Friday, January 30, 2009

Learning from Daydreaming from Learning

This year, I have a couple of Music Appreciation discussion sections, adding up to about 50 students per semester I'll see once a week. I'm very relaxed speaking in front of people. In fact, I'd venture to say I am much more nervous speaking one on one than I am speaking one on 25, or--better yet--one on 500. The more faces there are out there, the less likely I will be to find the person who is tuning out or giving a skeptical scowl. It's the same way in my trumpet-playing. Although I have some physical nerves, I don't become mentally unravelled in front of hundreds of people. Now, stick a microphone and a handful of people--no matter how friendly--with clipboards in their hands in front of me, and three or four years of trumpet progress goes down the tubes. Likewise, it's much easier to interact and feed off of a large group.

I'm a fairly positive, upbeat person, for the most part, but I've found one thing in basic college teaching, a skill that nobody seems to talk about: how to read the blank stare.

Now, I won't say which one, but last semester, I taught one section that--as a collective unit--stared blankly week-in and week-out. I would ask questions that I'd thought up and phrased, preciously, days before. Two students were always ready to bail out with the right answer. I had another section, at a different time during the day, that was fairly gregarious, engaged, and ready to volunteer answers and explore more complicated questions.

Class #1 (the starers with the right-answer knowers) actually seemed to score absurdly well on examinations. When there were questions, they tended to be of a concrete variety: Whose death date must we know? What operas did Verdi compose? For what Renaissance composers must we be responsible? I began to think that I was doing something horribly wrong about the way I was asking questions. Sure, I may have had an acute case of open-ended/rhetorical-questionitis. Because I suspect that maybe a few undergraduates have had the experience of an esoteric TA and a few TAs have had the experience of being an esoteric TA, I'll post my most egregious instance of open-ended/rhetorical-questionitis:HOLY "SMALL LIBERAL ARTS SCHOOL," BATMAN! Wow! I sure was on a roll when I wrote those questions! I made a mistake--a few of them, actually.

I had some points I wanted to make, and should have just made them rather than asking a bunch of vague, wordy, questions in my most thoughtful "voice." I had a whole handout for the rest of the class period that was very nuts-and-bolts, but I thought a thoughtful way to frame it would be to step back and think about just how improbable the evolution of absolute instrumental music was. And if you think about it, it really is weird, sitting in a room, listening to noises, and getting some sort of deep, inexpressible pleasure out of it.

Because really, candidly, actually... that's rarely my experience, as a musical listener. My experience listening to music often deviates from that great ideal I'm teaching my students so potently that that deviation itself seems more interesting to me than that ideal. Is it wrong to admit that, sometimes, I don't always jump on the Schopenhauer Train to Neverneverland and losemyself among a sea of adjectives welling up within me from a place in the heavens? I just can't seem to lose myself in music like the creator of this video evidently can.

(You may notice that I'm posting this on January 30, 2009 while the very-serious Schopenhauer Youtube video was posted January 28, 2009. I assure you, I'm not ProteanOcean, and, lest I seem too mean, I'm sure some stranger will someday find my blog and use me as a strawman. The internet food chain is alive and well.)

Sometimes, I just fall asleep. Other times, no matter how compelling the performance, I completely tune out and flesh out some tangentially related thought in my mind--or, you know, my grocery list--as the music goes on. Every once in awhile, one set of sounds will catch my attention, and, in my mind, I'll begin thinking about those sounds, leading me into more tangentially related thoughts, and--before I know it--everyone around me is clapping and so I clap too.

Being inclined to empiricism and aesthetics rather than ideals and analysis, I have a lingering suspicion that some of you "tune out" at concerts too. And yet, this is one of those ideas people are afraid to express in front of people. Or, maybe I'm just weird, and the only musician who doesn't escape into The Magical Fairyland of the Ideal Listener everytime I hear a German Masterwork, let alone every time I hear myself or one of my peers hacking away at one overplayed piece or another.

And yet, all of these compulsory concerts we attend are not unlike going to a class you have to take, you like it alright, but it's not really a big deal in your life: you don't want to confront all of Life's Important Questions in it. You just want to know why Sonata is both a form and a genre, how many movements are in a symphony, and when Haydn died. And that is okay! On the same token, it's not always my responsibility to not-bore students, just as a performer cannot be absolutely "responsible" when someone falls asleep during his performance.

