Chris Van Hof

Trombonist-Educator-Music Arranger

Unplug it, then plug it back in.

A mantra of the early 21st century could be the advice you take anytime an electronic device of yours ceases to function properly: "unplug it, then plug it back in." With a lot of time to think lately, I thought we could apply this very well to being a musician, especially at this time of year.

It is a magical time of the school year--the end of spring break. Here in Colorado, that means a few inches of snow after a couple days spent in shorts and t-shirts (the wonders of life at 5,000 feet!), but for all trombone players studying in college, it can signify a chance to push a hypothetical "rest button" for the rest of the school year. Most of us by now have established some major things: competition recordings are done, recital dates are set, jury repertoire is chosen, summer activities are coming into focus, graduate school choices are being made, etc. Essentially, we have a chance to explore some new tricks.

I have recently come off of a period of being on the road playing recitals and giving master classes. These kinds of trips are high intensity for me, and force me out of my comfort zone: long hours in a car or airplane, practice mute warmups in a hotel room, or at a roadside rest area, quick one-time rehearsals with a pianist followed sometimes immediately by a performance--the list of challenges goes on. Fortunately for me, I had a couple days built into this week during which I could step away from the trombone and focus on some other projects (and a mountain of laundry from two young sons, my wife, and myself!). So, here I am today about to practice with a chance to follow that most applicable of 21st-century advice: "unplug it, then plug it back in."

So what can you do on your reset? Here are the things I am focusing on, which I hope can give you an idea of where you can take yourself:

1. I am re-committing to a new daily "Spring fundamentals routine." I will always begin with my Remington long tones, but now I plan to re-introduce some favorite exercises from Schlossberg and Arban's that were set to the side for the "Winter fundamentals routine."

2. I am challenging myself with music that is hard for me. In this case, that means learning a few new jazz standards and transcribing some JJ Johnson solos that I have long admired. I am fortunate in my job that I can shun a particular style of music in my non-fundamentals practice without negatively impacting my freelancing in all styles, and this spring the focus is on hard bop.

3. I will work through a challenging etude book I've long owned but never played out of. In this case, Tommy Pederson's "Advanced Etudes for Tenor Trombone."

4. I will begin working out of "Flexus" by Laurie Frink (a trumpet book, but well worth stealing!)

These are the focal points of my Spring Break Reset. Here are some ideas you could consider:

1. Learn a Rochut in Tenor Clef, Alto Clef, and the opposite mode (e.g. B-flat major becomes B-flat minor) every week. This is not for your lessons, just for your edification.

2. Set a range growth goal and work steadily towards it. For example, you want a solid pedal F by May, or to add a major second to the top of your comfortable range.

3. Set an articulation velocity goal and work steadily towards it. Comfortable single-tonguing sixteenth notes at 120 bpm? Aim for 140 by May--or more!

4. Learn 15 orchestral excerpts before the semester is over (as in memorize the excerpt and be able to hear the orchestra playing in your mind's ear while you perform)

5. Go back and fine-tune a solo you learned at a young age, but could revisit and play with greater alacrity now that you're a better player.

6. Improvise daily. All you need to do is turn on a drone and decide on a mode for the day. You may improvise freely, or in strict time, but what matters is that you explore creativity in every practice session.

Happy practicing, and Happy Spring!

On Failure and Failing

Here at Colorado State and at many university music programs across the country this week, we have just wrapped up large ensemble auditions. Every semester, we re-audition our bands and orchestras through a blind audition process and place students in ensembles based solely on their score from the judging panel behind the screen. Inevitably, some students are quite happy with their results and some are not so. This process got me thinking this morning during my daily long tones about all the times I have failed in my life as a both a student and as a professional musician. I felt compelled to share a few thoughts.

