Wilktone

Jazz, brass, composition, and other things music related.

Wilktone - Jazz, brass, composition, and other things music related.

Weekend Picks

Happy Friday. I hope that some of you might come catch me at one of my gigs tonight or Sunday. If you prefer to spend your weekend home surfing the net, here are some random music-related links from around the web.

I feel all music teachers should practice the craft of teaching, as well as the craft of making music. Dr. Brad Hanson discusses some Strategies for Teaching Aural Recognition.

The way we conceptualize knowledge in the general sense informs our understanding of musical knowledge and how it comes into play during listening and performance. If musical knowledge goes beyond the ability to recite facts and extends into the ability to operate on musical information through performance, the charge to music educators is to teach students to think critically in addition to developing basic musical skills. It is possible to structure learning experiences in lessons and rehearsals through which students identify problems, critically evaluate them, and work together to solve them. If ensemble players are expected to blindly follow the conductor, there is no room for decision-making or independent thought. In skill-based music curricula students memorize information, but are not challenged to use that information to solve or pose problems. Any curriculum that focuses on performance without the integration of history and theory, or without providing opportunities for students to pose or to solve problems is limited in its effectiveness.

Using electronic musician Scott Hansen (AKA Tycho) as an example, David Holmes writes up on How To Make It In the New Music Industry. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the genre of music Hansen mainly covers in his article, I think there’s some good food for thought for musicians of every kind in there.

…Hansen regularly plays to sold out crowds around the world and sells or streams enough of his music to make a decent living. This runs counter to the narrative that unless you’re one of the hallowed few who write disposable pop hits that play well to Middle American Clear Channel listeners, music is no way to pay the bills. His career arc is not the story of a man who profited by sacrificing his art to the trends of the day. It’s the story of how an artist, with enough time, pressure, patience, and business acumen, can build a sustainable career while staying true to a vision. It’s still almost impossibly difficult to accomplish and requires a massive amount of serendipity. Then again, you could say the same thing about building a successful startup.

In Bb is an interesting idea reminiscent of John Cage’s music.

In Bb 2.0 is a collaborative music and spoken word project conceived by Darren Solomon and developed with contributions from users.

And lastly, trombonist David Finlayson gives us a slide’s eye view of a Rochut Melodious Etude.

Tongue Arch Up Against the Molars

Here’s a question I got a while back from Boaz.

After several times starting to play trumpet daily, I’ve just noticed that the left side of my tongue doesn’t make contact with the upper molars, but my right side does.  I believe this has an effect on focusing the airstream (in all if not the middle to high range), puffing my cheeks and overall ease of playing.  The cheek that puffs the most is the left side which is solved if I focus on keeping the tongue touching both the top-left and top-right molars.  I literally feel like the air escapes from the throat to my left cheek, then out the lips.  With the tongue touching the teeth I feel as if I can finally perform lipslurs primarily using only the tongue arch.

The problem is that the low range doesn’t sound resonant because I’m not used to this yet and that my tongue level is too high now.  In time I’m hoping my body will adjust to this and that I’m hoping this is a step to correct playing.  Can you tell me if you have found the tongue touching the upper molars consistent in most if not all ranges of brass playing?  I’m not sure how different trombone would affect the tongue in terms of the tongue arch.

What you are describing, Boaz, is very similar to something Donald Reinhardt wrote about in his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System as one of his less common tongue types. In this tongue type after the tongue tip’s backstroke attack the sides of the tongue will contact the inner sides of the upper teeth and remain there for slurring and sustaining. This technique is used by many “squeak artist” trumpet players because the narrow passage the air stream must travel between the high tongue arch and the roof of the mouth (along with proper coordination of the breathing and embouchure) helps these players get into the extreme upper register.

Boaz also discovered the drawback to using this tongue technique – the difficulties in the low range. Reinhardt didn’t recommend it for all-around brass playing for this very reason. Quoting Reinhardt:

…[I]f this high tongue-arch is maintained the lower register will suffer accordingly, because the size of the air column is entirely too limited as it passes over the tongue. Players in this category claim that if they permit the tongue-arch to be lowered to accommodate the lower tones they cannot bring the tongue back to its original position for the upper register, unless they inhale and start again. I repeat, the tongue type one (this is Reinhardt’s term for this tongue type) is not recommended or intended for all-around brass playing.

I have heard that players with unusually large oral cavities (particularly a tall roof of the mouth) are able to mitigate the difficulties in the low register. I’ve not explored this tonguing method much myself, but I don’t have much of an issue bringing my tongue arch back up after descending into the low register without needing to inhale and start again. It’s hard to say what’s physically happening to the players Reinhardt noted in the quote above. Generally speaking, I think it’s better to adopt one method to apply the tongue arch and stick with it, rather than switching around, but it seems to be less necessary for long-term playing than adopting a single embouchure type is.

