on marching band memories

Temperatures and heat indices have soared here in the past couple of weeks, making practicing in my tiny apartment something of a challenge. And by "a challenge", I mean "nonexistent". No matter how many curtains I close, where I put my fans, or how much ice I put in my swamp cooler, my apartment is still unfortunately hot.

The swamp cooler: doesn't quite make the apartment a practice-encouraging temperature. 

This all reminds me of the days during summer break from high school when I would set about memorizing my marching band music in my sweltering hot upstairs bedroom at my mother's house. We had an air conditioner, but we ran it in the downstairs living room, and all of the heat rose... to my bedroom. I spent many a night sleeping on the couch in the cold, and many a hot summer afternoon torturing myself by playing the trombone in a hot room.

Why? Well, to prepare myself for mid-August marching band rehearsals, of course. True, we had them in the morning, so it wasn't at the hottest that it could be, but it was still hot -- and in Northeastern Ohio, it was humid. I was no stranger to endless stretches of 100% humidity days, with the sun beating down on our only-sometimes-sunscreened heads, girls wearing as little clothing as they could get away with and boys going shirtless. Several times, all I wanted was to march the drill barefoot.

To be quite honest, I miss it. I miss the farmer's tans we all inevitably got (especially the poor flute players with those armband lyres -- ugh!), the avoidance of certain people who sweat a lot more than everybody else, and the water breaks when we'd all run to the small section of shade on the far end of the field. I miss using AOL trial diskettes as extra spot markers, keeping stashes of  SweeTarts for my squad- and section-mates, and carrying drill sheets rolled up and tucked into the back waistband of my shorts. It was hard work, and I loved every second of it -- even the hours memorizing music in my sweltering hot bedroom.

Ah, motivation. That was when I had it. Now what reasons do I have to practice in my ninety-degree apartment? Absolutely none. I'd rather just sit in front of my fan and play video games.


CD review!

I've been on a "pick random CDs from my local library's collection and give them a listen" kick, and with that I bring you a review of John Adams: Century Rolls / Lollapalooza / Slonimsky's Earbox.

Weirdly, we talk about John Adams in this blog fairly regularly (well, what counts as "regular" for us, anyway). In case you haven't caught on, he's a prolific modern American composer who usually writes in a minimalist style. His stuff isn't the epitome of classical music, but rather often a fun excursion into the many things that music can simply do. That, and he writes operas about such personalities as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Nixon, which makes him way cool in my book.

This particular CD is most notable for the piano concerto Century Rolls, performed by none other than Emanuel Ax and the Cleveland Orchestra. Listening to this work is truly a musical experience; the first movement, aptly named "First Movement", is inspired by a mechanical piano, featuring the orchestra acting like percussion instruments beating a solid, robotic backdrop to the piano solo. The second movement, "Manny's Gym", could not be more different. It is a romantic song in 3/4 (I think!), with a free tempo and beautiful expression by both Ax and the orchestra. My favorite movement, however, was the third -- "Hail Bop", named after a mishearing of the name of the "Hale-Bopp" comet. It has a jazzy feel to it at times, combined with frenetic tempos and disconcerting brass punctuation. Sometimes, it feels like an eight-minute-long musical chase scene.

Lollapalooza, for orchestra and a kickass low brass section (I just made that up, although writing that in the score would probably be helpful), was the highlight of the CD for me. As a linguist, I love it when composers try to play with language in their musical themes. In this piece, the main theme is a five-note loud brassy thing that mimics the stress pattern in the title word. It comes out at expected times, and some unexpectedly as well. It's almost a cacophony of themes interwoven, but make no mistake -- the brasses are in charge of this piece, even though the timpani has the last word with a single stoke in silence at the end. I would dearly love to see this piece played live.

The last piece, Slonimsky's Earbox, didn't really catch my interest. It is a tribute to Nicholas Slonimsky, who wrote a book of scales and modes called The Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, which Adams says influenced his work. It has a number of scalar themes and modal games, which might interest those of you with an ear for theory. I did enjoy the wild ending, but the rest of the piece pales in comparison to the other offerings on the disc.

I would highly recommend giving this CD a listen if you're in the mood for some musical fun. This isn't a relax-around-the-house CD, nor is it something I'd want to do spring cleaning to, but if you've got an hour to experience some work by a modern composer, definitely check this one out.


on not posting for a while and small horns

Boy, we have been away, haven't we? Trust me when I say this was totally unplanned. Oh, what, I wasn't supposed to tell them that? Err... well, gentle reader, trust me, we had this planned all along.

So in honor of Summer Concert Season, and the inevitable boredom it brings with playing marches and cheesy Broadway medleys, Jon and I have broken out some... unusual horns. I'll leave him to discuss his, but for the moment, I'll discuss mine. You can almost see parts of it in the picture below!

This horn is colloquially referred to as the Dumpster Trombone, a name which fits since it describes how I acquired it. Its real name is Henry, named after Henry Fillmore, who wrote the first piece that I ever played on the horn. (This is, coincidentally, how my other trombone got the name Dmitri. Guess who!)

When I found Henry, he (it?! pronoun failure!) was tarnished all over. I didn't even know that was silver under there, since I thought it was all dirt. I polished it as best as I could, but the slide was in terrible condition. (It kind of reminded me of a horn I played at the RLMU, but that one stayed tarnished and didn't have a slide lock. Coincidentally, that horn went missing for a few years after I graduated... maybe someone threw it in a dumpster, too.)

Anyway, Henry sat in my closet for two years until Jon proposed that we try straight horns for this summer's concert season. I dragged Henry out and reminded myself of how terrible the slide was, and promptly took him to Volkwein's Music. The pros there fixed up my slide so that now it is infinitely more playable (even if it still has a slight hitch to it at times), and even buffed it up so it's nice and shiny.

This horn sounds incredible. It's a small bore, and so my volume has skyrocketed, but combine the volume with the silver and... mmm. The sound is so different from my Conn 88H-CL that I can't even compare them. I'm having trouble blending a little bit, and by far the biggest problem I have is with third and fourth position. The slide on this horn is long, and shaped differently from what I'm used to. The practical upshot of this is that I have no idea where third or fourth position really are at any given time. I have had to play around a lot with my intonation to figure out what was going on at all, and I just haven't had enough face time with the horn around other people without a tuner staring at me.

Then, today, I picked up my 88H-CL and played my warmup on it. Ahh... it felt like coming home. It's almost as if I relived the switch all over again.


on recordings... again

I'm sitting here waiting for my car to be repaired, managed to steal a WiFi signal, and so I thought -- what better time to update the blog?


I mentioned last time that the AWCB was doing a recording session. The first round of it was this past Monday, we will take a week off for the Memorial Day holiday, and then we'll come back and do another recording in the first week of June. I expressed that I was worried that we were under-rehearsed, and my fears were definitely confirmed. We did several takes of each piece, especially Suite of Old American Dances. I was personally disappointed in my own performance in our recording of this piece, and I think most of the band wishes we could have a collective mulligan.

There were, however, really good parts of each take we took of that piece. I am hopeful that by the miraculous tactics of recording engineers, they will be able to crib together a version that somehow incorporates the good parts of each take and eliminates the bad parts. Now, I can't wait to hear the final version of the recording, and I will make absolutely sure to post my reaction when we get the final product.

I do enjoy that piece very much, especially since someone had the bright idea that the first trombones should have a chance to play really loudly in the meaty range. I think Jon and I nailed that particular lick very nicely on one of the takes, and I hope with a musician's sometimes-futile hope that they keep THAT version for the final copy. 


On Chair assignments- part two

It’s coming up on summer again, which means it’s time for the annual reordering of the chairs. For reasons I’ll get into below, this isn’t going to amount to much. But having talked last week about some of the chair placement philosophies I’ve encountered in my checkered trombone career, this week I’m going to talk a bit about how they have adapted my personal philosophy on chair placement.