I remember the time on a trip for a grad school audition when I saw the New York Philharmonic perform Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and a concert-opera setting of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. I had just taken the red-eye from Des Moines to New York after spending the night in the Des Moines airport after visiting Iowa City (and traveling via Greyhound). I had no problem staying alert during the second half, which was Bartok's expressionistic masterpiece that has regularly-scheduled, totally unsubtle blasts of brass. (And, the next night, I had no problem staying awake when I heard the awesome Meridian Arts Quartet, an experience I blog about here.) The first half, though, was the Schubert--a piece I, along with the rest of the music world, know well--and, according to New York Times reviewer Bernard Holland:
Mr. Dohnanyi translates this music from Biedermeier intimacy into a full-blown, fully manned Brahmsian orchestra sound. He does it very well, and so fine was the section playing that Schubert's counterpoint emerged as clear as chamber music.
I do vaguely remember about two minutes of sumptuous, Brahmsian orchestra sound. It washed over me in waves before--just as I decided to mark signposts in the sonata form in order to stay awake--my thoughts on deciding to mark signposts in the sonata form in order to stay awake coupled with the full-blown, fully manned Brahmsian orchestra sound put me fast asleep. I was an incredibly rude waste of a student rush ticket. Something tells me, however, that if Christoph von Dohnanyi had turned around and fixated on one sleeping bum, he may have been offended, but he would not have second-guessed his tempoes on my account.

Maybe some of the blank stares I get while teaching aren't because I'm not clear (although, you can be sure, on October 7, 2008 for the first ten minutes of my first class, that had something to do with it!) but because--gasp!--some college students don't get enough sleep, or have trouble maintaining focus, or sitting still. Heck, I'm 25, and I fall asleep in classes I enjoy, even, when I haven't slept enough. And some of the students I originally pegged for blank-starers were actually the ones who were the most prepared. They were bored because they'd gone above and beyond what they had been asked to read and prepare, so they already knew the answers, but didn't feel like showing off in front of their peers.

This semester, I feel like I'm already much more comfortable engaging blank-starers or sleepers without throwing myself off my game or picking on them. I got some practice Friday night. Karma intervened, and I had a couple of sleepers in the second row. I was playing a cornet solo from memory, and so was able to make a great deal of eye contact. I tried to vary my phrases up and throw a little wrinkle or two into my phrasing while looking at one or the other of these guys--I even took an optional octave up that I wouldn't have at one point to try to stir one of them, and it was a fun little game.

I had a little chuckle while I was playing knowing how many recitals I have slept through, but didn't take it personally. You see, there are decent odds, in Iowa City in January, that one of those guys had himself just spent the night in the Des Moines Airport or the day on a Greyhound Bus. And, candidly, there are decent odds, in Iowa City at 6 PM on a Friday, that one or both of those guys had between five and ten beers in him already, and that's something that I can't control!

Now, earlier I was talking about how I'm an "empiricist" by nature: I use the term kind of broadly, but I think what I mean is that I take special account of the subjective experience in art, because that is, in actuality, what is "happening." That idea, ingrained in me by a dear mentor, an old American literature professor of mine, lay at the root of those very fussy questions I wanted to ask my students that one day.

My professor, now retired, was a loud iconoclast who would spend roughly half of his lecture time raging at the blank stares, before yelling to himself, "Gotta try again, gotta keep trying!" His ideas were fussy and fine, and tended to engage some students very acutely (there were a handful of us), while others simply wanted to know the plot of Huck Finn without daily excursions into phenomenology or self-awareness. Many very intelligent students found him unfailingly pedantic and histrionic. As for me, even though I can't quite remember all that much about Natty Bumppo, Fritzell seemed to offer me a new set of lenses through which I could experience everything from literature to a symphony to eating a hamburger to watching a deer and think about how crazy I must look to that deer while I look at that deer. While I can't tell you about what Natty Bumppo "did," that's okay: I learned plenty from how "Natty Bumppo" itself is spelled. During the 19th Century, the compulsion toward American language veered our culture into some embarassing and unintentionally humorous locales, an idea that has informed my forays into the wonderful, occasionally awful, world of 19th-Century American Music.

