Bill Watrous on Samantha

I know Jon usually posts the YouTube of the Week, but he's informed me that his posting might be sporadic for a while, so I've decided to step in where I can to keep things regular around here.

I was inspired to look up Bill Watrous on YouTube by my friend Joe, who recently saw him play live in Houston. I came across this recording of Watrous playing "Samantha", a beautiful ballad, and the video (while grainy) gives some amazing shots of his use of slide vibrato. Enjoy!


on productivity

I just had the most interestingly productive practice session. This is how the span of about two hours went:
1. Picked up the horn and warmed up using my usual routine.
2. Walked over to my computer and answered an e-mail.
3. Picked my horn back up and did some flexibility exercises.
4. Checked on my applesauce which was cooking away in the kitchen.
5. Played some high range exercises.
6. My cat demanded to be played with, so I made her chase her feather toy for a few minutes.
7. I played through the second movement of the Kelly Sonata.
8. Potty break.
9. Worked through some tempo issues in the Kelly piece.
10. Answered a phone call.
11. Played through the whole second movement again, much better this time.
12. Put the horn down.
My chops lasted much longer doing this, and feel better afterwards, than if I just play for an hour straight -- and I probably got just as much accomplished, if not more. This reminds me a little of a typical rehearsal in any band -- you play for a few minutes, then you listen to the conductor tell you something, then you play for a little bit longer, then you sit there while the clarinets are being worked with, then you play again...

I have always heard that taking frequent breaks during practice can help the practice session be more productive. Joe Jackson writes that practicing in short, varied sessions is one of the seven habits of highly effective trombonists. It's difficult to do this when your only venue for practice is a practice room somewhere, but I have taken to leaving my horn out on its stand in the dining room to encourage myself (and anyone who happens to drop by) to pick it up randomly and play something. So far, it's made a big difference -- maybe I'm finally learning how to practice.


You are not alone

I'm just going to go ahead and point out that I, Jon, and not Lauren, wrote this, in order to save some Facebook angst later. (lolz!)

I'm late again. But I've at least gone from thinking nobody reads the blog to being afraid to post because I always manage to tick somebody off. That's progress of some sort, right?

I take a great deal of solace from the idea that no matter how screwed up I think things are, no matter what grotesque emotion is gnawing at the frayed edges of my benumbed psyche, there's a song for it. Which means that at least one other poor sap had the same problem, and some other poor sap thought enough people had that problem to finance the record. In that spirit, I offer three songs that are speaking to me right now.

"No More", from Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim. It took me until I was about 30 before I realized how brilliant this show actually is, although part of that is that I usually can't brook Sondheim for all his clever antics. Although right now I'm cycling through the last three songs in the show: this one, "No one is alone", and "Children will listen". Also, I had never heard of this Kevin Dozier character who's singing in that clip until I started trying to find a decent youtube of the song, but he's pretty good!

"If I Didn't Believe In You", from The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown. A song about a guy desperately trying to shore up his wife and failing miserably for his own hubris. Don't we get to be happy, at some point down the line? (Apologies for the bad video, but Norbert Butz is awesome enough to put up with the poor quality.)

"Bruised", The Bens. That's Folds, Kweller, and Lee. I expect to take some shit for this one, because it's not a great song, and doesn't get into any sort of depth of emotion, but the hook has got me right in the emo pants: love just leaves you bruised.



Today's Musical Annotation of the week is...

Yeah, that's right. STFU. While this does not have a direct translation into Italian, nor is it a common marking in printed music, somehow it seems to be a common penciled in notation in the first trombone music of the AWCB.

No, really.


"STFU" is a very nuanced marking. It does not merely mean to play quietly, but it is usually used to mark something that one feels should be played loudly, but really isn't supposed to be. 


(Some part of me wonders... in twenty years, will someone else be handed this music and raise their hand and ask the conductor "I have 'stfu' penciled into my part, what does that mean?")


on language and trombonery

How did you learn to articulate? When I was first picking up the horn, I was taught "ta ta ta". When I got to college, my instructor beat "ta" out of my head and taught me "toe toe toe", and "low low low" for legato.

