Embouchure 101 Launches

I’ve published a new brass embouchure pedagogy resource here on wilktone.com. It replaces the Embouchure FAQ page I had up before. I call it Embouchure 101 because while the information I put in there isn’t very widely understood by brass teachers and players, it is a conceptually simple and objective approach to brass embouchure technique. There’s nothing in it that’s going to be new for a regular reader of my blog, other than some of the presentation I use.

If you’re a music teacher who works with brass students I hope you’ll take some time to read through it and look at the examples I provide. Even if you’re a very experienced teacher you may discover some things about brass embouchures that you weren’t aware of before. I show examples of basic embouchure patterns and discuss the pedagogical implications of what improved understanding of embouchure form and function can mean.

If you are skeptical or curious, please read the introduction. If you just want to jump in and begin looking closely at brass embouchure technique, start with Part 1.

Why You Shouldn’t Be a Fake Book Player – And a Couple of Reasons Why You Should

Eric (no last name that I can find) published an article on jazzadvice.com that makes a very compelling argument that jazz musicians should not read tunes out of a fake book. For the non-jazz musicians out there, a “fake book” is a collection of lead sheets (melody and chord progressions) of standard jazz compositions. Often you will find players using them on gigs or in rehearsals. Eric argues that using them is a crutch. He describes three pitfalls of using a fake book.

I) Ignoring your Ears
The main problem with fake books is that they allow you to play tunes and create solos without using your ears.

One of Eric’s points here is that by using your eyes to read the music you’re going to turn off your ears. Fair enough, but my classical music colleagues typically read music on their performances and they are always advocating using your ears and listening to what you are playing and what’s around you at the same time. Granted, they are not improvising, but there’s probably a happy medium in there that we can use.

II) You don’t really ‘Know’ the tune
When you rely on a fake book, you never get to the point where you “know” the tunes that you’re playing.

Back in the day I worked as a trombonist on cruise ships. On one ship I worked on we had two cruises a week, two shows each night. I ended up playing the same show four times a week, and some of the dance sets we played used the same book even more often. It got to the point where I had much of the music memorized, even without consciously trying to.

Maybe I’m different from some folks, but I naturally get to know tunes just by playing them over and over again.

III) Limiting the music
When you can only play the tunes in that fake book on your music stand, you’re not only putting yourself in a box musically, you’re limiting the music itself. But, what exactly does that mean?

Eric’s article was published in 2014, but even then I think I was beginning to see the use of tablets and phones as PDF readers become prolific on gigs. Many people (including myself) have what would be 1,000s of pages of sheet music stored on a tablet instantly available for when a tune is called that isn’t memorized. Sure, there are tunes that just aren’t in those books too, but we enjoy access to sheet music these days that just wasn’t possible in the days of fake book hard copies.

With the caveats that I’ve presented, let’s look at the benefits Eric mentions for learning tunes by ear.

I) Improving your ear
By getting away from the fake book, you’ll not only improve your ear, you’ll actually be using it.

Learning a tune by ear also has the added benefit of memorizing it faster (at least for me). Sure, it will take you longer (initially) to be able to play the entire melody, but that melody and the changes will get into your long term memory quicker and stick with you longer.

II) Knowing a tune intellectually and aurally fosters creativity

Creativity is dependent upon a certain level of proficiency and freedom.

I think most of us improvise more creatively when we know the tune really well.

III) Listening and interacting when you perform
One common theme that you see with players or groups that use books to perform is that everyone ends up staring at the book. Every player is in their own world and focusing on their own part. They’re all playing at the same time, yet no one is playing together. As a result there is little to no musical communication within the group.

Again, I would like to point out that in the classical world musicians strive to listen and interact with each other while reading their sheet music. Granted, there are different aesthetics going on in classical music compared to jazz. Instead, I think it’s a matter of attention.

