Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Simultaneous Multiple Teachers

It’s only natural that some of my thoughts have been in reflection of my long friendship with Tommy Johnson. Among those thoughts were the many students we shared, to us it was a natural thing and was never problematic. In the 25 years that we both played and taught in Los Angeles we have recommended to dozens of students that they take some lessons from the other teacher. Similarly, I also remember receiving many telephone calls from Harvey Phillips over the years asking if I would please give lessons to a student who would be passing through Los Angeles. Fortunately, most of our brass community agrees with this practice of a student studying with more than one teacher.

It’s hasn’t always been that way, however, and even today we occasionally encounter jealousies and insecurities from some of our colleague teachers. It’s been known that certain tubists giving concerts in major European cities have been made aware that local students were discouraged from attending the concert. “I don’t want my students exposed to those kind of things” was the explanation given by the nervous teachers. However, human behavior being as it is, the ban on the concerts resulted in the very students who were discouraged to attend being all the more motivated to go and listen. There have also been occasions of masterclasses that were canceled, especially in the old Soviet block Eastern Europe countries because, “It would influence the students in a unhealthy direction”. Happily this kind of thinking is rare and diminishing.

Of course, there have never been any rules about studying with more than one teacher but there are a few commonsense things that deserve our thought.

Both for teachers and students it’s very important to be honest about the lessons; if it’s necessary to be secretive, which is a very clear sign there is a problem, one simply has to question if it’s worth it.

For students, it is a wise idea to avoid studying the same repertoire with both teachers, especially, when one of the teachers has strong and singular ideas regarding that repertoire. And as a teacher, I have avoided working on repertoire that another teacher is helping to prepare for an exam or a recital unless I have a specific request from the permanent teacher to do so.

It is always a very good idea that both the permanent and temporary teachers communicate as much as possible. A phone call from the permanent to the temporary teacher requesting he accept his student for some lessons is a wonderful way to avoid any awkwardness and, of course, it is a great advantage to the student when the two teachers can discuss the student’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s also a wonderful thing when the initiative to study with another teacher comes from the permanent teacher, especially when the permanent teacher can guide the student to the visiting teacher’s specialties.

The principal duty of a great teacher is to provide the student with as much quality information as possible and recommending study with other teachers certainly is part of that teaching responsibility. We are very lucky that this practice is usually accepted in our unique community.

December 20, 2006, Kyoto, Japan
Reposted March 31, 2010, Tokyo

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Harvey Phillips has been a very smart man for a very long time.

In the late 50’s while I was an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, the New York Brass Quintet came to Rochester and presented a master class and concert I will never forget. This was a time when the members of the Canadian Brass Quintet were still children or weren’t even born, and the New York Brass Quintet was the first such group to make a success of concertizing; as I recall I was 20, and it was still a time when dreams and heroes were strategic to my motivation. What a quintet they were, they played the Bozza Quintet like I never imagined possible and, as I remember it, they played the world premier of the Malcolm Arnold Quintet which I thought was the most exciting brass piece I had ever heard.

There was a small controversy at the Eastman school at that time regarding the correctness and acceptability of performing transcriptions. There was the unofficial doctrine of Eastman, which held that transcriptions were in poor taste and simply shouldn’t be done, and there was a much smaller school of thought, which maintained that transcriptions were acceptable as long as they worked and they sounded good. In Amsterdam in the 60’s it was even more rigid; one simply could not play transcriptions in Holland during that period. I, being a good Eastman student choose to obediently and comfortably follow the school’s view but with the New York Brass Quintet in town playing superb performances of some of their excellent transcriptions, these conservative views that dominated the thinking in Eastman were hard to sustain.

That afternoon the New York Brass Quintet gave an unforgettable master class. Among the abundance of mind expanding thoughts that were heard that day came the question regarding the acceptability of transcriptions. Harvey Phillips immediately stood up and offered his answer; I can’t remember his exact words but it was something very close to the following, directly after an extraordinary performance of a Bach contrapuntus: “If those who would like to forbid us the performance of transcriptions are going to have their way, then they should go all the way; They should insist that music should never be played in any setting other than how the composer intended it, they should insist music should be played only on the instruments that existed during the period the composer wrote it and further, just to be sure, they should insist music should be played only by the musicians who were alive in that period!” The normally conservative Eastman audience broke in to a spontaneous explosion of applause and cheers. Personally, those words opened up a whole new world to me; a fresh new path.

In all honesty I have to tell a small coda to this story. Many years later I remember having a conversation with Harvey where he was advocating the playing transcriptions of symphony orchestra music with band, both because it sounded good and that it also would give band players the experience of playing works they otherwise may never get the chance to play. I argued the point, saying that was going too far. Now that I am a conductor of a wind ensemble in a Japanese conservatory, I realized how right Harvey was.

Still, we shouldn’t stop discussing the question. I have a question I’ve been posing to my master class audiences for the last 25 years.

