Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Loss for Words

Teaching is the center of my life and I’m happy to say, I think I’m a good teacher. I have a lot of students in positions in symphony orchestras and other ensembles all over the world, many with high level teaching positions and a few soloists, frankly I’m proud of that. I’m sure part of that success comes from my belief that positive reinforcement helps build the self-confidence to guide students to believe in themselves. I love to tell the story of the image of a baby taking its first steps; the father holds the hands of the child and says, “Now walk to mama” and the baby takes a few steps before it falls down. At this point there is a traditional small family celebration with hugs and praise for the baby having successfully taken its first steps. I believe in world history there have been very few instances of the parents slapping the child and saying, “Stupid kid, just three steps and you fell down!”

On the other hand, the most difficult part of teaching is finding the right words to say, ‘you’re not playing at the level that’s expected,’ ‘the competition’s going to be tough,’ or ‘prepare that you might be disappointed’. Highly respected teaching colleagues have told me that it’s very important how we say those thoughts. I’m still working on it.

There’s a very delicate balance between those hard realisms and that of totally positive reinforcement. And, of course, the optimum words will differ enormously from one student to the next, but that’s the beauty and fascination of teaching. Plus, I’m reminded, yet again, that teaching is a growing process, we need to be flexible with the times. Even in languages there are linguistic changes through time; the English I heard in my youth has changed greatly in today’s world.

The changes we face now are vast, first and foremost is the fact that the level of playing is growing at an amazing speed, particularly in parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America. There is no reason to think this amazing evolution is going to slow down and the only way to help students prepare is to anticipate the new excellence that is rapidly and certainly approaching.

Another amazing change that is taking place is the improvement in the development of instruments. Instrument makers deserve enormous credit for the development and availability of new and finer equipment. However, sometimes it’s difficult to discriminate between finer instruments and instrumental fashion trends, not unlike cars or even the constant changes that take place in the trends of high fashion.

Perhaps the most amazing change in both teaching and being a student is the abundant availability of example. (When I was a boy there were no tuba recordings) Today there are huge numbers of recordings available in virtually all the media. Practically everyone has had to opportunity to hear true excellence.

Perhaps the most influential aspect of learning from example is the huge array of large tuba studios, many times international, that we see today in the music schools of the world; these collectives of students in one mini community, whether long term in a music school or in a weekend masterclass, enable our students to both listen to and discriminate.

Each teacher is different; each student is different. Finding the right words to encourage and to prepare the students for the tough realities of the musical world are imperative. Beware of isolationism; it’s the responsibility of a teacher to encourage exposure to as many ideas and examples as possible.

Roger Bobo, Oaxaca, Mexico, October 26, 2015   

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Piazza Concert

The Piazza Concert

The concert stage is a magical place; so very different from place to place yet there can be striking and some painful similarities.

Dedicated to Ernest Fleishmann, brilliant executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the Zubin Mehta years.

The man was a retired symphony orchestra musician that had played with of the major orchestras in America. On this particular 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 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, all one needed to do was 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 greasy thin crisp deep fried wafer dipped in powdered sugar, that was far more detrimental to ones health than any doughnut anywhere; cenci are wonderful and is 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 and grape festivals; they were always a very particular kind of fun and the family’s enjoyment was only enhanced by their experience.

There were 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 bar that many people 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 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 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 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 a 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 the drool while the band played.

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.  

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.”   

Sunday, August 02, 2015


When looking back on my musical career and particularly at my connection with the tuba, it seems the most gratifying and fulfilling aspect of my 60 years in the tuba business is seeing the success of my students. Of course, my memories are rich with symphony orchestra concerts over the world, films, television and recordings in the Hollywood studios and my own solo performances and solo recordings. However, the most significant accomplishments for me were clearly the teaching process with my students. Da Vinci once said, It’s the duty of the student to surpass the teacher; I’m proud to have experienced that many times in my teaching career. Teachers need to remember it’s also the duty of the teacher to help that happen.
                                         Diana Cardona

A joke that I’ve made in the past is that how angry it makes me to listen to a student who has not studied with me for a long period of time, reappear in my life and sound stunningly better that the last time. The joke continues: How rude for a student to return after years of separation since the last lesson and to sound enormously better. I was thrilled last week when giving a lesson to my old student from four years ago, Diana Cardona. Diana was a very nice girl (a tubist) I met on the Internet five years ago, mistakenly I never took her seriously as a tubist. One week ago at the Italian Brass week in Firenze, Italy, I had the opportunity to teach and to hear her again. I was happily amazed that she had become a world-class tubist with the tone, technique the power and especially the musicality of a truly great tubist.

Diana is a Colombian citizen and she clearly had made the right decision four years ago to go study in France, the first 2 years in the Conservatoire de Perpignan studying with Harumi Baba the next 2 years in the Conservatoire de Versailles with David Zambon. While communicating with her on line for those 5 years I was impressed when she would tell me she usually practiced six hours a day; it abundantly paid off! I feel a little ashamed that I didn’t see that potential 5 years ago but that just points out that the learning process never stops, the teacher must always remain a student. Certainly, I will continue to watch Diana Cardona. Subsequent to Diana’s lesson, I was fortunate to have another memorable learning experience.

