The Gig Acceptance Trifecta      

Before even beginning today, I want to give due credit to Andrew Hitz, whose podcasts The Brass Junkies (cohosted with Lance LaDuke) and The Entrepreneurial Musician ought to be required listening for every low brass player. I honestly can’t remember which one of those shows was the source for this idea, as I heard the episode some time ago, but it was brought to mind by a recent interaction on Facebook.

69677204_2447974078642828_4044581873853136896_nThe occasion was a humorous post about a subject familiar to all working musicians: the suggestion that one should be willing to play for “exposure.” For better or worse, certain segments of our society seem to believe either that musicians ought to perform for free and earn their living doing something else, or that “if musicians are given enough (free) exposure from me, surely other people will discover these musicians and offer them paid work.” The first idea might seem reasonable—make music a hobby that you share with others simply for the love of it—but performing/teaching/writing/doing music at a high level requires time for individual practice and development, and that time is lost whenever one has to take a day job. And even if that job allowed adequate time for practice and preparation, good mental/emotional/spiritual health requires that one have some time for leisure. To put it briefly, for the musician a day job, while sometimes necessary, detracts from the time necessary to develop and maintain high-level execution of his or her craft. If performing/teaching/writing/doing music can’t pay the bills, musicians by and large won’t start working for free. They’ll have to do something else, and any music making that remains as a side hustle won’t be nearly as good.

The second idea, that of performing for exposure, also might seem reasonable to those offering such engagements, and admittedly musicians sometimes make calculated decisions to perform for free in certain venues—more on that in a moment. Too often, though, the “exposure” gained from such engagements is simply to other people who also want free musical services. While exposure can be a good thing, you can’t eat it, fill your car with it, or pay your rent with it. At some point real remuneration becomes a necessity.

So how should one decide whether or not to take a gig, especially one with low or no pay? Here is the great idea that I got from one of those podcasts. There are three elements that one must consider:

  • The music.
  • The hang.
  • The money.

The rule of thumb is that one should only accept an engagement if at least two of those elements is satisfactory. I have played some great music with great people for little or no money, and left fully satisfied. I have played not-that-great music with great folks for really good money, and also left fully satisfied. I have played great music with people I didn’t know very well but got paid pretty well, and…well, you get the idea. There is, of course, a limit on the number of “good music-good hang” gigs one can take before going broke, but generally speaking this is a good guide when considering an offered engagement, particularly when the pecuniary rewards are small or nonexistent. Sometimes “exposure” really does work out, especially when the music is great and you get to play with great musicians or even meet new people who might help you get paying work in the future. But only sometimes.

The Gig Acceptance Trifecta is a simple scheme, but it works. And go listen to those podcasts. There is much great advice to be found there.


Posted in Andrew Hitz, Economics, Lance LaDuke, Performing, Podcasts, Society, The Brass Junkies, The Business of Music, The Entrepreneurial Musician, Work and Leisure

Fifteen Steps to Playing a Better All-State Audition (Repost)

Today I am reposting, for the eighth year, one of the more popular posts on this blog. With high school students preparing for auditions for all-state groups and similar ensembles around this time of year, posting this article every fall seems appropriate.

Let me also remind Mississippi band students that I have posted a series of videos on my Ole Miss website specifically related to preparing low brass players to audition for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band. While some of the material below repeats information covered in those videos, the ideas here are intended to be more broadly applicable, both to students that play other instruments, and to those taking auditions in other states. Teachers, please feel free to share these ideas with your students if you think they will be helpful.

1. Keep your instrument in optimum working condition. This should be obvious, but often a student’s playing is hindered by a slide that doesn’t move well, frozen piston valves, noisy rotary valves, etc. If your instrument has a problem of some kind, have your band director or private teacher check it. Perhaps all that is needed is a thorough cleaning, or a minute adjustment. If your teacher is unable to resolve the problem, take your instrument to be serviced by a qualified technician.

When your instrument is in good working order, make sure to clean and lubricate it regularly. Often mechanical problems that can “make or break” an audition are the result of a lack of proper care and maintenance, and these always seem to occur at the most inopportune times. Regular maintenance will not only prevent damage, but will make your instrument easier and more fun to play, help your practice sessions to be more productive, and very likely lead to success in the audition.

2. Practice. Every day. When you’re not practicing, one of your competitors is. The students that earn the top chairs in all-state auditions have a disciplined and consistent approach to practice, often practicing for 10 to 15 hours per week (or about 1.5 to 2 hours per day), if not more. I recommend conceiving of your practice time in terms of a weekly schedule rather than a daily one, as this has the advantage of allowing you to plan for days that you might not be able to practice as much (because of band festivals, extra homework, church activities, etc.) and compensate by practicing more on the days when you have more time available. Do make sure that you do at least some practicing every day, though. Even 10-20 minutes on an extremely busy day is better than nothing.

