Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Tuba in Brass Quintet

Last week I was privileged to have attended a concert in Tokyo of Les Vents Françes, a woodwind quintet with an extraordinary list of personnel. It starts with Emmanuel Pahud, first Flute with the Berlin Philharmonic and the list continues with equally prestigious artists: François Leleux, Oboe, Paul Meyer, Clarinet, Gilbert Audin, Bassoon and Radovan Vlatkovic, Horn. This was certainly one of the greatest ensembles I’ve ever heard, not only because of its prestigious individual members but because it was simply an extraordinary ensemble of the highest musical quality.

Slovenian horn soloist, Radovan Vlatkovic, especially impressed me. I had worked with Radovan several times in various European venues and I was aware he was a great horn player but in this concert he singularly displayed  the best horn playing I have ever heard; it had the beauty of sound that I was used to from the great horn players in the film industry in Hollywood but with a little bit of “bite” that I sometimes missed in Hollywood. The sound was even and stable in all registers, it was dynamically alive and Radovan was always beautifully musical. It also occasionally overpowered the other four instruments, not frequently but enough to take note.

Of course, that’s not the first time I’ve heard a horn overpower the other instruments in a woodwind quintet, it happens all the time; the horn is very different from the other four instruments in the ensemble and there is always that possibility that it could over balance the other four woodwind instruments. But this is not a review of Les Vents Français, if it was I could write pages on how excellent it was.

In the very interesting thread on (The now defunct) TubaNews of the last two months regarding the use and idiosyncrasies of various instruments, someone asked the question why does the tuba frequently sound too loud in brass quintets; a very astute question.

It’s very much the same reason that we so frequently hear horn sounding louder than the other instruments in a woodwind quintet; quite simply it’s different from the other instruments, except for two things. Unlike horn in a woodwind quintet, tuba in brass quintet is definitely another brass instrument. Also unlike the horn, the tuba has a larger variety of instruments with which to choose to blend.

The tuba is blessed (or damned) with the biggest sound of any instrument in the symphony orchestra family. This is not just the opinion of one enthusiastic tubist but it is a fact. Examine the sound produced by the tuba compared to other traditional instruments on an oscilloscope and it is easy to see that the sign wave made by the tuba is considerably larger. If the tubist uses an instrument that produces a sound too much larger than the other four instruments in a brass quintet he will not blend and most likely be too heavy for the other four.

This was proven many times to me while judging brass ensemble and particularly brass quintet competitions. From those experiences it was evident that BBb and large CC tubas did not work well, and large Eb tubas also leaned clearly in that heavy direction. The instruments the judges noticed were particularly outstanding were smaller CC tubas (we’ve all heard how the small Yamaha CC Chuck Daellenbach plays in the Canadian Brass Quintet blends very well), The smaller Besson BE980 Eb and a number of F tubas, especially the Yamaha 822 and the original B&S. There was one other remarkable quintet F tuba we heard, which was a small B&S made especially for the son of Hungarian tubist Josef Bazsinka (Now fully grown and a highly successful tubist). Perhaps it could be said it was an appropriately small tuba for a growing young man but it was also a very acoustically sophisticated and perfect quintet tuba.

Equally important to the amplitude of the tuba sound; It’s also important and necessary to discuss the tone quality, the timbre of the sound. To blend with the other brass instruments we need an instrument that has sufficient overtones to avoid sounding like a sonic misfit in the quintet setting. The instruments mentioned above work well in quintet, and although they all have quite different timbres, all have the richness of higher overtones to blend well with the other brass.

