Piano Year One

I realized recently that if someone asked me to play the Moonlight Sonata, I couldn’t do it. I’m hardly a concert pianist, but I ought to be able to do the early canon. I went to mutopia.org to get some sheet music, and I went to my local music store for some others.
Actually, that’s inaccurate. I went to several music stores before I found one that had a selection of sheet music other than some school books. It’s becoming a lost business, apparently.
Anyway, I’ve been pleased at how easily it’s come back. I read better than I thought I would. On trumpet, I can sightread pretty much anything I need to, but that’s one note at a time…
In high school, I’d get home and go straight to the piano. I’d play until the world was set right–sometimes two songs, sometimes two hours. I still have the same piano, and it still puts the world right.


This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of Taps, and all that is covered at http://taps150.org.

Today I played for a WWII veteran’s funeral.  I met the honor guard, and when it was time, they went in and folded the flag and I played.  I got the notice via http://www.buglesacrossamerica.org, a civilian volunteer organization.
I have a few things to say about that.  First, Taps is free for a veteran – you don’t pay money for military honors – and inappropriate for a civilian.  Second, it is the position of BAA that a live bugler is preferable to a recording, but it is also the position of BAA that it is inappropriate to argue the point if the honor guard planned to use a recording.

It’s tough to play Taps.  There are 24 notes, and today I didn’t miss any of them, but the tone wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked.  Funeral homes tend to be a bit dry, and it can be tough on the embouchure sometimes.  Plus, of course, sometimes you get choked up.

Standard Solo

Sometimes my bandmates mock me, all in good fun, on Black Orpheus. I always play the same solo, verbatim, and frankly some of us think of that more than the melody when we call the song. Maybe that’s a bit hoary, but I figure it’s something I gradually perfected over a year or two of playing it.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong–or in fact original–about having a standard solo for a song. That’s all Ornithology is, and often people study and transcribe the solos on favourite hero recordings. It’s something I can play cleanly and with a sure hand, and I don’t have to worry about a creative off-night.
That isn’t the only song where I’ve worked out “my” solo, and on several other songs I have a partial chorus–I always do the same thing in the second eight bars, or some such. Same with harmonies – I always play the same harmony on Black Orpheus and Blue Bossa and any number of other tunes.
And yes, sometimes I decide to mix things up and not play my standard solo. I find that having gone through the exercise, I know the song better than others where I’m still experimenting or just prefer to keep it open-ended. Most importantly, though, I know a prepared solo is going to have musical sense and structure. A good off-the-cuff solo does too, and you have to taste your freedom to discover something better than what you have, so I don’t think it’s good to ossify on more than a small percentage of the book.

Keeping the Distance

Takedown and loadout usually aren’t the most fun part of the gig.  We finished fairly early, but it was still dark out, and there was no parking near the loading area.  I drew the short straw and waited with the instruments while the others got the cars.

People walking by made me nervous, so I set up the keyboard and started playing.  It wasn’t plugged in.  There was no sound to attract passers-by, and yet some stopped to listen.  Some even nodded and smiled, pretending, as if they were ashamed to admit they couldn’t hear the music.

Nobody bothered me.  I should’ve put out a tip jar.


Might do “How Brightly Shines Yon Star of Morn” as an offertory (or might do a Purcell voluntary).  “Brightly” is all about phrasing.

I have a copy with pencil marks from one of my private teachers years ago.  They’re good marks, and they’re about what I would tell a student of that age, but they aren’t what I’d play now.  Mostly I’d draw bigger lines, because I’m thinking in terms of overall arc rather than individual phrases.  It being baroque, it’s divided nicely into eight bar sections, so it’s fair to consider only that context.

Many teachers advise using the human voice or singers as a model for phrasing.  There are singers who used trumpet players as a model for phrasing.  I say there’s a time and a place for vocal stylings on the horn, and I’m fond of female jazz singers for those times.  This is a formal style, however, and it requires something more formal–but not strict and limiting.

For this piece, I try to draw phrases like a dancer.  Individual moves are distinct and yet flow into each other.  There are punctuations, but there’s also a suppleness.  Mostly I’m envisioning arm movements, gestures that end in a hand articulation, and slow pirouettes.

As for rests, that is when the dancer folds into a kneeling or crouching or sitting position and holds still, the spotlight elsewhere.  Here the analogy is no longer metaphorical for the trumpet player.  Perhaps the most important part of rests, in this interpretation of the piece, is breathing.  If you never left the music, your entrance will be effective.



I’ve heard and lived my share of gig war stories, but this was a new one on me–they let the audience control the lights.  Never expected a rave swing dance.  It was particularly difficult to take down the stage afterward while being plunged into darkness at random intervals.


I’m so happy to enter a season where I see light when I arise.

