There Are Technical Challenges…and Then There Are Processing Challenges

My son, who will turn eleven in a few days, has been playing violin for four years. While his sight reading ability remains well behind his overall technique, over the past year or so he has begun working through what low brass players would consider high school or even undergraduate level repertoire, including works by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706). This is normal material for a fifth-year violin student, while a trombonist of his age playing the same repertoire would be considered quite prodigious, indeed. The main feature that makes these works so seemingly difficult to us: long series of sixteenth notes and sometimes thirty-second notes. For young string players, quickly moving notes are introduced by the time one reaches age nine or ten. Most students are a little older than that when first taking up wind instruments, but even woodwind players can expect to see such technical passages by the eighth or ninth grade. By the time they reach college, woodwind and string players seem generally unfazed by the appearance of sixteenth note “runs,” while low brass players tend to greet these with varying levels of panic. Why is this so?

The primary reason for this is simple technical difficulty. Although it can be disadvantageous to admit this to oneself in practice, executing fast technical passages is more difficult on our instruments than on many others. For trombonists, the reason for this is obvious. The handslide has a certain elegance in skilled hands but learning to move it deftly at great speed requires many years of diligent practice. It simply takes longer to learn to play quickly on the trombone than on the violin or clarinet. The euphonium and tuba do not share this particular difficulty, but they do share with trombonists the challenge of achieving embouchure accuracy when moving quickly. All of these skills can be mastered with diligent practice, and I can say that all of my university students and nearly all of my high school students have developed the technical skill needed to play fast-moving passages.

The skill to play them, that is. Reading and executing them at sight remains a problem for most, even when the passages consist of known patterns. That brings me back to my earlier question: Why? Ultimately, this is a problem with mental processing. Players of other instruments that encounter fast-moving passages earlier in their playing careers become accustomed to seeing, processing, and executing such passages at young ages. By contrast, trombonists and tubists can easily walk into college band for the first time having never encountered a thirty-second note. This represents a serious deficiency, especially considering that low brass players majoring in music education will one day need to teach those difficult technical passages to woodwind and string players. Addressing these problems with cognition or processing is harder, though there are some steps that one can take to improve in this way.

1. Admit that slowness in processing fast-moving passages is a problem. As a teacher, I am far less frustrated by students’ inability to read sixteenth-note passages than I am by their failure to see this as a problem. Granted, the dearth of technical challenges for low brass in large ensemble music can feed the perception that learning to read faster passages is an “extra” skill rather than a necessary one. Still, I am convinced that if my students who want to become teachers cannot read sixteenth notes effectively, they will struggle to teach those instruments that encounter moving passages more frequently. Besides, the technical challenges of our instruments do not somehow give their players corresponding cognitive challenges. A trombonist can learn to read and understand complex parts as well as a flutist or violinist…and should!

2. Incorporate daily exercises that maintain and develop speed. Every brass player should have a daily routine of some kind that provides systematic development of various playing skills, including moving through scale and arpeggio patterns at great speed. I have written about this here on several occasions over the years, and also provide several routines for this purpose on my faculty website at Ole Miss. Such routines not only provide necessary physical development of the muscles and tissues used in playing, but drills of assorted diatonic and chromatic patterns become particularly helpful when applied to sight reading.

3. Read and play music that demands increased reading ability. If your music making activities consist entirely of the low brass parts in band and orchestra music, your development as a musician will remain stunted. Our parts are, frankly, usually much simpler than those for more traditionally melodic instruments. One might ask whether band music has easy low brass parts because the musicians can’t play harder stuff, or if they can’t play harder stuff because they are never given such parts. The answer to that question might be “yes,” but even in the best of circumstances large ensemble music including many intricate technical passages for low brass would become incredibly “muddy.” Quality orchestration thus demands that our parts usually be simple, so in order to grow we must make special efforts to find, read, prepare, and even create challenging repertoire, including solo and chamber music and challenging method books. If you don’t have a private teacher that will introduce you to new practice materials and push you to achieve them, get one!