One of the big differences between what I ran into before the AWCB and after was that, with a few exceptions, almost every group I played in previously had been an academic ensemble with some sort of audition process. In the AWCB, we essentially take everybody that shows up, and as long as they follow the rules, they can stay and play. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re much more likely to kick somebody out for being a jerk than for being a bad player. This means that one of the primary considerations in assigning chairs is what people actually want to play, and what will make them happy. This goes back to those first experiences in the community orchestra. If I’m going to take somebody out of their comfort zone and make them play a part they’re not best at, I try to tell them as far in advance as possible so they have the opportunity to do the work necessary for them to succeed.

This has lead to some sticky chair placement situations in the past. We had, for a while, a guy who fancied himself a fantastic trombonist, but whose only real talent was playing loud. He couldn’t play fast, high, low, or quiet, and didn’t even play loud particularly well unless you like a really wide, spread, brassy sound. But he had attended a local music school, and claimed to have a degree from it, and essentially insisted on playing first because he felt he deserved it. We reached a bit of a compromise, in that I let him play first often enough to feel he was being respected, up until he blew a couple of prominent licks and the conductor uncharacteristically told me to not allow him to play first at all. He got insulted and left.

Summer provides its own set of issues, with vacations and distances that some people are not interested in driving for a concert. The most important things for these sorts of gigs are to remain flexible and make sure the parts are covered. For the most part, I try to keep stand partners together but spread parts out over the summer. This accomplishes three things: it maintains some stability, but gives everyone at least passing familiarity with the differences in parts, and makes things a little easier by ensuring that nobody is going to be playing first trombone for two hours.

For right now, a good part of the chair assignments take care of themselves. We have two players who like to play second, and one who likes to play third. I like to play first, whether I deserve it or not; I’m just more comfortable on the part, maybe because I’ve been playing it for so long. (I feel like I need to justify that, like I’m afraid to be perceived as the same as that guy in the third paragraph. I think pretty often that I need to check my ego and play another part for a while, but ego or not, I just like first parts!) The remaining folks, actually some of the best players in the section (including my co-blogger) are pretty easygoing about it, and will generally play whatever is needed. My personal preference, though, is to break up the better players so we have one on all three parts. This has been more of a concern in the past as the talent level has fluctuated, and we’ve had to try to shore up parts with extra players.

But for now, for the most part, it seems like everybody is happy where they are. I plan on asking one of our better players to move a little bit, and sort of reaffirm our seating now that it looks like we’re going back to a reasonably stable configuration for a while. But that’s not a bad thing, and it certainly makes my job easier!


on recordings

So the AWCB is doing recording sessions in our next rehearsals. The idea is, generally, to put together a CD of light summer fare that we can sell at our summer concerts. We have hired a recording engineer to come in and record us as we play in an auditorium, and (I think) mix it up so it sounds nice; this is different from the recordings done of concerts (we have several of those) which are victims of local acoustics.

Personally, I have been part of a number of scheduled recordings like this. The Symphonic Band at the RLMU was part of a number of recordings of new band music for sampler CDs for band directors. Most notably, however, I was in the band that recorded Jim Bonney's Courage and Compassion, which appears on BCM's Men of Industry CD. It's a great piece of music, truly, and the recording experience was intense (and Jim Bonney is an amazingly inspirational person).

The difference between that session and this session with the AWCB is one simple thing: rehearsal time. With the RLMU band, we rehearsed C&C for about two weeks solid, nothing but that. When we did the band sampler stuff, it was two or three grades underneath what we played regularly and so it wasn't a problem for most of us to sight read it.

Although many of the people in the AWCB have played most of the music previously, it feels like we are not gelling in that way that you need to in order to get a decent recording. We've read through the pieces a few times and had a somewhat rushed rehearsal this past week, and I get the feeling that we're going to be spending a lot of recording time doing things that should have been done in rehearsal. But maybe we will find our sea legs and get it together at the last moment (as the AWCB is very good at doing) and create a fine recording. I'm hopeful for the latter, although the lack of rehearsal time sure makes me nervous. Either way, I'll make sure to blog about it next week!


On Chair assignments- part one

I mentioned a while back that I’m not really the section leader of the AWCB, and never officially have been. What I am, semi-officially, is in charge of chair assignments and making the little musical decisions when they affect the section, but not enough to catch the attention of the conductor, just the little things to unify our sound. I don’t have to do much, mainly because we’ve played together for a long while as a section and we’ve got enough solid musicians that for the most part, everybody knows what’s expected and what’s coming. But I have been thinking for a while about shuffling seating, which has gotten me to thinking about how that happens. In part one (this one right here!) I’ll share some of the systems I’ve seen over the years, and in part two next week, I’ll explain the thought process that we go through in the AWCB now.

Back when I was about 15, I started playing in a local community orchestra. Long story short, I had no idea what part I was playing at any point in my experience there. I was handed a first trombone folder when I got to the first rehearsal. Three rehearsals in, I was told there was a regular principal, and I should play second. Then the conductor told me to cover first for rehearsals, but practice second. Then at the dress rehearsal, the principal and second trombonist appeared for the first time, and were very angry that I had taken the music home to practice, and with one rehearsal, I was given the first bass trombone parts I had ever seen, and ridiculed for never having seen a pedal A before. This had a profound effect on my views on how to assign parts. (The whole story of that first year could be a good one for the “horror stories” tag!)

I think everybody has played in groups that audition for parts, like our local honors bands: the highest audition score sat first chair, and so on down the line, except when a bass trombonist did better than a tenor and screwed everything up. (Which was actually the case when I was in high school.) Around here, seating in the district bands was assigned entirely on the conductor’s recommendations, although moving up to regions required an audition. This lead to some “best trombonist[s] in the history of our school” getting seating precedence over trombonists who were not the best from their school, but would have been if they had been at the other school. In one group I played in while in high school, seating was assigned based on sitting next to the section leader for a couple of weeks. He then made a recommendation to the conductor, who assigned me a chair based on their need and the section leader’s assessment of my abilities. That group was extremely serious, though, and would move people around on a nearly weekly basis if somebody had a hard time with a part. I recall a trumpet solo being passed around right up to the dress rehearsal and being glad that I was never under consideration for a solo in that group, although I did have to play solos a couple of times in rehearsals when the conductor wasn’t happy with the way the section leader was playing that week.

In college, I auditioned for a band that did assignments a little differently. The highest audition score got first chair, just as expected. But the second highest audition score, or the highest bass trombone audition score, was first chair third trombone, and the third highest score was given first chair second trombone. The sections were then filled out from second chair first trombone down in order by score, with bass trombonists filling third part preferentially. The theory there was that it was important to have excellent musicians on all three parts, and the conductor felt that third trombone was often more important than second trombone, in that a real bass part was often distinct from first and second. (There is definitely an argument to be had about that philosophy, but either way, that’s the way things were done!) Seating preference was given to music majors, even though this was theoretically an open band for non-music majors with a stated goal of participation, rather than education. I heard that some seat shuffling was done based on people who couldn’t handle the amount of rehearsal and practice that was expected through the semester, which was a large part of why I declined to participate in the ensemble.

In assigning seats in the AWCB, I once again don’t have to do much. We’re a pretty easy going bunch, although we all seem to have our preferences and there are definitely some innate abilities that drive decisions. Next week, I will tell a little bit about how I picked over the techniques above and then ignored them to let the section more or less assemble itself!


April Recap

April: 25.5 hours = win!

In April, I made my practice goals for the first time since January. \o/ Also, I was pleased with my consistency of practice -- no more than one day off consecutively, and a fair amount of 7+ day strings of regular practice. 

I think I can attribute the success of April to two things: 1.) the new mouthpiece at the beginning of the month breathing new life and interest into my practice regime, and 2.) a pretty big deal concert on May 1. I had something new and interesting to play with, plus something generally motivating me.

