Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Leggo my Ego.....the Eternal Battle to Control our Egos...

   I went to the gym tonight....for the first time in probably six months.

   This is not a big deal to many people but in a former life, I earned a degree in exercise science and was a college strength coach (true story). Now, I'm a chubby guy in my 40s back on a college campus and using a fitness facility while surrounded by 20 year old guys who have crazy things like 'metabolisms' and 'testosterone'. Sound scary? It shouldn't be, but it is. It's terrifying.
    Even when I first came back to school and was going regularly I was only doing things like heavy squats and deadlifts. I justified this by claiming to myself that I was doing 'functional' movements and wasn't playing around with 'cutesy' exercises. Of course, with my ever present self reflection I can tell you that I picked those exercises so that the young uns would see me throwing around heavy weights. It was all about EGO.

This is a struggle that we as musicians go through daily, and not for the reasons you might think.

   You see, on one end, the ego is a fabulous thing for musicians. It drives us. It is what puts us on stage even when our knees are knocking. It makes us try to learn things that we haven't done before so we can so things we haven't done before......

.......and then it gets in our way....

    You remember fundamentals? Oh yeah, those darned things.....scales, long tones, articulation studies. You're too advanced for those, right? You already learned your scales. Why bother with those?That's beginner stuff! That's for middle schoolers! That's time you could be spending learning high level literature, transcribing Dexter Gordon solos, learning to be the next Brecker, except...

Those boring old fundamentals are just too darned critical to your success to ignore. That's why Casals practiced  them into his 90s. That's why Heifitz did them. THAT.....is why they should be the basis for every single thing you do in the practice room.

Get your metronome and tuner
Get your pencil
Get your ego out of the way
Get it done

Seeking Out the GOOD

  I recently returned from a summer of working at Interlochen Arts Camp. As much as I love working there (and it's one of my favorite places on earth) there's always a little twinge of trepidation about pulling my horns out to practice for the first time because I know there are players up there, on basically every known instrument, who have skill levels far exceeding mine. Those first few practice sessions, in an environment where everyone hears everyone, are just really scary. So, why do I still get excited every spring for my summer return to northern Michigan?

   It's pretty simple, I know that all the sounds in my ear, all day long, are going to make me better.....SIGNIFICANTLY better. Not only does the ridiculous amount of talent/skill around me inspire me to work harder but the wonderful sounds I hear will lodge themselves in my subconscious and , over time, work their way into my own playing....whether it be the the vibrato of a violinist or the warmth of a horn player. I come back better than when I left due largely to what I hear (even if I don't fully realizing I'm hearing it).
    It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't been there. My girlfriend, Caitlyn, is a talented clarinetist who hadn't been there before last year. I told her before we left "Two months after you get back, for seemingly no reason, your sound is going to EXPLODE after we get back". Lo and behold, last October she's playing in a woodwind studio master class and the entire woodwind faculty were exclaiming 'What has happened to your sound?!'. Two months later, she became principal clarinet in our wind ensemble and has held the chair ever since. Needless to say, Caitlyn was more than a little excited to return this summer.

     I was listening to Caitlyn have a conversation with another student yesterday and she said something which stuck with me. She said 'I think a big problem with many high school and college students is that they have no real concept of GOOD and for some reason make no attempt to seek it out. They don't try to find and listen to great musicians and base good off what is at their school."

   I think the problem there is two-fold-

 First, there seems to be a lack of natural curiosity on the part of students (and people in general) these days. I think that perhaps things have become so easy to research that people have lost interest in seeking things out. The challenge is gone. It's so easy to find things these days that people no longer look.

Second, I believe that people honestly don't know what they don't know and some responsibility for exposing these young students to great musicians falls upon teachers. I believe that anyone who teaches instrumental music should know the name of at least one great player on each instrument. At the very least, if you are a band director and you have an oboist, tell them about John Mack. If you have a trombonist who needs to listen more, Joe Alessi. Know great artists in jazz as well. Expose all of your kids to people like Heifitz or Perlman. Have them listen to vocalists like Jessye Norman. Put great....truly great...artists in their ears and show them what's possible.

Finally, I found a second meaning in what Caitlyn said. You should also seek the good in your own playing. Musicians have a bad habit of beating themselves up over their own playing. Listen to your playing with a critical ear and always try to improve, sure, but make sure you see the beauty in what you are doing. You are doing something that millions of folks on this rock wish they could do. Celebrate that, not from a place of arrogance but from a place of joy and inspiration. What we do is cool.

Listen a lot
Enjoy what you do
Get to work!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Daily Work my Students Will be Assigned this Fall.

