Sunday, January 10, 2021

This blog was actually written twenty years ago in Lausanne, Switzerland at the time when I had just started to learn how to write. I hope now, twenty years later and at a time when democracy is on everyone's mind, it will be an interesting read.

RB

 

Is Music a Democracy?

 

Frequently, while giving masterclasses, I will ask students to play a passage several different ways and then ask the class to vote on which they preferred. The results are always interesting and enlightening, but then I ask the class this question; “Is music a democracy and do their vote results necessarily indicate the best musical option?” With that question, people are usually reluctant to show an opinion; that’s a good thing, I hope it means they’re thinking about it.

 

Symphony orchestras, for example, are probably among the last vestiges of a non-democracy we have and possibly could be called a “good dictatorship”! A successful musical performance needs a strong musical personality and strong musical personalities occur far more frequently in the individual than the collective. The conductor of a symphony orchestra holds a very powerful position, a position that almost requires he be a dictator; musical decisions need to be made singularly. Assuming the conductor is a powerful musical personality, and a wise, kind and sensitive person, everything should be okay! … Well, that’s a huge assumption! We all know that not all conductors are powerful musical personalities, kind, wise and sensitive. Still, music needs that individualism to project to a listener. How to deal with conductor incompetence and power abuse is a delicate matter to be addressed by orchestra committees and administrations, however, this article is about the need for individualism in musical performance.

 

I once played in a brass quintet made up of five men with five very strong and distinct personalities, musical and otherwise, each of who were qualified to make musical decisions and to present memorable performances. Sometimes, during nostalgic moments, when I listen to the old LPs we recorded (now safely stored in my computer), I hear very little of those strong personalities which should have been apparent and extraordinary; quite simply, the powerful musical personalities just weren’t there! Why? Was it that perhaps the personalities were too strong; perhaps it was just easier to compromise the individualism for the sake of peace during rehearsals; or perhaps those five strong personalities were simply incompatible, or the brilliant individual colors just neutralized each other to shades of gray. I may never know an accurate answer.

 

Since I moved to Europe it has been a pleasure to be invited as a judge for many brass ensembles, especially brass quintet competitions. In listening to hundreds of quintets, three things have become evident: 

 

1. There could be no weak link in the ensemble, all the members had to be great players. 

 

2. They had to project some kind of positivity while performing; this could be called “joy” for want of a better word. 

 

3. And all the truly great groups, the winners, had a leader. It was abundantly clear that the winning groups had a musical leader that, with his or her strong personal musicality, influenced the other players. This became very apparent when the same quintet participated over the years and we, the judges, could hear the influence of that musical leader growing among the other players through time.

 

There were groups that played perfectly together and projected no musical personality whatsoever. These groups, absolutely amazed by not being advanced to further rounds, were invariably the ones who would approach the judges, demanding an explanation as to why. Trying to explain was not easy.

 

It’s interesting to vote in a masterclass situation and see what pleases most people, but just like testing mouthpieces for a group of colleagues, the final decision has to come from the individual. 

 

Have the courage to be an individual, have the courage to be unique, it will serve you, it well take you further.

 

Tokyo, September 6, 2005 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

 Low Register Beauty 

 

All tubists are looking for ways to improve the low register and there are several low register methods available for that purpose. Some are very good, none are bad, but I would like to suggest that perhaps the very best method available has been available for a very long time.

 

First, let’s review a couple of the very unique idiosyncrasies of low register on the tuba. Work in the low register is slower to show results than any other aspect of tuba study. In a tubist’s formative period, progress becomes audible in almost all parts of playing but more often than not the low register seems to be at a developmental standstill. It’s during these frustrating times that it’s most important to preserver; improvement is taking place, just slower than we would like.

 

The other aspect to remember is that there is nothing else (that I know of) in human endeavor that resembles the adeptness necessary to play the tuba in the low register. Of course, I’m referring to the very large volumes of air we need to play low and the maintenance of the air pressure necessary to support the large, fast moving flow of air. Remember that at one octave lower at the same dynamic, a note will take twice as much air. This takes work, patience and perseverance to master. 