3. Begin each day with a thorough warm-up/maintenance routine. Some time each day should be spent on playing fundamentals, including breathing exercises, mouthpiece buzzing exercises, long tones, articulation exercises, lip slurs, and range extension exercises. Make sure that you have some way of systematically addressing each of these areas every day, seeking to both maintain and extend your fundamental playing skills. Some routines that I have constructed for this purpose can be found here.

4. Spend 20-50% of your practice time on playing fundamentals. Continuing with the previous thought, the ideal “warm-up” routine contains much more material than the body needs to be ready to play a band rehearsal or even give a concert. Rather, successful players spend a significant portion of their practice time working on fundamental skills like those mentioned above. In my own playing I have found that the more time I spend on developing fundamental playing skills, the less time I need to spend in order to prepare actual repertoire for performance or auditions. And, since these fundamental skills apply to essentially every piece of music, I do not have to “reinvent the wheel” every time I learn a new piece. Instead, I am able to quickly discern what skills and techniques are needed for a given piece and immediately apply them, thus greatly reducing the amount of practice needed to learn and master a new piece of music. This means that I am able to cover a very large amount of music in each practice session.

When you are preparing for an important audition or performance, aim for spending at least 20% of your practice time (approximately 12 minutes of a one-hour practice day or 24 minutes of a two-hour practice day) on fundamentals. If you have nothing “big” coming up, consider spending as much as 50% of your practice time on fundamentals. This can seem repetitive at times, but it pays huge dividends for your playing in the future!

5. Play everything with the best sound you can produce. Ambitious high school students tend to place a lot of emphasis on range and speed; to use a common expression, playing “higher, faster, and louder.” This tendency is not altogether bad, as one of the purposes of activities like all-state auditions is to push students to extend their technical capabilities on their instruments. However, it is easy to forget that none of these things really matter if one plays with a poor or uncharacteristic tone.

I often illustrate this concept to my students by playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the trombone. By most accounts, this is a difficult technical feat. The first time I play it, I play with a good, characteristic trombone sound, and students are usually quite impressed. But then, I play it a second time, this time with an extremely poor sound. I’m playing just as quickly, double-tonguing just as much, and moving the slide just as accurately, and yet students usually find this second performance to be rather unimpressive. Nobody cares how “high, fast, and loud” you can play if your sound is poor.

Make a concerted effort to play everything with the best sound you can produce. Even scales can sound great, and since scales are usually the first things played in an audition, you can set a positive tone (sorry) for the entire audition by playing them with a good sound. Then maintain that great sound through the prepared pieces and sight reading. This will certainly improve your score for the entire audition.

6. Memorize your scales, and practice them at least once per day. They have to be automatic! Scales are a big part of every all-state audition, and yet they are so often played poorly. Successful students memorize all of their scales (this is required in most states, including Mississippi, but some states allow the use of a scale sheet during the audition, unfortunately). If you don’t have your scales memorized yet, make this a priority—you don’t want to enter the audition room still unsure about one or more of the required scales.

When the audition is several weeks or even months away, it is helpful to practice your scales slowly, in order to foster playing with a great tone quality (see above), and playing in tune. As you increase in proficiency, keep working to play faster, but if intonation or tone quality begin to suffer, return to practicing slowly. The goal is to play fast, AND in tune, AND with a good sound.

Most band students are more familiar with the “flat” scales than with the “sharp” scales. This makes sense, as most band music is written in “flat keys” (at least when referring to “concert” pitch). If you are having trouble with certain keys, then practice those scales twice as much as the ones with which you are more familiar. When you walk into the audition room, you want to be equally comfortable—or at least sound like you are equally comfortable—with every scale.

Regarding range, in some states all students play each scale in the same prescribed range. In others (including Mississippi), students are rewarded for pursuing extra octaves. If yours is a “prescribed range” state, then make sure you can play all of the scales in the prescribed range. Playing less than that will result in a huge deduction from your score. If your state rewards extra octaves, then play as many octaves as you can in the allotted time, but do not attempt range that you cannot play well every time. Hearing a student “nail” a “high R-sharp” is always impressive, and that student will earn a high score. However, the student that strains and reaches for that “R-sharp” might have scored better if he stuck with a range he could play well.

7. Know the definitions of all of the musical terms in your etudes. Musical instructions are usually written in Italian, sometimes in German, and sometimes in French. Rarely are these instructions written in English. And yet, those listening to your playing will expect you to know what the terms in at least your prepared pieces mean, and to observe them in your performance. There is no excuse for ignoring these terms, and yet I have listened to auditions in which 70% or more of the students completely ignored one or more terms, and as a result gave performances that were wildly “off the mark.” If you want to earn a high score, follow the instructions, regardless of the language in which those instructions are written. To do even better, try to memorize a large number of common terms, so that you can also correctly observe any markings in the sight reading part of the audition.

