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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Tag: David Zerkel

Bringing Your Own Rhythmic Urgency

Andrew Hitz

"Make sure you can maintain a sense of rhythmic urgency without a metronome going."
—David Zerkel

Practicing with a metronome is essential for any musician serious about playing with great rhythm.

Practicing without a metronome is also essential for any musician serious about playing with great rhythm.

Let me explain...

To improve at anything on your instrument you must enter a feedback loop. That means getting precise data about what is actually coming out of your horn, using that data to try something a little different and then getting more data.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

In this case, that means using a metronome and a recording device to figure out whether you are playing perfectly in time. And if not, noticing the patterns of how or where you are playing with bad rhythm so you can adjust accordingly.

But some players fall into a trap of practicing with a metronome all the time (or darn close to it.) While this might seem like a good idea, it is actually a really bad idea. You never want to come to rely on a tool that won't be present when you are performing or auditioning.

The way to properly use a metronome is to record yourself both with it and without it to see if you can play with great time regardless. It should be used as a reference point, not provide the rhythm for you.

So there are two types of people who can fall into the lack of rhythmic urgency without a metronome trap that David Zerkel alluded to in the above quote, those who never use a metronome and those who use one too much.

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.

David Zerkel: Monday YouTube Fix

Andrew Hitz

David Zerkel is one of the best tuba players in the world as you can hear from this clip.

Phrasing for days...

We were lucky enough to interview David for The Brass Junkies podcast which you can listen to via Soundcloud below the clip.

Also be sure to check out this set of quotes from one of David Zerkel's recent master classes. He is truly a master teacher.

David Zerkel Master Class at George Mason University

Enjoy this clip of Astor Piazzolla's "Oblivion" for tuba and piano!

The Brass Junkies: David Zerkel

Andrew Hitz

Listen via


David Zerkel is someone I look up to in the tuba world for a number of reasons. First of all, he does things as a soloist on the tuba that simultaneously inspire and depress me! He is a true master technician but that fact completely takes a back seat to his artistry. He is a world class player in every sense of the term.

But I also look up to David as a teacher. He is incredibly well spoken and has the ability to always be teaching whoever is in front of him.

You'll hear in this interview what I mean in this interview of The Brass Junkies.

Note: You can find an incredible collection of David Zerkel quotes from a master class he gave at George Mason here:


David Zerkel UGA


Tuba/Euph at UGA
Brass Band of Battle Creek

You can help offset the costs of producing the show by making a small donation at Your support is greatly appreciated!

Produced by Austin Boyer and Buddy Deshler of FredBrass.

David Zerkel on Choosing College

Andrew Hitz

The following was a note that David Zerkel, tuba and euphonium professor from the University of Georgia, posted as a note on Facebook.  He is one of the premier brass teachers in the world and seems to always have students from his studio winning jobs of all kinds.  I thought his words summed up perfectly what any music student looking to choose a college should consider.

Reprinted with his permission.

On Choosing College

It's audition season for high school seniors across America, so In the spirit of public service, I am posting an essay from the past. Good luck with your searches!


“So, You Want to be a Music Major?”

Some Ideas on Selecting the Right Music Program

The time has come--You’ve reached the ripe old age of 16 or 17 and it’s time to answer that pesky question that someone asked you way back in Kindergarten: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A rather daunting question (one that many of my friends in their thirties and forties still haven’t answered!), but one that needs to be addressed before you shuffle off to college.

I’ll go ahead and make the assumption, since you’re reading this, that you might be considering pursuing a career in music. Congratulations! Being a musician is a wonderful thing. It is a pleasure to wake up in the morning when you can spend the whole day doing something that you LOVE to do. Having said that, it is important for you to realize that you are at a very important crossroad-- your decision of where to pursue your musical education will shape your life for the rest of your days. So, before we decide where we’re going to go, we might want to think back to the Kindergarten question--“What do I want to be when I grow up?”


Choosing a Degree Program

Most universities and conservatories offer several choices of degree programs for undergraduates. Typically, the three degrees that are most often pursued are the Bachelor of Music Education (B.M.E.), the Bachelor of Music in Performance, and the Bachelor of Arts with a Music Major. Additionally, some schools will offer specialized programs in Music Therapy, Music Business, or Arts Technology.  Which degree is right for you? Let’s see if we can figure that out.

