Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What the heck do you do with the Tuba?

Last night was a new one for me.  I booked a window seat on American Airlines for "Tuba Dimick".  While I realize it sounds like Glen just got his new copy of the Sarah Palin Baby Name Book, it was actually part of our upcoming weekend in California.  As the person that does most of the travel plans and reservations for the group, this is an issue that we've been wrestling with for some time now, especially as we seem lately to be spending more time out on the West Coast than in the past. 

The problem with the tuba (where to start?), of course, is that it's large.  Extremely large.  It won't fit in the overhead compartment.  So the obvious answer is to check it under the plane.  Unfortunately, these things seem to dent merely by breathing on them, and in order to provide even a modest amount of protection, an expensive Flight Case is required. 

This adds a lot of weight to the instrument, and makes it even larger.  Problem No. 1 is that even with the flight case, you're still living on borrowed time.  At some point, the thing is going to fall off of a belt or out of the baggage cart and be damaged.  Not fun.   Problem No. 2 is that the airlines count the instrument now as being both oversize and overweight.   While some carriers (i.e. Southwest) are good about keeping the costs to about $100 extra in total, others (i.e. Delta) can charge up to $375 EACH WAY

(we did manage once to keep the instrument from being overweight by casually resting an arm on the flight case while it was being put on the scale, miraculously resulting in the entire case weighing in at exactly 49.5 pounds!  I'm sure the ticket agent knew exactly what we were doing but clearly she realized that tuba players have enough handicaps in life as it is and cut us a break on the weight charges)

Problem No. 3 is once you reach your destination, we still have to haul around the stupid hard case, which also takes up the entire backseat of a car and is generally a huge pain in the tuckus.

So now, our new strategy is, whenever possible, just buy the tuba a seat on the plane next to Glen.  I spent an hour on the phone last night with a very nice representative from American Airlines who had never done this before.  Turns out they have a policy in the books for buying seats for cellos, but nothing about tubas.  Go figure.  But once we finally haggled over the details of why I shouldn't have to pay a phone booking surcharge when there's no website option for Tuba-As-Person, and why the 9/11 Security Fee probably doesn't apply here [obligatory WMD joke], it was done.   Now we can bring a soft gig bag that is easy to carry and not feel stressed about instrument damage.   The picture at the bottom is what's going to be happening, except (that's not Glen--just some guy Google Images pulled up, and we are NOT going to be bringing a hard case ON the plane.  Fellow travelers from Indianapolis to San Francisco, rest easy--you won't have to sit behind that guy). 


p.s.   We're on tour next week in Chicago and Wisconsin.  Come out to see us if you're nearby!  Schedule details on the website

p.p.s   Our new cd, SPIRES, comes out on Saturday, 10/20!!   Join us for the release party on that Saturday, 8pm at Lennie's Pub in Bloomington, or you can pre-order it from the website!

Friday, June 8, 2012

From the other side of the world....

Right now, I'm in Thailand, 13000 miles and 12 time zones away from home.   I've spent the last week or so on tour with the Black Bayou Brass, the faculty brass trio at my university (Louisiana-Monroe).  I know that this has little to do with Mirari (and is in fact one of the few times all year when I can put aside quintet business and focus my attention completely on other projects) but this is my place to write and I hope some of you find this tangent interesting!   We had an amazing time being tourists, performing, and working with high school and college students in and around Bangkok, and I thought I'd share a few things that I learned this week before showing a bunch of photos from the trip.  Enjoy!

Things I learned from Thailand

1) Thai students are really hungry.   They have a tremendous thirst for knowledge and are willing to put in long hours and hard work in order to achieve their goals.   I wish more American students had that level of hunger -- and the commitment to follow through instead of just talking about their plans.

2) Having someone around who knows the city is crucial.  We couldn't have done this trip without the amazing assistance of Daren Robbins, horn professor at Mahidol University, who in addition to setting up all the logistics on the Thai end chaperoned us around all week.   The Thai language is incredibly difficult to learn and we absolutely needed Daren to tell taxi drivers where to go, help us order from indecipherable menus, and be a fantastic host and tour guide!

3) Monitor lizards might look like small alligators, but are actually scared of people and pretty harmless.   I saw lizards every single time I walked from the hotel to the music school and stopped to watch each of them. 

4) No matter what country in the world you're in, mention Kenny G and all the jazz students laugh out loud! 

Anyways.......on to some pictures!

View of Bangkok from the Golden Mount.  What a sprawl!

