Are Big Band Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?

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Playing trombone is NOT like punching people!

I remember reading this essay by Doug Yeo years ago, Me, Myself and I: Are Orchestral Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?. Back in 1997 Yeo expressed his concerns that trends in orchestral brass playing had not necessarily been for the best.

Go into the parking lot of any brass conference, convention or workshop, and you’re bound to find more than a few cars with the bumper sticker that reads, “Question authority.” Some would argue that this mindset is the province of trumpet players alone but that surely is not the case. Over the past twenty years, American orchestral playing has been undergoing a significant change, as brass players have (with some notable exceptions) asserted themselves beyond their traditional role in the orchestra.

Most students go through their “loud” phase, of getting together with other players and just knocking the living daylights out of orchestral excerpts. This can be great fun to do, good for the face and boosting to the ego. But excerpt sessions don’t always relate to the real world, and as many brass players have developed a more “muscular” concept of playing, the American orchestra has, in my mind, begun to suffer.

Yeo’s essay is specific to orchestral brass playing, but much of it seems to relate to big band brass playing as well, at least among the big bands I get to hear and play in. The details are different, as are some of the influences, but a lot is similar.

The job of balancing an orchestra lies with the conductor alone. But there is no denying that a 15 member brass section can ruin any orchestral concert (despite what the conductor wants) very easily as the combined volume of the strings and winds can never compete with that of even a single trombonist. Arnold Jacobs once told me that in his view, the bass trombone was the instrument of the orchestra that had by far the greatest “high volume potential” owing in part to the fact that after the flute, the bass trombone utilized the highest flow rate of any wind instrument, including the tuba.

John Berry, in his excellent jazz pedagogy text The Jazz Ensemble Director’s Handbook, wrote about the “Monster Bass Trombonist.” He’s describing a common trend in student musicians, not professionals, but occasionally I run into this player in the professional world (not recently, and not anyone I work with regularly now!).

About once a decade the music world renders up a bona fide (pardon the pun) “Monster Bass Trombonist” – you know, the guy who can play louder than any human on earth…

…A good MBT (or even a bad one who thinks he’s good) can “cop an attitude.” He becomes a star. He basks in compliments. He becomes a junkie for oohs and ahas. He craves ever more. He plays LOOUUDD!!! . . . All the time!

Well, it’s not just bass trombonists. You find them in the whole brass section.

In his essay, Yeo brings up equipment trends in orchestral brass playing.

Part of the problem is simple ignorance; the idea that Bruckner symphonies are to be played at maximum volume would horrify Bruckner, the reserved, insecure, Catholic composer of music for and about the church and the inexpressible “beyond.” Let us not forget that his symphonies also require us to play as soft as possible. Unfortunately, many players look at passages marked fff and simply blow until the seams pop. Unsatisfied with the way their instruments respond to this treatment, they continually hunt for something that will allow them to play even louder with a reasonably good sound. Hence, we now have tenor players in many major orchestras using bass trombone slides and 3 or 4G mouthpieces, and bass trombonists without leadpipes, playing mouthpieces that resemble tuba mouthpieces, and gigantic dual bore slides. All of these changes do indeed allow players to play louder.

This mirrors equipment choices of big band brass players, although the influences are different. Many big bands pride themselves on the “faster, louder, higher” school. Certainly big bands like Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson have greatly influenced big band style and the demands of those styles strongly influence big band brass players to make certain equipment choices that favor louder and higher.

About 15 years ago I went to a clinic the great big band composer/arranger Bob Florence was giving. One thing that really stuck with me is that he said, if the details I remember are correct, that he never uses mp dynamics any longer because bands never play soft enough. If he wants mp, he writes p. For p he writes pp.

I’ve been playing and directing the Asheville Jazz Orchestra for a while now. We’ve played a lot of gigs together, but some of the ones that stand out in my mind as being particularly good were those times we played without a sound system. Everyone listened closely, especially during solos, and dynamics were played consistently correctly. Knowing that there wasn’t a sound technician “fixing the mix” for us forced everyone to become team players. It was just a mental switch, but it made a huge difference in the overall quality of our music.

