Please lose the music binder

photo, Hometown Beauty

For some reason a high percentage of my incoming students each year like to make a 3-ring binder for their sheet music and lesson materials. I don’t know why.

They apparently put a fair amount of time and money into this project, which often involves custom cover artwork, dividers, and plastic sheet protectors. As the semesters go by, the binder fills up with every bit of sheet music they have used, until the binder is so heavy that a music stand won’t support its weight.

I applaud and relate to their interest in keeping things organized and their enthusiasm for the course. But the big music binder just doesn’t work very well. Here are my complaints: Continue reading “Please lose the music binder”

Recording your practicing

photo, James Cridland

“Record yourself when you practice” is common advice, and good advice. I frequently recommend it to my students, but few of them do it. I think it can seem overwhelming. Recording seems like a big production: getting the material to performance level, using complicated and expensive equipment, playing beginning to end, doing cruelly thorough analysis followed by self-flagellation and sadness.

Here’s a simple, effective, low-stress approach that I use: Continue reading “Recording your practicing”

Buy intonation, not tone

How exciting to try out new instruments (or mouthpieces or headjoints or barrels or…) and to find one that really has a great sound! It’s a rite of passage for the young woodwind player, trying out a parade of shiny new possibilities, surrounded by parents, a private teacher, friends, and a salesperson with dollar signs in their eyes. “That one has such beautiful tone!” everybody will sigh.

I suggest that you do not buy that one.

photo, themusicgrove

“Good” tone is a fluid, fleeting thing. That clarinet might have better tone than a half-dozen of the same model because its pads currently leak less than the others. That mouthpiece might sound like a winner because the reed you brought with you happens to mate with it better at the moment.

And your tone will shift as you adapt to your purchases. That new piece of gear might make you sound like somebody else right now, but as you get accustomed to it you’ll start to sound like you again. (Don’t like sounding like you? Develop your tone concept.)

Rather than splitting hairs about tone, break out a chromatic tuner, or, better, a drone, and pick out the one that is easiest to play in tune. Bring along a teacher or professional colleague who has high-level proficiency on the instrument, and have them listen and watch the tuner while you play, then play while you listen and watch the tuner. (This is especially crucial if you are a student-level player!)

An instrument or accessory with great tone but poor pitch will be a constant exhausting struggle to play in tune, and its problems are harder to fix in the repair shop. Gear with rock-solid pitch will do a fair amount of the work for you, and “its” tone (your tone) will improve with practice, listening, and some TLC from a good technician. Shop with your priorities in order, and you will get an instrument that will serve you well for many years.

How are you going to improve this?

I’ve blogged previously about getting my students to give more than pat answers about how they think their playing sounds:

It’s an ongoing battle to get my students to listen more deeply than that. Was the articulation “not good” because it started with air noise instead of tone? Because it was accompanied by an unwanted percussive sound? Was the articulation technique perfect but you failed to follow the composer’s markings? Or was it something else?

The next step is getting students to make a clear, actionable plan to improve. That conversation often goes like this:

Me: Okay, what are you going to do to improve that aspect of your—

Student [rolling eyes]: Practice.

Me: Well, obviously. But how are you going to prac—

Student [sighing]: Keep practicing until I get it right.

Me: No, I mean what specific practice tech—

Student [through clenched teeth]: Use a metronome.

In other words, the “plan” is usually to suffer for a few hours in the practice room, and maybe, against all odds, emerge with the problem magically fixed.

But practicing without a plan rarely produces the desired results. I’m much more optimistic about the student’s success if they can tell me something like: “Well, I need to slow this way down, slow enough that I can get it exactly right, and use the metronome to make sure I’m not rushing. When I can play this passage with the correct articulations 10 times in a row without mistakes, then I’ll inch the metronome up by a couple of clicks and try again.” That’s a clear commitment to a tried-and-true method. It will probably be a much more productive and satisfying practice session, which means the student is more likely to put in some more good hours the next day.

Less-experienced students might have a smaller repertoire of practice techniques, and I consider it a lesson-time priority to teach them more of those techniques. Trial and error in the practice room will help them refine these techniques, and determine which ones are most effective for them.

Productive practicing requires identifying an area to improve, selecting a technique (or series of techniques) to apply to it, evaluating progress, adjusting the practice technique as needed, and noting what does and doesn’t work for future practice sessions.

Staying motivated for summer practicing

photo, Craig ONeal
For musicians on an academic schedule, summers are often wide open. This can be a great opportunity to get ahead, or a bottomless pit of procrastination and idleness. Here are some ideas for staying motivated to get some summer practicing done.

Continue reading “Staying motivated for summer practicing”

Priorities and patience

photo, Helder Ribeiro

Student: I really just want to improve my sound.

Beautiful tone is a nice goal, but it’s subjective, and it’s inextricable from less-sexy pursuits like consistent tone, solid intonation, and reliable response. Let’s expand your focus to your overall tone production and make sure you do lots of listening to the great players. Then you’ll be equipped to play beautiful ideas, not just beautiful notes. Continue reading “Priorities and patience”

Why scales?

