Friday, January 16, 2009

Recital Program/Five Techniques

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I'm kicking off the University of Iowa recital season next Friday night January 23rd at 6 PM in the choir room of Clinton Street Music with what will hopefully be a lovely night of music making. I will be joined by my mother, Debbie Gillette, on the piano for several pieces, a fact for which I'm certainly grateful and lucky! I spent longer than usual at home this Christmas, and have been shuttling back and forth during the weekends of January. We even met up one early-January Saturday in a near-stranger's house in Geneseo, IL because it was vaguely in the middle! You've got to love friend-of-a-friend hospitality in the midwest.

Anyway, here is what I'm playing!

Fasch, Concerto
Peter Maxwell Davies, Sonata (with Jin-Ah Yoo, piano)
J.S. Bach: Chorale Prelude: Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (BWV 721)
Georges Enesco, Legende


Karl Pilss, Sonata
Herbert L. Clarke, Bride of the Waves

Here's a link to a map.

Since I posted last about struggling to get a foothold in my practice session, I've been more successful by changing some small things. What follows is tedious trumpet talk and will probably be a bit cliche to many musicians in how I think about performance preparation, so if you're not a trumpeter, or don't like tedium or cliches, perhaps you may want to skip to some of my goofier posts. I don't expect it to be monumentally helpful to anyone, but will be good to have out here online as a memory aid for myself, and maybe readers out there will have some helpful comments or get something out of/identify with my process. So, here are some approaches I've taken of late to rejuvenate my music and my music-making spirit. Most are absurdly simple.

Re: current weather conditions:

1. One technique, so simple, I've used to change things is to to literally warm up my instruments before even leaving the house to rehearse; aka, hold them over a heater before leaving the house, and not leave my mute/mouthpiece bag in the car. So simple, right? Kind of a no-brainer. That first few minutes of thawing leads to tentative playing. I've always got money in the meter (it's difficult to practice at home because of neighbors) and I'm really eager, chomping at the bit to get playing, so I'll play on a flat horn that's cold and irritating my lips. That sets a bad tone right off the bat.

2. I've been more focused with sounding good immediately. I know there are different schools of thought about this. I've been concerned more, in my journey as a player, with using a warm-up to get my bearings and take stock of things, and to sort of drift into--rediscover, maybe--my sound. Now that I'm getting closer to a performance, that's kind of a waste of time. Just a really full, comfortable mezzo-forte seems to get the blood flowing.

3. I've changed directions when I've reached a dead end.

Lately, aside from practicing and rehearsing and thinking and hanging out with my dog Maddy, I've also been playing an awful lot of Freecell to unwind and forget the cold. I've been getting much better, but sometimes I let things stack up like so (and I'll make you go mad staring at the screenshot and seeing where I'm going wrong):

That happens with practice and progress on a piece as well. Here, in my Freecell game, I was silly to cell-up my red kings without first unearthing my black queens and opening a column for them to go in! Luckily, though, the new Vista version of Freecell includes a limitless number of Ctrl-Z "undo"s.

Preparing my recital, I was reaching a dead-end with my piccolo trumpet playing. It seemed to disrupt everything a bit too much, just not feeling comfortable or overcommitting. It seems the more I commit to one direction with my piccolo trumpet playing, the more it starts to unravel my Bb playing. And honestly, keeping up an intimate familiarity on the C trumpet, the D trumpet, the Bb trumpet, and the piccolo is a frustrating if sometimes necessary feature of trumpet playing. Well, I tried the Fasch--which I had been playing on A picc (the modern standard, I suppose)--on the D trumpet I am using on the Maxwell Davies. On paper it should be more difficult on D, although my horns are very similar (both Selmers, and I'm using a Bach 7D mouthpiece for each). Playing the Fasch lightly on a slightly bigger horn has helped me discover a lighter approach to playing it on piccolo, so the change will actually help my piccolo playing in the long run.

But by switching instruments, at least in my practice, I was able to relate the piece a little better to the rest of my recital; it wasn't off in some piccolo trumpet never-never land. This was a small change...but a big change. I took an instructive and very useful lesson last year with Ray Vega, a New York commercial and freelance player who plays everything from salsa to Golijov and classical. He got a sense of the playing I was doing, and addressed the need to have a baseline horn from which you emanate out--something you depend on. Right now, I think it's my Bb. I warm up on there, and in my warm-up move up to higher horns gradually. Keeping it all closer at hand seems to add a certain stability to it all.

