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Are Orchestral Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Team Players?

This article was originally published in the International Trombone Association Journal, Volume 25, No. 1, Winter, 1997, and subsequently reprinted in the Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association (TUBA) Journal, Volume 24, No. 3, Summer, 1997.

1997 Douglas Yeo. All rights reserved.

Over the past two decades, there has been a veritable explosion in the development of the modern trombone. Players are now confronted with a dizzying array of choices in mouthpiece, bells, leadpipes, valves and slides. Many manufacturers offer the player the chance to put together a highly specialized instrument made up of several individually selected parts. The good news is that the choice has never been greater - the free market is a wonderful thing. But there is a down side to all of this.

As trombones have gotten more and specialized, and in many cases, more efficient in the delivery of sound, there has been a trend toward larger and larger equipment which touches on the very human issues of ego, pride, submission to authority, working together and the concept of being a "team player." There is a subtext behind the "bigger is better" trend which bears careful scrutiny.

Go into the parking lot of any brass conference, convention or workshop, and you're bound to find more than a few cars with the bumper sticker that reads, "Question authority." Some would argue that this mindset is the province of trumpet players alone but that surely is not the case. Over the past twenty years, American orchestral playing has been undergoing a significant change, as brass players have (with some notable exceptions) asserted themselves beyond their traditional role in the orchestra.

Most students go through their "loud" phase, of getting together with other players and just knocking the living daylights out of orchestral excerpts. This can be great fun to do, good for the face and boosting to the ego. But excerpt sessions don't always relate to the real world, and as many brass players have developed a more "muscular" concept of playing, the American orchestra has, in my mind, begun to suffer.

The job of balancing an orchestra lies with the conductor alone. But there is no denying that a 15 member brass section can ruin any orchestral concert (despite what the conductor wants) very easily as the combined volume of the strings and winds can never compete with that of even a single trombonist. Arnold Jacobs once told me that in his view, the bass trombone was the instrument of the orchestra that had by far the greatest "high volume potential" owing in part to the fact that after the flute, the bass trombone utilized the highest flow rate of any wind instrument, including the tuba.

Part of the problem is simple ignorance; the idea that Bruckner symphonies are to be played at maximum volume would horrify Bruckner, the reserved, insecure, Catholic composer of music for and about the church and the inexpressible "beyond." Let us not forget that his symphonies also require us to play as soft as possible. Unfortunately, many players look at passages marked fff and simply blow until the seams pop. Unsatisfied with the way their instruments respond to this treatment, they continually hunt for something that will allow them to play even louder with a reasonably good sound. Hence, we now have tenor players in many major orchestras using bass trombone slides and 3 or 4G mouthpieces, and bass trombonists without leadpipes, playing mouthpieces that resemble tuba mouthpieces, and gigantic dual bore slides. All of these changes do indeed allow players to play louder.

But there is a cost.

Get up close to an orchestra in concert these days. You'll find that the stage is often covered with Plexiglas shields that are positioned either in front of selected brass players, or behind the chairs of those unfortunate viola, cello or woodwind players who happen to be in the line of fire. Most string players play with one or two earplugs out of self-preservation. The result of all this: an orchestra that is divided into factions - rather like a TV dinner - instead of a homogenous group that is interested in playing together as a blended team. The shields and earplugs cause great emotional harm to players who trained and worked to get into a symphony orchestra, only to have their lives ruined on a daily basis by over enthusiastic brass players.

We have ourselves to blame for this. With the stereotype of the classic "Chicago" sound in our minds (which, according to my teacher, Edward Kleinhammer, had less to do with the brass section playing loudly and much more to do with a section with a unified concept playing in tune, with everyone being on the same team, submitting their own egos to the concept of the "greater good"), players often seem determined to assert themselves and think, "Doggone it, if it says fff , I'm going to play fff!" They do not realize that dynamics are relative, and for the most part, we brass are not as important in the overall scheme of things as we think we are. (Even in Mahler Symphonies, the trombone players will actually have the instrument on the face for a total of 10-20 minutes - not much out of a 60 - 90 minute work.) Brass players are only a piece of the orchestral puzzle. When we take it upon ourselves to widen our influence beyond the role the composer gives us we are on dangerous ground.

