Starting at the right tempo

"Metronome" by Konstantin Lazorkin is licensed under CC BY-NC

For me it’s an ongoing challenge to start a piece of music at the right tempo. Here are a few tricks I have used:

  • Practice, a lot, with a metronome, to internalize and habituate the tempo.
  • If circumstances allow, check a metronome backstage immediately before beginning the piece.
  • If circumstances allow, have a metronome with you on stage. Most have a “silent” function that you can use to discreetly double-check.
  • Maybe your piece has a fast or tricky part, and you’re worried that you will go too fast and that part won’t go well. Sing that part in your mind before you start to play, so you can pick a tempo that will work for that part.
  • Be aware of your tendencies. For example, if the adrenaline of performance makes you tend to rush, you can adjust accordingly.
  • Find a song that you know really well and have thoroughly internalized, that has a tempo very close to the one you wish to play at. Sing a few bars of the song mentally to find your tempo. For example, here’s a list of songs that have a tempo of about 94 beats per minute—I bet you can find at least a few that you know.

Good luck!

Wind controllers as “practice” woodwinds

"Yet another view.." by Jon Delorey is licensed under CC BY-NC

Can you use a wind controller, like the Akai EWI, the Yamaha WX, or the Roland Aerophone, as a convenient and/or quiet way to practice a “real” woodwind instrument, like the saxophone or the flute?

No, not really.

You can practice some very limited aspects of woodwind playing. For example, each of those wind controllers has fingering patterns that resemble (but are not identical to) the fingerings of standard woodwinds. If you are in the very early stages of playing a woodwind instrument and still trying to memorize fingerings, I suppose you could use a wind controller to help you with that specific task, to the extent that the fingerings do match.

The Akai instruments have saxophone, flute, and oboe modes, plus the more flexible “EWI” mode that is quite saxophone-like, and even a couple of variations of a valved-brass-inspired mode. The Yamaha WX5 has several saxophone modes and a flute mode. The Roland instruments are set up to map fairly directly to saxophone fingerings, even going so far as to include some of the saxophone’s more problematic features like “palm” keys. However, with that exception, none even have all the keys needed to learn proper saxophone, flute, or oboe technique.

(None of the instruments currently has a clarinet mode, presumably because the real-clarinet phenomenon of overblowing to odd-numbered partials raises some complications for an electronic instrument capable of many octaves of range. And none of the instruments has the physical keys to reasonably approximate bassoon technique.)

Plus, in all cases, including the Rolands, none of them can fully imitate the “feel” of a standard woodwind. Beyond the very basic stage of learning fingering patterns, much of the fingering work that woodwind players practice has to do with nuances of the fingers’ interactions with the keys. Even switching from one flute to a slightly different model of flute can mean having to re-adapt to the keys’ precise locations, spring tensions, etc. Switching between a flute and a wind controller is a much larger leap.

And, of course, no major wind controller currently provides a realistic approach to tone production. None has a reed that functions as such, and none has a flute-like embouchure hole. There are some superficial similarities like breath pressure being mapped to volume, or a bite-able mouthpiece that allows for something like saxophone-style jaw vibrato (or to the ill-advised reed instrument technique of bending pitch with jaw movement).

So, can you practice on it? Not really.

But the good news is that wind controllers (particularly, in my opinion, the Akai EWIs) have lots of potential as instruments in their own right. (If you aren’t familiar, look no farther than Michael Brecker’s playing for an eye-opener.)

Rather than looking at wind controllers as a “practice” instrument or a low-budget stand-in, consider a wind controller to be an additional avenue for expression. Playing it well requires just as much hard work, but also brings worthwhile creative rewards.

Should I tighten the screws on my woodwind instrument?

For many household items, screws should be tightened if they seem loose. But for woodwind instruments it’s a little more complicated.

Woodwind instruments (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones) have many screws on them. They are usually the slotted type, for which you would use a standard (“flat-head”) screwdriver. And some of them need to be tightened when they become loose, but some should be left alone—and it’s not always easy to tell which is which. If you aren’t sure, take it to your teacher or a professional instrument repair shop.

