Smoky Mountain Brass Band Concert – June 2, 2013

smbb29seasonThis Sunday, June 2, 2013, I’ll be conducting the Smoky Mountain Brass Band in concert at Hazelwood Baptist Church in Waynesville, NC at 5 PM. This is a free performance.

If you missed our concert last April 28th, we’re going to be performing some of that music again, including Brass Metamorphosis by James Curnow and Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, arranged by one of our cornet players, Peter Voisin. We’ll also be playing some new music, including an arrangement of music from the soundtrack to Jurasic Park, the U.S. Navy hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save, and an arrangement of 76 Trombones from the musical, The Music Man.

This is a free concert, although a goodwill offering will be collected. If you’re in western NC this weekend and looking for some live music to listen to, come on out and hear the best (and only) British style brass band in the area.

Thoughts On Programming

Putting together a concert or set list is as much an art as performing the music in the first place. If you’ve never programmed a concert or chosen a set list for a band to perform, the first time you do this can be a challenging experience. However, if you approach it with the right attitude it can be a fun and creative venture. While there are many approaches to how to select music for a performance (or album project), here are some of the basic rules of thumb that I personally use to select a program or set list.

Consider the Concert or Set as a Whole Entity

It’s tempting to sometimes look for neat pieces to perform and simply throw them together, but sometimes this makes for a performance that is too redundant. As you start thinking about which compositions to include you want to think about whether there is enough variety to be interesting without getting disjointed.

One thing that helps me to organize a concert or set list is to think about certain key points in the performance that I’ll want to program something specific. For example, here is a generic outline for a set or concert including 8 compositions (well, 9 actually, but that’s with an encore) that might go about an hour.

  1. Opener – Something exciting and accessible for the audience to get everyone settled in and in the mood for the performance. I almost always like to segue directly into at least the next piece (and sometimes the next two pieces) without pausing for announcements.
  2. Lower the intensity – Frequently I’ll put in something slow and lyrical here, but sometimes I’ll instead program something just less intense than the opener and save the lyrical piece for third. For example, in a big band set I might program a bossa nova here and then follow with a ballad third. Other times I’ll program a ballad here and save the bossa nova for third.
  3. Keep the intensity simmering – See #2 above. It’s worth changing styles here and having some ebb and flow to the second and third pieces, but don’t get too exciting here. Save it for later and it will have more of an impact.
  4. Something weighty – If you’re going to program something that is not as accessible as the rest of the set or concert, this is a good place to do it. Don’t do it too late or else your audience will be less attentive.
  5. Something accessible and fun – After challenging your audience you want to reward them with something easy to listen to. In a big band set, for example, I might program a funk or rock chart here. For a concert band or brass band performance I like to put something pops oriented in here.
  6. Lower the intensity a bit again – After #5 calm things down a bit with something that will help you build to the peak that is your final piece.
  7. Build intensity – Not too much, save it for the closer. Something that is lighter in style or familiar to your audience is good.
  8. Closer – A final piece that ends with a bang. Something familiar to your audience can be good here, but sometimes I prefer to program something that the ensemble really enjoys playing more than worrying about the audience.
  9. Encore – I like having encores in my concerts and final set. If there’s a particular piece that your audience is waiting for, this is a great time to program it.

With an outline like the above in mind, I’ll start going through the music library and find pieces that can fit these different roles and start placing them in order to see how I imagine it will sound. That’s not to say that you need to stick to this guide absolutely. As you find pieces that you want to perform you’ll discover different ways that you can play around with this programming concept. For example, the Stan Kenton Live at Redlands University concert starts with a ballad, rather than a barn burner (check out the introductory clip of Kenton explaining this decision on that link). Your main concern really shouldn’t be plugging in music, but that you’re pacing the performance in an interesting and enjoyable way.

Consider Your Audience

I’ve already alluded to this above, but you will want to think about your target audience and what they want to hear. That’s not to say that you need to “sell out” and only program music that is familiar or popular. Some audiences are particularly hip and some performances cater specifically to an educated audience while others are going to have a mix of people, maybe leaning towards patrons who are attending on a whim. For example, consider the difference between a concert at a contemporary music festival and an outdoor concert just before a fireworks display on Independence Day. You can’t program one like the other without disappointing and alienating your audience.

Consider Your Ensemble

As your thinking about what pieces you want to perform you need to think about the capabilities of your ensemble. Do you have a section in the group that is particularly strong or have some outstanding soloists you can feature? Do you have a weaker section or a budding soloist that you can challenge a bit for improvement without getting too difficult (particularly important if you’re working with a student ensemble)? How difficult will brass parts be? Will your brass players have chops at the end of the performance? If the closer is particularly rangy for the brass consider programming a piece or two just before that are easy on the brass players so they can rest a bit and get ready to blow hard on the final piece. Be sure to program something purely for ensemble enjoyment, regardless of how you think it will go over with the audience. I feel that when the band really is having a good time it rubs off on the audience, even if the piece might go over their heads, as long as you don’t overdo this.

