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?

Communicating With Sound Technician

I just got the following email with questions about how to communicate with your sound technician.

Hi

I have played in big bands many times where the sound men didn’t really help all that much. Frustrating.
You sound like you know what you’re talking about!!
Right now – I am directing a Praise Band in Xxxx Xxxxx, XX. I don’t know who to contact about some questions I have to help me communicate with the sound man there. Are you interested or able to help me?

Some questions I would like to address – –
-How to communicate with the sound man while on stage in front of church. Reason it is so important during the performance is because the sound man doesn’t have any ears. :/ Need to tell him when to turn up mics (for solos and duets and when the inexperienced guitar player’s part is actually being play correctly so it should be turned up, etc. etc.He seems to have a mind of his own when it comes to vocals being above band volume.)
Uff. Seems so hopeless. He can speak to me on the mic he has connected at the board. However, he never knows when I NEED HIS ATTN. (I can’t really use my hands to signal him on stage during the service)
I tried a 2-way radio but he didn’t want to wear ear buds all the time (as I can understand).

Thanks, Diane

Diane, it can be very frustrating working with sound technicians who can’t or aren’t willing to help you out. Unfortunately, many sound technicians have the idea that they know better than the music director how the band should sound and want to do their own thing, regardless of what you ask them to set up for you. Since I don’t know your particular sound man personally and the performance situation, I can’t give you specific advice, but here are some general things you can try or think about.

Treat the Sound Technician As An Integral Part Of Your Ensemble

This is just interpersonal skills 101, but I feel it’s important that your sound tech feels that you take him/her seriously and trust their judgement. That can be a double edged sword if they don’t have the same vision for the sound as you do, but start from that point and go from there. I try to remember to thank our sound tech during the performance the same way I introduce members of the ensemble on stage. The trouble is, the better the sound tech is at doing his or her job, the more “out of mind” they are. Sometimes I mention to a sound tech before the show that if I forget to thank them on stage that it means I was extremely happy with their work.

So basically, remember that you will catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Spend Some Time in the House Listening To the Ensemble With the Sound Tech

Whenever possible (hard to do if you’re also performing as well as directing), spend some time out in the house at sound check and listen to how it sounds. See if you can get the sound tech to mix the sound as close to how you want it to be so he or she gets an aural picture of your needs.

Since I most perform with jazz groups when I use a sound system, I have to trust that the sound tech understands what jazz is supposed to sound like. Too often they come from a background of mixing sound for rock groups and then have a skewed understanding of how things should be miced. With my big band, for example, I want the sound tech to mix the band in such a way that we’re approximating the sound of an all-acoustic jazz ensemble. A sound tech with experience mixing rock bands will often want to over-mic the rhythm section and we end up with an unbalanced sound. With a sound tech I’ve not worked with before I will step out into the house to listen to the mix during our sound check to ensure that it sounds right.

Find a piece or tune that involves everyone in the group but is also simple enough that they can run through without you up on stage. During sound check run out to the sound board and help your tech mix it the way you want. Since it’s hard for you to communicate during the service, try to take care of as much as possible ahead of time.

Communication While On Stage

This is frustrating, and I don’t have a good answer. Maybe some visitors reading this can offer suggestions. The best sound techs are focused during the entire show and keep coming back to watching the music director. When they do, you can unobtrusively point at the vocals and then point down to indicate to turn them down, etc. If you work with the same tech regularly you can both come up with some specific hand signals to help make your on-stage needs clear. But if your sound technician is not paying attention, that’s not going to help.

The best solution, if you can find a tactful way of doing so, is to make your sound man understand that it’s important for the music that he keep his attention on you and make your adjustments as needed. Another option is to get him a “liaison” between you and him to assist him during the service. That assistant can be someone charged with keeping an eye on you and passing along your needs, freeing him up to focus on other things.

Thoughts For Further Discussion

What advice do you have for Diane? What are your strategies for working with sound technicians? What’s the worst performance from the sound tech that you’ve ever dealt with? What are the best experiences you’ve had with a sound technician and why was it so good? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Weekend Picks

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post some weekend picks for you. Here are some random music-related sites for you to browse this weekend.

