Sunday, December 27, 2015

Where Many People Mess Up with Long Tones...

I wonder if some things I do are a waste of time....

       The majority of my students are middle schoolers and I assign them daily rounds of long tones. I do this with the hope that they MIGHT work on them a LITTLE a few times per week. Face it, I'm asking 12 year olds to sit in front of a tuner and slowly play notes through a variety of dynamic ranges. This is mostly an exercise in futility.

  "Well, genius, you are the one who continues to assign them."

       I know I do and there is a purpose. I know full well they won't do them consistently and that isn't really the point. The reason I continue to assign long tones because I want them to hear from the onset the concepts of good instrumental pedagogy. I want them to hear repeatedly about how and WHY these things are important and how to best implement them; which leads me to the point of this blog:

Many folks do long tones totally wrong!

         I say that with this caveat- In my opinion, any time with your horn to your face which doesn't reinforce bad technique is time well spent. Therefore, even long tones done half way can be a positive thing. There is the operative term, however......HALF WAY.

Going through the motions...

          I'm guilty of this too....long tones or scales while on auto pilot. You're doing them but your mind's other places. While this isn't necessarily horrible and from a 'mental unloading' standpoint can be psychologically healthy it isn't the best way to practice. The trumpet professor at Delta State University, Dr. Michael Ellzey, likes to say 'Tuning is not a perfunctory act.'. The same holds true for practicing. You must be an active participant in your practice sessions. I know that sounds ridiculous but I simply mean that you cannot 'check out' and hope to really progress like you should.

           Long tones involve far more concentration than you might think if you expect results from them. I'm not so much referring to concentrating on breath support or anything like that. Yes, you should be working on improving breath support but you should also be working on making that part of long tones pretty well automatic. The concentration should be focused on intonation and 'tone imagination'; that is, hearing your ideal sound in your mind and trying to produce that in long tones. This is one area of pedagogy where people usually fall far short. Doing long tones with a little nasal thin sound without picturing a big full robust sound is an exercise in futility. All you do is learn how to play a wimpy sound...longer...

And then there's tuning. You're only doing it half right....

             Standard operating procedure for long tones with a tuner- turn on the tuner, play, try to make the arrow point due north. There is a lot of value in this and I do it as well. However, there is no needle to point north when you are playing with others. Watching the needle while doing long tones does allow you to figure out the intonation tendencies of your instrument. Where it falls short, is in training the ear. To learn how to play in tune, you MUST hear your pitch vs other pitches.

Have you ever noticed the drone feature on your tuner?
              Yeah so it's there for a reason. It allows you to tune just using your ears. That's sort of important, don't you think? Sure, you can (and should) begin by matching the drone pitch for pitch and possibly move on to tuning fifths. The next step, though, is to stretch the ear a bit. Try this:

             We'll use a concert Bb scale for an example. Set the tuner to drone on a Bb and then slowly play through the scale; tuning each pitch to the Bb. Tuning the concert Bb, easy. Tuning the concert F to the Bb, easy. Tuning the minor second, the 4th, the 6th, the 7th? That is going to make your ears work.

             From there, set a drone to a random pitch. Then, play a chromatic scale through the full range of the instrument. Consider your ears officially stretched!

Agree? Disagree? Think I need to up my meds? Please comment and let me know!!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What to do when everything goes wrong in the practice room...

It happens from time to time....NOTHING works.

    In the movie 'The Replacements', Keanu Reeves talks about metaphorical 'quicksand'. One thing goes wrong, then another, and another....the more you fight the more mired down you's like being in quicksand. (Not a direct quote)
    Two thoughts from this. First, 'The Replacements' is a funny movie and you should find it and watch it. Second, this happens a lot in the practice room, doesn't it? We musicians are a stubborn sort and want to fight to make things work. Unfortunately, though, we fight and fight and ultimately make it worse. We are 'mired in the quicksand'.
    This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart because I want, I'm DESPERATE to be great at my instrument. This has led to many discoveries in my journey (which is the point of this blog) but also many moments of figuratively....and, well, literally...banging my head against the practice room wall. I developed what I called 'practice room Tourette's'; lot's of grunting and colorful language in my practice sessions.
     I thought this was the path of the tortured artist. Fortunately I have a professor who is as much psycho-therapist as saxophone teacher (thank you, Dr. Owens), and he repeatedly counseled me on what a self destructive path I was on. As I'm teaching myself and can now explain to you, there are more positive ways to handle things.