Years ago while playing with the Los Angeles Brass Quintet, in order to find the right instrument for early music, particularly Italian renaissance music and more particularly Gabrieli, I learned some very interesting things. First of all my CC tuba did not sound right. Although it was a small CC, it seemed to be much too thick and heavy for that music so I switched to F tuba. It was better, but again it did not fit the style and this caused me to start experimenting. When the trombonist in our quintet switched to bass trumpet, he sounded much more homogeneous with the trumpets but caused the F tuba to sound even more foreign to the rest of the group. It was clear; I needed something cylindrical to blend. For a short period I used my contrabass trombone but the tessitura of most of that repertoire was too high for a BBb contrabass trombone. In that period of time, also to better blend with the cylindrical brass, the horn player bought and learned how to play an Eb alto trumpet, which worked beautifully.

At that point logic told me I had to get a contrabass trumpet in F to do Gabrieli justice; if only one was available! Short story: I organized all the parts and had one built! It worked very well and some of the Italian renaissance music we recorded 35 years ago still sounds very right to me today. Retrospectively, I think a good cimbasso might have been at least equal to the contrabass trumpet but in the 70s very little was known in the United States about cimbassi.

Choosing the correct instrument for any situation is like planning a dinner: for example if you are going to serve an elegant Japanese meal you would not serve pizza as one of the courses, even though pizza is great!

November 1, 2005, Tokyo, Japan.
Revised November 26, 2012, Tokyo, Japan

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Time and Perception

Once, a long time ago and far away a new 1st trombone player joined an orchestra; 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 symphonicly ignorant and the other 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 to be 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. 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 guard as the enfant terrible, he liked blowing minds and creating new sounds. Today he is a brilliant, perhaps genius composer and he is charismatic but his avant guard school has become an old-fashioned school, and he’s still fighting the same old fight. Now frustrated because he is losing 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 has 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 and it never happened to Rostroprovitch. I’m afraid of it, if it happens to me I’ll know it’s time to stop.

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

November 15, 2004, on the Shinkansen (Bullet train)   from Tokyo to Hiroshima

Revised November 25, 2012, Tokyo

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Piazza Concert

This short story is dedicated to my colleagues in the Los Angeles Philharmonic during the 70s and 80s, the Ernest Fleischmann period. 

The man was a retired symphony orchestra musician that had played with one of the major orchestras in the United States. On this particular spring Sunday afternoon in May he was with his family attending the annual pig festival in the small village of Impruneta just a short distance outside the city of Florence. The picturesque piazza was alive with booths selling everything from miniaturized icon replicas from Mueso Del Tesoro di Santa Maria Dell'Impruneta e Basilica, to the excellent terracotta pottery that was Impruneta’s specialty. There were also booths for food and drink including the Impruneta pig festival specialty, panino di porchetta, a fresh pork sandwich made from juicy meat just cut from the pig which roasted on a rotating spit; the booth was easy to find, one only needed to follow the mouth watering aroma. There was wine, beer and grappa and at the very next booth there was the vibrant red Sicilian Spremuta, the freshly pressed rich sweet orange juice as red as the Chianti served at the wine booth. And there was Cenci, a crisp greasy thin deep fried wafer dipped in powdered sugar, that was far more richer in cholesterol and sugar and more detrimental to ones health than any doughnut anywhere; cenci are wonderful and are a part of any village festival anywhere in Italy.
The whole experience was nothing new to the family, they had lived in Toscana for several years and been to many of the festivals that were frequently celebrated in similar villages throughout Toscana and throughout Italy: rabbit festivals, snail festivals, turkey, chicken, garlic, onion, tomato, zucchini, olive, grape and wine festivals; they were always a very particular kind of fun and the family’s enjoyment was only enhanced by their accumulated festival experiences.

There was an abundance of young girls who were desperately trying to find their place in the rich world of Italian fashion, usually with strikingly grotesque results, but with the occasional exceptional appearance of an angelic, budding Sophia Loren who would make a grown man quietly gasp at the potential. Similarly, there were the boys either reaching for or having reached puberty, testing there manhood potential by flexing the decibels of their moterinos and flaunting their undeveloped street wisdom and worldliness.

