Monday, October 28, 2013

Embracing Skeletons!

There's this phrase: Skeletons in the Closet. (or 'Skeleton in the Cupboard' elsewhere).

As I understand it, it refers to something you'd rather keep secret.

In our playing, we all have things we do better or worse.  The natural human tendency is to avoid pain and, in music, this often means avoiding those things we don't do very well.

For trombonists, this often means avoiding such unpleasantries as extreme soft playing, singing, or awkward intervals.  For some, it means avoiding lip slurs or long tones.

Those little weaknesses don't usually get better through avoidance.
Often they begin to loom large in our minds!

Embrace them!  Make them the centerpiece of your practicing.
In other words:
Don't just practice what you can already do well.  
Practice what you don't do well.

Embrace those skeletons!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ghostly gestures

I haven't thought of it this way before but the typical ghostly sound is actually quite musical.
Maybe that's why they hang around moaning and howling.
They simply want us to play 
with more direction 
in our phrases!!

For example, listen to this ghostly apparition...

Pretty scary, huh?

Actually, the ghost is merely trying to help out with the 3rd movement of the Grondahl Concerto!

Who knew?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Ghost Metronome

I'll continue with my "Halloween theme."

Of course we should all be playing with the metronome...probably more than we already do!

If you are playing something straightforward, like scales, with the metronome and you get really, really in sync with it, your notes start to "cover up" the click.

It's almost as if the metronome disappears!!

Listen carefully; try to make it vanish.

Your time will get so good it'll be spoooooky!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Great Pumpkin

Halloween is coming so I thought I should put up a post in the spirit of the season.  Some of you may remember that Peanuts special...

Linus believe that, if you chose the right pumpkin patch and you were pure of spirit, the Great Pumpkin would rise up over the horizon and smile down upon you.

This reminds me of a teaching technique I often use.

We all want our students to tune more with their ears than their eyes.  And yet, if that tuner is in their line of sight, there is still that tendency to rely on vision to correct pitch.

If a student is struggling with a particular note.  Let's say, oh, I don't about 
I have them select a passage and play into that note and put a fermata on it.
As they do this, I hide the tuner behind the music stand and, after they've had a few seconds to rely on their ear, the tuner rises up from behind the stand to render its opinion of their pitch.

(kinda like the Great Pumpkin....get it?)

I often find that students have actually trained themselves to hear a note incorrectly.  Sometimes, I give them this instruction, "Play that note so it sounds just a tiny bit flat to your ear."  If that note had been chronically sharp, they are often quite surprised to see that the "flat note" is right in tune!

About that time, I leave the tuner and put on a tuning drone to serve as an "aural chiropractor" and realign their intervals.

One critical trap to watch for: the "out of tune" note may be correctly aligned with the preceding note.  
For example, if a student is playing the 5th position Gb on the high side after coming in from an F in 6th, they may have played a correct half step up from an F that itself was too sharp.

Likewise, it wouldn't hurt to quickly check the tuning note to make sure the whole instrument is in sync.

The basic message, as always, is this: 
Your ears are the tuner!
Use the electronic aids to calibrate your ears.

If you can do this, maybe this Halloween the Great Pumpkin will smile down upon your pumpkin patch!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Of Monks and Monster Trucks

At first glance, these pictures appear to have nothing to do with each other.


Imagine yourself playing an exciting, musically thrilling passage.

But, inside, you still must maintain that calm center that allows for good tone and resonance.

Now do you see the connection?

It's like monks driving monster trucks.

Which, by the way, I doubt has ever actually happened.
I'm lookin' at you, Hollywood...this has "blockbuster" written all over it!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hrair and Ledger Lines

In his wonderful book, Watership Down, Richard Adams creates a fictional world of rabbits complete with a culture of folk heroes and tales.  He even creates Lapine, the rabbit language.  Adams reasoned that rabbits could not count higher than the number 4 and therefore invented the word "hrair," meaning all numbers greater than four.

It would be like a little kid counting, "One, two, three, four, a thousand."  The rabbit folk hero in Adams' world is even named El-ahrairah, meaning "Prince with a thousand enemies."

It seems that trombonists have a similar gut reaction when counting ledger lines.  In our case, I think basses don't count much higher than three ledger lines above the staff...
..while tenors don't count much "higher" than two ledger lines below the staff...

