Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New World, New Music

I finished a long day of teaching to find a wonderful surprise from my friend Will Timmons.  Tonight the New World Symphony Orchestra inaugurated their new hall designed by Frank Gehry.  The concert was broadcast on NPR and included the Flying Dutchman, Polaris(premiere) and Copland's Symphony No. 3.  The performance was one of the best live performances I have heard out of a young orchestra.  Polaris by Thomas Ades was an interesting study in space with a video accompaniment.  Unfortunately I could only take the radio host's word with no video or surround sound available in Colorado.  The first and fourth movements of the Copland were incredible and inspirational as always. However, the challenging scherzo movement was a little lackluster. The really gem came before the concert. NPR broadcast an old recording of the NWS playing Gerchwin's Rhapsody 'n Blue with MTT playing piano.  The record is exquisite. Thank you, Will for sending me the link.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Initiative, and Great Expectation

Two life lessons come to mind at the end of my first full week as a fully contributing member of society.   Both of these buzz words seem to pop up in my life from time to time and this week, at Powell Middle School, they were quite helpful.  However, I am going to tell you about the first time each of these words popped into my life.

The summer of 2005, I was a camp counselor at Mid-Atlantic Band Camps at Ferrum College in Virginia. I was not required to do anything except watch highly rambunctious teenagers.  My fellow counselors and I took the initiative to become part of the leadership coaches for a week.  Throughout the week we lead students through a verity of team building exercises and helped each one develop leadership skills they would use with their marching bands.  The students did well, and I learned a lot myself that week.

This week was an audition for next week.  The school wanted to make sure I could teach band before they officially offered me a long term sub job.  However, I could not wait for the offer.  The jazz band has a concert in two weeks, district festival is in a month, and the 7th grade has a chamber music concert a few days after that.  I needed to move in on day one.  I took the initiative to start planning each event and preparing my students for them.

Self fulfilling prophesy is a common term in education.  Usually the term is used when a teacher or student has low expectations of themselves or the teacher or student. Basically, people tend to live up or down to what they expect in a given situation.  Dave Allison taught me you can expect middle schoolers to play in tune and in time.  Throughout my student teaching I was consistently surprised with how well my students could play if I pointed them in the right direction.

This week at Powell, I had a simple goal.  I wanted my students to enter the room quietly and prepare to learn.  By friday I had them trained well enough I never had to speak louder than a conversational level.  However, they also learned the level of musicianship they are expected to play at.  I do not want to teach middle school band, I want to teach musicians.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


I have had the chance, recently, to ask some older friends how they stayed young.  Greg Harper refers to himself as a young musician, in his late 30s I thought this was a little odd.  Ronald Cook whom I stayed with in LA is a man in his 80s with all the youthful energy of a man half his age.  Both of these men told me to stay busy, active, and to try new things.  For Greg, that means still auditioning even though he has had his job for 15 years, and dabbling in a verity of small business ventures.  For Ron, this meant meeting new people and participating in new activities. 

This week, I am trying something new, teaching middle school band.  This means a lot to some of my friends, family, and mentors.  However, I know some former professors would will be dismayed at the thought.  In actuality I always imagined myself teaching, usually at the collegiate level.  However, I am in public schools every week teaching lessons and sectionals, I have grown comfortable with the thought of teaching band.  I thought this job would be further down the road, but this position literally landed in my lap.

I am writing this on a planning block in the middle of my first day.  The first four classes went well, the students are reasonably well trained.  But I can tell their regular teacher has be gone for a while.  I have been hired for one week with the possibility of continuing.  My goal for this week is to remind the students what it is like to have a musician teach.  Regularity in their daily life will help me stay sane.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New friends and old friends.

This morning I met Greg Harper.  Our meeting was under the disguise of a lesson but turned out to be more of a hang than anything.  We had a four hour long conversation, interrupted briefly by trombone playing.  We hit on every topic from music, contracts, battles, past concerts, auditions, and personal history.  The lesson reminded me of a few things, mostly my first lesson with George Curran, except I played more in that lesson.

We talked mostly about audition prep and the expectations of a candidate. He mentioned the expectations of certain teachers throughout the country and he wants to see where their students end up. Greg is still taking auditions but charged me to win if he could not.  This was reminiscent of a very inspiring theory teacher I once had.

Dorothy Payne was my theory teacher at the University of South Carolina.  Dr. Payne was the co-writer of Tonal Harmony.  She was a kind and generous teacher who truly thought anyone could learn music.  She was patent with teaching and even more patent with the unruly low brass students in the back of the class.  She was a former Dean and Professor Emerita at USC.  All of her students can speak to her nurturing manner and large vocabulary.  Most of the stories I have from the first two years in undergrad revolve around Dr. Payne.

One afternoon at the University of South Carolina School of Music an assembly was held in her honor after she received a national teaching award.  The Dean read her long list of accomplishments and true to her manor, she humbly accepted the award.  At the reception she admitted to me, she had no idea how she was ever to live up to the honor.  Baffled, I pointed out she had lived those accomplishments, it was our job as her students to live up to her achievements. One day maybe of a few of her students will achieve a tiny bit of what she had.  I know she inspired me to, at least, try.

