by legendary euphonium soloist, Arthur Lehman U.S. Marine Band,
edited by David Werden
(also see the companion article, Finesse Players)
Recently a friend who plays in a band in Memphis, Tennessee, sent me a CD of a concert by this band. Pretty good band. This fellow is the principal euphonium player in the band and he had a couple of nice incidental solos in selections included on the concert. Since he is a great admirer of Harold Brasch's playing ‑ so am I ‑ and he loves Harold's beautiful tone ‑me, too ‑ I was struck by the fact that he does not sound like Harold at all. He, actually, seems to sound more like me. Why is that? Although I believe that I know the answer to the question, I posed it to my friend. "Why do you sound more like me than Harold?” I asked. In his written reply he touched upon several possible reasons for this but finally concluded that he didn't really know the answer.
My opinion is that he is just naturally a power player and he sounds like other power players of which I am one. Harold, on the other hand, wasn't. Not in my opinion. Harold was a finesse player. Very controlled, precise, meticulous, virtually perfect. But not a power player. And that is why, in my opinion, he got such a marvelous tone and why mine isn't that type of tone. Neither is my Memphis friend's. We are both power players.
What in the world is a power player, you ask? Well, let us delve into this subject. I've thought of various ways to go into the matter of power playing and I have finally settled upon a question and answer session. I'll ask the questions and I’ll answer the questions. Neither of us will disagree, therefore. A perfect solution!
From now on whatever is discussed, although it may not be mentioned, only euphonium playing will be discussed. If we want to mention some brass instrument specifically, we will do that. Otherwise, it will be all referring to the euphonium.
Question: What is a power player?
Answer: A power player is one who plays with power when necessary, plays with lots of control, supports the tone very well, has a big tone, and is able easily to project his sound.
Q: Are power players born that way or are they made?
A: Both. Either or. I'd judge that about 80% of all power players were born to be power players. Strangely, most power players who were born that way fit into a general physical mold. They are big, heavyset, muscular, strong players with barrel chests. And for them playing with big, sonorous tones is second nature. No one has to instruct them how to produce the tone in the correct way. They can project easily. When they put on the volume, they do so without any distortion of tone. They have excellent support from the diaphragm. However, just being a big barrel chested person is no assurance that he/she will ever be a power player. Some such big people play with tiny weak tones. Never can project. Have no volume. Are failures.
On the other hand, those power players who were not born that way, but who in one way or another learned to be power players, had to work hard to achieve the goal. Through hard work, lots of time, and lots of patience they learned how to do all of the things which the born‑to‑be‑power‑players did right from the start without any effort at all. I am such a power player. Everything came very hard for me and it took years until I was able to do everything required of me as far as power playing is concerned.
Q: What is the normal place of a power player in a big concert (including military) band?
A: When you check all of the big bands you know of, the chances are that at least some of them will have a principal euphonium player who is a power player. Perhaps even in other sections of the brasses this will be true. Power players, in general, make fine first chair men/women. Women? Yes. No matter what sex you are, you may be a power player. It isn't if you are a man or a woman. It's how you play which makes you a power player.
One thing which helps a band is a power player on first chair. This type of player is able to play strongly enough and without distortion of tone to make his part be heard when that is important. Lesser players are unable to do this. And if they are able, they sound not so great because of tone distortion at volume. And the projection of a power player lends itself perfectly to the work of the first chair player. When small incidental solos crop up, it is comforting for a conductor to have a player back there who can be heard and doesn't need nursing along.
Q: How do power players do when going up front for a programmed solo?
A: just fine. However, usually it is not the principal player who plays all of the solos. Most of the time the power player is so important on first chair that he plays few solos. Then, the younger players get a chance to solo and that is fine for both players.
Q: How can a power player have enough facility to play technical solos in view of the fact that that player has a big, robust tone, plays with controlled power, uses lots of diaphragm support, and otherwise appears to be slower than finesse players, such as Harold Brasch?
A: This is a really great question and I’m glad that you asked it, Arthur. Many people will think that way. "A power player is too slow for technical solos," is what many people will feel. Well, you are wrong, Arthur. Power players often play very fine technical solos as well as any finesse player, however, by and large, it is true that many power players really are slower than the finesse players. It looks as though the matter of ability to play technical solos well isn't dependent upon whether one is a power player or a finesse player, but on how well one can play the fast stuff. Elementary, isn't it?
If one is fast, he can be either a power player or a finesse player. However, the chances are that the finesse player in the long run will win out over the power player in technical displays. I really doubt that the power player cares about that for he is so firmly set in his first chair work that he isn't too keen on playing stand‑up‑front solos, anyway.
Q: If you consider yourself to be a power player, were you, also, able to play the most difficult technical solos, a la Simone Mantia's?
A: Of course, I was. The question is, however, how well I played these tough solos. Let me put it this way. I've never heard anyone play one of the solos Mantia made famous as well as Mantia and I’m one of those who didn't. I played them but not with Mantia's marvelous style and speed. What a soloist he was! None better on the fast stuff.