In our minds, I sometimes think we count a little bit like those rabbits, "One, two, three, hrair."

Especially with high notes, this may cause a problem in which we over-react to the printed notes.  We see a note, label it as a high note (with "hrair" ledger lines, oh dear!) and tense up for it.

Many, many times, I have seen a student imitate me and gliss up to much higher notes than those printed in their music.  Usually, they aren't aware of what notes they're playing and are sometimes surprised when they discover that they just played a "high C" or "high D" at the top of their glisses.

Even though student X can gliss up to, for example, a high C with relative ease, they might still struggle with the following passage..

They see that A on the second line with soooo many ledger lines below it and the brain might just lock up: "Whoa, that note has like a thousand ledger lines!"  Psychologically it may as well be this note:
Even as a professional, I'm pretty sure there are hrair ledger lines below that note!

One would think that clefs would help solve this problem, but they introduce challenges of their own!

I guess this once again boils down to "stimulus-response" psychology and just overcoming that natural tendency to panic a bit as those ledger lines approach.  That's why, in my warm-up, I gliss up to an F early on.  It helps inoculate me against tension when I see one of those notes with hrair lines below it.

You might say it helps me fight that urge to run away and hide under the ground..

Friday, October 11, 2013

Don't trade it away!

People used to collect and trade baseball cards.

Your tone is like a signed babe ruth card.  You wouldn't trade it away for anything.

Someone comes along: "Hey Buddy, I'll trade some flashy fast notes for that tone card.  Waddya say?"


Someone else comes along: "Yo man, come here.  I'll give you three Fortes for that tone card."

Forget it.

And yet, how often do willingly trade away our tone quality by trying to play ...

  • too loud
  • too fast
  • too punchy
  • too soft
That reminds me of that saying by George Solti, conductor of the Chicago Symphony.  To the woodwinds he would say, "Woodwinds, make a miracle."  To the brass, he would say, "Brass, safe soft!"  Smart man.

(Maybe that helps explain those 32 grammies.)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pop goes the "Nasal Vent"

Think of a pressurized canister like the kind they use to fill balloons.  Often these canisters have a release valve that, when opened, makes a brief hiss of escaping air.

When a student plays, I sometimes hear a similar sound right as they finish.  Here's an example.  Listen very carefully to the end of the notes, just as they release.  I placed the microphone inches away from the side of their face....

  If you listen carefully, you'll hear a little "click" sound as the notes end.
What is going one here?

I have this saying:
Lungs deal in pounds. Lips deal in ounces.

I think the lungs are trying to force more air than the lips need.  That causes the throat area to "lock up" in resistance to all that air pressure.

At the top of the throat we all have a soft palate.

This soft palate can prevent air from escaping through the nose unintentionally.  Try this experiment:
  1. Blow air (mouth shaped like a small O)
  2. As you blow, plug the opening with your finger.
  3. Notice that the air doesn't escape through the nose.  Why? I think it is because the soft palate is blocking the air.
You can even release that soft palate and get that rather uncomfortable popping sound as the air diverts through your nose. (Don't do this too violently and hurt yourself).

That popping/nasal vent sound at the end of notes is, I think, a sign that the student is putting the air under more pressure than the lips need and is thereby creating an isometric situation where they are effectively working against themselves.  I briefly referenced this concept in a previous blog post called "The 47 Pound Pencil".

For some reason this reminds me of that legendary creature, the "push me, pull you"

If you're a teacher, listen for that little "nasal vent" sound at the end of notes.  It is usually accompanied by a rather muffled tone and the general sense that the student is working too hard. (also the dreaded "wah" often appears).

How to fix this?  There's no one solution but, generally, you need to teach the student (or yourself) to blow with less force.

The practice mute trick often helps
  1. Play loud into the mute.
  2. Remove the mute and just blow big and easy.
  3. Notice how the notes seem to fall out of the bell without much effort.
My trumpet colleague does something similar by having his students play through legato lines while flutter tonguing and my wife has used a stop mute on the horn for a similar effect.  I even recall when the Marine Band trombone section did a master class at South Carolina, their bass trombonist simply stuffed a rag into the bell to provide that resistance.

If you're a teacher, listen carefully for that little pop of the "nasal vent" as the student finishes a note.  You might be surprised how often you hear it.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

There are no Pass-Offs

Many of my students use the term "pass off" in lessons.  For example, "I want to pass off that etude this week."
In music, there are no pass-offs!
In football, does a field goal kicker stop after one successful kick, announcing to the coach, "OK coach, I've passed off my field goals!"

