Sunday, January 30, 2011

When to Stop?

Teaching is more art than science.

One of the things I love about my job is that I am constantly challenged to revise my craft. When I see former students, I sometimes feel the urge to apologize because I've learned so much about teaching since they were my students.

One of the fundamental questions I deal with is...

When to stop a student and when
to let them play through?

This semester, I feel as if I've made a bit of a breakthrough in the pacing of lessons. After beginning with the usual variety of 'fundamentals' things, I hand it over to the student (who has already laid out a basic plan for the semester) and ask, "OK, what do you want to play?"

Whatever they choose, I pop their SD card into my recorder and they essentially perform the piece without me stopping them.

When they're done, we both sit down at my desk with the music and listen back to the recording. Now I can stop as often as I need/want to and point out details. I often back up the recording to point out something. I also like to pause our listening and have them jump back up to play through a passage differently.

It is interesting to see their reaction when, after we've really worked on a phrase, we double back to the recording and listen again to how they played it that first time. Often, they have moved from being unaware of something to being keenly (and uncomfortably) aware of it.

Generally, this also means that I've slowed down the pace of the lesson, choosing to patiently address something that needs attention rather than feeling quite so compelled to move on to the next item.

This isn't the only thing I do or the only way I teach but, in general, I've been doing it a lot more and am liking the results.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Air Obstacle Course

Living in Columbia, SC means living near Ft. Jackson. Every fall, they host an event (sponsored by the marine corps) called the mud run.

This last fall roughly 14,000 people ran, swam, crawled and basically oozed their way through an obstacle course. (I even considered doing it but then I realized that I am sane).

Somehow I thought about this when listening to a student's overly noisy breath.
Noise = friction.

It's almost as if the air has to run an obstacle course to go in and come out. What we really need (low tongue, relaxed throat) is a new superhighway...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Consider this example...

How long do you have to take a breath?? Over two measures, right? Why do so many people try to breathe in the space of the eighth note?

Yes, it's good to be able to breathe quickly when you have to but lets not make things more gaspy than needed.

On a related note, I think everyone agrees about the value of a quiet breath. However, what about a cue breath in chamber music? I sometimes use a technique I call 'finishing with a kick.'

I start with that slower, relaxed breath. At the end of the breath, my 'kick' is a louder inhalation in time with the music in order to cue the others.

(yes this is a pseudo Ewazen quote)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Surfing on the breeze

It seems I never have time for elaborate blog posts so here's a short one.

So many people pinch off the air as they buzz. There is a standard trick I like to use.

  1. Blow silent air through the mouthpiece (against a pinwheel or something similar). If you're using a pinwheel, don't make it spin at full tilt. A nice steady breeze should do the trick.
  2. Start blowing that same silent air and then gently bring the lips together. Hopefully they'll buzz.
  3. Make sure the pinwheel doesn't stop spinning when the note starts. Many, many students start the buzz and instinctively pinch off the air when starting the note. I'm surprised how often, when they finally get it right and buzz with a nice full sound, they say to me, "Wow, that feels completely different."

Band directors, go get yourself a pinwheel and use it with those starting students!

The first habit is the one that sticks. If their first experience is a buzz with freely moving air, they are likely to avoid major trouble down the road.