I am a music educator and professional musician based in western North Carolina.

I am a music educator and professional musician based in western North Carolina.

Composition Exercises

It’s common for instrumentalists to practice exercises and etudes to practice technique or expressive playing. These materials usually are never intended to be performed, but are instead done for the benefit they offer the musician. Composers can similarly practice composition exercises that aren’t intended to be heard by anyone, but help the composer get comfortable using a particular approach or get the creative juices flowing. Here’s a resource with 4 exercises.

Exercise 1: Compose Three Short One Minute Compositions

In this exercise you have two weeks to complete three short compositions. I like the idea of challenging yourself to complete something specific on a deadline. Some arranging commissions I have gotten are like this exercise, the client needs an arrangement of a specific tune by a specific date.

Exercise 1b: Compose One Composition Two Minutes Long

The details of this exercise include avoiding your compositional comfort zone. Again, it’s not an uncommon situation for a professional composer or arranger to be commissioned to write something that he or she might not take on as a personal project. It’s useful to be able to put your personal preferences aside and explore something completely different from your own style.

Exercise 2: Vocal Rhythms

Exercise 2b: Vocal Rhythms in a Foreign Language

I’ve used this idea many times. Select a text from somewhere and say it out loud rhythmically. Write out the rhythms you come up with and they can become the basis for an extended composition. As an aside, this works great with young music students to get them composing music together as a class. Ask them a question about what they did over the weekend and you might get an answer like, “Birthday parties, two in a row!”

Use these rhythms to create percussion music or add pitches to create a melody.

Check out the details of these exercises and then get composing.

Use Eye Tracking to Study What a Pianist Sees While Playing

I love hearing about research like this done on musicians (and other artists). I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar hasn’t been done for athletics, so it’s nice to see that musicians are taking advantage of the technology too.

 

In this video they show the difference between an older, more experienced, pianist and a younger, less accomplished, pianist. They tracked both of their eye movements while playing a memorized piece and also sight reading. While playing the memorized pieces the experienced pianist visual range on the keyboard was much more stable and consistent than the inexperienced pianist.

The results of the experienced pianist sight reading is directly relevant to anyone sight reading. His eyes are scanning ahead of where he is playing. It also jumps between the treble clef and bass clef staves consistently. This skill of reading ahead is perhaps one of the most important things to develop for sight reading.

Nils Wogram – Guess the Embouchure Type

Nils Wogram is a jazz trombonist from Germany. He’s really a terrific player, he’s got that great combination of excellent technique paired with a lot of creativity. I was surfing YouTube and came across this fantastic solo using multiphonics.

There’s not really a good look at his chops in this video to really guess his embouchure type. It *seems* like his mouthpiece is fairly high and close to the nose, but the camera never focuses closely enough and at a good enough angle to say more than his embouchure is one of the downstream types. I did want to post that video, though, because it’s a really neat example of what someone can do with multiphonics.

This video has a much clearer shot of his chops.

Wogram’s solo starts about 2:25 into the above video. Watch it and guess his embouchure type. My guess below the break. Continue reading Nils Wogram – Guess the Embouchure Type

Golfing Focus Applied to Music

There’s seems to be a lot more research done on the development of motor skills with athletics compared to music, so often times musicians will look at athletics and sports training methods for ideas on improving musical practice and pedagogy. Recently I came across a podcast called Golf Science Lab and listened to their episode, What Every Golfer Ought to Know About FOCUS with Dr Gabriele Wulf.

Where should your focus be in during a shot? Or when you’re learning how should you think about a move to make a change in the most effective way.

Although the motor skills used in golf are pretty different than those used in playing the trombone, for example, it’s not too far of a leap to assume that what applies to golf might also be useful for musical practice. Wulf says,

Performance is often enhanced immediately when I focus externally as opposed to internally, but also the learning process is facilitated when learners adopt an external focus. So learning is sped up. You reach a higher skill level sooner than you would with an internal focus.

