Looking like you’re owning it

Next in the list of first world problems after consuming way too much food and guzzling down copious amount of the wrong beverages, is posture. We sit at our desks for hours, we lean further into the monitor as eye strain and/or myopia take effect and we look down at our phones. The result is something like that old guy I see walking around my work’s industrial area who fits an engineer’s stereotype, looking like he’s been hunched over a soldering iron for too long. His shoulders are so slumped he looks like he has to lift his chin up to look straight ahead.

That guy is a warning to all young people to look after their posture.

I remember my folks drilling me on posture as a kid as if it were as important as manners. “Get your hands out of your pockets…” was to allow the arms to swing while walking. Then there was the 3-4 years of ballroom dancing I did up until the age of 13. I remember the ‘wall treatment’ (standing with one’s back to the wall in order to flatten out the shoulder blades) and the reminders to keep the head tall and shoulders down; all things to help you look like a million bucks on the dance floor.

Those things stick too, because 22 years later I took up salsa dancing and the body naturally wants to return to those positions. Curse my desk job that threatens to unravel it all again.

Posture in music performance

Posture in incredibly important for performance music too, yet students often twist and contort their bodies into all sorts of odd looking positions.

Standing straight

Yesterday’s sax student (much like many before him) find it difficult to stand tall and ground both feet; they stand there with one leg crossed behind the other and they begin to sway. Naturally this completely messes with their sense of pulse; in fact, swaying like that is evidence they currently don’t think about pulse at all while playing. It should be next to impossible to maintain a sway that is counter to the actual pulse of the music.

Sitting correctly

For the younger students, standing isn’t practical because of the weight of the instrument. Some even struggle to have their feet touch the ground and so have to sit at the very front of the chair. Sometimes the weight of the instrument means they have to rest it on an instrument case.

Once they get taller though, there’s no excuses. “Sitting is standing from the waist up” I think I heard at a ballroom dancing class, yet some students will attempt to cross their legs (I’ll stop that pretty quick), or wrap their feet around the chair legs (can’t tap when that happens), really, anything that is not feet flat out in front of them is a bad idea.

Sax to the side vs. centre

“Bring your instrument to you, not your head to the instrument…” is some advice I heard once. Often times a student gets themselves in all sorts of odd shapes by being influenced by how they’re holding the instrument.

I had to demonstrate this with the saxophone yesterday. I took off the neck strap and demonstrated standing nice and tall, holding the saxophone with my right hand. I can  pull off the staunch, one-handed demonstration because I’ve got big hands and strong arms but it was an amusing looking struggle for my more diminutive student. Still, it was just a demonstration. I said, “look, I’m standing tall, both my feet are grounded. I’m looking forward at the music and my chin is level. I’m essentially at a neutral position. Now, bring the saxophone to you… and nothing about your posture should change.”

The result should be a saxophone that is positioned in front of you, not the side. Despite the fact that the saxophone keys look designed for a right side bias, this compromises your right hand position and makes you less agile. Having the sax to the side also brings it too close to your body, making you cramped and angling the mouth piece down too much resulting in a less jazzy sound.

Also, you look like a complete ass.

If you’re no longer a pre-teen, do yourself a favour and hold the saxophone out from your body. The right thumb will pivot the instrument to your mouth, the left thumb will act as balance, the mouth will assist in stability and the neck will take the weight.

Chair swinging

When I was 12 years old, my school teacher took away my seat because I was swinging on it.  You’d think that’s a bit counter intuitive to learning; perhaps there should have been a class engineering assignment of designing a better seat so that one doesn’t want to swing it, or perhaps a seat design that was swing resistant or absorbed swing forces.

Anyway, the chairs in my music studio are the classic welded metal square piping type and they don’t take to being swung very well. One of my students snapped a chair at the weld joint by swinging while playing (to be fair, the chair had probably already been re-welded)

Students sometime have their seat so far away from the music that they sit on the very front of the seat then lean it forward to get even closer to the music. In the act of swinging they’re stuffing up the pulse of the music again. How can you swing out of time to the beat? Answer, they’re not feeling the beat, which is why they’re swinging. It’s important to cut that out, if not for fixing their timing, you at least have to think about looking after the chairs.

