Monday, February 27, 2006

Themes Bubbling to the Surface

What? Two blog entries in a single day? Astounding.
Each semester I teach, it seems that I find myself repeating ideas in different lessons. Enough repetitions and the idea takes on the aura of a theme.
Starting the semester is always interesting because I don't know what themes will bubble to the surface.
We're about at our halfway point in the semester and I believe two themes have arisen:

Play the Hand You're Dealt
This of course is a poker term. Hey, we all want to be in ideal situations. At least some of my students would love have full scholarships to Juilliard with plenty of time to practice every day, good meals to eat, a great circle of friends, inspiring conductors, 8 hours of sleep each night, etc.
Just like in poker, it's hard to lose if you keep getting royal flushes and full houses.
The real question is: how do you respond to a situation that is less than ideal?

I think this is especially relevant in professional orchestras where a young, highly motivated player joins the group and discovers that some of the people around him/her have, shall we say, "lost that spark."

Playing is a Natural Extension of Breathing
So often I need to deal with tension issues in people's playing. I find it interesting that, when someone puts down the horn and just takes a natural, full breath, most of the tension disappears. What is it about the act of picking the horn and looking at music that causes the body to tense up so much? Rhetorical question, really. Obviously these are learned responses that have to be replaced with more effective learned responses.
I like exercises that reinforce the notion that playing the horn isn't so radically different from full breathing.
Here's one idea: try "blowing through" a difficult pattern. In other words, pick up the horn and pretend to play (moving your slide and everything) but simply blow air through the instrument. Make it "musical air" that reflects the phrases you want. I'm guessing you'll find a lot of the tension is gone.

Me and Sasha

As a musician, I love the Olympics. Things have been pretty busy but I managed to watch as much of the games as I could. Having taken auditions, I can begin to relate to the pressure the athletes must feel as they train for so long only to have everything crystalize into one "live or die" moment.
As I watched Sasha Cohan skate her first program, an interesting parallel occured to me, an audition I'd rather forget.
SASHA: Skating a clean first program. Nice jumps. Good confidence.
ME: Good first round. Stuck to my game plan. Played well. (I found out later they almost decided to stop the audition right there).
SASHA: Here comes the press. "Sasha is the leader. Sasha has trouble skating two clean programs in a row. Will Sasha choke?"
ME: The conventional wisdom: he already won a one-year position with the orchestra before. He's the professor at USC. Of course he'll easily win this audition right? In other words, everything to lose, nothing to gain. [Not quite the same as Sasha, I'll admit. Maybe this post should be titled "Me and Irena"]
SASHA: Second program, first jump...she falls. Stumbles on the second jump. Finishes well but it's too late. Now the press hounds will be all over her.
ME: Second round, first note (Mahler 3). I butcher the first note. I have some idea why: I tried to play too loud, I had been messing with lead pipes and a new valve, I was nervous, I didn't warm-up or get focused for the second round. Still, same result: I sent that note to Baghdad with no return address. They should have called in the janitors to mop it up as it lay quivering on the floor. A colleague on the other side of the screen said the conductor's body just went rigid as if some electric shock had been delivered. This was followed by some furious scribbling in his notes. Not a good sign, I believe.
SASHA: Ends up with a silver medal.
ME: I end up losing the audition and having to tell everyone I blew it when I was supposed to coast to victory.

OK, Sasha's a lot prettier and more famous. But, on some level, I can really relate. When the smoke clears, life goes on and we are all older and (hopefully) wiser.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Weblog Backlog: Data Dump Needed

Too busy! Many weblog ideas waiting to be posted!
Reaching critical mass! Must dump ideas!


Analogy: rubato like stretching chewing gum. You know, kids stretching chewing gum outside their mouths. How far can you stretch without breaking the gum? Rubato 16th notes: how far can you stretch until they really aren't recognizable as 16th notes any more?

Visual Aids: music has tension and release. How about making a copy of your solo. Use colored highlighting pens to indicate points of tension and release. How about red for the notes of greatest musical tension and green or blue for points of release?

Trombone Placemat: Remember those laminated placemats with things like a map of the U.S. and diagrams of the planets? To get around those bumps on the Manhassett stand (hard to write on), I have an unfolded file folder on the stand to provide a smooth writing surface. It was only a matter of time until I started writing quick notes/illustrations on it. But wait..a lot of the same ideas come up in different lessons. Maybe I should jot down some of my favorites in advance and then have sitting there ready to go. OK, maybe laminating it would be serious overkill.

Renotating: Some licks become strangely easier to play through simple renotation. Take Elegy for Mippy 2. That swing section in the middle would probably be a lot easier to play if it were notated differently. Once I wrote out the second page of the Creston middle movement using flats instead of sharps. Not only was it easier to read, it seemed much easier to play all those high notes.
Time permitting, I'd like to post some of these renotations on the website.

The Trauma of Sharps: Why wait to introduce sharps to beginners? Waiting only makes the experience more traumatic later. I think it might be better to jump right in with sharps at the beginning when everything is new anyway.


System pressure returning to normal.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Hey Cupid (a.k.a. Hey Santa part 2)

OK, so Christmas is over and I never made my second request.
Here's one:
Maybe a special mouthpiece with a little valve at the stem. If you start to use too much pressure, the valve closes.
Actually, hasn't there been an invention like this before (ah, searching through the land of my vague memories)?
Other ways to reduce mouthpiece pressure (the "high blood pressure" of brass playing).
  • While playing a medium-high note, slowly take the trombone off the face. Eventually, the note will break up. How much can you lower the pressure before losing the note?
  • While holding that same note (or higher?) have a friend stand behind you and, unannounced, gently push the trombone off your face.
  • Stand with your back to the wall and play ascending lip slurs. The wall should prevent you from pushing in.
Another Bonetalk? Hopefully this weekend.