Music Literacy – Why it’s declining and how to improve your reading skills

Having a certain degree of proficiency in reading music notation is considered an important skill for most musicians. If you’re going to perform classical music music literacy is essential. Many of the jazz performances I do require the musicians to sight read charts. If you want to play in a pit orchestra for a musical theater production you will need to know how to read music. In spite of this requirement for these musical endeavors, music literacy appears to be on the decline.

Writing in the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Edward P. Asmus wrote:

I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise: an increasing number of applicants auditioning for entrance into undergraduate music programs are unable to read music. Colleagues across the nation, music recruiters, ensemble directors, and theory teachers are all reporting an increasing number of entering music majors who are unable to read music notation and produce music on their major instruments from it. Those auditioning are able to play or sing prepared pieces with performance levels sufficient for admission. However, when they are asked to sight-read musical notation, the results are dreadful.

I’ve noticed something similar, not just with undergraduate students but also even many professional musicians. The reasons for this decline are varied, but I believe that some of this trend comes from pressures placed on music educators at the high school level.

Consider a typical high school band program. During the fall semester, it’s much more likely that the only band experience the students will have will be marching band. While the music is usually initially learned through sheet music, there isn’t much emphasis placed on reading it. In fact, the goal is to have the music memorized as quickly as possible. Once the music has been learned, the show often emphasizes the drill over the music. While I don’t want to denigrate the hard work that great marching band programs put into their show, these bands typically work the same music for months. There’s not much opportunity for these students to spend time practicing their music reading skills.

High school chorus programs are often worse at teaching music literacy. It’s very easy to resort to teaching the music by rote imitation and vocal students often struggle with music notation. It takes some effort on the part of the choir director to help students improve their sight singing.

For both the band and choral programs at high school there are also the pressures of contests. Receiving a high rating on a contest is often one of the main ways that music educators will be judged on their teaching by administrators who likely have little to no music education themselves. It can be tempting for the music teacher to teach primarily for the contest and play the same music for a long time, rather than spend time learning new music through notation. When students don’t get much opportunity to practice their reading, they don’t improve.

Some of the professional musicians that I’m familiar with also struggle with sight reading. Often times these musicians are very talented players, with good technique and abilities, but they too may spend a lot of their time either performing music that is already learned, learned by rote, or never notated in the first place. It’s a shame, because I enjoy playing with many of these players but so many of the gigs I play and book require good sight reading ability.

What can individual musicians do to improve their music literacy? Of course one of the best ways to improve your sight reading is to practice sight reading, there are some other things that players can do to work on reading notation better.

  1. Learn scales and chord arpeggios – The trend is to get these memorized as quickly as possible, and while I agree that this is an important goal for all musicians, there’s some value in practicing scales and patterns while reading them. Most tonal music will be made up of scales and chords and it’s useful to be able to visually recognize these patterns. When you’re sight reading a piece of music that has a fragment of a scale you will recognize it faster and spend less time processing it and more time scanning ahead.
  2. Follow along with a score while listening to a recording – This is a similar idea to reading scales and chords. You want to make a connection between the visual schema (in this case, the schema is a notated “packet” of musical information) and the aural realization of it. Much like reading text, your eyes and brain quickly skim over words that you’ve read many times and no longer need to slow down to process it.
  3. Transcribe music – Jazz musicians use transcription all the time as a tool for learning improvisation. There’s something to be said for memorizing the a solo without resorting to notating it, but by writing it down you’re approaching it from the opposite direction of #2 above. It can be quite difficult to work out rhythmic notation for many musicians, but this process helps you assimilate what the visual representation of that sound looks like on paper.
  4. Learn lots of music from notation – I don’t mean to sight read lots of music here, I mean to really learn to play a piece of music. The trouble with practicing sight reading is that the goal is to get through the music, not fix mistakes. By spending time learning to play music from the written page and ensuring that it’s accurate you will learn to make the corrections in your reading that you have to skip over when you’re playing in real time.
  5. Learn to recover while reading – There are different ways to approach practicing a piece of music, and they all have some validity. If you’re performing or rehearsing with other players you don’t have the luxury to stop and go back, you need to recover and pick up with your part as quickly as you can. This is why I strongly encourage music students to always finish the phrase you’re playing before you stop and go back to practice a trouble area. If you always stop right after a mistake, you will not develop the ability to recover when a mistake happens in performance. This is sort of the opposite side of the coin from #4 above. You have to be able to continue playing past a mistake, but you also need to go back and learn how to not make the same mistake again.