 

This reality of air volume and pressure can sometimes push us beyond our performance comfort zone, which frequently results in a rough and unmusical mode of playing in the low register. Here is one of the major rules of performance: LOUD IS NEVER MORE IMPORTANT THAN BEAUTY. 

 

Many players work on their low register by playing the Bordogni vocalizes, whether the tuba version or the Melodious Etudes for Trombone, down an octave; this can be dangerous because the physical demands at that extreme low register are so great that they frequently result in the rough and ugly playing as mentioned above. 

 

I have had very positive success with my basstrombone students in the past by having them play those same Bordogni Vocalizes in tenor clef down an octave, which essentially lowers them a fourth and puts them in the central basstrombone tessitura; since that works so very well for basstrombone why not the same for tuba? Although I will use examples here referring to F and CC tubas, of course, it will work equally well for Eb, BBb or any combination.

 

Please try the following: When learning the Bordogni vocalizes, learn them on both CC and F tubas. When they are finished, then play the same etudes on the CC tuba using the F fingerings. It puts the vocalize down a fourth and in a way that makes the transposition very easy. It places the tessitura at an optimum Register for the contrabasstuba parts we meet in Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and it can be played from a standpoint of beauty rather than as a physical feat. 

 

An extra but wonderful benefit of this method is that when these same vocalizes are played on F tuba with CC fingerings it puts the tessitura up a fourth, in the central bass/baritone Vaughn Williams Concerto and a large number of solo and symphonic basstuba repertoire.

 

This means that one will play the vocalizes in four different ways; as written on the CC and the F tuba, on the CC tuba with F fingerings and the on F tuba with CC fingerings. These four modes support each other very well and lead to rapid improvement, ... and it’s easy and it’s fun! 


December 29, 2020, ... Oaxaca, Mexico



Tuesday, December 22, 2020

 

The Horn Lesson

Sometimes time-proven solutions are not sufficient to resolve a problem; if, after trying everything with no positive result, it’s time to take a new direction.

During the end of the 1990s, it was 1997, I had such a student; the logical course of thinking might have been, “this is a hopeless situation”, but I couldn’t accept this prognoses.

This exceptional girl was a huge musical talent; Sylvie was a gifted conductor and impressively charismatic in the many band and orchestra projects in which she lead in the French speaking part of Switzerland. I was a professor at the Lausanne Conservatory and she was a conducting and horn student. Frankly, she was a very bad horn player.

Finally, one day she came to me and said she needed help in playing, that she thought it was a breathing problem. She was right, she did need help but it was more than just a breathing problem.

Through the next months, I slowly began to comprehend what a very unusual girl this student was. She possessed the gift to profoundly affect everybody she met. I tried to analyze this many times but simply could not; it was just a fact that everyone with whom she made contact was moved in some deep and personal way.

But what were these qualities? Certainly, a thousand years ago she would have been called a witch and probably would have been burnt at the stake, but this was the late nineties. As one of her teachers, I became preoccupied with what made this mysterious young woman function. The first thing that became clear was that she had huge mood shifts; Sylvie could be a goddess one day with the vision and wisdom of a goddess and the next day be the most irrational nasty person I’ve ever encountered, but the extreme high consciousness of her up cycles were so striking and so memorable that the times of terror were easily forgiven………… for a while.

Sylvie was able to control these mood shifts when it came to musical performance but other times she was completely out of control and unable to discriminate which polarity of her cycle she was in. This became unbearable for those who were closest to her and as her teacher, it was clear that I was certainly was in that inner circle.

The lessons came and went with no audible sign of improvement, yet I believed in her; there had to be a way. She simply was trying to play without the use of air but no logic or time-proven therapy I could think of worked.

I was starting to see enough historical fragments to begin putting some of the pieces together of a singularly complicated puzzle. I also learned peripherally that Switzerland had some quite troublesome communities, not at all unlike America’s Appalachia or the Ozarks, like child abuse, inbreeding and other socially unacceptable behaviors. This extraordinary talented student was from the town of Féchy, not a backward town but still a small Swiss wine producing village in the canton of Vaud. I am not suggesting that she was a product of any type of social abnormality but a teacher has to open all possibilities to find an effective path of solving problems. 