Does a great violinist play the F-sharp major scale once in his life and then declare it passed off?

In my first of two lessons with Arnold Jacobs, I brought a lyrical solo I had been working on (I even brought an enlarged copy because his eyesight wasn't as good).  I started with that but it wasn't long until he turned me to those favorite pages of the Arban's Method and to buzzing Pop Goes the Weasel on my mouthpiece.  I had done these things before, many times, but by revisiting these familiar materials, he was able to help me see things in a new light.  If he were still alive, I'm sure I could bring those same things back in to a lesson and he could probably share still more revelations.  I can't imagine myself saying,
"But Mr. Jacobs, I passed that off last time."

There is a fundamental difference between knowledge-based learning and skill-based learning.  Once we've figured out that 2+3=5 or that the sun rises in the East, we can safely declare those facts as having been learned.  We've passed them off.

But, in skill-based learning, there are no pass-offs.  Yes, there is growth of ability.  Perhaps you might say that the ability to memorize a passage (knowledge-based) is a "pass off" item.  But, for the most part, we must revisit our basic skills all the time.

Just as a basketball player must keep working on that free throw...

Or a tennis player must always work on her serve...

In the skill aspect of music, there are no pass-offs.  What was that old Nike slogan?  There are no finish lines?  Hmm, that's a good one, too.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Like Dancing in a Straight Jacket

Oh, orchestral excerpts, how I love thee.  
I striveth for musicality
But then I stretch a little on beat 3
and my hopes sink beneath the dark, dark sea

Think of our buddy, Bolero, so scary.  
Sensuality in notes, played with flair-ee
But The Time must never, never vary.
We must neither rush nor tarry.

Daily I practice so I can hack it.
It's almost like dancing ballet in a straight jacket.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Psychic Paper

The T.V. character Dr. Who has a nifty gadget called psychic paper.

When we practice, we must remember the new habits we're trying to build. Sometimes it is easy to forget.  I've had students put little reminders to themselves on their music or in their cases so each time they take out the horn to practice, they see that slip of paper and remember the new habit they're trying to nurture.

What to write on that paper?
How about..

stuff like that

What if you left the paper blank?  Each time you see it, it just reminds you to pause and think, "What are the good habits I'm trying to nurture?"

This reminds me of that "psychic paper" Dr. Who uses.  Basically, the viewer "sees" whatever the good doctor wants him to see.  If he announces he's a health inspector then, poof, the viewer sees a health inspector's license.

What if Dr. Who approached you and said, "I know exactly what you need to sound better on that passage!"  He then holds up that magic paper.  What would you see?

Try it...put a blank post-it note as a reminder..."what do I need to remember?"

This is similar to (but slightly different from) another post I did a while back about post-it notes.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Doin' the "Bird Bobber"

We often unwittingly make little adjustments to our posture as we start to play a note.  I always preach,
Stand tall, bring the instrument to you.

In spite of this, those "bad posture" habits can be very strong!  Sometimes I ask a student to simply go through the motions of bringing the instrument up to play while watching themselves in the mirror.

The instrument just goes up and down...up and down...while the body stays in a nice, well-balanced position.

This may seem silly, but it can be quite remarkable when, after repeating this several times, the student actually goes to play a note or two.  They often observe that the notes feel easier and sound better.

This repeated up and down motion reminds of those little gizmos that simulate a bird dipping down to take a sip from a bird bath.  Personally, I always called them bird bobbers but apparently the rest of the world (and Wikipedia) calls them "drinking birds."

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Learning to Gallop

Time for a new "blogging season"!!

Sometimes I get a student to play out more and receive the complaint: "I don't like the way I sound."

It's true that, when you start to use more air, the lips need some time to get used to it.

Compare this to learning to ride a horse.  If all you do is sit on a slow-moving horse, how will you learn to ride at a full gallop?

On trombone, however, we don't have to worry about falling off and breaking our necks.  So jump on, play out, and get used to refining your sound AS YOU CONTINUE TO PLAY WITH A FULL SOUND.

You don't learn to gallop unless you gallop.
You don't learn to play out unless you play out.

(hmm, I wonder if that same thing is true with high notes)