Monday, October 31, 2011

The Evil Fuse

There is an insidious evil that lurks within the hearts of all trombonists.

When we were young and innocent (and beginners), we were lured into that friendliest of scales: B-flat major.

It seemed so simple that we never paused to see the trap lurking within...the A natural in 2nd position and the E-flat in 3rd.

We merrily practiced away allowing the two positions to MORPH into the ....


The little voice in our heads may have tried to warn us. The over-worked band director never took the time to catch the problem. Mom and dad just said they were proud (and please use newspaper for the spit).

Nobody warned us of the impending doom.

Instead of a pristine separation of 2nd and 3rd, the evil fuse has practiced its sinister mind control dragging our second positions down and forcing our 3rd positions up.

The result:
a mutant position that was never meant to exist in nature.

Stay safe out there.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Candidate A, Candidate B..and my Time Travel Mind-Reading Machine

Now approaches the season when high school players contact me about trombone lessons. Usually at the top of their agenda is the upcoming all-state audition.
Often the audition solo starts out with a soft passage..that's the case this year.
Imagine two people auditioning against each other.

Candidate A - plays a good soft dynamic but doesn't get a good sound
Candidate B - gets a good sound but doesn't play soft enough.

Yes, I know you all want to be Candidate C who plays both with a good soft dynamic AND with good sound. Suppose you can't quite do that...yet.

You have two approaches.
Always sound good and player softer and softer
Always play soft and sound gooder and gooder
(ok, grammer purists..."better and better"...whatever)

So, that student is in the lesson with me and I have to give advice. I can either say:
"No matter what, get a good sound even if you have to play a little too loud."
"No matter what, follow those dynamics even if your sound is a little weak."

What's the right advice?

Well, I only need to hop into my new-fangled contraption the...
(early prototype shown below...patent pending)

I simply jump into the machine, travel forward in time and read the judge's mind as to which is the higher priority. Then I zip back and let the student know which way to go.


Until the final product is available, I recommend that you spend more time learning to play soft with a good sound. I've heard it's possible....theoretically.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Yes, it actually works!

I just finished a performance of the David Concertino with the South Carolina Philharmonic. This was a pretty big deal for me since I don't often get to play a concerto with a professional orchestra.

So now it's time to look forward to my next main challenges (besides the usual concerts). In December I plan to spend my first shift in the recording studio laying down Clarence Barber's Impulsions for Trombone and Marimba and Karl Kroger's Tres Psalmi Davidis for Trombone and Soprano.

I'm also doing my first practicing of the Kassatti Sonatine for solo trombone and brass quintet, which I will be performing twice in April.

I'll admit that I sometimes don't practice what I preach. However, this time I'm trying to be a good boy and learn this new piece more methodically.

So, like a singer, I am actually trying to sing the tricky parts (using fixed-do solfege) before I ever play them. Trombone in left hand, right hand on the piano keyboard next to me, I work my way through it, lick by lick (the solo part is over 10 pages long).

And yes, it actually works!!

Singing, that is. Only when I get the intervals clear enough in my head to sing them accurately do I pick up my trombone to play. And, guess what, that first run through on the instrument is *much* easier and sounds a lot better, too. In fact, it doesn't sound like a first run at all (which I guess it isn't).

So thank you, Jim Ackley and all those advocates for singing that I've encountered through the years. You guys have got it right.

Here's one page from the Kassatti. Try it out. Get yourself to a piano and sing it through until you can actually sing the intervals correctly. Then pick up your horn to play it (no cheating).

I also have a pdf file of this page of you want to go that route.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Icebergs, Dentists and ....Ramjack?

As I work with a student, I often find some little problem on the surface.
Sometimes that "little problem" is like the tip of the iceberg.

It's like finding a something on the surface of a tooth. As you drill down, you may find that the problem goes deeper than expected.
Maybe the attacks aren't very clean on Hungarian March.
Then you drill deeper...
  • and you find that the slide movement is sloppy
  • and there isn't really much air behind the attacks
And you drill deeper...
  • and you find that even major scales don't have an accurate slide
  • and there is a lot of tension inhibiting the breathing.

Cancel all my appointments, Mildred, this one's going to take a while.

It reminds me of new students who come in all ready to move on to the next super advanced piece. In their minds, they've built this wonderful 5-story "trombone building" and they think we will be moving on the add on the 6th and 7th stories.

Fundamentals? BORING

Instead, I'm more like the building inspector, heading down into the basement with my trusty flashlight. "Well, lookey here at this foundation. I'm afraid this isn't up to code. We could throw on that 6th story but the whole structure is becoming unstable."

Hmmm, maybe long tones are like the RamJack of trombone.

Seeing and Hearing..McGurk and Bad Lip Reading

Warning: this post meanders quite a bit but does eventually get to a point.

A while back I posted about the "golden bah" of articulation.

A former student sent me this fascinating video about something called the McGurk Effect...