The man and his family found seats on the terrazza just behind the band that was about to begin their concert. The family ordered a bottle of prosecco and three dishes of sorbetto al lamponi from the gelateria, which many people, especially the imprunetians, thought made the best ice cream in Italy.

For several years the man could not sit through any concerts played by any ensemble, it was just too hard for him after playing several concerts a week for the last thirty-five years, plus the added dimension that these village band concerts were particularly difficult because they all had the common denominator of being overtly terrible. But time had mellowed the man’s phonophobia and he was able to relax and enjoy the rural naïve sonic event that was about to begin, he was even looking forward to it, to him it seemed like a caricature of an Italian comic opera and he found it amusing.

What always confused the family though, was that this festival in the beautiful piazza on a lovely spring day, had no visible joy, no laughter not even smiles. Many of the Toscana festivals were like that; they were somber and austere. The family didn’t know why but they expected it to be that way and they were not surprised nor affected by it in the same way they were when they first arrived in Toscana six years before. Perhaps it was that same dark nature that might explain the creation of the Mafia.

The concert was ready to begin and the family prepared themselves, but the piazza remained unchanged; the people continued doing whatever they were doing and almost no one gave any attention to what was about to happen on the small bandstand. Most people, young and old, male and female were more concerned about the image they displayed as they showed themselves in their village, as if posing for some imaginary magazine cover. There’s an Italian phrase to describe that, it’s called “Fare un Bella Figura”, making a good figure; it’s as Italian as spaghetti.

As the retired musician took his first sip of prosecco two men passed their table and headed for the bandstand, one was tall, powerfully built and wore a black leather coat, the other was about 6 inches shorter, walked in a very strange way and had a towel around his neck, their faces were not visible. They walked to the stairs that lead to the platform that was the bandstand, and without stopping, they proceeded to the conductor’s podium. The tall man helped the shorter one get on the podium; they were now the same height. When they turned around and the family saw their faces for the first time, they were momentarily repulsed.

The tall man, about fifty, muscular and mean looking, was well dressed and well groomed, he wore expensive sun glasses and that fine leather jacket and looked like the kind of man no one would want to disagree with. He stood next to the podium, looked straight ahead and held a blue towel in his hands.

The younger man as far as they could tell was about thirty and was clearly and severely disadvantaged; put in less politically correct language, the young man was severely retarded, severely retarded and the guest conductor for the afternoon’s concert.

The muscular tough looking man in the expensive leather coat with the bodyguard demeanor would take the towel every couple on minutes, wipe the drool from the retarded maestros face and clothing, then the guest conductor of the day would begin waving his hands. The band members knew what piece they were going to play and within seconds the music became recognizable. Sometimes they could finish the piece without the drool needing to be wiped but most of the time the mean looking man would reach over and wipe it away while the band was playing.
In the piazza no one broke character, there were no smiles or whispers of how sweet it was to let the poor disadvantaged boy have this wonderful experience. And certainly there were no hints of laughter at the bazaar scenario. The few listeners in the seats that were placed there for the concert were largely expressionless and the public throughout the piazza maintained their pose of “Fare un Bella Figura.” The mean looking man motioned to someone in the band and a fresh towel was immediately brought.

The American was getting uncomfortable, what was happening on that bandstand touched his memory in a way that was just too painful. He leaned over and said something to his family and when the piece the band was playing finished they quietly got up and left the piazza.  

Far away, on another continent in another time zone, the executive director of a famous symphony orchestra was preparing a young conductor to go on stage for his début concert. Facing the young man he straightened his white bow tie, pushed a portion of his hair into place, took a small towel that always sat on a table by stage entrance and wiped away something from young conductors face. Putting his hands on the young mans shoulders; the executive director paternally adjusted his tails coat and sent the debutant maestro out on stage to start the concert with a traditional “Toi Toi.” 

