Multitrack Christmas Carols!

One little project in which I have been engaged for the better part of the past year has been improving my understanding of recording technology. Not that I have ambitions of becoming a professional recording engineer, but I would like to be able to make credible recordings of lessons, rehearsals, concerts, students’ audition and competition entries, and my own practice sessions. Learning how to do this has involved a certain degree of trial and error, and a number of pieces of equipment purchased and returned before I found setups that work for me. At some future date I will write a post introducing the equipment I use and the reasons for choosing it. For now, though, I’ll just share a fun project from the past couple of weeks: making multitrack recordings of Christmas carols arranged for low brass instruments.

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The equipment used to record these videos is as follows: an Apple iPad Pro, an Audio-Technica AT2020 Microphone, a Behringer Xenyx Q1202USB Mixer, and the Acapella app by Mixcord. Again, I’ll discuss all of that in more detail in a later post. For now, please enjoy the recordings, along with my best wishes for this season in which we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior.

The first link here is for a complete playlist, followed by the individual videos. Enjoy!

Deck the Halls (Traditional/Pederson)

Sleigh Ride (Anderson/Wagner/Everett)

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (Hague/Seuss/Buckley)

Jingle Bells (Pierpont/Robertson)

I Saw Three Ships (Traditional/Elkjer)

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Calkin/Niehaus)

Good King Wenceslas (Traditional/Geese)

We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Traditional/Garrett)

Adeste Fideles (Traditional/Pederson)

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Bach/Elkjer)

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (Praetorius/Niehaus)

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (Traditional/Pederson)

Joy to the World (Mason/Pederson)

Salvation is Created (Tchesnokov/Everett)

The last one was originally intended as a Communion hymn rather than a Christmas or Advent one, but it works for this purpose. Its text is based upon Psalm 74:12, and is more or less translated “Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God. O, our God. Alleluia.” Generations of American band students have been introduced to this great work through a wind band arrangement created by Bruce Houseknecht in 1957. I created this version for mixed low brass ensemble in 2008; it is available for purchase here if you are interested.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Acapella App by Mixcord, Accessories, Bass Trombone, Christmas Carols, Digital Revolution, Euphonium, iPad, Multitrack Recordings, Music, Practicing, Recording Technology, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles, Tuba, Tuba-Euphonium Ensembles

Suite for Trombone and Orchestra by Axel Jørgensen: Complete Performance Recording

Despite having every intention of posting at least a couple of articles here since my last post on November 11, various responsibilities have kept me from doing so. I’d like to share a couple of things between now and the end of the year before taking a short break and resuming writing in the spring. Both this post and the one that follows will consist primarily of recordings. While it might seem odd to share performance recordings in the context of a blog post, since this blog primarily concerns brass playing and teaching it is helpful to know that its author can indeed play these instruments competently! Sharing these recordings here also allows me to put them “out into the world” without clogging my faculty page at Ole Miss or relying solely upon the vicissitudes of Facebook and YouTube algorithms to get them to interested listeners.

Today’s recording is from November 18 of this year, when I played the Suite for Trombone and Orchestra by Axel Jørgensen (1881-1947) with the Lafayette-Oxford-University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Selim Giray. As you might gather from the name, the L-O-U Orchestra is a “town and gown” orchestra, in which our university students are joined by players from the community, mostly music teachers and other local professionals. This was my first time appearing as soloist with the orchestra since 2012, and I was honored to have the opportunity. While the performance had the minor imperfections one expects with live music, these were very few, and overall the piece was very well received.

Jørgensen’s piece shares some similarities with the better-known Concerto by his contemporary and fellow Danish composer Launy Grøndahl (1886-1960). Both works are decidedly neoromantic in character, a quality shared by a number of other Scandinavian trombone works of the time. When he first asked me to perform with the orchestra Dr. Giray suggested the very well-known Concerto by Jørgensen’s younger Swedish contemporary Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986). Because I had already performed the Larsson with orchestra I wanted to use this opportunity to play something I had not yet performed with orchestral accompaniment, but I thought something similar out of that neoromantic Scandinavian repertoire would be a good choice, being enjoyable to the audience and not too taxing for the orchestra. Having already performed at least one movement of Grøndahl with orchestra,  I chose Jørgensen. Incidentally, Jørgensen lies right about in the middle of these three works in difficulty, and since I performed a very challenging solo recital only a month before this performance not overdoing it seemed like a good idea, as well.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the performance!

