Saturday, November 11, 2017


Old Style – New Style

During the mid 90s I was engaged to present a masterclass and conduct a concert with the brass section of a medium sized city orchestra in Sweden. Things were going well for the first five minutes until one of the older gentleman, a trombonist, asked me if they should play in the old style or the new style. Very quickly the question erupted in to energized discussion amongst the brass players, which style they should play, new or old. As I listened I could easily see that it was a discussion between the older and the newer generation. I clearly remembered similar situations in the Rochester Philharmonic in the 50s and I acutely recall the stinging encounters that took place in the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the early 60s. In all cases it was clearly a disagreement between the old guys against the young guys; the old guys always won these encounters because they were absolutely unable to change from their, “Old Style”. One stinging statement I can remember coming from one of the ‘Old School’ player friends was the words “Real Men Don’t Play That way”.

Perhaps one man’s verbal description of the old style would be interesting: It was rough, out of tune, unbalanced, unnuanced and musically unsophisticated. It’s not difficult to understand, brass players 70 years ago were largely from a different part of the population, the coal miners and factory workers, it took another generation and longer for them to join the contemporary musical community on a equal bases. Sometimes it was quite frustrating to go out in to the hall to listen and to discover that occasionally the old school players sounded pretty good!

There is an exquisite example of the ‘old school/new school’ differences in a recording made by my extraordinary basstrombone colleague in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Jeff Reynolds, in the 1980s. Jeff was acutely aware of the old and new styles and he beautifully exemplified them both in his Album of Orchestral Excerpts for Basstrombone. Jeff played the Beautiful lyric basstrombone solo from Richard Strauss’s Ein Helden Leben two times; once staright in the old style and once with nuance, expression and personality, both were beautifully played but the difference was stunning.

The new school has become dominant now and the old school players generally no longer fit in with the new generation, however, they still exist. I have observed while taking part as a judge in many competitions in the last years with many (other) older and retired players and have come to the conclusion that to many of the old school people, the newer styles just didn’t sound right; the old fashion players won the prizes.

I was astonished during my ten years of teaching at the Musashino Acadamia Musicae in Tokyo, to have been criticized for diverting from what they called the Japanese style, and later in this ten year period, I was told please keep my teaching in the Tokyo style. I’m still working on that! I was very happy a few days ago to have learned that two of the winners of the recent Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow were Japanese. This is very important and very good news.

We all have different performance needs; where we play, what we play, with whom we play and equally important is the development and expansion of our individualism. We are all unique and we are all special.

Roger Bobo, November 11, 2017 (In preparation for spending the next month in Japan)

Oaxaca, Mexico

Friday, October 13, 2017

Warmups and Daily Routines


Warmups and Daily Routines

There are two basic reasons we need to warm up; to maintain the skills that we have already developed in our playing and to create the skills that are not yet fully developed (sometimes that part is called ‘daily routines’).


It was already visible in the middle of the last century. While I was a student at the Eastman School of Music there were two kinds of brass players; those who religiously would process their warmups and daily routines for long periods of time every day, sometimes hours. They sounded wonderful, tone quality, dynamics and articulation were usually excellent and they indeed became virtuosos of function.
The second group was the ones who would do their warmup routine in 20-30 minutes and immediately move on to their musical materials of the day. Most of the time they simply sounded better. 
My personal definition of a warmup:
Athletes always warm up; a pitcher always spends time “the bullpen” before a baseball game; swimmers, track runners, shot putters and all other kinds of athletes all perform better in their events after they warm up.Ballet dancers always warm up by stretching on the bar before practice, rehearsal or performance; they wouldn’t think of starting any other way.


And far closer to the discipline of playing a brass instrument; singers need to vocalize (warm up) to be their best in performance. Singing and brass playing are very much the same because the sound source is organic; with singers it’s the vocal chords (larynx), with brass players it’s the lips. Most of our warmup materials in the several superb warm up books we use in the brass community are modifications of vocalizing methods created by European vocal teachers of the 18th century. Like brass players today, different teachers and different singers vocalized (warmed up) in different ways. These were decisions that were made by specific teachers and students.


Referring back to the fact that the students who warmed up for 20 – 30 minutes simply sounded better than the warmup virtuosos, who sometimes did there daily routines for as long a 2 hours. The daily routine of the 20-30 minutes players was, in fact, making music. This seems to me a much healthier direction to go.


Playing music develops the strength and suppleness that we need much more than a lot of long tones, plus it develops our musicality…, which is more fun and helps to play good exams, win competitions and get jobs.


Roger Bobo, October 13, 2017, Oaxaca, Mexico


Friday, August 25, 2017


Articulation

Articulation is on my mind these days. I am working on a new text on multibal tonguing and I remembered this article I wrote in 2006.  