Program Something For Everyone

I like a wide variety of music and prefer to program a lot of different types of pieces in my concerts and sets. Along with considering your audience, stick in some pieces that will appeal to the high-brows and find something that the Philistines will enjoy too. Again, make sure that your ensemble is having fun and being challenged as well so that their energy feeds the audience’s.

Consider Length of the Concert or Set

When I’m putting together a set list for a big band, for example, I keep each set to about 8-10 charts because I know that that will take about 45-60 minutes to perform (obviously you have to adjust if you know something is particularly long or short). Programming for a concert band performance, in contrast, is a little more tricky because pieces can have different lengths. I will usually write down the approximate length of time each piece takes to perform and add them up, allowing for time between numbers. If you’re going to make announcements during the performance consider how long it will take to get through them.

Personally, I think the maximum length of a performance without an intermission should be 75 minutes. Any longer than this and you should split up your program into roughly half and stick in an intermission. If I’m programming a concert with an intermission I try to go 2 hours maximum (including intermission), and closer to 90-105 minutes if possible.

Club gigs are a bit different as you usually have a set amount of time to fill. A typical approach is to play for about 45-50 minutes and then take about 15-20 minutes for a set break. If you’re filling a two hour night, for example, you can play for 50 minutes, take a 20 minute break, and then come back for a final 50 minutes, give or take.

Practice

Learning how to pace a concert or set list is a skill much like learning to compose or arrange a piece of music. It’s actually pretty easy to practice this by putting together a playlist for your MP3 player. In fact, if I’ve got recordings of all the pieces I’m thinking of programming I’ll sometimes do this to see how the performance will feel after listening to it all the way through. You’ll get a great idea of how the flow of the music fits together and sometimes catch some odd things about your program that you might not have noticed otherwise. For example, is the last chord of one piece the same as the first chord of the next? Are the tempos of two consecutive pieces too close for variety? Do two consecutive pieces feature the exact same soloist? When you discover things like this it doesn’t mean you need to change your order, but it might inform how your introduce the pieces during the performance or whether you’ll segue directly into the next number without any introductions.

Closing Thoughts

A lot of this is pretty intuitive for many people and I know many directors who have their own philosophy of how they program concerts. There are many different ways to think about music selection and sometimes special events require a different approach. If you have a guest soloist, for example, you’ll need to program around the soloist. A themed concert celebrating a particular composer or event can be a fun way to build a program too. Study programs and albums you really enjoy and see how the flow of pieces fit together and borrow what you can from those.

Do you have any additional thoughts or disagreements? Please share your ideas in the comments here.

K.O. Skinsnes Discusses the Buzzing Lips

Here’s an interesting video where mouthpiece manufacturer K.O. Skinsnes of Stormvi describes his understanding of how the lips buzz inside the mouthpiece. Take a look and see if you agree with everything he says.

Getting into the acoustics of brass instruments can be tricky and there is a certain degree of controversy that goes on. A lot of the disagreements can be chalked up to how often brass players rely on what we think we’re doing as opposed to objective observation. But in general, I found Skinsnes basic description to match my current understanding. There are a handful of things I’d like to comment on, however.

Early in the video he mentions some players’ opinion that the lips start open. Personally, I think it’s best to start the blowing with the lips in a closed position (breathing through the mouth corners with the lips inside the mouthpiece just touching), but some players do prefer to begin with the lips open. Where some confusion arises comes from the claims by some players that the lips remain open the whole time. This simply isn’t true, the lips open and close very rapidly during their buzz cycle, although Skinsnes isn’t commenting on this misunderstanding in his discussion, it’s common enough and frequently gets confused in the discussion of how the lips buzz on a brass instrument.

One area where I have some disagreement with Skinsnes is how to describe the muscular contraction that keep the lips more closed. First, notice that he labels this as “clamping” the lips together and “tension in the throat.” I prefer to describe this as “muscular contraction,” as we have a tendency to equate “clamping” and “tension” as bad things that we must avoid. Skinsnes claims that all we need to do is get the lips to buzz, but glosses over how the muscular contraction of the embouchure and breathing combine to change pitch and dynamics. In order to play louder there must be more air blown past the lips and in order to play higher the lips must be drawn back more firmly against the teeth and gums so the cycle of the buzz is faster, in spite of how Skinsnes explaining this.

