A Musician’s Life – some working insight

Recently, I reached out to my FaceBook friends for help preparing upcoming lectures I am presenting regarding the personal aspects of being an orchestral musician. Some rather interesting questions poured in, most of which I will incorporate into my lectures next week. However, one batch of extensive, specific questions came in from a young trombonist I met while visiting Baylor University several years ago as a guest artist. Jacob Small is a talented young man who is now pursuing his DMA at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I think you’ll agree that these are some tough questions! I figured this would make a good blog post, so here we go!

How did your practice change from before your gig to after winning your gig?

This is a multi-pronged answer.

1) Winning an audition gives you confidence and a sense of validation. Everything you invested in pays off in a very measurable kind of way: employment! However, there is still so much growth that should continue to happen, which leads me to…

2) My practice became about bettering myself as a trombone player, which in hindsight was misguided. I falsely convinced myself that I needed to become more accurate, consistent, and virtuosic as an instrument operator, when in reality, I needed to become a better listener, story-teller, and interpreter. It took a few years to realize this, and several poor audition performances, until…

3) I invested in musical voice. I decided to play repertoire I wanted to play, and not repertoire that was popular, or that I thought I should play. For example, I started working on more song cycles and gave up on Pryor. The songs spoke to me, therefore motivated me, while the Pryor pieces just seemed to be technical exercises and a basis to compare trombone-operation to others. I also used the stability of my position to explore bass trombone, which I had spent a year on in college. Having several opportunities to ‘slide over’ (nyuk nyuk) in the orchestra eventually led to me becoming Acting Bass Trombone for two years, and also gain several other opportunities outside of the Buffalo Philharmonic.

(Post-publication edit: I believe it is imperative to continue taking lessons after winning a job. Winning a job makes you an expert on very little — continuing to gain experience, knowledge, and skill are necessary. Growing as a musician keeps you fresh!)

What is a common piece of advice given to young musicians you think is false?

“Take any gig you are offered.” Sometimes it’s just not worth it, or you end up de-valuing yourself. Experience is tremendously important, but sometimes the job itself can be damaging – physically and/or mentally!

How do you keep excerpts (as a student) fresh and how do you keep daily orchestra rehearsals and music (as a professional) fresh and exciting?

The temptation with excerpts is to “run them” over and over again, when they deserve to be broken down into simpler steps. Often, breaking them down into simpler patterns or motifs proves to be more mentally engaging! I further believe that not enough attention is paid to the origin of the excerpt and it’s musical significance. At some point we’ve all been guilty of this, as it is part of the learning process, but…if you can find what makes it tick, and in turn, how that makes you tick, then you have something musically engaging which with to work. I don’t believe that can ever get old, as long as you take some breaks (even years!) and are well-rounded in your overall practice.

As for daily orchestra rehearsals and music, the honest truth is that sometimes it really does feel like a job. You have little say in WHAT is played, and often, HOW it is played. That being said, you learn to listen to different areas of the orchestra and incorporate your practice goals into the job. I often work on air attacks during rock/pop shows or anything else where we just play whole notes. For the last few years, I’ve been working on efficiency and trying to keep the ‘song’ in what I’m playing, not just operating the trombone. I will freely admit that I don’t always succeed!

When you have a busy schedule, what things in your practice session don’t make the cut and why?

A full warm-up/maintenance routine is the first to go. Sometimes the time just evaporates (my fault, usually) or I am too physically tired. Any professional musician with children can attest to being tired, or lacking sleep! When it’s a fatigue-inducing week, I try to focus on staying supple through soft playing, and keeping my best sound going as simply as possible.

One thing that time and experience will teach you is what you need to do to be comfortable and ready to play. In general, 10-15 minutes is all I need to be ready for rehearsal or a concert. I don’t like to depend on this, but sometimes there are other factors that determine your schedule. Sick kid? Dog won’t come back inside? Decided to clean your slide and the cleaning rod got stuck? Forgot your music at home? Yeah, it can happen.

Any advice on avoiding work place conflict?

This is a tough topic. We wrap our egos so completely in our playing and musical personalities, and most of these egos are super-fragile. It’s not a job we just execute between 9-5, but rather one that we allow (sadly) to define us as people. We all hear the horror stories of people not getting along, sitting next to each other for decades and not speaking.

