Favorite blog posts, October 2016

Solo/chamber stage etiquette for first-year music majors

Here’s what I teach my first-year music majors as they are preparing for their first public performance of solo or chamber repertoire. Customs may vary in your area.

photo, Converse College
photo, Converse College
  • Dress professionally and comfortably. Formalwear/eveningwear is overkill and a distraction for most music major recital performances. For men, I recommend a necktie and preferably also a jacket. For women, something of roughly equivalent dressiness (slacks are 100% fine).
  • Enter the stage by walking swiftly and confidently. Stop just short of the music stand, so that it isn’t between you and the audience (at least not yet).
  • Before you do anything else, acknowledge your audience with a bow. (If you are on stage with collaborative musicians, wait for them to get into position so you can all bow together. Whoever is standing closest to the front should start the bow as soon as everybody is ready.) To bow: bend at the waist, look at your shoes for a second, then straighten back up. Keep both hands either on your instrument or at your sides. Don’t curtsy. Don’t shrug or roll your eyes or pull faces. (I suggest practicing your bow a little before your performance. Maybe take smartphone video so you can see if you are doing something weird.)
  • After bowing, make any last-minute arrangements or adjustments: arranging sheet music, checking reeds, etc.
  • If you are taking a tuning note on stage, turn to whoever is providing the pitch. Mostly listen, then play briefly, adjust, and if needed play one more time (briefly!) to be sure. Don’t play a long tuning note, like you’re trying to convince yourself that you’re right. If you’re uncertain about your ability to tune accurately on stage, you can tune to a tuner or other reference before going on stage, and use the onstage tuning as a chance to just play a note before you begin the performance.
  • During the performance, don’t make faces or gestures in response to mistakes. It calls unnecessary attention to what probably are barely-noticeable glitches, and takes you and your audience out of the moment.
  • As you and/or your collaborators play the last note of each movement or piece, freeze in place. Hold your position until the last note finishes reverberating in the performance space, then another second or two.
  • If you just finished a complete musical work (not just one movement of the larger work you are performing), you can bring your instrument down into a carrying position, look out into the audience, and smile to signal that the piece is complete. They should start to applaud at this point.
  • Leave the stage quickly. Don’t be caught still on stage when the applause ends. In some situations you can leave your sheet music behind to be retrieved later.
  • In some cases the audience will continue to applaud enthusiastically after you leave the stage. If you like, you can return to the stage for another bow and then leave quickly again. Sometimes the audience doesn’t bring you back for another bow—don’t take that personally.

Break a leg!

Accents and the tongue (or not)

As a follow-up to my previous post on the role of the tongue in articulation, I would like to address the problem of accents.

When I hear my students playing heavy, thumpy accents, I ask them how they are playing the accents. The answer is usually the same: “tongue harder?”

But when the tongue is properly understood to release the reed (or release the airstream on the flute), the idea of tonguing harder doesn’t make much sense. (How do you release harder?) Unfortunately, for many developing woodwind players, it translates to a larger area of contact between the tongue and the reed, causing unwanted percussive sounds.

accent

Accents are better understood as what they appear to be on the page: small decrescendos. An accent is a note shape: louder at the beginning, softer at the end. It is produced by the mechanisms of volume/dynamics, not the tongue. Often, but not always, the note starts louder than the baseline dynamic level and decrescendos back to it.

As with most aspects of musical interpretation, this leaves a great deal of room for variation; accents can have many characters and shades. But none of those should include thuds or thumps (unless, I suppose, called for by the composer). Practice beautiful and stylish accents by slowing down the music enough to give each accented note a graceful decrescendo.

“Starting” notes with the tongue

There’s a common misconception about woodwind articulation, that notes somehow “start” with the tongue. So, how do you start notes with your tongue? Does your tongue somehow strike the reed, making it vibrate? Try it, I’ll wait.

Hit that reed with your tongue as hard as you like, but I suspect nothing will happen until you add air. The truth of the matter is that air starts the vibration—the tongue actually stops it.

photo, Evan Long

So why use the tongue at the beginning of a note—why not just start the air? Try it as an experiment. Starting from zero air pressure, very gradually add air. You will probably hear air noise first, and then tone. Can you predict precisely when the tone will kick in? Using the tongue allows the note to be “released” after sufficient air pressure is in place, avoiding the airy and unpredictable note beginning.

Thinking in terms of the tongue releasing the note rather than kickstarting it leads to more efficient, controlled, and subtle articulation.