Critical Listening Part 1: Hearing vs. Listening

I began this article with several topics and sub-categories that I wanted to address, but after writing some and seeing how expansive the topics that I wanted to cover were, I have decided to make this a series of several posts. Hopefully these mean something to someone other than me; furthermore, hopefully these articles make sense! I am enjoying writing them, and so I must continue to do just that! Read on…

Listen/Hear

Listening can be broken down into one fundamental aspect, a pre-requisite; hearing. How we perceive sound is fundamentally important within this topic, however, it is beyond discussion right now as it is deeply rooted within the psyche, any biases we have and our circumstances etc… It is therefore important to discuss that stage which lies immediately before opinion and personality is applied to our listening; the question of listening and hearing.

Within the category of music, the performance and uses thereof, I need to challenge those who hear music rather than those who listen to music. Fundamentally they are the same; hearing and listening require the ability to hear and as discussed above they, at a base level, are devoid of personality for the simple matter that they just are, however, listening is much more important and beneficial to us as musicians. I must enforce my question to those who hear. Why do you simply hear music? Any time you hear music without listening you lose a chance to develop certain skills which are so important to the musician. It is understandable how you can get into the habit of hearing rather than listening, as music now is treated very much as a commercial commodity and time filler. It was the case in the 16thC, however I wager that it was not at the same extent of prevalence that it is today for the simple fact that they had no CD systems, iPods, TVs, loud speakers and recordings which can and are played ad. nausea on these media! Simply, our society devalues music by making it such a commonplace event, and the listener, you and me, are bombarded and begin to develop a de-sensitivity to it as essentially it is background noise. We have little control over music when out and in the public, in cinemas, restaurants et. all however we should decide to do something about it.

It is not always possible, nor is it commonplace to find much interest in the majority of the music which is constantly numbing us; however, to have the ability to find something in the banality is a singular way in which this assault could become a little more tolerable. You can listen for interesting motivic ideas, or analyse what and how elements of the music make you feel, irrelevant this is positive or negative. You can listen to tuning, chord progressions, harmonies, auto-tune etc… the point being that you make the common-place de-sensitising music mean just that little bit more in terms of how you can learn from it. It is the change of outlook and perspective of the listener that you change, not the object in question.

The noise which constantly bombards us, a corporate musical effort, can condition the mind to switch off the listening and critical thinking part of the brain, and it is something which I believe can affect the listener as well as the hearer. As a listener it is important that you have your critical faculties constantly improving, and that you yourself appreciate a finer subject, smaller details etc… with use the mind develops, and it should be clear to see that when we want to appreciate, listen thoughtfully and learn through listening, we should do so in a way which will help us learn I.e.. focus on the subject at hand, don’t distract the mind with other tasks, make notes etc… When we begin to use our music which we deem in some sense “better” than that of this anonymous corporate music, we should treat it so. If it deserves to be listened to with depth, do so. I would like to say how it is important that we have space for “background” music, however, in this situation the music means something to us, and may help subconsciously influence us and our moods. I have surely felt this to be the case. In summation, and before I become a little more specific; we are in a society which now craves media 24/7.The listener can lose critical faculty in this department and thus it is something which must be practiced, and treated respectfully.

It may seem like an alien notion to practice that which most of us take for granted and that which few of us, sadly, cannot do. It is hard to imagine a world without sound, almost as hard as it is to understand a world without vision, food without taste, and at this stage an emotional part of me feels that it is important to take a moment to respect upon what I am glad to have. How common it must be to take what we have for granted, and you surely know about it as soon as you become ill, an example will follow, but given that we have our own respective personal gifts and abilities we should be working on developing them rather than working ways to dull ourselves and our intellect. In the timeless words of Groucho Marx (and in my probably somewhat re-phrased words) “Every time the television is turned on I become smarter; I immediately leave the room and read a book.” Anyhow, my example; as a child I had to have grommets put in my ears as the canals in my ears were too small leading my hearing to be very poor. I can never forget the day that those were taken out; the time with the grommets in was not a time where I was hearing much better as these plastic capsules were obstructing as well as helping, so the day that I had them out the whole world seemed so much more aurally vibrant. I could hear as I should have, and I immediately asked people to stop shouting at me and enjoyed headaches and tinnitus. Well, consider your critical, musical mind as something similar; give yourself that experience of listening rather than hearing. Don’t spend your times dulling your senses and mind, as this will not lead to a musical musician. Playing the notes is not enough; we hopefully know and appreciate this. As one further example: I spent a little time working on a cruise ship, during which I had an ear infection. Anyone who has enjoyed one of those knows how wax buildup can lead to your hearing being diminished, and contrary to all popular belief, us trumpeters do need our ears! Everyone else may not want ears around us, but fundamentally, going slightly deaf in one ear made playing a terrible experience. Due to shift times, sleeping habits, playing times etc… it was quite some time before I finally saw a doctor to get my ears syringed, and it was the stage where my hearing was not only 95% gone in my left ear, but my right ear had probably only about 45% remaining in the hearing spectrum. It was un-nerving playing like that. Do you think it is terribly far removed from the concept I posed earlier? I think it is remarkably similar. A critical faculty was very much diminished; the only barrier is the physical and mental one. I believe that there are many people who call them musicians who have this listening deafness, it only takes you to hear them play (see what I did there?) to notice this! Certainly as you move up the echelons in the world of the performer, the composer, the musician, you tend to find fewer and fewer of this type of person (at least I like to believe this) however it does not exclude them.

To bring this article into a more practical and applicable perspective, I would now like to focus on the aspects of listening which I believe promote a development of what musicians often refer to as the “ear”. These exercises, if you will, are worth doing with the intended focus that you would have during an ideal instrumental practice session, however, they may be background processes in your mind as you focus on something else; walking through the town, trying to stay awake in the latest Hollywood snore-fest film, staying calm on the return train after a long day as obnoxious teens play their latest ringtones (that were developed by masters of the psyche with the sole intention of intoxicating the listener with an un-controllable rage to kill)… you get me? Put the inherent annoyance to use; analyse, work the critical mind, count backwards from ten!

Here are some ideas and applications for listening practice in any environment. A non-exhaustive list as you will find, but include any ideas that you feel are relevant.

A simple one to begin with: Identify the overall tonality of the piece; major or minor.

Identify when (if) modulations occur. Typically in the most simple forms a modulation will tend to do several things; move to the dominant for the cadenzas in many classical concerti, step up one tone to the II (major-two) chord in a lot of pop music – it has a lifting sound, adding little more vitality and stretching a two-minute long idea into a three minute idea (ok, other music does this, but all I can hear in my head is pop… which is perhaps the main culprit), going to the relative minor (vi); often in worship music for reflective purposes and to conclude a short list of common modulations, my all-time most hated, moving to the bII (up a semi-tone) AKA the Andrew Lloyd-Webber maneuver. I can’t help thinking that many semi-tone gear-shift key changes are very lazy sounding, as if the composer was desperate to lift the energy and had no other ideas… and my choice of example was not by accident. (Wow, snarky!)