Do you like brass band music? Do you like drinking? If you like both, you probably would love Serbias Guča Trumpet Festival. The Dragačevo Sabor Trubaca brings in more than half a million people to a small village in Serbia for a wild weekend of brass bands and drinking.

It is believed this Balkan brass tradition emerged in the early 20th century, around the time Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League to battle the Ottoman Empire in 1912. “During the Balkan Wars, and then during World War I, military bands came through the area, playing mostly brass instruments,” Smith says. “These instruments were adopted by the Balkans, who created brass versions of pre-existing folk songs. In Serbia in particular, they embraced brass music to the extent that they consider it their national style of music.”

You can read more about it in A Frenzy of Trumpets: Why Brass Musicians Can’t Resist Serbia’s Wildest Festival.

If you are studying aural skills or teaching ear training it’s nice to have a repertory of familiar songs to help you recognize intervals.

Although some may have changed since this article was posted in 2013, it gives you some practical advice for dealing with flying with your musical instrument. As always, check ahead when traveling with your instrument.

Lastly, remember to Be Like Bill. See more of Bill here.

Be Like Bill

Getting Paid To Play (or write)

In the past I’ve been very open to allowing folks to repost or translate my blog articles on their own sites or newsletters, as long as they include a link back to the original site. I figured that my main purpose is to get quality information out to people and allowing this is a good way to increase my internet footprint. After reading through a post by Will Wheaton concerning a very similar topic, I’m beginning to rethink my policy a bit. Wheaton was asked by a prominent blog if they could reprint one of his articles.

Huffington Post has a lot of views, and reaches a pretty big audience, and that post is something I’d love to share with more people, so I told the editor that I was intrigued, and asked what they pay contributors.

Well, it turns out that, “Unfortunately, we’re unable to financially compensate our bloggers at this time. Most bloggers find value in the unique platform and reach our site provides, but we completely understand if that makes blogging with us impossible.”

This is not too far off from the restaurant that wants a band to come in and play for their customers for “exposure.” I tend to avoid these gigs myself and typically encourage student musicians to avoid those as well. When too many musicians start accepting these deals then too many venues begin to expect that paying professional musicians is optional. I’m sure restaurants pay their chefs, shouldn’t musicians get the same deal?

The difficulty here is that I am already giving away my writing for free, so why not go a little further just to reach a bigger audience. It’s a tough call and it seems that, at least at this time, it’s one I will have to make on a case by case basis. Those folks who have asked me for permission and linked back to me have so far been mutually beneficial, since it has increased traffic to my site and allowed me to reach a bigger audience. At some point, however, I may have to start saying no and insist on some sort of renumeration.

Rehearsal Etiquette

Here’s another list of rehearsal etiquette, mainly geared towards the orchestral string player, but as always, much of what is in there applies to all musicians and in any rehearsal situation. Some of my favorites:

Arrive early—at least 15 minutes early, or with enough time to both get your instrument out and warm up. There is nothing more awkward than shuffling through a crowd of seated musicians in the middle of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn. If you are late (it happens), try to avoid taking your seat while the musicians are playing; if you can, wait for an appropriate break in the action to slip in.

And I would like to add that you absolutely must be there early for the gig. As a band leader, I am frequently frustrated when I ask musicians to be ready for a sound check at a particular time and folks are still arriving and getting their stuff in order when it’s time to start. Often the sound check is the only chance one of my groups will get to “rehearse” a chart before the gig (we sight read on the show a lot). I don’t want the audience to hear the “sausage being made” because we’re still trying to get the mic levels set and practice that tricky passage before the show.

Bring a pencil. This one gets its own paragraph. Attending rehearsal without a pencil is like sitting through a university lecture without a taking notes. Even if you think you’ll be able to remember every direction the conductor gives, every dynamic change, every cut, and every ritardando, really, you probably won’t. Keep a couple pencils in your instrument case so they’re always on hand.