This far into May, I am mostly unable to keep up the consistency I did in April, due to my long, exhausting days on Tuesdays and Thursdays that result in me being unfocused and generally tired and grumpy when I get home. I'm trying to make up for it with longer blocks of practice time on other days, which is working pretty well so far. 


Performance review: Perfect Daughter's Annie (with a big heap of bias on the side)

You have to understand something. The musical at my high school was, and remains, a big freaking deal. I've seen a lot of high school musicals, and played a lot of high school musicals, and been in a few, and almost none of them can even compare to ours in terms of scope, execution, budget: they put on a good show up there. There were, if I remember right, nearly 200 little girls trying out for the parts of Annie and the orphans, and there were some good ones in the bunch, not the least of which was my own Perfect Daughter. Obviously, I guess, she got the part!

I know I'm biased, I really do, but I thought she was fantastic. I was afraid I couldn't sit through it; I was absolutely worried sick for her. Would she forget her lines? Talk to fast, too slow? Too quiet? (That would have been intensely ironic!) Well, I can tell you. I hate auditions. I made a comment at some point that the only thing worse than taking an audition is waiting for your kid to go through one. I can now tell you that waiting for that first set of lines to go through is another notch worse than that. Fortunately, PD's role of Molly has the first lines of the whole show, so that got out of the way fast, and she has her first big number in Hard Knock Life, the second number of the show. I can't describe the feeling of relief that flooded over me as she did her imitation of Ms. Hannigan spot on.

And just to show that my bias isn't overwhelming, I wasn't the only one that thought this about her. The folks behind me had been to see the show the night before with the other cast, and had a lot of nice things to say about PD's chemistry with the cast, and her timing in delivering punchlines. And I have to point this out. When I went to give her flowers after the show, the little beast was surrounded by admirers seeking her autograph. The thing about this was that she's usually got pretty good handwriting, but was scrawling out "MOLLY" on all the programs she was offered in a much scratchier hand. I asked her about it, and she said, "Well, Molly never got to go to school!" That blew my mind.

It was a lot of effort (mostly by Mother of PD, again!) but I think the results were worth it.

Oh, and a bunch of other people were in it, too, and many of them were pretty good!


Concert Review: Three Rivers Community Band Festival

So on Saturday, May 1st, I had the delightful experience of participating in the Three Rivers Community Band Festival for the fourth year, and my second year being a part of the "Festival Band". I wrote about this last week, and I'm pleased to report that I only messed up half of my vibraphone line, but believe I got the important bits right at least. The recording will reveal just how terrible I really was, so I'm not sure I want to listen to it.

I must say that our band really performed nicely; we rocked Equus, and even though a couple of parts were off a little bit, I don't think anyone noticed and the rest of us were counting like fiends so we were able to recover without a missed step. The Treasurer said that he thought we sounded excellent, although we were lacking a little spirit in Silverado, but I, for one, was chop-exhausted by that time.

I spent the morning rehearsing with Denis Colwell, Professor of Music at Carnegie Mellon University and former conductor of the River City Brass Band, and the rest of the Festival Band. This was quite an experience. Professor Colwell was very relaxed with us; instead of directing us on every little piece of the music, he let the band do its thing and find its sound. We rehearsed large chunks of music rather than tiny pieces, and the best part of the morning was when he told the baritone section "Miss notes if you have to, just give me the feel of the line". They didn't miss the notes, and we got the feel. Amazing what a few words can do!

The other guest bands sounded great, of course. We had the Youngstown Community Concert Band in attendance, and they were a treat. Their sound was very good and solid, and they had a gutsy brass section. I talked with a few of their members afterwards, and they were all very excited to be there, and "it was only an hour and a half drive!" They've got stamina, that's for sure. The Community Band South played Shostakovich's Festive Overture, which always gives me fond memories of cruising down Route 161 in Columbus, Ohio, with the windows rolled down and the music blasting. The West Hills Symphonic Band played a piece I had never heard before, Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna by von Suppé, which was a charming overture to a stage comedy with humorous melodic lines. Of course, there was much more music than this, but I present only the highlights... you should have been there if you wanted the whole show!

There are always CDs produced of the Festival, so in a few months when they're finally produced, perhaps we will be able to post some excerpts.


on unusual doubling

Well, tomorrow is the annual Three Rivers Community Band Festival. Four bands from the area will perform, and then a "festival band" made up of volunteer musicians from all around the area -- and some from Ohio, too, like my friend Cari who is coming in to play bassoon!

I'm playing with the Festival Band for the second year in a row. Jon played last year, and was going to play this year but was sent to far away places by The Man. I, myself, will only be with the trombone section of the Festival Band for three of the four pieces on the program, and I'll be hanging out by the chimes and vibraphone for the fourth piece.

This isn't the first time I've switched instruments for one piece in a concert, and probably won't be the last. This is actually remarkably common for the AWCB -- three or four people rotate into the percussion section from wind sections depending on the percussion needs of the pieces being played. Two years ago, I played a pretty rockin' bass drum line on Danza Final. I learned to play percussion by pretty much learning on the fly in the University Band at the RLMU, thanks to some very patient sectionmates who frequently had to teach me things like "how to hold the tambourine". I played percussion in that band for three years (and somehow eventually attained section leadership, those fools), and sometimes I miss taking out my aggressions on a pair of crash cymbals.

At any rate, I've never really seen a band that had as much regular section-switching as the AWCB. I'm not sure if that's simply a function of my lack of experience with community bands in general and the practices associated, or if it's yet another way that the AWCB is unusual. At any rate, it gives me a chance to hit something (which may be quite welcome), and rest my trombone chops for a little while at least.


on making mistakes

I came across a quote the other day:

nobody notices your mistakes as much as you do

I think the intended meaning of this quote is simple -- don't be afraid to make mistakes, and don't stress out over them when they do happen. However, I took a different and more trombone-related meaning from it.

When you're practicing, no one can hear your mistakes except you*. So no one can fix those mistakes except you. There's no one to point them out, no one to suggest corrections, no one to stop you mid-phrase and go HEY WHY DID YOU PLAY IT THAT WAY?!

You're it. So maybe the message is not to stress out about mistakes, but another message is not to ignore them either. I'm very guilty of this. I'll flub an articulation or play a rhythm wrong, and think to myself "Oh, I know how it's supposed to be" and keep going. And not fix it. What does this accomplish except giving me reinforcement to make mistakes? 

So -- yes, nobody notices your mistakes as much as you do. That also means that it's up to you to fix them.


On your children following in your footsteps

So I have recently become two things of which I am not particularly fond: a stage parent and a hockey parent. My perfect daughter (age 8 ½) is performing the part of Molly in the local high school production of Annie starting this weekend, and my youngest (age 5) recently started in developmental hockey, and is doing a skating program over the summer. I’ve spent a lot of time since high school playing in musical pits and a bit less time playing hockey of many varieties, so it’s fun and validating to see my kids having fun doing something I really enjoy. Now, to be fair, the kids’ mom has been doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in regards to the stage performance, which has been grueling and hugely time consuming. But even with the handful of rehearsals I have seen and chauffeured for, I am getting a glimpse of things from the other side.

I’m sure a lot of people have heard stories about crazy hockey dads starting fights over pee wee games and the like. And anybody who’s played a high school musical has run into the mom (usually!) who is rabid about getting her kid the lead whether they deserve it or not. The hockey parent who harasses the coach over playing time, or inserting some esoteric scheme that will highlight their kid. The stage dad who thinks the department should do Miss Liberty because their daughter is perfect for the Countess. (Ok, seriously for just a second- find me this dad. I want to have a talk with him.)