In all the languages of the world, linguists can’t agree on the number of consonances there are. Some say there are around one hundred and others say there are over one hundred twenty. The disagreement comes from where to draw the distinction between consonances that are similar. The consonant T, for example, is quite different from language to language. In French T is pronounced with the tongue very forward in the mouth on the back of the upper front teeth, in English the T is placed on the rim of the gum at the point just before it rises up to the roof of the month, and in Chinese the T consonant is made high on the roof of the mouth; all are quite different in the way they sound.

If we can agree that there are over one hundred consonances in Languages, and if we can agree that articulation is virtually the consonance of the musical language, then how many types of articulation are there in music, and much more specifically, how many  types of articulation do we have the possibility of producing on brass  instruments?

Vocal consonants have been used successfully in teaching brass instruments for a very long time; every brass player has learned to start a note with Ta, Da or an occasional Ka, but, in fact, there are huge differences between consonants in speech and articulations on brass instruments.

Nature created our vocal mechanism in a very functional and wonderful way; the sound source comes first and the consonant comes second. It works beautifully, the vibration from the larynx reaches the mouth and with vowels and consonances we have an infinite possibility of sounds, in fact, we have language.

But what happens when the articulation mechanism (the tongue) comes first and the sound source (the lips) come second? The results are so different that comparisons can be dangerous or at least difficult.

Still, most of our references to playing brass instruments come from vocal concepts. I was very surprised in 1990 when performing and recording Verdi’s Il Trovatore with the Maggio Musicalli di Firenze with Luciano Pavarotti singing the lead. I was amazed to hear Pavarotti vocalizing (warming up) on one of the exercises in my book, an exercise from the famous James Stamp trumpet book which I took and modified and which Mr. Stamp had taken and modified from the time proven copious repertoire of vocal exercises. From Maestro Pavarotti I was hearing this exercise in its original form for the first time. These old vocal methods work for brass instruments and they will continue to work, but there are a few differences that need to be addressed.

For example, what is the difference between Ta and Da? Ta, is what linguists call a non vocalized plosive, first we hear the sound of the consonant (articulation) then the sound of the vowel (tone); this works very well on a brass instrument. But Da, the articulation that we are taught to use for a softer attack is a vocalized plosive, quite a different situation. With Da, first is the vocal sound then the consonant. That’s not possible on a brass instrument, except when connected to a note that is already sounding. Ta and Da have nevertheless worked well for generations to guide brass students to discriminate different articulations, but they are limited in their scope.

There are four aspects to articulating on brass instruments and when a player can coordinate those four things, the capacity for a wide spectrum of articulations is enormous. The four aspects are:
1.        Airflow at impact.
2.        Embouchure resistance at impact.
3.        Tongue placement at impact.
4.        Air compression released by the tongue at impact; i.e. Articulation.

Of course, airflow at impact is determined largely by dynamic and register, the lower and the louder requiring greater airflow. Embouchure resistance is created when the air meets the embouchure. That resistance together with the airflow broadens even more the potential verity of articulations.

Tongue placement modifies attack in a very important way. Like the different Ts mentioned above, tongue placement changes the articulation from a clear instant attack when it is forward and a less instant attack with the tongue further back in the mouth. It should also be noted that generally the low register responds better with the tongue forward, even between the lips, and in the higher register to avoid being too abrupt, it works better further back in the mouth. The compression of air behind the tongue at impact determines the type of the attack. Suddenly, the potential becomes evident. The possibilities are enormous.

Now come two tasks: learning to use these four articulation functions and far more importantly, which mix of the four possibilities serve best our musical purpose?

With essentially an infinite number of possibilities these articulations need to be on demand from the information in our musical mind’s ear; this is one of the many reasons for listening to music of all kinds. The more we know and the more we have experienced, the more sonic vocabulary we have to call upon for expressing our own individual musicality. The danger here is that we too easily learn a small vocabulary of articulations and dogmatically continue using only those that are familiar.

In an essay on articulation, something should be said about starting a note without using the tongue at all. This can occasionally be a good therapy for correcting poor response but as a normal day-to-day articulation it is limited. Articulation is the fine-tuning of rhythm and most of the time the rhythmic energy of the music requires articulation be focused and clear.

In language when we are unclear with our consonants we have a tendency to sound either drunk or stupid, we all know that sound! But when clear consonants are returned in our speaking we can give the impression of intelligence! It’s very much the same with musical performance particularly in lower instruments. In low registers the human ear hears less clearly, therefore we who play in those low registers need to make a special effort in articulating clearly. Music becomes more enjoyable to play and to hear.


