Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Hopeful Shield

It's the end of semester at many music schools and that means one thing: juries!
And so the subject of nerves comes up.

So, there you are, before your big performance. As you sit and wait, you try repeating to yourself, "I'm going to play great. I'm going to play great."

The problem is there is probably a little voice that responds to those affirmations with, "Bulls**t, Bulls**t, Bulls**t"

So here's a way to re-frame that situation that might help.

As you sit there, say to yourself, "It would feel so good to nail this." As you say this, imagine EXACTLY what it would be like to totally nail it.
  • How would you stand?
  • How would you breathe?
  • How would that first note sound?
  • How would it flow, musically?
Remember, you are not predicting that this will actually happen but, I really believe that imagining clearly it will make it more likely.

In other words, you take a HOPEFUL ATTITUDE.

"I don't know if I'll mess up or play great, but I can imagine what it would feel like to play great."

Each phrase presents you with another chance to have that wonderful experience of playing great. Once that phrase has ended, forget it (good or bad) and point your mental "headlights" to the next phrase. It's almost as if you have a little hopeful car shining headlights onto the next phrase as it comes up (and nothing else in the world!).

Fear and stage fright are the dragon standing between you and success. Think of this simple hopeful attitude as your shield against that fear.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Guacamole Tone

Food has a lot to do with Thanksgiving so here's a food-related concept.

One of my students had a nice tone but not right at the start of the note. In the past, I once described this as Frisbee tone.

So I asked him, "What's your favorite food?"
Answer: chocolate cake.

"What's your least favorite food?"
Answer: Guacamole

"Imagine being offered a big, delicious slice of chocolate cake with a thin outer layer of guacamole. You want to get to that cake but you have to pass through that layer first."

"When you don't start notes with your best tone right away that's what it's like listening to your sound."

So let's thin out that guacamole layer. Or, better yet, get straight to the chocolate cake!

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Figure Skating and You

As I look back on players I've known (on all instruments) I seem to have run across a sort of duality. Maybe you can call it a musical "two-party" system.

Party A: very expressive but not super consistent
Party B: very consistent but not super expressive

As players we must all work to maintain that foundation of good sound but always strive make our music compelling as well.

In some lessons I grill students about ...
  • accuracy of the slide in runs
  • starting the note with an immediate solid tone
  • steady time and accurate subdivisions
As I watch them focus on these things, I often see the phrasing go out the window.

In other lessons, I am more focused on...
  • clear arrival points in the phrase
  • compelling dynamic contrasts
  • more connection in long phrases
As I watch them focus on *these* things, you guessed it, some of those technical consistency things go out the window.

Anybody who's read this blog for a while knows that I often draw parallels with the world of sports. I especially like the Olympics.

Take figure skating for example. I'm largely ignorant on the sport so, when I watch, I can only get a rudimentary sense of how the routine is flowing. Are they wobbly? Did he drop her?..etc.

You know, the obvious stuff. The commentators are often talking about the expressive qualities of their skating and how there is (or isn't) so much joy in what they do. I can sort of see this.

Yet I have a sense of the long grueling hours of repetition, the stretching, the weight-lifting to arrive at that point of apparent spontaneous joy.

Below, watch a beautiful performance of Ferro's Daybreak performed by Joe Alessi. I've used this many times in lessons to point out such things as relaxed posture, great slide technique and solid embouchure.

And yet, I doubt he was consciously thinking of those things at that moment. He had built that solid foundation so that the music could flow forth.

Just like those spectacular lifts in figure skating where the one partner must provide a solid foundation for the artistic radiance of the other.

Of course it's all about balance...(in more ways than one!)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Here I Come to Save the Day!!

For years, I've taught students to aid their high range by pulling in the gut as they leap up to a high note. I believe this works because it serves to compress the air in the lung, generating higher air pressure.

Try this: blow out with a steady stream of air against your hand. Then, suck in your gut. Notice how the air stream accelerates?

This past week, I ran across a corollary to this: lifting the chest. As you tuck in that gut, think of slightly elevating the chest. For me, the two seem to go together. I believe this is something singers do.