By the way, “in the old days” we had to purchase music dictionaries in order to look up the meanings of musical terms, and sometimes we had to refer to Italian-English dictionaries, for example, in order to find more obscure terms. Today, you can quickly and easily find the definition of any term simply by “Googling it.” In short, there is no excuse. Know what terms mean, and do what they say!

8. Use a metronome, and practice your scales and etudes both slower and faster than the prescribed tempos. These days, there is no excuse for not owning and using a metronome in one’s daily practice. Not only can simple metronomes be purchased inexpensively at most music stores, but also cheap or free metronome programs can be found to work with computers and most smartphones or tablets. I recommend using the metronome not only to foster correct rhythm and timing when practicing scales and etudes at the prescribed tempos, but also to enable systematic practice at both slower and faster tempos. The process I use is as follows:

First, practice materials at 50% of the indicated tempo. This is for the purpose of working out fingerings, articulations, and tone quality without the pressures created by playing faster. For etudes that are already slow, practicing at half tempo will foster better phrasing. Try to phrase in the same way and breathe in the same places as you would when playing at tempo. You will then have a much easier time making your phrases when you resume playing faster.

Second, practice at 75% of the indicated tempo. This provides a convenient “halfway point” between the slower tempo you practiced before and the tempo for which you are striving.

Third, practice at the indicated tempo. Having followed the two steps indicated above, you will find that playing at tempo will be much easier for you than if you had begun by practicing this quickly. Continue using the metronome to ensure that you are counting and keeping time accurately.

Fourth, practice at 125% of the indicated tempo. This is especially helpful for the scales and faster etudes. This tempo will feel extremely fast, and even frantic, but still attempt it, even if you are never able to make your playing as clean as you would like at this tempo.

Finally, return to the indicated tempo. Having worked out notes, fingerings, tone, tuning, and phrasing at slower tempos, and then at least tried to master the necessary technique at faster tempos, playing at tempo will feel balanced, even, and relatively relaxed. Alternate playing with and without the metronome for this step.

Not all of these steps need to be completed each day, particularly as you become more proficient at playing your scales and etudes, but these are necessary when first beginning work on your audition materials, and later on are still useful for occasional “refreshers.”

9. Mark your breaths. One helpful practice that is neglected by many students is that of planning and marking breaths. While you will be playing your scales from memory, go ahead and practice breathing at the same place(s) every time you play a given scale.

In the prepared pieces, make a clear mark at the places where you know you will breathe, and then some smaller markings in parentheses in places where you can breathe “if you have to.” By planning your breaths and then breathing in the same places every time you practice your scales and etudes, you will deliver a more consistent and pleasing musical result, and will also take an important step toward mitigating the effects of nervousness. Because you will have practiced breathing—deeply—in the same places each time, when you are in the audition room you will be likely to continue breathing deeply in those places, rather than taking unplanned and shallow breaths as people tend to do when they are “on edge.”

In order to determine where to breathe, sit down with your prepared pieces and a pencil, without your instrument. Note the places where musical phrases end (look for the ends of phrase markings or slurred lines in particular), and mark breaths in those places, as well as during any rests. In short, figure out where the music itself indicates pauses, and plan to breathe in those places. If this yields too few breaths, or if you are afraid you might need some “extra,” mark additional possible breaths in parentheses. Because you are using pencil, you can always erase and adjust your planned breathing if necessary, but by planning breaths without your instrument you are allowing the music to determine where you breathe, rather than your subjective “felt need” for air. This will yield a very mature and pleasing performance.

10. Don’t practice something until you get it right once. Practice it until you can’t get it wrong! As an applied lesson teacher, I can easily tell when a student has not practiced, but I can also tell when a student has practiced something until he “got it right once.” This student will play with a good tone quality and pretty good technique that are indicative of regular practice, but when playing scales, etudes, and solo literature he will make interesting mistakes. When questioned, he will say that he made that same mistake repeatedly when practicing. Immediately, I am aware that the student practiced that etude at least three times each day, making the mistake twice, and “getting it right” the third time. What’s the problem with this? The student has practiced playing incorrectly twice as many times as he has practiced playing correctly!

When preparing for the audition, don’t run through troublesome passages until you play them correctly one time—repeat those passages until you get them right five or even ten times successively. By doing this, you will make a habit of playing these passages correctly, instead of having to address the same mistakes each time you practice.

