Just a quick update from the Canadian National Brass Project session. We've been at it for almost a week now, and we've played three of our four shows this year. This is such a fantastic group of players, and it's been amazing to hear everyone play and teach! Things have been busy, so I haven't had time to blog about it. I'll do so when the session is done and I'm thinking back over it and going through my notes. More to come!
Every year in late November you feel a knot in your stomach. It nags, it distracts, maybe it even keeps you awake at night. But there’s no putting it off. You dig out the dusty case, undo the latch and hear the foreboding creak of the hinge, and behold your neglected, vengeful piccolo trumpet.
Does this sound familiar? For a lot of people, Messiah season is the only time that the piccolo trumpet gets attention in the practice room. No wonder the results are often less than what we might like. The piccolo is like the scary dog next door when you were a kid: terrifying when encountered only fleetingly, but a great friend once you get to know each other.
Once you accept that the piccolo trumpet is a real instrument just like your C trumpet and begin to treat it as such, rather than a toy that by its very nature feels bad and sounds tinny, real progress can begin. Most things don’t change much from playing big horns, like technical facility, articulation, and musicianship; but sound production, which is always the highest priority, needs to be calibrated for the smaller instrument. Sure, we often draw on different styles of playing on piccolo than we do on big trumpets, but there’s no essential difference in how those styles would be applied on either horn. One other thing we need to do on the piccolo is make sure we’re able to play in tune in all keys, something that is often overlooked.
We can address production on the piccolo the same way we do on big horns. Most people will be playing a smaller mouthpiece on piccolo than they usually do, so it’s best to start with mouthpiece buzzing to get comfortable with the different interface. Make sure to buzz the entire range of the instrument, which means on the piccolo that you’ll eventually be going well above the break on the mouthpiece around high D or so. Get used to working through it, smoothing it out. Next, I like to do some Stamp or Cichowicz exercises, making sure to get comfortable in the pedal register of the instrument. I haven’t yet figured out how to make pedal notes on the piccolo trumpet sound palatable, but they’re a great way to find a free, resonant vibration of your lips in the smaller mouthpiece.
Many of the exercises we frequently think of for big horns don’t transfer well to the piccolo. One exception is the book of 70 Little Studies by Clodomir, many of which can be adjusted to fit the piccolo, though given this treatment many become quite difficult. My very favourite resource is Chris Gekker’s 15 Studies for Piccolo Trumpet, which contains not only Clarke-style exercises in every key tailored specifically for the piccolo, but insightful and well-written text on most aspects of piccolo playing. Phil Collins has written a book of etudes for piccolo practice as well. Many baroque pieces are simple or well-known enough to make good practice material too.
We’re usually required to play the piccolo either in the baroque style, or in a powerful orchestral manner, think Rite of Spring or Bolero. The demands are very different, but luckily practicing those two different styles make for a well-balanced diet on the instrument.
I know a lot of people think otherwise, but for me it’s very important for me to practice the piccolo trumpet every day. I like to touch on it at the end of my first session of the day, and most days I try to come back to it for part of a second session. When I started on the job, I found my playing in general improved by leaps and bounds, but whenever I needed to play piccolo I felt like it hadn’t improved at all. No wonder, I hadn’t been practicing it to keep the quality level with everything else. Since I got in the habit of picking it up, it has caught up with the rest of my playing, and sometimes I even think of it as a strength.
Finally, another benefit of playing picc every day is that I find it helps me be more comfortable in the upper register on my big trumpets. Playing high is a big part of my job, not to mention something on most trumpet players’ minds. When I can improve several critical areas at the same time I know that I'm doing high-value practice, and that's always something to shoot for.
This summer I'm really looking forward to being part of the Canadian National Brass Project in its inaugural year. Opportunities to play in large brass ensembles are scarce, let alone in a group made of players from Canada's great orchestras. I'm excited to play some great music, but even more excited to work with wonderful players and friends.
All of the arrangements are new to me, so I'm digging in now that the orchestra season is over. We'll be playing Sensemayá, West Side Story, and Pictures at an Exhibition, as well as some other pieces. I've got to get my piccolo chops in shape for the session!
