Composition Game

There’s an exercise I’ve been wanting to try with my students for a little while and I finally go the chance last weekend.

We did a composition exercise.

The idea was simple. I wrote down 8 different rhythmic building blocks along with an 8 note C major scale. I also had an eight sided dice.

Because of my work on Chartopia (which is a tool for role playing gamers), I happened to get gifted a set of gaming dice (thanks Scott) so I was able to put my d8 to some musical use.

The steps were as follows:

Roll a d8 for a rhythm and a note. A sharp eyed students noticed I’d missed a pair of quavers.
  • The student rolls the dice and the number defines the rhythmic building block to be used, say a quaver and 2 semi quavers.
  • To keep things simple, the time signature is common time and the first notes starts on the tonic, C.
  • The student then has a choice:
    • They can pick a note to go to next (keeping to the C major scale) given the rhythm…
    • …or let fate decide…

Some students were happy to just let the dice do all the work, some were keen to pick their notes. I typically let the dice define the rhythms though. One keen eyed student had noticed that I’d missed a very basic two quavers building block!

If fate decides a note, then the student gets to choose the octave although usually this was simple enough; octave jumps are great fun though.

The exercise was a success for something that I quickly sketched before a lesson. A couple of students said they expanded on their exercise and home and the following week, three did a couple more bar so that we could complete a 4 bar phrase.

Learning rhythms for composition

I remember as a pre and early teen finding it challenging to take a rhythm in your head, and being able to put it onto paper. I probably had far too complicated grooves going on in my mind, so I wasn’t doing myself any favours. Generally though, those rhythms are still one of a fundamental rhythmic building block. During the exercise, I made sure the student could their dice rolled building block in isolation and played as a loop. Even if it was just to the note, it would be the equivalent of ‘clapping with the tongue’, so to speak.

I don’t typically ask students to clap rhythms, although maybe I should(?)

Interestingly, looping a single crotchet’s worth of rhythm (say, a quaver and two semi-quavers), does boggle their minds sometimes. They can easily do it once, but the idea of looping it just creates that little bit of confusion; it’s a good brain tease for them. I find that far too often, students use their memory of how the piece started, to base how they should play now. Strange, but it’s also why they typically get it wrong. This is why understanding the rhythmic building blocks are so important.

Iterating on the ‘game’

As you can see from my picture, I jotted this down really quickly but there’s merit in tidying everything up, even expanding the rhythms out to a d10 once I add a pair of quavers and maybe a crotchet-triplet.

One major flaw? Well, obviously everything is linearly probability, so semiquavers may get interspersed with minums easily, which wouldn’t make sense in a funk piece say, but I don’t want to confuse students too much. Maybe once day I can create a crazy acyclic graph where different dice weighting lead to differing probabilities of different building blocks of rhythms so that the pieces tend toward a particular genre.

A much easier expansion to this is to take a blues scale, rather than just a C major scale. Keeping to white notes keeps things simpler, but a blue scale may capture a student’s imagination more.

Tarantella for Sax – rough as guts

I’m trying to get into the routine of posting at least one lesson videos every week, and currently a couple of students are doing Tarantella for saxophone. It’s a clarinet piece by Carl Baermann, but it translates quite well to saxophone.

And in my attempt to put my best foot forward into the vast internet, here’s my unfortunately hurried 8:30pm on a Tuesday night quick-demo of Tarantella for saxophone.

…and the reed was too hard.

I’m of the mind that at the moment, creating content regularly is more important than trying to make it ridiculously high quality. Truth be told, I just don’t have the skills or equipment to make amazing videos. What I can do though, is get used to embarrassing myself in front of a camera, stuffing up my notes, but doing so in the most authentic way possible.

There’s certainly no way I’m going to be able to change much of my teaching style, but what I can do is be more aware of diction, trying not to waffle too much, and making sure I cover just a few core learning aspects in order to keep the video reasonable succinct. I should also practise the pieces a bit more.

This video was admittedly too long, so perhaps I should have noted down exactly what I wanted to cover. Perhaps I need to be prepared to make more video cuts, rather than doing everything in one take. I wasn’t going to throw this effort away though, someone may find it useful. From here, it’s just a matter of improving for next time…

…with a more appropriate reed.

