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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Category: Inspiration

The work we do when no one is around

Andrew Hitz

Godin.jpg

It is amazing to me that Seth Godin, who isn’t a musician and never writes specifically about being one, hits the nail on the head about so many things related to our profession. It just goes to show that succeeding in one field generally requires the exact same approach and execution as any other.

Here is a brilliant blog post by Godin on two different kinds of marathons. One has lots of people around. The other is all by ourselves.

Guess which one does more to get you to the top of whichever mountain you are aiming for in the music business?

And of course, it’s the more difficult of the two (which is good or everyone would get there.)

Also worth noting: As with most of Seth’s brilliant blog posts, it will take you literally 30 seconds to read!

Godin: The solo marathon

In Tribute to Sam Pilafian

Andrew Hitz

Yesterday, people flew to Tempe, Arizona from all over the country to pay tribute to the legend that was Sam Pilafian. Being asked to speak at the Celebration of Life of my mentor who was like a second father to me is an honor I will cherish forever.

Trying to sum up what Sam meant to the world in only 10 minutes felt like an impossible task. Here is the video of the celebration cued to my speech (although every one of them was wonderful) as well as a transcription of my words.

I love you, Sam.

Never meet your heroes, they say.

Not sure where I first heard those words. You’ll be disappointed if you actually get to know them, they say. It’s better to keep your idealized vision of them from a distance.

I don’t know who first uttered those words but they sure as hell weren’t talking about Sam Pilafian.

On a hot July morning in 1988 I got to do just that, meet my hero. I was still a few weeks shy of becoming a teenager and the Empire Brass had just blown my mind with an intimate performance at Tanglewood. My parents encouraged me to go up to Sam afterwards and introduce myself. I was scared as hell but really just wanted to shake his hand. Maybe if I got just a little closer to him I could figure out how he was able to play the tuba with that much personality. I’d never heard anything like it.

My mother actually snapped a photograph just moments before the encounter that would change my life forever. My back is to the camera, my shoulders are slouched and I’m looking up at him with complete amazement. For the record he was wearing robin egg blue pants and totally rocking them! He could have just looked at me and said “Thanks for coming” and immediately moved on to the next person and I would have cherished that moment forever.

But I was about to meet Sam Pilafian so you know that’s not what happened. He spoke to me and even looked at me in a way I'll never forget. Like we already knew each other. Like I, some random gobsmacked kid, was destined for greatness just like him. He seemed as excited to meet me as I was to meet him. I suddenly felt like I had a friend who happened to be a tuba god. And because of how he spoke to me that day, I didn’t think, I knew, that I could play in a group just like Empire Brass someday. That’s the kind of gift parents would pay just about anything to give their kids at that age. And he gave me that gift just because he could. That was Sam.

If Sam never accomplished anything in his career except playing the tuba, he would still be lauded as a legend. The guy played with Pink Floyd, Lionel Hampton and the Metropolitan Opera. That’s the absolute pinnacle of the rock, jazz and classical worlds. No one in the history of the tuba has ever had that kind of career.

But it wasn’t just his versatility. When he was playing in a Dixieland band, he sounded like Kirk Joseph or Matt Perrine, someone who had been gigging in New Orleans their entire life.

When he played in the back of an orchestra, he sounded like Chester Schmitz or Gene Pokorny, someone who had been sitting back there full-time for decades.

I once saw him play a free jazz gig at a sleepy bed and breakfast in the Berkshires on a Sunday morning. This gig was way out there! Again, he sounded like a full-time experimental jazz musician from New York City or Berlin.

And he was of course the greatest brass quintet tuba player to ever live and if anyone disagrees with me I’ll fistfight them in the courtyard after this service. But seriously, he wrote the book on how to hold down the low end of a chamber ensemble. Like Mischa Schneider in the Budapest String Quartet or Bootsy Collins in Funkadelic, Sam was the glue, the swagger, the style, the drive that made Empire Brass so magical. I’m in awe of the legacy he left for the rest of us who followed in his footsteps.

My question is this: How can any musician always sound like they are playing the exact style of music they were put on this earth to perform? If you can play any one style as well as Sam played them all you will have no problems paying your bills as a musician. And yet he did it all. He was a musical chameleon the likes of which this world rarely ever sees on any instrument. And he was a tuba player! We in the tuba world got to claim him as our own. A true musician’s musician. Equal parts inspiring and mystifying.

Then there was Sam, the teacher. A master pedagogue. His ability to push students out of their comfort zone while simultaneously making them feel safe and supported was the essence of his teaching.

