Thomas Stevens

Instrumental Virtuosity

  • General Quotes

Higher. Faster. Softer. Louder.

During the 1940s-early 50s, when I was a little person, there was weekly program on the radio (later on TV) featuring the bandleader, Horace Heidt, whose show would often sponsor musical contests to find new talent. The show, like the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour,” was sort of the American Idol radio-TV show of the Stone Age, in which audience participation in the choosing of the winners was accomplished with the aid of an applause meter. This latter element influenced candidates’ performances, with many of them opting for musical “cheap shots,” like the trumpeter who would triple-tongue his way to glory with his bell pointed to the heavens during the finale of some piece, or an accordion player doing that crazy business where the accordion bellows are rapidly shaken (not stirred) during “shout" choruses*.

None of this had anything to do with music, but in those days such mindless virtuosity was welcomed, and it definitely helped in the development of higher technical standards for instrumental music performance practices.

Today, instrumental musicians have more technical dexterity than anyone could have imagined during days past. Higher. Faster. Softer. Louder. But it somehow is not so relevant as it once was because most of the hyper-technical stuff can be done more effectively and efficiently by electronic means. I specifically recall being a member of an eight-person trumpet section for a motion picture sound track recording session (Wrong is Right w/Sean Connery) when, during one of the playbacks, we heard one of the trumpeters playing an octave above the rest of us. I remember John Audino, the standout lead player on Doc’s Tonight Show Band, and Count (aka Conte) Candoli looking at everyone’s parts to find out who was doing it. It was none of us. There was a guy sitting on the other side of the Warner Brothers soundstage with a little box and an EVI (electronic valve instrument) who was “entering the data” in the higher octave. It was perfect, and it sounded like a real player.

There is another dimension to this situation: musicality and musicianship have not necessarily kept pace with technical achievements, which makes no sense because those are the considerations that account for the differences between human beings and machines. In the final analysis, technical ability with a musical instrument is meaningless if one doesn't know what to do with it.

A 1968 Quotable re: orchestral trumpet playing from Zubin Mehta: “The Americans are technically [then-in 1968] superior because they can play anything, but many times they make completely the wrong sound for the music. We can’t play [Stravinsky's] Petrouchka every concert.” Zubin's comment is almost generic in scope because one frequently hears similar opinions about instrumental musicians from the leaders of other musical performance disciplines.

Things have changed since those times, at least at the top levels of the music profession, but one still encounters far too much musical idiocy from otherwise well-trained players who should know better.

The following post will include some of my favorite Quotables on instrumental virtuosity.

* A term from the Swing Era referring to the final choruses of Big Band arrangements where the music was usually played in a higher key, louder, and with more energy and intensity than in preceding choruses.