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?

What Is the Rational For How You Set the Mouthpiece?

IIIAA topic over at the Trumpet Herald got me thinking about the initial placement of the mouthpiece on the lips. Robert P asked,

When setting the mp are your lips completely relaxed or do you in some way manipulate them – tense, flex, stretch, pucker etc.?

How would you describe what you do when you set the mp?

The following several posts offered essentially two different procedures. Some folks stated that they set the mouthpiece on the lips only after they firm the lips in some way. Other players offered that they prefered to place the mouthpiece on relaxed lips and firm the embouchure before playing. What I find most interesting, however, is the rational behind these opposing viewpoints.

For the record, I’m in the “firm your lips first” camp and my thoughts here pretty much come from Donald Reinhardt’s here. To paraphrase Reinhardt, it’s best to have as little distortion in your embouchure formation as possible. Firming the lips first and then placing the mouthpiece on them is meant to help they player keep their embouchure formation stable and avoid any twisting or winding up of the lips with the mouthpiece. It also helps the player place the mouthpiece more consistently in the same spot on the lips.

So what is the rational for setting the mouthpiece on relaxed lips? That’s a little harder for me to summarize. It seems that few players actually advocate this, it’s simply what they happen to do. Some of the Trumpet Herald users seem to do this because they are either emulating a player who does this or following the advice from a particular teacher, without elaborating on why they feel this way. The best argument for I’ve heard is that it helps maintain relaxed playing technique and the lips are only firmed when they need to be, while playing, although I don’t think this outweighs the benefits from firming first.

One post brings up the “paralysis by analysis” trope. There’s too much to think about already so why bother? The problem with that argument (or rather, one of the many problems) is that if one way will lead to better results, not adopting it is limiting. If one way can lead to problems not being aware of those issues makes it impossible to accurately troubleshoot. Certainly teachers need to intellectually understand this.

Speaking of embouchure problems, I have heard several logical reasons why placing the mouthpiece on relaxed lips isn’t ideal. I’ve already mentioned above that this can lead to twisting or winding up the lips with the mouthpiece. If you’ve put the mouthpiece pressure on the lips and then firm the lips you can pin the lips in a position that is inconsistent every time you place the mouthpiece back on. The lips have to slide against the mouthpiece rim in order to get into their ideal position inside the cup which means you’re hitting a moving target with your embouchure every time you replace the mouthpiece. If you’re not putting on enough mouthpiece pressure until that split second before the initial attack then you’re making it even more of a moving target.

Regardless, one important point to discuss before moving forward is that regardless of how you set the mouthpiece for the initial attack, when you inhale between phrases if you open your embouchure formation to take in air and firm them again at the attack you’re going to be hitting that moving target again – even if you set the mouthpiece on firmed lips to start with.

Advice and Conclusion

Reinhardt’s process for setting the mouthpiece and how to maintain a stable embouchure formation is, in my opinion, something that all players can benefit from practicing. While his description is of an ideal, making small steps towards that goal can provide good results without obsessing over every small step in the process. Here is a way you can go about practicing this by breaking things up into small chunks.

  1. Pick a warmup with at least 5 minutes of simple exercises that you already have memorized. Long tones and overtone slurs work great for this, particularly if you start in different ranges for a bit.
  2. Use a mirror or video your embouchure so that you can see what you’re doing. Don’t worry about analyzing what you’re doing while practicing, but be aware of what you see.
  3. For that 5 minutes or so of your warmup always firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece on your embouchure formation. It’s not the lips center that holds them firm, it’s the mouth corners. You’re not worried about what note you’re going to play, you want the mouth corners firmed and locked in their playing position.
  4. At first, after setting the mouthpiece breathe through the nose to get used to the “ideal” of having the embouchure already in place. As you practice this, watch your mouth corners in particular in the mirror or video. At first they may loosen up or wiggle around a bit when you inhale and before the initial attack. Before and after the attack you are striving to make it look the same. Your ideal goal is if you turn the sound off on the video you would be hard pressed to tell when the sound starts by watching the embouchure alone.
  5. As you get comfortable with nose inhalations, begin breathing through the sides of your mouth while keeping the lip center touching lightly together inside the mouthpiece. Maintain the mouthpiece pressure as if you were already playing. Simply relax the mouth corners and inhale slowly. It might help to really wet the mouth corners with saliva before placing if your finding they want to stick together. When you attack the pitch the mouth corners should snap into place.
  6. After a few minutes or so of this, forget about it and move on to whatever else you want to practice.
  7. Take a couple of minutes during your warm down to practice the placement again.