Warming up the piccolo for Easter–Hallelujah Chorus as usual, and some sort of voluntary.  For the Hallelujah, in the part where I’m in unison with the voices, I like bell tones.  My goal is to add color but not cover up the voices.  It’s a bit tough since the key to understanding words is the consonants, and that’s right where I’m making noise.  One thing I can do is use the same syllable–kuh-tonguing on “King of Kings”, etc.–but that only goes so far.  Generally I follow the rule of “if you aren’t moving, back off”.  I think I’ll do more of an attack on the long note before the five descending notes that are really the only reason they hire a trumpet.  Usually I sneak in so that the audience can’t be sure exactly where the note started, growing from nothing.  This year I’m going to do a forte-piano, accenting for an entire legato beat and then dropping back before crescendoing to the descending line.  That will be more dramatic, and there’s nothing going on for that first beat anyway…

Good Advice My Teachers Gave Me

Here are a few nuggets that helped me over the years.

Run.  Wind instruments are an aerobic activity.  The lead trumpeters who play high and loud all night long do it with air.  The diaphragm is much larger and stronger than the lip muscles and therefore should shoulder more of the effort.  My teacher said some pros run a lot–“Ten miles a day, my friend.  Get serious.”

Every day you don’t practice, someone else does.  My middle school band director told me that one.  In the cutthroat world of high school Allstate auditions, this was very much true.  People improved quickly, and nobody led by more than a length.

For every day you don’t practice, it takes two days to get back to where you were.  My first band director told me this one.  When you’re ten years old and have been playing for a week, it’s reasonably accurate, though there was no attempt to quantify “where you were”.  Half a decade later my private teacher said it was more like riding a bike; you’ll start off wobbly and get tired soon, but you still know what you’re doing.  On the other hand, Håkan Hardenberger said in an interview that each day we must learn to play the instrument from the beginning.  We’re mortal, so another way to look at it is that you only get to play for some fifteen, maybe eighteen thousand days; you don’t want to miss too many.

Pay attention to dental health.  True, a brass player should rely on wind and lips more than pressure, but I’ll be past my peak the day I start losing my teeth.  In the long run, dental health also is important for heart health, which you need for running.

Listen to recordings, but play with other people more.  You need to be steeped in the literature and hear how professionals play.  You need to listen to recordings of yourself; it’s very motivating.  However, you get much more information, a firehose of it, from playing with other people: you watch as they do it in the moment, and you get immediate feedback on everything you do.

The Most Beautiful Melody: Misty

The A section is pretty straightforward, largely arpeggios and some conventional scalar passing tones.  There’s little dissonance beyond major sevenths.  However, although the phrases are arpeggiated, the overall line starts out chromatic: landing on the major seventh, going down a half step to the third of the minor v, then down an half step to the third of the IV.  It takes a whole step down for a brief suspension on the fifth, and then it goes to a 3-note motif in the major scale: 3-4-5 on the I, 3-4-5 on the vi, 3-4-5 on the ii (with an octave jump and implying the 4) and 3-4-5 on the V to end on the 3 of I.

All of that is rendered more interesting by chord substitutions and turnarounds, but the melody on its own stays pretty tightly in the key.

The bridge, on the other hand, creates tension and keeps it building on a single chord for two bars, resolves for two, builds tension on a single chord for two, and spends two bars in a normal turnaround.  I do a lot of substitutions, but they don’t change the tonality: instead of Bbm – Eb7b9, I do an edim-Bbm, and for the amin7sus I do some diminished chords that all spell out the same.  The A section comes back in predictably.

Overall, it’s probably the use of arpeggios with mid-stream octave changes that obscure the simplicity of the melodic idea without losing its comfortable familiar consonance.  It wouldn’t work without the tension, and cramming all of that into a few bars in the B section is perhaps overcompensating.  I don’t really see a lyrical reason for the contrast, but it makes a nice overall arc to the song.

Aria music stand light

Here’s why I like my Aria stand light.  It puts bright light evenly across two facing pages, and it’s invisible to the audience.  It’s cool, so I don’t burn my hand, and I don’t have to keep replacing the bulbs.  Also, anyone who gigs a lot knows the power outlet is always just one foot too far away, so either you have to clutter the floor with extension cords or you have  a taut line to trip over.  Well, the Aria has a 3-foot extension on its power cord.  That may not seem like a big deal, but it makes a difference to me.

Also, the thing is lightweight and sturdy and scratch-resistant.  It’s clearly designed by someone who has done gigs and dealt with these problems.  (A string bass player, it turns out.)

The polarized light hasn’t been important to me, and it’s a bit awkward to carry around in the original box.  You need to get a carry bag for it.  Overall, it’s a bit pricey, but since it’ll last a long time and you don’t have to buy bulbs, that offsets some of the cost.  But really, it’ so much better than an incandescent light that I’m glad I paid the money for it.  I deserve it, and it’s one more thing that helps a gig go smoothly.