Video Requests

I’m a bit time poor given the gazillion things I’m doing, half doing, or want to do, but I’m trying to commit to making regular video content for my Youtube channel. I have a huge number of ideas, even just making a video for an individual student’s homework is worthwhile, but another source of ideas are from Youtube user comments, or when redditors DM you. There’s always something.

I have a couple of examples to share. First was a request via a direct message on Reddit from a user whom I’d posted feedback to a video he’d shared of himself playing on r/clarinet. I’ve been making a bit of pass time answering questions there.

The request was to transcribe the clarinet solo from the Class of 3000 Theme tune. He offered payment, but I was more than happy to take up the challenge pro gratis. I hadn’t tried transcribing music for a long time, so it was a curiosity to see how long it would take me.

It turns out it only took as long as it took for Olga to do the grocery shopping, albeit the output of that hour was a hastily penciled out music on manuscript.

This is 2020 though, so destroying a cassette tape from constant rewind and play, was not required (I think I did that to a recording of Golden Wedding). The trick to transcribing a video from Youtube is to first get the audio into an audio editor like Audacity and isolate a couple of bars at a time for playback.

From there, it’s a matter listening, playing, listening, sounding out some notes etc and getting it down.

I remember this being a nightmare task as a kid, and to be honest, I’m only capable of hearing melody lines now; there’s no way I could ever hear and write down chords. The solo for this piece was also jazz, went up to a high F# and had syncopation, so certainly not an appropriate piece for a beginner to transcribe.

He was pretty stoked to get the music.

Next up was a comment on Youtube to one of my videos where I’d recorded Tickertape from the Abracadabra for saxophone book. The interesting thing about Tickertape is that it’s the first piece to introduce swing, without actually introducing swing. By that I mean there’s no text explaining swing, but there’s the two-quavers equal triplet instruction written in the music.

I’ve found that it’s a bit tricky introducing swing to students that early at the risk of confusing them, so the video I made for them omitted the swing. A commenter requested a version with swing because they were have a hard time getting it to feel right, so I made one with my typical do-it-all-in-one-shot explanation. I think it was the tied notes that were the stumbling block.

So there you go, two neat videos, the Class of 3000 one being the one that stretched my limited iMovie skills a bit. I even wrote it out in Dorico, one of those gazillion things on my list to learn how to use better.

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.

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.”

When dads wish to play music too

I had a surreal teaching experience last night when I gave an adult student his first lesson. It was a potential a disaster from the start because the music centre who booked him in didn’t make it clear that he needed an instrument (usually I don’t bother calling new students before their first lesson but perhaps I’ll have to change this to avoid these situations).

But it didn’t really matter because I have the clarinet standing by and most of the lesson was going to be demonstrating how to get a sound out of the thing. Luckily I had a 1 1/2 strength reed so I gave him my saxophone, showed him how to set it up and away we went. Clarinet is a sufficient demonstration tool.

Well, this guy was giddy as a school boy, as the saying goes, not that I’ve ever seen a school aged kid get as excited as this guy was. Safe to say he was looking forward to this moment a lot. His son was learning guitar and he figured that this was his chance to finally learn the saxophone and he’d thought, heck, I’m based in one spot for a while, work is local, let’s do it!

This guy was so visibly psyched to be playing sax that I had a grin a mile wide. The guy totally got it too; fingers were in the right place, tone steadied out and by the end he got used to the tonguing. He would have raced off and bought a saxophone right there and then if it wasn’t 8pm on a Thursday night. I convinced him renting one for a few months would be a good starting point. I gave him a bunch of details about stores and books, photocopied off what we played that night, and that was that.

So it was with regret that I had to inform him that I was going on holiday to Europe for 4 weeks and that that lesson may be his last with me. You can’t get a guy that excited about playing saxophone and then deprive him of it for 4 weeks! There’s another sax teacher at the centre on Wednesdays so he should be sorted for subsequent lessons.

Gutted for me, because I’m interested to know how much progress an adult student with that much excited energy can make.

Teaching Movement to Music

One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that once students get to grade 7-8 level, most still do a poor job of moving to the music. Music as a performance is part visual so it’s important that one actually moves in such a way that’s representative of the music. I can only guess that for many of them, there is a lack of experience with small ensemble performance, like duets, trios etc.

Yes, many students struggle with tapping beats and other coordination issues early on, and I make sure that they develop this skill as soon as possible, but I’m talking students way beyond this stage.

Here are some examples of awkwardness.