Imagine you are in a concert hall and you are about to hear the best horn player in the world perform the Adagio and Allegro by Schumann. This is not one of the great horn players you could name but it is the best horn player in the world that exists in your sonic imagination; close your eyes and listen in your mind to this great horn player… Now do the same thing but with a cellist. (The Schumann Adagio and Allegro for horn has been transcribed for many instruments including cello and it has been performed and recorded by the greatest cello players.) But like the horn player, this cellist is not one of the famous cellists in the world; it is the greatest cellist in the world that exists in your imagination. Close your eyes and listen… Now do the experiment with tuba; close your eyes and listen.

Now ask yourself the following questions:

Which did I like the best, horn, cello or tuba?


If you choose cello do you believe the tuba has the capabilities of sounding equally beautiful?

This survey, which I’ve taken all over the world for 25 years invariably, results in favor of cello by about 85%, even when the audience is exclusively brass players! This is not a bad thing; it means that the brass playing community is a realistic and musically discriminating group. It means that that “best in the world” horn player, cellist or tubist is very high quality indeed and that means that in all of us, in our musical imaginations can create excellence. How to realize that excellence while playing our chosen instrument is the challenge all of us face!

In the poll of issue 10 of TubaNews the question was asked: Is a brass instrument capable of making the Bach Suites as beautiful as a cello? Out of 266 votes 71% said YES, they thought the Bach Suites could be played at equal beauty to the cello. Personally, I voted YES too, but it was a YES in faith and hope; I look forward to the day when I hear these suites played at the level of beauty we are accustomed to with a fine cellist.

(This article was written in June 2005. Recently, in Benjamin Pierces’ new CD “Pierce plays Bach, we are able to hear some of the Bach Cello Suites played as beautifully as they have been played on any instrument.) --- And the evolution continues.

Fortunately, the old prejudices regarding transcriptions are all but gone and we are free to play what pleases us and what sounds good; if you are not a composer try making some transcriptions and enjoy opening new repertoire for our instrument.

June 5, 1005, Le Domaine Forget, Quebec, Canada
Reposted and updated March 28, 2010, Tokyo

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tradition and Evolution

We have so much to be proud of when we look back over our short history; in just a few hundred years we tubists have developed from the primitive serpent to the sophisticated instrument we have today, with wonderful repertoire, amazing improvements in instrument design, and virtuoso creative artists; and this high velocity evolution seems to have no end in sight.

Like religion, politics, arts, and technology, and in all aspects of life, we too have our liberals and our conservatives, those who choose to look to the future for new ideas and those who prefer to look back at our past structures and systems and try to maintain the established ways.

In the mid 20th century there were two great conductors in the world who became the classical music standard bearers for these liberal and conservative views: Arturo Toscanini, the purist, who was absolutely faithful to the printed score and Leopold Stokowsky, who freely changed the score to what he thought would represent what the composer would have written if he had had the resources of the modern orchestra and/or the abilities of the modern player.

In Tubadom (the world of the tuba) it’s pretty much the same; we have our visionaries and we have our strict traditionalists. I will try not to suggest which of these philosophies I support other than to point out that in our very short history there are but few well-developed traditions that merit our consideration compared to what appears to be our brilliant future; sometimes I feel a little sorry for our strict traditionalists.

Another great conductor of the past century, Eric Leinsdorf, used to say that there were two kinds of tradition: magical musical moments that we try to repeat whenever possible and one hundred years of bad habits that we can’t seem to correct! The essential question here is this: is the symphony orchestra a sonic museum which must adhere to the state of the art in the composers time and place of the world, or is it a living art work of sound structured on a canvas of time and realized by today’s musicians in today’s world?

The tuba repertoire in the symphony orchestra is abundant with works that were written for both lesser-developed instruments and performers than we have today. Had the magnificent instruments and the abundance of amazing virtuosos we have today been available then at the time much of our repertoire was composed, things probably would have been quite different. I would like to discuss examples from four master composers, of how I believe they might have treated their orchestrations regarding tuba if they had had today’s resources.

Berlioz: Symphonie Phantastique

Berlioz did not write for the tuba, he wrote for the ophiclide, that last of our tuba ancestors before the emergence of the real tuba. The obsolete ophiclide at this moment is making a small comeback into the musical world, and particularly, I have seen one very interesting and charming televised performance of the Symphonie Phantastique not only using ophiclide, but also using all the wind instruments from Berlioz’s period. The key to the success of that performance is the fact that all the wind instruments were from the time of Berlioz. It’s dubious, if only the ophiclide was used in an otherwise setting of modern instruments. The performance wouldn’t have been as successful.

Berlioz orchestrated the famous Dies Irae passage of the fifth movement, March to the Scaffold, for four bassoons on the low octave and two ophiclides on the top octave; this resulted in an appropriately earthy, raucous and well balanced sound. However, in modern orchestration, the four bassoons in the low octave, compared to two tubas in the upper octave, are usually inaudible. The correction is simple when the tubas play in octaves, with the lower tuba doubling the four bassoons. Most conductors, players, critics and listeners agree the results of this combination are both successful and effective.

