Earlier this year I engaged David Childs to give a recital in the Manchester Midday Concerts Society season, which I curate at the Bridgewater Hall. The response by our discerning audience, which loves its mainstream classical music played by quality pianists, string players, piano trios and string quartets in the main, was overwhelmingly positive. One of the regulars described David's recital as one of the best we’d had for a long time; another had no idea the euphonium could be played like that. Although David has been such a familiar and engaging presence on the brass band scene since he was a small boy, his stature as a musical artist in 2013 is of the highest international calibre. That is why his performances sit comfortably right across the musical spectrum from brass band entertainment to serious and substantial recital and concerto appearances. He can astonish and amuse with the panache of his bravura solos just as he can tug at the heart-strings with the emotional quality and refinement of his lyricism.
The second part of this fine, wide-ranging production is a studio recital in which David demonstrates every facet of his commanding technique and musical intelligence. My Manchester audience thrilled to the virtuosity of the Hummel Fantasy and cheered the complete performance which David and Christopher Williams gave of the complete Karl Jenkins Concerto, the finale of which sounds so effective in its ‘sonata’ incarnation on this recording. The seductive quality of Ravel’s Pièce en forme d’Habanera really suits the euphonium, as does the tender lyricism of Elgar’s Salut d’Amour. The dazzling virtuosity of Monti’s Czardas, the consummate control of Arban’s Carnival of Venice and the absurd brilliance of David’s party-piece The Hot Canary would simply not be possible without the grounding of a rock-solid technique, refined over the years and kept up to the mark by a methodical approach to practise and preparation.
You don’t just have to be a euphonium player to learn much from David’s comprehensive and illuminating insights into the fundamentals of brass playing that form the first and most substantial part of the DVD. He begins with warm-up techniques, explaining simply and clearly aspects of physiology as they apply to the brass musician - the delicate muscles of the lips and face that need to be trained and, like a sprinter or footballer, warmed up before being put under exertion - but cautions against over strenuous warm-ups: “aim to keep it a warm-up, not practise.”
Next David turns to A Brass Player’s best Friend - breathing. I was a decent trombone player, but became a professional singer, learning much more about ways of supporting the breath, keeping the shoulders down, “staying relaxed, breathing low”, as David emphasises, from my singing teacher. The fundamentals of breath support have a universal application and David is really insightful here. His demonstrations without euphonium in hand can be easily copied by any young player. As David colourfully puts it, having a great instrument to play but no breath to sustain through it is like having a “Ferrari with no fuel.”
Every young player wants to play high and fast but in Reaching for the Sky David cautions against straining for the high notes without having sufficient resources in support. Without a strong embouchure and solid air support, the high register can sound weak and thin, as David’s demonstrations amply reveal. His lip and face flexibility tips, he calls them “pressups for the face” and “weight training for the lips”, will help develop “muscles you didn’t know you had!” The most useful tip in this chapter, however, is one he learned from his father and teacher Robert, “hear it and hit it” - the value of hearing the pitch before trying to reach for it. In The Need for Speed, David looks at three disciplines, finger dexterity, agility and tonguing, offering a series of examples based on scales and arpeggios that will certainly help. His watchword for this chapter and the next, on double and triple tonguing, is “start slow”. We don’t always appreciate what our bodies are actually doing when we produce a musical sound in this way, so David’s methodical approach to the mechanics of tonguing provides invaluable context.
He describes the sound we produce as The First Essential - for singers and wind instrument players it is their DNA. Whilst appreciating that this is an individual matter, David examines the principles behind sound quality and is especially good on the use of vibrato - emphasising that these days, when brass players are called upon to play in a wide variety of styles, having a flexible approach to levels and characteristics of vibrato is crucial. Having a strong and reliable technique does not guarantee that you’ll be able to emulate every aspect of David Childs' playing. He is a fine musical artist and a natural communicator. This is amply evident here not only in his performances, but also in his relaxed and natural presentation style. Talking straight into a pair of cameras for over an hour and managing to engage the attention throughout is a substantial achievement in itself. I was particularly impressed with the way he answered the series of Frequently Asked Questions at the end of the first part of the DVD.
It is fascinating to see and hear many of the points raised in the tutorials revealed in the studio recital and also in the series of clips highlighting David’s test-piece triumphs and memorable concert appearances with Cory. These begin in 2003, with the Epilogue from Revelation (Wilby) and include his haunting performances of Karl Jenkins’ Benedictus and Lacrymosa. Watching the David Childs Euphonium Quartet in more Jenkins is rather unnerving, but with the added bonus of a wide-ranging and relaxed conversation with Trevor Caffull, this two and three quarter hour Masterclass in Brass offers many valuable insights from and perspectives on one of the great brass artists of our time.