One thing you should know up front: competitions and art are not really compatible entities! Think about it – here’s the situation: you are playing your piece and you have three or four judges listening to you, comparing your performance to how they think the piece should be played. Very often the judges don’t agree on how the piece should be played! In fact, they often violently disagree! Competitions and art are like oil and water – not compatible at all. Art is personal expression – your personal expression!
Yet, many people think that there are good reasons to have solo competitions – there seem to be lots of competitions! I believe perhaps there are some good reasons for competitions. I’ll list some of these reasons:
No doubt you will think of other reasons to add to the above list and admittedly some of the above reasons are perhaps more important than others. All teachers and soloists would probably not agree on the “most important” of the above reasons, but I’d like to tell you mine.
What is the most important reason to enter solo competitions? To improve: (1) your musicianship, (2) your basic instrumental skills, and (3) your artistic level of performance by learning how to consistently deliver your best performance.
One of the old philosophers has said excellence is not an act, it is a habit. The key is to learn to develop the habit of excellence so that you can deliver your best performance on a consistent basis. If you are not able to deliver your best performance on a consistent basis, don’t enter the competition on the basis of hoping for an act of excellence; it usually does not work out. A poor performance reflects poorly on you, on your teacher, and on your school – don’t compete until you are ready – until you have learned to deliver your best on a consistent basis. This is the biggest reason, I believe, young soloists often do poorly in competitions.
I must mention there is another reason why young soloists may not do well in solo competitions: your “best” may not be good enough, at this point in your development, to compete with the top performers in a given competition. If what you perceive as your “best” is not good enough to place in competitions, perhaps the basis of your troubles is somewhere in the following list:
For the inexperienced performer, especially the teacher or “coach” helping you with all aspects of your entering a competition – from helping you select an appropriate piece (for you and the particular competition), through coaching you in the preparation and presentation of your piece, becomes an extremely important part of your effort to deliver your best on a consistent basis. Your teacher must help you identify reasons why you are not delivering your best on a consistent basis. You may not be able to correctly identify your problems and even if you can, you may have difficulty with solving your problems effectively. You must rely on your teacher to correctly identify your performance problems, and help you develop effective ways to solve these problems so that as you practice and work, you do get better and better.
Over the many years I have taught and performed, I have come in contact with many, many fine players who never seemed able to win professional positions that were up to the level of their “best” performing. And I have known many students whose “best” playing was outstanding, yet they did not do well in competitions and auditions. The problem so often is: not delivering your “best” with consistency.
In Part 1 of this article I mentioned my “Important Four C’s”: CONCEPT, CORRECTNESS, CONSISTENCY, and CONFIDENCE. I would like to elaborate on just what this means:
The “heart” of “The Important Four C’s” approach is correctness, which involves at least two important considerations: (1) total hours of practice (and other performance), and (2) effective practice. I believe most college music majors play too much and practice too little! Ensemble performance usually does not solve basic skills problems – it usually compounds them! There is a limit, especially for brass players, of total time of playing each day. It varies to some degree from person to person, but for most students it is, in my opinion, approximately four hours a day! Many teachers would say three hours daily! I know some teachers who say 2 ½ hours daily (especially on trumpet). This means that many college students reach their “limit” of time on the horn in ensembles alone – time in addition to this is often more detrimental than beneficial to one’s playing! My point is that performing time must be limited so that one can practice with fresh muscles and a fresh mind. Too many students try to practice on worn out muscles and a tired mind. To make progress and solve fundamental problems on any instrument, the time-on-the-instrument problem must be solved!
The second matter, that of effective practice, is also extremely important. More important than what you practice or how long you practice is the matter of how you go about it. Only the smartest figure it out. And the “how” of it all is a bit different from person to person, sure – a good teacher can help you, but much is left up to you to develop an effective approach to your practice.
Much has been written about practicing so I will give you one of my ideas about “how” to go about your practice. I call it the “Three Phases of Practice”. Let’s say we are working on a new solo: Phase I: indicate on the music all breath marks, alternate positions (trombone), know all terms and markings, establish tempi, study the “idea” of the piece, get the music published for the original instrument if it is a transcription, listen to recordings of the original instrument for which the piece was written if it was written for another instrument, identify all difficult sections of the piece, and solve phrasing and style problems (as best you can in your early approach to the piece); Phase II: work on the difficult sections of the piece and get them up to tempo (don’t spend time on the easier parts of the piece until you do this). This work should be done slowly with as few mistakes as possible – all slow to fast (the “turtle” approach, I call it – you know the Tortoise and the Hare story); Phase III: with most of the technical problems now out of the way, we can now turn our full attention to the artistry – the “music” of the piece: style, emotion, etc.
