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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Category: Performance Tips

It's Not About You

Andrew Hitz

A video went viral over the weekend of Mark Donnelly singing O Canada in front of a sold out hockey arena in Canada.  Donnelly, who has sang the Canadian National Anthem before games on many occasions, decided to sing this version while on ice skates.  You can probably already tell this isn't going to end well...

He begins skating around the rink while singing and shortly thereafter he ends up skating right at the ceremonial red carpet that was still on the ice from the opening ceremony.  Without any warning at all his feet stop while the rest of his body keeps going and he falls to the ice - hard.  But a magical thing happened.  HE KEPT SINGING.

He then stumbled to get up since the carpet was still underneath him and yet HE KEPT SINGING.  He finally got to his feet and continued to skate around the ice and finish the performance.  He didn't get angry.  He didn't get embarrassed.  He didn't even stop to look at the carpet.  He just kept right on doing the only thing he was charged with doing: singing the anthem.

In an interview the next day I saw him mention that the carpet was supposed to be up at that point.  Someone messed up.  And yet he wasn't even mad about it the next day.  His reaction is exactly what I strive to do as a performer.  The only thing that matters is the audience so when I get upset that a passage didn't go as it "should have" I am making it all about me.

(Previous Post: Abandon All Hope For a Better Past)

Donnelly's reaction was admirable, professional, and inspiring.  Never make it about yourself.  Always make it about the audience.


Is it the Hardware or the Software?

Andrew Hitz

As I mentioned on Twitter, I could have retweeted Gerry's tweet five times.  A great instrument makes it very easy to sound like yourself.  A not so great instrument makes that much more challenging.

But if you hand Joe Alessi a student trombone, he is going to sound like Joe Alessi.  Not sound kind of like Joe Alessi.  Exactly like Joe Alessi.  He will have to work a lot harder but the results won't be any difference.

The moral of the story, as pointed out by Gerry Lopez in his tweet, is to get to know every single aspect of your hardware but then equally as important is making sure your software is up to date.

It's Not About You

Andrew Hitz

When you noticably react to a mistake on stage you have instantly broken the cardinal rule of performance. You have made it about yourself and not about the audience. You can not be simultaneously talking to the audience and talking to yourself. It is simply not possible. Don't ever react to a mistake with your body language, by swearing under your breath or even with a slight change in your facial expression. Keep focusing on the storytelling and not on your ego.

Don't make it about you. Ever.

20140505-161759.jpg © 2014 Andrew Hitz

Five Steps to Mastering a Piece of Music

Andrew Hitz

Here are five steps to mastering any piece of music.  If done correctly, it will work every single time.

  1. Record yourself.
  2. Listen to it.
  3. Analyze it.
  4. Change something.
  5. Repeat.

How do you know when the tomato sauce you're making from scratch has the right amount of salt? You taste it.  If it needs more you do two things: add a little salt and then taste it again.  Too often as musicians we record something, hear something that needs changing, change it, and then we're done with it.

Always taste the musical sauce before it is served.

With painters here at the house, if you need the score to Rite of Spring, it is in the shower. © 2014 Andrew Hitz

Using Vibrato as a Crutch

Andrew Hitz

"Be able to play a love song with and without vibrato." -Arnold Jacobs (via @JacobsQuotes)

Vibrato is one of the best tools we have at our disposal as musical storytellers, but it can frequently be either overused or predictable.  As Mr. Jacobs stated above, it is very important to be able to play something like a love song without any vibrato at all.

A great exercise is to record a love song or melody with the vibrato, then without.  If you have the ability to make the second version just as convincing as the first, you will have gone a long way towards conveying a clear story to your audience once you add it back into the equation.

Be sure to use vibrato as an enhancement, not as a music crutch.

(A fantastic performance a year ago by Harry Watters inspired me to write this blog post with lots of thoughts on vibrato.)

Izabella Guarding the House and Tuba © 2014 Andrew Hitz

Questioning What You Are Positive Is True

Andrew Hitz

"A lot of times when you have a problem with your playing and you think you know the solution try the exact opposite.  85% of the time it will work.  And that comes from personal experience." -Marty Hackleman (former horn of the Empire Brass, Canadian Brass and National Symphony Orchestra)

This is invaluable advice for the practice room.  But it is also great advice for band directors and private teachers.  As with anyone who has been doing something for three decades, I know an awful lot about music.  Frequently though, the things which I am positive are the way I perceive them are what hold me back from having a breakthrough with a student or having one myself on the horn.

What is it that you know today that you need to "forget" for a few minutes while allowing the best possible solution to emerge?