There’s a reason why so many people who only spent a master class or two with him still feel such a strong connection with him to this day. He had an unwavering passion for teaching that permeated every encounter he ever had with a student, no matter how brief. That always present passion was contagious and it ignited something in you when you were around it.

As with all great teachers, he always taught the student in front of him. Not just the student, but whatever version of that student happened to walk in that day. We all strive for that but it is hard to pull off 100% of the time. He just always seemed to know exactly what to say and when to say it.

Sam was also an incredible entrepreneur. He was of course one of the founding members of the Empire Brass, one of the most successful brass groups of all time. He founded Travelin’ Light with Frank Vignola. They were so good he made the world realize we had been lacking a completely smoking tuba/guitar duo the entire time and just never knew it. With his main partner in crime, Patrick Sheridan, they turned decades of breathing teachings into a wildly successful line of products called The Breathing Gym.

He was the consummate example of a musical entrepreneur long before every school of music started throwing the term around. I never once heard him utter the word entrepreneur while I studied with him. He didn’t talk about it. He showed me. That’s the best possible teaching. He was always cutting edge no matter what he did. As a player, as a teacher and as a businessman. And he always led by example.

I could stand up here until Tuesday listing the incredible things he achieved in his career, but I think what sums up the unbelievable impact Sam had on the world best is that there are literally hundreds of people who could be standing up here today delivering a tribute to him. And I don’t just mean people who looked up to him as a musician and an artist. I mean people who he fundamentally changed as humans.

Those people posted tributes on social media from all over the world as soon as news spread that Sam had passed. Here is a small sampling of those tributes:

"I miss him already. Met him literally twice. Changed my playing and my life."

"Even more than anything he taught me about tuba playing or music, he was a model of positivity, passion, purpose, and a can-do attitude."

"The world is forever different because he was in it. A true giant of a human being and musician."

"He epitomized everything that music means to this world."

"The world was a better place because of you, your passion for teaching, your commitment to your art and just your talent to lift and inspire anyone who was around you. You are a special soul and your legacy lives on."

"He taught me not just to play, but to play with enthusiasm and passion. But he was more than a teacher; he was a friend, mentor, even a make-shift therapist during some of my most confused days of youth."

"Having only met you twice I can say that you fully redirected my belief of what a consummate professional and musician should be."

"In a time of my life when I thought I was a terrible musician because of insecurities this spectacular person of high esteem made me feel legitimate."

"Never has anyone influenced or impacted my direction as a young musician more than he."

"The world just lost one of the most genuine, amazing, and generous human beings ever, and we are all better people for having known him.”

So the next time someone tells you you shouldn’t meet your heroes, tell them about Sam Pilafian. And rest assured, if you didn’t ever have the privilege of meeting him in person, he would have made you feel special too, just like he did for me as that awkward kid at Tanglewood over 30 years ago. That’s just what he did. That was Sam.

Rest easy, Sam. You left the world a far better place and we’re all better for having known you.

#yeahman

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.

Selling the Concept of Time During Long Notes

Andrew Hitz

"One of the things that's hard for tuba players, actually it's hard for everyone, is that you need to sell the concept of time when you are playing long notes. It's hard."

—David Zerkel

Whether you are taking an audition, playing in a chamber ensemble or performing in a symphony orchestra, selling the concept of time when you are playing long notes is a golden opportunity to stand out in a good way.

Why is that?

Because most musicians suck at it.

I have played next to some people in quintets over the years who have perfectly fine time and yet could not sell the concept of time on a long note to save their lives because they are too passive.

The best chamber ensembles in the world can shut off the lights and play a slow and beautiful piece of music perfectly together with absolutely zero visual communication. It's hard as hell but the greats have a hard time not spoon-feeding to you when their current note is ending and when the next note begins.

Looking for a way to stand out in the final round of a symphony audition or in a chamber audition? Make it painfully clear where your long notes are coming from and where they are going to and sell the hell out of the time while simultaneously taking cues from and reacting to the players around you.

Do that successfully and you will put yourself on a very short list of people being considered for that job.

Are You Willing or Are You Doing?

Andrew Hitz

"Go for your best sound right at the beginning of every note."
—David Zerkel

Making your best sound right at the beginning of the note is dependent on the immediacy of the air. Students must understand that it's not just the quantity but also the quality of the air that needs to be immediate.

The air of a held note that's not changing dynamics needs to be the exact same at the very beginning of the note as it is a beat later. This is pretty easy to achieve in the middle register at a middle dynamic for a decent player.

The challenge comes from being able to do that in all registers at any dynamic level.

And why are the world's best players able to do that with ease?