An internal focus refers to the coordination of body movements, where an external focus is on the intended effect. In golf the examples of things that a golfer could use as an external focus were the club, the ball, the hole, even the player’s belt buckle or buttons. One of the interesting points made in the podcast were the distance effect. In other words, the further away the point of focus, the better the results. So focusing attention on club face would be better than focusing on the handle of the club because it’s a bit further away. Focusing on the ball is a bit further than the club face, but focusing on the flag or the hole would do better. Here’s the rub, the optimal distance of the focus depends on the skill level. An expert golfer would focus on the trajectory of the ball or target, but a novice would do better focusing on the club face, because they still need to practice the technique.

The tricky thing is to try to teach and practice the necessary technique with external focus. Wulf offered a golf example. Rather than telling the novice golfer to transfer his or her weight to the left foot (an internal focus), teach them to push off of the ground on the left (external focus).

What does this mean for music practice? Off the top of my head, with brass embouchure practice try taking the attention off the lips and move them on to the mouthpiece rim. When practicing breathing instead of paying attention to the feeling of the stomach and chest moving, focus on the air as it passes the lips or even visualize the air blowing across the room.

What ideas can you think of to teach musical technique in such a way as to move the focus from internal to external? How can you take that idea and make the focus even further away the more expert the musician becomes?

Asheville Amadeus 2017

This week is the second (I believe, might be the third) annual Asheville Amadeus festival. The Asheville Symphony Orchestra teamed up with several other local organizations to celebrate the life and music of Mozart. There are talks, chamber music, sing-alongs, even a local brewery puts out a limited release beer called Wolfgang 1756 annually for this festival.

The most exciting part of Asheville Amadeus for me this year is the participation of the string students from MusicWorks! Asheville with the Asheville Symphony Youth Orchestra. The Asheville Symphony Orchestra is bringing in Midori in for a week long residency and she will be giving our violin students a master class too.

If you’re around western North Carolina this week looking for some Mozart related activities, consider attending some of the events around Asheville.

Playing On the Red Is Fine (Redux)

One of the more popular posts I’ve written here is Brass Embouchures: Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy). In this post I tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to point out the flaws in the nearly universal belief among brass teachers that placing the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts the vermillion of the lips is a bad thing. I will try in this post to reiterate my points more clearly.

Before going too deep into this discussion, I’ve found that it’s important to point out that I’m not making a blanket recommendation that brass players should adopt a mouthpiece placement that sets the rim right on the upper or lower lip vermillion. I’m merely pointing out that the very pointed advice to avoid it is based on faulty logic and a misunderstanding of both the anatomy of the lips and embouchure form and function. Most folks aren’t going to have the anatomical features that make such a high or low mouthpiece placement work efficiently, but some do and for these players moving the mouthpiece placement off the red can be as detrimental to their embouchure as another player moving the placement to the red when it shouldn’t be. This is something that is unique to the individual player and needs to be taken on a case by case basis.

There are three basic arguments against placing the mouthpiece on the lips so that it contacts the vermillion along the top or bottom of the rim:

  1. A famous teacher or player advocated against it.
  2. The anatomy of the vermillion is such that it makes it more sensitive and prone to damage than the rest of the lip.
  3. It’s mechanically incorrect and won’t work as well as a placement with less rim contact on the vermillion.

Famous Players and Teachers

If you’re reading the post and questioning why I’m going against what appears to be conventional brass pedagogy, that’s a good thing. I always recommend that folks learn not just what we know about brass pedagogy and mechanics, but also take the time to understand how we know what we know. It’s very easy to find folks who actively discourage placing the mouthpiece on the red of the lips, but it’s not easy to understand why they recommend that. Many of these folks make their case using arguments 2 or 3 above, but an awful lot simply assert without evidence.

The bottom line here is that we can’t simply take a statement at face value based on how famous the person is who said it, we need to look past that and deal with the evidence. That which is stated without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Anatomy

There is an awful lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the anatomy and histology of the lips in the brass literature. Here is one example:

To function properly, the inner edge of the mouthpiece must be placed on tissue that is supported by muscle, but the lips are composed of fatty tissue that by itself cannot support a normal embouchure.

-Frank Campos, Trumpet Technique, 2005

Part of the difficulty in parsing comments like Campos’s is that while the medical literature has a very precise definition of the lips (which runs all the way up to the nose and down to the chin), many brass authors use the term “lips” to refer to just the vermillion. Regardless of the exact meaning in the statement above, it’s demonstrably incorrect. The entire lip, including under the vermillion, is internally made up of the orbicularis oris muscle group. There absolutely is muscle under the vermillion. Be careful when you look at diagrams that draw in the vermillion as a point of reference, they are misleading. Here is one diagram that leaves out the vermillion as a reference.

