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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

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Cultivating a Bad Sound

Andrew Hitz

You're cultivating a bad sound.

That is what my tuba professor at Northwestern, Rex Martin, used to say whenever I would play any note without using my absolute best sound possible.  That included quickly touching a note to get a pitch in my ear before buzzing.  It also included ghosting a note down an octave before playing a note in the high register.  He made me apply the concept to every single time I ever played anything and it is some of the best advice I've ever received in my career.

Every time you play anything you are reinforcing something.

Two Stories Every Musician Should Hear

Andrew Hitz

Sorry I've been AWOL from this blog for the last month.  I just finished a project which will be unveiled in the next week or so that has taken up all of my time! But I'll start posting again, I promise! I recently heard a story that we can all stand to hear but it's especially for young musicians who are trying to make a go of it as performers.  That story reminded me of another one that is also a good lesson for us all.

First Story:

I have a good friend in a brass quintet that does quite a bit of work in their city.  They work more than anyone else does in this town and they all get paid quite a bit of money as a result.  There is one instrument in particular that's had a good deal of turnover within the group and they are always looking for someone to fill that spot in a more permanent fashion.

There was a graduate student who had been recommended to them a number of times by various people as being a good guy and a great player.  When the opportunity availed itself, my friend hired this guy to play a graduation ceremony.  As a result of being held in a large stadium, there was a sound check for levels before the actual gig.  The call time was exactly 15 minutes before the sound check.

20 minutes beforehand, no graduate student.  15 beforehand, no graduate student.  None of the regular members could even get this guy on the phone and before they knew it, the sound check started with only 4 guys.  At this point, my friend (the contractor) and their quintet looked like clowns because they couldn't get all five guys there on time.  About 5 minutes into the sound check, this guy came sauntering up and quietly sat down.  He didn't apologize or offer any acknowledgement that he was late.  He also didn't say anything about it between the rehearsal and the gig.

Fast forward to a few months later when this guy saw my friend at a party.  He told him that he enjoyed playing with the quintet and hoped that they could work together in the future.  My friend then told him that they would never call him ever again for any reason.  The guy looked shocked.

Who knows how much work he lost by being late, not being reachable, and not even acknowledging that his actions had consequences for people other than himself.

Second Story:

Jeff Conner, one of the trumpet players in Boston Brass, needed to hire a horn player for our big band Christmas show.  Every year we hire a number of musicians to fill out the trumpets, horns, trombones, and a rhythm section and we pay out a whole lot of money as a result.

Jeff got a very strong recommendation for a horn player who was in graduate school in Texas where we had a few gigs over 5 days.  Jeff called this guy's cell phone and got his outgoing voicemail message.  The message was some heavy metal music.  Jeff waited for 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 15 seconds and there was no acknowledgement of whose machine it was at all.

At that point, Jeff hung up.  He then called the next guy or girl on the list.  This guy lost over $1000 in work but lost something much more important than that.  He lost the opportunity to network for 5 days on the road with Sam Pilafian, Scott Hartman, Jens Lindemann, all of Boston Brass, and many others.

***YOU CAN'T PAY FOR THAT KIND OF ACCESS***

If he was as great as the people who recommended him said he was which is quite likely, who knows how much work he could have gained from that experience.

And the worst part? Jeff just hung up.  He didn't wait for the beep and leave a message explaining who he was, what he had to offer, and that he was going with someone else.  He has no idea he lost that money and that opportunity.

Moral of the story, you have to be on time, prepared, and accountable all of the time.  No exceptions.  And your voicemail message should convey who you are and be very short, professional sounding, and to the point.  That horn player was not the only person Jeff had to contact that day.  He needs to know that he is leaving a message for the right person or he has to carry around in the back of his head that he might not have actually contacted anyone at all.

Don't leave any opportunities on the table.  There aren't enough of them out there to waste!

Keeping Your Options Open in the Music Business

Andrew Hitz

When I was in the 6th grade I decided that I wanted to become a professional tuba player.  At that point, I had only one goal in mind: I was going to play in the Boston Symphony.  My first BSO concert was Tanglewood On Parade when I was only two weeks old and my parents had been taking me to their concerts ever since. At that age, you aren't supposed to consider how difficult it will be to achieve such a specific goal.  One thing that goal did accomplish was to motivate me many times growing up.  By the time I was a sophomore in high school I was making the 25 mile trip each way into Boston three times a week for lessons, youth orchestra and youth wind ensemble.

