerto, second movement!" You must instantly play the right tempo or you get doused. But you're ready, and you nail that Allegretto scherzando perfectly! No stuffed panda prize for that dude! You're still there standing, or sitting proud.

Next, "Outdoor Overture!" Even though it calls for a speed limit of 76, for some unknown reason you panic and play too fast, and then rush badly all the way down the two octave scale. Click, and you hear the music to "splish, splash, I was takin' a bath!" You hear the laughter as the audition committee is having themselves a good old time.

The audition monitor hands you a towel and props you up again for another chance. Next, a jury member barks "Schumann 2". Being under-prepared, you panic. Paying little attention to intonation or rhythm, your bad tempo selection quickly triggers the release button. Once again you are listening to your unfavorite tune of the day while plunging headlong into that large tub with the L on it.

Now that's two strikes against you. Maybe you can redeem yourself with the next one. "Heldenleben, the E flat solo!" Your heart begins to simulate the percussion intro, and you can't feel your legs or much of your upper lip. Nevertheless, you stab in the dark valiantly with atrocious accuracy and horrible intonation. Nerves and stiff chops seems to have short-circuited your thinking as your tempo is way too fast. The famed battle scene is not happening, and instead of deftly wielding your weapons, you are taking a lot of hits. (They should have heard me yesterday!) Click, you hear the music again, and that once proud sitting duck now feels like a dead one.

"Alright, thank you. Next candidate!" Now you know what the L is for as you slink to the stage door slipping and sliding away.

Of all the things that might go wrong, your tempo selection should never be one of them. Start with a good steady correct tempo which will be the rock solid skeleton on which you build everything else. Don't be a sitting duck for the tempo police.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Just the notes, please!

Consider this project. You are free to ignore all dynamics and phrasings. You may forget about any tempo markings, and put that metronome in a lock box. Finishing your whole piece is not a requirement, in fact don't even think about it. You're going to play just one note at a time. You may even become brain-dead to rhythms and all things musical. For now you are allowed to be totally clueless except for one thing.

Let's pretend that you will be awarded $50 for every right note you manage to produce. (Do try to give each a decent sound - no bricks allowed). Inasmuch as there is no time limit, all you have to do is sound great, one note at a time. Take as long as you want between notes because this is only about quality. In fact, quantity is your enemy. If you once again get impatient and start spewing out strings of questionable notes, then you instantly get docked $100 for every one of those notes in question. One clam cancels out two good notes. You can't afford many losses. You will quickly drive yourself into bankruptcy.

O.K. For all of those who are independently wealthy, or for whom losing a bunch of money means nothing, let's try another approach. You will have attached to your bell a high-voltage electric bad-note zapper. Talk about being wired. Jolts of super-charged electric shocks will instantly channel through your horn and go directly to your chops and well beyond at the slightest hint of a junk note. If your notes fizzle, your chops sizzle! It'll be all pain and no gain! All dross is your loss. You will learn quickly that money and pain can be great motivators.

Here are some highly motivational signs for your studio practice room:


Just the good notes, please.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Watch Your Speed

With recitals, boards, and auditions once again just around the corner, we unconsciously rev up the speed of practicing and usually do more wheel-spinning than getting anywhere. "More and faster" seems to be our instinctive defense against deadline pressures, when just the opposite is much more productive.

This is nothing new, but try making yourself play in slow motion and see what happens. Insist on exact pitch and clear tone no matter how short the notes. At the pace of a snail, you can easily eliminate air notes, fuzzed, and pinched notes. You will also be able to get a better feel for all the intervals, chords, and patterns just as a pianist positions hands to cover even the widest leaps. Instead of stabbing in the dark, you will be able to pounce with accuracy.

You must be a cat deftly scampering all over the place in pursuit of mice. But notice that the cat is first motionless as it stakes out its prey. It thinks about it, plans the strategy, then proceeds with caution. Stalking very slowly at first, it then gradually picks up speed en route for the kill.

Know where you're going before you get there. Your brain must precede your tongue and fingers. Not only will the mechanics be better coordinated, but you will give your musical ideas a chance to happen. So, set your metronome on "boring", and clean it up. You can speed later.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bob Sullivan at CCM

Welcome to CCM Tuesday Morning! CSO principal trumpeter Bob Sullivan was the visiting masterclass man. He immediately awakened all with Reiche's brilliant Abblasen Fanfare. That 30 second flashy warm up ought to be the wake-up and get-going call on every trumpet player's alarm clock! Next, it was getting down to the business of sharing many excellent ideas on communicating and balanced preparation.

For the first hour Bob worked with three grad student competition winners. Joel Baroody played beautifully the second movement of the Pilss Sonata. Some of Bob's suggestions: stand in the well of the piano, put the horn down, and sing both to your accompanist and to the audience exactly how you want it to go. Develop your ideas. Interpret and communicate. In performance, the message must dominate, not the concern for mechanics. We must always be slaves to the music, not to the technique. Consider the bell an extension of the voice, that inner trumpet sound. That all improved the second go around.

Jeff Lewandowski then did a nice job on Enesco's Legend. His suggestions: stay in the present time. Keep concentrating. Communicating something musical will overshadow the odd clam. Maintain interest. Supporting longer phrases is the challenge, especially when there are rests in the middle of the phrase. Performers tend to focus on details while the composer envisions the whole composition. Know the piano part thoroughly, and then begin work on the solo part. Bob suggested Copland's book, What to Listen for in Music.

Next Chris Pike took on the whole Charlier 12th etude. Bob brought a refreshing approach to these studies - much more soloistic, free, and musical, and less like the approach to Clarke technical work. Chris's playing quickly took on color, shimmer, and a lot more interest. Finishing the whole thing at all costs is much less productive than strength-building a little at a time. The practice room is for gradually pushing our limits. We must be able to play exact details but also with great expression. I like the picture he mentioned of being able to play "outside the box" as well as inside.

For the second hour, Bob opened with a flawless and captivating performance of Koetting's Intrada. I enjoyed the lesson demonstrated on being able to play cold at such a high level. All notes are on call at any time. His theme was on how to practice. We needed a full day or two to hear all that he had to share. Basically, daily playing must be organized and balanced, he said.

The break down is conditioning, technique, and music. Conditioning: anchored corners, buzzing, bending, long tones, peddles, air movement, lips always vibrating. Short sessions are better than long. Our goal is building confidence by first building solid foundations. All elements should be covered daily. The Stamp method was explained, (staying up when down, and down when up, etc.), and not just playing it, but how and why.

Technique work includes tonguing, single, multiple, and tone work. The Music portion, as all of his practice, is free of "routine". Concepts are incorporated and ingrained. Singing and skeleton work is done. For example, the huge leaps in Honegger's Intrada are first reduced to nearby notes and then expanded without loss of focus. Musical line rules. Technical work always supports that goal. These are only a few of many things shared.

Our thanks to Mr. Sullivan for two great sessions! Hopefully there will be more to come.