We just finished our brass juries here at James Madison University and I wanted to take this time to reflect on what I heard in a larger sense. There were many fine juries by students who had clearly spent a great deal of time on their jury preparation. I was also very impressed with the level of musicianship displayed by many of the students. As I listened to the performances, I gathered a list of some big-picture ideas that I wanted to share. These ideas are not taken from any one specific performance, but rather taken after listening to dozens of undergraduate and graduate college student performers at the end of the semester. Offered below are my thoughts and some advice for brass players here at JMU and anywhere for that matter.
First and foremost, remember that you are there to make music and share in an art form. We perform music to take part in something that is bigger than ourselves. We truly need to do more than just know that and understand that. We need to show it by what comes out of our instruments. We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to wake up every day and make music and we must never forget that! We must also know that music is both a medium for artistry and craftsmanship. The two music exist symbiotically and they are both of the utmost importance. It isn't a zero sum game when considering the two.
Below are a few practical matters that you might find helpful in your endeavor to perform at your best...
The exam begins the moment you walk into the room. Have any required paperwork sorted out and in proper order. If your jury sheet is printed on two separate pages, make sure that the stack is collated and stapled. This tiny bit of time saving a preparation will bode well in your favor. Enter the room confidently, stand up straight, and look people in the eye when you talk to them. Basic human interactive skills will help you make a good impression.
How you dress for your jury matters. As mentioned above, the exam begins the moment you walk into the room. This is a great time to show that you know what presenting a professional image means. Think about wearing the same thing that you would to a job interview for a teaching position or similar industry profession. If you would like to know what that means, please visit JMU’s Career and Academic Planning website covering this topic at https://www.jmu.edu/cap/students/jobintern/image.shtml. There is a wealth of helpful information there. For the music education students, realize that one day very soon you will sit down with a principal or at a school board meeting to demonstrate you are the right person for the job. Besides the obvious competencies, do you look like you know what you’re doing? Do you look and act like someone the school system and parents want teaching their children? Practice these skills in your jury.
Have a plan for your “warm-up” notes. Many students ask if they can “play a few notes” before they start. I don’t have a problem with this nor do any other members of the faculty panel. Many professional auditions will allow you to do this as well and some won’t. Opinions are mixed. If you decide you do want to play a few test notes, make sure that you have planned out exactly what you will play. Remember though, these few notes are the first impression the panel has of your playing. Your exam (or audition) has already begun. We would love to hear a beautiful, characteristic sound and see a relaxed breath with little tension. Ask yourself: Why do you need to play a few notes? Are you trying to get a feel for the acoustics in the room? Do you need a reference pitch in your ear? What exactly will I play?
Tune to the piano. About half of the students who performed this week didn’t take the time to tune to the piano. You really should. The pitch of a piano can change from room to room. Even though you may be tuned to 440 in the practice room with your tuner, there is no guarantee that the piano in the room you are playing is at 440. Take the extra 15 seconds and tune. If you start the piece and are still out of tune, fix it during the first available rest. If you don’t, we assume that you can’t hear it.
Performing with a piano is different than playing in an ensemble. A piano is a fixed-pitch instrument tuned to an equal tempered scale and each note is tuned to a specific ratio. What does that mean? Watch this video to find out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Hqm0dYKUx4. The quick answer for you is that when you play with a piano you will find that some of your notes will need to be slightly adjusted to be in tune with the piano. In an ensemble you might be able to negotiate with colleagues about a sharp or flat note at the end of a long phrase or section, but not with a pianist. There is nothing he or she can do to match your pitch. You have to use your ears and adjust your pitch. I probably write, “listen closely to the piano for intonation” on 95% of the adjudication forms I fill out. To further develop this skill, spend some time with drone pitches in addition to your tuner. A tuner trains us to tune with our eyes whereas drone pitches train us to tune with our ears-a much more realistic training ground. This is not to say that a tuner is unimportant, rather be sure to use a combination of tuner and drone pitches to reinforce good ear training habits. Tuning as you go is a very important skill to develop.
Your performance with the piano is a chamber music experience. I can't tell you how often I hear, "...but I've never played with a piano before" as an excuse for bad ensemble playing. Have you truly never performed with another human being before? Of course you have! Look at him or her and communicate visually or aurally if needed. Breathe together and cue him or her if appropriate. It's just a duet. Follow his or her cue if appropriate. Listen to them while your line rests. How is he or she articulating? How is he or she phrasing? Listen, imitate, and balance your dynamics. How should you gauge your decrescendo? Listen to the piano's decay. Each piano will decay differently so listen carefully. We can't be so nervous that we don't listen.
Be confident….or at least fake it. Confidence does not necessarily mean play louder though sometimes it does. You don’t need to play loud, but at the same time, you don’t need to play so soft that you are barely producing a sound. The areas where I notice confidence (or lack thereof) are in primary articulations (attacks), dynamics, sostenuto, and release. Start notes clearly as if making a point in a conversation. Play at a comfortable dynamic and show us your range from loud to soft. Sustain notes in a manner that is stylistic with the work you are performing. Don’t swell or back off every long note. Hold the note with a beautiful sound and in tune all the way to the end of the phrase. Don’t give up in the last beat or two. Remember that your dynamics as a soloist are different than when you are playing in a large or chamber ensemble.
Posture matters and not just because it helps you play more freely. Yes, proper body alignment (also known as posture) helps us maximize our wind efficiency. It also makes you look confident and poised like you are prepared and you know what you are doing. Stand as if you are about to walk and sit as if you are about to stand. Your body’s natural geometry will take care of the rest. Your audience will listen with their eyes as much as their ears. Are you addressing both? Most of us have HD video recorders on our phones. Record yourself playing and review.
Have an interpretation and stick to it. I cannot express enough how important this is. What are you doing to shape the phrases? What can you do to add life to your performance? Every phrase and long note must have direction. It’s either going to something or from something. You will rarely, if ever, just sit on a note as a soloist (though sometimes you might in a duet with a piano : ). Dynamics are about more than just decibels. A crescendo can create real tension and a diminuendo can create resolution. How you use vibrato can pull a listener out of his or her chair. With just vibrato alone you can speed it up, slow it down, wide, narrow, fast-wide to slow-narrow, fast-wide to slow-wide to none, none to slow-narrow. Explore how you color the sound. What sort of emotion can you evoke? Think about the consistency of your interpretation. Once you commit to how you are going to address note lengths, articulation, and sostenuto, stick to it. Too often I hear one note length in the introduction and another note length in the recapitulation. I often like both, but you have to choose one and stick to it. Be steadfast in your interpretation. If it’s just plain wrong (and sometimes it is), don't worry, we'll let you know.
Breathe through the instrument, not into it. This is the second most common remark I write on adjudication sheets. My colleague and tuba professor, Kevin Stees, says “blow beyond the mouthpiece.” In your normal life, you have no problem at all with inhalation to exhalation, but playing a brass instrument is not “natural”. There is nothing about blowing into brass, sink tubing that is natural. This is where we get hung up though. We think that we are blowing air into our instruments. The air is already in there, we’re just activating it and sending it on its way through the instrument. There have been any number of articles and treatises written on this topic and I don’t intend to write one on it here today. Suffice to say, conceptualize a beautiful, energetic, simple, and projected breath and there happens to be an instrument in front of you. When I play golf, I try to imagine a beautiful swing and there happens to be a ball on the groud. As soon as I try to hit a golf ball I know I’m in trouble.
Thank you for taking the time to read these. Feel free to share as you deem fit. If you have any questions, please stop by my studio or send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be more than happy to discuss my comments on your jury sheet.