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.

Playing issues vs. reading issues

"[233] If you could see it through my eyes." by Linh H. Nguyen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Sometimes when I struggle with a musical passage it’s because I can’t quite play it—maybe my fingers or tongue won’t move quite fast enough yet, or there’s a difficult slur or interval leap that I’m still mastering. The solution is methodical practice, which of course takes significant time and effort.

But there’s an additional set of issues that can be solved more efficiently: reading issues. These are caused by a variety of things: unclear printing, bad editing, poor eyesight, or something just not quite clicking in my brain for some reason. On flute I sometimes get a little lost in the ledger lines, and on bassoon my switches between bass and tenor clefs aren’t always as agile as I’d like. Plus I still sometimes stumble over a double-sharp or some other less-familiar symbol.

Reading issues aren’t shortfalls in my ability to physically operate the instrument—they are a disconnect somewhere in my eyes-to-brain-to-execution connection. And they often don’t need hours of drilling to solve.

Keep in mind that reading from your score is 100% optional. Would it solve the problem if you just memorized those few notes? Made some nice clear pencil marks? Rewrote that measure in a clearer way? Scanned the whole thing and reprinted it at a larger size?

Taking reading out of the picture when necessary can save many hours of frustration and tedium. Try it!

Why my college band chair placements ended up not mattering a bit

"6. Falling Flat" by epospisil is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Over 20 years ago, I was a brand-new music performance major. This is a story about that first year of college that I’ve told many times to my own college students.

I arrived at college with the confidence granted me by a freshly-minted high school diploma and a track record of first-chair saxophone school band placements. I eagerly auditioned for the university concert bands and jazz bands, and was gutted to find myself placed not only in the lowest groups (the #3 band in both cases), but doubling up parts with other players. Devastatingly, a fellow freshman saxophonist landed spots in both the #1 groups.

It was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I hit the practice rooms hard, gradually worked my way up, and in my senior year finally got spots in both top bands. By that time I had gotten serious about woodwind doubling, and earned a fun and important spot in the top concert band outside the saxophone section. And I got the lead alto chair in the top jazz band (and couldn’t help but enjoy a little that the classmate I had envied so much was sitting second).

Had I gotten the seats I wanted right away, maybe I would have coasted through college. And it’s possible I never would have developed an interest woodwind doubling, which now is central to the career that I enjoy so much. Looking back now, having those particular chairs in those particular semesters seems very unimportant, but my growth during those years laid the groundwork for two graduate degrees and a life in playing and teaching music.

Whatever your current stage in your musical development, there are bigger and better things to come. How you measure up to others matters much less than what you’re doing to get to your own next level.

Fix fixable problems now

"There's always something" by Reva G is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Just about every day I have a student show up for a lesson with an etude or repertoire movement they have been working on for a week or more, and there are little, silly problems that haven’t been fixed:

  • A spot where a fingering choice needs to be made, but hasn’t.
  • A page turn in an awkward spot.
  • An unfamiliar foreign term that hasn’t been looked up.
  • An ambiguous accidental that need to be double-checked against the piano part.

It’s easy for them (or me) to ignore or procrastinate small but easily-fixable issues while busily drilling technical passages. But I know they—and I—are doing our best work when those details don’t slip through the cracks.

It’s not worth it to spend a week practicing something in an incorrect or compromised way because you haven’t gotten around to fixing the fixable problems. Would any of these help you solve those issues more promptly?

  • Print an alternate/trill fingering chart and keep it with your practicing stuff, or bookmark an online one on your phone.
  • Put a few dollars on your copier/printer card/app so you can photocopy a page when needed.
  • Keep a good music dictionary in the pocket of your instrument case.
  • Keep your piano score and solo part together so you can always use them in tandem.

Consider what other easily-fixable problems you haven’t bothered to fix, and ask yourself what you can do to remove friction so they get solved right away next time you practice.

What does it mean to “interpret” music?

"Sheet Music" by starrise is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

As a new undergraduate music student I was often frustrated by my teachers’ attempts to get me to “interpret” music.

I would play something, and my teacher would stop me and ask me to play it louder. I would play again, but this time it was too loud, too slow, too fast, too staccato, not staccato enough.

