Memorization and practicing

I think memorization is a useful practice technique, even if you don’t intend to perform “from memory.” Memorization of music has several facets:

  • Aural memory: I should be able to sing the music (at least in my mind) from beginning to end with confidence and accuracy.
  • Content/visual/analytical memory: I should be able to more or less transcribe or describe the music from memory. This might include being able to picture the printed music, being able to describe it in reasonably specific terms (“then there’s a fast run up a C minor scale, ending on a long high F with a fermata”), and/or being able to discuss the formal and phrase structures. (I don’t think you necessarily need to be able to think in terms of formal classical music theory, as long as you have some kind of vocabulary for talking about music.)
  • Physical/muscle memory: If I have practiced in a thorough, detailed way, I should be able to more or less play on “autopilot.” I don’t want to perform in a disengaged way, but I do want to be able to focus my mind on non-technical things.

The benefits of memorization, even for not-strictly-from-memory performance, include:

  • Confidence born from deep mastery of the music.
  • The ability to handle minor on-stage crises, like a missed page turn or a sudden distraction, with ease and grace.
  • Internalization of the music in such a way that interpretation becomes natural, expressive, and personal.
  • Freedom from “reading” issues. Sometimes musical passages are made difficult by visual factors, like hard-to-read notation, a personal reading difficulty (such as dyslexia or poor eyesight, perhaps), or something that simply doesn’t “click” visually for the reader. If looking at the page is causing problems, then just don’t look.
  • Ability to take a step back from the page, literally and figuratively, which encourages greater connection with collaborators and audiences.

If you are already practicing in a thorough and deliberate way, you are probably well on your way to memorization already without any extra effort. Use good practice techniques and memorization together to support better preparation and performance.

Report: NNFA Conference, Southeastern Region, 2014

I’m back from the outstanding NNFA regional conference, where I spent the week rubbing shoulders (or should I say noses?) with over 700 very fine musicians from the Southeastern US.

I gave a brief presentation on my Fingering Diagram Builder and its potential applications to the instrument’s pedagogy. I think that’s an interesting problem, considering, well, you know, and I fielded some questions on the topic and got some excellent input.

But mostly I was there to learn, and learn I did. I attended workshops on vibrato, Baroque ornamentation, nasal hygiene, and building a private studio. I also audited several masterclasses, and, of course, attended fabulous evening concerts. Thursday was “jazz night” at a downtown club, and I worked up the nerve to take a few choruses on “Donna Lee” during the open jam portion. Of course, I usually play jazz on saxophone, so this was definitely outside my comfort zone!

The vendor exhibits were a conference hotspot, as usual, and I must have tried several dozen instruments. The usual makers and retailers were there, but I was also very surprised to see Conn-Selmer; they are apparently entering the market in a big way, and held a fancy reception to celebrate their new line. I tried a few and I think they have a solid intermediate-level “horn” which should do pretty well if they price it reasonably.

I hadn’t planned to buy an instrument, but I fell in love with this model from Trophy and ended up bringing it home. The one pictured has a red finish, but as I am fairly conservative about my instruments’ appearance I picked out a classy purple. I find that the purple has an appealing depth of tone but doesn’t lose anything in terms of response.

I hope to see some of you at the national conference next year in Des Moines. Last year’s national had attendance of almost 4,000 and some really incredible concert headliners. Join the National Nose Flute Association

Favorite blog posts, March 2014

Recommended reading from the woodwind blogs in March:

Answering equipment questions

I attended a small jazz festival a number of years ago, which included student workshops with some of the festival’s headline artists. Unsurprisingly, some of the first questions asked in these workshops were about the artists’ equipment choices.

The responses varied widely. A few of the artists were excited to talk about their instruments, mouthpieces, and so forth, and to offer glowing testimonials.

Others responded less enthusiastically. One of the festival’s biggest-name artists mocked a student for even asking the question. The student slumped down into his seat as one of his idols berated him in front of everyone.

But I was especially impressed by one artist in particular, whose equipment choices are well-known and widely-imitated. “Well, I use _____, _____, and _____,” he explained, “but there are a lot of really good options out there, and what works for me doesn’t work for everybody. Plus, you should know that lots of music stores sell equipment with this brand name, but it’s not really the same product anymore as the one I bought decades ago.” Then he moved onto another question.

I thought this was a very effective, responsible, and respectful way to answer the question: he didn’t make the student feel bad for asking, and he didn’t encourage the student to buy something specific that might not really be a fit. I also admired the brevity and matter-of-factness of his answer—it cast the question as what it ought to be: a curiosity, rather than something of great importance.

Death from exposure

Working musicians, especially those trying to launch their careers or take them to the next level, are all too familiar with the idea of playing for “exposure”—in other words, playing gigs for free with the idea that maybe it will somehow lead to paying gigs.

Playing for free is one thing; there’s no reason you can’t do a favor for a friend, or show up at a jam session for fun and/or practice. But it’s more insidious when your unpaid labor is fueling somebody else’s profits. This seems to be a phenomenon that particularly affects creative types: the same people who want your band to play at their event for “exposure” or “experience” are no doubt paying the waitstaff, stage crew, or what-have-you, because people in those jobs simply don’t work for free.

