Composers Music Thoughts Trombone

Canzonas Americanas

Canzonas Americanas

I’m a little behind on this. Canzonas Americanas with music by Derek Bermel, was released last November, and since then it’s received decent reviews. The Guardian says Alarm Will Sound plays with “panache,and Anne Midgette of the Washington Post placed the album in her best of 2012. (And the consumers on Amazon and iTunes seem to like it as well.)

The recording contains all music of Derek Bermel, including the title work Cazonas Americanas which was written for the LA Phil in 2010, Three Rivers (2001), Continental Divide (1996) and Hot Zone (1995). In addition to AWS, the album features vocal performances by Luciana Souza (Grammy award winner) on Canzonas, Kiera Duffy on At the End of the World (2000) and Timothy Jones on Natural Selection (2000).

I like that the trombone actually gets some work in Derek’s music. In Three Rivers the trombone is part of the funky, lugubrious, dissonant line that occurs throughout the piece.

Three Rivers - Excerpt 1

The part is entirely playable on tenor trombone with the exception of one low B that happens towards the beginning but has a feel that is very well suited to the bass trombone.

The trombone also participates in the smoother, quicker cascading passages (one example is at 1:30, the trombone has a more prominent role in the subsequent entrances) that recur.

Three Rivers - Excerpt 2

There are also good times to be had for the trombone in Canzonas Americanas. Check the first movement for things like this:

Canzonas Americanas - Mvt 1

This passage is part of a pretty densely scored section. I found I had to play fairly loudly to be heard (c. 1:40):

And the third movement has a nice passage where the brass joins the fantastic electric guitar/bass part:

Canazonas Americanas - Mvt 3

The rest of the disc is just as interesting. Natural Selection  is written in a way that makes the ensemble sound bigger than it is. The trombone range is wide: in the third song “Got My Bag of Brown Shoes” it goes down to pedal F and as high as E at the top of the treble clef (with some other “as high as possible” pitches). The first song, “One Fly,” reminded me of the fly episode of Breaking Bad, so I give you the Bermel/Breaking Bad mashup.

Bonus: Derek also arranged some Conlon Nancarrow for Alarm Will Sound that we recorded for our album a/rhythmia. Lots of trombone work to be done in this one too. The opening looks like a no brainer for the bass trombone. The trombone should hocket with the bassoon to form the boogie woogie piano part. If you have short arms like me you can end up doing damage to yourself trying to play all those low C’s on a tenor trombone.

Study 3a - beginning

But just a short while later in the transcription the trombone part has a duet with the trumpet that takes it up to E flat at the top of the treble clef, a decidedly un-bass trombone lick.

Study 3a - Trumpet duet

The challenges make it fun. Do your best to enjoy it if you ever have the chance to work it up.

Advice Music Practice Trombone Uncategorized

The Little Things

I often think of a story I once heard about Cal Ripken Jr (possibly apocryphal): to help avoid hand/wrist injuries he could be found slapping his hands against the asphalt after practice to build callouses/thicken bones/become generally more badass. The point being that he was going that extra step to condition himself for play… and in his case, condition himself so well that he would earn the record for the most consecutive games played. A record that had stood for 56 years.

It leads me to ask myself “what little things are other musicians doing?”

There are stories about Christian Lindberg, trombonist, and Bill VerMuelen, horn player, repeating high notes hundreds of times.

John Marcellus, Professor of Trombone at the Eastman School of Music, developed an intense routine of upper register lip slurs.

Marcellus - High Register Extensions

Rafael Méndez, trumpet player, would practice rapid articulation for minutes at a time, allowing him to do this:

David Waters, former Professor of Trombone at Rice University, broke down vibrato into a meticulous exercise to develop control (others do a similar exercise):

Waters - Vibrato

With so many skills to master most musicians have devised at least one unique approach. I’m pretty sure that if Cal Ripken was hitting his hand on the sidewalk it wasn’t the only thing he was doing. He had an intense routine of many “little things.” Each of the musicians above has/had an intense routine of many “little things:” fundamentals, exercise, score study, singing…

What little things do you do?