As far as the cheek puff Boaz mentions, this is something I’d want to watch to offer any specific advice. There are some circumstances when a cheek puff seems to be necessary and proper for certain players, but that’s typically more with trumpet players who have very small oral cavities and while they play in the upper register very loudly. Some low brass players may find it helpful to play in the extreme low register. In all of these situations, however, I feel it’s important to keep the cheek puff as far away from the mouth corners as possible. When the cheek puff is allowed to pull the corners away it can start to mess with the embouchure.

Got any thoughts yourself? Do you use a similar method to Boaz with your tongue arch? If so, how do you deal with the difficulties it tends to cause in the lower register? Please leave your comments below.

Weekend Gigs

I’ve got a couple of public gigs coming up this weekend. If you’re in western North Carolina this Friday or Sunday please come on out and support live music.

Low-Down Sires LogoThis Friday, January 30, 2015, I’m performing with the Low-Down Sires at Southern Appalachian Brewery in Hendersonville, NC. We start the first of two sets at 8 PM. The Low-Down Sires performs traditional jazz from New Orleans and Chicago, covering music performed or composed by artists like Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver. If you’re a swing dancer, we cater our sets to make for good dancing, but it’s just as fun to sit and listen to this great music.

AJO at Woody's and Becky's PartyIf you can’t make that show, you can come out this Sunday, February 1, 2015 to check out the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. We will be performing two sets at the White Horse Black Mountain in Black Mountain, NC starting at 7:30 PM. The AJO plays a variety of big band jazz, ranging from the chestnuts of the Swing Era all the way up through original charts by myself and other local composer/arrangers.

If you are able to make it out to one (or both!) of these shows, please come up and say hello to me during a set break or after the gig.

Music Competitions: Art or Sport?

Marching BandThis weekend I hear there’s a big sporting event happening in the U.S. I have a gig that night, so I won’t be hanging out at a viewing party like many folks here do, but it did get me thinking a bit about music competitions.

At least in the U.S., competitive music festivals are regular and popular events for music students to participate in. In North Carolina, where I live and teach, there are several different types of festivals with different levels of competitiveness involved. For example, there are All-County, All-District, and All-State ensembles for middle school and high school music students. A student needs to audition to be placed in these ensembles, so in essence these groups are similar to how a professional ensemble might select its performers. Each student competes against other students and the best student musicians are chosen.

There are also music festivals where schools will bring students to perform as ensembles or even solos. Some of these festivals will be non-competitive. When I coordinated college jazz festivals I always insisted that they be non-competitive. The students will sometimes perform for a rating (sort of a grade) or even just perform for clinicians who will then work with the students to help them improve. These are my favorite sort of music education festivals for reasons I’ll go into in a bit.

Then there are the competitive festivals, which have been around in the United States as early as 1923. Each school ensemble will perform for a set of judges who at the end of the festival rank each school. Sometimes there are “playoffs” where a certain number of ensembles will perform a second time. Prizes for these festivals can range from bragging rights to trophies to performing on a featured concert.

These competitions are a double edged sword. There are pros and cons to participating in them, but often times the motivations directors and administrators have for them miss the point of music education, in my opinion.

Pros

  1. Generates interest in the music program.
  2. Promotes high musical standards.
  3. Provides an effective motivator for middle school and high school students.
  4. Provides extra incentive to directors and students to prepare better than for a standard concert.

Cons

  1. Undermines balance of music programs by overemphasizing certain specialized aspects towards winning.
  2. Conceptually leads to what Alfie Kohn calls a “mutually exclusive goal attainment.” One person or group succeeds while the rest do not.
  3. Emphasizes an extrinsic goal, rather than the intrinsic enjoyment of music for its own sake.
  4. Leads to student and director burnout.

Over-scheduling for competitions is a serious issue that I think deserves a bit more attention here. Lynn G. Cooper notes in his fine text, Teaching Band & Orchestra: Methods and Materials, that the grueling schedule of marching band competitions results in beginning to prepare music for each season in March or April, starting the drill design in March or April, and beginning rehearsals in July. Add after school rehearsals in the fall semester, weekend commitments at football games, and then 6 to 8 Saturday competitions are a monster that once begun is expected by parents, students, administrators, and the community at large. This leads to a high level of burn-out.

Every bit as important as the concern for teacher burnout is the problem of student burnout. Many students drop out of programs that over-emphasize competition (with its attendant 0ver-commitment) at the expense of music education. College band directors find that many students who come from such programs do not continue to play their instruments in college or later in life – they are tired of all the activity and lack the intrinsic motivation needed to continue to play. But students who know about music, listen to fine music, love music, and possess the skills, techniques and understandings to be mature, independent musicians will continue to participate in music even after they graduate from their school music program, because music has become important to them.

Remember balance. It is important in the ensemble, and it is important in life.

- Lynn G. Cooper

 

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday, so here are a few music related links for your perusal this weekend.

Drummer Peter Erskine on Jazz Flick ‘Whiplash’. I haven’t seen this film and based on what I’ve read about it  I’m not certain I’ll rush out to see it in theaters. The band director character sounds like the sort I try to avoid. Erskine wrote:

Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education: for one thing, the band will not respond well; secondly, such bandleaders are anathema to the other educators who ultimately wind up acting as judges in competitive music festivals — such bands will never win (the judges will see to that).