There are other strategies that individual musicians can employ in their practice. There is also some pedagogical research I’ve recently looked at that investigates effective ways to teach music literacy in the classroom. There’s a lot more that can be said about music literacy, but I’d also like to hear your ideas. Do you feel your reading skills are strong enough? What have you done to practice your sight reading skills? What strategies do you employ with your students? Leave your comments below.

Lower Lip Roll

A recent topic on the Trombone Chat forum has gotten me thinking some about the way the lower lip will function differently for different brass musicians. Doing a cursory search on the internet you’ll find a lot of advice that is contradictory to each other. My general impression is that most folks who have an opinion about whether the lower lip should roll in when ascending lean towards avoiding it. But there are some players who feel they do so who arguably successful players.

Of course a lot of what brass teachers advise is based on what they think they are doing by feel. It’s uncommon for brass teachers, at least in the United States, to not look closely at a variety of brass players and compare what the lower lips are doing. It’s one thing to recommend what you feel works for you, but I think it’s worth taking the time to carefully observe what’s actually happening.

Regular readers here and other knowledgable brass teachers will immediately know that what a player’s lower lip should be doing is dependent on the individual’s anatomy and will be different from player to player. That said, you can observe particular patterns in a brass musician’s embouchure that make certain predictions about how a player’s lower lip will function when working correctly. There will always be variations, even among players belonging to the same embouchure type (intro to the three basic embouchure types).

Low Placement Embouchure Bb2
Low Placement Embouchure F5

The easiest embouchure type to see the lower lip is the “low placement” type. Because there is more lower lip inside the mouthpiece the lower lip vibrates with more intensity than the upper lip. When a low placement player plays in the lower register the lower lip gets blown a bit more forward into the mouthpiece cup. As an upstream player ascends you can see the lower lip sort of flattening out, but it never really seems to roll or curl in. Now it might feel like the lower lip is rolling in to some low placement type players and that can be one possible way to make it click for students, but it really doesn’t actually describe what you see.

From my personal experience as a low placement player, I used to allow my lower lip to blow out too far into the cup, particularly when I was getting tired. It resulted in some weird double buzzes. I also would have some trouble getting back into the upper register without taking the mouthpiece off my lips and resetting.

Very High Placement Bb2
Very High Placement F5

The “very high placement” embouchure types have the reverse lip ratio to low placement players. With these players you will see the lower lip rolling in, to a certain degree. I’ve also noticed these players will often bring their jaw forward slightly as they ascend, which might affect how much lower lip roll is proper for the individual. These players usually have the rim contact on their lower lip such that the lower lip doesn’t vibrate with as much intensity as the upper lip. Speculating, I would think that rolling in the lower lip for very high placement players could assist them with keeping the vibrating surface on the lower lip minimal.

Medium High Placement Bb2
Medium High Placement F5

“Medium high placement” embouchure types are still downstream, like very high placement players, but they use the opposite embouchure motion. The lower lips on these brass players looks similar to very high placement players, but there may be more of a tendency for the lower lip to roll in to ascend with these players. Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure type III would be an example of a medium high placement embouchure type that is distinguished by it’s lower lip roll when ascending. Tommy Dorsey was supposed to belong to the type III embouchure, as was Reinhardt. In Doug Elliott’s film, “The Brass Player’s Embouchure,” he shows video of Dave Steinmeyer playing into a transparent mouthpiece and even though Steinmeyer wasn’t classified by Reinhardt as belonging to the type III (if I recall Doug’s story correctly), he still has a very prominent lower lip roll when he ascends.

Speaking of embouchure films, Lloyd Leno’s film is one of the best places you can go to observe the lower lip with some different brass players. What’s so nice about Leno’s film is that it was shot using high speed filming, so you can observe how the lips vibrate as the players ascend and descend. The photos above are only capturing the aperture at the time the photo was taken.