We can typically only concentrate on a one or two things at a time, but performing music requires us to have control over multiple things at a time. Musicians will need to have technical mastery over their instrument, play together with other musicians, concentrate on time, harmony, melody, etc. Effective multitasking in and of itself isn’t about developing the ability to think about many things at once, it’s about having such command over the task that attention isn’t required, it’s automatic. That’s why having a tune committed to memory is so useful. By not needing to concentrate on the sight reading it frees up your mental energy to concentrate on listening and interacting with your fellow musicians.

And therein lies my best case (weak as it is) for learning to read lead sheets. Many of the “ear” players I gig with are not great sight readers. Don’t get me wrong, they can be some of the most creative musicians to work with, but when I get with them on a gig that requires reading they struggle. Jazz musicians who are solid sight readers don’t need to take up such mental energy trying to follow the lead sheet because their reading is to the point where it’s automatic. Those musicians can get on a gig with my big band and sight read one of my original compositions while listening, interacting, and improvising creatively. I don’t think it’s just the act of reading the music that is limiting a jazz musicians playing, it’s the mental focus of reading that’s pulling their attention away from listening and using their ear.

All that said, Eric’s article is a great read and the advice he offers is golden. Check out more of what he wrote and start (or continue) memorizing tunes. While you’re at it, take a tune you don’t know and haven’t heard before and force yourself to play over it by sight. Two sides of the same coin.

Brass Embouchure Dystonia – What does a typical case tell us?

Let me start this post by making it very clear that I am not a medical professional. In no way should anyone use the information I’m posting to diagnose or treat a medical condition. My recommendation is to visit your doctor and get checked out, or get a referral to a specialist.

I’ve been thinking recently about some of the papers and articles that discuss brass embouchure dystonia. While I have written up before about helping musicians with embouchure dysfunction, I haven’t really written up a close look at what appears to be a typical situation. In his literature review and case study, Dr. Seth David Fletcher wrote a hypothetical case:

Consider the following scenario: a trombone player earns a seat in on of the nation’s premier orchestras. One day in rehearsal she notices that she cannot articulate some middle-register notes cleanly. The following week this difficulty recurs and is noticed by the conductor. Naturally, she increases her practice and focuses on the source of the problem. Unfortunately, she then develops an uncontrollable tremor in her embouchure when playing sustained tones. Over the course of the next few months her ability to play rapidly declines the the point that she is forced to stop playing.

Even though this case is hypothetical, it includes some characteristics that are noted as being common for brass musicians dealing with dystonia-like symptoms. It’s more common in men than women and the mean age of onset is 37 years old. Symptoms include lip lock, tremors and involuntary contractions in the embouchure muscles.

Jan Kagarice in a presentation for the International Trombone Festival in 2004 wrote more about typical cases (see Fletcher’s dissertation, p. 33 for the full chart). Personal traits include being a natural player, considered to be talented and successful, a perfectionist who practices a great deal, and naturally expressive and talented. The onset of the problem manifests in a change of playing sensation. Symptoms arise, and the case usually progresses along the pattern described above.

For my purposes, I’d like to consider the following descriptions that appear to be typical.

Common Patterns of Brass Musicians with Dystonia-Like Symptoms

  1. A natural musician who practices a lot, but who doesn’t typically need to address technique.
  2. An issue begins to manifest and the musician begins to diagnose and try to correct the issue through task-specific practice.
  3. The problem gets worse.

Some of the authors of the papers and articles use this typical pattern as evidence that because there is a correlation with task-specific practice, and by implication, perhaps the cause. I’m not so sure that this is accurate.

First, it’s worth noting that there is also correlation between being a “natural” player (who didn’t really need to be shown how to play correctly, just did) and the onset of a problem that they can’t practice their way out of. Secondly, when it comes to the task-specific instructions on the topic of brass embouchures, one thing that is worth noting is how contradictory a lot of the advice is. When a natural musician tries to eliminate a playing difficulty through task-specific practice, it’s worth looking at what specific tasks they are practicing and whether it actually makes corrections in the player’s embouchure technique. Particularly if a musician is a “natural” player they are unlikely to understand how to analyze their embouchure and how to make specific corrections.

