01 November 2007

Following up on the last post

One of the truly maddening things about brass playing is conditioning. A day off can be constructive, or it can set you back a week; two or more days off is just about fatal. To go along with this seemingly high lower limit, there's also a comparatively low upper limit to how much one can practice at a time. Suffice it to say that it's not a pursuit that lends itself to sporadic intense periods of focus, yet unfortunately, that is the mode in which I am most productive. At least writing (music and words) lends itself better to this sort of unpredictable inspiration; as for tuba playing, it's a constant struggle.

Much has been made in brass pedagogy about the so-called "smile" embouchure. It's considered one of the cardinal sins of brass playing, but it's one of the most common nonetheless. While it is often approached as a simple mistake or bad habit, I've found it to be entirely a matter of conditioning. When I don't put in enough time with the horn to keep the relevant muscles in shape, I start smiling; once I've had a good workout for a few days in a row, the smile goes away. I've started to wonder how many brass students who have been confounded by the smile embouchure would benefit from better conditioning with their current (often their "natural" or intuitive) embouchure rather than undergoing the physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing process of making wholesale embouchure changes. While certain embouchures appear to offer better chances of success, it is also true that somewhere, someone has gotten away with just about every embouchure deviation any teacher has ever thought it worth condemning. How much might excellent conditioning (something that is, let's face it, elusive for the majority of aspiring professional brass players, and often the same ones who have been diagnosed with embouchure troubles) allow players to overcome petty idiosyncrasies of the embouchure?

This is something I think about a lot. When I was 16, I was hit in the mouth by both a baseball and a cleat within 6 months of each other; hence, I have a lump of scar tissue in the left-center part of my lower lip that causes it to appear visibly larger than the rest of the lip, and a left corner that was severed 90% of the way through, and hence is noticeably weaker than the right corner despite the great deal of playing and conditioning that has taken place since then. Neither incident had a noticeable effect on my playing at the time other than to take me out of commission for a couple of weeks, yet a few days of substandard conditioning and suddenly the smile shows up with all of its attendant flaws of sound, intonation, and general control.

The smile, at least in my case, is a symptom, not a root cause worth pursuing. To eliminate the smile during one of those substandard playing days requires contortions of the embouchure that would only make things worse. As always, it seems to me that result-oriented pedagogy trumps adherence to supposed technical norms, and in my case, the way to get rid of the smile is not to change the embouchure but to "feel the burn" in the corners for a few days.


Is classical music the most technically demanding music out there? Or does it (and any other kind of music) merely pose a particular set of obstacles that makes it uniquely challenging, but not necessarily more challenging? I've wrestled with this one for a while also, and I'm still not sure that I've reached a satisfying conclusion. What I do find maddening is when people speak as if classical music has a monopoly on discipline. In reality, discipline has nothing to do with style: many players would have to work especially hard to sound like, say, Chet Baker, whose playing sounds so easy and relaxed to so many people.

I freely admit that classical music is harder for me than jazz, and to take it further, that notated music is harder for me than improvised music. That could simply be a consequence of how much time I have put into each, and/or of an innate inclination, and/or of a tendency to set the bar higher for myself in one case than in the other. But what I mean by this is not even necessarily that I am "better" at jazz and improvisation than I am at realizing and interpreting notated music, but more that there does seem to be a certain amount of technical wiggle room when it comes to improvising in just about any context, and that there is no such thing in the realm of classical solo playing.

I think that when it comes right down to it, improvisation, while infinitely more challenging both cognitively and expressively, affords the player the opportunity to roll with what they've got technically on any given occasion. This is in stark contrast to notated music where the piece is chosen months ahead of time and then subjected to specific preparation that presupposes a set of technical abilities that is relatively stable from day to day. Without this stability, such preparation is scarcely possible; that is why "consistency" is a word that classical musicians in training hear with some frequency. I have never found the consistency in either realm that would allow me to become a world class player, yet after years of feeling closer to this ideal as a classical player, I now feel completely the opposite.

For many years, my improvising (which for most of that time was pretty much limited to bebop and post-bop idioms) was maddeningly inconsistent. There always seemed to be a cycle; call it biorhythms or a male period or whatever. It didn't seem to have much to do with how much I practiced or how I felt in general. One thing that was nearly fool-proof was to listen to a great band or recording that played in those idioms, but even that did not get me going sometimes. This, happily, is changing for the better: ironically, after intentionally expanding my musical purview and spending less time than ever on bop-specific concerns over the past few years, my "inside" playing has solidified in ways that were once highly elusive.

This is going to sound horribly pretentious, but "inside" jazz playing just doesn't seem that daunting any more. What is almost paralyzingly daunting is the realm of Improvised Music (note capitalization), stylistic versatility, stylistic synthesis, and stylistic subversion. Those are becoming increasingly important pursuits to me, and they seem as challenging as bebop once did. I guess it's time to come to terms with the fact that I spent a whole shitload of time practicing to become a better bebop player, and that if I spend a whole shitload of time on something else, I'll get better at that, too.

I want to be crystal clear that this is not to say that I've lost my fascination with jazz. Very much the opposite is true. When I was 20 years old (ca. 5 years ago), I was shocked at how many musicians that were only a few years older than I was were professing to have become disillusioned, uninterested, and even downright hostile to jazz and it's practitioners. Now I too have seen the need to move on in a sense, but I'm still a bit puzzled by all the hostility and repudiation of past endeavors; is it genuine? Ego-driven? Money-driven? Or what?

Jazz is a gateway drug. For me, and I suspect many others, it has been a bridge from classical music to things like prog rock and Improvised Music. In my case, it had to be a bridge that traveled over and around popular music, which got in the way of me being able to really take in a lot of things at face value. By the same token, there are plenty of people for whom jazz is a bridge from pop to classical as well. As a high school student at jazz camps, I was always able to tell the difference between players who came to jazz from classical music and those who came to it from rock. I've talked a lot about feeling out of place in Minneapolis because I feel like practically the only person in the jazz/improvising circles who does not come out of rock and/or pop. The "classic rock" angle in particular colors a great deal of the jazz-oriented stuff that goes on here, and while I can relate as a listener, I sometimes have trouble relating as a player. In any case, jazz may only be the bridge for me, but this trip really is all about the journey and not the destination.

Given my investment in composition, education, and writing, the discipline (and hence the technique) required by classical solo playing is almost inevitably transient; yet improvised music by its very nature is not only accommodating to this situation, but given that one of its primary challenges is avoiding merely repeating old habits, it almost demands a certain inconsistency ("variation" would be a less stigmatized term) in technical ability and outlook. There are aspects of improvised music that demand consistency in other areas: one might label them creative potency, listening skills, mental focus, etc. The difference for me has been that this latter set of abilities have improved and been nurtured through the non-tuba related musical endeavors which occupy so much of my time. Ironically enough, it seems as if the same things that essentially prevent me from spending more time working on the fundamental technique required by classical music are the very reason that my improvisation has continued to improve in absence of putting in said time.


A friend recently asked me if I was relieved to be done with the recital. I wanted to say what I said in the previous post, which was that if one has to put everything else in one's life on hold simply to pull off a given performance, maybe one has chosen the wrong profession. But to be honest, I was relieved to have it behind me, even though (as should be obvious from the recent activity on this blog) it also causes a certain amount of lingering anxiety that was not there before it happened. Here is yet another aspect of musicianship that can't be addressed in the practice room, but it's still no substitute for playing long tones...first thing...every day.

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