Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Winnie the Pooh (and Eeyore too!)

One day in the Hundred-Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh sat in the shade of a tree feeling quite content.

Along came Owl, his face a thoughtful scowl.

"Why Mr. Owl, how do you do?  Come sit with me in the shade!" called Pooh
"No time for that now my little friend," replied Owl.  Owl began walking in circles muttering, "Oh vexation, vexation, is it the tongue or the air?  The tongue or the air?"
Pooh watched him circle for a bit and finally asked, "You look worried what's wrong?"
Mr Owl replied, "Well, I recently acquired this trombone and I ever so want to play it well!  I've read all the learned books on the matter and remain uncertain about the correct approach to articulation.  Should one focus on the tongue?  If so, where is that tongue to be placed?  Or is one better advised to focus solely on the air?  Oh, I should have consulted my great uncle, Owlther Pryor.  He was quite the trombonist, you know."

Well, Pooh had long ago stopped listening as Owl droned on.  His tummy was getting grumbly and he thought it might be time for a spot of honey.  He got up to see if he had any in his kitchen when Owl asked, "But where are you going?  You haven't helped me with my problem?"

"Who, me?" replied Pooh.
"Yes, you...Pooh" replied Owl.
"Pooh what?" replied Pooh.
"Oh bother!" shouted Owl, "Pooh, pooh, pooh, how should I articulate notes?? "
"Pooh?" replied Owl.

Owl thought for  a moment and exclaimed, "Why yes, that's it!!  Just say 'Pooh' and don't worry about the tongue synchronizing with the air! Pooh, you're a genius!  Thank you so much!"

"Your welcome?" replied Pooh.

Later, after a hearty meal of honey, Pooh was napping under that same tree when along came Eeyore.
Eeyore mumbled and grumbled, "Oh bother.  Oh bother.  Why did I ever agree to play the low notes in Owl's new trombone quartet?"
Pooh awoke and asked, "What's wrong, Eeyore?"
Eeyore sighed, "Well, you see, Mr Owl is forming a trombone quartet and wants me to play the fourth part.   I don't know why, nobody ever asks me to do anything."
"Maybe he just wants to play with you," suggested Pooh.
"No, I don't think so." moaned Eeyore.  "He said I should be able to play the low notes because I'm always feeling soooo low."
"Well, Mr Owl is very scholarlike, I mean knowledgabbible, I mean smart." said Pooh.
"But whenever I try to go from the regular notes down to the low notes, I can't make them come out! Oh bother, why did I ever agree to do this?"

Pooh thought about this a bit and began to hum a little tune to himself, "Play low, Eeyore. Down low Eeyore. Open up, open up."  (in truth, Pooh was also trying to open a honey jar while he sang).

Eeyore listened for a while and finally said, "So maybe I should just say my name: 'Eeyore' to open up for the low notes?  Well I suppose I can try that.  I doubt it will work, though.  Oh bother.  Well, goodbye Pooh."

As he trudged away, Pooh finally opened up that second honey jar and happily munched away for the rest of the afternoon.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

12 bones, 12 tones on 12/12/12

This coming Wednesday will be 12/12/12.  It will be the last repeating date of this century.  Of course, during that day will come the time 12:12:12.

I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool if we had 12 bones playing all 12 tones at precisely 12:12:12?"

And, (drumroll please...or eggroll if you're hungry), I have composed a 12-second fanfare scored for twelve trombones that we hope to premiere at ...well, I guess you know when.

Here's a link to the fanfare...anybody else who wants to give it a go...copy away! (Note, if you're looking at the post for the 2nd time, I changed the link to a file on my website).

As for timing, I think I'll have my cell phone link up to some official online clock showing the seconds.
There are a number of smartphone apps that can do this.

I'm working on lining up twelve trombone players here to do it.

I hope we don't open up a rift in the space-time continuum!!

Here's the same fanfare as a png image in case the pdf link above doesn't work...

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Slow Mo

I must admit that I'm a (American) football fan.  Sorry, I just can't help it.

