Saturday, December 3, 2011

Performing at Your Best

I'm constantly searching for good advice on performing well and consistently (what musician isn't?).  I'm subscribed to The Bulletproof Musician, and I got the latest update in my inbox this morning.  I've read a lot of the articles talking about practice methods and "deliberate practice," which I believe I posted another blog entry about.  The latest update, however, admitted that deliberate practice is not always optimal.  Deliberate practice, in a way, is a method of "keeping score" (as the article put it).  We remember mistakes and then we work on them.  In a performance, we can't keep score.  We have to keep going.  So we must practice for performances with a mentality that we are not "keeping score."  We're only concentrating on what we want to do and know we can do.

Have you ever had a performance where there was one minor mistake, and then thinking about that mistake caused you to make other mistakes?  I know that's happened to me for sure.  And usually, I'll listen back to the recording and realize that the mistake was not even that noticeable, and I wish I hadn't given it a second thought.  And have you ever gone to a professional's recital, and they missed a note or two, but then you found out that you had completely forgotten about the person's mistakes at the end of the recital (probably because the rest was spectacular)?  Some of the performances that have captivated me the most were ones that were not technically perfect.  Now of course, we'd love to not make any mistakes, but we have to practice before performances with intention of not dwelling on mistakes.  My goal, personally, is to be able to give performances that are both technically sound and artistically sincere.

The Bulletproof Musician article also linked me to a great video from (side note: I feel that if I watched at least one video a week from, I'd be a better/smarter person - it's great stuff).  Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi is a leading psychologist in positive thinking and fulfillment through what he calls the "flow" method. The video talks about the "flow" or "ecstasy" state of doing things occurring when one's challenges and skill set are very high.  It makes sense - often beginners can become bored or apathetic because they are not being challenged and their skill set is low.  Or anxiety can happen, where one's challenges are high, but one's skills are not as high.  He talks about the conditions needed to create "flow" - and I think the one missing for me (as a soloist) is the feeling of being part of something bigger.  I have found myself in "flow" moments in band, orchestra, and quintet - I feel like I am part of something bigger (literally and figuratively) when I am in performances like that.  However, by myself, I have a hard time figuring out what that "bigger," outside thing is.  I'm glad this "talk" helped me confirm that, and now I must find a way to work through that or figure out how to change that mindset.  There are other conditions for flow that may be an issue for you - everyone is different.  I'm personally excited to really dig deeper on this issue.

Here's the video (I know it's a bit long, but totally worth it - watch it all the way through):

Also, here's a video example of a "fearless performance," haha! Maybe the method of imagining your audience in their underwear is outdated, and we should just pretend we are playing for cows.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

#18: Recent concerts

 Last night was my orchestral bass trombone debut.  The Gainesville Chamber Orchestra performed The Consecration of the House Overture (Beethoven), Wellington's Victory (Beethoven) and Schumann 4.  The first few rehearsals were, we'll say, "amusing."  It was interesting - I noticed that my ability to do basic things like count rests was inhibited by the fact that I had to think so much about the mechanics of my instrument (OK, 4th position for D3 is lower than the position for G4...).  I do not have the skills (yet) of an experienced bass trombonist; however, since I normally play tuba in orchestra, I sure know what I want a bass trombone to sound like (and what it sounds like when it's in tune).  It felt like being caught in between 2 bodies in a way - I knew what I wanted to hear but my muscle memory wasn't strong enough yet to match that.  I had practiced my parts of course, but I was still in a professional ensemble and I wanted to sound very good.  I think perhaps putting a lot of pressure on myself initially caused my mistakes in the first rehearsal or 2.  Being in a good section helped a lot of course.  Fitting in as the bottom of a trombone section is quite different than filling in as the bottom on tuba.  At least to me it felt different - I thought that was interesting.  In the end, the concert came out well.  Plus, it wasn't too much earlier in this blog that I wrote about how I started playing bass trombone... just earlier this year.  I think it's kind of hilarious that I can put "Substitute Bass Trombone" on my resume now, hahaha.  But really, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this experience.

And I know this is a little late, but TSO played a children's concert on Halloween.  I like getting to let loose and wear a costume (and see other musicians do the same).  I was Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter! :)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#17: Formal Black

This entry has been in the works for some time (at least in my head).  Any orchestra that I have done contracted work with has included a dress code for both women and men in their contract.  Men have very little wiggle room: tuxes, black socks, dress shoes.  Women, on the other hand, have general guidelines like "sleeves no shorter than elbow length" or "skirts, dresses and slacks must reach the ankle when seated."  The orchestra is assuming that the women understand that they are sitting next to men in tuxes, and that they will dress appropriately.  However, I have found that this is not the case - on a regular basis, I see way too many women dressed inappropriately for concerts.

 All of the orchestras that I currently perform with are regional, part-time orchestras.  These are the jobs that are usually on your resume before you win that full-time gig.  Because of this, many members of these orchestras are young musicians, often students, who are in the process of "learning the ropes."  Of course we learn in school that we shouldn't talk in rehearsal, we should have a pencil, we should pay attention to what other sections are doing - however, in my entire career, I have never heard anyone in authority (teacher, conductor, personnel manager, etc.) actually give any instructions on concert dress.  With everyone nowadays being so lawsuit happy, I'm not surprised - a male teacher or conductor would probably be fearful of a sexual harassment accusation if he were to tell a female student that she was dressed inappropriately.  But why, as women, are we not telling each other?  Because we're afraid of being seen as mean, rude or judgmental?  Or of being told, "You're not my mother!"?  Whatever the reason is, we all need to get over it.  We need to spread the word about dressing appropriately, because obviously, not everyone is getting the advice from their mothers anymore.

The bottom line: the way you dress to a performance is a reflection of how you feel about your work, period.  It's a reflection of how seriously you take your craft, your preparation for the performance, and your membership in the ensemble.  It doesn't matter whether you're in a school ensemble or a paid orchestra.  Wearing black jeans and a t-shirt to a performance says, "I don't care about this."