Maybe this should be a post about my transformation, coming to an understanding of their behaviors, maybe becoming a little more tolerant of a different viewpoint on the world, but it isn’t. I haven’t run into any really rabid stage parents here, which is a good thing. I have run into some less than ideal hockey parents, the guys that bang on the glass to tell their five year old to remember what he taught them at stick time, which doesn’t begin to explain why that dad isn’t out on the ice helping mold the rest of the next generation. I’ve seen probably a half dozen kids harassed by parents into crying fits which simply does not make for an auspicious start to activities that demand a certain amount of toughness and a lot of resilience. And if you think you know which one I’m talking about, you probably haven’t done the other.

If anything, the last couple of months have reinforced my stereotypes, and made me more likely to lash out against them by being reasonable and as affable as I am capable of with coaches and directors, and by telling the hockey dads as politely and good naturedly as I can muster to buzz off when they start telling me how I should be putting out the cones. The bottom line for me is that I have enjoyed the heck out of most of the time I’ve spent playing musicals and playing hockey, and now I figure my job is to try to maximize the enjoyment my kids are getting from them by using my experiences help guide them along the way. And I’ll keep an eye on the other parents to try to get some more examples of how not to do things, and maybe, if I’m lucky, a few examples of the right way.


on trying new things

Last week, I made this sort of half-assed resolution to try three new things every week. This mostly came about because I figured out that I had tried three new things that week (a new mouthpiece, Mediterranean food, and soy milk) and, since everything worked out nicely, I felt I should continue this pattern.

The new things don't have to be spectacular, but it's all about expanding my experiences. This week is proof of that -- I have tried a new way of taking notes on articles I read for school, I tested out having Maxime Talbot as an object of fannish interest, and...

..I practiced while sitting cross-legged on the floor.

I would not advise the last one for frequent use. I wound up doing it because one day I found myself walking around almost obsessively while practicing, to the point that the walking became almost a time-waster. And then when I sat down in a chair, my cat was like "HOORAY A LAP TO SIT ON" and, despite repeated discouragement of this behavior (including a really loud musical instrument right above her head), kept trying to get on me for cuddles. She stopped at nothing to get up there, even to the point of using her claws on my legs to get my attention (ouch!).

So I plunked down in the middle of my floor, sat cross-legged, and practiced. Admittedly, my leg fell asleep after about a half hour, and my cat wound up curling up in my lap anyway, but at least I had stopped walking around and getting my legs clawed up. The only benefit to practicing in this position is that you quickly figure out just how lazy you are -- elbows on the knees, hunched posture, drooped shoulders. And then after you get all that figured out, it's really mostly just annoying in little ways like having your ankle rubbing against the hardwood floor.

I would much rather practice while sitting on the edge of a table, like I used to do in music school.

What's the wackiest thing you've done while practicing?


On being in a section

I have totally cribbed Lauren's titling style.

This has been floating around my head for a while. I don’t really have anything substantive to say about it, but I want to throw it out into the ether just to see what happens to it.

For a while a couple of years ago, I was the de facto section leader in the AWCB. I’ve never really had any sort of official post in the band, which makes me unique among the people who have been there as long as I have, at least as far as I know. At this point, I kind of run sectionals, but that’s unofficial, and mostly because the more qualified folks plain don’t want to do it. Or maybe they just want to stroke my ego a little bit so I’ll whine less, I’m not sure. But during the time that I was the de facto section leader, I boiled my expectations down to three rules:

1. Tell me what you’re going to do.
2. Do what you said you’re going to do.
3. Don’t be a jerk.
D. Do good, don’t suck.

In my time in the band, we’ve essentially kicked somebody out for violating rule 3, but that’s it. We’ve had some troubles here and there with the other two- and I’ve certainly had my share of violating all three- but I think, in general, they cover just about the whole range of things that can go wrong in a community band. The last “rule” is as much a section motto as a rule; I’m really not sure it belongs there, which is why it’s “D.” instead of “4.”. But it’s essentially the “break a leg” of the AWCB trombone section, as well as a one sentence embodiment of the other three rules, our own succinct summary of our ethic. I don’t remember where it came from, but I remember it coming up a lot around the time that I was playing a lot of gigs outside the AWCB with a trumpet player and our then bass trombonist, and I’m pretty sure that’s where it stuck to the trombone section mythos.

I’ve been in a number of leadership positions in a number of organizations, most of which had huge lists of work rules and ethics codes and all sorts of ridiculous things like that. I think we get along fine with our three. Or four.


51B, day four

Today, I felt truly comfortable on the 51B. Jon heard me play a few licks on it and commented that I don't sound terribly bright like I thought I did, which is a relief. It may just be the overtones in my head...

My staff notes sound great today. Tone was much better all around. Endurance was also much better. After my practice session, my lips ached a little bit, but I feel as though my chops got a workout -- that kind of ache, not the bad kind.

I'm feeling much better about it in general. Some articulations are still imprecise, and my partials aren't lining up quite right still, but if I keep up with the flexibility studies, I think this will improve drastically. I did a little high range work today also, and got tired extremely quickly up there. However, I did get a nice clear Eb at one point, which is a big step! I will keep working in my high range to win back that endurance.

I see no really provocative reason to continue this particular mouthpiece diary unless something truly fascinating happens, so I will quit my daily posts now and restrict myself to posting whenever I have something interesting to say.


51B, day three

Practice was not so great today, mostly because my insides kind of feel like they're about to explode.

However, I did get some face time, and here are my thoughts:

  • Spent a lot of time on flexibility exercises today. Didn't get tired very quickly at all. Feeling a little more confident about how things are working, although I still feel like I am overshooting my partials a bit.
  • Endurance is better. Still had to take some breaks, but I definitely could play for longer stretches and recovered faster.
  • Tone is in the tank today, but I don't think this is because of the mouthpiece. 
  • Managed to barely eek out a pedal F, which sounded good on the 4CL. I'm getting there!
  • Played through the Rimsky-Korsakov just to see where I was. Was starting to get tired at the end, definitely. This mouthpiece really does use less air -- several passages that I struggled to have enough breath to get through before were fine (dare I say... easy) this time. 
  • Sometimes when I opened up and played quite loud, my tone sounded great. Hmmm.
That's all I've got for today. 


51B, day two

Today, I would like to present a basic description of the differences between the two mouthpieces -- the 4CL and the Schilke 51B -- so that perhaps some connection can be made between my playing differences and the actual physical equipment.

Mouthpiece Rim Diameter Cup Depth Cup Shape Rim Throat Backbore
Conn 4CL 26mm Medium-Deep V Sharp Medium Large
Schilke 51B 25.63mm Medium-Shallow U Soft Small Small

(Please note that I don't have exact specs for some of these things, and the "small" and "large" are comparisons to each other just from me looking at them. Someone really needs to make a large, complete mouthpiece chart with measurements! Links appreciated!)

With that out of the way, here are my notes for day two of my mouthpiece trial fun.
  • I think I am really noticing the biggest difference in the rim style. It took me forever to get used to the sharp rim, and now going back is tough stuff. I think this is the source of my endurance issues. 
  • Spent lots of time on long tones today. My chops feel like they're getting used to the size.
  • Bb on the second line and down -- hard to get a good solid starting sound.
  • Bb (tuning note) partial is sounding great. (My biggest complaint from my previous mouthpiece/playing.)
  • It seems like it is easier to play louder, and takes less air in general. Bonus? Also, I think my mezzo-forte is generally louder on the 51B. Probably due to the smaller throat/backbore -- I am used to pushing a LOT of air with the 4CL. 
  • My tone feels very bright. Jon once described my tone as having a bit of a "sizzle" to it -- I wonder if this is more like "dropping ice cubes into hot oil" tone.  
Overall, I like it. More chop time is definitely needed, but lots of things are just more comfortable. I don't feel like I have to work as hard at as many things. Isn't that what we all want, really? 


51B, day one

So, after playing on a 4CL almost exclusively since 2004, I have decided to try a new mouthpiece.