And so I search my mind for a visual image of that chest lift and arrive at our old friend, Mighty Mouse!

I'll bet that little dude had a killer high range.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Operation Tuner

SmartMusic's tuner has a clever feature: it plays back the note it thinks you are trying to play.
If you want a laugh, turn it on and try speaking to it. It will try to detect pitches in your voice. (a distant cousin to auto-tuning I guess).

How about a tuner playback that remains silent as long as you are within certain parameters?
You can set how "narrow the goalposts" should be...5 cents, 15 cents, 20 cents, etc.
One of my students pointed out that this could be turned into a game sort of like that old classic, Operation. As long as you're in tune, the patient doesn't suffer!

No pressure.

Yes, I posted something similar in 2005.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Windy Pitch

I'm returning to a topic I've hit before...distance and pitch. Here's my older post, Speaking of the Devil.

There seems to be this misconception out there that, the farther away the instrument, the flatter the pitch.

Not true.

I've even debunked years ago by going outside with a trombone, two tuners and some observers. At one spot, the trombonist played an in-tune B-flat while watching a tuner.

About 20 yards away, some observers also held a tuner and guess what, IN TUNE!

OK, let me address some of the comments in advance:
  • Neither party is moving so there is no Doppler effect.
  • Some have pointed out that maybe the higher overtones of the note don't project as far, causing the perception of a lower pitch. Hmm, maybe but it seems like a stretch to me.
  • What about the wind?
Ah, now that last one is interesting.

Let's say a trombonist plays an in-tune A=22o. That means 220 vibrations per second are leaving the bell and travelling out for all the world to hear.

What if there is a strong wind blowing from behind the player. Does the wind accelerate those sound waves, creating a higher pitch?
What if the opposite is true: wind blowing in the player's face, lowering the pitch from a distance.

After all, that wave is using air as its medium and now the air is moving.

So, the next time we have an intrepid reporter talking about all the winds and rain and storm surge, hand 'em a trombone and let's check some pitch!

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Evil Fuse

There is an insidious evil that lurks within the hearts of all trombonists.

When we were young and innocent (and beginners), we were lured into that friendliest of scales: B-flat major.

It seemed so simple that we never paused to see the trap lurking within...the A natural in 2nd position and the E-flat in 3rd.

We merrily practiced away allowing the two positions to MORPH into the ....


The little voice in our heads may have tried to warn us. The over-worked band director never took the time to catch the problem. Mom and dad just said they were proud (and please use newspaper for the spit).

Nobody warned us of the impending doom.

Instead of a pristine separation of 2nd and 3rd, the evil fuse has practiced its sinister mind control dragging our second positions down and forcing our 3rd positions up.

The result:
a mutant position that was never meant to exist in nature.

Stay safe out there.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Candidate A, Candidate B..and my Time Travel Mind-Reading Machine

Now approaches the season when high school players contact me about trombone lessons. Usually at the top of their agenda is the upcoming all-state audition.
Often the audition solo starts out with a soft passage..that's the case this year.
Imagine two people auditioning against each other.

Candidate A - plays a good soft dynamic but doesn't get a good sound
Candidate B - gets a good sound but doesn't play soft enough.

Yes, I know you all want to be Candidate C who plays both with a good soft dynamic AND with good sound. Suppose you can't quite do that...yet.

You have two approaches.
Always sound good and player softer and softer
Always play soft and sound gooder and gooder
(ok, grammer purists..."better and better"...whatever)

So, that student is in the lesson with me and I have to give advice. I can either say:
"No matter what, get a good sound even if you have to play a little too loud."
"No matter what, follow those dynamics even if your sound is a little weak."

What's the right advice?

Well, I only need to hop into my new-fangled contraption the...
(early prototype shown below...patent pending)

I simply jump into the machine, travel forward in time and read the judge's mind as to which is the higher priority. Then I zip back and let the student know which way to go.


Until the final product is available, I recommend that you spend more time learning to play soft with a good sound. I've heard it's possible....theoretically.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Yes, it actually works!