Arguing For Science Based Brass Pedagogy

Learning to play any musical instrument, including trombone, is an inherently “knacky” experience. So much of what you need to do to be successful involves trying something a bunch of times, making small physical adjustments each time, until it clicks once. Then there’s a lot of trial and error trying to make it work that way consistently. Each musician’s playing sensations are going to be different and be influence by not only anatomical differences, but also the history of how they played before and their personal beliefs and biases.

This is undoubtedly why a lot of brass pedagogy involves teaching musical artistry first and teaching technique through modeling and metaphor. The end result, however, is that there is less consensus about what good brass technique is and how to achieve it. We have a tendency to look towards so-called “natural players” for advice, who may be the least qualified to tell us what’s actually physically happening when performing.

Couple this with a persistent culture of ignorance in brass pedagogy. It’s normal for some brass teachers to discourage folks to analyze their playing. It will to lead to “paralysis by analysis.” If you do,  you won’t see the forest for the trees. Imitate the sound you want and you’ll learn it, just like you learned to talk as a baby. If a centipede had think about how it walked it would get nowhere. Don’t think, play.

I find this attitude confusing. Why would a teacher disparage questioning and thinking? That’s the message it sends. And that’s what those students end up passing on when they become teachers.

The other side of this coin is the vast amount of pseudoscience you can find in brass pedagogy. Part of this is due to literal interpretations of analogies and over reliance on fallible playing sensations. A lot of it is due to us over estimating what we actually know. At its heart, it’s a lack of scientific literacy. Trombone teachers usually aren’t scientists, but we tend to misunderstand what science actually is and mistrust it. It’s often seen as a non-overlapping magisterium with both music and teaching. If the science suggests something we’re teaching is wrong, that’s just an egghead in the white tower who hasn’t spent enough time in the trenches.

Science isn’t a collection of disciplines like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and acoustics, although those disciplines might inform how we teach trombone. Science isn’t about acquiring facts either, although they might help us too. At it’s heart, science is about exploring the limits of what we know. It’s about testing a hypothesis and challenging assumptions. And it also happens to involve a lot of creative thinking, much like in music.

Superficially, we probably already do this in our instruction. We try out something with a student and assess whether it worked. We test it out for a while and then try something else. If we can’t find the answer is a resource we have, we create one specific to the student. When something works for one student, we try it out with another student and see what happens. Over time, we can develop a large repertoire of analogies and methods and get a good feel for when to try one and when to try the other.

However, we sometimes confuse this for science. Science recognizes that the nature of that experimentation we did in our teaching studio is inherently biased. It’s too easy to simply confirm what we already believe, rather than learn something new. You can’t look for evidence that your hypothesis is right, you look for ways to falsify your beliefs. If you ideas withstand that sort of scrutiny, then maybe you’re on to something. Brass pedagogy has long only looked for evidence to support our preconceived beliefs.

Herein lies the scientific method’s greatest strength. It is self-correcting and always looking to learn more. Science-based pedagogy has been more popular in other disciplines (e.g., athletics) because brass pedagogy hasn’t been as good at fixing our old mistakes. We routinely revere long dead pedagogues, now and then referring to their texts as “bibles” and former students of those teachers as “disciples.” This isn’t an attitude conducive to change.

There is good science being done on brass pedagogy. Our understanding of both the acquisition of motor skills and the specific physical process of playing the trombone is better understood now than it was when I was a student. The exciting part is that access to this research and the scientists who do this is easier than ever. What’s difficult is vetting the information into a correctly nuanced context. That takes some effort and should be an ongoing process. You can’t just look at what we know, but also question how we know what we know.

Another Upstream Brass Embouchure Rant

The following rant was inspired by a Trombone Pedagogy Facebook group thread started by a teacher who was wondering how to help a young student who was playing with his lower lip predominant. The teacher was asking for advice on how to correct this embouchure. My rant below is in response to many of the ensuing comments. I will be paraphrasing instead of directly quoting, in part because these responses are so common and don’t really need an attribution for context.

First, a little background on what an upstream embouchure is. All brass musicians, regardless of what they might think they are doing or should be doing, play in such a way that one lip or another predominates inside the mouthpiece. When the upper lip is predominant, most common, the air stream passes the lips in a downward direction.

