I’ve always wondered whether it was really true that not cleaning your instrument often enough could make you sick. Take a look at this NPR story and ask yourself when the last time you cleaned your horn was!
A number of months ago I mentioned in this blog that Adam Woolf, member of His Majesty’s Sagbutts & Cornetts and many of the other leading early music ensembles in Europe, would be publishing a sackbut method book in the near future. This welcome addition is now available here. To my knowledge, there are no other comparable resources available today. I’ll be getting one for my college trombone studio! Below are some highlights of the book, as described on his website:
Released in 2010, this tutor-book is the first of its kind. A compilation of exercises and advice based on years of specialist performing and teaching experience and many historical references, this book includes advice, exercises, explanations, studies and complete solo and ensemble works to challenge, encourage and inspire players of any level.
•Over 200 pages of advice, exercises and repertoire.
•Something for players of any level.
•Specifically written studies and exercises for articulation, ornamentation and tuning in temperaments.
•16 complete solo pieces including 8 sets of divisions.
•Duets, trios and more…
•Translations of vocal music.
•Excerpts from larger ensemble and ‘orchestral’ repertoire including Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers and Schütz’s Christmas Story.
World-famous violinist Pinchas Zukerman gave a masterclass at BYU last week. He worked with 3 violinists. There were, of course, plenty of technical things that he talked about, particularly about bowing—bow hold, bow angle, bow speed, etc.—that don’t apply directly to brass playing. One overriding concept, however, was very relevant. In every case, he slowed the students way down (to very slow quarter notes) and worked on getting a full, relaxed, resonant sound. Nothing else mattered until that was in place.
As I mentioned, bowing seemed to be a point of emphasis. I grew up around violin playing—My mother and 5 of my siblings play/played—so I realize this is a big deal. Mr. Zukerman emphasized a natural, relaxed, open approach. For brass and woodwinds, bowing translates roughly to breathing (the thing that gets the vibration started), which is something that’s a little harder to scrutinize for us because it’s mostly hidden. We can, however, work on taking full, relaxed breaths and using air in a relaxed, efficient way. The bottom line, and the concept I really took away from the masterclass, is an overarching emphasis on a full, relaxed, resonant sound. A great reminder for all musicians!
Sam Pilafian was recently a forum speaker here at BYU. He gave an excellent talk on his musical influences, among whom was Leonard Bernstein, who taught him at Tanglewood. According to Sam (and I realize this is 3rd-generation information, but it’s good advice anyway), Bernstein said he had 5 priorities in picking musicians for an orchestra. No real surprises—the first three I often call the “3 non-negotiables” of performance—but the list is a good reminder of basic priorities:
I added a new page, Learning the Alto Trombone. Drawn from my own playing experience, research, and 10 years of full-time college teaching, it offers a few suggestions for learning the alto trombone.
Below are some basic practice ideas I put together a few years ago for my college students. They apply, in most cases, to players at every level.
What should I practice?
2) Range exersize/soft practice (alternating days)
3) Method books/technique
5) Orchestral excerpts
6) Other: tunes (“pure melody”), jazz (Aebersold, transcriptions, Omnibook, standards in all keys, licks in all keys)
How should I work up the hard stuff?
1) Fragment—small pieces up to tempo. Gradually fuse smaller pieces together.
2) Metronome—up 10, back 5, up 10, etc.—provides both progress and relaxation
3) Rhythms—dotted eighth/sixteenth, then reverse (fast only every other note)
4) Mouthpiece buzzing—gets embouchure doing right thing and smooths over breaks
5) Slide only (gliss), then add tongue—simplifies and gets slide doing right thing
6) Build from strength—At some tempo/dynamic/pitch level, it’s easy. Start where it’s easy, then go from there, and you’ll always sound solid.
I know I need to practice, but how do I get myself to do it?
1) 2 hours before breakfast? Robert Langevin, principal flutist of the NY Phil, recommends getting in 2 hours of practicing every day before breakfast. Then you have lots of momentum and plenty of time to get in whatever additional practice you need. Not for everyone, but it’s an idea!
