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Learning from Giants of Brass

Instrumentalist Editors | July 2011

   In mid-June the National Brass Symposium brought together brass players from six of the top American orchestras, many of whom are principals of their sections. These notable brass players performed, spoke candidly about their experiences, and mingled with the hundreds in attendance.

   These following comments were excerpted from a session called Dealing with the Tightrope, given by a dozen or so professional players.

James Sommerville, principal horn, Boston
   I’ve played Brahms’s Second many times, and there is a tough horn solo at the end of the first movement. On one occasion I bobbled a few notes of it and afterwards realized that the problem stemmed from practicing it so much that I no longer looked at or focused on the music during  practice sessions. To correct this I decided to write the fingerings for every note of the solo. Even so during the concert I had the bad feeling that I wouldn’t be able to play the solo, that something would go terribly wrong. I did not know what it was, but I was determined to get through it. During the concert I actually closed my eyes and didn’t look at the music. The solo went just fine. 
   First horn players make their money on soft, high passages by not cracking a note. This is a tricky act to pull off. The secret to doing this is to develop the faith in your preparation. One of my teachers prescribed an exercise starting on the G at the top of the staff and playing it six times absolutely perfectly. If one of the six is off, I have to go back to the beginning. Four or five of the six is not good enough. After playing six perfect Gs, I play six G#s, six As, and so on until I reach high C. This very simple exercise has the advantage of repeating troublesome notes. I have played this exercise every day for the past 15 years. Whenever there is a high G#, I tell myself that I have played it 20,000 times a year for 15 years and my confidence returns. I have proven to myself that I can do it.
If you practice well and learn from your practice sessions, it becomes much easier to stay calm during a performance. You won’t have to second guess yourself or be tempted to write in the fingerings at the last minute.

Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet, Atlanta
   In graduate school I made an embouchure change that left me feeling that I had regressed in my playing. I lost the confidence to play well, to sell a passage I played. Somehow, I made it into the Marine Band and was given a year’s notice of an upcoming solo performance. I chose to play the Tomasi and vowed I would dot every i and cross every t in preparing effectively. I sang and buzzed every interval, sometimes at one eighth speed, and I took a full year to prepare carefully. At the performance I even nailed the high D at the end. Afterward I analyzed why the performance was such a success and realized the answer was taking my time and feeling no pressure to reach the level I sought. However long it took, I was patient. This year of slow progress raised my playing level permanently. My advice to others is to take your time and never be in a rush. Work on small improvements and great form; play each passage over and over until it is perfect.

Michael Sachs, principal trumpet, Cleveland
   Many of us get caught up in the context of playing things and think about who is conducting, what the piece is, and other unimportant matters. As you play a section of the first movement of Mahler 5, don’t think about anything that comes later on in the work. Focus only on the measures at hand. Stay in the moment, and you will be more successful. I am most successful when my thoughts are solely on what I’m playing and how it fits into the larger whole. Sometimes I sit at home with the music in front of me and simply visualize exactly how I want a phrase to sound. If I start to get nervous while sitting in the orchestra, I think back to my preparation and trust that what I have played at home will sound the same in concert. It is the same music, the same horn, and I’m the same guy. Whether I’m playing at home or in Carnegie Hall, everything will be the same. By separating myself from the context and focusing on the music, I stay on task. I try to keep all other variables from entering into the mix because they will only block what I need to focus on. Trust your preparation. It’s not intangible, and it won’t go away. Trust that it will be there when you call upon it. Certainly there are ups and downs in an 85-90 concert season, but just move on after one of these occurs. I’m a frustrated baseball player and would have loved to play for the Dodgers. I loved Sandy Koufax, but even he got shelled for 10 runs in the first inning occasionally. He also threw some no-hitters. Just keep your mind on where you are going and simply let the music unfold.