4. Learn to recognize patterns in the music being played, and execute accordingly. When my son was in Pre-K and kindergarten, he would read by sounding out words one letter at a time. This was an appropriate level of skill development for him, and we praised him for it. If he was still sounding out words in this way as a fifth grader, though, that would be considered a serious problem. Why, then, do so many young musicians persist in trying to read music one note at a time? This is the musical equivalent of “sounding out words!” Most music you will encounter consists of scale and arpeggio patterns, and derivative patterns such as thirds and fourths. This is perhaps especially true when you encounter long series of sixteenth or thirty-second notes. If you will learn to recognize and execute these patterns as groups of notes rather than as individual notes, your reading will improve in both speed and accuracy.

(Of course, success here demands the kind of daily fundamentals work mentioned earlier….)

5. Develop an expanded vision of what is possible. This is a more positive corollary to the first point, and its importance cannot be overstated. If you have a limited vision of the possibilities of your instrument or the level of understanding that is necessary, you will likely fail to realize even those small aspirations. If, however, you develop and diligently pursue lofty and aggressive goals for technical achievement and reading ability, you will eventually achieve much. Sight read everything you can find. Make yourself learn to quickly read, process, and execute challenging repertoire. If you can do this you might sometimes find your band and orchestra parts to be a little boring, but you will be a better musician and a better teacher for it, and when one of those last-minute calls comes for you to “sight read the gig,” you’ll be ready.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Orchestration, Pedagogy, Performance Anxiety, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on There Are Technical Challenges…and Then There Are Processing Challenges

The Daily Routine: Our “This is a Football” Speech (Repost)

I was planning to write a new post this weekend, but in light of conversations with several students this past week, this post is worth sharing again. While it can be tempting to neglect fundamentals in favor of working on other assigned materials, ultimately this is not a path to success…in music or in football.

Vince Lombardi (1913-1970) was one of the most successful football coaches in the history of the National Football League, leading the Green Bay Packers to an extended period of dominance in the 1960s. Today the trophy awarded to the winner of the Super Bowl is named in his honor. A firm believer in the importance of playing fundamentals in building successful football teams, Lombardi famously began each year’s training camp by holding up a ball and saying “Gentlemen, this is a football,” followed by a review of the very basic elements of the game. His teams were composed of some of the most accomplished and successful athletes in the world and some no doubt though this approach to be unnecessarily pedantic, but they couldn’t argue with his results. Lombardi demanded excellence and pursued it methodically, beginning with building the foundations needed for successful competition.

Over the years I’ve come to realize more and more that the elements necessary for success in sports are very similar to those required for progress and success in music. In trying to teach my seven-year-old son (edit: now almost eleven) just a bit about how to throw a football, shoot a basketball, or catch a baseball (and, trust me, I know only a bit about these things) I can see that his successes are tied directly to correct fundamental execution and his most marked failures come when he becomes so enamored with trick plays and lucky shots that he has seen on television or online clips that he ignores the basics and tries to do something spectacular. This is no different than most young boys, of course, and I was certainly no better at his age (in fact, I was considerably worse), but thirty added years of life experience and at least some success in the music business have provided me with some additional perspective on what is happening when he succeeds or fails in his sporting endeavors. He is slowly learning to focus his efforts on correct basic execution, and his skills are improving as a result.

In music I see very similar tendencies with my students. Even since high school I have been both a proponent and a practitioner of the daily routine as a means of reviewing and extending fundamental playing skills each day. Over the years I have noticed that diligence in this area has been tied to my greatest successes as a brass player, and negligence has led to failure. I constantly seek to impress the importance of this upon my students, but they usually require some convincing before they learn to develop their fundamental playing skills before tackling the most challenging repertoire. Despite my efforts, most have to learn this lesson “the hard way,” as I sometimes have.

