Spring Break is upon us at Ole Miss and with a mix of activities both work related and (mostly) not, I was unable to write something as planned this past weekend and will not be able to return to blogging until the end of next week. Although posting on a Tuesday evening is not my usual pattern I did want to share some thoughts that I began pondering in earnest after our midterm scale juries last week.
As is the case in most university music departments, the instrumental music faculty at Ole Miss have a uniform regimen of six scale and arpeggio exams, given each semester of applied lessons beginning at the remedial level (if needed) through the first semester of the junior year of the regular music major track. While teachers may elect to require a more robust regimen of scale and arpeggio studies (as I do), these scale juries represent a modest level of achievement for students at each level of study. Scale juries are usually given before only two faculty members (it would be difficult for all of us to be present for each one), and this semester the trumpet teacher and I heard all of the brass players. As is usually the case, we heard a number of near-perfect performances as well as some that were…substantially less than perfect, and everywhere in between.
What struck me this semester more so than usual was the way in which trombonists’ peculiar imperfections manifested themselves compared to those of players of other instruments. When playing a valved brass instrument—or just about any other instrument other than strings—the player very clearly knows the scale or arpeggio being attempted, or he does not. The correct fingers are depressed and the air and embouchure are correctly employed, or they are not. Trombonists, though, can very easily find themselves approximating the correct pitches without always definitively placing each one. Sometimes the errors we hear are typical ones, such as failing to make the needed correction when the F-attachment is used, or cheating fifth positions, or failing to play G4 in a short second position. Those things matter, especially when the questionable note is the third, sixth, or seventh note of the scale—these notes in particular tell us what kind of scale the player is attempting! Other times the problem has to do with “sliding through” the exercises, hoping that we’ll give credit as long as the correct pitch is “in there” someplace. I’ll confess to sometimes allowing more than a little portamento when practicing scale exercises, partly because it’s fun to do so and partly because the continuity of sound indicates continuity of airflow and buzz—which are good things! However, when a satisfactory performance—or a midterm grade—depends on accurate note placement, portamento has to go and precision must be pursued.
In short, it is not enough to play some version of the “right note.” The right pitch must sound for every note. Scales and arpeggios are all about tonal relationships, and when those relationships are off, the pattern is incorrect, even if strictly speaking you “hit the notes” in a very broad sense.
This, of course, has much broader application than scale and arpeggio exercises, and applies to more than trombonists. Music is not an art form in which a minimal standard of accuracy applies. Precise, exacting detail is required in every performance. Sure, some genres allow for more “sliding about” than others, but even then there is always a point when one is “out of bounds.” Last spring I wrote a piece exhorting brass players to treat missed partials as “real” missed notes. Well, missed intonation is the same way. Don’t just play the right note. Play the right pitch!
And now back to your regularly scheduled spring break activities. Where are my fishing poles?