I just finished a performance of the David Concertino with the South Carolina Philharmonic. This was a pretty big deal for me since I don't often get to play a concerto with a professional orchestra.

So now it's time to look forward to my next main challenges (besides the usual concerts). In December I plan to spend my first shift in the recording studio laying down Clarence Barber's Impulsions for Trombone and Marimba and Karl Kroger's Tres Psalmi Davidis for Trombone and Soprano.

I'm also doing my first practicing of the Kassatti Sonatine for solo trombone and brass quintet, which I will be performing twice in April.

I'll admit that I sometimes don't practice what I preach. However, this time I'm trying to be a good boy and learn this new piece more methodically.

So, like a singer, I am actually trying to sing the tricky parts (using fixed-do solfege) before I ever play them. Trombone in left hand, right hand on the piano keyboard next to me, I work my way through it, lick by lick (the solo part is over 10 pages long).

And yes, it actually works!!

Singing, that is. Only when I get the intervals clear enough in my head to sing them accurately do I pick up my trombone to play. And, guess what, that first run through on the instrument is *much* easier and sounds a lot better, too. In fact, it doesn't sound like a first run at all (which I guess it isn't).

So thank you, Jim Ackley and all those advocates for singing that I've encountered through the years. You guys have got it right.

Here's one page from the Kassatti. Try it out. Get yourself to a piano and sing it through until you can actually sing the intervals correctly. Then pick up your horn to play it (no cheating).

I also have a pdf file of this page of you want to go that route.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Icebergs, Dentists and ....Ramjack?

As I work with a student, I often find some little problem on the surface.
Sometimes that "little problem" is like the tip of the iceberg.

It's like finding a something on the surface of a tooth. As you drill down, you may find that the problem goes deeper than expected.
Maybe the attacks aren't very clean on Hungarian March.
Then you drill deeper...
  • and you find that the slide movement is sloppy
  • and there isn't really much air behind the attacks
And you drill deeper...
  • and you find that even major scales don't have an accurate slide
  • and there is a lot of tension inhibiting the breathing.

Cancel all my appointments, Mildred, this one's going to take a while.

It reminds me of new students who come in all ready to move on to the next super advanced piece. In their minds, they've built this wonderful 5-story "trombone building" and they think we will be moving on the add on the 6th and 7th stories.

Fundamentals? BORING

Instead, I'm more like the building inspector, heading down into the basement with my trusty flashlight. "Well, lookey here at this foundation. I'm afraid this isn't up to code. We could throw on that 6th story but the whole structure is becoming unstable."

Hmmm, maybe long tones are like the RamJack of trombone.

Seeing and Hearing..McGurk and Bad Lip Reading

Warning: this post meanders quite a bit but does eventually get to a point.

A while back I posted about the "golden bah" of articulation.

A former student sent me this fascinating video about something called the McGurk Effect...

This reminded me of a gag video someone had done wherein the video was of Allison Balsom playing the trumpet but someone had overdubbed the audio of a bad trumpet player. Not surprisingly, that video has been pulled down from YouTube.
Soon, I ran across the term "shred" which is apparently based on the same idea: same video, different audio. Not surprisingly, these links got pulled pretty quickly.
I'll try one such link (didn't know that Kiss was into country and western).

Now I've run across the hilarious web site Bad Lip Reading.
Here's one example from Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

There is a point to all this.
The point is....

This is something I've written about before in the post "Hearing with Your Eyes."

No matter what we want to believe, the manner in which you carry yourself on stage does affect people's perception of your sound.

Look confident / Be confident.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Happy 6th Birthday

I just noticed that my first blog post was on Oct. 5th, 2005.

Since then I've posted semi-regularly ...over 300 in all.

Over that time I've gone over a number of things while trying to remain true to the original intent of this blog.
Here are some past posts that come to mind...

How to keep focused after you've made a mistake?

You think auditions are a lot of pressure? Try Olympic diving.

Trouble with tension automatically going up..think ding slurp.