I've also been changing my bread-and-butter exercises, gradually, to get myself to lighten up. I had been doing many Arban studies with shifts in articulation and the like, lots of long, rangy scales. I've switched over to emphasizing Clarke studies. They seem to encourage the kind of fluidity I'm lacking and reinforce accuracy. I heard once that Clarke described these as "movable long tones," and that's very true. If feeling a sustained connection through a line filled with motion isn't the road towards accuracy and consistency, I don't know what is. In particular, the Third Clarke study is my "Goose that lays the golden eggs." When I can play it well (even slurred), I can articulate it well, because I'm sustaining a vibration and an airstream across multiple partials and throughout a long phrase. I used to warm up quite a bit with ultimately efficient, pianissimo dynamics. I've bumped it up to mezzo-forte, and to play the third study through twice at a leisurely tempo means that you need to:

4. Breathe freer and play on top of the breath. Again, it sounds so simple. Well, the watchword for the last seven or eight years of my trumpet playing life has been efficiency. How can I play things with a minimum of waste? What's the maximum bang I can get for the fewest bucks? As a consequence, I think I've "driven on empty" too much. (METAPHOR MIXTURE ALERT!)
Rolf Smedvig relayed a fascinating story in a masterclass I attended a couple years back: it was about the classic singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau whom we all know and love. I think Smedvig was with the Boston Symphony when he was playing behind Fischer-Dieskau, who was getting up in years, and noted that the singer had his hands clenched around a handkerchief. If I remember the story correctly, when asked later, he said it was to remind him to breathe as if he were weightlifting, that he had a difficult task at hand even while it felt effortless artistically. (Those are hardly the exact words of the story I heard years ago, and I'm extracting my own--not Smedvig's--point.) Reasonable people can disagree about the place of diaphramagtic tension, etc., but that's not the point. Singers deploy a surplus of air, for the most part, to sing on top of the breath. Why shouldn't I? Being effecient doesn't mean I need to be stingy. The Pilss, for instance, is a lush, romantic piece, full of arch phrases and full climaxes. Why go on the autobahn with a Honda Insight? I don't need a Ferarri either. (Although, honestly, a Ferrari airstream is certainly necessary for parts of the Maxwell Davies Sonata!)

My new dream car, a Jetta bluetec diesel would do just fine, thank you very much. It uses an efficient process to produce more torque for oz. of fuel, but it doesn't ride like it's holding back--so the promos say. What is the lesson from Fischer-Dieskau? I think it's that, whether it feels "easy" or not, you've got to be in the driver's seat at all times.

5. Finally, while I've tried to be in the driver's seat with my air, I've been listening much more and spending some time tuned into silence and not my overactive subconscious. I remember the best solo performance of my life. Unfortunately, it was only for seven or eight people, and I didn't have a recorder running. (What was I thinking?) I was playing the Tomasi Concerto in a Concerto competition. A week earlier, I had fallen all over myself playing it in a recital. I was very nervous, and so wanted to get everything right. I had to think about this, and that, and that, and that, and I wasn't listening, until I tuned in enough to hear all the chips and fracks and what I thought were out of tune notes (at which point I moved my tuning slide and became... you guessed it... Out of tune!) When I dropped my cup mute at the start of the second movement in that recital, I basically got embarassed and checked out for good, and wasn't keyed in for the rest. It sounded like it.

For the competition, I decided to spend three minutes sitting in a really quiet anteroom behind the stage, listening to the air going through the doors and thinking sounds and not words. It gave me a focus and concentration that's been a touchstone ever since.

It all sounds like New Age voo-doo, doesn't it? But when I got out there, I could hear what I was playing with honesty and clarity, but wasn't really listening to myself as much. Most of all, I listened to the piano as closely as ever, and felt like I was just along for the ride. I knew the piece, so it played itself. It still wasn't perfect, but it was poised, relaxing and enjoyable. It's good to remember times like that, because it can remind me of a technique that can get me back into a really productive performance mindset worth reinforcing. And really, times like that are why we practice, why we play, and why we chose this career and life in the first place.

One final note: as I went about publicizing my recital, something came to mind. I need to go to more of my peers' recitals. I've been kind of lazy and hypocritical, not wanting to sit through others' recitals because my recliner, laptop, and dachshund are such a tempting combination. This semester I resolve to go to more, even though that means leaving my poor Maddy at home alone, where she'll probably step on my computer and ruin whatever Freecell game I'm inevitably about to lose at the moment.

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