Tuesday, June 19, 2018
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Short Attention Span, The Secrets of Life, Music, and...umm....What Was I Saying?

A cacophony of musical warm-ups swirled back stage and spilled out into Seattle’s new concert hall. I had arrived early enough to find my seat in the trumpet section, unpack my instrument and play a few notes myself. A pile of freshly printed parts marked‘ Trumpet 1’ was stacked on the music stand. First glance revealed a lot of difficult looking music. “It’s a good thing I came early enough to warm up,” I thought to myself.

When a recording call comes in the only information you receive is the time and place. Your reply consists of a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ to an answering service or a secretary. Whether a motion-picture session, CD recording, television show, jingle or anything else, the music is sight-read at the recording session. The musical style and size of the group are unknown until you arrive at the studio.

I looked around the stage that morning counting eight French horns, six trombones, four trumpet chairs, two tubas, two harps, a plethora of woodwinds, piles of percussion and a huge string section. “Hmmm. Classical. Big budget. We’ll be earning our keep today.”

We sat in a forest of microphones. The orchestra tuned. The young conductor firmly announced the first instruction. “Put on your cans! Eight clicks for free!” *The music started with a bang.

Forty minutes into the session I began to look forward to the upcoming 10 minute break. The orchestra had been confidently progressing through the music, a combination of outer space, adventure, military fanfares and fantasy writing. The brass had been roaring most of the time. I felt hot with expended calories. This was challenging music. “Man! What movie is this?” I asked shaking my head. “Not a movie,” replied my colleague, “It’s the new Sony Play Station game. ”My jaw dropped. “You’re kidding me!”

I instantly had thoughts of our expertly executed phrases obliterated by synthesized sound effects, of trumpet solos buried deep in silicon dungeons guarded by aliens, of laser blasters and smart bombs blasting our hard work to bits, of gamers hitting the skip button to avoid the credits and theme music. ‘Advance into battle as soon as possible!’ I felt disappointed. I felt I had reached a new musical low point.

That date was my first involvement in a computer game sound track recording. I got over it. Games I have performed on since include the Medal of Honor, Matrix and Age of Empires III games. The interesting thing that eventually hit me is the irony of it all. I treat these recordings the same way I treat all of my work. I do my best. While I still consider movies the more interesting, and while I still believe movie sound tracks are musically more important than game tracks, I approach the recording work seriously in both instances. As a result, I find myself performing my best to produce music for the very games I am constantly nagging my own children to stop playing!

Most adolescents and teenagers think their parents are nuts. We parents accept that. Much of the time parents have a hard time seeing their kid’s point of view. Most of the time kids are unwilling to imagine issues from their elders view. I made one lucky and wise decision at a young age. It was based on logic and common sense, two of my favorite things. My thought at the time was simply this. “Old people” have more experience than I do. Their advice should be worth following or at least trying. So it is that I now write from a perspective of years of experience with the hope that you will give my ideas honest consideration.

Young people are not at fault for shortcomings in their schools and with their teachers, (lack of arts in education). Young people are not responsible for custodial parenting, (lack of teaching perseverance and a work ethic at home). Young people did not design the shallow, video screen oriented pop culture into which they were born, (corporate advertising). Current teenagers have no point of reference in understanding the time before home computers existed, (a time before the addictive properties of cyber space began sucking up their time like a black hole). Significant art and music has always been tough to sell to most young students. Sadly, it is difficult to find any abundance of arts education in today’s pre-university education, (though I must acknowledge the notable efforts of many instrumental and choral programs in the schools). Classical music audiences are getting older and older. This does not bode well for the arts in the future but the situation is not the fault of young people. The value of arts education has been proven to be as important as academic classes. We need to explore new and engaging ways to teach arts subjects.

Young Americans have been programmed to have short attention spans particularly for activities that require concentration, effort and discipline. Classes in school run like clockwork ending on the ring of a bell followed by a rush to the next class. No matter how involved a student might be in a project or thought process he is forced to drop it and run to the next class when the bell rings.

TV shows are designed to capture your attention for brief periods interjected with flashy commercials. Very short, hard-hitting high-energy advertisements run 10 or 15 in a row on Japanese television. In the USA we are not far behind. Movies, which run longer segments without commercial interruption, have the most appeal to young people when they are filled with action and violence. Each season we see more extravagant special effects as well as over-the-top, physically impossible action sequences. All of these examples promote short, entertaining bursts of brain stimulation. We become stimulation saturated.

“Things happen fast on the TV screen, so kid’s brains may come to expect this pace making it harder to concentrate if there is less stimulation,” says Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle. ** Not surprisingly, my teenage children think some of the classic action movies of the 1970’s and 80’s are slow and boring. Radio stations, MTV and VH1 feature songs held strictly to 3 1/2 – 4 minutes. It’s no wonder young people have short attention spans.

What about computer games? Aren’t you sick of your parents ranting about computer game violence, content and wasted time? Believe me I can relate. Today’s computer games are challenging and fun. The graphics are amazing. The software and computing power dwarf that of the Apollo space ship that carried men to the moon. One might suggest that computer games do not promote short attention span by virtue of the fact that people play them for many hours straight. The rub is these games are such pure entertainment, so hedonistic, that taking out the garbage seems like hard work by comparison. As a result, one’s ability to concentrate on anything challenging is diminished. Sadly, the effects of extensive computer game playing are like a disease rotting away a person’s ability to concentrate, like a numbing drug anesthetizing one’s self discipline and focus.

