Thursday, November 26, 2020

Items of need

I remember sitting in the audience at a recital by the Juilliard String Quartet. It was our first week as freshmen at the Eastman School of Music. Our class was full of superstar wannabes chomping at the bit. It felt like the opening gate at the Kentucky Derby! My self-imposed assignment that night was to observe and to note the skills needed to be a successful musician.

We all brought strengths to the table but also lots of baggage and abilities needing serious attention. How we were going to deal with our deficiencies in four years was key. 

The Quartet was amazing! Each player displayed enormous energy, showmanship, expression, dynamic contrasts, overall drama, and a sense of mature musicianship. But also, the often ignored skills of impeccable intonation, fantastic rhythm, blending, supporting, leading, and overall control. 

That night I came away with a long list of "items of need." High on my list was: control of each entrance, intonation that doesn't cause wincing, technical wizardry, and accuracy.  Further unpleasant realities: sloppiness, often out of tune, unsteady, unreliable, boring at times, insensitive, and in spite of that, an egotistical attitude! ESM faculty had a lot of work to do!

And so, although perfection is not possible, neither is the lack of diligent effort. The best students practice not what they want, but what they need. The sooner we learn to deal with our weak areas the faster we will improve and be approved. A one trick trumpet player will not go far. Fundamentals must be secure in order to build star quality playing. Take inventory regularly. Listen constantly to the best in the business. Study how they do what you can't, just yet. The fun is in this kind of pursuit. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Performing Etudes

A great performance is more effective than a thousand words. In lessons, Mel Broiles would often perform whole etudes of Sachse, Caffarelli, Charlier, or The Art of Phrasing arias from the Arban book, always with impressive artistry, power and finesse. Nothing needed to be said. That was how it was to be done.

In addition to fiery playing Mel would share his typically blunt but effective advice. Two of his comments I'll never forget. He scribbled an equation on the back page of the Sachse 100 Studies book which read:

1. A GREAT TRUMPET PLAYER = BLOW plus BRAINS. "With both, you can go twice as far." Much later I figured out what he was saying.

2. This was his comment after my mediocre attempt at a dramatic etude: "If there's no pizzazz in the practice room, you can't expect it to be there on the stage!"

Performing Etudes is written in honor of Mel Broiles, former Principal Trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Mel was a master at inspiring and motivating his students. Musical inspiration is just as vital as right thinking and efficient breathing. With all three, you can go three times farther! Performing in the practice room makes performing on the stage a lot more dramatic and a lot less traumatic.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Neglected Component of Success

How many spikes of improvement in your playing have there been lately? Sure, long term progress is the goal, but what about a bunch of sudden bursts of inspired, attention-getting trumpet playing? Why wait? Why not aim for sounding amazing today?

A bassoon colleague once suddenly turned around in an especially energized rehearsal and marveled, "Wow, what did you guys have for breakfast?"  That's the response you want.  

Every day we dutifully go through our prescribed routine, checking most of the boxes, and then calling it another day at the office. Well, not good enough. Life is too short to postpone dramatic improvement. An abrupt shift in our thinking can produce gratifying results before the day is done. It depends on us, how we think, and what we do about it.

The vital component of success is learning to shrink the gap between what we want to sound like and the way we actually sound. How we think we sound is usually not what others are hearing. Critical listening is necessary to give us "real ears."

That means we make a practice of recording ourselves. It means seeking and receiving brutally honest feedback from others, rather than ego-stroking flattery. It means constantly refreshing our concept of sound with the best of recordings and live performances. It becomes our passion to get there quickly.

When we fail to crave spirited dramatic playing, we delude ourselves into accepting the mediocre. We too easily settle rather than struggle. We grow comfortable with being just average. No job was ever awarded to the average. Just OK is not OK!