And use it. Often times I hear musicians, particularly student musicians, tell me they already know what I asked them to mark. Or sometimes they tell me they are confident they will remember. That may be true, but we all have mental lapses and it’s best to be safe than sorry. And if that doesn’t convince you to properly mark you music, consider that sometimes players have issues that require a sub to play a rehearsal or performance for them. If your music isn’t clearly and cleanly marked your sub will not have a chance. Be prepared.

Leave your arrogance at home. Members of the orchestra are all equal; everyone is contributing. Don’t gloat if you have a solo, and don’t bust out personal solo concertos and performances pieces just to show off. Everyone will be more annoyed than impressed. Also, don’t practice another orchestra member’s solo to demonstrate that you can play it better.

This goes to jazz rehearsals too. I don’t feel it’s cool to jam on someone else’s changes between charts and show off how hip you are. It’s also rude to hog solos. By all means, if you’re not blowing many solos on the gig and want a chance speak up at the rehearsal and ask for one if something gets opened up. Sometimes the band leader will be receptive if you jump up and blow a chorus when it’s not specifically asked for in the chart or fill in behind the vocalist, etc., but remember that other folks like to solo too and if you’re already blowing a lot on a gig or rehearsal that those times are better for giving other folks a taste.

Check out more common sense, but often overlooked, advice for how to behave in orchestra rehearsals here.

Weekend Picks

Here are some random music-related links for you to check out this weekend.

A lengthy and interesting master class by jazz pianist Kenny Werner on improvisation, from 2005. Early on, he says:

You have to learn to play what is within your control.

Check out the context and more here.

Geared mainly for orchestral string players, there are some good nuggets of advice for any musician who rehearses and performs in 39 Orchestral Etiquette Tips Every Musician Ought To Know.

Here’s a nice resource for music theory students about a variety of topics, including Backcycling, Chord Basics, Scales, and Transposing.

Lastly, if you’re like me and both a Weird Al Yankovich and a Frank Zappa fan you’ll enjoy Yankovic’s tribute to Zappa, Genius In France. Unlike a lot of Yankovic’s popular music, this isn’t a direct parody of a Zappa tune, but rather written in the style of Zappa.

Weekend Picks

Happy Friday. I hope that some of you might come catch me at one of my gigs tonight or Sunday. If you prefer to spend your weekend home surfing the net, here are some random music-related links from around the web.

I feel all music teachers should practice the craft of teaching, as well as the craft of making music. Dr. Brad Hanson discusses some Strategies for Teaching Aural Recognition.

The way we conceptualize knowledge in the general sense informs our understanding of musical knowledge and how it comes into play during listening and performance. If musical knowledge goes beyond the ability to recite facts and extends into the ability to operate on musical information through performance, the charge to music educators is to teach students to think critically in addition to developing basic musical skills. It is possible to structure learning experiences in lessons and rehearsals through which students identify problems, critically evaluate them, and work together to solve them. If ensemble players are expected to blindly follow the conductor, there is no room for decision-making or independent thought. In skill-based music curricula students memorize information, but are not challenged to use that information to solve or pose problems. Any curriculum that focuses on performance without the integration of history and theory, or without providing opportunities for students to pose or to solve problems is limited in its effectiveness.

Using electronic musician Scott Hansen (AKA Tycho) as an example, David Holmes writes up on How To Make It In the New Music Industry. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the genre of music Hansen mainly covers in his article, I think there’s some good food for thought for musicians of every kind in there.

…Hansen regularly plays to sold out crowds around the world and sells or streams enough of his music to make a decent living. This runs counter to the narrative that unless you’re one of the hallowed few who write disposable pop hits that play well to Middle American Clear Channel listeners, music is no way to pay the bills. His career arc is not the story of a man who profited by sacrificing his art to the trends of the day. It’s the story of how an artist, with enough time, pressure, patience, and business acumen, can build a sustainable career while staying true to a vision. It’s still almost impossibly difficult to accomplish and requires a massive amount of serendipity. Then again, you could say the same thing about building a successful startup.