  • Difficulty in cueing leading notes (so that an accompanist knows when to come in).
  • The body moving down during an up beat and up during a down beat.
  • Lots of random (almost twitchy) little up and down movements during a long phrase.
  • Lifting the clarinet bell up too high and at strange times.
  • Sinking the clarinet bell much lower than what has happened before.
  • Making a down beat happen on ‘important looking’ notes rather than actual beats.

On beats and off beats

At its most basic, the music comprises of on beats and off beats. The foot taps a downbeat and is up (or in transitional movement) during the offbeat. In computer gaming terms, it’s game over as soon as that foot hits the offbeat (missing an on beat is less dramatic).

Moving to the music is merely an extension of the foot tap. A performer shouldn’t be tapping their foot (this isn’t a hoe down) so it’s the motion of the clarinet bell that take its place. The hands, then arms, then body are all attached, so ultimately everything moves together to replicate the foot tap. This brings on the next point…

Move like a conductor: the invisible box

A conductor moves their arms within an invisible box. The box has a base level; the arms move down to it but never below it. The box has a top; the arms move up to it, but never beyond it. At its simplest, keeping within that same sized box creates predictability to the watcher.

The conducting equivalent of tapping the foot is reaching/tapping the bottom of the invisible box. The opposite is true for the top of the box being an offbeat.

When a student’s clarinet bell moves beyond that box, awkwardness ensues, however, there is one particular case where, even when keeping to the box, the awkwardness is still possible. That is…

Too much ‘up’

Oftentimes, the students hits the downbeat and instantly bounces their bell airborne. With the clarinet bell up too early, the awkwardly long transitional movement tempts the student to move the bell down again and bang, they’ve just gone down on an offbeat.

Usually the simplest answer is just to get the student to chill, relax, and use simple, small casual movements; not ‘oh my god, the music is so insane!’ erratic movements.

But what happens when the music is like the 2nd movement of Spohr’s Clarinet Concerto No. 2 and the slow rubato could result in 8 demi-semi quavers within a beat? Well…

‘Present’ the beats to the listener

The performer has to help the listener out. How does the listener differentiate between a 6/8 time and 3/4 time? The answer is how and what notes are emphasised. One would basically play certain notes louder than others (or ‘lean’ into them with accents or tenutos etc.). Emphasising the first and fourth quaver would signal 6/8 time and emphasis on the first, third and 5th quaver would sound like 3/4.

But as well as sounding like there’s emphasis, the performer has to look like they’re putting in some emphasis. This is where I like to teach ‘presenting’ the beat to the listener. It goes like this.

Rock-paper-scissors

Imagine rock-paper-scissors. Say you’re facing off against your opponent and you do the bounce, bounce, go, method of play.  Notice how when making the move, you flick our your hands to the required shape and just keep it there. That’s what we’re after.

So  imagine you’re playing ‘paper’ and we just remove the initial bounce, bounce part. You flick out the paper move and voila, that’s you presenting the beat to the listener with a super obvious gesture.

Actors and orators do this all the time. They’re using good, solid arm gestures to ‘present’ an important word. As a musician, we’re doing this to a beat.

Back to the Spohr Concerto. If the performer does a down beat with their clarinet bell and bounces too early, they have to somehow get through 8 (probably rubato timed) demi-semi quavers. Awkward. Instead, they should just ‘present’ that beat with their paper-like-flick, hold that pose, play through the notes, then just before the next beat arrives (and only just before, as in, with about 3 demi-semi quavers to go), move the bell up in preparation for the next paper-like-flick.

So yes, in complete contrast to a conductor, the best solution to this situation is to just hold that down beat in place for a while, get the notes out the way, then prep for the next beat just before it’s required a again.

The student will likely keep stuffing up the prep, so put the clarinet away for a moment and practise with arm gestures and counting subdivisions e.g. 1-e-&-a, 2-(get ready for the flick…)-e-&-a flick-e-&-a- 2-(prep)-e-&-a flick-e-&-a- 2-e-&-a flick …(repeat).

Moving away from the basics

Of course, this is all very prescriptive but it’s a necessity to go right back to basics in order to get students out of bad movement habits they’ve develop over time. It’s amazing how much some of them wiggle around without even knowing.

Once this is mastered, it’s just a matter of trying to add back in the more conductor like movements but again, conductor-like is still a simplification, it’s more like someone working a thick elastic band around both hands, stretching it out and then gradually letting the band pull back. The look of effort creates a strong looking, slow, rubato.

Oh, but then there’s fast… Gosh, I could go on forever about visual tricks.

 

Video games are fun but music is forever

After finishing a class with a student I went out to the foyer to see my next student sitting at a seat by his mother playing a game on his tablet computer.