Instead of eluding to something that may be wrong I will mention a few observations that led me to teach her the way I did: Sylvie’s father also had a history of the same extreme polar mood shifts; her family, specifically uncles and cousins had a history of child abuse and incest. Further, she had prominent scars on her forehead and around her eyes; when asked about them she quickly said it was a bicycle accident. She also had a voice that I can only describe as probably having been injured by screaming or very intense and prolonged shouting. Enough said.

We were becoming close friends and I cared deeply about her well-being and her musical growth. The time for the pivotal lesson had arrived and it was today that I was going to try a major breakthrough for her horn playing. She came to my studio and I began to implement the plan.

 It went like this:

“Sylvie, do you trust me?”

“Yes”

“Will you do what I tell you even if it doesn’t make sense?”

“Yes”

“Ok take a big breath and play a loud note, any note”. She did that and made that same pathetic sound that she had been making for months.

“NO! That’s not enough air; blow harder. Try again. NO! Again! That’s just the same as the last time, I said blow harder. NO! NO! There’s no change. 

Have you ever been angry with somebody? Have you ever been very angry at somebody?”

“Yes”.

“Let me hear you scream through your horn, take a huge breath, push all your valves down (the longer the tube the more visceral the ‘brass scream’ will sound) and blow the loudest brass scream that anyone has ever heard in the history of the world. Think about the worst thing anyone’s ever done to you and scream through your horn. DO IT”

She did do it and it was extremely terrible and extremely loud.

“My God! Do that again”. She did and for the first time she was using air in producing a sound, it certainly wasn’t beautiful but it was loud.

“OK, Now play the opening of the Strauss 1st Concerto and use the same amount of air”. She did and after a few times it began to sound truly good. Sylvie had learned how to use her air that day. I will never know her thought processes through that pedagogical procedure, I only know it worked. She understood what had happened and from that day on she started to sound good and to show a potential of sounding great. She was already a great musician, now the horn playing was catching up.

Through the next weeks and months her horn playing kept improving, and that gave her a richer insight into the possibilities of communicating with the players in the ensembles she conducted. 

The lessons continued and her progress was amazing but I was learning that orchestral conducting was the major musical interest in her life; this was quite unusual since band was foremost in the minds of most musicians from that region.

And this girl could conduct! I have played with the best conductors in the world and it was not difficult to see her potential. On one occasion; it was a national music festival, Sylvie was conducting a combined band of over 90 players made up of all the bands she conducted, a choir of 50 singers, 3 alphorns (of which I played one) and 4 cows with cowbells, that paraded through the hall at the right moment. Of course, she was at the highest level of her manic-depressive cycle and what she accomplished was extraordinary; it wasn’t an easy conducting task, she was up for it and her positive energy reached everyone involved in the concert.

Later that night the depressive cycle returned; I’m sure it was some kind of completion depression, which only exacerbated her natural down side. It was a night of emotional terror, she made me feel as though I was crazy and evil for not being able to help; I was miserable and could find no way out as she constantly talked about suicide.

The Conservatoire de Lausanne was not famous for it’s conducting department and I was anxious to see her get the best training possible. After talking it over with her (during a manic period of the cycle) I contacted the Sibelius Academy of music in Helsinki, Finland, one of the worlds great conducting schools, I managed to get her accepted for the following school year, however, I worried about how her behavior when she got there.

I tried to get her to find help for herself but it was always a failure. She would still come to me to talk and I fear I was the only person in her life with whom she could talk and there was that chronic discussion of suicide.

One night the talk of suicide was particularly agitated. The next day Sylvie made an ugly scene in her conducting class, screaming at her teacher that he was a terrible teacher and that Roger Bobo had gotten her accepted in the conducting class of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and she got up and walked out; not a good situation for me!

