Technical limits

"Signage 55 speed limit" by dlofink is licensed under CC BY

If I try to play too softly, sometimes my notes don’t respond as I would like. If I try to play too loudly, sometimes my tone or intonation suffer. I have similar limitations when it comes to things like finger or tongue speed, tone color or pitch flexibility, and more.

The way I deal with these limits is very different depending on whether I’m performing or practicing.

If I’m performing, I want to stay just within my limits. I want every note to be predictable and reliable. I want to take advantage of every bit of my dynamic range, but no more. I want to make wise, deliberate, professional-quality choices.

If I’m practicing, I want to explore those limits. Push those limits. Live just beyond those limits. It’s important to do this for couple of reasons. First, if I don’t go past those limits, I won’t know where the limits are for my upcoming performance. Second, if I’m too afraid to go past the limits in the practice room, I’ll never expand them. And if something goes wrong—a note cracks or fails to speak or is out of tune—that’s okay, it’s just practice.

Find your limits, know them well, and, in your practice space, break them.

Playing professional whole notes

I have spent many hours of my life absorbed in difficult études and repertoire. Challenging music pushes the limits of my abilities.

But when I actually get hired to play music, it’s almost never anything that complicated. Many of my workaday gigs are very easy—on paper.

One part of my career is playing with a nearby symphony. The repertoire occasionally has a few moments in it that demand my fleetest technique. But, as a wind player, I spend much more of the concert counting rests and waiting to play another handful of whole notes.

I recently played in a recording session for a local band’s new album. I played a total of one note. I played it a bunch of times, but it was just the one long note, over and over.

A beginner could play one note. So why hire a professional?

The notes—fast or slow, easy or hard—need to be beautiful, balanced, in tune, started precisely, ended precisely, shaped appropriately, and stylistically appropriate.

I’ve never been hired to play études, and almost never to play classical solo repertoire, but studying those has helped me develop the control and skill to play the whole notes just right, and that’s what gets me hired.

Triplets don’t swing

It’s common among non-jazz musicians to think of “swing” rhythms as having a triplet-like feel, and it’s equally common among jazz players to regard that as hopelessly incorrect. That conflict over swing style has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I won’t rehash it here.

But there’s another layer to the swing/triplets issue: It’s important to understand that real swing rhythms are essentially duple. The primary subdivision of the beat is into two parts, even though those parts aren’t equal in length.

So, writing or playing lots of triplets is a common mistake that non-jazz musicians make when they are trying to imitate a swing sound. That’s not to say that triplets can’t or don’t exist in swing rhythms, but they aren’t the underlying subdivision, and in most cases are best used sparingly.

For example, this can be played to sound like an authentic swing/jazz line:

And even this notation, while problematic, can be translated into something authentic-sounding:

But, to someone who knows jazz style well, this one never quite sounds like swing:

It might pass for a shuffle or something else, but it’s hard to make it swing.

When a well-written swing line does include a triplet, a fluent jazz player might play it to sound distinctly un-triplety:

That approach (one of several possibilities) might make sense to a jazz player because they are stretching the downbeat note, and letting the subsequent notes fall later in the beat—a very similar approach to playing a pair of swung eighth notes.

Written or improvised melodies, background figures, drum fills, and other things that are supposed to swing in an authentic way should avoid excessive triplets. Extensive listening and study of great jazz writing, interpretation, and improvisation are crucial to understanding real jazz swing style.

Sharp, flat, and natural symbols on Android and iOS devices

There are lots of ways to handle music symbols like sharps (♯), flats (♭), and naturals (♮) on iPhone/iPad and Android devices:

