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 6, 2015

Rite of Spring as a Barometer of Progress

A few weeks ago, I took part in a remarkable event. Members of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the Sheep Island Ensemble and local Boston music students gathered to perform Stravinsky's Rite of Spring for a "Dance Party" to raise money for an organization called Music for Food which supports local food banks. This event in itself is worthy of discussion and may be the subject of a separate post, but what I want to talk about is the performance of the piece itself.

As the orchestra was donating a large portion of their time, we put this together in a single rehearsal preceding the event. What was most striking to me was the fact that this huge orchestra under the direction of James Blachley read it through and hung together in the Danse Sacrale even though a large number of folks (students and pros) were playing it for the first time.

How wonderful that such complexity of rhythm has become part of our language!

I remember my first time through the Rite. I was still a student member of the Boston Philharmonic when we performed it in 1991 (you can still buy the commercial recording we made). Playing 4th trumpet, I held on by my fingernails trying to decipher the strange time signatures that kept changing bar after bar. Ben Zander found a piano roll which Stravinsky created and we did our best to adhere to his fast tempos for this recording. What a terrifying but exhilarating ride! By the end I could feel the groove and ever since, it feels like a comfortable glove that feels better every time I put it on.

As a child growing up in the 70's and 80's with with YES and Rush on the radio jamming in complex meters, and of course Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" already part of our cannon, it was still difficult for me in those first rehearsals, even after a conservatory education. What must it have been like in 1913 for musicians whose most complex rhythmic adventure would be the waltz in 5/4 in Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony!

So, I see the Rite of Spring as a good way to measure my own progress and also watching young performers master it with increasing ease, as a measure of our overall progress. I am happy with what I see.

What will be the mind benders of today which will remain in the repertoire 100 years from now and how easy will it be for those who will come to take our places? My first thought is John Adams Nixon in China.  About a decade ago, Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed this at the Majestic Theater. Sitting in the pit with Jeffrey Work and Terry Everson behind a bobbing and weaving sax section, I had never concentrated so hard for so long. What a rush that was, and absolutely worth the trouble.

Imagine for a moment if Stravinsky was alive today, what would he write to keep us dancing on the edge?!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Which way do you swing? Or ... Do you?

I recently filled in on principal with a major full-time orchestra for a Pops show. The guest artist did a very entertaining broadway show which allowed me to enjoy my inner lead trumpet. Many things in my career are unique and one of them is that none of my orchestras have a regular pops series. Unlike most orchestras, those with whom I perform have rather specific mission driven programing. We concentrate on contemporary music in Albany Symphony and Boston Modern Orchestra Project and big romantic orchestral rep in Boston Philharmonic, so this was a real blast for me.

This post was spurred by a brief conversation with a fellow sub. As we talked about what we did, he asked:

"Do you play classical or commercial?"

That he had to ask was a wonderful compliment and I thanked him. Unfortunately, young classical players able to play convincingly in a commercial style have become more and more rare.

Commercial styles are a different language - there are accepted norms about rhythms and articulations which are not apparent on the printed page. The sound and range demanded often call for different equipment. Playing a convincing Harry James solo or playing an Earth Wind and Fire arrangement are totally different skills than playing Bruckner and Beethoven. Even in my own studio at UMass, I have had trouble convincing some players that they NEED to have these styles as part of their toolbox.

Many people may not realize that for most of my youth, a career as a classical musician was not really on my radar. My plan was to become the next Doc Severinsen/Maynard Ferguson/Conrad Gozzo/Harry James/Herb Alpert/Al Hirt/Chuck Mangione. Wynton Marsalis's double GRAMMY nomination opened my eyes to my eventual path in classical music, but I was still mostly playing in the commercial realm. I loved playing in my high school jazz band as well as some professional groups on occasion and loved playing musicals. Among my most treasured outlets was fall marching band season when I could stand before hundreds and wail some high note solo.

I tried to maintain both sides of my playing at NEC by splitting my practice sessions between classical and commercial as well as playing in George Russell's big band. What a rush playing those charts with the man himself! Before graduating from high school, I copied my entire big band lead trumpet book. I devoted some time throughout the week just reading through these. I even took a "Jazz Ear Training" course as an elective. While still a student, I began to work playing shows and even played in a salsa band that performed in a now defunct latin club nearby called the Taurus.

