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.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Practice Space - Key Ingredients

Practice Space - Key Ingredients

I tell my students that I did not figure out how to practice until I was 30 years old, and I mean it. Some may be surprised that my practice experience as a child was far from exemplary. My mother loves to tell this childhood story. Hearing the same mistake over and over again, she opened my bedroom door to find me listening to my first attempt repeatedly on a cassette through my stereo while reading a book. A very funny story and an ingenious way to avoid the unpleasant task, I was not mature enough to really "practice.

In college, I "played" all day long - rehearsals for wind ensemble, orchestra, quintet, jazz band, during the day and duets, quartets and excerpts with friends any time I could find a willing victim. The "practice" that I did do however, was mostly random repetition, not focused on specific areas of improvement.

At the age of 30, several important things intersected to help me make some remarkable progress. These I believe are the key ingredients to cooking up real and rapid improvement. 
  1. Reality check and objective assessment 
  2. New ideas to activate curiosity
  3. Structured practice routine (maturity)
  4. Practice buddy 
1 - Reality check and objective assessment 

After 4 placements on the alternate list in previous years, I finally attended Tanglewood as a Fellow. Surrounded by incredible colleagues, gaps in my playing, which I didn’t even know existed, became painfully apparent. These players, all much younger than I, were at the top of their game and able to play with clarity, precision and ease which I had failed to achieve. Ripped from the protective cocoon which let me feel satisfied with my playing, I understood that I could articulate more cleanly, play softer, access the upper register with less tension and generally be a much more consistent player. 

In addition to a new clearer idea of what was possible from my peers, I began to use a recorder in earnest. When I was at NEC, we were all amazed by the “Walkman Pro” and the quality of sound we were able to get with a good microphone on a cassette. Today’s students have unprecedented technology available in the form of flash drive recorders with great built in microphones which give a clear and realistic sound we could not imagine two decades ago. The hardest thing to impress upon my students is the importance of recording oneself. There is no other way we can get close to an objective assessment of our playing. Internal pressure from playing as well as the fact that we are on the wrong side of the bell makes truly hearing yourself in the moment impossible.

Lets face it, nobody likes to hear themselves sound bad. However, you can avoid the unfortunate reality check which I faced if you do as Tom Hooten says, "swallow the honesty pill" in the privacy of your own practice room. Listen carefully to yourself without having to also play the instrument at the same time and you will find lots of room for improvement. 

2 - New ideas to activate curiosity

While at Tanglewood, Tom Rolfs became a tremendous mentor and falls into the reality check category as well. At a masterclass, I played the opening of Bizet's Carmen Prelude. For those not familiar, it is a sustained theme signifying fate which descends to a low concert Eb (F on Bb trumpet) in unison with the cellos. After playing it, Tom said "Great. Can you play it without vibrato?" My immediate and honest response was "I was using vibrato?!" Among those colleagues, it remains a humorous incident, but to me it was an embarrassing illustration that I was not aware of what was coming out of my bell! With his great ears and honest feedback, Tom continued to be a great role model and wonderful audition coach throughout the next decade. 

Shortly after the conclusion of the festival, I made the phone call to Vince Penzerella which a friend suggested I make over a decade earlier. It is hard to adequately describe the impact which Vince had on my playing. By delivering similar concepts that I had heard from my previous teachers in a very different way, he brought into sharp focus things that I thought that I knew but didn't fully understand. With this new understanding, I couldn't stop looking to find more layers of detail that I had missed. 

Let's face another simple truth, there are more similarities to the way we all play trumpet than how we explain it. The same concepts of air support, embouchure and articulation can be explained in three (or more) very different ways by three different players. Each of us as humans has a unique way of experiencing the sensations of playing the trumpet and different weaknesses which we focus on to improve. These things define how we verbalize the experience. It is of vital importance that we seek many different opinions, not only of style, but of explanation of technique, to make sure that we have a better chance of finding the combination which works best for our unique mind and body.

