Using Modal Interchange to Compose Chord Progressions

I recently came across this excellent introduction to using parallel modes to select different chord possibilities in an original chord progression. The production and explanation of the techniques is very well done.

Although it might seem that this technique is primarily geared towards the jazz composer, “classical” composers who want to explore tonal harmonies but move outside common practice harmonic language will find some interesting sounds to explore with this technique. Pop or rock songwriters might find an unexpected chord borrowed from parallel modes a great way to explore a harmonic “hook” in their tune. Improvisers will want to study the basic advice on how to select melody notes over a chord progression like this.

This can also become a standalone composition exercise. Just like performers will practice etudes and other exercises that aren’t intended to be performed for an audience, composers can get a lot of value from doing short composition projects that force you to be creative within the constraints of a box. Try taking a very basic diatonic chord progression of 4-8 measures and reharmonizing it musing modal interchange, then write a melody or improvise over it. Exploring different sounds like this increases your compositional pallet, even if the specific short composition never gets expanded into something you want performed.

Not Yet – Practicing to Improve

Here is another TED talk, this time by Carol Dweck.

Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet? A great introduction to this influential field.

Dweck discusses research looking at how different students react to challenge. When given tasks that were just slightly too difficult for them to do, some students reacted positively to the challenge, while others had more negative reactions. Students who have the “growth mindset” understand that they have a chance to learn. They may not be able to perform that task, but they understand that it’s only temporary. Not yet.

Teachers can help encourage the growth mindset. Dweck advises encouragement through praise and to reward the process of learning in addition to performing well. Help them to understand that when the move out of their comfort zone is a good path to learning and getting better.

While the research Dweck cites are mainly geared towards younger students, I think that the growth mindset is the proper attitude for even adult music students. It’s challenging even for older students to want to spend time out of their comfort zone. This ties in nicely with last week’s post from another TED talk about practicing.

As a teacher, there are two big takeaways I get from Dweck’s video. First, there’s the advice she offers to how to encourage a growth mindset in your students, but there’s also a deeper pedagogy lesson in there too. Changing up your approach to teaching, particularly if you feel it’s already successful, is hard. You have to move outside your comfort zone in order to become a better teacher.

My challenge to students this week is to explore practicing out of your comfort level. Don’t simply practice things you can already do well. Teachers have a similar challenge. Find a new bit of pedagogy and find ways to use it in your teaching, even if you don’t find it particularly relevant to that situation. Explore with your students the difference it makes in their results and mindset.

How To Get Better Through Practice

Here is an interesting TED talk by Eduardo Briceño with some good advice for how to structure your practice time.

One of the things I find so interesting about this talk is how it deemphasizes spending time in the “performance zone” and recommends that we spend more time in the “learning zone.” This is opposite of what mainstream brass pedagogy tends to recommend, which is largely based on using imagery and imitation and a musical approach to technique development.

When we’re in the “performance zone” we are consciously trying to avoid mistakes. We’re focused on expressive playing. Contrast this to the “learning zone,” where we are focused on how to improve, practicing specific activities that target those areas for improvement, and spending time on things that we can’t do yet. I recently heard a saying the jugglers use, “If you’re not dropping you’re not learning.” For musicians, we can say that if you’re not making clams in the practice room you’re not improving.

It can be a blow to our ego to practice this way. Fun practice sessions are ones where we feel successful. There is a tendency for us to spend more time practicing things we already do well and less on things that need improvement.

It should go without saying that balance is the key. I’ve mentioned before here some of the great books that trombonist Hal Crook has written on practicing jazz improvisation. His practice recommendation always includes that after spending the bulk of your practice time working on letting the spirit and mood of the music direct your improvisations, rather than the specific exercises you just got finished practicing. Crook sometimes refers to this as the “Ready, Aim, Fire!” approach, as opposed to the approach where you simply jam and hope for the best, “Ready, Fire, Aim.”

While the exact ratio between learning zone and practice zone is going to be different for everyone, my challenge to everyone this week is to closely examine your practice time and increase your amount of “learning zone” to “performance zone.” Try it out and then let us know what you find. Did you improve more over time than you typically feel? Did you find practice time less enjoyable? What did you learn about how to practice?