It was nice to meet another over educated bass trombone that still has an energetic and optimistic personality.  Tonight I am meeting up with Joel Bein for dinner and drinks.  Joel and I toured Europe in 2007.  The trip was incredible and I still maintain friendships with some of the people on tour.  I have mentioned the trip before and many of my friends know I speak of it often.  I am looking forward to reconnecting with another LIYO 2007 friend.  Joel is now a Band Director in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Evolution of a Piece

Today I was teaching at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, CO.  Bear Creek just started back after the winter holidays and will not have a concert until March.  Because of their long preparation time I had the chance to dig into some fundamentals that have been neglected in the past.  Hopefully in a few weeks they will be able to play most of their scales and their lip slurs might actually sound like slurs.

However their class is quite long and we did start looking at their new pieces.  This analogy just popped into my head.  I used a coloring book to get a point across about clarity of music.  The printed music is the frame work of the actual music and is akin to the outline on a blank coloring sheet.  As you get to know your part the lines come into focus and as you listen and learn other players parts you fill in the book.  On the first try your coloring might look like a three year old Godzilla massacred the page.

(My apologizes to the children in this shot, but finding a bad coloring job is difficult.  Apparently, people are to embarrassed of their work to make it off of the frig and onto the web.)

Once you know your part well and can color inside the lines then you start to listen to other parts.  The purpose of rehearsal is to help you understand how your part fits with other players.  If everyone in the ensemble has a clear idea of how parts fit together then maybe the picture will like the page your parents helped you out with.
Most performances are close to this drawing.  Sorry to any of my colleagues, but a clean performance is the most many of us can ask for.  However the goal is much, much more.  To truly create a work of art, every member of the ensemble has to communicate on a very intimate level.  This only happens after everyone knows(knowing is much different than familiar with) their part. If everyone is working together to create art then something like this is possible.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Musical Influences

Must musicians have musical influences, musicians or bands that they listened to, to develop a sound or technique.  On the 160 Project I have talked at length about people like Frank Sinatra, Jorgen van Rijen, and my teachers.  However, I was not raised in a musical household.  In fact the only two albums my family ever listened to, and only on road trips, were James Taylor's Greatest Hits and Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell.

Listening to Meat Loaf's huge voice is probably what drove me to the bass trombone.  The question of the bass trombone has never been about range or parts but about shear size of sound.  For me a bass trombone is simply a trombone with a big sound.  The struggle becomes playing light and bright enough while maintaining a relaxed and agile sound.

Apparently, I am not the only one influenced by the musical great.  Bat Out of Hell rounds out the top five best-selling albums world-wide.  I know I just linked to Wikipedia, but this is a blog and not an academic paper.  For all of you about to loose all hope in humanity Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti are included on the best selling music artist list.  However, Kenny G has unfortunately also made the cut.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde is one of those laureates that just will not go away.  He seems to have written quotable material about everything.  Check this one about, courtesy of Alex Ross.

"After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that had been hidden from one's tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations."
                     — Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist"

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Breathe Simple, Stupid

This simple concept has been talked about in several ways and is central in the development of a quality sound on every wind instrument.  Most teachers talk about a consistent airstream by using the water faucet analogy.  The water(air) turns on and your hand(tongue) only interrupts the stream, instead of turning the faucet on and off every time.  I have heard some instructors us a hose instead of a faucet.

Tim Anderson at CCM, however, reminds students to play "stupid."  If your air is has a consistent airstream as the default setting then you are trying to coordinate one less thing.  We all know the pros of a consistent airstream so what is the best way to teach it?

I usually relate music to literature.  In this analogy, each note is only a letter, a scale passage or arpeggios are words and phrases are sentences. If a student is playing note to note with his airstream, I relate it to stopping air between each letter of every word.  They get the hint really quick, this makes zero since.  I usually have a student breathe whole notes while they finger a passage, then have them play without tongue.  This fixes the airstream, then they can add the tongue for diction.  I think it's pretty simple.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Classically trained musicians are a physiological anomaly. Most of us spend countless hours packed into a tiny room trying to perfect a seemingly small amount of music.  This develops a protective introspection causing many musicians to have high levels of performance anxiety.  While on the other hand our job is to stand up in front of packed rooms of people and play.  Why do we think spending hours by ourselves will help us perform for thousands of people?

Something happened to me during my masters degree.  CCM had a much more rigorous instruction program than my undergraduate at USC.  At CCM I played for three different teachers and at least one large ensemble director every week, not to mention playing in studio class with a high level of performance itself.  Critic became second nature.  However I only played 18 concerts and gave two recitals in my two year stint. Performing was not necessarily the number one concern at CCM.

Performing is fun, that is why many people become musicians.  Holding on to the childlike approach is important.  Ask yourself if your grandmother would like your playing.  That simple question usually yields a different approach to a passage, and it is one that usually sounds better.  Performances should happen consistently. Both of the festivals I attended during my masters degree, the Pierre Monteux School and the Aspen Music Festival and School, I performed at least once a week if not four or five times a week.  Both of these places breed a comfortable and supportive performance environment.

