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Sam Pilafian (1949-2019)

compiled by editors | May 2019

    Tubist Sam Pilafian, a founding member of the Empire Brass and coauthor (with Patrick Sheridan) of Breathing Gym and Brass Gym, passed away on April 4. Born on October 25, 1949, Pilafian grew up in Miami and in 1967 won the concerto competition at the National Music Camp (now Interlochen Arts Camp), becoming only the second tubist in over fifty years to do so. He cofounded the Empire Brass with performers he met at the Tanglewood Institute and later taught there, as well as at Boston University, Arizona State University, and the University of Miami.
    In addition to his work with the Empire Brass, Pilafian recorded 15 albums as a solo jazz artist and has performed such legendary groups as the Boston Symphony, New York Phil­harmonic, Duke Ellington Or­chestra, and Pink Floyd. Some of his many awards and honors include Walter Naumberg Chamber Music Award, the University of Miami’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the Brevard Music Center Distinguished Alumni Award, the annual Out­standing Teacher Award for the College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University, a 2006 Spirit of Disney Award for creativity and design in a Drum Corps International Gold Medal winning performance, and a 2009 Emmy Award for best instructional/
educational video from the National Association of Television Arts and Sciences.

    The following excerpts are from Sam Pilafian’s article The Fewest Words Possible In Ensemble Rehearsals, which ran in our August 1990 issue.

Rehearsing Well
    Every chamber ensemble needs one basic ground rule: everybody has to know his part. This is the simplest thing in the world; but if one player hasn’t done the homework, you cannot have a chamber music rehearsal. Instead it will be four players watching one struggle with his part instead of five working on intonation, phrasing, and accompaniment. Real chamber music rehearsals happen only when each player walks in prepared.
    Too many groups rehearse with their mouths instead of their instruments. When a group talks too much about the way to play things, a lot of animosities build up; someone usually feels that he never gets his way. More important, when a group is talking, it is not making music. One of the best rehearsal rules the members of the Empire Brass established was more play, less talk. When two of our members voice differing views on how something should be played, we try it both ways and then vote on it.
    Recording rehearsals is something every serious brass quintet should do. Many times I thought I had played something perfectly only to find out an hour later when I listened to the tape that I lagged behind the rest of the group like a dead dog. You don’t need a teacher to tell you things like this; all you need is a good quality tape recorder and a pair of headphones or speakers to learn the painful lesson of life as a brass player: half the time you don’t really hear what’s coming out of the bell; it’s not how you feel but how you sound that is important.

An Ideal Sound
    A conductorless group has to have members who agree on subdividing the basic rhythm and it should be an eighth or even a sixteenth note subdivision. This is why metronomes that divide the beat have become useful chamber music tools. Using one of these, you can set up a Renaissance dance with the necessary subdivisions going on. Alternate playing with the metronome and without it, and after awhile you’ll be able to hear all those subdivisions in your head.
    A group that influenced us was the King’s Singers. Sometimes when they perform Thomas Tallis they hit a chord and become one, completely losing their identity as individuals. This is what I call meltdown: five players producing one sound that is different from the five sounds that make it up. It can only occur when all the rungs of the ladder are in place: the sound of the trumpets fits into the sound of the horn, which fits into the sound of the trombone, which in turn fits into the sound of the tuba. 
    The only way to achieve meltdown is to spend time learning each other’s playing, and the best way to do this is in sectional rehearsals. As in band, sectionals count, but for some reason many quintets never think of having only two of their players rehearse together. Try sectional rehearsals in different combinations of twos then threes before putting the whole group together. In the Empire Brass the horn player stands at one end of the group while I sit at the other, but because we play duets together and work on our quintet music in sectional rehearsals, we have a built-in musical radar for one another. If you can get your first trumpet and tuba, the two outside voices, to agree on note length and tempos, the whole group will benefit. If the two trumpets learn everything they can about each other’s playing, they will sound as one when they have to. 

Coaching Young Chamber Groups
    We often ask one member of a student group to play four bars of a solo phrase, then have another pick it up for the next four bars, with each remaining member in turn until they finish the phrase. Then we ask, “Did everyone play the phrase the same way? What was different?” This requires them to think about the subtle differences in playing and teaches everyone to listen more carefully.
    The more we taught and shared, the more we learned. When we coached student groups and closely examined what went into a performance, we began to define just what it takes to be a brass quintet. Sometimes we go so far as to have student groups play in the dark to see if they can start and cut off by breathing together and listening intently to each other while playing. There are two things every brass quintet should have: radar and a good group breath. We also ask students to play duets so when they go back to their quintet, they have a better feel for one another’s playing.
    Another good exercise involves relative tuning drills: one student sounds a note and another plays a scale against it. Then they reverse the procedure so that each person learns to play against another musician’s pitches, at the same time developing the ability to play his instrument in tune with itself. This drill works with an electric tuner too. Set the tuner on audible and select the pitch, then play a major scale beginning on that note and listen to how in tune your intervals sound when played against the drone.