Joey Tartell teaches trumpet at Indiana University and he points out that You’re Not Always Entitled To Your Opinion.

There are people posting so often that their voices are heard more, and they are therefore treated as experts. But a lot of these people have no standing in the real world. Recently, I read as the Associate Principal Trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Third Trumpet of the New York Metropolitan Orchestra were, separately, berated online for offering their opinions on some trumpet related matters. I’d like to say that I was amazed, but considering what I’ve read in the past few years online, I was just sad.

You already know Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but do you know how celebrated a musician his older sister, Maria Anna Mozart, was?

Leopold Mozart, a court musician, began teaching Maria Anna, his first-born child, to play harpsichord when she was 8 years old. She progressed quickly, with 3-year-old Wolfgang often at her side. After a few years, Wolfgang tried to play sections from Maria’s music book. “Over time, Nannerl’s playing became more and more brilliant, her technique perfect,” Rieger says. “Young Wolfgang was probably impressed by that and inspired to play.”

I mentioned in a recent blog post how Donald Reinhardt was known to occasionally tell his students to practice in a way that would intentionally exaggerate the ultimate goal. Rich Hanks posted a previously unpublished interview that describes one example.

Now these statements are exaggerated. They have to be. So that when you say, “Let’s forget Reinhardt,” you’ll play well, because I’ve exaggerated so much that enough rubs off in the subconscious to have that take over.

And lastly, it’s not just trumpet players who are competitive musicians.

A 440 Tuning – Here Are Several Bad Reasons To Convert To Another Tuning Standard

Yesterday morning I was doing one of my rare scans through my Facebook feed and found a link to the article, Here’s Why You Should Consider Converting Your Music To A=432 Hz. I found it to be a word salad of staggeringly bad logic and motivated reasoning. As an exercise, I wanted to go through some of the claims by author Elina St-Onge and show how her ideas lack merit and in many cases contain outright lies.

A440First, a little background about A440. This term refers to the tuning standard currently favored in the United States and the United Kingdom, where A4 is tuned to 440 Hz. The precise tuning of this A is arbitrary, historically pitch standards varied widely over Europe (and this discussion ignores pitch systems used by musical styles from other cultures in Africa and India, for example, that don’t separate the octave into the same pitches European-influenced music does). The use of the A to tune is an artifact of the strings instruments. Orchestral string instruments tune the strings to different pitches, but all include an open string tuned to A, which make it a convenient note for the entire orchestra to tune to. Some instruments, such as my primary instrument of the trombone, are arguably tuned easier to pitches other than A.

St-Onge begins her article quoting scientists out of context and demonstrates that she is scientifically illiterate.

Tesla said it. Einstein Agreed (sic). Science proved it. It is a known fact that everything—including our own bodies—is made up of energy vibrating at different frequencies.

I won’t deconstruct her misuse of the idea that matter=energy, but instead refer you to an expert, particle physicist Matt Strassler. See his article for the layperson titled Matter and Energy: A False Dichotomy for the real story on this. For our purposes the following bits from Strassler’s summary are important.

Matter and Energy really aren’t in the same class and shouldn’t be paired in one’s mind.

Matter, in fact, is an ambiguous term; there are several different definitions used in both scientific literature and in public discourse. Each definition selects a certain subset of the particles of nature, for different reasons. Consumer beware! Matter is always some kind of stuff, but which stuff depends on context.

Energy is not ambiguous (not within physics, anyway). But energy is not itself stuff; it is something that all stuff has.

A good working definition of energy is “work potential.” Any time you read the term “energy” in St-Onge’s article replace it with “work potential” and see if the sentence makes sense.

Continuing, St-Onge writes:

The way frequencies affect the physical world has been demonstrated through various experiments such as the science of Cymatics and water memory.

Cymatics is basically the study of how sound can be used to excite a physical medium, such as a metal plate, and create visual patterns of liquid, particles, or a paste on the medium. This is a legitimate scientific area, but the science in no way suggests that the specific tuning system used by musicians has any effect whatsoever on your sense of well being or enjoyment of the music. The idea that water has a memory is simply wrong. Brian Dunning has done a thorough deconstruction of the water “experiments” of Masaru Emoto if you want more information. Even if we charitably assume that this has some scientific merit, which it absolutely does not, it is quite a leap to presume it somehow supports the idea that tuning to A432 is somehow better.

Continuing with St-Onge:

We all hold a certain vibrational frequency…

She doesn’t cite a source for this factual statement. The only online sources I found are pseudoscientific and not trustworthy sources. There’s also a lot of discrepancy over what “vibrational frequency” human beings are supposed to have, and I didn’t see anything suggesting that A432 somehow relates.