Through lots and lots of highly focused repetition.

Joe Alessi wasn't born with the ability to play freakishly soft in any register. He simply worked his ass off. It's really not rocket science.

It is also worth noting that it takes significantly more time and effort to obtain skills than it does to maintain skills. I guarantee you Joe has spent less time in the last calendar year practicing his extreme soft playing that he did when he was first acquiring the skill.

To be clear, I bet he spent an awful lot of time maintaining it in the past year. But the amount of time he spent getting that ability in the first place might make your head spin right off.

It is my experience that all musicians believe they are willing to do that kind of work to be able to play that well. But it's also been experience that the number who "are willing" to do that work is way higher than the number who actually do it.

72 Thumbs Downs

Andrew Hitz

Everything about this performance is stunning.

Brandon Ridenour's pic playing. His father's piano playing. The arrangement. The communication between the two of them. Everything.

And yet at the time of this post, 72 different people decided they disliked this video so much that they had to publicly state that by down voting it on YouTube.

I completely understand not being a fan of arrangements in general. (I couldn't disagree more with that stance from a personal taste standpoint, but you could of course make that argument in an intelligent fasion.) You can easily not be a fan of their interpretation of the piece (or literally anyone's interpretation of any given piece.)

But to actually feel the need, on a video posted personally by Brandon, to give this a public thumbs down is really baffling to me.

The reason I'm pointing this out is a reminder to us all that if you put your work out into the world, there will be people who don't like it and feel the need to share that opinion with the world.

So don't fall into the trap of having your eyeballs (and heart!) go straight to that huge number 72 next to the thumbs down before noticing the 6,000 thumbs up votes or 300,000+ views. The only way to not have any down votes is to never share it with the world. And who the hell wins then? Literally no one. You don't make the world a better place by not sharing your art with us and the internet trolls will just find another video to give a thumbs down to.

It also bears remembering who is doing the down voting. Do you think that Jose Sibaja, Jens Lindemann or Ryan Anthony are any of the 72 down votes? Hell no they're not. Anyone who can play at this level is too damn busy making art to be taking swipes at people who not only are making it but have the courage to share it with the world.

So screw the haters, ignore the thumbs down count and push on. And you damn well better share your work with the world. We need it now more than ever.

#endrant

Don't Wait Until 1:00 pm

Andrew Hitz

This reminds me of one of my favorite Joe Alessi quotes:

"You’re not winning an audition if your first notes of the day are at 1 pm.”

—Joe Alessi

Same goes for composing. Or doing score study. Or anything else.

Get those feet moving!

How to Prepare for an Audition

Andrew Hitz

"One might say that the ability to evaluate one's own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way."

—Ryan Holiday in Ego is the Enemy

Many years ago I was supposed to be giving a joint master class with Joe Alessi in Banff but instead I was making him do most of the talking and taking notes!

One student asked him what the key to winning an audition is. Joe told him that he really didn't like answering that question but then proceeded to precisely put it into words:

"You have to be brutally honest with yourself and know exactly what you can and can not do on your instrument."
—Joe Alessi on the key to winning an audition

That's it. You need to do the equivalent of staring at yourself in the mirror while completely naked. No clothes to hide behind. No flattering camera angles. No beautiful scenery in the background to distract us. Just you and your glorious naked self.

He then went on to say anyone preparing for an audition should spend an equal amount of their practice time listening to themselves as actually playing. To hammer home that point, he said someone spending four hours in a day preparing for an audition should spend a full two of those hours listening to recordings of themselves.

This is how you get brutally honest about what you can and can not do.

And you need to do this every single day. Federal holidays. Your boyfriend's birthday. Your anniversary. The day you graduate.

The women and men who are on the short list of people who really have a good chance of winning any given audition are all doing this level of prep. So you'd better be.

Arnold Jacobs on Playing Drills

Andrew Hitz

I find "being musical" is a very difficult thing to just turn on and off like a light switch. And I have yet to meet a single student in 25 years of teaching who was very good at that either.

So even "just" the drills and basics need to be done as musically as possible 100% of the time.

I sometimes like to visualize one of two things to help me with this:

  1. I am broadcasting the drills to Facebook Live and soliciting honest feedback
  2. I am recording the drills for a recording to accompany a method book

Do you think Sam Pilafian and Pat Sheridan had to be reminded to focus when they were recording the accompaniment to The Brass Gym? First of all, they are always concentrating to a high level. But even still, the threat of shipping to the world a recording of you playing your own exercises poorly is a good way to get you to focus.

How do you focus when you are "just" playing drills and other basics? It's what separates the truly great players from the good ones.