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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Tag: Joe Alessi

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!

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.

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.

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.

Canadian Brass, Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic: Monday YouTube Fix

Andrew Hitz

In 1989, the Canadian Brass were joined by the principal players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic for a series of legendary concerts.

I was lucky enough to see this concert when it came to Tanglewood in July of 1989. It was a day that changed my life.

I had recently earned the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts. As a part of becoming an Eagle Scout, you get to spend the day with someone who is working in the field you hope to pursue. Upon receiving the request, Chester Schmitz, the tuba player of the BSO, agreed to let me tag along for a day.

Imagine my elation as a 14-year-old when the day he suggested was the Brass Spectacular concert at Tanglewood that would involve the likes of Phil Smith, Joe Alessi, Chuck Dallenbach, Fred Mills, etc! I can still remember getting the phone call from him. I almost dropped the phone.

He very graciously introduced me to almost every one of the players in this video as if he had known me for years. It really was one of those experiences for a young boy that vaulted me forward with enthusiasm for music.

Chester and I have remained friends to this day. I could never repay him for how kind he was to me that day over 25 years ago.

I didn't know this video existed and am ecstatic to be able to witness this lineup again. This is as good as it gets.

Enjoy!


The Brass Junkies: Joe Alessi of the New York Philharmonic - Episode 12

Andrew Hitz

Listen via

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This guy doesn't exactly need an introduction! Joe Alessi is the Principal Trombone of the New York Philharmonic and one of the world's great players and pedagogues. We caught up with him when he was in Vail with the Philharmonic and talked to him about a lot of stuff. The connection was pretty rough but the stuff he was sharing was gold so we released it anyways.

The times I've gotten to play with Joe have been some of my career highlights. You can learn more from sitting next to this guy for one concert than you can from a four-year college degree. It was great to have him on the show!

Want to help the show? Take a minute to leave us a rating and a review on iTunes.

You can help offset the costs of producing the show by making a small donation at https://www.patreon.com/thebrassjunkies. Your support is greatly appreciated!

Produced by Austin Boyer and Buddy Deshler of FredBrass

Two Quotes to Help You Get to the Next Level

Andrew Hitz

"Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is a strength."
-Ranaan Meyer
"You need to be brutally honest with yourself about what you can and can't do on the horn."
-Joe Alessi

Honest appraisal of one's abilities is the first step in improving any skill.  The key is constantly practicing both the things you can do and the things you can't do so your assessment of your own abilities is not out of date.

Do you have an accurate assessment of your strengths and weaknesses today?

Happiness Is Simplicity

Andrew Hitz

"Misery is complexity. Happiness is simplicity."
-Lester Levenson

The above quote reminds me of one of my favorite Joe Alessi quotes:

"To play a brass instrument well is an incredibly simple process.  To play a brass instrument poorly is an incredibly complex process."
-Joe Alessi

Even if you are successfully playing something, is it possible to do so with less effort or with a streamlined approach? With this approach, even the best performers and band directors can always improve what they are doing.

How can you make what you are doing more simple?

Joe Alessi Master Class Quotes from 2008 ABA Convention (2 of 2)

Andrew Hitz

Here is the second installment of quotes from Joe Alessi, Principal Trombone of the New York Philharmonic, from his master class at the 2008 American Bandmasters Association Convention.  Click here for the first installment.

 

  • After a less than stellar first attempt by a student playing in the master class: "Let's hit the reset button and try again."
     
  • "In my lessons at Juilliard, you have to play one with a great sound or the lesson doesn't start.  It's like putting on your seatbelt in the car."
     
  • "When you take a breath don't lean into it."
     
  • "Really think about the sound you want to play with on the first note of every passage."
     
  • He had the student "mime" the passage by breathing with the slide: "Get everything timed."
     
  • "Mime a fast lick very short and slow.  Like getting the timing right on your engine."
     
  • "Stay in a good stage presence between sections."
     
  • "Don't think of a note being suspended in the air and you are playing up to it.  Think that you are suspended and the note is below you."
     
  • "Brass players blow too fast when nervous and our air columns become narrower."
     
  • "Listen to yourself at half speed."
     
  • On jaw vibrato: "Move your jaw, not your muscles."
     
  • "Remove vibrato at the end of a note to produce a beautiful taper."
     
  • "Louder equals more tongue.  Softer equals less tongue."
     
  • "Air and tongue can be adjusted like the oil/as ratio in a mower."
     
  • "Forte is 90% air and 10% tongue."
     
  • "You should practice with no tongue."
     
  • "Practice playing really softly without any tongue."
     
  • "Practice diminuendoing notes down to niente.  It will help with the attacks."
     
  • "ppp is the essence of your tone right in your face."