As a student and rookie professional, I never understood how this could happen, but after a decade of being a professional, I do now. Learning to respectfully disagree is an invaluable skill, and having tact goes a long way! The best advice I can give is to remember why you got into this field, and try to keep that at the forefront of your thoughts when things get tense. Everyone needs the benefit of the doubt sometimes, but like one of my mother’s refrigerator magnets states: “When people show you their true colors, believe them.” Sometimes you just need to steer clear.

What mental preparation did you find most helpful and which did you find have the adverse effect?

Zero mental preparation has the most adverse effect! I’ve gone through different waves of self-doubt, overconfidence/hubris, and being ‘in the zone’. The best audition I ever played followed a 10-day orchestra tour. I had little time and space to play the trombone, but I had many hours on a tour bus. I had my sheet music, recordings, a tuner, and my headphones on that bus, and would mentally perform each excerpt. I used the tuner to see if I could ‘pluck’ the first note of the excerpt out of thin air. Great practice!

Nerves have been an off/on issue for me since graduate school. The funny thing is that recitals and most solo performances don’t bother me. Auditions are another story. I played some very confident, in-control auditions circa 2009-2011 – everything before and after that was pretty shakey. I could get into all sorts of reasons why, but in order to stay relevant to your question, I believe it’s because I was trying to prove something to myself. As a student and rookie professional, I was trying to prove that I belonged. As an experienced orchestra player and auditioner, I was trying to prove I was still relevant! During that golden period, I was just trying to play great music. We can be our own worst enemies, and there are so many wonderful resources for working through this: Bulletproof Musician, Don Green, Jeff Nelson, etc.

For me, feeling passionate about the music and having the absolute commitment to every detail is the key. Excerpts still provide a challenge, as frankly, I don’t like some of them!

What do you feel solo repertoire/recital rep accomplishes in the grand scheme of audition preparation?

Learning to play with style. Also, the practice of performing. As previously stated, I have a much easier time with recitals than auditions. I believe this is because I choose my recital repertoire; it is not dictated to me. The trick is to carry that over to the excerpts!

Do you have any tips for a young musician doing the “real person/out of school thing” especially if they haven’t won any jobs yet?

You must be creative about finding performance/teaching opportunities that not only pay, but also challenge you to improve. While freelancing in Chicago, I kept a journal in my car and would write down every church, retirement community, school, or other possible gig/teaching location that I could pitch a performance or my pedagogical services. My quartet was a tremendous resource for me — Tim Higgins, Tim Owner, Chris Davis, then Steve Menard. On that note, be in a serious chamber ensemble. Holding each other to high standards is extremely beneficial, and great preparation for section playing!

You must be extremely proactive about finding/creating opportunities for mock auditions, substitute work, band director networking, chamber music, and lessons. This is where most people with talent fail, as they expect that opportunities will arrive because they are good at the instrument. Doesn’t work that way.

What role has the quality of your sleep played in your performances?

You don’t realize how important sleep is until you have kids. You also don’t realize your capabilities on little sleep until you have kids! Honestly, I try not to think about it. If I allow myself to be enslaved to sleep or lack thereof, it becomes a distraction. 7.5 hrs is ideal for me, which nowadays, is pretty regular. But, even a 10 minute power nap an hour or two before concert time can be a real boost.

What purchase ($100 or less) has effected the quality of your life the most (music or otherwise)?

Ummmm…

1) First retirement account contribution. I know it’s a repetitive ‘purchase’, but get one going now! It’s harder the longer you wait. (also one of my best lessons from Charlie Vernon)

2) New socks. I love how amazing a new pair of socks feels. My wife can verify my love of new socks.

3) Date night. Gotta make time for quality time with my wife, Danielle, as we are the foundation of the family and keepers of each others happiness.

What is your most gifted book?

Gotta admit, I don’t read much anymore. Well, I never really read a ton, but if there is one book I could come back to every week it would be “Zen in the Art of Martial Arts” by Joe Hyams. So many literal applications to what we do. I also love anything WWII.

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Vocal repertoire revisited

A few years ago, I asked Dr. Cory Mixdorf (University of Arkansas) to write a guest blog for me based on a clinic he did regarding the preparation and performance of vocal repertoire. It is a rather thoughtful, convincing article that you can read here to get up to speed. I have been wanting to add my thoughts to this for quite some time, not only to reinforce Dr. Mixdorf’s points, but also add a few of my own.

