Make comments or ask questions about A Tale of Two Selves here.
November 29th, 2005 § Comments Off § permalink
On Saturday night, I sat down with my wife and a glass of wine and listened to my CD of Pablo Casals performing the Bach Cello Suites. This is an astonishing recording, but not in the way you may be thinking right now. This recording has many missed notes and intonation problems; the sound is not consistently centered and resonant. But far beyond any of that – and maybe because of it – this recording is beautiful. It flows and sings and dances, and when I finish it I want to hear it all over again. If this recording were made today, though, it would never be released because of the number of “problems” and “mistakes”.
This started me thinking about the state of classical music today, a world so burdened by the goal of perfection that it has become almost the only standard by which performers are judged. Listening to this recording reminded me of listening to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”; the music is so pure that the missed notes and intonation seem entirely trivial. The correctness of it is simply not the point. Somehow we have gotten away from the point of making music in the classical world. And in an age where a machine can do anything far more “correctly” than us humans, we ought to pay attention to exactly what it is we are trying to do.
November 14th, 2005 § Comments Off § permalink
Questions and comments about The Bell End
We all know we should do it. We have been told to practice our fundamentals since the day we began playing. Some people do them, some people don’t. If you do your daily fundamentals, then you know the benefits they provide, and if not, you will have to do them to learn how much they can help. Even those who do practice their fundamentals religiously, however, may have found themselves in the position of playing through an articulation exercise every day, only to find that the clarity of the attack is not improving; or practicing lip flexibilities, only to struggle with the same issues day in and day out. What is the problem? We have always been told that doing these exercises will make these issues improve, so why isn’t it helping? The answer can be found, of all places, in the woodwind section (Caution: throwing whatever you are holding at this article will only result in damage to your computer!). More specifically, our answers lie in the practices of top-notch oboists and bassoonists.
During my orchestral career, I was fortunate enough to work with and listen to some of the finest double reed players in the world. Every one of these players had one thing in common: they put a lot of value in a good reed. No, not a good reed, a perfect reed! I would watch them prior to a rehearsal or concert, reed knife in hand, sometimes with a small light to make sure they could see as well as possible. They would play a few notes, take the reed out, study it intently, scratch at it with their reed knife (so lightly that you wouldn’t think it would do anything at all), put the reed in their mouth and buzz, another swipe with the knife, back in the mouth, buzz, back into the instrument, play a scale, then repeat the whole process until they were satisfied, or until they ran out of time.
Many of you have witnessed this behavior and, if you are like I was at first, thought it to be at least a little bit psychotic. But the more I watched, the more I saw, and one day it dawned on me: I hardly ever see these people playing through scales, practicing articulation, or honing any other various skills. They don’t spend a lot of time working on the skills required to play their instrument. Obviously, these skills have been practiced plenty, and they have achieved the highest level of proficiency with them, but they don’t need to touch on them prior to a performance to ensure that everything is in place. If the reed is right, they are ready to go. That started me thinking about my own preparation. Do I spend most of my time on “reed” preparation? Do I even have a “reed”? The answers were: yes, I have a reed, and no, I do not spend much time on it. The fundamentals I had been doing, lip slurs, articulation, scales, multiple tonguing, etc., were not the same type of work as the oboist with his reed knife. I decided that my definition of fundamentals needed a fundamental change. As a result, I divided fundamentals into two categories: Foundation and Skill Set.
Foundation exercises are “reed making” exercises for trumpet players. These exercises determine the basic health of our playing, and focus on sound, strength, centering, and efficiency. Three of the most common sources for exercises of this type are:
James Stamp: Warm-Ups + Studies (editions BIM), Carmine Caruso: Musical Calisthenics for Brass(Hal Leonard), and The Buzzing Book Complete Method by James Thompson (editions BIM). These books are all readily available at most sheet music stores that carry music for trumpet. If these exercises are ignored, the basic mechanism of the embouchure simply will not be honed to the highest degree possible. I now spend the bulk of my daily routine on this type of exercise, and I prescribe the same thing for my students. The improvement this can make in basic trumpet ability is astounding. It will result in improved range, endurance, tone quality, and overall control. There will be improvements in skill areas that weren’t improving before, and overall playing ease will increase. “Sounds great,” you may say, “but what exactly do I do?” Let’s take a closer look at how to implement this kind of work into our practice day.