If each of you was willing to add up your hours of screen time each week: game playing, watching TV and computer time, I think the totals would be astonishing. (I’ll bet you know what’s coming). Imagine taking half an hour or even an hour per day out of your screen time and applying it to a constructive activity. The benefits could be astounding!

This is the moment to which I referred earlier, the moment of advice from an elder, the moment you should take seriously. Big things are accomplished step by step a little at a time. Consistent practice is the best approach. Who wouldn’t like to improve quickly on his or her instrument? All you have to do is muster the willpower to steal 30 minutes or more from your screen time on some sort of regular basis.

Playing any material will help. Most players will benefit from daily ‘chop time’ alone. Organizing your practice materials and challenging yourself can only accelerate your development. There are even ways to make your practicing fun.

Band in a Box, Smart Music and play along CDs are fantastic products and really enjoyable. I often use a play along CD at the end of a practice session for enjoyment and to add a bit more playing time to my practice session. They are available in jazz and classical styles.

There are also great games that teach music theory and composition. I suppose you might be thinking, “Why would I play a dorky music game when I could Grand Theft Auto instead?” You should give the computer savvy musicians who develop the games more credit than that. Many of these products are excellent.

I have written many trumpet books including my 300 page “Allen Vizzutti Trumpet Method”. I wrote the entire book out by hand working a few hours a night for most nights over the course of a year. Now it is standard literature for trumpet study. It took a little regular work over a long period of time.

In high school my range on trumpet was unremarkable high ‘C’. Playing the trumpet every day produced consistent gradual improvement. Now as I continue practicing my range is still getting better. I’m constantly improving. Similar successes will come your way when you apply a dose of self-discipline to some regular work. Wonderful things can happen.

Your attention span will expand. All of your studies will improve using the same techniques you acquire in music. You will garner greater respect from your peers. You will mature. Playing well can lead to scholarships, paying jobs, travel, feelings of accomplishment, new friends, enhanced self-esteem, and self-discovery.

We all know technology will rage forward at light speed. Electronic entertainment will advance to levels of realism we can barely imagine. The gravitational pull of screens will become ever stronger. Conversely, the fundamentals of music study will never change. It will always take time and effort to accomplish great things in music. No software, no 50 GHz chip, no virtual music studio will turn you into a great musician although technology can enhance your journey. Some of you may even develop your own innovations to interface entertaining technology with music study.

Ultimately the greatest interface of all is the connection between the musician’s emotional communication and the listener’s heart. If you think about how you feel when you listen to your favorite rock or pop songs I’m sure it is safe to say you experience a variety of enjoyable emotions. Believe it or not many of us feel the same way about our favorite classical and jazz music. The style is irrelevant. Now imagine how wonderful it is to be the person creating the music!

Sadly, many of you will never experience the joy of accomplishment and the benefits resulting from hard work and a job well done. Many of you will lose your ability to push through the difficult challenges due to lack of attention span, lack of purpose and lack of vision. ‘The Great Cyber Sponge’ will consume many of your minds. The ‘Mother of All Screens’ will draw some of you in and not let you go. Your TV will suck the energy out of your body and eat your personality. It doesn’t have to be that way. With a little effort all of you could be brilliant shining lights offering your unique views, words, and sounds to the benefit of society. Music educators want you to share your wonderful uniqueness. We want you to be successful and happy in or out of the band room! It can happen with a little effort on your part.

In a few days I will be walking in to a recording studio once again with my trumpets, my mutes and my pencil. I don’t know if the music will be difficult or easy. It’s highly likely we will be working on a computer game sound track. To me it will be another enjoyable day of performing with other great musicians. Eventually when you play the new game you might hear my soaring trumpet sound signaling the beginning of the cyborg and alien battle. You might notice the wonderfully atmospheric orchestra music buried beneath the laser zaps and bomb blasts. The game might be good. It will probably be fun to play. More than anything, though, I hope you find the will to turn your computer off and play your instrument. You’ll be happier. Your parents will be happier and your band director will be ecstatic. I need to go practice now. I have a recording to do!

* Put on your headphones. There will be 8 beats of the digital metronome as a count off before you begin to play.

** www.usatoday.com/news/nation

About the Editor: Lisa Blackmore is Adjunct Professor of Trumpet at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Adjunct Professor of Trumpet and Horn at East Central College in Union, Missouri where she also teaches Music History and World Music. She is a member of “Cadre” at Missouri Baptist University, teaching trumpet and assisting with the concert band. Lisa earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) in Trumpet with a minor in Music History at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, where she received the Graduate College Dissertation Award in Musicology. Dr. Blackmore also holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and SUNY-Stony Brook. She previously served on the faculty at Lindenwood University and under her direction, the Lindenwood Trumpet Ensemble performed at the 2007 ITG conference at the University of Massachusetts―Amherst. Her private studio teaching has resulted in students performing in the St. Louis Youth Symphony and various Missouri All-State ensembles.

Lisa is a member of the Stonehenge Brass Trio and Confluence Brass. She was a bugler with the Missouri Military Funeral Honors Program from 2008-2013 and performed Taps at over 350 military services for Missouri Veterans. She performs with the Compton Heights Concert Band, and she is principal trumpet in the St. Louis Wind Symphony. She serves as a trumpet adjudicator for the Missouri All-State groups.

Lisa lives in Wright City, MO with her husband, Mark (also a trumpeter!) and their two cats, Chet and Ella. In her spare time she makes practice mutes and also enjoys reading and traveling.

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