Why is the daily routine so important? Part of it is because of the need to warm-up, to gently exercise the muscles and tissues used in playing, though this can be accomplished without the use of a repetitive and systematic routine. I think even more important is the mental aspect. The daily routine provides an opportunity to systematically review how to play the instrument, beginning with the most basic elements and moving to more advanced concepts. In essence, during the daily routine I teach myself all over again how to play the trombone correctly and fend off the development of unproductive habits.

In that sense, the daily routine is our version of the “this is a football” speech, given to ourselves each day. It worked for Lombardi and the Packers, and it works for us brass players, as well.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, Vince Lombardi | Comments Off on The Daily Routine: Our “This is a Football” Speech (Repost)

Influential Recordings: Absolute Trombone

In my last post I discussed how listening to a borrowed copy of Romantic Trombone Concertos began to open my eyes to a bigger world of repertoire and possibilities for the trombone. A few things happened not long after that which gave me even “bigger ears,” as they say.

The first of these was that internet access was becoming more common. I first recall having internet access at school during my junior year of high school and used it to find anything and everything related to brass playing generally and the trombone in particular. I am fairly sure that this is how I obtained my first catalogs for ordering sheet music and recordings through the mail. E-commerce, after all, was still in a very nascent state, and I didn’t have a credit card as a high school student, anyway.

The second occurrence was the beginning of correspondence—again, through the mail—with Dr. Ed Bahr, who would become my trombone and euphonium professor at Delta State University a little later. He introduced me to more pieces of music and places to order them. As the then-assistant editor for recording reviews of the International Trombone Association Journal, he also knew a lot about the recorded repertoire for low brass. I would later succeed him in that editorial position and have now served in that role for nearly 17 years. It is amazing to think of how little time passed between my first introduction to trombone recordings and my having many of the newest recordings for my instrument pass across my desk.

Joining the International Trombone Association and receiving its quarterly journal was the third of these important happenings. Even as an 18-year-old college freshman I had a keen sense that my real professional life was beginning, and that joining relevant professional organizations was part of that. The ITA Journal is published in print and (now) online every quarter, and besides interesting print articles, news, and music and recording reviews, there are a number of advertisements. In the first issue I received there was an advertisement for a new recording called Absolute Trombone, and for whatever reason it caught my eye, so I ordered a copy. While I had by this time purchased a number of “classical” trombone recordings, this was the first jazz/commercial trombone album I owned. As had been the case with Romantic Trombone Concertos a couple of years earlier, my understanding of trombone music and its possibilities was expanded once again.

The mastermind behind Absolute Trombone was Michael Davis (b. 1961), an active New York City freelancer and sideman for groups like the Rolling Stones. Davis’s company, Hip-Bone Music (do you see what he did there?) was then still quite new, and has become in the past 20+ years a leading publisher of educational materials, performance repertoire, and recordings for trombone and low brass. Having been familiar with Davis’s work for a number of years now, I usually use the word “commercial” to classify it rather than “jazz.” Even on this recording, some of the pieces could rightly be called jazz, others in a more contemporary/popular style. All are worth listening to, and all hold up well 23 years after release. There were three aspects of this recording that were particularly eye-opening for me.

The first of these is the personnel list. The trombonists on this recording were then and, for the most part, remain today in the first rank of trombonists in New York and elsewhere. Trombonists will recognize most or all names on this list:

Urbie Green
Bill Watrous
Steve Turre
Michael Davis
David Taylor
Conrad Herwig
Jim Pugh
Joe Alessi
Robin Eubanks
John Fedchock
Birch Johnson
Tom Malone
Keith O’Quinn
Ed Neumeister
Herb Besson
Larry Farrell
Jack Schatz
George Flynn

At age 18 I believed this was an “all-star cast” because the advertising for the recording said so, and they all sounded great to me. Now having lived in this professional world for a couple of decades, I *know* this is an all-star cast, and that made this recording very special.

