Monday, September 28, 2009

Split Personality

A great trumpet player is not unlike a dog. He/she must be comfortable on a tight leash, but also able to break free and attack on a moment's notice. Picture a nice little doggy quietly and obediently roaming around on his leash. Then imagine a pit bull on a fast and viscous mission with no leash at all! Both have gotta be you, nice and sweet, but with your killer instinct always intact.

You must control a gorgeously suave and stealth Schumann 2 on an audition, and turn right around and belt out a belligerent Goldenburg like a hungry dog with a bone. Try to blast that mute right out of the bell and straight at the conductor! You are a well-trained savage, restrained on the one hand, but also able to deliver a cold-blooded pummeling on the other. For example, you can't play Mahler symphonies without great control of soft details as well as being able to nail all of those violent blasting eruptions.

Think about your airstream. It must be so soft and gentle that it can move a spider web without disturbing the spider. Then it must be so forceful and focused that it blows an entire stack of papers off the desk, scattering them all over the room. That's you - a gentle breeze and a ferocious hurricane!

One of your practice goals is to be comfortable in both dynamic zones. You are fast becoming a highly skilled wind machine. Make those boring practice sessions more productive by developing control of extremes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Avoiding Root Canals

It's day #1 on your orchestra gig. Life is good until you open the folder. There you are faced for the first time with Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture with the cornet part in A. Next, you have Tchaikowsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture with the trumpet part in E and F. On the second half is Ein Heldenleben, and you've got the E flat part! Any of these transpositions at first sight in a rehearsal could cause some degree of panic not unlike drilling with no Novocaine. You just don't want to be there, so now is the time to do something about it well before you get the gig.

The remedy for this situation is a good skill in basic transposition. You may think of this as root canal work because it's embarrassing to sound like a beginner when having to transpose something. It's like trying to run with your feet in concrete blocks. But some daily pain in the practice room is far better than humiliation on stage.

So let's keep a Sachse or Caffarelli transposition book on your stand for daily use. If this is your first exposure to this unpleasantness, here are the assignments: Transpose to A, C, D, E flat, E natural and F. Get familiar with these and then you can attack A flat, D flat, G, etc. Begin with easy stuff to gain confidence. How about a key a week?

Remember, you can do most of the grunt work without your horn! The issue is speed from page to brain to fingers, so you can save your chops for now. Try to like this, it is possible. It takes time but it does get easier. Transposition is a skill that is quite doable no matter how you play. Do it and conquer laziness! Not transposing well is a character weakness, not a disability. Daily drills will keep you from the drill.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Visiting Your Local Park Bench

Do you have a favorite quiet spot? Maybe it's a secluded park bench, that Adirondack chair on your deck, or a tree stump next to a creek? Wherever it is, the only requirement is that you do not bring your trumpet to your little hideaway. The trumpet only tends to ruin the party, so leave it home and keep this a fun adventure.

What to bring? All you need is three fingers, your tongue, and your music, excerpts, solos, whatever. No equipment is needed, just you, nature and your natural musical instincts. We are going to perfect our input before it hits the horn. You must put quality in before you can expect a quality product. So begin to refine and energize your message. It must be so disciplined and driven that the horn won't have a fighting chance to resist. It will simply have to obey and cooperate with you.

Your goal is to get your tongue and fingers on the same page, or rather on the same note! They are often at odds with each other. They must become the best of friends. Take Fetes for example. That is a great exercise for our basic training. Both the tip of your tongue and the tips of the fingers of your right hand must articulate perfectly together. All four must be very athletic and coordinated. They must march in time. Sit there until you have them working together in perfect rhythm. Fingers are not allowed to fly high over the valve caps, nor are they allowed to flop sloppily over the top of the valves. It's about tips. You may use your left hand knuckles for valves.

Another favorite is Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. The whole piece is fair game for our boot camp, not just the opening. Begin slowly making sure the "T" of your tongue perfectly lines up with the "attack" of your fingers. Hey, good news! You only need to train two fingers for the opening! Only once will your third finger need to join in! Begin slowly, and eventually take this way faster than you'll ever need. How fast can you go and keep your "little attackers" in sync?

While you're at it, train the "K" as well as the "T". You will notice that your K is much more efficient when it is closer to your teeth. T and K must be good friends and must sound alike. Bring your sluggish K up to speed right there in the privacy of your articulation training zone.