It has always seemed to me that there are two ‘dug-in’ camps regarding the performance of vocal repertoire on trombone. One side says “Why bother? You can’t hear the words anyway. We have enough trombone repertoire from which to choose.” The other side — to which I heartily subscribe — says “Of course we should play vocal repertoire! We are a vocal instrument and this repertoire offers wonderful study and value regardless of missing text.”

I’m not here to say that I am right and you are wrong, but I would argue that there is a tremendous amount to gain from the study and performance of art songs, lieder, arias, folk tunes, and even Broadway/film melodies. First of all, the overall caliber of composer and wealth of compositions in the vocal repertoire is far superior to that of the trombone catalog. Granted, we have some wonderful repertoire, but nothing that truly compares to Brahms, Schubert, Vaughan-Williams, Butterworth, Faure, Rachmaninoff, etc. We often fall into a trap as instrumentalists — especially brass players — of studying “Grade B” or lesser music. There is a place for it, and what I call Grade B might be your A+ prime, and vice versa, but we as a subculture too often get caught up on a trending composer or style that offers little aside from technical display. I’m not going to name names, and I’m sure we are all guilty of it, but there is that “bandwagon” repertoire from which can be challenging to break away. The masters who have set text to song offer something deeper for both the performer and audience to experience.

Furthermore, study of vocal repertoire directly benefits study of other repertoire, be it solos, etudes, or excerpts. Not only does the vocal approach help transport you out of the mindset of instrument operator, but seeing the direct relationship between text and compositional technique can greatly broaden your perspectives on non-vocal works. For example, Schubert’s “Der Atlas” from his Schwanengesäng cycle correlates to moments in the trombone solo from Mahler’s Third Symphony — at least to me. It is quite strong, forte playing that demands full, broad sound but also crystal clear articulation and direction of phrasing. It is frighteningly easy to lose control of sound and go BLASTO in both of these works, but the vocal concept greatly aids in avoiding this.

Along a similar veign, “Let Beauty Awake” from Vaughan-Williams Songs of Travel yields this lovely legatissimo, flowing style yet with a demand for clear articulation on repeated notes that helps me set the right mindset for the solo from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. Rather than just trying to play great trombone technique and sound, one must become a vocalist. To me, that is a much more daunting task if one avoids the vocal repertoire! Put another way, give yourself the opportunity to break free of instrument operator.

The compositional and music theory aspect also play a role. Experiencing the direct correlation between text and compositional device greatly influences how we choose to play a phrase. When I prepare a song, I’m not just looking to play my best legato and make it all sound like a Bordogni. I analyze the chord qualities, differences in repeated text or compositional material, and generally how the composer conveys or supports the text through the notes. How do these qualities effect my musical interpretation and technical execution? Thinking this way opens up more possibilities and can offer more clarity of interpretation when you adapt this to non-vocal repertoire. Suddenly, the first page of the Ropartz, or Jongen, or Martin become something greater than a technical achievement.   I realize that without scanning exact examples of harmonic progressions, rhythmic devices, etc, it is difficult to point out exact places — perhaps in a future installment.

The last point I want to make relates to articulation. As trombonists, we tend to focus on either marcato or legato. So much of what we do is one or the other! However, I’ve always found that vocal repertoire demands much more nuance and exploring the “gray areas” in between marcato and legato. By studying the text and composers markings, we can adapt a more linguistic approach to playing. You make find yourself breaking written slurs in order to emulate the enunciation of a syllable, or using a firmer legato tongue than natural. This is great! It is rare that our trombone repertoire challenges us to make these decisions and employ such nuanced gradations of articulation. Embrace it, experiment with it, and carry it over to other repertoire.

OK, this is my last, last point. Listen to singers. Get multiple recordings. Follow the piano score. Be curious.

 

Double, double toil and…trouble?

Lately, the topic of doubling has proliferated trombone social media sites and seems to be a more common practice than it has been in years past. Or perhaps the information super-highway (and my own naivety) makes it seem that way. The most viewed post on this entire website is the survey I conducted a few years ago on orchestral trombonists who double (and often triple) as part of their jobs. Over the past few years I have visited many universities, and am often surprised — for the better and sometimes worse — by how many young players are working on two instruments: primarily tenor and bass.

