Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Balancing Dynamic and Intensity

The Great Italian Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini used to tell the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in his thick Italian accent: “My friends, please don’t confuse dynamic with intensity”; I’ve been thinking about those wise words for the last 30 years.

The dictionary defines intensity as a measurement of energy, but regarding music it needs to be a little more defined. Of course, just a measurement of energy would include the difference between loud and soft; certainly, dynamic is a measurement of energy, but for the purpose of this article I will refer to dynamic as the amplitude, the loud and soft of music, and intensity as the ratio of harmonics; that is tone quality.

The nature of sound as we play, speak, or sing, normally increases with intensity when the dynamic increases, and in piano it decreases. For example, compare the soft timbre of a sweet lullaby compared to the hard aggressive quality of a rock and roll singer. However, it doesn’t necessacerely have to be that way, there is much more to sound than just dynamic variety.

Luciano Pavarotti, for example, was able to sing very softly with great intensity, and a great actor can speak a text in a very soft voice, even a whisper but with frightening intensity; some of the most terrible villains in film and theater speak in a menacingly intense soft voice.

Intensity can be the regulator of our musical quality; a pianissimo with no intensity is a weak, often unstable sound, which is nearly impossible to play with regarding intonation. And a fortissimo with too much intensity can simply be ugly.

In playing music we have both dynamics and intensity as our tools of expression, balancing the two leads toward a much richer sonic vocabulary; it’s important to use them both and not to confuse them.

Part of our job as brass players, as well as maintaining our techniques of fingers, breathing, articulation, and embouchure control, is to be aware of that chronic balance calibration between dynamic and energy and to make our personal decision for the correct mix for the correct occasion. But particularly, as lower brass players we need to formulate our opinion as to whether the bass notes, the tuba notes, those that are required in most of our playing, should simply be a big sound with wide amplitude to put a basic bottom on a brass section, or to calculate an energy to that sound that is more homogeneous with the higher brasses. I won’t offer an opinion regarding this but I will only say that I have been fascinated by this question for my full playing career. We, with the help of the people we work with, have a choice. Certainly, the correct solution will very from person to person as well as through diverse styles and repertoire. Personally, I recommend keeping an open mind and continuing the search for that correct calibration, the correct mix; it’s more interesting than staying with the comfortable and predictable. Sound is part of our musicality and musicality is a growing aspect that needn’t ever stop evolving. Enjoy this search.

August 29, 2009, Tokyo
Reissued October 25, 2012

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Simultaneous Multiple Teachers

This Blog was written shortly after my dear friend, colleague, brother and competitor past away six years ago. Although it’s only been a year and a half since the last reposting, it seems a good moment to post it again; jealousies and insecurities seem as prevalent as ever among teachers to the detriment of our students. Can’t teachers please get past these jealousies and insecurities and remember our responsibility is to expand the knowledge and vision of our students?

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

Revised October 14, 2012, Tokyo

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Dedication, Obsession, Fanaticism and the Happy Hobbyist

It’s not the same for everyone; the only thing we know for sure is that in our quest to be successful in the musical world it takes work, how much work and the intensity of that work is personal, but it takes work. Sometimes the decision of how much work is made by choice and sometimes it’s made simply because of our individual unique natures. Whatever our personal nature though, there is still room for some choice; we are all our own teachers and that being so, we all need to make our individual personal teaching decisions.

With a Smile or a Tear?

Let’s hope the “Good ol’ days” are gone forever: “The good ol’ days” when the enraged maestro would strike the student’s fingers with a cane or a ruler when he or she missed a note!

In our personal practice habits, where is that optimum line where patience and perseverance are in good balance?

I have a very good friend, an old colleague, exactly my age, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who used to profess, and I fear believed, “A good musician is a scared musician!” What a sad (and inefficient) approach to making music!

I also know an extremely talented young woman whose mother believed she should practice for her piano lessons only when she wanted to. Of course, the young girl always opted to go and play instead of practicing and consequently a great talent was never developed. Another sad approach, and today that young woman regrets that actively participating in the performance of music is not a part of her life. 

To be sure, our philosophies of how to think when we make music differ from the happy hobbyist to the tough hided, seasoned professional musician. Since the “Good ol’ days” we have learned through educational psychology research that knowledge and skills develop more efficiently without unnecessary stress. Quite simply, learning and performing work better when we’re happy!

The Greatest Teaching and Learning Experience

Perhaps the most significant and successful learning experience of mankind is that moment when a child takes his or her first steps. In all countries, in all cultures, it goes something like this: When the parents think it might be time for those first steps one parent takes the child’s hands and the other stands about a meter in front with arms held out. The parent holding the hands lets go, the child takes one or two steps and the other parent catches the child when it falls. After the steps the parents hug and kiss the child and tell him or her how proud they are; that’s the way it’s been through thousands of years, billions of times.
It would be hard to imagine that story any other way. But what if the story went like this: The mother holds the child’s hands and the father stands in front; the child tries to take a step but instead falls down. The father then slaps the child in the face and says in a loud voice, “Stupid kid, can’t even take one step without falling down”! How might that terrible scenario have affected the life of that child?

Fortunately, its dubious if such a terrible story has ever taken place but it shows the power of positive reinforcement over negative. Teaching is a huge responsibility whether it’s as a parent, as a teacher of a student, or as being our own teacher.

Of course, the work still needs to be done, and finding our individual balance between dedication, obsession and fanaticism is strategic; it’s different from person to person and for one single person it may differ from one day to another. Wherever we may find ourselves in that balance, we will reach a higher level of performance if we enjoy our work.

Happy working.

December 28, 2006, Tokyo, Japan

Revised October 7, 2012, Tokyo, Japan