Sunday, September 30, 2012

Don't worry about Missing Something --- Worry about Not Trying

It’s been my privilege and extraordinary good luck to have held faculty positions in many musical institutions in North America, Europe and Japan; There was one period when I was teaching at the Fiesole Scuola di Musica, Italy, Conservitoire de Lausanne, Switzerland, Bern Hochschule für Music, Switzerland, Rotterdam Conservatory, Netherlands and the Royal Northern Collage of Music, Manchester, England, all at the same time.  As I recall I was tired most of the time from the chronic commuting, and although I would never do it again I remember it as exhilarating and perhaps more of an learning experience for me than the nearly 40 students I was seeing as often as possible. It was in this period I starting writing essays for the now defunct TubaNews.

Today I am still writing essays but now they are called Blogs. Most of them are pedagogical in content but I have tried my hand at many subjects, even a few short stories. Usually when writing the pedagogical blog messages I try targeting them to a specific musical environment. That could be an instrument group, an institution such as a conservatory, symphony orchestra, or brass ensemble or even a country; through the blog media we are able to address any of these specific musical entities. Since Japan is the center of my present musical life, I would like to address this blog specifically to my Japanese students, particularly those in the various ensembles that I coach.

None of us want to sound bad; none of us want to miss notes, whether it’s a cracked high note, loss of control in a fortissimo or a technical passage that breaks down simply because it’s fast. Certianly, we try to avoid sounding bad while playing with other musicians and frequently we try to avoid not sounding good even in the privacy of our own practice sessions. We hide these problems, whether it’s because of high register, loud dynamic or technical demands, simply by stopping during the problematic passages.

Hiding’ from the problem happens most frequently when we play into the high register. Many of the young players I work with play beautifully until it goes into the high register at which time they just stop playing until it returns to an easier lower register; they don’t want to take the chance that they might miss something, they don’t want their co students to hear them miss anything. THIS IS EXACTLY THE WRONG THING TO DO TO IMPROVE A HIGH REGISTER PROBLEM! The problem will never go away by avoiding it or by hiding from it. Of course, the necessary strength to play in the high register has to be developed by playing in the high register. To build the strength for the high register we need to aggressively continue trying to play those notes. Sometimes it will work sometimes it won’t but it will get better. We have very fine instrument etudes written specifically for development of the high register but just as important is that we stubbornly play the high passages that give us problems in our various ensembles.  

It’s very much the same when developing a fortissimo; the strength needs to be developed to have a beautiful ff. Every brass instrument has a repertoire of cantabile studies that are usually beautiful melodies, IE, the Bordogni Vocalizes. 10 or 15 minutes a day playing these beautiful cantabile melodies in a beautiful fortissimo can be, in conjunction with forte orchestra or quazi-orchestra passages like the Blazhevich for Trombone and tuba or Brandt studies for trumpet, a strategic part in building a beautiful fortissimo.

There’s another danger area: Many players stop when things get difficult in technical passages. Fast passages, when the tonal material gets more complicated or the fingering gets more difficult, are another situation where players just stop playing. This is much easier to correct. The obvious solution is practice! It’s easy, even fun, to work on fast passages but when the harmonic material gets complicated or the fingering gets difficult it’s time to work on the ear training to clearly hear the notes in your mind’s ear or during more difficult fingering. Practice those things rather than just enjoying hearing yourself playing fast; concentrate on the difficult technical passages.

We hide from the hard passages; high, loud or fast, so we won’t be heard either by our colleagues or ourselves, so no one will hear us missing. If we hide, we won’t improve. Please don’t hide from your weaknesses; let them be heard as you work to improve them. It’s like preparing for sports; sometimes it takes hard work to perform better.
We go to conservatory to get better! Don’t be afraid to show the work you are doing to do that. Like a baby learning to walk, we all fall occasionally, we all miss occasionally; Please get back up and try again!

