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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Writing music – Learn by doing

I stumbled across an absolute gem the other day while throwing out (and sometimes scanning to .pdf) a massive amount of old music that I haven’t touched in a long, long time.

Here it is…

IMG_3490

A 9-year old’s attempt at transcribing the Hogan’s Heroes theme tune.

That, is a 9 year old’s attempt at transcribing the Hogan’s Heroes theme tune. Being an 80s child, we still had classics like Hogan’s Heroes being played on TV while growing up; a slapstick WWII show like that fell right into my interests at the time (it was a lot better than Ain’t Half Hot Mum and maybe just a bit better than ‘Allo! ‘Allo!)

That youthful transcription is a great example of getting it kind of right but being oh so very wrong at the same time.

Just ignore the fact that the title is spelt wrong (yet notice the apostrophe? Nice). Here’s a little list of mistakes up to the end of the first phrase.

  • Treble clef is wayward.
  • The time signature has become a fraction.
  • In the 2nd bar it rhythmically goes to the pieces. All the notes are correct but it should be be a dotted quaver, semi quaver, quaver, quaver, minim (all finished in the second bar).
  • It seems by the next line that the rhythm has become so confused that the bar lines were forgotten about. Memorising of the tune has allowed me to play it.

But really, the important part is that my 9 year old self gave it a shot. I probably took this piece of paper busking with me outside the liquor store in Kumeu that time (I made about NZ $60 in one hour in 1995! That’s a lot of cash for a 9 year old).

Transcribing music is not easy so it’s a good idea to expose students to the exercise at some point. I like to grab a piece of music such as a pop song that they know, play the youtube video first (‘oh, yeah, that song’) and go from there. It’s damn hard so this is how I break it down.

  • If they’re not really shy, I ask them to sing/hum back the first few bars.
  • If the notes are really hard to find on the instrument, we stick with just rhythms.
  • If writing the rhythms down on manuscript is difficult, we try clapping first.
  • If the pitch is difficult, I’ll play it on my clarinet and try and get them to mimic me (it reduces the ‘noise’ of a full recording when just playing on my instrument).

Rhythm is really the most important thing to appreciate. Pitch is hard (we’ll, it is for me). I completely destroyed a cassette tape by constantly rewinding and playing it because I couldn’t get my brain to appreciate the pitch. I could whistle it back but just trying to find the associated notes on the clarinet. Grrr. I still struggle with it after all these years. Not enough practise. I know I’ve contradicted myself here because in the above transcription, I’ve got the pitch right but rhythm wrong. As a learning exercise though, rhythm should trump pitch during a class (the student can figure out the pitch at home).

It’s worth noting that my 9 year old self didn’t try and write out the Hogan’s Heroes theme at the behest of my teacher; I did it because I wanted to. I couldn’t even say that my teacher empowered me to do so. I probably didn’t even take it to a lesson, which is why it’s still full of mistakes.

It’s great when students do things like this out of their own initiative but sometimes exposure and a little nudge (encouragement) is required to move them beyond just playing music and expand into creating music.

 

The Symbiosis of Technique and Stamina

The title of the post is a bit of a strange one and you may be wondering where I’m going with it. The relationship between technique and stamina has come to the forefront of my mind lately as I’ve tried to take up a few new activities. It turns out these new activities have parallels with learning musical instruments.

Some backstory.

In my own mind, I’m a bit slack. I have to drag myself to go do things that are outside my routine. Strangely (because I feel like a massive contradiction) I somehow manage to do quite a few things; currently it’s programming (day job), working on a side project (entrepreneurial ambitions), regular social dancing (have to go where the girls are), just started doing some indoor rock climbing with guys at work (getting outside the comfort zone), did some camping and snorkling over the break (socialising that doesn’t involve dancing), ride the Triumph everywhere (because motorcycles are awesome), enter trail running events (because… mmmm, not sure why). Somehow, I manage to do these things.

But I’m not a swimmer. I can swim but there’s a huge different between wanting to go swimming and just doing swimming. After doing more and more running events I’ve come to want to do events that involve a water component and, truth me told, I don’t think I could make the 400-600 metres across the mouth of the Okura River at Karepiro Bay for this year’s North Shore Coastal Challenge. The last thing I want is someone to have to rescue me.

So I’ve joined the gym close to work and have started using their pool with the goal of being being better at swimming.

Holy crap! It’s exhausting. This is the sport that my students wake up at ridiculous hours to train for and then complain that they’re soooo tired once they get to their evening music lesson. Students, that by fate of genetics, will never grow up to have the physique of an olympic swimmer but in their early teens are all of equal physique and so competition is still an even playing field (so to speak).

So I’ve been diligently going to the pool during lunchtime and struggling out 500m, 200m of which I use a kick board (yeah, that’s not much so don’t laugh). I joke with the life guards about how abysmal I am and they give me reassurances that it will get easier.

I got into a conversation with one of the guys at work and he was trying to explain the optimal free-style technique; something to do with the arms creating an s-like motion in the water, but I tried to explain to him that technique isn’t going to get me very far if I can’t even control my breathing.