Although Vince did wonderful work with me on air and gave me a new understanding of embouchure, the most valuable gift he gave was the following:

3 - Structured practice routine

Vince gave me the most concise and no-nonsense approach to improvement that I have ever heard. I will present it with more detail in another post, but in its simplest form it is:  
  • Define your ideal sound 
  • Record and play along with your ideal without judgement
  • Listen back and compare the recording with your ideal
    • Assess strengths and weaknesses 
    • define goals for improvement
  • Address issues (traditional woodshed with clearer goals) and start again
There is no better way to improve. The first point is so vital, but most often gets lost among more pressing concerns as  "putting in the hours" or "building up endurance" or "building muscle memory". The second is training us for the real job of performance. For many young players, the first time they play through piece without stopping is in a lesson or in a concert. The third part is impossible without a model to compare to.

Most trumpet players are willing to put in time, but few have the discipline to follow this routine. To really invest in this process takes a level of maturity which I did not have while in school. I hope you can find it earlier than I did, but whenever you do, it will pay dividends.

4 - Practice buddy

At Tanglewood, a fellow trumpeter and I began to work together toward our mutual improvement. Back in Boston, practicing in a church or gymnasium several nights a week, sometimes 5-6 hours a night, this relationship combined the previous three points and over the next few years resulted in the most dramatic improvement that I have ever known.

Not only were we recording, but there were objective ears that could listen to us "live" in the moment to give an immediate impression. Recording allows us to relax and stay in the moment when we play, but our own ears become accustomed to what we hear on playback. In a buddy session, the recording (at that time, a portable DAT or minidisc recorder) was a great way to play back and study what our partner heard so that we could recognize it in the future. Instead of shame and embarrassment when my practice buddy called my attention to something I missed, I was elated! From that knowledge came the ability to address a weakness and create a stronger total package. A partner who you can trust to honestly assess areas of improvement without "beating around the bush" is a Midas touch for your career. Be sure to be that honest partner in return.

We believed so strongly in the power of our practice routine that we brought it along to auditions. At one audition, even though we had traveled separately, we were in the same town a day early. What did we do? Bought a small recorder at a Sony outlet store and headed to a famous outdoor amphitheater to practice. We both made it to the finals.

Conclusion: The ability to improve comes from the clearest picture of what your skills and weaknesses actually are. "Swallow the honesty pill" and record yourself, play for different people for new ideas and listen objectively to target areas of improvement. With a structured practice routine which begins with a clearly defined ideal goal, you should find your way to rapid improvement. Good luck!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Wrap up of 2011-12

Life has been extremely busy during the past year and I feel bad to have neglected this blog. I promise that there are some trumpet articles in the very near future. Just so you don't think I have been dawdling...

UMASS Trumpet Studio with Vince DiMartino and Jeff Holmes
The UMASS Trumpet Studio hosted its first Trumpet Day with guest artist, Vince DiMartino. All day event with recitals and clinics by Vince, me and my incredible colleague Jeff Holmes. Seniors John Mange, Steve Felix, Allison Cockshaw and Dan Fleury all performed and gave a district solo prep clinic as well. We thank our our piano faculty Nadine Shank and Ludmilla Krasin as well jazz faculty Tom Giampietro and our Jazz Ensemble 1. Kudos go to the studio for making it happen, especially Ann Dorgan and Dan Fleury who were indispensable.

In addition to my regular orchestra work, I had a wonderful opportunity to play with Mannheim Steamroller in some concerts in New York state. I grew up listening to this unique approach to hybrid Renaissance rock in high school. Not only great music, but really great people all around.
The Methuen Memorial Music Hall Organ

The Christmas season is kicked off with an annual tradition of a recital in the Methuen Memorial Music Hall with good friends Richard Watson and the amazing Doug Major on the old Boston Music Hall organ. It is a magnificent space for this incredible instrument. If only we could magically raise the pitch 20 cents!

I was lucky enough to play a few concerts with the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops at Symphony Hall this year, and the Christmas Pops shows are always a treat. Well programmed for families and it was great to hear several different folks on lead.

Julian Wachner's hands flying over the keys at Trinity Wall Street

Majestic Brass has strong relationships with two of the best church music programs in the country. In Boston, we perform regularly with Scott Jarrett, Justin Blackwell and the amazing choir at Marsh Chapel at Boston University. Inspired music making with wonderful people in the best music program in Boston can be heard every Sunday morning on 90.9 WBUR or around the world online. At Christmas we have performed for the past few years at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City with Julian Wachner. A friend of nearly 20 years, he directs a program which is the center piece of the lower Manhattan music scene. We look forward to seeing our friends at both churches later this year.