His point, though, is simple: you construct a fiction; the "action" of reading takes place internally. As you read Huck Finn, you are composing Huck Finn, choosing to read forward, to react, to convert words on a page to mental images or sounds. If that's what reading is, then it's a bit silly to take his actions all that seriously. Of course, the corollary to this is that just because it's "your fiction" doesn't diminish its reality anymore than realizing that biological classification is an artificial construction makes species extinct...

Okay, even through the Internet, I can see you staring blankly, but I'm gonna keep trying.

To prove his point, Fritzell would always try to find someone who was daydreaming, because--if his or her eyes were moving across a page during the daydream, his or her "Huck Finn" plot would be far different from the rest of ours. It would have nothing to do with race relations, but more likely have something to do with what's going to be served for lunch, or about someone of the opposite sex, or about any number of more compelling topics than "Huck Finn" was able to supply at the moment, just as sleep was a more compelling physical need for me than Schubert was "A Great Work of Art."

"Gotta keep tryin'.... Keep tryin'.... Looking for a daydreamer here..." he would say, scanning the room, legitimately hoping someone would be drifting off for the sake of his argument. Those times, however, every back in the room would snap stiff and every pupil dilate.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I've figured out how to stop my students' daydreams once and for all. If only it worked in recital. And, to answer your last question: 1809.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Neighborhood Color

What I love about living on Iowa City's north side is the neighborhood color. (Screennames redacted, from an actual AIM conversation):

Friend (1:56:27 PM): there was a reeeeeally talkative guy at the laundromat
Me (1:56:55 PM): was it the one by pagliai's?
Friend (1:57:00 PM): and then proceeded to talk for like 20 minutes. therefore negating all meditative effects
Friend (1:57:02 PM): yup
Me (1:57:08 PM): wait was he older?
Friend (1:57:27 PM): i sound really crabby about it, really i am not but i kinda want alone time when i am laundromat-ing
Me (1:57:30 PM): i just had a totally annoying guy who lives in a house by my friends on linn st. talk to me for like 20 minutes at real records last week
Friend (1:57:32 PM): yeah, like 50ish?
Me (1:57:36 PM): what did he look like?!
Friend (1:57:49 PM): dark really short hair, kinda tall
Friend (1:57:57 PM): average weight, etc
Me (1:57:58 PM): this guy was obsessed with neil young and lives in the neighborhood and evidently very very talkative
Friend (1:58:03 PM): haha
Friend (1:58:09 PM): he never brought up neil young
Me (1:58:22 PM): the harmonica?
Friend (1:58:48 PM): YES
Friend (1:58:59 PM): haha i bet it's the same guy
Friend (1:59:35 PM): he was nice enough, but not really taking the social cues of "i'd like some quiet time"
Me (1:59:33 PM): I told you, and he's making a sitar thing
Friend (1:59:40 PM): hahah
Me (2:00:08 PM): OMG he is the annoying guy in the neighborhood, he did the same thing with me! I was looking for CDs for my mom and brother and he said "It looks like you know exactly what you want"
Friend (2:00:29 PM): ahhh now am i going to run into him everywhere??!
Me (2:00:30 PM): and then told me like five times "You know, I'll play like Bach on my harmonica, it's just intonation, not meantone"
Friend (2:00:44 PM): YES he totally talked about bach on the harmonica
Friend (2:01:19 PM): oh talkative laundromat guy
Me (2:01:28 PM): this is the sign we live in a small neighborhood
Friend (2:01:43 PM): hahah totally
Friend (2:01:57 PM): i seriously enjoy the anonymity of big cities
Me (2:02:40 PM): wow, this was such a funny story. If i change your name, would you mind if I blogged about this?
Friend (2:02:51 PM): i feel like people are like "omg it is a sign of america going downhill, people shut themselves in little boxes listening to their iopds and never interacting with other people"
Friend (2:03:12 PM): haha not at all

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Brief, Entirely Clear Thought Upon Reading Milton Babbitt