I know many of my colleagues started performing at an early age, either in church or for family.  Watching young performers play for easy audiences like these is pure joy.  The performer is usually having fun and the audience is as well.  Last month I had a very interesting experience when I soloed with the Rocky Mountain Brassworks.  I had a fun performing.  Standing a few feet from the audience I could hear what people were saying and how they reacted to curtain passages.  I spent most of the time with a huge smile.  However, I messed up, not a huge mistake but one I did not project.  After the concert I really enjoy shaking hands and talking to the audience.  For lack of a better word I was high.  This high I experience when I perform.

I would suggest to young musicians that you perform consistently.  Take every performance opportunity you can and ham it up.  Latch onto that feeling and remember it when you are practicing all those countless yet productive hours.  Try and be more like this young man.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pandora and Technique

Well this mornings activities included listening to Pandora and working on some Rossini.  I am attempting to be more productive today than in previous days.  I have started working on new recital rep and continuing work on excerpts for a New World audition.  As you might guess learning new rep is frustrating although new, and working on excerpts feels better although most of the excerpts I have been working on for some time.

For working on technique I have incorporated an exercise that John Rojak introduced me to this past summer.  I am playing the run backward.  I start with the last note until I get a good articulation and tone, then I add the previous note.  I add one note at a time until, I am either exhausted or I finish the run.  Of course this takes some time so be patient.

Pandora is my new favorite application for me iPod touch.  The app picks a pretty diverse yet similar set of music based off of what original band you ask it to play.  The app seems to work best with pop music. The program "learns" what you like by giving each song a thumbs up or thumbs down.  I think classical pieces are just to long for the program to get a good handle on what you like.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Yoda and Pete Norton

Yesterday I went on a Star Wars bender when I was reading Tony Pacitti's "My Best Friend is a Wookiee."  Tony gives his readers a portrait of this youth as it surrounded the re-release of the original trilogy and the disappointing prequels. The book was a cute and witty read, however, by the end Mr. Pacitti came across as an unbearable little wimp much like Anakin Skywalker.

When I think about Star Wars I think about my teacher Pete Norton.  For two years every time I left a lesson I thought I was flying off of Dagobah ready to save my friends in Cloud City.  There were some weeks when I actually thought about watching the famous Yoda scene instead of going to my lessons.  Pete's teaching philosophy was remarkably close to Yoda's.

Pete's theory was once I knew something was possible, then I could achieve whatever I wanted.  High F's are possible on bass trombone, triple tonguing arpeggios and lip trills are also possible.  However Pete's golden trick was triple tonguing octaves.  One day while Pete was a student at CCM he asked a guest artist what the most difficult technique the artist could pull off.  The artist proceeded to triple tongue octaves poorly.  Pete learned to do it better.

Pete also likes to tell the story of his first lesson with Tony Chipurn.  Pete was a freshman in high school and was having trouble hitting a G three ledgers lines above the staff.  Tony apparently hit a few high F's and the next week Pete never had any range issues again.

Usually after Pete played something incredibly fast, high, or loud, I would giggle just a little.  This is how he knew I did not believe what just happened.  Slowly over my two years at CCM, I understood what was happening and my ears and technique developed so I at least comprehended how he was playing.  By the end of my education I was no longer bewildered at his playing.  The only thing left is to practice...a lot.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sell Out

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, pay for the whole seat but only use the edge!

Ladies and Gentlemen, you are not going to believe it, but Brad Edwards as published the most important pedagogical text of the last decade.  His riveting, "Lip Slurs" is a true nail biter. Every page turn is accompanied by intense anticipation; what will be on the next page?  That's right, more lip slurs.  Be careful though, these are not your grandma's lip slurs.  This main stage event is not for the faint of heart.

Simply having a copy of this incredible text in your possession will allow you to run marathons and bench press twice your body weight.  Using, "Lip Slurs" will increase your stamina, flexiblity, and tone quality.  Within a few short weeks the NCAA will acuse you of using steroids! Be careful though, too much use and you could look like this guy.

"Fantastic"  ~Matt Vaughn

The three sections of the book will allow any musician improve their skills.  Slow lip slurs are the long distance running of tone building; after hours of use you will feel the burn!  If you prefer sprinting, fast lips slurs will get you playing faster, higher, and louder in no time at all!  But wait, "normal" slurs are not enough for you, check out the musically inspired melodies section.  After completing this text you will definitely be a virtuoso of lip slurs.

Don't take my word for it; check out what these ultra famous and studly trombone players said.

"...Bible of lip slurs"  ~Joseph Alessi

"Kudos...brought the concept of lips slurs forward to the post-modern trombonist."  ~Doug Yeo

I am not sure what the last one means, but I am sure it is impressive!  So all you boys and girls beat the holiday rush and purchase your new copy of "Lip Slurs."  Just owning a copy isn't enough, Dr. Edwards makes appearances at all the major trombone conferences.  Just look for the goofy grin on the guy having way too much fun for autographs.  But wait, lips slurs are not enough for you, check out these other books, "Simply Singing," and "Clef Studies."