2) Consistent time & place (eliminates decision-making anguish)
3) Surveys and studies show that nobody at any level really likes practicing; those who excel do it anyway because they understand its importance. Studies repeatedly show that practice time—not talent, upbringing, socio-economic status, etc.—is consistently the best predictor of music performance achievement. For an interesting recent study on this subject, see Robert H. Woody, “The Motivations of Exceptional Musicians.” Music Educators Journal 90:3 (January 2004).
1) Metronome—for brass players it must be loud enough to be heard above your loud passages!
2) Electronic tuner—small Korg is good. Avoid guitar tuners and tuners w/hypersensitive needle.
3) Recorder of some kind—even the cheapest recorder can tell you more than you think.
1) Generally practice what you can’t do, not what you can do (except for #2, below).
2) Do daily run-through’s when preparing for a performance. This is especially important for recitals, which often present endurance concerns for brass players.
3) Avoid distractions. If you practice 3 hours a day, but 2 of them are in front of the TV, it’s not really 3 hours a day.
4) Don’t practice mistakes into what you’re working on (including passages with poor tone). Go back and fix what you miss (unless you’re doing a run-through). Repeatedly glossing over mistakes sends the wrong message to your brain.
5) Do NOT practice with pain. Trying to “practice through” pain can cause permanent damage to your embouchure. Take a break!
6) Practice the way you want to perform. For example, if you notice you are very tense when you perform, take a look at the way you practice.
We sometimes speculate as performers about what effect the relative order of a performance may have on the outcome of a competition, audition, or jury grade. An intriguing study published by Flores and Ginsburgh in The Statistician, available online here, sheds some light on the role performance order has on the outcome of competitions. The authors compiled data from the Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition, beginning in its inception in 1951 and spanning to 1993. This international violin and piano competition, held in Belgium every 4 years, is considered among the best in the world, counting among its winners such luminaries as Leon Fleisher and Vladimir Askenazy.
In evaluating the final rankings, the authors found a statistically significant bias against those competing early (the first day) and in favor of those competing later (the fifth day).
As an adjudicator, juror, and committee member, I know it is sometimes challenging to compare performances over the course of a full day, let alone multiple days. It may be that early on we hold back a little in an effort to gauge the overall performance level of the field. The authors of the study point out an additional possibility: the familiarity of repertoire. In one segment of the competition they studied, contestants are required to perform a newly-commissioned work unfamiliar to both the judges and the contestants. The authors suggest that judges gradually warm to the new work through the course of the competition as they hear more and more performances of it. Flores and Ginsburgh recommend, “It may thus help the members of the jury to get used to the piece and have it performed once or twice for their own use, before the competition starts.”
Performers do not always have a choice of when they perform (as in the competition in this particular study, which utilizes a random drawing); however, if they do, this study would seem to suggest against picking an early time (all other things being equal, of course). The study would also seem to suggest that, given a choice of repertoire, more familiar repertoire may be advantageous (again, all other things being equal). Finally, judges would be advised to do their best to guard against performance order and repertoire biases.
We’re talking about just part of the puzzle, of course. There’s no replacement for playing well!
There are 3 “non-negotiables” in trombone playing: 1) tone, 2) intonation, and 3) time/rhythm. If a player is in good shape in all 3 of these areas, chances of success in almost any performance, audition, or competition are high.
Tone, of course, is the first of these priorities. Without good tone, nothing else you can do really counts. Below are some suggestions for improving tone and attending to this highest of priorities.
1) Ideal Tone–Be sure to have a clear ideal sound in your head. Listen to great recordings and live performances. If you have no real idea how you would like to sound, your chances of ending up with great tone are pretty low. For recordings, I recommend Joseph Alessi. Flood your brain with good sound!
2) Air–Feed the sound with lots of air. Air is the equivalent of bow technique for strings. Relax, take in a little more air than you think you need, and exhale that air freely as you play (don’t try to meter the air with your chops). Generally speaking, most people simply don’t use enough air to give their tone a full, robust quality.
3) Small or Nasal Tone–The most common tone problem for beginning and intermediate trombonists is a small, nasal sound. To move toward a thicker, more robust tone, relax in general, use less “squeeze” in your lips, and try opening up the aperture (the hole in the embouchure) a little more. The problem of squeezing the embouchure too much is common even in college players. If you’ve ever heard a tuba player play a few notes on trombone, for example, the sound is beautiful! This is because they have a more relaxed approach to embouchure and they’re in the habit of using more air than trombonists generally are. In fact, I often recommend that my college students who are trying to get a bigger, thicker sound take a semester of tuba lessons. It really helps! Let your chops, particularly the middle of your lips, be as “floppy” and free to vibrate as possible.