I tell my students that before they were even born, I had already failed more times than they had even tried. My first big eye-opening failure happened while I was a sophomore in college. I was selected as one of two finalists for the International Trombone Association Larry Wiehe Solo Competition. The finals were held in Helsinki, Finland at that year's International Trombone Festival, and I felt ready to rock on Arthur Pryor's "Annie Laurie." I remember that two of three judges were Jay Friedman (principal trombone with the Chicago Symphony) and Tony Baker (trombone professor at North Texas), two players who I idolized. I also saw that the other finalist was a junior in high school, and I thought "I've got this in the bag!" After I played, I was sure I had won. When the time came, it turns out I had lost to the high schooler. I was completely dejected and demoralized. The next day I saw Mr. Friedman in the hotel elevator going down five floors--the same direction I was going. It was just the two of us on the elevator and I said, "Mr. Friedman, I got to play for you yesterday in the Wiehe competition, and I wanted to say that it was a real honor meeting you and playing for you." Friedman, with a warm and friendly smile on his face, replied to me, "Well, you sure played a helluva lot of notes." Ouch. The coda of this story is that I never forgot the name of the high schooler who beat me soundly, since it was such a unique name and I was sure he must have been a great player. He was Achilles Liarmakopoulos, currently the trombonist with the Canadian Brass. Obviously, I was way out of my league!

Among my favorite stories I like to tell is when I didn't even make it through all five first-round excerpts for a service band audition during my Master's degree before I was thanked and asked to leave. Then, after weighing the loss of $50 on the cheap hotel for which I had pre-paid in an optimistic bit of booking (the finals were to happen the next day), I decided to make the six-hour drive home. This drive happened to be in my 1998 Subaru Legacy wagon with broken air conditioning on a sultry and humid 90-degree day. Well, six hours with my arm out the window while driving down interstate 90 resulted in a cancerous sunburn and a painful reminder of my recent failure. Then to top things off, I was nailed with a speeding ticket three miles from home. The next day I had a 9-hour closing shift at the grocery store deli where I worked to try to make ends meet. Talk about a demoralizing 36-hour period for an aspiring musician!

The point I make to my students, though, is that these failures--and all the others I have had in my career--would have truly been useless if I had not used them as vehicles of change. At the end of the day, once the sting of a failure mellows, a successful and resilient musician will take some time for careful thought and consideration. Here are a few tips I like to share to overcome a failure and then to use it asdriver for personal growth:

1. Admit that the failure happened because it reflected either poor preparation on your behalf, or because of a hole in your fundamentals on your instrument (possibly those are one in the same)

2. Make a short but honest list of the ways in which your preparation was not adequate for the audition/performance on which you failed

3. Concoct a plan of action to ensure that your preparation does not suffer from the same mishaps next time around

4. Concoct a plan of action to address the problems in your playing that resulted in your failure

5. Vow to not make the same mistakes next time an opportunity arises for an audition or performance.

I would not be the musician and professional I am today without the countless failures--both small and large--that I experienced in my younger years. And, as weird as it may sound, I look forward to my next failure. My next failure will invariably occur the very next time I pick up my trombone, and I love that about being a musician: there will always be something in my playing or in my professional life that can be better. Granted, this is giving a pretty broad definition to the word "failure" as now everything from a chipped note on a scale to losing an audition counts, but no matter the failure, I try to apply the same five rules outlined above. I think it's the only way to keep your sanity and to continue to grow if you seek a life as a musician!

Best Large Ensemble Practices: college and high school

In a previous college teaching position I held at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY, the band director asked me for some feedback on best practices for large ensembles in college. Below are his questions and my replies, which I composed in 2010 but I think are still relevant.

What expectations do you have for your students coming in to the first ensemble rehearsal of the semester?

For the first rehearsal of the semester (or the first in any new series of music, for that matter), an ensemble member should be in complete control of notes and rhythms for each piece on which he or she is playing. If there is a recording available, you should listen to it. If you can get a score, you should study it. If there is an important solo line, you should consider playing it for other people before you get to the ensemble. Email the conductor with any tempo or style questions that may arise during your practice.

What about subsequent rehearsals?

Subsequent rehearsals are to accomplish a number of things:
- learn everyone else's part, and how your part complements theirs (NOT how their part complements yours)
- clarify phrasing, articulation, intonation, and style in your own section
- clarify the above with other instruments in your family (e.g. brass, winds, percussion)
- Above all, subsequent rehearsals are for musical development of the ensemble as a whole. This is guided by the conductor, but you can contribute by communicating with the conductor either outside of rehearsal, or when your section specifically is being rehearsed. Always defer to the conductor, though.

