Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Using Energy

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
Music has always been a matter of Energy to me,
a question of Fuel.
Sentimental people call it Inspiration,
but what they really mean is Fuel.
-Hunter S. Thompson

Excuse me for a digression into physics. What IS energy?

Actually "energy" can be defined as a number of different types of energy.
  • Kinetic energy of a moving object,
  • Potential energy stored by an object's position
  • Elastic energy stored by stretching solid objects,
  • Chemical energy released when a fuel burns,
  • Radiant energy carried by light, and
  • Thermal energy due to an object's temperature.
An important bit of knowledge about energy:
  • All forms of energy are convertible to other kinds of energy;
  • energy can be neither created nor be destroyed;
  • it can change from one form to another.
Why all this about energy? Well, it started when I came across a note from the camp last summer that said we should always play with the same amount of energy. It shouldn't matter if we are playing the "1812 Overture" or "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The energy needs to be the same. A soft and gentle passage needs as much energy as the loud ones we trumpets are known to love. A slow, prayerful piece has to come across to the listener with the same amount of fullness as a Sousa march.

I know that on one level that sounds like a dream, something that is almost an oxymoron. How can one have quiet energy or powerful softness? Then I noticed a You Tube video of the Canadian Brass doing their wonderful arrangement of Amazing Grace, a trumpet feature. As I watched the lead trumpet I realized that I couldn't tell by looking whether he was in high or low register. So I turned off the sound and watched. He played with the same ease- and energy- whether he was loud, soft, low, or high. Which is why the piece is so powerful.

Energy is not about pressure or loudness. It is about the underlying power. Reading the list of types of energy shows that there is a lot of energy in an object just sitting there. But if that object is a car, its energy changes significantly when traveling down the road at 80 mph.

Let's take that nice center concert F, our G. When we were just starting to play we couldn't play it loudly or softly with equal presence. When we went too soft- pianissimo, it kind of went flat and lost its sound quality- its energy. When we tried to play it loud- fortissimo- it cracked and splattered. We really hadn't learned how to master energy.

As we have moved through our learning curves on playing we have discovered that we can play pianissimo without losing quality and fortissimo without splattering. This is an essential part of our improvement as musicians. It is a lot of work to get to that point. Every group or band I have ever played in has had that same problem. We have greater difficulty maintaining energy on slow or soft pieces. We have greater trouble holding a note's sound when it's a slow half of whole note in a passage. Or what about coming in on a pianissimo high A or Bb?

Several things come to mind about that. First is what Mr. Baca talked about when he would do a master class or session with us at camp. Perhaps it is best described in this quote from Don Jacoby:
We never blow to the horn.
We blow through the horn.
We never blow up to a note,
we blow out to it.
-Don Jacoby

When I took the lead pipe off my horn and just played through it, I discovered the energy in the note even though there was no note as I was used to hearing. Remember that energy and play with the lead pipe back. Go up the scale and play each note with the same energy.

Which is the second thing about this energy discussion- support. The support of the sound, the note, is part of the energy. Look at the list above. The support is the potential energy of the note and the elastic energy of the expanding and contracting diaphragm. It is there with the kinetic energy of the air moving between our lips into the mouthpiece and through the horn.

The reason this works is the third thing I realized- energy is neither created or destroyed. It always is there, it is just transformed. With our music, we are transforming the energy from all these sources into sound energy (not listed above). It's all energy. Therefore, the better or more controlled and utilized our energy is, the better the sound.

Which brings me back to the same old line:
  • Practice, practice, practice
But not just playing, being deliberate in our playing. Take time to play those long tones. That was a real revelation for me. When I started doing that in a regular, intentional way, my sound improved almost immediately. I was learning how to control, utilize, the energy more efficiently. I was building support in my lungs, diaphragm, and embouchure so that the sound can be maintained.

In one of the Jazz Academy videos on You Tube, Marcus Printup of Jazz at Lincoln Center, suggests doing a whole series of soft, triple-p, concert Fs as long tones.The result is learning how to maintain energy. It gets us listening to the sound more carefully. We experience what energy feels like as we make the sound.

As always we need to be intentional about what we are doing. Even if you don't have a detailed plan (and I never do, hence I will not say you should, even though I probably should!) have a series of intentionally developed routines that allow for the energy to be channeled into music. We discover our own sources of energy and how to utilize them for the benefit of our playing.

By the way, I think this is one of the reasons why most practice instructions say to quit before you get tired. If we have lost our energy, the music we are playing won't have as much and we will learn incorrectly. To rest, to take a break and recharge our energy is important. We will get more endurance as we continue, but over-doing it on one day and then having to recuperate isn't helpful.

As always, I will add, that this is all
  • just like the rest of life.

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