Coded Notes – the YouTube Channel

Lockdown was an odd opportunity to reflect on some things I’ve wanted to do (or at least revisit) for a long time. With the world seemingly grinding to a standstill, the day job became 80% time and pay which freed up some time to explore a few things. One of them was trying to learn piano (again), another was to get back into the habit of writing some music with some future goal of making a music book one day. The other thing was something that felt out of necessity during Skype lessons, and that was making videos of lesson content. All those videos, plus later ones, are now on a YouTube Channel.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHFKuWqkxV3vU0iHxg7XziA/

First, some backstory on videos and classes. I started teaching in 2001; a pre-camera phone era. I’m not even sure how good digital camcorders were, but they probably weren’t cheap. No one ever recorded lessons.

On a related note, in the social dancing scenes, such as salsa, bachata, zouk, etc, I was dancing just as the camera phones started to be a thing, meaning suddenly there was an opportunity to record the moves/routines covered in class. But what was the etiquette for that? Initially, teachers were reluctant to let anyone record them, but they were more than happy to let the students record each other at the end of class. Eventually, the writing was on the wall and now, at the end of the class, it’s basically, “okay, get your phones if you want a recording”. So long as nothing is uploaded to social media, the teachers (even the touring professionals) are more than happy to have recordings made at the end, including explanations.

In regards to music classes though, I’ve only occasionally been asked by an adult student or a parent ask to record me playing the homework music. Perhaps it’s because it’s more an audio, rather than visual thing, and camera mics are still no good at recording a wind instrument. Lockdown however, has shown that the videos I’ve made have really helped some of the students. Some aren’t fussed, but some students really want to ‘copy the answer’ as soon as possible, rather than ‘solve the puzzle’, so to speak. You can tell it’s benefited some students.

I initially made all the YouTube video unlisted so that the students could access them via a direct link but so that the world couldn’t see. Now, it’s open the world.

Why would I do this!

Want to get a quick demo on how to play James Rae’s Latin Jive?

Once upon a time, I think we all probably tried to maintain an online persona that was completely independent of real life. We’d be able to hide behind usernames and avatars. Now, with the advent of ridiculous amounts of social media, and Google’s stranglehold on everything, I’ve finally given up. The only thing to do now is to try and put one’s best foot forward and contribute with something positive.

This realisation happened with Patreon, where Olga and I have been receiving patronage for Chartopia. We really needed an introduction video, so naturally we had to front up and show that there we two developers working really hard to make an awesome Roleplaying random table/generator app for people to enjoy. We couldn’t really hide if were to make Chartopia this truly credible tool that the roleplaying community could get behind.

With the inertia overcome, I’ve now made 68 videos of clarinet and saxophone lesson material demos!

I’ve named the channel after this blog (because why not), and gradually the quality is improving. I started off with a little Sony mic plugged directly into my sister’s Lumix G85, then roughly edited everything in iMovie. Despite Lockdown, I managed to get myself a Motu M4 audio interface and experimented with my Shure 57 mic. With its preamps, the Motu produced a high quality recording with the Shure 57, but the Sony mic, plugged into the Lumix camera, sounded terrible. The trouble was that the Shure 57 mic can only pick up the instrument, not the voice, so I tried to get the Sony mic to do that. Unfortunately when editing the audio, cutting between the two mics didn’t work out so well on account of the Sony mic pulling in a lot of noise in comparison to the Shure 57.

Eventually I got my hands on an Audio Technica 2020 which had been able to handle voice and instruments just fine, so long as I use some compression and gain tweaks in Audacity. Now my videos are sounding half decent for something that I quickly edit in about 30 minutes.

The goal now? Well, let’s just say that there are so many really good clarinet and saxophone players on YouTube already that I’d be dreaming to think that many people are going to watch what I do, so this is currently for my students and myself. I now get to have some fun trying to add more production quality; perhaps some image overlays, better video cuts, figure out how to get rid of pops and clicks in the audio (like the annoying sounds my mouth makes as I prep to play). At some point I’ll even have to style the background behind me, and figure out the lighting.

These videos are now another tick in ‘add something positive to the internet’ box.

