Some clarity, please

Last night, the BPO played it’s 2018-2019 Gala opener, featuring American baritone opera star Thomas Hampson on the first half, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on the second half. The hall was electric. One could easily understand why with this repertoire and featured iconic soloist. I was able to sneak up to the balcony to hear a few of Mr. Hampson’s selections before being needed on stage myself, and was completely blown away by this mans artistry, charisma, and most notably: CLARITY!!

As brass players, we tend to be obsessive about sound. Rightly so, but I also feel there is a trend to focus so much on the vowel of our sound that the consonant becomes neglected. A poignant phrase was stated by Dave Sporny at last year’s WBI Boot Camp that has been resonating with me over the past year: “T is just the beginning of TONE.” At the time, Prof. Sporny used the phrase to get a young player to think more about resonance and the vowel of their sound, but it bears merit in reminding us that we still need the to get the TONE!!

Those of you who know me also know that I am fanatic about practicing air attacks (the infamous ‘poo‘ attack) and could rightly call to question why I’m suddenly ranting about T. Well, remember that the main reason for practicing the air attack is to deliver our air immediately at the speed necessary for the given note. When synchronized with the tongued articulation, a truly marvelous, immediate, ringing tone is produced, a la Jay Friedman.

Listening to Mr. Hampson navigate Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Copland’s Old American Songs struck a chord with me. What most impressed about his performance — aside from his flair-filled delivery — was that even in a balcony stairwell of the massive Kleinhans Music Hall, I could hear every syllable with the utmost clarity. His diction was impeccable, and it brought so much more to these works and my listening experience. It was at this point that I suddenly had great jealously for my colleagues who sit in opera pits, listening to the world’s top singers on a daily basis. It was also at this point that I realized we as a trombone (and brass) culture do not put enough emphasis on playing with diction.

I have been stewing over the concept of articulation and clarity for quite some time, wanting to put my thoughts on paper. It wasn’t until it struck me so sharply — thanks to Mr. Hampson — that the thoughts began to gel more cohesively. I have noticed a trend in trombone playing that is so obsessed with consistency and uniformity that it becomes….well….boring. The caliber of playing has risen so far in the trombone world in the last decade-plus, and it is truly a fantastic thing. However, what draws my ear to really special playing is great attention to articulation and specificity of variety. People are making fantastic sounds, getting all over the instrument, and doing things I gave up on years ago. It truly is commendable, admirable, and fun to hear! But it falls short of being interesting. And that right there is what I heard last night, listening to Thomas Hampson. The text became interesting, comprehendible, and engaging.

Some of you may be thinking to yourselves, “Well, of course it was more interesting because with a vocalist, you can actually hear words rather than just instrumental sound.” It’s the same argument to which those who don’t support playing vocal repertoire on an instrument subscribe (check out my Vocal Repertoire Revisited blog for more on that subject). I understand that notion, but it’s not a strong one. We as instrumentalists must strive for the same clarity, variety, and specificity with regard to articulation. Otherwise, all we are offering is consistency. I love vanilla bean ice cream, but if I had it every day, it would lose it’s flavor. Same concept. We have variety in our meals, why not in our playing?

Let me provide some examples from the trombone repertoire to support my opinion. Take the Dutilleux Chorale, Cadence, et Fugato. In the last section with all the triplet arpeggios, there is a mix of tenuto, accent, staccato-accent, and slurred articulations. I’ve found it quite commonplace to hear this all as the same articulation and note length — hell, it’s a lot easier to do it that way! But easy doesn’t make it correct, and it certainly doesn’t make it interesting to the listener. I recall a particular lesson with Mick Mulcahy on this exact section and he raked me over the coals, wanting more and more specificity of articulation. And quite honestly, if Dutilleux wanted it all the same, he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to use no less than four different markings!

Another good example, yet from a slightly different angle, would be Eric Ewazen’s Sonata for Trombone. As is customary with Eric’s music, he leaves much open to interpretation: phrasing foremost but also articulation style. This piece was at the height of its popularity when I was in school; every student played it, and every guest artist programmed it! It is fairly easy to play simply what is on the page, as Eric gives us little notation-wise. However, what brings this piece to life is variety of articulation and length. I absolutely love Ko-ichiro Yamamoto’s recording of this, as he does just that. As a side-note, when we premiered Eric’s Triple Concerto here in Buffalo, much of our trio rehearsal time was spent creating and solidifying articulation and length concepts to enhance the lines. Eric loved it so much he asked for copies of our edited parts to add to the published version, but I honestly haven’t seen it so I don’t know if they made it in.

Worth a mention is also my experience instructing the Low Brass Orchestral Repertory class at Eastman. While we’ve only been underway for two weeks, most of our time rehearsing section repertoire has been spent on articulation clarity and cohesion. Some of the observations from the class after focusing on articulation include better intonation, improved time, and definitely tighter ensemble. The players also admit that they are working significantly less to produce sound once they focus on clarity. I pose that many of us at some point (or currently!?) fall into the trap of thinking that orchestral or large ensemble playing is sound-centric, meaning that we are concentrated more on pushing the sound out than on playing clearly and synchronized. Perhaps I can share some before-and-after videos in the future to back up this claim.

As you venture forth with your etudes, solos, and excerpts, keep in mind these ideas and ask yourself how your favorite singer might articulate a passage. Consistency is certainly a goal, but it cannot dominate to the point of being flavor-less.

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