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.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Recital Tour of New England and Texas with Greg and Ludmila!

Our Recital in Bezanson Recital Hall at UMass

Last December as Greg Spiridopoulos and I premiered Continuum for Trumpet, Trombone and Wind Ensemble by our colleague Jeff Holmes, the wheels started spinning for more things to do together. By the time we performed the piece at the International Trumpet Guild Conference in Grand Rapids, MI (Thanks to Rich and Val Stoelzel for the invite) we knew we wanted to do more. So, we booked some recitals as a trio with our pianist colleague Ludmila Krasin. What a great time we had! 

After the initial recital in our home Bezanson Recital Hall at UMass, we took this program to Boston University and University of New Hampshire. Thanks to our hosts Terry Everson and Don Lucas at BU and Bob Steibler and Nick Orovich at UNH for inviting us to present this music to their students.

Then we headed south and west to Texas! 

Our journey started on Thursday October 10 when I picked up Greg at his house at 3:30 am to go to the airport. We flew into Newark and then Dallas. From Dallas, we rented a car and drove to Oklahoma City. 

Oklahoma City University - Bass School of Music 

The amazing Wanda Bass School of Music at OKCU

After 13 and 1/2 hours of travel, we arrived at OKCU's Bass School of Music welcomed by the smiling face of our host and great friend Michael Anderson. What amazing facilities! Greg, Ludmila and I spent a couple of hours with students in masterclasses, then quickly checked into our hotel to change before our evening recital. Propping our eyelids open, we enjoyed performing for a great audience and then were glad to grab a quick bite to eat before collapsing for the night. 

After a very sound night of sleep, Greg and I returned in the morning to coach brass quintets and I got to observe Michael Anderson's "Trumpet Tech Class" with his studio. What a great idea - a weekly class covering fundamentals together with a new key area each week. Great students and a truly outstanding facility. Thanks for having us!

Friday was just what the doctor ordered with a hang at Michael Anderson's place. A great meal on their deck with a fire and dogs helped us relax away the stress of the past two days of traveling. Thanks to Mike and JeannMarie for their hospitality!

The weekend was open so Greg grabbed another car and headed to Tulsa to see family while Ludmila and I hung out in OKC. I met with a student on Saturday morning and then picked up Ludmila to do some sightseeing. 

Cowboy Museum

Incredibly moving "End of the Trail"

Our first stop was the National Cowboy Museum. What a beautiful place! We began our tour of the place in a gallery of new art by Cowboy Artists of America. The first thing as we walked in was one of the most incredible pieces of leatherwork I had ever seen. This saddle was absolutely magnificent! Throughout the gallery there were examples of the finest saddles, chaps, horse bits, spurs etc and then there were the paintings. Oh my goodness! Some of the most incredibly vibrant portrayals of western life I had ever seen, and all by living artists! All of the works were to be sold that evening to benefit the museum. 

The rest of the museum was a wonderful display of the history of the west, cowboy life, western movies, rodeo etc. We especially enjoyed the gardens with large scale sculptures.

Banjo Museum

Who would have known Banjos were such amazing works of art?

Who would have thought of a Banjo Museum? I will admit to really enjoying the banjo, and this was a very quaint museum worth the trip. It traced the development of the banjo from roots to the present and had marvelous examples of some of the most ornate instruments I had ever seen. 

OKC National Memorial

Our memories of the Oklahoma City Bombing have begun to fade now over a decade later, but this museum and memorial help bring us right back to the moment in a very visceral way. Most memorable of the displays are the twisted and mangled truck axle and wheels from the the Ryder truck Timothy McVey used in the bombing and the room which has been preserved in its state of destruction from that day. The memorial itself is a beautiful tribute with the 168 empty chairs representing those who died. 

Traveling to Lubbock

On Sunday we reconnected with Greg and drove south and west across Oklahoma and into western Texas. As the day progressed, the weather got increasingly overcast until we found ourselves driving through torrential rains which the region sorely needed. I particularly enjoyed the red clay canyon lands we passed through. The landscape was just as I imagined and one could easily imagine John Wayne or the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding in the distance. The small towns and vast expanses of range land were great to experience as well. After about 6 hours of travel, we arrived in Lubbock to meet our host Andy Stetson and his lovely wife Becca at our hotel. We had a great steak dinner with them to celebrate Andy's new job before sacking out to prepare for a long day ahead. 