This reminded me of a gag video someone had done wherein the video was of Allison Balsom playing the trumpet but someone had overdubbed the audio of a bad trumpet player. Not surprisingly, that video has been pulled down from YouTube.
Soon, I ran across the term "shred" which is apparently based on the same idea: same video, different audio. Not surprisingly, these links got pulled pretty quickly.
I'll try one such link (didn't know that Kiss was into country and western).

Now I've run across the hilarious web site Bad Lip Reading.
Here's one example from Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

There is a point to all this.
The point is....

This is something I've written about before in the post "Hearing with Your Eyes."

No matter what we want to believe, the manner in which you carry yourself on stage does affect people's perception of your sound.

Look confident / Be confident.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Happy 6th Birthday

I just noticed that my first blog post was on Oct. 5th, 2005.

Since then I've posted semi-regularly ...over 300 in all.

Over that time I've gone over a number of things while trying to remain true to the original intent of this blog.
Here are some past posts that come to mind...

How to keep focused after you've made a mistake?

You think auditions are a lot of pressure? Try Olympic diving.

Trouble with tension automatically going up..think ding slurp.

Speaking of tension, how about that moaning grandfather?

How about pursuing a resonant tone. Think about tuning, squacking and singer stuff.

Anyway, I've gone through and added labels to most of the older posts. You can search the blog on any of these labels.

boneweek fanfares
ear training
high range
lip slurs
new york philharmonic
note shape
self discipline
sight reading
slide technique
smart music
time management
triple tonguing
warming up

So, sometimes I take a look at the traffic this blog receives. Steady but nothing spectacular. Ironically, the number one post by far comes from a Google search term: "Big Bad Wolf"

Here's that image...

Hmm, maybe he's blowing out candles.

National Brass Symposium: an archeological dig of notes

This past summer I attended the National Brass Symposium. It was great; I'm glad I went.

I took some notes (not very diligently) and then didn't do anything with them. Now they sit in a pile of papers on my desk.
Funny thing is...I'm not always sure what I meant. So I'm going to treat these notes as a dig site...


The merciless sun beats down on their backs, urging their fingers to move more quickly but there are stronger things than the sun. Will power, for one. They know they must not hurry that precise sequence of small movements needed to uncover these precious artifacts. It has been a slow morning; little of importance has been found: some candy wrappers, an early iPhone model, not much else.
Suddenly an excited cry goes up: paper with human writing on it. The dig robot is called in with its many highly sensitive servo-motors and nano-detectors. Soon the paper is extracted and dated....2010, possibly during the summer months. We will never know for sure.
The first sheet reads:
Mulcahy w/up Day 1
  • long torso
  • Mt. Edwards - don't bring the mountain to you
  • Don't play higher than you can play with ease and purity. Pride gets in the way.
  • Why do low range?
    You can't hurt yourself playing low.
    Requires you to rely on air.
  • Breathing
    Less internal focus - more on sucking air.
    British "O", "Julia Roberts" mouth (air in through corners)
  • When you watch great players, it looks like they aren't doing anything.
The second sheet sheds more light on the mystery. It appears that these ancient runes have something to do with music. It reads:
BSO Brass 5tet
Bach Fugue
  • 10 positive to 1 negative
  • Learn quickly how to give true, meaningful comments.
  • Find something good about your colleagues.
(Grainger Songs)
  • People work hard to maintain good relationships.
  • (with a pitch problem) No matter how right you think you are, you probably aren't as perfect as you think.
(Quintet Victoria)
"Sadly we may never fully understand the meaning of these symbols." the lead researcher said as he rubbed his tired eyes. I guess we can turn it over to the music historians...those guys get all the big funding.

P.S. It was later revealed that this ancient note-taker did leave behind a more thorough digital archive of notes from the something called the "Alessi Seminar"

Monday, October 17, 2011

The (evil) Tuning Slide Game

Have you ever heard that nasty viola joke?
The teacher walks in for the string quartet coaching and finds the violist in tears. "What's wrong?" asks the teacher.
The violist cries, "The violinists turned one of my tuning pegs and won't tell me which one!"

Here's a game I played in a recent lesson. I had a student play the tune, Barbara Allen, on trombone while I played the chords on the piano. Then, while they couldn't look, I moved the tuning slide but didn't tell them whether I had moved it in or out. I even handed it to them from behind so they couldn't see the position of the tuning slide. We played through the song again and they had to tell me which way it had been moved.

We did this several times (once I handed it back but actually didn't move the tuning slide at all..muhaha).

This speaks to a larger issue: situational awareness. I'm talking about many factors: pitch, rhythm, blend, interpreting the conductor's beat, etc. Under pressure, we need to focus in and concentrate but not develop tunnel vision, losing situational awareness.

Typically, it's harder to do this under pressure.

Try this game with your students/friends and let me know what you think. Here's an odd effect I've seen: sometimes people can hear and correct more easily when it's relatively close. When it's wildly out, I've seen people get confused and hear the opposite. Don't know why...

