Youth Bands- The Jazzinators

October 9, 2008

i attended a performance by a local youth jazz group called the ‘Jazzinators’ on this past Tuesday evening. The group performs on a bi-monthly basis at a local pizza parlor, and as I am scheduled to participate in a jazz festival at this same establishment on Saturday, I thought it would be useful both to listen to the youth band and simultaneously scout the venue.

The band had a broad representation of instrumentation. The¬† instrumentation included drums, bass guitar, bass guitar/banjo tuba, two clarinets, two trombones, two trumpets and two saxophones. The director occasionally helped out by playing trumpet as well. Their repertoire included tunes from a variety of genres as well, as they played tunes from the Big band era such as ‘In The Mood’ and also were able to play tunes representing the Dixieland era. They even mixed in a few more modern charts.

I observed the band for the better part of an hour, and overall, they were quite skilled for a youth group, especially considering that the age of the members was uniformly young- according to the band director, the oldest member of the group is merely sixteen. The band leader was one of the saxophonists, and he did a creditable job of kicking tunes off, and indicating when they should end. While intonation was an issue at times, overall the band is pleasurable to listen to.

Musically, five members of the group stood out- the two sax players, one of the trombonists, the drummer, and the youngster doubling on bass guitar and banjo. While each of these musicians is still very young, they showed that they understood the rudiments of how to play improvisational solos, and they all produced a good sound on their respective instruments. In addition, the drummer, with whom i have played before, for the most part kept a steady beat, without needless embellishing.

The saxoophonists are both able to do a creditable job on solos, though there were the usual lapses where the soloist lost the thread of his thought, as is normal with younger players. However, they did not try to do too much and they both produced a clean sound. The banjo player frankly stood out. Despite picking up the instrument recently, he was able to produce a very creditable sound and his technique was clean. he also played a solid solo at the beginning of one of the group’s medleys. The trombonist’s skills were mostly hidden throughout the performance, but i was able to listen to him afterward and he clearly has some skills, in addition to which he has a better grasp of improvisation than most of his fellow members.

All youth groups have some issues with tempo and volume, and this one was no exception. The group’s balance was dominated throughout by the sax and trombones- the clarinets, despite being miked, and the trumpets were extremely difficult to distinguish. In addition, the group has not quite mastered the idea that not all tunes need to be played at breakneck speed- the most outstanding example was their rendition of ‘In The Mood’, which began in an out of control freight train-like tempo and steadily increased throughout. Experience will almost certainly remedy this issue. Not to say that older and supposedly more experienced musicians do not also make this error. There are some tunes that suck musicians into tempos faster that they were ever designed to be played, and ‘In The Mood’ is certainly one of these ‘trap’ tunes.

Volume is another area that only experience will fix. Almost all young musicians tend to play louder than they really ought to- especially as the tempo increases. if they do not, then they usually play too softly. Both of these tendencies were present in this band, as save for the afore-mentioned clarinet and trumpet sections, the members tended to play at least one volume designation louder than they really needed to- especially on solos. The corollaries of balance and venue are also areas in which the group could use a little improvement. Knowing how to temper one’s output to adjust for the venue and how to best match one’s volume with one’s fellow players are skills that only experience and time will correct. I expect that as the band members gain experience, these areas will cease to be a concern.

Overall, the group performed very creditably. While there are some weaknesses, they are an enjoyable group and have a lot of promise. Their playing was mostly enthusiastic, and they did a solid job of perfroming a number of classic charts froma  variety of genres. Well done.

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Thoughts on Transposition

October 7, 2008

I participated in a rehearsal last week for a local brass quintet. During the course of the rehearsal, I found myself playing parts written for French horn. This occasioned a few thoughts on transposing in general, and reading horn music in particular.

So what is transposing? Wikipedia defines it as

…the process of moving a collection of notes (pitches) up or down in pitch by a constant interval.

This means that if the note written in the music is a ‘C’, then transposing into B flat the same note would be played as a B flat. This is very common for players such as baritone or trombone players who read trumpet music- the written note is written as C but played as a B flat.

French horn music is commonly written in the key of F, though it is written in standard treble clef. Thus, a middle C in the horn part would be played by a trombonist as an F a fifth below. Since the trombonist is essentially reading the part in F, one must also add a flat to the key signature in order for the notes to sound correctly in relation to the other instruments in the group. When reading, it is useful for the trombonist to read the music as though it were written in mezzo-soprano clef – that is placing the middle C line on the second line from the bottom in the staff.

During the course of the rehearsal, I was abruptly reminded that I have not done much transposing of late other than reading trumpet music, which is written in standard treble clef. Treble clef for trumpet simply involves playing the note a full step lower than written and adding two flats to the key signature (if the piece is written in C, then the player would play it in B flat). Reading treble clef in C (a piano part, for example, the trombonist does not need to change the key signature, and plays the notes as written). Thus, i encountered two major difficulties- first I am no longer particularly apt at transposing on the fly, which led to numerous occasions where I simply lost my place in the chart, and second, my range is no longer extensive enough to accurately hit the high tones necessary to play horn parts.

Overall, I would strongly recommend any aspiring musician to thoroughly learn all the different clefs so that when placed in such a situation he or she is able to read the music without needing frequent stoppages. Secondly, aspiring musicians should become thoroughly familiar with their instruments so that when asked to play in a particularly high or low range, the ability is at least present. While I was once able to do exactly that, my lack of steady practice over the years has definitely hurt my ability to play in the ultra-high register. The moral of this story is practice, practice, practice!