Speaking of tension, how about that moaning grandfather?

How about pursuing a resonant tone. Think about tuning, squacking and singer stuff.

Anyway, I've gone through and added labels to most of the older posts. You can search the blog on any of these labels.

boneweek fanfares
ear training
high range
lip slurs
new york philharmonic
note shape
self discipline
sight reading
slide technique
smart music
time management
triple tonguing
warming up

So, sometimes I take a look at the traffic this blog receives. Steady but nothing spectacular. Ironically, the number one post by far comes from a Google search term: "Big Bad Wolf"

Here's that image...

Hmm, maybe he's blowing out candles.

National Brass Symposium: an archeological dig of notes

This past summer I attended the National Brass Symposium. It was great; I'm glad I went.

I took some notes (not very diligently) and then didn't do anything with them. Now they sit in a pile of papers on my desk.
Funny thing is...I'm not always sure what I meant. So I'm going to treat these notes as a dig site...


The merciless sun beats down on their backs, urging their fingers to move more quickly but there are stronger things than the sun. Will power, for one. They know they must not hurry that precise sequence of small movements needed to uncover these precious artifacts. It has been a slow morning; little of importance has been found: some candy wrappers, an early iPhone model, not much else.
Suddenly an excited cry goes up: paper with human writing on it. The dig robot is called in with its many highly sensitive servo-motors and nano-detectors. Soon the paper is extracted and dated....2010, possibly during the summer months. We will never know for sure.
The first sheet reads:
Mulcahy w/up Day 1
  • long torso
  • Mt. Edwards - don't bring the mountain to you
  • Don't play higher than you can play with ease and purity. Pride gets in the way.
  • Why do low range?
    You can't hurt yourself playing low.
    Requires you to rely on air.
  • Breathing
    Less internal focus - more on sucking air.
    British "O", "Julia Roberts" mouth (air in through corners)
  • When you watch great players, it looks like they aren't doing anything.
The second sheet sheds more light on the mystery. It appears that these ancient runes have something to do with music. It reads:
BSO Brass 5tet
Bach Fugue
  • 10 positive to 1 negative
  • Learn quickly how to give true, meaningful comments.
  • Find something good about your colleagues.
(Grainger Songs)
  • People work hard to maintain good relationships.
  • (with a pitch problem) No matter how right you think you are, you probably aren't as perfect as you think.
(Quintet Victoria)
"Sadly we may never fully understand the meaning of these symbols." the lead researcher said as he rubbed his tired eyes. I guess we can turn it over to the music historians...those guys get all the big funding.

P.S. It was later revealed that this ancient note-taker did leave behind a more thorough digital archive of notes from the something called the "Alessi Seminar"

Monday, October 17, 2011

The (evil) Tuning Slide Game

Have you ever heard that nasty viola joke?
The teacher walks in for the string quartet coaching and finds the violist in tears. "What's wrong?" asks the teacher.
The violist cries, "The violinists turned one of my tuning pegs and won't tell me which one!"

Here's a game I played in a recent lesson. I had a student play the tune, Barbara Allen, on trombone while I played the chords on the piano. Then, while they couldn't look, I moved the tuning slide but didn't tell them whether I had moved it in or out. I even handed it to them from behind so they couldn't see the position of the tuning slide. We played through the song again and they had to tell me which way it had been moved.

We did this several times (once I handed it back but actually didn't move the tuning slide at all..muhaha).

This speaks to a larger issue: situational awareness. I'm talking about many factors: pitch, rhythm, blend, interpreting the conductor's beat, etc. Under pressure, we need to focus in and concentrate but not develop tunnel vision, losing situational awareness.

Typically, it's harder to do this under pressure.

Try this game with your students/friends and let me know what you think. Here's an odd effect I've seen: sometimes people can hear and correct more easily when it's relatively close. When it's wildly out, I've seen people get confused and hear the opposite. Don't know why...

