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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

The Brass Junkies 100: Sam Pilafian

Andrew Hitz

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TBJ100: The legendary Sam Pilafian on Empire Brass, Leonard Bernstein and life-threatening pedagogy

We made it to 100 episodes which is completely insane! An ENORMOUS thank you to everyone who has listened, become a Patreon patron, shared an episode with a friend, posted about it on social media or any of 100 other ways people have supported us in this crazy journey. THANK YOU!

I don’t even know where to begin when talking about this interview with my mentor, Sam Pilafian. As you will hear, I met Sam when I was only 12 and he has been an huge influence on me in more ways than I could ever articulate.

This episode starts out with some lighthearted banter about a couple of times that I poked the bear as one of his let’s just call it “precocious” young students back in the day! But this conversation gets really serious really quickly right after that.

Sam has just come out the other side of a battle for his life with an aggressive form of cancer. His story is hard to even believe. There are tears (and lots of them) in this episode. Some sad ones and some happy ones. There’s also lots of camaraderie between three humans who have been through a whole hell of a lot together, both personally and professionally.

I will always cherish this conversation, even though I’ve had thousands with Sam. This one made me awfully thankful to be alive and to be making music for a living.

You can check out the complete show notes including all of the links mentioned during this episode over at Pedal Note Media.

Starting the day off right

Andrew Hitz

This x 100!

Marty Hackleman once told me he doesn’t like to call it a warm-up. He calls it his daily routine and the byproduct of that routine is that he is warmed up, both physically and mentally.

I have encountered many students who use their warm-up to ease into the mental aspects of their musical day, but I don’t believe this is necessary if you walk into the practice room with the proper mentality in place.

This is one reason why I am an enormous proponent of doing breathing exercises before playing. I’m not a slave to them and don’t always do them, but whenever I do I make sure I am fully committed mentally to the exercise as a way of engaging my mind on a very specific task, which in turn helps my first notes of the day sound great.

This is also why I like to do things like wind patterns during my breathing exercises. “Be musical with your air” is a phrase I’ve uttered thousands of times to various concert bands and marching bands. “Playing” Jingle Bells with your air is a great way to get dynamics, phrasing, articulation, style and everything else going in the brain.

Once you activate all of those things, the physical side of playing really just comes along for the ride.

Finally, I find it can be difficult to truly concentrate on breathing exercises when I do the exact same ones in the same order ever day. That’s why I like to use sequences (like are found in The Breathing Gym Daily Workouts DVD.) There are many ways to get the air (and the brain) moving and mixing up what is done and the order they are done in is really beneficial, even for professionals.

Regardless of how you begin your day or what you do for a daily routine, a simple decision can be made that your first notes will not be of poor quality. If you make that commitment, you’ll be amazed at the results.

You must do the work

Andrew Hitz

Mallory Thompson 1.jpg

Dr. Mallory Thompson is one of my mentors. She is one of the best musicians I have ever worked with in my career. She has ears for days and the ability to convey what she wants as a conductor not just through words but through looks, gestures and body language. It is a pleasure to play under her baton. Any time she is even in the room she challenges me to be my absolute best.

This past summer, we welcomed her to Shenandoah Conservatory for our Instrumental Conducting Symposium. I visited for a day to see her and to recharge my musical batteries. While sitting in the ensemble I jotted down close to 50 quotes from her that I will post here in their entirety soon.

At one point, Dr. Thompson was working with a conductor on their two-pattern. She mentioned that a staccato two-pattern is like a “V” and that a legato two-pattern is more like a “U”. She then encouraged this person to write a large U and a large V on a piece of paper, tape it to the wall and mirror the letters with their baton.

Then she said something which will stick with me for a long time:

I did this. I put a piece of paper up on the wall and mirrored it. If you want to do this, don’t think you can do it without doing the work.
— Dr. Mallory Thompson, Director of Bands at Northwestern University

Boom.

Like basically all great teaching, this is nothing revolutionary. This has been said thousands of ways by thousands of teachers throughout history.

But Dr. Thompson always finds a way to put things very succinctly. She didn’t simply say do the work. She quite specifically told this conductor to not expect the results she got from doing the work without doing the work themselves.

So obvious and yet something that is rarely put that clearly. That’s putting the dots awfully close together.

Her quote reminded me of something David Zerkel once told one of my students in a master class. He told them that if they practiced lip slurs every day for two full weeks, “The lip trill fairy will pay you a visit.” It’s really not complicated.

This also reminds me of a Facebook post I made a few years ago that said mentioned how hard it is to play in all registers at all dynamic levels with a great sound. My tuba professor from Northwestern, Rex Martin, commented on that post with something to the effect of “It’s actually not that difficult. It just takes an enormous amount of work.” He’s right.