When tightening screws, always use a screwdriver that fits the screw very closely, to reduce the chances of damaging the screw. Mismatched screwdrivers can also slip, causing injury to you or scratches on the instrument’s finish.

Here are some kinds of screws you might find on your instrument:

Some screws simply hold some non-moving pieces together. For example, these screws on a saxophone hold this key guard onto the instrument. It’s not a moving part; the screws are just there so a professional can remove the key guard to do specialized work on the key. If these screws are loose, you can carefully tighten them just until they are snug.

The same is true of these screws that hold the oboe’s thumb rest in place—they are part of a non-moving assembly. If they won’t stay in place, the wood may be damaged (the hole is “stripped”). A good repair shop can fix it for you.

Woodwind instruments have many pivot screws, and also pivot rods that have slotted ends like screws. These allow some of the instrument’s keys to pivot (rotate) a little when you press and release them.

Here is one of the pivot screws on a flute. The threaded part screws into a post that is attached to the instrument, and the pointy tip of the screw fits into a void in the end of the key, holding it in place but allowing it to pivot smoothly. For a well-made and well-maintained instrument, usually you can screw these in all the way until they are snug and the head of the screw fits into the post without protruding. But if that makes the key stick or misbehave, it may be necessary to loosen it just slightly.

Here is a flute pivot rod. When it is screwed in it looks the same as a pivot screw, but when it is removed you can see that it’s long enough to pass all the way through a post and the keys’ hinge tube, and then screw into another post. Like a pivot screw, a pivot rod can usually be screwed in until snug, unless that seems to cause a problem.

Most of the woodwinds also have at least a few adjustment screws. These allow a professional to fine-tune how some of the keys move. They need to be tightened a certain amount, no tighter and no looser, like turning the knob on an oven to get the right temperature. If it’s too loose or too tight, it will make the instrument difficult or impossible to play. Making these adjustments properly requires specialized skills.

Here are some of the many adjustment screws on an oboe:

And here is one of the few on a clarinet:

If you tighten these adjustment screws and don’t know what you are doing, you will probably need to take the instrument to your teacher or a repair shop to undo the damage. This can be time-consuming and expensive.

If you have screws that keep loosening on their own, this may be because they are dirty, damaged, or need lubrication. A good repair shop can clean and repair the screws or rods without damaging them (or replace them if necessary), and can determine and apply the appropriate lubricant. (Most household oils aren’t right for the job.) If the screws continue to loosen after this treatment, take the instrument to the shop again and they may use additional methods to secure the screws in place.

Let audiences applaud at your classical music concerts. Or don’t.

"audience" by push 1 is licensed under CC BY

The question of when to permit applause at a classical music performance has already been discussed to death. In summary, some people believe that you should encourage applause only after a complete work is finished, because:

  • It allows the piece to be heard as a unified whole
  • It’s respectful to the musicians and/or audience
  • It’s current accepted concert etiquette
  • The performance might be recorded, streamed, etc. and the applause interferes

But others believe it’s acceptable to let audiences clap between movements, or even during them, because:

  • Some classical composers would have expected and even encouraged it
  • Holding applause until the end is a relatively recent thing
  • Shaming concertgoers for expressing enthusiasm is rude, paints classical music audiences as elitist, and drives potential new attendees away
  • You’re allowed to clap, chat, sing along, eat/drink, or whatever at lots of other kinds of concerts

I think neither stance can be fully the “right” one. Perhaps an analogy is helpful:

I could eat dinner at a hamburger joint, or at an innovative Michelin-starred restaurant. These are potentially equally enjoyable and valid dining experiences. At the first place nobody would think it strange if I picked the onions out of my burger, or dipped my fries in some ketchup. At the other restaurant, a waiter might bring me unfamiliar dishes that require some explanation and even instructions in order to experience them as the chef intended.

