Monday, January 26, 2009

Blowing the Stuffing Out of It, Parts I and II

(Warning: technical trumpet terminology employed throughout. Again, this is more of a journal entry re: my trumpet progress, but if you have something to add about the physical aspect, feel free to add it in the comments! Hopefully someone out here in "the brassblogosphere" is going through some similar experiences in their playing life and can add to whatever insights I have here!)

I've been a little quiet online during the last week, which is a good thing. Although it was far from perfect, I gave a good, solid push to the end for my recital, where the turnout was unnervingly high and only things left to chance were 1) a pair of unreasonably difficult rhythmic sections in the Peter Maxwell Davies Sonata (which I immersed myself in so deeply that they came off without much of a hitch!) 2) my nerves, drymouth, and a nervous "chipping" problem that seems to be most pronounced whenever someone is listening to me with a clipboard and 3) a 40-year old cork on the third-valve slide of my Selmer D trumpet that gave me a scare two days before my recital, but behaved... until the last moments of the Maxwell Davies sonata Friday evening.

I got my signals crossed on one piece that had heretofore gone reliably, but, eh. I also got a nasty case of drymouth that didn't really creep up in the first half, but kicked in full force in the second. Luckily, playing my cornet solo from memory, I was able to have some fun with the phrases and buy myself some time more easily.

I think I figured out why my valve didn't act up at all on Thursday but did on Wednesday and Friday: on Thursday, I was "taking it easy," and the times that the cork buckled came at the very end of the movement. For those who know the piece, in the third movement, there is a final, very loud, Largo melodic statement incorporating themes from the first movement. After a big grand pause, slowly and loudly, come three quarter notes (written pitch, for the D trumpet) low G-D-C#. (It spells out one of the pitch sets from the second phrase of the first movement. Clever!)

Anyway, I played that section much slower than quarter-note=60, meaning I spent over three seconds pumping a whole lot of air through a very small tubing. The fingerings for G-D-C# are 13-13-123. The common demoninator? The third valve is down each time. Because the first two fingerings fall where they do as a natural slur on the overtone series, it really encourages you to pump out the sound. (The molto fortissimo markings don't hurt either.) This horn is very well made (and I started another blog post about my individual instruments that I will revisit later as part of a tantalizing new project I'm involved in....), but cork made in 1966 on an ultra-small-bore small trumpet isn't built to withstand that kind of volume. I made a call to the repair shop on Wednesday, but didn't follow up when I couldn't find the guy in after a couple of calls. As a consequence, a couple of the climactic notes of the piece came out as mostly very, very present air (or, if you will, a sort of Bill-Adams-leadpipe-warmup-nightmare sound) until I manually plugged the hole with my left pinky, I think. I don't quite remember.

Speaking of blowing the stuffing out of it...

My other scary moment came during the Fasch Concerto, which began the recital. I was a bit nervous during the first movement, but then felt like I settled down. The second, slow movement ends on a high concert-D. (I was also playing this on the D trumpet.) Anyway, it was a perfectly comfortable note, came out smoothly, but then everything started to go white as my lungs emptied into its frequency. I swayed from side to side after it, trying to look composed, keeping a smile on my face, and keeping my knees decidedly unlocked. I probably should have taken longer to go on to the next movement--I was still fairly punch drunk and wasn't all there.

Earlier on, I blogged a tiny bit about my minor unexplained neurological maladies. Well, the headaches continued, I've had balance problems, and I've had a regular stream of scary moments playing lead--typically, actually, on concert high Cs, very open notes. I can think of about a dozen "whoa-nelly" moments in the past year alone, where the ground shifted under me. (The second to last came at my dress rehearsal Wednesday night--surprise--at the end of the Fasch second movement.) It's always on a note I hit right on, with no pressure. Is it possible that I'm literally blowing the stuffing out of my own brain, that, like a 43-year old trumpet, a 25-year old human has limits to what his brain can cork in?

But seriously, I had everything checked out, and I'm apparently in fine brain health. Now I'm left with a question: is my trumpet playing affecting my balance, sinuses, etc., or are my balance, sinuses, etc. affecting my trumpet playing? It's a serious concern worth addressing. I had what doctors assumed was some BPPV waking me up off and on for a couple years. Then, after spinning me in a rotary chair and injecting room-temperature water in my ear, doctors discovered that nothing was wrong. Could I be doing longterm damage to myself with my high-note playing?

Today, after a very stimulating church gig at Trinity Episcopal playing a beautiful John Rapson setting of the liturgy, I drove to Macomb, where my quintet played in the Western Illinois Brassfest. I left home sick after the lectures (and I'm up now on an inconvenient blend of Dayquil buzz, coughing-fit, and the lingering suspicion that my vaporizer will somehow burn my dog...), and I think my body has been polite keeping viruses at bay until which point my gigs were done.

Anyway, the bit of the brassfest I experienced was quite interesting and got me re-evaluating my breathing. Dr. Bruce Briney is such a fine interpreter of the Chicago school, and such a methodical teacher, that I found it particularly helpful when he moderated a session in the afternoon with three Arnold Jacobs students. Just nine years ago, I almost went to Western. My heart wasn't in Macomb, and I ended up receiving an excellent education and an invaluable trumpet tutelage, but when I think about what it would have been like to study with him and to have no student loans, I come very close to kicking myself.

The panel was quite interesting, and one of the presenters, leading the group in some breathing exercises (which I think I need to be doing more of, frankly) asked us: "Are you getting dizzy? After two or three full breaths, you should be." That is one of those things that makes sense--and yet, I don't understand, and it sounds like something I ought to figure out methodically. I suppose the point of his exercise was to discover capacity, and not to maintain a comfortable playable level (not everything is a Strauss excerpt...), and that by realizing capacity, we have so many more choices in performance. Still, the throwaway reference to dizziness by the presenter--as well as the many anecdotes about Jacobs' refusal to simply take for granted conventional wisdom about complex physiological processes--combined with my own dizziness problems made me resolve to confront this whole issue.

(As a side note, I was very impressed and inspired by the trumpeter Luis Loubriel, who served as a panelist and presenter. His DMA thesis, Lasting Change For Trumpeters, translates Jacobs' pedagogy to the trumpet, and I'm thinking about picking it up. It seems incredibly cogent, positive, and useful.)

One more note about my trumpet-playing life: I'm very excited that I will never have to give another required recital again unless I'm searching for a job... So, until regional orchestra audition season, no more playing for clipboards! This is a wonderful opportunity, really. I feel like, since my interests tug me in so many ways, I need to double-down on my devotion to the trumpet so that it will keep paying dividends for me and so that I can improve and be more hirable. I've played a whole lot of German music lately, but I'm starting work on a whole new crop of music, American and French mainly. I'll see what pans out, but I think without the pressure of a grade, I might be much more relaxed. I can always do a concert at the hospital, or at my alma-mater.

Works I picked up lately include: Antheil's sonata, the very fine, recent Augustus Hailstork sonata, an unpublished work by minor American Bill Russell for trumpet and percussion (written after a Louis Armstrong lick, begun in 1937) that I've been researching off and on for a couple years, maybe dusting off the Chaynes concerto and polishing it up, and I've picked up Tomasi's "Triptych" to push myself. Something will pan out.

Ever onward!

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