We're rehearsing at the National Youth Orchestra's session in Waterloo, and I'm excited not only to perform for the NYO's players but to teach there as well. I think this year's partnership is a great way to make the most of the fact that so many great Canadian brass players will be gathering together, and will be good for everyone involved.
We'll be performing on July 22nd at the Toronto Summer Music Festival, July 23rd at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, and July 26th at the Festival of the Sound.
I'm planning on writing about what's going on during the session, so stay tuned!
It seems that every year or two we play a big John Williams concert. As the principal trumpet, the week always sets off the full array of alarm bells and sirens. Such a programme requires thoughtful preparation, a practice plan that will prepare you physically for what you have to do, and a heck of a lot of confidence that you’ve got what it takes to nail it, right through the end of the concert.
Having done more than a few of these shows, that confidence comes more easily than it used to for me. The practice plan, unsurprisingly, involves building volume and intensity in the weeks before, and not needing to overpractice and pick up debilitating fatigue on the days when the rehearsals of such a monster programme will provide the intensity and workload required to have the goods at the end of the week.
The planning, however, is an interesting challenge, and is very programme-specific. We’ll have four players on this show, some pieces having three parts and some four. I’m not shy about having an assistant on a show like this. On the three-trumpet pieces I mark, both in my part and a copy, passages I’d like the assistant to double (usually passages where all three trumpets are in unison, or in octaves I’ll make sure there are two players in each octave), and passages where I’ll lay out entirely (usually accompaniment passages or long notes). I’m also not shy about strategically splitting up passages to make sure it all sounds super strong. Pieces that we do over and over, like the classic Star Wars suite, I’ve got figured out. Others that I’ve never played before require a bit more guesswork, and sometimes some changes at the first rehearsal.
One particularly clever bit of programming has gone into this concert: the suite from Robin Hood, by Erich Korngold. Not only is it wonderful film music, but we’re playing it on a regular series concert the week prior. Pops concerts in general get less rehearsal time than classical concerts, even though the music could often use a full rehearsal schedule. This particular programme will effectively get more rehearsal because of the time we will already have spent on Robin Hood.
In a lot of ways a week like this is an extreme challenge, but mentally it’s actually quite straightforward. There aren’t many real changes of gear, I’m pretty much in charge most of the time that I’m playing. Being such a consistently prominent voice lets me focus mostly on executing my part very well, and trusting that my colleagues will follow me. Of course the usual concerns of ensemble and intonation never really go away, but when you’re driving the bus it’s a lot easier to know you’re on track.
The late great Russian trumpet virtuoso Timofei Dokshizer said that his greatest regrets were not being pushier to Shostakovich and Prokofiev about writing proper trumpet concertos. It's tantalizing to think about what either of those amazing creative minds would have written, but what we're left with as solo repertoire, in addition to the incredible orchestral writing of them both, is Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1.
It is a singularly quirky piece. Before even a note is played, the strange notion of a concerto for piano and strings having an additional soloist (let alone a trumpet!) sitting up front is unique. The first movement, by turns brooding and giocoso, is followed by a beautiful second movement which includes a famous trumpet solo which uses the very bottom of the normal range of the instrument. The third movement is a short, romantic transition into the fourth, which starts in a somewhat serious character, but soon turns into one of the most ludicrous romps in the repertoire. Truly silly writing is interspersed with old-timey saloon music, a caricature of a trumpet solo, quotes from piano pieces by Beethoven and Haydn (sometimes in the trumpet part!), and a runaway train of an ending, more like a Buster Keaton movie than a white-tie occasion.
It's a fresh and youthful piece, and very different from the music that led to and followed his official denouncement by the state in 1936. Having played the much later Tenth Symphony two weeks prior to this, the impact of the years and events between the two pieces is made plain.
This will be my first time performing this piece, and I'm really looking forward to it. It's always a pleasure to be invited to the front of the stage, and playing with one's own orchestra is a particularly happy occasion!