This evening, was read by me, which is to say having been read as one reads if read one must call it (that is, that which must be read or has been itself read) several articles by—or, rather, at the limits, if a name apply it we must, Milton Babbitt; eminent theorist insofar as theory itself ascribes eminence, ascribed insofar as ascription can itself be ascertained through paragraphs of two or more sentences at once, it can be said, resembling this one it can be said at its own very limit, both within and beyond that which is under and about (as far as we may be certain enough to say). At which moment Kepler, oft-derided, propositionally, it can be said (though it cannot with certainty be) has been intersected with the false dualism of Newtonian color—what spectrums await!—one proposes synthesis between, but seldom without, systematic coherence to the extent that (naive though we be) 12 notches on that everlasting lamppost should for strange reasons unknown suffice to the existence of a plurality of sounding worlds beyond and within what, within our capacity, can be known or rather—rather, indeed—can be said to be known to that extent through which mellifluous speech rises to the given of proposition at that very point of intersection itself; not once can it be inhabited, but never may we be so foolish as to settle when the inhabitation itself sufficiently ensures such systematic coherence to the extent that sufficiency itself may cohere.

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!

Monday, January 19, 2009

He was six feet four inches tall

What an exciting few days that are coming up! Just as I spent election day taking music comps, I'll spend the inauguration practicing and helping out at the first day of Music Appreeshe (tomorrow morning at 9:30). It's very exciting to see all the pageantry, and healthy to indulge in some positive musical nationalism.

(I was, after all, born in the San Diego Naval Hospital. I went to so many Navy Band concerts in my infancy that I can still remember the physical "feeling" of the band and the first time I thought about how it different from my dad's LPs--the band could literally put a tingle in my fingers, and the record only shook the floor a little bit. I will try to dig up the large photo of me that was in the San Diego Union-Tribune when I was a toddler of me trying to play a french horn under the caption "Tiny Tootler." Actually, it was either the San Diego Union or the Evening Tribune. Anyone care to find it for me? Anyway, you develop a prenatal tolerance for cheesy patriotic medleys--trust me.)

I was busy all Sunday--practicing, church rehearsal, quintet rehearsal, watching the Steelers win--and missed Tom Hanks' narration of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." Then someone showed me this link, of Senator Obama with the Chicago Symphony. Via therestisnoise, CSO guest conductor William Eddins describes the experience of conducting Obama.

which made me think of this classic parody:

Ha! I used to be kind of cool to PDQ Bach, but I don't know--if Copland's not too cheesy for me (let alone patriotic medleys), why should PDQ Bach be?

So, happy inauguration! I still can't quite believe it's going to happen. I mean, the GOP only has 12 hours to release its Michelle-Obama's-secret-'whitey'-rant-tape, or the Kenyan embassy will find the mythic foreign birth certificate.

Whatever. It's an exciting time, an I-remember-where-I-was kind of moment. And I'm pretty sure I'll tell my grandkids:

"Oh, I remember. I was frantically rebuffering a faulty CNN live feed from a distant wireless signal inside of a practice module within a temporary classroom facility in the state that started it all."

Saturday, January 17, 2009


My new lo-tech (see how the cat doesn't even fit in the frame?!) blog called

It's going to be a bunch of very, very low-tech lolcats--except, they'll all be feral.

You can find my site--which will soon be up and running, after my recital--at

I think this really could be what the web needs.

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.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Switching Gears" in my practice sessions

I'm in another final push for a recital Friday January, 23rd at 6 PM, trying to correct/prevent/put-myself-in-a-better-mindset-than mistakes from previous recitals, while not trying to make it seem like this big monumental event.

One thing I've found in other recitals is that I will get so preoccupied with trying to make perfect, fascinating "musical" music that I will overthink every little cadence, and obsessively try to get myself into this perfect concentration space where everything sounds perfect to me (even if it sounds horrible). On the flip side, sometimes everything sounds out of tune during a recital or big performance to me, causing me to over-correct when in reality, a small adjustment will do.

So, what I'm trying this time is to just manage my tone-production better. I know this music very well. Sure, there are a couple of things that I've let be messy and I'm slowly cleaning those up, but 2/3rds of my practice is literally straight out of the Arban book. (For you non-trumpet players/non-musicians, the "Arban book" is a collection of basic exercises that cover phrasing, technique, articulation, dexterity, playing over chords, ornamentation, how to create a cadenza, melodies, and a host of other things.)