Secondly, the soloing on this recording. I recall as an incoming college student thinking that I knew something about jazz improvisation because I didn’t play the written-out solos in my high school jazz band music exactly as written. Yeah, I know. That’s pretty silly. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know! Hearing “real” solos from Urbie Green, Conrad Herwig, Bill Watrous, John Fedchock, Steve Turre, Michael Davis, and others really blew my mind, and even more so when I realized that these people were improvising their solos!

Finally, the ensemble writing here is great. Just in the first track there are eight trombonists with rhythm section, playing complicated lines and tight harmonies, along with great solos and one particularly neat spot with bass trombone and string bass playing right along in unison. The last note in the first part is what we sometimes call “double-B-flat” (i.e. B-flat5), and was even more amazing to me than the F below that I had found so astounding just a couple of years earlier. The great writing continues through all twelve tracks, all Davis originals with the exception of a surprising arrangement of I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. Bill Watrous’s playing on the solo is as smooth as you would expect, but the harmonies in the ensemble are not reminiscent of Tommy Dorsey at all…yet they work!

If you are familiar with Michael Davis’s writing, the sound on these tracks will be recognizable to you. The whole album is fun, the playing is great, and it is worth an hour of your time. Go have a listen!

Posted in Bass Trombone, Improvisation, Influential Recordings, International Trombone Association, Michael Davis, Music, Professional Organizations, Recordings, Repertoire, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Trombone Ensembles | Comments Off on Influential Recordings: Absolute Trombone

Influential Recordings: Romantic Trombone Concertos

I still remember very clearly the first time I heard a solo recording of a professional trombonist. I was a junior in high school, and a friend from the all-state band that went to another school in my county brought his copy of Romantic Trombone Concertos by Christian Lindberg (b. 1958) to my house. While I was (and still am) impressed by the quality and virtuosity of Lindberg’s playing, I was before this only vaguely aware that trombone solos with orchestra even existed, much less were on recordings that could be purchased, so this disc opened my eyes to a new (to me) world of music making. I borrowed my friend’s CD for a while and listened to it multiple times, and eventually I obtained catalogs (paper catalogs!) from companies from which I could order my own copies of this and other recordings.

If my ignorance of the existence of these recordings and how to obtain them is surprising to you, please remember that this was around 25 years ago. Home internet access and e-commerce were still very new, and I did not own an internet-capable computer until just before my high school graduation. In 1995 I still lived very much in a mail-order world. How different this is from today, when recordings in even the most niche genres are easily obtainable, whether purchased in hard copy, as downloads, or as part of a streaming service. When I was a young student, I might have been excused for not listening to recordings of great brass players because I did not know how to obtain them—or even to look for them at all. Today’s students can listen to a large percentage of the available recorded repertoire for their instruments for little or no cost, yet many do not do so. The question is, why?

Some students—perhaps many students—do not listen to recordings of great players on their instruments simply because of laziness. They lack the ambition to take advantage of this simple means of improving themselves, and that is unfortunate. But those who decide to take a bit of initiative to start listening have an entirely different problem: they begin seeking recordings to listen to and are overwhelmed by the seemingly limitless variety of choices available, from professional studio recordings all the way down to cell phone videos of student recitals. Not knowing where to begin, these students fail to listen at all. That, too, is unfortunate.

As a partial remedy to this, I am beginning a little series of posts entitled “Influential Recordings,” in which I will briefly introduce the reader to recordings that were particularly influential in my development as a brass player. I do not yet know how long this series will last, though I do hope to get back to the weekly blogging schedule that I have found so elusive lately. Because these were formative recordings for me, a low brass player in my early forties, most of these recordings will be somewhere in the range of 20-40 years old, and a few might be older. While recording technology has certainly improved since that time, and the overall technical quality of brass playing has, as well, these will still be quality recordings of great playing that will be worth your time. I will do my best to choose examples that are available on Spotify, YouTube, Naxos Music Library, or similar streaming services, especially since hard copies of most or all of these will no longer be obtainable.