Texas Technical University

The newly minted Professor Herr Dr. Stetson welcomes us to his new job at TTU

Greg and spent time with students in lessons and masterclasses throughout the day on Monday. I learned some great new things from Will Streider and really enjoyed the students. We got to hang out with all of the brass faculty at lunch and were delighted to get to know these folks. 

The evening recital was live streamed on the web which was very cool and we got to hang with Andy and Becca as well as my Colorado friends Kimberly and DJ Sparr for a bit after the show. This was really a great visit! Wonderful to see Andy and Becca as they begin their new life together and to meet Will who I have heard so much about. 

Traveling back east

We left well before the sun rose on Tuesday to drive back east to Waco. The weather was even worse than Sunday with the roadways dangerously flooded at points. We enjoyed more really cool landscapes and small towns along the way as well as endless wind turbine farms. I love these things! 

Baylor University

Baylor's small recital hall with a Boesendorfer piano made Ludmila's tour!

We arrived in Waco greeted by Brent Philips and Mark Schubert at the Baylor School of Music. The facilities here were beautiful even in the "old" music building. The recital hall was lovely with a Boesendorfer piano which Ludmila relished playing! We had the best turn out for any of our recitals with a very full house. Thanks folks! Greg and I then split with off to work with students in masterclasses. The level of playing in Wiff Rudd's studio is absolutely top notch. 

Any trip to Texas seems to need a trip to a Rudy's. There is nothing better than good Texas BBQ and this is as good as I have ever had. The brisket was simply spectacular! It was a great hang with Wiff, Mark and Brent. Thanks for having us and for your hospitality!

We then headed to Fort Worth to prepare for a long day of work at UNT and TCU.

University of North Texas

It is always great to see Keith Johnson and John Holt. UNT boasts the second largest music program in the country with 1600 majors! The trumpet studio is often at around 100! We played a slightly shortened program at the studio hour and had some time to interact with the students a bit. Thanks to both John and Keith for having us!

Luckily we had time for a short nap before our final concert at TCU that night.

Texas Christian University

Our last performance was at TCU's Pepsico Recital Hall. Wonderful space!

The final stop on this whirlwind tour was Texas Christian University. This was my second visit TCU, the first being for the 2003 ITG Conference which was my first ever. Host Jon Burgess did a great job of putting together a great program for that. We met with our hosts Jon and Dave Begnoche for a nice meal before our recital. One of the best things about this trip was connecting with friends and sharing ideas about teaching and recruiting. Jon and Dave have really strong studios at TCU and the facilities are very nice. The recital hall is quite striking visually and was really nice to play in. Thanks for having us! 

To wrap up the tour, we grabbed a quick drink with Dave and a good friend from Tanglewood in 1999, Kelly Cornel who was kind enough to stop by for the recital. Kelly is enjoying her new position in the horn section of the Fort Worth Symphony and it was great to catch up!

As I write this, we are at 30,000 feet heading back east where Greg and I have double rehearsals in Albany for our weekend concerts and recording. It has been a great trip and certainly one we will remember fondly forever! Thanks to everyone who made this trip possible and was so hospitable!

Below are videos of a few of the pieces we performed which we captured at University of North Texas

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"Perfection" as a barrier to true music making

In addition to my career as a performer and teacher, I serve in other capacities which sometimes demand that I speak publicly and at times in high pressure situations. I normally spend an incredible amount of time and energy preparing for these occasions and am often fraught with anxiety leading up to the moment of truth. What I have observed, however, is that when it comes time to deliver, I am sometimes able to let go and feel very much like a conduit for something to speak through me. In these moments I feel like an observer listening to the words coming out in a surprisingly effective manner. 

I was recently called upon to speak on camera about something that means a lot to me - music. I was asked what makes the greatest musical performances,and I expressed that it is "the purest connection of minds free from any obstruction". As I spoke, I found myself oddly calm and easily able to voice this concept without ever having attempted to put these thoughts into words before. My body was absolutely relaxed and confident in the way we hope to be as performers on our instruments. Somehow, I was able to let go and trust my knowledge and preparation to get the job done well and found myself in "the zone"

The interviewer commented on the effectiveness and ease of my delivery, and I was able to observe and understand what happens to me in these moments with clarity. "If I tried to say it 'right', I could never do this." This was an insight I had never had before about my speaking, but it was the absolute truth. If I had written a script and thought through every word to deliver in precisely the right order, my priority would have been "getting it right" instead of communicating my message. With perfection as the focus, the connection between us would have become muddied at best and completely severed at worst. Letting go and trusting the knowledge you possess to speak through you can yield some remarkably effective communication.