Posted in Axel Jørgensen, Music, Performances, Performing, Selim Giray, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, University of Mississippi

“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Tablet Computers as Sheet Music Replacements, Part 2

A little over four years ago I wrote an article defending my decision to not yet use a tablet computer for music reading, ending with the following words:

Again, I am sure that at some point in the not-too-distant future reading sheet music from tablet computers will be the usual practice. Nevertheless, until some standardization in the software applications used for this purpose occurs—particularly for marking parts for musical enhancements and avoiding errors—I remain unconvinced that the time has arrived. When such industry standard applications emerge I will be more willing to overcome my other two objections and join the “Sheet Music on iPad Revolution.”

euphWell, last year I decided to end my Luddism and begin performing and teaching using an iPad. I began in the summer of 2018 with a 9.7-inch device, but was able to upgrade to a used 12.9-inch iPad Pro a few months ago for even greater visibility. So far I have been very happy with the change, particularly as I now rarely have to travel with large binders or folders of sheet music. The more streamlined appearance at recitals is also a plus, with the iPad stand obstructing the audience’s view less than a music stand. I still have yet to digitize a large segment of my paper music library, a lack which remains the most serious drawback of this effort. However, as “sheet music” purchasing becomes increasingly digital and wifi access to cloud-based storage systems nearly ubiquitous, many of the concerns that prompted my initial reticence to adopt the iPad as a music-reading device have been alleviated.

forscore iconThe app that has been most helpful in this endeavor is called Forscore. I mentioned in my article four years ago that I saw the inability to efficiently mark music to correct and avoid errors was a serious drawback of reading from tablets, a problem that this app addresses very well. Accidentals and other markings are easily inserted using a tap-and-drag placement method that is very intuitive, and can be done in different colors in order to best draw attention (red seems to be the usual choice). Additional markings can be made using a finger, stylus, or Apple Pencil, including writing or highlighting in multiple colors. My parts now are rather colorful, with corrections indicated in a way that immediately draws my attention. Page turns can be done by hand or with a Bluetooth pedal, and can be configured for half or full page turns at each swipe or tap. My only complaint about this app is that scores and parts have to be loaded into it manually from the cloud drive and metadata entered for indexing; in some ways this resembles the way one would organize music for a recordings library like iTunes rather than a sheet music library. Nevertheless, Forscore seems to have emerged as an industry standard in this area, and its functionality more than makes up for this one oddity.

A further complaint about Forscore is that it is available only in iOS. In fact, that is a common issue with music-related mobile apps. While I have become rather fond of my Samsung smartphone, I have retained an Apple tablet because the software I use for my work is available only in that system. Additionally, Android tablets tend to be shaped more for viewing widescreen movies and videos than for documents. Perhaps one day music reading won’t be an iOS-only endeavor, but for now that seems to largely be the case.

fireflyRegarding other accessories, the most important is my PageFlip Firefly Bluetooth pedal, which I use to turn pages when playing. This device connects easily, has extremely long battery life, and simply works. I have seen and heard others complain about their page-turning pedals from other makers sometimes being a bit touch-and-go but that has not been my experience at all with this device. Highly recommended.

iReal-Pro-Logo_website_highr-1024x252I’ll mention one more app before leaving this post, one that is not directly related to music reading per se but has been extremely helpful in my practicing and teaching: iRealPro. To put it briefly, if something like this had existed when I was 18 years old I would be a FAR better jazz/commercial/popular musician than I am now. In this app one can download chord changes for thousands of songs, transpose them, change the tempo or style, and explore practically unlimited ideas for practicing and developing style and improvisation. While this app does not have complete lead sheets (i.e. with notes and rhythms in addition to chord changes), paired with lead sheets from The Real Book or other sources it is a formidable resource. And, unlike Forscore, it works on both iOS and Android.

I knew when I wrote that 2015 article that at some point I would join the “Sheet Music on iPad Revolution.” I’ve been there for a while now, and so far I’m liking it. In fact, I need to go and check the charge on the batteries: I’m going to be conducting a rehearsal using the iPad in a few minutes.

Posted in "Gadgets and Gizmos", Forscore, Improvisation, Instructional Technology, iPad, iRealPro, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Practicing, Smartphones, Teaching Low Brass

The Bell is Lava!