So often students progress slowly because Phase I and II work is not done thoroughly and completely. They are trying to make music but basic performance and technical problems hold them back – they bog down, waste time, and therefore are never able to deliver the piece at their best level on a consistent basis.
So, should you enter that solo competition? I say go after it IF: (1) your “best” is at a competitive level for a specific competition, and (2) you are able to deliver your “best” on a consistent basis. Otherwise, perhaps reduce your total performance time, make time for smart, effective practice, and “train” to deliver your best performance – with confidence and flair! You will gain more satisfaction from your efforts, you will experience more joy in your work (one of the main reasons you began playing your instrument in the first place – you thought it would be great fun), and you may even be a winner!
As you will recall in the last episode of “Trombone Talk,” the poignant question was asked “Is Bill Watrous really an effective doubler?” We all know he is a good bass fisherman, but can he really trick the humble trout as well?” Now would I let you folks down? Not me! I’m not only about to give you the full answer, but friends, I’m fixin’ to divulge the full story behind the answer – now ain’t that a bargain?!
Actually, it all began when I called Bill last April and asked him how the bass were biting in New York City. Before he could answer, I had invited him out to Colorado for some super spring fishing in search of the famous Rocky Mountain Snow Trout. He was ecstatic and began climbing into his waders at once. Before he hung up, it seems fair to mention, I did suggest that he throw in his trombone just in case. And wouldn’t you know it – a job did show up. Yes friends, the Colorado Collegiate Jazz Festival happened to be going on when Bill got into Greeley, and when it was ironically discovered that the University of Northern Colorado’s fine No. 1 Jazz Ensemble directed by Derryl Goes (host of the festival) did not have a guest soloist, good ol’ Bill agreed to help out. And as you might well expect, he was great! He played all over the horn, he played beautiful ballads, exciting jazz and did it all with taste and artistry – the crowd went wild and folks are still talking about it – a great performance. What luck – Bill Watrous just happened to be in town!
Now back to the real story. As soon as the festival was over, Bill and I headed out for the North Platte River just below Saratoga, Wyoming, one of the finest stretches of trout water in the United States in hot pursuit of the rare and tricky Rocky Mountain Snow Trout – hardest of all fish to catch!
Driving through severe and steady rain showers, we finally reached the Platte and were disappointed to see that the river was up out of its banks and was almost impossible to fish. Somewhat disappointed over the situation, we rallied our enthusiasm and began to set up our equipment. Bill had brought along the latest fishing item from Macy’s – a 220 volt fish zonker. We had towed the outfit behind my car and with great difficulty had pulled the rig to streamside through two miles of rain soaked fields. Bill had the two electrode spears in his hands and was standing in a mud hole when I unknowingly turned the unit on. All I heard was a strange crackling sound, and when I turned around, Bill’s hair was standing straight up on end (in fact, it had catapulted his hat about 50 feet into the air), his tongue stuck out about a foot and a half, his ears were vibrating like hummingbird wings, and in neon colors across his forehead was flashing, “EAT AT JOE’S.” Finally, I got the generator turned off and we proceeded to attack the wary Snow Trout. For the remainder of the day we tried about everything we knew: 10 lb. crickets, royal coachmen soaked in a secret African paralyzing balm, red and white hand grenades, poison darts, cross bows and even the latest development as advertised in Outdoor Life – an electronically operated chain flair which reportedly never fails – but all to no avail. I was ready to hook up the dynamite when it began pouring rain which soon turned to snow. Discouraged, we returned to our cabin to hash over the day’s failure.
During the course of the evening conversation, some interesting items did emerge which I believe might be of interest to some of you concerning Bill and his approach to trombone performance:
Well, it snowed that whole night and by morning we knew that if we didn’t get out of that country soon, we would not make it until the May thaws – so we packed up and headed for Greeley. I took Bill down to Denver and he boarded the plane for New York saying it was good to get out in the fresh air for a change – so, he was not really unhappy with the whole scene. In fact, he left the electric fish zonker with me in appreciation for the invitation.
I might add that the zonker has worked out well for me—I’m using it in my studio as a training aid; when my student comes ill prepared or misses a note, I shoot him 220!! I’m happy to report that all my living students are doing much better.
Oh yes, in case you haven’t figured it out—when you fish under the conditions Bill and I did, IT’S NO FUN and IT SNOW TROUT!
Not Enough Youngsters Starting on Trombone?
It’s Time for the Ol’ Trombone Demonstration!!
