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.

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.