With this concept in mind, let us bring our attention to the frequency of the music we listen to. Most music worldwide has been tuned to A=440 Hz since the International Standards Organization (ISO) promoted it in 1953. However, when looking at the vibratory nature of the universe, it’s possible that this pitch is disharmonious with the natural resonance of nature and may generate negative effects on human behaviour (sic) and consciousness.

Does the universe have a vibratory nature? All sorts of things vibrate at different frequencies. It’s how we have music made of different pitches. How can the vibration of things in the universe be disharmonious with the vibration of things in the universe? It’s like stating the color green isn’t in balance with the colors of the rainbow.

Some theories, although just theories, even suggest that the nazi (sic) regime has been in favor of adopting this pitch as standard after conducting scientific researches to determine which range of frequencies best induce fear and aggression.

I have three points to make here. First of all, Goodwin’s Law applies. Invoking Nazis to make your point about musical tuning automatically makes your point invalid. Secondly, St-Onge is misusing the term “theory” in the scientific context (gravity is a theory, it’s also a fact). Lastly, her statement here is a historical question that can be answered through actual evidence. In fact, the standardization of tuning to A440 was around well before the Nazi’s came to power. Even if it were true that 1930s Germany was somehow conspiratorially responsible for today’s tuning system, there is no credible evidence that it will “best induce fear and aggression.”

432 Hz is said to be mathematically consistent with the patterns of the universe. It is said that 432 Hz vibrates with the universe’s golden mean PHI and unifies the properties of light, time, space, matter, gravity and magnetism with biology, the DNA code and consciousness. When our atoms and DNA start to resonate in harmony with the spiraling pattern of nature, our sense of connection to nature is said to be magnified. The number 432 is also reflected in ratios of the Sun, Earth, and the moon as well as the precession of the equinoxes, the Great Pyramid of Egypt, Stonehenge, the Sri Yantra among many other sacred sites.

Wow. I suggest that if your references cite astrology and alchemy as corroboration, then your hypothesis needs an awful lot of revision. There is no credible evidence that anything in the above paragraph is true and should be taken seriously.

Another interesting factor to consider is that the A=432 Hz tuning correlates with the color spectrum and chakra system while the A=440 Hz isn’t aligned.

Chakras, chi, innate energy (whatever you want to call it) cannot be measured, has never been shown to have any effect on the physical world, and is, to put it mildly, baloney. How can you correlate something that cannot be observed or measured to a measurable vibrational frequency?

Now there are some evidence-based studies that look at color and pitch relationships. Folks with absolute pitch, for example, frequently have an association of color with a particular pitch. However, even if we charitably assume that A432 somehow is more aligned with the visible spectrum of color, this doesn’t say anything about whether it makes the music more meaningful.

Let’s explore the experiential difference between A=440 Hz and A=432 Hz. The noticeable difference music lovers and musicians have noticed with music tuned in A=432 Hz is that it is not only more beautiful and harmonious to the ears, but it also induces a more inward experience that is felt inside the body at the spine and heart. Music tuned in A=440 Hz was felt as a more outward and mental experience, and was felt at the side of the head which projected outwards. Audiophiles have also stated that A=432hz music seems to be non-local and can fill an entire room, whereas A=440hz can be perceived as directional or linear in sound propagation.

While you can find musicians and audiophiles who prefer one tuning system over another, there is again no credible evidence that it makes a noticeable difference in how harmonious it sounds or the experience of most listeners. Acoustician Trevor Cox wrote of an informal web experiment he put together to test this.

People may think that music sounds better at 432 Hz and therefore applying a pitch shifter to their favourite tunes will improve quality, but for people who took part in my experiment this wasn’t true. 432 Hz and 440Hz were rated with equal preference. This doesn’t surprise me, because when we hear a melody it is mostly about relative pitch.

Back to St-Onge:

I cannot state with complete certainty that every idea suggested in this article is 100% accurate…

Of course no one can state with complete certainty, but she is either being disingenuous here or covering outright lies. If you’re going to use the veneer of science to prop up your arguments you should do your homework and cite your sources. Don’t be wishy-washy at the end and cover your butt at the inevitable deconstruction of poor thinking.

For this reason, I suggest that we each do our own research on the matter with an open yet discerning mind if we are looking for scientific validation. Perhaps more scientific validation could be done in the near future to explore this topic.

St-Onge again demonstrates scientific illiteracy here. Looking for “scientific validation” is what she did in her article. She searched for resources that supported her preconceived notions about what tuning standard she feels is better, and then ignored anything contrary. If you want to investigate this topic scientifically you should subject the ideas to a test that can actually disprove your hypothesis. If you can’t, then you may be on to something. But looking for validation is only going to reinforce your personal bias, not answer the real question.

I believe we all possess intuition and the ability to observe without judgment, which can be more useful than resorting to ridicule when exposed to information that has not yet been accepted by the scientific community.

It’s good to be nonjudgemental, but St-Onge needs to understand it’s not the information that is being ridiculed here, it’s her lack of critical thinking. At least she finally acknowledged that the evidence she used is unscientific.