Q: We are hearing a lot about the best parts of power playing. What are some of the downsides?
A: As with anything else in life, power playing has some disadvantages. One thing is that power players may be more prone to occupational hazzards than are finesse players. I hate to mention some of these which seem to inflict the power player but hernia is one. Some of the power players have had three or four hernia surgeries. (I’ve had three.) However, anyone can get that condition, if he/she is a brass player. You'll find in medical literature that glass blowers and players of the large brass musical instruments suffer more from hernia that do other musicians.' you don't have to be a power player to get a hernia.
On the upside, all of the heavy breathing ‑ deep chest breathing ‑ is a wonderful aid to good overall health. I believe that everyone realizes this. Perhaps brass players are healthier because of all of the accelerated breathing which is required. More oxygen couldn't hurt, could it? It is a help, obviously.
Q: Some people have said that playing a brass instrument is similar to opera singing as far as breathing and producing a tone are concerned. What is your opinion on this?
A: I agree with this 100%. Playing a big brass instrument ‑ or any brass instrument ‑ is quite similar to opera singing. Of course, we brass players produce a tone differently. We get our lips vibrating and that produces the tone. Opera singers activate their vocal cords and that is how they get their tones. But, otherwise, the breathing, the diaphragm support, the muscle tension of the entire torso, etc. Are identical in the opera singer to that of the brass instrument player.
Not only do the brass players work the same way as opera singers as to breathing, support, etc. But if we brass players want better to learn how to breathe, to support the air, to release the air, we can look to the opera singer to help us do that. Those opera singers are the best at this technique. They are, in fact, the power players of the singing world. All you have to do to prove this to yourself is to listen to some fine opera singers in a Wagner opera. The work which they do in wagnarian opera is marvelous. None better when it comes to great diaphragm support, great use of volume, and splendid quality of tone. That is as much power playing as we brass players are ever able to achieve. And it is probably better power playing than we ever do. Therefore, look to the opera singer. Learn!
Q: What do you see in the future for the power player?
A: I am afraid that I can't be encouraging in this. I don't see any great demand for power playing in the future. It is a sign of the times. For instance, opera is not in an upsurge. Rock and roll is. Opera singers don't pull down yearly incomes into the millions. Popular musicians do. In concert band work,' the classics, the standard concert pieces of the 1900's, are being replaced by what I would call trivial junk. Too much D.A.M. music is found on virtual every band concert throughout the entire country. (D.A.M. music refers to Disonant, Abstract, Modern Music.)
When such music is arranged for the modern concert band, there isn't much work for the euphonium. None of it requires any great projection of sound. Just play confidentially and that's enough to get by. Getting by is all that is requiired. What a sorry condition to find oneself in! Gone are the days, it appears, when the principal euphonium player was expected to play with great volume and to soar over the entire band which was playing fortissimo. No confidential playing would accomplish that. When I used to go on a concert tour, virtually all of the music we played was of a classical nature. It all required lots of power and big tone if you wanted to play your part the very best way. Now what do we have? Lots of D.A.M. and popular music arranged for concert band which requires nothing much to play. Just play the notes and that's it. Oh, I realize that some of these modern, abstract, disonant parts are very difficult with terrible rhythms. That part is tough and I’m not saying that today's players aren't fine ones in every way. I'm just saying that power playing doesn't seem to be required much nowadays. Not as it was 50 to 100 years ago, and today's soloists are "out of this world". Simply stupendous. I really admire the fine soloists we have in the big bands today.
But, back to the question. I don't see much future or demand for the power player. Isn't that sad?
Q: What is your advice as to learning to play better with power ‑ to be a better power player?
A: If you really wish to be a better power player, you should do several things which will help you. One is to learn to breathe better. Almost every brass player can learn more about breathing than he already knows. When one learns more about breathing, he is always the better for it. Studying with a fine power player can be a great help. Studying with an opera singer can be a big help.
Another thing which may be of help is to do things to increase your lung capacity. When I was in high school, I found that underwater swimming was a huge help in giving me better air capacity as well as being able to use the air I had in a better way. That is one way of aiding breathing which virtually no body is going to go into. In fact, I don't recommend it. I just mention it as a matter of interest. Actually, such things as running, jogging, step climbing, running in place, using a treadmill, etc. Are all fine aids to increase lung capacity and/or better use of the air in the lungs.
And, naturally, simply playing your instrument and concentrating on getting as large a breath as possible every time you get the time for it ‑ that is very valuable. Nothing like doing it to get better at it, no matter what it is. But simply playing along is not the way to learn something. You play along, alright, but you must concentrate on those big breaths. Grab as much as as you can every time you get a chance. It is a good habit to get into. You will gradually increase your lung capacity as well as improving your ability to use the air in a better way. Count on it!Let us hope that these few questions and answers will help all who read this article in one way or another. As with anything else, there are always two stories, at least. One is usually in favor of whatever it is and the other is not. The reader must decide which one to accept. It's all up to him. Lots of luck in making the right decision for you.
Written by Arthur Lehman for Keith Barton, July 11, 2006