Monday, October 11, 2010

Phillip McCann and cornet playing, some thoughts.

I came across this interesting article written by a visiting American music professor who had some cornet lessons with Phillip McCann. For those who don’t know who he is, Phillip is something of a controversial figure in the brass playing world. Probably the greatest lyric cornet player of the last thirty years, his five volumes of recordings for Chandos entitled  “The World’s Most Beautiful Melodies” have brought cornet playing to a wider audience than any other cornet player of recent times. Even if you have never heard the name Phillip McCann you will have heard his cornet as his cornet voiced the theme and incidental music for the TV series Hetty Wainthropp Investigates.

Phillip McCann was something of a boy wonder, joining the Black Dyke Mills Band at a very young age and staying for sixteen years before leaving to pursue a successful career as a soloist and then as a conductor. Most notably with Sellers International Band which he created as an outlet for brass students at two colleges in Huddersfield. He grew up in Bo’ness and played with Kinneil Band, in the same county where I have done most of my cornet playing. You will find an interesting biography of Phillip McCann here.

The controversy surrounding Phillip McCann is not over his virtuosity or his interpretation of the great melodic pieces that made his public reputation, but his sound. To understand this, at a time when trumpet playing was in the ascendancy and cornets were getting larger, brass band test pieces were becoming more orchestral in character, Phillip McCann rejected this and attempted to rediscover an authentic voice for the cornet, distinct from the trumpet, which makes full use of the cornet’s warm sound and ability to articulate. In particular he looked back to players like Harry Mortimer and Jack Mackintosh for a sound concept, which must also have been influenced by Jim Shepherd whom he worked with at Black Dyke.

Of course the one thing that every brass player knows about Phillip McCann’s sound is that he always plays with vibrato. Often caricatured as needless, heavy and set with a metronome, an examination of his recordings shows that its not particularly heavy, but it is indeed very regular. In the blog post cited at the beginning of this article I think we get an insight in to his thoughts on how the cornet should sound:
I think he wasn’t totally disgusted by the performance (thought I sounded like a trumpet player trying to play a cornet) and said the first thing we needed to talk about was vibrato.  Here are the important points:
  • Vibrato is part of the cornet sound.  Period.
  • Cornet vibrato is just like violin or soprano vibrato……part of their sound
  • Think of a brass band not as a brass ensemble (like Philip Jones) but as a brass orchestra
  • Cornets are the violins of the brass orchestra in terms of their vocal style and vibrato.
  • To make vibrato the lower jaw moves.
  • The movement is very small and very fast (narrow fast vibrato).
  • The movement is so small that if you stop moving the jaw even just a little, the vibrato stops completely.
  • It doesn’t get wider just because the sound is more intense or the dynamic increases.
Other points on music and cornet playing:
  • Vibrato and articulation have nothing to do with the airstream which is constant.
  • Forte is not an actual dynamic it is an impression.  FF is a huge sound but not harsh or pushed.
  • Tension is NEVER the answer
  • At all times make it feel and sound like you are singing.  This applies to phrasing as well.
  • Playing well is hard work, get used to it.  However it must look and sound easy.
  • Solos and band pieces are played well not because you practiced them but because you can do all of the techniques that allow you to play them well.
  • Don’t spend time only playing band music.  Spend practice time becoming a better player and musician.
  • A true test of a bands ability is being able to play a piece well at sight.

Its interesting that he is not talking about uncontrolled vibrato, but emphasising the importance of being able to create a controlled vibrato using the jaw rather than the diaphragm or throat. This is a challenge to my own playing where my woodwind experience has nurtured a light diaphragm vibrato with terminal jaw vibrato which tends to get too wide in loud dynamics. I am going to work on this and see if I can train myself to produce a nice regular and controlled vibrato.

Even in his choice of equipment Philip McCann decided not to go with the mainstream, rejecting thick tone of the popular Denis Wick mouthpieces and developing his own mouthpiece. While still being funnel shaped its cup is shallower, with a narrower throat and with less mass than the Wick mouthpieces. This leads to a thinner sound with more precise articulation. My experience of using one of these was that it responded well when approached with less pressure and a nice constant stream of air, but I found that it did not fit the current Sovereign cornets due to their receiver taper being fractionally larger than the original Sovereign or Maestro models.  Phillip McCann himself played on a Boosey and Hawkes Sovereign Cornet for a long time (the old round stamp model, but I am not sure if it was the medium or large bore version) before assisting Yamaha to develop the Maestro model for the UK market. This is a far more compact sounding instrument with a narrower bore than the large bore Sovereign. Having played both myself I have found the Maestro to be a better soloists instrument than the Sovereign, although some notes above the stave on the Maestro require a lot of trigger work.

On reflection I think Phillip McCann typifies the two sides of brass banding. On the one hand he is a perfectionist, striving for the ultimate technical performance, but on the other hand he is a musician in the true sense*. His music has a true heart and evokes great emotion rather than just the pure, soulless technical brilliance that is so commonly amongst brass players. Future generations may well look back to his example when trying to define their own distinctive voice for the cornet.

*The greek “mousa” meaning “song” is also the Greek word for  “muse” - a godess who reminds you of things through metrical poetry or “mousike”.