(shameless plug: the tune "Barbara Allen" is in my book Simply Singing for Winds)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Treadmills and Detours

I find that most lessons fall into one of two categories.
Type #1:
Typically, I assign most of my students material to work on for the next lesson. For older students, this might be as simple as "work something up for next week, maybe some excerpts.."
For younger students it is usually much more structured.
In that following week, my initial game plan is to go over what they've prepared and then prep for the following week.
This kind of lesson I would call the "Happy Treadmill Lesson"

Type #2:
But in other lessons something important comes up and we need to step off the treadmill to focus in on something. With luck, this results in some sort of minor breakthrough, replacing an older bad habit with a newer good habit.
Most common detour: making discoveries in the arena of air/relaxation.
This kind of lesson I would call the "Detour Lesson."

I often find it necessary to nudge students onto that happy treadmill. I believe there is tremendous value in the simple act of learning new pieces on a regular basis.

Generally, I find that students make less progress overall when they get stuck in a rut, either pounding away at the same piece week after week or constantly having new "revelations" about their playing.

Every now and then, I have seen a "revelations" student who was a strong self-guided learner. In those cases I try to get out of the way and let them run with it. However, other students get stuck, fretting constantly about certain details of their playing, possibly avoiding the challenges of simply having to learn new material.

Hey, in the real world, you've got deadlines. Reflection and detours can be useful but there's also something to be learned in forging ahead to meet that deadline.

In the end, you need some of both.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Of Three-Legged Races and Drum Lines...

So, obviously, this is a post about double tonguing. When we use that ta-ka combo, we are combining the "tah" which we've used for years and the "kah" which is probably a new technique.
As we strive for an even sound, this combination of a strong technique with a weak one has sometimes felt to me like a three-legged race in which the team-mates are these two people...

The odds of success? ...maybe not so good.

So, we all need to do some work to build up that weaker "kah" tongue. Maybe playing tunes using all "kah" articulation.
How about something like this?

Now that my son is doing marching band, I'm more aware of those drum line warm-ups and, for some reason, this exercise reminds me of that.

So, you see, three-legged races and drum lines.


Sunday, October 09, 2011

The SPCNBB Needs Your Help! Act Now!!

This is a theme I've hit before but now with a new twist...

Those poor notes before the breath. They really suffer. The selfish player is merely thinking of trivial things like the next breath
(survival...definitely over-rated).
So often that note before the breath is cruelly sense of phrasing. No beauty of tone. Often chopped short.
We must band together to protect these poor notes. Only you can help.
Call now: 1-800-NO-CHOP.
A defenseless note needs your love. Can you please help us?

(OK, this last photo is truly shameless...)

This ad brought to you by the SPCNBB.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Gravity, Dark Matter and ...Staccato

I just heard about the winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

If I understand correctly (and why wouldn't a trombone player have an outstanding knowledge of physics?) they independently arrived at the observation that, not only is our universe expanding, it is doing so at an increasing rate. That means there must be some "dark force" that is counter-acting gravity.

I can tell you that I don't think this force exists in music. When it comes to staccato passages, gravity is still king!

People rush during staccato. If we think of each staccato note as having its own kind of gravitational pull on the notes around it, we can see how those short notes naturally draw closer to one another.
Thus, rushing.
Maybe we could use a bit of that dark energy to keep the notes evenly spaced. Until then, be strong and resist that gravitational pull.

Monday, October 03, 2011

YouTube as a practice tool?

I don't think anyone expected YouTube to become as big as it is. All of that video..I just read a 2010 report of an upload rate of 35 hours per minute!

Within that video torrent of kittens and babies quite a few orchestra videos have been posted.

So here's an idea for a handy practice tool:
videos of the big orchestral pieces
that keep the camera focused on the conductor from
the player's vantage point.