Advice Music Practice

Impediments to Progress: Holes and Loops

David Waters, my professor in grad school, referred to deficiencies in technique as “holes.”  Just like a depression in your yard, the hole could be filled with the right tools and some hard work.  Others call them hurdles or obstacles.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not as easy as going to the shed and grabbing a shovel.  Sometimes you are not aware of the hole, sometimes the motivation isn’t there to fill it and sometimes it seems like no matter how much you put into the hole, no amount of work will hide it.  It’s the last scenario I will address most but I’ll also touch on the first two.

Being aware of an issue is the first step.  That may be obvious but the issue itself may not.  Continuing with our “hole” metaphor, if we don’t get into the yard and look we’ll never know there’s a hole to be filled.  Musically speaking, we listen to recordings and attend concerts to discern what others are capable of, we talk to others (friends, teachers) and they tell us what we should be able to do.  Then, if we have enough motivation, we start addressing it.

A dissertation unto itself.  Here are just a few points.  There’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic being motivation that is tied to a task and exists within the individual performing.  Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the performer: money, fame, competition, cheering crowds, fear of punishment, etc.  In our “hole” situation intrinsic motivation would be love of manual labor or the joy we get from a beautiful yard, extrinsic motivation would be getting paid to do the work or a fear of someone tripping and twisting an ankle.  There are beliefs about the relative merits of each: studies show that both can be beneficial but the lasting effects of intrinsic motivation usually trump extrinsic.

The Black Hole:
Occasionally we encounter a hole that just can’t seem to be filled.  Try as we might the problem remains.  This is far from uncommon.  Here are just some thoughts on why this might be:

Fear of Success
This is a form of self-sabotage that will keep us from achieving all that we can. Think about this in depth before you go any further.  Fear of success can take a few forms:

  1. Fear of lost friends/relationships
    The belief that, if we improve, others will resent it and we’ll lose them in our lives.  Think about athletes who “make it big.”  They go from unpaid high school or college players to multimillionaires overnight but their friends and family haven’t changed.  It’s easier to see how someone could be afraid of losing those they care about in a situation like that but it can happen in the less lucrative field of classical music as well.  (“Will my friends resent my ability?”)
  2. Fear of responsibility
    The belief that, if we are successful it will be expected of us again.  Showing that we’re good at something puts pressure on us to be good again and again, which then causes people to look to us when they need something done, which adds more responsibility to our lives…. something not everyone can handle.
  3. Fear of reaching our potential
    The belief that, if we do our best it still may not be good enough.  Simple as that.

You haven’t made it a priority
Be honest with yourself, have you really prioritized the issue?  Too often, I see frustration in others over a particular habit they can’t change or skill they can’t do that could be alleviated if they would make the issue a priority.  For instance, if they are having difficulty with air flow they spend their time practicing their solo repertoire without touching on exercises to address the problem, hoping the problem will work itself out on its own.  It should be your goal to spend so much time working on your weaknesses that they become your strengths.

Unreliable Sensory Perception
 This a concept from Alexander Technique that, in short, means we can’t trust ourselves.  Our habits are so engrained that even things that hinder us (that we even know to be detrimental) will feel ‘natural’ and ‘right.’  This makes it difficult for us to change the habit.  An outside perspective (teacher, mirror, recording device) can help you become aware of when you’re not being efficient.

Trapped in a loop
While at Rice University I took several courses on performance psychology with Dr. John Eliot.  There are many great things from those classes that I still use on a daily basis.  This “Performance Circle” is one of them:

By following the arrows you can trace the path of performance and find places where you can become trapped in your efforts.  Some people are inclined to get stuck in a “training loop” in which they feel hard work is the solution to their problems, others will get stuck in a “trusting loop” in which they feel that their creativity will pull them through.  To escape either try applying techniques from the other loop.  Without doing so you run the risk of burnout or never achieving what you’re capable of because of fear.

Think about your personality.  Do you feel that hard work is always the solution?  There’s a possibility you should think more creatively about your performance.  Do you feel like you can achieve your goals using your natural ability and your imagination?  A little elbow grease might improve your performance.

To bring back our hole metaphor… imagine we have a hole in our backyard that we can’t fill no matter how hard we try.  Maybe there is a spring at the bottom of the hole that washes the water away.  Thinking creatively we’d realize we need to block the spring first.  No amount of sheer hard work was ever going to solve the problem.  Alternatively, contemplating the nature of the hole will never get it filled without some hard labor.