Visit your "local park bench" regularly. Nobody will notice your mistakes but you. After a few intense and disciplined sessions, you will be able to amaze your friends. Remember, this is way more productive than a whole bunch of mindless blastathons. Brain beats blow any day.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Fred Mills Remembered

In the corner of a small room at Giardinelli's, Fred Mills sat patiently with me for a good hour as I struggled to find my next trumpet. He was very quiet but attentive, only offering brief advice when asked. Finally running out of steam, I asked if he would like to play them. Without any warm up he instantly played several very impressive and well-focused arpeggios, rendered his verdict, and handed the best horn back to me. I remember feeling like I had been hurling tons of mud at a brick wall. Fred just nailed it in less than a minute by skillfully throwing a dart at the bulls eye for me.

Some are talkers. Fred was a listener. In the few times I met and spoke with Fred, I remember him as a modest man who was always more interested in how you were doing than keeping you up to date on his own activities. When speaking of himself, it was always understated. I was impressed with him as a person and of course as a giant in the business. His terrific playing in the Canadian Brass spoke for itself. He seemed to get even better with time. An amazing list of accomplishments follows him.

An enormous amount of experience, wit, and friendliness was not far beneath that deadpan expression. Fred died in a car accident in Athens, Georgia. It was a sudden and very sad loss. He will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Pops Week with Erich Kunzel

It was one of those Tuesday mornings, the start of a ten-service week of the Cincinnati Pops with Maestro Erich Kunzel. There was to be a full complement of rehearsals, three concerts and two recording sessions. Our stands seemed awfully top-heavy with those thick red trumpet folders jammed full of repertoire. We had brought bags o' mutes, extra mouthpieces, and several trumpets all warmed up and ready for action. Approaching Music Hall even an hour early, one could see that his dark blue Mercedes with his EK Maine license plate was already there. Mr. Kunzel was always the first to arrive and the last to leave.

A typical Pops week meant you were going to have to work and play hard, loud and high, soft and sweet. You would be juggling mutes, switching horns, standing and sitting while quickly adjusting the music stand, trying to manage those fast segues from tune to tune, all the while being expected to sound great. Often a three-ringed circus with soloists, dancers, choirs, cloggers, aerialists, flame-throwers, you name it, would be happening right there on our stage. Try to play and concentrate when you and your colleagues were in some crazy costume with cameras in your face. It was literally lights, cameras and lots of action!

One of the most impressive gifts Erich had was his ability to organize and lead a recording session. He was Mr. Efficiency! There we sat looking at the long list of rep for the next three hour session often thinking "there's no way!" But there was a way, and he usually got it all done on time with maybe even a prerecording of some piece for the next album. Every minute of every break was used to quickly assess what needed to be fixed. Dashing from the podium to hear playbacks, he was always on a mission. Erich was great at that, working fast and efficiently under pressure. I always admired that he did not get rattled as the clock was ticking down.

Eventually the busy week would finally end right on the dot with the last tune in the can. With hair bedraggled, shirt wet with perspiration, water bottles empty, and all the scores in a disheveled heap, Erich's work for the week was done, and done very well. "Thank you, everybody!!" he would call, which signaled the official end of the week. Another Pops event had come and gone in its familiar whirlwind fashion. He made you work, but it was fun.

The stage hands would instantly descend onto the stage en mass like scavengers to quickly set up for the next set of rehearsals. String players scattered instantly. The busy librarians would gather up the remains of the week's work on carts like medics picking up the wounded after a battle. The massive amount of Telarc recording equipment would slowly begin to come down to be packed away.

The woodwind instruments would get swabbed and carefully placed back into their cases. The percussion guys would once again begin their long methodical take-down having just used every instrument they owned. There was the occasional murmuring from a few of us brass players, but all the hard work was worth it. We usually finished stronger than we began. Working for Erich was sort of like a high-powered body-building course. There were some aches and pains for sure. But hey, no pain, no gain. How hard could Mahler be after one of Erich's weeks! He made us unstoppable!

I am sure that we did not fully appreciate all that we had in Erich Kunzel's leadership. It was easy to take it for granted when we were accustomed to it for so many years. He began each week with a loud and upbeat "Good morning, everybody!!" He tapped the baton and we immediately began delving into the huge stack of stuff. The week closed with "Thank you, everybody!!" I will never forget those weeks. On August 1st, he conducted his last concert. We will miss him.

Thank you, Erich.