This past weekend, I presented at the South Texas Brass Symposium. Part of the event was a clinic for high school students preparing etudes for their All-State auditions. During this masterclass, I started thinking back to my high school experience, and what I was thinking about preparing for these kinds of auditions. The etudes were always designed to show off a player’s lyrical and technical playing, and I definitely took the challenge as stated.
During the lyrical etudes, I worked on showing huge dynamic contrasts and silky-smooth legato. I made sure to demonstrate fast slide technique, note precision, and graceful style in my technical etudes. In the scale requirements, I always made sure to sound confident and clean regardless of the key. And I always did well, because it is important to show those items.
Here’s the problem I didn’t recognize at the time: there are a lot of people who can play those etudes, and play them perfectly. In fact, because of the increasing quality (though not ubiquity, sadly!) of music education, more students every year are able to execute any challenge that is put in front of them. Playing all the right notes with confidence, dynamic contrast, and style is the bare minimum to even get the judge to listen to the whole tape rather than moving on after a few seconds.
What’s left to separate the fifty or a hundred remaining tapes that are all technically perfect?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the winner is the one who does the most dynamic contrast or the fastest tempo. Great musicianship is found in exquisite balance. Nor is the winner necessarily the one who uses the best recording studio. Often, spectacular definition in the recording only serves to highlight deficiencies.
The recording that wins is the one that the judge wants to listen to more of. This winning recording identifies itself within the first ten seconds, leaving no doubt in the judge’s mind that it is indeed the best that he or she will hear that day. In fact, the judge doesn’t even need to listen through to the end to know that it will win, but he or she chooses to anyway, just for the sheer pleasure of listening. The technical perfection of this recording is assumed. Such mundanities are immaterial to the tape’s obvious superiority.
The characteristic that separates the winning recording from all the others is its basic sound quality. If all the applicants were lined up and asked to play nothing but a middle F, the same student would win, just based on the depth and beauty of that one note. It’s relatively easy to play fast, or loud, or high, but it is exceptionally difficult to produce one note with vibrance that jumps out of the horn and demands the listener’s attention.
Yes, practice the etudes to be able to play every marking on the page with security. Learn to play the notes with facility and grace, but make sure to take at least as much time to work on your basic sound quality. A musician with a great sound sounds great, even when playing the wrong notes. A musician with a bad sound can play all the right notes in the world but will still sound bad!