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!

Does woodwind doubling prevent you from being the “best?”

"20070402 - Clarinet - 005" by C.K.H. is licensed under CC BY-ND

My recent post about woodwind doubling has been cited lately on various social media sites to fuel discussions over whether doubling is a good or acceptable pursuit.

Many of those arguing that woodwind doubling is a bad idea raise the issue that the “best” players of such-and-such instrument don’t double, and you can’t be the “best” at such-and-such instrument if you are doubling. If you think that, I could name a dozen prominent doublers who might change your mind, but that’s not really the important point.

As an undergraduate saxophone major, I daydreamed occasionally about being the “best” saxophonist. For me it probably wouldn’t have been a realistic goal, and the pursuit of it wouldn’t have led me to happiness, nor to success as I would have seen it through that lens.

When I made the decision to commit myself to woodwind doubling as a career path instead, I knew that would mean my progress on the saxophone would slow down. But it has been a very worthwhile choice for me: I get to play interesting music in a variety of settings, I get to spend all day at my university teaching job talking about the music and instruments that fascinate me, and I even have an audience of like-minded folks who stop by to read my blog posts. Now it’s hard for me to imagine myself being content to play just saxophone music all day.

Most of us won’t land a top orchestral job or tour the world as a concert soloist. And, believe it or not, not all of us want that anyway. We should be encouraging aspiring musicians to seek out niches that they enjoy and are motivated by.

Very, very few of us will ever be the “best,” so if that is your goal then I wish you luck. But for many of us, myself included, that’s not the goal at all. Mine is to have a successful and enjoyable career doing what I love, and so far, so good.

Does woodwind doubling ruin your embouchure?

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

Nope.

We use our embouchure muscles for all kinds of things: facial expressions, speech, eating, kissing. Do any of those things “ruin” your embouchure? Of course not. The embouchure is made up of very flexible, agile muscles that are very capable of carrying out multiple tasks.

When people (almost always non-doublers) express concern about embouchure ruin, most of the time what they seem to be talking about is tension, or sensitivity loss, or buildup of callused tissue, or maybe strengthening the “wrong” muscles. If playing any woodwind instrument is giving you these kinds of problems, you are playing it wrong. Your embouchure for any and every woodwind instrument should be relaxed, balanced, and pain-free. Get some lessons with a qualified teacher, quickly.

Woodwind doubling presents real challenges. No need to invent fictional ones!

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.

Favorite blog posts, February 2019

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

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.

Switching between saxophones

"saxophone" by gudka is licensed under CC BY

If you are an alto saxophone player and pick up a tenor or baritone for the first time, it’s pretty common to have a thin, weak tone, to be on the sharp side, to struggle with low note response, and to have issues like the top-of-the-staff G and G-sharp squeaking.

If you are a tenor player having your first alto experience, or an alto or tenor player newly picking up soprano, you might find that your tone is tubby, your pitch unstable and tending toward flatness, and your palm key notes unreliable.

There are a couple of key things to check as you make the switch from one saxophone to another:

  1. How much mouthpiece you are taking in. I like this trick as a starting point for finding the correct position: gently insert a piece of paper between the mouthpiece and reed. The point where the paper stops is approximately the place where your lip should contact the reed.
  2. Voicing. The best way to check this on saxophones is by playing a note on the mouthpiece alone. These are the concert pitches you should produce: If you aren’t producing these pitches, adjust by blowing warmer air to lower the pitch, or cooler air to raise it. Don’t adjust by biting or by shifting the mouthpiece in your embouchure. (It takes some practice.)

Getting mouthpiece position and voicing right for each saxophone helps you achieve good tone, pitch, and response no matter which you are playing. If you are actively playing multiple saxophones, check both of these things on each instrument as part of your daily warmup, and then follow up with overtone exercises and full-range scales and arpeggios. On a gig, I find it helpful to be conscious of mouthpiece position and voicing as I put one saxophone down and pick up another.

Happy practicing!

What should be on your musician website

"Meta property tags in html" by https://tvorbaweb-stranok.sk is licensed under CC BY

It’s cheap and easy to create a website. Any serious freelance musician (or aspiring musician) should have one.

This should be a website about you, an individual musician. It should be separate from your ensemble’s website or your academic institution’s website. It should exist long-term, and serve as a sort of permanent address for finding you online. If you do most of your online stuff on social media sites or on your organizations’ sites, that’s fine. Your individual website doesn’t have to replace or duplicate any of that. It can simply point people to those resources.

