Seven habits of highly effective beginners

Photo, Michael @ NW Lens

A few weeks ago I wrote about seven habits I’ve observed in my most successful university music students. The popularity of that article has been gratifying—to my surprise, it even briefly displaced my list of woodwind doublings from Broadway shows as the most popular thing on this site.

What I wrote was about university music students—students who, generally, have at least a half-dozen years of playing experience behind them, and who are planning to  pursue a career in music. But I think it’s also worth considering the musical beginner (child or adult). Students who get a good start with their instrument have a better chance at success, no matter their goals.

Here are some habits that are characteristic of successful beginners, plus a bonus tip for woodwind doublers:

  1. Get a teacher. This is the best money you can spend or your (or your child’s) new musical pursuits. And the sooner the better—don’t assume that you need to struggle on your own for a while before a teacher will take you on as a student. A good teacher can guide you through purchasing or renting your instrument, teach you good playing and practicing habits, troubleshoot problems, and model excellent playing. And you may be able to get good instruction cheaper than you think. Contact a teacher of reputation in your area and find out what they charge, and, if it’s more than you can spend, ask if they can recommend one of their top students as a beginning teacher. I’m a university music professor, and I charge more than some beginners would be willing or able to pay, but I’m pleased to recommend my advanced students who are anxious for some teaching experience, who work cheap, and who will teach you the same things I’m teaching them.
  2. Get good advice on equipment purchases. See habit #1 for the best solution to this. Be extremely wary of advice from mail-order catalogs, internet message boards, eBay sellers, and commissioned music store salespeople who don’t play your instrument. My beginning woodwind students who start with inferior or poorly-adjusted gear often develop poor playing habits in an attempt to compensate for the instrument’s/mouthpiece’s/reeds’ shortcomings, and are far more likely to get frustrated and quit. You don’t need a fancy car to learn how to drive, but you do need working brakes, steering, and signal lights.

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This week in airline travel with musical instruments

Photo, caruba

A couple of blog posts related to airline travel with musical instruments have caught my eye so far this week:

Saxophonist Greg Vail had a bad experience checking his horn. Yes, he did check it—sent it to be stowed in the airplane’s cargo hold rather than carrying it on himself. But it wasn’t the baggage handlers who caused a problem. It was security inspectors who opened the strong custom flight case, damaged the key clamps, broke some reeds, and couldn’t get everything packed up properly again.

I know I need to carry this case because they have done this before, but the real question is why?? I feel like these goofballs would riffle thru my medicine cabinet given the chance just because they are noisy and idiots, but I digress.

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Petition: Ask the U.S. Congress to support better air travel for musicians

instrument cases
Photo, nobleviola

The American Federation of Musicians, the world’s largest organization promoting the interests of professional musicians, has put its support behind the U.S. Senate’s version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill (S.1451). This bill seeks to overhaul many aspects of air travel, and the official summary includes this text:

(Sec. 713)

Requires an air carrier to permit an air passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument on a passenger aircraft without charge if it can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft or under a passenger seat. Sets forth requirements for the carriage of musical instruments as checked baggage or as occupants of a purchased seat.

The AFM is calling for “all musicians” to sign a petition in support of including the relevant text from the Senate version in the final version of the bill. You can sign the petition at the AFM’s website.

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Confessions of a mail-order shopper

I’m not sure I can recall the last time I walked into a music store and bought something.

I hear every so often that I should support local businesses and mom-and-pop shops, and I have to admit that this sounds vaguely like a responsible and virtuous thing to do. But here’s why I don’t—and can’t.

  1. It costs too much. Prices are inevitably higher in local stores. I understand that so-called “full-service” establishments have overhead, but so do I. If they can justify charging higher prices, it seems fair that I can justify shopping around.
  2. They don’t stock what I need. Other than a few scattered specialty shops, local music stores stock what they can sell in volume, and that’s inexpensive instruments and accessories for the beginning band market. I live in a small town, but even in the fairly large cities where I have lived, I have, more frequently than not, been unable to get what I like. A few months ago I made a two-and-a-half hour drive to go saxophone shopping with a student at a large music store in a large city. The store was large enough to have a saxophone specialist on staff. The store regularly stocks one brand of (arguably) professional-quality saxophone (and it’s not Selmer, Yamaha, Yanagisawa, or Keilwerth), and had exactly two major-brand instruments available, used. We also contacted a small saxophone specialty shop that was a little farther away, one that actually has “saxophone” in the store’s name. They had zero pro-line horns in stock.
  3. As far as I can tell, the “superior customer service” factor is largely a myth. I think most woodwind players have experienced the frustration of going into a music store and being “helped” by the heavy-metal guitarist behind the counter. And even in specialty shops, I’ve rarely found a salesperson who can answer serious questions with much more than regurgitated advertising copy or a personal opinion. And, while I don’t doubt that specialty retailers are passionate about what they do, it’s important to keep in mind that they are businesspeople and subject to motivations other than getting you the best possible product for the smallest possible price.

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Buying a new instrument

I went saxophone shopping with a student yesterday. We picked out a nice instrument that suits his playing style and personal tastes, meets my requirements, and ought to serve him well for years to come. Here are a few thoughts on picking out a new horn.

