Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Alessi Seminar Notes, Day 4 (part 1) ... Rhythm is King

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.

This morning's master class featured the following performers:
Casey Thomas - Wilder Sonata (starting with the last movement and working back)
Miguel Rivera - Sulek Sonata
Josh Bynum - Salzedo Piece Concertante
Quartet (Compton, Rivera, Lange, Bremer) - Spaniola AMS
Orchestra Section - Passages from Wagner's Die Walkure

Here are some comments (I took a lot of notes!):

  • He pointed out that all is not lost when you feel nervous. When you feel nerves kick in, don't panic.
  • "When I go on stage, I like to put myself in a little box." I believe he was referring to a technique for screening out distractions while performing.
  • He recommended that aspiring performers should get on stage more often and get used to dealing with nerves. Don't just do one recital a year, do six a year.
  • For a rhythmic passage in which a long note was followed by triplets he used the phrase: "pre-authorize the triplets." (in other words, think triplets during the long note).
  • For phrasing, he suggested one might a circle a note in the music and then aim at it.
  • "Sometimes you just have to tear licks apart." If a passage is giving you trouble, extract a segment of it and see if you can play it ten times in a row perfectly. If you miss on the tenth time, start over. Then take the next fragment and do the same. Then, put the fragments together.
  • Concerning slide grip, he suggested a very natural grip of just 2 fingers and the thumb.
  • Concerning about slide grip he suggested that, in softer legato passages, you should hold the slide more gently. Later, he said, "When you play the Rhenish (Schumann Symphony No. 3 the soft trombone chorale) you're going to hold the slide like you have a little bird in your hand."
  • At other times (especially during moving passages requiring accuracy he suggested you might want to grip the slide a little harder while staying relaxed. He demonstrated how one can firmly grip a pencil and still stay relaxed. "A firm slide grip improves the connection between brain and slide."
  • He recommended that any trombonist serious about auditions should have the main excerpts memorized.
  • "Everything is coordinated by rhythm." (for example, breathing, embouchure, slide, etc.)
  • Don't just practice short phrases. Play something like a Bordogni etude all the way through to promote air flow.
  • As a suggestion to a student whose sound he wanted more projected, he used the phrases "Don't be gun shy" and "Warm up the room."
  • Musically, he warned that we shouldn't go into a state of "suspended animation," a place where we are floating but nothing is happening musically.
Here was one funny exchange:

Joe: "You're not playing for the president of the United States. You're just playing for trombone players."

Student: "I'd rather play for the president."

  • Focus on accurate rhythm. He had a student sing along with the piano part to ensure the rhythm was accurate.
  • It's one thing to guess at something. It's another thing to know it.
  • There's no point in trying to play it if you can't sing it.
  • He re-emphasized this simple saying, "Rhythm is King!"
  • If your rhythm isn't solid, how are you going to know when to move the slide, when to breathe?
  • He also pointed out that a better slide grip will improve rhythm.
  • He warned against breaking the wrist in slide technique because it leads to uncoordinated playing.
  • "There's bad health and good health on the instrument." Elements of brass health include such things as posture, slide grip, how you inhale, etc.
  • Before you perform a piece, you have to know the score.
  • "I'm writing all kinds of cues" (in his music) He even invited us to take a look at the solos he performed Monday night to see how many cues he had written.
  • He used the phrase "ear marks" to describe points in the score he listens for in order to not get lost.
  • He described his preparation for the Rouse concerto which doesn't have a piano reduction. To get ready for this complex piece he even hired Jim Pugh to create a midi file of the score so he could practice it. He pointed out, "I like to have everything prepared a month before."
  • He expressed admiration for Christian Lindberg. "He's way beyond me in terms of the amount of information that is thrown at him."
  • He stressed the importance of listening to great singers. At one point, he asked a student, "How many Frank Sinatra recordings do you have?"
  • In a very impressive demonstration of the power of listening, he began sight-reading Salzedo's Piece Concertante. It quickly became clear how closely he was listening to the chords in the piano part. Once or twice, when the pianist played a wrong note, he stopped and looked over at her. Even while sight-reading, he knew that the chord couldn't be right.
  • For one particular chord he said, "See, I put a little vibrato there because I like that chord. Listen to that chord, that really turns me on!"
  • He pointed out that, although he had never played the piece before, he knew what to do because he was listening carefully to the piano part.
  • Keep the embouchure corners consistent. Look in a mirror every day. "You have to create a more stable environment."
  • For high, soft playing: "The key is the higher you go, the less energy you use." He suggested that we listen to "high-floaters" like Bill Watrous and emulate their style.
  • He enjoys going through a piece and finding alternate positions to facilitate the music.
  • He demonstrated a segment of Bolero (the ascending B-flat, C, D-flat) and played the C in third position instead of first. With regard to getting up into that partial he joked, "You either pay now or pay later."
  • He said that we don't talk enough about diminuendo and playing softer.
  • "When you play softer, relax." He told a story about an old episode of the original Star Trek in which they were trapped in a force field until Spock suggested that perhaps they could escape by relaxing. "I remember that being a very pivotal time for me."
  • When you want to play soft, breathe more slowly. He recalled a childhood memory of floating in the pool, a "dead man's float."
  • Breathe in slowly and trust that the soft note will come out.
  • "It took me a long time to realize that you have to respect the melody." Melody is king (...along with rhythm).
  • Joe talked to us about his new trombone. He is trying out a new Edwards design that uses a traditional rotor valve. He added that he was trying to get away from a giant, wide sound. He stressed that we should make sure our sound doesn't get too wide.
  • He commented on the recent bass trombone auditions for both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Upon comparing notes with the Met audition committee, they found that they had both heard a lot of players with giant sounds they couldn't control. He also noted that Paul Pollard, the winner of the Met audition, was the runner-up to Jim Markey in the NYPO audition.
  • "Keep you sound contained where you can handle it"
  • For the famous dotted Ride rhythm, he likes to use the word "Tympani." The main thing is that you don't get to the 16th too soon.
  • He reminded us to to visit our soft playing every day.

That's all for now...