08 January 2008

The Editors

In preparation for an upcoming competition (fellow competitors will surely recognize the repertoire), I've spotted a couple of editorial oddities that I thought deserved mention here.

The inside front page to Vincent Persichetti's "Serenade No. 12" (Elkan-Vogel, 1963) features the following statement:

Editor's Note
Serenade No. 12 may be used as both a concert and a study piece. Students may use Arietta (II), Mascherata (III) and Intermezzo (V) as preparatory studies for the more difficult Marcia (VI), Intrada (I), and Capriccio (IV).

Whoever this editor is or was (it doesn't say) ought to be pleased to know that as of the year 2008, most every college music major who happens to play tuba will probably study this piece in some capacity or another. I would posit, however, that the superfluous verbiage opposite page 1 had nothing to do with it. I simply have trouble imagining a customer browsing the selection of sheet music in the "TUBA" bin of a local music store (that is...back when such stores actually carried sheet music), narrowing it down to this and another piece, and ultimately deciding to buy the one that was going to give them more bang for their buck by being versatile enough to function as both a concert (oooh...) and study (ahhh...) piece.

To make matters worse, this being my third go round with this piece, I'm reasonably convinced that the Arietta is actually harder than the Intrada. Perhaps that betrays how little I've actually worked on soft legato playing...or perhaps it betrays the fact that our unfortunate editor merely glanced at the movements and came to the conclusion that a slower tempo and less ink automatically equate to lower difficulty. Didn't they ever have a junior high school band teacher to tell them that's not how it works?

Obviously, I'm being harsh and a little bit facetious. Sometimes you just wonder what people were thinking: was this an overbearing marketing ploy, a momentary lapse in taste, or just an honest effort to educate the customer? The truth is out there...but I'm not holding my breath on getting a definitive answer.

Moving on to piece #2 on the docket, in Alec Wilder's "Suite No, 1 for Tuba and Piano" (Margun Music, 1976), we encounter an editorial contribution that is more humorous than anything else. The third movement calls for pitch bends on two separate occasions, the first of which is marked with an asterisk directing the player to the following footnote:

*Bend: pitch is quickly lowered and returned to the original level.

I laughed out loud when I saw this, and not just because I found it funny that the editor thought that tuba players were so dense when it comes to jazz-derived techniques that a concept as simple as a bend would need to be explained, but because I know that this editor is probably right. Though I don't count it among my foremost goals in life, I'd like to think of myself who has some potential to contribute to the tuba advocacy movement (i.e. in the form of debunking stereotypes, exposing people to what it's capable of, and creating opportunities where there were none before). And every now and then, I stumble on artifacts such as this one that remind me not to get too excited.

06 January 2008


"There are no chop problems, only air problems."

"Air isn't everything, it's the only thing"

...so the conventional wisdom of brass players and teachers has gone for two generations or so. I'd like to make the ultra-radical proposition that the case for air has been overstated. Of course it is important, and yes, it can indeed make or break one's technique. To state the obvious, you literally cannot make a sound on an instrument that requires you to blow into it without, in fact, actually blowing into it; and having made that realization, there are, of course, more and less effective ways of blowing into it, whatever your desired result might be. I'd even grant that bad air habits are easier to develop, harder to break, and have proportionately more impact on the overall musical product than embouchure problems. To that extent, I am on board.

What I have a problem with is the absolutist, all or nothing, black and white, "my way or the highway" type of attitude which completely disregards embouchure formation and conditioning in favor of blind faith in air. I dare any brass player who believes that "there are no chop problems" to do nothing but practice breathing for a month, then return to the horn and see where that has gotten them. There's a good chance it will get them a lousy sound and reduced range and flexibility. I would further posit that the case of the raw beginner also proves the necessity of some serious conditioning that, while it may be largely directed at allowing them to use their air effectively, ultimately cannot be taught while simply ignoring "chop" issues altogether.

Of course, I'm also not a fan of embouchure meddling, and perhaps this blind faith in air is one way to avoid stooping to that level (i.e. by demanding a certain way of approaching the use of air, one coaxes a better embouchure out of the student without resorting to the sort of nitpicking that is otherwise necessary to achieve a change, yet rarely effective in doing so). Breathing, after all, is a natural and (aside from musical training) largely subconsciously regulated process, whereas the embouchure is not exactly something our bodies were specifically designed to do, and uses small muscles that are difficult to train and easy to injure. I would merely suggest that we temper the apocalyptic tone that has become commonplace in the discussion of breathing- and air-related brass pedagogy. If nothing else, it's just a good idea to mean what you say; hyperbole, while sometimes useful (and often fun), can only take us so far.