  • Not recommended: Use a pound/hash/number sign for sharp, and a lower-case b for flat. It’s ugly and unprofessional, and in some cases unclear, plus there’s not an obvious solution for natural.
  • Spell it out. Use forms like F-sharp, B-flat, or C-natural. Use a capital letter for the note name, then a hyphen (no spaces), then the name of the accidental in lowercase. For appropriate situations, this version is easy, clear, professional, and doesn’t require any special tools or setup.
  • Copy and paste. You can copy and paste symbols from a place you know them to exist, like a web page or your favorite notes app, using your device’s copy/paste method.
  • Use the built-in clipboard. My Android phone has a clipboard history, so if I have cut/copied/pasted the symbols recently, I can use them again. (Not all Android devices have this feature.) I tap and hold where I want the symbol to appear, and then choose the Clipboard popup. Then I can scroll through recent clipboard items and find the symbol I want. I can tap the symbol to paste it, or tap and hold to get the option of locking it to the clipboard so it will always be there.
    As far as I can tell iOS does not currently have this feature.
  • Use a clipboard app. For example, Clipper – Clipboard Manager on Android will let me create “snippets” that I can access from a persistent notification, and copy to my clipboard for pasting into text. Copied on iOS also provides ways of saving clipboard items for future use.
  • Use autocorrect. On my Android phone, I can add words to the “personal dictionary” to incorporate them into the autocorrect feature. (On my device it’s in Settings → General management → Language and input → Personal dictionary, but on yours it might be different.) My preferred method is to add -sharp or -flat or -natural as the shortcut, and paste in the symbol as the “word.” Then, when I type A -flat, my phone offers the symbol as a correction. Notice there’s a space after the A. That’s because my phone won’t offer an autocorrection for a partial “word,” like the -flat in A-flat, so I have to trick it by putting in a space, which I can delete after accepting the autocorrect. I could get around this by adding a separate personal dictionary entry for each note, like A-flat, B-flat, C-flat, and so on.
    On iOS, use Settings → General → Keyboard → Text Replacement, and tap + to add -sharp etc. as the shortcut and the symbol as the phrase. As with Android, this requires typing the note name and then a space before the -sharp.
  • Use a text replacement app. On Android I like Texpand. I can create a phrase with, for example, -flat as the abbreviation, and as the phrase (paste it in), then enable that phrase’s “Expands immediately” and “Expands within words” options. Then typing E-flat immediately corrects to E♭ in any phone app. (This is my current favorite Android solution.)
    On iOS TextExpander + Keyboard offers similar functionality but requires using a special keyboard and does not appear to have an “Expands within words” option, so you must type the note name, then a space, then -sharp.
  • Use a special characters app. Something like Character Pad – Symbols works well on Android. Use the search function to find the symbol you want, then tap the heart to add it to your favorites, or tap COPY and it will automatically be added to your “Recents.”
    iOS has similar apps available, such as Unicode Map and Code Table. Use its search function to find the symbol you want, and it is automatically added to your “Frequently Used” list.
  • Use a custom keyboard. Some keyboard apps (such as CustomKey Keyboard on Android) will let you customize the key layout, so you can add any special characters you want.
    On iOS, Keyboard Characters & Symbols provides access to lots of symbols, including musical ones, and it’s easy to switch between it and your other favorite keyboards. (This is my current favorite iOS solution.)

Using the correct symbols is the right choice for clear, professional communication about music. Do you have another solution for using these symbols on mobile devices? If so, please share in the comments.

MS Word music hack: Automatic sharps, flats, and naturals (Updated 2019)

Ten years ago in 2009 I wrote a blog post about how to set up auto-complete sharp, flat, and natural symbols in Microsoft Word 2007 running on Windows Vista. Here’s an update for Word 2016 on Windows 10.

Thanks to Ariel Detwiler for calling my attention to the need for an update.

How it will work

Type this (plus space bar)Get this
F-sharpF
B-flatB
C-naturalC

Will it work on Office 365?

No, the web version of Office doesn’t currently (2019) support this feature.

How to set it up

  1. Open up a new Microsoft Word 2016 document.
  2. Type the following:
    266d
    Then press Alt-X. The “266d” should turn into a flat symbol.
  3. Highlight the flat. Click the “File” tab, then “Options.” A dialog box appears; click “Proofing” at its left-hand side. Click the “AutoCorrect Options…” button. On the “AutoCorrect” tab, make sure “Replace text as you type” is checked. In the “Replace:” box, type:
    -flat
    Next to “With:,” make sure “Plain text” is selected. Your flat should be in the “With:” box. Click “Add,” then click “OK” twice.
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 for the sharp and natural signs. In step 2, use “266f” for sharp and “266e” for natural, and in step 4 use “-sharp” and “-natural.”

If you are in the habit of using the pound sign (#) and lowercase b for sharp and flat signs, shame on you for your unprofessional documents. You might be tempted to set up your AutoCorrect to correct those. The problem with doing it that way is that you will have to create a separate AutoCorrect entry for each note (Ab, Bb, Cb, etc.). Plus, it’s a good idea to just get in the habit of typing “F-sharp” so if you’re using a system that doesn’t have your special AutoCorrect set up, you will be left with that more correct version instead of a pound sign or letter b.

If you have set up the AutoCorrect but you actually want to type “-flat,” “-sharp,” or “-natural” and override the automatic change, type what you want and then press Ctrl-Z (Undo) to change the symbol back into text.

Getting the most out of practicing your scales

"Maths" by me_chris is licensed under CC BY

When you practice scales (or arpeggios or, really, any other technical material) it’s not really about the scales. Nobody wants to buy tickets to hear you play scales.

Scale and technical practice develop the fundamental technique you need for doing more interesting things. You don’t learn multiplication tables or French verb conjugations so you can recite multiplication tables or French verb conjugations. You learn them so you can file your taxes or build a Mars rover, or order pastries or read Proust.