The foundation routine I use with my students is divided into two parts: beginning of the day and end of the day. The beginning of the day routine is essentially the basic warm-up as outlined in the Stamp book mentioned above, and which I discuss in the series of articles entitled Stamping It Out. Be sure to check these articles out, because I think that this book is perhaps the most misunderstood and misused book in the trumpet community. When done properly, though, these exercises can be a great way to establish balance and center in one’s playing. To a large extent, it is these two elements that determine how efficient a player is, and efficiency is the most significant factor in achieving a truly refined trumpet technique. Other possible foundation exercises for the beginning of the day include the previously mentioned buzzing book by James Thompson, long tone exercises, lip bends, and various combinations of all of these. After concluding the morning foundation routine, you can either move directly into the Skill Set, or you can have a break. Most days I prefer to do the beginning of the day foundation work at home, and then do the skill set once I arrive at work. This creates a break of about an hour and a half, which seems to suit me well. Experiment for yourself to find timing that works best for you.
The end of day foundation routine is centered on strength building. I put these at the end of the day so that I can work the muscles to total exhaustion and have the nighttime to recover. This almost always leaves me feeling better in the morning than if I had done nothing at all. There are a number of exercises that I can recommend for strength building, and I will outline each of them in this and future issues of LivMusic News. See the article One Long G in this issue for the first installment.
Strength is such an important factor in playing the trumpet. Many players are hindered simply because they haven’t done enough to improve their strength. Some people may argue that you can have great endurance and range without doing exercises of this nature. That statement is undeniably true, but it does not mean that a player’s range and endurance will not be improved by doing this type of exercise. I maintain that any player who dedicates a part of each day to strength development will get stronger and see improvements in both endurance and range. If you happen to have all the range and endurance you could ever require, then you don’t need to concern yourself with these exercises. However, if you are like the rest of us and see a need for improved endurance and range, then these exercises will help. It is also worth noting that while there may be players who don’t have a need to develop or maintain range and endurance, I certainly have not ever encountered them myself.
Once you have made a steady commitment to a morning centering and efficiency session, and a nightly strength building session, you will begin to sense the building presence of a truly solid foundation in your playing. Of all the different types of practicing you do, it is this foundation that will have the most significant impact on your playing.
If the foundation gives us the tools to play with, the skill set is what we use to sharpen them. This is the part of the day where we cover the actual skills involved in playing the trumpet. There are three essential parts to my daily skill set. The first part is the Technical Studies by Herbert L. Clarke, which I view as a transition from the Foundation to the Skill Set. I do a study plus its corresponding etude each day at the beginning of the Skill Set, usually playing only odd numbered or even numbered exercises. I like to use the Clarke to begin applying the foundation work to my general playing, monitoring center and efficiency over rapidly changing notes. It is important to play them as softly as possible and with absolute ease. The other two essential parts of the Skill Set are Articulation and Flexibility, which I divide up as follows:
- Single tongue clarity and speed
- “Ku” tongue clarity and speed
- Triple Tonguing clarity and speed
- Double Tonguing clarity and speed
- Initial Attacks
- Slow slurred exercises (smoothness and connection)
- Fast slurred exercises (agility)
- Wide intervals – slurred and tongued
There may be other essential skills that need to be included for any one individual, but these are the basic skills that should be covered by everyone. I may not cover every aspect of these on a daily basis, but they are all covered on a regular basis. Once you start seeing tangible results from your Foundation work, you will notice that you need to spend less time on these skills than you used to. Don’t feel obliged to spend more time on these than you need to. Remember, the Skill Set is about sharpening skills, not creating them.
If you make the commitment to cover the fundamentals in this manner on a daily basis, you will notice dramatic changes in your playing. This improvement in skill does not improve overnight, but rather takes months of diligent practice to take root. During moments of frustration in this process, consider this quote from the ancient Chinese text, the Tao Te Ching:
What is skillfully established will not be uprooted
What is skillfully grasped will not slip away.
Thus it is honored for generations.
With diligence and patience, you will be able to establish new levels of ability on your instrument. These abilities will not be whimsical and subject to mysterious abnormalities, but will be laid like the stones of an ancient path, unmoved by the centuries. You will play with greater ease, and find more enjoyment and fulfillment in the art of making music. Go practice. Discover your path.