December 6, 2006, Tokyo, Japan
Revised November 14, 2012, Tokyo

Thursday, November 08, 2012

And the Questions Came (2003)

Occasionally, very rarely, I would run across an old recording, or in this case an old essay, that I had completely forgotten. Usually, this was because I had thought it to be insignificant, or simply just not very good. But sometimes something appears from the past that turns out to be better than I remembered. The title I gave this essay ten years ago, ‘Frequently asked Questions’, which was about retirement, made it sound like part of the instructions for a new computer! This was the first thing I wrote after I decided to try writing. It was a good period ten years ago. rb    
And the Questions Came (2003)
The most frequently asked question I receive as I travel, especially, when encountering old friends and colleagues, regards my decisions to leave the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1989 and to stop playing in 2001. "How does it feel to not play anymore, and don't you miss it?" The easy answer, which is generally the path I take, is "What I miss is some of the people," and usually that special 'some of the people' category includes the person asking the question.

During the first months of my sabbatical starting in August 1989, I had more time to think and to follow my thoughts to a conclusion than I've ever had before... no rehearsals or concerts, no recording sessions, no teaching, no practicing and very few worries. But sometimes where my mind took me during this embarrassment of leisure was a little scary.

One morning on the farm where we lived in Bagno a Ripoli, a small town just outside of Florence, I asked myself just how much time had I spent driving a car during those 25 years I played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I took out a few old agendas and a calculator and spent the morning working on the project. Once I figured out an answer I immediately started over again; the first answer couldn't have been correct. The second time around the answer was the same!
It was clear, through the 25 years I played in the LAPO, I had spent nearly 3 (three!!) years behind the wheel of a car. That's crazy! I think of that time, with all the radio news and talk shows I listened to on the road, and I ask myself what might have been if I had listened instead to language courses or something else useful; it's painful to think about.

Personally, I feel no connection whatsoever between my manhood and the foot that presses the gas pedal of a car, but I did own a few cars during my first years in Italy. Benevolently, however, I soon lost my wallet and discovered that the California Department of Motor Vehicles was unable to replace my driver's license unless I came to a California DMV office personally. Of course, that's a classic example of bureaucratic lameness, but as I look back at the last nine years, I see it as a kind of cosmic gift: it broke my car habit! Subsequently, a friend gifted in graphic arts made me a driver's license on her computer that I only use once a year while on the island of Lesvos, Greece. I don't have the courage to use it elsewhere but I'm sure that if I did it would work.
Although I don't even own a car, I travel much more than the normal person, and rail and air transportation from my home in Lausanne is easy and non-stressful. I'm able to read, study or write as I travel.

"But what about playing in the orchestra, don't you miss that?" Of course, I miss some of the people, but orchestra life is something I do not miss. I would like to experience another Mahler 5th with Mehta, or a Bruckner 7th with Giulini, or I 'd love to play another Stravinsky Rite of Spring with my oldest friend in the world, Tommy Johnson, playing the other tuba part, but I don't miss the orchestra.

The most fulfilling aspect of those LAPO years was playing with great conductors. We were fortunate to get the best conductors in the world on our podium. We had seventeen years with Zubin Mehta and six years with Carlo-Maria Giulini as our principal conductors. These were musically magical times when these giants were leading us, but they weren't there all the time. Sometimes the guest conductors were also giants: Leinsdorf, Boulez, Sonderling and Abbado.
But now, it already becomes difficult to come up with more names of equal quality and this is where the problem starts to appear. Now, I'm forced to remember the most difficult and abrasive aspect of a long-term symphony orchestra career: young, inexperienced conductors who didn't know the scores nor did they know anything about symphony orchestras. Where did management find these people? Was it because they would work cheap in a time of economic difficulties or was it that the management was trying to find the next generation of "giants?" Very quickly, I must point out that among these juvenile conductors were two young men who were stunningly singular and remarkable, Simon Rattel and Michael Tilson Thomas. So perhaps management was successful in its giant hunt. I admired the questionable ones in a way though; they were able, with the help of their impresarios, to get a guest conducting engagement with a major symphony orchestra. That's impressive!