Like others, I feel we should be helping players with embouchure dystonia in a wholistic manner, including emotionally and musically. However, I feel we’re missing some important clues by jumping directly to goal-oriented approaches to treating embouchure dystonia. The onset of the musician’s problems will typically manifest prior to the task-specific practice. The cause of the symptoms may be in the musician’s technique and the effect of trying to practice out of it incorrectly is what leads to the full blown breakdown. At the very least, teachers and therapists should be aware of brass embouchure types and be able to note type switching. How they choose to make necessary embouchure mechanics corrections is up to them, but they should understand what they should be accomplishing.

As I mentioned above, I’m not a medical professional and neurological disorders are out of my area of expertise. Brass embouchures mechanics, however, are in my wheelhouse. There are important variables that is being missed by many musicians and medical professionals who are working to treat embouchure dystonia. As I mentioned last month, there seems to be a movement in Europe to take a more objective and scientific approach to embouchure dysfunction. I hope that researchers, therapists, and music teachers in the U.S. will follow their lead.

Improvisation Practice – Small Goals

A while ago I was working with some of my adult students new to jazz improvisation. We were practicing playing over the tune Take the A Train and I wanted to give the beginners in the group some ideas on how to select good note choices over the tune. We broke down the chord progression into vamps and practiced blowing over a single chord or one spot in the chord progression first, then applied what they learned in the context of the whole tune.

This concept, breaking up improvisation into working on 1 or 2 things at a time, works very well. By putting yourself into a box and forcing yourself to be as creative and musical as possible within those constraints you develop better technical and conceptual facility with your topics. What’s nice about this approach is that you can make it as easy or as hard as you need to in order to challenge yourself.

While the summary and practice tracks I’m posting here are related to note choices (e.g., “what” to play), you can easily take the same approach while practicing other topics. For example, I usually spend time with new students helping them practice improvising creatively while using lots of silence in their soloing (e.g., “when” to play). By forcing yourself to stop playing for a while you can take a moment to evaluate what you just played and think about what you’re about to play. Other topics could include “how” to play ideas (i.e., what register you play in, dynamics, etc.).

The tune Take the A Train is in C major, and most of the changes to the tune are diatonic to C major. This means that you can play C major scales for a large portion of the tune. If you’re new to improvisation, this takes some of the choices of what to play out of your hands and gives you a chance to work on other improvisation topics. Or, it will give you a chance to really listen to how the note choices fit over a particular chord. You’re not trying to just develop your technique, but also your ear.

Let’s take the first chord, C6 or Cmaj7. In the particular arrangement we’re playing the chord is notated as a C6 and to get students started with that chord I like to use the C major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales are fun to play over and provide more melodic interest than a major scale because they have built in steps and built in leaps already in the scale.

C6/C major pentatonic scale

Here is a MIDI file of a C6 chord vamp. Practice improvising only using the notes in the C major pentatonic scale above over this practice track. While you’re practicing, take some time to stop playing and think about what you just played and how it sounded. Then wait for a moment before playing to think about what you are about to play. Really try to be as creative as possible while only practicing the C major pentatonic scale over this chord. You might also try improvising over the notes in a complete C major scale and compare the difference in sound. Certain notes will sound hipper, while other notes (the F, for example) will sound quite dissonant and want to resolve a step up or down.

Skipping one of the chords in the tune for a bit, let’s look at the Dmin7 chord. This chord is diatonic to C major. Since it is the diatonic chord based on the second note of the major scale this chord is analyzed as a minor ii chord. If you play the C major scale but using D as the root tone the scale becomes the dorian mode.

Dmin7/D dorian mode

Here is a practice track of a Dmin7 vamp. Try the same approach as above – use lots of silence to give yourself a chance to evaluate what you just played and think about what you will play next. Experiment with the different pitches in the D dorian mode over this chord. Some notes will sound more colorful and some will be a bit bland sounding (such as D, the root of the chord).