Skinsnes’s description of the standing wave is spot on, but where I feel he goes wrong is he over-simplifies the role that embouchure strength and control has in playing in the upper register. According to Skinsnes, all that needs to happen is the lip buzz needs to be timed in with the cycle of the standing wave to make playing in the upper register easy. This dismisses the importance of focusing your muscular effort in the correct way in order to time your buzz efficiently. When a player has good embouchure strength and control it feels easy, just as a weight lifter who has built up upper body strength will find bench pressing 150 pounds to feel easy compared to someone who is out of shape. I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role that timing in the buzz has, but I feel Skinsnes misses the importance of good embouchure strength and form in coordinating the timing.

Just to offer another contrasting description, check out what Lloyd Leno has to say in his film, Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures on the topic of controlling the lip buzz for the upper register. Skip to about 4:37 into the video for the relevant quote.

Notice that as the pitch ascends the horizontal width of the aperture narrows. But also notice that at the same time the lips are turned in and brought closer to the teeth so that the amount of lip vertically decreases. We all know that a small mass can be made to vibrate rapidly more easily than a large mass. When players realize how to control this mass they can develop their upper range more easily.

Skinsnes and Leno describe the function of the lip buzz a bit differently here. Where Skinsnes feels that the upper register is played best through simple timing the opening and closing aperture with the reflection of the standing wave, Leno notes that this timing is made by the playing positioning the lips in such a way that the amount of mass and shape of the lip that vibrates.

There’s more I can write on the perceived dichotomy between muscular effort and relaxed coordination to play loudly or in the upper register, but that will have to wait for later. Until then, let me know what you think. Do you feel that playing in the upper register is primarily a matter of strength building, coordination, or some combination of both? If the later, how much do you feel is strength and how much is coordination?

Lou McGarity’s Solo On “King Porter Stomp”

I’ve recently begun playing with the Low-Down Sires, a dixieland group based out of Asheville, NC. I have always enjoyed playing dixieland, although I hadn’t been playing a whole lot of it lately, so it’s a lot of fun to be playing it again regularly. One of the things I really appreciate about this group is that everyone makes a serious effort to play in the style. There’s nothing worse than listening to players who don’t play stylistically correct, regardless of what genre of music they’re performing.

One of the tunes we’ve been playing that’s been giving me some trouble is Jelly Roll Morton’s King Porter Stomp. This tune is challenging for me to solo over, in part because of the changes (it starts on the IV chord, not rare but somewhat unusual), key (Ab major, not too hairy, but a little tricky if I’m not focused), and bright tempo. Taken together, it’s not usually a big deal for me to adjust to these changes and tempo, but I keep finding myself wanting to bop over it. In order to give me some ideas for a more stylistically correct approach I decided to transcribe Lou McGarity’s solo over this tune and get inside it a bit.

There’s a couple of things in it I find interesting. McGarity uses a lot of Ab major pentatonic over it, but with some added passing tones between the 5th (Eb) and 6th (F) as well as a lower neighbor passing tone to the 3rd (C). Here’s an example from the first 4 measures of his solo.

McGarity 1

The Ab major pentatonic scale (Ab, Bb, C, Eb, and F) provides a nice sound to blanket over this chord sequence (which makes up most of the solo changes). The chromatic passing tones (E/Fb and B/Cb) give it a little more color without sounding to bopish in the dixieland style.

McGarity recorded this solo in 1951, quite a while after the tailgate trombone style evolved, but he plays some of the typical glisses and long notes in this solo. Somewhat unusually, he also shows off his solid upper register by screaming a high Eb in this solo. Here’s an example from last 8 measures of the second chorus.

McGarity 2

If you’d like to see the whole transcription, you can use this link. As I always like to recommend, you shouldn’t trust my transcription for complete accuracy. For one thing, I’ve only approximated some of the glisses and smears McGarity plays. If you don’t really listen closely to the sound you’re going and try to learn this solo you’re going to miss a huge part of the style. Here’s a YouTube video I found of this recording, but be aware that the sound was sped up so that it is playing back a half step higher. You can buy this track here.

Jaw Position/Horn Angle Changes and Guess the Embouchure Type – Allen Vizzutti

A recent topic on the Trumpet Herald Forum reminded me of the below video of Allen Vizzutti playing some extremely impressive double tongued octaves. Check it out.

What I wanted to comment on here is Vizzutti’s noticeable horn angle changes as he changes octaves. You can clearly see that as he ascends he brings the bell of his horn down slightly and to his left and does the reverse to descend. It seems like a lot of motion, but considering the overall range he’s playing it’s really not all that much change. This change isn’t quite so noticeable when he’s playing music that doesn’t have such large interval leaps. In the below video you can see some good shots of him not only playing large interval changes but also playing phrases where his horn angle changes aren’t that noticeable.