Identify rhythmic devices used to maintain interest and cohesion (if present) in the music. Some are very subtle, some are… blatant! The most blatant often being found in rock and metal music where there is a change between time and cut-time, or double-time. It serves a purpose, for sure, but it can sound crude but on the other hand it can serve as a good device for releasing tension… which segues nicely to my next point.

Spotting tension within the music; finding and locating harmonic and rhythmic tension within the music and analasing the intended use and overall effectiveness of that design.
Moving to some more difficult areas now; identifying chord tones and where they resolve, or how they move. It may not be one to worry about much in riff-based rock music as there are enormous chunks of coincidentally moving power chords (think A5, a chord with no 3rd, often voiced I-V-I, I-V and for a “heavier” or crunchier sound it is sometimes played as V-I-V which leaves a 4th to resonate in the bass… I am getting distracted). Classical string and brass quartets as well as small-ensemble vocal music would be ideal to listen to.

Identifying the intonations within music (tuning, and the lack thereof sometimes); listen to the groups where there is a freedom to play outside of the equal-temperament that many instruments are bound to. The 3rds are lackluster and the tuning is compromised greatly compared to what we want to hear. Listening to sackbut ensembles playing 16th Century music will open your ears to new possibility. Listening also to orchestras, brass ensembles (good ones) and choirs can be amazing; however, listening to the latest pop star being auto-tuned to death is not. It is important to recognize when an artist has been electronically enhanced… to find pitch! It is not hard to spot as soon as you know what to listen for. It is also important to critically appraise even those we highly esteem, be that through their image or ability, as no-one is beyond reproach but you simply may not hear their issues. Watching a piano masterclass with Daniel Barenboim is humbling to say the least; his ear is so finely tuned, and his vision and artistry is so refined that his criticism of virtuoso pianists is seemingly impossibly small – sometimes it is hard to hear the error in interpretation (or the deviation from Barenboim’s own concepts)!

I believe you can teach yourself to become more pitch sensitive and more musically intelligent by singing along chord tones and resolutions to music. The accuracy of interpreting or predicting what is to come, through the act of trying (guessing) in a bass-line or another musical part is often relative to how trained your ear is, and though this is a very simple exercise, your mind can subconsciously pick up on patters which have been programmed into our brains; cadences for example – we would recognize a plagal cadence (IV-I) by sound, but not necessary by name, also the familiar I-V cadence for cadenzas is common enough. Within music, the passage of chords has mostly an underlying structure, and subconsciously our brain can decode this, though some can clearly hear the chords involved.

Finally I believe it is important that all musicians begin to transcribe music; this is not simply for jazz musicians! Learning baroque ornamentation is best done by learning and emulating the greats before applying some personality to it. The same applies to aspects of all music, so transcribe! It can be as simple as learning to sing a tune, or whistle or hum an entire solo. It can also be the notation of horn charts for blues bands, transcribing to paper the solo of a jazz great, or learning how to play “Let the Bright Seraphim” just as Wynton does (let’s not discuss how much ornamentation he applies right now…). The point is that you develop your ear, vocabulary, and instrumental skill at a greatly improved rate by studying those who are worth studying!

So, in conclusion, I planned to outline some of my opinions and thoughts on the differences between hearing and listening, and I think I have effectively done so, but this is certainly not an exhaustive article – far from it – so please, continue to do that which you love. Continue to play, compose, gig, record and listen!

Kindly,
Mike

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The Young Student

There are several perspectives regarding the young student, and I will aim to address all of them. Indeed much of this information is applicable to most students, young, old, experienced and inexperienced, but my main address is to the young student and the teacher.

Within the young student there lies a fantastic opportunity to succeed and do well, regardless of whatever so-called “natural talent” they have. The truth is that with hard work, application and a desire to play, they will indeed play. Now, the level at which everyone settles is absolutely unique, as is the time at which they reach this level. This is why I believe that teachers have a duty to the student; you are in the unique position, as a teacher, to really invest in your teaching and give every student the chance that they deserve, however, you can drag through your job as if it were a chore, to the detriment of the student. Let’s examine some crucial aspects of teaching and there reasons to act in certain ways. There are so many variables within this subject I will try to cover the big ones, and the ones which I have encountered on both sides of the subject, then I will try to dissect them.

Teachers can:
Be organised, keep regularity for the student, give the student a desire to learn, enjoy their own lessons and learn from them, try to do everything to make the student surpass them when the time comes, teach sympathetically to the needs of the student and accept the responsibility of teaching someone who *could* be the next Nakariakov.

Sadly teachers can:
Be tardy, only bother with their star students, drag their feet through for a pay cheque, give their students no sense of drive or desire, ignore students, frequently dep out lessons and change times, hold back when a student starts to show signs of becoming great, forget the age and nature of younger students and treat them as adults and demean, dishearten and disrespect the student, even insulting them.

Students can:
Work hard, be driven, have a flair for the instrument, develop later than others, hit a wall and seem never to improve, enjoy music, practice (imagine that), improve faster than their peers, begin to threaten the teacher through their playing and take initiative through home study and the searching for new things.

Sadly students can:
Be annoying; children can be just a little much sometimes, but they deserve patience, adults can be annoying students too. Students can lie, they can have egos, be arrogant, forget their instruments, forget their music, never practice, be pushed into playing by parents and therefore hate lessons, they can be terribly rude and have no sense of propriety, they can be self-centred and they can anger teachers.

There are many factors at play when we look deeper into the reactions of teachers to students and vice versa; on a base level they will probably respond in a way in which they were taught. A very simple exercise to see this is to ask your student to teach you for half of a lesson; this will show you any fundamental gaps in their knowledge – they may just have forgotten something or they may be missing something, but do try it. In your next lesson please ask your student to teach you how to take a breath and play a bottom C or middle G. I will probably write an article on what I believe proper breathing to be (it won’t in the slightest be controversial if you subscribe to proper breathing, and I feel founded in my knowledge as I have been taught what I know by some very respected players and by their books – I digress). It will be interesting none the less to see how your student teaches you; you will be amazed at how their mannerisms mimic your own. They will have some of their own personality – especially the shy ones, but you will see largely a young student emulating yourself. This outlines one of the large responsibilities of a teacher; your teaching will in some form be emulated, consciously or sub-consciously, so to help perpetrate a generation of capable teachers we must assume that role.

The role of the capable teacher encompasses many criteria, I will outline below what I think the most important ones are and in no particular order.

A friendly, approachable and helpful teaching environment.
A willingness to endure testing circumstances and situations.
Sharing enthusiasm to help the student regardless of ability; not showing favouritism.
Engaging the student on issues they enjoy and working to meet at least some of their own musical goals; some students are somewhat directionless and need grades to work towards.
Bringing a wealth of diverse music to the ears of the student; showing everything that is possible with the instrument.
Appropriately challenging a student when necessary; giving them tricky music to work on, extra-musical projects, listening, transcribing etc…
Now that we have some precepts to strive towards we have to engage the real world somewhat, as we are all prone to fault, student and teacher alike. If we can spot the areas in which we are weak, we can become better teachers and people. We clearly do not live in some utopian society, so we have to learn to adjust to our circumstances.

