Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Compliment Sandwich- Be Real, but Nice, to Yourself.

Man I beat myself up a lot.

   I think most musicians do. There's this level of self doubt that we acquire over time because we want to be It's this desire that causes a great deal of self criticism and demeaning remarks about our own playing. I do it and from my experience the vast majority of anyone who tries to make a career in this field does as well. It's counterproductive, causes nothing but headaches, and actually impedes progress. The time you spend beating yourself up is time that could be spent improving. Easier said than done, right? Oh I know. My last two teachers have dealt with the psychology of Andy as much as they have the technique of Andy. I'm VERY VERY hard on myself and dwell on each little mistake; which, of course, causes more mistakes. It's something I'm fighting and I'm sure many of you do as well. What I propose is a trick I heard from a really fine flutist named Charles Lewis. Charles isn't a household name in the flute world but man he should be. He is a MONSTER player, a good teacher, and an all around decent human being. What he mentioned to me at one point is a great way to address students and I believe it's something we can learn to use on ourselves when analyzing our performance.

It's the compliment sandwich.

  Yeah, this is a pretty common thing in performance evaluation in several fields. You give a compliment (slice of bread), constructive criticism(the meat), and then another compliment(the other slice of bread). Voila', you've made a compliment sandwich.

This is something I'm going to try to add to my own practice habits and I think it's worth a try for most students.

It is important for us to be real with ourselves in the practice room but remember this really important point-


You can be 'real' with yourself and still see the positives in your playing.

Be Real
See the Good
Get it done!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A New Approach to Long Tones.

I had a few epiphanies today:

  If you've read my recent blogs, which you should, because it makes me feel better about myself (kidding) you'll know that I've been fighting to repair a few kinks in my technique. As I explained to my mom, fixing my technique is like fixing a watch. Even if only one or two things aren't working you have to take the whole thing apart to identify what isn't working and then fix it. This got me thinking a lot about what I do in the practice room because my biggest problem is too much tension. Consequently, a few things have happened over the past few days that might have opened a few doors towards getting my technique on track and I may have gotten a few pretty interesting ideas about how for me, and maybe others like me, to practice in a smarter manner.

  On Friday I was very fortunate to have a lesson on 'body mapping' with a guru on the subject; Dr. Stephen Caplan. For those who aren't familiar with body mapping, it's a discipline with the goal of getting the musician's entire body aligned in the best and most natural position for them to play with as little tension and as much comfort as possible. In just an hour of working with Dr. Caplan he was able to identify some issues that I was having even in simply holding my instrument. I saw some fairly significant improvments in one session and that began to carry over to the practice room today.

   So in today's practice session I, like most wind players, began with long tones. They are, of course, one of the absolute most important things we can do, right? Following that it was Lindemann exercises and the first movement of Darius Milhaud's Scaramouche. I was focusing not so much on the exercises or the Milhaud, but on aligning things properly and using only the absolute minimum pressure needed to close or open the keys. It worked! For an hour or so my fingers were flying over the horn deftly, easily...until..

   I began to get tired. I kept catching myself slipping back into my old habits and was having more and more difficulty playing. I didn't want to make it worse so I packed my horn up and went home, contemplating what had just happened and I think I came up with some answers and possible solutions.

  For those who don't know, I have a degree and strong back ground in exercise science. I even spent time as a university strength and conditioning coach (it feels like a lifetime ago). One of the big tenants we preached with our athletes was that when performing complex, technical lifts like the clean or snatch, one should only do a few repetitions per set because as the body fatigued, maintaining proper technique because a really issue and without proper technique, bad things could happen.....including injury.

  Well duh, playing an instrument is a physical activity and a fairly technical one at that. As we fatigue, it stands to reason that our technique and even our approach to the instrument is going to be compromised. Some may have better stamina than others there but eventually it's going to happen, right?

  One of the other things we preached to our athletes was the concept of 'active rest'. Instead of simply sitting down in between sets of an exercise, walk around, stretch, do some push ups, do something light but enough to keep you engaged and keep the blood pumping.

This is what got me thinking about long tones.

  When performing long tones, yes, you are engaged in playing and concentrating (hopefully) on air, tone quality, and intonation against the drone that you should absolutely be using. That's a lot. It isn't so much, however, that you couldn't make sure you are aligned properly (this is where you should find a body mapping or Alexander Technique person. If you've ever done marching band, I can almost guarantee that your alignment is less than great), or keep your hands and wrists nice and relaxed, right? So, you're able to refocus on doing things the right way while still being engaged with practicing and doing something really productive.