October 1, 2012, Tokyo

Friday, September 28, 2012

Avocados, Kiwis, Mangos and Tuba

When I was a young boy I slept outside most of the time, the reason; I liked it, it was exciting to sleep outside, the air was fresh, I could smell the trees and the flowers, watch the sky and see how the stars and the planets changed through the months and the seasons. And the sounds; I got to know the different birds and the insects, and I could tell when the wind blew through the trees, whether it was the eucalyptus tree up in the back of the yard or the avocado tree that grew next to the fish pond in the yard next door. 

There was a special sound I will never forget, when an avocado would fall from the tree and splash in the pond. Most of the time it was a perfect sound, like several percussionists hitting so exactly together, it resulted in one unique impact. I was also able to discriminate the difference when the avocado hit only water or if it hit one of the round flat fleshy water lily leaves that covered much of the surface. 

I loved avocados; they were a part of my life as far back as I can remember. When my family ate together we would frequently have an avocado salad with dinner or sometimes my mother would make an avocado sandwich for my lunch that I would carry to school. They were great and they were a part of the Mexican heritage that was part of growing up in Southern California. 

When I was 18 years old, and went away to study at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, it was 1956 and I was shocked to discover most of my schoolmates had never heard of an avocado. I can remember trying to explain what an avocado was; it was difficult; It's a fruit that's like a vegetable, not sweet; oily and never cooked, good with lemon and salt and pepper and frequently used with Mexican food. We would mash it, put in a little onion and make guacamole! Once, my brother-in-law Harry told me that he had sent 12 avocados from California.  I was counting the days, telling my classmates what they could expect; it took weeks and when they arrived they were crushed, black and smelled bad. 

One of my summers back in California, after a year in Rochester, I was given a new fruit I had never seen or heard of called a kiwi. It came from New Zealand and it was wonderful. It tasted great in a fruit salad or just by itself, it was like having sex or hearing a Mahler symphony for the first time; after you've experienced it you feel you know one of the great secrets of the universe, ready to share it with the right person. 

Mangos were not much different than kiwis except I had heard of mangos in songs, mostly Hawaiian or Polynesian. In these vocal lyrics, mangos were presented as an exotic sweet secret of the tropics. When the time came to taste my first mango I was not disappointed, it was better than all the songs had hinted, like an orange but better, like a peach but better and a little like a banana but better. 

It seemed to me in those days, that everything came a little sooner in Southern California. I looked forward to bringing avocados, kiwis and mangos to the places that hadn't had the good fortune to those exclusive Southern California privileges. I wanted to go out into the world and share the wonderful discoveries and in one or two occurrences I was successful. 

But something unexpected happened, avocados, kiwis, mangos and even papayas started to show up in the markets of the world; Kiwis grown in Italy, 4 times larger and sweeter than anything I had ever seen from New Zealand appeared in Italian village markets, avocados were available all over the world and had become a staple in sushi, and mangos became as common as apples. They were not exotic anymore; they were there to be enjoyed by anyone shopping in any market in any village. They became part of life; there, if you liked them. I could not take responsibility for having discovered them. 

The tuba was not that so different. Short version: a boy in Southern California (or anywhere, there were many such boys) discovered something wonderful and showed it to the world as much as he could, finding that much of the world had already experienced his discovery before he was finished showing it. 

That's the story of our time. How lucky to live in this period where ideas, when there time has come, spread around the world like radio waves. 

Success is anticipating the future, because if we adjust only to the present, ideas will be late.
Island of Lesvos, Greece. Summer, 2003

Revised September 29, 2012, Tokyo, Japan

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Vintage '38

The following essay was written eight years ago while I was facing the aspect of retirement from the Conservatoire de Lausanne, Switzerland. It was to be almost two years later that my destiny led me to the Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo, Japan.
This has become a very welcome and happy destiny.

Vintage '38

In every country one encounters, it seems to be inordinately bureaucratic, especially to foreigners. Having been through the process of immigration in several countries, I feel safe in saying that Switzerland may be the most bureaucratic of all. Foreigners muse over the possibility that this constant badgering of residents holding something other than Swiss passports is representative of a latent but chronic form of xenophobia. We all sense this, sometimes we speak about it, but as far as I know we’ve never taken action. Perhaps it’s just not all that bad.

