I’m sat here with a nice glass of red, munching hot chillies out of a jar and listening to BBC Radio 4. Tomorrow is a rather big day. Heather Tudor and myself are giving the world premiere of international award winning composer Ailis Ni Riain’s latest work. ‘The Consequences Of Falling’ has been commissioned to be one of the highlights of the international symposium to mark the celebration of Delia Derbyshire Day, and of course, it is fifty years Delia Derbyshire set the iconic theme to Dr Who.
Delia Derbyshire is recognised the world over as a true driving pioneer in electronic music. She is also regarded as a symbol at the forefront of the struggle for women composers to emerge from the male dominated world in their own right. Before DD joined the groundbreaking BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she had applied for a job at Decca, only to be told, “… The recording studio is no place for a woman.”
Well, an amazing day is in store for all who will be attending. I shall be going to the afternoon symposium, lectures, workshops and film showings etc to learn more about this amazing lady. However come 6pm I will have to don my business hat for the sound check, on stage in Manchester’s famous Band On The Wall venue. The evening is given over to performance and sharing the programme with us will be Caro C, an expert in electronica performance and Naomi Kashiwagi, a renowned Grammaphonica exponent. There is a slight interesting juxtaposition in Ailis’s piece. Delia Derbyshire, is of course noted for electronic music, as are our two other aforementioned soloists. Ailis has written a brand new piece which takes some influence from Delia’s electronic music, including two of her themes, but for acoustic trumpet and double bass!
The piece is very technically challenging for both individual performers and poses very challenging ensemble issues, too. For the listener, and the performers, though, it is a fireball of foot tapping energy. I have seldom found it possible for a composer to wring so much out of a trumpet and double bass. Both Heather and I are expecting to be utterly shattered, emotionally and physically at the end!
Am I nervous? Well, maybe that is why I am sat here munching raw chillies etc! Actually, I admit to being full of a kind of nervous energy. I am looking forward, so much, to getting on stage and having and putting my all into this very unusual and most exciting work. I have prepared, as always, as meticulously as a can, within the timescale of receiving the music, my existing schedule and what is physically possible for a trumpeter. Heather, and I have rehearsed as often and in as much depth as possible, too.
Over the last week or two the chore of putting something brand new together has become a pleasure of music making and it is now time to enjoy the performance: no matter what happens! One of my trumpet heroes, the great Maurice Murphy, used to have a rather rude saying, “… Sh*t happens lad, and there’s f*ck all you can do about it!
This leads me to ponder the preparation I have undertaken for this performance. Readers of this blog will know the punishing schedule the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has been under over the Xmas period. I also had to shape up for the annual RLPO Messiah last week, with ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ on my Christmas chops.
Scheduling, practicing, keeping in shape, performing… This is the plate spinning act the trumpeter goes through. I paraphrase the famous golfer Gary player now, when I say that I have studied the trumpet for 40 years now and know a hell of a lot about nothing. My other Gary Player anecdote, I like to quote to students etc is, “… The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
It is with all the above in mind that I would like to say how much I admire the teaching of pedagogic legend Arnold Jacobs. Apart from single handedly changing the way brass teaching was taught physically, Jacobs knew all about the psychology of performing. I practice trumpet, teach trumpet and perform trumpet. It is very important not to confuse these very different disciplines! Jacobs said there had to be three very distinct hats that had to be worn. The teacher must act as the analyst; the practice session must have it’s own way of taking the music to pieces, but performing must be just that. There is not time to analyse when performing. What would be the point in ‘post match analyses’ before the ‘match’ has ended. Jacobs used to refer to the results of this type of approach as leading to ‘paralysis by analyses.’
Whilst relaxing this evening, prior to tomorrow’s events, I was reading a great book on the subject of the previous paragraph and was impressed by the following quotation, “… We do not need to bother about the extremely complicated manoeuvers we perform. We just perform them unconsciously, and what catches our attention is the end result, the sound.” That was by Johan Sundberg in ‘The Science of The Singing Voice.’
It is to this end that I always wonder about practicing. I am keenly aware that as a trumpeter, my practice time is limited to what my lip muscles will withstand physically. If I were a sensible practicer, I would say that three 40 minute sessions would be most sufficient as a maximum. My teacher, the late David Mason, used to say that he would never do more than a maximum of two hours ever. Witnesses, over his long illustrious career, however, used to testify that he was always having a blow! After he retired he admitted to me that he wished he had left his trumpet in the case more often as, with hindsight, he was always a little tired by the time he got to perform. This is the paradox of the first/solo trumpeter! The trumpeter does not want to leave his best chops in the practice room… Sometimes, there are just too many notes to learn in such a short space of time that one just has to batten the hatches down and get on with it. There is no sympathy for the trumpeter who turns up, despite doing the orchestra a favour at short notice, if they have to keep stopping because he does not know his part!
I like to spend a portion of my private practice warming up and going through some careful maintenance work. I try not getting bogged down with this, but sometimes it is difficult to stop trying to perfect things. The advice of the great Adolf Herseth is useful here, as he reckoned he always tried to leave for work a little under warmed up; to make sure he was in first class shape for performance. Mind you (another very rude saying here!), John Wilbraham, another teacher of mine, used to say, “… Yes, well, Brendan; you can practice all your slurs, all your scales and all your studies, but you can’t take into account playing like a ****!”
I have taken to listening to music a lot more, especially symphony stuff, just to get the trumpet off my face. I used to be a terror, for many years, for practicing drills all day long. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even play any musical pieces in a whole day or more because I was practicing drills and technique. I got really good at drills, lip slurs, pedal tones etc but always felt a bit tired and stiff when I got to work. Sometimes my chops would be so beaten, I would find simple melodies hard work. Of course, I always got by, and have always had a full diary of work to prove it. There had to be a better way.
Over the last fewyears or so, I have had it pointed out to me, and have come to the conclusion, that there is no point battering on through lists of technique etc just to get tired every day. Ever since college, nearly thirty years ago, people have always criticised me for practicing too much. These days, I still play a lot, but I try to play to sound as great as I can every day. When I feel tired, or more importantly, when I think I stop sounding good, I take a break… immediately! Don’t practice to get tired. Play to sound as good as you can.
Of course, when a trumpeter has brand new sounds to learn, like tomorrow, he/she can’t listen to the music to save practice time. I have found on this occasion, that looking at the music a lot; studying it, marking it… and yes, don’t laugh; practicing it just on my mouthpiece and singing it, checking pitches with the piano etc. One handy thing I have discovered for myself, is not to play new music very loudly, whilst I am learning it. This definitely saves my chops. Hell, I’ve needed all my chops just for the long rehearsals with Heather to get ‘The Consequences Of Falling’ together and grooving along.
I reckon the approach a successful trumpet student will adopt, and I always count myself as a student, is never treat the trumpet as a physical machine. Always play the music instead! It works for me…