It turns out the day job didn’t need the 80% for long and all those three-day weekends became no more. It’s all back to normal, making it more an effort to cram all these goals into the short amount of spare time available.

Troubleshooting a Student’s Instrument

I have a general reluctance to try and play a student’s instrument, mouth piece, reed and all. Call it the “grossness factor”. When I play, the only way the reed gets wet is from sucking it prior to playing it, or the condensation that builds up under it. A student though, they’re sometimes not as controlled with their saliva.

See what I mean? Just the word saliva sounds a bit gross.

And even when the students are beyond that spit-overload-stage, it’s as if their mouth piece and reed have all these micro-organisms that have been specially tailored for that player, so that if a different player comes in contact, e.g. me, the mouth and tongue riles, and I feel like I have to drink water for the next 30 mins to wash the psychological overreaction away.

But to do a successful troubleshoot, it sometimes has to be done. Here’s a couple of examples. Thankfully, the first I could my own mouthpiece, so no harm there. The second I needed to play the tenor sax with the student’s setup to figure out what was up.

The Squeaking Clarinet

My young clarinet student was initially having a terrible time with low notes. It was definitely fingering related because small hands take a bit of time to get used to stretching and applying pressure. I knew his clarinet was pretty good because I had played it when he first started and so any squeaks were generally fatigue related. That’s why I encourage youngsters to rest the bell of the clarinet on something.

Over lockdown though and the subsequent Skype lessons, we reached high notes, and it didn’t go so well. We mixed it up with some low note pieces, which generally went much better.

Upon exciting lockdown and an eventual face to face lesson again, I felt compelled to play the instrument again just in case. You never know sometimes, because instruments come in with mysterious malfunctions and the like. Instruments don’t like being knocked and dropped.

Anyway, I swapped off the mouth piece and sure enough, even I was having issues with getting the high notes to sound. It turns out one of the pads wasn’t closing perfectly if the clarinet wasn’t perfectly aligned when putting it together.

A not-perfectly-straight assembly resulted in the join mechanism pushing a pad higher. NB: This is my instrument (not the student’s)

Yikes! Most clarinets are way more forgiving, and this would explain why sometimes the student was fine, and other times not so. For whatever reason, the mechanism relied on perfect alignment or else a pad wouldn’t successfully seal unless the student pressed the keys down really hard.

I’m large handed adult and not a 9 year old, so my hand pressure could get me by, but it was obvious the student wasn’t going to be able.

Once the mystery was solved, the student was acing all his high note homework. Fantastic. Unfortunately the clarinet is difficult to put together; it’s cork is thick and often the wood expands, making it very difficult to pull apart, but that’s a side issue.

The Mystery of the Quiet Tenor

Louds and softs; a critical aspect in playing a wind instrument. If the instrument can’t exercise any kind of dynamic contrast, then, well…

So after going through my usual teaching repertoire to try and encourage some more volume from my tenor student, I had to play her instrument to ascertain if the setup was okay. I did this at the end of the lesson to give all my personal mouth bacteria a chance to die on her equipment before she practiced again (as I wrote earlier, gross).

Sure enough, teacher-mode showed that her tenor was a mighty beast capable of outlandish fortes and super mysterious pianissimos, complete with aggressive marcato and smooth legatos.

So what gives? Why could I get this insane contrast out of the instrument whereas the student could not?

  • Her embouchure looked fine
  • She reads music incredibly well so there’s definitely brain power to spare for details like dynamics.
  • Generally the pulsing air exercises generate some dynamic change, but not too much, so that may be an aspect worth looking at.

The point of playing her instrument wasn’t so much for me to show off, although, to be fair, that’s part of it. The point was to show that her setup was capable of doing what I was trying to describe how to do. It means there’s something wrong with my instruction; it’s almost impossible to get a student to truely understand physical requirements of things such as:

  • How hard to squeeze the mouthpiece? Where on the mouthpiece?
  • How hard to squeeze the reed?
  • Where is the tongue exactly? It’s under the reed and always touching, but that’s hard to describe this.
  • What is the shape inside the mouth? Saying dooo, aaah, taaah, yaaa all make the inside of the mouth take on different shapes.
  • How much force is the guts really applying to force air out of the instrument?
  • How much should the embouchure “fight” the air coming out? How much resistance should the embouchure create?