The Bachelor of Music Education is perhaps the most common undergraduate degree. It is, essentially, what it says it is: a program that will prepare you to teach music. After completing an Education degree from most schools, you will be certified to teach music K-12. (If you wish to teach music at the college level, you will need to pursue a Master’s degree and then, most likely, a Doctorate degree.) While pursuing the B.M.E., students are required to complete a thorough course of study in music, to include courses in music theory, music history, keyboard skills, ear-training, instrumental techniques, conducting, and private study of the student’s major instrument. Students in the B.M.E. program are also required to perform in large and small university ensembles. In addition to the music courses, students will likely be required to complete coursework relevant to basic principles of education and applications of teaching. The good news for education majors is that they are acquiring a very marketable degree and are almost guaranteed employment after graduating. Mom and Dad love this degree!

The Bachelor of Music in Performance is a degree for those students who wish to pursue a career performing on their major instrument. Acceptance into this program is usually contingent upon passing a highly scrutinized audition for the major professor. Students who are admitted to this degree program should be able to demonstrate not only a highly evolved development on their instrument,but a very strong commitment to their craft. Not unlike professional athletics, the competition curve for performing jobs is incredibly steep. There are a very large number of highly qualified candidates competing for a very small number of full-time positions. Obviously, there are no guarantees for employment at the completion of this degree and many students will choose to continue their studies in graduate school.

There continues to be some pretty spirited discussion about whether or not students should enroll as performance or education majors if their ultimate goal is tobe a performing musician. While some folks feel that the performance degree is “worthless” because it leaves one with a lack of “marketable” skills, others who may have no interest in teaching feel as though they’d be doing a potential disservice to future students by pursuing a “fall-back” career. Both points have their merit. While it is important to pursue one’s dreams with gusto, it is also important to envision a future that includes some sense of career security. It is worth noting at this time that many, if not most, leading orchestral musicians and university professors hold music education degrees. 

Finally, the Bachelor of Arts in Music is essentially a liberal arts degree with a concentration in music. This is frequently a choice for students who still want to have a concentrated study in music, but wish to have more flexibility in taking classes that might prepare them for Professional School, such as Law School or Med School. This degree offers the most academic flexibility and allows the student to really use their undergraduate experience to "find themselves". If you wish to Double Major (daunting, but possible!), the BA may be your best bet. Choosing one program over another will have little or no bearing on the most important factors in your development -- your willingness to work and your desire to realize your potential.


Choosing a School

There are many factors to consider when learning about your potential home for the next four years. Below are some important considerations in selecting a school ofmusic that will be a comfortable fit for you.


Applied Faculty

Who will teach you private lessons on your instrument? What is their background? Do they have substantial performance experience? What is their track record in placing students in teaching and playing positions? Is there any possibility that you might end up studying with a graduate assistant rather than the applied teacher? How is the strength of the other faculty within that area? If you stop to think about it, your applied teacher will be the one constant in your four years of college. You will have more one on one contact with this person than you will with any other faculty member. This person will likely be your biggest fan, your toughest critic and will likely be your musical mentor as your life continues. Consider this aspect of your decision carefully!



How strong are the school’s performing organizations? This question is important on several fronts: it will indicate the strength of the conductors, the strength of the students, and can be a good clue into the esprit de corps of the program. It is important that the ensembles are well balanced and that there enough slots in the ensembles for all of the students. In this digital age, most schools will have compact discs of their performing organizations available for distribution to inquisitive prospects. Ask for these and draw your own conclusions.



How are the physical facilities of the music department? Are there an adequate number of practice rooms? How are the performance halls? How are the rehearsal halls? If you’ll be living a distance from the music building, is there adequate storage space for your instrument? Will you be able to have the type of access to the building that you think that you will need? How is the music library? How are the library’s holdings for your particular discipline? Is the technology up to speed? Most importantly, is this a place where you can see yourself comfortably spending a vast amount of time everyday?


Financial Considerations

How is the school set up for financial aid and scholarships? Do you need to fill out an extra application for scholarship consideration? What percentage of music students are receiving some form of financial assistance? If you have been offered a scholarship, what is the impact of this award on your bottom line cost of attending that school? Sometimes, even if you receive no scholarship assistance from one school, it may still be less expensive than attending a more expensive school that has made a huge scholarship award. Every schoolwants to offer you a scholarship. Don’t become too despondent if your top choice does not come up with an offer. Check your ego at the door and take a good hard look at where you really want to be and whether or not it is financially feasible.


The Vibe

When you have narrowed down your list of schools to two or three be certain to visit those schools on a day when school is in session. Go to a class. Sit in with an ensemble. Take a lesson with the applied teacher. Talk to students and ask them questions. Is there a feeling of optimism? Pride? Apathy? Try to summarize the feeling that you get from being a part of the scene at that school for a day.  Can you see an environment conducive to growth? Can you see an environment that is conducive to fun? Read the University newspaper. Drive around the town. While this is a decision that needs to be made based on logic, it is a decision that must also be driven by how you react to what you see and experience.


