Reading: Intangibles of Musical Performance

I’m working on some reading.  I realized that my main reading is limited to articles and headlines on the Internets.  I don’t have any bedtime traditional paper reading.  I don’t know if the paper part is important, but it feels more tangible.  Like reading a musical score on IMSLP, or having the paper score in front of you.  It just feels better to have it right there.  Pencil notes are so satisfying.

intangibAnyhoo… I digress.  I picked up this book from my friends at Steve’s Music in downtown Toronto:  Intangibles of Musical Performance.  It’s by Edward S. Lisk and he’s got a whole set of books under the series called “The Creative Director“.

Why I picked up this book?  I’m looking for ways to coax musicality out of musicians in the orchestra.   Periodically, while I’m conducting in rehearsal, I observe people going through the motions of playing the notes but I don’t feel anything from them.  I don’t hear intensity in what they play and I don’t see them trying to convey an interpretation in their body language.

I felt like I was running out of ways to express what I’m looking for because the ensemble would often settle into mezzo dynamics and flatline in expression.  I’d like to simply say ‘play the written dynamics’ but it’s not that easy (and that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to musical expression).  There’s a lot going on for an instrumentalist:  reading the music, hand-eye coordination, keepping tabs on the conductor, breathing,  bowing, etc… so I can totally understand losing track of musicality at times.

But musicality is *very* important to performance – especially to live performance.  The audience can hear *and* see what you’re doing.  So you not only have to tell a story audibly, but also visually.  And to me, body language is SO important.  Consider this performance by Tafelmusik based out of Toronto:

Period baroque ensembles are fantastic examples of visual musical expression. For one, most of the musicians are standing.  You inevitably get some dancing and posturing, often synchronized, which shows that everyone is feeling the music the same way.  It reveals how much the musicians are ‘into’ and loving the piece they are playing.  I think it also helps that period ensembles are heavily invested in performance style, so they take musical expression very seriously.

Back to the book that inspired this post … I took a break from it over the holidays, but I do recall the chapter on intensity.  It was intense — no joke intended.  It involves trying to teach students intensity, starting with exercises of two people intently gazing at each other and attempting to transmit feelings or thoughts through this exercise (no music).  This is very important for conductor-musician communication in performance.  The conductor should be able to convey a thought or mood via eye contact and body language.  The chapter continues with having the student(s) play something as simple as a single note/chord, or a scale and to convey the intensity back to the conductor.

I’m looking forward to returning to this book, finishing it and revisiting earlier chapters to take it all in.  I think my next choice in the series will be “Artistic Nuance”.

Tchaik 4 with Orchestra Toronto

We’re on to the next rehearsal schedule for Orchestra Toronto and the main piece on the program is Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony. This is a powerhouse piece for brass, even with us only really involved in the first and last movements. Sure, there’s some cute stuff in the third movement for all brass (except for tuba), but it’s nothing compared to the power in the opening and closing.
I got familiar with this symphony because it was prominently featured in the audition list for the Montreal Symphony. There are countless important licks for tuba here and just about all of them are double- or triple-forte!! So when I saw the draft for this year’s program last year I got really excited. I printed the part off the Internet and started getting familiar with it. Oh, I almost forgot, I have snippets of the part in my excerpts book and I had considered playing them for my audition to the GGS a few years ago.
So I was super excited to get back to OT rehearsals after the holidays. The first two rehearsals were good. We read through the outer movements really slowly. Especially the first one. Between the counterpoint and the emphasis away from the downbeat, it’s not a cinch to put together.
More importantly, I was looking forward to the big brass sectional of the season. This would be our second year at it. Last season, we had a sectional for Holst’s Planets and Ravel’s La Valse. Trumpeter Guy Few was our coach and he was fantastic. This year, we had some trouble booking someone in advance because many were busy on that Thursday night. We finally confirmed with Rupert Price, principal trombone with the Windsor Symphony. That night, just this past Thursday, we spent 2.5 hours on Tchaik 4. He had some great advice on articulation, style and interpretation. All which made it easier for me to play. It was fantastic to get his view on the piece, and the brass section sounded fantastic with he suggestions. I’m sure my ears took a hit in that boomy room, but I loved every minute of it. I’m looking forward to hearing it all put together next week with the rest of the orchestra.
In terms of my musical career, the opportunity to play Tchaik 4 is very important to me. In the world of community orchestras, I might not have another chance to play in a good number of years. I’m definitely happy with the brass section we have right now. We have some recent additions from UofT who are contribution a lot to the brass section and we’re all gelling well. We’re going to bring the house down on this one!

2012 Year in Review

It’s the final day of 2012. I’ve been thinking about this blog entry for a number of weeks now. How would I sum it up? Then this morning, a friend on Facebook put up this status:

In 2012 well I learned a lot. lost a lot. gained a lot. Must say hardest year to date but I’m still smiling happy new year everyone and a happy 2013 to all!

Nailed it! Continue reading


I have NEVER played better in my life!

How’s that for an opener? I really do though! I’ve been practicing the excerpt from Copéllia by Deslibes — the Masurka. It’s some fancy finger work at a reasonable speed. D major on the Eb tuba too. Yesterday I started playing it without stopping or fumbling. Things like that make me yell “YEAH” in all caps. Sometimes “F*CK YEAH”. It just feels so good reaching milestones like that.