Playing On or Behind the Conductor’s Beat

When I conduct I ask the ensemble to play on my beat. Band conductors, for some reason, seem to be more likely to want their groups to play on the beat, rather than behind the beat. Orchestral conductors, on the other hand, seem to more universally prefer their ensembles play behind their beat. It’s interesting to look at the different reasons (or excuses) for these practices. Here is one, by a cellist, Yvonne Caruthers.

In practice, nearly every conductor gives a beat before the orchestra plays. The conductor gives the beat, but there’s a tiny lag while it’s processed and executed. Most likely, the audience doesn’t even notice. There’s also the fact that one of the conductor’s roles is not to tell the orchestra where they are “now” but to indicate “what happens next”….so being slightly ahead works better.

This is true, the conductor’s responsibility is to “prep” the ensemble so that they are ready to play what’s about to come up. The most obvious version of this is the “prep beat” the conductor gives to indicate the starting tempo. The conductor can’t hold his or her baton up and then just drop it and have the musicians ready, there needs to be at least one beat patter so the musicians understand the tempo and style they are to enter with.

Then there’s the concerns with distance.

Unless you are sitting in the front few rows, there is a delay in the sound.  Speed of light being faster than that of sound, you see the motion, the orchestra plays to the beat, but you hear the sound slightly later than you see the motion.  This is especially noticeable in long halls or concerts played outdoors where crowd is sitting on a long area of grass and they are a long way from the source of the sound.

If you’ve ever performed antiphonal music you’ve experienced this phenomenon. The skill of following the ictus of the conductor’s pattern, rather than listening and reacting to the sound is essential when the distance between performers/conductors is great. Marching band is another situation where this is particularly true. That said, it’s not really clear why the delay that entire orchestras fall into in playing behind the beat is necessary or desirable due to distance. The brass and percussion, typically furthest away from the conductor, usually don’t dictate the delay, it’s the strings, who are closest to the conductor.

The low and loud sections of the orchestra – cellos, basses, and brass – seem especially susceptible to dragging. A commonly hear explanation is that these instruments ‘speak a little late’. However, this absurdly implies that players are unable to take this effect into account.

I agree with the above author’s assessment. If a band can play on the conductor’s beat (or, for that matter, if a trumpet and trombone section in a jazz band can play squarely on the beat without a conductor), there’s really no excuse why an orchestral brass section can’t also adjust their instrumental technique so they don’t “speak a little late.” Not to mention that I don’t buy that these instruments do this. Maybe a pipe organ, but not a brass instrument.

James Bennette II, writing for wqrx.org, notes another excuse,

“I don’t think it would work as well, because the phenomenon has its roots in the string section,” Falletta explained. Because string players tend to be in sync when they bow their instruments, playing behind the beat comes naturally to them. “They have time to say ‘OK, here we go’, and then get into the beat.” And that sound should have no point or edge; the music should just flow. Rigidly sticking to the downbeat makes the music a bit sharper, even when that isn’t the intention of the conductor (or composer, who knows?).

So some folks feel it’s because low and loud sections speak late, but others state that it’s related to the string section.

Another explanation for lag is that the sound produced by instruments at the back of an orchestra takes longer to reach the front. This theory also collapses with a little observation. For example, I once heard the opening bass pizzicatos of the Passacaglia from Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra sound exactly with the conductor’s beat. Sitting in the back of the violin section, at the opposite side of the stage, I expected the different speeds of sound and light to make even precisely played notes seem late to the visual cue. But my impression was of exact synchronsiation. In contrast, the slow sections of the Berlioz Corsaire Overture, on the same programme, oozed far behind the beat. The laws of physics are irrelevant. Musicians can play with a conductor when it is really necessary, as in a particularly exposed and brittle passage. But when there is more margin for error, they easily abandon the beat.

Exactly. Ensembles are perfectly able to play with the conductor, but choose not to.