The Audition

A very important part of the application process for any school of music is the audition. Your audition may be held in front of a committee of faculty or perhaps with only the applied professor. It is very important for you to know that everyone in the room who is listening to you play is pulling for you. You are playing for a bunch of people who have experienced the sweaty palms, the dry mouth and the anxiety of the moment dozens of times. Relax. Breathe deeply. Now, play your best! Here are some things to consider in preparing to present your best product.


1.     Before you go to your audition, play for as many people as possible. Play for your teacher, your friends, your parents, anyone who will listen! As far as audition prep goes, there is no substitution for live performance. This will help you to get a grip on your nerves and will make the process seem less intimidating. No one at your audition wants you to feel intimidated. (If you sense that someone there does want to intimidate you, you might want to reconsider if you really want to subject yourself to that for four years! Yikes!)

2.     Try to arrive on campus a day before you have to play. Travel tends to make people feel a little funky. Arriving a day ahead of time will allow you to find out where you’re going and to get a good night of sleep before you perform. If you are an easy drive from your audition and arriving a day early seems like overkill, just allow plenty of time to get lost and to find parking.

3.     Please don’t assume that the higher, faster, louder mentality has a whole lot of appeal to your audition committee. They would rather hear a thoughtful, controlled performance of music that you can play well than to hear a shoddy performance of a piece that you think might knock their socks off. Plan your program accordingly. If a school has a prescribed audition program, don’t stray from that literature. If there is not a specific list of requirements, it is usually a good idea to prepare two solos of contrasting style that will explicitly demonstrate both your technical and musical abilities. If you are unsure what to play, e-mail the teacher and propose a couple of options. They will point you in the right direction! It is always a good idea to know ahead of time whether or not you will be required to perform any scales. It is not a coincidence that the “luckiest” players are usually the most prepared!

4.     Ask questions. If you are asked questions, answer them thoughtfully. There is more to your audition than what comes out of your instrument! The committee wants to learn about you and whether or not you’d be a good fit in the studio and in the department. Be prepared to talk about what you’ve done in school and what your plans are for the future. Remember, you should be evaluating the school just as much as the school is evaluating you!

5.     Above all else, try to demonstrate that you love music and that you are serious about your pursuit of a musical education. The last thing the world needs is another wishy-washy music major! Enthusiasm turns teachers on and is infectious in the studio! Sell yourself!


Good Luck!!

Words courtesy of David Zerkel. Visit his website at

The Relationship of Attention Spans and Long Notes

Andrew Hitz

"People have short attention spans, Google Generation.  On the long notes I'm going to insist that you keep us with you."

-David Zerkel

Long notes are just as vital to the musical story you are trying to tell as the short ones.  There is a way to play long notes such that not only your audience but also the people playing along with you know exactly where you are headed musically, where you are coming from musically, and exactly when that note is going to end.

Keep us (the audience and your fellow performers) with you on the long notes at all costs.

(Click here for more great quotes from David Zerkel.)

Going Too Far

Andrew Hitz

"The place that you want to get with your playing is to where you are uncomfortable with how far you've gone."
-David Zerkel

The only way to tell if you are playing a passage too loud is to play the passage too loud.  If you are practicing, the only true way to evaluate the sounds you are making is by recording yourself and then listening to the recording.

Whenever students begin studying with me, almost to a person they are uncomfortable at first with how far I ask them to take things like dynamics and accents.  You don't know how much dynamic contrast is too much dynamic contrast until you have captured yourself playing with too much contrast via a recording.

When I first joined Boston Brass I regularly found that I was uncomfortable with what I was hearing on my side of the bell, especially concerning the amount of front to the notes and accents.  But when I listened back, I found that I was simply matching Rich Kelley on the trumpet or JD Shaw on the horn.

The proof was in the recording and it turned out that my comfort level as it related to what I heard on my side of the bell was not only not relevant but had to be actively ignored in my pursuit of simply "making it sound right."

What in your playing do you need to take too far?

David Zerkel Master Class Quotes (Part 3 of 3)

Andrew Hitz

Here is the final installment of quotes from David Zerkel's recent master class for my students at George Mason University.  His wisdom immediately permeated my teaching and practicing.  Good stuff!

Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.