Christopher Martin, principal trumpet, Chicago
   I’m a perfectionist like everyone else on this stage, and when I was younger, I used to get very nervous before concerts. I spent lots of time before concerts trying to relax and be calm. However, out on the stage I had so much pent up energy sitting around for three hours that I grew impatient for the concert to start. Much later I realized that a better course is the exact opposite of what I had done in trying to relax.
   I have learned that it is better to exercise and be active, to burn off some of this nervous energy. Running and exercise, especially before a concert (but not immediately preceding), leave me more relaxed. Don’t be crazy and do 1,000 pullups or swim a mile before a concert, but follow a regular program of exercise. Just as it helps to play long tones to warm up each day, I find that my body is calmer and my mind calmer after a workout. However, I have also discovered that I play better if I’m not too relaxed for a concert. I need to be energized and charged. I recommend the books by Don Green on personality types and tests that can help us to understand how and what we are.
   Veterans in the C.S.O. tell stories about trumpeter Bud Herseth and how during the intermission before a big piece he would sit in the locker room getting charged up. The bigger the piece, the redder his face was. Certainly he played brilliantly all of the time, but he had learned to use his inner fire in amazing ways. Whenever I feel nervous onstage, it is because I am wrapped up in myself and have forgotten about the other wonderful people on the stage. A great many trumpet players think only about themselves and believe everything revolves around them. It really doesn’t. The truth is that music is a group of people playing together and sharing what we do onstage. Remember this whenever you grow nervous. Even with Mahler 5 for trumpet players or Rhenish for trombonists, the music is still about everybody working together.

Colin Williams, principal trombone, Atlanta
   One way to become comfortable before an important concert is to take time to visualize the performance in great detail. For auditions I often stood in an unfamiliar hall with my trombone in hand. I closed my eyes and imagined every detail of the hall. I thought about how the air felt and what it would feel like to take a breath and play. I did this two or three times a day as a way to get my subconscious prepared. Now, if a rehearsal goes badly because I missed some notes, my subconscious mind will remember the thoughts and doubts I have had. The mind is a pure, innocent child. If you tell your subconscious mind that Santa Claus exists, it believes. If you often think that you’re no good, the subconscious will believe this and the doubt manifest itself in your playing. Believe in the power of visualization, but be mindful of what you tell it. The power of positive thinking isn’t just a cute slogan, it’s a scientifically based idea, and I find it to be an important part of my playing.

Toby Oft, principal trombone, Boston
   When I joined the Boston Symphony everything went fine for a while until we played the Brahms 2. It has difficult trombone licks and a high D. On a particular Saturday, which was the last concert before my tenure committee hearing, I missed every one of those Ds. By the end of the first page I was mortified because I had rehearsed the Brahms so much. In retrospect I realized that I had practiced too much and listened to too many recordings of the work. The result was that when I sat in the orchestra, I had switched from being engaged in the music to being almost passive about it. I had thought about it way too much. Soon after this clambake we took the Brahms to Carnegie Hall and everything was great. I redeemed myself by becoming completely engaged in the music around me. I sought out new and exciting things my colleagues did. As a result of this Brahms disaster I developed the habit of being completely engaged in the music around me during the rehearsals leading up to a performance. This is not something you can switch on just before a performance but is an ingrained habit that has to be developed.



Thoughts from Thomas Rolfs

Principal Trumpet Boston Symphony Orchestra

   During my freshman year at the University of Minnesota, I won an audition to play at Tanglewood the next summer. I was partly motivated to go there to avoid working another summer at a Hostess cupcake factory, but I had only vague notions of becoming a professional musician.
   At Tanglewood I worked under Gunther Schuller, who taught me so much in a single summer. I might add that his comments often beat me up, but I must have passed some of his tests because he asked if I was interested in playing the Brandenburg Concerto. I had no idea what this was, but gave a vague acceptance because I had just bought a piccolo trumpet. Later I looked at the music and went back to him and said I wasn’t sure I could play it. He seemed a little disappointed in me for not trying.
   That year the Tanglewood orchestra played the version of Symphonie Fantastique with a cornet obbligato part in the waltz movement, which I was asked to play During that summer I worked with Schuller, Seiji Ozawa, Leonard Bernstein, and Neville Marriner and together they changed my life.
   During high school I had played sports and was a typical teenager, but I always practiced in the morning before school. I never put in massive hours on the horn, but practice sessions were intense and I moved through materials quickly. I still practice every morning, and now I am uncomfortable whenever I cannot fit in a morning practice session. My routine has evolved over the years. I now focus on the Clarke Technical Studies, using all forms of articulations and speeds. I may try to play as long as possible in one breath or as long as possible without taking the mouthpiece off my lips. Sometimes I play Arban gruppetto exercises at a fast enough speed to get through an entire page in one breath.
   During a lesson with Arnold Jacobs, he asked what aspects I wanted to improve. I replied that I had never been satisfied with my range and could use greater endurance, which he said were easy to fix. He took out the Arban’s melodic studies and told me to pick one of these and play just four measures, but an octave higher than it was written and at mezzo piano or mezzo forte dynamic with vibrato. I was to play it three times, but if the higher notes did not come out after three attempts, I should move on to the next study. I was to work on these for five minutes every day. Before this lesson with Jacobs my approach to high playing was to use full volume and move lots of air. He explained that this caused the embouchure to collapse, which in turn caused me to use more pressure. By advocating soft playing with a beautiful tone, the muscles began to develop, and before long my range increased.
   Regardless of how tight my schedule becomes I will work on endurance in the high range for five minutes on the piccolo trumpet. As I get older I have to work longer each day. Quintet playing entails a different kind of endurance, while orchestral work is generally comprised of short, splashy passages with long rests in between them. Quintet playing just goes on and on, and for regular quintet work I would add new endurance practicing to my routine by playing Arban melodic studies many times longer than I do now.

Favorite Pieces
   In my years at the Boston Symphony I have grown to love the opening of Mahler’s Sixth, and I enjoy this more than the opening of Mahler’s Fifth. On a passage in the finale of Mahler’s Seventh. I still can hear how Bud Herseth played it. In my view, Mahler’s Second is an imposing and very difficult piece. Certainly, it has many beautiful moments, but I never get to relax and enjoy them because the piece is so much work. I think it is more fun to listen to this piece than to play it.
   My father was trumpet player and had a large collection of LPs and on more than a few occasions where I pretended to be sick and stayed home to listen to these. Back then I especially loved the playing of Doc Severinsen, the Dukes of Dixieland, and Louis Armstrong. Today I most enjoy hearing the playing of people I went to school with, including Neal Berntsen and Mark Hughes.

Thomas Rolfs graduated from the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University and is presently principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Comments from Michael Sachs

Principal Trumpet, Cleveland


   Although many of us gathered here in Atlanta have played together before, we have never all converged at the same place. It is marvelous to be surrounded by so many exceptional brass players at one time. When Chris and Mike Martin first talked to me about this symposium, my only question was whether I had the dates free. It is wonderful to step outside of my normal zone of playing and join with others from Chicago, New York, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. Each of us has a comfort zone and a formula for playing, and it was uncanny to hear Chris Martin articulate the same ideas I believe in and approaches I use, but in slightly different words.
   The acoustics in each of our halls are dramatically different. Boston’s hall is more like Cleveland’s, New York is probably closer to Chicago, and Philadelphia falls somewhere in between. When I played a Wagner excerpt with Chris, I could hear each of us shifting toward the other’s sound. At first we released some notes differently because this suited the halls we are used to, but we quickly adjusted for better blend. I love the rapid adjustment this group makes as we feed off of what we hear. This is such a remarkable event, with great players who enjoy each other’s company,  but who have never played in the same ensemble until now.

