Here’s a question. Do you think that anyone purposefully plays out of time? What about out of tune?

This question has been bothering me a lot lately. When two sets of intervals are played, one in tune and one out of tune, we know which one is which. We know what intonation sounds like. Similarly, we can all clap a reasonably steady beat. We can play with a metronome. And yet, when the time comes to play with good time, we don’t. 

So what’s the problem?

Take Schumann’s second symphony as a prime example. How simple a set of notes and rhythms, and yet probably the most oft destroyed audition excerpt. Of course conductors and committees care about the pitches, but having the pitches but having them overly sharp or at the wrong time is about as useful as a plane in the air with no wheels. Heaven knows I’m guilty. You could say, correctly, yes it is soft and yes the second bar G is sharp and yes the low and high registers of the first and second trumpet present challenges respectively. But I would venture to say most of us can play those notes, and most of us will have no trouble playing in time and in tune with a metronome and tuner on (maybe after some shedding).

But turn the metronome and tuner off and there is the disconnect. Maybe we play the notes and rhythms and our bodies and minds say to us, look, according to ourselves, we did it. (Nevermind that the rests were a little too long, and our open fifth was, well, maybe more of a minor sixth.) It was good and look we hit the notes and now we deserve to win that audition, right? Wrong. Time and intonation are more important than the notes and I’ll tell you why.

I recently read a book about the evolution of culture and how it gave anatomically modern humans a leg up over our other hominid brothers and sisters at a time when the Earth was shared by a few different bipedal species of ape. One anecdote the author shared was that squirrels, upon finding an acorn and evaluating its condition, are capable of extrapolating whether they should eat it immediately or bury it for a time and eat it later (remembering generally where they buried it). Anthropologists understand this process to be the beginning of one called “visualization,” that is, basically a primitive kind of inductive reasoning.

And humans, related to squirrels relatively closely on the grand scheme of life, have the same power (only perhaps more of it, at least theoretically). We have the ability to create in our brains something that is not immediately before us. We can imagine the sound of birds, hear a C# when I say Mahler 5, etc.

But to be able to see birds in our head, we need to know what they look like. We need to study birds, their feathers, their legs, the way they fly, the sounds they make, the way they move, etc. And to know what Schumann 2 should sound like, we need to bury ourselves in performances and a score. What is the function of the chord in bar 6? What is the purpose of the sixteenth note? Who is playing while we are holding? What direction is the phrase going in? And of course, how do we fit into the moving quarter notes in the strings?

These are not rhetorical questions. The answers are actually pretty simple, because it’s not a terribly complicated passage. But until we sit down with a dozen recordings and a score, and then live in the seat for months or years, we are guessing. I think part of the solution is to hear it so many times, by so many professionals, that when the time comes for our trumpet to come to our face and play those notes, there is really no other way it could go except in time and in tune and with the right sound and the proper shape. Only then are we really in a position to approach any lingering technical challenges. We know how out of tune we are, we know we tend to hold over, because we hear it in our heads, and we know that what’s coming out of our trumpet is incorrect, rather than convincing ourselves that our facsimile is close enough (“Why didn’t they advance me?! I played it *perfectly*!”)

Here is a way to think about it that I find helpful. A graphic:

For me, there’s a process through which I convince myself that my time and pitch are right because I have mashed the right buttons and played in roughly the correct harmonic on my bit of tubing. The counts are right by the beat of my own haphazard drum. I rely on instinct to get these things correct, but the problem is precisely my instincts. They are wrong. They are being interfered with by trumpeting. It’s like chewing gum and walking at the same time. We have to become professionals at hearing time and intonation, so when we pick up the trumpet, we are not playing “the trumpet,” we are playing music as it should be.

I believe that the vast majority of practitioners spend so much time exclusively working on some ambiguous notion of “the technique” on any given piece of music, when the answer is so much simpler, and frankly easier, than playing it until it’s dead. Not only do we not hear it correct, odds are we are not even listening to ourselves when we are in this mode. We are relying almost entirely on physical feedback, “am I pressing the right buttons and am I on the right partial?” Approaching these questions probably nearly entirely kinesthetically. The problem is that this physical approach does very little to address the underlying problems of hearing when we are out of time or out of tune, does very little to sharpen our connection to the music, and more likely creates a physical feedback loop that will cause whatever physical problems we have to compound. And what happens when the heat is on, during a difficult moment in the Symphony, or during an audition, when our physicality is cranked up to 1000%? 

Many coaches say, “sing through the instrument,” but pedagogically there is no alternative. It is impossible not to sing through the trumpet. We need to spend more time fixing the music in our heads before we even pick up the trumpet. Singing with our voice is a natural place to start. I am amazed at how often a client will play something and it will need fixing, so I will have them sing it. People often say something to the effect of, “but I am a better trumpeter than singer,” and then they will go on to sing the *exact* problem they had on the trumpet. Well, apparently you are not a better trumpeter than singer, are you? That’s because we are precisely as good at the trumpet as we are at singing. The trumpet is an extension of our voice: the voice in our head. Therefore, there are very few trumpet problems we can fix without giving at least some thought about how it sounds in our heads, and secondarily the connection between our brains and our instruments. The good news is that this is *so* much easier, and less time consuming, than the hours and hours of time we might otherwise spend in search of a routine or formula that works. 

To sum up, why be a mouse in a maze in search of cheese when we can study the cheesemaking process and learn to make as much cheese as we want? In part 2, I will examine some processes I think have helped me sharpen my brain, and sharpen my brain’s connection to the trumpet. So stay tuned!

And, why do my posts always come back to cheese?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *