Thursday, August 02, 2007

Alessi Seminar Notes, Day 4 (part 2) ... Singing in the Fast Lane

Please note:

These entries from the Alessi Seminar are not a literal transcript. I took written notes and then typed them up. I have made every effort to be accurate but, as you might expect, each blog entry is a meager substitute for actually being there.

Remember that many of the things Mr. Alessi says in these masterclasses are in the context of addressing the needs of a particular student and should not be seen as universal mandates to be mindlessly followed.

If you are serious about pursuing musical excellence on the trombone, there is no substitute for actually attending one of Mr. Alessi's seminars. You'll be glad you did.

The evening master class featured the following:

Adam Johnson - Jongen Aria and Polonaise
Daniel Brady - Vaughn Williams Tuba Concerto
Quartet (me, Josh Bynum, Sam Schlosser, Casey Thomas) - Apon, First Quartet
Orchestra Section - (Lange, Abissi, Rodriquez, Bremer and tuba, of course) -
Nielsen Great Symphony, Smetena The Moldau, Respighi Fountains of Rome

A lecture and Q&A session with Mr. Alessi.

Here are some observations. As before, I wasn't able to hear Danial Brady's performance and couldn't take notes when our quartet was playing.

  • When you have a repetitive figure, do something different on each repetition.
  • When sitting, place the stand so the slide isn't under the stand.
  • Joe held the student's fingers as if he were holding a trombone slide and then moved his hand to demonstrate a smoother slide action.
  • He described jaw vibrato as looking like a fish. Later he humorously that perhaps you could go out and buy a fish to help with jaw vibrato.
  • How to practice vibrato. I'm not completely sure I got this right but I think he said: practice undulating your jaw with a clear rhythmic pulse. (he demonstrates starting with quarters and then eighths and so on). Do a "mini-crescendo" on the quarters and eighths. When he gets to triplets, he starts undulating the jaw. By the time he gets to 16ths, it's just the jaw.
  • The most out-of-tune notes are the F and A-flat partials. (I believe he means the 6th and 7th partials. He would refer to partials by note name rather than number.
  • On syncopated passages he warned against the beat counting getting into the sound. He demonstrated, swelling the sound on each downbeat.
  • "We carry around this bag of silly stuff" In other words, we all have these bad habits that tend to stick around.
  • He again warned against "flaring" on the trombone. (A flare, is a sudden swelling in volume as a note is sustained, often as one is about to lead to another note. )
  • "If you want to show beauty, let it resound through the hall. Don't rush."
  • "Try to play in a simpler way."

Mr. Alessi finished the masterclass with a lecture and a question and answer session.

He began by reminding us that "Rhythm controls everything."

He told a great story about his early career and auditioning. What follows is a paraphrase, not a verbatim quote. I'll try to be as accurate as I can. Any other people who heard the lecture can correct me if I got something wrong:


He spoke about the time he began to get serious about winning auditions. After early success with the San Francisco Ballet while he was in high school (once he even asked the personnel manager if he could be excused to attend his prom) he described himself as "spoiled," believing that it would be easy to win the next audition.

He took a number of auditions in which he was not successful. In New Orleans, 120 people showed up. They had everyone warm-up in this big room. "The sound was like a nightmare, like a B-52." He went on to list a number of other auditions which were not successful.

Then he decided to get serious about winning an audition. He started recording myself. "That's when I discovered about rhythm and pitch." He observed that, if you go to a disco, you'll hear a strong beat (he demonstrate thumping a rhythm on the stage). He pointed out that you need that kind of strong internal rhythm. He demonstrates singing "Stars and Stripes" with perfect rhythm. He recalled that his father drilled that into him, tapping a pencil on the stand. He suggested that we all need to connect to something familiar (in other words, familiar music that has a clear pulse).

"At Juilliard, I make my students sing in lessons." He asked if you can't sing convincingly, how can you play convincingly. He recommended that we should conduct and sing. He feels that this kind of practice, without the instrument, is not done enough.