Giant reclining Buddha at Wat Pho ("Wat" means Temple") This pictures doesn't quite capture the size of the it--60 feet long!

A very small part of the amazing Grand Palace in Bangkok.

24-karat gold.  Covering the whole thing.

Monitor lizard!   I think this is the one we named "Zeus"

Just one of many similar views on the beautiful campus of Mahidol University, our home for the week in Thailand.

Lunch!  The dish in front is pineapple fried rice with raisins and shrimp.

I could post pictures for hours, but our internet connection is pretty slow.  Also, we need to catch our van to the airport for the long trip home.   This literally will be the longest day of my life!    Our flight leaves at 2:40am and arrives back in Houston at 4:30pm.   During that time, we will be in the air and on layover in Doha, Qatar for around 26 hours!!   #guesstimetravelispossible

-Alex, pre-jet-lag

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Fearless Thoughts from the Road

Hi from Salt Lake City the site of our latest Mirari Tour:)  We are on our last day, concluding with a concert tonight in a cathedral!  YAY!

Touring with the Mirari Brass is one of my most favorite things to do.  I get to travel to great places and meet and perform with great people!  This tour has certainly been no exception.  We've had a myriad of opportunities to work and perform with fantastic and inspiring students and musicians, like those at BYU-I, Blackfoot, Century, Herriman, Preston, and West High Schools.  It is also a great opportunity for me to continue my Fearless work.

One of the things I am most grateful for is the fact I get to work in a safe, supportive environment.  My brass colleagues are some of the most supportive, encouraging people I know.  Going on tour is an opportunity to get out of the bubble we create for ourselves and into a diverse world of people, traditions, cultures, and ways of thinking.  Although this can be a very enlightening and inspiring aspect of touring, it can also be a challenging one, as well.

I've always prided myself on being comfortable with whom I am as a person.  Having gone through (and still going through:) Jeff Nelsen's Fearless training I have become more comfortable with my musician.  This is a great achievement for me and certainly a welcomed success.  YAY!  Having said that, I have been challenged many times on this tour to stick to whom I am and what I have to say musically.  How do you stay true to yourself when that definition of whom you are is being challenged?  I'm sure this is something many people face so I thought I would take a few minutes to write down my own experience.

1.  Be proud of who you are.  
I've spent a lot of time and energy developing myself.  It's something I'll continue to do - move forward.  Although others may not agree and/or subscribe to my way of thinking doesn't mean we can't learn from each other.  In fact, I often find new perspectives and am reminded that we all want to get to that place of excellence.  Whether the path to get there is the same or not is irrelevant (as long as I'm not hurting anyone:).

2.  Focus on YOUR product.
I've spent many years getting to a place where I can tell stories and share experiences through music.  Those stories are my stories and as such are worthwhile.

3.  See the best in everyone.
As stated previously, everyone gets to excellence in their own way.  Trust that everyone has the best of intentions.  See the positive, or take the time to get to a point where you can see the positive, in every interaction and experience.  Take what you need to move forward and leave the rest.  That way, every experience can be a positive, learning one.

4.  Trust yourself.
This has been a long process for me.  Trusting my thoughts and perceptions over other's.  I can learn from other people's perceptions but don't need to define myself by them. It's my job to do that. It's my responsibility.

5.  Surrender.
This has always been a hard one for me.  I always felt like surrendering to something was being weak or it bruised my ego.  Not the case:)  Surrendering to what you can and can't control is being smart.  Take the information you have and make choices that work for you.

6.  It's Music.
Trust in the music.  That's ultimately why I'm here to begin with....from ever since I can remember, I knew I wanted to be immersed in music - to have it be my life's work.  Well, it is now and I made that happen. 

7.  I am my own ultimate resource - remember this.  Always.

Finally, HAVE FUN.  Always trust in what you know to be true while being open to new ideas, perspectives, and experiences.  My life has ALWAYS been richer thinking this way.

To be clear, most of the things I have mentioned in this post are my own doing.  Someone doesn't make me feel one way or another, I do.  Trusting in my path and story makes me a more effective person and a unique voice amongst many voices.

As I prepare for our final concert of this tour I am reminded of a sentiment a really, smart, caring teacher once shared with me - BE FEARLESS.

Thanks for reading and until next time..... YAY!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Commencing on Reflection

....err, I mean "Reflecting on Commencement."

Well, it’s here! Graduation Season, that is.  It’s the time of year when several of our friends, students, and/or family members are graduating from high school and college.  What an exciting time! 

