Recommendation, not Wreck-omendation

As the first one awake in my house this morning, I used some quiet time to catch up on emails and complete some recommendation letter requests that were hanging out in my email for a few days. This task always takes me back to my student days, and can also be a challenging exercise to say just the right thing amount a “recommendee” but not slather on the B.S. too thick. Since it was fresh in my mind, I shared some thoughts on asking for recommendation letters on the Trombone Pedagogy Facebook forum, and was asked to make it available for sharing outside of that membership. Since it has been some time since I blogged in earnest, let’s just count this as catching up! This is one of those little things that can make a big difference in creating opportunities — and a network — for yourself. It is also a lesson on how to present yourself with sincerity and professionalism. As always, this isn’t the “end all, be all” on this topic but worth reminding ourselves – and our students – of proper etiquette and making the best possible impression. Enjoy!!

As the time for recommendation letter requests is upon us — whether for college, grad school, summer festivals, etc — it is a terrific opportunity for students to remember (and teachers to remind) that proper etiquette when requesting a recommendation is not to be overlooked. HOW you ask says a lot about you, and can be the deciding factor on if the recommender agrees to write the letter or not — or worse, agrees to write it and forgets by accident or otherwise!! Now that seemingly everything is done through a web portal, it couldn’t be easier for students to get this right. Gone are the days of providing a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope, folks) and expecting it to be typed, printed, signed, and mailed. So, all the more reason to get your request right!

Here are a couple tips from personal experience on both sides:

1) Ask in person, or over the phone, or with a formal email. Texts are too casual and show that you don’t respect and value the recommenders time. Don’t have someone else (parent, teacher, etc) ask on your behalf. Put on your big person pants and ask for what you want directly. And stroke the ego…a little bit.

2) Ask early, and remind kindly. Don’t wait until a few days before the deadline, and also don’t be afraid to followup on your request with a kind reminder.

3) Ask for a recommendation from someone who KNOWS you or your playing well, rather than the big name you played for once. They may agree to do it, but it will be very general and vague. The reader can see through all that B.S. The longer your track record with someone, the better they can speak to your worth ethic, abilities, and character.

4) Tell the recommender what the recommendation is for and your goal for being admitted into whatever the program may be. The more specific details you have, the more specific the letter can be written to support YOU. Having some context gives the recommender direction in how to right the recommendation. A blanket request makes their job harder and will result in a vague, stock letter.

5) If you haven’t worked with the person from which you are requesting in a little while, take time in your request to remind them of your relationship, and perhaps a nugget of wisdom you learned from them. Re-establish a connection so that they feel compelled to write on your behalf.

6) Be prepared for a ‘NO’. Not everyone will feel compelled to write a recommendation for you. They may simply not have time, or feel that they do not know you well enough. Refer back to #3.

7) Be ready for acrobatics. I once had a teacher request that I come ‘audition’ for a recommendation, as they hadn’t heard me play in quite some time. At first, I was put-off, but realized that this was a good opportunity for me and that they were protecting their integrity.

8) Be prepared for the humbling act of writing your own recommendation for the recommender to sign. Unless you have a massive ego, this is a daunting task!

9) Say THANK YOU!!! Follow up a completed recommendation with a genuine “Thank you”, again, in the form of an email, phone call, or in person. If you care to go the extra mile, a small token of appreciation (bottle of wine, perhaps?) also makes it hard to forget you, and might make someone more amenable to writing for you in the future. Remember, they are putting their credibility and integrity on the line for YOU. Showing that it is appreciated and not taken for granted goes a loooooooong way.

Rookie Reckoning

While teaching at a brass camp this summer, a colleague implored me as to what advice I would give a young player starting out on their first orchestra job, straight out of school. It is safe to assume that a young player capable of winning an audition already knows how to play in tune, in time, with a great sound and characteristic style. However, what many young players don’t experience prior to starting a job is the crux of this entry. Since a new season is upon us with many folks starting their ‘gig’ for the first time, I thought it apropos to dust off the keyboard and share. Furthermore, considering that I recently wrapped up my 10th season with the Buffalo Philharmonic, and what I would call my 14th year of being a full-time professional, I’m giving myself license to comment!!

A young player coming straight out of school has enjoyed a peer group of their same age in ensembles their whole life. Granted, this may not be 100% of the experience, but the overwhelming majority of their experience is with tenacious, disciplined, “gung-ho” players of the same cohort. Of course, professional ensembles offer a much wider age demographic. For players starting out as professionals, this may be the first time – aside from some professors – that they have collegial interaction with someone outside of their peer group.

Why is this crucial to recognize? It is vital that freshly minted professionals realize their new colleagues are all at different stages of a career. Of course, this is not an excuse for a colleague to be “checked out”, but it is important for rookie colleagues to understand that – for several reasons – those around them are not as “gung-ho” as they themselves may be.

For some, just getting to the retirement threshold is the goal. None of us want to be the dead weight, but the ups and downs of a career, financial planning, and health issues can take away that choice. A senior colleague may be just as savvy and passionate as the new hire, but perhaps a physical ailment or limitation is keeping them from the same standard. And for many, the passion for playing may have already waned. While none of this is excusable by professional standards, it is very real in everyensemble and bound to create great frustration for the rookie colleague.

