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.
These notes are from the morning masterclass, Saturday Aug. 7th. In the evening we heard the first participant recital.
This morning's performers were:
Louise Bremer - Bach Sarabande, and excerpts
Sam Schlosser - Tomasi Concerto, Mvt 2 and 3
Paul Compton - Life Pictures by David Schipps
Weston Sprott - Crespo Improvisation No. 1
Stephen Lange - excerpts
Incidentally, before I begin writing up my notes, let me point out that these musical selections were the choice of the participants themselves, not assignments given by Mr. Alessi
- Joe noted that they asked for this solo in every round of the NYPO bass trombone audition because it showed a great deal about the players.
- He noted that there is a difference between somebody who just plays the notes and an artist.
- Be careful how you release the notes. As an analogy, he gave a demonstration where he shook the student's hand and then abruptly turned away.
- In the context of good note endings, he compared it to polishing something and then finishing it so you have nice sheen.
- "If you're going to take a breath, then the note before the breath needs to relax." In this instance, he was referring to quick breaths taken between phrases (as happens frequently in the Bach).
- He observed that one of the things he loves about music, especially with the breath, is figuring out a way to make it work, musically.
- If you really need to come up for air, why hold on to the preceding note for so long? Perhaps you can release it a bit sooner "then it becomes a less stressful event."
- The release of a note "shouldn't be like a karate chop."
- This piece has to be totally pure. The notes all have to be polished.
- Concerning the repeats, if an audition committee requires you to take the repeats, don't breathe in the same places on the repeat. Variety is good.
- As you play this slow chorale, think of the back beat to keep the time steady. "Concentrate always on the back beat."
- If you run out of air on the long note, keep up with the rhythm. Don't make the bar shorter.
- He did not feel that the bass trombone should crescendo to help the principal part as it ascends.
- He iterated the idea that he would rather hear somebody play the chorale very soft, possibly missing a note, than play it safe with a middle dynamic.
- In response to a question about whether one should use alto trombone when playing this excerpt in an audition, he advised against using alto. He cited the added problems of having to bring a second instrument to the audition and the difficulty of switching horns in the middle of a round.
- On hearing one note which flared just a bit, he reminded the student to "polish the note."
- The opening of the Tomasi Concerto (mvt 2) should be like a nocturne...not too loud, very peaceful, even on the high notes.
- Regarding the 'blues' section he said, "You don't want to make this sound like American jazz." he advised the student to keep it subtle and not add too many glisses.
- For the opening of movement three, he reminded the student to "keep it joyful."
- He talked about "launching" a new section with an energetic note (in other words, the last note of the trombone phrase which 'launches' the next passage for the orchestra/piano. He credited Sam Pilafian with this term.
- There's a lot of people with very powerful chops but sometimes they tend to lean on those chops too much.
- He repeated the oft-heard phrase, "Blow slower, aim lower."
- As a demonstration, he had the student purposely aim high on the first note and then repeat, aiming lower. He then demonstrated some pitch bending, trying to find the spot "where the room resonates." Later, he added that when you tend to blow things on the high side, "they tend to become a little diffused."
- Even in music that begins fast, still take a slow breath, if possible. Don't use a quick, tense breath.
- "Let that note sit down to where it resonates."
- Although I have avoided most embouchure comments in this blog, I will note that he advised several students during the seminar to say the 'M' when forming the embouchure.
- While doing some imitation work with the student towards the goal of a resonant tone, he said, "Try to get that sound out in the hall."
- Be careful not to ride on top of the notes with a fast air stream. Joe demonstrated by playing the solo from Rimsky Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture to show an easy, resonant sound.
- You need to spend a lot of time thinking about the ends of notes, not just the beginnings.
- In some lyrical pieces, composers will write many small slur groupings. Often it is better to play a long slurred phrase instead of trying to bring out the groupings.
- For soft attacks, he said, "Introduce the air very slowly into the instrument."
- For soft playing, he suggested practicing with no tongue. He loves when he is able to play really soft breath attacks.