Touching the bell in order to locate third—and sometimes even fourth—position is a common bad habit among trombonists. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. When first learning to play young musicians are taught to visually locate some of the slide positions in relation to the location of the bell, and third position in particular lies close enough to it that touching the bell with the index and/or middle fingers becomes a means of ensuring that one has found the right “spot.” Some teachers of beginning students even encourage this practice, unfortunately. A few students will extend this approach to finding fourth position by reaching back with the right thumb, which becomes particularly unhelpful as the student grows and the placement of fourth position moves further and further out as the thumb lengthens.

The problems with this approach are as obvious as the reasons for adopting it. While young students with untrained ears must be taught to locate slide positions using various visual or tactile clues (i.e. judging by the location of the bell or the feeling of a more or less full extension of the arm), the hope is that they will move as quickly as possible to locating slide positions aurally, by the sounds and intonation of the pitches being played. Touching the bell to locate slide positions disrupts this process, as students will essentially shut off the ears in favor of finding positions solely with the hands. As I’m fond of saying “fingers are great, but they don’t hear very well!”

An additional problem with touching the bell is disruption of technique. As students become more advanced and the technical requirements of assigned music increase the impulse to touch the bell when passing third and/or fourth positions hampers the execution of fast-moving passages. While I am ultimately not a “don’t-touch-the-bell purist” (i.e. I don’t usually correct the habit if it occurs only occasionally and doesn’t seem to be causing problems with tuning or technique), when a student’s bell-touching detracts from the quality of performance it must be corrected immediately.

Gavin

Ouch! (I’m a bad person.)

The question is how does one break a student (or oneself) of this habit? Often it goes away on its own as the music becomes too difficult to execute while touching the bell. Likewise, as students’ listening skills improve they become too dissatisfied with the poor tuning when touching the bell to continue doing so. I have occasionally resorted to extreme illustrations like taping a thumb tack or push pin to the student’s bell. This is for illustrative purposes only—I do not actually place the sharp point in a location where the student will touch it and be injured—but it sometimes communicates the message. A less extreme version of this is to modify the children’s game “the floor is lava” and instead say “the bell is lava.” I tried that one just this afternoon with a student and his execution immediately improved. Maybe that’s a healthier visualization than taping sharp implements to students’ instruments!

In the end, bell-touching tends to decrease as students practice and improve. When it persists, this habit is very likely indicative of insufficient practice as much as anything else. A healthy, daily regimen of fundamental exercises and scale studies is called for.

And remind them that “the bell is lava!”

Lava Bell

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone

“The Good Sound:” Complete Performance Recordings

Last week I performed a recital of music for euphonium with piano or electronic accompaniment as part of the University of Mississippi’s Faculty Recital Series. The program’s title, “The Good Sound,” is a tongue-in-cheek play on the meaning of the word “euphonium.” Although I perform euphonium solo and chamber works fairly regularly, this was my first full-length solo euphonium program in ten years. The program went relatively well and was well-received, and I’m happy to share the live performance recordings, “warts and all,” with readers of The Reforming Trombonist.

Julius Klengel (1859-1933), arr. Micah Everett: Concertino No. 1, op. 7

Ennio Morricone (b. 1928), arr. Adam Frey and Kevin Kaska: Gabriel’s Oboe (from “The Mission”)

Herbert L. Clarke (1867-1945): From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific

Benjamin McMillan (b. 1984): Mandelbrot’s Dream

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), arr. Patrick Hoffman: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

Peter Graham (b. 1958): The Holy Well (from “On Alderley Edge”)

 

Posted in Euphonium, Micah Everett, Music, Performance Videos, Performances, University of Mississippi

“Gadgets and Gizmos:” Dry Mouth Spray

A long-term debate exists among brass players regarding the advantages and disadvantages of dry and wet lips when playing. Some insist that playing is easiest when the lips are relatively dry, while others prefer that they be moist. This is largely a matter of personal preference, and in any case the debate, such as it is, is between two forms of a moderate position; most players would agree that excessive moisture becomes problematic, and practically no one wants a completely dry mouth and oral cavity. Far from being desirable, the sensation of dry mouth is an experience dreaded by players when it occurs.

