Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tips from Tim

Tim Anderson recently visited USC and gave a master class. I had the presence of mind to take notes. Here they are...
  • Make sure they can write down what you just played.
  • Don't allow ' turd tapers' (Norman Bolter's term) - allowing a note to fade unintentionally
  • Make sure you demonstrate Basic common sense musical skills
  • On the accented notes in the Ride: don't think of it as accenting a note. Think of accenting the bar line.
  • The most important criteria: how you sound.
  • Concerning the Mozart Tuba Mirum: legato trombone is not a style of music. Make phrases. "I want to hear what your phrase is. I want to be able to write it down."
  • "Don't sort of do it. Do it."
  • Make music on the first note. Then you'll play well.
  • They want a simple good musician.
  • People have no patience for bad intonation.
  • I think music ed is a better degree. You have to be able to teach yourself.
  • If somebody asks you how fast you're going, you should have a number (metronome marking).
  • What is air support? Support is simply counteracting the natural decrescendo that occurs as your air runs out. As you sustain a note, you have to blow more as the note goes on (and the air runs out). How do you manage the blowing of the air?
  • It's better if you can be schizophrenic when you play music. (variety of styles/personalities)
  • "I said play on your mouthpiece not buzz on your mouthpiece" (don't stop making music when you are buzzing).
  • "Give me some phrase there"
  • Watch out for those decays. Your lips get tired, your air doesn't.
  • We always make fun of singers. We all became trombonists because we didn't want to sing in public.
  • There is only one fundamental: how you blow the air. Everything else is just a skill.
  • It doesn't matter how many times you've played it. You either can do it or you can't. If you can't play it, you haven't played it enough.
  • Make sure your resume doesn't make it look like an accident that you're applying for a job.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Of Schubert and Futsal (Talent Code Post #1)

This is the first of what I suspect will be many posts related to a great book, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. I recommend it highly.

I've had a pretty good run lately. In the span of three weeks, I've played bass trombone with Charlotte Symphony, tenor with both Symphony Orchestra Augusta and South Carolina Philharmonic and now alto with Charleston Symphony.

The alto gig came on two day's notice, Schubert's 9th Symphony. Normally I would like to spend more time making sure all those slide positions are secure. This has forced me to really stay on my toes, never let my guard down and be able to make quick adjustments.
According to Coyle, I've been building a lot of myelin. Myelin is the insulation around nerves. As you build a skill, the layers of myelin around the nerve 'circuit' for that activity increase so that the circuit works broadband.
Here's one of Coyle's points: optimal learning takes place when you are struggling a bit (falling and down and getting up, so to speak). Play something that is way over your head or too comfortable and you are no longer in your optimal learning zone.
Well, I've been struggling a bit, so I guess I've been experiencing optimal learning.
In his book, Coyle studies 'talent hotbeds:' places that seem to produce a disproportionate number of highly talented individuals whether it be in music, sports, or something else.
One such hotbed is the well-known Brazil/soccer hotbed.
One of their secrets: futsal.
This is an indoor variation of soccer using a smaller ball that doesn't fly as far when kicked.
What does this mean?
Instead of spending so much time running up and down the field, the players spend a lot more time in tight situations requiring fancy footwork.
Regular soccer on a larger field is relatively easy in comparison.
This makes me wonder: have baseball players ever taken batting practice using a smaller ball?
Let's return to alto trombone. Because of the smaller slide, an error of, say, a 1/4 inch, produces a bigger pitch error than on a tenor. Thus, besides learning those new positions, you must also be more accurate.

See the connection?

Perhaps (with our lavish budget) I should have the school buy altos for all the music majors and then force them to play with exacting intonation.
Wouldn't this be a little like Brazilian futsal?
Check out this video, these guys are magicians...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Gliss Finder (Ear v. Arm)

OK, I may have blogged this one before but....

Sometimes, when working on intonation with my students, I find that they are unconsciously lipping notes up or down.
Recently, when a student struggled to lock in the high G-flat, I played the chord on the piano and asked him to gliss around before stopping on the note. Essentially, I wanted him to play with a very wide and slow slide vibrato before settling on the note.
Here's my thinking: when we gliss around, we are less likely to lip notes. Instead (hopefully) we focus on getting a full-centered sound. Then, when we try to lock in the correct pitch/position, we are truly tuning with the slide as opposed lipping the notes up and down.
The psychological power of muscle memory is quite amazing. Even in my own playing, I find my ear arguing with my arm.

EAR: Dude, you're sharp. Bring it down.
ARM: No way, man. Second position is never that low!

And thus perhaps the lip begins to take matters into his own hands (don't think about that concept too much, it's just an analogy) and bend the notes.
Maybe they bend into "tune" but they also bend out of resonance.
Hey, we're playing a big tuning slide here...might as well use it.
Maybe if the arm had an ear of its own...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Of the Muse and Gas Tank... (Note to conductors)

I got to play bass trombone in a very enjoyable concert this past weekend.
Suffice to say that it was a good orchestra, good hall, good conductor. However, this good (very musical) conductor made a mistake which I have seen many, many times.
At the end of one section, we landed on a nice, fortissimo octave in the low brass. This was our second performance of the piece.
As you arrive at such a big "forte fermata" moment, you have to make that judgement call...

