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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

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!

The Brass Junkies 87: Craig Knox

Andrew Hitz

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TBJ87: Craig Knox of the Pittsburgh Symphony on premiering the Jennifer Higdon Tuba Concerto, European road stories and the joys of palinka

Craig is one hell of a tuba player and teacher and a great guy. It was a lot of fun chatting with him about the many things he does in his career.

From the show notes:

Craig Knox is Principal Tuba of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a founding member of the Center City Brass Quintet. With these ensembles and others, he has performed for audiences across the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and been heard on recordings, and radio, television, and internet broadcasts around the world.

Mr. Knox works regularly with music students through his teaching positions at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Music in Pittsburgh, and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, as well as at music festivals, seminars, and conservatories around the world, where he appears as a guest clinician.

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

It's Not About You

Andrew Hitz

"Blend towards the ticket buyers, not each other."
—Marty Hackleman

I have seen countless chamber ensembles fail to grasp the vital principal behind the above quote. The audience experience is everything.

Don't sit in the easiest possible configuration for your group to interact with each other. Sit in the configuration which makes it easiest for the audience to feel like they are interacting with you.

Don't just make sure something is balanced on stage. Make sure it is balanced in the hall.

Don't lift your stand up higher than it needs to be. Put your stand at a level where the audience feels like they are a part of the experience and not just allowed to peer over your shoulder.

Don't just check for dynamic contrast on stage. Make sure that contrast is reaching the last row of paid seats.

Don't match articulations on your side of the bell. Be sure they are matching at the back of the hall.

This list could go on and on...

I couldn't believe how much left edge I had to put on notes when I first joined Boston Brass. Like, I was dumbfounded. What my colleagues were asking me to do sounded stupid on my side of the bell.

But guess what? Those comments were coming from a rehearsal technique that we frequently used. One player would go out into the hall and listen from out there (ie the only place where it matters what it sounds like!) They would then ask for adjustments until it sounded right out there.

They would ask for so much attack that I thought it sounded stupid. But I trusted them so I did it.

Then I would listen to a recording of the performance from later that evening and I'll be damned they were always right. I had to very gradually adjust what I thought it "should" sound like on my side of the bell.

I have yet to find anyone who will pay me to in an orchestra, band, quintet or as a soloist based on me sounding good on my side of the bell. No one cares.

Literally your only job is making sure it sounds (and looks) good in the audience.

You Can't Break a Bad Habit

Andrew Hitz

This is precisely why it is so important to not rush through things and learn them the wrong way when practicing. The key word in the last sentence of the above Arnold Jacobs quote is gradually.

Once you have established a habit, the only way to replace it with a new one is gradually over time. Translation: it's a lot of work.

I was also always taught that the brain does not respond well to the word don't. If you write something like "Don't Drag" in your music then your brain first comprehends "Drag" which is not exactly ideal. I always have my students write the positive version of whatever they're working on so "Don't Drag" becomes "Groove" or "Steady Tempo".

Ideally, we don't ever learn something wrong in the first place because the extra time we take to learn something with slow and deliberate practice will be more than saved by not having to relearn it the right way. But if we do, rather than focusing on not doing it wrong, we need to replace it with the correct version and then have the patience to see the entire process through which will take a while no matter what we do.

The Brass Junkies 86: Listener's Choice - The Falcone Festival

Andrew Hitz

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TBJ:86 Listener's Choice - The Falcone Festival

For episode 86 of The Brass Junkies, we did a deep dive on The Falcone Festival. Lance won the first ever Falcone euphonium competition (he is OLD!) and had lots of great stories. I learned a ton from this one.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Andrew’s medication
  • Lance’s summer plans
  • Jimmy Kimmel and Bill Simmons
  • Boston Brass Portuguese cell phone story
  • Falcone Festival
  • Lance winning the 1st contest in the student level
  • Judging the competition and judging in general

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

Less Facts, More Stories

Andrew Hitz

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”― Ken Kesey

 

It is natural for classical musicians to get wrapped up in getting the facts right. We obsess from an early age about playing the right notes and the right rhythms.

This is of course critically important, but can not come at the expense of having storytelling as our primary focus.

I have encountered so many musicians who feel they are owed a living from playing their instrument once they are able to operate it at a certain level. Or once they have worked X hours a week for Y years in a row.

(Note: This is almost never said aloud but some variation of this feeling of entitlement is frequently just below the surface.)

But this is a false premise.

Literally no one pays money to see artists execute the technical aspects of their art at a high level of proficiency. At least not for that reason alone.

That's not how art works.

Let's take a filmmaker as an example. Who cares if you are a master of many aspects of filmmaking. Lighting. Camera angles. You name it. If your film doesn't take the audience on a journey, it won't make any money and it certainly won't be talked about in 100 years. Hell, it won't be talked about in 100 weeks.

We need stories, not great lighting!

To be clear, great lighting and creative camera angles are integral parts to telling a great story with your film. But to only focus on mastering the lighting leaves you one step shy of the promised land and it's really the only step that matters.

Once you have spent the 10,000 hours mastering the tools, what do you do with them?

In this blog post from 2014, my teacher and mentor, Rex Martin, blew my mind just like he did for four straight years at Northwestern. He took many years to master the ability to play softly in all registers.

But who gives a crap? The question is what has he done with that tool once it was in his musical toolbox.

A number of years ago I flew out to Chicago to see him perform the Vaughn-Williams Concerto for Tuba. I've seen that piece played a 1,000 times and wasn't particularly excited to see it specifically. I flew there to see him. I flew there to hear his story.

The end of the 2nd movement has a four-note ascending line in the tuba that is quite pretty when played well. Mr. Martin played that line with a gorgeous diminuendo and hit the final held note with no vibrato at all. While then barely diminuendoing further he added just the slightest bit of vibrato at the very end of that note, all while continuing to get softer. He then ended the movement with a perfectly tapered release.

It made me hold my breath.

A piece I wouldn't be sad if I never heard again for the rest of my life took my breath away. That's the power of music.

Or rather, that's the power of storytelling.

I would never purchase a plane ticket to see someone operate a tuba at a really high level. But to see someone tell a musical version of anything as powerful as those four notes? I'll fly or drive anywhere for that (which is exactly why I have driven through 44 states plus Ontario to see Phish.)

You will be compensated if enough people find the musical story you are telling remarkable. Remarkable meaning worth remarking over. As in I felt I had to tell some of my friends about the end of Mr. Martin's 2nd Movement of the Vaughn-Williams.

("Enough people" is quite possibly a much smaller number than you think. I did a TEM episode on it that's less than 25 minutes long.)

So don't only focus on the facts. The question is what you do with those facts. Ken Kesey is right. While facts are quite important, what we really need is a good story.