Mar 7, 2005

Ride in Style

The Ride of the Valkyries is one of the most requested excerpts for auditions, so this month I thought it might be a good idea to focus on this excerpt and the way I play and teach it. First, it's important in any loud excerpt to build a miniature model of the full sized product, like an architect building a model of the full sized structure. This means perfecting it at a piano dynamic before increasing the volume. As you increase volume you multiply difficulty, so building a solid foundation starts with the most basic of fundamentals.

I start with the single most important facet in preparing this excerpt, articulation. I've been threatening to write an article on this subject for some time and here I will give you a hint of my thoughts on this crucial subject, which I consider the most critical aspect in producing a good sound. I start by leaving out the middle note of the triplet figure and playing the remaining notes as short as possible while still getting a full, fat sound in the middle. I do this at a piano dynamic, which is the model of what the full sized version should be. Playing very short but still getting a full sound in the middle of each note forces the player to use a fast enough air stream at the beginning of the note to achieve maximum resonance at the beginning of the note.

The next step is to still leave the middle note out but this time play at a piano dynamic with a bell-tone style accent- diminuendo, approximately of normal length. It should sound like a miniature forte-piano. The bell-tone style makes sure that as you increase the length of the note, the air doesn't slow down at the beginning, which is the most common fault in producing a good sound in this as well as just about everything else. I would then add the little note in between and work on the rhythmic aspect of the figure, still in piano.

I believe the secret of getting the rhythm to sound right in this figure is the length and style of the accented note. If the length of the accented note is too short, the figure will sound like an eight and two sixteenth's. If it's too long, it won't sound like a triplet, because the little note won't be audible. If the accented note has the right length and style, the other two notes of the triplet will fall into place naturally. You do not want to play this excerpt entirely tenuto, because there is a real danger of it coming out "da-dah-da-dut bthaaah bthaaah" etc. I hear this a lot. This style is labor intensive, and thats the last thing you need in a difficult excerpt like this, and besides that, it sounds really bad. One must be careful not to play a duple pick-up eight note to every bar, a common fault. A good way to avoid that is to count one full bar and the bar of the pick-up note in triplet eighth notes.

The way I would describe the style of that figure is as follows; the accented note should be slightly louder than the other beats, with a natural taper, which will give it a heavier feeling than the second and third beats of the bar. The other dotted quarter notes should be very nearly as strong but with a faster taper, which would not make them sound quite as heavy as the first beat, and a little like the bell-tones I described earlier. If you say the word "timpani" as a guide to how the rhythm of the triplet should sound, you will notice a natural diminuendo on the m consonant. It really becomes a vowel sound. Pronounce it "timmmpani" and you will get the right feeling for this figure. Be careful that the accented note doesn't disappear after a few bars. Practicing the Ride piano with the same accent throughout will establish a good routine that hopefully will carry through to the louder dynamic, but it must be firmly established.

After getting a near perfect piano dynamic version, try to increase the dynamic to an easy mezzo-forte, and keep the sound and style EXACTLY the same. When you have achieved that, try an easy forte, again keeping the sound the same. Then skip fortissimo, go somewhere where no one can hear you (outdoors is a great place to do this) and play it as loud as you can physically play it. Try to keep as much of the feeling of relaxation as you had in piano as possible. Play the soft version everyday as a model of what the louder versions should be. The FFFF version is going to sound God awful at first but after a month or so of spending a few minutes (not too much) a day on this it's going to sound less awful, and that's the point. Always go back to the miniature version, because theoretically the only difference between piano and FFFF should be more air.

When you take it down to audition level (about a full forte), that margin of safety will pay dividends. It's not the person that plays it the loudest at an audition that scores points, it's the person that sounds the most comfortable playing loud. A common mistake is never pushing the volume louder than you will perform it, therefore never building a margin of safety. Many people dislike practicing really loud but unfortunately if you're going to sound comfortable playing loud (and a lot of people don't) you must.

As to tempo and dynamic change I find that a tempo of about 92 bpm is a good balance between slow and fast. I use the same tempo in major and minor because Wagner scores the major section more bottom heavy, making a slower tempo unnecessary. Conductors take notice! No elephantitis. As to the dynamic contrast, I would take the lower octave starting on low A# at a softer dynamic (this is marked forte in many editions) in order to be able to play more at the place marked fortissimo (F# to G#etc.), which is an easier passage to play louder and therefore a smart place to push the volume a little more.

On an unrelated topic, there are two resources I would like to bring to your attention. First, David Schwartz's Bordogni Vocalises. Schwartz has transcribed these etudes (most often seen in the popular Rochut transcriptions) for trombone and included a CD of Bordogni's piano accompaniments. Practicing these etudes with the CD ensures accurate time and (equal-tempered) intonation. Second, Michael Keener's Intonation Tutor. This CD-accompanied resource has a 22 page discussion of intonation issues followed by a set of exercises for one, two, three, and four instruments. Exercises are given in both bass clef and Bb treble clef so that it is usable by a large number of musicians. Keener's book, along with Tune Up, is a great way to practice intonation at home without other musicians. Like all CD-accompanied exercises, this is best used in conjunction with a resource like Intonation Studies for Three Trombones so that you can apply these concepts to performance with other musicians.

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