Technique: A Vehicle for Musicianship
Updated: Apr 16, 2020
My most recent thought on being in grad school for the trombone:
It has very little to do with studying an instrument. But it has everything to do with learning how to make music.
The degree should really be called a masters in musicianship. I don't really pay attention to whether I’m playing a euphonium or ophicleide, a sackbut or trombone. Or heck, even singing. I just want my music to make people feel something, with whatever instrument I have available. The goal is for the audience to feel so overjoyed by the music, they have nothing but smiles and hugs as they walk out of the concert hall. But I also want them to feel so devastated and moved, they are forced to look around and remember that there is nothing more important than loving those that are dear to them.
This necessitates working on technique - with a musical mindset. Yes, technique as in long tones, breathing, articulation, slurs, range, flow, buzz.. the list goes on. It is so easy to get wrapped up in fundamentals and grind, grind, grind all day, purely focused on getting a piece of metal to work. Banging on it, blaming it, cursing the chops. Often nothing seems to work, especially in the world of brass instruments. We can spend hours analyzing the vibration in our lips, or how many octaves we can play certain notes, and how many times we can articulate the same note. Over and over again. These are all great exercises to do (well.. not all. Choose wisely), but if these are all done purely as mechanical exercises, it can be so easy to lose sight of the meaning of it all, and the goal, which is to use the instrument as a means to make music.
The reality is, I need to work on long tones, not so I can hold out a pitch for 30 seconds (I mean, that's kind of cool, I guess?..), but because when the performance comes, I need to be completely and utterly sure that I can sustain a note, as if someone were holding on to dear life. I need to practice lip slurs effortless and flawlessly, every day, so that in performance, changing notes is not laborious, but puts the listener at ease by letting them follow where the phrase is going. I need to practice articulation so that I can convey my message with the upmost clarity and diction. And for god's sake, I definitely need to practice intonation, because there is nothing worse than being distracted when not a single note is played in tune. Yikes.
Practicing all of these fundamentals every day takes an incredible amount of discipline. It requires constant inspiration and isolation and frustration. It entails being best friends with the metronome and tuner and mirror. But when the spotlights are on, if we convey our message with meaning and clarity, the work will certainly have been worth the effort. When we are capable of executing the notes, and there is no doubt about how to make that happen, we can focus all of our attention on how to move people to tears. (Or have them throw babies on stage). On the other side of the spectrum, if someone has a firm grasp of fundamentals on an instrument, but has spent no time figuring out what to say, that, in my opinion, is almost worse than bad technique trying to convey something meaningful.
This is to remind us all (myself included) - practice technique as a vehicle for making music. It may often seem like the most boring, monotonous activity on the planet, but when applied to music, it means the world in order to convey something successfully to another being. Furthermore, it is necessary to practice being great musicians on and off the horn. Listen deeply and intently to every recording you come across, listen to live music as music as possible, create and react to art that moves you, perform with friends and colleagues as music as possible, and of course use every reason to get the horn out of the case and just make music that means something to you.
Let's practice technique as if every performance depended on it. And strive to perform as if life depended on it. I mean, is there really any other way to live?