Excerpts: teaching to the test?

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I’ve been dormant on this blog for the last few months, mainly because life has been busy (who’s isn’t) and I’ve been giving considerable thought to this posts topic. This month’s blog is an offshoot of the January 2015 post regarding the (im)Practicality of Audition Lists, and I will warn you that it’s a long one! A reader shared his views with me concerning the alarming frequency at which orchestral excerpts are a requirement of undergraduate auditions in the USA, which quite frankly, I share. I have never been in favor of high school (and younger) students working on excerpts, unless they were performing them with their youth orchestra or advanced enough to be auditioning for top conservatories.

This is not to say that young students should never work on excerpts, but that the motivation and logic behind this study is too often flawed. Standardized tests have been under fire lately in this country, mainly due to the concept of “teaching to the test”. Students are prepared to do well on a test, rather than prepared to assimilate and demonstrate working knowledge on a subject. I pose that a direct parallel can be drawn when it comes to young players preparing orchestral excerpts. The bulk of this excerpt training is simply to fulfill an audition requirement (i.e. college), not necessarily to prepare students for an orchestral career. Even more egregious is the fact that many students are simply learning the notes with no consideration of style, historical context, or musical logic. Yes, there will be plenty of exceptions to this statement, but for the most part, it is this bloggers opinion that students are being taught to the test.

A respected professional trombonist and educator recently commented on a previous post of mine saying “I hear so many talented, enthusiastic, ambitious young trombonists who can play an amazing Saints-Saens Cavatine at the beginning of an audition and then a lifeless, line-less Tuba Mirum or Hungarian March, often with pitch, time and sound that don’t come close to what they do on solo repertoire.”         (full post here: http://tromboneforum.org/index.php/topic,84717.0.html)

I have had a similar experience many times when working with older high school students and college students: the solos/etudes sound pretty good, then it’s as if they left the room and sent a life-less drone back in to play excerpts.

These observations pose two glaring questions:

1) Why are students preparing excerpts at a point in their development that it may actually be detrimental to their overall musicianship?

2) How/where does the disconnect between music-making and excerpts happen?

Let me address these questions one at a time. The study of excerpts is not a negative thing; in fact, I think it’s a great thing even for the non-orchestrally ambitioned player. They teach how master composers treated our instrument, and often offer a window into the evolution of our instrument and its role in the orchestra. However, where the negative aspect enters is when students are taught excerpts when they lack the musical and technical maturity to make informed decisions as to HOW THEY GO! I can comfortably make such a bold claim, as this applies to me. While I didn’t play my first excerpt until my college sophomore year, I was still musically not prepared and I still carry many of those skeletons with me. By this, I mean that some of the simplest, “beginner” level excerpts challenge me the greatest, as I have negative baggage from musically immature study. Perhaps ‘baggage’ will be a future blog topic….

Deviating slightly off-topic, etudes seem to be a vehicle for learning that many students have abandoned, and I wonder if this is a result of their teachers’ abandonment of etudes. There is not a skill or style in any excerpt that cannot be improved and mastered through study of etudes. Well, I might be hard-pressed to think of an etude to help prepare The Miraculous Mandarin, but it’s safe to say that the bulk of the orchestra repertoire can be greatly aided with etude study!

I also hold the opinion that many teachers (primarily those of pre-college students) are ill-equipped to be introducing excerpts to their students. Having visited many colleges over the last few years as a guest artist, I’ve had numerous conversations with professors who frequently share stories of students auditioning for them, and playing excerpts that seem to have zero bearing: Tuba mirum blasted and non-legato, The Ride of the Valkyries in 7/8, Bolero without the ownership of any notes above F4….the list could go on. Why are students being allowed and encouraged to demonstrate this ignorance? I theorize that many teachers simply don’t have the knowledge of, or experience with, the excerpts, and therefore blindly pass this ignorance on to their students.

HOWEVER……

Is this really the early teachers’ fault, or the fault of a system that requires students to be practicing Bolero and Ride of the Valkryies at junior high and senior high school age? Like I said a few paragraphs ago, there are always exceptions and the phenoms who buck the norm. This blog is not about those select few, but rather the multitude of students who learn to play the notes without any consideration of what the piece is about, or how their part fits into the grand scheme of the work. The shame of this truth is that this is the next generation of musicians that we are cultivating. I’ve heard plenty of audition-winning caliber players who can play the snot out of their instrument, and could repeat a passage perfectly 10, 20, 30 times. While I’m envious of this technical ability and consistency, something is often missing in the form of personality and flair. Where does this disconnect happen?

