Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Tuning Slide: 2.3- No Small Parts

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Many of us have no doubt made the statement:
It’s only a small part. It’s just the 4th trumpet.
As a result, many of us have no doubt also heard a director make the statement:
There are no small parts; only small players.
That’s a hard thing to keep in mind sometimes when you have been an almost professional 3rd or 4th trumpet. You play your part and wonder longingly at the soaring lines of the first or the intricate solos the second develops. Every now and then your part has some interesting counterpoint or even a kind of fun note in a chord. But most of the time it’s just that “small” part. Historically, in many high school and even college bands, the less talented players are often placed at 3rd and 4th. The parts didn’t go too high, they weren’t all that technically difficult. As one progressed through high school, the older students would move up to 2nd and 1st places. It was as much seniority as skill at times. It could at times be overcome by a truly gifted musician. But, overall, people would covet those upper parts. So, in essence, they gave the seemingly “small” musicians the 3rd and 4th.

I used to say that I enjoyed playing 3rd or 4th since it meant that I didn’t have to practice as much or develop the embouchure. I could just show up and play (sort of) and go home. But it also meant that I didn’t have to practice anything difficult or challenging. Sure, you have to know how to count rests and syncopated notes from time to time. In general, though, it was an easy way out of getting better.

If you don’t practice, if you don’t challenge yourself, nothing happens.

In the past year of working through this Tuning Slide and my personal skill development, a couple of different things have happened.

First was when a local orchestra contacted me because they needed a 4th trumpet for one piece at the spring concert. Did I say that loudly enough? They NEEDED a 4th trumpet! No smart remarks, please, about why would anyone need a 4th trumpet? There is a very clear answer to that:
Because the composer wrote a 4th trumpet part! The composer/arranger wanted a 4th part.
I felt good about being able to do it, especially since the piece was a concert piece of selections from the great musical, Les Miserables. Overall, it was a typical 4th trumpet part. But it wasn’t my typical 4th trumpet part. It had sections in all kinds of keys that we don’t normally play very often- you know- 5 and 6 sharps (B major and F# major). I was glad that I had spent hours working on the 12 major scales last winter. It took some concentration, but the 5 and 6 sharps didn’t send me into panic- although it did send me to the woodshed. It wasn’t an “easy” or “small” part. Sometimes it doubled the 3rd, which is what the composer/arranger wanted. That note was obviously important. It needed a little more emphasis in tone, color, and location in the chord.

I think I am being clear about what I am trying to say:

All parts are important- 
that’s why they were written in the first place!

That’s the first thing that happened. It was an important lesson. The next thing was hearing the comment again at Shell Lake: All parts are important.

We had a trumpet choir of 50 musicians - and some of the arrangements had four, five, six parts. Wait a minute? Why all those extra parts? What is so important about those “lower” parts? Well, at first it was simple to say that it was because we only had trumpets and someone had to play those “lower” notes of the chords. With no horns, or trombones, or tuba- where was that foundation to come from. Other trumpets, obviously. Again, 4th, 5th, and 6th parts were needed. But it also brought to mind that when there are six parts, there is a reason that there are six parts. All the parts are pieces of the whole. Hmmmm.

“Pay attention, Barry,” was the message I was getting from all of this. As my skills and range have increased, that does not mean I can - or should - leave the 3rd and 4th behind.

All parts are important- 
that’s why they were written in the first place!

So I decided to try something in the big band I have played in for the past 8 years- the big band where I am the eternal 4th trumpet. When I started in the group my admitted skills for the group were more important in the range of being the announcer than of being a trumpet player. I needed to learn the language of the big band and playing jazz. Years of listening needed to be translated into being able to speak the language and not just listen. Playing 4th allowed me a lot of leeway to do that- and it allowed me to develop the announcing for the band as a part of the entertainment. But after all these years now, it was feeling boring. (A dangerous thing. It can lead to stupid decisions and bad actions. Stay away from boredom!) But wait a minute. I was now playing with more confidence, better tone, and (mostly) able to speak the language.

If there are no small parts, why not see what it feels like to play the 4th part as if it is important and not just added on to give me, the announcer, something to do between announcements?

The first evening I really had the chance to try that out in any serious way in rehearsal was this past week. We were working on some more difficult pieces- both in intensity and sound. Chords were all over the place giving different tone and color to the piece. There was one point where over several measures a tension was built and released through a series of half and whole notes in the trumpet section. The first time we played it, something didn’t feel right. My ear said that we were off somehow or another. I glanced at the person who was “leading” us at the time and it looked like he heard it, too. It was not a dissonance that was written into the score. It just was off.

Without saying anything about it we tried it again. This time as we came to that section I consciously paid closer attention to what I was playing, hitting each of the notes more clearly- solid and centered. It sounded right. It fit. When we were done the leader made the comment that the difference he heard was that I played that 4th part with the strength it needed in order to be the foundation for the total sound of the section. I don’t know if anyone else did anything different that time. I just know I did- and it made a difference.

All parts are important- 
that’s why they were written in the first place!

Now, would anyone in an audience ever have noticed that there was something out of sync the first time we played it? Probably few if any would have. Would they have noticed the difference the second time? On some level, perhaps. My guess is that there would have been some emotional reaction they had that was more positive the second time. That’s often the level at which these things make a difference. So why worry? Why make a big deal about it?

For one, because in the long run it is the accumulation of those seemingly small things that make the difference for better or worse. Playing a whole number where there are a series of “off” moments will certainly reduce the positive impact on the audience- and, of course, vice versa. We want the audience to have the best experience possible. That’s the issue of “sound” and “tone” that is essential to music which we will talk about in coming posts.

Just as importantly, though, we make a big deal about it because it helps make us better musicians and keeps us connected to the integrity of the song itself. We are being true to the music and to who we are as musicians and people. That intentionality then expands in our lives to other things we do. We become more conscious of the way we treat others, the way we do our job, the way we respond to issues and concerns.

In life, as in music, there are no small parts!
(Sidenotes: 1) The orchestra called me again for the fall concert as 4th parts were again needed. 2) I am looking forward to the next year of more intentionally being the 4th trumpet in the big bands. Let’s see what else I can learn.)

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