I won’t go into any technical details here, because there is very extensive information available online about the ways to make websites. Suffice it to say that if you have only enough technical skill to send and receive email and post things on Facebook, there are website services simple enough for you to operate. Or if you want to roll up your sleeves and code every line from scratch, you can learn how to do that too.

Here’s what you need, content-wise:

Mandatory items

  • A domain name. Preferably this is something very simple and clear, like your name. Mine is bretpimentel.com. It works well because there aren’t a lot of Bret Pimentels, so web searches for my name usually put my site right at the top of the results.
    • If you have a more common name, you might need to add something meaningful to it. bretpimentelwoodwinds.com might work well, or bretpimentelmusic.com.
    • Pay for a real domain name. It’s not expensive. Something like bretpimentel.freewebsites.com looks unprofessional.
  • At minimum, a simple indication of what it is you do and how to contact you. That’s enough to be your whole website if you like. Here’s an example: “Bret Pimentel is a performer and teacher on the woodwind instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone. Reach him at bret@bretpimentel.com.”
  • Some longevity. Go ahead and prepay the domain name and whatever hosting services you need for a good long time, maybe five or ten years, or set it up to renew automatically.

Optional items

  • A more detailed biography.
  • A nice picture of you, especially one that helps reinforce what you do (like one where you’re holding your instrument).
  • Links to your social media profiles, YouTube channel, or other online things you want people to find.
  • Links to the websites of things associated with your career, like your performing ensembles or the institutions where you teach.

Optional items with caveats

Most of these things have to do with updating the content of your site on some kind of regular basis. That’s worth doing if your intention is to bring people back to visit your site again in the future. If you prefer to use your site as just sort of a digital business card, with no updating content, that’s fine too, and is much less effort to maintain.

  • A calendar of your upcoming performances. Only do this if you are thoroughly dedicated to keeping it up to date. An expired calendar makes your website look abandoned.
  • Recordings (audio and/or video) of some of your performances.
    • If you are hoping your website will help you get hired for things, only include recordings that you think appropriately and honestly reflect your current abilities.
    • Only post material you are certain you have the rights to post. For most individual-musician websites, chances are slim that anyone will take legal action against you for posting copyrighted material, but it’s still decent and polite to respect others’ intellectual property. (Acknowledging your non-ownership doesn’t make it okay to post something that isn’t yours. The copyright owner has to specifically give you permission or license the material to you in some way.)
  • A blog and/or some articles or other resources.
    • Again, this should be your own intellectual property or something you have explicit permission to post.
    • If you start a blog, start with a post that is about something, not a post about how you intend to start blogging soon, or asking people for ideas what to blog about. Lots of blogs start that way, with a single post promising big things to come, and then nothing more ever.
    • You don’t have to blog on any particular schedule if you don’t want to, just post when you have something to say.

Don’t include these

  • Lists of who you have played with, unless they are significant and career-defining.
    • As a graduate student I got to play at a university event honoring Dave Brubeck, including playing in an ensemble “with” him. For years my professional biography indicated that I had played with Dave Brubeck, even though after the one gig was over he almost certainly wouldn’t have remembered me, much less considered me some kind of collaborator. Listing him on my website was a pretty transparent inflation of the truth. (If he had hired me to join his quartet and go on the road for a few years, that would definitely be worth mentioning on my site.)
    • There have also been many less-famous names I have performed with, and why list those?
  • Lists of the equipment you use. One possible exception is if you have official endorsement deals that contractually require you to include this information. Otherwise, what is the list for? To prove how much money you have spent? To encourage others to blindly buy the same products as you?
  • “Links” lists, except in the rare case that your curation brings something valuable to the table. Lists of sites that you think are interesting or somehow related to your site are an artifact of earlier days of the web. Now if people want to find sites related to a topic, they just do a web search or follow related entities on social media.
  • Gratuitous photo albums, unless there’s a good reason to post them. Being attractive and/or vain isn’t a good reason, if you are hoping people will focus on what you have to offer musically. And you do need permission from the copyright holder.

A simple website is part of the modern musician’s professional face—you need one the same way you need a phone number, an email address, and black clothes for the gig. You can start for a few dollars and finish in less than an hour, or spend years building it into a powerful communication outlet. Get started today!

Favorite blog posts, January 2019

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