Don’t perform sitting in a mini-skirt

A pro-tip, don’t go playing saxophone at an all-boys school assembly in a mini skirt. You’ll struggle to hold those legs together for the entire set. “What was I thinking?!” proclaimed the 2nd sax player from my school’s Big Band. Plus, unless your 6ft and playing an alto sax, that saxophone is going to be to the side again and result in all the aforementioned bad stuff.

Final thoughts

Music performance is like theatre, you have to look like you’re owning that stage, you have to look like you’re owning the pulse, the beat, the rhythm, everything. None of the musicality can afford to accidentally work. Instead, you’re entire physical presence has to give the audience reassurance that there’s not going to be a train wreck, allowing them to sit back and enjoy the show rather than feeling nervous for the person performing (well, that’s how I feels sometimes when watching those talent shows. Yikes).

Positive Report Writing

It’s that time of year again where I somehow spend about three times longer than expected at doing a task that should be straight forward. I’m never sure why but I spend many hours writing reports for just 13 students.

I’ve written about writing student reports before but in that post I was quite general about the topic. In this post I’m going to hone in on a very important aspect of report writing; how to keep them positive and constructive.

The objective is to get a message across by using positive inflection when it’s really easy to inadvertently use a negative one; basically avoiding stating what the student is doing wrong and instead merely implying it by suggesting what a student should work at in order to better themselves at some aspect (technique, tone etc).

Eliminating the negative

Often there are cases where the student is really struggling but there are way to express this without inflicting self-esteem killers. Here are some examples:

The student doesn’t practise enough

“…Regular practise will allow <student> to make greater progress.”

No tonguing (too much slurring)

“…be mindful to use more tonguing; articulation brings varied character to the music.”

The embouchure is weak and the resulting tone is poor

“…a little more embouchure strength will allow <student> to achieve a darker, richer tone.”

Note accuracy is poor and there are too many mistakes

“…it’s important to practise at a slow, controlled tempo in order to get the fingers used to going to the correct places.”

Sight reading is bad

“…sight reading is proving a challenge but continued practise will allow note reading and rhythmic interpretation to become much easier and faster.”

Phrasing is poor

“…remember that phrases are like musical sentences; continuing to push air until the very ends of phrases will allow for greater shape and musicality.

Student is going through the motions and not pushing themselves

“…music is as much a performance as it is a technical pursuit. Embracing the theatrics of performance and embracing some eccentricity will bring much more life to <student’s> playing.”

How are those for euphemisms?

Putting in the truth

For kicks and giggles, here’s a comment from my report written by my university clarinet teacher back in 2003.

Glenn gets good marks for flair, energy, versatility and natural ability and for what he achieves on so little practice. If he worked hard he would be a phenomenal player.

In certain aspects of music he is intensely motivated but the wider picture fails to motivate him and this results in a narrow and limiting attitude which manifests itself in bouts of extreme negativity, even while he is playing, and this makes for very uncomfortable listening.

You could say that I had a differing opinion on how lessons should have been constructed.

Gig Night & Solos

The West City Concert Band played their 40th anniversary gig at the local Croatian Club last Saturday. It doubled as a wine & cheese night where each table was given large platters of food throughout the night; the place was packed out. After the concert band, a 20 piece big band finished up the night while a massive cake was being served out. Those keen (or crazy) enough to do so, got up for a dance to some of the big band’s numbers which involved a crooner singing numbers like New York, New York.

That’s the context of what I’m going to share.

I had a couple of decent solos to play that night. One was bits and pieces within a Benny Goodman number and the other was the fantastic Victor’s Tale; a clarinet feature piece which is an arrangement of the music by John Williams from the film The Terminal.

Victor’s Tale is a great piece. It’s got a klezmer character, reasonably challenging and a good way of showing off a bit. There are a couple of places though that require a bit of attention such as the concluding ‘moving in thirds’ pattern. I wanted to ace that part for the concert.

So I practised it up and got it pretty good.

Unfortunately I wasn’t really 100% on my game that night. To the audience it probably sounded amazing but I set a high standard of myself so my fingers not really flowing well upset some of the phrasing. I think the 4 hours of teaching earlier in the day may have compounded with the obligatory nerves that ultimately put me off my game a bit. It was good enough for a gig.

Now, even though this is clarinet feature, it was a great piece to add something extra in the form of a couple of acro-yoga dancers. So while I played, I was half watching the performance of this couple which included throwing the girl around a bit. They’d choreographed something specially for this piece (as if dancing to a story) so when they concluded their ‘story’, the audience naturally applauded…

…just before that passage which I’d busted my ass to practise.