     It sounds overly simplistic but the first thing we should look at is avoiding those things we do in the practice room which utterly lead to things going wrong. This isn't foolproof as we all have bad days but should minimize the struggle. It's pretty simple- SLOW DOWN!
     If things aren't going well, slow it down. If things ARE going well, slow it down. In my opinion, the majority of time spent learning a passage or piece of music should be spent at half tempo or even slower.
      Now, there are days when that doesn't even work.....when NOTHING seems to work. What to do then? Let's look at some options there!

  • Long tones with a tuner. Even if you have to turn in a daily practice log with a teacher I imagine they would accept the occasional "Absolutely nothing was working so I spent time working long tones.". It's pretty simple, short of having pneumonia, you can do long tones pretty much regardless of what is or isn't working. Long tones are always going to help your playing and it's a much more effective use of time than crying and cursing over things not working.
  • Listening to examples of the piece you're working and making notes in your score. It isn't the absolute best use of time but again; better than just making yourself frustrated.
  • Walk around for a few minutes. Get some water. Talk to friends for a minute. Simply get out of the practice room for a few minutes. Sometimes our brain simply needs to re boot. 

Try some of these ideas out. Leave comments. Thanks for reading my ramblings!


Thursday, December 17, 2015

On reaching goal tempos with 'tempo ramping'.

Wow, an actual post where we discuss pedagogy. Who knew?

    One of the things that I'm slowly learning during my journey is how to practice. There are some people in the practice room who have a naturally high level of organization and their methodology seems to make sense from day one. This isn't me. I traditionally have the practice room organization and attention span of a ferret on meth. Recognizing this, I've been working on ways to make sure my practicing is as organized and efficient as possible.
     Something that has long plagued the young (or even older) musician is how to best reach a goal tempo on a scale, etude, or passage of music. To often the practice room occupant is reduced to figuratively (or literally) banging their head against the wall. As I'm too old to bang my head against the wall without incurring permanent damage, I decided to find better and more efficient routes to effective, goal-oriented practicing.
      Something many people don't know about me is I have a background in exercise science (I don't look like it anymore. I need to work on that!). In the past, were I to train someone to, say, achieve a 200lb bench press, I wouldn't just continually slap weight on the bar and expect the trainee to simply be able to continually progress. Instead, the training would be cycled with a series of 'running starts' to allow the body to adapt and develop. The same concept can be extended to the practice room.
       Let's say you're trying to get an eight measure passage from an etude up to a goal tempo of 120 BPM. Instead of continuing to just crank up the metronome (you are using a metronome, RIGHT?) try something like this. Say you start at half the goal tempo; 60BPM. From there, after 5 perfect runs at 60, increase it to 65...5 perfect runs, 70, and so on. Let's say that once you get to 75 it starts getting difficult to get five times in a row. Ok, no problem. Take the metronome and back it down to 65. Ok, this time you get 65-70-75...all the way up to 90 before you just hit a wall. Fine. Take it back down to 80 and take another run at it.
     What this technique does is a couple things. First, when we hit really difficult passages our tendency is to tense up and actually make it worse. Periodically dialing back the tempo allows us to relax. Second, when we are 'locked in mortal combat' with a phrase it doesn't allow us to concentrate on technique and HOW to play the phrase. When you dial things back it allows you to start really concentrating on technique and learning the movement patterns necessary to properly play the phrase.
       I refer to this technique as 'tempo ramping'. You can do it all in one session or spread it out over several sessions. I've had real success since implementing this in the practice room. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How to get better at your instrument without even trying.......seriously....

That sounds like an infomercial, doesn't it?

       There is a way for instrumentalists to improve with very little effort on their part. All they need is either a really nice stereo or a good set of headphones.'s called listening.......

       Now, I know that music students have to listen to things for theory, form and analysis, music history, etc. as well as doing listening journals for lessons. However, we should really be listening to things constantly. I'm not referring to deep, critical listening. I'm talking about just putting on headphones, picking great music, and listening to it. You can even be doing other things. Just have it playing. It doesn't have to be the center of your concentration but make it more than just background noise. In other words, you don't have to give it your full attention but it needs to be present enough where your brain can register what's happening in the music; even at a subconscious level.
     When I'm talking about picking out 'good' music I'm referring to music involving masters of their art. This means spending less time listening to One Direction or the 2014 Blue Devils show (for the 184th time!) and more time listening to great artists in a variety of genres. Don't just have it be your instrument, either.
      As we listen, even at a casual level, our subconscious brain tends to pick up on things that we like. This in turn gets somehow incorporated into our own playing; even if we don't realize that's what we are doing.