These are hard things for a student to come to grips with, but I have one idea. Different reeds.

The reed is too soft, despite it being a somewhat large sounding 2 1/2, it was a Rico and they’re typically soft. Generally a soft reed is too easy for the student to squish closed again the mouthpiece, stifling the sound. A harder reed would would be far too hard to squeeze closed, and producing a sound would force more core muscles (gut muscles) to get involved.

The student now knows what the instrument is capable of, it’s a matter of getting her own physicality to match, so something in her equilibrium needs to change.

Just like a weight lifter lifts heavier and heavier weights to allow the muscles to grow (else it just turns into a cardio exercise), I think experimenting with harder reeds may be the catalyst for getting other aspects to work differently. “Oh, the saxophone is too hard to blow, well, now the guts have to work harder, the mouth has to loosen a bit but the bottom lip has to solidify more…” things like that.

Now to send a shopping list of reeds to the parents.

The Lockdown Skype Room

Teaching face-to-face finally resumed this week, so what better way to remember the disruption than to admire my “triple-screen” setup.

My evolving setup went from using my iPhone 5S with headphones plugged into a laptop. I went from sitting in a computer chair to standing.

There’s almost a game of ‘spot the object’ in this picture.

The evolution of my Lockdown setup is on display in the above photo (I improved it further when some of the lockdown restrictions eased). I had a blank wall and a cupboard door behind me, so to the student, everything was tidy, but obviously the room was utter chaos. I had all my day job Navico gear occupying a lot of space, and, because I’m not the most organised of people, my music books were spread out on the couch and floor.

My resulting ‘triple screen’ was my laptop to see the student, the secondary monitor to see the digitised version of music, and finally, my super robust music stand which, is so rock solid, I kept loosing my books as I had about five of them on the music stand and forgot they were there.

Getting the most out of Skype’s audio

I had never used Skype for teaching music up until the lockdown, but what I did know was that a phone microphone typically couldn’t cope at recording a video (or voice memo) of a roaring saxophone. Sometimes, when a parent would sit in on lessons, they’d ask if they could record me playing a piece of homework for their child and the audio quality was clipped pretty heavily. Still, once the resignation of having crappy audio was dismissed from one’s mind, a phone is actually a reasonable option

Headphones seemed to be a must. Maybe it was an illusion, but I think if both the teacher and student have headphones, Skype’s algorithms have less work to do because it’s not trying to adjust the microphone when audio is in turn coming through the speakers. This resulted in a better overall experience because it felt like you could ‘talk over’ the student, because they could actually hear me over Skype while they were playing. We didn’t have to take turns, basically.

You could almost hear the metaphorical cogs of Skype’s algorithms trying to automatically readjust the gain for when an instrument is played, to when someone speaks. That was one of the first things my students observed during class; when I started speaking, it took a while for Skype to increase the volume of my voice just after playing. That was the nature of a built in laptop microphone unfortunately. Later on, I experimented with different gear.

It’s Exhausting

Lessons online are actually exhausting, especially if you’re standing. I would do a continuous 3 1/2 hours on a Thursday night, and broken up 8:30am to 12:30pm on Saturday. There were some interesting observations.

The first was that headphones are tiring to wear. Not so much they get a little uncomfortable to wear after 3 1/2 hours (they’re a Sony MDR-7506), but the direct-to-ear audio just seems to dull one’s brain cells after a while. Perhaps that’s also in combination of looking at a computer screen during that time, rather than a non-brightened sheet of music.

The other major aspect was that there was no downtime between lessons; it was straight from one to the other. I’d finish one lesson right on the hour or half hour, and then it was straight into the next. “Bye”, “hi”, and and the next student would almost always be ready to go. I didn’t have to wait for students to pack up gear (and yikes, some haven’t mastered the quick pack up), and I didn’t have to wait for the next student to put their instrument together.

The result was that, strangely enough, Skype allowed the student to get maximum lesson time. For me, it was almost like a relay race where I was passing the baton to myself for a few hours.