The G7 chord is analyzed as the V in the key of C. This diatonic chord is harmonically unstable (particularly with the 7th added) and wants to resolve to the I chord (C6, using Take the A Train as our example). Like the Dmin7/D dorian example above, the chord and resulting mode (G mixolydian) are diatonic to the key of C.

G7/G mixolydian mode

Here is a G7 vamp practice track.

The bridge of the tune temporarily changes the key center from C major to F major, but both for the sake of keeping the examples diatonic to the key of C and to give us another approach to the Fmaj7 chord, I want to demonstrate this chord as functioning as a IV chord in the key of C, rather than a I chord in the key of F.

Fmaj7/F lydian mode

Playing a C major scale using F as the root results in the above lydian mode. This is 1 note away from being a major scale. Instead of a Bb we have a B natural. This is a very colorful tone (#11) and provides a slightly different sound when used over a major 7th chord. Try it out with the below practice track.

There’s one other section in the arrangement of Take the A Train we were working on that contains a chord progression that can be largely thought of as diatonic to the key of C major, that is the turnaround. A turnaround, if you’re not familiar with this term yet, is a chord sequence that is really static in that it doesn’t really provide a cadence pattern or otherwise move us away from the tonic key. In our arrangement the turnaround happens in the last two measures of the first A section and the final A section. The chord sequence itself is C6, A7b9, Dmin7, G7 (or a I VI ii V sequence). As you can see, all but the A7b9 chord are diatonic chords that are covered above. Rather than get into the weeds about what to play over the altered dominant type of chord that this one non-diatonic fits into, to get us started improvising over this turnaround I want to present this turnaround with a diatonic Amin7 chord instead (a very common chord progression, I vi, ii V).

Amin7/A natural minor scale

Here is a practice track of the turnaround C6, Amin7, Dmin7, G7, but rather than two beats per chord each chord lasts one measure. All of the chords and resulting scale/modes are diatonic to C major, so if you play nothing but notes in the C major chord you can get by. As you’re playing this chord pattern, though, you will want to listen for how certain notes sound over each chord. Remember to use lots of silence to help you evaluate and think ahead.

There are three other chords in our arrangement of Take the A Train that are not diatonic to the key. Two of them are dominant 7 chords. Like the G7 chord above, using the mixolydian mode will provide good note choices for your to practice.

D7/D mixolydian mode
C7/ C mixolydian mode

The C7 chord happens just before the bridge. It functions as a V chord to the IV chord. In other words, C7 leads to F.

The last chord to discuss is the most unusual, but it’s not all that hard to play over. The D7#5 chord that happens in the 3rd and 4th measures of the A section provide some harmonic instability and help set up the following ii V I diatonic pattern. A scale that gets good note choices for this chord is the D whole tone scale. A whole tone scale is a 6 note scale that only has whole steps between pitches. Because it only uses whole steps, you could even think of the below scale as having no real root. Any of the pitches in the scale could sound like the root of the chord.

D7(#5)/D whole tone scale

Try out the whole tone scale of this practice track. Remember to use silence in your soloing.

Once your comfortable enough over the individual chords you can work on applying them in the context of a tune. Here’s a practice track to the entire tune Take the A Train.

If you need the changes to the whole tune, here is a PDF of just the chord progression, but you’ll want to know that this particular PDF isn’t exactly the same as the arrangement my students are working on. It’s close enough, though, that you should be able to use it to help practice the above note choice exercises in context. As always, use lots of silence during your practice to evaluate and think ahead. Listen closely to how particular notes of these scales sound over the chords. Listen to the musical effect of improvising only using steps and compare this to times when you might use leaps (or, in the case of C pentatonic, when they happen to be built into the scale).

Then after a while, make sure to forget about all this and jam. Let your ear be your guide as to what you play and let the spirit and mood of the music tell you what to play, when to play it, and how.

Site Updates

This week I’m going to try making some updates to this site. Some of them will be behind the scenes and you’ll hopefully not notice any difference. That said, there are some plugins I’ve been using that are no longer being updated, so some of the content may disappear or not be accessible, depending.