The habits you develop when practicing scales—the building blocks of your technique—will be with you in everything you play. So take them very seriously:

  • Go slowly, and be as precise and controlled as you can. You will work on scales for your whole life as a musician, so there’s no rush to get them up to a certain tempo. Don’t waste time playing them sloppily.
  • Listen deeply to the sound of each note. Scales are a great chance to understand and map the tone, pitch, and response nuances of your instrument. Get in the habit of playing with your most beautiful sound even on technical material.
  • Solidify your best practices. Choose the perfect fingering for each and every note (don’t just fall back on what is already comfortable). Program your fingers to move in the most efficient and precise ways. Stabilize your breath support, voicing, and embouchure.
  • Be expressive. No need to go overboard—just give a subtle crescendo as you ascend and diminuendo as you descend. Add a little vibrato to warm things up. Make it automatic to find and express phrases.

Whatever habits you solidify in your scale practice will be infused into everything else you play. A little carelessness with your multiplication tables or verb conjugations can result in a severe fault with your Mars rover’s circuits or a profound misunderstanding of French literature. Get the little things right.

What if I don’t love to practice?

"Misty" by Unhindered by Talent is licensed under CC BY-SA

Musicians are supposed to wake up every day filled with a burning desire to practice for hours, right? If you don’t feel that way, you must not really have what it takes, right? And even if you don’t feel like practicing, you should be able to will yourself to do it anyway, right?

It’s normal and okay not to love practicing, or for your love of practicing to vary. And it’s normal and okay to have less-than-perfect willpower.

Some self-awareness about your practicing (or lack thereof) can help a lot. What keeps you from practicing, or from practicing at your best? Can you embrace it? Incorporate it? Work around it?

Here’s an example: I’ve discovered that my mind wanders a lot while I practice. I might be doing some slow repetition of a tricky passage, but my brain is working on something else. So now I practice with a small notepad nearby. I find that if I can pause practicing for a moment and jot down a few thoughts, it quiets my mind.

At first I resisted this idea, because it seemed like I was planning to multitask and be distracted. But for me, permission to get the idea out of my head and onto paper makes my practicing much more productive overall.

Do you fail to practice, or fail to practice well, because:

  • …you get too bored working on one thing for such a long time? Can you rearrange your practicing so you change tasks every few minutes? Or spread your practicing out throughout the day?
  • …you hate missing out on what your friends are up to, IRL or online? Would it help if you gave yourself permission to spend a few minutes now and then, within established limits, to catch up on what’s happening? Or what if you practiced first thing in the morning, before your social circle gets interesting?
  • …you’re engrossed in an interesting book or show? What if you got to read or watch for ten minutes as soon as you finish your scale routine, or put in a solid half-hour on your étude? Or if you get your practicing done before dinner, you get to binge in the evening, guilt-free?
  • …you get hangry or tired? Could you schedule yourself some breaks to snack or nap or stretch? Or move your practicing to after a meal, instead of just before?

Instead of beating yourself up about motivation or willpower, ask yourself how you can harness your natural inclinations and use them for productive practice.

So you want to hire a horn section

"The Shrines' horn section" by Jon Southcoasting is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

So, you want to hire a “horn” section for an upcoming gig or recording. Great! Horns can add a special touch to your rock, pop, blues, etc. performance.

If you haven’t hired horns before, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • A small thing: the word “horn” as it’s used in this kind of music usually means trumpet, trombone, and/or saxophone. In classical music it means one specific instrument, probably not the one you want for this situation. Just something to remember if you ask someone to recommend some “horn” players.
  • If you’re planning to play some covers and there are horns on the original, depending on the mix it can be hard to tell exactly which horns. A horn section might range in size from two to a half dozen players or more, with some combination of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones in various sizes. There’s no single, standard setup.
  • Good working horn players can learn their cover-song parts by ear from a recording, just like your guitar/bass/keys/drum set players probably do. But it can be tricky to get the chord voicings right, just like if you’re trying to get a group of backup singers to imitate the harmonies from a favorite recording. It takes some coordination to make sure all the notes are covered, nobody is playing/singing somebody else’s part, and it sounds like a cohesive unit.
  • One thing that makes a great horn section great is precision in executing the details. This includes things like the coordinating the exact moment that notes begin and end, their shapes (do the notes swell? taper? etc.), and the gentleness or aggressiveness of the notes’ beginnings. Plus, horns don’t automatically play exactly in tune or in balance, so each chord may require the players to adjust to each other. That kind of precision doesn’t come quickly or easily (or cheaply).

