Apr 27, 2015

Style darn ya' style

Recently someone asked me a question that has stumped musicians for eons: what is style? That question reminds me of an old comedy routine from our own Second City improv institution.

Back in the 60’s one Severn Darden did a bit about a scientist trying to explain what the process of thought was, and quipped: "they can tell you everything thought isn’t, but they can’t tell you what it is and it drives them crazy!”

That relates to the topic we are addressing this month: what is style? If I had to come up with one word to capsulize style it would be: Contrast. Playing every phrase with an absolutely even sound, dynamic, articulation, length and everything else would seem to me, devoid of style. Let’s take a few examples from the excerpt literature for trombone. First, the chorale from the Brahms 1st Symphony: I imagine the 1st bar and 3 quarters as large Greek-style pillars, with clear articulation, each butting up next to each other but stately and vertical. The next bar and a quarter have a completely different character, reminding me of an elegant, gently curved bridge in a Japanese-style garden. The next 2 bars of whole notes revert back to the firm pillars standing next to each other. Both of these styles are beautiful in their own right, but completely different.

Let’s take another common excerpt such as the Berlioz Rakoczy March. I believe there are 3 distinct styles required in this excerpt. The 1st, starting with the syncopations on the note A should be played with an accent-dimuendo on each dotted quarter note. The eight-note ascending scale passages should be played in a marcato-tenuto style, with each note well defined and sustained to the next clear articulation. These two styles are very different from each other, a desirable feature. The 3rd style are the octaves at the end of each phase, which should be played in a short but “fat” separated style. Thus you have 3 different styles that make this excerpt exciting and interesting to the ear. Playing this or any excerpt with exactly the same type of articulation, length of notes throughout would result in a complete lack of style. The only aspect of style that should be absolutely even is the quality of sound. Every other facet of playing should include as many tools as possible to fit each phrase. You wouldn't build a house with only a hammer would you?

This brings me to another subject relating to orchestral performance and the concept of the “long line.” Somehow the idea of the “long line” has morphed into a habit of having orchestra’s play everything in a pseudo-legato style, in a relatively middle level dynamic, to achieve a thick, heavy, dense continuously throbbing sound. The carefully notated difference by composers between slurred and articulated phrases as well as accents and other style markings are obliterated and covered with a thick legato that takes the style out of most phrases and is mistakenly referred to as “the long line.” Slower than indicated tempos are also a feature of this musical concept. Luckily some of our better period groups have been a welcome antidote to this problem.

A helpful tip for all brass players this month: when playing the louder dynamics try to make your instrument and mouthpiece sound larger than they are, and when playing the softer dynamics, try to make your instrument and mouthpiece sound smaller than they are. You do this by the way you direct the airstream and where your embouchure is in the mouthpiece.

Consumer retort

I have been trying a recent product for brass instruments called the Joykey. It is a replacement for a spit valve and automatically drains saliva from the horn without the player having to empty it manually. The Joykey drains continuously but in a controlled way to have no noticeable effect on the response of the instrument. The device is the work of Andrew Joy and can be found at www.thejoykey.com. I have found this to be an excellent product and am having it installed on my instruments.

Also, a friend of mine, Mr. Sun He installs the Joykey at his repair business in Philadelphia. He can be found at www.facebook.com/ultimate.brass.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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