Then, strangely, the same conversation came up during indoor rock climbing. Although I’m reasonably strong, I’m technically lacking. Actually, I’m strong but not ‘rock climbing strong’ meaning for all the muscles I have, they’re completely useless for the purposes of rock climbing. It’s all in the feet, forearms and fingers and here I am with shoulder muscles and runner’s legs. Yeah, that only takes you so far. Have you tried riding a motorcycle home with burning forearms? Even though the guys would explain to me good technique, I came to realise that one can’t execute technique if one can’t get their arms and legs to sustain technically correct positions and manoeuvres. That became obvious when ‘just put your foot there’ required that extra 2cm my legs couldn’t reach, or that ‘just grab that boulder’ would have my hand and fingers give out. Then there was some training apparatus that was like a pull-up climbing ladder for your fingers. I can do pull-ups, but when it’s finger and not full hands… nah, no way. Not that day.

There’s between being able to do something and being able to do it for a prolonged period of time. It’s a little like my clarinet playing; technically proficient but I can’t last as long as I used to while at university.

Swimming is a great example because, like wind playing, it can result in panic-breathing. I can swim that first 35m fine (yeah, that’s isn’t very far) and get 4-6 decent strokes in before requiring a breath but then the pressure of the water pushing at the lungs and probably all sorts of other fatigue start to affect me. By the last 15m I’m taking only 2 strokes per breath and probably have the grace of rhinoceros. Likewise, a wind player can get so exhausted mid way through a piece that they start taking little tiny breaths and look like they’re about to hyperventilate. They then get so distracted but this that mistakes in other areas creep in. Then there’s general embouchure strength. Students start off great and the tone is good but they’ll then tire and to compensate, tuck in their bottom lip too far resulting in the reed getting squished which in turn compromises the tone.

The solution? There is none, except time and practise and of course, knowing at least what a good technique is in the first place. You just have to try and sustain good technique as long as you can and patiently (over weeks and months) wait for the body to build up the strength required to sustain the technique. It’s the realisation that there’s a point where you just have to stop and take a break or else the technique succumbs. Trying to incorrectly alter good technique to compensate for lack of strength runs the risk of the body memorising bad form and that’s no good. The embouchure is a classic example because students often revert to their ‘default’ position even when they do have the stamina.

Sure, during a performance you just have to survive to the end but it’s worth knowing the risk of struggling through (during practice) when form and technique starts to become compromised. It’s the realisation that some things just can’t be rushed; the body is a complex biological machine that requires fine tuning to allow you to do your new hobbies.

‘Tis the Season

I have an admission; I’m a huge John Williams fan.

That raises the question though, am I John Williams fan because I like Star Wars or do I like Star Wars as much as I do because of John Williams? As much as people deplore the missed opportunity that was the prequel trilogy (and for the record, I think the story is a good one but the execution not so), at least it gave us this.

Is that not one of the best film pieces of all time? What a shame it was wasted on a mediocre film.

For someone who’s written as many hours of music as John Williams has, you can excuse him for having a distinctive sound show up in many of his films (e.g. the car factory scene in Minority Report sounds like it was pulled out of Star Wars Ep 1 and 2). Duel of the Fates though, that is something distinctively refreshing.

So, where am I going with this? Why bring up John Williams? Well, ’tis the season of course. The release of The Force Awakens means a new John Williams soundtrack and I unashamedly love it. Yes, it’s got the thick brush strokes of John Williams all over it and it’s great. I can even hear some clarinet in there, something you don’t experience much in a John Williams score because he gives all the best woodwind parts to the flutes! Heck, even the oboe seems to get more exposed solos than the clarinet does. Maybe it’s because the clarinet blends in so well with the rest of the woodwinds and the horns that you never hear it explicitly; you’d miss them though if they weren’t there fattening up the sound.

With the new John Williams soundtrack in my possession, what better way to get my students interested in film music than to play them something like Track 6, Rey’s Theme. It stars with a pretty flute solo (in concert A minor, I think), then passes a riff through to a clarinet, an oboe, back to the flute, then to the bass clarinet. It then brings in some chimes with a new melody with the clarinets honking echoes of the initial riff, then the strings take over with the expanded melody and the woodwind section providing echoes on a variation of the initial riff. Great stuff to show to students.

I remember when I purchased my first John Williams soundtrack. It was the entire Empire Strikes back Special Edition double CD and I was probably about 10 or 11 years old. I was at my Nana’s house and just lay on the couch for the full 1st CD just listening to it from her very decent sound system. My Nana’s dog did too and when the first CD finished and the music stopped, the dog got up and left. The dog probably didn’t know there was a 2nd CD.

Some of my students hadn’t even heard of John Williams let alone know how many movies he’s written for. They’ve heard of Harry Potter and Jurassic Park though.

And those rare clarinet solos in Star Wars, a good one is The Imperial Probe/Aboard The Executor from the Empire Strikes Back; the prelude to the Battle of Hoth. those high notes require some skills.
Listen to 1:55 and especially 2:20 to here an example of high altitude clarinet playing.