Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Alessi Seminar Notes, Day 9, ...the Last Day

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.

On this final day of the Alessi seminar, we had the usual morning warm-up (it was my turn to do the warm-up for the participants), the last masterclass and, in the evening, a great party at an area restaurant.

I should note that I have been describing the schedule for the participants. Each afternoon the auditors had masterclasses running, I believe, from 2:30-5:00. These classes were run by Pete Ellefson
Although I didn't attend any of Pete's classes (hey, I need to practice sometime!) I spoke to a number of auditors and they said he did a great job!

This morning's schedule was:
Adam Johnson - Jongen Aria and Polonaise (2nd half)
Daniel Brady - excerpts
An auditor - Mahler's 3rd
An auditor - Rota Concerto
A final chat with Mr. Alessi

Here are my notes:
  • When you perform, don't put the stand in front of you. "The audience wants to see you, not the stand."
  • For a rapid dotted-eighth, sixteenth rhythms, he again suggested pulling the tongue further back in the mouth.
  • He talked about the importance of focusing your practice both on the technical side and the musical side. "You have to pay homage to each one and then they become one." He doesn't believe that, if you only focus on musicality, the technique will come.
  • "I think that air flow and relaxation comes from good musical decisions."
  • He talked about the need to perform more than just the orchestral repertoire. "Where do we get to express ourselves in the literature? Maybe once every three years."
  • He talked about trombonists being "a little bit lazy" in not getting together often enough to work with pianists. It really bothers him to hear any trombonist play out of tune with the piano.
  • He reminded the student to always keep things interesting, dynamically.
The Creation
  • After the student's momentary false start, he said "Once you commit yourself to that first note, it has to come out." (no matter what it sounds like)
  • At one point, he asked the student, "Would you vote for that?" (in an audition) Later, after the student had made a few adjustments he commented that he would have voted for that last performance in a professional audition.
  • Don't ever play tentative. Just go for it.
  • If you get nervous and start to hear those voices in your head, "replace the voices with musical things." Start thinking about the tune and then just start playing. He demonstrated by singing a passage then breathing and playing in time.
  • For the rests in this excerpt, he advised the student to breathe through the whole rest, not just at the very end.
Fountains of Rome
  • Be sure to start your breath early enough so you are ready to fire on time.
  • He used the phrase "always three to one" to describe beat groupings:

  • He suggested that, in this excerpt, perhaps the breathing should not be symmetrical and predictable.
  • To improve intonation consistency, he suggested playing this excerpt (and others) very slowly at least once a day to "sweep the area for pitch."
  • He cited a quote from virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman, "The slower you practice, the faster you progress. The faster you practice, the slower you progress."
  • Concerning how many breaths to take in these sostenuto passages he advised, "You have to be a magician and figure what you need and what you don't need."
  • Don't lose time on the half notes in an effort to "make them as big as a house."
  • All these details, (especially rhythm and intonation) separate the 2% from the other 98%.
  • Concerning an early breath taken in the passage shown above, he said, "When you get to the main event, why would you want to breathe after that first note?" He pointed out this was the time to show off your stuff.
  • Regarding your sheet music, he advised us to save everything we ever play. Then, in the future, you can take the music back out and restart where you left off.
  • Don't be late after taking breaths. The time has to be solid when you come up to breathe.
  • Concerning the process of fixing an out-of-tune passage by identifying a problem note he said, "What's the main culprit? Find it."
  • Concerning keeping the low brass section rhythmically tight in one section he advised placing the sixteenth note directly on the downbeat:

  • Get an ipod and make a collection of the orchestral repertoire. Get three of four versions of the same piece. "It's kind of a monumental task but start with one piece and build from there."
  • He noted that a lot of bass trombonists don't bother to learn the score. They just know the excerpt passage.