I had been living in Lausanne, Switzerland for five years before the foreign police and the Conservatoire de Lausanne discovered I had not reported my residence; they couldn’t believe it; I must have been the first to get away with such a thing. The school had to use their lawyer to rush through a “B permit” for me, so both they and I would be legal. The Conservatoire informed me that I would be held responsible for both the legal fees and the fine. That’s the last I ever heard about it. Perhaps the school paid it, but if so, it would have been quite out of character.

Now, six years later, I have been informed that I will be given a “C permit”, which is like having Swiss citizenship in every way being able to vote; this is ironic, because as of one year ago I was deemed too old to continue my work in Switzerland because I was 65. I feel sure this is another kind of bureaucratic oversight but in any case I will accept the “C permit”.

When I went to the directors of the Conservatoire de Lausanne and protested this compulsory retirement, they went into shock. It seemed to me that I was the first person in Swiss history to complain! “Don’t you want to rest now, don’t you want to take walks by the lake?” My visceral reaction to those questions was to reach across the desk, grab the director by the collar and say, "No, I'm not tired and I have better things to do than to take walks around your lake!" I didn’t, but I was having a new concept of what was meant by “small country!”

We did find a compromise, however, in that they agreed to let me continue teaching until all the students, who were all foreign (a problem for the school) and who had come there specifically to study with me, had graduated. This would fiscally take me to August 2005 when I would be 67. Actually, this situation couldn’t have come at a better time. My work in Manchester at the Royal Northern College of Music was increasing. They like me and they want me there full time for as long as I am able, and they also want as many foreigners as possible; not to mention the fact that the RNCM is a vastly superior music school compared to the Conservatoire de Lausanne. In the school year 2004-2005 I will simultaneously be nearly full time at both Manchester and Lausanne and I look forward to organizing it.

Retirement remains unthinkable to me and other than the physical demands of being a tuba soloist, I have given little thought to the aging process. However, the foreign police have required me to get an up-to-date photograph for the C permit document, which I did. It was in one of those automatic photograph kiosks that are found in post offices and railroad stations. I adjusted the height, smiled and saw in the screen in front of me an older man, a little less hair, nearly completely gray and because of a diet, which is very successful, the face that was “full” was now full of jowls. I would guess from the picture that I was about 65, which is what I was!

Well, so what! I rarely see myself in the mirror, I shave in the shower, I brush my hair without my glasses and my barber seems quite amused when I ask him to turn the barber chair facing the small place (square) at the corner of rue de Petit Chene and rue de Midi so I can watch the people instead of seeing my hair being cut.

Of course, this aging process doesn’t come as a great surprise. The statistic has always been clear to me but now that I’ve seen the C permit photo, the statistic has become a little clearer. I noticed even a few years ago though, that when I would walk into a restaurant or a pub with a group of my students that the eyes of the younger women inside would go to the students, not me; I wasn’t used to that. Growth hormones, cosmetic surgery and hair dye are not my thing so I guess the only thing to do is get used to it; I’m still working on it!

Seeking a female companion at my age can be frustrating and no matter how much I try and comprehend the realities, I always seem to be most attracted to women in their late twenties ---- over and over again! And indeed I have several relationships with women in that age group, all paternal and avuncular. If I keep clear that’s what it is, these are valuable and wonderful friendships. I’m grateful my work brings me into constant contact with that age group!

Women in their thirties are equally attractive but they are just enough older to begin to fear the arrival of their own aging process and a deep friendship with a man my age scares them.

In her forties, if a woman is still single or has become single, she is often soured and embittered by something in her history and with the inevitability of her biological changes; a friendship is frequently volatile.

By fifty, most women are set in their ways, they can be lovely companions but, frankly, they scare me!

I recently renewed an old friendship with a girlfriend from my conservatory days, who had just had her sixtieth birthday. She was equally successful as I and very opinionated. When I was asked a question, she would answer for me ---- always, and in public places she would apply new coats of lipstick every 10 minutes. I can’t attribute these things to her age, she’s the only woman in that age group I have had a friendship with, but let’s just say she seemed to have changed through the 40 years since I had seen her and the attraction was no longer there!

Quickly, I must point out that I’m quite aware that forty years of time has also changed me ---- a little!