Another factor: patrons.  Patrons love to talk to musicians after concerts, and it's so important for us to appear professional to them - they're helping pay your check.  And remember, most patrons are of a more modestly dressed era.  In other words: would you be donning cleavage in front of your grandmother?

I feel that many young women are under the impression that dressing formally means dressing matronly or expensively.  This is simply not the case.  As you will see in the document below, there are loads of cute options for women of all ages.  Plus, I've bought almost every piece of formal black in my closet from Wal-Mart, Target, Ross, Marshall's, or TJ Maxx (I don't remember the last time I spent more than $20 on a pair of pants).

I present to you: The Modern Girl's Guide to Formal Black.  Click on the link below for the full scoop.

Monday, October 24, 2011

#16: Hindsight is 20/20

Hello, internet world!  I've been quite the busy bee lately.  Just got done playing Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde with Tallahassee SO.  I'll be playing Symphony Fantastique with the Ocala SO this weekend and then a Halloween concert with TSO on Monday (which means playing Harry Potter, Thriller, and the Monster Mash - woo hoo!).  We get to dress up for the concert... I definitely need to bring my camera this time - last year I missed out on an opportunity to photograph our principal trombonist in a Prince Ali from Aladdin costume.

Whenever I go back to Tallahassee for TSO, I look around and sometimes wish I could do my undergrad at FSU all over again.  But I only sometimes wish for that - I realize that every step in my life has brought me to where I am today, and I like my life.  However, I can't help wishing that I had taken more time for myself - not to practice necessarily (I logged a lot of hours doing that), but to relax.  The more time goes on, the more I realize how important taking little breaks is! It keeps you sane!

I wish I didn't overload myself with extracurriculars, and instead I could have used that time to study theory, scores, or listen to music.  I should have gone to more concerts (especially since I was at FSU - there is really some top-notch music being made there, the Wind Orchestra last week was fantastic).  I should have gone to masterclasses for instruments other than my own.  I think if I had spent more time listening (to anything, orchestral, solo, jazz, etc.), my time in the practice room would have been more productive.  I was in a practice room 3-5 hours a day, practicing everything that was assigned to me, but did I really know what I was going for?  I think I did, but in a short-sighted way - I just tried to prepare what I was assigned that week so I wouldn't completely embarrass myself in my lesson.  I wish I could have seen the big picture - but my life was so hectic, I was just focused on surviving day to day.  There were many semesters that I had to schedule time to eat, shower and sleep because I was so busy.  I will say this though - I have pretty darn good time management skills from all of that. =)

So, if you're in school still - squeeze every bit of knowledge out of it that you can!  Learn how to teach yourself, so that when you are done with school, you can still learn on your own.  Learn how to practice - pay attention to how your studio teacher helps you fix things, and remember how to do it in the future.

And know how to say "no" when you really don't have time for something.  Leave time for you to just sit, veg out, watch TV, play video games, whatever it is you do to just zone out.. Also, leave time to think.  This is different than vegging out - meditate, evaluate, keep a journal or blog... in other words, don't go on auto-pilot!

While in Tallahassee, I got to enjoy the President's Own concert.  Not only was the playing completely immaculate, it was a really entertaining concert too.  I was thrilled to see a huge auditorium filled with people to hear this music.  It's so wonderful that the tickets are free - giving the gift of great music to anyone that wants it - what a great service to our country.  Plus, I think it's such an important tradition - and even though not all of the music they play is American, the President's Own is something uniquely American on its own.

What a dream come true it would be to win that gig!  I'm glad I got to hear them live, especially with the audition coming up.  Prof. Ebbers at FSU was also kind enough to give me a lesson.  It was super duper helpful in so many ways - really helped me refine a lot of things.  It also helped me specifically target stuff I need to work on.  Tuba/euph studio masterclass also gave me a lot of helpful tips.  It was fun to be the student again for a day. =)

I must admit that this post was rather scatterbrained.  So, to keep that theme consistent, I will you with 2 videos that I have found that I am absolutely in love with:

Sotto Voce playing "Hide and Seek" by Imogen Heap (look up the original tune if you don't know it, it's very cool):

Beyonce, my muse... I thought I couldn't love her more, and then this song came out. Too bad this song was released halfway into marching season, this would be a great stands tune (there's still time, arrangers!). I personally think that she should hire a tubist for her next tour.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sunday, October 2, 2011

#14: A great article about practicing!

I recommend that everyone read this (and send it to your students!):

My trip to New Mexico was awesome! Now, back to the drawing board....

Sunday, September 25, 2011

#13: Unexpected inspiration

I'm a freelance musician.  My normal day consists of going to a school for a few hours and teaching lessons and/or sectionals, and then teaching lessons later in the day.  Some nights I have rehearsals.  If it's an on week for orchestra, I'll have rehearsals every night.  I love my life - I'm so glad I'm getting to do what I love.  Some people wouldn't like teaching little middle schoolers most of the day, but I love it.  I love the light in their eyes when they get something right for the first time.

I have auditions coming up, so I spend pretty much all of my practice time on my tubas.  My bass trombone has been feeling a little neglected (though I use it frequently to teach).  I found out about the Gainesville Community Band through my quintet, and I joined so I could get better at bass trombone.  It's been a lot of fun even though my left hand wants to fall off at the end of each rehearsal, haha.  It's definitely helped my reading on trombone and I think I am playing better in tune since I have people around me (even though they're not always in tune, haha).  Plus I have met some really cool people with really cool stories.  It goes to show you that music can be a lifetime love no matter what career you pursue.

I know a lot of musicians would scoff at the idea of being in community band.  It's not paid and it's not exactly at the level of a professional ensemble.  But... I think that's what I like about it.

I should preface this with informing the reader that I am one of those corny people that tries to find inspiration and wisdom in everything that I can.  I'm the cheeseball that is happy every day because the sky is blue.