I know as well as anyone that the only way to learn conducting is by conducting. Conducting classes, recordings, textbooks, mirrors and video cameras run a very great distance behind standing in front of an ensemble and experiencing what works and what doesn't, but that the Los Angeles Philharmonic was being used as a laboratory for these questionable young talents was frustrating. There were other far more appropriate venues for them to learn. I don't miss that!

Something has to be said about playing in a symphony orchestra compared to conducting a symphony orchestra. The logical assumption is that conducting is more difficult than playing. Wrong! Imagine playing the same horizontal line through the worlds most beautiful music for 35 years holding only a very small thread of the responsibility for the total musical fabric! Others have done it with no visible (or audible) problems but not me. It was becoming increasingly rare when my musical spirits were uplifted to the level required for a truly memorable performance and as I had told a few close friends, I feared I was becoming musically brain dead! Concentration was waning and for the first time I was experiencing performance anxiety.

But while conducting I experienced just the opposite: the greater the responsibility the greater the clarity; that, and the pleasure of preparation, makes conducting far easier!

"But what's it like not playing after fifty years?" That would be fifty years with probably an average of 3 or 4 hours of playing a day. Although it sounds unbelievable, I hardly noticed having stopped. The teaching, masterclasses and conducting almost immediately took up all the time I was playing.

It's fun to list what I don't miss about playing:
Clearly, I don't miss carrying a tuba or 2 tubas or even several tubas everywhere I go, I don't miss the stress while checking in at the airport, wondering if it will be overweight this time or worrying about any number of problems that the airlines were able to create especially for tubists. I don't miss that!

I remember the sleeping car on the train in 1961 from Rochester to New York City on my way to the first recital in Carnegie Recital Hall. With 2 tubas and a suitcase it took me at least an hour to organize everything so I could pull down the bed and lock it into position. Finally, after getting it locked, I realized I had to go to the toilet, which was unfortunately buried beneath my F tuba and unavailable without going through the whole procedure again. I seriously considered just using the F tuba but felt it might be a bad omen since it was going to be used for New York's first tuba recital! I don't miss that!

I live 10 meters across a narrow street from the Lausanne Conservatory and as luck would have it my bedroom window faces the windows of the practice rooms. Frequently, I'm awakened by my students playing my warm-ups, (very strange!) There have been many occasions when I would pick up my cell phone and call a student and tell him or her to go back to the top and take it slower.

My teaching schedule was so dense then, that in those last few years of playing, practice time was difficult to find and the only time I could depend on being available for practice was very early in the morning. That close proximity of the conservatory made it a little easier for me to get into the school early and do my practicing before I started to teach. So, from 1998 to May 2001, I would get up at 5 am and start practicing at 6:15 until around 9:00 (of course with coffee breaks!), when the first student would arrive. I don't miss that!

And then came the inevitable, the aging process influencing my playing, despite having been sure would never happen to me. But perhaps there's a little karmatic justice in my aging process... In my first year in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, just after finishing two years with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, I was conversing one day with Tommy Johnson while he was working with the orchestra. I will never forget saying (I was 25), "I've never seen a brass player that still sounds good who is over 50!" Tommy looked strange; I turned around and experienced the longest five seconds of my life. The principal teacher in my life, Robert Marsteller (then 1st trombone in the LAPO), and Charles Bovingdon (bass trombone), were standing behind me listening to our conversation, and both of these men were well over 50... They smiled and walked away. Tommy still reminds me of this moment every opportunity he gets. I don't miss that!!!

But age does have an effect on brass playing, as Mr. Marsteller and other great teachers have taught me. As I listened to myself those last few years of playing I could hear it was not what it was before. Just for fun one day, (I was 62) I got out the Bach Cello Suites and started to play. The breath marks I had put in during my years at Eastman (late 50's) were clearly visible, but there was no possible way I could adhere to them; both phrase and dynamics had to be compromised; I knew it was time. I don't miss that!