Here’s the simple response: When an orchestra plays behind the conductor, it has the room to produce a more expressive sound. “It works so well because the musicians can take in a great deal more information before they play,” said Falletta. Waiting a tick allows the ensemble to take in the trajectory, speed and style of a conductor’s beat, which helps them determine what kind of sound the conductor is hoping to achieve. “It gives them a chance to prepare that sound. So the downbeat comes, and the sound opens after that.” The result? More beautiful music. However, orchestras don’t do this for the duration of a piece; the sound behind the beat is most pronounced in slower movements, and as the music gets faster and rhythms more complex, orchestras may tend to attack the downbeat along with the conductor.

Again, I don’t buy that this is the case. As I noted above, it’s not the ictus of the beat that dictates the tempo and style the conductor communicates, it’s the preparation of that beat.

In my college orchestra, it seems like the conductor conducts ahead of the beat. I know that it’s a common thing, but I’ve never played with a conductor like that so I’m a little confused. It seems like everyone knows exactly when to come in on beat 1, say at the beginning of a piece, but to me it looks like the conductor gives a big downbeat, nothing happens, and then we come in seemingly randomly… And then it’s hard for me to keep the pulse in my head because I don’t really have anything to refer to except for listening to others because the conductor is doing something else.

This question, asked on violinist.com, is curious. It’s possible that the conductor simply isn’t being clear with the beat, but I don’t know how a conductor can conduct ahead or behind the beat. The conductor’s beat patter IS the beat. It’s the ensemble that collectively chooses to play ahead, behind, or right on the conductor’s ictus. It’s the conductor’s responsibility to tell the ensemble where to play.

Adam Neely’s points in the above video are quite good. I think that the most likely explanation is stylistic convention combined with the collective decision of the ensemble and conductor. Be sure to watch Neely’s followup video.

What do you think? When you perform (as a musician or conductor) do you prefer playing directly on the beat or slightly behind? Leave your comment below.

Commenting Off For Now

Comments have been temporarily disabled while I try to fix some things in the background. They will likely remain off for a couple of days or so until I have the time and inclination to either figure out the fix on my own or contact tech support.

3D Tongue Motion Analysis of Wind Musicians

I’ve been meaning to post about these videos for a while. Matthias Bertsch, who has conducted a lot of research into how musicians perform on their instruments, has posted a couple of videos on YouTube that look at the tongue motion of different musicians. He attached sensors to the tongue and was able to model how the tongue moves when performing different things on trumpet and clarinet.

Just last week I posted about Doug Yeo’s experience playing trombone while inside an fMRI scanner. Bertsch’s trumpet video above showed some of the clips from much older research looking at the tongue motion of brass players using fluoroscopic techniques, which unfortunately exposes the test subjects to radiation and really isn’t an ethical use of that technology knowing what we do now about the dangers of such exposure. The motion sensor analysis and fMRI studies are significant improvements and hopefully as the technology gets better (and cheaper and easier to use) we will see more research conducted into how brass and woodwind players play their instruments. Taking the guess work out of what correct technique is and what a student is actually doing has the potential to significantly improve how we teach music in the future.

Weekend Picks

I’ve got a couple of interesting gigs this weekend for folks around western North Carolina. Tomorrow, Saturday September 2, 2017, I’m performing with the Blue Ridge Bones at the Hendersonville, NC Apple Festival. We’re playing at the courthouse stage from 3:30-4:30.

Sunday, September 3, 2017 I’m playing with Rick Dilling’s Time Check Big Band in a tribute to Buddy Rich concert at the Isis Restaurant and Music Hall. We’ll be playing two sets starting at 7:30.

In the mean time, here are some interesting music related links for your weekend surfing.

In Bb is an interactive project using YouTube videos in the key of Bb. Try it out.

Here’s an fMRI video of someone singing “If I Only Had a Brain.”

Have you ever wondered what Ravel’s “Bolero” would sound like played by 4 musicians on a single cello?

Trombone Playing In fMRI Scanner

There have been a few videos lately of brass players who have gone into an fMRI scanner to observe what the soft tissue is doing while playing. Recently bass trombonist Doug Yeo was a test subject and he wrote about his experience.