See, the thing is, when something isn't your job, and you're doing it anyways, you probably really like it.  There's no obligation for any person to join this band - everyone does it because they want to.  It's a huge room full of band nerds of all ages that could sing you each piece we're playing front to back just because they like band music that much.  Most of the band is amateur players, but everyone's really doing the best they can, even if they're not nailing every single note.  Watching people count in this ensemble is incredible - even if technique is not perfect, no one ever misses an entrance.  And you never see anyone texting during rehearsals (this has inspired me to kick that habit this year when I'm in my orchestra rehearsals - I don't know why I've ever done that, I don't even like texting all that much).  Though the lack of texting might be due more to the average age of group being a bit higher than to professionalism, haha!  Plus it's band, there's not even enough time during rests to text...

Another thing I've noticed is the lack of complaining in this ensemble.  Complaining is something I'm certainly guilty of - I feel that people should prepare their friggin' parts when they're being paid to play their instruments.  However, I'm now feeling that perhaps complaints are one of the things that can degrade the camaraderie of a group.  Plus, who the heck wants to hear it anyways?  In an amateur group, there's plenty that one could complain about, but nobody does (at least in this one).  Thus, no one is at each other's necks, and generally everyone is happy to see each other.  

I'm learning all the time.  I feel fortunate that I have the ability to practice and have fun making music.  I feel downright lucky when I get paid to do it.

In other news, I'm off to New Mexico this week for my best friend's wedding.  I'm very excited for a mini "vacation" and I hope that I do not suffer from separation anxiety from my horns.  I'm taking requests for tunes that I should buzz while I'm out of town... ha ha!

Everyone have a lovely week. :)

Monday, August 29, 2011

#12: Consider your options

Everyone should read this article, especially if you are a musician and/or music student.

Are you feeling "stuck"?  You just got your degree in performance/composition/whatever... and now what do you do?

It's so important to consider your options.  If you love school and want more of it - go to school!  But if you're going to school just to bide your time or out of a feeling of obligation, you may be missing out on something.  Something that will shape your future career, something that will help you find your "niche."  School can be a way to do this, but it's not the only way.  Also, school can be very expensive - the decision to go back to school should not be taken lightly.  It should be a deliberate decision.

But what if I make a bad choice?  Go with your gut - if something really doesn't appeal to you, don't do it just for the sake of doing it.  If something truly intrigues you, go for it.  You'll have to be very honest with yourself for this part.  It seems like many music students are afraid of having wasted "all that time practicing."  I disagree with this notion.  Everything you do shapes you as a person and contributes to the things you do.  Dedication and discipline to anything will help you be dedicated and disciplined in your career, no matter what it is.

What I got out of this article is this: Don't limit yourself by limiting your options.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

#11: Bookmark this website!

UGA Tuba-Euphonium Studio: Audio Clips

This is an amazing resource for players and teachers alike... Mr. Zerkel has recorded many etudes and solos and posted them here.  I'm very excited to have this as a tool!

Monday, August 22, 2011

#10: Found this recording...

Originally, I deleted this video from YouTube because this recording isn't "perfect."  I listened again and decided what heck, share it with everyone.... who's perfect anyways?  Plus, someone might benefit from getting to hear the whole thing with piano (since that's what most people get to perform with)... you know, just to put the 2 parts together in their head before rehearsing with an accompanist.

I recorded this for 2 reasons: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra audition and USF's Concerto Competition.  I didn't get invited to MSO but I won the concerto competition.  What a ride that was.  It felt funny showing up to the rehearsals and plopping down in front of the orchestra ("What am I doing up here?).  Also, it's not every day that the tuba player gets his/her own dressing room at the concert, ha ha!

 I decided to stop being so hard on myself today.  I realized that while yes, it's not perfect, it was also a big accomplishment for me to record this.  I had never recorded an entire concerto before, with or without accompaniment, and I had never advanced in any competitions.  It's also interesting to listen now and think of the things I like as well as the things that I would do differently now.

I'm not trying to discredit this recording, I do like it!  But I'm also human - and my biggest critic.  So please don't take anything I've said the wrong way. :)

Anyways, enough chit-chat, here it is:

Best wishes to all in this new school year!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

#9: Gigs and subs

Hello all,

I just had to vent about something on here (it's my blog, not sure why I prefaced with that statement, haha).

This year, I have more conflicts between the 3 main groups I play with (TSO, GCO and GBQ) than ever before.  I understand why - I'm almost 100% sure that I'm the only person in TSO that plays with GCO too.  Additionally, TSO has very few "commuter" musicians like myself.  GCO, obviously, is pretty good about not scheduling services during UF ceremonies, which is great because GBQ plays all UF functions needing music (additionally we play for SFC and St. Leo-Gainesville).  So graduation season is great to me!  However, since I'm one of the only commuters to TSO, and no one else there plays in GCO or GBQ, TSO does not crosscheck its schedule with Gainesville-based ensembles or schools.  GCO crosschecks its schedule with OSO (Ocala), CSO (Charlotte) and perhaps one or 2 more regional orchestras because multiple GCO members play in those ensembles.  But GCO doesn't crosscheck with TSO because I'm the only member that would have a conflict.

I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I understand, because why should an entire group have to make/change its plans around one person?  On the other hand, I'm the only tubist, which means I have to use a sub if I can't come - and there's no section for the tuba to "hide" under.  I understand that using subs is a normal thing; however, I can't help feeling like I'm not giving the commitment level that I want to the groups if I have to use a sub more than once a season.  I play with regional orchestras, so I don't even usually play on every concert.  I might play 3 concerts a year with one orchestra a 6 with another.  It all depends on repertoire of course.

I think the most frustrating thing about this is all of the weeks where I'm not playing in any orchestra, and there are no college graduations and/or church gigs.  How I wish we could just move conflicting concerts to those weeks!  Between pay, travel, level of rep and available subs - it's a tough choice to make sometimes, especially if you do not personally know your subs and their abilities.

I have made my employers aware of my multiple commitments (both this year and in the past).  I just hope everything goes well this year.  Again, I just wish I could give 100% to all of the groups I play in, and it just kills me not to be able to do so.  I do not like to give less than 100%.  Of course, I also don't like giving up pay that I could have if there were no conflicts.  But this is pretty much out of my control at this point - I guess I just have to make decisions now!