Why gripe about this article? Because critical thinking is an important skill and is too neglected in music education. Motivated reasoning and illogic leads to incorrect conclusions and can even result in folks making poor choices when faced with a serious mental or physical illness. The bottom line is that if you enjoy music tuned down to A432 then that is reason enough to do it. There’s no magical reason why it’s better or worse than A440 and there’s more evidence that it makes no difference on your personal enjoyment of the music than that it does. And there is absolutely no credible evidence that it will have any effect on your mental or physical well being.

Embouchure Question – Tongue Between Teeth

grain of saltI’m in the process of cleaning out my email inbox and getting back to all the questions I’ve gotten over the past few months. Here’s one that I thought would be interesting enough to post here. Bob writes:

In the past we have touched on the the idea of TCE. I have some questions,or maybe I would like to hear some more of your observations of Why, the tongue between the teeth would hinder development of sound, range, flexibility. I am just very interested as to why I find this working so well and so easily for me. My range continues to grow in both directions as well as improvement in my tone. I’m not on a Devil’s advocate idea,just trying to gain some insight, if there is any,as to why is it embouchure specialists are so against something that I find wonderful for playing.

I don’t mind people playing devil’s advocate at all, and this is an interesting topic to discuss, regardless of what your personal thoughts are. I do think it’s accurate to state that playing with your tongue between your teeth is discouraged by most. However, it’s not completely unheard of. As I’ve brought up in other posts here, advocates of a “tongue controlled embouchure” (sometimes abbreviated as “TCE”) recommend the tongue tip presses against the lower lip while playing. Donald Reinhardt noted this phenomenon and listed it as one of his rare tongue types, correct for players with “long thick lower lips with exceptionally short stumpy lower teeth.” It’s possible that the reason Bob finds this technique so wonderful for playing is because it simply is the best possible method for his anatomical features.

That said, there are some folks who adopt a tongue controlled embouchure who I strongly suspect would be better off in the long term doing something different. Every player who plays with the tongue between the teeth like this I’ve heard in person (and almost without exception on video or audio too) has a tone that I find less-than-pleasant. Even if it gives them great high range, I just don’t like the way it sounds. If this doesn’t describe you, or if you’re happy with the sound, then perhaps it will be fine. For the large majority of players, however, there are some drawbacks to keeping the tongue between the lips that may not be obvious in the short term.

First, the attacks. If you’re attacking each pitch with the tongue striking the lips you’re working harder than you need to on each attack. Yes, some players get quite good at clean attacks this way, but there are more split second adjustments that need to happen compared to having your lips already in position for the the pitch and tonguing behind the teeth. Keeping the attacks clean with the tongue against the lips takes more vigilance than otherwise and I suspect that valuable practice time is better served working on other things that will work better in the long term.

Typically, keeping your tongue on the lips will require a more open jaw position than I think is optimal for the long term. There are a lot of players who get used to playing with a more open jaw position (with and without the tongue on the lips) that learn to play well, but in the long term this seems to run the risk of problems. Just this past weekend I worked with a horn player who couldn’t hold pitches steady. One of the things that ended up having a beneficial effect on her playing was to bring her teeth closer together. She had been playing at a high level for decades, but eventually she couldn’t make this technique work (and to be clear, there were other issues going on here and it wasn’t just the jaw position hindering her playing).

Donald Reinhardt, one of my go-to sources for brass embouchure form and function, felt that attacking the pitch with the tongue between the lips was one of the worst techniques for range, flexibility, endurance, and playing confidence. According to Reinhardt, this is because the mouthpiece ends up “bobbing and shifting its position during any detached tongued passages.” The brass player risks subconsciously letting up on the mouthpiece pressure prior to the attack and then the mouthpiece will be suddenly thrust back against the lips for the attack. All this thrusting of the mouthpiece back and forth of the mouthpiece against the lips means that your lips are taking a beating while playing.

As I’ve speculated on other posts about the tongue controlled embouchure, keeping the tongue tip against the lower lip while playing may provide a range boost for players because the forward position of the tongue really helps the player focus the air stream against the embouchure aperture. For some downstream players the tongue also ends up providing some of the lip compression that are more typically (and more correctly, in my opinion) done at the mouth corners. For players who find the tongue on the lower lip effective I recommend taking the tongue tip and instead attacking pitches behind the upper teeth and then snapping it to press against the gully behind and below the lower teeth. The tongue center can then be pressed forward towards the compressed embouchure formation but be kept off the lips entirely. This allows the jaw position to be closed enough for long-term progress and the muscular effort done at the mouth corners instead. Yes, this will take practice and time to make work, but I feel it’s better for most players over the long term.

I’ll close my thoughts again by quoting Reinhardt because in my experience I’ve found the following to be accurate.

Whenever a performer permits his tongue to penetrate between his teeth and lips, he is actually opening them to allow the tip of his tongue to penetrate between them. In so doing, he is subconsciously depending upon the timing of his reflexes to bring his lips together again for the purpose of vibrating. Some players get by in this manner for years but as they advance in age and their reflexes slow down, the real playing difficulties commence. Learn to use your tongue without molesting the embouchure formation in any way.