After how many rehearsals is it unacceptable to be playing wrong notes and rhythms?

After the first rehearsal, you should have every note and rhythm nailed. In the Real World, your "first rehearsal" is often the gig itself, so that's your only shot. Change your perspective from rehearsals being about learning your part to being about learning how the piece fits together. This only happens when you have everything down cold ON YOUR OWN TIME.

What do you expect of your students in terms of rehearsal etiquette?
At its best, being an ensemble member is a study in humility, selflessness, and teamwork. The most important thing to remember in rehearsal etiquette is that you and your opinion do not matter more than the group and the group's development as a whole.

What items do they always need to bring to rehearsals?

For brass: all mutes, all music, a pencil, an eraser, a functioning instrument, and a cell phone that is TURNED OFF, not on vibrate, but OFF COMPLETELY.

When is it OK to talk?

1. When you need to address any of the following with your section mates:
- intonation (do this quickly)
- articulation (do this quickly)
- dynamic/balance (do this quickly)
- releases/entrances (do this quickly)

2. When you have a question for the conductor.

I'll add that it is NOT OK to talk when:
- you think you have a funny joke
- you are sick of the <fill-in-the-blank> section always messing up
- you disagree with the conductor
- you are bored

What do you do if someone in your section is making an obvious error that the conductor has yet to address?

If you are the assigned principal player, you may address the issue before or after rehearsal, during a sectional, or in rare occasions, during an actual rehearsal as long as it's done quickly and quietly.

If you are not the principal player, do not address it during an actual rehearsal. Do it before or after, or during a sectional.

If you have addressed it and it is still wrong, bring it up outside of rehearsal to the conductor or your applied teacher.

Above all, remember these facts if you are the person doing the correcting:
- be polite
- be clear
- be concise
- be friendly

...and remember these facts if you are the person being corrected:
- it is not personal
- it is not an insult to your talent
- it is business
- being in an ensemble is a study in humility, and you should be prepared to correct a mistake to make the ensemble better.

Summer practice tips

I recently posted some summer practice tips on the CSU Studio Facebook page. Consider some of these ideas as you work on your technique over the course of the summer:

1. Summer is a time to do some of your most high-impact and long-lasting practice. You have more mental freedom and less academic stress, so those "big picture" items that you know are lacking in your playing can be addressed carefully and clearly with no interference!

2. Summer is a time to re-commit to the metronome and the drone in slow practice. Decide for yourself that you will spend a minimum 45 minutes a day on basic fundamentals like long tones and intonation. Having a slow metronome and a drone going constantly while you focus on these skills will increase your familiarity with your instrument and help you anticipate tendencies before they arise in performance.

3. Summer is a time to teach yourself. Spend a good amount of time each week recording your playing and then "teaching yourself a lesson" or "being your own teacher." Try to listen to the recording objectively and then think about what you would say to that "student" to improve her or his playing. This way, you improve both your playing and your pedagogy.

4. If possible, summer is a great time to have fun playing music with friends. If you are around other musician friends, make it a goal to spend a couple hours a week playing "social hour" duets, trios, or excerpts. Play for a couple hours together, then have a meal, throw a frisbee, share a beverage (if old enough). Use these times to remember how fun music making can be!

5. Summer is a fantastic time to memorize and truly OWN your scales and arpeggios. With more mental bandwidth available over these months, memorizing three-octave scales and arpeggios is almost literally a no-brainer (pro tip: I do it while watching "Iron Chef" on Netflix).

6. Summer is also full of potential pitfalls to miss practice without even realizing it. The weather is nice, friends and family are around, the beverages are cold, the pool/mountains/beach are calling...all these sound better than long tones. So be sure you get in solid practicing every day and only take a day off if it is INTENTIONAL (I take every Sunday off to allow for summer freedom with my wife and kid). Work your butt off for a couple hours each day and then go out and enjoy everything this season has to offer.

7. Above all, set some reasonable goals now and make sure you accomplish them by mid-August in time for band to start up, or for ensemble auditions, or whatever awaits you in the fall. Don't start on those goals on August 1, start on them now!