4) Fuzzy or Airy Tone–The problem of fuzzy or airy tone is sometimes the result of not warming up or of basic fatigue. However, if you notice that you still have fuzz in your sound even when you’re warmed up and not fatigued, I recommend mouthpiece buzzing or “free” buzzing (buzzing without the mouthpiece). Orthodontic braces often cause extreme airy sound, and I heartily recommend buzzing to improve tone problems associated with braces. Excessively puffing your cheeks and/or bunching up your chin can also lead to airy tone.
5) Mouthpiece Pressure–Many of us use too much mouthpiece pressure, which can stifle tone. Every trombonist gets a little bit of a ring around their embouchure when they play; however, if you notice a deep red ring after only a few minutes of playing, you’re probably using too much pressure. All you need is enough to make a seal. Using too much pressure keeps vibration from freely occurring, stifles the sound, and often causes endurance problems. Also check pressure of the top vs. the bottom lip. With some players, this balance can really affect overall tone.
6) Tension–Too much overall physical tension can really affect tone. This is one of the biggest problems in loud playing for many trombonists–we get excited and intense, and we let that lead to physical tension, which leads to a “blatty” loud sound. See how relaxed you can be in general when you practice and perform. More than likely, the more relaxed you get, the thicker and freer your sound will be. When you’re practicing, if your sound is not good on a passage, relax, take a big breath, and try it again!
7) Priority–Finally, as I mentioned earlier, tone has to be a big priority. It’s at the very top of the list! If you’re practicing and you get the right notes and rhythms on a passage but the tone is bad, go back and get it with good tone. It doesn’t count unless it’s with good tone!
The Comeback Trombonist
As a trombone teacher at BYU, I work regularly—3 or 4 times a year—with players who have just taken 2 years away from their horn (for their LDS missions) and are returning to playing. After helping numerous students, consulting with other brass teachers around the state, and working through it as a player myself, I have come up with a few basic suggestions for the “comeback trombonist.” Presumably there are at least some applications for other, non-mission situations where players have taken considerable time off and are hoping to return.
1) Get Supervision—Returning from time off can actually be a great opportunity to “wipe the slate clean,” shedding old bad habits you may have had before. However, you don’t want to start a whole new set of bad habits. For this reason, it’s pretty important to get lessons with someone as soon as possible to make sure you don’t injure yourself or start any bad habits.
2) Return Gradually—Be patient! It’s going to take a little time. As with athletes returning after time off, the biggest danger for brass players is pushing too hard too soon. Rushing things is when performance injuries occur. It depends on the individual player, but four to six months is a reasonable amount of time to expect a low brass player to get their total playing ability back. A full, thick, free-blowing tone should always be the priority. High range and endurance are, of course, the last things to return. If you’re itching to do more, add some peripheral things that will help your playing but won’t stress your chops—listen to recordings, go to performances, look at scores, do jazz transcriptions, etc.
3) Flood Your Mind with Great Sound—Your mind has been elsewhere for a long time, and there’s a good chance your ideal sound is no longer as clearly in your head as it once was. Listen to lots of great trombone tone—both recorded and live—and get that sound firmly back into your mind. It will go a long way towards helping you re-establish your playing.
4) Enjoy—Some players become frustrated because their playing ability isn’t immediately where it was before and they begin to question whether they want to go into music after all. The first year after returning is definitely the time of highest turnover. Remember what it was that originally made you want to go into music. Have fun and enjoy all that’s great about making music.
As coordinator of brass chamber music at BYU, I require that the groups I oversee rehearse at least one hour a week without a chamber coach. I have found that these ensembles seem to get significantly more done when they have some concrete things to work on (in addition to the obvious–notes and rhythms). Below is a brief handout with some ideas on what to focus on in chamber music rehearsals.
Questions for the Successful Chamber Ensemble
(What should we work on?)