Skype is a viable option

This whole experience has demonstrated to me that Skype is a viable alternative for those days when the student can’t make their lesson. It’s not something that seems sustainable long term because so many skills are only obtained by playing along with the teacher (appreciating a sense timing, movement and tuning etc), but rather than credit a lesson because “sorry, I can’t make it because the school band has a concert next Thursday”, it could be, hey, how about we do an online class on Friday after school.

An online alternative seems to be an ideal way to keep the lesson routine moving, and continuing to get the feedback.

Steinberg’s Dorico – I finally used it

If there’s one piece of software I’ve been eager to try for a long time, is Steinberg’s music notation software called Dorico.

As a career programmer and part time music teacher, I took a keen interest in what Steinberg would release when, in 2012, they basically hired the entire software team working on Sibelius. I’ll not pretend to know the details, so here’s a link that suggests that Avid, who had bought Sibelius, weren’t really managing things too well. Here’s another good blog post from 2016 with some backstory and then a great overview of how Dorico shined over the competitors.

A blank slate

The prospect of an entire development team, with all that experience, leaving an existing software project that was over a decade old and starting from fresh, sounded like and amazing, albeit daunting opportunity for them. Software almost never ages well as layers and layers of different developer efforts, along with different practices and libraries of the day, all intertwine into something that gradually becomes harder to maintain. These devs had the opportunity to create their dream software from scratch, having learnt all the lessons while working on Sibelius.

A good example is the UI. When Apple released the retina display, so many UIs were suddenly found wanting as their bitmap images failed to scale well to the higher resolution. During my time working at Serato, a lot of effort was required to migrate away from using bitmaps in the UI to instead using dynamically drawn UI elements in order for it to look cleaner. Even then, we were using UI libraries that had long since been deprecated on both Mac and Windows! The software had fallen behind the technology curve while we concentrated on features, and so any kind of upgrade becomes a mountain of extra work. That was a long time ago now (2013) and they’ve long since replaced the rendering engine with something more modern.

Looking at Sibelius 7.1.3, it hasn’t aged well, the UI looks incredibly dated, and the UI controls are so cluttered that it’s difficult to find anything now. It reminds of what MS Word started to look like before they introduced their “ribbon” UI.

Pro software isn’t cheap

As a teenager in high school (2000), I bought Sibelius from a local distributor for a small fortune. I think it was something insane like NZ $700. Maybe it was $1000. I can’t remember, but I remember wanting to put it through its paces, and I, somehow, managed to afford what was a stupid amount of money for a 16 year old. That was even with an educational license! Sibelius was at about version 1.15 (or 1.3?) and I think I got free upgrades to version 3. I remember the controls being really easy to use via the numpad. I also remember them stuffing the users around a bit between a couple of major revisions, but I gradually got used to the revised control scheme after bitching about it in their forums.

Fast forward to 2013, and I became the owner of the first Intel unibody retina Mac (which I still use), but my Sibelius 3 only work for Power PC macs. Yikes. I coughed up $200+ NZ dollars when I finally upgraded my educational license. Unlike my compositional endeavours from 2000 to 2008, this was more for getting music written/transposed/cleaned up for students.

Upon installing version 7, it, was a bit of a shock. Like meeting someone after a long time who hadn’t taken care of themselves or something. I can’t think of how they’d even gotten to version 7; it was if they’d undergone some kind of inflation in their versioning. It looked like I was opening 10 year old software.

Revitalising the notation software niche

Dorico was released in 2016, dragging this niche software genre into the mid-2010s. I never did get around to using their trial software, somewhat out of fear that I’d like it too much, pay for, then never really get my dollars worth out of it. I think there was a conversion special to convert my Sibelius license to a Dorico one, but again, I never got around to it.

Then Steinberg released Dorico SE; a free version limited to two lines of music. I’ve finally installed it and given it a go. The UI is slick. The thing is though, to give something like music software a go, you  have to have a project in mind, or at least some tutorial material to follow. The impetus to finally give Dorico a go, was to write some original material for my students.

A goal in mind

The trick to goal setting, is to have some kind of constraints. It’s too easy to go off on a tangent.

Goal: use Dorico SE to write a piece of music
Constraint: write for one of my beginner clarinet students who’s struggling with high notes.