- You don't want to use this 'no-tongue' approach in performance, just for practice.
- You've got to develop that suppleness and sensitivity that soft playing requires.
- Often, when presented with a forte-piano figure, it sounds better not to drop too quickly to the piano dynamic.
- In coaching, he often uses the phrase "be true to the music."
Health and Exercise
In a short question-and-answer session he was asked about physical exercise. When he can find a good pool, he likes to swim. At one point, he was swimming over a mile before he would go to rehearsals. He also likes jogging and cycling. Sometimes he bikes into New York City from his home. In college he did some weight-training and found that this made it much easier to hold the instrument.
He observed, "If you take care of your body, it's easier to play." He also noted that losing weight helps the breathing because there's less weight to lift when you're breathing in.
He commented that he would love to do one of these seminars when he was 70 years old but also stressed that he wouldn't keep performing recitals if he felt the quality of his playing was slipping. He also spoke about the importance of healthy diet.
In talking about the mental focus required for auditions, he referred to Olympic athletes training four years for a single event. He advised that it's not a good practice to go into an audition while having to deal with a lot of distractions. "Focus on the task at hand." He also advised, "One day at a time."
At the audition, he suggested that you should try to find a place to just be by yourself for a moment. "Hear the piece in your head before you perform." "Be in the moment."
He observed, "Playing a performance is like taking a journey." It may be a bit scary at first but you just move from point A to point B.
"Prepare and execute."
He noted that, in a performance something is always going to go wrong. That's normal. Just stay the course.
St. Sean Sym. No. 3
- He discussed the option of performing this excerpt without alternate positions as something worth considering. He recently performed this piece without using alternates.
- He reminded the student that it has to be exactly in tune. "You want maximum resonance on every note."
- Before you choose to play alternate positions, try it first with the main positions and make sure it is in tune before you add in the alternates.
- For this excerpt, it is best not to use vibrato or, at the very most, minimal vibrato.
- He asked the audience, "How many of you intimately know Schubert's Unfinished Symphony?" (only a few people raised their hands). He said this response made him sad since it is such a great piece. He raised this question in the context of praising the principal clarinetist of the National Symphony in a recording of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.
- There are a lot of pieces that are overly marked and might benefit from a simpler approach.
Also Sprach Zarathustra
(the fugue subject excerpt)
- Be very careful on the pitch of the notes following the opening D-A-D.
- It is not a weakness to put arrows in your part (for tuning)
- Rhythmically, this can be a problem in auditions. He demonstrated an interpretation which lingered too much on the half notes.
- He described Glenn Dodson (former principal trombonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra) as the "the most exciting playing I have heard in my life. Period."
- At one point he was teaching himself to relax and play no matter what came out.
- The student, a member of the St. Louis Symphony, described using 'little reminders' to help himself relax. He works to hear the orchestra sound in his head before he starts and likes to sometimes practice the excerpts with the recording.
- Joe noted that there are too many excerpt jocks out there who only know the excerpt and not the whole piece.
(the excerpt with the leap to high D)
- Remember that this appears in both the first and second trombone parts.
- It is best to slur to the high D if you can.
- If you do Bolero too many times without listening to the accompaniment, you don't really get it.
- He noted that the one thing he hates about the job is all the waiting the trombonists must do before coming in for an important passage. He compared this to a "field goal kicker waiting on the sidelines."
- One of Joe's favorite recordings of Bolero is Glenn Dodson's performance. The tempo was very slow, 58 1/2 (don't choose that tempo in an audition!). Joe was sitting next to Dodson during the recording session.
- Concerning the accented notes in the run, be sure to accent them equally, "6 on, 6 off." Be sure to really bring these notes out.
- In working with Dave Finlayson on this run, they decided that it wasn't necessary to use the same slide positions.
- Joe used to get together with a friend to play excerpts. He used the phrase "duets on the excerpts."
- He related a story in which Norman Bolter and his brother used to go out and face each other, standing at opposite sides of a field. In playing out, "have a target" that you practice at.