Monday, February 13, 2012

Random Idea

I was given a great idea today from Dr. Jonathan Allen during our Orchestral Low Brass Coaching.  It can be applied to any chamber group and could really add an extra layer of depth to the knowledge of literature.  He suggested each week, one of us is responsible for bringing in a bit of information about the piece and or composer we are working on.  It's very simple, but how many times have you just played a piece without knowing when it was composed or knowing anything about the composer?  I know I have been guilty of that in the past.  Not only does this offer more insight, but it also gives you a chance to present material to your friends and colleagues on a weekly basis.  To give an example, we were working on Bruckner 4 and I asked Dr. Allen what tuba I should use.  He was able to respond telling me that since the tuba was invented in 1835 and the Symphony was written in 1874, it probably wasn't to the point where there would be decisions between using a CC or F tuba.  Just the knowing when the piece was composed was able to answer this question. 

Even if it is as simple as looking at Wikipedia or spending five minutes on Grove Online, challenge yourself and your chamber groups you are part of to go the extra mile and gather some more knowledge on the pieces you are doing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Shaking the Cobwebs Off

Taking time off can be quite detrimental to any skill you have acquired.  Rather it is the gym, a sport, your instrument or even chamber rehearsals, there are bound to be some cobwebs that need to be shaken off.  I met with my Orchestral Low Brass section for the first time today as part of an audition repertoire class I am signed up.  Unfortunately, because of Winter break and scheduling conflicts, we went nearly two months without rehearsing together, which can always lead to problems.

The first issue we encountered was not being set up correctly.  I quickly learned I was seated about a foot forward from my intended target making me the victim of Bruckner Bass Trombone!  This was quickly remedied for the safety of my hearing.  After this, we noticed our entrances were very poor.  In and ideal situation, I would have liked to get some chorale books and read a couple of pieces so we could get reacquainted with each other and remember how everyone moves, adjusts and starts phrases.  Unfortunately, due to lack of rehearsal time before our first coaching, we made due with what we had.  We simply placed a quarter note at the beginning of a measure and practiced starting it together.  This reminded us of how are lead player motions us to start and also reminded us of how we articulate together as a group.

Our next issue was intonation.  With the particular piece of music we were playing, it was just a matter of forgetting which chords we were playing and which part of the chord we were.  This was a simply fixed by a short analysis.  The final issue I noticed was remembering how to listen.  A lot of times in band, you can just watch your conductor give you the "answers" as to when to play.  Even in individual practice, it's just point and shoot, but with chamber rehearsal, you're on your own and the only way to figure out where to go is with your ears.  If you don't listen, it can take a really long time to hear tuning issues and adapt to articulations and no one wants to keep running a fortissimo section because no one is listening!

I am sure there is a laundry list of other problems you can run into after a leave of absence from a rehearsal situation.  This were just the larger issues I encountered today.  Feel free to draw my attention to other possible problems or solutions!  HAPPY BLOGGING!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Musicians Way

I was searching the Internet for ideas to use on my blog when I came across a cool website called, the Musicians Way.  The website itself is merely a companion to the book, The Musicians Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance and Wellness.  There are several resources linked to this web site, including a blog, newsletters, instrument specific resources, and of course a link to order the book.  After looking into it, this will definitely be a book I add to my collection.  Check it out for yourself!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

An interview with John Hallberg

Eating and music are two of my favorite things in the world, one has brought me where I am in my professional life and set a path for my future while the other has challenged my waist line and shortened my future.  Today, I was lucky to find the rare opportunity to combine both of my loves.  I sat down for lunch today with esteemed colleague and friend John Hallberg at the Vine Eatery and Tavern.  Halfway into enjoying my meal, it occurred to me that I was sitting across from a member of the prestigious Harmonia Saxophone Quartet and decided it would be fun to get a woodwind players perspective on chamber music.
Adam Stevens:  Describe the typical week for you when it comes to rehearsals.
John Hallberg:  We are rehearsing a bit longer now because we are preparing for a competition.  We meet for eight hours a week split into three sections, two hours on Wednesday, three hours Friday and three hours on Sunday.  When we aren’t rehearsing for a competition, we cut back to six hours per week.  Sometimes the long rehearsal can lead to some frustration, which we try to avoid.
AS:  Are your rehearsals ever coached or is it a student run group?
JH:  Once a week Dr. Tse comes to a rehearsal for an hour or two.  He listens to us perform and gives us feedback and tells us what we need to focus on.
AS: Is there a clear cut leader in the group?
JH:  Not really, everyone is able to make suggestions and give their interpretation on the music.
AS: How important is chemistry in a small ensemble such as this?
JH:  Chemistry is very important.  As I said earlier, we all have to be open to suggestions from one another and be able to listen.  There is a lot of compromise and a lot of give and take when you are part of a small, tight knit group such is this.
AS:  What are some rehearsal techniques you use in a typical rehearsal?
JH:  We do a lot of the basic techniques I am sure you will cover in your amazing, well thought out blog.*  To name a few, we definitely use the metronome.  We work a lot on starting notes together and intonation.  We build chords from the bottom up and sing the music.  We also each have a copy of the score so we know where everyone comes in and how the pieces fit together.
AS:  How do you prepare a piece?  Do you every sight read?
JH:  We rarely sight read music in this group, we try to hand out music before a rehearsal so everyone has a chance to look at it beforehand.  At this level, stumbling through a piece and missing rhythms and notes does not accomplish much.  For each rehearsal, we have a plan and set goals.  We break down and dissect the music into smaller pieces.  One rehearsal, we will start from the beginning and work through the first couple rehearsal numbers.  Then for the next rehearsal we start where we left off and continue.
AS:  Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Hallberg, I am sure my readers and followers will enjoy your insight.
JH:  Thank you, the pleasure was all mine.  It is an honor to be chosen by such a fine musician and friend for an interview.*
I would like to thank John Hallberg again for taking the time to talk with me and help me with the post.  To point out a couple things in particular, I like the idea of having clear cut goals for each rehearsal.  I find it very easy to skip this aspect and come into a rehearsal with no real idea of what is supposed to be accomplished.  This leads to inefficient rehearsals and leaving feeling like nothing is accomplished.  I was also reminded of the simple things once again, like getting a score and using a metronome.  In addition, it amazing to see the dedication it takes to give an extra eight hours a week on top of individual practicing, class work and other ensembles.

