Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Creative Visualization"


“When I play, I’m telling a musical story.”

SHAKTI GAWAIN (Creative Visualization, Nataraj Publishing)

“Use the power of your imagination to create what you want in life.”

Jake was an imaginative musician not just a virtuoso tubist. It would not have mattered what instrument was in his hands. He could have been a great pianist or violinist. He became a highly accomplished string bass player simply by placing chalk marks on the finger board!

In his personal playing and his teaching, Jake always emphasized musical imagination over mechanics. He thought of playing as an “art form” rather than a technical skill. When he was a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he attended a performance class taught by Marcel Tabuteau, principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He credits Tabuteau with giving him a strong background in phrasing and musical interpretation. Jake’s vivid musical imagination was expressed very powerfully.

He never allowed anything to distract him, including his instrument or how he was feeling, from his imaginative awareness of the music. He inspired his students to elevate their artistic standards to compete with the levels of any great musical artists, not just brass players.

I remember a performance of the Symphonie Concertante by Prokofiev. The great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was soloist with the CSO. The powerful tuba part was frequently a duet with the soloist. Jake matched the incredible musical level of Rostropovich. At the end of the performance, he gave Jake a solo bow and ran back stage to give him a “Russian Bear” hug. It was one of his most astounding performances with the orchestra.


“Some people have a musical imagination that can be expressed in shades of gray and black. Others hear music expressed in bright vivid colors.”

“Emerald City is a bright shade of emerald green, not dark green, gray, or black.”

I recall that the most satisfying moments in my lessons with Jake frequently occurred at the end. He would assign several horn etudes by Gallay or Paudert. Then he would say, “Let’s try them now.” He sang along as I sight read the music. Jake was an imaginative singer and master solfege artist. I was astounded at how easy it was to play the etudes so well. It was as if he was playing them rather than me. I could never play the etudes as well on my own, even after practicing them for years!

Jake learned about the power of visualization from his wife, Gizella. When they met, she was a professional dancer. She told him about the visualization techniques that dancers used. They imagine dance movements before and while they execute them. Athletes and business people commonly use visualization techniques as well.


We were playing Stavinsky’s, “The Rite of Spring Ballet” with Solti and the CSO. In those days, the orchestra played Friday afternoon concerts that were attended by “shoppers” (Solti called them “bag ladies”! He despised them so much, the CSO eventually eliminated Friday afternoon concerts!) and music students, who sat in the gallery.

I remember warming up in the basement of Orchestra Hall before the concert. Jake sat in front of the black shipping trunk next to his locker. I sat facing him about fifteen feet away.

He began as a trumpet player before playing trombone and later by accident, the tuba. He enjoyed imagining that the tuba was a trumpet. He would shift his mouthpiece upward to form a trumpet player’s embouchure, and play in the midrange of a trumpet on the tuba. However, he was playing two octaves higher than the midrange of the tuba! It sounded like a resonant trumpet playing with the same ease a clarity of an instrument 4.5 ft long rather than 18 ft. This demonstration made a powerful impression on me both aurally and visually. I was completely astonished! I’m sure he intended the demonstration to be a powerful lesson.

Later that afternoon, the Civic Orchestra had their biweekly rehearsal in Orchestra Hall. For my second warm-up of the day, I sat in the exact same spot in the basement dressing room where Jake and I played a few hours before. I remember mentally visualizing Jake sitting in front of his trunk and hearing him do his “trumpet” impersonation. What happened next was almost frightening!

I picked up my tuba and duplicated what I heard him play earlier. I was amazed at how easy it was. I had no thoughts of shifting my embouchure or any other mechanics.
Interestingly, I was never able to duplicate the experience in a different location, only where we sat in front of his shipping trunk. It was the combination of a powerful visual and aural awareness that allowed me to experience that level of performance.


“Let me paint the picture for you.”

When I’m working with young or inexperienced musicians, I frequently use imagined visual imagery to elevate their musical awareness. I call the technique “painting the picture”. Sometimes, I’ll make up a story, or if it’s program music, I’ll describe the real story.

Recently, I conducted the Brandenburg Sinfonia by Bach with my high school orchestra. Because of their inexperience, they had no idea of the Baroque style of the music. I painted the picture by describing how Bach would lead the orchestra from the harpsichord. I was using a harpsichord in the orchestra so I asked the student to play the first eight measures of her part. The harpsichord plays block chords (continuo) in a somewhat detached style. It was the style I wanted the strings to imitate. Even though their parts indicated that they play in a detached style, those words meant nothing to them musically.

I explained that the harpsichord was leading the orchestra and that they should imitate what they heard coming from the instrument. Needless to say, they immediately sounded like a different orchestra. I said nothing about bowing technique or any other playing mechanics!

“The Pirates of the Caribbean”

When the first “Pirates” movie came out a few years ago, I decided to perform the score at our spring concert. I was astonished to hear how well they could play the music immediately. With such inexperienced players, it usually takes a long time for them to learn new music.

