High performance coaches

Why do professional athletes have a coach? Surely they’re amazing enough that they don’t need one any more. We know that’s not the case because they’re always striving for that extra something; those small optimisations that can be made to enhance technique or endurance. A swing coach can identify technique changes to help a golfer reduce risk of back injury, a swim or sprint coach could help refine an athlete’s technique to give them an extra fraction of a second speed advantage. Perhaps a tennis coach can make sure that the athlete is doing the correct recovery drills so that they reduce the chances of injury after an event or training.

I offered these examples to a new student (intermediate level) to explain the importance of using correct tonguing technique and correct fingering technique. Some students are very resistant to advancing away from ‘easier’ fingering and it necessitates the need for some analogies to get the message across.

Case in point, this intermediate level student had somehow avoided tonguing the sax reed for many years and with many teachers. This isn’t the first time this situation has happened yet correct tonguing is so critical to half way decent woodwind playing it makes me wonder how prior teachers could let the student get away with it.

Naturally a student who has played a certain way for many years is very reluctant to change what they’ve become accustomed to; it takes a bit of convincing that another way is better. You’d think tonguing would be easy to convince because firstly, you just can’t ‘not-tongue’ fast. Secondly you’d never be able to achieve all the variety of character achieved by different tonguing (tenuto, staccato (short and sharp or light/leggiero), marcato, accents). Just playing some jazz would demonstrate this. One could hazard a guess that 95% of all notes played would be tongued and not slurred.

I eventually convinced him of this with the aforementioned sporting analogies and a good dose of me giving lots of tonguing examples. The ha, ha, ha sounds have now been replaced with ta (or too, doo etc) although often I then have to snap students out of slurring too much; that’s what happens when students become afraid (or unsure) about tonguing. I’ll point out a line of music and count the number of notes that are slurred and it may be 2 out of 20. How many did the student do? Certainly not 2.

Convincing him of tonguing technique changes was simple next to convincing him (and many, many others for that matter) of the merit of alternative fingering.

“I don’t understand why I have to use this fingering. This way is much easier,” they’ll say, and I’ll reply: “It’s easier because you’ve never practised the other way.”

Insert sporting analogy to reference getting that extra 1% of effectiveness and that’s essentially what the alternative figuring is for. They’re technique optimisations to bypass some of the inefficiencies of certain finger patterns. The coach/teacher is able to spot these inefficiencies in the athlete’s/student’s technique and it’s our job to put them right. In the case of woodwind playing, it’s in order to gain that extra advantage is speed, smoothness and clarity.

A good example is the saxophone side-key C, especially if it goes from B to side-key C (easy and ideal) but then to D (not as easy but definitely doable if the hands are in the correct place).

Side-key C is incredibly important to avoid the blah, blah, blah sound that can happen when taking fingers off and putting fingers on in one movement; ideally you either put fingers on or take fingers off. That is an optimisation that cleans up the sound and allows one to play faster.

Again, a student that has always done something a certain way is reluctant to change, especially if they perceive one way as ‘easier.’ It turns out that the ‘other way’ was hard because their right hand (lower keys) was in the wrong place and therefore took the hand too far from the keys resulting in too much distance to cover.

“But that’s too uncomfortable in that position,” would be a reply and all I can say is “look at me…

  • I push my saxophone away from the body and use the neckstrap for balance (the student was leaning the saxophone to the side of his body even though he’s tall, this results in a twisted standing posture)
  • I then have my right hand out from the instrument in such a way that the finger are over the keys, including the side keys (or at least are within a very short distance of them).
  • I’ll then play some scale-like passages to show how little distance the fingers need to cover.

I think it’s going to take a while to convince him of this too. Sure, I could video him and show him what I’m seeing but ultimately though, the student has to figure this out themselves. As the teacher, sometimes you just have to put the seed of the idea into their heads and wait for that eureka moment to hit.


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