Fall semester: school is underway once again, and I love every minute of it. There’s always too much too do, always more to learn, always the desire to hone the act both in playing and teaching. Teaching is like being a shark: you have to keep moving forward (i.e. learning more, expanding horizons) or you wither and “die”. I find learning intoxicating, especially when it comes from many and (wildly) unrelated sources. You never know when that bit you just read about deep space astronomy or tree frogs or interview psychology or football workouts or one-pot cooking recipes or the history of the Restoration is going to mix and match with something else you know and give you an amazing new insight into stuff you do every day. Such as playing, learning, and teaching the horn.
We are all beneficiaries of horn lore and tradition, but we would all benefit from some kind of shake-up of our routines, a good monkey wrench in the works (as John Lennon said, “A Spaniard in the Works” [play on ‘a spanner in the works]) to make us wake up from the mental slumber of our routines. Routines are good – they get things done. Routines are dangerous: they distance you from sensitivity about what you really need in the moment and numb you to considering other and possibly more effective ways to get the (or a specific) job done.
It’s fall. Time to come up with a few monkey wrenches to start the year off with some attention. Allow me to brainstorm some musical monkey wrenches, in no particular order:
1. Daily Arkady. Arkady has always been one of the most astoundingly original and creative horn geniuses on the planet. I asked him once how he warms up and works out. He said, oh, some overtones, some long tones, and then I just play music.
You what?! You play music!? No one plays music to warm up! What does this mean? How is this possible!? Why, the very idea!
“Yes,” he smiles. “I just play music. A little rhythm, a bit of melody. I just listen and follow it where it goes.”
As he does so, he also pays attention not only to what the music needs, but also to what his chops and his technique need right now. When he encounters resistance, he stays there for a while, loops the difficulty, transforms it, plays with it, turns it this way and that, gets to know it intimately and at length. As my collaborator Evan Mazunik always says, invite your demons home for lunch. Get to know their favorite colors, their birthdays. Spend a lot of time with them, and they don’t seem so fearsome.
A Daily Arkady is infinitely flexible, but you have to pay attention and dare to try things. We’re not used to this. We get out our slick warm-up/technique routine – same one as ever – zip through it, pat ourselves on the back for being virtuosic and virtuous and move on.
All well and good, but, as you quickly find out when you do some D.A.’s: you miss a lot of stuff when you always just do that one routine.
2. Scale madness. Almost everyone does only octave scales, mostly major scales; the more dedicated may do octave minor scales as well. All well and good, etc etc. But for a fall monkey wrench or three, try some new approaches:
•Start the scales just before or after the beat.
•Play scales with a repeat rhythm. Start with Short Long Long, LSS, SLS.
•Play scales with a wide variety of note values. Kind of like…music. Why should scales be only one note value?
•Play scales with a mix of articulations. Ditto.
•Add accents. Duple (on the strong or weak beat). Triple. 2+3, 3+2, 2+2+3, 3+2+2, 3+3+2, etc.
•Play scales not just in octaves, but in all lengths. A good place to start is the Power Scale, scale degrees 1-5. Then start adding or subtracting notes from this length. Combine this with accent patters.
•Spend most of your scale time on unfamiliar scales like F#, Db, B, etc. Invite those demons home!
•Play scales as duets or even trios with other musicians (who do not have to be horn players).
•Combine scales and arpeggios, e.g. go up with the scale and descend with the arpeggio, and vice versa.
•Play a different scale when descending than ascending, e.g. C up, Db down, D up, Eb down.
•Practice scales in the context of music. Think of a title or some restriction and make a piece that uses that scale in all kinds of ways. Sample titles: A Red Bicycle. The Baboon Philosopher. Love Lost, 3 a.m. Ferris Wheel.
•Explore some less familiar types of scales: whole tone, blues, diminished, klezmer, pentatonic (major or minor).
3. Arpeggio Madness. Repeat the above with arpeggios.
4. Play with others. The most fun way to break up your routine and challenge yourself is to make up stuff with other musicians. Although my usual routine of teaching includes a lot of solos, etudes, and excerpts, my routine this fall is broken up by teaching my Improvisation for Classical Musicians class, which keeps me on my toes. I have a great class this fall and I’m looking forward to our (improvised) concerts. My playing this fall includes orchestral playing (Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, etc etc) and brass quintet (Iowa Brass Quintet), all of which I enjoy very much. But I also have had a delightful time with Cerberus, my improvising trio (horn, tuba, trumpet, and usually plus an extra player). We just did an out of town concert that was more fun than the proverbial barrel of monkeys. We invented the entire concert on the spot with the help of the audience, who provided information, inspiration, suggestions, and occasional help on stage conducting us and playing percussion (they even got up and danced on the last number). Cerberus is devoted to expanding the concert experience for both performer and audience in all kinds of ways, and thus far, both performer (us) and audiences have loved every minute of it. Our biggest problem is marketing – how do you describe something that hardly exists elsewhere? Cerberus will continue, but I am starting a new larger ensemble that will expand the concert experience even more. Can’t wait.
Shameless plug: If you’re interested in a multitudinous packed plethora of inimitable ideas for monkey wrenching your routine, you might have a look at my book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, GIA Publications. Watch out, though. You might find yourself having fun, and remember, music is serious, don’t let me catch you having any of this fun stuff.