Favorite blog posts, November 2014

Here’s good stuff from the woodwind blogs in November. The flutists and bassoonists were especially busy this month.

Practicing, boredom, and guilt

In my first semester as an undergraduate music major, I struggled with practicing. I felt guilty about not putting in as many hours as I knew I should, but more than that I felt guilty about the reason: I was bored and frustrated in the practice room. I loved playing music, but going into the practice rooms felt like serving time: counting down the minutes until my hours were done, or sneaking out early with a pang of shame, while my playing more or less failed to improve. I didn’t talk to my teacher or my classmates about it because I thought my lack of enthusiasm for practicing was a sign of some kind of personal weakness.

But things got better. I gradually developed better ideas how to practice, and started to see results from it. My progress motivated me to get back into the practice rooms even more, and over the next few years practicing became my favorite part of the day.

photo, mandykoh
photo, mandykoh

As a teacher, I have tried to be sensitive to this problem. I find that my students who struggle with practicing are sometimes afraid to talk to me about it, and want to brush aside talk of their declining practice hours with thin excuses about having a “busy week.” But if we can address the problem honestly and openly, I can offer some suggestions to help them enjoy their practice time more and get more out of it.

I don’t think that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for practice room boredom, but in general I think these are some good starting points:

  • Put practicing on your daily schedule, and stick to the plan. It’s tough to scrape up enough enthusiasm for practicing when it’s the thing you have been putting off all day, and now it’s the only thing standing between you and some much-needed sleep.
  • Be goal-oriented in your practicing. Make a list of things that need improvement about your playing, and tackle a few things during each practice session. If you’re not sure what needs improvement, be sure to take good notes in your next lesson—as a teacher, I consider it my primary responsibility to help students hear what they really sound like, and what they could sound like. Or, don’t wait: make a recording of yourself (a smartphone makes this super easy), listen back, and jot down a few things that need work.
  • Don’t just try to improve your playing, work on improving your practicing, too. It’s an art form of its own. Soak up new practice ideas from your teacher, your classmates, and anywhere else you can find them. (Here are some of mine.) And, of course, invent your own.
  • Know your limits. Personally, I find that I can give about ten minutes of good, focused attention to a practice task before my productivity starts to decline, so I switch tasks at least that often. If I haven’t perfected something within ten minutes (and usually I haven’t), I’ll come back to it later with fresh energy. Figure out your own attention span and work with it, rather than against it.
  • Be honest with yourself and with your teacher about how your practicing is going. I guarantee your teacher can relate. She or he will probably have some great new ideas you can try, but might not know yet that you are in need of them.
  • Ride out the tough patches. Even once I started to get better at practicing, there still were (and still are) days when I just don’t feel like it. But there are lots of things in my life that need to be done that I don’t always feel like doing, and I still seem to manage. Sometimes the hardest, most tedious practicing seems to happen right before a breakthrough.
  • Start. I asked one of my students once what he found to be the hardest thing about practicing. He looked me in the eye and said, “Getting it out of the case.” Once he had his instrument assembled, he explained, it wasn’t so hard to just start practicing. (Cartoonist Scott Adams takes a kind of similar approach to going to the gym.)

You know practicing is important, and you love to make music. If your practicing is making you miserable, don’t give up on it! Make it fun and productive.

Jazz swing notation

Sometimes a well-meaning composer or arranger will try to approximate a jazz swing style notationally in this way:

dotted-eighth, sixteenth rhythmThis is wrong.

Sometimes he or she will take this approach:

12/8 rhythmAlso wrong. So is this one:

eighth notes with indication to tripletizeThe idea of “tripletizing” eighth-note rhythms is especially pervasive, and especially dangerous because it is thrown around so casually by people without background in jazz music. Composers are sometimes guilty of this; so are conductors, arrangers, and educators.

The issue with each of these bad notational approaches is that they try to approximate characteristic jazz rhythms with symbols that are rooted in the rather different rhythms of classical music. But real jazz swing rhythms aren’t dotted or 12/8 or triplets, or least they aren’t necessarily any of those. This leads to problems both for composers and performers.

For composers, using a 12/8 time signature or eighth-note triplets in 4/4 too easily drags the work into a compound-meter feel. And jazz swing is decidedly not in a compound meter: the rhythms are very much duple in nature. Authentic swing almost always has an underlying feel of two notes per beat, even though those notes are not equal in length. Extended or frequent passages with a compound-meter feel (three notes per beat) are dead giveaways of a failure to really absorb swing style.

For jazz-untrained performers, seeing dotted or compound-type rhythms on a page simply doesn’t provide fine enough information to accurately reproduce authentic swing style. It’s perhaps a bit like baking a cake from a recipe with each ingredient rounded off to the nearest tablespoon; the result will approximate a cake but likely won’t be especially successful. And even for the jazz-trained performer, sometimes the dotted or triplety notation can obscure the intended sound, something like typing a sentence into Google Translate, translating it into some other language, and then translating it back into English. (The result definitely loses fidelity.) Or, the poor notation can simply dull or distract from the jazz musician’s more authentic approach.

All of this, of course, begs the question of what precisely is the correct downbeat-upbeat length ratio for a true swing style, if not the 2:1 ratio of the triplety approach or the 3:1 ratio of the dotted approach. That question is larger in scope than I intend to fully tackle here, but I think it suffices to summarize with a few brief points:

  • Firstly, there’s no reason for it to be a mystery or a matter of “opinion;” using very simple technology we can measure exactly what jazz musicians are doing.
  • The ratios, if we measure them, are very, very far from consistent, even taken independently of factors like tempo. (There’s a popular but not-uniformly-supportable idea that the notes swing “harder” [greater ratio] at slower tempi and less hard [ratio nearer to 1:1] at faster tempi.) The precise ratios are an expressive, interpretive matter, and ultimately up to the performers.
  • The rhythms themselves are not the only factors that make swing sound like swing; articulation, phrasing, and other elements are also important, and also beyond the scope of my intended topic here.

What, then, is the best way to notate swing rhythms? I sort of like this one, though it’s not the one I ultimately recommend:

grace notesWhat I do like about the weird grace note approach is that it makes fairly clear the idea that the exact “downbeat” (quarter note) to “upbeat” (grace note) ratio is an interpretive matter. It also evokes what I find to be the most successful method of executing swing rhythms: think in quarter note pulses, and let the upbeats lead to the following downbeats. What I don’t like about this method is that it’s a hassle to write and to read.

My best recommendation is this:

eighth notes with "Swing" indicationNote the absence of the “two eighths equal triplet quarter-eighth” indication. This way is simple to read and write, reinforces the duple nature of swing rhythm, and doesn’t prescribe a specific ratio. One might hope that a jazz-untrained musician encountering this would seek out some good training or at least listen to some good swing recordings.

Happy swinging.

Videos: Piazzolla Tango Etudes for multiple woodwinds

Here are some videos from a guest recital I did at the University of Tennessee at Martin a few weeks ago. Among other things, I played Ástor Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes, originally for solo flute, in my own arrangement for multiple woodwinds soloist.