Later the same day Sylvie was killed in an automobile accident, she was a passenger on a narrow road near Féchy and her car was hit broadside by another car at an intersection. It was not suicide.

Holiday season, Lausanne, Switzerland, December 1997, revised August, 2013

Published for the first time in Oaxaca, Mexico, December 22, 2020 

Monday, December 14, 2020

 Christmas Carols, 

Cold and

Crystallized 1959

The four students who couldn’t get home for Christmas from the Eastman School of Music because of time, distance and money, were nostalgic and lonely; three of us had never been away from home at Christmas before. We were brass players; more specifically we were trombone players. We were bonded by the fact that we were all trombonists and, more so, that we were students of the Eastman School of Music. We literally came from the equidistant corners of the USA but we held in common that playing Christmas music in our home centers was part of our history,

Rochester, in the northern part of New York State right on the coast of Lake Ontario, was famous for its brutally cold winters, which as I recall was -10° every night through the holidays in 1959, this bleakness was acutely exacerbated by the fact that as far as we could tell we were the only four Eastman students remaining in Rochester. Restaurants were closed, most Rochesterians were home with their with families, Christmas trees and cozy crackling fireplaces. The Eastman school was locked up and our Christmas dinner was hamburgers at the White Tower Cafe. I do remember that the White Tower did somehow manage to always have delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice. I remember ordering three classes.

On Christmas Eve, Almost without planning, we found ourselves carrying our instruments to the car ready to embark on a Christmas Eve of caroling; We were George Osborn, later to become 1st trombone in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (presently Passed away), Harold Steiman, later to become 2nd trombone and personnel manager of the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra, Ed Anderson, later to become basstrombone of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra (presently passed away) and me, Roger Bobo later to become tubist in several orchestras. 

We were lucky, the car started, many automobiles simply wouldn’t function at those extraordinarily low temperatures. We were on our way. Our first stop was the home of Sidney Mear, First trumpetist in the Rochester Philharmonic and trumpet teacher at the Eastman School. It was a beautiful house with Christmas lights and a beautifully decorated Christmas tree shining from the front window. The whole street glistened with decorations and the reflections on the thick covering of snow created a beautiful and eerie light.

 

We were ready to set up; we put our mouthpieces in our pockets to keep them warm so they wouldn’t freeze to our faces when we started to play. We took our two tenortrombones one basstrombone and my comtrabasstrombone and two music-stands to the front of the house. It wasn’t easy taking the horns out of the cases and putting them together with the heavy coats and the very thick gloves were all wearing.

 

We tuned very softly and very quickly; our first piece was “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem”. When we started to play we were all stunned by the sound we heard; the combination of the temperature, the ice and snow resulted in a sound like none of us had ever heard before and I have never heard since. Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem was in the key of Db, although I’m sure because of the cold in severe flatness probably closer to C. The amazing thing was the tone quality was eerily strange; a combination of crystallized and warm, I’ve never heard anything like it since. It was unforgettable.

 

When we finished the first four measures to three beat Db chord, which ended the first phrase, we weren’t too surprised that our slides were frozen solid, fused in what ever position that note was, mine was a Db and the 5th position and it was permanent until we could warm our instruments! Our caroling session was over for that Christmas Eve. Fortunately, Sidney Mear was not at home and we were able to leave with our awkwardly long trombones, let them thaw and return them to their cases.

 

Our Christmas Eve caroling adventure was a failure but we were determined to go out again Christmas night. The weather report for Christmas was even colder than the day before. Certainly, the same freezing temperatures were still going to exist, probably worse. The solution came to us simultaneously, “ANTIFREEZE!”. After a brief discussion whether antifreeze would damage our slides, the decision was made that we must go caroling that night, no matter what, Actually, antifreeze seemed to work just as well as other lubricants we would use in normal temperatures.

 

We made several stops that night always with that incredible ‘crystallized warm’ sound. We made stops at the houses of friends and colleagues. We were offered delicious Christmas treats like fruit cake, cookies, various Christmas family snack specialties and once some hot mulled wine. Except for the mulled wine it was almost like trick or treating on Halloween as a child. The mulled wine was good and very warming.