Luckily for me I had teachers growing up who put me in the best possible position to succeed in the music business.  They did this by repeatedly forcing me out of my comfort zone musically.  The net result was making me a more well rounded musician which in turn increased my potential number of future revenue streams.

When I met Sam Pilafian at the age of 14 he handed me a tape (yes, a tape) of him playing with the New York Trumpet Ensemble.  He told me to learn his solo from the opening of 'Buddy Bolden's Blues'.  That was the sum and total of his instructions to me.  He didn't tell me that he half-valved some of the notes and certainly didn't give me instructions on how to do that.  He didn't mention that he bent some of the pitches with his lips.  He just told me to learn it.

What do you know? I learned that solo with all the bends and growls and everything else.  I didn't even really know what I was doing but knew what it sounded like (thanks to the tape) and what it needed to sound like coming out of my bell.  This small gesture from Sam prepared me for being thrown in a Dixie band when I got to graduate school.  I had already learned some of the jazz 'vocabulary' and was ready to tackle chord changes and learning the 19 different possible endings to Dixie tunes.

Don't get me wrong, if you want to be an orchestral player you must dive head first into the literature, the style, the auditions, into everything orchestral.  But it is possible, through great teaching and a lot of perseverance, to also put yourself in a position to make money in the music business in ways that you may not foresee.

And besides, I think that Mike Roylance is doing a pretty darn good job up there in Boston.

Quotes from Jim Thompson Master Class from the 2011 NTC

Andrew Hitz

On the Friday morning of this year's National Trumpet Competition at George Mason University, former principal trumpet of the Montreal Symphony Jim Thompson gave a master class on buzzing.  Jim literally wrote the book on buzzing.  I had the privilege of serving on the faculty of a brass festival in Mexico with Jim a few years ago and I was immediately taken aback at the efficiency of his playing.  A lot of that efficiency is a direct result of his buzzing. He spoke a lot about buzzing in the class but also ventured into some other topics related to brass playing in general.  It was as good a presentation as I've seen on the physical side of playing a brass instrument.  Below are a collection of quotes from his class.  I hope you find them as helpful as I have!

 

  • "The brass instrument family is the closest to the human voice.  We use human tissue to vibrate on the air column."
     
  • "If you can buzz in-tune and expressively, you can pretty much put that down the pipe."
     
  • "I just love it when somebody makes a mistake and looks at their horn as if 'you betrayed me.'"
     
  • "The lips should be reactive to the air - not proactive to the air."
     
  • "The ability to make glissandi is very important."
     
  • "Part of these exercises is to buzz in and out of all of the registers with very little change."
     
  • "Isometrics is the absolute enemy of good physical performance."
     
  • "The air pressure wants to spread your lips apart."
     
  • "Less head movement (between ranges) means better endurance and more flexibility and technique."
     
  • "(Buzzing on) the mouthpiece requires you to use a lot of air.  When you do that, you take a lot of stress off the lips."
     
  • "I can not emphasize enough starting (your day) as softly as you can play."
     
  • "Strength is not the answer.  I guarantee you that everyone in this room has the strength to play a high G."
     
  • "Lip pressure and air pressure must increase together as you go higher.  Don't lead with the lip."
     
  • "I like to think rather than going up into the high register I like to bring it down to me."
     
  • "Support (in the high register) isn't about playing louder.  It's about maintaining the balance of the lip and the air."
     
  • "Allen Vizzutti can change his air pressure almost as fast as a violinist can change their bow."
     
  • "Volume is overrated.  Volume is increasing and decreasing the overtones.  The fundamental basically stays the same."
     
  • "Please don't fall into the trap of dark and bright.  Your sound is either resonant and clear or not.  And resonant means overtones."
     
  • "When a conductor says you are too bright, check your attacks."
     
  • "Just because you can doesn't mean you should.  Trumpet playing is not an indoor sport.  It is a musical endeavor."
     
  • "Do you realize that in a brass quintet you actually have to play softer and louder than in an orchestra? And more sustained."
     
  • "The tongue is highly overrated in terms of attacks."

Joe Alessi Master Class Quotes (Part 1 of 3)

Andrew Hitz

Last week the principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, Joe Alessi, gave a fantastic master class at Towson University.  He is easily one of the best musicians I have ever had the privilege of working with and I learn something every time I hear him either perform or speak about music.

Check out this Joe Alessi interview I did with Lance LaDuke for The Brass Junkies.

I knew that I was going to get a lot of great material from a two and a half hour master class but the amount of information that I left with exceeded my very high expectations.  Joe is a rare person who is so highly accomplished on both the playing and teaching sides of our industry.

