Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Tricks: Masks and Shortcuts

Tricks: Masks and Shortcuts

In 1973 at First International Brass Symposium in Montreux, Switzerland, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion among several orchestral low brass players from various orchestras throughout Europe and North America. I was clearly the junior in this group of players and I had enough sense to keep quiet, but I will never forget that discussion. I was amazed at all the tricks these players proudly exposed, it seemed they covered everything in every way other than just playing the parts correctly. The first topic was playing on time; some sections dealt with the problem of lateness by consciously playing everything a 16th note ahead! I wanted to say, “Why don’t you just listen?” but I was 25 years younger than any of these seasoned players.

Subsequently, I calculated just how long it took sound to travel from the back to the front of an orchestra. At the speed of sound, 3.4029 meters in 0.01 of a second, it would take a little less than 0.02 of a second; 0.018 to be exact, 0.018 of a second for sound to travel six meters from the back row to the conductor’s podium. It’s highly questionable if eighteen thousandths of a second is perceptible to our hearing and certainly it’s not enough to excuse the trombones and tuba for being late. The best way to play on time is to listen!

The same panel discussed how to play dotted rhythms, dotted 8ths and 16ths or the double dotted 8ths and 32nd notes as in this following passage from the finale of Buckner’s 7th Symphony.

Three solutions were offered; to play the 32nds on the beat, to play the 32nds as close to the long notes as possible and to accent the 32nds. No one offered the idea of playing the 32nds clearly, on time, and balanced with the long notes.

Less that a year ago a visiting tubist gave some masterclasses in Japan and offered the same solution of accenting the 32nds on the above Bruckner passage, not as a solution for lateness but as an adjustment to assure the balance between the long and short notes was equal. It can work --- sometimes; if it’s done well and in rhythm it can be a good solution to the phenomenon that short notes sound less loud than long notes even if they are exactly the same dynamic. The negative side of this practice is when students take the idea too an extreme, it results in hyper accented short notes. This was the case in Japan and as several students came for lessons in preparation for an orchestra audition. I had to correct the tendency many of them showed of grotesquely over accenting the short notes.

One more trick of our time: There is fad at the present time; the very dubious belief that low register legato sounds better if the fingers move the valves slowly. I don’t know where this fad came from but I personally find it one of the more un-thought-out tricks I have ever encountered, it stands in absolute opposition to the evolution of tuba technique becoming more and more refined. It probably came about as an unconscious masking and compensating for the fact that fingering in the low register is simply more complicated and frequently the fingers are unclear and uneven changing from note to note. Moving the fingers slowly masks that problem.

Articulation is the focus of rhythm and legato is an articulation. Clarity and precision are very important in the low register simply because our human hearing mechanism does not easily discriminate clearity in that register. Playing a rapid passage on the piano in the middle high register and playing the same passage in the piano’s lowest octave easily proves that. As I told my valued colleague who was teaching this trick, “It sounds like a sluggish bass section all by itself!” Rumors have it that some basstrombone and contrabassoon players are frustrated by this practice.

There are different ways to deal with instrumental problems and I strongly believe the best way is to approach them as honestly as possible and to correct them without resorting to masking or shortcuts, it’s not that much more difficult and it sounds enormously better.

- Tokyo, Japan