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.

Do I have to practice over the summer?

"IMG_1803" by quack.a.duck is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

As I send my students off to their summer plans, I know many of them are asking themselves the same question I used to ask: Do I have to practice?

Your teacher might give you a summer assignment. I feel like I really can’t give my students official, enforceable assignments when they aren’t enrolled in my courses. I could possibly guilt them into summer practicing. Or I could threaten them with high fall-semester expectations.

On the other hand, some of my students need full-time summer jobs so they can afford to continue their education in the fall. Some have responsibilities to their families. Some may genuinely need a little downtime for their mental health. (Any mental health concerns should be discussed with a qualified professional.)

So, do you have to practice over the summer? I guess the answer is no for my students, since they won’t get grades, and since I prefer not to teach by guilt or threats. But it probably isn’t the right question. I think the questions to ask are:

What kind of student and musician do I want to be? If you’re planning on a career in music, or otherwise have your sights set on being the best musician you can be, then maybe you already know how you should spend your “vacation.”

What’s possible in my circumstances? You should move toward your goals each day if you can. But if bill-paying or illness or family life or other high-priority obligations get in the way, that’s not a personal failure. It’s life. It’s not a reason to feel guilty or incapable.

Ask yourself what kind of student and musician you want to be, balance that against what your circumstances will permit, and make your best use of your summer months.

Favorite blog posts, April 2020

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Wind playing and contagious diseases

"tissue" by tamaki is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

I’m not a (medical) doctor or disease expert of any kind, but I’ve been thinking a bit about the instruments I play and the risks of catching or spreading disease. (At the time of this writing, Covid-19 is foremost in many people’s minds.) I’m presenting a few thoughts here in hopes that people with real expertise will be able to address them in an authoritative way, and I’ll update this post as appropriate with links to additional information if/when it becomes available. Update: I have created a separate page with links to research/resources.

As a player of reed instruments, I am of course concerned about reeds and mouthpieces (and related items like mouthpiece caps and reed cases, tools, and workspaces), and would like to implement some more structured, methodical ways of keeping them clean.

But the thing that worries me more is what is in the air when I am playing wind instruments, or near people who are. Some research/modeling (the accuracy/relevance of which I am unqualified to judge) seems to suggest that “aerosol particles” from a cough can travel far and remain in the air for a long time:

I can only speculate on how this relates to playing wind instruments, but it does leave me feeling uneasy. Some concerns that spring to mind:

  • If I am teaching lessons, even in my relatively spacious university studio, are my students and I both filling the air with potentially infectious particles, by blowing large amounts of well-supported air over sustained periods of time?
  • What surfaces in my studio are receiving these particles, and how long can germs survive there? Should I be altering my routine of teaching lessons all morning, then eating lunch at my desk? Do I need a routine for cleaning music stands, metronomes, and other items that are in the line of “fire?” Should I be concerned about what is settling on the bassoon reeds drying on pegs in a corner of the office?
  • When I or my students perform (especially in ensembles), how close are we to other people? I’ve certainly played orchestral gigs where there’s hardly enough elbow room to swab out a clarinet. What is being put into the air or onto surfaces when the entire wind section starts to play?

Contagious diseases certainly aren’t new, and I think some basic courtesies and hygiene will continue to be adequate to keep ordinary disease risks in check. But at the time of this writing we find ourselves in an age when we are more attuned to physical (“social”) distancing, handwashing, and mask-wearing, and when we receive somber daily tallies of those affected by a public health crisis we don’t yet fully understand.

Let’s all be listening to experts and thinking about how we can continue to share music with our students, teachers, collaborators, and audiences, safely and in good health. Stay well.

Announcing the Note Image Generator

The Note Image Generator, version 0.1, is a tool for quickly generating batches of images of single notes on staves, like this:

It might be useful to users of my Fingering Diagram Builder, who want note images to combine with fingering diagram images when making fingering charts, but there are lots of potential uses for various educational materials. You can select a range of notes, a clef, and some other options, and download the images for your use.

The image creation is powered by LilyPond. The images are free for any usage.

Let me know what you think!