A special thank you to Craig Mulcahy for giving me the heads up about the class the day of and to the two students at George Mason who rescheduled their lessons so that I could make the trip up to Maryland.  I am very happy that I made it!

I was able to get so many great quotes from this class that I will post them in three parts over the course of the week.  I attempted to write them down verbatim but did not record the class so there unintentionally might be some slight variations to his wordings.  If there are any discrepancies it is his own fault because he kept making great points! I hope you enjoy these as much as I did.

Be sure to also check out Part 2 and Part 3.

  • "I'm always trying to find new ways to do something."
     

  • "Sometimes you revisit old concepts and change them slightly."
     

  • "To play a brass instrument well is a very simple process.  To play one badly is very complicated."
     

  • "Try to find a good model breath that has nothing to do with playing and instrument, like a sigh."
     

  • "Take a breathing event that relaxes you and model your playing after that."
     

  • "People often ask me for a quick fix on how to get better.  Here's one: anytime you pick up your instrument during the day, which should hopefully be 7 or 8 times a day, play one note that's the most beautiful note you can.  And not just a quarter note but three or four beats.  Then just clone it over and over."
     

  • "The first 10 minutes you play in a day is how you play the rest of the day."
     

  • "The more I play the more quickly I have discoveries about my playing."
     

  • "A lot of practicing can be done away from the instrument."
     

  • "You gotta be able to sing it and conduct it.  When you know how something is supposed to go, when you pick up your instrument, you can make that happen."
     

  • "In high school I was a practice nut about fundamentals."
     

  • "If something is simple and slow, I try to find something interesting about it."
     

  • "When listening to entrance exams at Juilliard and the New York Phil I look for even playing and consist tone.  Consistent pitch and consistent rhythm."
     

  • "Consistency is what you practice when you are in the practice room."
     

  • "When playing orchestrally there is a certain way you have to play and that's to have an immediate attack."
     

  • "An accent looks like a small diminuendo.  What you're playing is a reverse diminuendo."
     

  • "You need to record everything you do."
     

  • "You need to document everything you do and you need to listen to it.  I don't care if it's three notes.  Record it.  No, I'm serious."
     

  • "If you play a jury, record it.  If you take an audition, ask the people if you can record it."

A Great Example of a Professional Setting Goals

Andrew Hitz

Setting goals is an absolutely essential part of becoming a great musician.  I discussed this subject in a previous post over the summer.  Every professional musician I know sets goals for themselves.  It is simply an imperative part of the job. I have found through the years that it is easy to get students to understand the importance of setting goals.  The challenge is getting them to understand how to go about it.  Lance LaDuke, the trombone/euphonium for Boston Brass, wrote a great post on the S.M.A.R.T. system of setting goals.  He does a great job in that post of describing in detail exactly what you need to do to set goals effectively.  As his colleague, I have seen him put this system to good use to improve both his playing and his other business ventures.

A fantastic blog post by Lauren Veronie really caught my attention this week and got me thinking about setting goals again.  Lauren plays the euphonium in the US Army Field Band and is a wonderful player.  She has a number of solo performances coming up in the near future for which she is currently preparing.  In her recent blog post she discusses in detail the passages that she is practicing and exactly what she is trying to improve.

I am impressed with the specificity of her goals.  She has identified the problem, stated a specific finish line and decided how she is going to get there.  I think this is a great example for all students of how to set goals.

But be sure to keep something in mind: she's already got a gig! If you are in music school or taking auditions right now you must understand that it takes planning and goal setting like this to win a job.

If you aren't preparing with this kind of intensity someone is somewhere.

Things I Did in College Which Most Prepared Me for My Career in Music: Got Out of My Musical Comfort Zone (5 of 5)

Andrew Hitz

I was raised as a classical player.  I still consider myself a classical player who happens to be able to play some other styles of music.  Growing up I wanted to be the tuba player in a major symphony orchestra.  In fact, I wanted to be in only the Boston Symphony.  It was a great plan but before Chester Schmitz retired I was called by Boston Brass to fill in at the last possible minute on a gig.  When I got there, half of the show was jazz which included walking bass lines, playing a solo and even singing a tune.  Thankfully, I had teachers along the way that had made me encounter all three of those things in performance before I was asked to do them in front of 1200 music educators with Boston Brass. When I arrived at Northwestern University, I already had a very wide range of musical tastes.  In fact, in high school I listened to just as much Led Zeppelin as Tchaikovsky.  There was a very large disconnect however between the number of styles of music that I listened to and the number that I played on the tuba.  This was not any sort of conscious decision but simply a product of being raised as a classical player.