Imagine being able to play through a Mahler symphony using the part and following Alan Gilbert on the screen.
Sure lots of people have played along with recordings over the years but one always had to guess the tempo fluctuations because you couldn't see the conductor!
What a training tool!
Now maybe somebody has already done this. I've heard of some older conductor videos for horn excerpts. Does anyone know of such a collection of videos? If it were made into a YouTube channel, it would be great.
One possible problem: sometimes the audio and video aren't well synced. This should have a simple fix.
There are an increasing number of high-quality web broadcasts of orchestra performances. Most of these are multi-camera affairs with at least one camera always trained on the conductor. Wouldn't it be great to get at that original conductor footage? Does it sit in some archive somewhere?
My search of Youtube didn't reveal much. As part of there Youtube symphony project I found this example of the conductor for that Tan Dun piece. You can even find videos targeted to specific instrument groups.
I also found this example by Teodor Currentzis, a conductor I haven't heard of before (and probably won't hear of again). Here's his bio.
Anyway, is there someone out there with the time and know-how could create something of huge value for the rest of us.
Doctoral dissertation, perhaps?

Friday, September 30, 2011

The "Night Guy / Morning Guy" Bank Account

I remember this great comedy sketch by Jerry Seinfeld about how "night guy" was always screwing over "morning guy."
So take a (not so) hypothetical student who meant to practice more in the mornings but stayed up late doing something fun with friends.
College should be fun but it's also about balance.
So, I came up with this concept: treat those fun nights like withdrawals on a bank account.
Perhaps use this formula:

One morning of virtuous practicing adds
one dollar to your account.

One night of staying out and having fun subtracts
three dollars from your account.

(This should work great as long as your competition isn't pulling five dollars from his/her account for those fun nights).

It's all about choices.

Here's that sketch, which was Jerry's opening monologue to Episode #67, "The Glasses"

I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night, cause I'm Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. 'What about getting up after five hours sleep?', oh that's Morning Guy's problem. That's not my problem, I'm Night Guy. I stay up as late as I want. So you get up in the morning, you're alarm, you're exhausted, groggy, oooh you hate that Night Guy! See, Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There's nothing Morning Guy can do. The only thing Morning Guy can do is try and oversleep often enough so that Day Guy looses his job and Night Guy has no money to go out anymore.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mouthpiece Buzzing: "Buzzy" v. "Windy"

No, this isn't some obscure supreme court decision.
But, like some of those decisions, this might stir up some controversy...
  1. Play a middle F on your trombone with your best sound.
  2. As you continue to attempt to play the note, gently pull the mouthpiece out of the trombone.
  3. What happens/should happen to the note when the mouthpiece is removed?
For me, the note stops pretty quickly.

When I play on the trombone, there is a slightly larger gap between upper and lower lip. The resistance of the instrument sets the lips buzzing.
Conversely, try this:
  1. Buzz a nice-sounding middle F.
  2. As you continue to buzz the note, gently insert the mouthpiece into the trombone.
  3. What does the note sound like?
For me, the answer is, "pinched...memories of middle school"
(actually junior high school in my case but that's beside the point).

When I buzz on the mouthpiece, there is a somewhat smaller gap between the upper and lower lip. This gives me a nice, full buzz on the mouthpiece but a pinched sound on the trombone.

In fact, I can slightly alter that gap to get different kinds of buzzes, ranging from what I call a "windy" buzz to what might be called a "tight" buzz.
So, we can think of a continuum like this:

I often hear advice like, "Get more buzz in the buzz." or "Strive for a buzzy buzz." To me, these can usually be translated to, "Lips closer together."
True, this kind of buzz generates a clearer tone on the mouthpiece.

But will that translate to a clearer tone on the instrument? Maybe, maybe not.

Some observations:
  1. Buzzing isn't physically the same as playing but, for most people, it helps.
  2. A tighter buzz may be useful to build embouchure muscles.
  3. A tighter buzz generates a clearer pitch to hear.
  4. A looser buzz, however, requires more air and is closer to the setting used on the trombone.
I suspect a lot of band directors out there are dutifully telling their brass players to buzz and then assuming that ...the louder the buzz, the better the tone will be on the instrument.
Maybe, maybe not.
Personally, I've been leaning towards the "windy" buzz lately. I like the volume of air it requires and, although it isn't the same as actually playing, it's closer.
Here's the tricky part: a good buzz does need a core to the sound. There is a fine and very subtle line between a good "windy" buzz and a buzz without any definition or core to the sound.
I sometimes demonstrate this in lessons by recording my buzz with the microphone to the side of my head. When we play it back over good stereo speakers, the mid-range and low-range speakers really vibrate as they play back the sound of that buzz.
For a weak buzz lacking in core...not so much.