So with the help of my manager and secretary, Emily Harris, we set up my final concert on May 29, 2001 in Riva Del Garda, Italy and friends came from all over Europe. I played pretty well and there was one hell of a 24-hour party afterward.

Would I have changed anything if I could? Why ask? As I hear frequently during news conferences "That's a hypothetical." Things are pretty good just as they are and my musical life has evolved to something I wouldn't have dared dream of 15 years ago. At this moment writing on my laptop in the isolated village of Vatera on the east coast of the island of Lesvos in Greece, I wait, with my rented car and fake driver's license, for my daughter Melody and several friends to arrive for a few weeks of carefree fun. This I like! 

Vatera, Lesvos, Greece - August 2003.

Touched up November 9, 2012, Tokyo Japan

Saturday, November 03, 2012


There has probably been more written about mouthpieces than any other aspect of tuba, or any brass instrument for that matter. I was never very much a mouthpiece person, I have friends and colleagues who have tried almost every mouthpiece that exists and can tell you everything about each one of them; they know the cup size, the rim size, the rim thickness, the choke size, every idiosyncrasy of the back bore and the exact weight. Further, they can give you a detailed verbal description how each of these aspects affect the way an instrument plays.

That’s a pretty dense paragraph and at first read it may appear to be sarcastic, it absolutely isn’t meant to be; I deeply admire those mouthpiece sages, I’m even a little jealous of them. I would like to know the secret formulae to match the perfect mouthpiece for a specific tuba or a specific player; instead all I have is my ears to depend on for forming an opinion.

Testing and listening to various mouthpieces, especially with a group, can be a very educational experience, it enables us to listen into the sound as though with a microscope; the fact is, a mouthpiece is very much like a lens, but instead of focusing light it focuses sound.

As light of an image passes through a lens it will project a picture on a surface. For example, the image of a light fixture on the ceiling of a room is easily recognizable, but with a very high quality lens the image is recognizable, including the dirt, dust and dead flies in the light fixture. A mouthpiece is very similar, it can take a sound and focus it, or if it’s a very high quality mouthpiece it will focus the sound including the extemporaneous noises, the dirt, that exists in the tone. The lesser-focused mouthpiece can mask the extemporaneous noises in the sound and give the player or listener a seemingly beautiful tone. However, with the clearly focused, highly refined mouthpiece, we frequently find that it sounds bigger and more solid, plus the fact that the clearer sound is much easier to manage regarding intonation.

Of course, not everyone will like the highly focused sound but as a therapeutic device it can be very useful in exposing the extemporaneous noises that might be part of our tone. When we can hear our unmasked sound with all its distortions, hisses, snaps, crackles and pops, we will quickly make the micro-adjustments necessary to minimize those noises and when the sound is “cleaned”, the tone produced on the lesser-focused mouthpieces will be probably be more beautiful.

Mouthpieces, like instruments, have a proclivity to change with fashion, very similar to the way skirt lengths raise and fall in women’s fashion. When observing the ultra heavy mouthpieces that seem to be so in fashion today, I can’t avoid remembering the early sixties when the players of the Chicago Symphony, the brass section that was looked up to as the standard of reference at the time, led a trend to skeletonize their mouthpieces. The external surface of these skeletonized mouthpieces followed the internal contours at minimum thickness and, of course, were very light. Arnold Jacobs himself led another fad of using an adjustable cup mouthpiece; within a few years he abandoned the adjustable cup and returned to more standard equipment.

It’s our nature to experiment, and the one thing we can depend on is that there will always be this tendency. History tells us that we can expect more changes in mouthpiece design, that astute players will try these changes and after some period will either adapt or reject them; this is how we learn, this is how we grow. 

Tokyo, Japan, New Years Eve, 2006

Tyoko, Japan, November 3, 2012