My air isn't unlimited. How am I going to pace myself here?

Let's assume the following:
  1. You want to start strong.
  2. You want to finish strong (and avoid that anticlimactic fade out).
  3. The note is long enough that you won't be able to to manage it in a single breath.
So you have choices:
  1. Fade in the middle so you don't have to breathe.
  2. Choose the least bad moment to grab a catch breath.
However, here's the giant unknown:
How long will the note last????

As a performer, my decisions hinge on that critical question.
However, highly musical conductors are sometimes moved by their muse to hold out that glorious chord a bit longer than in rehearsal. (or, in the case of this recent concert, longer than the previous night's concert). As a conductor, you may be basking in the glow of that magnificent chord but, if you hold it too long, you are putting your brass players in a difficult situation.
So, conductors, keep being inspired BUT please let us know how long you intend to hold out those big final fermatas.

Our lungs thank you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I prefer gStrings

Hey, get your mind out of the gutter. I'm talking about the Android chromatic tuner app.

OK, so here's the story. This is a busy week I'm having:
Saturday - Verdi Requiem
Monday - Stravinsky Octet and Soldier's Tale
Tuesday - Kroeger Tres Psalmi Davidis for Trombone and Soprano (Tina Stallard rocked!)
Friday/Saturday - I'm playing bass trombone (yes, Russ, bass trombone) with Charlotte Symphony (the two Romeo and Juliette's ... Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky).

I'm also the happy new owner of a Droid X, which I love. So today I downloaded two tuner apps for my droid: Cleartune and gStrings.

Cleartune cost me $3.99 and gStrings was free (ad-supported). I tested both during the rehearsal break with my phone on the music stand and other people playing (but not right next to me).

Cleartune, which looked prettier had two significant drawbacks: the needle was too twitchy and it couldn't read low notes. Around low F (an octave and a 5th below middle C) the tuner couldn't read me.

gStrings, while not as slick-looking, had a steadier needle and, amazingly, was able to read my instrument down to a pedal F. And that was before I discovered that it has custom tessitura settings for instruments ranges (I've never seen that in a tuner before).

Both apps had customizable temperament settings (I suspect this isn't much of a programming challenge). With respect to just intonation, I was confused. I always think of just intonation as tempering notes with respect to a given tonic pitch. So..what pitch is it scaling to?

[OK, you can set it to tune to one specific pitch as opposed to auto chromatic tuning so maybe that's where the just tuning comes into play. Not clear, however.]

Oh yeah, gStrings doesn't appear to be available for iPhone. I'm sure you guys have a lot of great choices as well.

Just be careful about using the search term "gStrings."

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Bank Account of Good Will

This is not strictly a 'trombone' posting but more of a life posting. In my interactions with my students, I sometimes envision a sort of 'good will' bank balance. Each new student starts out with a modest positive balance.

When they do things like show up prepared for lessons or actively participate in master class, their balance goes up.

When they do things like miss lessons or show up late/unprepared for ensemble rehearsals, their balance goes down.

Suppose someone calls me looking for a recommendation. Something like, "I need a trombonist to play this gig..."

To whom do I give that work? Well, I certainly want one of my better players to do it. But suppose that better player also has a low balance in their 'good will' bank account? Can I trust them to show up on time, be well-prepared, be professional in their behavior?

What about when students come to me asking for letters of recommendation?

Unlike a real bank account, I don't keep a specific written record. However, I (and I suspect most applied teachers) have a pretty sense of whose balance is up and whose balance is down.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Switch to Glide

I think most of us agree on these two things..
  1. At slow tempos, the slide clearly needs to stop on every note. Alessi once said, "I want to see the rhythm in your slide."
  2. At very fast tempos, your slide can't really stop on every note. The classic example of this, I suppose, is the excerpt from William Tell.
I have heard of teachers advising students to practice the William Tell excerpt in an unusual way: even when you play it slowly, don't stop and start with the slide. Instead 'catch' the note as the slide goes by without stopping.

Even though I glide at fast tempos, I find this 'slow glide' practice technique to be awkward. (maybe I'm doing it wrong).

Lately, in my warm-up, I've been playing a lot more chromatic scales. I always start playing slowly over a limited range. Something like this:
Then I extend range and increase speed. I like to end up going full-speed with double tonguing.
Of course, at some point, I switch to the glide approach.

Anybody with a high speed camera? It would be interesting to film top players as they play fast then slow the film down to see what they are really doing with their slides.

Hmm, doctoral dissertation idea?

It will need a lofty title...

"The High-Speed Video Analysis of a Select Group of Professional Trombonists to Ascertain the Transition from the 'Stopped Slide' model of technique to the 'Steady Slide' model at Increasing Tempi"