- Donald Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System

So Bob, maybe your experience is absolutely correct for you, but not most other folks. Maybe the reason you find it works better is because there’s something else you’re doing (or not doing) while playing without the tongue between the lips that makes a tongue controlled embouchure work better in the short term, but a different approach would work better in the long term. Since I haven’t been able to watch you play I can only speculate. Take my thoughts with a big grain of salt.

 

Weekend Picks – 5 Years of Blogging At Wilktone

It’s Friday and it’s been a couple of months since I posted a regular Weekend Picks. In lieu of writing about some fun and interesting links around the web for this one, I wanted to point out that this month, January 2015, marks the fifth year of Wilktone. To celebrate (or rather blow my own horn), I thought I’d post the most popular posts here, the posts that have generated the most comments, and list a few of my personal favorites that I’d like to see get more views.

A few stats first, for the curious. At the time that I write this post there have been 467,466 views (not all that many in the grand scheme of things) and 585 comments (some of those include links to other posts here). The number of views tends to fluctuate, but over the past five years has steadily grown. January 2015’s average so far is 392 views per day. Again, not a whole lot when compared to popular web sites as a whole, but maybe not too bad for a blog that is somewhat specialized in what it covers.

Over in the right hand side bar you can see a section for popular posts. These posts have been fairly consistent for a while, but the software that measures it weighs more recent views more than hits from a while ago. Over the past five years here are the posts that have gotten the most views.

1. A Brief History of Brass Instruments (21,999 views) – I actually wrote this short article sometime in 2000 or 2001. If I recall correctly, I was teaching a brass pedagogy class that semester and had put together a short lecture on the history of brass instruments. I had researched more information that I wanted to include in the class, so I wrote this article to explore this topic in more detail. In retrospect I wish I had saved the references I used, but I mainly just wanted to get some original content up on the web page I had at the time.

This article has been popular enough that it was plagiarized at scribd.com. The powers-that-be over there were very quick to take it down when I contacted them about that, by the way.

2. The Tongue Controlled Embouchure (15,705 views) – In retrospect I find it curious that my post about this topic has been so popular. I speculate in part that it’s because the tongue controlled embouchure has enough buzz on the internet that brass players are exposed enough to the idea that they want to learn more about it. Since there’s not a whole lot of info available about it, this post shows up on a lot of web searches.

My review of the technique there is not positive (I haven’t changed my mind at this point), but I think it’s neat how many advocates have left their thoughts in the comments there. Even though the discussion has been heated at times, I like how everyone has been civil.

3. Tips for the New Jazz Ensemble Director (13,570 views) – Someone posted a link to this page on the Jazz Education Network’s Facebook page in September, 2104 and in a couple of days hits to Wilktone more than tripled. It’s died down since then, but daily views since then have been slightly up from prior to that month. Either some of the folks who read it have come back to check out more or maybe it just helped boost my search engine presence. At any rate, I liked how this post came out and am happy that so many people find it helpful and interesting.

4. A Stylistic Analysis of Jazz Trombone Through Transcribed Solos (12,171 views) – This is another article that existed before this blog did. As I mentioned there, it is a web based presentation of a lecture recital I gave at Ball State University as part of my doctoral requirements. The lecture recital had a bit less historical and theoretical information than the article includes because I performed each transcription.

5. Brass Embouchures and Air Stream Direction (11,753 views) – I had created my YouTube video on this topic a couple of years before creating Wilktone. This post was my first ever here. Regular readers know the topic of brass embouchures is my favorite to write about.

The most commented pages up to this date are the following posts. So far I have yet to delete any comment (on purpose), other than the spam that sneaks past. Many of these highly commented posts have discussions that debate some of the points I tried to make.

1. The Tongue Controlled Embouchure (71 comments) – As I mentioned above, I have enjoyed the ensuing discussion.

2. Brass Embouchures: Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy) (32 comments) – Since posting on this topic I have put together what I feel are better treatments of this subject, but this was the first post I had that was completely devoted to whether or not placing the mouthpiece rim contacting the red of your lips is OK or not. One of the authors I quoted in my blog post, Frank Gabriel Campos, even stopped by to leave his rebuttal.

3. On Metronome Practice and Logic Based Teaching Methods (21 comments) and Practicing With a Metronome (18 comments) – I’m including these two posts together since the topics and comments are outgrowths of each other. Practicing With a Metronome was a summary of my thoughts about Mike Longo’s post arguing that metronome practice would mess up your jazz playing. In the process I was inspired to explore how a lot of what gets passed on as good music teaching isn’t based on evidence, but personal beliefs or expectations.

4. The Balanced Embouchure: A Review (20 comments) – Not my best written post, to be honest, but as of today I still stand by my opinion of Jeff Smiley’s somewhat controversial book. The ensuing discussion got heated at times, but I always like to carefully consider what supporters have to say about this book.

