Ear Protection for Musicians

Without a doubt, one of the best purchases I have ever made was my ER-25 musicians earplugs (by Etymotic Research Inc.). While playing in a ska band during my Uni days, the drummer had a pair and swore by them. Let’s just say it got pretty loud playing in the bass player’s parent’s garage and the standard foam earplugs didn’t sound that great.

Avoiding all the jargon, let’s just say that a pair of decent earplugs will dampen the volume evenly across all frequencies meaning that everything sounds the same, just quieter. The problem with a pair of cheap earplugs is that they typically quieten the higher frequencies more than the lower therefore leaving you with all the muddier sounds.

I bought the earplugs about 13 years ago now and I remember it costing me a small fortune. For some reason $300 NZ comes to mind, which seems crazy excessive but the process of getting them was a bit involved. I had to get a mould of my ear canals which would be sent to Australia so that the earplugs could be custom made for my ears.

I arranged an appointment  with Bay Audiology to get moulds done but being the professionals they are, they insisted on first testing my hearing. Sure enough, my left ear was slightly worse off that my right courtesy of my music students sitting to my left; nothing to worry about though. Then the audiologist said that he couldn’t take moulds at that time because my ears had lots of wax in them and it needed to be removed. He couldn’t do this personally (no idea why) so I had to book another time to get some kind of ear-wax-remover-specialist to get it out of there. Imagine that.

With the wax removed (a strangely cleansing experience), the original audiologist stuck this massive toy syringe into each ear and filled them full of putty. The moulds were sent to Aussie and in a few weeks I got my earplugs.


ER-25 earplugs.JPG

Red for right and ‘antennas’ to help get them out. I really should clean them.

Why so loud anyway?

Given this strange culture we’ve adopted whereby the music in clubs get so loud that no one can have a conversation without shouting at their neighbour, the earplugs found use well beyond practising in the band or playing gigs, I used them while an audience member at the likes of The Kings Arms Tavern where, despite being a great venue for gigs, the low ceiling makes the venue incredibly loud. I got to experience the awesome The WBC and Reel Big Fish in all their glory but thanks to my ER-25s, my ears that didn’t know all about it two days later.

All these years later, the earplugs have found more use again with the West City Concert Band. Our brass players are great but gosh they’re loud. Sometime it’s to hell with the rounded mellow tonality and in with that penetrative blare they use. Then there’s that damn piccolo which seems to be impossible to play below 120 dB and cuts straight through my brain. The earplugs fix that.

Down Sides

Unfortunately the ER-25s aren’t perfect for a wind player. The nature of wind instruments mean it’s in contact with your mouth and the vibrations play a big part of the sound one hears. The result is that the player gets a somewhat weird audiological experience when wearing earplugs. It’s not bad, bad, it’s just different. In my experience, saxophone and clarinet sound better than trombone but that may just be due to my lesser confidence with playing brass. As a trumpet player said to me though, you just play by ‘feel’ anyway.

Sometime the West City Concert Band gets so loud you can’t even hear yourself and good luck keeping yourself in tune if you can’t hear yourself. The earplugs, despite making you sound like crap at times, actually helps for tuning and strangely makes you concentrate on tone too, given that if you’re sounding pretty good with earplugs in, it’s probably sounding pretty good.

Facebook ads

Have you noticed Facebook’s increased used of Suggested Posts i.e. Advertising; Ad Block Plus isn’t filtering them. Well, funny enough the ads actually worked on me because it pointed me in the direction of Flare Audio‘s Kickstarter campaign for their new Isolate Titanium earplugs. It was good timing on their part because I’ve been shopping around for earplugs to use with my motorcycle and I’m running out of cheap foam earplugs that I’ve been using. I figured using $300 musicians earplugs for my motorcycle riding wasn’t a good idea given the frequency I drop the foam ones on the ground.

So Flare Audio’s new earplugs came about and after a couple of days umming and ahhing, I’m bought them. It felt impulsive and they cost about $100 NZ but curiosity pretty much got the better of me and they’ll be arriving a week or so.

It’s going to be interesting to see how they compare to the custom moulded ER-25 earplugs so watch this space for a subjective review.

Worth it

One of the questions you get asked when buying a new motorcycle helmet is “how much is your head worth?” I suppose the same can’t really be said for earplugs because a pair of foam ones still do the job. Still, having some expensive ones would certainly encourage one to use them more. I think I’ve got my dollars worth out of mine (gosh, did I really pay $300?).

Get earplugs people, you don’t want hearing like my dad’s (blame that on using .303 rifles in the airforce with no ear protection).