That’s it, just a few minutes or so a day. You might find this very weird at first, particularly if you have been doing things differently for decades, as I had. It took me years of practice to internalize this technique to the point of where it’s automatic when I perform. During that learning process, however, I noticed my embouchure formation being more consistent even when I was skipping or missing steps. Other players may take to it quite easily. It’s well worth the effort you might have to put into it to head towards the ideal.

Do you already firm your lips before placing the mouthpiece? Was this a conscious effort on your part or the natural way you play? If you haven’t thought about it before or if you consciously place the mouthpiece on relaxed lips, please considering trying this out for a couple of weeks or so and report your progress. Did you find it helpful or a waste of your time? No change?

Low-Down Sires at Piedmont Swing Dance Society

low-down-sires-drawingI’ll be performing this Saturday, September 24, 2016, at the Piedmont Swing Dance Society’s dance in Winston-Salem, NC. If I understand correctly, the dance will be at 7 Vintage Avenue in Winston Salem, NC. For more information and to register for the whole dance weekend, visit https://piedmontswingdance.org.

It’s short notice, but if anyone wants to try to meet up for an embouchure lesson or just to hang out, let me know.

CODE of Embouchure

A lot of what is commonly taught about brass embouchures is based on hearsay or descriptions on playing sensations. This results in a lot of contradictory advice that isn’t always grounded in fact. That’s why it’s very exciting to me to see Hans Boschma, Kees Hein Woldendorp, et al,  taking a scientific approach to studying brass embouchure. Even more importantly, they recognize the need for more research and more communication across disciplines. They recently published a video that describes their research and shows a lot of the data points they’ve collected. The call it the CODE of Embouchure.

CODE stands for Classification, Observation, Diagnosis , and Evaluation.

The CODE of Embouchure can be used by both brass players, their teachers, ‘brass-medicine’ physicians and – therapists. The CODE of Embouchure can be used in intervals of time to detect dysfunctional embouchure and/or to control for improvements/ changes in embouchure due to brass training (or therapy) e.g. at the conservatoir or in a therapeutical setting. In the final part of the movie a practical instruction is provided with the voluntary participation of many internationally known first rank brass players.

I’ve been skimming through it, skipping ahead after watching some of each brass player shown. Most of it is detailed video footage of different brass players playing a wide variety of different things with some written commentary on different embouchure characteristics. There are many good examples of “medium high placement” and “very high placement” embouchure types. Assuming that the brass players shown are a somewhat random sample, I would expect to see few “low placement” embouchure types. There is one trumpet player who I suspect may be a “low placement” upstream players, but it’s a bit hard to say for sure with what I saw (he definitely switches to downstream when he plays pedal tones). Other than that example, all the rest of the brass players belong to one of the two basic downstream embouchure types.

Overall, I think it’s very nice research and a good video. My main complaint is the lack of attention on upstream brass embouchures, but perhaps that’s my personal bias as a “low placement” type player myself. Also, most of the video is devoted to “observation” and I would have liked more discussion about the “classification,” “diagnosis” and “evaluation” parts. Minor quibbles aside, thanks to Hans Boschma and Kees Hein Woldendorp for posting this and for Hans for letting me know it was available.

For more information about the CODE of embouchure and Hans’s work please visit his web site (you may need Google’s translate feature if you aren’t bilingual).

Patriotic Concert July 3, 2016

18461977735_51e17e6dfd_zThis Sunday, July 3, 2016, the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be performing our 2nd annual Patriotic Concert at Trinity United Methodist Church is west Asheville, NC. We’ll be performing a mix of patriotic music in a big band jazz style along side big band jazz from the WWII era, focusing on bands such as Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. The concert starts at 3 PM and is free and open to the public. A goodwill offering will be taken to raise funds for both the Asheville Jazz Council and the Asheville Buncombe Christian Community Ministry‘s veterans charity.

For a preview of some of the music you might here, you can watch four of us on WLOS Channel 13 here.

Becoming a Better Sight Reader

I wasn’t always good at reading music. When I was a young piano student I frustrated my teacher because I tried to play things by ear instead of learning to read the manuscript. I could get away with this for a while because my mother is a piano teacher and taught out of our house, so I got to hear her students playing a lot of the standard repertoire that I was assigned. Eventually, however, the music got to be too challenging for me to do this and I struggled.