 

Our next and last stop was the home of our beloved teacher and father figure, Emory Remington. After one carol he and his wife opened the front door, he and Mrs. Remington stood in their doorway for a few more carols; clearly they were moved and Mr. Remington asked us to come in and get warm. We sat around the fireplace and as we hoped Mr. Remington (The Chief) told us stories of times passed. The Chief had a way merging the past, present and future into nostalgic logical narrative. 

 

Shortly Mrs. Remington arrived with cups of hot-buttered-rum and homemade Christmas cookies. It was the best Christmas evening I can remember.

 

Roger Bobo

Oaxaca, Mexico

December 14, 2020

Tuesday, November 17, 2020


Our Sophisticated Scream


 

In the mid 1960s my friend Tommy Johnson lent me a number of the components for playing electric tuba. The possibilities with the sounds and effects that were available seemed endless. And I could play loud, it was unbelievable how loud I could play; while using only enough air and energy for a very conservative mezzo forte, I was able to play many times louder than I could ever have played on my own power. I never really tried to play at the maximum forte possible, I was afraid for the windows in the house, I was afraid for the neighbors and I was afraid for my ears. I used this equipment several times in the Hollywood studios. For each component that I used: fuzz tone, octave divider, ring modulator, amplifier etc, I was paid a double; I was making money with this toy, but what a toy it was. However, time soon put this fad to rest, but it was great fun while it lasted. Somehow, I was relieved the trend had come to an end, or almost to an end.

 

Ten years later my good friend Fred Tackett wrote a jazz-rock concerto for tuba and rhythm: electric piano, electric bass, drums and guitar, called Yellowbird. While setting up for the first rehearsal I was surprised when they gave me a mike. Naively, I thought, since I considered myself a powerful symphonic tubist, I wouldn’t need a mike; I learned quickly how wrong I was. When I began to play with the quartet, even though it felt like I was playing I had to admit that I could hear no difference in the sound of the room whether I was playing or not. When I accepted using the mike everything worked.

 

Is the world making a poco a poco crescendo?

 

In 1966 I played a radio recital and gave a masterclass in Reykjavík, Iceland. On a free weekend I was invited by the president of the Icelandic Band Association to spend a few days at the home of his in-laws in Reykholtsdalur, a very small village with houses set at great distance apart on the hillsides, overlooking a stream of steamy volcanically heated water that flowed through the center of the sparse community.

 

My host’s father-in-law was 84 years old and had only been out of Reykholtsdalur once in his life; in 1918 he went to Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. He left Reykjavík after just a few days to return to Reykholtsdalur because Reykjavík was too hectic for him! To most urbanites in the world, Reykjavík, even today, would appear as a very quiet small town. The old man had never met a foreigner before and even though he had read all the wall-to-wall books in his home in English, French, German and Scandinavian languages, he had never tried to speak anything other than Icelandic until my visit. 

 

Certainly, Reykholtsdalur is the quietest place I have ever been. When this old man spoke his voice was clear, resonate, full and very very soft; he had never in his life had to speak at a volume that would cut through any peripheral sounds and he probably never had to shout. I’ve never heard a voice like that; he simply never needed to speak any louder.

 

One year later I spent several days on tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in Sarajevo, which was then a part of the old Yugoslavia. At 4:30 in the afternoons we would hear the powerful and penetrating voices from the minarets of the castrati Muslim sheikhs calling the Muslim community to worship.

 

It seems mankind will do anything necessary to be heard.

 

In my conservatory days at the Eastman School of Music the British guitarist Julian Bream came to give a masterclass in the afternoon and a recital in the evening. It was a wonderful masterclass. Not only was Mr. Bream the standard-bearer for the state of the art amongst guitarists, he was also a man of considerable charisma and charm. At the finish of the masterclass several of the Eastman girls asked if I thought Maestro Bream would like to go out after his concert that evening and enjoy a drink or two. “Well, you’ll never know until you ask him”, I said; they did, he seemed very pleased and they made the appointment. Now the girls seemed almost panicked, “Where shall we take him” was the question. After a little conversation they decided to take him to their usual spot, which was called “Al’s Green Tavern”. It was located just on the edge of town and as well as being the frequent “watering hole” for the habitual party people of the Eastman School, it was also the hangout for the tough, pool playing motorcycling types of Rochester; Al’s Green Tavern was a rowdy joint!