By Buddy Baker
A couple of years ago a friend of mine who owns a music store in Colorado Springs called me asking if I could help generate some interest in playing the trombone among fifth and sixth graders in his area. I replied that I thought I could and that I’d be glad to give it a try! We agreed on two specific days and I asked him to book me into as many elementary schools as possible during that length of time. I asked for a minimum of twenty minutes and maximum of thirty minutes at each location. This length of time worked perfectly, as it turned out.
In my friend’s area, the students in the fifth and sixth grades were in the process of selecting an instrument to play – the best time for the ol’ trombone demonstration! Any other time in the year would certainly reduce the effectiveness of an instrumental demonstration, as it is very important that the visual images are fresh and the trombone sounds are still ringing in the young student’s ears when instrument selection time rolls around!
A couple of suggestions concerning the basic set-up for your presentation might be helpful before we get into the “act”. My favorite place is the gym – usually a rather small gym in most elementary schools. This allows you to put your equipment on the front of the stage where it can be clearly seen but remains protected and accessible (as many sizes of trombones as you play, euphonium and all the different types of mutes you can find) – an impressive array of equipment! This arrangement places the students before you in a semi-circle so that you have good eye contact with all of the kids and they can clearly see you at all times. The acoustic nature of the room allows you to “fill the hall” with sound – youngsters don’t forget this whether you are playing big sounds or easy, pretty sounds. In the gym, you’ll have the students’ undivided attention, a situation that’s difficult to create in any other place in most elementary schools!
What follows is the 20-30 minute presentation I give in most situations. Your presentation must fit you in terms of the instruments you play and must fit your style of playing, but perhaps the material I use may give you some ideas.
With all of my equipment displayed on the front of the stage in the gym and with the students seated on the floor as close as possible (so I still have room to manipulate the slide), I begin my presentation:
“Good morning, boys and girls...Not long ago I received an urgent call from _______________ (music teacher/music supervisor/music store owner, etc.) asking for my help. (Miss Smith) told me there was a terrible, terrible problem here at (Franklin Elementary School). I asked if there had been a fire at your school. (She) replied that it was worse than that! I asked if there had been an earthquake – perhaps a tornado had struck the school – a flood? (She) replied that it was worse than all of these things! At this point I was very puzzled and even a little afraid to hear just exactly what the problem really was, but I had to ask – What on earth is the problem, (Miss Smith)?! Then the news came out... (Wait at this point – you’ll be able to hear an eyelash drop)... “There aren’t enough boys and girls starting out on trombone” (add plenty of drama here)!
The next few minutes involve the hand-over-the-mouth syndrome accompanied by sundry snickers and gurgles. When this dies away, I proceed: “The news was even worse than I could have imagined – not enough students beginning on trombone! – I couldn’t believe it – but it was true – hard to believe! I told (Miss Smith) that I’d help if I could, so we agreed on a time when I could come and visit with the boys and girls. After the phone call, I began to think about this problem – just how could this happen? Why aren’t more boys and girls (it’s important to mention the trombone as a boy/girl instrument) beginning on trombone? I think there is only one, really important reason why boys and girls might not start playing the trombone. What do you think that reason is? Why aren’t there more boys and girls starting on the trombone?”
The reasons the youngsters give you at this point allow you to make all the points about the trombone you wanted to make anyway – they are thinking and they are with you: (1) it’s too expensive (this allows you to make a pitch for the music store and even introduce the owner, quote prices for rental, etc.), (2) it’s too hard to play, (3) the kids’ arms are too short, etc. Finally, some youngster gives you that reason you’re looking for, “We don’t know what it can do – we don’t know what it sounds like.” Often this is the first reason given so you’ll have to keep the reasons coming so that you can make those important points and then finally you’ll have to identify that really important reason. When this most important reason finally surfaces, I continue.
“That’s the only really important reason for boys and girls not starting on the trombone that I could think of – you don’t know what a trombone can do – you don’t know what it sounds like. Because when boys and girls see and hear a real trombone, many of them really want to play it – they are so much fun to play – they can make so many different sounds! The trombone is a very special instrument! What is really so special about the trombone? Well, for one thing the design of the trombone is so good that it has changed less in several hundred years than any other brass instrument.”
At this time, I give a brief history of the trombone using a no F-attachment tenor trombone, demonstrate how the slide works, explain how I adjust my lips to play high or low notes and mention how the tongue works to help execute various styles. All of these items are touched on only briefly even if I have a thirty minute presentation. The important part of the demonstration is, of course, the playing. I continue:
“Another very special thing about the trombone is the sound. There are so many different kinds of sounds possible on the trombone. And there are even different sizes of trombones and each one has its own special sound.” I usually continue with the .50 bore trombone (no F-attachment).