Dry mouth is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. It is a common symptom of various forms of performance anxiety, and is usually considered harmless. Those experiencing dry mouth during public speaking, for example, can take a glass of water with them and usually continue without difficulty. For the brass player, though, dry mouth can cause serious difficulties in performance, hampering tone quality, response, and flexibility. While having water on stage can help, drinking water during rests can be distracting. More importantly, the water can rinse out what remains of the mouth’s natural moisture, ensuring that the first drink taken will not be the last. I am therefore perhaps too reticent to have a bottle of water with me on stage, and recently found myself in quite a bit of peril because of it.

When performing at the recent International Trombone Festival at Ball State University, during the third movement of a four-movement piece I felt as if all of the moisture in my mouth was simply gone. Having no water on stage, between the third and final movements I stood and silently chewed the sides of my tongue for a couple of minutes to stimulate salivation, and then continued the performance. That was a disappointing experience, especially because I was certain that without the dry mouth my performance of the third movement would have been considerably better.

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Later that same day, some of my students attended a performance by a prominent trombonist and one noticed that he periodically sprayed moisture from a small bottle into his mouth. Intrigued, the student found that player later and asked what the spray was. He told him that it was a spray used for dry mouth, with which he had become familiar when a relative experienced dry mouth during treatment for an illness. Knowing of my own dry mouth experience the same day, the student sent me a text message about this, and later that day I found a bottle of Biotène Dry Mouth Moisturizing Spray at a local store. I used it before later performances at the ITF and had a much better experience. I have continued to use this product, even before and during my solo recital last night at Ole Miss. It is an effective product, and similar formulations are available from several manufacturers.

The advantages of a spray like this are two. First, it is discrete. The bottle is small, can be easily carried in one’s pocket, and is used very quickly without drawing much attention. Second, and perhaps more importantly, these sprays stimulate salivation, rather than providing only a brief period of moisture before another drink is needed. Indeed, only a small amount of the dry mouth spray is needed at any particular time, and I am still using the bottle I purchased back in July.

Are dry mouth sprays a total replacement for water? No, and I still advocate hydrating generously on the day of a big performance. I even had a bottle of water to drink a bit between pieces last night. But do such sprays provide one more “tool in the box” that can help to improve performance? Absolutely, and I am thankful for the discovery.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Biotène Dry Mouth Moisturizing Spray, Contrabass Trombone, Embouchure, Euphonium, International Trombone Festival, Music, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Truth, Tuba

Avoiding the Patrick Star Sound (“The Singing Trombone” Epilogue)

A couple of days ago I wrote a little article about the historical and musical reasons for taking a “singing” approach to trombone playing. While I did not say so directly, this approach is appropriate not only for the trombone, but for all of the low brass instruments. (And perhaps other instruments as well, but I don’t want to step beyond my own expertise.) I should add one caveat, though: while a singing approach is normally a good thing, that does to certain extent depend on what particular singer one wishes to emulate.

Many low brass players, when questioned, would say that the pursuit of a “dark” sound is an appropriate goal. At one point in my career I would have agreed without question, but I wonder if the subjective categories of “bright” and “dark” are as helpful as we sometimes think. At the very least, there are times when a brighter sound is appropriate and other times when a darker one is so. Therefore, I instead encourage students to pursue a vibrant sound. When the lips are vibrating as freely as possible in the mouthpiece, the sound will be a full and desirable one, regardless of the particular bright or dark coloring one wishes to pursue.

One unhappy side effect of the unquestioned pursuit of a dark sound is the development of what I have begun calling the “Patrick Star Sound,” after the character on the Spongebob Squarepants cartoon. Players seeking a dark sound often will in some way stop using an energetic airstream that engages the lips with vigor, and instead allow the air to lose momentum in the back of the oral cavity or top of the throat. The effect of this when singing is to move from a clear and natural tone to one more like Patrick’s voice on the show. The effect when playing a brass instrument is not unlike this. The tone might be described as very warm, but without focus or vigor, and a certain inconsistency that comes from the air not engaging the embouchure as vigorously as possible. Needless to say, this is not a characteristic sound.

While an affable character, Patrick Star is certainly the buffoon of the Spongebob Squarepants program, and not a character one would wish to emulate in real life. For the brass player, add Patrick’s vocal tone to the list of traits worth *not* emulating.

And in case you have no idea what in the world I’m talking about, perhaps this video will be instructive. I doubt you’ll have to watch the entire thing in order to get the point!

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Embouchure, Euphonium, Music, Patrick Star, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Spongebob Squarepants, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba