Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Curious Case of Mozart's Magic Beans

What a beautiful time of the year in sunny Las Vegas!

    I'm discovering more and more how fortunate I am to be here and working on my masters degree. More than that, I'm fortunate to be studying (as are you) at a time when there are so many opportunities to share information and discuss ideas. One such idea has presented itself several times recently and I thought I'd share it. It's an old idea which, like good ideas do, gets recycled from time to time.

    It's the concept of Mozart's Magic Beans.

  This is a concept that was first presented to me a few years ago by my major undergrad professor, Dr. Doug Owens. It popped back up this week in an article published by Sean Hurlburt on his Saxophone Performance website. Finally, Mark McArthur (my current professor) detailed it in UNLV's saxophone studio class at the end of the week during a discussion on effective practice techniques.

  Ok, so it's being talked about and now you're asking...'Great, what are Mozart's Magic Beans?!'

  Look, one of the legends of Mozart is that he somehow popped out of the womb as a virtuoso performer and composer. While it's true that the guy was almost laughably talented, legend and hyperbole do tend to often go hand in hand. The truth is often a little different.
  The truth is, Mozart's dad was a very accomplished and skilled musician as well. He was the his son's earliest mentor and as most celeb dads seem to be, was extra hard on junior (obviously, it worked but also tended to make ole Wolfgang a bit nutty). One of the technique used by Daddy Mozart involved beans......

Mozart's dad would give Jr ten beans and have him place the beans in his left pocket. He would then play a passage, scale, whatever. Every time he played it without flaw, he'd move a bean to his right pocket. The goal was that he would eventually play the passage flawlessly ten times in a row and have all the beans in his right pocket. If he played it less than flawlessly, he would have to move all the beans back to his left pocket and start over.

Tough, huh?

I tried this tonight using pennies. My goal? Play a C major scale in thirds in sixteenth notce at quarter note equals 80bpm ; articulated. Do you know how many pennies I moved? Do you want to know my record?


It could have been worse! I could have had a tuner playing the Tonic as a drone and I would have had intonation staring me in the face too.

Let me offer this caveat. I'm no virtuoso but I can play. I have a degree in this and was good enough to have interest from several graduate programs.

Why, then, was my record less than half the goal?

The rule, per Mr. Mozart- FLAWLESS.

You see, there were no instances when I simply couldn't play the scale. What went wrong was an inaccurate articulation...or slight misfire on palm keys...or running out of air at the end......thus the difference between playing something and playing it flawlessly.

So what do I think about this technique?

I believe the technique can be very effective but has two distinct dangers-

1: You MUST be honest with yourself about what's happening (recording yourself might be helpful here). It's easy to rationalize and say 'close enough'. That isn't the goal. The goal here, to steal a sports addage, is 'nothing but net' or it doesn't count.
2: It would become very easy to turn this into a negative experience and start beating oneself up over not being able to get to ten (or even four, five, or six). One must keep this as a growth experience. If , for instance, your're working on a passage from a Bach Cello Suite and you work your way up to the point where you are playing it five times in a row, flawlessly....well, you've improved as a musician and gained valuable technique on your instrument, have you not? Yes, the goal remains ten. HOWEVER, the more important goal here is GROWTH. If you got three in a row last time and four in a row this're getting better!

Give it a try!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Drop the Tylenol- Headache Prevention for Music Students and Musicians.


 Sorry folks, it's been way too long since I penned one of these (Penned? It's a computer, genius!). School gets busy. That said, I had some observations about things which can make your experience in school......and life....much better. If you read one of the comments and get insulted, well, good. You probably need to be.

Ok, let's start with some simple stuff....

  • The brand of instrument is less important than how it's set up and maintained. Musical instruments by and large have moving parts which can wear down and get out of adjustment. They do need to be properly maintained by a QUALIFIED technician; one who hopefully isn't in a 'big box' music store and expected to 'repair' 200 instruments per week. Find a good one. Ask around. Who do professionals in the area use? Develop a rapport with the technician and ask questions. They need to know what you're looking for and can better explain things to you if they have more information.
  • If you buy a brand spanking new instrument, take it to a tech to get it properly 'set up'. I guarantee that even the best brand/model of your instrument could use a final tweak or two. Some need much more. Even if it was well set up at the factory, it was shipped, loaded, unloaded, packed, short, knocked around a bit. 
  • Read the above and know that the difference can be night and day and actually clean up problems in your playing.
  • Make sure you have supplies to keep the instrument clean and dry when not in use. It will save you thousands over your life time....if you use them regularly....
  • If you're a woodwind player, no, two or three reeds isn't enough. Keep a box or two around. I know they're expensive. You picked the field.
  • Have your mouthpiece checked out to make sure it's in good shape. You'd be surprised. It can make a HUGE difference.
  • Similarly, have someone look at your instrument's barrel, lead pipe, neck, or bocal. Those can also make a huge difference.
  • If you are on a student instrument and that's all you can afford, then rock it. Make sure it's in good working condition and make the most of it. 

Ok, Life Lesson Time:

  • There is a difference between confidence and arrogance. As musicians, we NEED confidence. As musicians, arrogance will usually find you in the unemployment line. You might be really good. However, unless your name is Heifitz or Yo Yo Ma, there is likely someone better. Tone down that ego so you can learn something.
  • If you're the best player in the room, you're in the wrong room.
  • I said this in my 'Rules for Music Majors' post but once you step foot on a college campus, your accomplishments in high school mean exactly JACK.
  • 'Once you reach the top of one level, you find yourself at the bottom of the next' - Janos Starker
  • Show up on time and ready to play.
  • Let people know that you want the gig and then SHOW THEM that you want the gig.
  • No, you aren't 'too good' to be at whatever school you attend. 
  • Practice rooms have the same use at Eastman and a community college. 
  • Hard work is more important than raw talent.
  • Hard work and a great attitude absolutely crush raw talent. 
  • Chair placements are often not due simply to playing ability but needs in the ensemble. If, for example, you're auditioning for your school's ensemble for the principal trombone chair but everyone knows you are a KILLER bass trombonist, guess where you're likely to end up?
  • Don't be a jerk. Everyone knows everyone now. If you act like an arrogant jackass in your department, good luck with grad school or jobs. 
  • Don't be afraid to put yourself out there and reach out to teachers and professionals all over the world. You'll be surprised what good can come of it. 
  • Just because you aren't the one playing in studio class or a masterclass doesn't mean you can't learn something. Less mouth, more ears.
  • Help others in your studio, even if they're competition. It helps you in the long run.
  • Be the person people want to succeed.