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.