One of my beginner clarinet students just hasn’t figured out how to adequately cover all the tone holes. You can hear the leakage as he descends, but air escaping is not forgiving in the higher register. We can’t quite go to high notes pieces yet, so I’ve had to source lower register music, of which, I only have a finite amount. My goal was to write a piece for him that was challenging to play, but restricted to the lower register down to a G.

The result was a a 32 bar piece in C Major I called the “G Jump Shuffle”. Why? Well, it’s in C major, and it keeps using dotted-quaver + semi-quaver rhythms to jump about.

Dorico SE, perfect for  students

One of the “selling points” of Dorico SE (because it’s free) is is that my students can also download it for free and have a play. Two lines of music is more than enough for them to exercise some creativity and make the computer do beeps and boops. I think I first used scoring software on an Acorn computer. I have no idea what the software was called though.

Sure, there’s musescore, but you really want to point them toward something that looks really high end; that the pros use. It’s like comparing photoshop to some arbitrary ‘other’ paint program. You want them to feel like they’re using something they can grow into. I could also share files or offer assistance if we’re all using the same software.

Where to from here?

Time is always in short supply, but I’ve wanted to write my own tutor book for clarinet and saxophone for a long time. There are way too many ‘uncool’ pieces in my current books, although Abracadabra does the best so far. It would be a great challenge to make my own and perhaps Dorico can help our with that.

 

Teaching during lockdown – Skype lesson tech prerequisites

Clarinet and saxophone teaching is primarily an “analogue” experience. There’s no need for digital toys to play around with. Short of an electric tuner and metronome, there’s no need for electrical current anywhere.

Teach online however, and suddenly the experience is a little more overwhelming. There’s more pressure in a way, because I know the lessons will be inferior to face-to-face lessons, so I can’t afford to have anything diminish the lesson experience, yet, with so much digital technology involved, there’s a high likelihood of the equipment failing.

The core technology is obviously Skype, but that’s Skype relying on decent internet with a decent computer and likely decent wifi. Thankfully this is 2020, so the odds are that students have these things.

In somewhat blind good fortune, the copper line to my house died about 4 months ago. The phone got crackly and a few weeks later there was no dial tone. I didn’t notice at first, but the ADSL running over that same copper line was also starting to degrade to the point where it was next to useless. Short of switching out some gear and crawling under the house for dodgy wiring, it looked like something not worth the effort to fix. It  became the opportune tome to switch over to a fibre connection that had only recently become available a few months prior.

Now that we’re in a lockdown, that copper line dying was possibly the most fortuitous misfortune to have happened. My (max) 14 MB/s download speed that had almost died to nothing, is now getting up as high as 90 MB/s download. That being said, at time of writing it’s sitting at 5.8 MB/s for reasons unknown. Perhaps the entire neighbourhood is on the internet given the weather is rubbish and we’re all supposed to be indoors.

That technical backstory is a roundabout way of saying that the technology can let you down. Things that have gone wrong:

  • One student on ADSL (copper) had a bad connection so we just did an audio only call.
  • Another student’s laptop’s wifi was not up to the task. After trying on and off for perhaps 6o minutes, the solution was for him to use an Ethernet cable directly to from the laptop to the router. Wifi worked the following week, but it was still choppy.
  • A poor connection completely killed a video Skype lesson 20 minutes in. Try as we might, the solution was ultimately for her to switch from her laptop to a phone. We think her laptop just decided to be a nuisance.

It’s certainly obvious when the student has good internet, especially in the video. Audio however, is subject to the mic on the device. Voice vs saxophone isn’t a fair fight for a computer mic and Skype struggles to equalise between the two. After playing saxophone, the spoken voice is very quiet until Skype gradually ramps up the gain again after being hammered by the saxophone.

For the first couple of weeks I did the lessons on my iPhone 5S, a phone that is now 6 1/2 years old! I used headphones to help with prevent Skype from trying to adjust audio behaviour but I’ve since started using the 2013 15″ retina Macbook thinking that it may provide a better experience. Are these devices considered ancient now? Surely mic and camera tech has come a long way since 2013, but if Skype is just gong to compress everything, a 2013 camera and mic may be just as good as something from 2013.