   This is what I'm going to do in my next practice session and some of you should try it, too. Begin with a light easy warm up. Start getting into your technical work. When you feel yourself begin to tire physically and mentally...I mean at the first sign of fatigue....get up, get some water, walk around for a second to clear your head, come back and hit long tones. Following that, get water, walk around for a minute, come back and see if you can do technical work comfortably and properly again. Then, finish with another round of long tones. Finishing with long tones allows you to finish on a positive, almost meditative note and you aren't finishing wiped and mad at yourself because you (likely due to fatigue driving technique issues ) couldn't get things right at the end of the practice session.

   What I'm saying here should not be taken to diminish the importance of long tone work. Rather, it should just show that perhaps they could be even more valuable than we know!

Get it a try
Get it done!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Watch Your Students- Watch Yourself: Knipping Bad Habits in the Bud!

Yeah Yeah, I just loosely quoted Barney Fife.

    If you have read any of my recent blogs you might have seen me mention my own struggles with fixing some bad habits. It's a process and it actually improves a bit each day! It got me thinking, though, about how easy it is to miss things in our playing as well as the playing of our students even when we try to be really observant....even when we watch closely.


    Ok, so.....anyone with any experience in any skill driven field knows that the best way to master anything involves tons of work on fundamentals. That's an easy answer, right? Sure, sort of...except when pounding there are basic set up issues; even minute ones, even ones almost impossible to catch. So, back to that dilemma.

  Pounding fundamentals with issues in the set up only reinforces those issues! The player learns to make it work doing the wrong things....and it's really common!

  The human body is amazing like that. Most of the time, if we ask it to perform a task, we can make it work to a certain point. Take farmers, for example. I doubt many have ever taken a course on proper lifting technique and yet there they are, as they have for centuries, slinging heavy bales of hay and equipment around....because it needs to be done and they just make the body do it.

  The same thing holds true in saxophone or any other musical instrument. You can have 'hitches' in your technique and still make things work to a point. At some point, though, two things are likely to happen 1: You are going to hit the proverbial wall in your skill development and/or 2: You are going to develop some sort of overuse injury. Neither are very fun. Both, however, can be dealt with.

   Ok, so how to deal with this before it becomes an issue.....(and I don't claim to have all, or even many, of the answers here).

    The issue, colleagues, is twofold. 1: There is stuff we cannot always see and 2; You see your students (or yourself) playing enough from day to day, week to week, that you are going to inadvertently overlook things that aren't completely in your face. Here's a good non-music related example. I was diagnosed with A.D.D. when I was 21. It took them 21 years to figure out that I had the disorder. My mother, a well trained and highly regarded Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Masters in Clinical Social Work, didn't notice for 21 years that I had A.D.D. She's really good at her job, folks. Do you know why she didn't notice? It's because she saw me every day. Had I not been her son and she encountered me it might have stuck out more to her. Even then, because I don't have the hyperactivity component of the disorder, it would have been harder to see.

 So, solutions- 1: Communicate with your students constantly through the lesson. Watch their hand position. Watch their embouchure. Watch their posture. Listen to any 'hitches' in their technique. Are they voicing some areas in an unusual way or are they over-voicing (In an effort to emulate my heroes I'm guilty of that)? Talk to them. Get feedback from them on anything that might feel weird. When they're practicing have them video themselves but have them do some where the camera is focused on their hands or their embouchure. Ask colleagues to watch the videos and see if they catch anything. In your own playing do the same. Don't do what I did and just think "Ok if I just keep working on technique these issues will work themselves out.". Often technical shortcomings are more than simply a lack of time in the practice room. They are a symptom of the bigger issue.

I would LOVE to hear thoughts on this, folks. It's my goal to not only be the best player I can possibly be but also a very fine teacher. This blog is simply one vehicle to help me down that path. Please comment. I'd love to hear any ideas!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Lend Me Your Ears- Rethinking Your Listening Skills

     I  had an interesting discussion with my professor, Mark McArthur, a few weeks ago. I believe it was our second lesson together and we were dicussing a Ferling etude (number 20, if you're wondering). We each discussed features of the etude and it was apparent that we heard very different things in the etude....not in how I had played the etude but in how the etude was written. There's a simple answer why...

   It's because we listen differently.

   When I say that we listen differently it has nothing to do with skill level or talent. I mean our brain, for whatever reason, tends to focus on one aspect of the music over the others. For me, what jumps out is harmonic and melodic movement. The other aspects of the music are there and I hear them but it's the movement of the melody and harmonies which really jump out. This also explains a lot of the music that appeals to me. Works like Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium and Miles Davis' Flamenco Sketches are things that I can listen to repeatedly without tiring....because they are so full of interesting and beautiful melodic and harmonic movement. Ok, back to Ferling.
    When we were discussing how the etude was constructed my thoughts had to do mostly with harmonic and melodic movement (yes, there is harmonic movement implied in such an etude. Look at leading tone movement, for example). Mark then asked me about rhythmic structure to which I replied "There isn't much. It's pretty much straight sixteenths.". Kids, I wasn't even close to correct. There was plenty of rhythmic motion. As Mark explained, it was in the articulations. The combination of slurs and articulated notes MADE the rhythms. I simply didn't hear it at first because that isn't how my brain is wired.