Lindberg Romantic ConcertosWith that, let me briefly introduce Romantic Trombone Concertos. Released on the BIS label in 1988, this recording is a fairly early example of Christian Lindberg’s work, from the first decade of his career as a full-time trombone soloist and recording artist. (He has since branched out into conducting and composition.) Of the four pieces on the recording, only two are actually from the Romantic period, which musicologists usually categorize as having ended around 1900, but the others are certainly Romantic in character, though later in time.

The first two pieces (and those actually hailing from the Romantic period) are standard examination and performance works for trombonists, the Concertino, op. 4, by Ferdinand David (1810-1873) and Morceau Symphonique, op. 88, by Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911). The Guilmant is easily approachable for high school players and in some respects the David is, as well, though it has certain expressive nuances that are more achievable by more mature trombonists. The David is commonly asked in professional orchestra auditions, as well. Lindberg’s interpretations of these two works are particularly expressive—perhaps at times “over the top” in that regard—yet I still find them to be the archetypal examples in my mind of these pieces with the notable exception of the extended cadenzas he adds to both of them. While extremely technically impressive, they are somewhat out of character for the pieces to my ears.

The third piece on the recording, the Concerto by Launy Grøndahl (1886-1960), is from 1924, and like many Nordic trombone pieces from the early twentieth century has a very Romantic character combined with a more fully developed harmonic palette. It is a more serious work than the David yet is accessible to most listeners. Lindberg takes a few liberties with octave displacements that some argue the composer would not have appreciated, but he does not add an extended cadenza.

The final piece is the Concerto, op. 81, by Gunnar de Frumerie (1908-1987), a 1984 adaptation of the composer’s cello concerto that turned out to be his final completed work. This is by far the most technically demanding piece on the program, and to my 16-year-old ears the use of a “high F” in a piece of music was particularly revelatory. Its presence is neither showy nor ostentatious; it is “just there,” and hearing a note that I had always considered to be in the realm of “stupid human trick” was just astounding, along with the entire piece.

Twenty-five years later, these pieces are no longer as earth-shattering to me as they once were. I have performed the David and part of the Grøndahl with full orchestra, in addition to performing both pieces and the Guilmant on several occasions and teaching all of them multiple times. Only the de Frumerie remains untouched by me…so far. More experience has given me a few critiques of the playing on this album. Lindberg’s vibrato is “a bit much,” and I have already mentioned his penchant for uncharacteristically showy cadenzas and liberties with octaves. These characteristics are common in much of his early work and seem to have been somewhat toned down in his later work. Still, his playing is supremely expressive throughout, is complimented ideally by the Bamberg Symphony conducted by Leif Segerstam, and remains a key part of “the sound in my head” for these pieces. One could do a lot worse.

Romantic Trombone Concertos is on Spotify and perhaps other services, as well. Give it a listen.

Posted in Alexandre Guilmant, Christian Lindberg, Digital Revolution, Ferdinand David, Gunnar de Frumerie, Influential Recordings, Launy Grøndahl, Music, Pedagogy, Recording Technology, Recordings, Teaching Low Brass, Technology, Tenor Trombone, Trombone | Comments Off on Influential Recordings: Romantic Trombone Concertos

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

Today I am reposting, for the ninth year, one of the more popular articles 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 created a series of videos specifically related to preparing low brass players to audition for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band, which appear in the YouTube playlist below. I began creating these videos over eight years ago now, and while I have recently begun updating and replacing some of the older videos there is a mix of very recent recordings and older ones. All of the information remains relevant to the current audition format; the newer videos simply have a somewhat higher recording quality.

While some of the material below repeats information covered in these 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 had 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 | Comments Off on Fifteen Steps to Playing a Better All-State Audition (Repost)