Did you know that Skype only takes a single mono audio input? It makes me wonder if there’s other apps out there that are more for musicians, or perhaps Microsoft is sitting on tech which, being only useful to a niche customer, hasn’t rolled it out yet. Would I pay for a better Skype experience? If we’re stuck in this lockdown beyond the 4 weeks, it would certainly be useful.

The flexibility of being able to teach at any time feels like teaching has consumed more of my time. It’s been great being about to teach 14 students every week for the last 3 weeks given these circumstances, but the ability to have a lesson time means that I’ve taught 4 times a week rather than the usual 2. Things like technical issues, having an assignment due right on lesson time, or just forgetting what day of the week it is has meant arranging a different time. It’s possible, but it does take time. At least with all the students making lessons, I can now invest in some better gear…

Teaching during lockdown – sheet music homework

When the impending Thursday lockdown was announced on the Monday, I rode the motorbike (a 2015 Triumph Tiger 800 XCx for anyone wondering) to the Music Centre to pick up the saxophone and as much music as my pack rack bag could fit.

There was going to be a couple of massive logistical problems that a typical face to face lesson isn’t confronted with.; firstly, I don’t have some of the books the music students have, and secondly, there was going to be no such thing as a photocopier.

For strange reasons, my music books go missing. Being the only clarinet and sax teacher at the Music Centre, you’d think that if someone found one of my books in the photocopier, they’d just return it to me. Unfortunately no, and as it turns out I’ve lost a good deal of valuable books.  During this lockdown, my students are currently using a couple of Rubank books that have gone walkabout, and some of my beginner students have the Abracadabra books which I’m yet to have my own copy of.

Despite having played through this material plenty of times, and could probably do a decent attempt at playing the pieces to the student by ear, the big problem would be the asking them to play from certain bars and also having all the details like dynamics and articulation to explain.

The solution, albeit somewhat embarrassing, was to ask students to email me (or attach to the Skype chat) photographs of their current homework plus the next few pages. I now have a patchwork of pages from the Rubank Advanced Sax book as three students send me a few pages at a time. Thankfully, one of my adult students was able to scan the whole Abracadabra saxophone book (don’t worry A&C Black, London, I’ve ordered a print copy).

It’s at this point that I wish that more downloadable .pdfs were available to purchase, much like Saxtet Publications does. I had one of their books (and they’re not cheap), go missing somehow, so I was able to buy a pdf for about £12.

The music situation works both ways though. Usually I like to structure my lessons with a warmup with some scales, last week’s homework, then some new homework that is either from their current book or from something in my box of music that lives at the Music Centre. I usually just pick something appropriate from there, use it as sight reading, then I photocopy it at the end of the lesson as homework.

Not any more. The idea of sightreading from one of my impulsively selected books 15-20 minutes into a lesson is not really possible. Sure, I can kind of do it by taking a photo of it with the phone and attaching it to the Skype message, but there’s no guarantee the student is going to quickly get the piece downloaded and in a visible state that can be played from in the space of less than a minute. I don’t want to waste the lesson time.

The conclusion is that I have to plan in advance, or at least have a body of music already available digitally for the student to have at the ready for the next lesson, either by having it printed out (we only just got a printer delivered to the house today), or by being able to play from a laptop or tablet screen. Not idea, but definitely doable.

And homework? Usually I write the students’ homework in their notebooks, but now I have to have a notebook and write down what their current homework is and some ideas about what to give them as a sightreading piece which I then have to make available.

There’s no guarantee that the students are writing down their homework though.

Teaching during lockdown – Lessons via Skype

Admittedly it was frustrating when some students didn’t want to come to lessons because either their parents or themselves were afraid of the virus, but it happened, and there wasn’t anything I could do to convince them otherwise. Then, the whole matter was decisively made for all of us anyway when the NZ government decided to lock down the whole country last Thursday. To their credit they gave us 3 days notice and when the announcement was made, all of us at Navico packed up our gear and moved everything to what is now our own home offices for at least the next 4 weeks. And here’s hoping it’s just 4 weeks.

Music lessons though, that’s not exactly the same kind of professional environment as programming remotely. Music lessons rely on face to face interaction, the ability to see technique and the ability to hear all the subtle deficiencies in tone that only a super picky clarinet teacher like myself can pick up, and then offer guidance on how to remedy.