Firstly; any teacher has a breaking point. It is simple. We all have a student that we know could push us over the edge given enough time. We all do, right? It isn’t just me, is it? Ok… Well, maybe I have a student like that. Maybe I don’t! For the sake of argument, we know someone who could do that to us. How do we cope with that? Firstly, I/we need to address the issue, we need to think and temper our response. Are we over-reacting because we have not had 10 cups of joe that morning? Is the student acting more annoying than usual? Can we diffuse the situation? Knowing how to diffuse different situations requires a lot of experience and so every teacher should be given some grace in this respect; they/we are maybe still learning this skill, however, we should know how to relate to our students well enough to diffuse irritation.

What may irritate us could be very disparate, and I will offer some of my ideas and techniques for helping the lesson and student. I will now list some potential areas of stress for a teacher:

Rudeness, hyper-activity “ants in pants syndrome”, “I want that” followed by grabbing something that you own which more often than not is expensive and easily broken, no practice in the week, no focus, not paying attention, arguing with your teaching, asking repetitive questions, talking too much etc…*disclaimer* This not about any specific student, nor is it about any specific irritant to myself as a teacher; I have merely sketched some ideas down from what I have seen. Given the nature of the article, and indeed my knowledge of my teaching so far; I have diffused any irritant to the student or myself and constructively continued teaching. I am not a teaching genius, but I do take pride in my work; I apologise for any air of self-centeredness involved.

There are some very easy ways to “trick” a student into working in the lesson as opposed to disrupting. The most obvious way is to bring new music out and generally most students are curious enough to try and play it. You can do the same by playing new music to the student, or asking them to suggest music for you to listen to. Another method, which is akin to steering a car on ice, is to gently talk them in a better direction. Engage them in what they enjoy; sports, games, computers, maths (hahaha, not) etc… and lead the conversation towards playing. At the onset of rudeness or egoism the best route of action is to address or ignore. If the rudeness demands attention, respectfully do so. Egoism rarely deserves attention, but respect is a bigger issue. Finally; as this is regarding young students, please bear in mind that age has a lot to do with their behaviour and that they should be cut a wider birth than an adult. There is no need to be terribly formal and strict. There is a time for that, but the discipline of the child is for the parents to tend to, and as long as nothing serious is happening, it is rarely the case for the teacher to do so. A certain precedent of order needs set in lessons, but that can be done with a smile and some care. Here are some ideas to try: long note competitions – challenge them to improve every week; I saw a student go from 25 seconds to 50 seconds over a month or so! Challenge them to loud and soft competitions. Ask them to teach you how to do a certain aspect of playing that you had recently been studying with them. Ask them to try and play theme tunes that they will know, or to identify tunes if they don’t know many notes. New music to listen to, ask about their own listening habits etc…

Sadly there will at some stage be a student that will be so difficult to teach that you have to stop teaching them. This is not a case of getting a “get out of jail card” for your guilt; the student must really in all senses present themselves as impossible to teach. I would imagine that a student of this nature will last only one lesson as opposed to developing into this student. If they change, it is still a person who can be worked with in most cases, but if they come to a lesson in a state in which you cannot teach them there is no onus on you as a teacher to teach them. Remember at this stage, even if you are broke; the student deserves to be taught music, and not to be that person that is ignored for 30 minutes a week to take some money from them. Even the worst are still people, and deserve the same respect, and in my opinion that respect is in the decision not to teach them. This has happened to me once, and in retrospect I let that lesson last about 15 minutes too long (it got to 20 minutes before enough was enough), and as I learned he had been through about 7 teachers and only lasted one lesson. This is probably the case for a lot of that type of student. I felt pretty bummed that it had happened, but after learning that it was not uncommon I felt a bit better. It is strange how we learn sometimes.

Now on a positive note, we can, and do frequently encounter students of all abilities who are just so happy to be playing. It is our duty to teach them equally well and not according to their ability. It is also important that we do not push the students who are struggling and that we do not under-teach those who are frequently back with all of their assignments completed. There is a balance to find in each situation, and as with the knowledge of handing more difficult students, this comes with experience.

Our students can probably do some more work; at least most of them can (as long as TV and computer games exist), but can we do some more? In a somewhat related and respectful manner:

“…ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” – Kennedy.

Kindly,
Mike

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Tone

This is another area which I have touched upon in the previous posts. In this entry I hope to offer exercises, mental approaches and physical conditions which enable the production of a relaxed sound. I choose the word “relaxed” as it is probably one of the only uniform aspects of a sound; most aspects of tone colouration are subjective qualities and therefore striving for a “clear” tone is no more valid than striving for an “airy” tone, the commonality in good players with either quality (or indeed any) as previously stated is a relaxed approach to playing and sound production.

Some modifiers, if you will, are the circumstances under which we play, and this I have covered somewhat in Your Voice but I will re-state in much abridged format. Your tone must suit the music that you play, but you need not loose your voice in this adaption; you will always sound like yourself. In an orchestra it is expected that you produce something equating to the sound model created by the best players in the world; this is the paradigm which we measure to. In jazz and solo spots there is more room for freedom and expression, especially in the jazz soloist context where an airy, light trumpet tone can sound beautiful – imagine this in an orchestral context. Unsuitable. These modifiers should be taken as positive aspects of playing, helping you play to the best of your ability in a given situation.

One example before I elucidate upon the main goals of this entry:

As a younger player I had developed this love with a dark sound, and so I did everything to help me achieve this with gear and listening. I played a Taylor trumpet which is a very heavy, very open blowing, custom built horn. (I got mine 2nd hand with a trade-in). I played this with a deep-C Taylor flumpet mouthpiece (about a 1 1/2C rim). Now, as an experiment I tried to play lead on a youth jazz orchestra gig which I recorded, and though I was giving it stacks and covering most of the notes written my sound didn’t project; it stopped at about the music stand. The microphone was in the hall. I was so devastated, but learned a very valuable (gear) lesson that no teacher had taught me. There is certain gear for certain situations for a reason, and your sound must suit your situation. Since that night I have never done anything as silly. Big band playing requires a brighter tone so that your sound will project and cut through and lead the band if necessary. I don’t necessarily advocate getting a 14a4a and tying to peel paint, again just read my mouthpiece article, but I do advise making your life easier by using suitable equipment. For gear-heads, when I mention shallow, I play what is basically a 3D (Curry 3M) for big band pop and a 3B for other playing. From time to time I use a 3TC (trumpet/cornet cup) which mellows the tone and helps me to blend in quintet. Mainly using my ear to decide. Now, the equipment is not so important once you find something that you are comfortable on, so here is the more important advice.