Let’s address that second question, as if I knew the exact answer, I wouldn’t be someone who struggles with this myself! Listening to my own recordings, I have discovered many inconsistencies. One of the most prevalent (and frustrating) is when it is clear I’m just trying not to miss. What is the repertoire type that I most often have this experience? You guessed it: excerpts. The same syndrome seems to exist with many students.

As a community, I feel we put excerpts on a pedestal, and bind ourselves with the idea that they must be this flawless, rigid, unarguable, black & white, Holy Grail of playing that is separate from anything else we play. In the process, the flexibility of an open and musically logical mind goes right out the window. Sometimes we are trying so terribly hard to emulate our teachers, that we lose sight of making music. For example, years ago I was preparing the last movement of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler for an audition. Being Chicago-schooled, I typically use natural legato wherever there is a slur. A colleague pointed out to me that while my efforts were noble, it sounded sloppy. Well, I’ve heard Jay, Michael, and Charlie do this effortlessly and beautifully, so that’s what I have to do – right? I took my colleagues suggestion to try some light legato-tongue and the result was fantastic: cleaner, easier, and consistent. My point is that I was so self-bound to doing it the way I thought it had to be, that I missed an opportunity to try something different that ultimately worked much better for me.

Perhaps the concept that “an excerpt is forever, while an etude just gets checked off” has something to do with the musical disconnect. Does anyone take Kopprasch 15, Tyrell 10, Bitsch 8, etc as seriously as they do William Tell or Russian Easter? Theoretically we should, but those are things that we would never have to perform so why would we be accountable for them? So, perhaps we give ourselves license to have more fun, play with more flair, and experiment more with the etudes. When it comes to the excerpts, we transform to being rigid, authoritative, and perfection-of-execution oriented. Hmm, sounds like I’m describing a robot.

Listen, folks, I’m not claiming I’ve got this figured out, and a lot of this blog is an exercise in me trying to wrap my brain around something that has bothered me for years. If nothing else, it’s a chance to kick around some ideas and see if some of these opinions resonate with any of you. I would love to hear from you if you have any ideas/suggestions/counterpoints.

At this point I want to recognize my friends at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of the only schools I know of – let alone conservatory – that does not require excerpts for undergraduate admissions. Check out this link and notice how under tenor trombone auditions, incoming freshmen are excluded from the excerpt requirement.  The trombone department out there is on to something!  Kudos to Mark Lawrence, Paul Welcomer, John Engelkes, and Tim Higgins.  Another colleague of mine argues that the excerpts are an even playing field in which you can evaluate if a student has style and personality. While there is also truth to that, I counter that etudes and solos can serve the same purpose, without putting the undue pressure on kids to learn something for which they are not ready. Plus, it is one less opportunity to create baggage for their futures. Perfect segue to a future blog….

Thoughts on the Alto Trombone

A 2nd Trombonist airing opinions about the alto trombone!! How dare he! He must be a witch!!  Now don’t be getting your skivvies in a bunch just yet – at least read on a bit.

In the last few months, I have been asked by a number of college trombonists about my approach to the alto trombone. Naturally, I was quite flattered that someone actually wanted my opinion on something, and furthermore, on a topic that is near to my heart. I’ve put a few videos up on this site and on YouTube that apparently got some plays, so I’m thrilled that someone enjoys them. The alto trombone is something I am rather passionate about, and I often say the worst part of playing 2nd Trombone is that I rarely – if ever – get to play alto in the orchestra.

To be clear, this post is not going to be a history lesson, as there are numerous other resources for in-depth historical information: anything involving Jay Friedman or Ken Shifrin is usually a gold mine – check out this discussion between both of them: http://jayfriedman.net/articles/j_and_k_talk_trombone_history).

The first point of my own concept that I’d like to address about the alto is that it is a separate instrument from the tenor. While it is still a trombone, it has its own unique voice, and this is something I believe many modern players overlook.  Each voice of trombone has it’s own pedigree and evolution, and I believe one must first acknowledge this before and during study of the alto trombone. It is not just a tool for playing high notes!  I’m sure you’ve heard/read people say that if you can’t play the range on tenor, it’s not miraculously easier on the alto.  Certainly, it makes some passages easier, but rather from a timbrel perspective.  More accurately, it makes many passages not necessarily easier, but appropriate. To repeat, acknowledging that the alto is not just a small tenor is the first step!