I like the 4CL a lot -- it really mellows out my naturally bright tone, I have great endurance on it, and my middle range sounds fantastic. However, I seem to have hit a wall with it -- some notes in the staff (particularly G and Gb) have a "spread" sound that I can't get rid of, and I can't seem to get my high register to function past C with any success. (Note that I have always had this trouble with my high range, but I've been working harder and smarter at it lately with little-to-no actual success.)

Jon loaned me a gold-plated Schilke 51B. The diameter is a little bit smaller than my 4CL and the cup is definitely shallower and more round. And so, I have decided to present to you all a day-to-day diary of my work with this bad boy... starting today, and going until whenever I feel like I don't have anything interesting to add.

April 7, 2010: Day One
  • Initial reaction: responds MUCH differently from my 4CL -- faster, easier. Switched back and forth a few times to compare. 4CL sounds muddled on initial attacks compared to the 51B. 
  • Middle range sounds thin at first, but warms up. 
  • Vibrato is easy -- almost too easy. I feel like I'm doing it when I don't mean to.
  • Ten minutes into playing mid-range scales and simple articulation patterns and my lips are tired. Taking a five minute break.
  • Post-break: Staff notes are markedly less "spread" sounding. My pedal range is gone. Hard to slur between the D partial and the fourth line F for some reason. Lasted about 15 minutes before having to take another break.
  • Post-break 2: Sounds like ass. Chops are unaccustomed to this new object invading their space. Did long tones until I felt tired again. Should have given myself 45 minutes for the day, but crossed off an hour for effort.
Tune in tomorrow for another installment!


On being harrassed into making a blog post

I must admit to two things to start out. One is that I'm having a hard time getting motivated to do... well, anything. The second is that I asked to be harassed to get things done. Gotta get back on the horse.

The AWCB is getting ready for the seventh annual Three Rivers Community Band Festival. I don't get to play due to work obligations, which is pretty much killing my trombonastical motivation. The program, as far as I know at this point, consists of the theme from the western Silverado, Equus by Eric Whitacre, and the March and Procession of Bacchus, which for reasons I can't quite understand is called Cortege in our edition. (Note: that was sarcasm.)

Silverado is a pretty standard Hollywood type score for the brass: we've got our block chord moments, and a couple of big broad melodies. There are some nice challenging parts for the trombones, and a fun horn lick at the beginning that lays really nicely on an Eb alto.

Equus is entirely my fault. Most of the people in the band at this point know that I'm a big fan of Eric Whitacre, which started with singing a couple of his pieces in a choir a while ago. Equus is a neat little minimalist lite thing- we're having some trouble with some meter changes, but it's coming along. It makes me pretty sad not to be able to perform this one, though.

The March and Procession isn't my favorite piece of music ever, and I won't miss playing it for a fun trivial reason: it's one of a very few pieces of music that I've played on violin, string bass, and all three trombone parts. I've got that one covered already.

But that's what I'll be missing. If there's anybody reading this from the Pittsburgh area that's not already going to this, have a look at the website, and let me know how it goes!


March recap

April means...

March: 24 hours. FAIL.

To be fair, March showed a big improvement over February. I practiced a lot more, and a lot more consistently, than I did before. I developed a plan (and taped it to my calendar -- you can see it in the image at the top) and stuck to it for the most part (although I intend to make a couple of changes for April). I switched up my warm-up and my daily routines, and always tried to keep myself thinking and doing new things. 

In fact, I would have made my 25 hour goal if tragedy hadn't struck on Tuesday the 30th... my beloved cat, Magic, passed away on that day. I buried him on Wednesday, driving 2 hours to my father's house and the family kitty graveyard to do so. It was tough to practice after his passing, because Magic used to sit in the dining room and stare at me and give me commentary as I practiced. But, I'm starting to get back on the ball and into the swing of things, and hope that I can remember his vaguely disapproving meow in future practice sessions.

RIP Magic: The Cat (1994-2010)


on composition methods

I found this interesting video from composer Steven Bryant on YouTube. It's the first of a series about his compositional methods in creating his latest work, Concerto for Wind Ensemble.

I found this interesting to watch, not only to hear the composer's thoughts on how he conceives the piece, but also to see the methods he uses for actually writing the music. I've been wondering about this for quite some time -- with all of the unusual time signatures that we see in the most contemporary band music (alternating 5/8 and 7/8, 3/2 and 2/2 alternating with bars of 3/4, just to name two that we've seen this year in the AWCB), I've often pondered how composers come up with these things. Do they sit down and say "hey, I want to write a piece in 5/8 and 7/8"? Do they have a melody in mind and try to build it in to these time signatures? It looks like Steven Bryant, at least, approaches it much differently.

I'm extremely interested to watch future installments to see the continuing process. I hope he'll do something about the transcription of the music and the translation into a written format. (I am such a linguist, even in my musical interests!)

There's so much in this video -- what did you find interesting?


on clarity

Allow me to rant for just a moment about clarity.

I am the instructor of an introductory linguistics course at my university, and I have been recently grading my latest round of homework papers on semantics and pragmatics. This is the unit on context and meaning. My delightful students (they really are delightful) had a problem set on their homework asking them to propose hyponyms and hypernyms of certain words. For example, if I give them the word dog, a hyponym would be poodle and a hypernym would be animal. It's all about sets of words and meaning relations -- all poodles are dogs, and all dogs are animals, but it doesn't work the other way (all animals are not dogs, and all dogs are not poodles).

So I gave them the word soda (pop, for you locals). I expected them to suggest a hyponym like Pepsi, and a hypernym like beverage. (All Pepsis are sodas and all sodas are beverages, but not all beverages are sodas and not all sodas are Pepsis, as the makers of Coca-Cola would attest.)

Three of my students gave me the hyponym grape. I'm assuming they mean grape soda, but sorry kiddos, grape is a kind of fruit. All grapes are not sodas. If you had written grape soda, that would have been fine, but no, you couldn't have been bothered to write out the extra four letters to convey your meaning, and thus, you lose your points.

How does this relate to trombonery, you ask? Well, let's ask Eric Whitacre and his publisher, who thought it would be a great idea to combine the first and second trombone parts into one 1st/2nd Trombone part in his piece Equus.


Oh, yes, and check out what we had to do in order to compensate for unclear printing failures in perhaps the coolest part of the piece.

Yeah. Spend the extra ink, and for the love of whatever you hold dear, make sure your parts are written clearly.

And better musical directions would be great, too, like this one:


On Recurring Themes

Lauren’s discussion on boredom got me thinking.

I have a small handful of recurring problems trombone-wise. I mean, there are a lot of things I could do better, and a lot of things that I’m sure the better players and teachers in the section would fix if I gave them the opportunity. But when it comes down to it, there are maybe three or four big problem things that keep happening over and over again. The stupid, frustrating part of it is that the symptoms are always the same, and it always takes me a long time to pick up on them.

The easiest to pick up on is lack of practice time. That’s been a constant since I got out of high school and stopped playing five or six hours a day. But I usually know when I’ve had a run of bad practice time days, so it’s easy for me to figure that one out.

Another is a constant problem with my bottom lip. It will either roll out (I think this is simply a conditioning issue- see above) or I will start using an overbite, downstream set to try to compensate for a lack of conditioning (see above again) out of a misguided belief that it will help me in the high register. I think that goes back to the days when I would do a lot of uncontrolled, semi-conscious embouchure shifting to try to get an obnoxious high range. This one is harder to diagnose: I have to be pretty vigilant in the practice room to notice it, but I’m always looking out for it. It was actually my friend Andy in the trumpet section who pinned me down on it last time it got to be a real problem! It often comes down to an observant section mate pointing out that I sound kind of like a wet balloon; it tends to make my tone thin, squeaky, and vaguely nasal, even if it does temporarily add a third to the top end. It makes lip slurs next to impossible anywhere outside of maybe the third and fourth partial. And it hurts after a little while.