I didn’t understand yet the purpose or the process behind musical interpretation. My teachers seemed to have excruciatingly specific ideas about how each and every note of the piece should sound. I couldn’t wrap my head around how they were making these seemingly arbitrary decisions, or how they expected me to guess correctly what they were thinking.

To be fair to my excellent teachers, there’s a strong chance that the problem was on my end, not theirs. But here’s what I wish I would have understood at that point.

  • When faced with a foreign language, one might rely on an interpreter to explain what is being said.
  • When dealing with some raw data, a researcher might interpret the data to show how some pages of numbers, which don’t make sense without context, support a hypothesis.
  • When performing a musical work, a performer interprets the piece to help the audience understand what’s happening.

Here are just a few examples of things in a piece of music that might need interpretation for the audience’s benefit:

  • Where does one phrase end and the next begin?
  • Are there melodies, textures, or other ideas that repeat in important ways throughout the piece?
  • What moods, characters, etc. does the music portray?

You might spend months getting to know the piece, but your audience might be hearing it for the first time. You need to point out the important things to them, so they hear the story, not just a bunch of notes.

When you speak, you offer a variety of clues about how to break up what you are saying into comprehensible chunks. You probably do it without thinking much about it, but it involves things like the pitch, volume, and speed of your voice. To interpret music, you use similar tools: you might demonstrate that a musical phrase is ending by slowing down a tiny bit and bringing the volume down. Or you might help the audience hear what you believe is a warlike quality in a certain passage by using bombastic accents and a strict, military-inspired tempo.

All of this requires you to have opinions about the music. Two tour guides might give different tours of the same place, because they have different opinions about what is interesting or important—they are each interpreting. You might personally enjoy one tour more than the other, but it doesn’t mean either is wrong.

Your interpretation of the music should be based on synthesizing lots of factors. One of the most crucial ones is hints from the composer, so pay close attention to any markings or words the composer uses. (Sometimes they are in a foreign language—it is your job to find out what they mean.) Your interpretation might also be informed by tradition: maybe there is some broad consensus among performers of the piece that it should be played a certain way. That doesn’t mean 100% that you have to go along, but it’s something you should think seriously about. If you are collaborating on the performance with other musicians, you’ll need to work out some agreement with them about various aspects of interpretation.

If you think all of this sounds difficult or complicated, you aren’t wrong. But if you understand what musical interpretation is and why it’s important, you can start to absorb your teachers’ interpretive ideas in a more meaningful way. You can listen to recordings of great performers and steal their interpretive ideas (this is allowed, and even encouraged!). And you can start to use what you have been learning in your music theory and music history classes as fuel for your own interpretive decisions.

As a brand-new freshman music major I was content with my performance if I played the right notes at the right times. That’s important, but it falls pretty far short of the satisfaction and achievement of a meaningful musical interpretation. Keep at it!

Thinking through scales

"#Oboe" by Paper of Light is licensed under CC BY-ND

My university woodwind students have to pass a scale exam as one of the requirements to progress in their degree program. They have to be able to play major scales and three forms of minor scales, plus arpeggios, through the “full range” of the instrument, from memory.

Many of my students learned their major scales in their school band programs, well enough to have most of them in muscle memory. But some of them are less familiar with the minor scales.

It can be a little overwhelming to keep track of 48 different scales. With plenty of accurate repetitions my students can get to the point of muscle memory for all 48. But in the meantime sometimes they get stuck trying to remember the right notes for the next scale, or get mixed up and play the wrong one.

I find it very helpful to have a mental roadmap for thinking through the next scale, and especially so if I can relate it to something I already have in muscle memory. My map might go something like this, but there are lots of possibilities:

  • C major scale: already in muscle memory, little or no “thinking” needed. As I play, notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C major arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.
  • C natural minor scale: since it’s a minor scale, I’m going to lower the third from E to E-flat. And E-flat major is the relative key to C minor, and I have E-flat major in my muscle memory, so I can play that same pattern of notes without too much thought.
  • C harmonic minor scale: now that I’ve got C natural minor under my fingers, I just need to change one note to produce the harmonic minor: B-flat becomes B-natural.
  • C melodic minor, ascending: this one is just like the C major scale I played a minute ago, but lower the E to E-flat.
  • C melodic minor, descending: this one is just like the C natural minor scale (related to E-flat major) that I played a minute ago. Notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C minor arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.