Playing at the Auckland Town Hall

The Auckland Town Hall is a fantastic venue for ensemble concerts. During high school I received free tickets to NZSO concerts courtesy of some kind of mentoring program (I can’t remember the details now) so I got to see the best NZ had to offer in the way of orchestral performance. Maybe somebody thought I had promise at being an amazing, influential musician (shucks) but I did learn that listening to over one hour of a Mahler symphony bores me witness. It doesn’t matter how good the orchestra is, watching orchestral music is not that interesting unless the percussion players are racing around all over the place.

Once the Town Hall’s renovations were completed in 1997, the Town Hall was also the venue of choice for the Auckland Secondary Band and Orchestra Festival, gleefully called ass-bof by us high schoolers. It’s called the KBB music festival now so I hope KBB payed some big bucks to get the naming rights.  I hear from my students that it’s now held at The Holy Trinity Cathedral, which although is a nice venue, I’d have thought it a bit cavernous. Maybe the cost went up, or maybe the teachers didn’t like the students galavanting around the CBD.

I think the last time I was there was for my 2008 graduation.

Who’d have thought that in 2016, I’d get the chance to play in that same venue again. Taking that up a notch, who’d have thought I’d be playing with the West City Concert band who, to be fair, were entirely average at best until about 3 years ago with ‘the changing of the guard’.

So here we were, last Saturday, at one of Auckland’s premier concert venues playing a 3-piece set for our Band Together concert we co-hosted with the Auckland University and  Manukau Concert Bands.


Look at the size of that organ.

It turns out the massive Town Hall organ was restored in 2010 and the musical director of the Manukau Concert Band didn’t want to waste the opportunity of using it. Consequently we had  some members of each band combine to perform the Finale of Saint Saëns’ Symphony No. 3. Yeah, the one with the organ.

The concert was a success (it sounded pretty good from where I was sitting but the recording was probably using a mic that didn’t do the ensemble justice) but it was notable for another reason. Two of the students in the Auckland University Concert Band were former students of mine and it was great to see them still playing. One, whom I taught for 8 years from beginner to grade 8 (with distinction), was back for a few weeks after his first semester studies in France; he’d found out that his time home would coincide with the concerts so got involved.

The other student I assumed would drop clarinet after high school but I was glad to see I was wrong. She was stoked to be able to have the opportunity to keep playing ensemble music. The UoA wind band is almost like a social club and doesn’t have anything to do with the UoA school of music. It’s essentially student led and conducted and most of the players don’t study music at the university; it’s a perfect no-pressure environment for all those wanting to continue music during tertiary studies.

Well done to those who had the gumption to put on this concert, it was a nostalgic experience (I even dragged the folks and grandparent to it).

Being a programming teacher

One of the consequences of being a software programmer is the never ending desire to make side projects. Unfortunately the typical programming day job has tasks that are  so narrowly focused that you end up using only a limited number of technologies to solve problems within a limited domain. Yet programming is such a vast field with many programming languages to try, various problems to solve or projects to play with; it’s a giant sandpit full of toys!

When I started teaching music I was still in high school (2001) and was teaching myself old-school HTML and Javascript; there was no practical way to do software show-and-tell in 2001. By 2008 the Playstation Portable was released and colleague and I were programming a Desert Strike clone for the PSP Homebrew called Mobile Assault. I remember a saxophone student bring in his Sony PSP and thinking that the screen/image quality looked amazing (480×320); way better than the Sega Game Gear and the Nintendo Game Gear that came before it. So when Mobile Assault, the game I spent years of spare time on, was released first for the Homebrew PSP and  then the iPhone, that same student was keen to try it out.

My students had become my beta testers.

For example, that student proved that someone who had used a virtual/touch joystick on the iPhone had no problems flying the helicopter whereas those who hadn’t played similar games found it more difficult. I discovered that some of the controls weren’t so intuitive, like the take off and land button. Usually after a bit of trial and error, it was discoverable though.

When I made my Breezy Bubbles kids game (which was supposed to be a nice simple and quick project that still took a year to get out the door), my students would ask how the game was going and I’d show them. It was meant to be a game that could be played without needing instructions so I’d give them the game to try and observe what problems (if any) they had in figuring out what to do. The gameplay required the the player to tap/pop bubbles in a certain order, and order that was shown in a mini-bubble-list in the top right of the screen. The idea was that as the player ‘button-mashed’ the screen to figure out what to do, the screen would provide feedback such at that list adjusting as the player popped the bubbles in the correct order.

It was interesting seeing the kids reveal the gameplay via trial and error. After a few tweaks, it worked pretty well.

Naturally the students would ask how many I’d sold.

Generally just being a software guy at all is intriguing to the students. “Wow, so do you make any games?” At the moment I’ll say “well, not at the moment, but I’m working on a tool for Dungeon Masters to help them with their role playing games.” I’d then bring out the phone and ‘roll the dice’ on an example Star Wars Random Encounter table that I’d entered into the web app’s database. I’d then narrate the encounter using my story-telling voice.

“Wow, cool!”