Here are some tips to make it all work:

  • Most working horn players read music well. (They often have some kind of formal training.) If you can get some professionally-prepared horn “charts” (sheet music) for the combination of horns you intend to use, and hire top-notch players, they will likely be able to nail the parts on stage with little or no rehearsal. Well-written charts don’t just tell each horn player which notes to play, but also have detailed markings that help a good section play together with precision and style. Good charts cost money, but once you’ve got them you can reuse them with another horn section next time, or even hire local horn players at each tour stop.
  • To put together a really polished, professional horn section without charts requires some rehearsal time to get all the notes sorted out and establish a unified style. This also costs money, because good horn players usually won’t rehearse for free.
  • Depending on the market you are working in, it may be possible to hire a pre-existing horn section. There can be advantages to this, like that they have already put in many hours learning to play together as a coordinated section. Some horn-sections-for-hire might have a set instrumentation, or they might revolve around a single player who provides services like contracting the rest of the section from a roster of top-notch players, and maybe composing or transcribing horn section charts.
  • One budget-friendly option to consider is a single horn player. It’s not the same as a tight, well-coordinated section, but it’s flexible and easy. (I think a single saxophone works especially well for this, but I may be biased.) If you hire the right person you can go without charts or rehearsal time. A good player will learn the most important horn lines from a recording, or even make up something convincing on the spot. I do a fair amount of playing that way—a band hires me to join them on a gig, and either I already know most of the cover songs well enough, or I can play something off-the-cuff that works. If the gig pays well enough, I can afford to do some extra homework in advance and learn the cover parts cold.
  • Horns are loud, but not loud enough to compete with amplified instruments. They will need mics and monitors. Basic vocal/general-purpose mics like SM57s or SM58s are a solid starting point, or your sound engineer may have some other options available. Include the horn section in your sound check so they can get monitor levels. (Generally they will need to hear fair amount of themselves in the monitor, like singers.) If you are providing charts they will also need music stands and maybe stand lights, but can probably bring their own if given advance notice.
  • Horn-playing freelancers are often accustomed to jazz gigs and maybe performances in a local symphony, so they should be ready on a moment’s notice to wear coat and tie (or equivalent female attire), “gig black” (all black, somewhat dressy), or “concert black” (tuxedo or similar dressiness). Decide whether you have any dress code expectations and communicate them.

A horn section brings some extra class and professionalism to your performance. Knowing what to expect helps things go smoothly. Enjoy!

Time-crunch vs. long-term practicing

"Calendar*" by DafneCholet is licensed under CC BY

My approach to practicing has to adapt to deadlines. Sometimes the deadlines come up fast, and there isn’t time to make everything as perfect as I would like. Other times I have plenty of preparation time and want to make the best use of it.

Suppose the music I’m working on has one or two especially challenging spots, and I know I could put many hours into trying to perfect them. If I get bogged down trying to make those couple of spots perfect on a tight deadline, I might fail to adequately prepare the rest. It’s a better strategy to make sure I’m ready to play 98% of the music at tempo, make a reasonable effort with the remaining 2%, and hope for the best.

But if I have plenty of time to prepare, that approach can backfire. Getting the 2% “good enough” early in the process may mean compromises that I have to undo later. I’ll have a better final result if I’m not in a hurry to bring the tough spots up to standard. Instead, I give them time to settle deeply into muscle memory before pushing the tempo. I practice difficult spots for a few minutes every day, instead of cramming.

Think carefully about your practice approach, and adapt as needed. Good luck!

Local vs. big-picture dynamics

"Musican" by davekellam is licensed under CC BY-NC

An important part of interpreting music is figuring out how to use dynamic markings. They aren’t as simple as just playing louder or softer.

It helps a lot to understand the difference between what I call local dynamics and big-picture dynamics. Unfortunately, they are marked in sheet music using the same symbols, so it’s not always immediately obvious which they are. When you study a new repertoire piece, ask yourself why the composer or editor has provided each dynamic marking:

Is it there to call attention to a major event in the music, like a new theme, a return to an old theme, or some other kind of climactic moment? If so, it’s a big-picture dynamic. In many cases there is some other evidence that this is an important moment: a double-bar, a fermata, a key or tempo change, an entrance after some rests, etc. (If you have studied musical form, you probably have some more ideas of what to look for.)

Or, is the dynamic marking there just to provide some shape and direction to a phrase? There’s no major musical event, just a hint about the momentary musical gesture. If so, it’s a local dynamic.

When you think in terms of local vs. big-picture dynamics, it’s clear that not all fortes or mezzo-pianos or crescendos are equal. If the composer uses dynamics to contrast two themes or sections, for example with one being soft and the other being loud, that probably calls for a dramatic change. (It may also hint that some other unwritten contrasts are appropriate, like nuances of tempo, articulation, or tone color.) But a one-measure decrescendo from forte to piano in the middle of a theme might be more of a suggestion from the composer about what direction that phrase should take, and should be handled with more subtlety.

Beware of the limitations of dynamic markings in music notation, and of careless editing, and use your best-informed musical judgment to interpret the meanings of those symbols.