Another, less common, point I’ve recently come across is that because the epidermis at the vermillion is thinner than the normal epidermal layer there is less cushion from the skin:

Lips have around 3-5 cellular layers and above the vermillion border has as high as 16 cellular layers.

-“asdfghj,” 2017

Since “asdfghj” is both posting anonymously and also not citing his/her source, I can’t really comment on the legitimacy of this claim, however it does seem plausible. The reason the vermillion of the lips are red in people with fairer skin is that the color of the blood vessels underneath the vermillion come through. For the sake of argument, I’ll accept this as true. I still don’t find this a compelling argument and here’s why.

Without heading over to a university library and digging through the literature, a cursory internet search shows one apparently reputable source that states, “The thickness of the epidermis varies in different types of skin; it is only .05 mm thick on the eyelids, and is 1.5 mm thick on the palms and the soles of the feet.” How does this compare to the layer of skin of the lips, both the vermillion and elsewhere? It’s hard to say for certain using the internet, but Wikipedia (take it with a grain of salt) states, “The average human skin cell is about 30 micrometers in diameter, but there are variants. A skin cell usually ranges from 25-40 micrometers (squared), depending on a variety of factors.”

Let’s use the 30 micrometers average to calculate how thick the skin of the vermillion is compared to the normal epidermal layer on the lips. If the vermillion has 4 layers, that 120 micrometers. The 16 layers of skin in the rest of the lips would make for a layer 480 micrometers, a difference of 360 micrometers, or .36 millimeters. For comparison, human hair is said to range up to 181 micrometers in diameter, so the difference here is about two layers the size of the of a human hair.

I don’t find supposed cushion of two hairs to be a compelling difference, considering the mouthpiece forces involved. It’s not the layer of skin that provides the cushion and support of the embouchure, but the muscle underneath.

All the above shows, however, that there don’t appear to be plausible reasons why the vermillion would be more sensitive to pressure. That doesn’t mean that the vermillion actually isn’t. In order to get an idea, I spend some time back in 2012 going through both the medical and musical literature to see if there was any indication that injuries to the lip occurred at the vermillion more than the rest of the lip, or to see if any medical professionals happened to comment on this specific point.

While most brass players don’t “place on the red” in such a way that the rim contact the upper or lower vermillion a great deal, 100% of brass players place the mouthpiece with at least some rim contact on the vermillion. If the vermillion was more prone to injury than the rest of the lip, I would think that the medical literature discussing lip injuries due to brass playing would indicate this. In fact, it is rarely mentioned.

Injuries to the lips due to brass playing happens where the rim happens to be on the lips, irrespective of the vermillion. It appears that the upper lip (the entire lip, not just the vermillion) is more prone to injuries than the lower lip (hence the common advice to not “dig into” the upper lip with the mouthpiece or keep more mouthpiece “weight” on the lower lip compared to the upper). Injuries can and do happen under the vermillion, but perhaps more commonly outside the vermillion (which is unsurprising, if you consider that more players are going to have the rim contact on the upper lip above the vermillion. In fact, some lip injuries happen completely away from the rim contact.

-Papsin, B.C., Maaske, L.A., & McGrail, J.S. (1996). Orbicularis oris muscle injury in brass players. Laryngoscope 106, 757-760.

I was also able to find some literature that flat out stated that the vermillion area of the lips is not more prone to injury. H.L. Wilson, a medical doctor writing for The Clarinet, discussed the vermillion in the context of a clarinet embouchure.

In summary, the vermilion portion of lips tolerates pressure well. . .

-Wilson, H.L. (2000). Lips. The Clarinet, 27(4), 38-39.

Yes, the forces involved in a clarinet embouchure and brass embouchure are different, but combined with a more thorough understanding of the anatomy and histology of the lips along with a lack of evidence to the contrary, this leads me to believe that there is no anatomical reason to believe that it is risky to place the brass mouthpiece rim on the vermillion.