I was lucky enough to try playing a little bit of jazz in both middle school and high school.  I played the bass trombone parts in jazz band down an octave which did a lot for developing my taste for jazz but my performance of it was still very limited.  My middle school band director, Bob Mealey, did introduce me to improvisation in a brilliant way which I will write about in a future post.  But my exploration of non-classical music did not expand outside of jazz band rehearsals and performances.

That is until I got to college.  Once I got to Evanston I was surrounded by music all of the time.  Chicago is one of the best cities in the world for live music and I was suddenly introduced to a whole new set of friends with their own tastes and CD collections.  It was an exciting time.

One of the best decisions I ever made was to formally pursue learning how to improvise.  I ended up getting the number of a fantastic tuba player and teacher in Chicago named Dan Anderson.  I took the El down to DePaul and took a few jazz lessons with him.  This is where I really started to get the new language of jazz in my ear.  Just like learning how to speak any other language, you have to immerse yourself in it.  Dan showed me the different articulations, weights and note lengths that are all a part of "speaking" jazz.  I only took a few lessons with him but they were invaluable to me moving forward.

Next, I enrolled in Jazz Improv class with Tony Garcia at NU.  He had a very organized and systematic way of teaching the art of improvising which I responded to well.  Even if the class had only been listening to the examples he played for us and discussing them it would have been one of the most beneficial classes I took during undergrad.

I also began jamming with my friends with some frequency.  It didn't matter what instrument combination we could come up with.  We would all pile into a practice room and play.  Sometimes it was over a chord progression like the blues and other times it was just free improvisation.  The ability to express myself through different sounds, even when they were completely off the wall and unconventional, ended up helping all aspects of my tuba playing.  All you have in free improvisation is your storytelling.  There are no right notes or wrong notes.  No in tune or out of tune.  Just a story.  And most students of classical music (like me) can learn a lot from that.

Probably the pinnacle musical experience of my undergraduate studies was the last tune on my senior recital.  It was an arrangement of Bathtub Gin, a song by the band Phish, for trumpet, trombone and tuba.  My dear friends John Butte, Ben Denne and myself had one simple plan.  We had arranged the "head" to start the tune.  We would then let the music go any direction it wanted to go and then we would bring it back around again to the head.  We hadn't planned the length or anything else about it.

It ended up being 10 minutes long and it was BY FAR the audiences favorite part of the recital.  Afterwards, my teacher Rex Martin was as excited about that piece as he had been about anything I had played for him in my almost four years at school.  It was an amazing experience and a wonderful way to put a bow on my studies at Northwestern.

Next, I went to graduate school at Arizona State.  Sam Pilafian, my teacher there, was already a very accomplished jazz tuba player and he wanted to get me exposed to it as well.  His guitar and tuba duo, Travelin' Light, was one of my favorite bands ever.  I think I literally wore out their first album.  When I got to school Sam told me that I was playing in a Dixie band called the Dixie Devils.  He didn't ask if I wanted to play in it.  He just said I was.  Even though I was terrified because I had never done anything like it I simply opened my mouth and the word "okay" popped out.  What an experience it turned out to be!

I was forced to read changes, navigate the road map of tunes (which would change on the fly!) and be ready for a tune to end in any of five different ways.  There were hand signals at the end: stop on a dime, firehouse ending (four bars of tonic instead of one at the end), repeating a II-V turnaround.  The first rehearsal required more 'thinking on my feet' than the previous 13 years of playing combined.  I messed up a lot.  And I played it right a lot.  It was a very freeing experience to be forced to not know exactly how a tune was going to go.

It was also invaluable to be in an ensemble where I was BY FAR the greenest member.  Everyone else was used to playing in jazz combos and other Dixie bands.  The best and fastest way to learn as a musician is to surround yourself with people better and more experienced than you.  I was forced to raise the bar constantly just to keep my head above water.  I have never found a way to improve my musicianship on more levels and at a faster rate than by playing with the Dixie Devils.  I wouldn't trade in that experience for the world.

You never know what direction your career will take and I sure am glad that I was prepared for that day in 2000 when Boston Brass called.  And since Mike Roylance is both young and awesome, I don't think the Boston Symphony will be calling anytime soon.  Luckily, I was prepared for my opportunity through preparation and being forced out of my musical comfort zone.