Anyway, in an exciting game, we sometimes see that catch by the receiver right on the very edge of the field.  Was the foot inbounds? In the replay, the broadcast will slow down the video and even enlarge one portion of the screen so we can look for those 2-3 blades of green grass between the foot and the white edge

Hmm, slowing down to make things clear.  Where have I heard this before?  Zooming in on a crucial spot so we can each sixteenth note blade of grass.  Clearly.  Replaying the music catch over and over until there's no doubt.

Call me crazy, but doesn't this have something to do with music?
(hmm, even my recorder is made by Zoom...too bad it doesn't slow things down)

I plan to be teaching for a long time.  Right this instant, there are little babies out there who will fall in love with music, pick up a trombone and end up taking lessons with me (or some other trombone teacher).
I have a prediction:

  1. They often won't be very patient 
  2. They usually won't slow things down enough to really clarify the notes.  
  3. AND once they get it right, they'll forget that getting it right is the beginning of your practice, not the end.  

Slow it Down so that it's Clear!  Really clear!  
Like "Blades of Grass" clear!

Here's a good blog post about the importance of slowing down when you practice.
Here's an older post of mine about one practice technique for slowing things down.

I guess we can go other sports that require that focus and precision.  Such as gymnastics...

Or tennis...

Or the other football...

But for me, it's still American football.  What can I say?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Of Lip Slurs and Taffy

As performers and teachers, we often deal in visual imagery to help evoke the right physical response.
When I'm playing my slow lip slurs, I want to maintain an unbroken airstream as I move from note to note.  It helps me to think of my embouchure as SUPPLE AND MALLEABLE instead of BRITTLE.

For the air during these lip slurs, I like to think of an unbroken stream of air connecting the notes.  Like that taffy-pulling machine above..... (or below)...

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Black Hole of Silence

That title sounds like it should be the 8th Harry Potter book....Harry Potter and the Black Hole of Silence.

Take a look at the second line of the example from Trombone Craft...

Most students will come in early after the dotted-eighth rest. If that rest were replaced with a note, they'll probably have much less trouble placing the rhythm.  But since they are given nothing to do, it's just so hard to to feel the rhythm inside and accurately place the following note.

It's almost as if that silence is a black hole, trying to suck in all the notes around it.  And thus the title: The Black Hole of Silence.

Beware of its cousin: The Black Hole of Sustained Notes.  Similar problem, when we have no sounds to produce, it is all too easy for minds to go blank and lose their grip on the pulse.

Don't get sucked in!!  Resist the Black Hole!!

Monday, November 05, 2012

Buzzing and Bounce Houses

Here's a trick I like to use...take a few inches of flexible vinyl tubing and pop it onto the end of the mouthpiece for buzzing.  Adds some nice resonance and a bit of resistance.

A lot of students struggle to buzz as low on the mouthpiece as on the trombone.  One reason, I think, is that the mouthpiece provides less resistance to the air.  There's less back pressure.

The tube helps with this but sometimes it isn't enough.  One trick is to pinch the end of the tube to increase the resistance.  This helps a lot of my students get those low notes.

Here's the cool part: once you can buzz that low note with the tube mostly closed off, allow the tube to open up (un-pinch) as you continue buzzing the note.  What happens?  Did the note stop?

Many of you will notice the slight sensation of the lips "falling into" the mouthpiece a little as the tube gets "un-pinched".

Think of it this way:
Get yourself a really big pressure chamber and then put a inflated bounce house inside of it.  As you reduce the pressure in the chamber, the bounce house will expand from its internal pressure.

Likewise, as the tube opens up, the pressure inside the mouthpiece decreases and the lips naturally move forward, blown by the air.  

Let them go forward.  This is different from pushing your lips forward.  They "fall" forward a tiny bit if they aren't being held too tight. 

I think a lot of players try to set the center of the embouchure too tight so it can't buzz easily.  I'm fine with the embouchure corners being firm.  But the center?  Well, for me, I want that area supple and able to vibrate easily when the air hits it.

