After 7 years of performing and recording with the esteemed ensemble, Brandon plays his last scheduled tour with Canadian Brass. April 11-16, 2013 - details in link: http://canadianbrass.com/events/
Japan may be on the other side of the planet from us, but does it necessarily feel like it is? Well, yes. In my opinion, it does. Although filled with developed cities in some ways similar to ours, their people and way of life are quite different. There is a certain etiquette that most foreigners wouldn’t ever experience unless they visited, say, Japan. I feel very lucky to have opportunities to travel the world, perform music, and experience these different cultures. My visit to Japan was another busy, yet fulfilling experience. This time I was fortunate enough to be there with my wonderful girlfriend, Naomi Kudo (who spent her childhood in Japan) who helped me not only with understanding the language, but also with being aware of the Japanese culture.
After arriving to Tokyo, it was straight to rehearsing with Naomi. We had to leave early the next morning for Hakodate, which is in Hokkaido, the northern part of Japan. Moments after arriving to Hakodate, we went straight to the local radio station for a live interview. Naomi not only had to answer the questions being asked of her, but also had to translate everything being asked of me, PLUS translate everything I said back to Japanese.
After grabbing some lunch, it was off to the school where the first Conn-Selmer clinic was to take place. I learned that the students participating in the class were part of an after school program. There were around 100 in attendance and they spend around 2 hours after every school day playing music together. I was already impressed! They were mainly high school aged students, around 13 to 17 years old. I soon found out there wasn’t actually anyone prepared to play for me. So the class became an event that everyone was a part of, allowing all of the students to participate at some point. We discussed things ranging from warm up routines, to breathing, to performing in front of an audience. All of the students were extremely well behaved, in fact, TOO well behaved. It was sometimes difficult for some of them to muster the courage to speak out, particularly when I asked if there were any questions. After a while, the students gradually stopped suppressing their thoughts and curiosities, becoming more vocal and comfortable with participating. Fortunately, Naomi was there to translate the entire event so I could actually be of some help to them! There were only a few students there who knew a bit of English.
The students wanted to know what I do in my “routine”. Playing in the mid to low register of the horn is where I usually begin. I took them through some examples of things I might play, yet prefacing by saying that my warm up consists of exercises that I feel I need to address in my playing at that moment. I suggested that they approach their warm up and practicing with the same thing in mind. Don’t just always play the things you know you’re good at, work on things that you know you can be better at. Be creative as well and come up with your own exercises. I suggest this rather than reading something out of a book. Listening closely to one’s self when you play is key in one’s development. Being aware of how your lips and breath feel is also important. We don’t want to over-do it and hurt our lips, so we must stay aware and be careful. Maintaining good breath support is also important for our lips’ longevity. We did breathing exercises involving everyone in attendance. You could actually feel the air being sucked out of room! Well… just about. We did some technical, finger-ry exercises with those who had their instruments out. I was quite impressed with their ability to play things requiring quick finger technique. They all really had quick, sharp technique. So sticking to my own preaching (not practicing the things you’re already good at), we went on to sound production. This was an area that I could actually help them with. We worked on finding a focused, healthy, centered tone on the instrument. After some big breaths and pitch bending exercises, they were able to explore the different sides of notes and found where they resonated best.
There was a very special moment in this class where a young girl hesitantly offered to play a solo for everyone. Her band director nominated her on the spot and it seemed as though she wasn’t really prepared for this to happen. I could immediately tell she was quite shy and nervous. Being in front of an audience was clearly something she was not comfortable doing. She tried to play her solo, but seemed too overcome with fear to play for more than just a few seconds. I soon joined her in the spotlight and asked her if she knew why she felt this way. She shrugged. I asked her to take a few deep breathes with me along with everybody in room, thinking about nothing other than the ease of the breath. I then asked if she knew most of the people she was playing for. She said yes. I asked everyone in the audience if THEY knew HER. They said “Yes”. Seeing that she seemed to be a good, nice person, I asked them if they all liked her. They all said “YES”. The expression on her face broke into a smile and you could feel her spirit and confidence beginning to rise.