11. Sight read something every day. The sight reading portion of the audition is the scariest part for many students, largely because it is the most “unknown” element of the audition. While it would be impossible to prepare for the specific piece that you will encounter during the sight reading portion of a given audition, you can greatly improve your chances of succeeding at this part simply by sight reading something each day. There are a number of books available with short etudes designed for sight reading practice, and I have even recommended a few of them, but the main thing is that you find unfamiliar music of a variety of styles, time signatures, key signatures, tempos, and levels of difficulty, and sight read as much of it as you can. This will make you more familiar and comfortable with the process. Make sure also that you have a teacher or some other knowledgeable individual listen to your sight reading from time to time, to make sure that you aren’t making any unnoticed mistakes.

12. Get a private teacher. Even the best band director has too many obligations, too little time, and not enough expertise on every instrument to effectively coach all of his or her students for all-state auditions. If at all possible, arrange for regular lessons with a private teacher that is knowledgeable about your instrument and the audition process. This person will help you to put the ideas listed here as well as other helpful concepts into practice, and will (provided that you follow his or her instructions) greatly increase your chances of playing a successful audition. Ask your band director for names and contact information of qualified teachers in your area. You might also look for professors and students at nearby universities and community colleges, and perhaps even professional players if you live near a large city.

An added benefit of private instruction is that your teacher’s ideas will apply not only to the immediate goal of making the all-state band, but to making you a better player overall. If you want to continue playing in college—and particularly if you want to major in music—this extra help might literally “pay off” in the form of higher band scholarship offers.

13. Dress for the occasion. One change in the “culture” of auditions that I have observed over the past fifteen years or so is the increasing informality of dress among students auditioning. When I was a high school student, it was not unusual for young men to wear a shirt and tie and perhaps a sport coat for auditions and for young women to wear a blouse and skirt or even a dress. In recent years, I have noticed more and more students auditioning wearing jeans and t-shirts—and not even their “good” jeans and t-shirts! This is not a positive development, in my opinion.

The way that you dress communicates something about the seriousness with which you take a given endeavor. When you make an effort to “dress up” for an occasion, you communicate to others (and yourself) that you believe you are doing something important. When I serve as an audition judge, a student that walks into the room smartly dressed communicates to me that he takes his playing seriously, and before the first note is played, I have unconsciously begun to form positive expectations about how that student will perform. Conversely, a student with a slovenly appearance communicates a negative image, and my expectations are likewise negative. That might not seem “fair,” but judges are human, and will inevitably form “first impressions” of some kind. Make sure you the impression you make is a good one!

By the way, this counsel even applies in the case of “blind” auditions (those in which the judges cannot see the student auditioning). While it might seem absurd to “dress up” when those evaluating your playing will not be able to see you, there is something to be said for how your dress affects your own self-perception and carriage. By dressing well for the audition, you are mentally preparing yourself for the important task at hand, and you will be more likely to conduct yourself throughout the process in a manner most conducive to playing a great audition.

14. Be confident. Part of playing a successful audition is carrying yourself and then playing in a confident manner. If you have prepared diligently for the audition, you have no reason not to be sure about yourself and your playing, and your entire presentation, from the way you dress (see above) to the way you play each of the required items should communicate confidence and poise. While this may not directly impact your score, self-assured students to tend to play better, which does have a direct impact on the final score.

Perhaps you are like me, and inevitably have a greater or lesser degree of “butterflies in your stomach” every time you play a high-stakes audition or performance. In such situations, you feel anything but confident! If this describes you, you might find it helpful to “fake it.” Put on an air of confidence, even though you don’t feel that way at all. Not only will your judges view your playing in a more positive light, but you might find that by feigning self-confidence you “psych yourself in” to actually being more confident, and thus playing better.

15. Have FUN!!! Auditions are nerve-racking experiences, and the entire process—from practice and preparation to the audition day itself—can become anything but fun. In such situations, it is easy to forget that one of the main reasons we took up playing our instruments in the first place was the enjoyment that our playing provides to ourselves and others. Make sure that you include something “fun” in your practice time each day, and as you prepare the “hard stuff,” keep the end goal of the audition in mind. Performing great music at a high level with students that take music seriously is an exciting and fun experience afforded to relatively few high school band members. The hard work required to get there is worth it!

Posted in Auditions, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Education, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Success Flows from Rightly Ordered Thinking…In Music and In Life

Instead of taking my usual summer break from blogging, over the past few weeks I have written a little series I have called “Essential Concepts in Brass Playing.” A recurring theme in each of those posts is the importance of conceptualization. I attacked from several different angles the problem of trying to perform music with an excessive focus on process rather than result, as well as problems that arise from misconceptions of the physical processes used in playing. The longer I teach—and the longer I work on my own playing—the more convinced I am that big problems in brass playing grow out of seemingly small errors and misunderstandings at the most basic level. Just as a very small problem in the foundation of a house can lead to very large and noticeable problems higher up, so very big and obvious performance problems so often stem from a very slight misconception in some fundamental area of playing. And yet in both the house and in the musicianship in my examples any corrections of the larger, more obvious problems will be short-lived if the foundational problem is not addressed. Again, for the musician this error is nearly always a conceptual misunderstanding of some basic aspect of how to play. Success will only come when this conceptual error is corrected. The player’s disordered thinking must become rightly ordered for him or her to realize success.

