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.