At that moment I spoke briefly about the importance of communicating with your audience when you perform. Any fear or nervousness one feels is completely self-inflicted. We shouldn’t be scared of our audience. They aren’t out trying to kill us or hurt us. So why do we sometimes react as if our life is in danger when we appear before a group of people? I asked the now slightly-less-shy student to communicate to her audience by simply waving at them. It was the first time she seemed to openly acknowledge there were people watching her and listening to her. When she waved, naturally every one of her classmates delightedly waved back with a big smile. It was quite a sight. The warmth and support she received from her audience immediately gave her the positivity, courage, and confidence she needed. It can sometime seem as though an audience is there to work against you, but they are most often always there to support you. If you are open to them, they will give you the support you desire.
Naomi and I played concerts together in Hakodate and Tokyo. Not only is she a terrific pianist, but it turns out she is an expert translator as well. It certainly helped having a knowledgable musician translating the crazy things I was trying to say to the students.
In Tokyo, Conn-Selmer organized another masterclass, which was followed by a short concert Naomi and I played for them. We played all original arrangements of mine. This is what our program looked like:
Brahms Scherzo for Violin and Piano (from FAE Sonata) (4′)
Rachmaninoff Etude Tableaux in C major Op.33 No.2 (3′)
Scriabin Prelude for the Left Hand Op.9 (3′)
Prokofiev March Three Oranges (2′)
Ravel Habanera (3′)
Debussy Three Preludes (10′)
La danse de Puck
Girl with the Flaxen Hair
第２巻より ５番 ヒースの荒野
第１巻より １１番 パックの踊り
Bartok Six Romanian Folk Dances (7′)
Theme and Variations on “Chopsticks” arr. Ridenour (5′)
ENCORE: Carnival of Venice (4′)
In the Tokyo masterclass, a very accomplished trumpeter began by playing the Intrada by Arthur Honegger. Although much older and more advanced than the nervous girl who played for me in Hakodate, there were many similarities between the two in terms of their ability to perform. As he played on, his nerves made him more fatigued than what he should have been. I could tell that he was a good player, but his nervousness kept him from succeeding and making a great sound on the trumpet. I didn’t have the audience wave at him, but instead noticed that there were some physical constraints keeping him from making a nice, easy, effortless sound on the trumpet. It was his breathing that I found to be stifled and unnatural. We worked on relaxing his breath and to consider his breath being a part of the music. “Breathe how you play, play how you breathe.” Once he began to breathe in the character of the music he was playing, he was able to play more naturally and there was more freedom in his sound. Not only that, he forgot it was a performance and forgot to get nervous. He was completely focused on the music and his breath being a part of it. This is a key tool for relinquishing nervousness and being in the moment within the music.
A brass quintet was to follow and they chose to play the music of Victor Ewald, who is probably the most popular composer of brass quintets. Like everyone I had heard before, they were very technically efficient, yet stiff in every other way. My main objective was to get them to loosen up, breathe comfortably together, and move some more! They looked at me almost as though I was speaking a foreign language to them. Well, yes. Yes I was. So remembering Hakodate and the power of simply communicating through music, I played some things for them and also sat in their group and played along with them. Once they heard and saw me move around, they then realized that their bodies were also capable of the same. It wasn’t just about moving though, it was about bringing life and motion to the music. It needed to dance more, and since they weren’t dancing, the music wasn’t dancing. Once they began to feel the music within their bodies, the piece started to breathe life and the audience could then feel the movement of the music within their bodies.
The deeper a performer goes into the music, the more their audience will appreciate it. Our minds can sometimes think about the audience BEFORE thinking about the music that needs to be played. This can be a distraction for some of us and it defeats the objective of performing and creating great art. Focusing your mind on the music itself, breathing naturally within it, and creating a good atmosphere around you, are all key ingredients for a successful performance. Although initially difficult to communicate with the students in Japan (due to the language barrier), the connection grew as the classes went on. In the end, playing music for each other proved to be the most powerful way to communicate what was being said. Thank goodness for this universal language we have!