I’m sure by now you are thinking, like me, that this concept applies to more than just music (or building construction). Wrongheaded concepts in all kinds of areas can lead us to erroneous thinking or actions. To use another personal example, a little over twelve years ago I started experiencing chronic neck and jaw pain, which spread to my low back and elsewhere after an automobile accident about a year later. After an MRI showing some congenital malformation of the spine and some minor disc herniation and deterioration, I concluded that I was irrevocably “broken” and that at some level I would always experience back and neck pain.

51Xa+ehwX0L._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_Fast forward now about ten years. A couple of years ago I discovered the work of Dr. John Sarno (1923-2017), Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University, and other physicians and authors who built upon his work, such as Dr. David Hanscom, Dr. Howard Schubiner, and Steve Ozanich. These folks theorized that much chronic pain lacks a clear structural cause, instead having to do with stress, tension, and repressed emotions. After ten years of almost daily pain I was willing to try anything, especially since the physicians with whom I consulted about my back and neck issues were not fully convinced that the structural abnormalities observed on the MRI were the primary cause of my symptoms (and one even suggested that my main problem was stress). In studying these ideas I discovered that there was much there that did indeed apply to me. By becoming more aware of how stress and even more unwelcome emotions resulting from it, like fear and anger, affect my body, my pain levels have gone down tremendously. Once again, rightly ordered thinking—in this case understanding that my pain issues were not entirely structural in origin—improved my quality of life. In time this facilitated my return to a more active lifestyle and some significant weight loss.

And there are even more important areas of life to which this applies. Politically I would call myself a conservative, and lean to the right on most issues. Why is this the case? Mainly because I believe that conservatives view the world and human nature as they are (or at least strive to do so), whereas progressives view the world and human nature as they wish them to be. Conservatives oppose socialism, for example, not because they think socialism’s goal of a just and fair society is somehow evil, but because both human nature and the observed experience of the past century dictate that such a system can never deliver on its promises, no matter how much its proponents wish it to be so. Good social and political policies must flow from—once again—a rightly ordered understanding of the world and of humanity. This isn’t to say that conservatives always live up even to their own ideals in concept or in action, but the ideals are at least the right ones.

francis-schaeffer-contemplatingSpeaking of human nature, that brings me to the most important area to which this idea applies, that of religion. After all, if God exists, created all things, and will demand an account of all of his creatures, then the most important area of life in which our thinking must be rightly ordered is our thinking about who this God is and what he demands of us. What we find when looking at religions is that Christianity alone gives us a worldview that is consistent with observed reality. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) would say that every worldview must answer three questions: Where did we come from?, What’s wrong with the world?, and How do we fix it?. He would then say that Christianity’s answers alone answer these questions in a way that fits the world as we see it. Those answers are that human beings were created by a good and holy God in his image, that we fell into sin and dragged all of creation down with us, and that this will be fixed in small measure as people work to serve God and others, and ultimately with the return of Christ to judge the world and reign in the new heavens and earth.

To the non-Christian perhaps that sounds like a bunch of nonsense, but think about it. To posit that human beings are “basically good” doesn’t fit the world as we see it. People of all walks of life, when left to themselves, will lie, cheat, steal, and sometimes even kill to get their way. And yet to say that they are totally evil or even morally indifferent doesn’t fit either, because human beings are capable of acts of great kindness, generosity, and charity. But to say that human beings were made in the image of a holy God, and that this image is still present yet distorted by sin—that fits what we see around us, a humanity that is bent toward evil yet capable of great good. Once we understand and accept this, the desire to know and be reconciled to that perfect and holy God who made us follows quite logically. Happily, God has made the Way plain in his Word.

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963)

Of course, Christianity cannot be forced to exist only in the “religious” area of our lives, since it is, among other things, a lens through which one sees the world. But that understanding of a broken or “bent” humanity (as C.S. Lewis [1898-1963] might put it) has implications for all kinds of areas. It teaches us as individuals to love and care for our fellow man, but also to be wise and circumspect, knowing that that fellow man might turn and rob us. As societies it tells us to construct laws and policies that encourage the good while restraining the evil, neither assuming the worst about humanity nor naively hoping that the evil can somehow be educated or rehabilitated out of existence.