While I’m at it, I will be doing some minor redesigns. Some of the pages here are in need of getting the information updated and in some cases I will probably just delete the page altogether (depending on how attached I am to the content and whether or not the traffic to those pages warrants my effort).

The “Embouchure FAQ” is pretty old and I have some ideas on how to better present the information, so that page will get a detailed update. That’s a bigger project, however, and it may take longer than a week for me to get it ready to make public. Keep an eye on this blog for further info.

Rehabilitation and Music Conference

Kees Hein Woldendorp passed along the announcement for a conference an international congress about ‘rehabilitation and music’ at Revalidatie Friesland, the Netherlands on April 24, 2019. He will be defending his PhD thesis, “Musculoskeletal complaints and dysfunction in musicians,” there. There will be some presentations about brass embouchures there. Here’s the announcement.

Click the image to go to their registration page.

The 1959 Project

60 years ago was a banner year in jazz history.

1959 was arguably the most creative year in all of jazz history. Bird had already passed away, and this year would see the passings of Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Musically speaking, when we read jazz history texts or see the labels among the many diverse styles of jazz (i.e “Free Jazz,” “Modal Jazz,” “Third Stream,” etc…), we tend to separate these different styles into alternate universes. In fact, many of the contributions we now consider to be jazz “classics” all happened around the same time.

There were so many great records and performances that happened in 1959. Here’s a neat web site that posts a snapshot of jazz from 60 years ago with new photos posted every day. It’s called the 1959 Project.

Threadspotting – Brass Embouchure Certification

Time that I might usually spend doing a little blogging here has been taken up with other projects, including something that is related to a recent topic started on Trombone Chat forum, Embouchure mechanics certificates?

The beginning of the thread discusses the broader topic of degrees or certifications as a measure of the breadth and expertise of the holder. Where I find it gets more interesting is when it spins off into a discussion of brass embouchure pedagogy.

As I alluded to above, I’m currently putting together something related to embouchure pedagogy that I’ll be posting here when complete, but it’s a pretty extensive project and I want to have it complete (or complete enough) before it goes live. I will say this, there will be very little in it that can’t already be found if you poke around through all my blog posts, but the presentation and organization will be a bit different from how I’ve done this before.

The First Noel, Big Band Arrangement

North Carolina got hit with a blizzard overnight and it’s expected to continue snowing through tomorrow. Since I’m fortunate to not have lost power (yet), I’ve been putting the finishing touches up on a big band arrangement of “The First Noel.” Here is a MIDI demo of it.

If you’re curious, I do most of my composing/arranging directly into Finale and the above playback file is Finale’s playback. For the rhythm section parts I create a Band-in-a-Box MIDI file and open it up with Finale, then copy and paste the parts I want into my big band score. That gives me a quick and easy rhythm section playback.

It takes too long to fix all the weird import errors when I try to import a Band-in-a-Box solo into Finale and since the chart will soon be played by real musicians I didn’t worry about plugging in solos in the demo. There are three soloists. The first 16 bars is alto sax, followed by 8 of trombone and 8 of trumpet.

This tune was interesting to work with and arrange. It’s an unusual tune, the same phrase repeats and then a refrain follows that is very similar to the original phrase. Creating a swinging big band arrangement of that form presented some challenges. Because each of the three phrases in the “tune” are so similar, it would quickly become repetitive to have every phrase of the chart be based on the same phrase. I broke up that pattern in four different ways. First, I changed up the reharmonization for the refrain (third) phrase. I also wrote a new 8 bar section to use as an intro, interlude, and coda. During the solos section I inserted a bridge based on the bridge to “Frosty the Snowman.” Lastly, I modulate to new keys, on the shout chorus every phrase.

Assuming no weather related setbacks, the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will premier this arrangement at our annual Stan Kenton Christmas Concert this Friday night. If you’re in western North Carolina that night, please come on out.