My personal experience has taught me that doubling can be an extremely healthy practice. As a tenor player, I started dabbling with the alto my senior year of high school. After a severe case of Bells palsy during college, I moved to bass trombone for a year as that was the only register I could play! That entire story is here. As an example from the physical perspective, playing bass trombone helps my air and often extends my endurance. Playing alto trombone makes me focus my buzz and be more cogniscent of pitch. Mentally, switching between instruments demands that I preconceive my sound and style concepts before taking the first breath. In the orchestra, I’ve discovered that I listen in different ways depending on which chair I’m playing, and which instrument I’m using. More on that in a future blog post.

All that being said, I pose that there is also a danger in practicing a double too soon in ones development. It is this authors opinion that all too frequently, there is not enough focus on primary instrument fundamentals. Hear me out before you pounce (as some people did on my “Excerpts: teaching to the test” blog). There is a standard of fundamentals that I feel many people do not achieve before adding doubles to their plate. Concept of pitch, time/rhythm, sound, and articulation are frequently suspect. I’ve heard many collegiate level players on both instruments, with significant flaws in one or more of those categories. My concern is that the double is serving as a distraction, while the development of these skills on ones primary instrument should be of more concern. To me, establishing great control of these fundamentals on one horn is better than mediocrity on a few. The phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind.

Once you establish a solid sense of pitch, you can carry it to any instrument. Same with time/rhythm. Articulation can offer more challenge, as the degree to which one engages the tongue can change instrument to instrument. Sound concept could be the topic of a completely separate blog, but it is this authors opinion that one must spend concentrated time understanding and developing the specific sound qualities associated with each trombone.

So when is the appropriate time to add a double? That really has to be up to the individual player. Some considerations:
– Can you continue to develop and maintain the aforementioned skills while adding more instruments to your practice?
– Can you afford the equipment?
– Do you have a teacher/colleague who is knowledgeable on the double, or another readily accessible resource?
– Are your role models and sound concepts firmly established?
– Is there a professional obligation or incentive to add a double?
– Are you willing to steal practice time from your primary to develop a double?
– Similarly, are you willing to accept that adding more instruments to your plate MAY result in not reaching the highest level possible on your primary? 

This last question leaves room for debate. I myself could argue that doubling on bass trombone has significantly improved my tenor playing, but then again, the time I spent developing bass trombone skills could have been spent practicing tenor. Determining which route would have had more benefit is impossible, but for me, developing the double opened up many more opportunities professionally, and quite frankly, has been more enjoyable.

Once the practice of doubling has begun, I firmly believe in spending time “paying your dues”. If you are serious about your playing, you have already spent significant time with tuning drones, a tuner, a metronome, and a recorder. So why not do the same with your double? The more refined your ear is from developing those skills on your primary instrument, the easier and less time-consuming this should be on your double(s). However, I feel many people simply pick up the double and start playing repertoire, which can leave large gaps in your playing. If you’ve done all your warm-up and maintenance practice on tenor, then suddenly just pick up the Wagenseil Concerto on the alto, you’ll probably sound like a tenor. You can certainly work towards establishing the ability to switch quickly, but pay your dues in the practice room first!

On that note, Colin Williams of the New York Philharmonic recently posted a wonderful video where he discusses and demonstrates how he stays in shape on all his doubles. I like that he talks about doing some of the same exercises on each horn, so that there is overlap. I believe the overlapping exercises also help identify the differences between instruments, and how one compensates for — or accentuates — those differences. He also directly addresses the change of air and concept between horns. Too often, I feel young players don’t spend the time adequately develop this, and end up subconsciously making the same sound on each instrument.

Let me be clear that my intention is not to discourage anyone from the practice of doubling, but rather give serious consideration to how they practice doubling. As with all my blogs, I am not professing to be an expert. I only hope to encourage more careful consideration when it comes to taking on the responsibility of a double.

This season, I am moving over to the Bass Trombone chair, as Jeff Dee assumes his new post in Pittsburgh. While I have been filling in as needed on bass trombone for years, the idea of doing it full time was a bit scary when I was first approached. I have to give so much more consideration and preparation to everything I play in that position, not to mention filling Jeff’s shoes is an imposing task! However, I quickly found confidence in the fact that my concept of bass trombone is rather strong. I credit that to the years I spent hearing some of the best players, both in my education and professional life. Sitting next to Jeff for 7 years created a solid concept, plus having such influential teachers (Randy Hawes and Charlie Vernon) established a sound in my head long before I began playing bass trombone in the orchestra. One of my next posts will include observations from playing the different chairs in the orchestra over the past few years. It really keeps things fresh and educational!

