Monday, June 8, 2009

How even minded are we on the subject?

Evenness of sound is something that instrumentalists have been working on for many years. It is one of the mechanical arts of 'fine' instrumental playing that players strive for, especially in the 'classical' orchestral realms.

However, in recent years it seems to me, it has been getting to be almost an obsession. Certain players just can't 'see' past anyone who doesn't have an 'even' sound in all the registers. This over preoccupation with evenness also affects nuances and timbre variation as well, which of course, are the symptomatic expressions of a player's central government of concepts from where their music comes out of.

Lets look at this 'even' issue. Instruments that are 'built' with a sound, like certain keyboard and percussion instruments, still need the player to develop enough control to articulate evenly in all the ranges. And we all know for example, that different pianists would sound remarkably distinct from one another if they were playing the same piano.

Are some teachers really tough on evenness because it shows a lack of control or a lack of discipline on the students part for not sticking to it enough to develop the control it would take to play evenly? Or, is it that some teachers only see their music from the standpoint of technical mastery and don't really know how to convey or inspire deeper expressive qualities? Or, do they figure that the rest of it is subjective and the only clear 'objective', 'concrete' thing are the mechanics?

It brings me to questions like, "what is important in the balances of our playing?" If it all comes down to "I want a job," then we are at the mercy of the ones that have gone through that process and got the job, and are now considered from others on the 'outside' to be the authorities.

This makes a certain amount of sense on that level. But, if it produces 'clones' of players, and 'cloned' excerpts and performances, let me ask the following question, "what in the world does that have to do with Art and originality? Let alone the deeper human development and creative processes?

What in Nature is even? This is a huge subject, but the forces of Nature, the cycles, seasons, flora and fauna for example, have a motion to them and not always so predictable and 'even'. Maybe the obsession with evenness is a human's way of trying to find perfection and stability. This kind of 'perfection' is not connected to anything in the natural worlds. It will eventually deteriorate because our physiology changes, and not always in clear, predictable and chartable ways. Our physiology is not the only thing that changes really, but whether we the person wants to change or not, our body has a limited life and is changing all the time.

In practical brass playing terms, that beautiful sound we hear in our minds and would like to have for every single note, is temporary, that is if we actually achieve it. The idea for example of an 'open' sound might get increasingly difficult as our bodies change and our internal life changes with living and experiencing what life brings our way. Would we be willing to 'compromise' if it meant giving up our one wonderful even sound so we could continue to play at all?

If 'evenness' is such a huge criteria, could it be out of proportion to the bigger musical picture? Can it be its own type of 'cholesterol' blocking our deeper perceptions out of fear we will not be 'even'?

Hey, I practice my 'even' exercises everyday. But, in no way will I let that be my sole musical government. I still believe that there is room in the job market for those 'less than perfect' players who play with feeling, passion and connection. Of course you can have all those qualities and be a 'perfectly even' player too. Im just trying to encourage those wonderful players out there, many of whom I have heard, that are exciting and expressive players who may not have the 'perfect even' thing down. MUSIC, the essence of it, is an equal opportunity employer!

I'll end this post on evenness of sound by quoting something a great long time friend of mine said who is a terrific violist in a major U.S. orchestra. I was talking to him about this subject of evenness a few years ago. He looked at me and said with a tone of seriousness and a tinge of dark humor, "you take some coffins, you line them up, and their even."


Gabe Langfur said...

Beautifully expressed Norman, thank you.

If I may, I'll share some thoughts as to how the quest for even-ness effects equipment choice. In my capacity at S. E. Shires, I have to be something of an expert on equipment and how it influences players.

I think that even-ness of sound has direct links to stability and consistency of tone production, and this is probably one of the reasons that it is stressed much by so many teachers. It's probably the most easily identifiable aspect of a solid physical approach to the instrument.

Stability of tone production can be aided quite a lot by choosing equipment that is very stable, which usually means heavy. The downside of heavy equipment is that it usually cuts down on a player's ability to make
variation in the tone color.

For a young player who does not yet have the ability to control or vary the tone color without losing the foundation of their sound production, this can be excellent. It can help them to learn to play music - to do all of the things that we need to do with pitch and articulation and range and so forth, as well as learn repertoire - without having to obsess about tone.

This may seem strange and backwards to some, but I stand by it. Obsession with tone can be a distraction from making actual music. Furthermore, when the other mechanical aspects are taken care of - intonation, articulation, range - often a player's tone that has been lacking will open up and come alive. And at that point, they may very well have the skill to change to equipment that will allow them more freedom of tone color - equipment that will provide less of the even-ness if you will.

Heavier equipment can also be needed by top orchestral players who play in halls that overemphasize high overtones and for conductors that cringe at the first sign or brightness or brassiness (for lack of better words).

At Shires we have recently introduced a line of trumpets, and I have been learning a tremendous amount by listening to trumpeters play our various models. The one that is very nearly always my favorite is a lightweight instrument that seems to be the least "even". In the hands of an accomplished player it can sound big and rich in the low register, and then brilliant and focused in the high register. The middle seems to be amazingly malleable. To me, it sounds like my imagined ideal trumpet, for nearly every accomplished player that picks it up. But only a handful of them choose it over the other models, and they nearly always give the reason that it's not "even" enough. Maybe this has more to do with feel than sound, but I keep thinking that the variation, the differences in tone from top to bottom and loud to soft, are what I think is great about it!

Finally, one more thought. I am noticing a trend away from heavy instruments for professional and aspiring players. Ease of response and changeability of tone are starting to be prioritized over even-ness of sound, particularly at different dynamic levels. I think this is a great trend, and I imagine Norman will agree!

Norman Bolter said...

Gabe, thank you for taking an active interest in the blog. Your writing is full of excellent observations and reasoning. I truly enjoy the 'dialogue' as I always have with you over the years.

I think I can see a tendency away from a heavy- weighted- tone- stability of evenness, where all the ranges have to have the same exact color. But, I personally have not seen the 'obsession' with evenness take a back seat yet. Especially when looking at those who have most recently filled some big positions in major orchestras.

Maybe another way to look at it is, I still see a lot of 'prejudice' and preoccupation with sound, to the point where a good number of people cannot see past it to even hear or take seriously the musicianship being expressed. This is the 'cholesterol' of perception I was talking about in the post. If the sound is not 'beautiful' or has to much vibrato for example, this can easily blind devotees of the sound and evenness concept kind.

It is very interesting what you mention about your experiences with Shires new trumpets. I am now playing a very light Shires red brass bell because I physically need the room to create the stability in my sound. If a horn is to heavy for me, than it creates to much resistance and this causes me to work harder than I would like. So, even though there are aspects of the heavier bell qualities that I enjoy, I will take ease and mobility at this stage in my playing life, which is VERY different to when I was 20 and just got into the Boston Symphony.

Life changes, and the question is, are we willing to change in order to keep on being able to play and/or progress? Which might be VERY different to what we thought it be than when we were younger!