Thursday, August 11, 2016

Music and Imagination, Aaron Copland 1952

I love Mariachi music. As a boy of 4, when I first learned how to work the old Philco radio in our living room, I knew exactly what number to turn the dial to for the Mariachi station and I also knew which knob to turn to make the music louder, which I liked to do. Among Superman, The Lone Ranger, The House of Mystery and The Shadow, Mariachi music was one of my favorites. 

I especially loved the trumpet playing and the sound of thirds or the intensity of that Mariachi three-part harmony. This was my first contact with the reality that I loved music. This Mariachi trumpet playing seemed to always be happy, always heroic and always powerful. Living now in Oaxaca, Mexico, I hear this kind of music daily and I still enjoy it.

As I grew musically through 50+ years of ensemble experience playing in symphony orchestras and subsequently conducting, I heard that my beloved Mariachi sound was not always perfect. Rarely were the trumpets and violins together, balanced or in tune. I still adored Mariachi music.

Yesterday while returning to my home from the Zocalo, Oaxaca’s city center, the taxi had Mariachi music playing on the radio. It took me a few seconds to realize something was wrong; it was absolutely perfect. The intonation was perfect, the balance was perfect, the attacks between the trumpets and violins were perfect and even the vibrato, that typical Mariachi slightly bottom heavy vibrato, was perfectly together. It made me a little uncomfortable. Obviously, it was an electronic Mariachi band, a very good electronically synthesized Mariachi band but it was not real.

Immediately, I was reminded of something I read in the book, Music and Imagination, by Aaron Copland, which was given to me in 1952 by a family member. Mr. Copland discussed the somber opening theme in the basses and cellos of the Shubert Unfinished Symphony. He mentioned that he had never heard that passage played with perfect intonation and further that the imperfect intonation, which we normally hear, sounds far more musical and dramatic than if it was played with perfect intonation.

As a very young, inexperienced and idealistic musician I was haunted by such a thought coming from such a great master composer. How was it possible something would sound better ‘out of tune’ than in tune?

It’s interesting how a listening experience in a Oaxaca taxi in 2016 could remind me of something I read in 1952, But this ‘perfect in every way’ Mariachi band playing on the radio lacked the charm and atmosphere of the real bands that played on the street.

We always strive for perfection in our preparations for the performance of music and many of our greatest players and ensembles come very close to this goal. Today it’s possible to electronically create performances of absolute perfection, but we need to remember that it’s our human individualism that makes music beautiful; we are not programmed computers, how boring it would be if that were so.

As we work toward achieving perfection, music requires our hearts, souls, imagination and our individualism to be a piece of that perfection. Imagination is the essence of an individual. 

Oaxaca, Mexico, August 11, 2016 It’s the e

Friday, July 01, 2016

Language in Teaching

Yesterday I returned to my home, Oaxaca, from the University of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania from an extraordinary week of lessons and masterclasses. I’m proud the event was called the Roger Bobo Festival of Brass but that will be for another article.

However, the week seemed to be especially successful and very satisfying; I had somewhat the same feeling a month ago while doing my annual lessons and masterclass at Pasadena City College near Los Angeles, California.

I’m fortunate to present such masterclasses all over the world and, although I don’t think I have experienced any failures, These classes mentioned above stood out in my memory, The common denominator, of course, was the classes were all presented in English with the students all being English as their first language.

Arnold Jacobs had warned me many years ago that the success of my classes would be contingent on the language skills of both my students and me. As usual, he was right.

That the trip I just returned from was called the Roger Bobo Festival of brass is not the reason for its success, it was that the principal language of both the students and me was English.

I have lived and taught in Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan and Mexico. Although I have had good results in all those places, resulting in students making a good living in music, it was clear to me that the students only understood a small percentage of what I had tried to teach.

Several years ago while attending a tuba event at the University of Redlands, I was traveling with a few Japanese students who were participating in the week’s festivities. The Japanese students were stunned by the spontaneity of my masterclass; they had never seen that spontaneity in Japan. They advised me at the end of the class to return to a country where English was the mutual language of both teacher and students.

Of course, my Japanese friends were right and I gave their advice a lot of thought only to leave Japan and move to Mexico. The language problem remained in Mexico but the spontaneity changed enormously.

An obvious short-term solution to communication, with students who didn’t understand English, is the use of a translator. This usually works better than nothing, but there are a few problems that need to be addressed.

There are several types of translators:
First and best is my translator, Shuko Kuramoto, who has translated my monthly articles for the passed 12 years for the Japanese band magazine, Pipers. When there is anything I didn’t make clear, which is frequent, we met on-line and fixed it. That’s translation at its best.

Then there are the translators for lectures, masterclasses and private lessons; these come in several types.
Type 1: The musically and instrumentally sophisticated person who speaks the other language fluently and without hesitation. With type 1 you can present your classes knowing the translator is doing an accurate job.
Type 2: The good-hearted teacher or student who wants to help but doesn’t speak the language very well that he or she is trying to translate.
Type 3: The professional translator who knows very little about music or performance issues and has no knowledge of that vocabulary.
Type 4: The teacher who, after making an acceptable translation, adds his or her personal views even when they are contrary to what has been said by the lecturer.
And Type 5 (Rare): Usually a fellow teacher who, because of jealousy or institutional politics, modifies or totally changes what was said to coincide with his thoughts or political well-being.

Personally, I have been in situations where I understood the language well enough that it was necessary to stop and correct the translator, of course, that slows down the class.

The world is shrinking; globalization is here and here to stay even in the pedagogical world of masterclasses in the musical community. English seems to be emerging as the principal international language but not yet fully accepted. I dream of a future when I can just buy a language chip that I can insert in my brain and be perfectly fluent in any language of choice, in the mean-time I expect to be cooperating with translators.  

July 1, 2016, Oaxaca, Mexico

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Balance and Timbre

When I was 7 years old I sang in the boys choir of a big church in Los Angeles. (That was 70 years ago!) Every Saturday around 11:30 a m, when the choir rehearsal ended I went exploring in this, what I thought was a huge church. very soon my explorations focused on the pipe room of the church's organ. There were openings in the wall in the front of the sanctuary where the sound came from but behind that wall up a couple of secret stairways and behind a door, which was the entrance to the pipe room, was a whole new and powerful sonic world that I visited every Saturday; I sat on the floor and listened.

Describing the sounds I heard as a 7-year-old child with the language facility of an adult is a fascinating exercise: First the power, the loudness, was amazing and almost a little scary; it was so loud that it actually tickled my eardrums; it was clear to me that these pipes were not intended to be heard from a close distance.

I was very conscious that these pipes came in many shapes, sizes and were made of different materials; some were made of wood that looked like bamboo, from very small to very big, probably over 2 meters long. Some were the same array of sizes but made of brass with an opening near the end like a flute, where the air was split and made the vibration. At age 7, I had been playing trumpet for a year and the most interesting pipes to me were the ones that were horizontal and had bells like my trumpet; it was like being face to face with a huge brass section; these were the ones that tickled my eardrums.

While listening to this ‘wall of brass bells’ I was aware that the tone quality was the same from the very highest to the lowest notes. This was, in fact, a moment of programming my basic thoughts about what a brass choir should sound like.

It was also clear to my naive 7-year-old logic, that those very big pipes took more air to make sound than the little ones.

The sonic ideal that the sound of the brass with equal timbre from top to bottom and the physical requirements of having enough air to support those low noes with an equal resonance presented me with a dilemma that I’m still facing. The fact soon became apparent that playing the low notes with equal resonance as the high notes required both biological and sonic compromise. Quite simply, I did not have the vital capacity as the endless air supply of that powerful organ.

Ten years later I encountered another equally impressive ‘wall of sound’; it was the brass section of the famous Chicago symphony with the legendary Bud Herseth playing 1st trumpet and the equally legendary Arnold Jacobs on tuba, here was the compromise. In the natural evolution of brass instruments through the last two centuries, the tuba developed a little differently that the trumpets and trombones. By its conical design, it had the breadth of sound to be a strong foundation for any brass section but without the same richness of harmonics as the higher instruments.

Still, through the next 70 years, that ‘wall of brass bells’ has remained one of my first sonic images. I have dedicated myself to realizing that sound as much as possible. For a long period of time I believed a smaller tuba would be a solution, finally, it was clear it just didn’t produce a wide enough breadth of sound. A larger tuba seemed to be the logical answer but I was still remembering the organ pipe room.

In my efforts to realize that child’s memory of the perfect brass section, I took two works from the symphonic repertoire: Brahms Symphony #2 in D major and the final movement of the Tchaikovsky Pathotique Symphony. These were pieces that I had played hundreds of times and that I still love to hear. (They were also the first full symphonies that I had ever played). Even in those first encounters so long ago, I saw that the tuba part was simply an extension of the trumpets and trombones, (The horns were on they’re own developmental path and evolving in a singular and beautiful way). In still trying to believe that the ‘wall of brass bells’ in the organ pipe room was the ideal, I tried using my contrabassstrombone to play those two tuba parts. It was a successful experiment and answered some life long questions. There was one obvious and omni present problem; we missed the roundness and breadth of tone of the tuba.

