Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Pacing and Purpose

It was 1971 and James Levine was conducting Mahler 5 with the CIM orchestra. As students it was our first fifth! It was to be a big deal, the highlight, the main event of the semester. Levine and Mahler? No pressure.

Two things stood out during those several intense weeks of rehearsing. Our first lesson became clear even before we had finished the first rehearsal. Playing with all the gusto we could muster, we quickly realized that this was to be a long haul, and we had only just begun. Lesson #1: PACING.

Levine was great at preparing us to be at our best at show time. What good is a fabulous rehearsal if the concert is disappointing? We were getting a crash course in survival, (poor choice of words).

A great concert of course, is not just about getting through the music. The audience is more interested in heroes than survivors. A wise hero is better than a survivor, but a wise survivor is better than a dead hero. So it's a balance between playing it safe and cozy, and letting it all hang out. We were each learning to chart our own courses.

Lesson #2 was about PURPOSE. It came with Mr. Levine's instructions at the end of the last rehearsal before the big concert. He mopped his brow with that ever-present towel slung over his shoulder, and paused before offering his final advice. It was the best coach's pep talk one good receive. It has served as great motivation, and has helped to reduce anxiety for years of concerts and recording sessions.

"Don't be worrying about missing notes. The audience isn't coming to count mistakes. They expect to hear great music. See how many fabulous moments you can produce. You will want to remember this night."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Trumpets Go for the Gold

Nervous excitement is in the air this week as dozens of the world's finest trumpeters are gathered in Cincinnati to compete for the gold at the 2010 Trumpolympics. Five separate competitions will be held with the winner receiving the greatest number of points from each of five panels of judges.

First round contestants will be judged solely on RHYTHM. Round two will be heard by the PITCH police. DYNAMICS will be the focus on day three. The ARTICULATION contest follows, and the final round will be heard by the prestigious MUSICALITY panel. The winner will be awarded the coveted Golden Tone Trophy. Runner up will receive the Silver Bell Award, and the third place trophy will go to the worst of the three. She or he will get to take home an unplated miniature Bronze Bust of Vincent Bach.

Let's listen in as advice is being offered from past contestants:

Pay attention now, gals and guys. This is important. Remember that Rhythm Judges will be deducting points big time for faults such as rushing and for playing a triplet instead of a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth. This panel is fanatical. What they see in the score better be what they get. Speed monitors that they are, they bristle at wrong tempos and at all things unsteady. You will notice their yellow pencils tapping impetuously and their feet stomping involuntarily as they try to correct you while you are playing. Consider yourself warned. They are nasty and unforgiving, but if you can keep them calm and provoke a nod of approval or a slight grin, you're in!

The Pitch Police are likewise very strict and intolerant of anything even slightly sharp or flat, especially sharp. If you don't make pitch corrections immediately, you're burnt toast. Just like their tuners, they will instantly signal out-of-tune and have you waved to the side of the stage. Like highway patrolmen, they are more alert to offenders than to law-abiding drivers. Your assignment is to keep them from bothering you. If you are a highly skilled pitch-finder, you'll be fine. No pressure.

The Dynamics Panel is equally nit-picky. You'll notice they constantly have their heads in the score listening for faults. They are like crowd-counters, quickly clicking their mistake buttons with every perceived decibel infraction. Don't ignore any dynamic markings! Even the smallest detail matters, for they are the sacred guardians of every dynamic the composer ever wrote. To satisfy them you must consider yourself an efficient volume-monitoring machine. This can actually be a fun ride, so let this game begin.

The Articulation Committee is your next venue. They will be listening for every kind of note beginning indicated by the composer. You will need articulations ranging from pickax to cotton swab with everything in between! Remember: different strokes for different notes! One size does not fit all. Knowing the style will help you style the notes. Clubbing, stuttering, and splitting will immediately get you yanked from the competition, so control your flow, guys. Think clean, smooth and focused.

Now for your last hurtle you must elicit raves from the snootiest of committees, the Musicality Monitors. These judges will be looking for you to score high marks for nuance, expression, drama and overall showmanship. They tend to look the other way on details from the other committees, but they do expect to be dazzled. Just think AMERICAN IDOL.