 

Since I had an exam the next day I went home to study for a while and didn’t get to the tavern until a couple of hours later. When I arrived I was a little concerned by the extreme quiet as I walked in; this was not normal. There was no pool playing there was no rowdiness, just an eerie quiet with the attention of the whole pub focused on one corner of the room where Julian Bream sat playing the lute, perhaps the softest and most intimate musical instrument we have. Mr. Bream had calmed the rowdy pub crowd with sonic beauty and musical eloquence; his musical power, stronger than the rock and roll that was normally heard from the jukebox, caused his unique public to make an effort to listen.

 

I’m not very fond of rock and roll; I try sometimes to understand the text when I can, whether it’s rap, hip-hop or whatever. The social message in the lyrics may be interesting, however, it’s very rare when I can understand them; it’s usually just too loud to discriminate anything subtle…like words. There is one rock and roll group I enjoy very much; Pink Floyd creatively uses dynamic contrasts and consequently becomes a much more powerful musical entity than most rock and roll groups, we hear the text and we hear the sonic beauty. 

 

Dynamic levels also differ among symphony orchestras. Part of this difference is, of course, the difference in the concert halls. A great hall, like a great violin, has a certain point in the dynamic where the sound becomes enhanced; it generates a feedback, a luster, to the timbre. In some halls, like the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam this point of enhancement happens at a simple mezzo piano, in other halls like Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic or Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony, this acoustical enhancement doesn’t happen until well into forte or even fortissimo. The Concertgebouw seats 1750 listeners, Avery Fisher Hall seats 2738. If the members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra were to play at the dynamics used in Avery Fisher Hall it would probably sound quite vulgar. The problem for the larger halls is that by the time that point of enhancement is reached in fortissimo the tone quality often becomes forced. This could partially explain why many players are moving to larger equipment; they believe bigger equipment won’t sound forced in extreme fortissimo. 

 

Throughout history, music has been reflective of our environment, so it’s not difficult to understand why the dynamic, the decibel level today is chronically rising. With rapid population growth and the resulting traffic and urban chaos, with war and an always present threat of terrorism, and with sociological changes that come so quickly, we hardly have time to adjust before they change again, it’s no wonder that the poco a poco crescendo is approaching a frighteningly painful level.

 

If the poco a poco crescendo continues it’s inevitable we are going to see an inordinate amount of hearing problems in our future; one has to wonder if the extremely high decibels in our environment and our music will affect the evolution of mankind’s hearing mechanism, thus resulting in a development in our tolerance to loud sounds. If that were to happen, would it mean that we would lose our capacity to hear low decibel sounds? In any case it would certainly mean a change in the way we hear.

 

Is it possible that this high decibel music today for many of us is in reality a sophisticated scream, a visceral reaction to the stresses of our time?

 

If so, it’s a natural thing. A scream, as well as a call for help can also be a threshold we cross to a clearer state of mind suitable for finding solutions for life’s problems. Is it possible that the intoxicated, anesthetized high decibel bacchanals, (wild intoxicated revelry) in which many of our young people frequently indulge, is part of that sophisticated scream caused by fear of the future, of the unknown? An occasional bacchanal needn’t be a bad thing; like the scream, it could be the first step toward adjusting to the aspect of solution.

 

Perhaps Julian Bream showed us an alternative to the poco a poco crescendo fifty years ago when he played the lute in Al’s Green Tavern and tamed the rowdy locals into quiet listeners.

 

And who shall be the first to leave the monstrous power behind, pull the plug and communicate by beauty, elegance and poetry of sound?

 

Amsterdam, March 1, 2007

 

Reposted Oaxaca, Mexico, November 17, 2020