UMASS Emeritus Faculty Charles Bestor wished to include his Concerto Piccolo for Trumpet and Electronics on a new disc of his electronic works. This has already been released on my first CD "End of the Matter", but given the option, I chose to record it again and in the process, revise a few issues with the written part. It is a great piece which I love to perform and it has now been released on Albany Records.

I don't often have time to enjoy listening to a concert as I am so often performing on my own. This January, I knew that I couldn't miss the opportunity to hear Hakan Hardenberger perform the Turnage Concerto live with the BSO. His Virtuoso Trumpet disc inspired me as a conservatory student to push the boundaries a bit and explore new music. If you have not heard this disc, you really must!
Post Concert with Hakan Hardenberger
It was also a nice time to enjoy dinner and the concert with my mentor Charles Schlueter.
Hakan certainly did not disappoint and gave a fantastic performance. Nice to connect with this incredible musician.

There are certain opportunities in a musical life which stand to change you forever. New perspectives, fresh insights, and a rejuvenation of the musical spirit can come from a change of scenery. I was fortunate enough to make a trip to Los Angeles which did all of these things.

Playing with a great orchestra is always a thrill, but this was a very special treat for many reasons. Sitting in a section with my good friend Chris Still for the first time in a decade was really like coming home and hearing "Mr. Clean" - Jim Wilt effortlessly sing a beautiful Mahler 6 was incredibly inspiring. Meeting new friends Mike Myers, Rob Schaer and Ryan Darke made for a wonderful hang as well. However, to see that Gustavo Dudamel really and truly IS all that he is cracked up to be, was amazing. He possesses the young charisma which one would expect from a 30 year old, but a true connection to the deepest parts of the music which one rarely sees except in old school maestros. Watching him over develop over the next 4-5 decades will be fascinating.

The Mahler Project in itself was a monumental task for the orchestras involved, but a seemingly overwhelming task for one conductor to pull off. All of the Mahler symphonies with two orchestras and one conductor, both in LA and Caracas is an enormous undertaking for the entire organization and they deserve kudos for a job well done. Principal Horn Andrew Bain and Principal Trumpet Tom Hooten were simply stellar throughout. The Simon Bolivar trumpets were inspiring with their no holds barred approach. Bravo to everyone!

Rick Baptist and Rob Schaer
Aside from the performances, the trip to LA was filled with re-connections with dear old friends and some other great experiences. I got to enjoy the music industry's big annual event, NAMM and visit Bob Malone and the great folks at Yamaha. Always fun toys to play with whenever I visit! Thanks to Rob Schaer, I was able to observe my first Hollywood recording session at the Clint Eastwood Recording Stage. It was a thrill to meet legendary Hollywood trumpeter Rick Baptist at the session. (Check out the Super Bowl Commercial for Toyota Camry to see what I heard!)

I hung out with Matt Von Roderick (Matt Shulman) to catch up on the new directions that he has taken his career. Find his videos on youtube to see for yourself!

Students from Cal State Long Beach
A highlight was working with the students at Cal State Long Beach. Many thanks to Rob Frear and the great kids for a fantastic day. Also got to see many old dear friends and former students too. What an incredible trip!

Alex Baille after doing battle in Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto for the last time.
The meat and potatoes of my orchestra life is usually provided by Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic. Another killer season with huge rep which included Mahler 7 and Heldenleben also introduced me to a great work of the 20th century with which I was unfamiliar.

Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto is now among my very favorite works. Written for Rostropovich, it pits the soloist as a solitary soul against the orchestra in a way which makes you feel the oppression of living in Soviet times. Powerful aleatoric writing for the trumpets tries to crush the individual who eventually prevails. A wonderful performance by Alexander Baille was inspiring.

The LA Phil tour to Caracas was nothing short of mind blowing. We arrived on the day of primary elections and were able to see the celebrations of the winner in his neighborhood from the bus from the airport. Despite the armed guards who surrounded us throughout our trip, the Venezuelan people were incredibly warm and welcoming. The music making was incredible as was the food! A trip to a sugar plantation, complete with a real south american barbecue, was our opportunity to see the rural Venezuelan countryside.