It's subtle difference but one worth thinking about.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sad Mickey and slide technique

Here's a common slide technique problem...reaching out towards 6th or 7th but never really reaching the position before you turn around and come back.

Sometimes I compare this to taking a trip in your car. I live in Columbia, South Carolina so, for us, Disney World is only about a 7 1/2 hour drive. We've taken the kids many times.

Imagine we're driving along in the car on that first magical trip to Disney and along about Jacksonville, I stop and announce, "OK, kids we're here!" Then I turn around and head home.
(nothing against Jacksonville, of course)

'Twould not be a happy time in that car.

So, whenever you turn around before truly experiencing the "Disney Magic" of 6th or 7th position, think of the kids.

Don't break their little hearts.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

More hardware store fun!

A former colleague, Carol Krueger, used to generously help students who were having trouble with pitch.
They would come in to work with her on sight-singing. One trick singers often use to help themselves with pitch accuracy is to cover one ear so they can hear themselves. Carol had a better system, a bent piece of tubing that pipes the sound from mouth to ear...
Of course, this doesn't quite work for buzzing the mouthpiece so, it's off to the hardware story I go to invent this variation..

(thanks to Colt Campbell for modeling)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mac Guy vs PC Guy

I guess this ad campaign has ended. Too bad.
Like most of my posts, I'll use these guys to illustrate a point.

In a recent lesson, I was working on two basic goals with a students. One was to relax, the other was be more accurate with his slide.

  • When I worked with him on relaxing more, we saw nice progress except his slide positions got sloppy.
  • When I worked with him on placing the slide more carefully, we also saw nice progress except his sound lost resonance.
Ahh, to do both...
Mac Guy = relaxed, breathing well, etc.
PC Guy = very picky about precise slide positions.

Sadly my Google image search for a morphed image that was a blend of both guys failed. I though you could find *anything* on the web!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Tuner Flip (and a deep metronome question)

Here's a photo from my studio. Basically, it's my Korg CA tuner attached to a filing cabinet using 3M Dual Lock.

The picture isn't wrong, it's on its side.
In return, I might ask, "Who decided that Right=Sharp and Left=Flat?" When you stop to think about it, doesn't, "Up=Sharp and Down=Flat" make more sense?
It does to me.

The *initial* reason I did this was twofold:
  1. These tuners have a rounded edge and, when placed on a music stand, tend to slip.
  2. On the opposite wall of my studio, I have a mirror which I often look at while practicing. I can see the tuner in the reflection. The whole left/right thing was messing with my head but, even in a mirror, up it still up.
So, those were the initial reasons but it got me to thinking...up and down really do make more sense.

OK, while I talking about these little electronic "truth boxes" I have another question.
This actually came up years ago while I was working on my dissertation.

I noticed that all these different metronomes, used the same tempo markings for the same Italian terms. Once upon a time, somebody out there decided that "Larghetto" would range from 60-66 bpm....but who?
At least at that time, I found that every metronome was the same.
But, I couldn't find the source...who decided this? How is that everyone seemed to be conforming to this standard.

Deep questions....I shall lay awake at night.
(I hope the answer isn't long and dull. Can we blame it on aliens? Dibs on the movie rights)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

NYPO Mahler 2 spot to see AND hear

As part of the 9/11 decade commemoration, the New York Philharmonic performed Mahler's 2nd symphony. I missed the live broadcast because of a performance of my own but, fortunately, the whole thing is available in high definition on YouTube (which, we should remember, started in 2005 - four years after that terrible much has changed).

