Favorite blog posts, March 2018

Grading student practicing

Each week I have my university woodwind students submit a report on the number of hours they have practiced, and I award them points based on that number. (They are additionally graded on how well their lesson goes.)

I don’t think points-for-practicing is an ideal situation, and perhaps not necessary at some more competitive, more performance-oriented schools. The students at my small, regional university have a range of backgrounds and ability levels, but certainly for some the idea of an intensive practicing routine is new and challenging. This approach helps keep them incentivized (bribed? threatened?) to practice several hours per day, until hopefully it becomes a self-motivating habit. Or, in some cases, it helps them realize that their commitment level isn’t compatible with the degree program.

I use a simple formula for grading practice hours. Each student has a weekly practice hours target, which varies depending on the degree program (or, more precisely, the number of credit hours of lessons: more for performance majors, fewer for music education majors, etc.). If they put in that exact number of hours, they get 100% of the points. If they put in half the hours they get 50% the points, if they put in one and a half times the target they get 150% of the points, and so forth.

(hours practiced)/(required practice hours) × (possible points) = (grade as a percentage)

That gives them essentially unlimited extra credit if they want to go above and beyond, or lets them practice a little extra during slower weeks so they can free up some time for weeks that are busier with midterms or band trips.

Practice reports are due every single Monday of the semester, even holidays. This works better than having them report hours between lessons, since sometimes things get moved around in my schedule and it ends up being more or fewer than seven days between lessons. I have streamlined the reporting process quite a bit by using the university’s LMS to automatically administer a weekly “quiz,” which looks like this:

For Thanksgiving break in November and spring break in March (each a full week with no classes) I have been collecting practice reports, and treating them as pure extra credit. That way I’m not punishing students who spend those vacation days with family or who need a break from the instrument. But the students who are serious about playing usually put in a pretty solid effort during those weeks and earn a nice grade bonus for it.

When I explain this system to other educators I often get asked about honesty. I haven’t found it to be a major issue. That might be partly because of my students’ background and upbringing (it’s the Bible Belt), and maybe partly because lying turns out to be pretty unsustainable: if their reported practice hours don’t seem to match their level of achievement, I start asking tough questions.

When I was a first-year undergraduate music major and not yet fully convinced of the importance of practicing several hours per day, a nudge/threat from the music department scared me into changing my ways. But the sudden “motivation” to apply myself a little better soon started paying off. As I had more and more success I felt more and more inclined to practice because I got more and more out of it. Ultimately, I learned to enjoy and even crave the hours in the practice rooms. It’s exciting to see my students making that same transition.

Avoiding clarinet undertones: published techniques

Clarinet “undertones” or “grunts” are the unpleasant low sounds that happen usually at the beginning of tongued upper-clarion-register notes (about written G to C, above the staff). They are the lower register speaking out of turn—a clarion G’s undertone, for example, is the chalumeau C.

Fine clarinetists can more or less eradicate the problem, but there isn’t a lot of consensus or clarity among clarinetists about how exactly this is done. I checked some published clarinet wisdom that I had at hand, to see what some of the experts say about what causes undertones, or how to eliminate them. Here are the results:

To prevent clarinet undertones in the upper clarion register…

This listing isn’t comprehensive, so I welcome submissions if you can point me toward published sources. And in many cases I have done some interpreting of the authors’ intents. (Julie DeRoche, for example, lists a number of embouchure specifics in her article, which I have reduced to “Ensure correct, stable embouchure formation.”) If you are one of the authors, or have particular insight into their thinking, I also welcome corrections.

I’m refraining from comment or conclusion at this point, but stay tuned for a future post.

A minimal Little-Jake electric bassoon setup

Be sure to check out my recent interview with Trent Jacobs, the inventor of the Little-Jake bassoon/woodwind pickup.

During the past year I got myself a Little-Jake to experiment with some electrified bassoon playing. I didn’t know much about using electronics in this way, and it took some research and trial-and-error to figure out exactly what I needed to use the Little-Jake with my bassoon. I thought others might find it useful to see that information all in one place. Here’s a kind of minimum setup:

  • A bocal that you’re willing to have altered. I had an old one that I liked but wasn’t using much.
  • The bocal needs a small hole drilled in it and an adapter soldered to it. A skilled instrument technician can probably make you an adapter from scratch, or you can buy one pre-made. Forrests Music has one, and so does Midwest Musical Imports. I bought Forrests’s (cheaper) version, plus the threaded plug in case I want to use the bocal without the Little-Jake. I shipped my bocal to Forrests and they installed the adapter for a very reasonable fee.
    Brass adapter visible just above whisper key pip

    Adapter with plug
  • The Little-Jake pickup. It’s a thin cable with a 1/4″ plug on one end, and a little threaded connector on the other. The threaded end connects to the adapter on your bocal.
  • A preamp. The 1/4″ end of the Little-Jake connects to the preamp’s input jack. The preamp works some electrical magic to get the electronic “signal” ready for amplification. You can buy an inexpensive one made from an Altoids tin, or this L. R. Baggs one that Trent recommends, or there are other options if you know what you’re doing. The L. R. Baggs is handy because it clips to your belt and provides a volume control.
  • An audio cable, like the ones used for electric guitars. One end plugs into your preamp’s output jack.
  • An amplifier. The other end of the audio cable plugs into an input jack on the amplifier. There are many options at many price points. I use a small Mackie PA system for practicing or small venues, or a keyboard amplifier if I need more volume. Keyboard amps and PA systems are usually designed for a relatively “clean,” unaltered sound, whereas guitar amps tend to add their own character. This is a personal choice depending on what you want to sound like, but for me the keyboard/PA-type amp seemed to make sense as a starting point.
Assembled system: bocal → Little-Jake → preamp → audio cable → amplifier (in this case, a small PA system)

That’s enough to start making some fun sounds, but refer to Trent’s interview and an article on his website for some thoughts on adding effects pedals, which really make things interesting.

My current pedalboard setup

The Little-Jake can be used for some other instruments, as well, with the same setup (except the adapter must be attached to a saxophone or bass clarinet neck, clarinet barrel, etc.).