Anyway, stop by the hardware store, buy some tubing and try it out.  Let me know what you think.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Fearsome Five

NEWS FLASH: The Fearsome Five have taken over Trombonopolis!!  Citizens cower in fear.
What can be done??

Who are these evil villains?  Five notes that insinuate themselves into our daily repertoire lives and wreak havoc!  Run for for lives!!! (or listen and adjust...your choice, really)

Namely: five notes which show up a lot in our rep and have some pitch issues.

1. The Incredible Sinking G

Just as you hope to sail above the world in your tonal glory, the Incredible Sinking G is there to flatten your spirits. FLAT

2. The Shape Shifter (G-flat/F-sharp)

This is a sneaky one folks!  Is it a G-flat?  Is it an F-sharp?  Each one points the finger of blame at the other but the result is the same...FLAT

3. The Not-So-Safe F

Oh, so you thought first position was safe, huh??  You thought you could just pull into that safe harbor and nothing could go wrong?  Think again, bub.  It's SHARP.

4. Not-So-EEEasy

Oh, it's just 2nd position. What could possibly go wrong?  Mu-ha-ha-ha-ha (SHARP)
5. The Evil King: E-Not-So-Flat

The King of the Fearsome Five: the E-flat.  SHARP 
He has the terrifying ability to bend your mind into believing the "sharp is good, sharp is good, sharp is good"  Nooooooo!!

Calling the Trombone Avengers!  Sally forth and do most noble battle with these Fearsome Foes.  Do not let them win.  In the name of all (tuning) that is good, we must prevail.

Now returning you to your regularly scheduled broadcast.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Attacking Uncrustables

As I teach, I experiment.

In a recent lesson, a student was asking about how to get more "ping" in his articulations and I tried something new: I had him sustain some higher notes while I recorded him.  Then, while playing back the recording, I turned the speakers on and off.

Specifically, I watched the level meter on my Zoom recorder and, after it jumped to show the note was being held, I quickly turned on the speakers.

The effect: a perfect attack with just the ping he had been looking for!

Time for a little gooey Zen:
 The best attack is no attack.  
In other words, one instant there is silence, the next instant there is tone.  No part of the note can be separately labeled as "the attack."
The tone. Just. Begins.
Or, to put it in more physical terms:
The lips. Just. Begin vibrating.

This reminds me of that old saying (one of my favorites):
The bread is made of the same ingredients no matter how thinly you slice it.

So true, HOWEVER, one could argue that, once baked, bread has a crust.  Dang, now my nice metaphor is under attack!

Hmmm, I'm reminded of those kids who can't stand crust on their bread.  Think of those poor parents slaving away to remove crust from the bread.
(kind of a first-world problem, but I digress)

Ahh, but leave to our friends in the corporate marketing world to scramble to our rescue!

I found a news article in 2002, announcing that the Sara Lee corp. would now offer crustless bread.

Nice, but the grand prize in the "Baked Goods Useful in Describing Brass Articulation" category must go out to our friends in the Smuckers Corporation for that brilliant dietary innovation, the uncrustable.

I have no plans to eat this glop any time soon but my ravenous hunger for stretched metaphors knows no limits!

Monday, September 24, 2012

The musical pendulum

The state fair will be here soon.  This makes me think of ..... No, not  funnel cakes.... concepts for teaching music!

Think about the ride shown above.  If you're not familiar with this one, it swings from side to side, going higher and higher until, finally, it balances for a moment in the vertical position.

What does this have to do with music?

It reminds me of two things...
1. Musical Freedom
Especially in a piece like the Larsson Concertino, mvt. 1, I love the image of lines that sweep up and linger at the top before swooping back down.  Visualizing something like this ride helps me to play that passage with a more natural flow.

2. Musical Balance
The second is more abstract.  Think of it this way: on one side of the pendulum is artistic flow and total expression.  On the other side is technical accuracy.  Sometimes in lessons a sense a sort of pendulum swing in my comments.  At one point the student is being expressive but not very accurate.  I point out issues with articulation or tuning and, as they focus on making adjustments, they lose their sense of phrasing and musicality.  So, my next comment might swing the pendulum the other way.