The last one (that I can remember right now) is one of those things that’s so fundamental to playing that it’s embarrassing to even admit. Every now and then, I’ll get nervous and just cut off the air, start pushing from my throat. This is one of those things that almost every brass player knows about, but probably sounds ludicrous to the non brass-player, but I’ll let it go on that and hope everybody understands. I’ve had this pop up lately. I’ve been a bit nervous coming back to the AWCB after a long layoff, bouncing my replacement out of his chair, and generally wanting to prove I belonged there for more than my quick wit. And well, there are some high parts for a change, and that’s what I do, or at least what I claim to do: play high. So I get to the high parts, want to prove I can play them, get nervous, cut off the air, can’t play the part, get mad, get more nervous, cut off the air more. I try to compensate for the lack of air with brute chop force, so I run out of lip a third of the way through rehearsal, where I should be good for two hours with no problems. Two members of the section actually said something to me about air Monday, for which I am grateful, if mortified.

So what does this have to do with boredom? Well, these are the things I think about when I’m doing the same exercise for the umpteenth time. And when I get bored and let my guard down is when they tend to recur. So having taken my lumps and been reminded, I’m back to being a little more conscientious with the horn. For a while at least.


on warming up

In my February recap, I talked a little bit about my battle with boredom in my trombone playing. The first step was my warm-up. I have been using Brad Edwards's routine for about a year now, and it has been amazingly helpful. Except now, I got used to it, and it has become boring. But there are only so many ways to warm up, right?


I read a thread or two over at the Trombone Forum and several posters mentioned a similar idea: we don't need a complicated warm-up. A note or two to get the lips moving should do it. 

I decided to test it, starting this past Monday. Usually, I warm up with glisses from first position down into lower positions all through the partials (a la the Remington warm-ups). I began on Monday by playing a simple tuning note Bb down to F down to low Bb, then started immediately into scales and new articulation exercises. And -- guess what? They were fine. And guess what else? I have consistently, every day this week, gotten tired at the same time I usually do when I warm up with the full routine. That means I have longer to work on actual exercises rather than going through my boring routine by memory.

My practice time has become more productive, and I no longer allow myself to settle for "not being warmed up enough".


February recap

Hey, it's March! That means that it's time for my February recap.

19 hours 45 minutes -- epic failure!
(Although, let's be fair, this is about 5 times more than I practiced last February, so mild success?)

I already wrote a little bit about why I failed so much at practicing this month. I also discovered something that has been plaguing my practicing for years: 


In pretty much every practice session, I played the same stuff, worked on the same exercises, ran through the same music. In retrospect, I think to myself "what the hell was I thinking?" But at the time, those exercises were the ones I knew that I could do in order to work on certain parts of my playing... and I got myself stuck in a rut. My chops became really good at doing those particular exercises, but not at the things I was trying to work on.

My approach for March goes something like this: change it up. I've got some plans, which I will write about in upcoming posts, and we'll see if March goes a little better for me. 


on motivation

So, the AWCB hasn't had rehearsal for the past two weeks, thanks to "SNOMAGGEDON", or the large snowstorm that blanketed our area with -- gasp! -- two feet of snow!* Our city shut down -- my university was closed for three days, and I don't think the area's elementary and high schools have been back to normal since. Lawn chairs have appeared all over, and vigilante parking authorities have been ruling our streets. I didn't even get my car dug out of its parking spot on my street until... um... this past Wednesday.

I can hear you readers asking -- what does this have to do with trombonery? Absolutely nothing, except that it has killed my motivation. I seem to periodically forget how important it is to me to have a regular event where I have to go and prove that I'm not a terrible trombone player -- and thus, when that regular event gets, well, irregular, my need to not be a terrible trombone player somehow disappears.

It's an interesting study of my own motivations as a musician. Some of us practice to get personally better, and to have the satisfaction of finally nailing that tough lick. For me, however, my own motivation comes from playing with others, which is why playing in ensembles is so important to me. I practice so that when rehearsal comes, I can be a little bit better, and the people sitting around me won't think to themselves "What the hell is this scrub doing here?"

So when we don't have rehearsal for weeks, I think "Eh, I don't have to play for anybody this week, what's the use?" And then my carefully maintained schedule of practicing every day when I get home from school -- no matter what time it is -- goes out the window. And then it's really freaking hard to get back into the routine.

Now... I'm going to go practice.

*Note: Where I come from, two feet of snow isn't really a lot; however, it has been so long since I've seen so much snow that it kind of took me by surprise!


youtube o' the week!

Once again, found while looking for something completely different. This kind of playing makes me want to either practice my face off or lay the horn down and never touch it again, and I can never figure out which is the more appropriate response. Not the best recording quality, but holy cow.


on playing loud

Something I have always struggled with is playing loud. Yes, I could say "playing loudly", but there seems to be a whole different mindset, even a culture, that goes along with playing at high volumes. So in my mind, it's not just a modifier of one's playing (i.e. the adverb "loudly"), but a modifier of the type of music being played and the style.

Anyway, that's a completely different topic than I want to talk about today. The point is that I came across a very nice handout by Alastair Kay from a Yamaha clinic in 2002. On this handout are a couple of exercises for playing both loud and soft, as well as some excellent pointers about the shape of the lips in each dynamic. I've been trying to find that "burn" in my sound for a few days now (much to the chagrin of my neighbors), and although it cracks around the edges especially when articulating, I am already starting to think more about how I play loud rather than just expelling as much air as possible through the horn.

Excellent, excellent resource.


Trombonastical youtube o' the week!

I just found this while looking for something else. It's a bit untimely, since the Magnum Mysterium is a Christmas song, but hey. The Lauridsen is my favorite setting, and one of my favorite pieces of music, and it's a trombone choir. Does anybody know anything about Columbus State?


January report

It's the first week of February and I do have certain resolutions to uphold, so I figure I should report.

25 hours of practice -- January is a success!

25 hours per month, I said. Each line going across a square represents a half hour, so when there's an X, it means I practiced one full hour. You'll see some days, like the 18th, when I practiced two hours. (Okay, let's be fair, I actually counted band rehearsals into my time this month because of stamina issues -- I didn't think I could survive a 2-hour rehearsal after practicing for an hour earlier that day. So I'm counting rehearsals as half time, for now at least.)

I am particularly disappointed about the 19th, 20th, and 21st, where I did not practice at all. Those three days totally kicked my ass, trombone-wise -- I picked up my horn on the 22nd and sounded like ass. I still haven't recovered. I had a shaky but present F5 the week before, and after those three days off, my F5 totally disappeared and now I'm back to only squeaking out the Eb5. 

So -- goals for February. This is a shorter month, so if I practice one hour per day, I only have three potential days off. I do not want to take off any consecutive days -- even if I just play for a half hour, it's better than going backwards. I want that F5 back, damnit! 

Tune in next month for the next installment.


The old crumb catcher

So. I decided to grow a beard. Because I can, more or less. It's kind of thin on the sides, but I've got a pretty decent goatee going, and the sideburns aren't too bad. I don't look quite like a 14-year-old trying to look mature. I know, I have one of those in the house!

But there are a couple of things that could be dealbreakers, and make me shave immediately. One is simply if it's annoying, and sometimes it is, but most of the time it's ok. A friend at work told me I needed to give it at least two weeks, and that turns out to be true: it became much less scratchy and irritating after about two weeks.

Another, the part that makes it relevant to this blog, would be that I would have to shave if having the beard somehow adversely affected my trombone playing. And well, it did at first, but I have found some ways around it. And last night I got some opinions from the other men in the AWCB, whose experiences mostly match mine!

The first thing I noticed as the soup strainer was growing in was that during that annoying period between a week and two weeks, playing was really uncomfortable. After that, it got back to downright tolerable, no better or worse than just plain playing. After a little while, though, I noticed that if the hair on my lip got too long, basically to the point that it would hang below my lip when I had a mouthpiece in playing position, it would mess with my attacks to the point that I couldn't play. Keeping it trimmed to somewhere between two and three weeks worth of length seems to be keeping that manageable. This is the first point of agreement with the men of the AWCB: with one exception, anybody who has had a mustache agrees that it must be carefully trimmed to make playing possible.