Mahler 3
  • He noted that this is a tricky solo to play. "With this solo, you have to go for it but not go out of control."
  • Make sure the air doesn't get too fast. He recommended, "A nice big sound, nothing more than that." He also advised, "Don't blow yourself out of the pocket."
  • Building on this idea further he advised us to retain our good sound. He pointed out, "There's a slot where every note goes. Are you in that slot?"
  • He talked about remaining calm even though the music can become very intense, even threatening. He advised us to separate ourselves from the music somewhat so we don't become too involved and lose control.
  • As a demonstration of relaxed air, he held up the student's hand and blew warm air against it.
  • In describing the ideal attack, he raised the analogy of a stereo system already playing music with the speakers turned off. You flick the speaker switch on and you get "immediate sound."
  • He also advised that the notes should "sound like bricks" and not become distorted.
  • He doesn't feel that alternate positions have much value here. "Go for the best possible sound, not convenience."
  • In playing loud, he said, "Less, sometimes, is more." He gave an analogy of great golfers and their effortless approach.
  • He also suggested that one might practice this excerpt in the manner of a Bordogni etude noting that, "we forget that these things are melodies."
  • For younger players, he suggested not starting out trying to play too loudly and then add volume over time rather than trying to hammer away at it.
  • He demonstrated the excerpt, observing, "You see, I'm using a lot less energy than you but it's twice as big."
  • He broke one passage down into its component intervals stressing the importance of correctly hearing these intervals.
  • He noted that a lot of young players tend to play sharp. He cited two possible causes: blowing too fast and measuring off the bell with the finger.
  • For younger players, he said that now is your chance to get the notes in tune. Then it will sound bigger later.
  • When going to the low A, you're not supposed to increase your air speed. Decrease it.
  • In trying to get the student not to move the bell around so much he suggested, "try to make your amplifier more consistent."
  • "Things sound better when it feels easier. There's a direct correlation."
  • In not crossing that fine line between exciting and out-of-control, he suggested the "2% solution." I believe he meant playing a loud passage 2% softer. Just back off a bit.
  • When you see the music get exciting, don't lose control. He used the phrase, "fortissimo with some intelligence."
  • Peter Ellefson observed from the audience that, as he watched the waveform of the audio software recording the masterclass, it was possible to actually see the difference in tone between Mr. Alessi's tone and the student's. Pete also noted that more effort doesn't necessarily translate into more sound.
  • Joe advised that student to "take a snapshot and ask yourself, 'Is this best sound I can play with?' "
(end of Mahler coaching)

  • Concerning tongue placement in the high range, he noted that, the higher you go in the scale, the more tongue placement is important.
  • He pointed out that, as a general rule, when you play louder, use less tongue. The opposite is true for playing softer.
At the end Mr. Alessi came out to sit in the audience and field more questions. He had many more stories to tell and wonderful pieces of advice but I opted not to take notes at this point.

I guess you just had to be there.

This is the end of my written notes for the Alessi seminar.

A Final Comment:

I would like to thank Mr. Alessi for conducting this seminar. I was consistently impressed not only by his spectacular playing but his consistent work ethic and clear commitment to helping each student.

I had heard stories of Mr. Alessi's intensity and was quite nervous about playing for him for the first time. As one former student put it, "He sets the same expectations for you that he sets for himself." Throughout the week, I found him not only intense but very positive. When a student played well, he was quick to praise them. On many occasions, he would say something like, "That was perfect," or "Very nice playing." You knew that this wasn't hollow praise of the "atta- boy" variety. If he praised you, you had earned it.

If something wasn't up to standard, he wasn't going to let it slide. But I never found any of his criticisms throughout the week to be anything less than fair and professional. If his own playing wasn't up to his personal standards he would try again and sometimes apologized to the audience if he didn't feel he was playing well enough. (I should have such bad days!)

Mr. Alessi was consistently hard-working, polite, highly focused and completely sincere in his efforts to help everyone who attended this seminar. This set a tone of mutual respect and professionalism that made the seminar a very positive learning experience for everyone involved.

As Pete Ellefson put it at the beginning, some students say they can't afford to attend this seminar. He added that, if you are serious about making it as professional musician on the trombone, you can't afford not to.

I agree.