Besides being moved by this great performance of one of my favorite symphonies, I found that actually watching the performers was quite instructive. In fact, I've cued up the video and used it in 3 lessons thus far.
In the following video, I've been cueing it up to roughly the 7-minute mark...the powerful chorale that starts with the trombones and bassoons. I've been using it to point out two things:

  1. Relaxation: Watch, as the music gets louder, how relaxed the performers are. Such efficiency!
  2. Embouchures: You get a lot of close-up shots. What do you notice? Not everyone is the same but there clearly are some general trends....very little movement, firm corners, etc., listen, learn.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Golden Bah

Simple post. There is that magic moment that is neither a splinter nor a wah.

We will call it the "Golden Bah" and the people shall see that it is good.
We seek it all our lives. For some, it may feel like the Higgs-Boson particle of brass playing.

I prefer the syllable "bah" to "tah" because it focuses our attention on the lips rather than the tongue.
Go seek.

What is musical? Start with what isn't.

What is a musical performance?

Now there's a deep question. Recently I thought of a novel answer.
Start with what isn't a musical performance.
Most of us have encountered those robot voices on the phone. Especially when they are reading us a phone number. Funny how hard it is to comprehend that string of numbers when there is no inflection.
Imagine one of those voices reading a novel. [Read the following in a monotone:]
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
Actually, the computers are getting better at inflection and, frankly, this makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to see a machine win a vocal Turing test.
For example, paste that above text into this website. Inflection yes, but a dramatic reading...well no Oscars yet (and hopefully not ever).
Of course, now we can now make our own animated movies like this one about a misguided trombone audition. At least there's a little inflection here...the robot voices almost make it funnier.

OK, I'm getting off my point, which is this: it is clear that an UNMUSICAL performance is one lacking in variety/inflection.
Therefore, using the counter-example, couldn't we say that a musical performance is one with variety?
Not a spastic bombardment of variety unless that's what the composer never know these days. But rather variety of dynamics, speed, articulation, tone color in a way that makes sense.

So maybe I can cobble together a definition ...

Musical (adj.): Having sensible variety.

Yes, I know musicality can't really be defined. But, when I say to a student, "How can you play that with more variety?" as opposed to , "How can you play that more musically?" it sometimes gets them thinking in a more creative and positive way.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Dear conductors...(watch the bouncing ball)

When I was working on my master's degree I took a conducting class with Teri Murai (no 'Hajime' at that point).
He did a great demo with us: he asked us all to clap right with the ictus of his downbeat. The baton went up, fell, and we all clapped together. Here's the catch: NO ICTUS! He just let the baton fall.
We all clapped together because the drop of the stick was so easy to watching a ping pong ball bouncing.
Over the years, I've worked with many conductors. This post is not meant to be directed towards any current or recent conductors but rather to the sum total of conductors I've worked with over the years.
It isn't the's the prep.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen conductors react to ensemble 'time' issues by snapping the downbeat.
The problem? Simple: bad preps.
At least for brass players, that natural fall of the stick is so vital. So often, the prep isn't in time and, right away, we're all scrambling to once again bail out another conductor.
Maybe this is less crucial in an ensemble that plays together all the time and can internally sense where the beat will be. Well, I'm not in one of those ensembles.

Want us to sound good? Let that stick fall naturally so we can set up properly.
Want us to sound bad? Make us guess.

Your choice....(boing)

Friday, September 02, 2011

Dear composers...'ve gone to all that trouble to write a piece. I'm going to assume that you want it performed. I'm also going to assume that you want it performed well.

Look at that first example above. OK, it shows promise. Pretty sophisticated composer, right? Maybe this person is going to win a composition contest with this entry...

But, woah nelly, check out this second example:

Now here's a really sophisticated composer. So intelligent, so advanced...

Of course, most of you already see it...the two examples will sound the same. Hmm, I wonder which version will lead to most errors by the performers. (Sadly, I also wonder which version is more likely to win the contest.)

Yes, I know you composer types want your scores to look sophisticated. You want everyone to respect your great genius.

But please take a moment to think about the poor saps who have to actually read your music. Believe it or not, we also want to make your music sound great.

Don't make our jobs harder than they have to be!