I should add that I'm incredibly grateful to have so many playing opportunities as a tubist.  Florida has treated me well so far and I'm thankful to work with the people I do to get the gigs I get.  It's also rewarding to see a lot of my hard work over the years paying off.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

#8: Aaaaaand we're back! (Listen)

Hello internet friends!  Sorry for the long time without an update (I know, you were devasted every day you didn't see me update, haha).  I've been moving/setting up work/working.  I've gotten to work a couple of band camps in town and I must say I've been very impressed.  People seem to like band in these parts!

First, a little education on the Eb contrabass sarrusophone:

Wasn't that lovely?! :) I liked the choice of repertoire - hahaha!

Anyways, I'd like to share some experiences I've had in the past couple of weeks, practicing and teaching.

We all know listening is crucial.  But what are we listening for?  What we want to come out of the horn, right?  Then, why do we often make things more complicated than that?  There's no reason to.  Recently, I've been working a lot on my intonation in my lower register.  I honestly think the reason I've struggled with it for so long it just because I wasn't being picky enough with my mental image of what I wanted to come of out the horn.  I've caught myself micromanaging my embouchure, jaw placement, air, etc.  All of these things are important to learn how to do properly, but alone, it's not enough.
Recently, I was doing my normal long tones, and I was fixing to play C2 to Ab1, and I had that pitch ready to go in my head.  But I must have had a mental lapse, since I pressed down my 3rd valve (fingering for A natural for those that aren't tubists or fluent in CC fingerings), and what came out?  An Ab (albeit a sharp one) registered on my tuner.  Another example, I had a student yesterday doing some long tones.  He has great pitch, and I told him to play a G, but he also had a mental lapse and forgot to put any valves down for the fingering.  And wouldn't you know it, a G still came out of his tuba.... and he's in 7th grade.  My theory is that, if you have a basic grasp of the operation of the tuba, working on your mental depiction of pitch will be more efficient than just learning to manipulate your instrument or embouchure.  Of course, we must "tweak" our horns to fit our tendencies, but we cannot rely on this alone.  We also cannot rely on perfect embouchure placement.  These things should be an aide to a good ear.

In addition to pitch, I must constantly remember to listen for what characteristic sound I want to come out of the horn.  For those of us that are out of college and play with a regional/part-time orchestra, between seasons, our memory of how you fit into an ensemble can get fuzzy (maybe I'm in the minority for this!).  My goal right now is to remember how I would play in an ensemble.  I almost never feel tension or feel the need to play incredibly loud in an ensemble.  Plus, I'm more relaxed because I'm making music with others, and that's what I love to do.  There are occasions in TSO where I really need to crank it up, but that's about it, and that kind of volume can only come with real relaxation anyways.  I have heard that a common complaint of audition panels is that most tubists try to play too loud.  I think the keyword here is "try" - this implies too much effort or perhaps even strain, so sound and musicality are effected.  You (and I) may have a "bigger" effect if you take it down a notch.  And, in the process of doing that and learning to relax more, we can crank it up with a good sound!

I have to admit that part of my mental dilemma is years of playful teasing from section colleagues about how I will never be able to play loud enough.  I know that loads of low brass musicians communicate through playful teasing and friendly competition, but I'm trying to get myself out of this mindset (though I love that a low brass section can just laugh at the other's mistakes without judging - we all know that sometimes, "it just happens!").  My comfortable forte is enough for most forte passages.  I think another personal element to this was that I was taught to play loud, yet comfortably, during most of my warm-up/fundamentals routine.  I often forget that my default sound is usually somewhere around a forte.

If anyone has comments/tips/help/anecdotes, please comment!

Best wishes to all musicians and teachers during the fall "rush." :)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

#7: Happiness

I resolved early on to keep this blog limited to music-related posts - but really, music is about LIFE, isn't it?  I also find that our outside-of-the-practice-room-lives can greatly affect our craft (I even wonder if people in love play differently than those that aren't!).

I've gotten to catch up with some people this summer, which has been great.  One of my friends was describing his/her current personal life situation, and then admitted that he/she wondered, "Am I happy?"  It was as if the matter was not his/hers to decide.

This got me thinking -does happiness only happen when a certain set of circumstances are in place, or is happiness a choice?

You can, on one hand, decide that, "I need A, B, and C to happen, and that will make me happy."  Here we need to examine things we can change, and things we can't change.  Take charge of the things you can change, and stop beating yourself up for things outside of your control.  I've said before, be grateful for your experiences and abilities thus far, and don't regret what you haven't done yet or cannot currently do.  You can change your circumstances more than you think, even if change cannot be immediate.

I firmly believe in going for your goals and not expecting anything to be handed to you on a silver platter.  However, I also believe that you can decide to be happy no matter what.  You just broke your ankle, your scholarship just got its funding cut, you've just gotten out of a bad relationship, or whatever issue is in your life that is coming down hard on you - if you say to yourself and the world today, "I'm happy anyways," is anyone going to tell you that you're wrong?  Who else can decide but you?  Now, this doesn't mean you're settling for your situation - you're still going to change whatever you can, but while you're there, you can be happy about doing so.

Let's stop comparing ourselves to others, and start comparing ourselves to our past selves to find improvement and gained knowledge.  

Let's stop being complacent, and put things into motion.  

Let's use our brains for more than is just necessary!

Let's allow ourselves to have time to properly mourn things that sadden or anger us, but let's allow ourselves to get back up, and deliberately contemplate what knowledge or strength we will/have gain/ed.  

Let's consciously change our thinking - let's catch ourselves when we find we are having a pity party for ourselves in our heads, and snap out of it, and change our thoughts.  

Let's take time to enjoy things that truly make our lives better and brighter.

And if there are bumps or roadblocks along the way, let's be happy anyways.  We are all in training, we are all gaining strength.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

#6: The perils of beginning tubists

I do not have a degree in Music Education.  However, I've learned a whole lot just from teaching over the years (and I'm still learning, I love it!).  I'm not sure I could cover all of the perils of beginning tubists, but I'll do my best to cover some of the most common ones.