This fragmenting of the orchestra is highly regrettable. Hearing orchestras live that still play with a great tradition of balanced section concepts is truly eye opening.

In early 1996, the Boston Symphony played the Strauss Alpensinfonie on our United States/Canada tour conducted by Seiji Ozawa. On returning home from the tour, I was asked to perform as an extra player with the Vienna Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall in the same piece with the same conductor. I was all too happy to do so. It was an eye opening experience. Two orchestras - one piece, one conductor. And two totally different concepts of playing.

Imagine an orchestra where each player listens to every other player. All the time. Where players self-regulate their dynamics. Where climaxes are measured and real, and when a pianissimo is truly a shattering, beautiful thing to behold. When the woodwinds are a vital part of orchestral fortissimo. I was part of that with Vienna. I heard them do this without any particular encouragement or guidance from the conductor. It is just the way they do things. The performance was electric because I was part of a great unified orchestra doing their thing.

No Plexiglas. No earplugs. No strutting brass egos. Just one great concert.

Back in my college days (early 70's), I went to hear the Chicago Symphony every week. After one particularly inspiring concert, I went backstage to offer my congratulations to Mr. Kleinhammer. I said something like, "Wow, you sounded incredible!" His response?

"If you heard me, then I was a failure. You should have heard an orchestra, not a trombone player."

That got my attention. And there is a lesson there for all of us. This search for increasingly bigger and bigger equipment that encourages us to play with ever increasing volume is changing our orchestras. The strings and winds have not changed the way they sound (or play) for decades, and developments that would fundamentally change them are not in the wind. If the brass unilaterally decide that they need to be "noticed" more, that they need to exercise their collective "chops" and egos to impress other brass players in the audience, then we are truly headed down a slippery slope.

Too often I hear students tell me what they hear from other students; comments like:

These comments are foolishness, borne of pride, insecurity, a "know-it-all" attitude, and inexperience. This is not a game. This is art. And there is an audience that is paying cash money to hear orchestras transport them to another plane, another world of sublime beauty, inspiration and pathos. It only takes one person in the orchestra to decide they are the most important thing on stage to ruin a concert. Unfortunately, it is usually a brass player that is the cause of the ruination.

Large equipment in itself is not the problem. There are many great instruments out there and there is certainly one that will fit each player "just right." Play what you want. Play what works for you. BUT. . . .

Whatever you play, remember that you are part of a team. If you've got the lust for a new horn that's bigger and better, ask yourself WHY you want to make the change. Do it for the right reasons, not so you can make those in front of you "notice" you. Just because you can play louder than anyone else in the orchestra doesn't mean you should exercise that skill. Listen to what's around you. Play with good taste and style at all times.

Never forget this.

Keep the dynamics in your part in the context of what's going on in the complete texture. Get out of the way when you're not important. Be able to admit you're wrong when you're wrong. Adopt an attitude of humility when you play. Think always of "we," not "I" when on stage. Listen to the conductor (even if he doesn't command your respect) - he holds the ONLY position of authority on stage. You don't have to like him, you just have to obey him. And, remember: there are PEOPLE sitting in front of you who also love to play their instruments. They are not just "cannon fodder" for the machismo enhanced pride and insecurity of brass players. If we make our colleagues deaf and ruin concerts in the process of satisfying our own egos, then we deserve the just condemnation we will receive from our peers and the public at large.

I've to go practice. I want to make sure I'm part of the solution at my concert tonight, not part of the problem.

A response by Gene Pokorny, tubist, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Shortly after my article appeared in the International Trombone Association Journal and it was reprinted in the Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association (now the International Tuba Euphonium Association) Journal, my friend, Gene Pokorny, tubist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, wrote a long "Letter to the Editor" of the T.U.B.A. Journal that he copied to me (dated October 24, 1997). His comments were subsequently published in the T.U.B.A. Journal in the Winter 1998 issue. It was gratifying to hear Gene add his voice to this important subject. Here are a few excerpts from his letter.

