Friday, December 21, 2012

Sonic Genesis -- Christmas Music for Brass

When I was a boy, as far back as I can remember, my family would all get into our 1938 Plymouth every Sunday morning and go into the center part of Los Angeles to the very large church, which my parents attended. I didn’t like church much but I loved the music. Other than the boys choir, which I joined when I was seven years old, I spent most of my time avoiding the Sunday school classes and instead, exploring all the many secret passages, rooms and towers that were part of that huge church. Among those secret places, I soon discovered the organ pipe room.

I found this pipe room while exploring various hallways in the area behind the front of the sanctuary; I heard the powerful sound and followed it, it was coming from behind a thick dark wooden door. I didn’t hesitate opening it, going in, and my world changed forever!

It was a new world of beautiful, intense and tangible sounds, from the agile, sparkling, fast moving timbres of the smaller higher pipes to the thundering, ear tickling, massive beauty of the largest contrabass pipes. It was probably unhealthy and the ear damage possibilities were real, but I had no idea of such things at that time. Certainly, it was an extremely high decibel sound experience for the ears, it was also sound that could be felt in every fiber of my being. I went into that pipe almost every Saturday morning for a whole year, before and after choir rehearsal when the organist was practicing, until one sad day that magic door was locked. I was never able to enter again. I missed those wonderful weekly encounters with sound.

I also vividly remember it was at that same church where I heard live music for the first time. My mother and father told me on that crisp cold Christmas time Sunday morning that they had a surprise for me. I was sitting on my father’s shoulders in front of the church when the clarion sounds of a brass choir playing Christmas carols poured down on us from the church tower. I can remember so clearly between pieces, seeing the musicians with those shiny silver and gold instruments looking down from the tower to where we were standing; how I wanted to see, touch and try and play those instruments! A little more than a decade later that was to be the venue of my first paying job as a tubist. And even today, somewhere in some box stored someplace in the world I have a copy of those extraordinary arrangements. Maybe someday I will find them.

I wish there was some way I could find the words to formulate the question on an online poll: “What was your first live music experience, and did it open that magic door for you into the world of music and sound?” There must be many beautiful stories that would be fascinating to hear.

April 11, 2006. Tokyo, Japan

Revised December 21, 2012, Tokyo

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Warming Up, Who Needs It?

The following blog was written and targeted for my Japanese students but the content is appropriate for all brass students everywhere. rb

Athletes always warm up; a pitcher always spends time “the bullpen” before a baseball game; swimmers, track runners, shot putters and every other kind of athletes all perform better in their events after they warm up.

Ballet dancers always warm up by stretching on the bar before practice, rehearsal or performance; they wouldn’t think of starting any other way.

And far closer to the discipline of playing a brass instrument; singers need to vocalize (warm up) to be their best in performance. Singing and brass playing are very much the same because the sound source is organic; with singers it’s the vocal chords (larynx), with brass players it’s the lips.

When I lived in Florence, Italy, in the 1990s, I would occasionally play with the Maggio Musicale Orchestra, that’s Florence’s symphony and opera orchestra. One of the projects I was involved in during that time was a production of several performances and a recording of Verdi’s Opera Il Trovatore featuring Luciano Pavarotti. In my playing career I always enjoyed arriving early for performances, so I could relax, have a cup of coffee, make a good warm up, and to observe the performance preparations of the great artists that I’ve been privileged to work with. Maestro Pavarotti had three things he always did before a performance: He would put on his makeup, he seemed to enjoy talking to people and he would vocalize. The vocalizations that he did were particularly interesting to me because one of them was exactly what I had written several years before in my book of brass warm ups, Mastering the Tuba. My joke is that it makes me very proud that Luciano Pavarotti used the Bobo Mastering the Tuba book as part of his vocalizing --- or in brass jargon, as part of his warm up routine!! Of course, that’s a joke, but then, where did he find that same exercise? The fact is, many of these vocal exercises have been around for hundreds of years and because they’ve proven to work so well for voice, and because of the strong similarities between singing and brass playing, it’s only logical that these old vocal materials were frequently borrowed and adapted by the brass teachers and players of the time. This book is no exception; much of the material has been adapted from those old vocal methods, and some from less old, brass methods, which, probably originated from older vocal methods.