"Summon the Heroes" is now starting to echo throughout our huge contest hall, so toi-toi, y'all. Get out there and have the time of your lives! (thundering applause)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Core Issue

What do the goal posts on a football field have in common with the lane in a bowling alley, and does this have anything to do with trumpet playing? Can kickers and bowlers teach us anything? For the kicker, life is about delivering his three points with consistency. The bowler is about totaling up points by toppling as many pins as possible. Of course there are no points for awkwardly spilling the ball into the gutter. For both athletes, it's nail it, or come up empty. Genius or klutz. Money or none.

Three-point attempts can make heroes or goats, and the clumsy gutter ball is just plain embarrassing. Don't you hate it when the crowd rubs it in by chanting "air ball, air ball" at a basketball game, as if the poor guy did not already know he missed everything? (Now there's a nightmare scenario if that ever happened at trumpet recitals!) Speaking of missing everything, if the artist on the flying trapeze is careless or distracted easily, it's game over. Good things happen though, when they are nailed securely.

I wonder if kickers ever practice with narrower than normal-sized goal posts. What if bowlers in order to refine their skills practiced on especially narrow lanes with very wide gutters? How about the trapeze artist grasping for an extra small rung on a really tiny swing? Talk about crash and burn stage fright! Or think about the soldier training to cross a field full of buried explosives. Absolutely no room for error!

The point is not to be worried to death about missing the mark, but be to be challenged and encouraged about making the mark.
We need to raise the bar by narrowing the posts. If it's wide to the left, short, or wide right, we come up empty.

Think about going for the heart of the note, the very center of the pitch, the meatiest, richest part of it. There is no playing around the edges allowed. In the core of the note is the best quality and the most resonance - pay dirt, if you will. Accuracy also improves when there is no tolerance for playing in the cracks. The adjectives "sloppy" and "unreliable" should not describe our playing. We should be able to walk fearlessly onto the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning and deliver nothing but strikes right down the heart of the plate!!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ryan Anthony at CCM

CCM trumpeters have been in hog heaven recently, first with Joe Burgstaller visiting last week, and now this week with Ryan Anthony, Principal Trumpet with the Dallas Symphony. What can you say about these guys, each with stellar careers going full blast! Well known is Ryan's impressive experience as a Canadian Brass member, soloist with many major orchestras, winner of numerous awards, Trumpet Professor at Oberlin College, and much more. Both are obviously top-notch musicians and excellent communicators.

First on Mr. Anthony's master class agenda - Bitsch Variations played by Masters' student Chris Pike. Adrienne Doctor, undergrad, followed with the Charlier Solo de Concour. Then DMA, Rory Powell nicely made his way through some of the difficult Tull Sonata. Each responded well to suggestions and showed noticeable improvement.

Quintet coaching followed with spot-on comments on the Ewald. No words were wasted as Ryan offered some seating and musical suggestions. Items addressed: using enough energy, steady and forward-moving rhythm, more variety of dynamics, communication between players, balance, and freedom of expression.

Here is some of the feedback from those in attendance:
  • Mr. Anthony offered some good communication points for our quintet such as eye contact, taking advantage of the "robust" volume potential of brass, as well as a more audience-friendly seating arrangement. The string quartet was suggested as a model for freedom of movement, communication and energy.
  • With regard to the Anthony class, I felt that his point that the audience will feel what the performer feels really hit home for me. If the performer is stressed, the audience will feel the same. Likewise with a joyous, exciting performance.
  • Tell a story when playing no matter what it is.
  • Be able to list adjectives that describe your piece.
  • The most important part of your first note is the breath. Don't walk on stage without it.
  • Be able to play a skeleton outline of awkward passages. Once fluid, then add the passing notes.
  • Play so well that it makes the judges put their pencils down and listen!
  • Everything done on the stage must be contagious and magnified.
  • Breathing is a part of the musical phrase.
  • Focus on the emotions rather than just the notes in the music. Get beyond the printed page. Tell a story, attempt to convey something other than notes to the audience.
  • Put the audience at ease with your persona.
  • Communicate; treat everything like chamber music.
  • Never stop being a student.
  • All music is either SONG or DANCE. Relay that to the listeners.
  • Avoid "vanilla" performances. Add more flavors.
  • Audiences also listen with their eyes.
  • If all you focus on is technique, that's all your audience will hear.
  • Music must move us.
  • Think: I can't wait to play this!
  • Take a passage, any passage. Now, if that's all the composer ever wrote, it must still sound great!
  • Impressive heroic visual of the great horn soloist Hermann Baumann totally winning his audience even before he ever played the first notes of the Strauss Horn Concerto!!