It’s worth noting here that the specific angle changes Vizzutti is making here aren’t going to be the same for all players. Many players, myself included, find that bringing your jaw slightly forward and angle slightly up works best to ascend. Some players may find the general direction of the horn angle change to be more or less straight up and down while many players will find some angular deviation, like Vizzutti’s. The important part here is that it moves pretty much in a straight line and more or less the same amount between octaves. What works for one player isn’t going to be the same for another, and what works for a single individual can also change over time as the player develops.

I’d also like to point out that while many (perhaps most) brass players look at these horn angle changes and call this a “pivot,” this is not what Donald Reinhardt, who coined the term, meant by it. Reinhardt used this term to refer to the way that players will slide the mouthpiece and lips together as a single unit up and down along the teeth and gums to change registers. I prefer to use Doug Elliott’s term “embouchure motion” instead, because it’s less likely to be confused. Two players with the same direction of embouchure motion may end up making the opposite changes in horn angle. It can be very personal to the player and isn’t an easy thing to generalize.

You can get a very clear look at Vizzutti’s chops in these videos, enough to take a guess at his embouchure type. I’ll put my guess after the break. Continue reading Jaw Position/Horn Angle Changes and Guess the Embouchure Type – Allen Vizzutti

Kind Words From Rusty McKinney

Rusty McKinney, bass trombone
Rusty McKinney, bass trombone

A short while ago I got an email from Rusty McKinney, formerly the bass trombonist with the Utah Symphony. Rusty is one of the examples of an upstream orchestral player I mentioned in my article about five common embouchure misconceptions, specifically referring to the myth that all players need to place the mouthpiece centered or with more top lip inside the mouthpiece. Rusty has a low placement and plays quite well with it! He gave me permission to quote our email exchange and so here are some of the things he mentioned to me, with a few of my thoughts scattered between.

HI Dave,

I ran across your site and saw that you mentioned me in your upstream are in “Myths ” section. I often make the upstream list and am intrigued and slightly amused that it is usually me and jazz artists!

Like Rusty, I too find it interesting that most of the upstream players that we know about are jazz players. It’s definitely true that downstream players are more common, not because of any inherent advantage but because more players don’t have the anatomical features that make upstream players work best. I also feel that because teachers have a tendency to teach what worked for them personally that many upstream players are taught to move their mouthpiece higher on the lips and are forced into a downstream embouchure inadvertently. These players will typically struggle and either never reach their full potential or give up brass playing altogether. Because jazz players are more likely to be self taught and classical players tend to go through formal music education (particularly in conservatories, where tradition is strong) this tends to weed out upstream players in favor of downstream players.

Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I am more in your neighborhood than I used to be. I left the Utah Symphony about two years ago to switch my emphasis to being a church music director and as such I am now fulltime at White Plains United Methodist Church in Cary, NC.

I am still playing regularly, often subbing in the NC symphony, and playing for NC Opera and various orchestras that are put together for Duke Chapel. And I have given master classes this past Spring at UNC Chapel Hill for Mike Chris’ Studio and at UNCSA for John Ilika’s studio.

Hope we can connect sometime. My upstream embouchure still works just fine!

One of the common arguments I hear from downstream teachers who discourage the low mouthpiece placement that is what makes an upstream embouchure is that it will eventually break down. Rusty is a perfect example of how an upstream embouchure can function very well long term, when the player learns to work with his or her natural tendencies.

Too many folks dismiss the embouchure and that is a bad thing. I would have been ruined by well meaning teachers had I not been so bull headed. And been lucky to find folks along the way like Doug [Elliot] who either understood how the upstreamer functions or as with others who didn’t care how I did it, as long as I got good results and had endurance.

One of the funniest moments was when I was in Jr. High and my teacher, a respected ( and rightfully so ) college professor had me play for a visiting artist from Las Vegas. He had a few suggestions about improving my legato but said nothing about my embouchure. When my teacher started pointing out all the things that were “wrong” with my set-up the clinician said, “Hey man, if  you can get a sound like that you could stick the mouthpiece in your ear for all I care!”  It was pretty funny. My teacher wasn’t especially amused.

Great story. Thanks to Rusty for stopping by and allowing me to post his emails. I’m excited that he’s now so close to where I am (Asheville, NC) and the next time I make it out east towards him I hope that we’ll be able to hook up and share some upstream embouchure stories.

My own upstream embouchure is still working fine too!

Low-Down Sires at Charleston Lindy Exchange

Low-Down Sires LogoI will be performing dixieland this weekend, Saturday May 18, 2013 over in Charleston, SC for the Charleston Lindy Exchange. For details about this show visit their schedule.

The band is the Low-Down Sires, a group dedicated to recreating the music of early jazz from New Orleans and Chicago. We perform music that was recorded by Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Wild Bill Davidson, and others from that period. It’s really a fun group to play with. Everyone is devoted to playing the music stylistically correct, which isn’t all that easy to do when you’re used to playing bop styles. If you’re around Charleston tomorrow and like dancing come on out.