Most brass players have an embouchure that is similar, although the amount of upper to lower lip may be different. A minority of brass musicians, however, do the opposite. These players place the mouthpiece closer to the chin and because of the predominance of lower lip the air stream gets directed upwards.

With that basic understanding out of the way, I will get into addressing some of these typical comments.

Change the mouthpiece placement. That student will thank you for it later.

While it does happen that students will adopt an upstream embouchure when they should be playing downstream, it’s much more common for these “low placement embouchure type” players to be playing that way because it is the most efficient embouchure type for their anatomical features. Before you change the mouthpiece placement you need to address issues with embouchure form, breathing, tonguing, posture, etc. Usually if you correct those other playing characteristics the embouchure will function better.

Sometimes you can disguise those other issues by changing the mouthpiece placement, but that’s only covering up the real problems the student is having. Before the embouchure form is developed properly, for example, you just can’t tell where the best mouthpiece placement is for a particular student.

That student should try another instrument instead. Has he/she considered a woodwind instrument or vocals?

I tend to avoid encouraging a student to change to a different instrument if they’ve expressed an interest in their brass instrument. Sure, maybe some folks will take to another instrument and never look back, but that’s a solution in search of a problem. If you need more bass clarinetists in your band be honest about why you are encouraging the change. If you’re suggesting the change because you don’t know how to help that student, then do some homework and learn. This is your responsibility as a teacher (or even as someone giving advice on the internet). Ask questions. That’s what the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group is for!

Upstream players are players who have a protruded lower jaw or an underbite. That’s what makes them upstream.

Players with an underbite almost always play better with an upstream embouchure, but that alone isn’t going to make their embouchure upstream. There must be more lower lip inside the mouthpiece in order for their embouchure to function upstream (Caveat – Sometimes lip texture comes into play. It’s rare, but you might look at an embouchure from the outside and think it’s one direction but when you look on a transparent mouthpiece the lip position seem flipped. My feeling is that moving the mouthpiece placement to a more appropriate placement can often help).

I don’t have a way to post the video clip (nor have I obtained permission), but my teacher, Doug Elliott, made a film in the 1980s called The Brass Player’s Embouchure. In this film he shows a trombonist with an underbite, but with a mouthpiece placement that was close to the nose and it function downstream. Moving this player’s mouthpiece placement so that it had more lower lip inside worked better.

And not all upstream players will have a protruded jaw position anyway.

Look again at the downstream embouchure example I posted above and note his jaw position. Jaw position while playing will be an influence, but doesn’t actually make a player upstream or downstream.

Also worth considering are Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure types. While I prefer to teach and communicate using different terminology, he did make note of players with particular jaw positions while at rest compared to playing. For example, he classified players with a natural, even bite.

Such brass musicians will almost always need to place the mouthpiece either very high (close to the nose, downstream) or very low (close to the chin, upstream). It might go either way, and for players like this it is sometimes quite difficult to tell which way it might go. Even if that is a very accomplished brass musician (read through what Brad Goode has written about figuring out his embouchure type).

That’s an [insert one brass instrument type here] thing. Those of us who play [insert other brass instrument type here] can’t/shouldn’t play upstream.

After 20 years of studying brass embouchures on all instruments intensively, I’ve come to the conclusion that while there are some differences that the size of the mouthpiece causes, it’s only a matter of scale and that the same embouchure characteristics are found on all the brass instruments.

Now it’s easier to find examples with trumpet players for a couple of reasons. Consider that the larger the mouthpiece, the more likely that the chin or nose will get in the way of placing very high or very low. A trumpet mouthpiece, on the other hand, allows much more leeway for getting the most efficient ratio of upper to lower lip for the particular player. That said, horn players are much less varied, which I believe is due to the adherence of a particular pedagogue’s advice as well as a comparative lack of players who are self taught and simply do what works instead of what is commonly taught.

That’s an [insert musical style] thing. It won’t work for [insert another musical style].

It’s only good for [high or low register playing]. It won’t work for [low or high register playing].

Like the brass instrument argument, I hear this all the time and from opposite sides of the spectrum. There are upstream brass musicians known for their upper register. There are also upstream brass players known for the lower register. They can be found playing in all styles of music successfully.