As a professional musician, I have already played in (at least) twenty graduation ceremonies, with plenty more to come, I’m sure.  It is always an honor to be part of the musical ensemble that provides all of the audio “entertainment” for this important ceremony.

Yesterday I joined the Bemidji State Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Dr. Erika Svanoe, in their performance at the 2012 Commencement Ceremony at Bemidji State University.  We played a 45-minute concert before the ceremony (which included sight reading parts of Orff's Carmina Burana for me!), played Pomp & Circumstance for 25 minutes, accompanied a music student on the national anthem, watched the 90-minute ceremony, and then played some fun exit music by Alfred Reed.

Commencement was held at the new Sanford Center in Bemidji, which is the home turf for the
Bemidji Beavers Hockey Team.  The removed the ice rink for the commencement ceremony:)

During the actual ceremony part, I was moved -almost to tears- several times.  I wish I could say that this was a first, but it always gets me!  Everybody is so happy for everyone else and some students have worked very, very hard to graduate.  This particular ceremony was special for me because it was my first as a faculty member.  Not only was I happy for the students who walked across the stage, but I also took pride in their education, because I was part of it.  I knew exactly how hard they had all worked to be able to graduate, so the smiles on their faces were that much more meaningful. 

I had a lot of time to reflect during the ceremony (in between commencement addresses, of course), and I’d like to share some of my reflections with you:

1. In most collegiate music programs, you really do have to work hard to earn your degree.  If you are currently a high school student considering a career in music, please know this: most people have to practice, study, practice, rehearse, and practice a LOT in college in order to initiate a successful career, let alone graduate.  If you are considering a degree in music, or you are already pursuing a degree in music, make sure that you are willing to devote most of your day to your studies!  If you’re anything like my fellow quintet-mates and me, this is/was a much-welcomed academic situationJ  We love what we do, so we are so happy to spend all of our day playing, learning about, or teaching about music. 

2. When I saw the proud faces of the graduates, I knew that they had been preparing for this day for a long time.  They didn’t decide to buckle down last week and secure that high GPA.  My question to those of you who are in high school or a college music program (but have not graduated with your bachelor’s yet) is: Have you committed to music at the level that you need to graduate?  These graduates achieved success because they traveled on a path over the last 4 (or more) years in which they made good choices, maintained a regular practice/study regimen, and retained a balanced lifestyle.  Have you started this yet?  If not, what are you waiting for?

3. Ok, I will get down off my "hard work" soapbox.  Another thing that I noticed was that almost every one of the 1,000+ graduates had somebody in the audience cheering them on.  Isn’t that amazing?  These students come from all over the (large) state of Minnesota and several surrounding states AND even from a few other countries!  And almost all of them had family in the crowd—even the international students!  I also have very supportive parents, and sometimes I forget how far they will go just to see me and show that they are proud of me.  If you have parents like this, make sure you thank them and let them know that you appreciate their support.  I surely wouldn’t have gotten this far without my parents!

4. At one point I noticed that amongst all of the graduates lined up to approach the stage, a middle-aged woman was in line, and she didn’t have the normal black robe on.  She was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.  She was the last member of the group and the president soon illuminated who she was: in February, her son, who was a senior, had passed away in February 2012.  He would have graduated on Friday with his class.  She was there to accept his degree for him.  All of the administrators gave her a tearful hug and she dignifiedly walked off the stage with his degree. 

Well it was certainly a wake up call.

Here we are, all so very happy and celebratory, and yet it is easy to forget how privileged we are to not only graduate from college, but to be alive!  We take it for granted that many of us live safe, comfortable lifestyles.  I for one, hope that I live to see 100, and might actually get a chance to do that!  I am very fortunate to be able to live this life with freedom, and I get to pursue a career in music too!  It was a wonderful lesson about cherishing life, all of the wonderful people that I know, and all of the great opportunities that I have.  

5. Since I played euphonium at the commencement ceremony, this meant that I got to play a lot more of the melody than I usually play! And yep, I played the melody on Pomp and Circumstance (which by the way, is way more exciting than the bum-bum-bum-bum accompaniment part if you ask me….).  How many times did I play that melody?  At least 30.  With each repeat I had the choice of how I was going to play that phrase: would I simply make sure I played the right notes at the right time, or would I make each note the most beautiful sound that has ever come out of my instrument?  Let me tell you, it was a much more enjoyable experience for me if I chose the latter.  It is not easy to play perfectly, but how will you ever achieve it if you don’t try?  I owe part of this inspiration to two of my teachers:  Jeff Nelsen, who has taught me a lot about Fearless Performance and Pete Ellefson, who has always upheld a very high level of excellence in his playing and teaching.  

