25 November 2014


Today I listened, at his behest, to a very talented younger friend run down an upcoming classical trumpet audition. I have all but cut bait with the mainstream classical brass world at this point and found myself frequently prefacing/qualifying comments with, "What I'm about to say explains exactly why I don't do this anymore, but..." I am speaking specifically of questions of "expression," that ever-loaded, euphemistic catchall for everything that's not on the printed page. Everyone who has crawled under this particular rock for any period of time has spent countless hours in private lessons being told that a certain line needs more direction, that the speed, width, or amount of vibrato is not quite right, that all the notes and rhythms are there and all that is needed now is to "make music," as if that phrase means the same thing to everyone everywhere for all time. For my friend today, for me always, and I suspect for many, many other classical brass students, the challenge is simply caring, about what we are playing, about the people listening, and, highly problematically I would argue, about what kind of carrot is dangling at the end of the stick du jour. When the music is "our" music, and when the carrot is something real and personal and not simply career-driven grasping, it doesn't matter whether we're playing for thousands of people, one person, a microphone, or an empty room; but when the music is anything less than the very core of our identity, "expression" threatens to materialize only as a contrivance, if sometimes a convincing one, or perhaps not at all. This is a non-problem; it vanishes in "our" music as quickly as it appears elsewhere. But of course, even for the most uncompromising among us, the line between "our" music and the rest is not always so clear. For the moment Bach is my one lifeline to classical quasi-legitimacy, but I wouldn't refuse to play Hindemith, Kraft, or Galliard again, even though none of them are quite core identity material. I would be well-prepared technically simply because I would enjoy playing them, but in absence of an engaged audience I probably would need some prodding to "make music." And if this were all a teacher could think to offer me, I wouldn't be getting much out of my tuba lessons. Stylization is personal business, and it can scarcely be verbalized anyway.

Another can of worms, perhaps for another post: prescribed repertoire is essentially a means of controlling for personality. If competitors were allowed to choose their own rep, committees would have to judge on the aesthetics of the collective presentation instead of on (a) brute technique, and (b) the ability to play as if one cared deeply about (usually) awful music. We hear so much handwringing over (a), but I would insist that (b), being as it is highly destructive of sincerity, is actually the far greater evil.

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