There Oughta Be a Law

This article was written for the ITA Journal.

After spending 34 years in an orchestra, I have become extremely unhappy with the mediocrity of ensemble performance (in a musical sense, for never have so many notes been nailed) in this country. There has been a total abdication of musical responsibilities from conductors, responsibilities that have not been assumed by orchestras. Against this negative background, I hope to give you useful information, strong opinions, and hopefully some inspiration and a few laughs. Without further ado, here we go!

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW against people playing loud when others (few may they be) are trying to play soft. It’s like kicking a helpless baby animal, in this case a delicate phrase. It takes a very secure person to be a great ensemble player and conquer the temptation to be heard above others, a quality that is very rare.

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW against conductors being engaged because they are “so smart.” If that be the criteria, then let’s get the person with the highest SAT score and make them the Music Director. Just because you can memorize a million notes doesn’t mean that you can make music. Give me an idiot with a heart!

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW against bassoon players who always play sharp; and the lower they go, the sharper they get, making it impossible for anyone around them to tune chords. But at least, they always play loud!

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW against Chicago Symphony brass fans who want to sound like the CSO brass,who have never heard a concert, but go around playing everything loud and long.

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW against people who hate the CSO brass, who have never heard a concert, but go around saying that we play everything loud and long. (Next time I’ll tell you what I think the CSO sound is really about).

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW against teachers who advocate sticking the tongue in every slur because it makes the notes even. Are they saying, “they may be hard, but at least they’re even?” Why is there virtually no pure legato taught in this country, or indeed the world? If it is being taught, it sure ain’t being used. Hasn’t anyone ever listened to the great ballad players? Have you heard the expression, “the hand is quicker than the eye?” Well, I’d like to change that to “the hand is quicker than the air.” Almost everyone’s slide arm is so quick and so independent that the air can’t possibly keep up, so that instead of blowing through slurs, we “sneak around them.” Rein in your right arm and make it serve what is musically in your brain (hopefully, the most beautiful smooth slur you can imagine). Don’t ever be afraid to make a slur and don’t ever be afraid to make an attack–and never the twain shall meet.

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW against conductors who tell the brass section to make a forte-piano on every long note. What they’re really saying is, “I’m too lazy and/or stupid to correctly balance anything so this way I won’t have to deal with it.” “By the way, I’m deaf, too, so that’s why I don’t notice every phrase starting with a big, ugly accent.”

OK, that’s enough griping. Let’s talk about some positive stuff, although my goal is to turn the preceding into positives. Here’s some important information that every trombone/baritone player should know.

Several years ago I was in Hamburg on tour and wandered out into the lobby before a concert to look at a display of Mahler memorabilia. There was a sheet of instructions from Mahler (in Mengelberg’s hand) from the first performance of the Seventh Symphony. One of the first was (in exact translation) “The tenor horn is not a baritone, it must have a sharp (scharf) sound.” Mahler must have had in mind something close to a small bore English baritone, but in its German equivalent, with rotary valves and a curved bell like a Wagner tuba. This instrument would undoubtably create a completely different balance and musical effect, which we not yet have experienced. More research needs to be done on this subject. Incidentally, speaking of tenor horns, I think someone should commission Peter Schickele to “unearth” PDQ Bach’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings, which I believe was a precurser of Britten’s masterpiece.

Wanna’ change your life as far as intonation is concerned? Beg, borrow, or steal a “Tune-up System.” It’s a CD that teaches you to play along with and match perfect, beatless intervals, which is the key to correctly tuned chords. Let’s get people off the tuner “crutch,” (I don’t have to listen or adjust–I’m right on with my tuner”) with its sour-tempered tuning. “Tune-Up System” is produced by Steve Colley, a horn player from the Richmond, VA area.

Here’s a project for someone–a Schubert excerpt book with every single note Schubert ever wrote for trombones. Why every note? Because no one ever conceived more beautiful trombone writing; every note should be sacred. I believe the greatest single moment in trombone writing is the pianissimo unison of the first movement of the Great C Major Symphony. To bad Brahms and Schumann didn’t continue in Schubert’s footsteps (Rhenish excepted). They must have thought that they couldn’t match or improve on his concept of trombone writing.

Here’s a belated Christmas gift for a brass lover/player like yourself. About 20 years ago, there was a Disney movie made called The Littlest Horse Thieves. It contains one of the best musical scores I’ve ever heard. It’s scored entirely for a British-style brass band–a coal miner’s band at that–a tradition in the mining towns of England. The music was written by Ron Goodwin and was performed by a famous brass band. It should be in every brass player’s library.

A closing thought–THERE OUGHTA BE a scholarship to the ITF, awarded to the most obnoxious, trombone-hating (Trombophobic) viola player. (I’ve got a nominee!) By awarded, I mean two big burly trombone players in white uniforms show up at the recipient’s house and “escorts” him/her to the Festival, making sure that the honoree attends each and every event for the entire week, culminating in a special award presentation.

And with that heart-warming thought, I leave you till next time, and remember, John, SOFT IS GOOD, TOO.