What about your experience? Are the big bands you play with a “blast fest” all the time? What gigs have you played were the musical quality was excellent specifically because everyone was a great team player?

Weekend Picks

I just began working on a new project that is taking up much of my free time just now. It’s not ready for a public announcement, but it will be of particular interest to student jazz composers and involve the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. Details on the AJO web site and here when it’s ready to go live.

AJO at Woody's and Becky's PartySpeaking of the AJO, we played a private event for one of our trumpet players, Woody, and his wife, Becky. Their sons threw them a 40th anniversary party. Since it wasn’t a formal performance for us and there were a lot of musicians in the crowd to sit in, I got to go out front and listen for a change. I even moved around and took a bunch of photos. Too bad I didn’t think to bring a better camera.

At any rate, here are some music related links for you to surf this weekend. There’s a bit of a theme this weekend. Everything here is something I take with a grain of salt.

Well it’s about time. Science declares Universal Property of Music Discovered.

Researchers have discovered a universal property of scales. Until now it was assumed that the only thing scales throughout the world have in common is the octave. The many hundreds of scales, however, seem to possess a deeper commonality: if their tones are compared in a two- or three-dimensional way by means of a coordinate system, they form convex or star-convex structures. Convex structures are patterns without indentations or holes, such as a circle, square or oval.

Do you buy it? Assuming the math is sound, it’s probably just an interesting quirk. At least that’s my guess.

There’s definitely some good advice and food for thought, but the headline is just click bait, The End of the Symphony and How Today’s Music Students Should Adapt. I’ve been hearing about the end of symphony orchestras for decades and they’re still around.

Speaking of the end, here is Frank Zappa explaining the decline of the music business. An interesting perspective from someone who experienced a changing music industry, but the business has changed quite a bit more since Zappa recorded this.

And finally, here is “Hans Groiner” discussing the music of Thelonious Monk. The comments on YouTube are hilarious.

Upcoming Gigs and Weekend Picks

I’ve got a couple of upcoming public gigs coming up in the next three days. Tomorrow, (July 19, 2014) I’m playing traditional jazz with the Low-Down Sires at a lindy hop dance called The Process in Richmond, VA. I’m afraid I don’t know more of the details about the dance, but if you’re a swing dancer in the area or just a fan of trad jazz you can probably get in touch with someone through that Facebook link above. Next Monday, (July 21, 2014) I’ll be sitting in again with the Greenville Jazz Collective Big Band. We’re playing at Grille 33 in Greenville, SC. If you get to come out to either, please be sure to say hello to me.

If you’re too far away to come hear me play, here are some of my music related links for your weekend surfing.

Nikolaj Lund is a photographer who takes photos of classical musicians and puts them into a unique perspective. Take a look at some of them on his web site.

Hal Crook is a fantastic trombonist, composer, and the author of some of my favorite books on jazz improvisation. The Berkley College of Music, where Crook is on the faculty, has posted a downloadable library of play-a-long tracks Crook put together for improvisation practice.

An old manifesto from 1992, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz urges musical organizations that It’s Time to Bury the Dead. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite.

Is there anything new on the menu of the Vermont Mozart Festival or the Killington Music Festival? Does either the professional or amateur musical community of our state and beyond show any commitment at all to the music of their own age? Indeed, does the listening public have any clue what a wealth of music is consciously and maliciously being denied them? No, no, no and no. Of course not! Pleasant advisory committees, cheerful compromises, and polite accommodations are doomed because such efforts attempt to deal with a special, entrenched group of diseased minds called necrosones, those who make their living by exhuming, stuffing and mounting the music of dead composers –composers who demand neither royalties nor attention to the artistic thought behind what they once did. Necrosones will never change because they cannot, because they are not artists nor are they sympathetic to art. They are vampires.

To finish things off today, here’s Oleg Berg’s treatment of the classic Beatles recording Hey Jude, but tweaked to put it into a minor key. One of the things I love about great music is that it is often still strong when it gets twisted around like this.

Milt Steven’s Beefs and Pet Peeves for Trombonists

Milt Stevens (1942-2007) was the principle trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra for 29 years before his death in 2007. He maintained a busy performing schedule and also taught at Catholic University. A while back I was poking around to learn a bit more about him and found some notes from one of his clinics called Beefs and Pet Peeves. A lot of these are my own personal pet peeves as well and some I think are a little particular to Stevens’s own situation. Here’s a few of them that I had some additional thoughts  or comments to make.