Warming up, like vocalizing for singers, prepares the body and the mind to play well, it helps the necessary muscles to be as performance ready as possible; breathing, embouchure, flexibility, dynamic control and sustaining power all function in a more beautifully after a good warm up.
But the benefits of a good warm up go much further than just performance preparation, it develops the brass playing skills needed for fine playing. A well-planned warm up can help extend both high and low registers, dynamic range, intonation control and articulation. Further it’s a sure way to maintain the skills that we have already developed. 
There are many very good books of warm ups for brass instruments besides Mastering the Tuba, which is written in treble clef, specifically intended to be usable for all brass instruments, not just tuba. A student should trust his or her teacher to choose warm ups that are best suited for the student’s needs. As time passes a student can acquire a repertoire of good warm ups and then can make the personal choices what work best.

Unfortunately, there’s a belief with many students, most, who are tried from their intense academic schedules and would much rather have an extra half hour sleep than a good warm up; they seem to think that warm ups are really not necessary and are something they must endure once a week in their lessons with their sadistic teacher! The fact is that everybody sounds better after having warmed up. I urge all students to make a 20 to 30 minute warm as the way to begin their daily practicing. 
December 12, 2012 (12, 12, 12), Tokyo, Japan

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A Photo of Vaughn Williams and Me

It was one of my most valued possessions and it was taken in 1954 at a reception for Dr. Vaughan Williams at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) after a lecture he had just given.

Moving to a new location is difficult whether it’s a mile away or 10,000 miles away and packing up all ones belongings and determining where they should go is dramatic; which pile, throwaway, store, giveaway or take? Mistakes are always made. I left 13 boxes of stuff I couldn’t throw away in my sister’s garage in Los Angeles in 1989 when I left for Europe; after thirteen years she asked if I would please come and get them. I had a student that lived in LA pack them up in a crate, call the movers and send them to me in Lausanne, Switzerland where they sat, still unpacked, for another five years. When friends came to help me pack for the move to Japan, I was embarrassed, when after opening the boxes that had been closed for 17 years, I felt I couldn’t part with their contents!

Not only were we packing for my move to Japan, we were looking through all my possessions in the world for my cherished photograph of Vaughn Williams and me.

I was fifteen and a half, I had read in 1954 about the tuba concerto in Time magazine and had tried everything to get a copy of it. I even wrote a letter to the Library of Congress and received a letter that read something like this:

Dear Roger Bobo,

We have no record of a Concerto for Tuba by Ralph Vaughan Williams and you can be sure that if a composer of the stature of Ralph Vaughan Williams had written a tuba concerto we would know about it.

Good luck in your musical studies.

Library of Congress, Music Department

I heard about his lecture at UCLA, went to it and crashed the reception afterward to meet him. He was a very nice and kind man, he was also completely deaf; Beethoven could not have been deafer! During the lecture he would play musical examples and he had to have somebody tell him when the music had stopped; well almost completely deaf, his wife, Ursula served as his ears. She was a wonderful woman with a piercing sonic laser beam voice that was able to penetrate his poor hearing.

After the lecture I waited my turn in a reception line, finally my turn arrived and when I introduced myself and spoke about the tuba concerto Ursula Vaughan Williams translated. “RALPH, THIS YOUNG MAN IS A TUBIST AND HE WOULD LIKE TO KNOW HOW TO GET A COPY OF THE CONCERTO”. Of course everyone in the room was looking by then, I was no longer the low profile boy who crashed the reception. Dr. Vaughn Williams put his arm around my shoulder and told me that the music was being edited at the time and as soon as it was finished he would have the Oxford University Press send me the first copy. While he was talking to me Mrs. Vaughn Williams took a picture of us. I gave them my address and went home and waited.

About a month later I received a copy the photograph Ursula Vaughn Williams had taken and a note from her saying that they hadn’t forgotten about me and that they expected the edited version to be ready soon. I framed the photo, hung it in my room and waited for the music; it took more that half a year before it came. It arrived rolled up in a tube and when I opened it “Sent At The Request of Dr. Vaughn Williams” was printed on the cover.

Within minutes after receiving the music it was on my music stand and I was trying to play it. It was high! The fact is that I essentially learned how to play the tuba by that piece and little did I know that I would perform that concerto more that 70 times during my career. One of those performances was with the London Philharmonia in 1964 with Joseph Horowitz conducting, it was a good performance, the reviews were very good and best of all Ursula Vaughn Williams was at the performance; seeing her there was a wonderful moment.

My friends and I spent the better part of a week looking for that picture; while packing for the move to Japan we went through every page of every book, every piece of music and everything looking for it. I know I put it someplace special so that I would never loose but I don’t remember where, or I gave it to someone to keep it for me but I don’t remember who. Very sadly, I think it’s gone forever, however, if ever it miraculously appears you can be sure it will be up in Facebook and as fast as possible.

