Preparing and Performing Vocal Repertoire – guest blog by Dr. Cory Mixdorf

As promised in one of my previous posts, I will be inviting guest bloggers to write articles on various topics. My goal is to host at least one guest blogger per month, and I’m very pleased to present Dr. Cory Mixdorf as my first guest! Dr. Mixdorf is Assistant Professor of Trombone at the University of Arkansas. A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a trombone festival program at which Dr. Mixdorf was presenting a lecture on the preparation of art songs for trombonists, and while I was not in attendance, this stuck in my memory. Song performance has always been near and dear to my heart, but I know there are many instrumentalists out there who don’t embrace the value of studying this repertoire. I asked Dr. Mixdorf if he would be willing to write an article on this topic, and he graciously obliged. I hope you enjoy his article, and regularly check back for new contributions!

“Preparing and Performing Vocal Repertoire”, Dr. Cory Mixdorf, University of Arkansas

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When I was in my master’s program at Indiana University, a comment I would hear frequently from my teacher (M. Dee Stewart) was, “That’s nice, Cory, but if that was a movie soundtrack, what would be happening on the screen during that music?” He continually prodded me to give inspiration to a piece, usually by means of a story or at least a set of emotions. His goal for me (and now my goal for my students) was to create in me not just an excellent trombonist, but an inspired musician! The name of the game is to convey an idea, emotion or story to an audience through our performances. Performing vocal repertoire is a fantastic means to this end simply because we don’t need to create a story; it’s already provided by the composer! In this article, my goal is to assist in how to select works to perform as well as give insight concerning the preparation of vocal works on a brass instrument.

If this is the first time you’ve considered performing a vocal selection, choosing one can be a daunting task due to the sheer volume of works in this genre. I would be hard-pressed to find one major composer who did not write art songs. This is, however to our benefit as we get to perform works by those composers we love so dearly for their orchestral writing, but never got around to writing a solo piece for our instrument. (At least, that’s what I keep telling myself!)

There are different ways you can go about choosing a piece. The first would be to go to the art song section of the music library and find the composers that did it the best: Schubert, Schumann and Faure come immediately to mind. (Schubert alone wrote over 600 lieder!) One could feasibly pick out almost any work by these composers and perform it on the trombone. Other names that come to mind include: Brahms, Donizetti, Ives, Ravel, etc. Another “gateway” into the world of vocal repertoire is choosing pieces that vocalists sing often. The following are pieces that are performed regularly in college juries due to their accessibility of range and transparency of phrasing: Giordani, “Caro mio ben,” Schubert, “Die forelle,” Schubert, “Du bist Ruh” and 24 Italian Songs and Arias (sort of the vocalist’s Rochut). Other means of selecting works include choosing popular crowd-pleasers (such as Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” or “O mio babbino caro”) or finding out what pieces other brass instrumentalists perform frequently. In the trombone world, it seems that Brahms’s, Four Serious Songs, Op. 121 and Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer are most commonly chosen.

The most effective way to find repertoire that you will fall in love with is to simply expose yourself to more literature. Go to vocal recitals (*gasp*). Check out opera DVDs from your library. Watch vocalists perform on YouTube. If you only listen to trombone music, you’re inhibiting yourself from becoming a true musician!

Once you have a song or aria selected, the first thing to do is to get a good understanding of the text. If it’s an aria, what’s happening in this point of the opera? If it’s from a song cycle, how does this song fit within the larger picture? For most works, a translation will be needed. Translations that almost always accompany these songs are great for getting the general idea of the plot. However, in order to dig deeper and accurately delineate phrases, it is important to know how each individual word translates. Why get so picky? First of all, knowing the definition of each word will help you know when to adjust your sound, articulation and dynamics, giving you the opportunity to do some subtle text painting. For example, in the third of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, the Text reads “O Tod, wie bitter bist Du?,” which translates to “O death, how bitter art thou.” To capture the seriousness of the subject matter in correlation to the ferocity of the piano chords, I play the first two notes (“O death”) with a big, solid sound and a firm marcato articulation. The other reason why it’s important to know what each word means is that sometimes the English language doesn’t fit the phrase intent of the composer. There have been a couple times when after researching the translation of each word, I’ve discovered that my phrase structure is different from what the English translation suggests. (Beginners to this process might be best suited towards selecting a piece by an English or American composer, such as Charles Ives, in order to avoid the translation issue altogether.)

Concerning phrasing as it relates to breathing, one should line up breaths with punctuation. Typically, if there’s a period, comma or semicolon, that’s either the end of an idea or at least a pause between ideas. If no punctuation exists where a breath is needed, look for words in the text that may provide an opportunity for a breath. This is another example of a word-by-word translation coming in handy!

After coming to an understanding of how the text and music relate, it’s important to discover the intricacies of performance traditions. Just like certain moments of trombone solo repertoire have developed from tradition (i.e. octave displacements in the Grondahl), your song selection may have unmarked gestures that are only known by means of performance practice. So, as you would for any standard trombone solo, listen to as many interpretations of your piece as possible so that you may give an informed performance.

If I may speak to one more aspect of performing vocal literature, I would like to encourage performing directly from the piano score. Unlike many conterti, sonatas and other solos we perform, art songs are written more as duets between the voice and the piano, not as solo/accompaniment. This interplay can be intricate at times, making it valuable to see what is going on while you perform. (In all honesty, I would probably play all solos from the piano score if it weren’t so logistically impractical!) Yes, this mean you will have to read C treble clef. Big deal. It’s great real-world practice. There have been many times in a church gig where I’ve been given a hymnal and been asked to play the melody, which is always in the top treble clef line.

Performing art songs and opera arias enable trombonists of any age to learn more about phrasing through the relationship of words and music. The texts to many of these songs have come from the world’s best poets and storytellers. Utilize that asset to convey meaning and purpose to your performance. Be more than a trombonist, be a musician!

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One thought on “Preparing and Performing Vocal Repertoire – guest blog by Dr. Cory Mixdorf

  1. Pingback: Vocal repertoire revisited | Tim Smith - trombonist

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