                      Anne Jelle Visser and Roger Bobo

Naturally, it’s logical that the quality of teaching would also evolve with time; hopefully, that evolution will also surpass that of the teacher. I had the pleasure of observing the Zurich Conservatory tuba professor, 10 year member of the Zurich Opera orchestra and my student of 25 years ago, Anne Jelle Visser, teaching Diana Cardona. There was much more to watching and listening to this lesson than that both teacher and student were part of my teaching history. Anne Jelle Visser has become a true master teacher of the highest level and observing this lesson was a classical learning experience for me, it was the teacher learning from the student.

There is a visible and audible connection from brass generation to generation and if I have been an influence in this evolution that is always in motion in our unique community I’m proud and content. Things seem to be developing very well.

August 1, 2015, Firenze, Italia

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Question

Singularly, the most frequent question I’ve received in my international travels and in my many opportunities to know large numbers of diverse students, has been, “What is the difference between brass players in various countries”? It’s a very good and interesting question; in fact, it’s exactly the same question I asked myself 60 years ago while attending the Eastman School of Music and playing in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s the question that moved me to write twenty letters to various European orchestras. Consequently, in 1961 I auditioned and was accepted for both the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Netherlands, and the Suisse Romand Orchestra of Geneva, Switzerland. I choose the Concertgebouw.

The answer to that question then was much different then than it is today; in that span of time from then to the present, the brass world has seen a huge evolution in the way of playing, the equipment played, and in the mentalities of the players.

Classical musicians in the middle of the last century were hugely more nationalistic and territorial than they are today. As the global community proceeds to emerge, the musical communities are experiencing much more difficulty in maintaining their isolationism. Although there still exists cells of a dogmatic ‘closed shop’ territorialism, it’s visibly disappearing quickly. The premium example of this trend is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Because their artistic integrity has grown with the times, they now seek the best available players worldwide and consequently enjoy the highest level of music making.

Part of the nationalistic tendencies from the last century came from the type of instruments that were played largely because of the simple fact that they were available. Musicians then were quite resistant to change, especially on something so personal as the type of instrument they played and the kind of sound that they were used to. Instruments are essentially an extension of our body. In the Concertgebouw Orchestra, for example, in the early 60s the trombone section played on very small French instruments, which had a bore size slightly smaller than the symphonic trumpets of today! Very quickly and personally, I want to say that’s not necessarily a bad thing, when used on the right repertoire, these, now nearly obsolete trombones sounded wonderful. Similarly, in 1989 I had the opportunity to hear the Maggio Musicale Orchestra (the Symphony orchestra of Florence, Italy,) while playing for conductor who was 84 years old and who requested a section of valve trombones (the traditional old Italian style) in a Donizetti opera; it was so right, it was so beautiful.

This begs the question: Should the modern symphony orchestra use the finest most sophisticated instruments available to play the masterworks of past centuries or should it play from the viewpoint of a ‘sonic museum’ and use the instruments of the repertoire’s period?

There are rumors the Vienna Philharmonic, a very traditional orchestra, is dealing with exactly that question, there are those who want to keep the true Vienna sound at all costs, and those who want to move one to the finest modern and most sophisticated instruments available. It’s a difficult question; is it possible to have it both ways?

But that’s answering the question, as it would have been perceived 60 years ago. There were huge differences then in both nationalistic and individual performance development. Today, wherever we go, we encounter great players and great ensembles. There are highly developed individuals and ensembles everywhere and it is no longer national tendencies that lead these high levels of performance, it is far more the personal qualities and universal musical influences that have led this development. Of course, as in all aspects of our lives now, we have the Internet showing us the best, (and worst) in our shrinking global community, particularly, the Internet is reaching musicians.

Today there is excellence everywhere and it’s becoming clearly evident that superb excellence comes in many verities; just think of the variations that can appear in one brass quintet. A brass quintet, for example, has 31 collective personalities; each individual, each combination of 2, each of 3, of 4 and the complete 5, that opens doors to a lot of stylistic ideas, and of course, there will be no two brass quintets that will sound the same. A superb world-class quintet in Hungary and another in Italy will certainly sound completely different yet absolutely beautiful in their own way. The time of nationalistic characteristics is passing and the time of unique collective and personal characteristics and musicality has arrived.

Since the last tuba symposium I attended I was struck by the change that has happened in the last half century. Instead of perhaps one or two players out of twenty-five that may have sounded musical 50 years ago, today the number might very well be the whole twenty-five are musical players.

So back to the question: “What is the difference between brass players in various countries”? Today’s answer is that there is excellence everywhere, the language will change, the mentality will be different, the sense of humor will strikingly differ from place to place but excellence in performance is a worldwide thing now and it’s spreading. Let’s hope this evolution continues and let’s remember we are all a part of it.

Keep asking questions.

June 29, 2015, Xochimilco, Oaxaca, Mexico