Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nailing Tannhauser

Welcome to F sharp major and a good lung flush! (Or G flat major if you prefer.) The ending of the Tannhauser Overture is on the stand. Once fingering and intonation are mastered, there is only one thing left - loud sustained notes with no decay just like a church organ. This excerpt shouldn't be a problem. No fast finger-twisting passages to coordinate. Just breathe big and blow.

Oh, one more item not to forget - notice what's on the top of each note, tent accents. Think of a cork being released from a bottle. Or think of a page of music being blown off your stand as soon as your first note sounds. Some call this a sustained accent. If you like pictures, imagine the sudden blast of water through a pressurized hose.

In fact, how about drawing this excerpt on graph paper? Use bricks to represent the notes, big fat cinder blocks. Draw them proportional to the musical line. What color do you like? They could be dark blue or maybe brilliant red. Your call.

Set your metronome for approximately 60 or slower. Painfully slow practice tempos will increase endurance and embouchure focus. Remember not to over-think this. All notes simply must sound good. It must be steady, in tune, loud and clear. Every note counts. Be sure never to crack the high A sharp at the end, and try to make listeners smile when you nail that low F sharp. This is a great warm-up. Have you ever tried it soft?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Notes on Shostakovich Piano Concerto

The Shostakovich Concerto for Trumpet (with piano) has one of the all-time most beautiful slow movements in the repertoire. You have to love all the great trumpet stuff he gave us in this piece. The outer movements dazzle while the slow movement laments, soars and sings. This work is all about us! Enjoy.

First of all, don't dare start practicing it until you've spent a lot of time listening closely to several great recordings of the piece. You must thoroughly enjoy before you explore. Consider these:

  • See if you can write out the trumpet solo by ear.
  • Use full air supply on each breath. You will need it all. Take as few breaths as possible.
  • Find a mute that speaks well in all registers. Practice with your favorite mute on F# minor scales slurred and tongued up and down two octaves slowly. Get very comfortable going from low range to high and back. Practice higher than you'll need to.
  • Don't settle for anything out of tune or stuffy!!
  • Set your quarter note speed at approximately 72, plus or minus. Practice way slower and way faster than required. Have several comfort zones for tempo.
  • The solo is somewhat soft, so don't be a bull.
  • Use subtle rubato. Stretching is better than rushing. Avoid static metronomic playing. Play basically in time, but musically.
  • Always very legato. No bumping allowed.
  • Check often for stuffy unfocused notes. They do not belong.
  • Intonation cannot not be a problem! Watch your tuner.
  • This is classic espressivo writing. Be as artistic as the great principal woodwind players (or better!) Prove that we can do more than blast out-of-tune fanfares.
  • Not much is printed in the way of dynamics, so do as you like. Follow your instincts. General rule: the higher the louder, although you can do some nifty softer notes at the very top. Be creative.
  • Always be sure to play the line. Here's our chance to shine!

Monday, April 19, 2010

No More Mr. Nice Guy!

Weary of wimping out at auditions? "I was fine until I walked on stage." Or, "I was feeling great until I heard everyone else warming up." Or, "I started to crash at my first mistake." The problem was not nerves although they overpowered you. The problem was that you did not have something stronger. You were Roadrunner racing fast to cross the great chasm, only to sputter and plummet as soon as you looked down. Tired of hating when that happens? You need something that can overcome your fear. Try a healthy dose of anger!

Consider those heroic coaches who succeed by intimidation and scare tactics. Think of those famous for throwing chairs, punching out a Wolverine, or hurling first base into the outfield! Were they nice and smiley, meek and polite? I don't think so. We're not talking about throwing your horn against the wall, or lashing out at the conductor. Being out of control doesn't help anything, but a good amount of impassioned determination, might be the missing ingredient to your success.

Instead of walking on stage with a defensive mindset, try the opposite. Take control and perform. You must be a well-trained caged beast behind your mouthpiece. Forget the kind and gentle approach. Make sure you are ready to offer plenty of enthusiasm every time you play. Get angry at yourself and be committed to attacking each piece with appropriate drama regardless of the scenario.

Fiery coaching helps, but you must be both star and coach for the rest of your career. Get angry at your repeated stupid mistakes produced from cautious timid playing. Call a time-out, and yell at yourself. You need someone constantly in your face and on your case, and that someone will have to be you.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Fading Gracefully

No, this is not about growing old. Save that for another day. This is about a classy disappearing act. Most brass players are by nature good at boldly and belligerently bursting onto the scene. But it's our ability to gracefully get out of the way that usually needs much practicing. The impressive long diminuendo is our goal.

For example, performing Zarathustra, the Leonore calls, or Mahler 2nd Symphony will be no fun without this valuable skill. Each work requires a lengthy beautiful diminuendo on a single note without losing pitch or quality. At such moments in performance the trumpet player either hangs himself or plays the hero. You want such control on the long sustained notes that listeners stop breathing until your gorgeous sound finally disappears into thin air.

For some reason diminuendo practice seems to be neglected. Too bad. Fermata dims make for fun practice as you don't need music, and fatigue isn't an issue. Practice amazing your friends with your skilled stealth exits. Don't just quit at mp. Go all the way down to absolutely nothing, niente. Count quickly or slowly as you play, and think forward direction rather than just a static note. A goal is to be able to sustain your glorious note longer than necessary.

For practice, pick any note. How long can you hold it before it gradually fades away? Ten, fifteen, twenty seconds, more? Be sure not to get nervous, quivery, shaky, airy, sharp or flat. Have friends inspect your embouchure at close range checking for saggy lips, leaky air, smiley corners, exposed teeth, sputtering, drooling, snorting, or other serious problems. Please document and report issues to faculty.

How about a contest? Post signs around campus: The Longest Note of the Year! Prizes will go to those with the longest diminuendos that stay on pitch and don't get airy or fizzle. The higher the note the better the prize. Remember it must start ff and go to ppp.

How many of these orchestral and solo works do you know that test your disappearing skills? Lt. Kije, Don Quixote, Beethoven 6th, Dvorak New World, and every Mahler Symphony. Don't forget the end of the first and second movements of the Tomasi Concerto. You will want to collect your own notebook of high profile diminuendos for your daily practice. It's OK to be dim-witted.