Favorite blog posts, April 2014

Practice technique: anchoring

This is a technique I recommend often to students who are struggling with notey passages. I can’t remember where I picked it up, or whether “anchoring” is my own name for it or someone else’s. No doubt credit for this belongs to somebody smarter than I.

The problem that I sometimes see with my students (and, okay, occasionally with myself) is that fast passages are uneven and panicky. The student sees a long string of notes and frantically dives in, to the detriment of meter and tempo, and with notes accidentally omitted or added.

Let’s consider this excerpt:

from Debussy Première rhapsodie
from Debussy Première rhapsodie (clarinet)

It’s a challenging passage—shifting harmony, intervallic motion, awkward fingerings. This is a recipe for frustration using the old standby method of playing slowly with the metronome and gradually increasing the tempo. Instead, let’s set the metronome aside for a few minutes, and play the passage in an intentionally uneven way:

with added tenuto-accent-fermata
with added tenuto-accent-fermatas

Put lots of weight on the metric pulses (the “anchor” notes): play them long, loud, and with emphasis. Hold each fermata long enough to scope out the next four notes, then move through them as quickly as you accurately can, coming to rest again on the next fermata. Repeat the passage in this way as many times as you can stand.

Here’s what this accomplishes:

  • It makes you think about logical groups of notes, rather than trying either to process each note individually or to deal with the whole phrase as an overwhelming sea of notes. It’s the sweet spot between too much mental chatter and too little focus.
  • It encourages effective phrasing by treating the notes as leading toward downbeats.
  • It trains your ears to hear the notes in fours (at least in this 2/4 passage—try threes instead if the situation calls for it). Now as you return to playing the passage evenly, you are more likely to notice if you are omitting or adding notes.

To transition from this technique into a more performable approach, gradually decrease the duration of the fermatas and the weight of the accents, while continuing to mentally emphasize the anchor notes and place them carefully in tempo (time to get the metronome back out). Also try spacing the anchors farther apart as an intermediate step—one at the beginning of each measure, for example, or every few measures as appropriate.

Practice smart!

Novelty and solo multiple-woodwind performance

For a decade now, virtually every solo recital I have played has involved multiple woodwind instruments. I enjoy the variety and the challenge, and audiences are always duly appreciative and complimentary.

However, I do wonder sometimes about the novelty aspect of using multiple woodwind instruments in solo “classical” performance. Often well-intentioned (and much-appreciated!) audience members will tell me something like, “It’s so amazing that you can play all those instruments!” That’s nice of them, but would they say something similar at a single-instrument recital? “It’s so amazing that you can play that instrument.”

Photo, José Camba
Photo, José Camba

I’ve leveraged the variety a couple of times recently to do composer-themed recitals, one of music by Debussy and one of music by Telemann. On a single instrument, I would mostly shy away from playing an hour of music by a single composer. Such a thing could be done, but to make it a real success would require both a very engaging performer and an appropriate audience: for listeners with a casual appreciation of classical music, an hour of Bach flute sonatas or an hour of Brahms clarinet sonatas could be a bit of a drag. My recent Telemann sonata included music performed on six different solo instruments, two of them relatively rarely-heard (recorder and EWI), and that seemed to be enough to keep the audience on board.

But were they on board purely because of the composer’s and performers’ art, or was it the feat of instrumental derring-do that held their interest? Of course I would like for my performances to stand on their own, regardless of how many or how few instruments I use, but it’s hard to tell when the audience is distracted by the parade of shiny objects. I’m not bothered by having a gimmick per se, but I don’t want it to be the only thing holding the performance together.



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.
Photo, Rick Shinozaki
Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet (L to R: Cornelius Boots, Jonathan Russell, Aaron Novik, Jeff Anderle). Photo, Rick Shinozaki

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.

Photo, Pierre-Alain Dorange
Photo, Pierre-Alain Dorange

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