I soon learned that most of the students had seen the movie several times. They loved the music as much as the movie. They already had a vivid awareness of the music and how it visually fit the movie. As a result, they could perform at a much higher level than their inexperience should allow. I soon noticed that they readily transferred the higher performance level to the other music on the concert as well.

Everything I do, as an orchestra director, is to communicate the music aurally and visually to the students. Musically, they never sound like an inexperienced high school orchestra because that’s not the sound I’m communicating to them. They would sound like an inexperienced high school orchestra if I didn’t influence them from themselves.


"My string and woodwind players know much more about their instruments than I do. The reason for my success as their director, is that I know much more about how their instruments should sound and the music than them."

"I’m convinced that what separates musicians has little to do with anatomy or equipment. However, it has everything to do with 'state of mind'."


ARNOLD JACOBS speaking to RR.

“I wish I could put my brain in your body. What a combination that would be!”

Bud Herseth, the greatest orchestral trumpet player of all time, played an ordinary Bach trumpet with a stock 1C mouthpiece. Dennis Brain’s horn was in such poor condition that he filled in holes in the tubing with matchsticks.


“There are two instruments, one in your hand and one in your head. The instrument in your hand is a mirror reflecting the instrument in your head.”


Because Jake opened the doors of opportunity for me at such a young age, I found myself working with some of the greatest brass players in the world by the time I was eighteen. In addition to the CSO, I was on first call at the Grant Park Symphony, Lyric Opera, and in all of Chicago’s recording studios. I played in five professional brass quintets and brass ensembles.

I was a music student at Roosevelt University where Reynold Schilke taught trumpet and directed the brass choir. Great brass players from all over the world would frequently come to Chicago to study or perform. Schilke would routinely organize a group of brass players to play ensemble music with the visitors on Saturday mornings at his downtown trumpet factory. I was very fortunate to be the invited tuba player!

I survived by imitating what I heard around me. I didn’t have enough experience to make it on my own, but I was smart enough to go with the musical flow.

I credit one brass quintet in particular for my personal musical development. The trombonist (bass) was a natural musical genius who I also sat next to in the Civic Orchestra. He was only a year older than me but his musical imagination and playing level was that of a fully seasoned professional in a major orchestra. He was a powerful influence on me and everyone else in the quintet. He was considered to be the “heir apparent” to replace Ed Kleinhammer in the CSO someday.

One day, someone told him he should consider changing his embouchure to increase his endurance. Tragically, that was the beginning of the end of his career. He eventually gave up the trombone and became a fine recorder player.

As a high school student, I collected records and frequently went to the library in downtown Chicago to listen to recordings and read scores.

Very few musicians have an opportunity to experience music performance at such a high level, at such a young age. It was a very fertile environment in which to grow my musical imagination.


Because of the internet, there is a tremendous opportunity to access the highest levels of musical performance in the world. Itunes and youtube allow us instant access to recordings and videos from the past and present.

The highest level of musical awareness can be achieved when we vocally and mentally sing. Jake was a beautiful singer who highly recommended the study of solfege to his students.

He also advocated playing vocal music, interpreting it like a great singer.


“The sound that comes out the bell of your horn is precisely the same level as the awareness of sound in your head. Neither you or the instrument can lie.”

“You must be an honest musician because you have a lie detector in your hands.”


Jake tells us to create an imaginative mental awareness of the music we want our audience to hear. He talks about his studio practicing at Curtis. He knew that Leopold Stokowski or Fritz Reiner might be walking by and hear him play. Whether they were actually there or not, he always tried to play at the level he wanted them to hear. His playing was always mindful, never mindless.


“Never practice, always perform.”

When Jake says, “Tell a story”, he asking us to communicate musically to an audience just as if we were speaking to them. However, it’s very important to have something special to say.

When I coach brass players in preparation for an audition, I tell them to amplify everything they are trying to communicate musically. If they separate themselves musically from their competition, they will also separate themselves technically as well. This requires courage and the willingness to take risks.


“A trumpeter’s life is risky business. No greatness can be achieved if the player is paralyzed by fear.”


When I played my audition for the Honolulu Symphony, the conductor was on the stage with me. He was a marvelous cellist who played in the NBC Symphony with Toscanini at the age of sixteen and was formally principal cellist of the CSO.

As he selected the excerpts, I sensed his awareness of what he wanted to hear from me. He gave me powerful visual cues which strongly influenced my ability to execute the music. He helped raise my musical awareness level which was honestly expressed by the sound coming from the bell of the tuba.


“Creative Visualization” is the mental awareness (aurally, visually or both) of anything, including the sound of music. Shakti Gawain says that if we maintain any conscious mental awareness for enough time, our subconscious brain will react powerfully to realize that awareness. She recommends renewing the visual and (or) aural imagery several times a day.

For brass players, I recommend the repetition of the SING, BUZZ, PLAY formula in sets of three.


“Moving up the ladder of awareness will bring you to the notes you want to play.”

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