  • "Breathing is like investing money. In order to make money, you have to invest money. You have to invest lots of air."
  • "When we're presenting our interpretation, I believe that articulation is one of the most negotiable."
  • "The practice room is the ideal place to try things out."
  • "Can you give me a little more pitch on the double tongue stuff?"
  • "I really recommend doing offline practicing when you're practicing double tonguing."
  • "The lip trill fairy can visit you in a short amount of time if you do a little bit of work. If you practice the Arban's exercise (quarters->eights->16ths->etc) religiously for two weeks, the lip trill fairy will pay you a visit."
  • "As you're working on your double tongue always aim for the 5th note."
  • "As you play music that is less melodically oriented, rhythm becomes more important.  You need to make the rhythmic aspect of this melody important."
  • "What you're selling melodically here is time."
  • "One of the main problems with the tuba as an instrument is clarity. Musical clarity, articulation clarity, pitch clarity."
  • "You sound like a bird singing in a cage that is covered with a blanket."
  • "I need you to be a more active and windy participant so you can play clearer."
  • "We have to work three times as hard as any other brass instrument to play as cleanly as they play. -Dave Bragunier"
  • "You can't evaluate your playing at the bell. You have to evaluate what it sounds like in the hall."
  • "Your best sound is not always the right sound.  You listen to Youngblood Brass Band. If you played in a lesson with the sound that Nat plays with you'd get punched in the throat and told to never come back."
  • "I want you to offend me with how short you play. I want you to make me puke."
  • "The place that you want to get with your playing is to where you are uncomfortable with how far you've gone."
  • "You never know how much is loving someone too much until you've done it. In life, you never know where the edge is until you've stepped off of it."
  • "You need to be closer to the line."
  • "The beginning of Strauss 1 is Belushi jumping into a room."
  • "In the upper register, work on your spin being a little faster, a little more tightly wound.  Move more air with a quicker spin."
  • "The higher you get on the tuba, the darker and less distinct it gets. I call it the Woo Register because it sounds like someone is wooing (with their hands cupped over their mouth.)"
  • "Make sure you can maintain a sense of rhythmic urgency without a metronome going."
  • "Sound is everything. If you don't sound good, nothing else matters."
  • "If it sounds good, it is good. -Duke Ellington"
  • "One of the most compelling things we can do is sell people on rhythm."


David Zerkel Master Class Quotes (Part 2 of 3)

Andrew Hitz

Here is the second installment of quotes from the wonderful class that University of Georgia Professor David Zerkel gave at George Mason University in September.

In case you missed it, click here for Part 1.


  • "When you start an excerpt, don't just hit the button on a treadmill and then go flying. I turn on the treadmill for at least a full measure before I get on so I'm ready to start."
  • "I can't tell you how many times I have been at an audition and literally said to myself 'Why am I playing? You aren't ready to play yet.'"
  • "We all have this idea in our head that it takes perfect playing to win an audition. It does not. It takes playing that is informed and stylish and that the person who is going to sit next to them for the rest of their careers knows the context of the music. They're hiring a musician, not a tuba player."
  • "I want you to think less about playing perfectly and more about playing communicatively."
  • "For me, music is performed in words, and sentences, and paragraphs, and chapters."
  • "Think less syllabically and think longer."
  • "Our job as performers in whatever we do, as performers, conductors, or people selling widgets, is to keep people with us, to not let them off the hook.  It can't be 'I'm going to play something nice for you and I hope you enjoy it.' You need to say 'You're coming with me. Get in the car. And here's what we're going to do.'"
  • "Keep moving your bow on long notes."
  • "People have short attention spans, Google Generation.  On the long notes I'm going to insist that you keep us with you."
  • "Always motion."
  • "You can look at the trees in the wind. They are moving. Wind demands motion. Motion happens because of wind. I'm asking your playing to be more windy. I'm asking for you to show me the reaction to the wind."
  • "When watching a conductor, the information you're getting is the motion between the beats. That's what you have to show."
  • "There are a lot of times when you get to the end of your phrase and you get an involuntary sound. We need to dictate it and not let the instrument tell us how it is going to be."
  • "Be sure you are maximizing your expansion when you're playing."
  • "If you need more air, for God's sake go get it."
  • "What's going to make people notice that my lung capacity is small? By playing with an involuntary sound at the end of phrases."
  • "I have a decision to make: am I going to let my sound suffer or am I going to breath in more places?"
  • "Can we all agree that when we are playing any wind instrument that one of our goals is to play with a resonant sound?"
  • "Sound is vibration. Resonance is an abundance of vibration. In order for us to play with an abundance of vibrations we must use an abundance of air."
  • "Jacobs asked me "how do you breath?" I gave a complicated answer and he said 'No, you suck air into your body.'"
  • "Jacobs talked to me about blowing way, way, way, way WAY beyond your lips.  He then played using air to his lips, then to his valve cluster, then to his bottom bow, then to his bell."
  • "Think of blowing your air two feet beyond your bell."
  • "Project everything forward. When you're singing properly your mask (face) vibrates."
  • "Someone says your sound is huge, that's a compliment. When they tell you you play loud, they may hate you."
  • "In the upper register the air stream is pencil-sized. In the middle register it is corndog sized."