Obviously, the difference here is the vowel. /a/ and /o/ are both pronounced in the back of the mouth, but /a/ is lower than /o/. That is, your tongue is farther down in the back of your mouth when you say /a/ than when you say /o/. Try saying both "ta" and "toe" and stick your finger in your mouth and feel where your tongue is and the shape. The tongue kind of curves up in the back when you say /o/.

This seems counter-intuitive. Why would you want your tongue in the way of your airstream? However, the location and shape of the tongue has another effect. Try saying "ta ta ta", and put your hand on your chin. Your jaw moves, doesn't it? Now say "toe toe toe", and feel your chin again -- not so much movement, right? One thing you don't want when you play is a lot of jaw movement -- it moves the teeth, interferes with the placement of your lips, and can generally muck up your embouchure. By using "toe" instead, with less jaw movement, we learn not to move our jaw when we play just by thinking of a different syllable.

Try holding the horn with your left hand and articulating while feeling your jaw with your right hand. Think of saying different vowels when you tongue, and feel what happens.


Youtube o' my misbegotten youth!

And here I admit how old I really am. The Thompson twins (not twins, not named Thompson) were one of my favorite bands when I was very young. I used to sit and listen to my sister listen to these guys. You have to understand- my sister was evil. Like, probably read The Prince and was disgusted at Machiavelli's timidity and lack of imagination. So she'd sit in her room with her stereo and her hundreds of records and I'd sit out on the stairs where she couldn't see me and listen. I remember going to some store- probably the Gold Circle in Braddock Hills that hasn't been there for a while, and wanting to buy a copy of their album The Gap but having my dad refuse to let me because my sister had a copy, and I could just listen to hers. Sometimes parents really don't understand. the nice thing about these guys (and songs from the early 80s in general) is that most of them are so old that they don't have any painful associations: those start in about 1987 with this lovely piece of pop... brilliance. And if that doesn't make them come for my music snob card nothing will!


I can't believe I almost did that again

We've all done this, right? I can't be the only one.

You run into somebody you used to know, a former best friend, and ex. Somebody who was once special. Somebody you loved at some point, and then at least thought you didn't love anymore, or maybe that they didn't love you anymore if they ever did. But all you want to do when you see them is throw your arms around them, give them a rib cracking hug, tell them how much you missed them. Thank them for the good times, forgive them for the bad times, beg them to never leave your life again. I never do it. I'm always afraid that the hurt was too much, or that there was some sort of imbalance in the way I remember them and the way they remember me. There is always something that paralyzes me, and I either do nothing, or stop way short of what I want to do.

And it brings me back to that whole note, the one that I wonder if I could use to tell somebody I love them. Somebody told me a while ago that when I play, it sounds like I love my horn for everything it's worth. That's pretty much right: I love playing. I love the sounds a trombone makes, I love being part of a section, or a band or an orchestra. I love parting the hair of the unfortunate sap sitting in front of me when we play the 1812 Overture, or having the best seat in the house for all but the first and last movements of Beethoven 9. I love listening to players better than me run the gamut of brass sounds in the chorale from Mahler 2.

All I have to do is play one note.

Just one whole note and I'm back.

Ok, I can do this.



Today's Musical Annotation of the Week is an adjective:


I encountered this in the context ben sost. which I took to mean "ben sostenuto". I've also seen it in ben marcato and ben attaca as well as in many other directives.

Little did I know, ben is an abbreviation for bene, which means "good" or "well". But something like ben sostenuto doesn't mean "play good and sustained", it means "play well-sustained". What's the difference? ben sostenuto means to play the best sustained you can manage -- if someone were to look up sostenuto in their musical dictionary, there would be a recording of you playing this ben sostenuto passage. 

I must emphasize, however, that this does not mean that you can play "mediocre sostenuto" whenever you don't see a ben next to your sostenuto, or whatever annotation you're currently working with!  


on best friends

It's 2:30 AM on a frigid December night. Across the snowy grasses, you hear a single solo trombonist playing Bordogni #10, accompanied by the echo of an large empty room.