Listening to players who have a concrete, informed concept of the alto trombone is my next point. Just because someone is a monster tenor player does not make them a defacto alto virtuoso. As you would with any instrument, find multiple recordings and artists to sample, and evaluate why you like one over the other. Think in terms of sound, style, and nuance, rather than just technical ability. Does it sound like a tenor, or is there something different to the sound: smaller, brighter, more translucent, vocal, buoyant, etc. My personal favorite alto recordings (including YouTube) are those by Christian Lindberg, Jorgen van Rijen, Michael Mulcahy, Ken Shifrin, and Steve Witser. Each one of those players has a crystal-clear concept of the alto sound and style, and is unmistakable from the timbre of the tenor trombone. In 2005, I had the fortune of playing the Mozart Requiem with my teacher, Michael Mulcahy. He played first trombone, as well as the Tuba mirum (I did not mind one bit – it was inspiring!), and the alto playing left a timbrel imprint on my brain that I shall never forget. It has served me quite well as my model whenever I pick up the alto.

Note: I’ve actually had a few people compliment me in the past that my alto trombone sounds big; “like a tenor” was a phrase often used. At first, I was horrified, though I took the compliment graciously. Upon further thought and self-analysis, I realized that I always received that compliment when playing a particular instrument (more on that later), but also the fact that it was sound density they were hearing. The sound was still smaller than a tenor, but this particular horn – in conjunction with my concept of the piece – yielded a much denser sound than they may have been accustomed to hearing from an alto trombone. I digress.

My third point is in regard to gear. Finding an instrument/mouthpiece combination that matches your concept is critical, as it would be with any instrument. Often I see students with the small shank version of their tenor piece, or another small shank mouthpiece that simply does not compliment the horn. Get a pile of small-shank mouthpieces, and try them all. It might surprise you that the 12C on your shelf actually has a practical use!

When I began alto trombone studies, I had a Conn 36H and a small-shank Bach 5G. It took me a few years to realize the 5G was simply WAY too big for my concept, which would partially explain why pitch was never consistent! It’s OK to play a small mouthpiece – no one is judging you on size! I eventually replaced the Conn with a gold brass, dual-bore Glassl alto, which is one of my favorite instruments. I also have a sterling silver Glassl alto, which is the trombone that has the aforementioned dense sound. It is quite appropriate on Brahms Symphony No. 2 when you want some elements of the tenor sound, and on certain solo repertoire or trombone choir pieces. My colleagues adoringly nicknamed it “The Panzer” since it packs a punch when pushed. I use two different mouthpieces depending on repertoire: a Glassl 7C for most late-Classical/early Romantic orchestral repertoire and solos, and a Bach Mt. Vernon 11C for Mozart, Beethoven, and certain chamber music.

Continuing on the gear thread, there are a few players who advocate using the same rim on all your mouthpieces, regardless of what horn you are playing. Jim Nova, for one, is highly successful at this, and no one can say it doesn’t work for him! However, I find that downsizing everything helps me maintain the concept; a “match the instrument to the concept” approach. The physical stimulus of the smaller rim also reminds my brain that I want a smaller, more compact sound. Yes, the concept should always trump equipment and physicality, but why make it harder on yourself? Furthermore, a larger mouthpiece offers more ‘wiggle room’, while the smaller alto trombone affords less. I draw the comparison to beginner tuba players: they are all over the place without even pushing down the valves!! Of course, one must experiment and choose what works the best.

My last comment goes without saying…but I will anyway: practice the alto trombone (or any secondary instrument) like you do your main horn! This means all those scale, long tone, drone, articulation, slur, etc. exercises need to happen. It is very easy to break out the alto only when needed, but over time these skills atrophy. I’ve also found that some of the scariest passages in the repertoire often expose the alto trombone (usually soft, high or low chorales with awkward position shifts) and without regular exposure to scales, drones, soft slurs, one is setting oneself up for embarrassment. Being in shape chop-wise is also so very important, as many of the “alto-heavy” pieces are quite demanding on endurance: Mozart Requiem, Schubert Mass in Ab, Beethoven 5 & 9, and many of the lesser-known chorale works.