(shameless plug: the tune "Barbara Allen" is in my book Simply Singing for Winds)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Treadmills and Detours

I find that most lessons fall into one of two categories.
Type #1:
Typically, I assign most of my students material to work on for the next lesson. For older students, this might be as simple as "work something up for next week, maybe some excerpts.."
For younger students it is usually much more structured.
In that following week, my initial game plan is to go over what they've prepared and then prep for the following week.
This kind of lesson I would call the "Happy Treadmill Lesson"

Type #2:
But in other lessons something important comes up and we need to step off the treadmill to focus in on something. With luck, this results in some sort of minor breakthrough, replacing an older bad habit with a newer good habit.
Most common detour: making discoveries in the arena of air/relaxation.
This kind of lesson I would call the "Detour Lesson."

I often find it necessary to nudge students onto that happy treadmill. I believe there is tremendous value in the simple act of learning new pieces on a regular basis.

Generally, I find that students make less progress overall when they get stuck in a rut, either pounding away at the same piece week after week or constantly having new "revelations" about their playing.

Every now and then, I have seen a "revelations" student who was a strong self-guided learner. In those cases I try to get out of the way and let them run with it. However, other students get stuck, fretting constantly about certain details of their playing, possibly avoiding the challenges of simply having to learn new material.

Hey, in the real world, you've got deadlines. Reflection and detours can be useful but there's also something to be learned in forging ahead to meet that deadline.

In the end, you need some of both.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Of Three-Legged Races and Drum Lines...

So, obviously, this is a post about double tonguing. When we use that ta-ka combo, we are combining the "tah" which we've used for years and the "kah" which is probably a new technique.
As we strive for an even sound, this combination of a strong technique with a weak one has sometimes felt to me like a three-legged race in which the team-mates are these two people...

The odds of success? ...maybe not so good.

So, we all need to do some work to build up that weaker "kah" tongue. Maybe playing tunes using all "kah" articulation.
How about something like this?

Now that my son is doing marching band, I'm more aware of those drum line warm-ups and, for some reason, this exercise reminds me of that.

So, you see, three-legged races and drum lines.


Sunday, October 09, 2011

The SPCNBB Needs Your Help! Act Now!!

This is a theme I've hit before but now with a new twist...

Those poor notes before the breath. They really suffer. The selfish player is merely thinking of trivial things like the next breath
(survival...definitely over-rated).
So often that note before the breath is cruelly sense of phrasing. No beauty of tone. Often chopped short.
We must band together to protect these poor notes. Only you can help.
Call now: 1-800-NO-CHOP.
A defenseless note needs your love. Can you please help us?

(OK, this last photo is truly shameless...)

This ad brought to you by the SPCNBB.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Gravity, Dark Matter and ...Staccato

I just heard about the winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

If I understand correctly (and why wouldn't a trombone player have an outstanding knowledge of physics?) they independently arrived at the observation that, not only is our universe expanding, it is doing so at an increasing rate. That means there must be some "dark force" that is counter-acting gravity.

I can tell you that I don't think this force exists in music. When it comes to staccato passages, gravity is still king!

People rush during staccato. If we think of each staccato note as having its own kind of gravitational pull on the notes around it, we can see how those short notes naturally draw closer to one another.
Thus, rushing.
Maybe we could use a bit of that dark energy to keep the notes evenly spaced. Until then, be strong and resist that gravitational pull.

Monday, October 03, 2011

YouTube as a practice tool?

I don't think anyone expected YouTube to become as big as it is. All of that video..I just read a 2010 report of an upload rate of 35 hours per minute!

Within that video torrent of kittens and babies quite a few orchestra videos have been posted.

So here's an idea for a handy practice tool:
videos of the big orchestral pieces
that keep the camera focused on the conductor from
the player's vantage point.

Imagine being able to play through a Mahler symphony using the part and following Alan Gilbert on the screen.
Sure lots of people have played along with recordings over the years but one always had to guess the tempo fluctuations because you couldn't see the conductor!
What a training tool!
Now maybe somebody has already done this. I've heard of some older conductor videos for horn excerpts. Does anyone know of such a collection of videos? If it were made into a YouTube channel, it would be great.
One possible problem: sometimes the audio and video aren't well synced. This should have a simple fix.
There are an increasing number of high-quality web broadcasts of orchestra performances. Most of these are multi-camera affairs with at least one camera always trained on the conductor. Wouldn't it be great to get at that original conductor footage? Does it sit in some archive somewhere?
My search of Youtube didn't reveal much. As part of there Youtube symphony project I found this example of the conductor for that Tan Dun piece. You can even find videos targeted to specific instrument groups.
I also found this example by Teodor Currentzis, a conductor I haven't heard of before (and probably won't hear of again). Here's his bio.
Anyway, is there someone out there with the time and know-how could create something of huge value for the rest of us.
Doctoral dissertation, perhaps?