April 22, 2011

More Air!

Filed under: 20-minute,bassoon,Mark Norman,music,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 6:35 pm
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Halloween tree

Another one of Mark Norman’s favorite phrases back when I played in his bands was “More Air!”. Playing a wind or brass instrument requires air. Many amateur musicians don’t Play Out enough. This can be linked back to not using enough air. Hence, When in Doubt Playing Out requires More Air!

Mark used to work with the Music and Arts chain of music stores in Northern Virginia. For whatever insane reason, they let him make a radio commercial. It of course featured tuba, since Mark is a tuba player. The commercial was a “lesson” with Dr. Adidibandyopatai (or something like that), with a hilariously terrible Indian accent, repeating “Morrre Aiirrrrr!  Morrre Aiirrrrr!” to his struggling tuba student. Over this tableaux Mr. Norman intoned the availability of private lessons at Music and Arts. It was probably the most surreal commercial on the local radio at the time.

To this day, Sharlotte and I still say “Morrre Aiirrrrr!” to each other.

I myself have had a More Air moment. I’ve always had pretty good technique on trombone and bassoon, but kind of a fuzzy, weak sound. I had one or two lessons with Mark, and we did the usual exercises of using wind power to keep a piece of paper pinned to the wall as long as possible, and blowing into weird torture devices to suspend a ping pong ball in a column of air. But the advice of, “dude, just use more air. Fill those lungs and blow” is what did it for me.

Pushing More Air through your horn leads to other improvements in your playing. You need to collect a large lungful of air in the first place (unless you’re an oboe player, of course). You can’t collect a good quantity of air if your posture is bad. Sitting up straight, on the edge of your chair lets you inhale more deeply. Poof. More Air!

You also have to learn more control over your instrument. Sure you could force a lungful of air through your trombone at mach 3, but it’ll last five seconds and sound terrible. You need to learn control over your air. By making your More Air last longer, you’ll get better tone, a better dynamic range, plus be able to sustain longer phrases. More Air in the lungs let you keep a constant column of air going into your horn for a longer period of time. A consistent air column means you have less work to and fewer adjustments to make from moment to moment.

Maybe you’ll need a different reed or mouthpiece to support putting More Air through your horn. That’s one reason why I like the David Brundage bassoon reeds: you can push a huge amount of air through them before the sound starts distorting. If you have to fill a church sanctuary with sound during a solo piece, you need to have the volume and projection that come from moving More Air through the horn.

It’s amazing, but that two word piece of advice was the start of a chain reaction that has drastically improved my playing over the 15-some-odd years since I first heard it.



April 10, 2011

When in Doubt, Play Out

Filed under: 20-minute,Mark Norman,music,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 10:33 pm
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Play outOne of my favorite band directors from my sordid past is Mark Norman. That man could get a group of mediocre musicians to perform far beyond their skill, and generally perform it well. I’m still impressed that our little community band in Loudoun did the complete DeMeij Lord of the Rings Symphony after only a year or two of existence. Mr. Norman is a source of a large number of short and sweet sayings related to music. One of the ones I have taken totally to heart is “When in Doubt, Play Out.”

I spend nearly most of my music time in the amateur realm: community bands, orchestras, high school and community theater musicals, and church music. Occasionally I get paid, but I know I am purely an avocational musician. One thing I have noticed amongst my peers is that many of them are timid. They’re afraid of their horns.  They’re afraid of their parts. They’re afraid of the music. “I can’t play that solo!” “I don’t want to play this part by myself!”

When in doubt, play out. The solo might be easier than you think. If you screw up. Big Deal. We all screw up. Sometimes even spectacularly in concert (I know I have). If you screw it up, try again.

If you’re timid in rehearsal, you’ll be timid in performance. Practice makes permanent.  You might as well not be there. The part you are covering is important, otherwise the composer would not have written it and the publisher would not have spent the money to publish it (well, except maybe for alto clarinet parts. I believe those are a contractual liability left over from the late 1800s). The part deserves to be heard. Inner parts too. Sometimes the third clarinet part is more important than the first.

I’m a firm believer in the conductor’s hand. I’ll play my part out with the power I think it deserves. If I don’t get The Hand from the conductor I assume I’m playing it right. If it’s too loud for the texture I pull it back under direction. That way the conductor understands that I know my part, that I can handle my part and the part will be there when needed, and that that I’m actually watching them (gasp). They’ll know that the part will be there on the performance. The highest complement conductors pay me is saying “I’m not worried about you, the part will be there.” A timid player might bring out an important part during rehearsal at the conductor’s request, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there when the time comes during performance. That makes conductors nervous.

The same thought applies to entrances. A timid entrance can be worse than no entrance. No entrance means “someone messed up their counting, but as a group we kind of know where we are.” An early entrance is usually pretty obvious when it happens and the group adapts. A timid entrance telegraphs “I think I’m in the right place, but I’m not really sure. Do you know?” to the rest of the ensemble. This can send a ripple of uncertainty through a section or even the entire group. Lots of bad things can happen if everyone is questioning their place in the music. In rehearsal, if you’re not sure of your entrance, play out by all means. The conductor will correct you if you’re wrong, and you try again. It’s No Big Deal. If you’re right, you’ll have a little more confidence in your entrance the next time you play it, plus the rest of the group knows what that part of the piece sounds likes. In performance, of course, if you’re lost or unsure, ask you neighbor where they are.

Solo entrances absolutely demand that you play out. It’s your time to shine! You’ve spent a lot of time and money to get to this point in your musical career. This is where all that works has gone for. Stand up (musically) and say “look at me! I am covered in awesome right now!” You can’t pull that off if you’re frightened of the part.

When in doubt, Play Out!


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