5. The Pencil Trick Exercise (18 comments) – This post is about Donald Reinhardt’s away-from-the-horn strength building exercise. A lot of people think it’s a waste of time, but not many people really follow Reinhardt’s instructions well enough to do it the way he intended. It’s sort of hard to pick it up through reading a description.

Lastly, here are some posts I’ve written that are some of my personal favorites and not already mentioned above.

1. How To Transcribe: Some Advice for the Beginning Jazz Improviser – This post is another that existed on a previous personal web site that got moved over. In it I describe the process that I personally used to get started transcribing jazz solos. Many of my students have found it a helpful way to get started too.

2. Embouchure Dysfunction: An examination of brass embouchure troubleshooting – This is another post that is mainly about the YouTube video I put together. While my personal research in brass embouchures has been about how they function, over the course of study I became familiar with a lot of the ways in which brass embouchures malfunction. In this video and post I describe 5 different cases (of various degrees of difficulty) and discuss some of the ways in which making corrections to embouchure function can help players who are having these difficulties. One of my main goals in this post was to raise some awareness in the field of brass teachers and players as a whole about the physical results of brass embouchure dysfunction, instead of addressing problems through breathing, psychology, or working to make the embouchure work better with the technique that is potentially causing the issue.

3. Donald Reinhardt and the Pivot System – A Criticism – I wish I had the chance to take lessons from Reinhardt before he died, but one possible advantage to learning his teachings through lessons with a former student of his and his writings is that I don’t feel the emotional attachment that many of his students do. Many of the ones I know are quite vocal that passing on his ideas require a strict adherence to using the same language and terminology that Reinhardt happened to use (or more accurately, how he happened to be describing it at whatever time the student was with him). In this post I discuss the confusion that results when we try to communicate an already complicated topic using terms and descriptions that are unnecessarily inconsistent to most other brass players.

4. Arnold Jacobs on Embouchure: A Criticism – Like my criticism of the Pivot System, this post is about another brass pedagogue that has been very influential in my playing and teaching. Jacobs made a lot of very important contributions to brass pedagogy, but he also made a few statements about embouchure that I find demonstrably inaccurate.

5. An Examination of the Anatomical and Technical Arguments Against Placing the Mouthpiece on the Vermillion – I mentioned above that since writing the Playing on the Red Is Fine post I have done a better analysis and writeup of this topic. This is what I was referring to. The post itself is just an abstract of the formal academic paper. To my knowledge, no one else has done as extensive a review of the musical and medical review to attempt to settle this debate. It also includes a discussion of a pilot study designed to help answer the question of whether someone can tell through sound alone that a brass player places the mouthpiece rim on the red of the lips (my results strongly suggested that you can’t).

Do you have a favorite topic or discussion here that got left out? Any disagreements with the inclusion of the ones above? Please leave your thoughts in the comments here.

Why “Schools” of Brass Playing?

I’ve griped about my pet peeve here more than once, but a recent forum discussion on the Trumpet Herald concerning mouth corners got me thinking about this topic again. The debate there centers around whether it’s better to worry about what your mouth corners are doing, which is an interesting conversation to have, but it got framed into different “schools” of trumpet teaching.

When I lurk on the dedicated forums* on the Trumpet Herald I notice that there is a lot of advice that is common across different camps of trumpet teaching and playing. There is also an awful lot of contradictory information. The trouble with the debates that crop up there (and elsewhere) are that it tends to focus on what a particular teacher said, rather than trying to understand why.

For example, the discussion on mouth corners led to a debate on whether or not it was useful to learn about what the corners are supposed to do when playing and how to use that information. Some folks cited teachers and players who argued against worrying about the mouth corners at all while others did the same for focused practice on the mouth corners. Both sides can’t be right, can they? Or does it really have to come down to try everything, use what works for you? Is there any way we can narrow down which approach is going to work best for our particular situation?

One potentially useful exercise to help us answer those questions is to speculate on some reasons why a teacher would recommend a particular approach. Looking then at the context of the argument you will hopefully be able to determine how much weight you should give to that instruction and spend less time on trial and error figuring out what works and more time making music. Here, then, are three hypothetical motivations.

1. Other playing mechanics need to be prioritized. There are many facets to successful brass technique. A brass player needs to coordinate breathing, tonguing, fingering/slide – all within the context of performing expressively and (usually) playing well with other performers. There may be more than one area where the teacher identifies playing deficiencies, but it’s really difficult to address more than one at a time. An experienced teacher will often prioritize which area should be corrected first (breathing, for example) and tell a student to not worry about another (embouchure, for example). Sometimes students (who often become teachers themselves later) will interpret that to mean you should never pay attention to how your embouchure is working because breathing will fix it.

Consider a masterclass scenario. If you only have about 15 minutes to work with a particular student and see a handful of things you can recommend you only have time to make so many corrections. The teacher will often prioritize things that can be addressed in that short amount of time. I have argued before that breathing is perhaps the most natural aspect of brass technique, is one of the easiest to fix, and is one of the areas where the field of brass teachers and players as a whole have the greatest understanding. Therefore, it will get much more attention in these sort of situations.