The second problem I had was that my low range all but vanished from Eb T2 on down: no trigger range, and no pedals at all. This seemed to be a function of keeping the corners of my mouth shaved, and the area just below my lower lip trimmed. Again, this seems to be a common complaint from trombonists around me, although it was a dealbreaker for at least one of them. He couldn't work around it, and gave up and shaved from frustration. I've noticed that with some more concentrated practice, I'm starting to get the lower range back; hopefully it will all be there with a little more work.

At the bottom line, it appears to be completely possible to continue to play at a reasonable level with some appropriately trimmed facial hair!


on that post I made last week

So last week I talked of being inspired by Mark Twain and deciding to practice unmuted in my little apartment for a while.

...this did not work out so well this afternoon. I began to practice at about 5:00, as I usually do, warming up with my usual routine. Suddenly, the people upstairs seemed to be totally unable to handle this fact. The sounds of three or four people jumping up and down on the floor and stomping were heard, followed by what sounded like throwing books down on the ground as hard as they could. This abated for a moment, but was soon followed by what sounded like two televisions turned up all the way and a radio blaring static, followed by more stomping.

Are these people really this impatient, or am I really that bad?

I still got my hour in, as usual, but wow did they make it hard on themselves. Now instead of listening to their downstairs neighbor play some Bordogni (and very nicely, I thought), they had to listen to two televisions and a radio blaring, and probably wore out their shoes and made a mess by throwing things around their apartment. How sad.


"l'istesso tempo"

We've all probably seen this one a billion times, but I remember making fun of it in high school.

l'istesso tempo

This literally means "the same tempo". A tuba player and I looked it up in high school and laughed -- "why would you need to tell us it's the same tempo?", we wondered. This term, however, comes with a connotation to it -- that being that the meter is going to change, but the conductor's beat should stay the same. That is, when one is switching from a 2/4 meter to a 6/8 meter, the beat will be at the same tempo but with different subdivisions.


on a bit of inspiration from Mark Twain

I have posted before about my issues with practicing in my little apartment. Since I have been practicing more and more lately, I've noticed some very unfortunate things happening as a result of one of my restrictions -- namely, the need to play with a mute in all the time.

Besides screwing with my articulations and my intonation, which is something mutes do anyway, I've noticed that the simple weight of the mute added to my horn must be too much for me to support entirely with my left hand. I've begun subconsciously shifting weight to my right hand -- the slide hand -- which does all kinds of crappy things to one's tone. Most noticeably, it's made my slide movement slower, resulting in glisses between the notes. However, if I consciously attend to moving the weight of the horn back to my left hand, my arm gets very tired after about twenty minutes.

And so, deriving some inspiration from Mark Twain, I decided to let my neighbors know the true meaning of the opening line,
If it please your neighbor to break the sacred calm of night with the snorting of an unholy trombone, it is your duty to put up with his wretched music and your privilege to pity him for the unhappy instinct that moves him to delight in such discordant sounds.
I took the mute out. I still practice at reasonable hours of the day, and I try to sound nice, but the whole exercise has really helped. My high range opened up, my weight and balance issues vanished, and what's more, I've developed a whole new sense of confidence. I make these people listen to me flub all those F5s I've been working for, so maybe they won't mind listening to me drill the syncopated lines and running sixteenths in Eric Whitacre's Equus until I (or they) puke.

The only response I've gotten so far is my upstairs neighbors turning up their television. It's a fine trade-off for improved performance and confidence!


YouTube o' the Not So Deep as Hades

Lauren actually sent this to me after a discussion on my struggles in the low range. It's Alan Raph talking about an alternate embouchure for getting really, really low notes. Not quite contrabass trombone low, but close.

I'm always a little wary of shifts and alternate embouchures and other things that could be considered "cheats". I had some trouble back in high school where I had this killer high range, but it came from a pretty major series of shifts that essentially made it impossible for me to play things like the jump from E3 to C#3 in the Guillmant Morceau or a Bb3-Bb4 jump for a solo in Somewhere Over The Rainbow that became a locally famous euphemism for horrific, mortifying failure my junior year.

But that said, I have been trying Mr. Raph's suggestion here, and I've played down to a pedal D. The interesting thing is that working out with this goofy embouchure has actually tightened up some of the regular pedals on a regular embouchure. I can get down to the F fairly well now, if it's still weak. I can't play E or below at all without the shift, and it takes the shift to get any kind of credibility on a G, but that's an improvement over where I was a couple of weeks ago!

Oh yeah, the video:



Today's MAotW is brought to you by Jon, who apparently encountered this term while reading about the Carpenters. (Wait, was I not supposed to post that publicly?)


At last, all that Ancient Greek comes in handy -- this term is clearly very Greek, as it parses into pro+thalamion, pro meaning "in front of" and thalamion being the word referring to the "woman's chamber" of a house. Nevermind that in the ancient world, women were "kept" on the second floor of the house, with a ladder that their husband could remove once he was sure that his wife was in bed...

But anyway: yes, this is a marriage song. It can also be referred to as epithalamion, which means essentially the same thing. It can also refer to a poem celebrating marriage. And now, an example, brought to you by our friend Purcell.


on taming the elusive F5

So yesterday, I managed to squeak out my first F5 in years. I've never really had a solid F5, nor an even passably useful one, but back in about 2002 I was actually able to squeak the note out a little bit from time to time. I haven't heard anything from it since then.

How did I get it? I've been doing my range exercises faithfully, "do-re-mi-fa-sol" starting on tuning note Bb and moving up by half steps until I can't take it anymore. When I started these exercises, I managed to get up to a C before my chops gave out. Slowly, doing these every practice session, I've been making progress. Once I got to the D, the Eb came easier, and the E was almost immediately ready, and then yesterday, the F5 just popped out of nowhere.

And then, today, it's gone again. I suppose I will just have to keep trying to tame that elusive F5.

The key to taming it for me, I think, is building up stamina in the upper register. I get tired extremely quickly when playing anything above F4. I cannot make it through even half of one Bordogni etude taken up an octave. So in order to tame the F5, it seems that I need to tame the E5, the Eb5, the D5, the Db5 and the C5 first.

...so much more work than I had in mind, but you know, playing the trombone isn't easy.



One of the terms I remember having a small argument over in music school was...


This was the marking in an etude I was playing once in a lesson. I took it to mean what it looked like -- "graveness" -- so I played the etude with a sort of heavy sounding dirge style. However, when you look gravita up, the definition is "with gravity or majesty"; my problem with this always was that those two words mean quite different things... but do they really?

Gravity, aside from being that thing that keeps us all on the ground, means something like 'serious behavior'. My American Heritage Dictionary tells me that one of the definitions is 'solemnity or dignity of manner'. One of majesty's definitions in the same dictionary is, 'royal dignity of bearing or aspect; grandeur.' 

Here I thought that majesty usually would indicate something like 'splendor'. It is the mental image I get when listening to Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (with obligatory cute kitten video, as per tVftBR rules).   

So my advice is that if you ever encounter gravita as a musical annotation, tread carefully. No, really; each note should be deliberately placed, like a queen walking to her coronation


on more orchestra horror stories

Jon's post inspired me to write about the only time I ever got a seat in an ensemble completely by accident.

For a while when I was a youngster, I played with the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony. One day, that group was rehearsing in a different place than usual, which was the music building at Cleveland State University. I got horribly lost trying to find the right room in that building, and was happy to hear the sounds of music coming from inside a rehearsal hall I passed. Figuring that this was my band, I walked in.

No, I had actually walked in on the rehearsal of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra (most famous these days for its performance with Styx in 2006), which I had never heard of. I was carrying my trombone case, and immediately realized that this wasn't the right ensemble, and turned around and walked out -- only to be chased by Eric, one of the group's assistant conductors.