The new professional must also realize – or quickly will – that colleagues have lives outside of the orchestra. All of us have (or will) experienced a phase where the job defined and consumed us; practice, rehearsals, and concerts were LIFE! But, lives grow complicated and the job becomes a partof what we are, not the entirety. A house, marriage, divorce, kids, financial burdens, aging parents, sickness, etc. are life events that will unfortunately effect our presence, attitude, and performance at work. The sooner a young player accepts this with a sense of empathy, the better their experience and greater their value as a colleague.

By now it sounds like I’m trying to deflate the accomplishment and excitement around winning an audition and achieving gainful employment!! That is not the case at all, but rather to encourage an awareness of — and empathy with – those who may be your colleagues for decades to come. At some point, we are all on the two ends of this path, so it simply makes sense to have an appreciation for those around you.

How does one use this understanding for success? Be patient, know your role, be professional, and know when to express empathy or KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT! As a principal player, assume responsibility to help a struggling colleague. Perhaps offer to lead something another way, or spend some extra time during a break or after rehearsal to figure it out. Don’t make it about them – make it about your teamwork and the section as a whole. Perhaps asking if you can do something differently to make them more comfortable is one way to go, or simply leading with stronger visual cues. Part of the ‘Principal’ title is also nurturing your section, both on-stage and off. Look out for their best interests, and don’t hang them out to dry if you can help it. Some music directors will put the individual shortcomings of a section on the Principal, which is a difficult situation to be in, so learn to use diplomacy.

Personal anecdote: near the start of my career, I was playing Principal in a section with players in the twilight of their career. We were rehearsing Holst’s The Planets, and the chorale in Saturn was presenting a challenge. The soft chops just weren’t happening for my colleagues, and this distracted them from keeping the pulse. After a brief sectional, I decided to conduct each beat with my slide and boost the dynamic a bit. The conductor wasn’t pleased that we played louder (which was communicated to me via the Stink Eye), but seemed to let it go as the notes actually spoke and we were together.I could have abandoned my colleagues to play my musical ideal, but it would have sounded awful, been selfish, and made them feel worse.

As a section player, be a chameleon. Adapt your playing and use your ears. This is often a much more difficult position to be in than a section leader, as you have to be exponentially more flexible and play a supportive role. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘supportive’, however; it can often mean playing strongly and helping to fill in the gaps in playing around you. In particular, it is not uncommon for the 1st player to need a boost in the low range, or to coast a bit in a tutti passage. This is where you can step up your production a bit to help them out. The opposite may go for the lower voice in a section, where they may need some help in the upper register. Of course, this is a possibility of situations you may face, not a sweeping generalization.

In a wind or brass section, you are the only one on your part, so it is crucial you play confidently and be prepared for stylistic adjustments when required. It is your chair now, so play out and fill out the section sound – adjustments can only be made when you give it your all, rather than trying to hide. You may find yourself in a position where someone next to you is intimidated by, or seemingly over-controlling, of your playing. Try not to take it personally, but be amenable and realize that their work situation has also changed with you being the new person! Strive to play as your true self while also making them comfortable and not view you as a threat. Egos are fragile, as we all know, and sometimes it is simply out of your control.

On the flipside, don’t get played for a sucker! Know the part assignments and performance practice of your ensemble. Two examples from personal experience: Bizet’s Farandole soli is written in the Bass Trombone part, but some ensembles have the part switched with the 1st Trombone. If prior practice has been for 1st Trombone to play it, don’t shove it in the Bass Trombonist’s folder! Likewise, if the Bass Trombonist is accustomed to playing it, don’t take it from them. Be aware of the expectation, and try not to make waves — at least until you have tenure!

Second personal anecdote: many years ago I was playing Principal on Mahler 6. Some of you may know that there are 4 trombone parts, but only 3 trombones play the first three movements. The 3rd part is clearly a bass trombone part during the first 3 movements, then the 4th part is obviously the bass trombone part during the final movement. On the first day of rehearsal, the bass trombonist didn’t show up, later stating that, “We weren’t scheduled to rehearsal the fourth movement that day, and bass trombone only plays the 4th movement”. It was a foul-up that I could have avoided had I reviewed part assignments with the section, rather than assuming everyone knew their role. This person was just trying to get a day off, and my naiveté enabled it. Lesson learned, and we both looked like fools.

It would be easy to wax on and on about all the “do’s and don’ts” but for now, you can get the idea. It is important to remember that we are people first, musicians second, and instrumentalists third, so try to keep that in mind. Sometimes you’ll run into a colleague who simply doesn’t want consideration, either in the form of empathy or a relationship at all, and this should also be respected. Just like our families and communities have a variety of personalities, so does the orchestra.

For those rookies out there, congratulations and enjoy your first day on the job! It is a great feeling to be part of something bigger than yourself, and hopefully the magic “T”-word is right around the corner!


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.