Without replicating information that I have previously divulged, there are a couple of important precepts to lay down.

1.Dark tone is very different to a dead tone, and some of us cannot hear the difference. A dark tone is rich, a dead tone can sound dark, but is hideous and lackluster. It is not mouthpiece and gear dependent, however that can be part of the recipe.
2.A bright tone is not necessarily for jazz, you can have a good bright orchestral tone which is very satisfying to hear, especially on film scores! It is not mouthpiece and gear dependent, however that can be part of the recipe.

The most important thing that you can do as a player is to develop a tone, regardless of the tonal quality. Producing a relaxed sound with correct technique is the first step to the manipulation of tonal variety. It is like working with a good plaster mix, it is spreadable, sticks to the drywall and needs little effort to smooth and form, unlike a dry or a wet mix, or indeed an uneven mix. To explain that: a dry mix will be hell to spread; it will leave a very uneven finish and you will lash sweat when you are finished with it. You also may want to hit whoever made the mix; I have been there. As the mixer. Too wet and the plaster has no cohesion and poor adhesion and it will run, and lead to a very thin uneven finish which will crack. Uneven mixing will leave lumps in the plaster and is perhaps the worst that can happen, if grit is present it will leave enormous streaks in the wall and you may despair. Long analogy for tone to be honest, but if you aim too bright, too dark or too I don’t know what to play like then you will leave a poor finished product. Like mouthpieces, it is about accepting something comfortable, and not extreme which can then be shaped however you like. Build on good foundations.

So in order to find this relaxed tone, we must do some exercises. We must also be active in listening to music without prejudice.

“Long tones, baby!” – Wynton Marsalis

Long tones are fabulous, but only if done correctly. You can do this incorrectly, believe me! Plugging away at long tones with no focus on the breathing is tantamount to spending time in limbo. Doing nothing. Take up paint drying watching as a hobby instead of meaningless long tone practice with no mental focus, you will probably learn more about the trumpet this way!

Wynton, in one of his books (Moving to Higher Ground perhaps), says how people are too self-conscious to play long notes, how the ego feels damaged when it hears weakness and imperfection. It is the same reason we are afraid to slow down that double-tonguing passage that we can’t yet play. We will hear our flaws. Well that is good. Show them to me, I want to improve! Let me break down what has been working for me recently.

Breathing

Claude Gordon nailed it. Big breath, chest up. He advocated keeping the chest up during the exhale to promote the use of abdominal muscles, now Gordon pedagogues can set me straight regarding this in practice VS performance, but to me it seems like the chest remains up during the exhale, but what has made a big difference to my breathing and playing is to have the chest held high and proud during the inhale. This seems to promote a large relaxed inhale. It may be my physical build, but it feels like the air is just drawn and dragged into my body when I breathe in doing this, other methods feel more resistive. I also don’t believe that you have to fill up to 100 of 110% capacity in performance. In practice this can help strengthen and expand lung capacity, but in performance this over-filling is not beneficial. On top of not eating for a day, doing this and stressing out led me to pass out in rehearsal and land myself a heavy instrument repair bill and a most of a night in hospital. I wasn’t thinking, I was stressed, I was hungry and I was blowing at 110% capacity. Face plant. Thank God I had a good mate on 2nd who rescued my hooter leaving only the flugel to get squashed. Sorry Zig!!

In point form:
Chest up during inhale and exhale. The distended stomach breathing which is often taught is silly. The stomach moves only by being displaced some by the lungs inflating with air. You have no lungs in your gut, you do not push your belly out when you inhale. You make it harder to use your stomach muscles to compress the air when you distend your belly.
Shoulders down and relaxed. The whole ribcage area expands, back included, but the shoulders remain relaxed. No shrugging!
Use the stomach muscles to compress the air. Dare I advocate situps? I don’t do them… yet!

The notes

Long tones accompanied by long, relaxed breaths are tantamount to successful tone production. How we do this may vary. The Claude Gordon book A Systematic Approach to Daily Practice is superb. You do not need to buy this if you don’t want to. Check out the flow studies on Urban Agnas’ website. These are superb. Watch his videos, see how relaxed he is. Listen to his tone improve from his first notes of the day; we won’t sound our best on our first notes, and as Urban says he “accepts the consequences of these notes” IE he accepts them for what they are, without getting hung up on them. This is is a good mental condition! Chicowicz’s flow studies are superb too, as are hymns. Caruso’s Musical Calisthenics for Brass is another must own!.

Some pointers for long note studies. Flow studies.

Breathing, as before. Relaxed. No stress.
Slow tempi.
Breath starts to notes, let the air start the vibrations. “Hooo”
Light “du” or “tu” tonguing. “taa” was a mistaken transliteration from the French method books.
Don’t force range, these studies are about gentle and musical playing. Stop when it sounds forced.

Let me repeat this: the breathing is essential to get right. Do not stress over this, just raise your chest, sit tall and inhale. If you drop your jaw some and form an “aww” shape in your will probably help this breath. Practice this without the instrument. Practice this with the instrument.

Long gentle tones. Playing hymn tunes at 60bpm at mp – mf with a gentle, steady air flow, hearing every interval will do wonders for your sound.

Intonation

If you work on tones this slowly you will be able to adjust for intonation and develop your ear. Use those slides (if they move). Use your ear to intonate to the key you are playing in. In major keys, in ensemble playing where this is possible, listen to the major 3rds. They are most displeasing oftentimes; lower them a little and they will sound beautifully rich, for example:- if I am in F major, I find the 3rds are very sharp, listen for the A, lower it until it sounds rich (especially good to try in ensemble playing when you get the chance to play with good players). Listen also for the 7th which is often a little sharp. Know your instrument; I know which notes are wonky on my Selmer. On trumpets, generally low D and C# need your attention as well as 1st ledger A. I know that I must compensate for most of the notes on my horn in some key or other. Use alternate fingerings and experiment with the tunings on these. A in the staff is best on 3 for me, as is the low E (depending on the key), rarely C# is 3 for me, and high B is 1+3 quite often! Trust your ears.

Playing in tune, and hearing this aspect of playing is hugely important. You will become 4x more tired in half the time if you are out of tune and don’t realise that you are constantly fighting your instrument. Your lip will really tire trying to make the corrections. Slides are meant to move. Band members are meant to be confronted about tuning (especially in quintet setting); do this diplomatically!

To help intonation make sure that you are playing on the pitch and watch out for playing low or high on the pitch. It is very easy to do. Often striving too hard for notes which are not in your range will cause you to dodge the note centres and intonation can go either way, but my experience is that you will be forcing your lip onto a high pitch centre. A low pitch centre will be more relaxed, but out of tune and likely to split to a different partial.

Play a C, 3rd space. Relax and let the note fall to G and then to low C. Listen and feel for where it locks in. Repeat this on E, G, Bb, C and above. Listen for where the note resonates best and where it feels the best, then hold these ntoes. Especially in long tone practice where you have the time to hunt for note centres, relax and let the note settle. There is no rush. Remember the breathing!