What we want is that perfect vertical "hover point" where the technical polish and expression are in balance.

Well, it's not a perfect metaphor but it may prove somewhat helpful.

(here's another one of those rides ...)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tunneling In vs Flying Over

Here's one of those challenges every teacher faces:
When to "Tunnel In" and when to "Fly Over."

"Tunneling In" happens when I, as a teacher, spot some fundamental thing that needs work.  It might be a rhythmic problem or a breathing problem or an articulation problem.  Whatever it is, I know that I'll need to step away from the solo/etude/excerpt and address this issue.  While this kind of work is really valuable, it also means that we may get bogged down and never progress through much music.

One of my colleagues (different instrument, different school) once told me that he felt one of his secrets was making the students constantly prepare new material.  I think he was going for three new things every week.

Just as a practical matter of having a certain volume of material to prepare each week means that, in lessons, the teacher won't be able to Tunnel In.

"Flying Over," of course is the opposite.  It means getting coverage on a larger amount of music.  It means the teacher will have to make cursory comments about general sorts of things.

To be a good teacher, I think you must do some of both.  As you work with a student, you need a sort of mental pie chart of your lesson time with that student.  How much time have you spent in each activity?

A Couple Somewhat-Related Thoughts:

One of my frustrations with master classes at conventions is that, too often, the teacher never tunnels in.  Maybe it's too difficult with an audience looking on.  Maybe they're worried that the problem is too large and thorny to be handled in that setting.  Instead, one usually hears cursory sorts of comments that often reveal very little.  Sometimes I'd like to see how an advanced teacher tunnels in.

Years ago, I was teaching a younger student who had some terrible tension issues.  My usual bag of tricks just didn't seem to be working.  I arranged for that student to have a lesson with a master teacher (David Fedderly) while I observed.  It was a wonderful experience to watch a more advanced teacher address problems I had struggled to fix.  I would recommend this for others as well. It does involve checking your own ego at the door but it's worth it.

When I first started teaching full-time at the college level, I found many of my students had very weak fundamentals.  I went into major "tunnel in" mode, spending large chunks of lesson time on easier material so they could develop a more relaxed, efficient approach.  Guess what happened?  Some were helped but too many others reached the conclusion that, since my stuff was "easy," they didn't need to spend much time on it.  Their jazz band charts, on the other hand, were very difficult so that's what they practiced.  Did those basic problems get fixed...for many of them: not really.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“cheeks-sent-me-high"), author of the book Flow, had an interesting chart that shows that balance between boredom and anxiety.  It's not exactly what I'm talking about but it's great food for thought...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mellow Bookends

Sometimes we are guilty of pounding our chops.  Actually, often we're guilty.  Maybe it's a gig with heavy playing, maybe a frustrating practice session with a lick that's just beyond our reach.  Maybe it's marching band.
Whatever it is, why are we so often surprised when, the next day, things aren't working so well??
Here's a prescription for one of my students who seems to have some chops that are rising up in rebellion at their treatment.  I call it Mellow Bookends.

Basically, at the beginning of your first practice session and at the end of your last practice session, spend 20-30 minutes of easy playing.  That playing should have the following characteristics:

  1. Nothing louder than mezzo piano.
  2. No tongue
  3. Smooth
  4. Nothing fast.
  5. Keep the range mostly between middle B-flat and trigger C.  However, soft pedal notes are welcome.
My theory: this is chop therapy.  Do it for a few days and see how they feel. I'm guessing they'll be thanking you and you'll be fired and ready to.....

...pound them again???  (maybe not so much this time)

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Weakest Link

There used to be tacky game show called "The Weakest Link."  Just before getting eliminated from the game, the host would announce to that player, "You are....the weakest link!"
(there's even a Dr. Who episode in which that pronouncement was fatal...but I digress).

As players, we need to evaluate ourselves in order to improve.  Here's an idea: play a one- or two-octave scale in eighth notes...not too fast.  If you have a machine handy, record yourself.  After playing it (or listening back), instead of asking yourself was it good or bad, ask yourself, "Which note was the weakest link?"  Inevitably, some notes will be better and some weaker.