So, what's the point?

   My point is that I'm going to try something for a while. When I do any sort of critical listening on a new work (or even revisiting recordings with which I'm familiar) I'm going to keep a notebook next to me and force myself to listen to rhythm first. Hopefully, by doing this I'll be able to improve my listening skills and it will translate to a better understanding of the music.

   So, what do you hear first? Find a piece and listen. Afterwards do some self analysis. What did you hear? Maybe write down the first few things that jumped out at you. What did you NOT hear as much. Go back and listen again. Make the goal to hear those aspects this time.

   Honestly, I don't know how critical this is to our development as musicians. I just believe anything that helps make me a more complete and well rounded musician is worth my time.

Give it a try.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Everything is Everything- Why it all ties together.

Greetings from graduate school!

Should I change the name to Ye Olde Grad Student? Nah! We'll leave it like it is.

   First, shameless plug for my new major professor, Mark McArthur, and his podcast The Modern Saxophonist. Mark has fabulous interviews and roundtable discussions and the info which can be attained from listening is worth your time. Besides, it's FREE! Free is good!
   I don't put this as a kiss up to my professor. There is a point to me mentioning the podcast. I'll get to that in a minute.....

   Anyone who reads this blog knows that the articles I post are a combination of things. First, there are random musings that I have about anything music related. Second, things that I've noticed with my students or classmates and third, and perhaps most importantly, my own struggles down the path to mastering this instrument.

   Let's be frank about my level on the instrument. I'm ok. Clearly, I was good enough to get a degree in saxophone pedagogy and was also good enough to get attention from a few graduate schools; eventually even getting an assistantship. NO trained musician, though, is going to mistake me for a virtuoso, at least not yet. That is, after all, the goal here.

   Now, there are some things I do well and there are some issues that I still need to work through.  (This might be a long blog. Hang in there!)

     I'm a very musical player and in lyrical passages from niente to forte I have a good, no, REALLY good sound. Where my problems arise are my fingers (more to the point, the amount of pressure I use), my air (to this point I've treated air as a blunt object...just a ton of air all the time) , and my tongue. Thanks to a recent podcast by Mark, there was a point that I likely knew to a degree subconsciously which was really driven home.

Those problems all tie in together and, moreover, they affect my sound in a very negative way!

So, here's what happened....

I was in a fairly frustrating lesson with Mark. It's frustrating because Mark is pragmatic and direct enough to say "These are areas keeping you from being what you could be. Let's just get them addressed before anything else happens." Great, I get it. The road to mastery ain't paved, folks. That said, it has been a frustrating first few weeks here due to fixing issues that I should have addressed years ago.

At one point in the lesson Mark said "I did a podcast yesterday with James Barrera on the Lindeman Method. You should listen. I think it would be very beneficial to you." I took his advice and following my lesson I popped in the ear buds.....

   So, James Barrera is the professor of saxophone at California State University - Long Beach. He's a former student of Leo Potts and Otis Murphy and received his Master's degree from Indiana. More important to this blog, he's a proponent of 'The Lindeman Method'.

So, what is the Lindeman Method?

Henry Lindeman was an early saxophone/woodwind guru who, among others is reported to have given lessons to jazz legend/great/deity Charlie Parker.  One of the major tenants of his philosophy was one that the fingers, air, and tongue, though being separate, all tie in together and that the fingers actually have a huge impact on tone production. You know what? He's absolutely right and I don't know why it took me so long to internalize it. So, how do fingers affect tone? It all comes down to tension...

Let's take my situation for example. When I face any really challenging passages, my body's reaction is to try to go into HULK SMASH mode and muscle through things. As a result, my left hand clamps down like a set of vice grips. This large amount of tension in my hand then causes tension in my forearm, upper arm, shoulder, and neck. What's part of the neck? That's right, the throat! Oops, my throat just got tense. For tone production, kids, that isn't good!

Look, to go into a full blown dissertation of Lindeman's methods would be beyond the scope of this blog but the moral to the story is this:

Your air, embouchure, tongue, and fingers are all separate parts of technique BUT......they all work together and each impacts the other. If your tongue and air don't match, it affects your sound. If your fingers and tongue don't match, your sound becomes for lack of a better word, spastic. If your air and fingers don't match up, sound issues.

It all adds up. Everything is everything.

Pay attention to the details, not only in your music but in your fundamentals. The earlier this is addressed the easier it is to correct and the more quickly you move down the road to mastery.

Get in there,
Get it done.

PS- Seriously, check out Mark McArthur's Podcast . You'll get a ton of valuable information.