She keeps going over and over the key change into G major (at about the 1:58 mark in the video), as though she's missing something. The notes are there, the intonation is there, the tone is there...

A voice stops her, followed by the creak of an ancient wooden door. It's an older man who she's never seen before. He's carrying a guitar case. "What are you trying to do?" he asks her.

"Feel G major," she says.

He shakes his head. "You're not feeling G major; you're feeling G minor."

Baffled, she says, "Yes, the first half of the piece is in G minor."

"No, no," he says, laughing. "You're not practicing in here in the middle of the night because you want to. You're spending time with your best friend." He gestures abstractly to his guitar case. "If it's a G minor kind of night, it's a G minor kind of night. Don't force it."

He yawns, bids her goodnight, and leaves. Ever since then, that trombonist has always wondered...

...do we make our mood match the music?

...or is it the other way around?


Bryn and Ceci sing Mozart

Not so weekly youtube o' teh week #2!

I just love watching these guys. Two of the best singers on the planet, with a heap of stage presence and charm. An innate ability in each of them to not take themselves too seriously while performing impeccably. I totally named my cat after Cecilia Bartolli, and never admitted it publicly until now. Huzzah!


sometimes they're like that

My perfect daughter (age 8) recently drew a picture. This is not unusual, there are very few pieces of paper in the house that she hasn't drawn something on, including things like bills and newspapers I haven't read. This picture, though, was all in shades of blue, a blue house with a blue sidewalk and a little blue girl with medium length blue hair and a blue hobo sack, and was titled (in blue) "leaving forever". Naturally, this caused some concern, so I gathered in the perfect daughter for a talk.

I started by asking her what the picture was, and she hemmed and hawed and avoided, a skill that she has learned from me, and very well. When it became clear that I wasn't going to get an answer, whether because she didn't want to tell, or couldn't tell, we went a different direction. I told her a little bit about how I thought that art, or music, was good for showing things that were hard to say. I said a little bit about how I thought you could tell a lot about how a person was feeling or what they were thinking about by how they played a piece of music, if you paid very close attention. And we talked about how you can learn important things about a person from the pictures they take, what they choose to take pictures of, which pictures they show people, which pictures they keep in little boxes just for themselves.

And then I let her go, told her to go draw more pictures. I'm still not sure who was leaving in that picture or why.

But it brought me back to a question I've been asking myself for a long time, and to an answer. Not a good answer, or a final answer, but an answer. The question is, "Can you tell someone that you love them through playing a whole note?"

And the answer, for now, is, "Not if you don't play one."



Today's Musical Annotation of the Week is:


Usually when I see vivace, something along the lines of "HOLY CRAP FAST" goes through my head. A lot of people, in my experience, confuse vivace with presto. presto is what I'm thinking of when I think "HOLY CRAP FAST"; vivace has a much more subtle meaning.

vivace means "lively" or "brisk"; often times, this goes along with a quick tempo. vivace is more about style than speed, however, so it frequently appears with a tempo marking like allegro vivace. I've never actually encountered presto vivace in my recollection -- but someone must have used it sometime!

While I was writing this post, the first example of vivace that came to mind was the first section of Brian Balmages's Summer Dances. I cannot quite recall if this piece is actually marked vivace, but the style is certainly what I think of.


on practicing in an apartment

So I live in a one-bedroom apartment in an ancient apartment building in close quarters -- to the point that I know exactly what my neighbors' daily routines are -- surrounded by fairly quiet people from all walks of life who only sometimes blast their music.