I am a walking talking example of how this works.

      When I first returned to school at UT Martin my professor, Dr. Doug Owens, asked 'What i sthat unusual voicing your are doing in your upper register? It's very unique!' . Truth be told, it isn't that unique. In my earlier playing days I studied with Allen Rippe at the University of Memphis. He does a similar thing in his voicing. I've always been enamored with his sound and some of it invariably spilled into my own playing. I wasn't aware that I was doing it. My body just figured out how to mimic what was in my head. Even as recently as this fall, I was performing a segment of the Ingolf Dahl concerto in a studio class. There is a high F# in the passage which seems to go on forever. My classmates commented on how well I played the note and how much control I seemed to have. This wasn't due to anything in particular I was doing. I had simply heard the recording of saxophone virtuoso and jedi master Don Sinta playing that note a few hundred times (not an exaggeration) and my body just knew exactly how it was supposed to sound.

Don't just listen to your own instrument

       I was caught in this trap for a long time. The longer I've been around, though, the more I realized that I should listen to everyone. Find an absolute master on their instrument or voice (Yes, instrumentalists, listen to vocalists. You'll learn something. ) or.......pick a great orchestra  or chamber group so you can listen to multiple masters playing together. You WILL glean things from all of it. Listen to how Heifitz attacks a note. Listen to how Casals and Perlman play phrases better than pretty much any mere mortal. Listen to the Chicago Symphony and be blown away by how their brass plays together. Listen to the New York Philharmonic and be dazzled by how their woodwinds can just seemingly appear from thin air. Listen to great vocalists in a variety of genres. Listen to Miles Davis say more in three notes than most of us say in our entire life! JUST FREAKING LISTEN.
        Learn at least a dozen masters of your instrument. Then, learn a half-dozen (or more) on as many instruments as you can.

....I 100% guarantee, if you start listening like this you will be a better player and a better musician. You may not realize it right away but in time your playing will change dramatically from doing this.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I'm just going to be a band director. I don't have to master my instrument...

     I've heard this way more often than I ever thought I would. "I just want to be a band director. Why do I need to get good at my instrument?" Man, that's just confusing to me. As a music major why would you not want to....oh, I don't know....get good at MUSIC?!
     Look, I get it. No, you don't have to reach a virtuosic level on your chosen instrument in order to be a successful music educator any more than you have to be a Pulitzer level author to teach high school literature. However, hear me out a bit. You don't have to master your instrument. You just have to try like hell.
      Have you ever noticed that of all courses throughout your life as a music major, the ones you have to take the most have you playing your instrument? Have you ever stopped to wonder why? Why do you spend more time on your instrument than conducting, lesson planning, doing theory, or anything else? There are a few really good reasons.
"Your best teacher is your last mistake."- Ralph Nader

       As I said before, no, you don't have to be a master of your instrument to be a good teacher of music. The mastery, you see, isn't what helps you down to path to being a good teacher........

....the struggle is....

         The practice room produces better musicians not just from judicious application of scales and etudes but from frustration, cussing, groaning, shaking fists, and ultimately working things out! Practicing your instrument at a high level involves not only improvement on your instrument but patience, problem solving skills and a much higher level of (very creative) thinking. As you improve your skills in the practice room you're indirectly improving your overall skills as a student and ultimately a teacher.
          Your expectations for yourself as a student should mirror your expectations for your students when you are a teacher. Can you really expect your students to work harder than you were willing to work? If you wish your students to strive for greatness then set the example long before you step foot in the classroom. When your students are struggling and you empathize and offer advice, it will be so much more genuine.
           Lastly, and this is me speaking as an old guy, you WILL miss it. I know at 18-20 years old you aren't thinking much about 5-10 years down the role but I see a ton of band directors who rarely, if ever, get to even get their instrument out of the case any more. Each instrument has some great music written for it. For Pete's sake learn it while you can! Can you imagine trying to learn the Copland Clarinet concerto or Mozart Flute concerto which scheduling marching contests, taking kids to honor bands, lesson planning, teacher meetings, and other in a seemingly never ending list of things which band directors seem to have to do? Don't regret it later. Learn your instrument while you can!

Thanks for reading this, guys. Now, back to the practice room!
Greetings from Ye Olde Music Major!

   I'm a non traditional student finishing a music degree. This blog will be a mixture of things. I'll touch on pedagogy (I'm primarily a saxophonist) but will also touch on my opinion of music education as well as just things I observe on my journey. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave comments!