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!

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