Congratulations on a well-written article by Doug Yeo and special commendations to editor John Taylor and anybody else who was responsible for getting that ITA article in the T.U.B.A. Journal. That article has been needed for some time. Those of us who are lucky enough to be playing music professionally in symphony orchestras can become lax in some of the most basic tenets of team playing. That lack of attentiveness to teamwork is unfair to the composer as well as to our colleagues, the people who listen to us and those players who learn from our example...

I have very few conflicts with his article. The biggest one is only a matter of perspective. Foolish comments and foolish playing are not completely indicative of inexperience. On the contrary, some of the dumbest actions and words I have witnessed on stage have come from some very experienced players. Their listening and teamwork muscles are all but dead unless a conductor sits on them. What is then disturbing is when these players start playing WITH the group demonstrating that they simply chose not to earlier.....

It is easy to be empathetic and understanding with Yeo's article. My first reaction was to think of all the OTHER people who should read the article. Well, the fact is that we could ALL use to be reminded of some of the points in this article....

Teamwork is the highest attainment in orchestral performance. Unfortunately many musicians (professional as well as non-professional) believe the highest result targeted should be to play one's own part independently well. As noble a pursuit as that is, nowever, it is only the prerequisite in getting into the next level of performance. Interdependence, synergy, the "we" paradigm, is not only a higher level of performance but it is a much higher level of maturity....

When I was in high school in the early 1970's, I was taught a very important concept of balance from Benton Minor in California. The pyramid concept basically says that the highest voices in any ensemble should be supported slightly stronger and at least as reliably (in tune, rhythmically accurate, etc) by the immediate voices below. Those voices should be supported slightly stronger and more reliably yet by the voices below them, etc, until you reach the bottom voices which are the strongest and most reliable. This does not mean that the tuba players should be playing loud all the time. What it does mean is that tuba players should be most responsible for dynamic contrasts and reliable intonation. This particular concept is not unknown in the band world (W. Francis McBeth) or in the orchestral world (George Szell). Part of the problem with balance is when the voices at the very top of this "food chain" are playing way too loud. Although it is easy to play in a unified way since everybody can hear the "Tyrannosaurus Treble Tyrants" on the top, the pyramid concept of balance is in shambles: The woodwinds are overblowing their instruments into non-Western scales, the string section takes on the significance of tape hiss in the total mix, and the brass section sounds like a three-alarm fire in the elephant house at the zoo. Any low brass, low woodwind or low string player who tries to keep up with this "feeding frenzy" adds to the insanity. Yes, there will be people out there who think it is really great, exciting as all get-out, etc, and there are the perpetrators after the concert who enjoy hearing that EVERY one of their notes was heard in the hall. And who doesn't enjoy an exciting performance? The question is, "Was it exciting because it was loud?" or "Was it loud because it was exciting?" or "Was it just loud."....

Unless smart players are courageous enough (or stupid enough, depending on your perspective) to encounter those who choose not to control themselves, the responsibility rests with the conductor, as Yeo points out. Unfortunately, many conductors are so intimidated and grateful when they come in to conduct some of the top orchestras, they are reluctant to actually stop the music in order to correct and control balance, pitch, inaccurate rhythms, etc. Those few conductors who actually offer valuable comments and try to tighten up some of the loose ends may bruise the egos of some of the "sacred cows" (which every ensemble seems to have). Coincidentally, these purposeful conductors may not be asked back again.....

It may be inexperience which dictates some players to not be a part of the team on stage but in many cases it is CHOICE. There are many venerable professionals out there who know how to be ensemble players but, for whatever reasons, choose to not be part of the group. Some of it is carelessness, but some of it is choosing to "get back" at a conductor, make a point to a player on stage, impress some friend in the audience, etc. Whatever the reason, the choice of not playing together with everybody else on stage is a mistake in which everybody pays for somebody else's lack of maturity.....

For more on this topic, see my FAQ on Noise Levels On Stage.

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