I’m curious why 65 has come to signify the age of retirement. Who determined 65 was the age to quit work, why and when? Was it religion? Maybe it was political or maybe it was so long ago that the cultures simply realized most people would be dead by that age so it was mostly a hypothetical number. And what of the economics, what of the baby boomers who are all very close to that mysterious age now and in a few years will become eligible for the social pension payments from already over-stressed systems? It will be curious to see when this time arrives if suddenly the retirement age is changed. If so, what will the result be regarding unemployment? The bottom line is clear to me, this planet is over-populated, and that problem needs to be alleviated.

But how? Perhaps it’s AIDS, or something even worse will cut back world population the necessary 75% or 80% needed. Maybe a real all-out World War III would be a good thing, or perhaps cannibalism could be the answer; I know from my years in Italy how easy anything goes down with a little garlic and a little extra virgin olive oil. Or consider this; maybe the North American Indians were right; When a person has nothing more to offer, it’s time to take him or her to the top of a mountain, make a comfortable place, say goodbye and leave him or her there to catch the next spaceship to the happy hunting ground. Maybe they had it right hundreds of years ago. Anyway, something has to be done!

Personally, I hope I can continue teaching for the next 35 years. 100 seems like a rounder number than 65. Equally, I hope when I start to deteriorate I will recognize it or, if not, that some trusted friend would tell me.

I like very much the vintage wine analogy; no one knows the cellar life of a wine for sure, some reach maturity quickly and some become better and better.

In 1979 I gave a masterclass in Moudon, Switzerland. One of the students (now the tubist of l’Orchest de la Swiss Romand in Geneva) was from the very small town of Feshy. After the last day he invited all the class to his farm in the country; there were 12 or 15 of us. Tables were set up in the cross roads of the village. We ate and drank and it was clearly an exceptional evening. Soon we began to play tuba ensemble music in this isolated rural crossroads. Across the street was another party and the host of that party was also a musician, (everyone in that part of Switzerland had some connection with the band community). Soon the two parties converged and very soon after, the padrone of the party across the street invited us to visit his wine cellar. Shortly, it became clear that this gentleman, whom I was very sure was about my age, was not only an inhabitant of Feshy, but also a principal wine merchant of the region. Perhaps the principle wine merchant of the region. To this day I can’t remember whether he had twenty 40,000 liter casks of wine or forty 20,000 liter casks. In any case he had more wine than I had ever encountered, and he quickly began to encourage us to sample all of it! Soon he suggested, instead of the 1979 vintage, that we sample the 1978, and then the 77. It was an education and a religious experience. We were moving backward through time and I was amazed how different the wine was from year to year. We went through the 70’s and into the 60’s when he began asking birth dates from my students. Upon hearing the birth years he would disappear for a short period and reappear with a bottle of vintage Fechy from that year. He went through the whole class and finally asked if there was anybody else and looked at me with a fraternal smile.
“Well, my birth date is 1938” I said. “Oh, that’s my birth date too”, he said. He left for a long time and we all began to think the party had come to an end when he arrived back with a crusty old bottle with a big 38 rubber stamped on it like the rubber stamps we used in grammar school when I was a boy. He opened it, poured it and it was both a great wine and a religious experience. I hope to find him again someday and remember that evening together.

There was another time I tasted a vintage from 1938. For my 60th birthday present, my good friend and manager Emily Harris gave me a bottle of 1938 port. It was magnificent.

It’s difficult to realistically assess one’s own aging process, but I’m convinced vintage ‘38 was a great year.

Fiesole, Italy, March 2004

Republished and retouched September 23, 2012

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Music Education --- Japanese Style

Recently, several phenomenal Japanese student wind ensembles, including the Mama Elementary School and the Kodaiva Junior High School Girls Big Band, plus the recent phenomenal success of the Musashino Acadamia Musicae Wind Ensemble at the Med West Band Directors Congress in Chicago, USA, have caused enormous chatter on the Internet. The evidence is abundant that music education is alive and very healthy in Japan. Whether it’s an elementary, junior high school or the Musashino Academia Musicae, a university, these organizations represent the very best there is in student ensembles, anywhere.