Breathing: For the most part, beginning tuba players are tiny, and have small lung capacities.  I feel like lately, I've met more and more middle school directors that do breathing exercises with their entire band.  This is great!  Straws are a really great aid to teaching young ones how to breathe - I've found them useful to teach the suction/focus air at the lips concept.  Beware of the PVC pipe method, unless you get PVC pipes that are small enough to where your students can have their mouth around it in a natural position.  I've seen well-educated, well-meaning teachers give their students PVC pipe pieces as a breathing aid, but the pieces are so big that the students are practically dislocating their jaws, which causes tension and does not resemble the way they'd actually breathe while playing.  Studying the Breathing Gym is a worthwhile investment for every band teacher and musician (I'm sure every musician has a friend that's really familiar with and would love to walk anyone else through the ropes!).

I've also studied yogic breathing and adapted some exercises for wind musicians.  There's a set of exercises in particular that I've found helps students explore their entire capacity.  I will probably need another post to talk about those.

Size of the horn:  This is one of the biggest (pun intended) problems I encounter regularly.  Tubas are big, middle schoolers are small.  There's the issue of air, but we talked about that.  Here's another problem: I often see kids craning their necks up to reach the mouthpiece and/or tensing up their arms just holding the tuba or reaching the valves.  The worst part about this issue is that it often goes unnoticed by teachers, both band directors and private teachers.  The first year of playing is so crucial - we are establishing how our body reacts to the instrument.  Leaving the issue of physical comfort unnoticed during the first years of playing leads to problems down the road, even when the student grows big enough to not strain to reach anything on the horn.  I feel like I spent my entire undergraduate career just learning how to relax a bit while playing!
I have heard of a method that advises teachers to only put first year players on euphonium, then later switch them to tuba.  The student is learning bass clef, and fingerings on a euphonium are the same as on a BBb tuba.  The low register on the tuba is often less attainable when the student is first learning to play, and euphonium would allow the student to develop a decent embouchure and middle/low register on euphonium that would transfer well to tuba.  The student could also learn to breathe properly without straining to have enough air for the middle/low register of the tuba (again, all/most middle school band tuba parts and method books are written in the low register).  I think this idea should be considered, but we as teachers need to have other options too.
Two words: tuba stands.  The bottom line is that the student will not be able to breathe properly (both inhalation and exhalation) and form a proper embouchure if he/she is straining to reach the mouthpiece.  There is absolutely no point in making a student play like this because you cannot make progress when the student is in this position.  There have been several occasions where I spent half a lesson (and half the band director's money) figuring out a comfortable way for the student to hold the tuba, just to find that all he/she needs is a tuba stand.  I suppose you could also have the student sit on some towels or something, but cloth often slips and most of the time there's not enough room on the chair for the student, the towels, and the tuba.
I was fortunate in that my middle school had a few chairs with tuba stands attached, and there were several settings of height, so the student could set the tuba lower.  These are a good option as well as just plain ol' tuba stands (be careful not to buy a sousaphone stand unless you only have sousaphones).  I know schools are all on a tight budget, but a couple of tuba stands are really worth the investment.  I've also seen loads of used tuba stands online - it's worth the research to save money these days.  I think just one or two tuba stands would work - you'll often have a kid that had his/her growth spurt early on and doesn't need one!

Beginning tuba method books and band parts are written in the low register.  When I say low register, I mean anything below F or Eb below the bass clef staff.  As one would guess, it takes a lot of air to play low on the tuba.  It takes a lot of air in the other registers too, but you run out of air faster in the lower register generally.  So we've already discussed that middle schoolers are small and that their lung capacities are limited.  The air is what makes the vibration happen, and during the first months of playing tuba, this is very difficult for the student to produce.  Plus they are often discouraged by teachers telling everyone that they need to make "4 bar phrases" without taking a breath when in reality, I as an adult experienced player, need to breathe nearly every other measure while playing these middle school parts and method books.  (By the way, I think it's more beneficial and applicable to teach how to take quick breaths that make sense with and don't interrupt the music, while still teaching phrasing.)
The other issue is embouchure.  I think a lot of people are under the impression that low tuba playing must be easier because the embouchure is a bit "looser," for lack of a better term.  I think it'd be easier for students to learn to control their corners in the middle register before venturing into the low register, where essentially you have to have control over something very loose and relaxed.  One thing the Standard of Excellence book does right is teach the correct embouchure in the opening pages (it really works!).
I'm very big on buzzing.  As a teacher, it's very frustrating to have students that only have low parts because they're pretty much impossible for a beginner to buzz.  Buzzing should be taught before the student even touches the horn, but when the student is forced to only play in the low register, it's difficult to apply mid-range buzzing to low register playing (for a beginning student, at least).
The low register is also a challenge because the tubas in the band have no one else to listen to.  Upper woodwinds play mostly in the same range, trombones/euphoniums play together, trumpets/horns/saxes often have parts close together (range wise) - that leaves the tubas all on their own.  They don't know what a low Bb sounds like because no one else in the band is playing it.
If your tubists are having trouble, why not have them try their parts or etudes up an octave?  I know almost everyone's first scale is Bb major, but for tubists, I think learning F and Eb major would be better to start with.

Kids don't know what a tuba is supposed to sound like.  Do you know what a capybara is?  No?  Then can you go draw one (without Googling it) for me?  Of course you couldn't, because you have no idea what it is.
You watched your parents walk for months and month before you even attempted to try it.  You didn't think about "Move my foot like this, bend my knee like this..." - you simply had a goal in mind and tried to imitate it.     You had to do some trial and error to figure out what worked and what didn't.
Unfortunately, there have been so many times that a student has said, "Wow, I've never heard a tuba sound like that" during the first lesson or sectional.  This is not a compliment to myself - this is a problem.  If you don't know what your goal is, you're basically throwing dice every time you put the horn to your face.  This is something that applies to players at all levels.
Giving the student goals, like "blow this piece of paper away" or "say oh, then hold that and say eh" (for embouchure) are very helpful learning tools, but they won't be as useful unless the student has a final product in mind.
In short, students need to hear recordings of their instruments when they're learning to play.  Though again, the tuba presents a challenge in that most tuba solo literature that you'd find on CDs is written in the high register, which students normally don't even touch until they get to college.  I recommend having students listen to some orchestral excerpts (Gene Pokorny's Orchestral Excerpts for Tuba is great) or older recordings like those of Bill Bell, which have older tuba solos written in the middle/lower register.

