Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Establishing a Daily Routine. Bring on the Fundamentals!

   When it comes to pretty much any activity in life, one can improve by going back to slow, steady, and CONSISTENT fundamental work.  This is, unfortunately, NOT what students (some of you are reading this now and you know who you are) want to read when they are looking through blogs; trying to find that next magic trick to make their sound better...to make their fingers faster...to play higher...etc.

The TRICK is hard work on basic fundamentals. Say this with me, kids.


  Ok, now that we have this little nugget out of the way, let's talk turkey. How do we establish a good base for fundamentals?

   For starters, lets talk time. What I'm suggesting should take less than an hour (after you get the groove of routine) and this leaves you time to work etudes, work on literature, jazz changes, whatever. It should be done every day you practice (which should be every day if not almost every day).

    Let's start before you even put the horn together. Let's talk mouthpiece work. This will involve a tuner and metronome (you have those...right? RIGHT?). Put your moistened reed on your mouthpiece and try this- Find a good steady pitch on the mouthpiece.....many professors suggest A5 (A-880Hz). I find it's a good starting point. Personally, I've found that my sound has started really filling out with a pitch a few steps lower; more in the F#-F range. Regardless, just set a solid pitch and learn to keep it steady. Step two makes it a little more complicated. Set the metronome at a moderate tempo; say, 60bpm. While holding the pitch steady on the mouthpiece, and in time with the metronome, tongue four quarters, eight eighths, and sixteen sixteenths. It might take several practice sessions just to get a steady tone and that's fine. Don't begin the articulation work until your mouthpiece pitch is nice and steady. Once you can do the articulation work cleanly at 60 without your tone breaking, bump it up a few clicks (I mean a FEW). If you get to the point where you cannot do the pattern without your tone breaking, rachet the metronome back a bit and over the next several sessions, get a good running start at it.

I would only spend 5-10 minutes on this but it is a very valuable exercise for properly setting your embouchure and getting your tongue going.

     Next, let's move to long tones on the horn. Get the tuner out and set it to drone on a concert A. Begin with your middle F# . Play the note from ppp to FFF and back to ppp while trying to stay in tune with the drone (Since this is your tuning pitch, feel free to adjust the mouthpiece to establish an intonation base). Next, move note by note chromatically down to low Bb. As you do, play through the complete dynamic range and stay in tune with the drone. Some of the intervals will sound funky. However, as former Michigan professor Donald Sinta is fond of saying, 'You don't tune with your eyes'. Following your journey down to low Bb, return to your middle F# and repeat the exercise going up. Go up to F or F# (if your horn has the key). As you do this, you are doing two things. One, you are listening to the drone and trying to stay in tune with the drone. Second, you are imagining your supposed ideal sound concept in your head and trying to shape each note to what you want to sound like. This can take months, years, decades....since your sound concept will likely mature as you do. Give yourself 20-30 minutes on this. Yes, it's worth every second.

     Next, move to scales. Get a good scale book. I like Daily Exercises for Saxophone by Trent Kynaston but honestly any good one will work (also look at the Mule and Londeix books). With the metronome set at 60bpm (or slower if need be) play through scales throughout the full range of the horn. Play major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, whole tone, and diminished. Yeah, that sounds like a lot. If you do sixteenth notes at quarter note equals 60bpm, however, you're talking about 10-15 minutes worth of work.....with the payoff, even at 60bpm, being much better technique throughout the range of the instrument. Isn't that worth fifteen minutes?

    Lastly, spend a few minutes on overtones. Look at either the Rascher book Top Tones or Don Sinta's text Voicing. I think overtone work is valuable in many facets of playing and work on them extensively. That said, if you aren't spending the work doing long tones and developing that base of good air support, overtones won't do much for you.

Well, there you are. Try this routine. Get a journal or practice planner. Log your goals for each lesson and how things go. Note what works and what doesn't. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, don't get in a hurry. Mastering an instrument is a long journey. Take your time. Enjoy the process. Celebrate your victories. Learn from your failures. Keep trying.


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Some quick thoughts about developing YOUR sound.

Hi there,

It's been a little while. Funny how school makes one busy!

    You know, usually when people talk about sound development or 'developing a sound concept', they refer to the pedagogy behind having a 'good sound'. As well they should, I suppose, as I am of the mindset that when all else fails, strip down to the most basic fundamentals and see what's going on. However, this isn't the concept to which I refer.
    You see, to most folks, 'good sound' and 'good sound concept' are one and the same. It's steady air stream, good embouchure, blah blah blah....I'm talking about the mental end of things; the process by which we develop our ideas on sound in our mind before we train ourselves to try to will that sound our of our instrument.
     One of the purposes of this blog is for me to 1: work things out when I think about them and 2: write about concepts that pop into my head because the thought seems like it might have some importance at the time and if I don't get it out of my A.D.D riddled mind and on to a steadier medium quickly, I might forget. I had such a thought today.
      When we work with students, how many of us actually try to get them to think about or conceptualize what a good sound ? How many of us have even thought about HOW to teach that process or have we even done it ourselves?

We're pretty much all told the same things, right?

      Listen to great players. Do lots of long tones. Learn how to manipulate the overtone series. We hear sounds which appeal to us and try to mimic them. Eventually a bit of our own personality works its way in and there's our developed sound. What if, though, we could take it further by actually thinking about what we want out of our sound. What if we could put a new level of thought into the process of conceptualizing a 'good sound'?

      I had the thought this weekend when I was talking about sound with the principal clarinet at our university. Her sound is fabulous, big, woody, sweet, warm....just great. She stated, though, that lately she'd be dissatisfied with her sound. That's pretty common at multiple stages in our development but it got me thinking since she couldn't really explain to me WHY she was unhappy which gave me this thought-

Wouldn't it be so much easier on student AND teacher if we could figure out verbal cues to allow students to describe what they are hearing in their 'mind's ear' as far as sound concepts?

To be continued when I hash this out a bit more. I think it could have value but how does one verbalize something as personal and unique as a concept of sound?