2. Not knowing tempos, styles, interpretations!
Listen!: Get lots of recordings.
Listen!: Keep radio tuned to classical stations.
Listen!: Attend live concerts.

I’ll add to this that I feel you should listen to all styles of music, not just classical (or jazz, if you perform jazz). Focus on what you want to perform most, but don’t neglect other styles. One of the reasons I feel successful as a musician is because I can step into many different musical situations and playing convincingly and stylistically. I perform with orchestras, big bands, traditional jazz combos, salsa bands, R&B bands, rock horn sections, brass chamber ensembles, solo recitals, and conduct a concert band and brass band. If all I listened to was jazz or classical music I’d not be as flexible, nor would I have been prepared to join these groups.

4. Pointing bell into the music stand!
Don’t wander with the bell as you play (unless you are David Taylor). Play off the left side of your stand, and when you read from the right hand page of music, don’t angle the bell into the stand.

I deal with this all the time with band students (and also frequently the adult players I conduct and sometimes even with professional brass players I perform with). The trouble is that when you play into the music stand you hear yourself quite clearly, but your sound isn’t projected forward to the audience and the rest of the group. Get used to directing your bell forward!

5. Pointing bell too low (toward the floor) or too high (at the head of the conductor)!
Ideally, the entire trombone section would agree on a mutually acceptable angle to hold the trombones. Use the “bells up” angle only for special effect.

On this one I’ll differ slightly with Stevens. Everyone has at least a slightly different horn angle and not every section will agree on a “mutually acceptable angle.”

I find it curious that Stevens would be such a stickler for this. One of my teachers, Doug Elliott, included Stevens in his film, The Brass Player’s Embouchure, and showed Stevens’s fairly low horn angle. If I recall correctly, Stevens had one of the most rare embouchure types. Doug’s teacher, Donald Reinhardt, called this embouchure type the Type III or “jellyroll” embouchure type because it is characterized by a rather pronounced lower lip roll and lowered horn angle. Even more unusual for Stevens’s embouchure, he used the reverse embouchure motion that most “jellyroll” embouchure players use, he pushed up to ascend and pulled down to descend. For a brief discussion of how Reinhardt’s embouchure types correlate to the embouchure classifications I prefer to use click here.

7. Allowing sound to puny, weak!
Get a weighty sound with resonance. Pretend that you can feel your resonant tone coming back into your body through your feet. Start with better quality inhales. Inhale thinking “OH”; exhale thinking “HO”.

Much like teaching articulations through using syllables, teaching breathing using these mouth shapes can be problematic if you’re not careful. Personally, I prefer to practice (and teach) keeping the lips just touching in the center (inside the mouthpiece) when breathing and breath through the mouth corners. When you open your mouth to inhale you end up having to hit a moving target when you make that initial attack right afterwards. Also, crashing the mouthpiece up against your lips every time after you breathe doesn’t seem to help your endurance in the long term.

10. Having tone production and embouchure problems due to using a dry lip embouchure!
Most brass players play with moisture on lips, even where the rim touches the lips. Mention survey of NSO brass.

I haven’t seen the NSO brass survey, but it doesn’t surprise me that most of the players played with a wet embouchure. There are some players who prefer a dry embouchure and just can’t fully adopt a wet embouchure, though. When I first made an embouchure change to the “low placement” embouchure type I was unable to keep my mouthpiece placement consistently on the same spot with a wet embouchure and I played dry. Gradually I switched to playing wet on the bottom lip and dry on the top lip to keep the rim from slipping off my top lip while playing. Eventually I was able to fully make the switch to a wet embouchure on both lips, which is my preferred way to play today. That said, every once in a while I’ll practice dry to work on some things.

In general, I’d recommend that any brass player who can play with a wet embouchure should try to adopt this. There are some advantages to this over dry for all around brass playing. Not everyone can play wet, however, and these players shouldn’t overly concern themselves about playing this way.