I found myself in an embarrassing situation once while performing the Mozart Vespers. It was a very heavy program of chorale works at a small church outside of Chicago about 10 years ago, and the trombone parts were quite demanding. Of course, the chorus was tiny so anything above a p dynamic was offensive to the conductor. Mid-performance, my endurance was sputtering and I literally started falling off notes. The tenor and bass trombonists starting laughing, and they started falling off notes since they couldn’t keep their embouchures together. This was, naturally, the point that the conductor noticed and shot us nasty glances. I look back and chuckle now, but man, I would have traded anything to be in better condition that day!

Thanks for bearing with me, and I hope my ideas resonate. Keep your eyes and ears open for a new sonata for alto trombone and piano over the next year: I’m initiating a consortium to commission an exciting young composer on such a work!

From active duty to the Atlanta Symphony — guest blog by Brian Hecht

Seeing that audition season is upon us, for both orchestra and military gigs, I thought it would be a wonderful treat to have someone with recent experience in both types of ensembles share their insight with us.  Brian Hecht, Bass Trombonist of the Atlanta Symphony and formerly of the United State Navy Band, graciously accepted my invitation to share his experiences and I am quite grateful to him for doing so.  Though still in the dawn of his career, Brian has assembled a rather impressive resume, including not only big audition wins (USNB and Atlanta) but professional experience performing with some of the most prestigious orchestras in the country.  You can read more about Brian, along with listen to audio clips, at his website.

Speaking of auditions, make sure you check out my opinion piece on auditions and audition repertoire from a few weeks ago.  It will be the next blog listed when you finish reading this one 😉

Next post: thoughts on approaching the alto trombone…

From Active Duty to Atlanta Symphony
by Brian Hecht

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I’ve been very fortunate in my career so far, to have had the opportunity to play in two very different and very talented ensembles; each with their own rewards that have given me different insights into the professional music world. Looking back on my experiences so far in both, I can definitively say that I would not have been successful in the Atlanta Symphony without the professional and musical lessons I learned during my enlistment in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C.

I joined the Navy Band after finishing my Masters degree at Northwestern in 2009. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into but, I knew that, because of the lack of bass trombone positions open in the country, it was either I join a military band or move back home and work at a bank.

After I won the audition it seemed like everything happened so fast! Before I knew it, I had a buzz cut, new clothes and a Chief Petty Officer screaming in my face about how much they hated looking at my ugly mug first thing every morning. Boot camp is one of those life experiences I never thought I’d find myself going through, and frankly neither did my family or friends. I wasn’t exactly the kind of person who liked following the rules or being told what to do. This is not a good trait to have as a bass trombone player, so I’m very thankful the Navy boot camp set me straight before I had to play in a professional section a couple months later.

The next two months would become the most miserable yet most memorable days of my life. From double days (48hrs of training with no sleep) to being tear gassed while our Petty Officers laughed behind a viewing window, to being fed a massive Thanksgiving meal then Intensively Trained until we puked because one member of our unit decided to get dessert. I remember the only things that got me through those 9 weeks were pictures of my family and a picture of my trombone (yep, that’s right) that I had taped up in my bunk. As a future musician in one of the Premier bands in DC, I was a rare recruit at boot camp, as were all my colleagues who were there with me, have been there before, and who will be there. Joining one of the Premier bands in DC is one of the few ways a US military recruit can shoot up the ranks the moment they graduate from boot camp. Everyone in the DC Bands comes out an E-6; for us that meant we were First Class Petty Officers. As cool as this was, this meant I had to actually stop acting like a child and grow up.

Once I left boot camp and joined the band in DC, I was eager to get to work. In fact, I’m probably the only person our Ceremonial Unit Leader has ever heard ask to be put on a funeral so I could get to work and start making music with my amazing new colleagues. For the next four years, I learned things, which cannot be taught in school. First hand professional experience is priceless! The bands in DC follow strict general military guidelines for all intents and purposes but once you get past being on time and looking clean cut in a uniform it truly is a fun and great place to be. Punctuality and cleanliness become almost subconscious habits that quickly define your practice discipline. I would arrive at rehearsal an hour prior to warm up just as I would arrive early to catch a bus to a day of ceremonial obligations that has become my routine and helped my preparedness for when I joined the Atlanta Symphony.