Furthermore, some teachers like to do the “crazy like a fox” style of instruction. Arnold Jacobs seems to have been quite good at telling his students how to play while at the same time telling them how to play. Here’s my favorite example, from Song and Wind.

A common problem is that of a double buzz, or as Jacobs calls it, “segmentation.” This happens when the embouchure is set for vibrations higher than what is actually desired. A major factor is insufficient air to fuel the vibration. It is, in fact, hardly ever an embouchure problem. The tongue’s position is too high and forward in the mouth. To correct segmentation, adjust the embouchure to vibrate at the pitch that is desired – play with a thicker air stream and keep the embouchure open.

The bold emphases are mine to help you see how contradictory some great teachers can be, in the same paragraph in this example. Another example comes from a tape I have of Donald Reinhardt giving a lesson. In it he discusses how he will raise a student’s horn angle to get them to change the position of the jaw, precisely because he didn’t want his student’s attention on the jaw at that time. Reinhardt goes on to talk about how over a period of lessons he will sometimes ask the student to practice with a horn angle that isn’t where he expects it should be. There are plenty of examples we can find where teachers will tell a student to go from point A to point C in order to make them go to point B.

If you don’t understand why a teacher makes a recommendation, you might take something too literally. Don’t just listen to what is being said, make an effort to decipher where that recommendation comes from.

2. The teacher really doesn’t understand that particular area. I frequently remind people to take my ideas with a grain of salt. All of us are wrong at times, even in areas where we are otherwise quite knowledgeable. Teachers tend to instruct their students in a  way that worked for them, and can get quite clever and practiced at helping their students – even when they don’t understand what students are physically doing when playing the instrument. Even (maybe especially) great players can have literally no idea how they play, but they can have solid analogies and highly charismatic personalities that lead to great teaching.

Some teachers know they are ignorant in some area and so simply don’t address that topic much. Others have come to ideas based on inaccurate information or an error in logic. Good brass teachers that fit this scenario come up with solid practice methods in spite of their ignorance through careful trial and error. They may not understand why it works, they just see it does. We can very easily fool ourselves into seeing patterns that aren’t really there.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, that’s probably not the best attitude. What we can say is accurate about brass technique today is different from what was generally understood in the past. Educational psychologists have made great improvements in our understanding of how we learn and retain information and skills. Kinesiology has similarly made corrections in how we develop motor skills and what approaches train them faster and consistently.

Musical performance and education needs to be more fluid and self-correcting to take advantage of these advances. Before you pass on advice to someone else, it’s worth checking up on your source for that information and see if it holds up under scrutiny. Are our goals to advance as musicians and help others on the same path? If so, I argue we should make an better effort to try to keep current and give other ideas a closer look, even when they contradict our own cherished beliefs.

3. The teacher is right, at least to a degree. Great brass teachers are authorities in the area of teaching brass. While this doesn’t necessarily mean they are always right, their background as teachers and performers means we should pay attention to what they say. But in light of some of the contradictions you’ll hear from different teachers and players say about developing good brass technique, a little more context is needed.

Consider all the different ideas and techniques brass players have about tongue arch. There are some folks who swear they never change the position of their tongue while slurring notes and others who advocate changing it to play in different registers. Some folks let their tongue tip hover in their mouth while holding pitches while others will set the tongue tip below the lower teeth. There are some methods that instruct students to hold their tongue pressed up against their lower lip at all times. Brass embouchure technique is another example. I won’t go into that topic here because I’ve so frequently written about this topic before.

When we consider that the size and shape of everyone’s tongue, oral cavity, teeth, lips, etc. are different, it stands to reason that some folks will simply play better with an alternate technique. Some of these methods will be a little more common than others and some of those approaches may be dead ends, but that shouldn’t stop us from exploring why these techniques work (or don’t work) and come to an understanding why we should recommend them or not and under what circumstances.

Where to go from here?

I would be lying if I said that I’ve got the right answer. The above musings are really extreme caricatures of possible brass teacher motivations. Most likely there is a little bit of all three in you and me too. I hope, at least some of the time, to have the humility to consider that some of my ideas are wrong and explore different, better ways to teach and play. As musicians and music educators we should be more concerned with teaching our students how to think about music, rather than what to think.


* If you don’t read the Trumpet Herald forum, they have forums that are dedicated to discussing the teaching of a particular instructor or “school” of instructors.

Low-Down Sires and Rhythm Serenaders at Isis Theater January 18, 2015

Low-Down Sires LogoI forgot yesterday when posting about the Low-Down Sires shows at My Lindy Kraze in Huntsville, AL this weekend to mention that we’re back in our home base of Asheville, NC this Sunday, January 18, 2015. We’ll be playing a double-header with the Rhythm Serenaders at the Isis Theater in west Asheville. The Sires set starts at 8 PM and will be followed by the Rhythm Serenaders around 9. At the end of there set we’re toying with the idea of doing a combined encore with both bands. Come on out, if you’re in town.

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