Monday, December 28, 2009

Fifths and Tonics

"Six years of college and now I've gotta play this - a hand full of isolated peeps, pops, and poops? Bring on some Mahler, Strauss, or Stravinsky, but not a whole week of Haydn and Mozart! All of my training, and all I get to show for it is a bunch of tonic and dominant. Give me a break." Have we not all thought that at some point?

A modest portion of fifths and octaves may often be all you'll see for a week or longer, so you might as well settle in and get comfortable. Look at it this way, with so few notes to play, you'll be saving on valve oil. You could probably even leave your third valve at home, and maybe the second as well! Your handicapped horn could be quite the conversation starter during rehearsals! In fact, you may be thinking, "why not just bring a bugle to work?"

Don't be thinking that this repertoire is without its challenges. In many ways Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart can be more difficult than a Bruckner symphony or Strauss tone poem. With nowhere to hide and little room for error, your ability to blend, your intonation and control are on display big time. This music quickly separates the ok from the great players. Myron Bloom used to say that playing Mozart is the best way to learn control.

Although we may only play five, six or seven different pitches all night, we must control all of them perfectly. We act as percussion and reinforce points of melodic lines. We'll get our one or two shining moments, but mostly we are to behave behind the scenes as energetic helpers for the winds and strings. We're seldom in the spotlight, but if we do poorly, all will notice. Let's consider ourselves artistic surgeons, drummers with a skilled touch, and graceful swordsmen.

Enough grumbling and dreaming. How about practicing a good portion of your sessions with Mozart on your mind. Play softer, in tune, and don't play so much. Play many isolated high notes, yes lots of peeps and pops, but no poops, just good clean shortish notes. Control intonation even on individual eighth notes, well spaced and in perfect rhythm. Play long whole notes softly with diminuendos, followed by repeated eighth notes a beat apart. Do all things as if auditioning for a Mozart/Haydn orchestra. Play effortlessly and accurately. Make it a game. Can you play just a few Mozart-style notes perfectly? How about wearing a white wig to rehearsals? Nah.

Get the librarian to let you have a sneak peek at any of the Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven Symphony trumpet parts. Play exactly what's on the page. There's a nice groove to this style of orchestral playing. Learn to fit in and enjoy. You'll be longing for this kind of a break after a long Mahler week. It's the perfect reset therapy after long blows. The fun for trumpets in Mozart is finesse, rather than force. Tonics and dominants matter.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Second-Class Music?

Why is it that you etudes are always restricted to the practice room? That's the only place we ever hear you! Seems like you can never find your way onto the recital stage. Too bad, because some of you are way too good just to be practiced and shelved. You should have an audience. But no, you are destined to remain lowly etudes with no titles, only a number, prisoners in the music world, and to be stashed away in trumpet students' lockers.

Rarely are you considered artistic. You are only an assignment on the professor's to-do list. You simply occupy space in a book, and only one page at a time, no more no less. You are an uninspired piece of boredom. You function merely as a project for the featured key of the week, or for your 12 lines of nonstop triple tonguing. Don't even think about inspiration or fame. We've heard the Bach Cello Suites, and you're no suite.

Let's liberate some deserving etudes from performance quarantine. Instead of the usual recital fillers, how about finding some gems from the etude world that ought to have a hearing, and giving them some respect. Here are just a few possibilities:

Bitsch - 20 Etudes. #1 could be a flashy opener. #17 is expressive and lyric. #20 is cool played in one, with a loud straight mute. You could combine three or four or more of these etudes together. Think of your own titles for each movement. These will be more inspiring as you think of performing them. Give each a story of some sort.

Caffarelli - 100 Etudes for transposition has a good supply of musical possibilities. #66, 40, and 70 are favorites. Even the Sachse - 100 Studies for transposition has a few. You could have a transposition feature on your recital including a selection of contrasting styles all transposed in different keys. Amaze your professor with your initiative and creativity! Who says you can't be musical and transpose at the same time?!

Reynolds - 48 Etudes for Trumpet has many nasty studies that you may prefer to keep in the practice room. There are several however that you could group together as an unaccompanied solo work on your next recital. Consider mutes too. If you are inclined, you might consider writing piano, percussion, or whatever accompaniment you like.

Tap the etude literature for solo possibilities. Audiences usually have to attend, so let's keep it entertaining, challenging and creative.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hard Lessons

Some of the most difficult lessons we must learn are not about endurance, sight-reading, or transposition. Those are relatively easy. More challenging are those unexpected humiliations inflicted by people and situations out of our control. They can stifle the very reason we want to do what we do. It could be criticism, energy-draining attitudes, or any unforeseen scenario that threatens our confidence. Learning to expect them and to deal positively with them is crucial.

Criticism can be our best teacher. When we bristle and get offended, there likely is some truth to it. We would do well not to react, but to improve. Use criticism as motivation for the next practice session. A hard to please teacher or conductor may be just what you need to make you a better player and person.

Prepare yourself for any negative attitude before it comes. It may be yours or your neighbor's. It's still dangerous because it is poisonous. Your passion for playing must be strong enough to withstand the disgruntled, the discouraged, and the critical. Counter with good playing, not anger. Let it develop in you strength and leadership. It is not your clever cutting reply, but the quality of your playing that will speak loudest and inspire others to follow.

Adverse playing conditions are arguably the hardest obstacle. Sounding great with no help means you are able to sound great with no help! A cello soloist I know used to practice in the winter with the window wide open. In the hot weather he closed all doors and windows and put on a heavy coat. No bad hall was going to get to him. Whether it's a gym or a closet, there you are, and you must sound great.

Ours is a coddled generation demanding the easy way with constant pats on the back. Politically correct thinking so prevalent today is that no one fails, and everyone wins. We insulate ourselves from hard reality, so that the truth smarts when it finally comes. Learn to take the hits so that your great music will thrive anywhere.