If you read my last blog entry, I posed the basic premise that if students don't know something is considered 'hard', they can usually just learn it. With that in mind, here are a few highlights-

  • Mouthpiece work- using a concert "A", articulation work with a droning tuner (also on A). 4 quarter notes, 8 8th notes, and 16 notes.....gradually increasing tempo.
  • Long tones based on a key per day with a droning tuner set on the tonic of the particular key. (we learn to tune with our ears, not our eyes)
  • Basic voicing/overtone work
  • Scales...and this is where things get fun....

Scales will be run on a four day cycle and be for the full range of the horn (no altissimo....YET).
Day 1- all 12 keys- Major scales full range, 3rds, and arpeggios with a metronome.
Day 2- all 12 keys- Harmonic minor scales full range, 3rds, and natural minor arpeggios.
Day 3- all 12 keys- Melodic minor scales full range, 3rds, and natural minor arpeggios.
Day 4- OTHERS- Chromatic, Diminished, Whole Tone, etc...full range, 3rds, 4ths, etc

There seems to be a mentality that high school kids should only learn major scales and that adding minor and other scales would be 'too much'. I think that's selling the student WAY short. 

Following scales will be 1-2 etudes per week (Klose', Ferling, Mule....any of the standard etude books. Since our regional honor band audition material is taken from Ferling, it will be the likely choice).

Then there is literature. It's time for my kiddos to begin immersing themselves in saxo-lit. We are going to be learning some introductory literature this year. Eccles is on the menu as are Maurice and possible works like Heiden's 'Diversion' and Rueff's "Chanson et Passepied".

There will also be a heavy jazz component. The studies by Lenny Neihaus and a heavy dose of listening assignments will be just the ticket. 

This might seem like some of you to be a lot for high school age kids but I'll suggest this- Their parents are paying money for me to help them improve on the saxophone. That's what I intend to do.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Thoughts and Pedagogical Questions (Please feel free to respond here)

I think about things a lot. I have a pretty fair case of ADD (yes really). A side effect of this, I think, is that random thoughts pop in my head a lot. Sometimes, the thoughts are things like wondering why the lakes up here in Michigan are so much clearer than the ones back in west Tennessee. Other times they are about pedagogy. Recently, due to some master classes up here (done with various instruments, the most recent being clarinet guru Yehuda Gilad), I have started picking up on a few statements and think they carry through into saxo-world as well. With that said, I pose the following thoughts and questions about pedagogy. Feel free to join in the conversation!

  • One of the statements made by Mr. Gilad is that we often try to artificially create things in terms of embouchure and things like voicing. He asks 'why mess with Mother Nature?'. The more I thought about it the more it resonates with me. Work with a student to where their embouchure is solid, flexible, and COMFORTABLE, with enough tension to create a seal around the mouthpiece and reed. Beyond that, leave it alone! As far as voicing, he really doesn't like the term. I believe voicing (and the training thereof) may have some different implications for clarinet than it does saxophone and the mindset might need to be a bit different there. Voicing on saxophone used to be considered an 'extended technique'. With that thought on 'extended technique'...
  • I have a few questions about extended technique and how I'm going to apply them in my own teaching. First, isn't it about time we stopped referring to altissimo as 'extended technique'? If nearly every piece of saxophone literature today contains altissimo, it's simply part of the technique of the instrument at this point. Second-
  • At what point does a teacher start incorporating these techniques with their young students? One thing I really began to understand this year is that if you don't tell your student that something is difficult (whether it be a technique or a piece of music), they go in with less fear and can generally master it much more easily. I wonder how much of this mindset should be applied to so called extended techniques. Should we teach our middle school kids about voicing as something which could be sprinkled on top of their long tone studies? If we are teaching them single tonging, why not add double tonging in high school? High school brass players learn it then and it's a technique which certainly has value for woodwind players as well. I believe some of these techniques are hard simply because we classify them as 'hard'.
  • One of the big things I've picked up over the summer is how important it is to have your instrument really well adjusted. The good news with a saxophone is that if you mash the keys hard enough, even badly aligned pads will usually seal the tone hole well enough to get a sound. This creates long term problems, however, as it promotes using way too much tension to move around the horn and can cause hand and wrist issues over time. I've seen far too many musicians have to stop playing for extended periods because it became too painful to play. I would suggest watching oboists. They use only enough pressure to close the keys. While this might not totally work with the bell keys of a saxophone, I'd submit that most of us could use a much lighter touch; which, over time, would lead to not only healthier playing but a much faster technique.
Practice hard and practice SMART!!!
Get it done!