I could go on but this post is already lengthy. Success flows from rightly ordered thinking. As a musician, I must rightly know what I want to sound like and how to get there in order to be successful. Good health flows at least in part from a right understanding of one’s strengths, weaknesses, and ailments. A rightly ordered society flows from a correct understanding of the world and of human nature, a nature that is capable of imaging its Creator by doing great good yet is bent toward evil. And this right understanding drives us to seek the God who has redeemed a people for himself in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, who saves all who call upon him in repentance and faith, and will one day return to make all things new.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)



Posted in Alto Trombone, Apologetics, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Bible, Books, C.S. Lewis, Christ's Person and Work, Christian Worldview, David Hanscom, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Francis Schaeffer, Howard Schubiner, John Sarno, Music, Pain, Pedagogy, Performing, Physical Fitness, Playing Fundamentals, Political Systems, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Repentance, Society, Steve Ozanich, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Theology, Trombone, Truth, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 6: Technique Flows from Music

At any given time I will have at least one student—often more—who tends to think of music making like a chef following a recipe. I mentioned this in the first article in this series several weeks ago. These students approach playing as if quality performance must result from simply following all of the “instructions” with regard to execution and interpretation. The problem, as I noted then, is that the physical act of playing is more complicated than we think, involving a number of minute actions of which we are not often consciously aware. In that article—as well as most of the others that have followed in this series—I have emphasized this intuitive aspect of playing the instrument, and argued that a key to great performance is having as much of the physical activity of playing as possible operating subconsciously, allowing the conscious mind to focus more simply on “how it goes.”

To conclude this series, I’m circling back to this initial idea but approaching it from a slightly different angle. While in the first article I discussed how skilled, efficient technical execution should flow from a well-developed sound concept, today I want to suggest that the development of technique itself should flow first of all from musical ideas. The development of technique—particularly of new techniques—is basically the art of figuring out how to make the instrument reproduce the idea in your head.

266px-Arthur_Pryor_001As a doctoral student I devoted a significant part of my dissertation work to studying the life and music of Arthur Pryor (1870-1942), a trombone soloist and assistant conductor with John Philip Sousa (1856-1932) who later formed his own band and had a long career conducting broadcast and recording sessions for the Victor Company. Pryor’s father was a local bandmaster in St. Joseph, Missouri, who taught his son to play a number of instruments, but no one in town had ever seen a slide trombone until the elder Pryor received one in a seemingly chance occurrence. The younger Pryor was instructed to go and figure out how to play it on his own, and in time developed prodigious technical skills that would one day revolutionize trombone playing everywhere, his position touring and recording with Sousa giving him a worldwide audience unlike any experienced by a trombonist previously.

What’s my point in bringing up Pryor? Having had no instruction in slide trombone or any access to instructional materials or teachers familiar with the instrument, he had no preexisting ideas of the supposed limitations of his new instrument. He simply figured out how to play the music he had either performed himself on other instruments or heard performed by others. He had the musical ideas in place first, and then developed the technique to make that happen. I’m sure the same is the case with everyone who has developed some revolutionary new technique on his instrument. Think more recently of the development of extended techniques like multiphonics, or the various effects now possible by running brass instrument sounds through electronic processors. There were no instructional materials on any of these things, just musicians with ideas and a willingness to experiment and develop new techniques to bring those ideas to pass.

In the first article in this series I admonished readers to “Begin with Sound Concept,” and my point was really that even as you are learning and practicing various playing techniques you should always proceed first of all with an inner idea of the sound you want to produce. My point here is similar, but takes it a step further. Don’t learn techniques and then figure out music to play with them. That is rarely how great music happens or new ideas are developed. Instead, get a sound in your head—whether a traditional one or something innovative—and then develop the technique to do it. If an established technique is what is needed, then still let that musical concept lead the way as you improve that skill. If a new technique is needed to bring your ideas to fruition, then experiment until you find and perfect something that works. Either way, technique flows from music.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Arthur Pryor, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 5: Everything You Play is a “Song”

A couple of years ago I wrote a post with a title very similar to this one, and although I don’t intend to repeat the content of that piece here, the concept is important enough that I wanted to include it in this “Essential Concepts” series. The main thesis is this: successful brass playing is never a matter merely of correct mechanics. There is a more intuitive musical element that must be present at all times. My favorite category for thinking of this is that of “song.” My best playing occurs when I subsume all of my efforts at playing under this very simplest of musical concepts, approaching even the most challenging works with the same basic approach that one would use to sing a simple folksong, hymn, or even nursery tune.

Let me use a recent example. While I have always dabbled in jazz and popular music despite being a primarily classical player, my usual role in big band gigs and such was to play the lead books and leave the improvised solo work to others. In the past few years, though, I’ve worked to improve my improvisation skills, a task made considerably easier with the advent of resources such as the iReal Pro app. This past week I played in a small combo for a charity event and played a solo on nearly every tune, and received a number of compliments on my work. Although this would surprise my younger self, I’ve become pretty comfortable as an improviser, at least on the standard Great American Songbook types of tunes.

