Solo and Orchestral Trumpeter and Educator

Thoughts on music, trumpet playing, and education from Eric M. Berlin, Professor of Trumpet at the University of Massachusetts and Principal Trumpet of the Albany Symphony and Boston Philharmonic Orchestras.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Archives - How do you judge your progress?

For some reason, students have a difficult time embracing recording in their practicing. At this time of the year, my students are in the midst of a mad rush to create a recording for a competition. It is always a struggle for some to get it done, but it's eye-opening for them when they do.

The other day I pulled out a treasured find to play for a student and it was incredibly enlightening not only for him, but also for me. Many moons ago, I was working in building operations at my alma mater, New England Conservatory. A good friend and I were given the task of cleaning out a basement room in the office building across the street. While we were there, we browsed through a treasure trove of records in filing cabinets including the file of one of our most notable alumni, Adolf Herseth! Yes, grades, GI Bill paperwork, letters from Georges Mager etc. I wish I had thought to photocopy it for Bud! Someday I will get back there and find it again.

Among the things marked for trash were several boxes of cassette tapes. Still in the era when this was the standard recording medium, we decided to walk a couple of blocks over to my apartment and "dispose of them" to my living room. Later that night we sorted through these to find the "hi bias" and "metal" tapes to reuse and discarded the rest. Most of these tapes were audition tapes, but there was also one marked "Philadelphia - Brass" and on the side was printed "Eric Berlin - Trumpet". It was an amazing find.

This recording of my live audition for NEC is a priceless time capsule of a 17-year-old me. Is it perfect playing? No. I often pull out this recording or my senior recital recording from NEC to show that you don't have to start out life as a superstar to succeed. I laugh at some of the musical choices that I made without the benefit of a conservatory education and cringe at a few less than beautiful sounds that I produced, but it is still unmistakably me. There was a fearlessness in the playing which I think most of us lose once we begin to believe that playing trumpet is hard!

It is impossible for us to judge our playing objectively while performing. We are hyper-aware of our mistakes and what we are trying to improve. The only thing that we can hope for is that we are on an upward trajectory. My primary teacher through Junior High and High School, David Rentschlar, was very keen to point out that learning is not just a straight upward trajectory. It is filled with peaks, some valleys, and lots of plateaus. It is only from a distance that we can see the true landscape of our progress.

When you look back 10-20 years from now, how will you judge the work you are doing today? Will you have any way of knowing whether you have gotten better? A regular habit of recording your practice as well as archiving performances for future reference will allow you to more objectively see your progress. I imagine that you will be pleased.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Practice Space - To Err is Human

This is a trumpet blog, and this idea is something that trumpeters have to accept. "I play trumpet, and therefore, on occasion, I miss." We sometimes miss more often than we would like of course, but we must accept this possibility if we are going to actually say something which anyone wants to hear. Too often, we get so caught up in hitting the right buttons and "not missing" that we forget that the point is to express something. Nobody pays me to merely get the right buttons down at the correct time. That sounds like math class! I used the band room as an escape from math class as often as I could! There must be something more to music or we would have been replaced by MIDI orchestras long ago.

When the wheels start to come off with my playing, my brain is most often wrapped in knots focused on "not screwing up". In these moments, there is no flow, no expression, and certainly, nothing worth listening to. While in this place, I can usually recite a laundry list of what I should NOT do and the consequences of FAILING to successfully navigate this minefield.

In those moments when I find myself so wrapped up in what "not to do", I try to catch myself and take a piece of sage advice from my mentor, Charlie Schlueter: "give yourself permission to screw up". When I was missing everything, he could sense where my thoughts were. This simple reorientation of thought got me out of my own way and allowed the music to finally flow. The result of that permission was not only more accurate playing, but more engaging music making. It worked while a student and still does today.

In your practice, make a point of setting aside a large portion of your session to just perform. This is a time to completely let go and trust the good work you have done. If the first time you do that is on stage, it will be a completely foreign experience. During this portion of your practice, allow yourself to truly separate yourself from judgement of good or bad and engage in "playing" your instrument. Experiment and see what you can come up with. See how many ways that you can shape that phrase. Charlie constantly encouraged us "never play it the same way twice". That experimentation is how you define who YOU are as a musician. Vince Penzerella used to say to me "If you don't have your own personality, it is wrong." "Playing" your instrument is what we did as kids. Stay in touch with the essence of what made us love playing our instruments in the first place.

The act of reaching toward perfection is admirable. This can be your practice room priority when you are working on your technique. But let us not forget that the purpose of perfect technique is its ability to communicate that which is uniquely human. That human component is what makes music art.

The regular rattle and hum of my refrigerator as I write this, is not something that I consider music. There may be some that challenge this, but to me, music is a method of communicating. As with any art, it begins as a picture in one person's mind, transmitted through an instrument such as a paint brush, pen, trumpet, or voice so that it can meet the eyes or ears of another human so that the image can be shared.

What makes a Mahler symphony transport us to another plane of existence? Could it merely be the elevation of the notes that Maynard Ferguson played which grabbed me or the incendiary spirit and passion which simply refused to remain silent?

As I write "To Err is Human" and suggest that humanity is what separates music from noise, I must also ask the questions - "Just what is humanity?" and "What does it mean to be Human?"

When I need a definition, my first stop is Merriam Webster. I must admit that a personalized edition sits on my shelf as a gift from a dear friend and fellow trumpeter who is an editor at large. Thanks Peter Sokolowski!
1: the quality or state of being humane (Humane: marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animal)
2a: the quality or state of being human (Human: susceptible to or representative of the sympathies and frailties of human nature)
2b: plural : human attributes or qualities humanities
3: plural : the branches of learning (as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) and social relations (as in anthropology or economics)

These definitions describe what is most meaningful for us as artists. Ponder them and how they can be expressed through your art. As you strive to build your technique, make sure that you keep in touch with the purpose behind it all. Force yourself to say something meaningful and unique when you have the horn on your face. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and "Give yourself permission to screw up". If you say something meaningful, the message will resonate whether or not you have perfect spelling, grammar and punctuation.

To those in my life who exemplify this higher consciousness and live in the world of endless possibilities, I give you an A. There is nobody I would rather make music with and I am thankful for the opportunity to study at your feet.