Sam Pilafian Masterclass, part 1

On Friday, November 4th, I had the chance to attend a masterclass by the iconic tubist, Sam Pilafian. I attended the morning session on breathing – a subject Sam knows much about, considering he’s the co-author of the Breathing Gym, along with Pat Sheridan. Sam has a long and storied career in the biz: founding member of the Empire Brass Quintet (the American counterpart to Canadian Brass), classical and jazz soloist (concerto competition winner), and recorded with the likes of the New York Phil, the Boston Symphony, the Met Opera Orchestra, and Pink Floyd. You can read *all* about him here.

In 2002, he co-authored the Breathing Gym with Pat Sheridan – since then it’s being used by over 7000 schools in the US and is the teaching bible for many marching bands. And for the good reason — it gets to the fundamental way wind instrument players make sound: breathing.

The first time I encountered the Breathing Gym was at the Summer Brass Institute in California – it was all the rage in our warm ups and I felt a little out of touch not knowing about it. Now I know about it — SBI was a good introduction to it. Then warm ups with Chris Lee (tuba, Winnipeg Symphony) at the Highlands Brass Academy refreshed my memory and showed me more. Last year, a masterclass with Pat Sheridan gave it to me from right from the horse’s mouth. And then with Sam Pilafian. I got both sides of the story, so to speak. But really, two people with their own teaching styles and stories to tell. I loved every minute of both masterclasses. So let go over some of what I learned and picked up (as I furiously types notes on my iPhone)…

Group Breathing and Warm Ups

A huge component of his masterclass was talk about the early days of Empire Brass. They started doing breathing and warm-up exercises together and their ensemble work changed dramatically. Doing these exercises together introduced a cohesion that wasn’t being produced by simply sitting down and practicing music together.

Visually speaking, I think this is reproduced by watching this:

Watch the whole thing, but spots like 1:11, especially. Everyone’s in sync. The music is flowing through them. Sam said: “We must stop the world when we do our art.” And that kind of performance does.

Doing breathing exercises and warm-ups together gets the ensemble (or section in an orchestra) mentally in sync. On a certain level, it’s like meditating together. Then when you’re ready to play, you’ve developed a bond of sorts: you’re all on the same page, from tone, to tuning to style.

The Body

Sam Pilafian didn’t touch on body position and mechanics as much as Pat Sheridan did, but what Sam said was still very meaningful. First, be wary of the chair you’re using for practice. Make sure it it sits flat (and no pre-fab butt form) in order to create a natural “S” curve in your back (sit forward on the chair, if need be). This allows for the most natural air flow. Sam had us standing and trying to flatten the shape and and breath in – air flow was significantly reduced for me. I agree with him 100%, but it did mean that my body was working on the shape distortion, and not making itself available to breath and that made an impact. It comes down to this: if the upper body is in balance and not working to maintain a position or posture, then breathing will be easy.

A great tidbit from Sam with regards to the body was to keep things in motion. He’s not talking about playing tuba on the go, but to keep the air in motion. When you breath in, try not to halt the motion before breathing out. Outside of some breathing gym exercises, you want to avoid explicit pressure. If you breath in, especially to [near] capacity, and then halt, you suddenly create a pressure that will want to “pop” out. If, instead, you smoothly turn the inhalation to exhalation, you stay in motion and the air flow is more easily under your control. Whether that be for pianissimo or fortissimo playing.

Sam summed it up beautifully: How you breath in is the inspiration for how you breath out.

Over-training

For a little while now, this has been a motto of mine and I was happy to hear Sam talk about this.  It was like a “phew – I’m on the right track” moment.  All in moderation, as with any instruction, but here’s the gist:  play something out of your comfort zone and the easy stuff will be easier (and more musical) – not to mention, you’ll expand your comfort zone.  For instance, I was lucky enough to play in the masterclass (more on that in a follow-up blog entry), and I chose the B minor Handel transcription that Nancy and I did (her on piccolo).

The music is in the middle of the staff, which is a very resonant and comfortable place for me and my Eb.  It sounded decent, after my nerves settled down a little.  But then he had me play the rhythm on a low B natural while pretending I was playing the real notes (i.e. with feeling).  Then I played it as written:  there was an improvement in clarity.  Next he had me play the it again, this time on all low E’s (an octave below the staff) while he played the part.  Again, I had to play as if I was really playing the part.  When I returned to the real notes:  wow!  Air flowed, articulations were clear and intonation was beautiful.  This is more of what I should be doing.

In Conclusion, and therefore, looking back…

I wanna cap this off with a final thought from Sam.  He talked about daily practices and improvement, and this stuck with me:  “I played that really well yesterday but I want to play it even better today.”  Enjoy your progress and milestones, but know that you could take a fresh perspective on a solo, study or repertoire and play it even better.  Erase the blackboard and start at 0, neutral.   Always get back to basics.

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