I recently asked one of my (woodwind) students why she thinks I make her practice scales. She didn’t have a ready answer, and I realized maybe I hadn’t been clear about the value of scales. Here are some reasons to practice scales (and arpeggios, and other methodical technical materials):

photo, Aprilyn Podd
  • To develop good finger movement. Scales provide a systematic way to work each finger, and to work them together in just about every combination.
  • To build familiarity with the instrument. A rigorous scale routine makes you use every key and every fingering on the instrument.
  • To get comfortable playing in every key.
  • To explore the instrument’s range. Full-range scales are a good way to make yourself play in the highest and lowest registers of the instrument every day.
  • To provide a canvas for working on other techniques. Ever notice how woodwind instruments articulate a little differently on different notes? How different notes respond differently to vibrato? How some notes tend to be flat or sharp? Learn your scales well, and then use them as a way to take those techniques through every note on the instrument.
  • To train for musical situations. Most music is made up of bits and pieces of scales and arpeggios. Getting those patterns into muscle “memory” frees up mental bandwidth for sight-reading, ensemble, expression, and more.
  • To develop your ears. Internalize major, minor, diminished, whole tone, chromatic, and other modalities.
  • To satisfy requirements. If you are a music student at just about any level, scales are probably part of your lessons, exams, and auditions for the foreseeable future.
  • To have a familiar, habitual technical workout that you can improve upon for the rest of your life, without need for an étude book.

Practice scales every day!

Staying challenged

I teach a small woodwind studio at a small university. That means that sometimes especially talented and hardworking students find they don’t have a lot of competition for ensemble placements, awards, and other things. Here’s what I suggest to students in that position, who want to stay motivated and challenged but have bumped up against the ceiling in terms of those typical measures of achievement.

photo, Brad.K
  • Find inspiration (and some friendly competition) at conferences, festivals, or “clarinet days” (or whatever). Surround yourself by like-minded achievers. Going to a national/international conference can be expensive and disruptive to your semester, but is probably worth it if you can make it work. If not, consider regional events that happen within a few hours’ drive and often over a weekend.
  • Listen to music every day. Spend a few hours scouring a store, library, or online music service for players and repertoire for you instrument that you aren’t familiar with. Cue them up into a playlist so you can listen for five minutes while you get situated in a practice room or walk between classes. Form opinions about them. Next level: add to this some daily listening of music not for your instrument, something completely unfamiliar. Think outside the Western world, too.
  • Record yourself often. Listen back and take notes (the note-taking is important). What do you find embarrassing or unsatisfactory about it? Ask your teacher and see what other resources you can find for ideas on fixing the problem. Keep adding to your list of things to improve, and re-prioritizing as you do improve them.
  • Seek out opportunities that take you outside your comfort zone. Consider entering a competition or taking an audition (even one you know you won’t win), starting a chamber group, tackling repertoire that scares you, joining a rock band, or something else that musicians you admire do, but that seems a little scary and hard.
  • Think about the things you are doing that you feel you have maxed out—maybe you’re first chair in all your ensembles, you’re getting straight As in your lessons, you have won the top scholarship. Now ask yourself: what would it take to really surprise everybody at the next audition, lesson, etc.? What would set a new standard? What would people still be talking about years from now? What would multiply your achievement by two, or ten?

Have other ideas? Please share in the comments section.

Musicians should embrace carry-on baggage fees

People are outraged over an airline’s announcement that its cheapest fares will no longer cover carry-on baggage. (This isn’t the first time that airlines have charged fees for carry-on bags.)

My experience flying with musical instruments as carry-ons has been stressful at best. This passage from an economics textbook rings true to me:

photo, Bradley Gordon

The battle begins in the gate where air travelers elbow their way to the front of the line to board the aircraft as soon as possible in order to grab an overhead bin. Once on the aircraft, the real fight begins. Some passengers with seats in the rear of the plane toss their bags into the front compartments to be sure they get a spot. People with oversized bags cram them into the narrow bins, pushing the bags, coats, and hats of passengers with correctly sized luggage into the corners. People ask for help from the flight attendants but their pleas are ignored. The flight attendants say they are too short staffed to handle passenger disagreements concerning bags. Losers are left standing with their “homeless” bags. …

Are people just selfish and rude? Most economists say no, they are just responding to the absence of market incentives. The overhead bins are a commons. It’s Dodge City. Nobody “owns” the space in the overhead bins. People can’t trust strangers to act with cooperation or courtesy. The result is “warfare.”

Things could be different. Creating an overhead bin market would bring out the best of people. Here is how. Most of today’s airlines charge people extra to check a bag and offer the overhead bins for “free.” It should be just the reverse.

Nobody likes paying more. But a carry-on fee is a small percentage of an airline ticket. And for most musicians it’s a small price to pay for better access (maybe even guaranteed access!) to the overhead storage. Is it worth the price of a box of reeds or two to know my saxophone will arrive in one piece? Or the price of a pound or two of cane to ensure that my bassoon reaches its destination? I think so.