In conclusion, your tone is part of your musical identity. It does not solely constitute your identity, so be aware of trying to create a musical identity on tone alone; it needs the support of artistic vision. Focus on creating a relaxed sound, follow the exercises and flow studies in order that you will play in a more relaxed manner and therefore better. If you do nothing else, check out Urban Agnas performing his flow studies. Listen, watch, learn, hear! Urban is fabulous sounding, and very relaxed in his performance methods. Finally, play emphasising the sound that you want to hear and enjoy what you do play.

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Your Voice

While the question of your voice is almost inextricably linked with your identity I will focus mainly on the aspects of playing, sound, gigging and leave the issue of personal identity for another time. It is indeed a tough subject to focus on, as a lot of the aesthetic aspects are subjective, and variable from person to person; this is an area that I will try to avoid in the interests of a concise article.

As musicians the sound that you produce on the instrument must do one important thing; it must please us, in some way or form. Therefore in practice we must listen to those aspects of our sound which please us, as this will help us develop a personal sound, a voice. If we stay focused on the aspects of our sound which we enjoy hearing we will develop a positive experience when we see this develop and the way to put this sound into perspective is to use our ears. It is our absolute responsibility to listen to the best musicians that we can in order to improve what we do; we will subconsciously hear what makes them sound great, or indeed adopt a sound model for ourselves. We will also learn to hear musical phrasing and a voice which is very personal to that artist. What we must not do is to believe that we can develop our voice by emulating the lifestyle, or attitude or even diet of this artist; these things are all part of a whole person who is absolutely not us. What they did, besides practice, is entirely foreign to what we should do because we are separate people. A very real situation that a young player will face, especially in the jazz music scene where substance abuse was rife amongst the best of players, will be to get caught up in the idea that you need drugs to create music; to play like Charlie Parker you will need to do a lot of…emm.. Charlie. Cocaine. Heroin. Pot. Alcohol. There are a lot of huge “endorsers” of these drugs, especially in the bebop era. I say “endorsers” because it is only their status and notoriety which placed them in such a position; the exact same is true of any stars, it is not at all unique to jazz musicians but the emphasis here is on music so I don’t need to mention actors, or jocks, or artists, or commercial pilots who have done jail time for drugs. What I am saying is that their drug did nothing towards helping them producing their voice on the instrument; without doubt it influenced the sound, especially when you find a recording where the artist was too drunk to stand and had to be held up at the microphone, but the voice and the vision IE the artistry was always present in the player, and this wasn’t developed through addiction to a drug, it was developed through an addiction to music, a love of playing and a desire to play better. In short; your voice is not found by emulating any bad habits of a favorite player, rather through critical listening, frequent listening and the practice of your instrument, always striving to hear and produce more of that element you like in your tone and in your playing.

In certain situations your sound must match a certain general sound model and you may indeed find this contradictory to your voice on the instrument, but I don’t believe this to be the case. If we prepare for each possible playing situation we can adapt our voice to suit the music; ultimately this gives a better performance, even if we are deviating from our favorite sound concept. An example, as a trumpeter; jazz VS classical music. Ok, I chose a deliberately obtuse area of focus to outline the fact that there is in fact no explicit subscribed sound change between the two, it is only in the “sub-genres” where we need to be specific or not. The devil is in the detail. I will therefore try to define my personal concepts within the two genres. Caveat: these are my concepts, they seem to suit how I play. I often prefer a dark sound, a sound which has an emphasis on the fundamental pitch rather than a bright sound emphasising the overtones within the sound. Without deviating from my intention, a dark sound, in my opinion, must still be rich in overtone content in order to project, rather than producing a dead sound, which may be dark, but is lifeless. This is becoming too specifically focused on the tone production on trumpet, so I am going to offer what I promised to a hundred words back!

Here are some of the typical gigs that a trumpeter will pick up, and besides practicing all of these styles in order to help best produce that sound, I have a mental picture of what I want to achieve. Sometimes I will change my mouthpiece or trumpet to best suit the music. Refer to my article on trumpet mouthpieces for just a little more information on this. I will start with what I love, and indeed my favorite, or primary sound concept.

Small group jazz – combo playing; from duo to quintet.

Bb trumpet is the standard horn for this, however a flugel horn is also fun to play, especially for a softer touch, this is totally up to the performer, unless written music specifies anything else.

I like the sound that Wynton Marsalis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Scott Wendholt, Woody Shaw, Seamus Blake, Will Vinson, Chris Potter etc… make. I therefore listen to a lot of that music, and try to produce that darker tone. The players mentioned are not all trumpeters (diversify your listening) and also have a fabulous time feel. This is an enormous part of playing jazz music which moves you and elicits emotion.

In combo jazz the importance lies in sympathetically playing with the rhythm section; calling tunes at tempos that everyone is comfortable with, playing at suitable volume and with good time.

Dynamics are so very often overlooked in combo playing; use the full spectrum of dynamics to the musical advantage at the time, in the same way that you can change the timbrel spectrum to suit a ballad or an up tempo bebop tune.

Big band jazz

Bb trumpet with a shallower mouthpiece to aid in emphasising the overtones, aiding in producing a more projecting tone which cuts and can lead the band without having to play at fffff as the high overtones will cut through the band and do the work. The shallow mouthpiece is not for reaching to higher notes; if you are reaching for a higher note on a shallow mouthpiece, then you can’t properly play the note, and like me you will be shedding it. Flugel horn is called for as well, as are a variety of mutes.

The main idea in big band is to follow the lead player; copy his sound and time feel. If you are leading you are to give the section confidence, and to confidently lead the band. Bobby Shew has a fantastic article on this: http://www.bobbyshew.com/clinics/Lead.htm

Sound wise, leading confidently will come across well, playing apologetically will also come across. Less well. While time feel is paramount, clarity and articulation are equally important. A bright, clear and projecting sound is ideal. Note that a projecting sound isn’t a sound where you hammer away at fff, it is a focused, rich, energetic tone. Listen to the best: Wayne Bergeron, Charley Davis, Roger Ingram, Bobby Shew, Mike Lovatt.

Pop gig

Bb trumpet and flugel horn. Like big band playing, the pop horns will be brighter than most combo players and brighter than most orchestral playing.

Often you play the cool lick that people remember, fill in parts and punctuation. The playing will vary, from chop busting Tower of Power charts to the suicide inducing country music charts. Play them all well, and focus on consistency. You won’t be playing country for ever (unless you like that… really?)

Consistency in timing with the section and confidence in soloing in a pop context will help the overall sound. Jazz lines will rarely work on the pop tunes and harmony, so shed your pentatonics and blues scales. Work on the clichés that you hear guitarists, saxophonists and trumpets playing on albums – these will be life savers. Your diminished jazz lines will not be appreciated.