Hiroshima, Japan, January 22, 2006
Republished August 25, 2017, Oaxaca, Mexico




Saturday, August 12, 2017


If Money didn’t Matter
Universities, Conservatories and
Brass Instrments

The advantages of education, particuly music education, are incresingly becomng more elusive. Tuition for American universities, conservatories and music schools is just out of reach for many, if not most, students. Lones are available for some but the the burden of paying the lones is heavy and long.

The situation is exacerbated for those who are studying advanced music performance and require high quality instruments, which are expensive, very expensive, but are necessary to benefit the optimum of what higher music education offers. All these costly realities combined can create economic situations that are extremely difficult if not impossible to live with.

There are alternatives that should be examined.  
                                                         
There are alternatives to the prestigious music schools in the USA that many students espier toward. Tuition of these alternatives may be as low as 10% of what the famous American schools require. There are Music schools in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France where the teachers are great and show excellent results. Even with the living expenses and the required “Beer money”, the costs are far less than the prestigious schools in the USA.

There is a much deeper reason for turning to study abroad than just tuition costs and shopping for the best deal. Studying abroad will open your view to the world, which means much more than just a high quality music education; it is an education of life, learning another culture, another mentality, another language and other broadening aspects.

In our search for high quality music schools and instruments we are all, in fact, shoppers, shoppers who insist on excellence. For example, excellence in leather goods with the prestige of famous labels such Gucci or Yves Saint Laurent, which certainly are of the highest quality but also carry a very expensive price tag. However, on the Piazza San Lorenzo in Firenze (Florence), Italy, one can buy leather goods of equal or higher quality at a much lower price than the high-end labels. The same situation exists with universities, conservatries and brass instruments.

Welcome China, to the brass instrument market. There are now Chinese instruments available for those who are looking for new instruments but simply don’t have the funds to buy the popular “high-end” brands. As Japan did many years ago, the Chinese brass instrument makers have very successfully copied many of the most popular brass instruments in the world market with excellent results. Some of these copies are now being modified with improvements that are superb. These instruments are available now at about 25% of the price required today form the bigger and established world makers.

There are countries in the world where musical talent is huge but economics make it impossible even to dream of purchasing a high-end famous brand instrument. Even at 25% of the high-end prices it’s very expensive in the poorer countries but the dream can be possible.

This is not an add for Chinese brass instrument makers; rather it’s an alert for students who do not have the funds to consider buying an instrument with a major brand name. There are options available that cost less that are also high quality.


Roger Bobo, August 12, 2917, Oaxaca, Mexico

Sunday, July 23, 2017

With a Knuckle and a Belt

It’s been my pleasure and good fortune to attend a music camp or some form of summer musical event since my first year at the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan in 1954. These music camps were fewer then, but today they seem to exist in almost every village or every college or university campus. This is a good thing, a wonderful thing; at this time in our turbulent world we need to connect with our creative aspects more than ever before.
I just arrived back to my home in Oaxaca, Mexico and awaking at 3:am jet lagged and energized. It’s dangerous to speak in superlatives in today's world, they seem abundant in just about everything but in my thoughts at this moment Italian Brass Week resonates as a superb event. The venues of all the concerts and events in this historical magical city of Firenze are certainly without compare. One such event that must be noted was an antiphonal concert with over 100 players in three different locations: from the Pontevecchio, 4 Gondolas anchored in the middle of the Arno River and from the bank of the Arno River. The players on the Pontevecchio and from the riverbank were largely students and the players on the 4 gondolas were mostly the Italian Brass Week faculty.
The faculty for this year’s Italian Brass Week was comprised of some of the best young (younger than I) palyers and theachers we have. I deeply appreciate them for what they have taught me. As in all the summer music events I’ve enjoyed since my 1954 Interlochen experience I have returned much more enlightened. However, we cannot ignore time or history.
I remember so well performing at what I considered a high level and being aware that there was a growing number of younger players who were surpassing me in both tuba skills and musicality. It was clearly time to turn my attention to teaching; this was a new direction that freed me from the encumbrances of tuba performance and opened the door to a wider view. Da Vinci said it’s the student’s duty to surpass the teacher. I have seen and enjoyed many times that da Vinci was right.
But there is another serious dimension to address. We cannot escape history or ignore the future. As in performance, new ideas, methods and techniques in teaching are rapidly emerging. An aging teacher cannot continue functioning in a period from a time that has past. The knowledge and thoughts of the new generation of teachers, maestros and senseis are the key to moving ahead. We have a choice here: we either incorporate the new thoughts and ideas and add them to our greater experience or stubbornly hold to our inevitable obsolescence. It needs to be mentioned that much of the ‘old school’ pedagogical methods are harmful to our students. The time of the knuckle and the belt have past.
Hopefully aging brings knowledge and wisdom with it. Da Vinci is right again, the new generation of teachers have become the mentors of their Maestros.


Roger Bobo, Oaxaca, Mexico, July 23, 2017