Yet while trombonist and Boston-based brass pedagogue John Coffey (1907-1981)  summarized his teaching with the pithy phrase, “Tongue and blow, kid,” successful brass instrument articulation and tone production actually requires a bit more understanding. Teachers and performers have written legions of books and articles about what players should do with their tongue and other members of the body’s oral cavity, but such descriptions have been hampered by an obvious problem: we cannot see inside the mouth or touch the tongue, glottis or soft palate while playing. One’s tongue cannot touch one’s tongue in order to feel one’s tongue when it is in use. It is clear that much of what has been said about the workings of the tongue during playing has been nothing more than well-meaning conjecture.

It’s really very cool that Yeo, Dr. Peter Iltis, and the other folks at the Max Planck Institute are conducting research like this. Too much of brass pedagogy is based on guess work and conjecture. Brass instructors tend to teach how they think they play, but often when we look closer at what actually happens when we play we end up surprised.

Yeo wrote that while playing in the fMRI scanner he was very conscious of trying to “keep the tongue down and the throat open at all times, in all registers and in all dynamics,” as he was instructed by Edward Kleinhammer. Watching the video created by the fMRI, however, Yeo notes:

As I begin playing, you will observe that as I slur higher, my tongue moves both up and back in my oral cavity. There is also movement below the base of my tongue, with my larynx and glottis – the opening between the vocal cords – moving slightly upward. When I was playing, I felt no sensation of this upward movement in my neck; I always felt that my throat was very relaxed and my tongue was “down.”

We still have a lot to learn about how the tongue, throughout, soft pallet, lips, etc. work together with the breathing to play brass instruments successfully, but it seems that the evidence is mounting that at least most, if not all, players will raise the level of the tongue arch as they ascend. Why exactly this happens and what it’s doing for the player is mainly conjecture at this point, but we see this happen in virtually all players who have done this sort of study using fluoroscopy, fMRI, or even motion detectors attached to spots on the tongue.

I’d like to see this research replicated with performers who do (or at least claim to do) something different with their tongue position. For example, I have consciously worked on slurring and sustaining notes by snapping the tip of my tongue down to the gully below my lower teeth and gums, which helps me keep my tongue position lower in the mouth (I think) and seems to open up my sound. When I slur up I will think of pushing my tongue forward to raise the level of tongue arch. I would think that this instead brings the tongue position forward, rather than back in my oral cavity. Then again, this might look closer to how Yeo’s tongue arch is working than I realize. There are also some folks who articulate by keeping their tongue tip “anchored” down on the lower teeth or gums and attacking the note with more of the middle part of the tongue (some folks call this “anchored” tonguing or “dorsal” tonguing).

There is some footage of Yeo double tonguing. I would like to see someone doodle tonguing in an fMRI scanner too.

It is worth going to Yeo’s writeup of his experience and both reading the historical background as well as watching more of the videos that have been posted there. Thanks to Doug Yeo for making his thoughts and those videos accessible!

Donald Reinhardt on the Nerve Racking Ab Rattle

I was going through some materials I have accumulated put together by Donald Reinhardt for different students and came across his text on the trombone Ab rattle. Difficulty on the Ab above the treble clef for trombonists is very common. It’s a conundrum because in the classic cases the A and G just around it are usually easier, so there’s something about that particular pitch. Here’s what Donald Reinhardt had to say about it.

Muscular strain of any kind “chop-wise” can cause unwanted “rattles and overtones” – this occurs, generally speaking on the high “Ab”…When Frank Holton marketed the Holton Revelation Trombone, the ad stated: “POSITIVELY NO WOLF TONES ON “Ab”… So you see that this is not new by any means.

I recall hearing Christian Lindberg discuss it at a master class in the context of pointing out an particular instrument design that moves a brace somewhere different to counter the Ab rattle. It does seem possible that the high numbers of complaints about the high Ab could be due in part to traditional instrument construction.

Most rattles can be corrected by first making certain that all inner embouchure legs are offering complete support – . . .

For those of you who haven’t studied from Reinhardt, the “inner embouchure legs” is referring to the foundation of the mouthpiece rim and lips together against the teeth and gums. Reinhardt often used the analogy of the four legs of a table (or three legs of a stool, for certain upstream embouchure students). You want a solid support with all the legs, so nothing wobbles while you’re playing.