At this time, however, the very existence of music education in North America is threatened. Funds have been cut back so severely that an alarmingly large number of schools have simply removed music from their curriculum. Similarly in Europe, countries like Italy, with its musically rich historiy, have to resort more and more to private funding if music education can hope to continue to exist. At the present time, however, Japan’s economy is relatively healthy, and with its growing and passionate quest for making music a part of its national culture, there is little question that funding needed for this quest will be available.

As well as the good fortune that allows musical growth to flourish in Japan, there is much more to this music education success story: Japanese students have the will, perseverance and discipline needed to achieve these extraordinarily high levels of performance. Many western teachers and band directors have marveled at the openness of the Japanese students to new ideas and remarked at the seemingly absence of “Attitude” or a “Chip on the shoulder” (The accumulation from unknown sources of a resistance to accepting new information and learning), which they have all experienced in their home institutional environments. Japanese students want to learn, they accept the information and instructions given them and most importantly, they do the work necessary to realize the desired results.

These sensational performances that were seen on YouTube and caused all the exclamation on the Internet, were most certainly the result of an extraordinary amount of rehearsal. First of all, it should be noted that both the Mama Elementary School and the Kodavia Junior High School Bands played by memory; that alone indicates a massive amount of rehearsal time! Further, the performances from both bands were of their concerts that were prepared for the Japanese school bands competitions; this means they most probably had most of the school year and several days a week to work up to the level they achieved.

The preparations of the Musashino Academia Musicae Wind Ensemble, being a music university was, of course, more professional. However, the preparation time was still extremely generous, perhaps between two and three months and at least two rehearsals a week, plus the advantage of some of the very best and world-renowned American band directors. The results have been absolutely amazing.

Of course, not all these accomplished musicians will become professional players but ironically this makes the Japanese music education system even better. Many of these very accomplished young players become teachers themselves and continue high-level music teaching in their respective home environments. The future of music education in Japan is in very good hands. 

Now an important question has to be addressed: Performing musical organizations today, for example symphony orchestras, need to present as many concerts as possible, as frequently as possible, attract as much public as possible in order to make as much money as possible so the musical organization can continue to exist; that’s the reality the professional musician faces today. Are the concerts presented by these Japanese musical institutions, which are prepared with nearly unlimited rehearsal time, appropriate in our present day world, where an absolute minimum of rehearsal time is scheduled in order to present a maximum of performances?

The answer is a very clear and resounding “Yes”! Such thorough and complete preparations give the students of these Japanese institutions the opportunity to experience excellence, and such experiences create an understanding of what finished preparation can be, and helps it become easier to achieve superb ensemble playing in the less idealistic professional circumstances.

Another aspect of teaching music in Japan that needs to be approached is the development of musical individualism, a singular musical personality. This is a more delicate part of the pedagogical process, not only in Japan but also all over the world. There is in Japan, however, an old saying that “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down”! This is a wonderful image for maintaining perhaps the most socially harmonious society in the world but one has to seriously question if it represents a healthy attitude for developing a creative musician. Japanese players, especially brass players, strive for perfection but in the musical world we live in, a world that is composed of examinations, auditions, competitions and performing under all conditions, perfect is, quite simply, not good enough. Of course, performances need to be perfect but that alone does not determine greatness.

True greatness requires musicality and musicality is the composite of our personal use of dynamics, rhythmic energy, variations in articulation, vibrato and all the other facets of music making. It is using these musical tools with the right mix, knowing when to use them, knowing when not to use them, how much to use, and possessing a passion that can make music special. Great musicians must have the courage to show their individualism, to show their musical personality.

Japan is blessed with an abundance of great musicians and with the characteristics of discipline, perseverance, will and dedication it is absolutely inevitable that we will see an increasing presence of Japanese musicians in the international musical community.

Written in Jeju, Korea and Okinawa, Japan, and finished August 27, 2010   

Republished without change from original, September 19, 2012 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Perfect Isn't good enough

The following short essay was written shortly before the international competitions in Japan and Korea in 2007. It was targeted particularly for the Japanese participants of those competitions. RB

With the upcoming competitions and auditions in Japan, many players are diligently working to perfect their performance of the required repertoires. Of course, it must be perfect, but, of course, perfection only will not win the job or the competition; it may help to get them to the second round!