Embouchure type is influenced by the musician’s anatomical features, not playing style, instrument choice, or musical genre.

When you place the mouthpiece with so much rim contact on the upper lip, it isn’t free to vibrate and causes problems.

Both lips do vibrate in conjunction, but they do not vibrate with equal intensity. The predominant lip inside the mouthpiece vibrates with greater intensity. Brass embouchures appear to be sort of between a double reed phenomenon, where both reeds vibrate with equal intensity, and a clarinet reed, where the reed vibrates against the surface of the mouthpiece. For a brass embouchure to function efficiently the lip that has more rim contact (the upper lip in the case of the upstream brass musician) will function somewhat like the clarinet mouthpiece while the other lip (lower lip for upstream embouchures) is more like the reed.

This isn’t arm chair speculation. You can see it in Lloyd Leno’s film quite easily. Here’s part 1 of 3, but the link is to the entire playlist.

If you watch the entire film you’ll also be able to note some downstream trombonists in the film who place the mouthpiece with a great deal of rim contact on the lower lip. For some reason this isn’t as widely discouraged, even by the same players who make this argument when it concerns an upstream embouchure.

I am an experienced teacher and performer and I have never come across a successful upstream player.

My first response to this is that you’re probably not qualified (yet!) to identify one when you see it. Furthermore, if you don’t consider embouchure types to be a useful pedagogical tool, then you’re simply not going to look for them – even if you know what to look for. So many teachers seem to think that by watching a player blow air, free buzz, mouthpiece buzz, talk, whatever, that you’re going to be able to determine a player’s embouchure type. You can’t. Or at least I can’t and I doubt you can.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need a transparent mouthpiece to type most players’ embouchures, but I know the limitations of this and will grab a transparent mouthpiece when needed. Simply put, the most accurate method of typing a brass musician’s embouchure is to look at how they play while playing the instrument into a transparent mouthpiece. Rim visualizers can give you important clues, but the lack of resistance and the reflection of the standing wave back to the lips (as well as other factors) come into play and make a rim visualizer less accurate.

To my knowledge, no one has yet conducted a robust enough study to determine the percentage of upstream players, but by my best guess I would say around 10%-15%. That’s a sizable enough minority that anyone who takes the time to actually look for upstream players among your students and performing colleagues will find them. If you’re not seeing them, you’re probably not looking.

That said, an awful lot of teachers who should know better make a big deal about “correcting” an upstream embouchure when they see one. I get emails and private messages all the time from folks describing this situation. Particularly for teachers who work with older students you’re going to find fewer upstream students because they get “weeded out” by well-intentioned, but ignorant teachers. Either those students quit brass out of frustration or they play with less success than they could because they had their embouchure changed to a less efficient one. I’m a good example of the later, although I was never changed to downstream. I was instructed from the get go to play downstream. Which leads to:

We should teach what’s most common because that will have the best chance of success.

There is some logic to this, but in the case of mouthpiece placement I don’t even think we should talk about it with beginners. Teach embouchure form, not mouthpiece placement, and most of the time I’ve found the student will naturally gravitate to the best embouchure type for his or her anatomy. When it doesn’t, then it’s time to intervene, but this correction needs to be an educated choice that eliminates difficulties in embouchure form (or breathing, tonguing, whatever is influencing the student’s embouchure in a negative way) first.

I am an experienced teacher and never have to consider a brass embouchure type. It’s unnecessary and even makes things worse!

It does take some effort to learn how to type a brass student’s embouchure and use it to make embouchure corrections and design a course of study and practice that will work best for the individual student, but it’s not rocket science. If you found studying music history and music theory to inform your brass playing in a positive way then you already understand how taking the time to learn about different related topics is useful. If embouchure analysis is making things worse it’s because the analysis is faulty in the first place. Learn how brass embouchures actually function and apply what you learn, adjusting as you need to. And if the student is analyzing their embouchure technique at the wrong time, help your student learn to focus on one thing at a time while practicing for a bit each day and focus on the musical expression the rest of the time.

And if you throw out that tired phrase, “paralysis by analysis” I say you’ve lost credibility and the argument.

