Tuesday, January 31, 2012

College Music Blog

As I look back at my 32+ year professional playing career, I am thinking about the preparation I had as a young artist to prepare me for this field. I will endeavor to discuss the classes I took that helped, classes that I took that really didn’t prepare me for the career path, and other offerings that really would have helped.

Classes that helped

Sight singing and melodic dictation. This is the class that really helped my sight reading ability. ANY performance major should be required to be in this type of class their entire college career. I am having all my pupils sing their lines before they play them. How can you play anything, without knowing exactly how you want it to go before you put your horn on your head? Jake said it BEST: ‘Song & Wind.’ Hear the song, blow the horn. Really, after all is said and done, this is the essence of being a musician.

New Music Ensemble. (Thanks, Dr. Kessner). I played SO much new music that any new music situation in which I find myself, I feel totally prepared because I played some pretty wacky shit in college. PLUS, I got to play some really bad music that I composed; teaching me a GREAT lesson: Tony, you are NOT a composer, give it up!

Orchestra and youth symphony/training orchestras. When I auditioned for the San Jose Symphony, I had performed all the works on the list for conductors like Mehli Mehta (and his famous son, Zubin), Myung-Whun Chung, Jaja Ling, Toshi Shimada, not to mention that extremely talented college musician, Lawrence Christiansen.

Conducting. Believe me, I have seen such crappy conducting in my career, that by knowing what these guys were TRYING to do, I was able to survive even the most harrowing experience.

As much as it pains me to say this, Marching Band. NOTHING helped me more with my rhythm than trying to walk around the field with my sousaphone and play in time, NOTHING!

Band. The parts in band are SO much harder than most orchestral music, that I HAD to sharpen my skills just to cover the parts. I had to work even HARDER to play the parts well.

Strings, woodwinds, percussion classes. No only did this give me a little insight to what other musicians are up against, but as a conductor now, I have a wonderful understanding of all of the instruments of the orchestra. While I can’t play the cello, I always got an “A” in tuning. At least I could play those 4 notes in tune! Also, as an orchestra musician, I can listen to other instruments knowing their pitch tendencies and adjust on the fly if I find myself doubling a part with another instrument.

Classes that didn’t

Music History. I know I am going to take heat for this, but let me explain. SOME of the classes were SO hard, that I had to take hours away from my tuba just to keep my head above water. I had one class that was a ‘drop the needle’ type of class. We had listening assignments, then at the exam, the Prof would drop a needle on a ‘record’ (yes, I am THAT old!) and we had to write as much as we could about the work. This really helped me learn how to identify composers, eras, styles, and performance practices. This was DIRECTLY applicable to my career path. The big thing about THIS approach, was it taught me to listen. I learned to love Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Vivaldi, Gesualdo, Buxtehude, Hindemith and Strauss. What could be better than whiling away the hours listening to great masterpieces? To Doctor Eleanor Russell: Your class was a total waste of my time, I learned nothing, was WAY over stressed, you took my valuable time away from my tuba, and you were cruel in your daily dispersals of, “I’m sorry you are unprepared. F?” You seemed to delight in giving us undergraduate performance majors an F for our daily preparation. I’d like to see YOU prepare a tuba lesson with Maestro Bobo and waste hours of time trying to memorize Grout for your thrice-weekly abuse. Her specialty was the study of Spanish Renaissance music, including the work of such composers as Cristobal de Morales and Pedro Rimonte. No wonder she didn't mind wasting MY time...

Piano Proficiency Exam. Holy shit! What a nightmare! These were some of the requirements at Northridge: All of the major and minor scales two octaves hands together; ALL of the theoretical cadences in all major and minor keys, with correct voice leading; a Bach 2 part invention; The Star Spangled Banner in ANY key, asked by the panel; reduce at sight a 4-part score in soprano, alto, tenor and bass clef; play and conduct at the same time; accompany someone on a solo; improvise on a chord structure given to you at the exam; improvise a harmony of a melody given to you at the time of the exam. You could do these one at a time. But still. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Piano majors routinely failed this test. I have NO keyboard skills. I went in to take the scale part of this test and Eleanor Russell (again!) said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Clements. This is unacceptable.” I calmly stood up and addressed the panel and said, “When your piano majors can play ANY of this shit on the tuba, I’ll be back here to take this friggin’ test.” THIS is the SOLE reason I have no degree. NO WAY I would EVER, in my wildest imagination, pass this test. How about requiring 2 or 4 semesters of piano class for us performance majors? Wouldn’t this suffice?

I wish I had access to these classes

Chamber music. I have made a ton of dough playing brass quintets, brass gigs and other small ensemble jobs. At Northridge, there was NO organized chamber music. ANY small group playing I did, I organized. And there was no faculty to coach the ensembles. The skills learned playing chamber music are DIRECTLY applicable to ANY gig I have ever played. San Jose State, no chamber music (I put together a tuba ensemble). Cal State East Bay, no chamber music anymore. WHY NO CHAMBER MUSIC??

Choir.  See Sight singing and melodic dictation above. I just didn’t have time. EVERY music major should be required to sing in a choir for AT LEAST one year (2 semesters, 3 quarters). ARE YOU KIDDING? This is a no brainer!!

Jazz Band, Improv. For every Mahler Symphony I’ve played, I’ve played 3 pops concerts. When I first started playing in the San Jose Symphony, I felt so underprepared to play pop music that I signed up at a local college to play trombone in their jazz band. This gave me the confidence to read those damned jazz figures (with which I had little experience) and that crappy manuscript that I had to read. Learning to improvise is the only TRUE way you can get in touch with your instrument. The jazz guys have a HUGE advantage to my ‘handcuffed to the music’ colleagues. At 57 ½, is it too late for me to learn?

Teaching seminar. One way I’ve made money was by giving private lessons. I would have loved to have Tommy Johnson, or Jim Self, or Roger Bobo, or Loren Marsteller observe me teaching and offer comments on how to make me a better teacher.

A reading band/orchestra. Most semesters, we worked all semester (3 rehearsals a week) to play ONE concert. I have NEVER had this luxury in my career. Usually, rehearsals start Tuesday and the concerts are Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Yes, I get my music ahead of time and I get to the first rehearsal with my part prepared. MANY times, we get the music for a pops concert Thursday and with 2 rehearsals, open the weekend series on Friday night. NOTHING in college prepared me for this kind of “READY, AIM, FIRE” concert preparation.

Audition prep. Get a list, work with my teacher, play a blind audition behind a screen. This is probably THE most uncomfortable playing situations for musicians seeking employment. No one likes auditions. Do one a semester, NO QUESTION. By the time you are on the audition trail, you've done 5-10 mock auditions in real life settings.

More recitals. I love playing solo & ensemble repertoire. I didn't discover this until I put one together myself several years ago.

I hope some of you college professors out there take a moment to consider this and maybe, just MAYBE we can start moving to helping our young artists.

I may add to this later, but it’s a start.

I welcome any and all comments.