 

Sub Standards

This entry is the culmination (thus far!) of a decade of experience working with orchestras and chamber groups alike, both as a full-time member and substitute player. While I do not profess to be an expert, there are many things I have learned along the way and feel worth sharing in this installment. At some point, each one of us has — or will — walk the narrow path that is subbing in an ensemble. It is a skill that demands sensitivity not only as a musician, but also as a person, and is too often overlooked in our formal education.

In gathering my thoughts for this post, I considered the position of both the substitute and the full-time player. They are two unique standpoints that can vary as much as the personalities that occupy these roles, and it is easy to lose sight of the others perspective. Subbing with many top orchestras around the country, and also hosting subs next to me in my own orchestra, has forced me to consider these unique perspectives in order to make the most positive situation possible – both in terms of camaraderie and musical product. Horror stories about the treatment of subs, and likewise, horror stories of substitutes behavior, are great entertainment for the post-concert beer amongst friends, and can be hilarious! However, you never want to be one of the antagonists in that story!

For starters, you want to build relationships and make sure people in the position to hire you know you and your playing. Many people simply send a form email to Personnel Managers, stating they are available and would love to play, then attaching their resumé. Nice idea, right? Not really. The people making the hiring decisions are the sections themselves, and often the Principal player. They are the ones who tell the Personnel Manager whom to call, and if they don’t know you or are unfamiliar with your playing, why would they call you?! There are plenty of impressive resumés out there, but a resumé doesn’t say how you play or if you are an astute, adaptive player and respectful, attentive colleague. Contact the section or individual player and let them know you are interested in subbing. Better yet, ask them how to get on the substitute list. Even better, ask for a lesson. A lesson not only demonstrates your playing, but how flexible and easy to work with you are. Be prepared to pay for the lesson – in fact, ask up front how much their fee is. Never expect anything from anyone for free, and always be prepared to pay in cash. Now and then, someone will cut you break, which often means they like you 😉

So, let’s imagine you’ve been contracted to substitute with an orchestra. It doesn’t matter if it is the Chicago Symphony or a part-time regional group; there are certain rules of professionalism to which one should adhere. This may seem obvious, but make sure the schedule is correct. Communication can easily be obscured, and no one can fault you for double- and triple-checking the dates/times. Even if a miscommunication is someone else’s fault, you will be the one with pie in your face if you get it wrong. Plus, schedules (especially rehearsal schedules) can change last-minute, so be savvy and make sure you have the right information.

Secure music in advance, and if you are using your own, make sure it’s the correct edition! With the proliferation of music on the internet, there is almost zero excuse for unfamiliarity. Most music libraries will happily send you scans if you are geographically unable to pick up the folder. Kindly send them an email, tell them you are subbing, and ask if it’s possible to have music emailed to you. In the event that it is a thick book (ie Pops show), they may be too busy to make all those scans. At minimum, secure the repertoire list and listen to the tunes. Odds are that most of the players in the orchestra will have only scanned through their folder, or even be sight-reading, but guess what? You don’t want to be that person – especially as a sub!

Make sure you have the proper equipment. Find out what kind of mute the section prefers, and do your best to get one. At least ask if there is one to borrow.  Some orchestras are militant about using particular mutes (usually the ones that pay more) so go the extra mile and get the right gear. At least you can use it again, plus it is a tax write-off! Also, depending on the repertoire, you may be asked to scale down to a smaller instrument, or even play an orchestra-owned instrument. If you think this may be a possibility (ie Mozart mass, Beethoven, Schubert, etc), contact the Principal and ask.

Attire: if you are going to be a professional musician, dress like it. Sure, most of us have nasty, yellow pit-stained tux shirts, but you don’t see that from the audience! The audience will, however, see the ratty shoulder stitching on your tails, or if you are wearing black Velcro sneakers rather than proper dress shoes. You don’t have to wear Hugo Boss, but you do need appropriate attire. Also, when it comes to tuxedoes, make sure you double- and triple-check if it’s black tux or tails – and bring the appropriate bow tie. Many orchestras have a different dress code depending on day of the week, type of service, and time of the concert. The Personnel Manager should send you this information, but again, double-checking saves you embarrassment.

Arrive early and be warmed up. This gives you time to double-check music, scope out the venue, and generally get comfortable. Plus, it also assures your temporary colleagues that you appreciate the opportunity and take it seriously. Arriving 5 minutes before a service means you don’t “have it together” and this can make your colleagues stress out. Even if your playing is stellar, being undependable will keep you from coming back!