Another approach that appeals to some of my students is to think in terms of scale degrees: start with the major scale that’s already in muscle memory, and remember that for, say, harmonic minor, you have to lower the third and the sixth.

Having an organized way of thinking through the scales helps prevent the paralysis and overwhelm of trying to conjure up the whole scale from nothing. When my students take their exam, nobody minds if they take a few moments to think before they start playing, but getting stuck mid-scale would be a problem.

As you get better and faster at thinking through the scales, a good way to push yourself is to use a metronome, and limit yourself to a pre-set amount of time before the next scale starts. Maybe a certain number of beats (or, ultimately, zero beats) before jumping into the next one. If that doesn’t go well in the practice space, you know that particular transition is a problem spot, and can reorganize your efforts accordingly.

Happy practicing!

What I’ve learned from playing different musical styles

"Sun and Sax." by Neil. Moralee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

One of my favorite things about being a performing musician is moving in and out of different styles. Recently I’ve performed as a classical, jazz, rock, and blues musician. I’ve been thinking a little about the skills that I associate with each, especially skills that have expanded my musicianship and carried over into playing other styles. It’s too many to name, but here are a few. Feel free to chime in in the comments section with your own insights.

I have college degrees in (essentially) classical music performance. From playing solo repertoire, chamber music, and orchestral music, I’ve had to pursue a disciplined, precise approach to my instruments. I’ve had to try to blend seamlessly into a variety of instrumental textures. I’ve had to try to give every note delicacy and beauty, even when the music is trying to communicate something that isn’t delicate and beautiful. Other aspects of my classical music education involved informing my performance by studying centuries of tradition and history and methods of musical analysis.

I’ve also done a lot of study of jazz. From big band section playing, I’ve had to try to make every note crisp and energized, even in the sweetest of ballads. I’ve had to try to blend into sections that take a wide variety of approaches to style—much wider than I’ve encountered in classical music. I’ve learned to use purposeful imprecision (in a way) by, say, playing a little behind the beat, or being a little more flexible with pitch. I’ve learned to really, really use my ears, transcribing notes and chords and rhythms but also nuances of style. (For jazz players, “transcribing” doesn’t always mean writing something down; it’s copying some or all of a performance from a recording.) And of course there’s improvisation, an art unto itself that many classically-trained musicians never delve into. From that I’ve gained a much deeper, more practical, more useable understanding of harmony. I’ve also gained confidence to play something that isn’t on a page in front of me, and a sense that I can make things work musically even when I’m not sure what will happen next.

It’s not uncommon on a rock or blues gig to play songs that I don’t know and have never heard before, with no fakebook and nobody to tell me what the chord changes are. On some blues gigs, I’ve had to watch the bass player’s fingers to try to anticipate even which key the song is going to be in. That kind of unstructuredness can be terrifying to my classically-trained side, and even my jazz-playing side, which is used to improvising within fairly well-established frameworks. But it’s also freeing and thrilling to play for several hours with no music stand and no agreed-upon set list. Sometimes it means reaching way back into my memory to try to roughly reproduce a rock horn section riff I’ve heard once or twice on a recording, but often it means having to create my part from nothing. The protocols often aren’t as strict as they are in jazz, and I’ve had to learn, for example, that just because I played a fill after the blues singer’s first phrase doesn’t mean the guitarist is going to leave me any space after the next one. And, of course, formal education in rock or blues aren’t nearly as widespread or formalized (yet?) as jazz education or especially classical training, so these are lessons learned on stage.

Every new gig is an adventure. See what you can learn in the concert hall to apply later in a smoky club, or vice versa.

Performance postmortems

"journals" by Ganamex is licensed under CC BY-NC

After a performance, I like to have a little talk with myself or with my students about how things went. Here are some examples of questions to ask:

  • Were there any breakthroughs? New accomplishments? Higher levels of performance than previously achieved? If so, what contributed to these successes?
  • Was there any backsliding? Things going worse than in previous performances? Why?
  • How was your mental state before and during the performance? Did it have an effect on how you sounded? What aspects of that can you control?
  • How was your physical condition before and during the performance? (Tired? Hungry? Sore?) Did it have an effect on how you sounded? What aspects of that can you control?
  • How was your preparation? Is there anything you would do to prepare differently or better next time?
  • What feedback, spoken or otherwise, did you get from your audience? Should, or does, that color your evaluation of your success?
  • Is there a difference between your objective evaluation of the performance and how you really feel about it? Why? Is this significant/important?
  • Is there a recording? Were there any surprises when you listened to it?
  • What do you hope to build upon, improve, or otherwise change for your next performance?