Mechanics

While the above discussion of anatomy is outside of my particular area of expertise, brass embouchure mechanics is right in my wheelhouse. I first became interested in brass embouchure mechanics sometime around 1996. I wrote my dissertation on original research investigating brass embouchure types and their correlation to easily observed physical characteristics. Since completing my doctorate in 2000 I’ve published and presented resources that deal with brass embouchures in a peer reviewed journal, academic papers, online, and at professional conferences. I’ve documented with photos and video around 100 brass players’ embouchures of beginning students, college students, professional performers, university brass teachers, and amateurs over five states at six different universities. I’ve been asked to consult with physical therapists and doctors treating embouchure injuries in the United States and Europe and some of my writing about brass embouchure have been translated into Japanese and Italian. Part of conducting my research involved thorough reviews of the literature, so at risk of blowing my own horn (pun intended), I’m fairly confident in the information and context I can provide here about brass mechanics.

First, there appears to be no relationship between the size and shape of an individual’s vermillion and the player’s embouchure technique. There doesn’t appear to be any relationship between how the lips vibrate at the vermillion and the rest of the lips. There is a wide range of vertical mouthpiece placement among brass players, with a minority that place the mouthpiece either high or low enough so that the rim of the mouthpiece contacts a great deal of the upper or lower lip vermillion. There is also a lot of variation on how wide an individual brass player’s vermillion is, as well as differences between rim sizes. Considering that the division between vermillion and normal skin on the lips is arbitrary and varies so much, I don’t think that it’s really useful to discuss mouthpiece placement as a factor of where it is placed in relation to the vermillion.

On the other hand, we can consider whether it’s mechanically incorrect to place the mouthpiece very high or low. This feature also varies quite a bit from player to player, with most folks falling more towards the center than very high or very low. While there are many anatomical features that influence an individual brass player’s mouthpiece placement, such as the shape of the teeth and gums that provides the support structure for the embouchure, the most likely characteristics that influences the vertical placement of the mouthpiece include the length of the lips compared to the length of the teeth and gums and possibly the shape and angle of the lips to each other. The shorter the player’s upper lip, the more likely that player appears to need to place the mouthpiece lower on the lips.

As you can see in the photo to the left, my upper lip is very short in comparison to my upper teeth and gums. When I form my embouchure I have to stretch my upper lip down quite a bit in order to get it over the upper front teeth. There simply isn’t much lip mass in my upper lip that is free to vibrate inside the mouthpiece.

A vibrating brass embouchure works more like a clarinet reed than an oboe reed. One lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece and is the primary vibrating area. The other lip does vibrate in tandem with the other, but it serves more like the clarinet mouthpiece to the other lip as the reed. This feature can be easily seen on Lloyd Leno’s films.

For me, and for a minority of other brass players, anything other than this extremely low placement doesn’t work well at all. Most folks find it too hard to play this way, but they don’t have the same extremely short upper lip. I tried for a long time to play with a more conventional looking mouthpiece placement. I was taught early to try to keep my mouthpiece centered on the lips and with more upper lip inside and so I played that way all the way into my mid-20s. My personal experience was that I played OK with the centered placement (well enough to get through two music degrees and be accepted into doctoral studies in trombone performance), but until I made the correction to my embouchure you see in the photo to the right that I did not have the range and endurance I needed to play at a high level. This embouchure type isn’t as common as more conventional looking brass embouchures, but it probably represents about 10% of brass players.

Summary

Despite the opinions of many other brass players and teachers who feel otherwise, there appears to be no anatomical or mechanical reasons why placing the mouthpiece so that the rim contacts a great deal of the vermillion is going to lead to greater risk of injury or mechanical difficulties, provided that the player’s anatomical features are best suited to that placement. Individual anatomy is so variable that even setting a “rule of thumb” is arbitrary at best and may even lead to a brass student playing in a way that is mechanically inefficient for his or her face – which does increase the risk of injury, regardless of how conventional the mouthpiece placement may look.

In my opinion, the whole idea of using the vermillion as a factor for diagnosing or troubleshooting a brass embouchure is misguided. It is much better for brass teachers and players to gain a more thorough understanding of the basic brass embouchure types and how they function, as well as how much brass embouchures vary from player to player, even between players belonging to the same embouchure type. We can probably safely ignore the advice from teachers who emphatically state that this is wrong unless and until they begin providing plausible evidence to the contrary.