12. Trying to have a big sound by opening lips too far!
Your tone will be “woofy”, if your aperture is too wide for your air stream. Instead, open breathing apparatus, throat, and inside of mouth.

Players belonging to the “medium high placement” embouchure type are more prone to this problem than the other basic types, but all players should avoid this.

I also like this advice from Stevens because he discusses a good strategy for getting a focused and resonant tone – work on breathing and tongue position. Too often I come across advice from well-intentioned brass teachers who are all about breathing and keeping an open throat, etc., but when the encounter player with an unusual mouthpiece placement (e.g., the “low placement” type player) with a thin sound, they forget all about this important advice and immediately try to correct the mouthpiece placement first. Eliminate the other elements before you change embouchures.

14. Not letting lower jaw protrude enough to align lips!
When descending into lower register, allow a pivot. When ascending into extreme high register, try a reverse pivot!

Much like the horn angle above, this is personal to the player. Again, I’m surprised that Stevens would make this one of his personal beefs, because if I recall from Doug’s film, Stevens had a receded jaw position and lowered horn angle.

15. Having to shift mouthpiece up and down to change registers!
Learn to traverse registers without excessive shifting.

It’s best to keep your mouthpiece placement consistent, regardless of the register you’re playing. There will always be some pushing and pulling of the mouthpiece and lips together in an upward and downward direction, but keep it from being too excessive.

23. Having a non-existent or improper vibrato!
Discuss proper speed and amplitude. Discuss lip/jaw and slide vibrato. Mention diaphragm vibrato as not commonly done on brass instruments, except French horn.

I found Stevens’s comment of horn vibrato interesting. Most horn players I know don’t use vibrato, even for solo playing. John Ericson, from Horn Matters, has a nice article on horn vibrato here.

24. Not relying on basic tools to help you learn!
Metronome. 1/2-speed tape recorder. Mirror. Video camera. Tuner.

These days you don’t really need a 1/2 speed tape recorder, you can do the same thing with computer software. I remember lessons with Ed Kocher where we would record ourselves playing Rochut etudes phrase by phrase and then listen back to them at 1/2 speed. All the little cracked notes, out of tune pitches, and out of tempo rhythms were brought out even more by this. It was a real positive kick in the pants.

28. Exhibiting poor stage presence
Emptying water too obviously. Drinking water too obviously and too often. Not acknowledging audience/accompanists. Not bowing and taking curtain calls correctly.

This side of performing is something that is too often not taught, for some reason, yet it has a very important effect on the quality of the performance and how the audience perceives the sound. This topic deserves a post of it’s own at a later date.

29. Having no vocal training!
Sing in choruses and choirs. Be able to hear intervals before they happen. Have a singing quality to your sound.

One of the best things I’ve done for my trombone performing is to take a few vocal lessons and to perform regularly in choirs. Not to mention that it now allows me to sing backup in some of the groups I perform in once in a while as needed.

30. Not being a complete musician!
Listen to many and various recitals. Improvise. Be able to play by ear. Play in public often. Know how to effect a phrase and “turn a nuance”. Performing musically, with understanding, style, and emotion, is the primary goal of this art form.

See my comments on #2 above.

There’s plenty more beefs and pet peeves at Stevens’s web site. Go check it out here.

Got any of your own beefs or pet peeves you need to get off your chest? Leave your thoughts about them in the comments section here.

Guess the Embouchure Types: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Quintet

Tip of the horn to John B. for spotting this video of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Quintet.  Back in high school I took a semester of Japanese and recognize the characters in the video as the kana.  I gave up after a short while trying to work out which of the orchestra’s brass players are performing here, so if anyone knows and can supply us the names of the individual performers, please leave a comment. (Update – Dan F. worked out the trombonist, it’s Jorgen Van Rijen.  Thanks, Dan!)

You can get a pretty close look at all five of their chops in this video, but it’s tough to spot all of their embouchure motions because most of the time there isn’t enough of a range change at that moment in the music to see one (this is why in my videos I demonstrate this with octave slurs, it’s a large enough interval to clearly see them).  Still, we can make an educated guess based on mouthpiece placement and there are a couple of points in the video where you can spot a player’s embouchure motion.  Take a look and make your best guess of their embouchure types.  My speculations after the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Types: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Quintet

Help Save the Lafayette Elementary School String Program

A friend of mine teaches strings at a Chicago inner city school and they are in danger of having their program cut due to lack of funding.  A mutual friend of ours sent me the following email and asked for help spreading the word.