Some post-performance reflection on both positives and negatives can be valuable for setting new goals and preparing for the next one.

Planning breaths

When learning a new étude or repertoire piece, it’s common to practice at first with focus on the notes, often playing them at a slow tempo and/or divided into chunks. This is a good approach for mastering the needed finger technique, but it may neglect one of the crucial parts of a performance: breathing.

In some music, it’s obvious where to breathe. But in a page of nonstop sixteenth notes, it’s harder to find the right places, and to execute them gracefully. Adding to the problem, I find that when I am nervous or playing under pressure, my breathing is one of the first things that falls apart: I start breathing in unaccustomed places, or skipping breaths that I know I really need.

I recommend establishing a breathing plan early in the process of learning new music. That way you can practice the breaths just like you practice the notes—they become a part of your muscle memory, and will happen automatically even under pressure.

The first step for a wind player should be to mark in the musical breaths, the ones that demarcate phrases. These are breaths that you will take (or possibly fake) regardless of your need for oxygen, because they serve the music. How exactly to do that is beyond the scope of this post, but here are a few quick tips:

  • Beware breathing at bar lines. They look like nice stopping points, but often don’t make musical sense. (They are there only for your convenience in counting.)
  • Background in music theory helps a lot, but you can also use your ears to help you figure out intuitively where a phrase comes to rest, or steal ideas from a good recording.
  • To go deeper, consider studying phrasing, perhaps from a book like David McGill’s. (Put that one on your wish list if you haven’t read it already!)

Once the breaths required by the music are in place, you may decide you need more, perhaps because you haven’t worked the piece up to its full tempo yet (or because the piece isn’t written with sensitivity to your desire to survive). Mark in-between “survival” breaths as needed, perhaps in parentheses so you remember which ones they are. Put them in the best places you can find, and execute them as musically as you can, but as your tempo increases you may be able to skip them. If so, be sure to erase them so your marked-in plan stays up to date.

Choosing places for survival breaths is a trial-and-error process. Mark some in and give them a try, then adjust as needed. If you feel uncomfortable while playing, this can lead to panicked decisions on stage, so choose breaths for your comfort.

Particularly for the oboe, you may find you need some “breaths” where you can actually exhale stale air. Mark these clearly, too.

Always update your pencil marks if you decide to change the plan at all, so that your plan is 100% clear and you can practice it in a consistent way. You can change your mind later, as long as you change your marks.

To summarize:

  • Start early in the process of learning a new piece.
  • Mark in musical breaths, which you will observe even if you’re capable of playing longer without stopping.
  • Mark in survival breaths, if necessary. Use trial and error to get them right.
  • Practice the breaths just as diligently as you practice the notes.
  • As you get closer to the performance, you might alter the breathing plan as your interpretation evolves, or as you no longer need some of the survival breaths.
  • Be strict about keeping the markings current, and about playing just what is marked.

Well-planned, thoroughly-practiced breaths contribute to a relaxed, musical performance.

Using sticky notes to focus my performance thinking

photo, George Lawrie

I might put in weeks or months preparing for a high-pressure performance. The groundwork is done—I have made the technical and interpretive decisions, drilled the difficult spots, and otherwise planned and prepared every aspect of my playing.

But all of that can fall apart pretty quickly if my head isn’t in the right place. Nerves, stress, and distractions can make one small error snowball into an unfocused, sloppy performance.

One of my favorite tricks to help avoid this is to plan my thinking. As I do the final preparations for my performance, I often pick out two or three things I would like to focus on as I begin each piece or movement. These might be important technical details (“make sure embouchure is stable before playing the first note”), more general advice (“keep breath support strong through the ends of phrases”), or interpretive thoughts (“light and playful”).

I write these two or three things (no more) on a sticky note, and place it at the beginning of the piece or movement. If the reminders seem especially crucial, I might put the sticky note over the first few measures of music, so I can’t start playing until I have physically moved it out of the way.

This small preparation helps ensure that as I begin to play, I’m thinking about the things that are most important to the success of the performance, rather than reacting to distractions.