Any other suggestions/comments are, as always, super duper welcome!

EDIT 7/5/2011: I forgot to mention Dave Zerkel's Tuba Helper CD - a perfect fit for beginning tubists!

Friday, June 24, 2011

#5: CD Review and Q&A Session: Matthew K. Brown's How Beautiful: The Music of Barbara York

Christmas came a few months early when I got this CD in the mail.

Before we start, here are some useful links that will make this entry more meaningful to the reader:

I can't express how happy I am to see such great music being written for the tuba.  I loved every single piece on this CD.  There's a variety of influences, everything from arias to jazz.  I enjoy Barbara York's because the music does such a good job of telling a story.  I feel like the audience is free to have their own mental imagery, but the messages are very clear.

This brings me to why I love Matt's playing on this CD.  It is very obvious to me that Matt's first priority is telling the story.  He has a mastery of the tuba that allows him to convey obvious changes in mood and style while still having a fantastic sound.

I'll use the first piece, "Wars and Rumors of War," as an example.  In the first movement, I find Matt's sound to be strong, like that of a tuba in a Bruckner Symphony, while still being agile.  Matt's sound is distinctly sweeter and more gentle in the 2nd mvt to go with the imagery. The 3rd mvt starts out quickly, with a sense of urgency, as this movement is about the young soldier going into battle. There is a section where the war hero is surveying the disturbing results of the battle around him, and the tempo slows, the texture in the accompaniment is noticeably thinner, depicting the bleak nature of the situation. This section also reminds me personally of the mood and style of the blues tune “St. James Infirmary.” The, the rest of the movement is finished as it started. What I noticed in this movement was, again, Matt's ability to change character. At the fiery opening of the movement, his sound is very pointed. In the slower section, there is a marked sense of loss in his sound (Matt says Barbara called this section "sick and empty," an even better way to describe it).  Another example of Matt's versatility comes from the "Shamanic Journey": Matt was able to changed the weight, movement and direction of his sound to depict the boat ride in the 2nd movement.  You can distinctly tell the sections with a bit of a chop, then more tumultuous, and sections where the boat glided over the water (brilliant writing also comes into play here too, though!).  The CD is full of great playing like this, with Matt giving attention to detail in this programmatic music.

"Arioso Gloria" and "How Beautiful" are both stop-you-in-your-tracks-kind-of-beautiful.  I like that Matt does not "overplay" these tunes; rather, his style on this aria-style tracks remind me of the way I've heard many sopranos sing Schubert's "Ave Maria."  Expressive, but not overly so - there is a sense of serenity.  These tracks are also proof that not every "lyrical" piece needs a ton of vibrato (again, think "Ave Maria").

The last piece, "Dancing With Myself," is a lot of fun.  I can very much relate to the themes in the music, and of course the playing on the track, is just fantastically played and fun to listen to.  Maria T. Corley (piano) is stunning on the whole of the CD, but this trio with Matt and Jason Ham (euphonium) is probably my favorite part of the CD in regards to interaction between players.  It's apparent that the total artistic product and communicating the aesthetic are the top priorities, but everyone is still allowed to be a virtuoso.  Plus, I personally can't resist anything that is even suggestive of dancing.

In the past, I've found myself liking very few of the pieces originally written for tuba.  I've had a hard time relating to most tuba music or finding my "niche" with it.  I personally enjoy all of the pieces on this CD, and I can only hope that Barbara York writes more music for us tubists (and that Matt continues to record it!).

Overall, I'm very excited for Matt in the release of this CD.  I'm enthralled to hear such great tuba music and tuba playing!  

Matt also kindly took the time to answer a few questions I had about the CD.  My questions are in dark red bold, and his answers are in plain type.

How did this project of making a CD of the music of Barbara York come about?
Well, I had a few friends who were encouraging me to record a solo CD (you can't have enough solo tuba CD's, you know), and I am a big fan of Barbara's music. I was first introduced to her music (the Sonata) in the Fall of 2007, and got in touch with her not too long after that. We hit it off, and as I performed more of her compositions, I felt a real connection there. When I started thinking seriously about making the recording, choosing Barbara's music seemed like the natural choice. I love performing it as well as listening to it, and I think others should hear it/play it as well - it's great stuff!

How involved was the composer in the preparation and execution of this recording?

Once I had decided to make this recording a reality, I knew that I wanted to meet Barbara and play for her/get her guidance prior to recording. So, I managed to get all of the stars to align in April 2010 (a month before recording) so that my schedule, as well as Barbara's, Maria's (piano), and Jason's (euphonium) all allowed for us to gather for a lecture/recital here in PA. The day before the recital, Maria and I spent several hours working with Barbara - what an incredible and eye-opening experience! The day of the lecture/recital, we added Jason into the mix and worked with Barbara on the Suite - again, this was invaluable. We then performed all five works from the cd, with Barbara talking about each piece/movement, and finally taking questions from the audience. This, for me, was really one of the most gratifying and educational solo experiences I've had. To be able to connect with a composer, and work with them to really understand their creation; it is my hope to work with other composers in this fashion down the road, and it is something I would encourage other musicians to do as well.

Wars and Rumors of War” and “Shamanic Journey” have programmatic content. What is your approach to preparing a solo piece that is programmatic?

Actually, I believe that almost all of Barbara's music has programmatic content. With the exception of the Arioso Gloria, all of the works on the cd are programmatic. In my opinion, knowing "the story behind the music" can really help us as performers to make wise decisions from a technical/preparatory aspect to move us towards the final goal of making great music.

If it's written well, and the composer is really connected to the work both intellectually and emotionally, the "story" is quite evident, and having this information can really make things clear to us as performers. For example: in the "jazzy" section in third movement of the Concerto, Barbara had a very clear vision of what this music represented. She writes:

"There is a pause in the battle, where our protagonist has the opportunity to look around and see the carnage and the waste around him. This is not the glory that he envisioned, not what he thought it would be like, nor what he was told. It is real, and it creates a sick and empty feeling in the pit of his stomach."