Credit where credit’s due, the Music Education Centre gave consistent messaging to all parents/students in the lead up to the lockdown by following the Ministry of Health’s guidelines. They also made sure their credit policy was clearly understood (4x for the year for missed lessons).

They too, realised that all this was going to crashing upon us soon, just not as soon as everyone expected. If any of us professional music teachers had a hope in hell of resuming lessons, then we were going to have to use VoIP tech (Skype, Hangouts etc). At time of writing, the currently darling Zoom is being shown up as a little cheeky in what their software is doing behind the scenes.

Skype is the new reality.

Once Voice Over IP algorithms compress clarinet into not many bits, it inevitably sounds like absolute rubbish. The video chews bandwidth (so hope everyone has fast internet), and you never get a satisfactory camera angle to see everything required. Students and teachers are restricted to using either a laptop camera or a phone camera and basically what used to be a highly professional lesson is now relegated to a 30 minute catch up to make sure homework was being practised.

That was the concern at least.

I spent a couple of evenings ringing up all the parents and, thankfully, some were really happy to start in order to get their child into the routine again (and away from the computer games in one instance).

In practise, Skype lessons haven’t been too bad. Yes, everything above is true. The audio is terrible, the video is shocking and the camera position are never satisfactory, especially when viewed on a small screen. Strangely though, the ability to give instruction is still possible.

It’s still possible to hear wavering tuning, hear alternative fingering not being played, hear missed articulation and, strangely enough, hear bad tone. I can hear all those things and offer instruction, but with the realisation that I too, am sounding like absolute rubbish on the other side of the internet once my Le Blanc clarinet and Yamaha alto get compressed to a digital version of AM radio played down a plastic pipe.

The biggest problem is that now the student doesn’t have a model from which to imitate. It’s impossible for them to see the ‘perfect solution’ and try and parrot it.

To compensate for this, I’ve been making youtube videos for my students to make up for the things the Skype can’t offer, and that’s what I’ll write about in a future post.

Harder Reeds for the Beginner Clarinetist

One of last night’s lessons was a classic example of the importance of having the right reeds for a clarinet setup.

One of my beginner students has, for the last 4 weeks or so, being learning high notes (notes across the ‘break’). This student is one of the slow-but-steady types; doesn’t really practise much, but still improves over time.

The high notes, however, has exposed his weak embouchure. Getting the notes in tune is hard work and the tone is very weak and reedy sounding. He can get the notes in tune for a time, but you can tell that the reed is too soft. The extra embouchure tension required for tone and tuning basically squishes the reed up against the mounthpiece lip and stifles the sound. To loosen up is not an option, because then the pitch drops and the tone sounds ‘Australian.’

So I said to him for each of those lessons; “you know, you really need to go buy some new reeds (well, get your folks to buy you some reeds), and experiment a bit. Try some cheap Rico Royal 2 1/2 – 3s and see how different it all feels.”

But he hasn’t (yet) and so everything has been more challenging than it needs to be. He’s using a size 2 1/2 of the Flying Goose brand.

From what I’m hearing, that brand is rubbish.

Credit where credit’s due, the student did note that he didn’t like the reedy sound he was making. This is always the first step to improving; knowing that something is wrong. The challenge for the student is knowing how to fix it.

I took a punt.

I got out one of my ‘retired’ Vandoren V12 3 1/2 reeds. It had probably been sitting in the case for 3 years or something silly. It had ‘softish’ written in pencil on it, so it was probably only used a couple of times. I gave it to the student, told him to try it out and keep it.

This trick is touch and go. Sometimes kids can’t get a sound out of the things, but to my surprise, this time it worked a treat. Sure, the student really had to put some muscles in, but this time all that physical effort wasn’t crushing the reed against the mouthpiece; this thicker reed could handle it.

Better yet, not only did he get a sound out, much more in tune, with decent volume and didn’t have that reedy tone any more; it was far more richer with none of those horrible high frequencies sneaking in.

The student noticed the contrast too, thankfully (it’s all for naught if the student can’t tell the difference). He managed to endure the increased physicality for the remainder of the lesson too.

“Does your face hurt yet?” I asked.

“Yes”.

“Good, because now your embouchure is getting some exercise.”