Know Your Role

Another semester is upon us and many students are making up for lost time over the holidays. Practice rooms are filling up again, new goals are being formed, and rehearsals are getting underway for the next concerts. I’m looking forward to the next few months that will include recitals, masterclasses, jazz clinics, recording sessions, chamber music, operas, and numerous university concerts.

One of the best things about playing in various styles, ensembles, and settings is that I’m challenged to play different roles. Each opportunity to perform presents unique challenges and musicians must navigate the social dynamics of these situations alongside musical considerations. Student musicians will enjoy fruitful careers if they become adept at moving between jobs that include soloing, chamber music, and ensemble playing. Many of you will transfer these performance skills into your teaching to provide future students with informed rehearsal and practice techniques.

As a soloist, you are tasked with leading. You might be in an large or small ensemble or with an accompanist. No matter the setting, your interpretation of the music must be previously formed. Come to rehearsal with phrasing in mind. Be confident in dynamic decisions but be prepared for a give and take. Have musical reasoning for decisions in your preparation. This will help you communicate with a conductor or pianist. You can be sure that they want to help you succeed, but they also have a responsibility to bring the supportive parts into an orbit with the soloist that makes musical sense. Confidence will steady your nerves but ego should be left at the door. When all eyes are on you, avoid the trap of thinking that the audience is there to be in awe of your skill. People who have invested their time to listen to you simply want to be taken on a musical journey that lifts them from the mundane of the everyday. Explore your voice in an effort to find originality.

I began playing chamber music in the 7th grade. I’ll never forget the fun challenge of performing with a trio at my first solo & ensemble competition. Subsequent years brought opportunities to perform with numerous chamber ensembles, and I still enjoy any chance to work with friends and colleagues without a conductor dictating interpretation. I was fortunate to study with Charles Villarubia for a period of time at the University of Texas. His coaching of my brass ensembles was instrumental in how I now approach chamber music. Many schools are well intentioned but are often loaded with course requirements allowing very little time for this critical skill area to be developed. The skill is working well with others. You can have opinions and can offer them, but you must be able to listen to others to create a product that represents the group. An orchestra is constructed in way that allows each person to be quickly replaced. An argument can be made for the lasting influence of some principal players, but the vision of the conductor will remain throughout their tenure. A chamber ensemble that is firing on all cylinders will miss you if you suddenly fall ill. It takes time to replace a talented violinist or horn player. Their sound has to fit into the group voice. They have to get along with everyone. It helps if their public persona is one that can connect with audiences, market the group to concert presenters, and be relatable to students. All of these areas weigh more heavily on a group’s success than how high or fast the first trumpet can play. Strive to be the person others would be delighted to work with and the musical product will reap dividends. Your musical contribution will be important and your preparation or lack thereof will be on display in every rehearsal. You shouldn’t have to stop and ask your neighbor what they are playing in a particular measure if you know the music. Listen to quality recordings. Study scores. Understand how your part fits into the whole. Understand how each pair of instruments work together. Understand how all voices interact and how specific harmonies will affect intonation or points of tension. In sum, be prepared and be cool.

Performing in a large ensemble can be a rewarding experience that stretches your capabilities. We must be willing to make a consistent effort to bring the conductor’s vision to fruition. If you are a section leader, think about the example you set to your section mates in music and conduct. Provide clear and informed playing for others to follow and match. If you are sitting next to the section leader do everything in your control to help them sound their best. Be supportive and not distracting if they are performing a solo. It doesn’t matter if you think you can play it better. Serve others and your opportunity will present itself in time. Be prepared to fill in on a solo if needed on a moment’s notice. It does happen! If you are playing 3rd or 4th part your contribution is also crucial in the success of the section or larger ensemble. You’ve heard the pleas of teachers calling for more volume from the low end. You’ve heard that you have to be more articulate or play shorter to match the principal. I love playing 3rd trumpet in an orchestra and have no problem giving all of the credit to the principal. Listen with intense focus to the principal player’s articulation, pitch placement, and phrasing. Adjust to find them sooner than later. Many great leaders in various fields rose in position by doing grunt work without complaint (playing 3rd trumpet isn’t grunt work), giving credit to everyone around them, and talking less.

This discussion of roles includes jazz ensembles, combos, marching bands, orchestras, concert bands, and small groups. Playing in a horn section for a funk band has a lot in common with the chamber music experience. Practice to perform with the skill of a soloist. Your effort will be appreciated by your peers and audience. You will also become someone others enjoy working with and that can be a priceless advantage.