I have to admit that when I first read through this section, I didn't "get it" - I jazzed up as best I could, and the result was quite disconnected from the rest of the movement, as well as the rest of the piece. When we worked with Barbara on this, she reiterated the "sick and empty" mood she was going for, which helped Maria and I make decisions about how much to "swing" this section, how much vibrato to use, what sort of articulations to use - all of these decisions always being made to move us towards the picture/story that Barbara provided for us.

So, to try to answer your question.... I really try my best to make decisions that are always moving me towards making the story/picture clear to the listener - perhaps even more so than when I'm "telling my own story" in non-programmatic works. I hope that makes sense!

You requested Barbara to write “How Beautiful” in memory of your son. I understand that this piece is incredibly personal. Can you describe your role in the composition process after the initial request for the piece?
After our son passed away, we received some gifts of money from friends and family. My wife and I were both unfamiliar with this, but we knew we wanted to do something with the money to remember him. I thought that asking Barbara to write a piece in his memory would be one of the best ways we could do this. Barbara was so very kind in accepting such a difficult commission. We spoke on the phone, and I did my best to open up to her about the experience. I didn't put any "restrictions" on the work, other than saying that I wanted it to be written for tuba and piano in his memory. So, while I may have provided the impetus for the piece, and the story behind it, the music is all Barbara. She chose the title, as well as the bible verse it is derived from. The version I recorded is the first and only draft she sent to me - I thought it was perfect. To me, it represents a stopped moment in time in my life as well as Eli's short life - the time when our paths here in this world crossed, my wife, daughters and I all loved him, and our family was whole. I don't see/hear it as a sad piece; it's about love.

Can you describe the collaboration process with both Jason Ham (euphonium) and Maria T. Corley (piano) on “Dancing With Myself”? Did everyone have different ideas about piece?

Well, first let me say (and I hope this doesn't sound too cliche') that both Maria and Jason are just wonderful to work with, and I'm honored to consider them not only colleagues but friends as well. So, collaborating with them was a joy. As for our ideas about the piece: the Suite represents different things/places from Barbara's life. While the program notes that she wrote on the piece do a fine job of conveying the story behind each movement, having her there, in person, to verbalize this, really unified our own musical vision(s) of the work.

It's not every day that you record a CD – tell us a bit about what goes into making an album and then selling it.
This being my first recording, it was a real learning experience for me! I got a lot of great advice from friends and colleagues, so I think overall it went pretty smoothly. As for what goes into making a disc.... for starters you need great music, a great location to record, great musicians to work with, and the best recording engineer and producer you can find. I had the first three, and found the fourth when I recorded a cd with the Rodney Mack Philadelphia Big Brass three months prior to recording my solo cd. Andy Bove was the recording engineer and producer for the Big Brass recording; he just so happens to be a tuba player, too! I really liked what I heard on the Big Brass takes, and thought he did an excellent job of keeping 12 brass players in line throughout the process. He's the man!
OK - next you need a budget. This one can be a tough one (we're tuba players - we're not wealthy), but my wife and I saved up and were determined to make this a reality.
Scheduling was the toughest part of the whole process - trying to line up the availability of three musicians, the recording engineer/producer, AND the concert hall.... there were literally only two days that were possible, so I used them.
Once we were done recording, I mapped out the tracks, and Andy edited them. This was time consuming, and often tedious. I remember listening to the tracks and thinking that it reminded me of when I go to the eye doctor to be fitted for new glasses; the doctor shows me two ever-so-slightly different prescription lenses, and asks me which is better... they start to all look the same.  After awhile, the takes started to all sound the same...
There was no record label involved, so once we finished editing, and Andy had mastered it, and after obtaining the bar code and the ISRC codes, we sent it off to discmakers. I had them design the artwork/layout as well.
Discmakers has a digital distribution bundle, where they distribute it to just about every online retailer out there. They also offer advice through their email newsletters about marketing, etc.

About Matthew K. Brown

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

#4: The bass trombone, my newest teacher

I'm a woman of my word.

My dear friend Alejandro Guardia (great musician, composer and buddy) is teaching me the basics of the bass trombone. I have therefore kidnapped his bass trombone, only giving it back to him for summer band practice.

It's like the beginning of a good book that you can't put down. I didn't think practicing a Bb scale could be so fun. There's also that feeling of, "Yay, I did it!" when I do something correctly. I'm like a kid with a new video game. I think I've technically beat Level 1, but I'm playing it again to make sure I got all of the bonus levels.

While I am looking at some new music for tuba, I have been focusing this summer mostly on basics and technique. Learning the bass trombone is only reinforcing this. I wish I knew this when I started on tuba: there's no point in learning how to play an instrument incorrectly. I wish I knew what a good tuba sounded like when I started tuba. I wish I knew what in tune notes sounded like when I started on tuba. I wish I knew how to breathe properly and relax, and I wish someone had mentioned tonguing to me before 8th grade. To those of you that teach these things to your middle schoolers, thank you. Most of the time, beginning tuba players are stuck in the back of the band, and as long as they are making some sort of sound on the instrument and they aren't harassing their neighbors, they're ignored. But I could write a book on this subject....

Last August, I was fortunate enough to attend the Mendez Brass Institute in Denver. It was such a memorable experience. The first tuba masterclass was with Warren Deck. I was the last to play for him, and unfortunately there wasn't but a few minutes left of class. However, I'll never forget what he said. He asked me to play a note (either C or F, my memory is fuzzy on that detail!), starting at piano, crescendo for 4 counts to forte, and then decrescendo for 4 counts back to piano. I did this, and I think it was OK. He then said to us (something to the effect of): If you cannot do that on every single note, in tune with a good sound, I would argue that you can't play the tuba.

It was then that I realized how much I had been neglecting those things. Had I ever just sat down and done long tones like that in every range of the tuba? If so, when was the last time I did it?