In Bb is an interesting idea reminiscent of John Cage’s music.

In Bb 2.0 is a collaborative music and spoken word project conceived by Darren Solomon and developed with contributions from users.

And lastly, trombonist David Finlayson gives us a slide’s eye view of a Rochut Melodious Etude.

Weekend Gig and Weekend Picks

If you’re in western North Carolina this weekend, come on out to hear the Asheville Jazz Orchestra perform at the White Horse Black Mountain on Saturday, September 20, 2014. We play two sets of big band jazz starting at 8 PM.

Here are my picks for your weekend music-related surfing.

It do be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, ye scurvy dog! Drink yer grog and let loose with some Pirate Music & Sea Shanties.

Now this is concentration. Watch as this flautist performs flawlessly in spite of a butterfly landing right on her nose and camping out for a while.

 Here’s a very interesting and insightful essay posted by trombonist Alex Iles about Versatility vs. Adaptability. He writes:

Just as a gymnast must adapt and constantly re-distribute her weight and energy in order to perform difficult choreographed routine on a 4 inch wide balance beam, freelance musicians must adapt to a wide variety of demands that are constantly changing.

Here’s one for the trumpet players, although every musician will get some good info from this one. Pick up some advice on how to play in a big band trumpet section.

And lastly, since it’s marching band season here’s a description of the Seven People You Meet at Marching Band Contests.

Weekend Picks

Lots of projects keeping me busy lately. Until I can get some more original content posted, here are my weekend picks.

How many times does the chorus repeat in your favorite song? How many times have you listened to that chorus? Repetition in music isn’t just a feature of Western pop songs, either; it’s a global phenomenon. Why? Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis walks us through the basic principles of the ‘exposure effect,’ detailing how repetition invites us into music as active participants, rather than passive listeners.

Not your cup of tea? How about looking through a Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments?

Do you have aspirations to freelance as a musician? Danny Barnes has some great advice on How To Play In Someone Else’s Band.

Lastly, web comic The Oatmeal describes in a both amusing and enlightening way The State of the Music Industry.

AJO Tonight and Weekend Picks

AJO-Logo-Transparent copyI’m directing and performing with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra again tonight (Friday, August 8, 2014) at the White Horse in Black Mountain, NC. The show starts at 8 PM and we’ll play two sets of big band jazz. If you’re in the area looking for live music, please consider coming on out.

Here are some music related links for you to check out this weekend.

Low-Down Sires Busk
Low-Down Sires Busk

The first time I ever performed on the street (AKA “busking”) I had just graduated high school. A sax player heard me play and we talked for a while about a band he was playing in. A month later I went off to college and coincidentally I met another member of that band, eventually leading into me recording and playing some gigs with them. Recently I started busking again with some friends I play trad jazz with. We’ve found it to be a fun way to practice new material, essentially becoming a way to make a bit of money to rehearse. Sometimes if we’ve got some down time on an out of town tour we will go out and play on the street to not only pick up a few more bucks but also plug our gigs later. If you’re interested in trying out performing on the street, check out this advice on How to Busk.

One piece of advice I often give to my composition/arranging students is that they should show their parts to players that perform the instruments they are writing for. Even instruments in the same family will differ in terms of playability. For example, I sometimes get parts written by trumpet players that lay horribly for trombone because they took what they wrote for a trumpet and simply transposed it down an octave. Horn is a particularly challenging instrument for me to write well for because it has some idiosyncrasies that don’t translate from the other brass instruments. Fortunately, John Ericson has given us 9 Ways We Can Tell a Composer or Arranger Doesn’t Know How to Write for the Horn.

Did your metronome battery die? Or maybe it’s just too quiet and you need to blast a metronome through your computer speakers. Here’s a handy (and amusing) online metronome that simulates a pendulum style metronome.

And lastly, since school is about to start up after our summer break, here is a list of Ten Things You Should Never Say to Your Music Teacher. The tone may be tongue-in-cheek, but the advice is golden!