 *Disclaimer: Some statements were implied rather than said and added at the discretion of the interviewer.

Friday, February 3, 2012


            When it comes to overlooking the simple things in life, I am the guiltiest person in the world.  It is very easy to become lazy or complacent or just hope problems fix themselves without any sort of help.  Unfortunately this has been known, on occasion, to filter into the practice room and chamber rehearsal as well.

            Today’s blog post is dedicated to reminding everyone of one simple step they can do to make their rehearsals run much better.  This step includes a five minute trip to the library or your teacher’s office and procuring the ever elusive score!  Yes, you heard me right, THE LIBRARY!!!  I try to avoid this place like the plague, especially after my near death experience in Intro to Grad Studies.  However, now that the trauma has passed and the scars have healed, I have realized what an asset the library is.

            The Rita Benton music library, for those of you who do not know, is located on the second floor of the main library.  The library has a plethora of music and scores for chamber ensembles.  With a little knowledge of Infohawk and a couple minutes of creative searching, you can find almost any score you would need.  Or if you are the lazy type and prefer to be spoon fed, you can simply ask one of the attendants in the office to do it for you.  I prefer the latter.  That being said, if there isn’t a particular score available, our lovely Inter Library Loan system can locate ANYTHING you want and have it on campus in a short time.

           The other resource is the brass faculty in the hallway.  They have spent many years collecting music to add to their collection just for instances like this.  All you have to do is ask and they will either give it to you or tell you where to buy it.  So there no excuse now to not have a score.

            Okay, so back to my point.  This is one of the easy things I overlook constantly, but having a score makes everything easier.  It is essential in small ensemble settings to know who you are playing with, when you are playing with them and how you fit in.  Trust me; it is a lot easier to check a score than be the one in rehearsal who constantly asks, “Measure 4, beat 3, who is playing with me?”  Or the ever so popular, “do I start by myself?”  I’ve been that guy, I don’t like it.

            My first experience with a tuba quartet happened during the first week of grad school here at the University of Iowa.  We played a piece written by Michael Forbes entitled, “Consequences.”  This piece was incredible and is one of the most rhythmically intricate pieces I had encountered at the time.  Every single note in every part had its own place in the music and every rehearsal we seemed to uncover a little knowledge about the parts.  There was a particular section where everyone had their own different sixteenth note patterns and it never seemed to lock in.  That was when we contacted good old Mr. Score and found the answers we were looking for.  It turned out, as mentioned before, each part had its own purpose and we would touch for a split second in unison before separating yet again.  Now, it was not an immediate fix to the problem, but knowing is half the battle and we were able to conquer the piece.  In fact, I recall a crucial moment in the piece where the Blaine and I would land in unison and I always felt a rush of relief when this happened.  We ended up taking the piece to a regional tuba and euphonium conference and winning first place.

            So, my rambling is over, the moral of the story is, get a score and you win competitions.  Not really, but it will certainly help put you in a better place to place higher than a potential competitor who has not done so.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Warming Up Together

             In a perfect world, a rehearsal would fit in everyone’s schedule.  All members would be able to arrive on time and have adequate time to warm-up beforehand.  However, this is not a perfect world.  With trying to accommodate for your own schedule and others in the group, it is inevitable someone will be rushed coming from a class and will not have time to get in a decent warm-up.  In a situation like this, you can either start rehearsing the music with the risk of having one member being cold or blowing their chops early, or take it as an opportunity to play together on a more basic level.  A group warm-up is a great way to establish basic skills needed to apply to more advanced music.
            Since there usually is not anything technically challenging in any given warm-up, it yields a greater chance to really focus on the sound coming out of everyone else’s horn.  Just from doing a set of long tones together, quite a lot can be learned about your colleagues’ tuning tendencies or perhaps how you can work to blend in any given register.  Assigning specific notes of a chord to each member is also a way to work on balance and figuring out how to adjust your tuning on any given note of a chord. Situations like this can be useful because it is much harder to focus on the simple things when the notes of a piece are coming at the speed of light!  Even if everyone shows up to a rehearsal warmed up and ready to go, I encourage this sort of start to a rehearsal.