Feeling comfortable and at ease is great – but, don’t get too comfortable. You will undoubtedly hear comments, jokes, and gossip that may sound inviting for you to jump in and add your thoughts. Unless you have a secure, established history with your colleagues, don’t do it! Remember that these folks have earned their place in the ensemble, and a familial environment – albeit dysfunctional at times – has developed over years. You may hear someone make an off-color remark about another colleague at some point. Leave it be! This is where being a person with common sense and consideration comes into play. Some sections/orchestras are pretty stuffy, and create an “all business” environment. Other places are on par with kindergarten recess. Be sensitive and know your place.

Do no damage. This should actually be Rule #1 in a subbing situation. Do not draw attention to yourself. Don’t hang over on cutoffs, don’t play louder than the guy next to you, and adjust pitch to the ensemble – even if they are playing sharp or flat! A phrase that comes to mind is “When in doubt, leave it out!” and it has kept me from stepping in holes on several occasions. Most folks will appreciate you applying discretion rather than trying to be the hero. The ‘do no damage’ principal also applies to non-playing aspects, such as talking, dropping mutes, creaking chairs, and loudly turning pages.

Be a chameleon. Listen. Adapt. Adjust. If the player next to you is playing longer note lengths, adjust. More front to notes, adjust. Zippier or warmer sound, adjust. Etc etc. I’ve always been amazed at the number of fantastic instrumentalists who don’t use the most important tools we have: EARS! Avoid being so set in your ways that you can’t adapt. This is part of being a musician.

Have a pencil.

If you are in need of feedback, don’t ask, “How am I doing?” but rather, “Can I do anything differently for you?” or “Does that feel comfortable for you?” Avoid inviting criticism, but show you are considerate and flexible. “How am I doing?” makes you sound unprofessional and unsure of yourself, as well as thinking selfishly. The other questions show a team attitude and confidence that you can adapt.

One of the best compliments you can get is from a member of another section. “Your section (or you) sounds great!” is a nice one to get, especially considering that most of our egos are terribly fragile. When someone goes out of their way to compliment you, they usually mean it. Say “thank you”. Of course, the supreme compliment is being invited back.

Added after original publication, courtesy of Ken Wolff:

Spending more of my time teaching young eager students than subbing myself, these additional comments are more for the inexperienced player who may be offered chances to sub early in their career. I would add just a few additional comments if I may for those young players specifically.

Be gracious and appreciative of the opportunity and keep your opinions to yourself. Your suggestions are not welcome unless solicited and still you should be careful here. If you have traveled to play, don’t expect to be entertained by your section mates during off hours. If they invite you to hang out by all means do so but don’t intrude. They have lives to attend to. And finally, personal hygiene is very important. Not only should your attire be clean, so should you.

 

Play what you love

A couple weeks ago, I had the honor and pleasure of being a featured guest artist at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. Hosted by the gracious Dr. Mark Hartman and his enthusiastic studio of 20-something trombonists, I was treated to some soul-cleansing experiences in my masterclass, piano rehearsal and recital with the fabulous David Heinick, and in private lessons with some of the students. On my 5-hr drive back to Buffalo, I kept catching myself humming and whistling some of the tunes from my recital. This is a bit abnormal, as usually when I finish a program, I put it out of my head and move on to the next project. I tend to program each recital from scratch rather than recycle most of the program, so my preparation is fairly involved starting a few months out. Hence, I’m usually ready to “turn the page”, so to speak.

However, this time was different. The melodies from my program have been sticking with me. The answer can really be found in the reason I chose these works to begin with: I LOVE THIS MUSIC!! I usually program music that I at least like, so why, this time around, are the melodies still welcome in my head after the performance is over?

As students and professional musicians, the bulk of our repertoire is chosen for us: by our teachers, our music directors, the contractor, etc. It is our job to bring these works to life, and we must take the role of an actor in sound, regardless of if we like the part or not. A great musician can do just that. But aside from a very select few soloists and chamber musicians, most of us do not get to choose the repertoire we perform. Even in many solo situations, the soloist does not have carte blanche over the choices, whether it’s a student programming a degree-required recital, a soloist with an orchestra/band, or someone hired to perform a specific type of music for a specific audience.

