Monday, November 24, 2014

Check those Vitals!

Whether in an audition or a jury, you may be presented with sight-reading.  Usually you are given a few seconds to look over the music. Especially if you are nervous, you may have trouble thinking clearly and making the most of these precious seconds.

What does a paramedic do when arriving on the scene?
Check if the patient is breathing.  
Check the if the patient is conscious/responsive.
Check for a pulse.

That kind of thing...

Actually, here's an actual EMT checklist but hopefully you get the idea.

What should a performer do when 'arriving on the scene' of a new sight-reading?

Check the key signature.
Check the time signature.
Check the tempo.
Notice the opening notes and the dynamic.

How long should this take?  With practice, 2-3 seconds should do the trick.
Let's look at the list a bit more:
Check the key signature.
Actually THINK about what the key signature MEANS.  Scan the music for the first note you are likely to miss (usually the last sharp or flat).
For example:
You should immediately look through the music for any C-flats.  Really think about the actual slide position.  Focus!  

Check the time signature.
If you see 6/8, what note will equal the beat, the 8th or the dotted quarter??  Does the time signature change?

Check the tempo.
Hear this tempo in your mind. Hear the first few notes in your head at the right speed.  Know what the words mean.  Which is faster Andante or Moderato?

Notice the opening notes and the dynamic.
Not only should you notice the opening notes, you can probably "flash memorize" them in your mind.  I will sometimes have students try to play the beginning of their sight-reading from memory after having only looked at it for a few seconds.  At first they are shocked when I ask them to do this, but you would be surprised at how many  notes they can actually process and memorize.  I like this trick because it forces them to actually play the music in their minds.

Amazingly, you can train yourself to do this in roughly ten seconds.  If you have 30 seconds total to look over a sight-reading example, you can use the remaining seconds to look for tricky section and play them in your mind.

Just like a paramedic, you have a limited amount of time to check those vitals.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Duel of the Habits / Growing a Mighty Oak

As we learn, we build habits.
Some help us play better.
Some hinder us.

When we try to learn a new habit (ie "Break an Old Habit"), there is, essentially a battle going on in our minds.  The new habit (an alternate position or keeping the throat relaxed) is like a young plant that needs constant nourishment and love.

Without constant, nourishing vigilance, the old habit will reassert itself.  When our attention is full, dealing with musical complexity, that's when the dominant habit, lurking in the background, can take over again.I wrote about something similar in an older blog post: Taliban Habits.

We want our new habit to grow into a mighty oak!

In order to do that, we need CONSTANT VIGILANCE

While the new habit grows, we have to make sure the old habit doesn't rise up and reassert itself.  This, I think, is one of the great benefits of playing simple tunes or exercises.  It frees up our brains to make sure the new habit grows.

Otherwise, that precious little sapling gets cut down by Darth Maul!

(or something like that...I know it's a mixed metaphor)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Stop the Presses!!


Suppose you are playing through a piece and you make a mistake. What do you do?

Stop and fix it right away?
Keep going?

Well, unless you are in "Play Through without Stopping" mode, there is evidence that you should bring everything to a screeching halt and fix it right away.

That's like the old movie cliche in which a late-breaking story causes someone to shout, "Stop the Presses!"  because they have to change the paper to reflect the story.

Of course, this causes a disruption and, if you're practicing, it requires a lot of patience to stop and fix things frequently.  In the BulletProof Musician blog, I read about a study at the University of Texas-Austin in which pianists were given an unknown passage to learn and observed as they practiced it.

In this list of 8 things the better performers did, notice these two items (originally #4 and #5 on their list):
  1. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.
  2. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.
It didn't seem to matter how much time was spent practicing the passage.  The key element was this: the percentage of correct runs.  As the blog states:
"The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes." 

They stopped right away, maybe even before the mistake and methodically fixed it.

Here's the whole blog post (it's a good one):

When you goof....

  • STOP

Otherwise, you are training yourself to goof.

What does that take?  Let's all say those magic words together:
Patience and Persistance

In an era when things move faster and faster; when people click away if a web page doesn't load in seconds, the human mind still moves at the same speed and we learn in the same way.

If you stumble, someone in your mind should shout, "Stop the presses. Let's get this thing fixed and fixed now."

Sometime the best practice sessions are the ones in which you don't seem to cover that much material.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Swing Through

In theory, once the ball leaves the club head, the club should have no further effect on the ball.

And yet ...

we all understand intuitively that, if you don't swing through the ball, you won't hit it very well.  If you just "chop at" the ball, stopping the club head at the point of contact, you probably won't hit it very far or well.

This reminds of me of students who "poke at" notes instead of blowing through them.  All the attention seems focused on the beginnings of the note with no thought to blowing that air all the way through the note.  So much resonance/musicality happens after the note has begun!

This reminds me of that golf swing for some reason.  Just as you would stroke through the entire swing, you should blow THROUGH the note to send it "sailing" away with full tone.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sight-Reading Lucy

When sight-reading, I always stress to my students: don't stop and restart!

It's as if you are playing with an invisible band. They won't stop for you so you must learn to keep the beat going.  If you stumble, pick things back up as if the beat never stopped (which it doesn't!).

This reminds  me of that classic sketch from the comedy, I Love Lucy, when Lucy and Ethel get a job wrapping candies as they come off the conveyer belt.  All those little candies might being to feel like notes in a tricky sight-reading passage.

The belt never stops...keep going!

Friday, November 15, 2013

JND Bends

Over a tuning drone, try bending the pitch just the smallest amount.

For that matter, try it during your long tones.  The goal: sensitize your ears!

Play a little tune and purposely play a note just a hair sharp or flat.  Can you hear it?  Play around with it.

Don't get wrapped up in right or wrong....just listen.  Zoom in with your ears.  Hear the smallest things.

In psychology I think we would be dealing with Weber's Law which states:

The Difference Threshold (or "Just Noticeable Difference") is the minimum amount by which stimulus intensity must be changed in order to produce a noticeable variation in sensory experience.
Someone can correct me on this but I think the above formula explains why a frequency change of a music half step smaller on lower notes.
For example:
From C1 to C#1: 34.65 - 32.70 = 1.95
From C4 to C#4: 277.18 - 261.63 = 15.55

Our ears hear the change of 1.95 and 15.55 as a half step because the frequency is higher.  The ratio stays the same.

OK, that's a little too much math for a trombone player.  What does this boil down to? Sometimes our worries about being out of tune actually get in the way of clarity.  By playing around with the pitch in a non-judgmental way, we gently allow our ears to become more sensitive.

I call these "JND Bends."  Try them out.  See how small a pitch change your ears can notice.  You might be surprised.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Batting Practice

Some notes just need reps.

Behind all that beautiful phrasing and artistry, some notes just need enough reps (repetitions) to become automatic...and comfortable.

This idea, so simple, reminds me of a recent post, "There are no pass-offs."

There's just something about patient repetition that can't be beat.  Especially when that repetition involves good awareness of posture and hearing the note in your mind before it comes out of the bell.

This reminds me of batting practice where that little machine just keeps firing those balls your way as you train your reflexes.

In fact, little groups of notes sometimes need that individual love and attention until the act of playing becomes second nature.  Something like this:
Or this:
Once again, it's about building those layers of myelin.

Batter up!