Learn to evaluate yourself comparatively.

It is healthy to also ask yourself, "Which notes were the strongest links?"  No matter what your level, when you play something, it will have a mixture of better moments and weaker moments.

Why did the better moments sound better?

When I record a student and, at one moment, they sound much better, I like to ask, "Did you hear that? That was really great.  Why did it sound so much better there?"

Their usual replies..

  1. I took a better breath.
  2. I started to relax.
  3. I don't know, I just really enjoy playing that part.
Hmm, maybe we should focus on the strongest links in our playing as much as the weakest.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Sliding Brackets and Growing Crystals

Let's face it...much of practice goes into mastering those hard licks...the ones we can't play yet.
We all know the time honored technique of starting slow and gradually speeding up.
A lesser known but equally valid approach is the "fast chunks" method.  Basically, this means taking small bits of the lick and playing them at speed.

Perhaps this is obvious to some  but, others, this might be something new to think about.  When I do "fast chunks" practicing, I use two techniques: sliding brackets and growing crystals.
Sliding Brackets
Let's use the following example from one of the earlier etudes in my Trombone Craft book...

 Bracket off some notes and play them.  Then, slide that bracket over to the next group.  Make sure that the brackets overlap by at least one note.  Like this..

Like Lego pieces, you can than snap the smaller chunks together into larger chunks..

You just keep sliding the bracket across the lick.

Growing Crystals
Another approach is what I call "growing crystals."  This can be very useful.  Pick a small batch of notes, probably from the middle of the lick and isolate them.  Maybe something like this:

Then add some notes to either side of the focus area.  You can start by adding notes to the end:

Than add on some notes to the beginning:

Now, tack on some more notes to the end again:

This is like growing a crystal from a small center.  This is also an excellent way to isolate a trouble spot.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hummers and Prii?

What is the plural of Prius anyway?  Prii??

Anyway, I want to use these cars to talk about embouchures...(I know, so obvious).

We often talk about supplying lots of air as we play.  We seem to talk less often about having an efficient embouchure that doesn't need tons of air to vibrate well.

So how about this...

The Best Situation
Driving a Prius with a gas station every 2 miles.

The Worst Situation...
Driving a Hummer with a gas station every 500 miles.

In other words...
The Best Situation
Having an efficient embouchure with a generous air supply

The Worst Situation
Having an inefficient embouchure with a limited air supply.

Think about both.

Monday, August 27, 2012

New Year - New Warm-Up

I hope everyone had a good summer.  I decided not to blog because (1) I wanted to devote time to finishing up the Trombone Craft books (tenor AND bass) and (2) I get most of my blogging inspirations in lessons.

Well, the year has begun and I'll try to crank up the old blog.

If you know me, you know I am constantly tweaking/re-thinking/revising my warm-up.

This year's edition (which I've already tweaked about 20 times) is intended to be simple and short.  I also don't want it to be a daily routine.  It's meant to be simple warm-up that gets me ready to go.

2012-2013 Warm-Up

Here are some comments about the different sections:
#1 Buzz, Play
a. Buzz

  • If you have a tuning drone handy, that can be helpful.  I'm often standing by a piano and just plunking down a B-flat to provide a reference pitch.
  • The "AIR" symbol is a reminder to really let the air flow.  The lip setting will be looser than when you play the instrument.  Don't worry about that.  In many lessons, I pull out the pinwheel to give feedback on air flow.  Sometimes, I even ask a student to start the air moving before the lips come in contact.  This helps prevent that tendency to "lock up" that some people fight.
  • It's nice to include some legato tonguing early on.  Make sure the air still flows
  • Not everyone can buzz down to a pedal B-flat but it's a great goal!
b. Play

  • Even though the buzzing won't feel the same as the playing, it sure seems to help.  That's why this starts with the same notes.
  • Play slowly and make sure you are getting your most beautiful sound!  Don't worry about keeping a steady beat.  Just breathe easy and sound great.
  • The low glisses are wonderful for the chops.  Many students suffer from a wobbly tone on the lower notes.  That usually means they are trying to blow to fast or not allowing the lips to set for the lower notes.  With patience and practice, this usually improves.
  • You should have a tuner on and check 6th position on the glisses.  Set a good pitch.  Many students don't seem to know where 6th is.

