Thursday, February 18, 2021

Time and Perception


Once, a long time ago (maybe it was 1946) a new 1st trombone player joined an orchestra far away; he was by far the best brass player in the orchestra. The other players in the orchestra were what we call now "old school," and it clearly stayed "old school" for many years after the new 1st trombonist arrived; the horns were primitive, the trumpets were symphonically ignorant and the trombones and tuba were pretty much the same. They did the thing all untrained brass players do; they played late. The new trombone player was the only one who made an effort to be on time. Of course, in comparison with the other brass he was always early. As time passed and more experienced players began to join the orchestra slowly the brass section started to play on time, all except the 1st trombone player (who wasn't new anymore); he had been ahead of the section for so many years that when things finally got corrected it didn't seem right to him. His perception of what was correct was simply ahead of the rest of the section. Therefore he continued to play ahead all the way to the day he retired.


During these years of adjustment a new and younger 1st trombonist came into the orchestra. He was intelligent, a wonderful musician and a student of the older 1st trombonist. He immediately realized that his teacher was always early and found himself becoming very frustrated. Sharing that common quality that all great brass players seem to have, stubbornness, the new trombonist soon developed the habit of always being behind his teacher because he knew if he was with him he would be early. 25 years after the older trombonist passed away, his replacement was still playing late and thinking he was right. He had been playing late to his teacher for so many years that not being behind felt wrong. Finally, when the new trombonist reached retirement the problem seemed to resolve. It took 50 years to correct the time perception problem in the section!


And in another place long ago and far away there was a remarkable young trombonist and composer, it was in the early 70s. He was so far ahead of the rest of us that he captured our imaginations, our vision and pointed out to us a new direction. He knew that he was in new territory and that he was opening minds; he liked his role in the avant garde as the enfant terrible. He liked blowing minds and creating new sounds. Today he is a brilliant, perhaps genius composer, and he is charismatic. His avant garde school, though, has become an old-fashioned school, and he's still fighting the same old fight. Now frustrated because he is loosing the fight, he finds that most people think his music is ugly and vulgar. While he was stuck being the outrageous enfant terrible, the rest of the world passed him by and left him behind, yet his perception of himself in the musical world has not changed with the times.


Here's the artistic danger sequence: Motivation, Perception, Growth, Dogma, then Stagnation. It didn't happen to Stravinsky, he grew until he died. It hasn't happened to Boulez or Rostroprovitch. I'm afraid of it. If it happens to me, I will know it is time to stop.


When the pensioners sit on a bench and stare at the sea, what do they think about?


Between Tokyo and Hiroshima, Japan. November 15, 2004.






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