Sadly, I don't think this advice sunk in until later. Shostakovich 11 with TSO, all those long, low F#'s... I was horribly out of tune on those. I had always made the excuse that "that's just a sharp note on this horn." I then (figuratively) slapped myself in the face and said, "Really?! You're just going to leave it like that?" How many years had I been making these excuses? (though to be fair, C#3 on my F is ridiculously flat, it seems very random)

Here's a surprise: actually focusing on long tones instead of just glazing over them has helped my intonation. Brilliant! I like to switch between using the visual tuner and drones. Playing scales, playing at different dynamics, different note lengths. It's the most basic thing, but if I can't do this, can I really play my horn?

On a side note, long tones are a great opportunity to observe your body and breathing. Where are your shoulders, head, jaw, arms, etc? In between pitches really focus on taking a full relaxed breath.

I'm excited to be learning a new instrument knowing all of this. I'm hoping I don't practice too many habits I'll have to reverse. I feel like my entire undergraduate career was spent trying to replace old habits from middle school and high school. I also hope I can learn to get from 1st to 6th position without sounding like a mess! Ha ha.

Since Sir Guardia will be conducting Semper Fidelis in summer band, we will be without a bass trombonist for that tune. Learning the part after only playing the bass t-bone for a little over a week would be challenging, but it's very tempting. I took the part either way. :)

I will now leave you with this: Lament by Alejandro Guardia (performed by me at USF, on his recital earlier this year).

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

#3: Random thought that I had to jot down

The tuba is like the Snuggie of the orchestra. Yes, it looks kind of ridiculous, but it also makes you feel instantly warmer.

That is all.

Friday, May 27, 2011

#2: The cimbasso is great, and so is the internet.

I was reading an interview with Jim Self from the blog SousaCentral (please check it out, it's under the blogs I follow).  He mentioned that there was some interesting scoring for The Green Lantern - 2 tubas, who both doubled on cimbasso.  I have only met a couple of people that play cimbasso, and I've discovered that loads of musicians (non-tubists, of course) have never heard of the cimbasso.

I wanted to share this video of Alessandro Fossi playing opera excerpts on cimbasso:

And this article by Roger Bobo:

Reading the interview with Mr. Self made me want to brush up on my knowledge of the instrument, and it also got me thinking. Would it be worth it to double on this instrument?  I absolutely adore opera, that would be a good reason.  I've also noticed that many orchestras overseas require that you double on cimbasso... maybe they've got a point?  And Mr. Self mentions that both players on The Green Lantern were required to double cimbasso, and Mr. Bobo thinks it will eventually be "part of the tubist's required tool kit."

Of course, my dream life would be to have a house filled with instruments - tubas, trombones, bass trombones, euphoniums, cimbassi, ophicleides, etc.  And, in my dream life, I'd also be able to play all of these instruments.

Before I continue, I should make a confession: I do not know how to play anything other than the tuba.

*Phew* That wasn't that bad!

I've been pondering learning to double on another instrument for a long time.  Bass trombone seems very practical, plus I love that instrument.  Euphonium seems like an "easy" transition, but would it be as practical?  Teaching-wise, definitely, but gigging-wise, most likely not. (Note: When I say "practical," I mean for the time being, given a budget of time and money for this relatively short-term goal.  Perhaps I should make a "doubling timeline" for myself! You know, map out when I should learn a particular instrument so I can plan time and money-wise? Anyways.).

It seems overwhelming to learn to double another instrument.  However, I have to wonder - would learning to double one of these instruments strengthen my tuba playing?

Obviously, learning to double would take away physical time from your primary instrument, and that's hard to do when you're in school and you have x, y and z to prepare for.  But I'm out of school, and while I'm limited on practice time, I'm not limited on what I'm required to practice (though I notice time flies when I'm working on my technique, most of the time rather slowly, out of Arban's - something I never had time to do in school).  The only downside to being out of school is that you're almost forced to buy an instrument to learn it (as opposed to borrowing is from school), and you have less opportunities to try it out in an ensemble (I'd love to walk in to TSO with a cimbasso and say, "I just thought I'd give a go here, see how it sounds in the orchestra.")

Outside of time management issues, I'd like to think that learning to double would only strengthen my tuba playing, as long as I'm practicing good habits, breathing and musicality.  Certainly, it would force me to slow things down and learn every note correctly and it would force me to focus on making everything as beautiful as possible.  That's always a good habit to reinforce.

One day, I will play bass trombone and cimbasso.  It won't be tomorrow, but it will happen.  I think learning bass trombone may be more accessible right now.  And imagine if I got any good at it, I could maybe play some jazz, and then somehow sneak my tuba in there...

For those of you that have doubled, what issues have you found?  What's been helpful?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

#1: Welcome to my blog!

Hello everyone!  This is my new blog.  I hope to be posting about all of my tuba-related adventures here, both playing and teaching.  I'm using this as not only a way to communicate with others - I'm also using it as a way to keep myself accountable.  I think writing things down makes you want to be accountable in some strange way... perhaps it's because we make things official in writing, especially with our signatures.

Anyways - so, who in the world am I?  I'm a musician constantly seeking wisdom, inspiration, and new ideas.

Things I believe:

-When the tuba enters in any piece of music, the world seems like a better place.
-Be grateful for the ability to practice and for what you are able to do at this point in time.  You cannot regret what you have not yet done; you can only move forward.
-Perseverance and hard work can get you through just about anything...
-...but don't be afraid to ask for help.
-Related to the last point, work with other musicians (and composers!) regularly.  Don't always lock up in a practice room by yourself.
-Don't be afraid to be relevant or raw in your music-making.
-Have "muses," or musicians that you look to for inspiration, and don't limit it to just other "classical" musicians.
-Do not have excuses, have reasons why.
-Have a life outside of music - music is about life, after all!
-Practice your Arban's Method (advice to myself more than anyone else).

I know that none of this is new or original thought, but I find that reminding myself of these things regularly is helpful.

I plan to post another entry, hopefully with new video/audio, soon.  It may involve Bach or perhaps some new music for tuba... we'll see what happens!

In the meantime, here is a little clip of me, in case you'd like more "info":

Thanks for reading and come back soon!