Listen to the masters of this style, emulate this sound. Every Tower of Power horn player is incredible, if you can sound a tenth this good you are on the way to a good gig! “Iron” Mike Bogart, Adolfo Acosta and Steve Reid would be a good start.

Now for a few classical gigs. Caveat: I have experience in amateur and pro pit orchestras and amateur ensembles from orchestras to baroque groups. More of my playing is commercial or jazz, so temper what I write with your own knowledge. Like all information, it it sounds rubbish, it probably is rubbish. Zebra/stripey horse scenario.

Pit orchestra

Often requiring Bb trumpet, flugel horn and piccolo trumpet. Depending on the demands and ensemble line up, I will adapt to suit both gear and sound wise. The pop-esque ones such as most Lloyd Webber will be a prime candidate for a slightly shallower mouthpiece and a brighter sound. These often suit the brighter sound and the command akin to that in big band playing. It is important to be as flexible as possible in these situations.

Becoming familiar with your part, and listening to good recordings will help you decide how to play, but one thing is for sure; there is no award for running a marathon in boots IE if the show is demanding, a shallower mouthpiece can help you work a little less hard producing the overtones necessary to project and can help solidify the upper register. As before these pieces give you no notes that you don’t already have.

Classical orchestra

Requiring every trumpet you can possibly name. The ideal gig for someone needing to validate buying a new Schilke E trumpet. Yes, as well as the Eb. Generally the mouthpiece choice is larger than that of jazz or pop players. Certainly deeper to help emphasise the fundamental tone present and to help produce an enormous volume and power when necessary.

Playing wise I feel that this demands a focused air stream and the mental image of a compact round tone suits me. It is a more delicate art than big band playing.

Listen to the great players to learn the necessary sound concept. Also listen to the different sounds across the eras and composers. Playing Haydn as you would Mahler would be a disaster, and vice versa!

There are both bright and dark tonal concepts within this music, neither is necessarily correct. Maurice Murphy’s incredible tone and phrasing on all of his recordings with the LSO (Star Wars for one) is one of the reasons he tried several times to retire only to be brought back. His tone is so pure, but to my ears a brighter orchestral tone, yet he adapts when he plays solo or different styles. Musically and sensibly adapting to the circumstance is the name of the game. Incredibly worth the listen is his recording of the LSO with Valery Gergiev playing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Listen! Maurice Murphy, Hans Gansch, Phil Smith, Bud Herseth, Malcolm McNab.

Baroque ensemble

Usually D/Eb trumpets, piccolo trumpet and Bb trumpet.

A compact blending sound Often you must balance with oboes and various woodwinds who have very little power by comparison; you have to play with a compact tone which does not over power the small group. This is difficult given the propensity for composers to write in the upper tessiatura of the instrument.

I strive for a warm tone in these groups, which is sometimes difficult on the smaller trumpets, but ultimately this works better for me. The oboes hate me less!

Listen! Hakan Hardenberger, Maurice Andre, Jens Lindemann, Rolf Smedvig, Wynton Marsalis.

Classical soloist

All the trumpets in the world!

Have a good teacher to guide you through this. You should find a tone which you can call yours, yet suits the music. You should focus on the musical interpretation of the solo, as this, along with your sound, is how you can define your playing. Sloppy phrasing with excellent tone is still sloppy phrasing.

Listen to the greats. Dissect their playing and determine what makes them unique for you.

Sergei Nakariakov, Matthias Hoefs, Hakan Hardenberger, Wynton Marsalis, Malcolm McNab, Urban Agnas, Tine Thing Helseth, Alison Balsom.

Brass bander

Often amateur organisations, and therefore the advice will vary slightly, depending on how seriously you take the instrument. If this is for fun, keep it that way. Don’t torture yourself by thinking you have to play a Denis Wick 2 mouthpiece on a large bore Sovereign 928. Make life easier, play the Wick B cup on a horn you like and blow with a relaxed “warm” air stream to help produce a relaxed cornet tone.
It is not a trumpet, nor is it a flugel horn. The tone should be light and round, warm. This again is partly down to the design of the instrument and mouthpiece, but given a standard setup you can make it sound terrible if you don’t pay attention. Learning easy solos should be on the list, such as: “The Last Rose of Summer” “Cherry Pink” “Love is Like a Red Red Rose” “Misty” “Autumn Leaves” etc… it can’t be much fun jumping in with the heavy ones, especially if trying to discern what a cornet tone is.

Listen. Roger Webster, Phil McCann, Alan Morrison, etc… All the championship section bands have phenomenal players in every chair.

Now to try and bring this to a conclusion. I will have missed out on some situations, but for the sake of brevity, I will call this enough.

You will always have your sound, you don’t need to copy drug habbits, lifestyles etc… this is some strange attempt to be someone else; why would you do that? You can be a second rate Wynton Marsalis, but you can be a first rate Mr/s Boddington-Smythe II (or whatever name you have). Work hard on your tone, and set your goals! Have the courage of your convictions and believe that what you do is valid; it is! Make your art mean something. Make your practice mean something. Make your performance and composition meaningful. Have the guts not to copy, but to explore, always keeping the history of your instrument and the music that you play in perspective.

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Mouthpiece Advice

The mouthpiece choice is always a trending topic on trumpet forums and I chime in from time to time because like most trumpeters I have tried (owned) more mouthpieces than socks. Given that the music shops in N. Ireland are rubbish; a mouthpiece selection would typically be “we might have a 7c here”, I have ordered and re-sold mouthpieces from the world over. So my advice for those of you who happen to have a decent music shop is to go and play test as many as possible and don’t worry about the number on the side, or the brand.

Granted new things are cool, and often work as a practice incentive, so on that level if you get a deal on ebay, it won’t hurt to try one, but make sure you have a good CD collection of good trumpet recordings and a collection of books and music. Lumps of silver-plated brass which sort-of resemble big golf tees (some look just like small golf tees.. 6a4a anyone?!) will do nothing for you in the long run, so as before – I advocate trying pieces, but with intent to settle on a mouthpiece (or 2).

The problem with the mouthpiece safari is the thrill of the chase, the quest to find that perfect piece which gives you a double C but that huge VSO rotary-powered sound from lead to combo; it suddenly makes you Chet Baker and Wayne Bergeron and Hans Gansch.. Chet-Hans Bergeron? Basically, this is the quest for the holy grail. My advice; quit when you find a decent rim/cup combo and get shedding.

So, onto some useful tips (before I get side-tracted onto telling you the story of me playing trumpet lying down on my back on the heli-pad of a commercial ferry at 3am).

What should you do to test a mouthpiece?

Right:

Take your time. If you are in a shop trying lots of them, I think it would be a good idea to have warmed up on your “usual” piece. Keep this handy.

Long tones, scales at mf. Gently ease into all registers, test flexibility – slurs, lip trills etc… Have someone honestly tell you how you sound. (A teacher would be good). See how it sounds from the back of the room, not just up close.

Comfort. Above all, a comfortable mouthpiece that you can play on and sound good on is a real goal.