Dear Friends:

I am writing you today to ask that you join me in supporting a music program that is very dear to my heart. One of my lifelong friends, Art Weible,  developed an inner-city orchestra that is due to lose it funding in September unless private donations can be secured to keep the program running for the next school year. I would like to tell you about Art, his program, and my hope that you can contribute in some manner to this very worthy cause.

Art Weible and I are lifelong friends going all the way back to first grade. In many ways our lives are parallel:  We grew up in Oak Park, attended the same college, married our college sweethearts, and we both have very satisfying careers with the Chicago Public Schools. Art pours his heart into his life’s work and his passion is music.

Art teaches at Lafayette Elementary School in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. He is teaching in a very challenging part of town. Early in Art’s career he won a grant that let him build a student orchestra from the ground up. The grant funded instruments for the kids, rehearsal time after school, teacher stipends, and transportation costs for their performances. Art runs his orchestra until 6:00 almost every day, thus giving his students safe after-school activities. Art’s students have played all over Chicago including Orchestra Hall, the Union League Club, and the elementary school where I teach junior high social studies. They are an amazing group.

The financial challenge the Lafayette Orchestra faces and their fundraising efforts have made the local Chicago news (Windy City Live) and national news (AP and CBS Evening News).

I am asking for you to help in three specific ways.

  1. Click on the links below to learn more about the Lafayette Orchestra.
  2. Make a donation to help keep the program running.
  3. Please forward this e-mail to as many people as you can to help get the word out.

I hope my e-mail motivates you to help out and I welcome your follow-up comments or e-mails. I am sending this e-mail to about everyone in my contact list. I hope we can make a difference.

With many thanks…tk

The links: 

Reasons to Give Story/Donation Site:
http://reasontogive.org/reasons/lafayette-elementary-needs-help-to-save-their-music-program

The AP story:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110606/ap_on_re_us/us_saving_the_music

Windy City  Live:
http://windycitylive.com/Help-Save-the-Lafayette-Elementary-Schools-String-Ensemble/8177669

If you can, please donate to Lafayette Elementary School’s string program or to a similar program near you.  In this economic climate music programs are being cut all over the country and many of them are in dire need of financial assistance.

Old Masters and Young Geniuses Concert

Tomorrow night (Saturday, March 19, 2011) I will be performing on a fun concert with the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra. The “young geniuses” on the concert are the Hendersonville Symphony Youth Orchestra.

One of the pieces on the program is William Schumann’s Konzerstuck for Four Horns, OP. 86, featuring Anneke Zuehlke, Christina Cornell, Paula Riddle, and Mark Frederick as the horn soloists.  They came in for the first time to rehearsal last night and they sure sounded great.  If you’re near Hendersonville, NC tomorrow night and love great brass music, don’t miss hearing them play.

If you’re not nearby, here’s a performance of the first movement I found on YouTube so you can get a taste of what you’ll miss.

Behavioral Violation for Symphony Orchestras

Orchestra season has started up again.  This Sunday I’ll be performing with the Brevard Philharmonic, with violinist Rachel Barton Pine performing a piece I wasn’t familiar with before, Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 by Max Bruch.  We’ll also be performing Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5.

In the spirit of the season, here is something everyone who performs with orchestras can take to your next rehearsal and hand out with abandon.  I should probably not be spreading this around, as I see that I am most recently in violation of the following: Continue reading Behavioral Violation for Symphony Orchestras

Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?

Terry Teachout, of the Wall Street Journal Online doesn’t seem to think so.  He asks:

What, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional symphony orchestra in the 21st century? Many people still believe that an orchestra is a self-evidently essential part of what makes a city civilized. But is this true?

He goes on to compare regional orchestras to regional museums and theater companies.  These are probably good comparisons to make, since it’s probably the same group of people who are attracted to these artistic activities.  But what point is Teachout driving at with this comparison?   Continue reading Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?