Will Kimball, Brigham Young University
1) Are the attacks and releases of the ensemble together? What is the body language of the other members of the group? Because there is no conductor, this aspect of performance becomes paramount. Watch the movements of the other players as they prepare for an entrance or make a release. Become accustomed to what they do so you can match entrances and releases exactly. Adjust your own body language if what you are doing is not clear enough to be seen peripherally.
2) How does your pitch (intonation) sound relative to the voice closest to you in pitch? Follow the intervals created by the two voices as you play a piece. Consider, especially the following: unisons, octaves, fourths, fifths, and “landing points.” Are you making the necessary harmonic adjustments (e.g., lowering major thirds)? As you listen for pitch, begin with the instrument closest to you in range and branch out to the others.
3) Is the ensemble blending well? Are some in the group playing with a bright sound, while others have a darker approach? You may decide to meet in the middle. If you are serious enough as an ensemble, you may even wish to make equipment changes. Also, make sure your understanding of terms such as “dark” and “bright” are the same.
4) What is the texture of the piece (or passage)? Thick? Thin? Consider this both as an ensemble and as an individual. How does your part fit within this texture? Are you making the ensemble sound too thick when it should sound light and transparent? (Or vice-versa?) Are you blending too much when you should be coming forward as a soloist? (Vice-versa?)
5) What is the color of the piece (or passage)? Bright? Dark? Consider this both as an ensemble and as an individual. Should it be bright and aggressive, like a fanfare or shout chorus? Dark and chorale-like? Biting and edgy? Does the ensemble really match? How can you manipulate your individual sound in this respect to help the ensemble?
6) Does the melody get passed from one instrument to another? Are you anticipating, like merging into fast traffic or passing a relay baton? For example, when passing off a melody mid-phrase, the initial player shouldn’t taper the end of his/her passage, and the second player shouldn’t overemphasize his/her first note, or the overall melody will probably end up with the wrong shape. Recording the group is very helpful for detecting these types of issues.
7) What is the role of your instrument (or part) in the ensemble? Do you lay down the bass line, supply inner harmonies, provide the countermelody, or play melody? In actual practice, you fill numerous roles, of course, depending on context, and you should be aware of which role you’re in at any given time in any piece of music. More generally, how does your part fit into the work as a whole? Be continually aware of how your part reflects the meaning, nuances, colors, story line, character, or other expressive elements of the music.
8) Which part interplays rhythmically most closely with yours? Notice the interplay—whether your interpretation of specific rhythmic figures matches, whether your pulse is ahead of or behind theirs, etc.
9) Try listening to specific pairings as you play through a piece. How do the volume, rhythm, and tone color of your part relate to other specific voices in the group? Listen to your part as it relates to each member of the ensemble. Consider playing through passages with various instrument pairings (trumpet-tuba, horn-tuba, trumpet-trombone, horn-trombone, etc.).
10) What emotional content in the piece would the ensemble like to convey to the audience? Discuss this as a group, including specific ways you can convey this content in a unified manner (e.g., note length, phrasing, dynamics, articulation, tone color, rubato, vibrato).
11) How should the biographical background of the composer, history of the work, and time period in which the work was written affect interpretation of the piece? Discuss these elements with the group and pay attention to whether the ensemble is reflecting them in actual performance.
12) How should the musical form, style, and construction of the piece affect performance? What are you going to do to help the audience recognize the recap? Are you matching style in every statement of the fugue subject? Are you mistakenly trying to make the whole jazz arrangement a shout chorus? Consider musical form in light of both your specific part and the ensemble as a whole.
13) Are you willing to compromise when you don’t agree about interpretation? Chamber music is all about give and take. Be willing to at least try someone else’s way or meet somewhere in the middle.
14) Is everyone allowed to express their opinion freely? A chamber ensemble should ideally function as a true democracy, with every player in the group entitled to an equal voice. Many successful professional chamber groups actually vote on matters ranging from repertoire to note length. Can’t agree? Try a vote.
15) How can you communicate verbally in a manner that is both clear and respectful? Since they have no conductor to make decisions, chamber ensembles rely heavily on good verbal communication. How do you receive criticism? Work on developing a thick skin and not taking offense at criticism; professional chamber musicians universally agree that having a thick skin is absolutely critical for success in the business. On the other hand, work on being considerate and not needlessly offending people; very little progress is made when colleagues are irritated and defensive.