Fingering Diagram Builder, version 0.81

Here’s a new minor release of the Fingering Diagram Builder with a few small improvements:

  • Bug fixes and minor behavior improvements
  • New bassoon keys: High F (plus offset high E and E-flat), alternate low C, alternate low C-sharp. This should cover everything Fox currently lists as bassoon keywork options. (Thanks to Trent for the feedback.)

Enjoy!

Favorite blog posts, March 2020

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

When things get canceled

"Sumner M. Redstone Theater" by Zach K is licensed under CC BY-NC

I had a very busy final semester of my bachelor’s degree. I was performing with six different university ensembles (one of which was planning a month-long international summer tour), doing woodwind doubling for a musical, teaching at a nearby music school, and preparing for graduate school auditions.

Then I broke my arm. I slipped on something in a parking lot and landed on my elbow. The doctor put me in a cast from fingertips to shoulder.

At the time it seemed like the world was coming to an end. But things worked out. I canceled some things and modified or delayed some others. Some kind professors gave me advice and perspective and helped out with some logistics.

Looking back, it’s barely a bump in the road to where I am now. But I think of it now and then, when the next gig or recital starts to feel like the most important thing I will ever do.

For my college students, lots of things have been canceled this semester. Some of them won’t get to do their recital class performances or their Honors Recital auditions or their ensemble concerts.

It’s a shame to miss out on things. But right now there are bigger things going on in the world that demand some changes of plan. And in another year or two, those missed opportunities will be crowded out by all the new ones. A few missed performances will be a war story, not a lasting tragedy.

(That said, we shouldn’t forget that some musicians’ livelihoods are threatened by things like shutdowns of venues. Now is an excellent time to buy your favorites’ albums and merch to enjoy at home.)

Stay well, and look forward to the opportunities to come.

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.

Review: NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

I don’t typically do reviews of new sheet music publications unless they have a specific woodwind-doubling focus, but I’m making an exception here because I think this is a project that is especially useful and has potential to change the landscape of “classical” saxophone repertoire (and other instruments, too).

I have a repertoire problem. My file cabinet is full of wonderful, important music that is written almost exclusively by dead white men. I would like to change that—to perform and teach music representing a greater diversity of composers, and particularly living composers.

But it’s hard to escape the inertia of the “standard repertoire.” And sorting through mountains of new pieces by composers I haven’t heard of (yet), to find the best ones, the ones at the right difficultly level for my students, and so forth, could cost me thousands of dollars and thousands of hours. It’s daunting, and so I fall back on the same pieces I’ve taught over and over.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1 is an elegant solution. For the price of a standard-repertoire concerto, it contains 16 works composed (or at least revised) within the last 20 years. The composers (listed on NewMusicShelf’s website) are diverse and distinguished. Many are young.

The collection is curated by Alan Theisen, a composer and saxophonist well-positioned to accomplish this task due to his interests and connections in the world of new music. (One of his own compositions is included in the anthology.)

For me as a performer and educator, this anthology helps solve several problems: the pieces are thoughtfully selected for quality and variety, the publication is very affordable, and its presence in my studio is a strong step toward currency and representation in concert saxophone music. All are for solo alto saxophone or saxophone and piano, so the performance logistics are simple (no large/unusual ensembles, electronics, or other potential barriers). The pieces are playable by undergraduate-level students (but, as Theisen points out in his introduction, “absolutely suitable” for more advanced players as well). It’s an easy, cheap, and practical way to grow my performing and teaching repertoire. (This is an unsolicited review of a copy I purchased myself.)

A couple of small complaints: the saxophone and piano parts are “perfect bound” (like a paperback book) and thus don’t lay flat on a music stand. NewMusicShelf indicates on their website that this is to facilitate library shelving (and points out that, hey, you can disassemble and re-bind it yourself if you want), but I’d rather see a more performer-oriented solution. And the books contain a web link promising composer headshots and program notes, but the link is currently broken and I couldn’t locate the content on the website. Still, a very worthwhile purchase.

The “Volume 1” label is hopefully indicative of more to come. A flute volume appears to be in the works, and calls-for-scores for clarinet, bassoon, and some other instruments are currently open. Collections for voice and for viola are already available. Kudos to NewMusicShelf and Alan Theisen for this extremely valuable aid for teachers and performers.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1