. . . second, that more pressure is used on the lower lip (rather than the upper that you are now using, unfortunately) – . . .

This particular handout I’m quoting was labeled for a particular student, but this is another common issue. The lower lip is thicker than the upper lip (I’m talking about bulk of the entire lip, not just how much vermillion can be seen) and is better able to take mouthpiece pressure. Unfortunately, when we get tired or play in the upper register it helps, to a degree, to increase pressure on the upper lip. This ultimately makes you tired quicker and if you really dig into the upper lip, you can cause damage. Most muscle injuries (at least, anecdotally from what I’ve seen) seem to happen to the upper lip. Keep maybe 60% on the lower lip as much as possible.

. . . that the playing angle of your instrument is too high, making essential jaw support impossible – . . .

This one goes along with keeping more mouthpiece pressure on the lower lip. If you are one of the players with a horn angle that is close to straight out or even higher, you’ll need to make sure that your jaw is positioned far enough forward to provide the support of the “embouchure legs” on the lower teeth and gums. If that doesn’t work, maybe your overall horn angle should be lowered to work better for you. Keep in mind that this is a feature that is different for different players.

. . . that the position of your head is too far forward – and lastly, that the throat on your particular mouthpiece is too large.

Trying a smaller mouthpiece throat may be helpful for trombonists to check if they’re getting a lot of high Ab rattles or even rattles in other ranges.

Press too much for pianissimo!

This sentence I think belongs with the previous one. My guess is that Reinhardt was pointing out to his student that he was pressing too much for pianissimo.

You must understand that lip strain (or, worse, ruptured chops) must heal slowly; therefore, it is obvious that you must kill the feel that goes along with the rattle. . . Mental damage is far worse than muscular damage. THINK THIS OVER.

The “mental damage” he refers to can happen to players in other contexts of embouchure dysfunction too. It’s very easy for the brass player to start “flinching” every time they get to that high Ab (or whatever issue they’re having). Perhaps a more accurate analogy are the golfer “yips.”

From the first note of the practice-day exaggerate the diaphragmatic lift and make certain that you are not over breathing. This though alone will heal up the ruptured rattle chops. AVOID PLAYING TOO LOUD IN THE MIDDLE AND LOWER REGISTERS…

There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph. If you alter some of the language slightly and didn’t know it was a quote from Reinhardt, you might mistake it for advice by someone from the “song & wind” approach. Reinhardt gets remembered today for his discovery and classification of brass embouchure types, but he did work with students’ breathing as well.

That said, I’m not a fan of the way he instructs a “diaphragmatic lift.” It’s been pointed out that students can imitate this lift to match what they think they should be doing with their breathing, but without actually supporting the air correctly. I also note that the diaphragm is used during inhalation only, so while blowing you shouldn’t really have it engaged. Lastly, this lift of the abdominal regions while blowing is a result of correct breath support, not the process itself.

All that criticism aside, playing loudly in the middle and low registers does seem to hurt your upper register security. I notice this first hand a lot lately, since a fair amount of my gigging these days is playing early jazz styles where I play loudly in the middle and low register all night.

SUMMARY

  1. From the moment of placement do I find and retain my “legs” throughout the inhalation and the playing…
  2. Do I retain more pressure on my lower lip and lower jaw. . . even when fatigued!
  3. To keep my playing angle from getting up too high too soon in the range!
  4. That my head position does not get too far forward – ears line up with the shoulders!
  5. Kill the feel of the rattle – this is vital, do not take it lightly!
  6. From the first note of the day exaggerate the diaphragmatic lift – and make certain that you do exaggerate it for the first few notes of the day…
  7. REDUCE THE VOLUME DURING PRACTICE FOR ALL MIDDLE AND LOWER REGISTER WORK FOR THE TIME BEING.

Again, keep in mind that Reinhardt’s instructions above are for a particular student. While your milage may vary from the above suggestions, if you’re a trombonist with difficulties on the high Ab Reinhardt’s advice is worth looking over.