  • Do your research ahead of time. We made phone calls to several music stores in the region, and found out what instruments were available to try. We both familiarized ourselves with the various bells and whistles (so to speak) of the different models, and had some idea of the differences between the instruments the stores had in stock. This became important as we were evaluating a saxophone that seemed to be almost the right fit for the student—luckily we knew that model came from the factory with two different necks. We asked for the other neck, and sure enough, the horn turned out to be a winner.
  • Bring a trusted set of ears. If you are a student, try begging or bribing your teacher to go shopping with you (they want you to have the best instrument you can afford!). Remember that what you hear when you play the horn is different from what a listener hears. When I picked out an oboe a few years ago, I found two specimens of the same model that seemed equally good to me. My oboe teacher listened to me play both, and immediately picked out “the one.” He could hear something out front that was escaping me back behind the reed.
  • Put the instrument through its paces. How does it respond, feel, sound, and tune at fortissimo? At pianissimo? High notes? Low notes? Articulated notes? Check the pitch, stability, response, and tone of every single note, including alternate fingerings. Use your own familiar mouthpiece(s) and reeds. Spend a significant amount of time playing a new horn before you even think about buying it. My student and I each played some of our current classical repertoire and some jazz stuff before making a judgment on the instruments.
  • Prioritize realistically. Remember that your tone will be a little different on an unfamiliar instrument, but that your individual sound will come through more as you gain comfort with the instrument. Intonation, however, is built into the horn for good. Get an instrument that will let you play in tune without unnecessary gymnastics.
  • Don’t forget the old reliable. Bring your old instrument along for periodic reality checks, even if you know it has significant shortcomings. I was impressed enough with one of the instruments I tried yesterday that I briefly considered what would have been a rash and probably unwise purchase. I put the mouthpiece back on my own alto and realized that I am better off with what I’ve got.

Happy shopping!

Dear 2000

I’ve been reading the “Dear 1999” blogging project started by the guys over at The project, which launched last month, was to have musician-bloggers answer this question:

If you could go back to 1999 and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

I enjoyed the responses, including one from clarinetist Marion Harrington.

Although I was (*ahem*) not invited to participate, I’ve been thinking about the last ten years of my life and what brought me to where I am now. Over the last few weeks I’ve gotten a number of emails from musicians who are about the age I was ten years ago, who are interested in pursuing graduate school in multiple woodwinds, and so I’ve been in advice-giving mode already.

Since I missed posting at the end of 2009 anyway, I figure I can go ahead and change the format a little, as I think I’ve got more than one piece of advice for 2000 me.

Most of the “Dear 1999” bloggers are pursuing careers as performers, which I consider to be an important part of what I do, but my newly-begun main gig is as a university music professor. I am fortunate to be doing pretty much exactly what I love and what I’ve been aiming for for the past ten years, although sometimes it was hard to tell if I was headed in the right direction.

So here’s my advice, 2000 Bret:

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Using autotune in your practice sessions

Autotune has been getting a lot of attention lately. Whether you use it in recording or in performance is between you and your sound guy, but I think it also has useful application in the practice room. Here’s how to use it to shed some light on your own intonation. (I’m using all free Windows software: Audacity and the GSnap plugin. You can also do it with Garage Band if you’re a Mac person.)

  1. Record yourself playing something you would like to get better in tune. Slow scales and arpeggios work great for general intonation practice, but you can also use a repertoire piece.

    Record yourself

  2. Make a duplicate copy of the track.

    Duplicate the track

  3. Dial up some fairly rigorous autotune settings. The simplest way to do this is to use equal temperament settings, but depending on your software and your practicing goals, you can also adapt this to other tuning systems. This is just for practice, so don’t worry about making things sound unnatural. Go a little T-Pain on it.

    Autotune settings

  4. Apply autotune to one of the tracks.

    Autotune one track

  5. Play both tracks back together. The notes that make you wince the most are the ones that are most out of tune. Are there certain notes, registers, or dynamic levels that are consistently a problem?

  6. Try muting the original track and playing along with the tuned one.

I like this method because it’s aural rather than visual (unlike using a chromatic tuner) and because it’s very results-focused. Try it over a few days or weeks and see how quickly you correct the pitch issues in your playing.

MS Excel music hack: Sort musical instruments by score order

For today’s Stupid Microsoft Office Trick, we will be teaching Excel how to sort musical instruments into score order. This has lots of uses for musicians and music educators:

  • Inventories of instruments, sheet music, CD’s, you name it
  • Rosters of students, orchestra members, sub lists, and so forth

For example, suppose I have a list of sheet music for various woodwind instruments:


If I sort alphabetically by column C, I’ll get bassoon pieces first, then clarinet, flute, oboe, and saxophone. But as a musician I rarely have reason to sort things that way. I would rather have the flute pieces on the top, followed by oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone—a typical score ordering.

I’ll show you three easy steps to make this happen. I’m using Excel 2007 and Windows Vista, but I believe this feature exists in earlier versions of Excel as well. You are on your own for the exact details, unless someone cares to share in the comments section.

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Know your foreign musical terms

This is a bit of one of the excerpts that I provided for my saxophone students to play at their beginning-of-the-semester band auditions.


I heard some very fine playing during the auditions, but many of the students were fooled by the “senza vib.,” with some going so far as to use fairly extreme vibrato at the beginning of the note.

As my blog readers already know, of course, senza vibrato means without vibrato.

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More on airline travel with musical instruments

Since my post earlier this week about air travel with instruments, two of my favorite woodwind bloggers have also addressed the subject, both inspired by the “United Breaks Guitars” video phenomenon.

I think it’s also worth sharing the musical instrument policies of a few of the major (US) airlines:

Travel safely.