Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Of photons and phrases...the pithy pendulum

I am slowly working my way through Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein.
( and I mean sloooowly )

Anyway, I've reached that point of Einstein's "miracle year" when, from March through June of 1905, he produced four papers that helped to upend the world of physics.
The first paper presented the idea of 'light quanta' - that light should not only be described as a wave but as individual packets of quanta later to be known as photons.

In my mind this connects to one of the truisms I've hit upon in my playing. Over the past year or so I've had one of those revelations that, in retrospect, sounds obvious and dumb.

Music is made up of notes.
Make the notes sound good

OK, everyone all together now..."DUH"

Still, as I practice, this simple thought seems to have had a profound effect on my playing. Often I remind myself to simply make the notes sound good and it really helps.

"Ah, but what about phrases?" you ask.

We've all heard 'technical' players who seem to play passages as a succession of notes with no sense of musical direction. We've also hear 'musical' players who play phrases that move us even to the point of ignoring problems with some of the notes themselves.

The analogy, in case it isn't obvious:
waves - phrases
quanta - notes

Like light, music is best described as a combination of waves and quanta (phrases and notes).

Thus the pithy pendulum swings on...

Focus on the phrase
and the notes will take care of themselves.

Focus on the notes
and the phrase will take care of itself.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Part #2 Slippery Slopes

OK, here's that other blog posting based on a recent coaching of the lyrical trombone solo in Appalachian Spring.

It's the old question of alternate positions. You have the choice of using B-flat in sharp 5th, D-flat in flat 5th, or even F in 6th. So why the 'slippery slope' title? It's the mental train of thought that starts after you've used one alternate position and the little voice in your head says,
"You know if you're going to use alternates,
you could also play that D-flat in 5th.
I'm just sayin'..."

By the way, you face a similar set of choices with the more common excerpt: St Saens 3. And while I'm sliding down that slope, what about starting Bolero in 3rd and using the A and G in 4th? Or how those arpeggios in Tuba Mirum? Or, also in Tuba Mirum, starting that pretty tune on the F in 4th??
(and down the slope I go..)

My undergrad and master's teachers were both great teachers but, when it came to the subject of alternate positions, I could not have chosen two more opposite viewpoints.

Ron's (paraphrased) idea:
You have seven positions; use them.

Tony's (paraphrased) idea, expressed when I used an alternate:
You should stick to the real positions.

Learning from these two opposite viewpoints was good for me. I can honestly say that I tried it both ways.

So where do I end up?
Do what sounds best.

Of course, that answer isn't quite so simple. Perhaps a fictional debate would help here.

Let's call these two schools of thought the "Use All 7" camp (UA7) and the "Closer is Better" camp (CIB).

Please note: This is in no way an attempt to 'quote' my former teachers. This is a fictional discussion representing the viewpoints of lots of people.

Here comes a fictional debate:
CIB: Don't use alternates. They don't sound as good.

UA7: That's because you avoid them. If you practiced them more, they would sound fine.

CIB: I don't think so. Notes farther out on the slide are inherently less stable because, the farther out you go, the the more out-of-proportion your instrument is.

UA7: The difference is too small to be noticeable.

CIB: Well, what about intonation, then? Playing those alternates is always more risky when it comes to pitch.

UA7: Only because you haven't practiced them enough.

CIB: Practice all you want but when you're sitting on the hot seat and pitch is a little funky, I bet you'll go running home to those original positions with your tail tucked between your legs.

(and we'll stop there before it gets nasty).

Alright so where does this leave us?
  1. Practice both ways and strive to make them equally strong. Then, after you've devoted enough time to both: choose the option that sounds best.
  2. Record yourself or play for others to make sure you aren't imagining things. Maybe record a large number of takes where you randomly switch between versions and, after playing the lick, call out to the recorder which version you just did.
I would like to think that, with a superior player, the sound concept is so powerful that it essentially overrides the limitations of either choice of positions.

In other words, be so good that...

...those alternates are in tune with a centered sound
...your slide is so fast that you can make the longer shifts sound good.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Part #1 Picket Fences

Today I was coaching someone on excerpts for the upcoming Mississippi Symphony audition and two "blogworthy" ideas popped up in a single excerpt: Appalachian Spring. This excerpt has that melodic trombone solo in G-flat major, if you know it (basically, "Simple Gifts").

Idea #1: Picket Fences.
This key isn't the friendliest for trombone. Imagine how much easier the solo would be if it were in A-flat, for example. Ironic, really. How often in orchestral music does the trombone get an exposed legato tune sitting in the mid-range? And, of course, in one of those rare moments where we actually get a tune to play, it has to be in G-flat major.

OK, so here's the thing: nobody cares if it is an awkward key. They just know the tune and want to hear it played well.