Internal Server Errors

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Stan Kenton Christmas 2016

The Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be performing our annual Stan Kenton Christmas fundraiser concert this Friday night, December 16, 2016, at 7 PM. The concert will be held at our usual location, Trinity United Methodist Church (587 Haywood Rd., Asheville, NC 28806).

We will be performing most of the charts on Stan Kenton’s “Merry Christmas” album, as well as several additional Christmas big band charts at this concert. The performance is free and open to the public, but we will be taking a collection to raise money for the Bless the Schools fund (which helps out Asheville City Schools children in need) and the Asheville Jazz Council (a 501c3 dedicated to promoting jazz education, performance, and composition in western North Carolina).

It has been a couple of years since I had a new Christmas arrangement of my own for this concert. Last week I put the finishing touches on a new arrangement of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We’ll be playing that chart, as well as a few others by me at this show.

If you get to come, please come up and say hello after the performance.

AJO at White Horse Black Mountain, 12/10/16

The Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be back at the White Horse Black Mountain (105c Montreat Rd., Black Mountain, NC) on Saturday, December 10, 2016. For this show we’re pulling out the holiday book and will be playing holiday classics in a big band jazz style.

I’ve written a few of the charts we’ll be playing and am working on an original big band arrangement of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and hope to have it completed in time for this show. It will be a trombone section feature because, well, all charts should be trombone section features.

There is a $15 cover charge. If you make it to our show, please say hello on set break or afterwards.

Building Embouchure Stability In Low Range – Less Air, Not More!

A recent thread on the Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group has gotten me thinking about building embouchure stability in the low range. The specific topic there concerns a particular student who has a very unstable embouchure in general and on low Bb has an uncontrollable waver in her tone. I don’t have permission to share the video, but I do have some photos that illustrate the same situation.

25pedalbbfront-copyThe photo to the right is of a trombonist playing a pedal Bb. I chose this photo because the student trombonist had a similar looking embouchure formation on her low Bb. Note how the embouchure formation has collapsed and is very loose looking.

While it may be necessary at first for inexperienced players to get into the extreme low register like this, overplaying like this will very likely cause issues down the road if the player doesn’t make corrections (click here to read up and view some video footage I documented). Like all habits, it can be difficult to correct and the longer a player relies on collapsing the embouchure formation to play low the harder it will be. Unfortunately,  some of the default advice I was reading on Facebook also seemed to encourage practicing in the low register in a manner that makes it harder to make the necessary embouchure corrections.

Asking a student to “blow more air,” or even to simply “support” the note with the air is going to make it harder for the student to play in the low register with the same level of firmness in the embouchure formation as the rest of their range, but this is what some teachers recommend. Personally, I prefer to help a student with this issue by developing exercises or practicing musical passages that start in a higher range and descend to the problem area with a decrescendo. Playing softly in that low register makes it easier for the student to hold the mouth corners firm, maintain the overall embouchure formation, and use a bit more mouthpiece pressure for additional embouchure stability.

27highbbfront-copy27lowbbfront-copyFor comparison, here are a couple of photos of a different player. The photo to the left is a high Bb (Bb4/ledger lines above bass clef staff). The one to the right is the same player playing a low Bb (Bb2/in the bass clef staff). Note how similar they look from the outside (I happened to catch the vibrating lips on the low Bb when the embouchure aperture was close to closed, but at their peak opens you can see a bigger difference on the embouchure aperture between these pitches).

Playing softly and accepting a thinner tone will help a student to successfully experience what it feels like to play in the low register with a stable embouchure formation. As she gets more comfortable playing that way she can begin adding air and working to open up the sound, but if the embouchure formation collapses again she should stop, reset, and try again with just a little less air. Over time it will get better and easier to add more air. However, it’s important for her to stop encouraging this habit as quickly and completely as possible. Throwing more air at an embouchure formation that is too loose and unstable will not help her build the strength and control to stop collapsing.

That said, performances (and most rehearsals) are different. The above advice is for practice and private lessons. When you perform it’s more important to do whatever you have to in order to sound good. If that means collapsing to play low, that’s fine. Over time the student will be able to play correctly with enough comfort and volume that she won’t even think about making a change, it happens because it has replaced her old habit.