This experience has led me to really reflect on what makes that "purest connection of minds free from any obstruction" in a speech and try to relate it to musical performance. I began to look at some of the most powerful speeches in history. There have been incredible Presidential acceptance speeches and inspiring words from political conventions in recent years. Thinking back in history, landmark speeches by JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. also come to mind. Each of these speeches has an element of improvisation and interaction with the crowd receiving the message. I took the opportunity to watch John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech in Berlin as a fine example of how to convey a powerful message.

Notice that he is not glued to a pre-written speech but only has a series of note cards to which he refers occasionally as his eyes connect with the people of West Berlin eagerly consuming each utterance. There is a conversation even though he is the only one speaking. There is also an element of improvisation as he interacts with the energy of the crowd. He owns the message he is delivering and is unfettered by the written page. It seems to me that the message is speaking through him.

Could he possibly have written down the exact words, seconds of pause between, which words to repeat etc and gotten the same response? I can't imagine it. Nobody trying to replicate that speech will ever do as well.

How does this relate to music?

The last great hope for music is the live performance. The experience of listening to a great orchestra, jazz combo or chamber music group perform is a singular one with no two performances ever the same. By the very nature of so many minds constantly reacting to a music director and each other, an orchestra must be removed from that single static idea of "perfection". Yes, we are all reading pages of notes, but any orchestra member will tell you that the majority of our attention is spent watching, listening and constantly adjusting how we play what we see on the page to fit within the ever evolving collective effort.

Reflecting on our recent Boston Philharmonic Beethoven 9 concerts in Symphony Hall, the magnitude of the shared experience is enormous. When considering all of the minds involved in this conversation, we see the connections grow exponentially. We begin with deaf Beethoven creating music in his imagination with so much more clarity than he could ever hear in the "real world". This incredible picture of such vastness is deciphered from the graphic representation of the score left by the composer and processed through the mind of the music director (in this case Benjamin Zander) and executed through further interpretation of 100 members of an orchestra, 4 soloists and a chorus. This message is then received by 2,800 audience members who feed the conversation with their own energy.

This conversation, when an audience is open to receive and the musicians are highly trained enough to execute the music but also comfortable enough to let go and let the music speak through them, is what creates magic. This produces the same collective elation that draws an audience to its feet and to roar with cheers and applause in a concert hall as the citizens of Berlin reacted to the honesty and purity of JFK's message. The musical experience, however, is so much more powerful and visceral as there is no language to decode.

How does this relate to auditions?

I teach the concepts delivered by sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella in his books "Golf is not a Game of a Perfect" and "Life is not a Game of Perfect". I have always benefited from his concepts as they applied to auditions and the physical act of playing the trumpet, but this interview helped me understand the dangers of "perfection" in the more fundamental and more important frame of communication.

Dr. Rotella's concepts of training your swing on the driving range and trusting it on the course resonate well with me as a trumpeter. Thinking of technique while trying to hit a golf ball or playing the trumpet yields less than optimal results. A quote from one of his books: "Before playing any shot, a golfer must lock his eyes and mind into the smallest possible target." has been a mantra for me over the years. My translation of this to music is to have the clearest aural picture of exactly what I wanted to sound like. With incredible effort to refine that ideal, I have had some very positive results in auditions ending up in the final rounds, but I just didn't close the deal in the last final round.

Could it be that this ideal picture itself is akin to a perfectly constructed paragraph with meticulous grammar and punctuation? Could too strictly adhering to that aural picture of perfection be the last impediment to truly connecting with an audition panel as it would be in speech? How can we make that ideal less rigid and more fluid? What would responsive communication with an anonymous and invisible panel feel like? How do we  turn that fully formed paragraph into note cards and "own the message" enough to deliver it in a more responsive and conversational way? How do we best let go and allow the music to flow through us? 

Among the many books about sports psychology and the psychology of musical performance on my shelf, "Effortless Mastery" by Kenny Werner is one of the most powerful. It is a wonderful study on getting out of one's own way and tapping into the music that is flowing through all of us. I recommend this to every performer as an invaluable tool for achieving true and direct communication through music. 

My goal for all of us is to use our printed page, chord changes, and whatever else we use to serve only as note cards that allow us to channel what we already know and feel deep inside us. After the proper investment in practice and preparation, allow that truth to flow without regard for perfection. Float above and enjoy the show. You may be surprised at what you hear!