Only last week, one of my young students indirectly found a bug in my software. It turns out when I did my search for ‘Star wars’ the grammar sensitive iPhone capitalised the first letter of the search term. It turns out that the search feature of my app is case sensitive and so only a few of the many Star Wars tables showed up. That was a good find (I really should be writing more tests in my software).

I’m pretty sure my second clarinet teacher was a software programmer but I have no idea what he did exactly. I do remember he flew hang gliders though.

Pokémon in class

We are now week 2 into Pokémon Go’s release and New Zealand is not immune from the fervour. In fact, being at GMT+12 means we’re usually the first to get a game release and when it comes to mobile games, NZ has proven to be a valuable soft launch region for new game releases; there’s not too much going on in this time zone, we’re a small population of almost 4.5 million people and we’re quite tech savvy. It allows the game developers to sort through any issues in a manageable way.

Pokémon Go has become one of those conversation topics that help lessons become less ‘stuffy’ and formal. Yes, there’s only so much one can cram into 30 minute lessons and I try my best to get the most learning material in there as possible but kids lighten up immensely when their teacher brings up something like Pokémon Go.

I learnt about it last Thursday. Some of my students had spent the day doing the Westlake Bands tour of some of the Intermediate Schools on the North Shore.

“…but Pokémon Go got released in NZ today and everyone just spent the day playing it.”

Ha! The teachers just can’t blanket ban phones anymore, it would be impossible. The idea that everyone has the power of a Playstation 2 or 3 in their would seem crazy when I was in high school where the Nokia 3310 was the phone to have (and 2 years earlier we’d say ‘put your phone away you yuppie!’). Even the teachers were probably wishing they could get in on the fun and games but knowing full well that they have to keep up appearances of being the ‘responsible ones’.

In last week’s class, at the encouragement of one of my youngest students, I created a Pokémon Go avatar and captured the tutorial Pokémon. He thought it was great.

Come this week and I’ve been quizzing the kids. “So, have you caught ’em all?” They’re currently on 2 weeks school holiday so it’s going to be chaos in school when they go back. At their inevitable question back to me I have to say: “No, I haven’t been playing it. All I’ve caught in the tutorial Pokémon and a Spearow about an hour ago.” (I played way too much Shadow Cities to be sucked into another location based game).

It turns out the Glenfield Leisure Centre is actually a Pokestop, whatever that is.


A Trick for Faster Breathing

I was obligated to attend a band rehearsal on Friday night and Saturday. The two day rehearsal was a cheaper alternative to the band camp they had last year but which I dodged in favour of music teaching and then an Xterra half marathon. The goal of the rehearsals are to polish up the music for the Wind Band Festival being held later in the year.

This time round I dodged the second half the Friday evening rehearsal for some salsa dancing (it was so cold on the way home that the frost indicator came on on the Triumph) and then the Saturday morning for music teaching. I had no excuses for Saturday from 3:30pm till 9pm.

That being said, it was a worthwhile rehearsal from an ensemble point of view. I didn’t personally gain much musically and I’ll admit that I was fairly resentful having to use up my Saturday solely for music (and delaying progress on my software side project). However, there was one thing, strangely, that was intriguing and it came from an unlikely source.

We had a chorale tutorial.

That’s right, the band had a crash course in choir singing with the North Shore Chorale’s musical director because someone had the bright idea for the band to sing a portion of Satoshi Yagisawa’s Hymn to the Sun with the Beat of the Mother Earth in 4-part harmony.

It was educational, despite me not being fussed on choir singing, but there was one gem of info about breathing that especially stood out; something that explained what I’ve struggled to teach (or at least demonstrate) to my students.

Try this:

  • Start with your lungs at a neutral air capacity by doing a normal exhale.
  • Push out all the air from your lungs until you have next to zero air left in them (go SSSsssssss if you want).
  • Hold your lungs at that complete vacuum-sucked-state for a bit.
  • Hold it…
  • Hold it…
  • Release!

The result should be a sudden expansion of the lungs as air fills the vacuum.

Here’s the thing, you never actually took a breath, you merely used the elastic energy of your lungs to do all the work for you. This is how an advanced wind player breathes so much faster than a student; they’ve pushed out so much air while playing a phrase that the lungs naturally (and quite rapidly) suck in the  air for the next phrase. There’s never a ‘breath’.

A beginner student will often take a breath so that they take their lungs from a neutral lung expansion to an even greater expansion. What they should be aiming to do is training themselves to get used to using up the air already in their lungs and then let their next ‘breath’ really just fill their lungs back up to the neutral position. Physically this can be an odd concept that doesn’t come naturally to them.

I’ve been explaining the lungs’ elasticity for breathing for a long time. What I didn’t have was a prescriptive way of getting the student to try out the concept themselves in such a way that they’d truly get it. This was a great tip.

It just goes to show that wind players are just singers with an instrument suck in their mouths.


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.