Wagner: Prelude to the Third Act of Lohengrin

A lesser known fact than Berlioz never having orchestrated for tuba, only ophiclide, is that the earlier operas of Wagner, specifically Rienzi, Flying Dutchman, and Lohengrin, were also originally orchestrated for ophiclide. As the ophiclide became more obsolete, Wagner began to write for the tuba and in agreement with his publisher he dropped ophiclide in the early works and in its place he specified tuba. It’s very easy to see in these early operas a very clear similarity with the way Berlioz orchestrated for ophiclide.

In this famous passage the tuba (ophiclide) plays this sequential theme in unison with the trombones until the three measures where the theme goes up to the high G, at which time Wagner removes the tuba and replaces it with the third trumpet. When the tuba drops out of this passage the body of the unison becomes noticeably thinner. Once, while discussing this passage with a valued colleague I was told, “Wagner knew what he was doing”. I absolutely agree, writing that part up to the high G at that time would probably have not functioned well, but in today’s world it is not problematic and the passage is much improved when the tuba continues through those three bars.

Mahler: First and Fifth Symphonies

The famous tuba passage at the beginning of the slow movement of Mahler’s first symphony is a very unusual orchestration. The round, Frère Jacques in D minor, starts with solo muted contrabass, (string bass), perhaps the most feeble sound in the symphony orchestra, then goes to the bassoon, then to muted celli, then to the tuba; blending with those light weight instruments can be problematic. Mahler wrote this symphony for bass tuba (F) and, although many players choose to use Contrabass tuba through most of the symphony, most players change to F tuba for this passage to better blend with the muted solo contrabass, the solo bassoon, and the muted celli.

In the very last measures of Part One of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a very similarly orchestrated passage of a three note thematic fragment passed and repeated through the lower instruments and finally played by the tuba. This symphony is written for contrabass tuba and most tubists agree contrabass tuba is favorable for the greater mass required in the many dramatic low register passages. Because this three-note theme fragment always felt much too thick on the contrabass tuba, I began playing it on the F and the results were strikingly preferable. Still, even the F tuba seemed too thick to me after all the other much thinner instruments had played, which lead me to try these three notes on the F tuba muted. The results were exactly what I had hoped, and I could see that the conductors were pleased, so I continued to mute those notes for the rest of my orchestra-playing carrier.

In retrospect, now that I am no longer playing in an orchestra, I asked myself if the mute worked so well in the closing of the first part of Mahler’s Fifth, wouldn’t it have also worked equally well in the opening passage of the slow movement of the First Symphony? I hope that someday I will have the opportunity to hear some courageous tubist try this so I can know for sure if it would be as successful as I imagine.


And if imagination can open the vision, why not let it open all the way! There is no risk in thought.

I have seen Siegfried twice, heard it on recording a few times and I have played some of the Fafner passages in orchestral concerts; I was disappointed both in the performances that I heard and those that I played. And frankly, I have never heard a performance of Siegfried when Fafner was the least bit menacing. I could even go so far as to say that the poor dragon struck me as a toothless, sickly castrato. Well, maybe I have worked in Hollywood too long; I’m used to dragons and monsters that are truly scary!

Wagner was a creative genius, a visionary, and an innovator. Essentially, he invented the contrabass trombone and “Wagner” Tuben for the orchestra of the Ring Operas; he was the innovator of chromaticism, which opened the door to the last stages of romanticism in composition. He was involved in the scenic design of his own operas and also in the stage direction. He was the essence of the modernist.

I have read many accounts over the years of Wagner opera productions where the scenic design was highly praised by the critics for its experimentation in the avant-garde. I’ve always been amazed that with a man like Wagner, with an eye far in the future, we are so adherent to tradition when it comes to playing the tuba parts of his music. Rather than that strict traditionalism I would think, as in the scenic design of his operas, it would be far more appropriate to try and imagine what Wagner might have done if he were alive today. How might Wagner have realized Fafner, what might he have done if he had the sonic palette of John Williams for example? (Imagination has no boundaries) Think of the Fafner we could hear with the same technique used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the alien space ship arrived on Earth and communicated through music. A Mirafone 185 CC was used in the middle register and played electronically through an octave divider resulting in perhaps the most powerful and dramatic tuba writing we have. What would Wagner have done if he had heard that? Fafner might have been a far more impressive beast. I hope someday soon to create circumstances where I can hear what that powerful, visceral and frightening Fafner might have sounded like.

I hope that we tubists can continue our remarkable evolution with the same vision and energy that we have experienced in our short history; there will always be a lot to learn and a lot to do.

June 9 2006, Le Domaine Forget, Quebec, Canada
Reposted March 24, 2010, Tokyo