My first excerpt is a little of “Lassus Trombone” – with mention of when these “smears” were written, how they were used, and how they use the slide. I then show just how this style and use of the slide relates to early jazz and I play a typical trombone line to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” If you have to write this out, do so. The correlation between early band music and early jazz is important. Be sure to mention the term “tail-gating” and what it’s all about! If you can improvise a chorus or two of blues – do so and point out that because the trombone can so easily imitate the human voice, it is one of the most important jazz instruments (you may also have to say a bit about jazz). And I always like to play part of a pretty pop-ballad (The Shadow of Your Smile, etc.) and show how slide vibrato relates to what the string player’s left hand does.
Then I move to the .54 bore tenor (with F-attachment) and briefly explain the uses of this larger instrument and just how the f-attachment works and I play the solo in Mahler’s 3rd Symphony. I discuss a bit about Mahler, when the piece was written and that the solo must carry over the orchestra and fill the hall.
If time permits, you may wish to deal, briefly, with alto and/or bass trombone and play short excerpts on each. Also, you may wish to play a bit on the euphonium explaining that a trombonist can easily learn to play euphonium if he/she chooses, since they blow a lot alike. All one has to do is learn how to manipulate the valves, “which is a lot easier than learning how to work a slide – after all, there are only three valves!”
Now it’s time for the mute demonstration. Explain why mutes exist and they are used in all types of music. Now comes a point in my presentation I just love to do. I always do this and the results are always the same: “Now I’m about to play something for you that you’ve all heard before but you probably did not know what it was you were hearing. But when I play it, you’ll know exactly what I’m playing.” Most of you trombonists I’m hoping have heard the Charlie Brown TV Shows from the comic strip “Peanuts” by Charles Shultz. Recall that there is never an adult voice in these shows. The adult voice is recreated by a trombone using the wa-wa mute. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, catch the next Charlie Brown Show (there will probably be a Thanksgiving and Christmas special) and check it out. Any trombonist can learn the technique in no time. At this point I play some of the Charlie Brown “adult voice” with the wa-wa (harmon) mute. In an instant every kid screams, “Charlie Brown.” I love it! And so does the young audience! You’ll have to take out the wa-wa mute and put in another before your audience will quiet down again. I believe they think I’m going to tell them the next mute will sound like Darth Vader. At any rate, go on down the row of mutes and demonstrate each color. Also, I have a bit of fun with the name of each mute since the name of the mute often describes the look of the mute, “Can you guess what this mute is called?”
Now it’s time for questions. You’ll usually have a few good ones and the “quality” of the questions will soon decline if this portion of your presentation is allowed to go on too long, at which time you’ll get requests to play the latest pop tune (which you may be lucky enough to have never heard). Usually one more “Charlie Brown”, a thanks to (Miss Smith) and a thanks to the youngsters for being such a good audience (they always are), will wrap it up.
By the way, after I did my two-day “act” in May in Colorado Springs that year, I called my music store owner friend the following fall and asked him if he had noticed any increased interest in the trombone in his area. His reply said it all, “I don’t have a trombone in the store – for rent or for sale!”
Somehow I just knew it would happen that way – I just KNEW it! I keep telling folks that we’re isolated out here in this Colorado-Wyoming area. And sure enough – the Winter Trombolympics Games took place in Trout Toes, Colorado last winter, and this past summer the Summer Trombolympics Games took place in Moose Rump, Wyoming, and it seems that NOBODY in the news media got the word. Certainly missing was any coverage of the event by ITA! What a shame!
Well, by God, I was at both events and I saw it all and remember it all and I intend to let you readers in on the whole thing. Actually, my space is limited, as you’ll understand, but I do intend to hit the highlights of these two important events. I mean, trombonists have put their lives on the line for these most prestigious international events – some, in fact, didn’t make it through the events! Several serious injuries were indeed recorded including drownings, unmentionable maimings, super deep bruises, and bent bones. Not to mention the fact that 164 trombones in assorted bore sizes were virtually destroyed during the games. But having that Solid Gold Trombone hung around the winner’s neck (open wrap, 2 independent rotors) made it worth the risks and the sacrifices (except perhaps for those winners who sustained neck injuries from the awards).
The following specific Winter Trombolympics Games stick poignantly in my mind:
The Summer Trombolympics Games proved to be no less spectacular and exciting than the Winter Games. Outstanding were:
I’m sure at this point that you’ll want to become involved in these games the next time around. Begin your training programs now – pick the best coaches, select the hardiest instruments, start your daily steroid injections TODAY! BE READY! And next time we’ll make sure the word gets out so the world will KNOW! You can be a winner, too – WORK, WAIL, WIN!!