  • I find it helpful to briefly ascend into the high range early in a warm-up.  It's almost like an inoculation against "high note freak-out"  
  • If those higher notes don't come out, don't play them over and over.  Try once or twice and then move on.
#2 Lip Slurs

  • The metronome click isn't critical but it does seem to help me stay on task.  There's something nice about simply turning it on and letting it run.  You can experiment with different tempi if you want.
  • These slurs go gradually faster and range gradually farther.  Obviously they get harder.  Some people may not be able to to go all the way down the page.  If not, just go as far as you can and then move on.
  • Bass trombones: there are too many high notes in your rep to simply live in pedal land.  You need to think of the bass trombone as having a wider range, not a lower one.
  • It's very important to be observant for throat tension during these slurs.  So many people allow this insidious habit to creep into their playing.  A relaxed throat is an open throat.
  • There are three versions of slur "f".  Choose the one that fits your level.

#3 Articulation
a. 1x Buzz, 2x Play

  • The purpose of the half note leading into the semi-legato articulations is to reinforce good air flow.  Don't articulate in a way that stops up the air.
  • If you want to take more time with this, you can do it in more positions.  You can also go higher or lower.

  • Many people tense up as they start to move the slide while tonguing. Don't try to stop the slide at each position.  This tempo sits on the borderline of necessity for stopping the slide (much slower and you need to stop on every note; much faster and you clearly shouldn't).
  • Don't forget to repeat down a half step (ranging from 2nd to 6th position).
  • The dotted slur means use a default "dah" tongue.  You can vary it if you wish.

  • Remember: forte not fortissimo. Don't tense up for these louder attacks.  Loud = loose

  • This is a nice one to develop confidence and accuracy.  Notice that it extends higher than the 1st position overtone series.  Sometimes I take this all the up to high F.
  • Keep the embouchure corners stable.  A bad habit I fight in my own playing is a tendency to re-set the embouchure as I descend to the 2nd partial and lower.  Doing this exercise consistently seems to help.
#4 Low and Slow

  • My thanks to Mr. Mulcahy for his master class reminding us of the value of playing low.  I used to know that but somehow forgot it.
  • I usually go down to a pedal C on this and, yes, I include the low B and even try to move smoothly from low B to pedal B-flat.  It doesn't sound elegant but it's good for me.
After this warm-up

  • Lately I've been thinking more about a daily routine that includes sing/buzz/play on simple tunes; long tones; lots of lip slurs; scales; and interval work.  I haven't come up with a system yet but the idea is appealing.  In college, Mike Miller used to joke that I was "Mr. System."  Oh well.
Shameless Plug

  • I didn't want this warm-up to overlap with my trilogy of books.  With the completion of Trombone Craft, I finally feel like I have a complete set of materials to work on fundamentals.  The books are: Lip Slurs, Simply Singing for Winds and Trombone Craft.  It's been a long time coming.  Whew.
What's missing?

  • While I tried to include some sense of phrasing, this isn't an overly musical experience.  Some may feel a bit stifled.  There isn't much room for creativity, either.
  • Some may express shock that long tones aren't built into this.  I believe in the power of long tones but I don't think of them as a separate warm-up activity.  Notice, however, that sustained notes do play a role.
    When I teach a new high school or middle school student, I sometimes ask them to show me some of their warm-up.  Invariably they play some sort of long tone exercise.  However, they rarely seem to know why they do this. Also they rarely breathe well and don't strive to make a beautiful sound.  Doesn't seem like getting off to a good start, does it?
Anyway, here it is. I hope it helps.  Please give me some feedback.

I always tell myself this lovely little lie: now I'm done tweaking the warm-up.  Well, done for now....