It was a wonderful reminder that music is only boring if we decide that it is.  If we choose to make each new phrase the most beautiful musical creation possible, I promise you won’t get bored, and your audience will surely appreciate it. 

6.  Well, I think that will be enough lessons for today.  Now…go practice!


Monday, March 5, 2012

Unusual Gigs

During our last tour, a student asked us about some of the strangest gigs we've ever played.  Well, I spent this entire past weekend playing for the circus. 

On piano. 

To be technical, organ AND bass.  

Now, I've played piano for most of my life, but I typically perform in public once a year at the absolute most.  Certainly not in front of the 30,000 or so people that flooded the Civic Center arena for 6 shows in three days.  But I got a last minute call looking for someone who could play bass lines, read chord changes, and generally fake a whole bunch of musical styles very quickly.   I guess that's me. 

We had one rehearsal before the first show.  I showed up, got my book, and quickly realized that my parts were a very mixed bag.  Some of them had bass lines, some melodies, most chord symbols, many handwritten, some illegible, and lots with markings scribbled all over them (some of which we followed and some that we didn't).  Rehearsal wasn't quite long enough to cover everything so some of the music was left over to be sight read during the first show.  And a couple of the tunes that we worked the hardest on ended up getting cut before the next morning's performance. 

Circus music doesn't stop!   Especially during the first half of the show, we played nearly continuously for an hour straight.  Clearly if I play this gig next year, I need to practice more piano beforehand because my hands and arms were SORE.   When one tune ended, followed by a "Tada" chord for the performer, we usually had about 1-2 seconds to turn over the music and start the next piece.  This was murderous during the first few shows when I didn't really have enough time to move around my pages, figure out what style the piece was is, and try to decipher my handwritten notes about the form.  By the last day, though, I had memorized enough of the book to even look up from time to time and check out some of the performers.  The shot below is the view over my stand before the show began.  Under the crash cymbal, you can see Anna Louise, the dancing elephant (who is apparently very picky about her music and won't dance if the tempo is wrong). 

It was definitely a fun experience, and ranks pretty high on the unusual gigs list for me.  To be totally honest, I'm a bit glad I was on keys for this one.  The trumpet book is brutally taxing (and the guys playing it did a terrific job), and with a couple of busy weeks coming up play lead on Pines of Rome and Chicago back-to-back, I was grateful to save my face. 

Now if only I could figure out where my weekend went.....


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Small Slice of Humble Pie

So last week I had a student playing rather mechanically, lacking the depth and big picture phrasing that I was hoping for. I of course went through every method of training in the book, trying to draw the much-vaunted “story” out of the music. We discussed all sorts of creative thoughts, abstract and concrete. Nothing, nada, zilch. What finally worked? I printed out a picture of a burrito. A freaking burrito. Dude was hungry, and his eyes on the prize suddenly transformed him into Pavarotti. He played a gorgeous phrase without envisioning a single unicorn. Consider me pedagogically humbled.

Basic communication is something of which everyone is capable, until we train it out of ourselves. It’s only partly a gross generalization that musicians are socially stunted, as we look at the man behind the curtain, figure out the workings, and relearn how to “properly” express emotion. I find it ironic that by doing so we often disconnect ourselves from others. Many musicians I know hold themselves apart from mainstream society, heroically labeling themselves as misfits or enlightened or enlightened misfits.

Now, as a tuba player, I have a built in failsafe. You won’t find orchestra season brochure covers with pictures of tubas and roses. The roses would be dead and wilted, and instruments that can and do crush small children aren’t really romanticized. A recent article published about the theft of tubas pointed out that the tuba isn’t a sexy instrument. WHAT??? Er, oh yeah. 

For tubists, our biggest risk is the following:

What is my point, young pedagogues and performers? When trying to communicate with people, understand them, consider them, and by no means expect them to come to you. No matter how brilliant your ideas are, don't just assume they are universal; you’ll be a better musician/communicator if you prioritize rejoining the human race as a pupil rather than an instructor. I think I learned more driving a bus of drunks at 3 am (story for another time) about humans than any number of hours with a tuba in a practice room—go figure.

