Why my college band chair placements ended up not mattering a bit

"6. Falling Flat" by epospisil is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Over 20 years ago, I was a brand-new music performance major. This is a story about that first year of college that I’ve told many times to my own college students.

I arrived at college with the confidence granted me by a freshly-minted high school diploma and a track record of first-chair saxophone school band placements. I eagerly auditioned for the university concert bands and jazz bands, and was gutted to find myself placed not only in the lowest groups (the #3 band in both cases), but doubling up parts with other players. Devastatingly, a fellow freshman saxophonist landed spots in both the #1 groups.

It was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I hit the practice rooms hard, gradually worked my way up, and in my senior year finally got spots in both top bands. By that time I had gotten serious about woodwind doubling, and earned a fun and important spot in the top concert band outside the saxophone section. And I got the lead alto chair in the top jazz band (and couldn’t help but enjoy a little that the classmate I had envied so much was sitting second).

Had I gotten the seats I wanted right away, maybe I would have coasted through college. And it’s possible I never would have developed an interest woodwind doubling, which now is central to the career that I enjoy so much. Looking back now, having those particular chairs in those particular semesters seems very unimportant, but my growth during those years laid the groundwork for two graduate degrees and a life in playing and teaching music.

Whatever your current stage in your musical development, there are bigger and better things to come. How you measure up to others matters much less than what you’re doing to get to your own next level.

Fix fixable problems now

"There's always something" by Reva G is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Just about every day I have a student show up for a lesson with an etude or repertoire movement they have been working on for a week or more, and there are little, silly problems that haven’t been fixed:

  • A spot where a fingering choice needs to be made, but hasn’t.
  • A page turn in an awkward spot.
  • An unfamiliar foreign term that hasn’t been looked up.
  • An ambiguous accidental that need to be double-checked against the piano part.

It’s easy for them (or me) to ignore or procrastinate small but easily-fixable issues while busily drilling technical passages. But I know they—and I—are doing our best work when those details don’t slip through the cracks.

It’s not worth it to spend a week practicing something in an incorrect or compromised way because you haven’t gotten around to fixing the fixable problems. Would any of these help you solve those issues more promptly?

  • Print an alternate/trill fingering chart and keep it with your practicing stuff, or bookmark an online one on your phone.
  • Put a few dollars on your copier/printer card/app so you can photocopy a page when needed.
  • Keep a good music dictionary in the pocket of your instrument case.
  • Keep your piano score and solo part together so you can always use them in tandem.

Consider what other easily-fixable problems you haven’t bothered to fix, and ask yourself what you can do to remove friction so they get solved right away next time you practice.

What does it mean to “interpret” music?

"Sheet Music" by starrise is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

As a new undergraduate music student I was often frustrated by my teachers’ attempts to get me to “interpret” music.

I would play something, and my teacher would stop me and ask me to play it louder. I would play again, but this time it was too loud, too slow, too fast, too staccato, not staccato enough.

I didn’t understand yet the purpose or the process behind musical interpretation. My teachers seemed to have excruciatingly specific ideas about how each and every note of the piece should sound. I couldn’t wrap my head around how they were making these seemingly arbitrary decisions, or how they expected me to guess correctly what they were thinking.

To be fair to my excellent teachers, there’s a strong chance that the problem was on my end, not theirs. But here’s what I wish I would have understood at that point.

  • When faced with a foreign language, one might rely on an interpreter to explain what is being said.
  • When dealing with some raw data, a researcher might interpret the data to show how some pages of numbers, which don’t make sense without context, support a hypothesis.
  • When performing a musical work, a performer interprets the piece to help the audience understand what’s happening.

Here are just a few examples of things in a piece of music that might need interpretation for the audience’s benefit:

  • Where does one phrase end and the next begin?
  • Are there melodies, textures, or other ideas that repeat in important ways throughout the piece?
  • What moods, characters, etc. does the music portray?

You might spend months getting to know the piece, but your audience might be hearing it for the first time. You need to point out the important things to them, so they hear the story, not just a bunch of notes.

When you speak, you offer a variety of clues about how to break up what you are saying into comprehensible chunks. You probably do it without thinking much about it, but it involves things like the pitch, volume, and speed of your voice. To interpret music, you use similar tools: you might demonstrate that a musical phrase is ending by slowing down a tiny bit and bringing the volume down. Or you might help the audience hear what you believe is a warlike quality in a certain passage by using bombastic accents and a strict, military-inspired tempo.

All of this requires you to have opinions about the music. Two tour guides might give different tours of the same place, because they have different opinions about what is interesting or important—they are each interpreting. You might personally enjoy one tour more than the other, but it doesn’t mean either is wrong.