Of particular interest to me was the ability to observe and work with students in the El Systema program. This is rightfully a point of great pride for the nation and an beautiful example of investment in the arts and understanding its power to change lives. 1200 singers and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the pinnacle of El Systema training, joined the LA Phil for the performance of Mahler's 8th Symphony, the "Symphony of (more than) a Thousand". The impact of the opening bar in the hall was something visceral which words cannot adequately describe.
Amazing to see 1200 singers on stage for Mahler 8
LA Phil section for Mahler 6
The best part of the whole trip was ability to perform with such incredible musicians. To this outsider looking in, the whole orchestra exudes a sense of optimism as well appreciation for the gift of being able to make great music for a living. Thanks so much for the opportunity!

March was a big month for the me and the UMASS Trumpet Studio. The UMASS Trumpet Ensemble advanced to the semi finals of the National Trumpet Competition with great piece written for them by my colleague Jeff Holmes. Check out the piece and their preliminary recording here: 

David Miller, George Tsontakis and Silas Brown

While my students were competing, I was premiering and recording True Colors for Trumpet and Orchestra by George Tsontakis. I wrote about the genesis of the piece in an earlier blog post, but to be brief, the Albany Symphony commissioned this work for me and I am grateful beyond words for the honor. Finally realizing the sounds which George committed to paper in the gorgeous acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall was the satisfying culmination of years of anticipation and I could not be more pleased with the work.

Thank you to David Allan Miller for investing in me, to George for writing such a beautiful and personal work, to Silas Brown for capturing the sound with his golden ears for posterity and to my colleagues in the Albany Symphony for their artistry and total commitment to the mission of this great organization. The recording should be out in a couple of years on Naxos.

The remainder of my spring was filled again with performances, student recitals and a little down time. Particularly enjoyable was a Sinatra show with Steve Lippia where I got to live out my childhood dreams of playing lead on those great Nelson Riddle charts. Also had a great thrill playing in a section with a former student in his new job as Principal Trumpet of the Springfield Symphony. Tom Bergeron is a simply phenomenal all around musician who you must watch for. Check out his solo CD and find him performing and teaching as a fellow at the Carnegie Hall Academy.
Fenway Park from the field

There are few things more American than baseball, and nowhere is it more authentic than Fenway Park. A big thrill was joining members of the Boston Pops to play the National Anthem from the field on opening day. This hallowed turf was so immaculate, so beyond perfect and greener than I could have imagined!

My orchestra season ended with the Albany Symphony's American Music Festival. This annual event is a celebration of what makes this orchestra unique. With a commissioned premier on nearly every program, the ASO has a special relationship with music of our time. Cultivating new works with commissions, fertilizing relationships with young composers and documenting the music of our time with recordings establishes the ASO as a driving force in contemporary classical music.

Michael Daugherty, Joan Tower and Aaron Kernis
This year's festival featured music by three of the most influential voices in contemporary American music. Michael Daugherty, Aaron Kernis and Joan Tower. We recorded Aaron's work "Valentines" with Soprano Talise Travigne and it was a stunning performance. Debussy with 21st century vocabulary is the best way I can describe it. I cannot wait to hear it upon release.

I am so grateful to host Rob Murray for allowing me to present "True Colors" at this year's International Trumpet Guild Conference. It was an honor to share the stage with one of my all time heroes, Ronald Romm, David Krauss and the incredible presence which is Andrea Giuffredi.

Ronald Romm and Andrea Giuffredi

The ITG Annual Conference is always a great event to see friends and geek out on trumpet. This was also my first conference as a member of the Board of Directors. My hat is off to my colleagues on the board and especially President Kim Dunnick who quietly serve with such distinction and humility in service to our instrument.

Chautauqua Auditorium - Boulder

My summer is spent primarily in Boulder, CO as a member of the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra. Playing tons of concerts with an all-star orchestra drawn from all over the world in the Rocky Mountains for 7 weeks each summer is a real blessing. My good friend and colleague Jeff Work sounds truly spectacular on Principal and it was great to see old friends stop by to help us out as extras and just to say hello.

For a life rich with great music and great friends I am forever grateful. Looking forward to a new year with my students at UMASS and incredible colleagues in all parts of my career.