In the notes leading up to my challenging thirds passage I was laughing to myself (internal laugh of course because I had a clarinet stuck in my mouth) because here I was psyching myself up for this passage and the audience’s applause of the dancers was going to drown it out!

I aced the passage.

The piece finishes, everyone’s applauding and I acknowledge the audience but in mind mind I’m thinking about how much I worked on something that no one heard.

Trialing clarinets

Unfortunately I’m not sponsored by Buffet Crampon (hear that, Buffet, give me a call) so unfortunately I don’t have a steady stream of the newest and finest instruments being sent to me to trial, showcase and recommend to others.

This becomes a bit problematic for when students ask me what clarinet they should buy so they can upgrade from their Yamaha C1, Plastic Le Blanc Vito or heaven forbid, some crusty no-name brand from who knows where that one wonders how they even got into the clarinet making game in the first place. Still, you’d be surprised how well some of those instruments play.

In the last while I’ve had a student buy the (now discontinued) Le Blanc Cadenza at a highly cut price (NZ $2900). Apparently knocking $2000 off the price is the best way to move stock along. Unfortunately this instrument suffers from a few fuzzy notes because there’s probably not enough clearance on the keys. Regardless, it’s a decent sounding instrument and the wood grain looks fantastic.

I’ve also had a few students buy Bliss clarinets. They seem okay but one has had the key-work go a spectacular black colour. It was like a ninja clarinet given the lack of metal join rings creating uninterrupted black wood from top to bottom. They should probably make them like that; it would be like the clarinet equivalent of not putting any lacquer on a brass instrument.

Another student recently borrowed a Buffet E12F and E13. Both sounded okay but again, they suffered from the same fuzzy-key issue because pads aren’t allowed to rise high enough above the tone hole. Why KBB Music would let a clarinet leave the shop on trial without making sure it’s sounding as good as it possibly can is a mystery to me. It’s very off putting when slowly going up a chromatic scale and it goes “dah, dah, dah, dah, fffsst, dah, dah, phsssttt, dah…”

Both these very expensive clarinet did this.

Last weekend I finally dragged myself to KBB to try out those clarinets again and there was no issue. Yes, their trial rooms were a bit generous in their acoustics but the fuzz definitely wasn’t there. Either KBB fixed them or their shelf models weren’t the same ones going out on loan. Therein lies the issue of buying clarinets. You really have to try before you buy and there’s no guarantee that the one you’re going to buy off the internet for a bargain price is actually going to sound the same as the one you tried elsewhere. Hopefully any fix is just a $400 mechanics bill away (ouch) but there’s no guarantee. A shop should at least do their darnedest to remedy obvious faults first, though, assuming they actually want to make a sale.

The Buffet E12F and E13 sound and behave almost identically, which in some ways is disappointing because you want the E13, that costs $1000 more, to instantly differentiate itself with better quality tone and response. To their credit I suppose, Buffet have created a commendable E12F with equal response across the whole range and the higher registers sound with ease. The main difference between the two is the staining of the wood and a bit of extra attention to the key work and metal styling (i.e. the bell has the metal protecting ring) on the E13; it basically looked better without actually sounding (much) better. Really though, a grade 5+ student couldn’t go wrong with an E12F, especially at the price difference (NZ $2145 vs $3145).

I also tried a $10,000 Buffet Tosca.

I didn’t buy it.

 

Life by analogy

I like a good analogy; I must surely give about half a dozen a week to students. This week I had two new ones I don’t think I’ve used before.

Analogy 1

My student is having to do very long phrases of which it’s not possible to get to the end without breathing, however, the phrase is still important; we can’t just slap a massive breath in there and split the phrase in two. The phrase needs to maintain its momentum, the feeling that there is a start, a continuous motion and then an end. The fact that we, as wind musicians, need to breath is irrelevant. My old adage of ‘pianos don’t need to breathe’ applies here; we just have to find a way.

The way is to breathe still (in an ideal a place as possible) but the breath has to be quick and almost panicked-like. In many ways it’s there for dramatic effect; a hurried breath that gives this feeling of urgency because the phrase just has to keep on going.

So, the analogy.

