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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Category: Pedagogy

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!

Article: Director’s Toolbox – Lead from the Bottom by Patrick Sheridan

Andrew Hitz

Pat Sheridan.jpg

Here is a fantastic read by my good friend Patrick Sheridan on engaging and challenging the tuba players in your band. This is must-read!

From the article:

Children want to be given responsibility! There are three responsibilities (opportunities) that belong to the lowest voice of an ensemble. The laws of acoustics dictate this scientifically.

They include:

1. Sound foundation of an ensemble
2. Intonation
3. Time

Patrick expands on all three of these points. Read the full article here.

You can also click on the logo below to hear my interview (along with Lance LaDuke) with Patrick from Episode 35 of The Brass Junkies.

Wise Words from Arnold Jacobs

Andrew Hitz

The key to playing in either the high or low register well is focusing on making music. As always, Mr. Jacobs seems to have found the perfect words to share with any student struggling with that.

I think it is safe to say that the instinct for most of us when playing in the extreme high or register is to want to use more power to "hit the notes." While using a lot of muscle (and for high notes, shoving the mouthpiece into our faces) helps us to "hit" high notes, it is always with a terrible sound that no one can blend with or tune to. It is also very likely that we will crack that note a high percentage of the time and get tired very quickly.

By telling the player to focus on playing melodically, we get the attention off of the physical aspects of playing in the extreme registers and towards simplifying things.

I am reminded of a great quote from Joe Alessi. He frequently says:

"Playing a brass instrument well is an incredibly simple process, and playing a brass instrument poorly is an incredibly complicated one."

Playing with power (using excess strength) is always a more complicated process that simply focusing on the buzz and thinking melodically.

And if it's good enough for Mr. Jacobs and Joe Alessi, it is good enough for me.

Strength Is Not the Answer

Andrew Hitz

"Strength is not the answer.  I guarantee you that everyone in this room has the strength to play a high G."
—Jim Thompson, Former Principal Trumpet of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra

Preach, Jim!

Watch this video of the incredible Brian MacDonald of the Airmen of Note and tell me that strength is needed to rip in the high register.

One of my last Boston Brass big band Christmas gigs featured Brian on trumpet. I was knocked out at how ridiculously relaxed he looked while soaring above the whole band. It was a call to action to take a lot of not just unneeded, but counterproductive physicality out of my playing.

And that's why the mirror is your friend. Watch the greats on YouTube and then watch yourself. Can you be doing anything more efficiently? The answer is pretty much always yes no matter who the hell you are.

The Arnold Jacobs Straw Exercise

Andrew Hitz

This is a great exercise for two reasons:

  1. Students feel the sensation of air movement which is a much better thing to focus on than any body movements or where the air is headed
  2. This lets the student experience firsthand the difference in efficiency when they inhale with a good oral shape

Combine this with the "EE to Oh" exercise out of the brass gym and you can fix a whole lot of breathing issues without ever addressing them. And in teaching, using fewer words means less chance for confusion and getting to the actual doing of the activity being addressed faster.

Just Trace It

Andrew Hitz

The great pedagogue Arnold Jacobs had a famous concept of always playing two horns at one time: the horn in your hands and the horn in your head.

He always talked about hearing what you were trying to sound like in your head and then simply trying to make that come out of your bell. I use this approach for literally every single note I ever play. From a tuning B-flat to a difficult cadenza. I hear it first and then simply try to make that come out of my horn.

I recently came up with an analogy that seemed to really resonate with students. (I won't mention the 30 before that that only kind of, sort of, not really registered!)

I asked them if they were good at drawing. All of them said they weren't which is something we have in common! I then asked them if they had ever tried to draw a bowl of fruit in art class. Most of them said they had and that it looked terrible.

I then asked them if they had ever used tracing paper to trace something and they all said they had. I pointed out that if either of us tried to trace a picture of a bowl of fruit that we would be able to do it well and it would be recognizable by anyone.

Finally, I explained that all we are trying to do is trace the sounds we have in our heads. And the key to tracing that well is having a crystal clear idea of exactly what we are trying to sound like.

When using tracing paper, no one is thinking about proportions, depth or anything else that makes drawing it by freehand so difficult. We just copy what is below that thin piece of paper and all of those difficult aspects of drawing a three-dimensional object magically take care of themselves.

The same goes for "tracing" the horn in our head. It gets the player (even the young one) away from focusing on process and towards making music which makes tone, phrasing and a long list of other things magically better.

The key to tracing something is of course not having a blurry picture underneath that tracing paper. So students need to be encouraged to have as clear an idea of what they are trying to sound like in their head as they can (which of course comes simply from practicing it.)

The more good playing and bad playing we hear (which I usually just refer to as data), the more in focus what we are trying to sound like becomes in our heads.

And then we just have to trace it.

Arnold Jacobs on Developing the High Register

Andrew Hitz

This is a really great way for a student to begin developing their high register on any instrument. Starting with something familiar takes a few layers of complexity out of the equation.

And playing music rather than exercises will keep the brain focused on the phrasing which keeps the wind or the bow moving.

No One Cares About the Facts

Andrew Hitz

As musicians we get caught up all the time in getting all of the facts right. Sometimes, in the moment, it is all we care about.

The problem is that most people don't really care. Or at the least only care when the facts aren't correct. But they are rarely a value add.

"Don't just tell me the facts. Tell me a story."
—Seth Godin from All Marketers Are Liars

The above Seth Godin quote has absolutely nothing to do with music. He was talking about marketing. But this quote could have come from any number of world-renowned music teachers.

The problem with focusing on the facts in an audition is that so many people will show up able to play all of the facts correctly that you are going to be in trouble. And the number of people who can do that is greater than ever and getting larger all the time.

There will be a few people at that audition who can deliver all of the facts (impeccable rhythm, pitch, phrasing, articulation, etc.) but will also be able to use those facts to tell a musical story so compelling and so remarkable that they force the committee to consider them for the job.

The same goes for conductors and trios and composers.

So whether you are hoping to someday replace Joe Alessi in the New York Philharmonic or are sitting in a high school band, always go for the story.

The notes on the page are a car. Drive your audience somewhere interesting. Somewhere they have to go back to. That's what it's all about.