The fallacy here is that the prospective employer is offering you exposure and experience and networking instead of money, as if the alternative were gigs that paid money but didn’t offer those things. That simply isn’t the case: you get all those benefits from paid gigs, too, plus you get to pay your rent that month. Read more

Improvisation and doubling

An important factor in improvising fluently (such as in a jazz context) is a collection of vocabulary. Broadly defined, this could include rote-memorized “licks” plus all kinds of other material: scale- or arpeggio-oriented patterns, for example. With improvisation, you don’t have the luxury of practicing your solo note-for-note; instead you have to develop a large pool of available material, and learn it so well that you can mix and match it on the fly.

If you double on multiple instruments, the vocabulary pool isn’t really portable. You can bring your improvisational ideas with you from instrument to instrument, but you won’t be able to execute them smoothly unless you have put in the practice hours on each instrument separately. If you are doubling, say, saxophone and flute, you might find that the fingerings are similar enough that you can make a few things work, but it’s too easy to paint yourself into a corner, or to catch yourself using “close enough” fingerings that really aren’t, or to play with unsatisfactory tone or intonation. To do it right, and have the colors of multiple instrumental voices available to you as an improviser, treat each instrument like it’s your only one.

Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling

I saw a blog post recently by a saxophonist who had been called upon to play some clarinet for a big band jazz gig. The post was full of common frustrations that saxophonists who are casual clarinet doublers face in that situation. I want to respond to some of the ideas in that post, but since it’s not my object to embarrass anyone I’m not going to name the saxophonist or link to the blog post. Also, the “quotes” I’m using here are actually paraphrases, but I believe they capture the saxophonist’s intended meaning.

The clarinet is evil! And it sounds like a dying animal.

I understand this is said in jest, but fear and/or contempt are not good starting points for approaching woodwind doubles. Either focus your energies on instruments you are motivated to play, or have an open mind. As with most things, you probably hate and fear the clarinet because you haven’t taken the time and effort to get to know it.

photo, APMus

photo, APMus

I’m actually pretty good at the bass clarinet, though.

I doubt it! There are plenty of saxophonists who claim they can play the bass clarinet but not the B-flat clarinet. In many, many of those cases, what the saxophonists mean is that they can use a very saxophoney approach to playing the bass clarinet—a too-low voicing, a too-horizontal mouthpiece angle, etc.—and make some kind of sound, whereas the smaller B-flat simply won’t cooperate at all with these bad techniques. Truly good bass clarinetists, however, produce a more characteristic sound because they play the instrument like what it is: a member of the clarinet family.

I dug up a fingering chart so I could do some practicing for my gig. Those pinky fingerings just don’t make any sense, plus you have to read a bunch of ledger lines.

Saxophonists are spoiled by the instrument’s relatively small “standard” range and relatively simplistic fingering scheme. But I think a reasonable argument could be made that the clarinet’s system of alternate “pinky” fingerings is tidier and more flexible than the saxophone’s clunky rollers. Break out the Klosé book and learn to do it right. Read more

Favorite blog posts, February 2014

Here are some of my picks for some excellent woodwind-related blog posts from last month.


Maintaining direction in staccato passages

In my last post, I pointed out that staccato notes are not always exactly “detached,” even though they may give that impression. Now let’s consider how this sense of detachment, real or false, can disrupt a phrase.

To make a legato phrase sound like a unified idea, all I have to do as a minimum is make sure my air doesn’t stop: my fingers and tongue delineate individual notes, but the sound is continuous. But with a staccato phrase, the sound stops (at least sort of). We could perhaps visualize it this way, with each box representing a note:

staccato notes

There’s not a clear sense of continuity—each note is an island.

But I can make the notes sound like they belong together, without eliminating the space between them. For example, suppose I give the passage a subtle crescendo:

staccato notes, with crescendo

The space between the notes is the same, but now there is a clear relationship. It’s obvious that the individual notes, though detached, make up a single structure and not six separate ones.

A bit of crescendo is a reliable and tasteful way to do this in many cases, but really any variable aspect of musical expression could ostensibly be used: decrescendo, change in tone color, change in vibrato, accelerando or ritardando, or just about anything else that can be varied continuously across a group of notes. Make sure each note you play serves a larger phrase!


Sometimes staccato is neither “short” nor “separated”

It seems that many of us are taught first to treat notes with staccato markings as “short,” and then later refine that definition to mean something like “separated” or “detached.” The difference in these definitions is that a “detached” note might really be quite long, but has at least a sliver of silence separating it from the note afterwards.

But for wind players, even this definition may be too simplistic, and in some cases produces a sound that is too aggressively clipped or pecky.

To achieve an appropriate staccato effect, the notes might not actually be detached at all. Check out this demonstration of staccato technique on the violin:

It’s clear that the violinist is detaching the notes from each other. But listen carefully—does the instrument go completely silent in between notes? At a faster tempo, it doesn’t. Even though the violinist temporarily stops driving the strings’ vibrations with the bow, the instrument continues to resonate on its own, and this (softer) sound may bleed into the next note.

A wind instrument doesn’t resonate in the same way: when the wind player stops blowing, the sound stops immediately. But since our modern wind technique borrows so heavily from the bowed string tradition, in many cases it is necessary to imitate this resonance to achieve the desired effect. To oversimplify a bit, the wind player must end “staccato” notes with very brief decrescendos.

When this technique is applied to staccato passages, it may mean that rather than literally detaching the notes from each other, the wind player must give the impression of detachment while also giving the impression of a brief violin-style resonance following each note. In other words, the “space” between the notes is actually filled, at least partially but maybe completely, with a very quick decrescendo.

A reverberant performance space also helps to mask wind instruments’ lack of damped oscillation, but ultimately it is up to the wind player to create the faux resonance when the situation demands. Pay close attention to the ends of your staccato notes!