Sound. Paramount in the quest for the “right” mouthpiece. Blind testing and ignoring the numbers on the side of the piece is a very good idea.

A/B. Keep referring to what you know. Your sound will always be your sound, your mouthpiece choice may change this slightly, but after 2 weeks or so you will end up sounding like you again. Let’s make that a comfortable choice. Granted cup depth will influence your sound somewhat, but your mental sound image is the driver; it controls the whole machine.

Record yourself – you wouldn’t believe what sounds good on a recording. It is good to know what the microphone thinks!

Ordering abroad – like me – buy mouthpieces that are around the size you play and ask the manufacturor for help – they will know better than numbers on a chart. Years back on a Bach forum I was recommeded the 3C – this was a time where I was told that small = high and I wasn’t going to listen. Fast forward some years and I am playing on Mark Curry’s 3 rims. Funny that!

Wrong:

Let’s find the mouthpiece that gives me the best upper register.

Let’s see what I can play the loudest and brightest on.

Let’s find the biggest-rimmed, smallest mouthpiece, because that’s what lead players use. Pressure = Force/Area, so more area will dissapate that arm pressure and I will have the best endurance.

Small = bad, big = good.

Big = bad, small = good.

Shallow = high notes.

Deep = no high notes.

Real mean play on bathtub sized mouthpieces with car-exhaust backbores.

Basically: choose a comfortable mouthpiece that makes your job as a player easier! There are no prizes for heroes playing lead on a 1X. Do not compromise the sound.

Ok, I have thrown a bit of stuff your way there, now for more! There are a lot of popular mis-conceptions with mouthpieces. I have been taught every contradicting theory under the sun of mouthpiece and the selection thereof; finally, after asking my own questions I have wised to what works and what doesn’t.

Some “gold” that I have heard or been taught:

Play on the biggest mouthpiece possible.

Play on the smallest mouthpiece possible.

Play on a 7c/1C/arbitrary size.

This rim feels sharp because you have a weak embouchure.

Play on this, it has the biggest backbore (referencing the throat at the time).

Mr “X” plays on this, if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for you.

There are “cheater” mouthpieces for playing high, that’s how those American boys play.

It doesn’t matter; just play.

I bet some of those are familiar. As an impressionable young student I tried mouthpieces because to play high I need a small one – according to my teacher. I was never taught how to breathe or any of the fundamental exercises necessary for playing and I literally knew no better. Thankfully I was set straight by a decent local teacher!

Here is the deal, and information you will see given by respected players: play something fairly middle of the road unless it doesn’t work for you. If the rim is sore, there are many options – I will mention this below.

Shallow pieces will emphasise high overtones and help you cut. This is a good idea for big band, and if that is your sound concept when playing piccolo these will work. If you just like a brighter sound, why not play your 3D?

Medium pieces will work well for all types of playing if you have a good sound concept and can manipulate your sound.

Deep pieces will attenuate the high overtones and emphasise the fundamental tone. These can be good for a big dark sound if you want to emulate a rotary horn, or to blend in a brass quartet or even combo gigs.

If you are a student it is my opinion that by sticking to a standard depth cup you will develop into a better player who will be able to utilise a shallow cup when appropriate. It is also true that bigger/deeper mouthpieces can cover up embouchure and general playing flaws, another good reason to stay in the middle of the road until you (or your teacher) feel that you are ready for change.

For anyone wanting to start, here are a few mouthpieces which I consider middle-of-the-road.

Bach 7c/6c/3c
Curry 7c/3c (slightly more cushioned than Bachs)
Warburton 5MC/8 4MC/8 (slightly more cushioned than Bachs)

Not middle of the road:

Jet Tone 10s
Bach 3E/1B/17C
Warburton 1XD/12
Curry 00S

For those of you who play and are considering swapping or “upgrading”. Why? Is this teacher-prompted? Is the rim hurting? Can you not play on your current piece? Do you want an easier upper register? Do you want a better sound? Tighter slotting?

Ok, firstly – the simple ones:

Teacher prompted swap – trust them. Trust what you feel, if they move you onto something that feels bad compared to your regular piece, tell them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Your 3C is fine!

Upgrading? Add half an hour/day to your practice routine. In this time do flow studies. That is a better upgrade.

Fine tuning a piece – this is for geeks and or pros who know their gear and want to optimise. In this case you will know what to do, but for the sake of a comprehensive article that hopefully avoids too much techno-linguo.

Caveat: sound concept is more important than gear. So is regular practice, as are teachers. All of these variables run many combinations, which is why our mouthpiece guru’s can help if we ask them. They build them, they know what works. For your own help:

A higher compression setup can help secure the upper register.

Tightening up slots:

Tighter backbore

Optimising the GAP between the mpc end and the leadpipe within the receiver – typically 0.150″. Contact Bob Reeves for his sleeves.

Shallower cup or even a less V shaped cup. (Think Warburton S vs the SV, MC vs MD).

Adding sizzle:

Shallower shallow V shaped cups can help.

Tighter backbores can help.

Lightweight blanks.

Sound concept. Ears!!

Adding depth to your sound:

Sometimes opening the throat can help – I opened my 3M. to a 26 throat from a 27 and I thought it helped me get closer to the sound I wanted. Go 1 bit size at a time!

Slightly larger backbore and or cup.

Heavyweight blank.

Symphonic sound:

Sound concept!! Listen!!

A medium to medium deep piece is a good start. Curry C or B is a good idea. Some will advocate huge pieces, others will advocate the 7c. I advocate whatever you feel comfortable on that achieves a good sound. Let the sound and the feel dictate the decision.

Big backbores, larger throats and deeper cups can be a factor.

Finally: Lips.

The Bach mouthpiece guide refers to lip size and cups. Thick fleshy lips preferring certain cup sizes and or rims. I have reasonably full lips and I play 95% on a Curry 3M. (Like a Bach 3D). I have played on everything from a Jet Tone 10s (15.9mm ID) to a Bach 1C (17.5mm ID I think). I have seen thin lipped players on huge pieces who kick my ass, and thick thick lipped players on a 10 1/2D who are also kicking my ass. It is very personal. Lip size isn’t the key to findng the mouthpiece – trial and feel are more important. My 12 year old bro plays the Tuba (very well) – he has fine lips and plays a Denis Wick 3L. Finer lips than me, a lot finer. I can fit my entire foot in his mouthpiece, let alone my mouthpiece!! Andy is playing double Cs (the holy grail. A note I have only hit a few times). Go figure…

The frequently used analogy is that mouthpieces are like shoes – you wouldn’t tell me what size of shoe to wear, right? Maybe in a shoe shop they can suggest some to try… but that is their job!

If you feel like getting nerdy, pop onto:

http://www.kanstul.net/MPcompare/MouthpieceComparator.html

I am sure that I have missed some information here, but in the interests of my sanity I will stop. Hopefully this will have helped someone. Please contact me if you want to chat. I can probably help recommend pieces to try if you have no teacher and are in a fix!

