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.