So why 'picket fences'? For some reason this makes me think of the 1950's stereotypical neighborhood with all those nice houses and their white picket fences. Everything and everyone was expected to fit within a mold. Sort of like that old TV show, Father Knows Best...
We don't know what goes on behind the closed doors of those nice houses with those nice families. I imagine there was a lot of social pressure to not reveal problems.

(Perhaps little Jimmy is an ax murderer
but let's not let the neighbors know about it!)

It's like that trombone solo. The audience doesn't care about your troubles. They just want to hear a pretty tune played well. Any problems playing it are your problem and not to be shared with the audience.

So...play like it is easy. Label it not as something awkward but as just a nice tune.

See it through the eyes of your audience
(or hear it through their ears).

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Instant-On Radar...and maybe a new kind of tuner

As I listen to a student play, I'm listening to a variety of things and usually forming a strategy of how to proceed next.

Sometimes when the student finishes, they sometimes ask me about something other than the thing(s) I was focusing on. For example, maybe I'm really focused on their rhythm and they ask me about intonation.

For some reason, this makes me think of police speed traps. If I understand correctly, the radar gun can be in an "instant-on" mode where it sits there silently until some unlucky driver comes by going faster than some preset speed.

As I listen to a student play, I think I must have something analogous to that radar gun. Even if my attention is on phrasing or rhythm, a really out-of-tune note can come along and set off that radar gun in my mind.

That reminds me of a different tuner design that could be useful. The SmartMusic software has a feature in which the program listens to your note and plays it back ('in-tune' at least in the equal temperament world).

So, if we combine that SmartMusic feature with the notion of instant-on radar, we get a tuner that sits there silently as long as you are close enough to the desired pitch. If you stray beyond a certain amount (maybe 10 cents) the tuner starts playing the note.

I'd buy it.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Mahler 3 - Dudamel and La Scala

This video was sent to me by my DMA student.

If you haven't seen it, I suggest this...

Listen first to the solo, then jump back and watch it.

any surprises??

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

I need a new door

So, thinking back on this past year, I've come to a startling realization.

Apparently, I need a new door on my office. It seems that the current model is outfitted with some kind of "mind-wipe" module (possibly alien technology).

I try to drive home those big points for students to remember. I try to inspire them.

They seem to get it. They seem inspired.

Then they walk out through that door....

...and their minds are wiped!

A week later they return. I consult my notes before they come in so I'm ready to go. I say something like, "So, how's it going with that new relaxed way of blowing? [You know, the one that was such a breakthrough? You know, the one that made you say, "Wow, this is so much easier!"?]"

I watch their faces for some glimmer of recognition.


"Oh yeah, about that...." [voice trails off guiltily]

It must be the door.

Maybe I can develop some kind of "Mind Wipe Defense System [MWDS]"
How about this?

Hmmm, I wonder how that would go over with the studio....

I'm going to have to think about this some more. The critical question is this:

How to bridge that gap between the end of the lesson
and the first practice session after?
Those wonderful flashes of recognition and inspiration...
how can they be in the forefront of the mind
as that first practice session begins?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Simply Singing Update

Just a note to let everyone know that I now have in from the printers..
Simply Singing for Winds - medium treble clef.
Simply Singing for Winds - low bass clef

I've been doing some work on low treble clef and hope to have that ready sometime this summer.

Ensemble Publications is working on their version of medium bass clef. Chuck hopes to have it ready by ITF.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

A new buzzing exercise

Alright, I'm sure this isn't really new...not even original. Still, maybe it's new to you.

Warning: Don't injure your chops doing this. If you do it correctly, there will be very little stress on the lips. Please be careful.

  1. Buzz a comfortable, mid-range note on your mouthpiece.
  2. Now buzz it again but change two things: (a) separate your lips a bit more and (b) blow with much more wind than you would normally use. Basically, you are purposely over-blowing with a very loose setting. The lips should be separated enough that they won't vibrate if you blow with normal, more gentle air.
  3. Repeat this four or five times.
  4. Now with each new repetition, gradually decrease the air flow and bring the lips a tiny bit closer together.
  5. Notice the feeling of blowing with a very generous amount of flowing air.

My office is on the third floor of the music school. I often climb the stairs from the basement and arrive at my office out of breath. I started trying to buzz but was breathing so hard from my climb that I had to loosen my embouchure just to let all the air through.

As my heart rate slowed and my blowing became a bit more normal, I thought, "Hmm, this is interesting."

It reminds me of one of the quotes found on the "Best Things a Teacher Ever Said to Me" section of the ITA website. It has been attributed to Jeff Reynolds...

Loud is Loose

You should check out some of those other quotes as well. Over the years, we've managed to put together some pretty good stuff.