Without exception, the people who can conduct, play the clarinet or speak to a crowd better than you can have spent more time than you have improving their craft. It is all about sustained and focused effort over an extended period of time.

Literally everyone who pays $400 to attend a conducting symposium will go home and practice a few of the things they learned for the first couple of days. But I wonder what the numbers are for the people who are still doing the aforementioned paper on the wall trick 15 days later. Or 30 days later. Or 45 days later.

I bet the drop off is steep after just a few days.

For those of us who want to conduct like Dr. Thompson, we have to do the work. Thank you for the reminder, Mallory.

In search of a resonant pitch center

Andrew Hitz

This reminded me of a great exercise that Rex Martin taught me at Northwestern which I’ve shared with countless of my own students.

There was a note I was having trouble getting my absolute best sound on. It just wouldn’t center because I was fighting the horn.

So Mr. Martin had me hit the pitch intentionally sharp, hit the pitch intentionally flat and then play it right down the middle with a beautiful vibrato to help it resonate.

Hitting the pitch both sharp and flat helped to frame the pitch and the vibrato helped me to center it. I can’t tell you how well this exercise works. I still do it to this day.

It is worth noting that none of this had anything to do with speed. Just three distinctive versions of the same note.

I’m so happy he showed me this exercise and that the Jacobs quote reminded me of it!

Your chops are dumb

Andrew Hitz

Your chops are as dumb as a box of rocks. Your brain is what’s driving this train.

So don’t focus on feedback from your lips while you’re supposed to be actively creating art. That doesn’t end well for the audience.

Besides, to quote the great Mark Gould:

“It’s not supposed to feel good. It’s a piece of %#&$ing metal on your face.”

Denise Tryon on the four elements to look for when teaching someone

Andrew Hitz

I love this!

1. Physical set-up: I tend to lean towards the mess with a student's physical set-up as little as possible side of things but (and this is a big but!) sometimes it is necessary and solves many problems at once. Efficiency is the key to playing any instrument well and a proper physical set-up is essential to that.

2. Technique: You can't tell a great musical story without being able to do all of the technical stuff well (as well as in any combination.) Technique is not hard to teach or to learn. Or I should say it's not complicated to learn. The only hard part is having the discipline to do it. Having a technique like Denise primarily involves a lot of work over a prolonged period of time. How bad do want it?

3. Music making: That's the only reason I ever play the tuba. All of that work to get a good physical set-up and the decades of learning good technique only serve one purpose: to tell a great musical story.

4. Mental attitude: Attitude is one of those rare things in life that we can actually control. Again, playing the horn like Denise is a very long journey. Some moments, days, even weeks, it can quite hard to keep a positive attitude. Progress is not linear (it never is!) and that can be discouraging if we choose to focus on any one data point along that journey to draw conclusions about our worth as a musician. A great teacher gives a student tools to be able to keep a positive mental attitude, even when that student doesn't feel like it is justified.

And of course she is right about your weakest link. Leave any one of these four behind and you will be held back from realizing your true potential.

Thanks for the awesome quote, Denise!

Article: Top teachers are most likely to seek advice from their peers

Andrew Hitz

This is both fascinating and at the same time not surprising. The self-awareness found in all great teachers drives them to always want to learn more. Or to be able to deliver the knowledge in a more effective way.

This is a good read right as the semester is starting!

Getting serious about your routine

Andrew Hitz

This is not a complicated concept and yet can be hard to implement until you get some momentum. If you are serious about improving your playing, you must be practicing the things you can't do well every single day.

The first part of this equation is having the self-awareness to accurately identify the weaknesses in your playing. I don't think I've ever met a player who has no idea what their weaknesses are. But the best players have an acute sense of their shortcomings with a high degree of specificity.

Noticing that soft playing is not a strength is one thing. (And that's a great start!) But digging a few layers deeper (like for example your ascending slurs in the upper middle and upper registers at a soft dynamic are particularly poor) is much better.

The best players can not only identify their shortcomings to that degree of specificity but then develop a plan to meet them head-on in their daily routines. If you are bored with practicing scales, incorporate one of your weaknesses into your daily scale work. This requires creativity and a lot of focus (since playing a new exercise that you just made up takes a lot more work than just playing around the Circle of Fourths again.)

And if you really want to raise the bar, throw a portion of your warmup on Instagram Live. Even if only five people watch for a total of a minute, your focus will be off the charts when you are broadcasting one of your biggest weaknesses to your friends and colleagues.

So ask yourself two questions: what are your biggest shortcomings as a player (be as specific as possible) and how many days in the last week have you worked on them?

If your answer is less than seven, you might want to reevaluate your priorities.