Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Powerful Meds

"Alright, what seems to be the problem now?"  "Doc, it's happened again, another nasty case of sore and unresponsive chops.  I'm just beat up again. What do I do?"

"Not again! Well, I am prescribing a small bottle of very potent pills for you, but you must promise to take them seriously and regularly . . . . but you probably won't."  "I'm desperate, doc.  Big gigs on my plate. I'll try anything!" 

"Very well then.  Take at least one of these every day for 30 days.  Then report back to me on the results."  "Gee!  Swell, doc.  Thanks!"

We know this ailment all to well, the mild to severe panic caused by an embouchure pushed beyond its limits.  Maybe it's no longer an ailment, but a way of life.  No matter how bruised, banged, and beaten, this little therapy bottle should yield immediate results for mistreated chops. Don't skip doses however.  These meds should be taken for the rest of your life.  Consistency matters.

  • Take a day's rest. 
  • Take a modest amount of relaxed deep breaths.
  • Stand up and hang from the waist with upper body totally limp.  
  • Stand up and take a few more deep breaths.
  • Then take mouthpiece, holding it very lightly.
  • Buzz ever so quietly on pure long tones.
  • Absolutely no fuzz or pitch uncertainty is permitted.
  • Begin slow glissandi with small intervals maintaining pp dynamic.
  • Rest as much as you play.
  • Maintain a pure and very soft buzz, eliminating all extraneous noise from the sound.
  • Still on the mouthpiece, play the simplest of tunes accurately and softly with the smallest amount of pressure. 
  • Do NOT buzz or play out of tune!  (A well-trained ear will lessen the workload of the lips.)
  • Be sure all first notes are spot on and free from pressure.  
  • Gradually add the trumpet to your mouthpiece, keeping the same delicate and accurate approach.  
Note:  No danger of overdosing. No expiration.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


There's killing it loudly and then there's killing it softly. Both are feathers that must be worn proudly in every brass player's cap.  Ah the strange tools of our trade!  We must ride the jackhammer one moment, and wave a feather duster the next.  We must be able to blast away, and then dust delicately with the utmost finesse.  Does such duel-tasking even exist among brass players? 

We think of killing it as that typical trademark of the orchestra's brutal, callous, and over-confident back row jocks.  But maybe just as enviable is the opposite skill of amazing control over every treacherously difficult quiet passage we love to ignore.  So, who is able to master both skills?  Or rather, who even wants to do both? Or, who is patient enough to practice two ways to kill?

Why so loud, and why so soft?  Answer: Middle-of-the-road dynamics produce a middle-of-the-road response from the audience, or jury.  Average playing brings a ho-hum response, while exceptional offerings elicit raves.  Dynamic risk-taking is our aim.  We want to gas out the audience (as we used to say) with awesome displays of soft ravishing subtlety.  Who's ready for the challenge?  Try opening the Arban book to the Art of Phrasing, and have at it.  The simpler the better.  Our goal is to whisper as well as yell.

Just because a part is marked pp, doesn't mean the absence of beauty, sonority or phrasing. Where does it say that soft passages have to sound fearful, hard, and boring?  Quiet dynamic markings give us a chance to shine, not just with volume control but with sensitivity and flexibility.     

Make a list of very soft excerpt and solo.  Perform each as softly as possible with absolutely no loss of artistry.   Be that standout performer on your block.  We want to develop chops sensitive enough to execute the soft kill.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


For those of you with very cautious instincts who would never offend by over-blowing, this blog is for you.

Bullheadedness must be tempered by discretion and artistic sensitivities.  And so we have been taught.  But with that truth said, there still remains the need to bust out of the bag and do some serious paint-peeling.  There is a time for soothing strokes, and there is a time for blistering belligerence.  Those who fail to achieve the right balance will certainly hear "thank you, next." So who's ready for the not so delicate task of skillful paint-peeling?

During one orchestra rehearsal some years ago several small portions of the plaster ceiling decor suddenly fell to the stage and shattered in pieces.  Bored brass players instantly scampered around the floor claiming their priceless souvenirs, me being one of them.  Maybe it really happened that our belted brass bravura brought down the house, literally!  I still have my proud remembrance. 

You know the need for this mindset.  Every major brass work calls for this tendency - Zarathustra, Heldenleben, Mahler 8, Pines, you name it.  What makes paint-peeling an art is that it must take place from long range.  Anyone can fire at a target only a few inches away.  Powerful blasters must be able to do damage and penetrate the entire concert hall and reach a target way back behind the audience.  The big obstacle is not the distance however, but the embouchure. Resistance must be minimal. 

Let's be including some daily wise practice of long range firing.  This high bar should teach us to keep the embouchure as tension-free as possible.  A lot of streaming notes must be able to pass unhampered into the hall.  Flushing out the horn with blasts of unrestrained air can be just the therapy for that tense embouchure.  Try it regularly in moderation.

Remember, we want to flood the hall with inspiring blasts of quality, not mindless shootings of questionable value.  Goal:  to share the best quality playing we can muster with the audience, and that includes all of those in the last row.  Fire away! 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Lighting It Up

What would this picture look like without that flash of lightning or that spectacular sunset brightening up the sky?  It would be just another boring deadpan end to another day. Yawn . . . night-night.

What distinguishes an audition winner from the other competitors?  What impresses? What is memorable?  Our goal is certainly not that dreaded response, "Yawn . . . thank you".

Each excerpt needs to be lit up.  That could mean a little more volume, a little more effort to play softly, a little more attention to intonation, a little smoother, a little crisper, a little more energy, and a lot more attention to rhythm Giving only 80% on any of these ingredients will make the cake taste bland. And no one will be asking for seconds.

Whatever message is demanded by the composer must be obvious to the listeners.  Playing it safe at the audition might work if no one else does any differently.  Attention-grabbing happens when one takes a chance and goes for everything on the printed page and then some. 

Caution:  Lightning bolts can be dangerous.  Out-of-control exuberance will draw the same annoyed response, "thank you, next".  First, we want all notes to be secure with a good sound.  Then the fun begins.  Exaggeration is needed for an outstanding performance.  Do all your grunt work, but don't forget to light it up! 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Improvement Wisdom

A noted colleague was heard to have said bluntly but honestly, "Playing an instrument doesn't take brain surgery, just practice!!"  Most issues must ultimately be solved by the student in the practice room.   Granted, information, direction, and motivation are needed, but teachers cannot simply be expected to pass on a gem of amazing wisdom to immediately solve every playing problem.  If a student is not willing to slug it out consistently on his or her own, then no teacher anywhere will be of any help.

There are great teachers, but there are also great students.  The great student is not always the best player, but the best improver. 

Sunday, September 02, 2012

American Eagle Waltz

Offenbach's American Eagle Waltz written for cornetist Jules Levy in 1876 for the centennial celebrations with John Philip Sousa serving as concertmaster.

Played on a Bach C trumpet with a Monette bell, recorded in 1993.


Saturday, September 01, 2012

Mahler 3 Posthorn

Posthorn Solo from Mahler 3. 

Solo begins at 5:40 and extends until 16:30.

Performed on Bach C Trumpet