Aside from training in professionalism, the Navy Band was key in my development as a player. I was so green when I came in and learned countless lessons in musicianship and flawless performance from our Principal Trombone Jeffrey Knutson. These military bands are chock full of some of the best players in the country that require you to step up to their level or stick out like a sore thumb. I spent the entire four years there practicing to keep up with the best players in the DC bands. Even when I left I’m not quite sure I was successful in that endeavor. The guys and gals in each of those military bands are insanely talented musicians.

Performing as “professional last chair” in an orchestra can be very different to the same role in a band. For one, the size of each section is drastically different in each. In the Navy band we performed with anywhere from 4-6 trombones on stage, depending on the concert. In the ASO we use 3 trombones for most concerts. Having to perform with a larger number of players in your section means you have to blend more to perform as a single unit. Your volume has to match that of the other parts and your style must conform, further down the line, to present a singular product as a team. We would generally have two firsts, two seconds, and one on third. This often meant that I had to fill up my sound to try and match the breadth that two players could achieve. Though this task was near impossible, the process of it made me a better player. Having three players in a section, like in most orchestras, means you are given more of a solo role. Blend is equally as important but it’s different, in that each player is solely and completely responsible for the volume, color, and character of their part. Both roles can be a lot to juggle, but that is why rigorous auditions weed out the players capable of such complex multi-tasking.

An aspect of playing in a military band that does not exist in the orchestral world is the skills it takes to successfully perform all ceremonial obligations. Though this can be a repetitive job, it takes knowing your body and what you are capable of under different weather scenarios and levels of stress. I’ve had to perform ceremonies where the President’s face was so close to my bell that I had to lower my trombone as he passed so as not to clothesline him with my slide. I’ve had to perform on funerals for active duty sailors who passed long before their time. I’ve been within feet of grief stricken family members as we honor their fallen hero. All of this required a certain level of focus and concentration that one builds being thrown into these situations.

At times, we were required to perform memorized music in below freezing weather only wearing the equivalent of a business suit. One quickly learns shortcuts to being successful in these conditions from conveniently placed hand warmers to battery-powered mouthpiece heaters. A solid warm up can also go a long way when you have to sit for long periods of time and then perform a soft lyrical passage or even a loud march.

Wind Band music has its gems but it’s not the Mahlers, Brahms, and Bruckners I grew up dreaming of playing. Sure, we did transcriptions from time to time, but that’s roughly the equivalent to someone saying, “Here, this kind of tastes like Blue Bell ice cream, but it’s not.” It only makes you want it more. It’s this constant craving that kept me practicing my butt off to win an orchestral job.

After fours years of having this craving teased and treated by subbing with National Symphony, Washington National Opera, and Baltimore Symphony, I decided I had to win an orchestral job of my own. The timing of the end of my enlistment lined up almost perfectly with a vacancy in the Atlanta Symphony. In the Fall of 2013, I took on a very challenging and exciting new chapter of my life as a one-year sub with the ASO. Thankfully, my experience in the band prepared me for the level of professionalism and musicianship required of each member in Atlanta. In my new position, I was able to continue my lessons in these two areas through the guidance of my friends and section mates Colin Williams and Nathan Zgonc. These two guys showed me what it takes to win and maintain a professional orchestral position at the highest level.

In my year and a half with the Atlanta Symphony I have never once stopped enjoying the experience I have been fortunate enough to earn. The upsides are endless and the downsides (which I’ve yet to find) I’m sure can be counted on one hand.

In hindsight, I’ve learned from my time in the military band and ASO to keep your mind open, and your ears open wider! Never consider yourself “above” any job that opens itself to you, as some budding players seem to do with military bands and other non-orchestral gigs these days. Yes, you are locked in for a minimum of four years, it’s not an orchestra, BUT it is a learning experience and an amazing career with amazing players and people if you open your mind to the idea of something you had not yet considered. Allow where you are in life, to help prepare you for what you want in life. Anywhere you are, there are always lessons to be learned from someone who has been there before or is doing what you are, only better.

If you work hard enough and practice your butt off you may find yourself in either an orchestra or a military band someday. Don’t let that be the last success of your career. Always keep fighting and raising the bar in your practice. Don’t let the advancement of your playing and education of what’s great ever taper. Stay hungry for achieving a greater understanding of music and mastering your instrument.