“Think of a car moving manually through the gears, ” I said. “BrrrrrRRRR, chick, BrrrrrRRRR, chick, BrrrrrrggggrrRRRR…” (yes, I did the sound effects).

“Ummm, I don’t know how to drive yet. I get to learn this year. And what do you mean ‘manual’ gears, anyway?”

“You know, that gear box in the middle, but one where you have to change the gears yourself when required… and you use a clutch…”

At which point I started trying to teach my student how to drive a manual car.

The point being was that a gear change on a manual car is a small disruption in the build up of its momentum. A phrase ending is like the car slowing to an almost standstill at a give-way sign, a gear change is like that hurried breath in the phrasing.

Analogy 2

The student had to play a lot of very high clarinet notes in the third octave D-G range. It was all very unwieldy with lots of squeaks.

“How’s the altitude up there?” I joked.

I continued. “Part of the issue here is the lack of familiarity. You don’t play your chromatic scale enough, especially not up to these notes and it’s all seemingly foreign to you. It’s like your doing some high altitude flying and you have no idea how the plane behaves when the air is thinner. You’re unfamiliar with how much you can push the aircraft in these conditions until it stalls and possibly go into a spin. You’ve just got to get up there more often and get used to it.”

Then the student did the all-to-common squeaks on the decent were seemingly innocuous notes squeak when they slacken off their embouchure strength thinking they’re ‘safe’. Grrrrr.

“Clarinet is a very physical instrument,” I reminded him. “Those Red Bull air racers are continually using core strength to push the blood back into their heads so that don’t black out in the high Gs.”

“Then there’s Scott Dixon (Indy Car) who trains for car racing by doing Triathlon. He may be sitting down but there is a lot of endurance required.”

Ah yes, the sporting analogy, this time with sports people that are riding machines and aren’t doing things all on their own steam. It’s probably a good example really. Percussion instruments still have to be struck, wind instruments still have to be blown and there are lots of muscles required to do that work and then the endurance to maintain it.

 

 

 

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.

Re (clarinet) service

Six months ago I took my clarinet for its first service in a very long time; there was a lot that needed doing. The primary reason was to get rid of a vzzzzt sound I could hear around about a high G. My acute clarinet hearing could hear this and it was consequently driving me nuts (the audience would probably never have known though).

A pretty penny later and the clarinet was a lot better but the little vibration was still there, just.

I eventually decided to try and figure out the problem myself. The problem was that I knew there was a problem, I just didn’t know the cause of the problem. If I’d know exactly what key or pad was causing all the angst I’d have just taken it back to the mechanic but one can’t go back and simply say “it’s still broken, fix it.”

So in order to self diagnose the issue I pulled my clarinet’s upper mechanism to pieces and proceeded to bung each tone hole with blu-tack until I isolated the problem.

I didn’t isolate the problem.

 

clarinet_investigation

An attempt at figuring out where the vibration noise is coming from. Notice all the blu-tack.

What I did do was create an amazing mess on my bed (which is the next worst work space after carpet). I think in the process of dismantling the mechanism I had a pad get sliced by one of the flat springs, a result of spring forces blowing the mechanism apart. So not only did I fail to find the issue, I probably created another one.

Or, maybe that pad was already sliced and that was the issue all along?

Six months later and I’ve just handed the clarinet to the mechanic of my local concert band. As he said, sometimes its useful to use different mechanics because they tend to pick up on different things. At least I’ll get the sliced pad replaced, sliced enough to cause a vibration but not sliced enough to prevent a good seal (as the air pressure equipment demonstrated, all the pads were sealing fine).

String instruments supposedly get better with age (or maybe it’s because only the best ones don’t get thrown away). Perhaps that situation is only true because, unlike a clarinet, it’s not a mechanical instrument. As soon as moving parts with spring, levers and keys get involved, parts will eventually wear out. Perhaps my clarinet is actually starting to suffer that fate, it’s wearing out.

As the owner of the Music Education Centre said, people may love their classic muscle cars but they handle like crap. I’d say the same is true of an old clarinet lined up against the latest from Buffet , Le Blanc or Selma. It’s taking a lot of embouchure muscle to smooth out the vagaries of my Le Blanc but then I suppose that’s the difference between a NZ $2,300 Le Blanc of 1999 and a NZ $9,995 Buffet Tosca of 2016 (If I was pro, I’d look at getting one of those clarinets but as it stands, I’m a part timer).