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!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

That Gandalf Attitude

Practicing can be hard, lonely work. Sometimes we all need a little inspiration.
In my teaching, I often find myself helping students to discover those bad habits that are holding them back. Of course, once discovered, it's not as if these habits are just going to go away!
To be honest, we all let little things slide in our playing. Perhaps we're on a deadline. Perhaps we're tired. Perhaps we're lazy.
Still, I think there is that point in your development where you have to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and say,
"I'm not going to allow those uncentered attacks.
I'll slow it down until I can REALLY play every note so it sounds great."

Of course this isn't much fun. It take loads of patience and a dash of inspiration to keep on going.
Enter Gandalf.
If you've seen "The Fellowship of the Ring," you'll probably remember that scene near the end where, in the mines of Moria, Gandalf faces down this gigantic fire monster with the dramatic words:

Maybe we all could stand to have that "Gandalf" attititude when confronting those really stubborn bad habits that hold us back.
For purists, here's the full quote (and a little more artwork):
I am a servant of the Secret Fire,
Wielder of the flame of Anor.
Dark fire will not avail you, Flame of Ud√Ľn.
Go back to the shadow!
You shall not pass!

You shall not pass!