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The Marks of a Good Musician

Dan Blaufuss | February 2013

    In preparation for this issue, I had a chance to chat with Nick Little. One idea of his that I found especially clever was having his students draw triangles over sustained chords and shade the bottom, middle, or top of the triangle to indicate whether they had the root, third, or fifth of the chord. He then shared the following story:
    “When I was in high school I played fourth trumpet in the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra. We performed a joint concert at the end of the year with the Cincinnati Symphony. On the concert was Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and I noticed that the principal trumpet player had fingerings written in, along with a great many notes and arrows, and I was confused. This is one of the best trumpet players in the country, and his music was a mess. I asked him why he wrote so much, and he pointed to a measure and said, ‘As one example, in 1984 I missed that note.’”
    Back in high school, I was embarrassed to mark my music, thinking it was a sign of weakness, or worse, incompetence. My freshman year in high school I played euphonium in band. I can no longer remember what piece it was, but one spot modulated into E major for 16 measures, all of which had the melody in the euphonium part. The last time my high school played this piece, the euphonium player had written in all the fingerings. I absolutely used them, but I remember feeling bad about reading the fingerings rather than the music.
    After a few times through the piece, however, I realized that no one was suspicious about how I was getting the melody right in this unusual key, and no one had checked my part to see if there were any extraneous marks on it. Of course today, I realize that marking music is a good way to avoid making or repeating mistakes. Back then, however, I thought, “It’s okay to cheat at band.”
    I stopped caring what others thought and marked any rhythm I was the least bit hesitant about or any note I thought there was the slightest chance of missing. This gradually expanded to include pitch tendencies, chord tones, and even which instruments had the melody. I tend to err on the side of playing too loudly rather than not loudly enough, but a simple note to listen for the flutes or clarinets still helps me to remember to blend. These days, my music is usually a mess, but it helps me sound better, and that is what matters.
    This came full circle over the winter break. The publisher’s granddaughter recently switched in band from alto saxophone to clarinet (I have requested that our awards department work on a medal for students who make this particular switch), and we had an impromptu lesson in my office to go over the solo she is playing for a contest later this year. This solo uses almost every alternate fingering on the clarinet, so we spent the lesson going over them all, discussing when and why to use each one.
    As we were just about finished, and I was giving her instructions for practice at home, I realized we hadn’t written down any of the fingerings we went over. I marked Ls and Rs to indicate pinky keys and notes on when to use side F# and forked low B in the first section of her music and told her to mark the rest of it the same way if needed. I even added some crescendos and decrescendos to phrases she had already mastered.
    A few weeks later she came back to the office sounding much improved. While this is certainly because of considerable practice, I like to think it was at least in part because her music was marked where she needed it. My music is.
– Dan Blaufuss
Managing Editor