By the time I got to high school I started to take reading music more seriously and got better at it. The thing is, I never really made a huge effort to “practice sight reading,” I simply practiced music and developed a pretty good ability to sight read. In retrospect, it wasn’t just the practice reading music that helped me. I recently came across some advice by Eric O’Donnell on sight reading that is worth reading.

Sight-reading, like many other techniques that we develop as musicians, is a skill – a skill that can be learned and continually improved upon. Rather than putting yourself in a room and trying to blindly improve your sight-reading chops by doing it over and over again, look at the specific elements involved in this skill and work on developing them.

O’Donnell lists five different areas to work on when practicing for sight reading: Concentration, Read bigger chunks of music, Recognizing rhythms and patterns, Looking ahead, and Continue through your mistakes. Read through his entire article to get his discussion on each of those ideas, it’s very good.

I have a couple of things to add to his advice. First, listen to the music you’re practicing – at least the style. Each style of music has it’s own idiomatic rhythms and pitch patterns. Part of what makes sight reading easier is recognizing how the visual patterns you’re looking at should translate into sound. After you’ve heard enough music in that style and seen those patterns enough you’ll make the mental connections that your eyes and brain can gloss over them and look ahead more easily.

And lastly, learn music from the page. In other words, don’t practice sight reading, practice reading the same thing over and over. While I encourage my students to memorize things like scales, chord arpeggios, and tunes, it’s still valuable to practice reading them on the paper. Sure, you may not need to read that scale because you have it memorized, but seeing it on the paper will help you recognize that pattern when you see it in another context. Furthermore, you want to go back and correct your mistakes so that you’re not reinforcing playing something wrong.

Sight reading is a skill, like any other, and it take time and effort to get better at it. Following O’Donnell’s advice will help you speed up your progress by approaching it more efficiently.

Smokey Mountain Brass Band Sunday, March 6, 2016

Here’s another weekend performance for me. This Sunday, March 6, 2016, I’ll be conducting the Smokey Mountain Brass Band in concert at Weaverville Methodist Church, in Weaverville, NC. The performance will feature a variety of music ranging from Clarke’s Cousins (with Bill Ross and JP Carney as the soloists) to Hymn of the Highlands by Philip Sparke to Hymnsong of Philip Bliss by western North Carolina composer David Holsinger. The performance starts at 3 PM and is free to attend, although we will be collecting an offering.

If you’re in the area this Sunday please come out and check out western North Carolina’s only British-style brass band.

History of Jazz Concert Series – Jazz of the Roaring 20s

Low-Down Sires DrawingThis Sunday, March 6, 2016, I’ll be performing again at a very neat concert series produced by Russ Wilson at the Isis Restaurant and Music Hall in west Asheville, NC.

The Jazz Age was a period in the 1920s, ending with the Great Depression, in which jazz music and dance styles became popular, mainly in the United States, but also in Britain, France and elsewhere. Jazz originated in New Orleans as a fusion of African and European music and played a significant part in wider cultural changes in this period, and its influence on pop culture continued long afterwards. The Jazz Age is often referred to in conjunction with the ROARING TWENTIES.

The next show in the HISTORY OF JAZZ series presents two bands (from Asheville, North Carolina) carrying on the tradition of this great music. The Low Down Sires and The Firecracker Jazz. These 2 bands play the uninhibited, freewheeling Jazz of King Oliver, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton.

THE LOW DOWN SIRES:
The Low-Down Sires are dedicated to the lost sounds of early jazz, inspired by the compositions and arrangements of Joe “King” Oliver, Edward “Kid” Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, and other giants from the storied origins of the art form. Their raucous style predates the smoother sounds of big band swing and the intellectualism of modern jazz and transports you to the streets of New Orleans and the barrelhouses of early 20th century Mississippi river towns. Their performance style is at once hard hitting and intimate, fitting in easily well at bars, back-porches, swing dances, and street corners.

THE FIRECRACKER JAZZ BAND:
With jubilant vigor that spills from the stage to the streets, FIRECRACKER JAZZ BAND revitalizes the energy of the roots of Jazz. In paying homage to the pioneers of early 20th Century Jazz, including that of Dixieland and New Orleans, the Firecracker Jazz Band carries the torch that was once lit by such greats as Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong & Bix Beiderbecke.

A show not to be missed. Tickets are $15. Downbeat is 7:30pm
Isis Restaurant and Music Hall
743 Haywood Rd, Asheville, NC 28806
(828) 575-2737 –  isisasheville.com