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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

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.

The Brass Junkies 88: Jeffrey Strong

Andrew Hitz

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TBJ88: St. Louis Symphony trumpeter Jeff Strong on preparation, playing with the Marine Band and having an air blowing epiphany

I've had the privilege of playing a number of gigs with Jeff and he is one of the most effortless and musical trumpet players I've ever played with. Just incredible.

At one point in this interview I thought he was going to break me I was laughing so hard!

Don't miss this one!

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

Fundamentals Before Fireworks

Andrew Hitz

Gail Williams is dead on here (as usual!) I have encountered many students over the years who are constantly looking to work on the most difficult excerpts and solo repertoire before putting in the work to be able to play their instrument well.

It takes discipline to play the first page of the Arban's book in multiple octaves every single day while making every note identical to those around them no matter the octave or the dynamic. It is easy to do that kind of work every once in a while. But having the in-the-moment discipline to know that you need to be doing that kind of practicing on a regular basis is what separates the good players from the great players.

As I once heard Joe Alessi say, it takes a lot more work to obtain skills on your horn than it does to maintain skills on your horn. Gail Williams spent an insane number of hours being able to play loudly in all registers with a good sound and a variety of attacks, releases, weights, etc. Everyone who can charge people a good chunk of change to listen to them play their instrument has done that work.

Furthermore, she doesn't have to spend nearly as much time today practicing that stuff. I'm sure she still spends more time than you might believe, but it pales in comparison to when she was first acquiring those skills.

So if you are a young tuba player, rather than jumping into the John Williams Concerto your freshman year, maybe do the sometimes tedious work that your teacher suggests on a regular basis. I promise you will be able to play the John Williams before you know it!

Fundamentals before fireworks!

Louder Shouldn't Automatically Mean More Tongue

Andrew Hitz

So many of us brass players automatically tongue a lot harder when we play louder and we don't even realize it. These two things must be separated. In fact, the best professionals are able to separate all aspects of their playing and adjust them independently of each other.

When a conductor asks the low brass to play louder, they have not also asked for it to be heavier, slower, sharp and with a bad sound. We just frequently throw all of those in as a bonus!

I once heard Joe Alessi say that air and tongue can be adjusted like the oil to gas ratio in a mower. He went on to say that playing forte is 90% air and only 10% tongue which I agree with.

I think most of us, from the very beginning, use way more than 10% tongue when we are playing forte. This has to be reprogrammed which takes a lot of intentional practicing over a prolonged period of time.

The proof of course lies in recording yourself. If you hear too much tongue, adjust it. In fact, keep adjusting it until you have gone too far. You have now framed the problem and know that the perfect solution lies somewhere in between where you started and where you ended up. Always let the recorder be the ultimate arbiter.

It's also worth noting that this kind of self-awareness is universal in players who are able to reach the world-class levels that Warren Deck, former Principal Tuba of the New York Philharmonic, reached during his playing career. He wouldn't have gotten to the root of his over-tonguing problem by simply tonguing less on a case-by-case basis. He figured out that he was doing this every time he played louder and so was able to address it on a much more fundamental level (which I'm sure led to a permanent fix with just the occasional exception.)


The above tweet from Warren Deck was the first weekly brass quote we are posting on the Brass Junkies Twitter feed. Every Monday we will be posting a quote using the hashtag #BrassQuote.

If you happen to know of any sources for quotes from brass players, please send them along. I'm particularly looking for quotes from women of all brass instruments as well as euphonium and horn quotes. Shoot me an email with any good references and I'd be awfully grateful!