These exercises are simple but often not easy. I'll start around page one or page three, and just get myself in a place during my practice session where my response is great and it feels like the notes are "playing themselves." I'm paying special attention to blowing through the ends of my phrases (something I often don't do because I'll be quote-unquote "musical" with my phrases around recital time and often chip the end of a line because I'm backing off with my air as well) and finger technique. I've never been blessed with a particularly notable dexterity when it comes to changing directions. Most people figure this out and come to terms with it when in ninth grade or so, and it takes care of itself. I have some catching up to do as a lifelong project, and it's such a simple fix that it's easy to miss: I will mess with my tone production or embouchure to fix things that, honestly, could be fixed by drills working my third finger and its rhythmic integrity.

So, I'll practice this way a whole lot, and then pick one "messy passage" per piece to work on slowly and drill as if it were in the Arban book.

My problem comes later in the practice session when I want to make a transition to running the music. Although my tone production seems to go fine when I'm playing with a piano (so I can pay attention to intonation), I'll start fraying notes here and there--just little things, but big enough to be unnerving. When I'm in a warm-up mode my tone sounds fine and playing feels great, and when I'm in a performance-like situation, it's also more or less strong. It's that middle space--where I fix problems, apply them as they would be in actual music, and "practice"--that things get more difficult.

Any suggestions? I need to figure out a way with my nerves to play well by myself. I've never had an easy time with this. Get me with a pianist or a chamber group or a jazz band, and I lose 2/3rds of my nerves. Unfortunately, for orchestral auditions, juries, interviews, and contests, it's typically just you standing up there playing as if there were a room full of musicians around you. It's always been tough to simulate for me.

Oh well. I guess if I just try to extend that warm-up concentration a little further, much of this will take care of itself. I'm probably just getting myself all worked up over nothing.

Oh, and for the benefit of my trumpet/cornet-playing friends, I should bring something to e-attention:

If you have the recent, purple "Herbert L. Clarke Edition" from Carl Fisher, with a foreword from Michael Sachs and including all the piano parts for the Clarke solos, be aware that The Bride of the Waves has a significant discrepancy between the piano and the trumpet part. An entire B-section (triple tonguing section in concert C-minor, I think), which would be about a full page of the solo part, is omitted. The trumpet part seems to make total sense in and of itself until the piano starts going into a different key. Whoops! Glad I caught it last Friday night and not next Friday night.

It's actually good that I caught on to this; it's a bit too short on its own, and plus: it gives me something new to practice! If I can memorize this new section, that will be great and give me something to worry about rather than what I'm doing now--just being nervous about nothing. More to come about recital prep!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Terrifying "Bee-Search"

Why would anyone want to do that?

And honestly, "Cocaine makes bees excitable" : does that really rise to the level of news? It reminds me of what Goldgar says (relaying a quote from one of his now-deceased colleagues) about the social sciences:

It's like hacking through an open door.

This research is technically, I guess, "natural" science, but still, I'm waiting for the day when I can read a surprising headline: you know, something along the lines of:

-Cocaine bores bees
-Bees grow docile when humans run away
-The key to slowing the bee-population growth is...
-A good way to kill a bee is...

That's research I want to read.

Okay, I understand that we want to stop cocaine addiction. That is a public good. So, score one for the coked-up bees. But there's a counterbalancing consideration here: is there anything more frightening than a coked-up bee? I'm already afraid of bees, because I've never been stung, so I don't know if I'm allergic; and if I am, well, I don't have the antibody in my system, because I've never been stung, so it will be all the more damaging!

Invariably, at the most frightening times as a bee chases me, someone reminds me that "bees smell fear." Wow, is that true? Genius. Bees smell fear!

Quick, don't be afraid!

I wonder, if somewhere in a beehive somewhere, a Queen has some workers sending cocaine out to some humans beyond the hive to see how we react to it. Maybe there are Bee Research periodicals for them to share their observations about humankind and how it relates to the Bee kingdom.

You see, there are many reasonable reasons to fear bees--before the cocaine. Now? The contributions of bees to my fear are, to quote Michael Scott, "incalclacuble."