“Shouldn’t you be in a practice room warming up?” I asked as he walked to the practice room. (I hope I wasn’t in earshot of mother).

I like computer games, I’ve had a huge amount of enjoyment on them and recall fondly the fantastic game mechanics of Close Combat and World in Conflict, the absurdity of the early Command & Conquer series, and the story line of Knights of the Old Republic. I remember the hilarity of the police chases the first time I played GTA3. Earlier than that, it would have been Red Baron on the 386, or even earlier still, Load Runner, Blue Max, California Games and Airborne Ranger on the C64.

Despite having clocked up a ridiculous amount of hours on games I somehow managed to get in clarinet practice, do my schoolwork and partake in other extra curricular activities. Something must have been working right in the household.

Perhaps I should thank my parents for never getting me (or allowing me) a game console, especially not a Nintendo Game Boy. Heck, Dad was so tight, any new computer we bought (beyond the very first i386 PC, which was top of the line for its day) was already about two generations behind. It took ages to upgrade from a 5 1/4″ drive to a 3 1/2″ drive to a CD drive; from a ribbon printer to an ink jet; from an i386 to an upgraded i386 to make it an i486 to finally an AMD Duron then later a Pentium 4; and from dial-up to, well, not dial-up. I think I may have even paid for ‘not’ dial-up.

I have mixed opinions on today’s digital trappings. Games, especially those with story arcs, are as memorable as great books. The popular ones will be referenced in pop culture for decades and you’ll be in the know. But then there are time sinks like Facebook and I’m just so glad it wasn’t around during my studies. All we had was ICQ and then the much simpler MSN messenger. Good luck to the parents in trying to keep kids away from phones and tablets.

Yet I don’t play games anymore; the PS3 was stolen in a burglary and my eyes don’t like playing on a small mobile screen. The closest I get to games on the phone is practicing Spanish using Duolingo. Yet music I still do. I teach, I play in the WCCB, it gets me away from the computer – a good thing considering the hours I pour into the Chartopia side project. Okay, so maybe I’ve just transitioned from games to software side projects…

…but I’ll likely play music forever.

So back to the student who was playing a game while waiting. He wasn’t aware that he was free to grab an empty practice room and warm up because he’s usually my first student on a Saturday (it was Tuesday). For that, I shall give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

 

Freebie lessons

I’ve gone and done something which, after 17 years of teaching I’ve never done; given a former student a few lessons to get them back into playing again.

As a member of the West City Concert Band, I’ve often been asked to encourage my students to join.  It was actually my original clarinet teacher who encouraged me to join the WCCB all those years ago (the mid 90s) and I attribute that experience to having accelerated my clarinet ability during those early years. I’d hazard a guess to say that a lot of my playing then was (positively) modelled on the clarinetist sitting next to me.

I’ve never been able to encourage my students to join either the WCCB or any other community band, although a couple of students did a few school terms with the North Shore Youth Orchestra without my influence. ABRSM exams I can promote, the band, not so. It didn’t help that the WCCB wasn’t actually that great 6+ years go. Encouraging school level students to participate in outside-of-school music groups is difficult because of distance, time and the fact that the high school bands and orchestras are just so damn good now.

But what of my former students? The ones that no longer have so many school activities? I don’t make a habit of keeping in touch with any of them although a couple of them I’ve bumped into at band festivals/performances, playing for the University of Auckland Concert Band in fact.

For whatever reason though, probably because it was the early days of Facebook, I have a couple of students added as contacts. I noticed one had made passing references to playing saxophone so I contacted this former student and made mention of the WCCB, asked her to think of it as a reason to start playing again and then offered a couple of freebie lessons to help her blow out the cobwebs.

It certainly helps that the musical quality of WCCB is light years beyond what it was 6 years ago. (…as I proof read this, the WCCB has just cleaned up at the 2017 NZCBA Festival with best band, best performance piece and best performance of the set work).

A return to the place I teach was quite nostalgic for the student. The venue was the same but I guess everything seemed a bit smaller given that she’s taller. “Even the vending machine is still the same!” she noted. “I bet some of the overpriced chocolate bars are probably the same too.” I replied.

One could say she was my biggest fan; the guy that played in a ska band, worked for Serato and, yes, she said it, looked like what Harry Potter should have grown up to look like (I used to wear glasses and my 6ft 2″ frame would tower over Daniel Radcliffe).

Will she persist and join the band? Maybe, maybe not, but hey, I got her to get a saxophone out again and for the time being, she’s have a good time belting out some notes.