Playing at professional volume

stressed black girl covering ears

One thing I notice about a lot of my younger university students is that they play softly. Sometimes they seem reluctant to play above what I might consider about a mezzo piano.

If I ask, many of them reveal that they spent their formative years in school band programs getting The Hand from their directors. Beginning oboists and saxophonists in particular can make rather pungent and conspicuous noises. And band directors, understandably anxious to produce a well-blended ensemble, give the traffic-cop “stop” sign of the raised palm to hush the worst offenders. Those young musicians learn quickly to play in a restrained, timid way, and that anything louder than a murmur is a faux pas.

I can’t really blame the band directors, who have a set of concerns different from mine. (When I have taught beginners in a private lesson setting, I have encouraged them to play loudly from day one, and treated softer dynamics as an intermediate-level technique.)

But much of college-level music study is about students’ development as soloists. In that context, they need to play with authority, and, well, volume. And they may find that college ensembles have different demands than their high school groups, too.

Fixing the problem usually doesn’t involve teaching much new technique, perhaps a review of proper breath support. The rest is encouragement and example from me.

Over the course of a few weeks or months, I play for them in lessons, showing how I can fill up the room with sound. I ask them to imitate that sound, and urge them on to louder volumes. If I ask them to play their very loudest, and then ask them to top that, they usually can—they are just afraid to, and warn me that if they get any louder it will sound bad. But surprise! It doesn’t.

If you aspire to play at a professional level, or teach students who do, explore the louder part of that dynamic range, and make yourself heard!

Written jazz articulation problems

In classical music for wind players, articulation markings are gospel—part of the composer’s intent, to be performed with accuracy. But printed jazz music, such as arrangements published for high school or college big bands, can take varied approaches to articulation markings.

Make your musical lines sing and dance

man wearing blue jeans doing pirouette spin

In “classical” and related kinds of music, we are often asked to make our instrumental music sing or dance. In fact, most music of this type should do one or the other. Here’s how to make that happen.

Why you should use a scale sheet

My university students take a scale exam covering all the major and 3-forms-of-minor scales, plus arpeggios, in all 12 keys, memorized. In preparation, I provide them with a scale “sheet,” with all of the scales and arpeggios written out note by note. There’s a part of my brain that objects to this, since I don’t … Read more

What really went wrong? Leaning into problem spots

photo of man touching his head

I have a recurring teaching challenge with my saxophone students who are tackling the altissimo register for the first time. They play a passage, and when they get to the altissimo note, if it doesn’t respond perfectly, they immediately stop playing. When I ask why, they look puzzled. “The note didn’t come out.” “Well, what … Read more

Making every marking audible

music notes

When my students work on études (musical pieces intended for study but not performance) I stress with them the idea of making everything on the page audible. That means that if I were unfamiliar with the étude but a skilled transcriber, I could listen to my student play, and write down with confidence every: Pitch … Read more

Practice fewer notes

printed musical note page

I can’t remember where I picked up this tip, but it has been a game-changer in how I practice technically-challenging passages. (If you know a source, please let me know!) The idea is this: practice only as many notes as you can keep in your head. So, if I’m practicing an unfamiliar passage, and can … Read more

The wallpaper effect

white capsules on yellow background

Sometimes I see “challenges” similar to this posted on social media sites: can you find the letter J in the image below? Of course you can. It’s not at all difficult. (But if someone online can convince you that it is, and that you’re one of the “special” few who can do it, then maybe … Read more