He then proceeded to explain to me that his orchestra had only one trombonist and could really use another. He told me of the music they were playing -- the music of Joan Tower, including "For the Uncommon Woman" -- and basically begged me to join. Please note that he had never heard me play; all he knew was that I was some sixteen year old girl showing up with a trombone case. Finally, I agreed.

I never auditioned; I just showed up and started playing. This was the first orchestra I had ever played with, and they were playing decidedly weird music. I sat solo bass trombone on Tower's "Concerto for Flute", being the only one with an F-trigger. I got to play "Fanfare for the Common Man" from the rafters of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and hit a few tambourine licks in "Riders on the Storm: The Doors Concerto" (there were no brass parts). It was a pretty good experience, for being completely underprepared for a task that I received by accident.

The thing that Jon's story reminded me of was how these guys stiffed me in the end. At the end of the season, they demanded a $150 fee to play in this group -- allow me to remind you that I was begged to come play with them. My name also never appeared on the program. The CD I ordered from them of our Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance never came in the mail, and when I called to ask after it, they claimed that I wasn't in the orchestra. All I have to prove that I was ever with this group is a faded long-sleeved t-shirt, which I am wearing right now.

Worthwhile? Probably. Learning experience? Definitely. A little bitter about it? Hell yes.


Youtube o' the Depths of Hades!

I know what you're thinking. Ok, I really don't.

But this is kind of old, but I found it while looking for something else. It's Murray Crewe, bass trombonist of my beloved Pittsburgh Symphony, talking through the history of his Conn contrabass trombone. The first amusing thing to notice is that they go hunting for him in the bar across the street. The second amusing thing is the sheer size of the instrument.

He's using it to play the famous impossible gliss in the Bartok concerto for orchestra- the gliss goes from B natural to F, an octave below the second partial on your average Bb tenor trombone, which doesn't quite hit any of the partials for a regular bass trombone, but hits the second partial on a contra. There's a brief discussion of the gliss here.


You only love me for my trombone parts.

A few years ago, I subbed for one of the local community symphonies. I did not enjoy the gig. It was a long, hard concert, that required me to play a lot of hard, high, music. I had to borrow a small bore horn to cheat my way to the endurance necessary to get through the concert. My performance was judged (unfavorably) by a single missed high note. I thought the orchestra, as far as an orchestra can have a personality, was haughty and condescending way beyond their collective ability to perform. And then they stiffed me on compensation on a technicality.

After that wonderful experience, I got a call from their personnel director asking me to audition for the principle trombone chair. I’m sure any rational person reading this is thinking that I would jump on the chance to ignore them, but no, being an irrational, borderline psychotic “pleaser” personality, I asked for the audition list. The first thing on the list was “Ride of the Valkyrie.”

That’s it.

Now, the trombonists in the audience (and those reading who were present for this debacle, or some portion of my rants on this debacle) know that there are no fewer than two possible excerpts from Ride that are often played at auditions. The measure numbers vary by edition, but the bottom line is, there’s a B-minor section and a B-major section, both of which are obnoxious on their own merit. I’ve seen the B-major section asked for on its own: it goes that half step higher to A-sharp, and varies in dynamic marking from forte all the way up to fortissimo. Makes you hit almost the entire compass of what is expected from an orchestral tenor trombonist, except for the whole playing at levels that don’t offend the cellos thing.

There are a lot of better trombonists, better musicians than myself making commentary on the excerpt on the internet, although darned if I can find all the ones I’ve read. (Could they possibly have been in actual bound printing?) I think at my level of playing, the keys to the B-major section (beyond not lousing up the key of B!) come in two aspects of the piece. One is to not play it the way Elmer Fudd sings it: he gets more of a quarter/two sixteenths feel, but the actual marking is a dotted eighth/sixteenth/full eighth. This actually came up in the AWCB a number of years back, and I actually said that to the section: “Don’t play this the way Elmer Fudd sings it!” The second is in leaving yourself enough top end to get louder at the end without letting your tone get brassier than you (or whoever you’re playing for) likes. There are actually three dynamics in there: a fortissimo at the beginning, which cuts back to forte, back to fortissimo, then a rinforzando of the fortissimo at the end. The way to approach that depends as much on the ensemble as the trombone section, but in an audition setting, it’s up to you to make sure you’re placing yourself in a range that allows enough dynamic contrast to fit the intended effect.

This rankles me a bit, I have to admit. I know that’s what we do, we sit on the back row and passive-aggressively wait for our opportunity to remind people that we’re there, and we can play. And the trombonists I know revel in this: we’re all fans, to some degree, of Mahler and Wagner and Bruckner. Find me a trombonist that really likes Harold in Italy, and I’ll find you a violist who really wants to saw away unheard at the peak of Bruckner 8. And when was the last time you heard somebody rant about the trombones’ delicate, sensitive entrance in the last of Strauss’ Four Last Songs or some such?

But anyway, I called the personnel director and asked, “Which Valkyrie excerpt do you want?” and received several seconds of awkward silence on the phone. Then he said, “Well, if you don’t know that, maybe you’re not the right fit for the orchestra.”

I had a lot of things run through my mind at that point, but most of them aren’t fit to reprint. What I actually did was agree with him, thank him for his time, and politely decline the next three times he called to ask me to audition.


false notes

Today's MAotW is something a little different.

false notes

I encountered some of these suckers in this solo piece I've been noodling around with, Variations on a March of Shostakovich by Arthur Frackenpohl. Here's what they look like:

The directions in the music say, in Courier New font: "half-valve type sound, slap palm on mouthpiece or snap fingers, etc". I have been working at trying to make a "half-valve type sound", mostly by wiggling my trigger while trying to play these notes. I've found that a F in the staff with a trigger half-pulled makes a really unusual sound, but I do have a hard time accenting it. I may settle for a Joe Alessi-style yell or maybe make some linguistic clicks

My music dictionary tells me:
A muted or dampened notes that has rhythm but often no discernible pitch. It is often thought of as an implied note in a musical phrase and can be not performed or performed only faintly for effect. (...) The false note is indicated by a (parenthesis) around the notehead or with an "X" in place of the notehead, indicating that the note is to be played very quietly, as a ghost.
Trombonists have another use for the term "false note", although I first heard of them as "frog tones". This term refers to a sort of "ghost partial" between low E and pedal Bb played without the trigger. You can sort of make the notes half exist, with a thin sound and overtones that feel a little strange, and you can lip these notes to approximate the pitch. Some more advanced trombonists can produce false notes on and around a triple pedal Bb. Other brass instruments can do this too, as evidenced by the YouTube video below of a guy playing what sounds like the Meow Mix theme song on false notes on a tuba.


on resolutions

So it's 2010 -- wow, when did that happen? And, coincidentally, it's also my day to post to the blog. And so, here you go, obligatory New Year's Trombonery Resolutions.

1.) Have F5 solid by the end of the year.
2.) Practice 25 hours a month.
3.) Get the quartet back together.

How do I plan to accomplish these things?

For the F5: I will keep going as I have been going. I've got a shaky D, which is a lot farther than I was last year at this time when I had a shaky Bb. I figure with upping the practice time and with already extending myself into the upper register, the F is a feasible goal.

For 25 hours a month: I plan to obtain a calendar and hang it in my dining room where I practice. Couple this with a Sharpie and I have a visible timekeeping system that will help me keep myself motivated. I figure I will give myself a mark for each half hour practiced each day, hopefully with two marks on most days.

For getting the quartet back together again: This really depends on the other four people. (Yes, we have a five-person trombone quartet, hush.) I really think the others enjoyed our rehearsals and we had an excellent thing going. Unfortunately some external unpleasantness forced us into hiding, but hopefully it will soon be time to get past that. I have an eye toward March, when spring starts again, and when Easter gigs may be a possibility.

So now it's your turn. What are your New Year's Resolutions, whether trombone related or not?