In a previous life I took a music degree in Bass Trombone, which is a discipline that’s even more geeky and with a worse gender balance than Software (see this meeting if you don’t believe that’s possible). Over the course of the degree, I raised my bar from Enthusiastic to Not-too-embarrasing-to-appear-in-public. In the spirit of this famous article on Pair Programming, here are a few things I learned there that (if I squint) seem to apply to software.
Quality follows a power law Every time I practiced and got to play with better ensembles, the next level up was an order of magnitude improvement, not just linear. I could imagine being as good as the players one level above me, but two levels was a huge jump. The standard of serious professionals nowadays is just astonishing. As an example, one of our ensembles worked on an Edgar Varèse (obscure but influential modernist composer) piece. For the première in the 1920s, Varèse complained bitterly that he only had 100 rehearsals, we did it in about 10 rehearsals, our conductor performed it with a group of freelancers after working on it for an afternoon.
Quality is fractal To put it another way, good performances requires attention to detail at all levels: from the conductor’s management of the overall structure, to players’ phrasing of their individual lines. The better the ensemble, the more levels just work. It was quite a shift for me when I started joining groups that played in tune, a whole area of insecurity just disappeared and I could now use the effort I’d spent on compensating for inaccurate tuning for something more important.
Play for the audience They’ve paid to hear you. They don’t want to hear your technique, they want to hear music. One of my teachers liked to point out that anyone can make great music work, but good players can make bad music sound better. At the other end of the scale, I once heard a scaled-down version of The Rite of Spring where the Bass Trombonist dominated the orchestra; as a practitioner, I was impressed but it was ugly and self-indulgent.
Don’t take it up unless you mean it The perfoming arts are tremendously rewarding if that’s what you want do. If not, it’s a hard trade involving lots of stress and effort—and there’s a limit to how long you can stand discussing mouthpiece diameters. I met several older professionals who hated the business but had nowhere else to go, and the story goes that one of the trombonists in Toscanini’s NBC orchestra wrapped his instrument around his music stand at the end of his last day before retirement.
The section takes the blame (and credit) together Brass playing, particularly at the low frequency end, is a collaborative activity. You spend much of your time playing chords, so no-one can tell that you’re better than the rest of the section. Your best hope is to try to raise everyone’s standard. When it works, it’s just fantastic.
Some people’s abilities are just obvious I met a few players who were clearly here on Earth to play their instrument, that’s just who they were. These are the kind of people who get top-rank jobs before they’ve finished college. Our Head of Brass had been a child virtuoso, he didn’t understand why people played wrong notes. Why would they want to do that? At the other end, there were some who should have had their instruments confiscated.
Sometimes people take a while to shine Other players are not so obvious. I was lucky enough to meet Ed Anderson (Cleveland Orchestra) who was one of the best. He told me that at college, he’d played in the opera orchestra because he didn’t get enough sessions with the (higher prestige) concert orchestra.
Reality, deal with it In a performing discipline there is nowhere to hide, everyone knows how good you are all the time. I had a bit of a crisis in my second year when a new Tuba student took the time to point out my shortcomings; the message wasn’t pleasant to hear but it worked, I was much better by the end of the year. Later a one-off lesson with Arnold Jacobs, who spent a lifetime researching the mechanics of wind playing, changed my playing life because he could show me what was happening to my breathing and how it needed fixing.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! It turns out that this topic has just come up on Tim O”Reilly’s blog.
What’s the dynamic range of a bass trombone? On or off