Your interpretation of the music should be based on synthesizing lots of factors. One of the most crucial ones is hints from the composer, so pay close attention to any markings or words the composer uses. (Sometimes they are in a foreign language—it is your job to find out what they mean.) Your interpretation might also be informed by tradition: maybe there is some broad consensus among performers of the piece that it should be played a certain way. That doesn’t mean 100% that you have to go along, but it’s something you should think seriously about. If you are collaborating on the performance with other musicians, you’ll need to work out some agreement with them about various aspects of interpretation.

If you think all of this sounds difficult or complicated, you aren’t wrong. But if you understand what musical interpretation is and why it’s important, you can start to absorb your teachers’ interpretive ideas in a more meaningful way. You can listen to recordings of great performers and steal their interpretive ideas (this is allowed, and even encouraged!). And you can start to use what you have been learning in your music theory and music history classes as fuel for your own interpretive decisions.

As a brand-new freshman music major I was content with my performance if I played the right notes at the right times. That’s important, but it falls pretty far short of the satisfaction and achievement of a meaningful musical interpretation. Keep at it!

Thinking through scales

"#Oboe" by Paper of Light is licensed under CC BY-ND

My university woodwind students have to pass a scale exam as one of the requirements to progress in their degree program. They have to be able to play major scales and three forms of minor scales, plus arpeggios, through the “full range” of the instrument, from memory.

Many of my students learned their major scales in their school band programs, well enough to have most of them in muscle memory. But some of them are less familiar with the minor scales.

It can be a little overwhelming to keep track of 48 different scales. With plenty of accurate repetitions my students can get to the point of muscle memory for all 48. But in the meantime sometimes they get stuck trying to remember the right notes for the next scale, or get mixed up and play the wrong one.

I find it very helpful to have a mental roadmap for thinking through the next scale, and especially so if I can relate it to something I already have in muscle memory. My map might go something like this, but there are lots of possibilities:

  • C major scale: already in muscle memory, little or no “thinking” needed. As I play, notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C major arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.
  • C natural minor scale: since it’s a minor scale, I’m going to lower the third from E to E-flat. And E-flat major is the relative key to C minor, and I have E-flat major in my muscle memory, so I can play that same pattern of notes without too much thought.
  • C harmonic minor scale: now that I’ve got C natural minor under my fingers, I just need to change one note to produce the harmonic minor: B-flat becomes B-natural.
  • C melodic minor, ascending: this one is just like the C major scale I played a minute ago, but lower the E to E-flat.
  • C melodic minor, descending: this one is just like the C natural minor scale (related to E-flat major) that I played a minute ago. Notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C minor arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.

Another approach that appeals to some of my students is to think in terms of scale degrees: start with the major scale that’s already in muscle memory, and remember that for, say, harmonic minor, you have to lower the third and the sixth.

Having an organized way of thinking through the scales helps prevent the paralysis and overwhelm of trying to conjure up the whole scale from nothing. When my students take their exam, nobody minds if they take a few moments to think before they start playing, but getting stuck mid-scale would be a problem.

As you get better and faster at thinking through the scales, a good way to push yourself is to use a metronome, and limit yourself to a pre-set amount of time before the next scale starts. Maybe a certain number of beats (or, ultimately, zero beats) before jumping into the next one. If that doesn’t go well in the practice space, you know that particular transition is a problem spot, and can reorganize your efforts accordingly.

Happy practicing!

Does woodwind doubling prevent you from being the “best?”

"20070402 - Clarinet - 005" by C.K.H. is licensed under CC BY-ND

My recent post about woodwind doubling has been cited lately on various social media sites to fuel discussions over whether doubling is a good or acceptable pursuit.

Many of those arguing that woodwind doubling is a bad idea raise the issue that the “best” players of such-and-such instrument don’t double, and you can’t be the “best” at such-and-such instrument if you are doubling. If you think that, I could name a dozen prominent doublers who might change your mind, but that’s not really the important point.

As an undergraduate saxophone major, I daydreamed occasionally about being the “best” saxophonist. For me it probably wouldn’t have been a realistic goal, and the pursuit of it wouldn’t have led me to happiness, nor to success as I would have seen it through that lens.

When I made the decision to commit myself to woodwind doubling as a career path instead, I knew that would mean my progress on the saxophone would slow down. But it has been a very worthwhile choice for me: I get to play interesting music in a variety of settings, I get to spend all day at my university teaching job talking about the music and instruments that fascinate me, and I even have an audience of like-minded folks who stop by to read my blog posts. Now it’s hard for me to imagine myself being content to play just saxophone music all day.

Most of us won’t land a top orchestral job or tour the world as a concert soloist. And, believe it or not, not all of us want that anyway. We should be encouraging aspiring musicians to seek out niches that they enjoy and are motivated by.

Very, very few of us will ever be the “best,” so if that is your goal then I wish you luck. But for many of us, myself included, that’s not the goal at all. Mine is to have a successful and enjoyable career doing what I love, and so far, so good.