When I am engaged to play a recital at a university, I think about what the students will enjoy, what I enjoy, and to what music they should be exposed. As an undergraduate at Ithaca College, I was quite fortunate to hear many guest artists. It was also the height of popularity for a few certain pieces (Ewazen and Sulek Sonatas, in particular) that EVERYONE was playing — students, teachers, and guest artists alike. While I love these works, there is such a thing as overkill! For my programming, I almost always ask the hosting professor what compositions have been very popular within the studio and amongst guest artists. I then avoid these works, as we don’t need to hear more of it when there are so many other great pieces! I also have to consider what pieces can be put together rather easily with an accompanist on one rehearsal, so that rules out quite a few works, as well. Finding the balance between music that is rewarding for myself and the listener but also can be put together with a total stranger in a relative short amount of time can offer quite a challenge. There are plenty of works I would absolutely love to play that need more than a 1-hour piano rehearsal to make a program feel at least somewhat comfortable. So, I usually start with a long list of works I love (sometimes it’s the equivalent of 3-4 recitals!) and whittle it down based on practicality, audience, and rehearsal time.

Where we often run into trouble when programming a solo performance is choosing music we do NOT love. Often, there are pieces we think we should play because they are a staple, or because someone we admire recorded it, or because we may eventually need it for a contest or an audition. I think it’s safe to assume we’ve all been in this position. In my travels, I hear many young players who play a solo for me, but they clearly are not into the piece at all.  My question is, why waste your time?  Sure, there are pieces we all should know to some degree — David, Hindemith, Grondahl, Dufaye, etc — but there seems to be arbitrary reasoning for choosing to practice and perform much of the repertoire. Again, I must assert that whatever we play, we must sell it like we love it. However, it’s tough to do that when one rarely has the chance to perform what they truly love.

Perhaps there is also a learning curve involved. Since the goal (and job) is to play any given piece like it is the “Holy Grail” of compositions, we should have the experience of playing works about which we truly feel that way! It is essential to have the experience of playing music we have chosen because we love it.

I acknowledge and respect the fact that we must all be introduced to the “standards” during our study, and ideally, work them up to some degree of proficiency. However, what I do not advocate is playing them arbitrarily, or because they are determined — often by a teacher or other outside factor — to be the next logical course of study.  My love-hate relationship with the David rests on this principle. I began working on this piece at a musically immature phase of my development, and I played it because a classmate played it and I thought I had to be able to do it, too. I was not obsessed with the piece, was not listening to it non-stop and whistling the themes walking between classes, as I usually do when obsessed with a piece.  Looking back, I approached it very much like a technical study. Any time I’ve had to prepare this work for an audition, it has been a chore. I don’t love it, and the challenge is to sell it like I do!

Humorous anecdote: the day I received tenure in the BPO, I actually went home and burned my copy of the David in the grill. No joke. It felt so good to watch those old demons go up in flame.  But, I subsequently felt guilty and knew that I should at least have the music in my library, so I ordered a new, “clean” copy…..wah wah.

Anyway, back to my point. While the idea is to love (or at least fake) any piece we play, this author feels we should at least start by playing the things we truly love, and studying those that we don’t. Many folks out there discourage playing art songs as legitimate performance pieces. Why?? They are some of the BEST repertoire we can play as instrumentalists, as they teach us to sing through the instrument and find a way to express the emotion of the text through sound color, intensity, articulation, nuance, etc. [Another blog post on this topic is coming…]. I’m saddened when I see people only performing repertoire written for the trombone, as while there is plenty of it, it limits exposure to truly great music, and tends to be a dogmatic approach to programming.

The moral of my long-winded post: play what you love! Embrace it, even if what you love is not the ‘standards’, and play them like there’s nothing else you’d rather play.

Closing anecdote:

When I auditioned for Ithaca College as a senior in high school, I visited Hickey’s Music Center. I purchased Christian Lindberg’s “Romantic Trombone Concertos” CD and immediately started listing on the drive home. After hearing the Gunnar de Frummerie “Sonata”, I was head-over-heels in love with the piece. I called Hickey’s as soon as the CD played through and asked them to pull the sheet music and tell me the range. My heart sank when I was dealt the news, as I knew it was over my head technically. That didn’t stop me from buying the piece and tinkering with it from time to time, and eventually (about 10 year later) even performing some of it. My love of the piece fueled me to work on the technical challenges in a musical way, and I eventually became pretty comfortable with it. Now that I’m thinking about it, I should go pull it out of the stacks again….

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!