When I got out of school, all of this commercial experience paid off. Unemployed with a performance degree, I needed to be able to take anything that came my way.  For most of my 20s, this included precious little orchestral work, but lots of wedding bands, musicals, a few big band gigs and some of the commercial orchestral work backing touring headliners and rock bands like Yes. I became known as a "classical" player that could be convincing in that setting. I credit a huge career boost to a random free rehearsal big band that I played in for kicks. It was there that I met an important lead trumpeter and contractor who would provide a significant amount of employment for years. He was glad to see someone who would play both sides and loved commercial playing enough to do it for free.

For anyone seeking a career as an orchestral player, look at the schedules for the orchestras that you aim for. See how large a portion of their year is devoted to "Pops". It is a significant money maker that supports the core orchestral masterworks programming that you hope to play. The demands of any orchestral job will be heavy enough that you will not want to cram to learn how to play a Sinatra act sandwiched between weeks of Beethoven 9 and Mahler 5.

While you are in school, make sure that you take advantage of the opportunities to speak this language. Although they will be useful, you don't need to have killer improvisation skills (I don't) but make sure that you play in the big band. Connecting with people who make music in a different way can help to open up some of the blocks we put in our own way as classical performers.

As a case in point, I remember one very important lesson from Charlie Schlueter during my first year in Albany. We had a crazy week with Also Sprach Zarathustra and Planets on the same program (Planets first...) As I stressed incessantly about all of the high Cs, he called me on the ridiculousness of my worry and solved the problem with:

"When is the last time you worried about a high D on your Bb trumpet in big band?" 

So, be prepared to take any work that shows up and do a convincing job of it. Freelancing is the most probable career path for at least a part of our career. From brass quintets to broadway pits, you will have to swing both directions. If you do land your coveted orchestral job, know that pops conductors are interested in making their time in front of the orchestra as painless as possible on everyone. They don't want to teach you how to play the style on your colleague's time. Don't be the one player that your pops conductor badmouths around the country. Besides, once you learn the style, it really can be a load of fun. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Stephen Paulus Concerto for Two Trumpets nominated for GRAMMY!

(My apologies for letting this post sit in my drafts...)

Friday afternoon December 5, I was sitting at Starbucks in Lincoln Center occasionally hitting the refresh button on my browser window set to the LA Times Grammy announcements. Throughout the day, categories were announced in short bursts every 30minutes or so. All of a sudden the entire remaining categories were posted all at once. As I continued to scroll down the page, I got closer and closer to the one I was waiting to see, Category 81 "Contemporary Classical Composition".

I burst into tears, sobbing so loudly that a woman came over with a handful of brown Starbucks napkins and asked if I was ok. I called my wife immediately to share the news and she could hardly understand my words through my tears. Let me explain a a bit of what is behind these tears.

Stephen Paulus was one of the sweetest men in classical music.  Without fanfare, he compiled a catalog of 500 beautifully crafted works of soul touching beauty for chorus, chamber ensembles, orchestra and several critically acclaimed operas. At the same time, he was championing the works of ALL contemporary composers through his founding of the American Composers Forum. That he passed away before being able to walk the red carpet and to enjoy this honor in person is a shame.

The entire disc "Fantastique" was conceived to center around this one remarkable work. Once introduced to it, I became totally enthralled and it became a mission to get it performed and recorded. In clustering several other wonderful works from less well known (at the time) composers around it, my hope was to gain exposure for everyone else involved; composers, soloists, conductor and students. Little did I suspect that the faculty and students of University of Massachusetts would ever reach such a large audience.

I am so very proud of our students who performed so valiantly on this entire project under difficult time pressures and more. Congratulations! To my co-soloists, thank you so much for sharing your artistry. To our conductor James Patrick Miller, thanks for taking the leap of faith to embrace this project even before your first rehearsal!

I am often asked for advice by my former students as they go out in the world and find the difficult decisions that are often put to us. My advice most often is to "stay true to the music and the rest will take care of itself." In this project, which was 10 years in the making, I did just that. I believed in the product of Stephen's soul and of all four remarkable composers featured on the disc. It seems that the music has taken care of itself.

Stephen, I again mourn your passing and hope that the Academy sees fit to honor you on February 8 with the actual GRAMMY Award. Fingers crossed and we have you in our hearts.