Does woodwind doubling ruin your embouchure?

"Oboe reed" by quack.a.duck is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Nope.

We use our embouchure muscles for all kinds of things: facial expressions, speech, eating, kissing. Do any of those things “ruin” your embouchure? Of course not. The embouchure is made up of very flexible, agile muscles that are very capable of carrying out multiple tasks.

When people (almost always non-doublers) express concern about embouchure ruin, most of the time what they seem to be talking about is tension, or sensitivity loss, or buildup of callused tissue, or maybe strengthening the “wrong” muscles. If playing any woodwind instrument is giving you these kinds of problems, you are playing it wrong. Your embouchure for any and every woodwind instrument should be relaxed, balanced, and pain-free. Get some lessons with a qualified teacher, quickly.

Woodwind doubling presents real challenges. No need to invent fictional ones!

What I’ve learned from playing different musical styles

"Sun and Sax." by Neil. Moralee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

One of my favorite things about being a performing musician is moving in and out of different styles. Recently I’ve performed as a classical, jazz, rock, and blues musician. I’ve been thinking a little about the skills that I associate with each, especially skills that have expanded my musicianship and carried over into playing other styles. It’s too many to name, but here are a few. Feel free to chime in in the comments section with your own insights.

I have college degrees in (essentially) classical music performance. From playing solo repertoire, chamber music, and orchestral music, I’ve had to pursue a disciplined, precise approach to my instruments. I’ve had to try to blend seamlessly into a variety of instrumental textures. I’ve had to try to give every note delicacy and beauty, even when the music is trying to communicate something that isn’t delicate and beautiful. Other aspects of my classical music education involved informing my performance by studying centuries of tradition and history and methods of musical analysis.

I’ve also done a lot of study of jazz. From big band section playing, I’ve had to try to make every note crisp and energized, even in the sweetest of ballads. I’ve had to try to blend into sections that take a wide variety of approaches to style—much wider than I’ve encountered in classical music. I’ve learned to use purposeful imprecision (in a way) by, say, playing a little behind the beat, or being a little more flexible with pitch. I’ve learned to really, really use my ears, transcribing notes and chords and rhythms but also nuances of style. (For jazz players, “transcribing” doesn’t always mean writing something down; it’s copying some or all of a performance from a recording.) And of course there’s improvisation, an art unto itself that many classically-trained musicians never delve into. From that I’ve gained a much deeper, more practical, more useable understanding of harmony. I’ve also gained confidence to play something that isn’t on a page in front of me, and a sense that I can make things work musically even when I’m not sure what will happen next.

It’s not uncommon on a rock or blues gig to play songs that I don’t know and have never heard before, with no fakebook and nobody to tell me what the chord changes are. On some blues gigs, I’ve had to watch the bass player’s fingers to try to anticipate even which key the song is going to be in. That kind of unstructuredness can be terrifying to my classically-trained side, and even my jazz-playing side, which is used to improvising within fairly well-established frameworks. But it’s also freeing and thrilling to play for several hours with no music stand and no agreed-upon set list. Sometimes it means reaching way back into my memory to try to roughly reproduce a rock horn section riff I’ve heard once or twice on a recording, but often it means having to create my part from nothing. The protocols often aren’t as strict as they are in jazz, and I’ve had to learn, for example, that just because I played a fill after the blues singer’s first phrase doesn’t mean the guitarist is going to leave me any space after the next one. And, of course, formal education in rock or blues aren’t nearly as widespread or formalized (yet?) as jazz education or especially classical training, so these are lessons learned on stage.

Every new gig is an adventure. See what you can learn in the concert hall to apply later in a smoky club, or vice versa.

Favorite blog posts, February 2019

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Performance postmortems

"journals" by Ganamex is licensed under CC BY-NC

After a performance, I like to have a little talk with myself or with my students about how things went. Here are some examples of questions to ask:

  • Were there any breakthroughs? New accomplishments? Higher levels of performance than previously achieved? If so, what contributed to these successes?
  • Was there any backsliding? Things going worse than in previous performances? Why?
  • How was your mental state before and during the performance? Did it have an effect on how you sounded? What aspects of that can you control?
  • How was your physical condition before and during the performance? (Tired? Hungry? Sore?) Did it have an effect on how you sounded? What aspects of that can you control?
  • How was your preparation? Is there anything you would do to prepare differently or better next time?
  • What feedback, spoken or otherwise, did you get from your audience? Should, or does, that color your evaluation of your success?
  • Is there a difference between your objective evaluation of the performance and how you really feel about it? Why? Is this significant/important?
  • Is there a recording? Were there any surprises when you listened to it?
  • What do you hope to build upon, improve, or otherwise change for your next performance?

Some post-performance reflection on both positives and negatives can be valuable for setting new goals and preparing for the next one.