I had another today: on my C, pedal D flat at fortissimo is starting to get some nice brassy edge to it. YEAH!

But I also finally got a start to the Bach solo I need to do on the C. Wowsa! Lots of bars with endless 16th notes. This book (Bach for the Tuba, vol.2) is for the tuba. Should I be able to play this stuff without breathing?!? Apparently, yes. I’m making quick progress, but it sure does feel like a kick in the pants. How perfectly do I need to play all this music?

For a school audition, they want more to get a feel for your technique for placement. For a job, they’re gonna pick the one, single best person. Currently, I think there are some excerpts that could sink me. Some of them though, I’m REALLY good at. I’m also really liking my sound lately. Big and bold! That’s gonna be a factor, for sure.

And then I wonder why my first orchestral audition is Montreal. If not the top, then one of the top three orchestras in Canada. Gotta start somewhere though, right? And being Montreal, it’s totally pushing me to go all the way! I think I’m going to kick some butt in Montreal!

The Amateur Musician and Dynamics

I’ve had some recent encounters with the sometimes-awkward relationship between amateur musicians and dynamics.  From my perspective (IMHO), it’s often about brass musicians not playing loud enough – not realizing the impact fortissimo really should make.

I think it comes down to three things: self-confidence, self-perception and embouchure comfort zone. I think those are also in order of increasing ease to fix – i.e. the last on the list is the easiest to fix.

Continue reading

Blow Through It

That’s my favourite saying to myself these days: “blow through it”. Too often have I concentrated on intervals and not the overall musical line. I think though that the James Thompson buzzing book is really bringing this to light. On just the mouthpiece I’m slurring (glissando) very evenly between notes. With the tuba on, the instructions say to bend the note until it just ‘pops’ to the next tone. This requires one to ‘blow through’ the note change. Though awkward at first, with practice and persistence, the result is a smoother change of note. I couldn’t achieve this smoothness with an embouchure change (ie. tensing or relaxing of the lips). This mostly applies to upward changes, but slurs down are sounding better too.
But wait! There’s more! Even articulated lines are sounding better when you ‘blow through’ them! A note can be better attacked when it benefits from the air flow/speed of its predecessor. Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ is really making this evident with all of the awkward leaps and dissonant lines in the tuba part. If you concentrate on the intervals, then the dynamic can suffer and the musicality isn’t so hot. Blowing through these passages brings it all together: articulation, dynamics, and musicality.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Today is the Orchestra Toronto concert featuring Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This marks for me the end of a mini saga. R&J has brought me through a great journey. I’ve had the part for 4 months, one lesson, the prospect of auditioning for school, life decisions, new high notes and James Thompson’s buzzing technique. My playing and musicianship have taken leaps forward. It’ll be really sad to say goodbye to the piece, but I know that mores pieces will come along which will push my limits and challenge me – and I’ll fall in love all over again. Did you know a tuba player could be so sentimental?

Kamvisidis Panagiotis

Through a tuba group on facebook, I recently be-friended Panagiotis Kamvisidis (Hi!).  He’s principal tuba with the City of Athens Symphony Orchestra in Greece (only just established in 1996?!?).  He sent me this video today of his group ‘Too Bass’ performing a Romanian dance by Ionel Dumitru –

Now there’s some great tuba ensemble playing, not to mention solo work!  Clear, nimble, articulate and … mesmerizing.  That melody is going to be in my head ALL DAY LONG!

But seriously, like any aspiring and growing musician, I’ve got role models I want to sound like.  I’m going to keep Panagiotis’ sound in mind when I’m practicing and performing!

On Fire – with a capital F! (or “How Slurring is Changing my Life for The Better”)

My playing lately has been on fire.  I’ve been intensely practicing my C (while not ignoring my Eb, though).  As you’ve been reading in previous posts, with the upcoming concert with OT, Prokofiev’s R&J has been on my mind (and my embouchure) – and of course, the Dance of the Knights.  Well,  earlier this week I reach a new milestone in the sound of my low F.  Up until then, it had a minor, unstable vibrato/shake to it.  I remember going to the Summer Brass Institute in San Fran in 2008 and playing in a piece that was in F major and which ended on a low F – it was so instable that it was nearly in a flutter.  I had been happy with my low F on my C before then and since that summer, I’ve been on a mission to stabilize it again.  Low F# hasn’t been super hot either, but other notes around it have been nice and fat – Ab, G, E, and Eb.

Let me clarify some – I’m being critical of the sound for sure, but since 2008, it did have some moments where I was happy to avoid low F.  It wasn’t showing me at my best, though it has been improving bit by bit.  Fast forward to this week… Continue reading

The not-so-simple-and-easy-to-play

I’ve been working my butt off on my C lately – warm ups; harmonic series slurring; low range long tones; and orch rep – Prokofiev’s R&J Suite 2 and Holst’s Mars and Jupiter.  My rep focus has been on the low f minor Dance of the Knights:

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet: Dance of the Knights

  • where, when and how to breath to make it through the 4 bars
  • tone quality on the opening low Fs, and last one, plus the accent on the C in between

So I sat down in orchestra last night, all warmed up and ready to go.

Then I spot it. Continue reading