I also understand that bees are important for pollonation and honey purposes. Well, honey is probably the nastiest food on earth. I'm serious. I hate it, and can't stand feeling a counter where it's been spilled. And I heard a rumor that Nintendo Wii is coming out with an application that will replace pollonation and make it bee-free with the new bee-free Wii ag app for a small fee, where you're actually controlling a third-world person who farms for you. Then, with your avatar (or "Wii-Me") you move the crop across actual boats and into your supermarket. Now
that's late-stage capitalism: a world without bees.

Even now, I can't stop but think: maybe they smell my fear across the bee-blogosphere. Maybe an E-Bee will come across my Wi-fi to make me flee...

Wait, now I'm just being silly. Next door to my old apartment building, people kept bees. I did everything I could to move out of that place as soon as I could, because it was only a matter of time until they scored some coke and really got excitable.

Now, if you're one of those Bee-lovers who wants to defend the concept of an "eco-system" and talk about how honey is awesome, feel free to comment. Maybe your comment will make my post smell less like fear.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Maddy-watch '09

That's Maddy, my best friend. She is a dachshund, which means that she's bred to burrow. She's also uncommonly--almost unnervingly--fond of making eye contact with me. My life right now consists of computer work, most of which I do in my room, because it costs a lot to heat a house, and I'd much rather just sit in a big nest of blankets. Maddy agrees with me, which makes for a nice little life.

If I read a book in the green chair, she lays across my stomach.
And of course, if I'm going to leave the house to practice, she needs a bed of her own:

She's kind of old, kind of slow, and kind of stinky. But Maddy sure can burrow!

Oh noes!...

I'm one of those people who blogs pet pictures. Yikes. I better get a life, and soon!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A belated, silly Merry Christmas to you, too

This is me trying to use technology:

The results aren't very impressive, but whatever.

To contextualize it a bit, my brother and I had played the 9 PM Christmas Eve service with my mom, and then we went in search of an open McDonald's. Not finding one, I drove to Gurnee. I ended up buying a nasty decaf coffee and a "Tornado" at Speedway.

(They also sell these at Iowa's Kum and Go gas station chain.)

All in all, it was a pretty disappointing sojourn. But then, to paraphrase Winnie the Pooh, having come that far, maybe it was a pity to waste it. It wouldn't have been much further to drive to the Lake Forest Oasis. Next time, I'll go all out to get my McNuggets.

I mean, I was going to leave a few McNuggets for Santa. I swear I was, but I understand that employees need to have time to spend with their families.

But what about people like my brother and me? Our real family includes Grimace, Ronald McDonald, the Hamburglar, and other great American heroes? (Oh, and for the record, don't touch Grimace!)

It's a difficult balance to strike.

Monday, January 5, 2009

New arrivals in review

So, I've been walking around humming these hooks all day long: the Reverend Al Green's "Just for Me", from his album last summer, Lay It Down. Hope you have a decent subwoofer, or--conversely--pump your laptop through a classic tube amp:

What's amazing about this album--which, I suppose, isn't quite as awesome as this single in-and-of-itself--is just 1) the flexibility and infectious joy in his voice and 2) ?uestlove's beats. The horns are so simple, the rhythm section is so tight, and his voice sounds younger than it did on one of the earlier late albums I picked up a few years ago.

I got 60 dollars in itunes gift cards for Christmas (!), so I had to choose wisely. I could have put all my eggs in a "box set" basket. also wanted to revisit some music that I had always wanted to buy but never had. I also wanted to choose music that, for the most part, would be rather expensive to buy in CD form.

First up, I was suckered into the Al Green album because of its low Itunes price--$7.99--and even though the album all sounds the same, that's kind of the point. On the classical front, I bought the CD collection of Glenn Gould playing Brahms. Gould's most famous Brahms -recording- performance was also his most obstinate: a crankily monochromatic reading of the first concerto that forced Lenny into a notable, thoughtful, and playful (if over-hyped) disclaimer. I meant to buy my mom this CD for Christmas (10 intermezzi, 4 rhapsodies, etc.) but was unable to find it "on the ground" in record stores. Plus, it's pretty expensive. These performances are anything but monochromatic or polemical. If anything, they might be a bit ponderous or drippy for some tastes, but lines come spinning from the inside out. And yes, smart-aleck, he uses the pedal... with aplomb, in fact. I submitted a Gould paper (a sort of "close-reading" of his Strauss, Op. 5 recording) to a conference, and have been steeping myself in Gouldiana again just in case--and because it's fun.