I rarely hear anyone else practicing a musical instrument, much less one that can shake the foundations of a building like a trombone. I actually had a noise complaint filed against me in the first year that I lived here because I was practicing after 6:00 PM. Since then, I've been working under the following constraints:
  • Always after 11:00 AM but before 5:00 PM (so many people will be at work and not have to deal with me).
  • In the corner room farthest away from adjoining walls (I actually choose my dining room though it’s not on the corner, because it has fewer windows facing directly into other apartments).
  • With a mute in when I’m woodshedding. I only take out the mute when I feel like I can play something beautifully enough for my neighbors to consider it “music” and not “horrible racket”.
  • At mezzo-forte or below.
 I wish that circumstances were different and I could really open up and play like I mean it. I also wish that I could practice in the middle of the night, because sometimes the urge does strike me. But there are neat things too -- like how my Russian-speaking neighbors who otherwise can’t communicate with me like to show their appreciation when I finally nail a Blazhevich etude.


Not so weekly youtube o' the week!

So I guess Lauren finally got tired of me sending her Youtube links, because she suggested I post them here rather than send them to her! Since one of the things I do when I'm bored or avoiding doing work is troll through Youtube, starting with something specific and clicking the related links until I find something really neat. So when I do, I'll dump it on here and publish when I find something!

First link is a band I really dig, the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. A lot of the stuff they do is in fact ska, or at least a logical relative of ska, but they do a lot of stuff that comes more directly from jazz, too. One of my favorite parts of youtube trawling them is that the seem to actually improvise their solos, and most of the clips of them playing the same song have different solos. Anyway, this is a clip of them playing Natty Parade live. I dig how the trumpet player drags out Frere Jacques, and the trombonist pulls out the Baby Elephant walk. Very nice, stuff I wouldn't personally think of, although I am a horrible improviser. Check it out, it's cool!


"a la barcarolle"

New weekly segment here on tVftBR: the musical annotation of the week! Each Sunday we'll present something that may be written into a musical piece that might confuse or astound the average musician. In some cases, it'll be something that we think we know, but we really don't.

The first one will be the one that inspired me to this endeavor:

a la barcarolle

a la means "as in" or "like", but what the hell is barcarolle? As it turns out, it's an alternate spelling of "barcarola".
barcarola: a style of music sung by the gondoliers in Venice, Italy, typically in 6/8 or 12/8 meter to simulate the motion of the boat moving through the waves of the water with the rhythmic rowing of the gondolier.
And here's an example of a famous piece a la barcarolle, "Belle Nuit" from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman.


on stretching

I've been recently thinking about my state as "a trombonist who was once a very good player" and my continuing quest to get back to the state of being a good, solid player. It's a hard road, but one thing I've been considering is: what was it that I used to do when I was a very good player that I don't do now?

One thing I've realized that I've stopped doing is stretching. Why stretch? Playing a musical instrument is a physical exercise. For the trombonist, we're moving our arms, wrists, shoulders. We're holding up something heavy using only half of one hand. We're breathing, stretching our lungs and midsections. Stretching not only prepares the body for playing, but also gets the blood flowing and readies the mind to focus.

I've decided to start stretching again as much as I can before I play, whether it be concerts, rehearsals, or individual practice. My sequence is simple:
1.) Raise both arms above your head and inhale as deeply as you can, then lower your arms and let the breath out slowly. Do this five times. This stretches your breathing muscles so you can take deeper, faster breaths.

2.) Put your hands on your hips and turn your torso to the left until you feel the stretch, then to the right. Don't move the legs while doing this. This stretches your middle back and, for me, my shoulder area a little bit.

3.) Extend the right arm and then rotate at the shoulder, making a big circle with your hand. Go clockwise first five times, then counterclockwise five times. Repeat with the left arm. This is for the shoulders and upper arms to get you ready for holding the horn.

4.) Extend both arms straight in front of you, palms facing flat away from you. Using your left hand, bend your right hand back toward your body slightly to stretch the wrist and palm. Repeat using your right hand to stretch your left hand. This readies the wrist and elbows.

5.) Lean your head on your right shoulder, then roll your head forward and around until it's leaning on your left shoulder. Roll it back and around until it's back on the right shoulder. This stretches the neck, helping with breathing.
Sometimes I do some other stretches if I have time, but these are the major five. Start with these and build up a stretching routine that works for you -- to be physically ready to play the moment you pick up the horn, not ten or fifteen minutes into your playing.