When Buglers go on Holiday, they play Trumpet

September 30, 2016 at 10:30 am

Nothing says TGIF like a fun, light piece by Leroy Anderson – makes me want to make a martini and do a white-man dance.

“Bugler’s Holiday” is a piece loved by trumpet players, for obvious reasons. The abundance of trumpet-players in high school and community bands means that this piece gets a lot of plays, and the better players get a chance to show off a bit. The piece’s title is a bit of a misnomer; the three solo parts need to be performed on a modern trumpet, not a bugle. A bugle is a very simple brass instrument – essentially just a coil of metal tubing with a mouthpiece on one end and a bell on the other. This means the only way to change pitch is by increasing the air pressure – to oversimplify, “blowing harder”. Other brass instruments control pitch both by air pressure and with aids that actually increase the length of the brass tubing. A trombone is the easy example – push the slide out, and the air is travelling an extra four feet of length, lowering the pitch. Valved instruments like a tuba or horn follow the same idea; instead of adding tubing by moving a slide, the player presses a valve which forces the airflow through little coils of extra tubing, cut to a specific length for precise pitch finding. Valved brass instruments are only about 150 years old (that’s quite young in the instrument world).

So how did valved instruments play in different keys before they had valves? A French horn without valves can realistically play about 10 usable notes covering 6 different pitches. Players fixed this shortcoming by carrying around boxes of “crooks” – lengths of tubing that they would attach to their instrument, one at a time, to change the key in which it would play. Then, using air pressure, they could nab whatever pitches were necessary. When the key changed, so did the crook. This was slow and clunky, but it worked; it must have been a great relief, however, when valves came onto the scene.

Too confusing? Head spinning? Time for a holiday.


Music, Mosques, and Memories

September 29, 2016 at 10:30 am

There’s a remarkable connection between our senses and our memory. The sound of the ocean, the feeling of a soft blanket or pet, the sight of a landmark or building, the taste of certain food, or even a mere smell can trigger vivid memories – sometimes positive, sometimes traumatic.

Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov was born and educated near St. Petersburg, Russia. After graduating from the conservatory there, he was appointed music director of an orchestra in Tbilsi, Georgia. After seven years, he returned to Russia to be a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. It was here he wrote his most famous work, the Caucasia Sketches – musical memories of the region of his first professional employment. Included in these sketches is a movement titled “In a Mosque“, in which you can hear a Muezzin‘s call to prayer at the beginning. I imagine that every time he heard this piece, Ippolitov-Ivanov was transported back to his time in Tbilsi.


A “Homeroom Quickie” for the ages

September 28, 2016 at 10:15 am

I learned the term “homeroom quickie” from my high school Latin teacher. Whenever a large paper or project was due, inevitably among the carefully typed and prepared papers there was one which was hastily scribbled in pencil on line paper, ripped out of a 3-ring binder. The students who turned in these quickies usually did so either with their faces shamefully pointed to the floor, or with a carefree attitude of “yes, this IS my project I’ve been working on for weeks.” It was always easy to identify a homeroom quickie.

Imagine my surprise as an adult to find out that homeroom quickies typically grow up to become office quickies. Take, for example, the Samuel Barber‘s Violin Concerto. Barber was given a due date of Oct 1st, 1939, as the piece was supposed to be premiered in January 1940. Barber, however, failed to turn in the assignment on time; like any good quickie, though, there was a good excuse. He had begun the work in the summer, while he was in Switzerland – but the impending war caused a delay while he fled Europe. Nonetheless, by mid-October he had turned in two of the work’s three movements. With the clock ticking, the premiere approaching, and the violin soloist getting very nervous, the pressure was on to produce quickly. In late November, Barber whipped off a very short, very fast, very difficult finale to the concerto.

With just a little more than a month to learn and prepare this piece, the violinist rejected the work, gave a long list of criticisms and suggested edits, and ended up performing Dvorak‘s concerto instead. Barber stuck to his guns and didn’t edit his work, which was a good thing, because his concerto has since become a staple of the American Art Music repertoire.

So this “homeroom quickie” might have received an F from a teacher, but in the long run, A+. And, if ever a piece sounded like a desperate student trying to frantically write a twenty-page-paper in just three minutes, it’s this one.