So what changed? Besides improved opportunities to practice as I noted previously and the cumulative effect of 20+ years of listening, a change in my approach to improvisation really made the difference. My early attempts at improvisation as a young college student were essentially exercises in harmonic analysis. I made extreme efforts to read the changes correctly and play all of the “right” notes (whatever that means in this context). The results, as you might expect, were usually stilted, uninteresting, and fraught with tension as I worried about making “mistakes.” As I’ve gotten older my approach has become much more like composition or songwriting. Instead of worrying so much about analyzing the prescribed chords, I try to come up with interesting tunes or phrases (or “licks”), or maybe even melodic or harmonic variations on the main melody. This approach delivers better results that are more pleasing to the listener, as well as more fun for me. Essentially, I’m playing “songs” over the changes when I improvise now.

But this approach does not only work in jazz playing or improvisation. All music benefits from the approach. I’ve mentioned repeatedly in previous posts the need to move as much of the physical activity of playing to a subconscious, intuitive level rather than making these the subject of constant and intense thought. We really do want the mental process of playing to be as much like singing as it can possibly be. The result, even in fundamental exercises or challenging “technical” works, is a relaxed, expressive, enjoyable performance for all involved .

Everything you play is (or should be) a “song.”


Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Improvisation, Music, Musical Interpretation, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 4: Airflow Is a Means, Not the End

Last week I began the third installment in this series with the following sentence: “Generous, efficient airflow is vital to playing any brass instrument, but it is important that players understand just what the role of the air is, and what it is not.” This week’s post might seem a little bit redundant, as I am going to touch on some of the same ideas as I did last time, but I want to do so today with a little bit different, perhaps more negative focus. Whereas last week I mentioned the subservience of airflow to buzz regarding their relative importance to playing, today I want to highlight some misconceptions that often happen with regard to airflow.

The primary misconception—really the one from which everything else I’ll discuss today is derived—is that taking in lots of air automatically leads to a great sound. Last week I emphasized that great sounds come from lots of vibration being produced by the lips. This requires generous airflow, but one can move lots of air—particularly during the inhalation—without necessarily producing a good sound. Even the biggest breath, taken incorrectly, will not lead to the best sound. Why is this? In a word, tension.

Emory Remington (1891-1971), whose concept of the daily routine I referenced a couple of weeks ago, was an advocate of using a “conversational breath” in trombone playing. He believed that various forms of overbreathing led to tension that compromised tone quality. For a long time I dismissed this element of Remington’s teaching, concluding that this type of breathing could not yield an adequate amount of air to play the lowest registers of the bass trombone and tuba at high volume. However, as I noted in a post a few years ago, I have revisited this concept, wondering if the term “conversational breath” referred not so much to volume as to quality. In other words, what if one were to endeavor to take in a larger than normal amount of air, but still keep the body in the same relaxed disposition that it would have in daily conversation? Would this not yield the relaxation of the “conversational breath” but with the airflow necessary for all playing demands? I am increasingly convinced that this is so.

So what does this “bigger conversational breath” look like? First of all, it has a quiet inhalation. Often when students begin trying to take bigger breaths they unconsciously modify the throat, tongue, and soft palate in such a way that the air rushing in creates a very noticeable sound. While this tricks the player into thinking that he or she is taking in more air, in reality there is the same amount coming in, if not less. Moreover, the changes that create this noise indicate tension in those structures of the body which will have a negative effect upon the player’s tone upon exhalation. A good inhalation is as quiet as possible.

The Breathing Book by David Vining

Secondly, this breath is taken with no effort to manipulate the muscles of the torso in a misguided effort to assist the expansion of the lungs. Many of us (myself included) were admonished as young players to “breathe low,” pushing out with the abdominal muscles in an effort to help the diaphragm to flatten and the chest cavity to expand downward. This is entirely unnecessary and ends up leading to excessive abdominal tension (ask me how I know), an inhibition in the natural expansion of the upper chest, and ultimately less air available for playing. I suspect that this error arose in response to the equal and opposite error of lifting the upper chest and shoulders when breathing. This causes a different but equally deleterious form of tension. Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), another famous brass teacher that I am fond of quoting here, admonished his students to “suck air at the lips,” and to play with “minimal motors.” He wanted students to take in lots of air, but to give little or no thought or conscious effort to movements in the torso as that air filled the lungs. Those movements should just be allowed to occur naturally, freely, and without tension. “Minimal motors” is an expression meaning that one should play with as little physical effort as possible. Once you stop trying to be a “belly dancing breather,” as David Vining calls it in The Breathing Book (which I highly recommend), moving air and playing becomes a significantly less taxing affair, and as a result becomes more consistent and more enjoyable.