The moon rising over the Italian Alps before a Boston Brass performance in Merano, Italy. © 2012 Andrew Hitz


The Art of Musical Deception

Andrew Hitz

"That diminuendo ought to be a deception. We all know it's coming but the audience doesn't." - Sam Pilafian

This was something Sam said to the Boston Brass All-Star Big Band during our rehearsal at Strathmore earlier this month.  We hired members of The Army Blues, The Airmen of Note, The President's Own Marine Band and The Navy Band.  The band was absolutely smoking, one of the best we've ever put together in almost 10 years of doing the show.  And yet we all still needed to hear that advice.

So often I hear my students begin a crescendo just a little before they are supposed to by allowing the volume to inadvertently creep up just slightly.  This also goes for tempo changes which accidentally begin just a touch early.  While I'm not as bad about it as I used to be, I frequently hear myself doing the exact same thing when I record myself in the practice room.

It was truly impressive how much more effective the passage Sam addressed was after he had us keep that diminuendo a deception.  The difference in actaul execution was small but the difference in the effect was enormous.

And if members of the best service bands in the world need to hear that from time to time, it's safe to say that the rest of us do as well.

© 2013 Andrew Hitz

Intonation is a Social Skill

Andrew Hitz

"Intonation is a social skill."

I posted this quote on my Facebook Page a couple of days ago and it got over 100 likes.  I believe I first heard this said by Rex Martin but I'm not sure.  Playing in tune with others has just as much to do with social skills as it does with the length of your instrument.

We have all played with "that guy" who thinks he has a pretty incredible ear and yet always seems to have trouble playing in tune with others.  Sometimes "that guy" blames others with their words and other times they simply convey their disappointment with those around them through their body language, eye rolls or any of a plethora of non-verbal communications.  No matter how great that player is, no one ever wants to play with "that guy."

You have to be flexible with your intonation always in all situations.  100% of the time.  No exceptions.  You can have a PHD in intonation and if you are "in tune" and the other four members of a quintet are all equally "sharp" you've got a problem.  No audience member would ever hear you as in tune and the others as all sharp.  You are flat.  End of story.

The best set of ears I've ever played with belong to a trumpet player and my former colleague in Boston Brass, Rich Kelley.  I describe him as having "beyond perfect pitch."  He is blessed (cursed?) with the ability to exactly identify whether any note is sharp, flat or in tune and by exactly how much.  Every single time.  I know he is not unique in this regard but he is as good as I've ever seen.

Coincidentally, playing in tune with Rich is easier than with anyone I've ever played with.  And that's not because he tries to steer the intonation ship from the top of an ensemble.  He agrees with Pythagoras on this one and listens down.  It's because he has one goal and one goal only: for the music to sound in tune.  He is incredibly helpful with rehearsing and being able to identify immediately whether a player is sharp or flat in any given chord.  But in the moment, he will do whatever it takes to make a chord sound in tune, which is the only goal any of us should ever have.

A very important part of playing in tune is also playing well with others.

My dog plays well with others and would probably play very in tune. © 2013 Andrew Hitz

Rex Martin's Tips to Playing In Tune (Part 1 of 3)

Andrew Hitz

My senior year at Northwestern University, my tuba professor, Rex Martin, gave the studio a handout he had written titled "A More Natural Intonation." This article is packed full of really useful tips for playing in tune.  I'm really glad that I still have it laying around over 15 years later.  There's enough great stuff in this article that I'll break it up into three posts.

"It is counterproductive to think in terms of intervals being lipped up or down.  If we do so, we are reacting to something we have already done wrong and are trying to fix it, instead of simply hearing what to sound like beforehand.  It is important to imagine the sound as a specific quality of tone, not simply a pitch.  If we hear the sound in our head as we play, our instrument will resonate those pitches and produce that tone, as long as we have the correct valve combination or slide position."

- Rex Martin

The above passage underscores the importance of clearly hearing exactly what you are trying to sound like in your head while you are playing.  When working off of a clear mental image, absolutely every aspect of your playing is taken care of.  Articulation, tone quality, musicality, note endings, and yes, intonation.

More often than not, when you are playing a note out of tune it is with a less than ideal tone quality.  This is why imagining a specific quality of tone in our heads is very important.  You can be blowing a pitch sharp on a brass instrument that is the proper length while either lipping it down or pulling a slide to make it in tune.  While it is certainly possible to play a note in tune in this scenario it is not possible to do so with a good sound.  Imagining the note in your head with a great tone in the first place would have fixed this scenario immediately.

Hearing the sound you are striving for in your head goes for brass, woodwind, percussion, strings, vocalists, everyone.  All of the greats hear a world class version of what they are performing in their heads as they play or sing and everything else, intonation included, takes care of itself.

Tonal Energy Tuner - The best tuner I've ever used.