December 4, 2005, Lausanne, Switzerland

Revised December 6, 2012, Tokyo Japan

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Mutes and Muting

The stories in our small and unique community of how tubists have avoided using mutes are both numerous and humorous; the avoidance was understandable, frankly, mutes used to be quite terrible; they were a conical symbol of a sonic disaster! Composers, however, were clear in their mind’s ear of what they wanted with muted tuba, which was simply an extension into the lower register of a muted brass section with a sound they associated with the other members of the brass family. Things are a lot better now but we’re still working on it.

I got my first mute in 1952. Mr. Long, the man who lived next door to my family home in Eagle Rock, a suburb of Los Angeles, was extraordinarily handy, resourceful and kindly available for the whims of his young 14 year old tubist neighbor. He built me a mute. Retrospectively, it’s almost unbelievable how lucky I was; it worked and it worked well. It was made from a flexible fiber material that Mr. Long got at the local hardware store, it had a quarter inch thick 10-inch disk for the top and the corks were taken from an old bulletin board. Mr. Long calculated the dimensions very carefully for my Heisner CC tuba and I suddenly was the owner of a new and very fine mute. Perhaps the only questionable aspect was that, since Mr. Long owned a light turquoise green 1951 Ford; he used his touchup paint in a spray can to paint the mute! It wasn’t until six years later that that became a problem; Leopold Stokowsky, while conducting the Rochester Philharmonic, asked me if I would please paint it black before the concert, which I did. That mute served me very well until a Los Angeles Philharmonic world tour in 1967 when I gave the mute to a colleague tubist in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

Many, most, tubists were not that lucky with their mutes. Designing a mute is not difficult but designing one that is compatible with the dimensions with our specific tubas is the hard part. Unlike trumpet, horn, tenor and bass trombone, the proportions of tubas differ radically and it is highly unlikely that a single mute will serve all tubas, and if a tubist’s work requires more than one tuba it will most likely also require more than one mute. It’s because of these incompatible marriages of instrument and mute we have a community of tubists that would just rather not use a mute at all. An incompatible combination frequently results in sounding more like a bad bass trombone that a muted brass instrument!

In reality a mute is a sound filter that reduces the fundamental and lower overtones, leaving a much brighter and more penetrating tone. Like with all brass, the appropriate muted timbre varies from piece to piece and it’s our responsibility to find that appropriate tone quality. Similarly, as with tubas, I’ve always looked to trumpet players for examples in changing equipment and that included mutes. When the trumpets change from a tight to an open sounding mute, or a metal or wood to a fiber mute, an ensemble conscious musician needs to be sensitive to those differences and make appropriate adjustments.

Tuba, however, is a conical instrument and to achieve that penetrating sound that is often expected from muted brass, we need to be especially aware how to achieve it. Frequently, because of our conicalness, the correct choice is not always fiber when the cylindrical brasses are using fiber or wood with wood; sometimes something quite different has the best results. That decision can only come with experimentation; however, I will say that often a metal mute worked very well in those circumstances. Like tubas, the choice is personal. Formidable changes in timbre can also be realized by how far the mute goes into the bell, which, of course, is most easily accomplished by modifying the thickness of the corks.

Perhaps the biggest problem we have with mutes is in the low register. Surprisingly, this situation can almost always be corrected by extending the cone of the mute by a few more inches. I had a wooden mute once that simply wouldn’t play in the low register and by just attaching an extension of the cone four inches deeper into the tuba it had a wonderful low register and was a better mute generally.

There are, of course, various types of mutes for tuba just as there are for trumpet and trombone. In the seventies I enjoyed working with Mr. Willy Berg of Hume’s and Berg in developing a Harmon mute for tuba, they worked very well for the instrument they were deigned for, but were useless in equipment with a different bell size or especially in a different key. Harmon mutes, cup mutes and whisper mutes also work very effectively on tuba if the proportions are correct.

I’ve often wondered why instrument makers themselves couldn’t build mutes especially proportioned for their specific modals. Mutes are not difficult to make, they’re just difficult to make right for the bell size and key of the instrument. Surely, if the instrument makers could build a mute for a specific modal it would cost more; instrument makers like to make money! But wouldn’t it be worth it if they were able to provide an excellent mute that worked? 

October 2, 2006, Tokyo

Revised December 1, 2002 Tokyo Japan