BG_Cover_1024x1024The final breathing error I’ll address here is the habit of many players to focus on the inhalation rather than the exhalation. As I mentioned earlier, many people seem to think that taking a big breath—in other words, a full inhalation—will automatically lead to a great sound. We’ve already seen that this is not the case. If that full inhalation comes with excessive noise and tension in the oral cavity, throat, chest, abdomen—and even shoulders, back, glutes, and legs—the sound will not be full and the tension will render you unable to even use all of the air you have inhaled. Additionally, one must learn not only to inhale in a full and relaxed manner, but to exhale in the same way. After all, the reason we inhale when playing our instruments (well, other than sustaining life) is so that we will have plenty of air to exhale through the instrument! Many of the exercises in The Breathing Book (Vining), The Breathing Gym (Pilafian/Sheridan) and similar resources have as a partial goal the getting the player to both inhale and exhale in the fullest, most efficient, and most relaxed way possible.

So if airflow really is a means and not the end when it comes to tone production, why spend so long talking about it? Because erroneous thinking in this area—whether due to an unbalanced focus on inhalation over exhalation, to poor technique and associated tension, or other factors—leads to so many errors. We must first understand that getting the lips to vibrate freely and vigorously is the path to a great sound, and that generous airflow is only a means to that end. Then we must make sure that we are moving air both in an out in a way that best enables us to achieve that sound, that vibration, and we must eliminate extraneous actions and other errors that ultimately inhibit the free and relaxed movement of air. Once we do this playing becomes easier, better, and more enjoyable both for us and for our listeners.

Airflow is important, even vital, but it is only a means to the end of a full, vibrant sound, produced by a freely vibrating embouchure.


Posted in Alto Trombone, Arnold Jacobs, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Contrabass Trombone, Daily Routine, David Vining, Embouchure, Emory Remington, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Breathing Book, The Breathing Gym, Trombone, Tuba

Essential Concepts in Brass Playing 3: Vibration Creates Tone

Generous, efficient airflow is vital to playing any brass instrument, but it is important that players understand just what the role of the air is, and what it is not. When working with new students one of my first questions is something to the effect of “how do you produce a tone on your instrument?” The answer given nearly always focuses upon airflow. The problem with this way of thinking is easily demonstrated by blowing air through the instrument without producing a pitch. After such a demonstration, students quickly correct themselves, stating that the tone on a brass instrument is created by buzz, by vibration. The role of the air in brass playing is to cause the lips to vibrate. The vibrating lips—the buzz—creates the tone.

In light of this, I want to briefly highlight three concepts in this area that help to facilitate quality tone production. First, despite the way in which I introduced this article, airflow really is important. Breathing exercises such as those in The Breathing Gym and related resources really do improve playing by helping musicians to move air effectively. Aerobic exercise—I am partial to swimming because of its peculiar benefits for wind players—has a similar outcome. While the buzzing of the lips is what creates a musical tone, the air is what causes the lips to vibrate. Make sure you are able to move a maximum amount of air throughout both inhalation and exhalation.

Secondly, embouchure strength, flexibility, and response must be maintained and increased. In last week’s post I discussed the importance of structured, comprehensive, daily fundamentals practice. A key purpose of the daily routine is getting the muscles and tissues of the embouchure into the best possible shape. When the embouchure is in top shape the lips will vibrate with less effort—and even less airflow—than they otherwise would. Effortless playing is efficient playing, and is more enjoyable for both player and listener.

Finally, the more flesh you have vibrating in the mouthpiece, the fuller your sound will be. One major pitfall of an excessive focus on airflow is that players will mistake “using lots of air” for “creating a full sound.” The two do not necessarily coincide. For example, when the aperture is too large a great quantity of air can pass through the mouthpiece and instrument without actually contributing to the vibration of the lips. This leads not to a fuller sound but rather to a more airy one, and leaves the player needing to breathe more frequently in order to produce this inferior result. An opposite problem has to do with allowing too little of the lip tissue to vibrate in the mouthpiece, such as what happens when a trumpet player tries to play on the tuba, but still using a trumpet embouchure. The tone is thin because the entire lip area inside the mouthpiece is not contributing to the buzz.

To put this more briefly, if you want a full sound your goal is to fill the instrument not with air, per se, but with buzz. Play in such a way that the entire lip surface inside the mouthpiece contributes to the vibration—imagine the whole mouthpiece cup being filled with vibrating flesh. Learning to move large quantities of air is a vital means to this end, as are exercises to improve the strength, flexibility, and efficiency of the embouchure. But the goal must always be to fill the instrument and, in turn, the room in which you’re playing, with vibration. The more vibration there is, the better the tone will be.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Contrabass Trombone, Daily Routine, Embouchure, Essential Concepts in Brass Playing, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Physical Fitness, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, The Breathing Gym, Trombone, Tuba