Mike

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Vision, Artistry and Music

I have recently been thinking about deeper meanings in music; how abstract playing an instrument is to making meaningful music. Alliteration aside… Glenn Gould’s beautiful performance of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations spurred my mind into thought last night (whilst I couldn’t sleep), so before I go on do watch some of this video.

Gould is amazing. Everything he does is intertwined with meaning (character, emotion; those things which have a very human gravitas or connection), the very fact that he is singing as he is playing augments the performance. As I said, last night as I was perpetually not sleeping, listening to Gould made me think of a couple of important subjects. Note that I reference performers, but in my opinion this is equally valid to composers.

The best musicians who give the best performances have a strong vision; they have conviction to play the music with their own voice and embrace the music almost as if they had lost self-awareness.

Technique alone means nothing to music; technique is a hindrance if solely pursued. (Within the heading “Technique” I would include any physical aspects of playing which do not address interpretation or the human element of performance).

I have been careful with my word choice; I am not trying to make a blanket statement to grab a short shock value, for that I would be much more blatant.

ALL SPORTS SUCK.

See?

Listening to Gould’s above performance really linked my above points. He does not have perfect technique, however he was a virtuoso pianist. Much more importantly is the musicality and daring of his performance which can only come from someone who has a real vision and conviction on how they want to perform. It is not good enough that we, as performers, would study just to copy what has been; there is no musical merit to that! There is a LOT to learn from transcription and diligent study – that is not in question. Also it is obvious that not everyone is going to be one of the most eccentric concert pianists ever to have lived, but you have a responsibility to put meaning in your performance and composition, otherwise it is pointless; a CD player will play your piece better, a sample library will flawlessly execute your performance (however clinical and devoid of nuance) only you can add the abstract notion of meaning.

A good example before I start talking in circles:

John Coltrane was one of the world’s greatest Tenor Saxophone players, he has left us a legacy, he had a strong confidence in his vision on how he wanted to play; he was not Charlie Parker II, he was John Coltrane. One of his most famous tunes is called “Giant Steps” which was released in 1960 on an album of the same name. The solo which Coltrane plays on this is iconic. It is bebop influenced and it is a for teller of things to come in Coltrane’s musical career, playing “sheets of sound” and with dense harmonic complexity and sheer virtuosity. None of this ability diminishes the recording, nor do the alternate takes. It was no secret that Coltrane, who obsessively practised, shedded this tune for a year before recording it. My point is that there is meaning in this music, I can appreciate the connection of music and musician.

Before we get to Coltrane, I will show a clip of Parker playing so that you have a reference point. Shoot me, but I wish Buddy Rich played less, and Charlie more!

This video has a very nice transcription which is mesmerising if you vacantly stare at it while the music plays. It is also interesting to musicians to see in their language.

And now, like Babe Ruth, I am going for the home run… A video that us music geeks know well; the Japanese robot playing Giant Steps. Remember, you aren’t far from this if you are set for perfect technique and neglect to personalise the music, or in fact if you have bad technique and just wade on through the music like washing the dishes.

And at 350 BPM! I can’t get through these videos, they are really nasty!

Time to finish off (I usually say this at the half way point of emails – for those of you who know me and get longer emails from me, you can smirk!). The players and examples above feature very capable, virtuosi instrumentalists, but my point on technique is fair. The pursuit of technique alone is meaningless, because although it will facilitate the playing of exceptionally demanding pieces, it is not inherently musical and meaningful. Caveat: Yes, I like my concerti without mistakes… I also like great cadenzas, exciting tempi, bebop, Wayne Bergeron and beer. These all require good facility on the instrument (Trumpeters dig the latter few… I hope!), but just to repeat myself; technique is meaningless without the cognitive effort of personalising the music you use it to play.

The importance of technique is more that a lack of it will impede your playing of certain music. I could not convincingly play through the “Carnival of Venice” by Arban. If I thought I would be able to express myself adequately with this piece of music, I would shed it really hard, however, I would prefer to have the technique required to play this piece because it is transferable to all aspects of playing which is why I study aspects of this. It is good to note that every clip that I have shown has players with phenomenal ability, players who obsessively practised. They didn’t have flawless technique, but I believe that their pursuit of technique was for a musical end and that they did indeed create music with meaning.

Another chronic practiser was Clifford Brown, one of the finest bebop trumpeters to have lived. Sadly a very young death halted what would have almost certainly been a ludicrous career in music; who knows what Brownie would have worked on!? Alas, that is not the point. He worked on his technique so that when he was to improvise, he could play what he heard in his head and what he wanted to express. A fairly famous solo of Brownie’s is on “Joy Spring” – it is technical but not cold or robotic, and you can hear the hours he spent shedding the changes and working on his playing so that when he recorded it there were fewer road blocks… Sometimes I can’t even see a road!

Ignore the picture of Miles. This is Brownie.

Voice, nuance and character within music – interpretation – links me to my final point. Yes, very few of us will be near Gould’s level of artistry (or eccentricity if you prefer to see it this way) but all of us are able of independent thought, don’t deny yourselves this in your music. OK, you could be playing somewhere very restrictive, like Violin II desk II in the Symphony, but you don’t need to pull the tempi to pieces as Gould does. The magnitude of the effect of your personalisation of the music need not be anywhere as dramatic as Gould’s; the only important level is personal if you are consciously doing this, obviously soloists get much more freedom in this respect. Alternatively you can take the Eroica at half tempo. Email me if you do, I would love to know what your conductor says 😀

As a tentative link to interpretation and technique: Freddie Hubbard playing Clifford Brown’s Joy Spring.

Obviously with Jazz the improvisation is the perfect place to personalise the music, it is also very easy to think that “your thing” isn’t acceptable and therefore you just imitate. Freddie clearly didn’t. Freddie’s technique wasn’t perfect; he had a lot of embouchure problems, yet his artistry was not affected. There are points here to address at another stage, I don’t want to loose the point of this in a sea of Philosophy, improvisation, Jazz and the like.

I hope that this wasn’t too rambly, and made some sense. The barrier between a feeling and the words to usefully convey it is immense, just know that I am earnest about what I write and am in no sense of the word a “professional” performer or musician. I love music, I love playing and composing. I am happy in what I do… and when I hear the video I am about to post, I am literally speechless. (considering that in the recording he was early 20s, record contract age 14, age 17 recorded what I would class as “sickest trumpet chops ever” on his CD “Carmen Fantasy” available on Teldec I believe. This has to be heard to believed.)

Sergei Nakariakov playing a transcription of “Rondo Capriccioso”. Sergei is probably the greatest Trumpeter to have ever lived. He is capable of outstanding virtuosity, and musicality.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sergei-Nakariakov-Limit-Camille-Saint-Saens/dp/B00004SX2J

Mike

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My new home

I am testing WordPress as my new home for blogging online. This is my first post (just in case you were unsure)

Posted in Music and Philosophy | Leave a comment