If I ask the waiter at the casual burger place for instructions on how to eat, I will probably get a strange look. And if I request some ketchup for my avant-garde cuisine, I’ll probably get the same.

Rather than argue over the “correct” way to handle applause at concerts, we should consider what kind of experience we want our audiences (and musicians) to have, and communicate that. It’s okay to encourage people to applaud when they hear something they like. And it’s okay to ask them to remain silent until the end of the program. It’s even okay to ask for silence during one piece, and applause during another.

Audience members may arrive with differing expectations, and nobody wants to feel awkward or annoyed. Help them out. Trust longtime classical music enthusiasts to be open to experiencing music in a less-rigid atmosphere when given permission, and trust your newcomers to be respectful when you explain your expectations in a non-condescending way.

I suggest being clear about your preferred modes of audience feedback, and including these expectations in the printed program and announcing them from the stage at each and every performance. Let’s not put the burden on audiences to somehow know the “correct” way to behave. Let’s use our musical taste and expertise to interpret individual performance situations for them, the same way we select and interpret the repertoire.

[Applause/boos here. Thank you.]

Interpreting wind articulation markings

It’s easy to think of articulation markings as being black and white (and not just literally). But sometimes the instructions aren’t completely clear.

For example, I think most people would see this marking…

…and understand it to mean that the D gets some extra length, perhaps so much that there’s no silence between the D and the following C. And there’s an implication that the other notes shouldn’t be that way, so perhaps they should have a bit more space by comparison.

But how about this? (I ran into this marking in a piece I am working on this week, by an experienced composer.)

The slur seems to preclude any space between the notes, so how does the tenuto work? You can’t reduce the space if it’s already zero, right?

I think most experienced musicians would say that in this case the tenuto gets some other kind of stress, like a little extra volume, or a slight stretching of the beat, or maybe more intensity in the vibrato. But those are substantially different from the first interpretation. And if I do interpret the tenuto as some kind of stress, how is it different from, say, this:

To interpret the markings, you have to take them in context. Musical notation is an expressive language, not a set of precise instructions for note-playing robots.

And sometimes the markings are bad. There might simply be mistakes, or maybe the composer or editor isn’t entirely familiar with how wind players interpret articulations. How about this one?

Wind players tend to think in terms of slurred or not slurred, and map this directly to a technique. When the slurs are doubled up like this, it doesn’t quite compute—I’m already slurring, I can’t make it any more slurred.

So often the go-to explanation is that the larger slur is some kind of phrase marking, to show that those notes belong together, and the smaller one is an actual slur. Or, I guess, maybe another smaller phrase marking? And why do I need a phrase marking anyway—shouldn’t I already be playing phrases? And, if I decide to take out the smaller slur, then does the larger one still remain a “phrase marking,” or does it transform back into a slur?

Here are some things I try to keep in mind as I try to interpret articulation markings:

  • If the composer put it on the page, she or he wants to hear it. How can I make the marking audible? What is the composer’s likely intention?
  • Why did the composer pick that particular marking? If there is ambiguity, is it intentional, or at least knowing?
  • Do similar markings appear elsewhere in the piece, or even in the composer’s other works? Does that shed any light? For example, if the composer uses both tenuto marks under slurs and accents under slurs, the composer probably wants them to sound different from each other.
  • Is there a tradition surrounding this piece? Sometimes frequently-performed pieces begin to develop a sort of standard practice for how certain markings are interpreted. Sometimes these are reasonably reliable, such as if a recording was made with the composer’s input, but sometimes they are just popular guesses. If you have a better guess, you can use it, but it would be wise at least to know what the tradition suggests.

We are used to thinking of music itself as an expressive thing, that hopefully causes our audience to respond in some way. But the art of music notation is also expressive—the composer/editor/copyist is trying to get some kind of response from the musician. (Which in turn gets the response from the audience.)

If you have been reading articulations like a robot—or ignoring them—return to the score again and listen to what the composer is telling you.

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.