"For the brief time I was in Montreal (preparing for the New York Philharmonic audition), every day I would go down to the hall with my tape recorder and work on my rhythm."

He pointed out that preparation is the most important. Absolutely be prepared for anything you're going to do...an audition, a recital, whatever.

Concerning pitch:

He began by reminding us that, first, we have to understand the pitfalls, to understand the pitch tendencies of our instruments. He observed that, all around the world, he has to tell people the same notes are out of tune. He asks the audience, "Do you know why?" After a number of failed attempts at an answer, he provided the answer, "Finger on the bell."

He shared that another problem with pitch is that there's not enough singing that goes on. We don't sing enough. "I grew up in a house where everyone was singing."

He also suggested playing duets with yourself. Tape one part and then play with it.

He described the ideal pitch as being like "a train going down the track."

I raised my hand and got a chance to ask one of my "deep questions:" "When you play alone, should you temper notes like you do when you are playing chords in a section.

He thought for a moment and then replied that this question ran the danger of becoming paralysis by analysis. He pointed out that when he's playing, he just wants to sing and make it in tune. He doesn't want to analyze it that much.

He went on to point out that, if you have one note in a passage, like a D, that keeps coming back again and again, you need to return to the same note. Sometimes, he draws brackets in his music connecting pitches so he can make them in tune.

Going on...

He reminded us that if you're in high school or college, now is the best time to practice. When you get out, you're going to have to make living and that will cut into your practice time.

He recommended that, every day, you should visit the standard books: Arban, Schlossberg, Remington. In other words, visit the fundamentals every day.

"There's no point in practicing when you're not focused." 45 minutes is a good amount of time. While resting, he used to practice the piano. After visiting the studies, he recommended that we practice etudes. He mentioned playing Bordogni vocalises in 4 registers and Blazhevich etudes. He suggested we might follow etudes with work on solos and excerpts.

He recalled that the most fun he had listening to repertoire was when he was very young, maybe 13. His father had albums he would listen to. He got the Chicago Symphony excerpt record and would dream of doing that. He observed how now Jay Friedman calls him and wants to get together to play golf. "I never imagined when I was looking at those record covers that that would happen someday. It's like a dream come true."

He stressed the importance of learning the repertoire. The best way to do that now is iTunes. "Put all your favorite things on an ipod and listen all the time. "

When he was in San Francisco and Philadelphia, he would go to orchestra concerts every single week. "We were enthusiastic." After the concert was over, he would always go backstage and congratulate the section.

About jazz:

"I'm listening more and more and finding out what jazz players do rhythmically." Recently Robin Eubanks called him and wanted to get together to play. "That's the great thing about New York, there are all these great players." He told a story of how he and Robin Eubanks got together and played along with the Aebersold accompaniments. He quoted Eubanks, "Jazz is like a language. You have to learn the language." For Christmas he received the Columbia JJ Johnson collection and keeps it in his car. "I love JJ Johnson. That is pure jazz." He observed that he would like to start transcribing solos.

He feels that practicing jazz does help his playing, especially in the brass quintet. On a recent NYPO brass quintet tour, they played a number of pop tunes. He shared with us that Phil Smith loved playing the Johnson Rag. When he got back, he couldn't get it out of his head.

With respect to recital programming, he said the he looks for a great opener. He also shared that you don't want a recital to be too long, especially a trombone recital. He recommend an optimal length of 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours.


About finding time to practice in a busy schedule:
Every year, he takes time to clean up his studio. During the year, rushing to and from gigs, he doesn't have time to put his music away. So once a year, he resets, puts everything away and gets organized.
Every piece he's doing, he puts into a blue bound folder which he carries with him. He noted tht sometimes he is carrying around several of these blue folders in his case. This way he has the music available to practice whenever there is time. "Being organized with your music is important." He pointed out that orchestra tours are a great time to practice because there's so much downtime. He pointed that sometimes they all are fighting over good spaces in which to practice while on the road.
He ended with a great quote (I hope I got it right)

"It's just sing, sing, sing, sing, sing. That's life in the fast lane."


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