This was especially evident in the famous chorale for three trombones and tuba in the fourth movement, (Adagio Lamentoso) of the Tchaikovsky; we missed the tuba sound on the fourth voice, (Plus the raw brass double slide of the pre 1909 Conn contrabassstrombone made small adjustments for intonation impossible!).

Conical instruments were becoming the instruments of choice for bass brass parts throughout the western world with the exception of Italy, which evolved in the direction of the cimbasso. The cimbasso was a cylindrical instrument similar to a valved basstrombone in F, a 4th lower than the trombones. It was the instrument of preference of Verdi, Puccini and even Respighi.

In 1989, I had occasion to visit a rehearsal of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra, the Opera orchestra of Florence, Italy, who were rehearsing a Puccini opera with an elderly conductor of 84 years, which makes his birth year 1905! The old maestro requested the instruments he was accustomed to in his youth, which were, valved trombones and cimbasso; they sounded wonderful and as I recall from the pipe room experience, it was very similar.

It had also become clear that that tuba was not always the best solution for playing the bottom parts in a symphony orchestra. Verdi originally intended most of his works to be played on cimbasso. Today an orchestral tubist is expected to play cimbasso but that was not the case 25 years ago. The last performance I was ever to play the Verdi Requiem I decided to use cimbasso; the results were extraordinary! Everything sounded better than tuba, the tonal colors, particularly the fanfare in the Tuba Mirum, were clearly what Verdi had envisioned.

In the brass music of Gabrieli and other Italian renaissance composers seems to also sound more appropriate on cimbasso than tuba. Certainly, the bass brass instruments of Gabrieli’s were cylindrical and cimbasso is simply more idiomatic for the Italian Renaissance period.

Which instrument is used by the modern tubist in various instrumental settings should be the choice of the tubist but certainly the more options a tubist has tried, the better he or she is prepared to make a good decision.

Something Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini said to the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic many years ago has stayed in my mind and seems to serve as a good closing for this article: “My friends, Please do not confuse dynamic and intensity”

March 31, 2016, Oaxaca, Mexico

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Fighting Addiction

 “The Shame”
I have a very close friend who lives quite far away from my modest dwelling in Oaxaca, Mexico; we live in two very different environments yet or conversations share the common denominators we have in our two diverse worlds. We speak of our personal lives, our loves and disappointments, our economics, shopping, and dining experiences. We’ve talked of friends, relationships, those that were foolish, how to escape them, others that were less problematic and, of course, when it’s best to take the risk and continue. We often talk about travel experiences by plane, by train, bus and car and the diverse benefits and discomforts of each, and we openly advise each other on how to make travel easy or sometimes to comfort each other in the fact that the specific trip under discussion quite simply has no comfortable option at all. Through the advantages of the internet, we have, for the last decade, maintained a successful and mutually supportive friendship.

However, through the years we have never made any attempt to discuss politics, that is, until yesterday, when I asked her what she thought about Donald Trump; her answer was clear, honest and envious. “Who is that”? I was shocked and very happy for her.

Like Lord Voldermort, in the Harry Potter series, who was referred to by the author as “He Who Must Not Be Named”. With that in mind any further mention of Trump in this essay will be referred to as “The Shame”.

On hearing my cyberfriend had never heard of “The Shame” before, I suggested she look him up in Google. After a half hour she sent me the following message: “He seems like a very terrible person”.

Yesterday was one of many American primary elections and I spent hours following the results while on line; retrospectively, it was a big waste of time. Yesterday wasn’t the first time. Since 1989 when I decided to leave the United States, I large part of my residual baggage was the slowly ominous reality that I was becoming a serious news junky. This was not only my desire to keep current in world affairs but there was my need to hear English; there was no hint at the time that I was in the beginning stages of developing a serious habit.

Slowly, it started a dependency that became primary in my life; I couldn’t have breakfast until I had seen the news and I couldn’t eat dinner until saw the news and over the years I began to realize that I needed to see it a second time on another network, sometimes three times and finally sometimes all day.

Yesterday was the crises point, it was not only the wasted time that troubled me; it was the chronic mentioning of The Shame, hundreds of times through the day, disgusted me deeply. The mantra through the day was resonating and relentless: VOTE. If you want to change things VOTE, if you want your opinion to influence change, VOTE!

Unfortunately, with my propensity to change residencies from country to country I have temporally disqualified myself from that privilege to vote. I have paid taxes in Switzerland, Japan, and Mexico and, of course, in the USA but because of the frequency I’ve changed locations I have no legal residence at the moment to call my official home.

The voting yesterday, the saturation with The Shame, and the happy isolation of my cyberfriend who had never heard of The Shame, all have moved me to end this news addiction, I hope I can do it, I think life could be happier without that dependency. So far, one day, it’s working. Wish me strength.

Oaxaca, Mexico, March 16, 2016