Next up, I felt like buying some Christmas music. Where could I get the most bang for my buck? I remembered back to Sufjan Stevens' giant Christmas music set, and remembered really enjoying what I heard. Then again, 10 PM on Christmas Day is a mighty silly time to buy Christmas music. That's like getting your cable hooked up during the third quarter of the Super Bowl--it's just too late. Then, I remembered really enjoying his (Greetings from) Michigan album back when it was new and the cool thing to listen to, so bought that instead. What's more, the textures are really beautiful, and I know alot of the places. Also, free bonus tracks. Sweet! My favorite moment on the album is the mid-track breakdown in Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (heard here in a sort of Magical-Mystery-Tour-meets-Swingle Singers reworking, much quicker than the album but subsequently more "mod"):

I then bought some stray tracks off of Randy Newman's debut, and frankly I think that phase may be passing. Perhaps I'm sad about that, but I think it will hit me someday during middle age again when it's supposed to, if not sooner.

Next, I moved on to filling out my hip-hop/neo-soul holdings. I'm a huge fan of the RH Factor and D'Angelo's Voodoo (both of which substantially involve ?uestlove). I remembered listening to Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun many with my friend Jacob, who was really into it.

(That's right, I'm man enough to admit that I listen to slow jams with my male friends.)

Favorite track? "Green Eyes," which is probably my favorite Roy Hargrove R & B performance (excuse some dude's crude "video"):

Again, it was on sale on Itunes for relatively cheap. I then bought The Roots Come Alive, because I was convinced ?uestlove was the answer. It's fun! I think it'll be good workout music, once I start, you know, working out again.

Finally, I was searching through Wayne Shorter albums, and ended up searching through Luciana Souza albums, which led me to Golijov's Oceana album. I haven't connected with the title track--for orchestra, percussion, guitars, Luciana Souza, and choir--as much as I have with his other works, but I still really enjoy it, and can't wait to hear his St. Matthew's Passion. The download also came with a free, expressionistic reading of Golijov's arrangement of Piazolla's Milonga del Angel. The Atlanta string section plays it like it's the last movement of Mahler 9--which is to say, yes!

Now, I ended up at a CD store in the mall (okay, FYE) between Christmas and New Year's and there were big sales on closeout CDs, making them two bucks apiece. I made some rare selections related to my interests: a theremin album by Clara Rockmore, this borderline bootleg Sinatra collection of early-50s recordings (but on CD), Marvin Gaye sings the songs of Nat King Cole (!), a Compay Segundo collection, and a Nas album, "Stillmatic" (the follow-up to Illmatic).

I'm trying to encounter more rap, because I really respect "flow," and think it's good to have choices and broader horizons. But really, this album tosses around the word "faggot" (or the notion of homosexuality as the worst thing ever anywhere, namely Jay-Z being gay, in all sorts of graphic and specific ways) only slightly more than the n-word in an irritating fashion, and the beats are mostly what Wesley Willis could come up with. I understand it's important to be "transgressive" as an artist, but still, do you think rap could cool it with the homophobia? It's really and brings otherwise artistic statements down to a fourth-grade level. For once, I agree with Kanye. I have (and, against my type, massively enjoy) Illmatic, and that's homophobic too, but it's also much more clever, with better "flow" and out-of-nowhere rhymes. Still, it will be decent exercise music, and will teach me how to handle all the "beefs" that come my way here in Iowa City. I might go back to FYE and spend a couple dollars on Xzibit's CD, if only because I didn't believe he actually rapped. I'm still looking for a sealed CD copy of K-Fed for my kitsch collection.

Oh, speaking of FYE, at the library today--for one dollar--I bought a CYE cd. There's actually some great brass choir music on there!

And now, I'm good for a long, long while, after spending, hmm... 11 dollars of my own money?

Lastly, a question for any readers I may have, if you're techies: How do I use Last.Fm, what is it, and could it help me construct posts like this more easily? Thanks, and Happy New Year!