On Warmups
   I use two different warmups, and today I chose my James Stamp warmup. I start with some buzzing on the lips and mouthpiece on descending exercises and work down to pedal notes and back up as high as is comfortable. Today this was about a concert Eb above high C. I work for an even sound at a mezzo dynamic. Next I went through some pedal exercises, scale exercises, and note bending. Then I turned to the Clarke second, third, and fourth studies with little or no articulation to complete the warmup.
I concocted the other warmup and included it in my fundamentals book. It begins with lip and mouthpiece buzzing, long tones played slowly and low a la Schlossberg page three, the G to F# to G, 20 counts minimum. I will play long tones for from 30 seconds to a full minute if I’m working efficiently. Next I play low intervals and add harmonics on top, starting low and slowly and later adding articulations. Next are more lip slurs at increasing ranges until I have played from low F# to Ds and Es above high C. I look for evenness of the range and sound, flexibility, and good articulations. My goal is to align these basic elements every day at the outset.

   I grew up in Santa Monica, California, but my parents were not musicians. There was a wonderful music program in the schools and when one student got up and played “Never on Sunday,” I thought this was the greatest thing I had ever heard and begged my parents for music lessons. I was only four at the time and had to wait until my front teeth grew back. Someone told my mother that the great trumpet player Ziggy Elman taught at the local music store, and she set me up with him. He started me on cornet at age six and a half. Through elementary school, junior high, and high school I played in the school band, orchestra, jazz band, and even had a rock band after school.
   When it came time to go to college I wasn’t quite sure what direction I would go in, and my parents encouraged me to get a broad liberal arts education at a large university. I went to U.C.L.A. and earned a history degree, not a music degree. Near the end of high school a friend hooked me up with Tony Plog. Study with him was a revelation and became one of those moments when things come together and my playing rose to the next level. I studied with Tony through college, went to Aspen at age 19, and played music all summer for the first time. That experience in 1982 at Aspen and the lessons with Tony Plog were a revelation, and I discovered that this was what I really want to do. It became my passion.
   As Tony began to compose more, my lessons were soon down to once a month, so I started studying with James Stamp. His teaching concepts included better ways to use air to produce sound and ways to play softly and loudly in all the ranges.
I have never really fallen to the equipment vortex and have used the same mouthpiece since I was 18, with one slight change in throat size when I was 22. I have played just two Bb trumpets and two C trumpets my entire career, and they are basically identical to each other. It is the concept of what sound you want that transfers through the instrument and becomes the physical manifestation of what sound is in your mind. I developed this concept by listening to a broad variety of trumpet players, other instrumentalists, and singers. Ultimately playing an instrument comes down to singing. Arnold Jacobs, Vince Cichowicz, and James Stamp all talked about this. Each focused on the same destination but used different terms to describe it. In my view everything derives from a vocal approach to tone quality.
   The older I get, the more I’m trying to simplify the variables. I want to get all the barriers out of the way. We can make the process of producing sound so complex, but I just want to move some good air through the instrument and sing on the horn with a sound that is appropriate for the musical moment.

Favorite Pieces
   For me, it is any Mahler symphony, and my current favorite is always the one I just played. I just love playing Mahler symphonies, I love the journey of preparing them, and the emotional gamut I have to bring to the table with each of them.
There is a wonderful newer piece that John Adams extracted from his opera, Doctor Atomic. He took an aria from near the end of the first act about the creation of the nuclear bomb in the Manhattan Project by Robert Oppenheimer. The aria is about Oppenheimer’s intense internal turmoil because on one hand he’s on the verge of one of the greatest scientific achievements ever, yet this breakthrough could be used to destroy civilization. Adams extracted a symphony from the opera, and the last nine minutes feature this aria, and the entire thing is played by a solo trumpet. This is one of the most lyrical and poignant moments I have ever played.
   I also love the Mahler 3 posthorn solo, and I play it on a hybrid of a flugelhorn and a cornet that I found several years ago. It has just the right definition and warmth for this marvelous piece.

Michael Sachs grew up in California, graduated from U.C.L.A., and has been principal trumpet of the Cleveland Orchestra since 1988.