So keep the ivory tower, the cathedrals, the ultimate expression of human triumph, etc etc. But don’t forget the Mexican food. Even enlightened misfits have to eat.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Update from the road

Hi everyone,

We're in the middle of our of our Louisiana/Mississippi tour, and things are going really well!  This tour was a special treat for me because I got to introduce my Mirari friends to the other half of my life, my terrific colleagues and students at the University of Louisiana-Monroe.   (Not to mention not having to travel to get to the beginning of a tour---can't beat that for convenience!)   We spent all day Monday at ULM, doing some lessons in the morning with brass students, then working with quintets and talking about music business in the afternoon.   I've been so incredibly proud of the players in the student quintets--they have come such a long way in a short time to working on some tough repertoire like the Cheetham Scherzo and part of Eric Ewazen's Colchester Fantasy.  It's a great honor to get to work with talented and engaged musicians such as yourselves!  And thanks to my friend and colleague James Boldin for the nice writeup in his HornWorld Blog---definitely check it out if you haven't already.

Tuesday we changed gears quite a bit and headed out to Elm Grove Middle School in Bossier City (outside of Shreveport).  We spent all day playing for and working with Steve Turner's sixth grade students.   These types of shows are so much fun to do because it seems like the students have an inexhaustible well of questions to ask (including asking Sarah in THREE straight classes, "How do you tongue so fast?")   Yesterday, we did another residency at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.   Jessie held an inspiring workshop on Fearless Performance for the entire school, and gave all kinds of great information on enhancing the mental/emotional/spiritual side of your playing and how it can carry over to the rest of your life.   Later on we did masterclasses and again heard some really great playing.  It was a real treat getting to sit in on the ULL Faculty Brass Quintet rehearsal as well as hang out after our concert.   I'm really glad to meet so many new friends there, especially since I live so close by!  Thanks to Paul Morton for setting up the whole thing.  

In any case, we have to be on the road heading to Cecilia, LA today and Ocean Springs & Vancleave, MS tomorrow.  I have 13 minutes to pack up, check out of the hotel, and load the car!  

See you next time,

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Finding the Balance

YAY!  This is my first blog entry!

In planning a music appreciation class last semester on opera, I came across a great video of Henry Purcell's Dido's Lament (When I am Laid in Earth).  It was a short interview with Philip Sheppard discussing his experience with Jeff Buckley at the Meltdown Festival in 1995.  I was incredibly inspired by Sheppard's thoughts and realizations about music and music making through this experience.

I have always known I was going to be a musician.  Music has always been my life.  Most of my activities are centered around music and my career is music.  Music makes me happy so, I choose to fill almost every second of everyday with music.  When I graduated from high school I went to the Crane School of Music to be a music student.  I took all sorts of classes, lessons, was in ensembles, taught, etc.  I then went on to grad school for a Masters and a Doctorate and took more classes, lessons, etc.  I was a perpetual student and pretty successful at it, too.  Always learning and studying how to be a good musician.  But, somewhere along the way I realized I had lost something that was pivotal to my success in becoming a great musician.  I had gotten so caught up in becoming a great student and fulfilling all my coursework and other obligations, I had forgotten one important thing, why did I go into music?

Hearing Philip Sheppard describe his experience working with Jeff Buckley struck a chord with me.  Is it all about what you've learned?  Is being a student and graduate of music studies the only course you need to become successful in the art and business of music?  Hearing the haunting, melancholy voice of Jeff Buckley was a sure answer.  No.

I had worked so hard to make sure I had all the information I needed to be great.  I spent hours in practice rooms and libraries. What I had lost along the way was remembering why I choose music.  What I felt when I heard the horns in E.T. (the movie), Mahler's Adagietto (4th mvmt to Symphony No. 5), the Kyrie from Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass, sitting around our family piano singing I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, sitting in the pews of a dark cathedral holding a candle and being transported by the ethereal voices of the choir, hearing my own voice as a musician, were the things with which I had lost touch.

When working with students, I have them write down the piece on which they are working.  Then, I have them assemble a list of things that an optimal performance of the this piece would include.  When making these lists (including the ones I make for myself) 95% of the items are descriptors of beauty, inspiration, communication and connecting with listeners.  In creating these lists, I have dusted off the feeling I have felt ever since I can remember when listening and being a part of music.  I have realized that being a great musician means 50% learned information and 50% feel.

I've never walked away from a concert saying, WOW, they can really play great 16th notes or they keep really great time.  Although these things are essential and required for great music making, if we loose touch with the things music can allow us the space and safety to feel, what's left?

Philip Sheppard said that even though he only spent about a half an hour with Jeff Buckley he thinks of him almost every day.  Isn't that one of the things we all cherish about music?  It's ability to attach itself to the soundboard or soundtrack of our lives.  Being a great musician means knowing your facts and technique.  It also means coloring those facts and techniques with the art of being human.  Feeling.