I am not aware of all the competitions and auditions in Japan but I know there are many; I do know that for tuba there is an upcoming orchestral audition with 82 contestants and a competition with 120 contestants. With a field of competitors of such high numbers and with many of these players playing perfectly, it seems very important to ask the question ‘what will the judges be listening for in a winner’? The answer, the simple answer, is musicianship; it’s the definition of musicianship that’s complicated.

The judges of the tuba competition very carefully chose a relatively easy work, but a very good work, for round 1, a work that almost everyone will play perfectly, because they want to hear the musicianship of the contestants. How do we define this “musicianship” the judges will be listening for? Is it dynamics and rhythmic energy? Maybe, but then what are dynamics and rhythmic energy? Printed western music doesn’t tell us everything and the very things it doesn’t tell us, are the very things that will probably win an audition or a competition.

Singers, string players and pianists are far more developed in their use of dynamics, rhythmic energy and rubato in their musicality, in their musical expression, their espressivo.

Espressivo, although not very technically demanding, needs to be studied and the best way to study the aspects of musicality is by listening; listening to singers, string players, pianists and, in fact, to anyone on any instrument you think is outstanding, then ask yourself  ‘how can I sound like that’?

There is a major lesson to be learned when we think of Mayuko Kamio, the Japanese Violinist who recently won the very prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. Certainly, since all the violinists who played in this competition were perfect or at least nearly perfect, what were the qualities that made Mayuko Kamio a winner? The time has come when we wind instrument players must explore that question. The real musical community extends far beyond our particular instrument groups.

Tokyo, July 21, 2007

Revised September 14, 2012

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Democratic National Convention 1960

Fifty-two years ago I was privileged to play in the band for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, the one that nominated John F. Kennedy. At twenty-two years old I was politically naive and only barely aware of what I was witnessing. In the first days of this convention I was more interested and excited to be working with the great and famous players of the Hollywood studios who made up most of the band and were my adolescent heroes. There were, however, an amazing number of Hollywood and political celebrities that were abundant in the behind the scenes podium area where they and the band would relax.

I was also impressed with the refreshments that were served in this backstage area; the memory reminds me more of what I would later encounter in elegant embassy receptions while touring with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The water cooler, for example, dispensed endless quantities of fresh orange juice and I found myself standing in line with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Roosevelt, Adelei Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey and Rose Kennedy. The snacks were absolutely gourmet; Los Angeles (Hollywood) had an exorbitant way of doing things, especially, for the high profile events.

Not fully understanding the political significance of what was taking place around me I was amazed at the seemingly high school behavior of the participants of this convention; it reminded me of what I had experienced not too many years before in my high school’s football games with out-of-control screaming and cheering.

The convention took place in, what then was, the new Los Angeles Convention Center, until the last evening when it changed venues to the Los Angeles Coliseum, where I had played my first professional services with the Los Angeles Ram’s football team’s band and had fond memories of working for the first time with those same well known Hollywood studio musicians. But this time the Coliseum was quite different; the 80,000 seats were full and there was a powerful anticipation of the arrival and acceptance speech of John F. Kennedy.
I have had experiences both before and after that evening of dealing with men of a very high magnitude charisma, mostly great conductors, but I have never before or since encountered charisma like I witnessed that night from John F. Kennedy. He entered in an open convertible, which took one very slow lap around the track and stopped right in front of the bandstand where he got out and took his seat on a platform just behind the band. My tuba seat in the band and Kennedy’s seat on the platform couldn’t have been more than ten feet apart; there was one moment where he looked down at me, smiled and waved. Then came the moving speech where he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”?

The election in the following November was the first election in which I voted; I’ve never held the same excitement for an election since then, however, I felt it for Barack Obama before the 2008 election, who showed that same very exclusive charismatic power as Kennedy. Kennedy radiated an excitement, freshness and hope and America needs that feeling again; perhaps Obama can offer and sustain it again. We need hope and we need a dream again.



Revised September 5, 2012, Tokyo