/rant

9 Things Professionals Avoid

Or rather, 9 Warning Signs of an Artist. While it’s generally better (pedagogically) to talk about what to do, rather than what not to do, this page has nine things that are signs of an amateur. Here are three of the warning signs, with a couple thoughts of my own.

1) Amateur Artists wait for Inspiration

You’ve got to set a work schedule and stick to it, regardless of whether or not you feel like doing it.

2.) Amateur Artists work until something else comes up

While the author is mostly referring to your time spent practicing/composing/painting/etc., I would also add that “amateur” artists also seem to feel that you can drop a gig commitment if a better one comes up. That’s not a sign of a profession, in spite of the fact that sometimes professionals seem to think this is cool.

3.) Amateur Artists are constantly changing their focus

While an amateur tends to change their style or medium as the mood strikes them, a professional artist knows that a “jack-of-all-trades is a master of none”.

I would add that as a musician, being a “jack of all trades” has allowed me to be successful precisely because I’m able to do so many different things, albeit in the field of music. I’ve been able to do this, however, because I’ve spent time working on mastering my skills in a couple of areas (trombone playing and composing) and then building off of those abilities to branch off into related things (conducting, music administration, etc.).

9.) Amateur Artists isolate themselves from the artist community

This brings up a couple of thoughts. First, professional musicians usually quickly learn how small their community actually is. It’s not hard for a musician to get blackballed from gigs because word can get spread around that such and such a player is difficult to work with or doesn’t follow through on commitments. When you isolate yourself from the rest of your peers, you can miss out on not only the word that’s going around about players you may want to work with (or not), but you also miss out on having your peers help you fix a broken reputation.

The other thought that comes to my mind is they myth of the “loan wolf” teacher who has a pedagogical method they push and build their reputation around. Students become an echo chamber of sorts when they go on and teach similarly, without regard to checking out what other folks are doing and what other fields of pedagogy outside of music are doing. If pedagogy is the science of teaching, then we need to treat our teaching more like a collaboration among other teachers. No one pedagogue has all the correct answers, no matter how distinguished or charismatic.

On the Importance of Grit

Here is another TED talk, part of a playlist on “Practice Made Perfect.” The overall theme of these videos are improving learning. In this talk, Angela Lee Duckworth discusses the importance of grit to learning.

 

Leaving a high-flying job in consulting, Angela Lee Duckworth took a job teaching math to seventh graders in a New York public school. She quickly realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating the successful students from those who struggled. Here, she explains her theory of “grit” as a predictor of success.

Duckworth refers to the “growth mindset,” something that I posted about a couple of weeks ago.

So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called “growth mindset.” This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brainand how it changes and grows in response to challenge,they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.

I find it interesting that Duckworth also studied teachers in her research. She not only looked at which new teachers in a tough neighborhood would stick it out, but also which teachers would show more successful outcomes for their students. This tells me that grit and the growth mindset are also characteristics of good pedagogy, as well as qualities we want to encourage in our students.

 

Not Yet – Practicing to Improve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Get Better Through Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trombone Playing In fMRI Scanner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Reinhardt’s Pivot System Orientation and Analysis Audio

A number of years ago I was given a cassette tape of Donald Reinhardt talking about his “orientation and analysis” to his pedagogical approach to teaching. Apparently he was giving very similar talks to all of his students during their first lesson and he figured that if he recorded it that a new student could listen to this while waiting for their lesson time. This made it quicker for Reinhardt to jump right in and begin personalizing the student’s instructions and also allowed him to be teaching one student while the new student was listening to the tape.

The first portion of the tape was to introduce his students to the basics of his approach. Many of the things he discussed were already written out on sheets of paper that may have been handed out and followed along while listening to the tape, but not having studied directly with Reinhardt I’m not certain. The second part of the tape is Reinhardt discussing his Pivot System Manuals for trumpet and trombone and some of the specific instructions, many of which were not written in the book itself.

Keep in mind that these recordings are in many ways a snapshot of how Reinhardt happened to be teaching at that time. If you read through many of the descriptions and instructions from the Pivot System Manuals, originally published in the 1940s, and compare them to his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, first published in the 1970s I believe, you’ll not that he changed quite a bit. Towards the end of his life I understand that he had changed much of his approach quite a bit from what you can hear in these tapes. For example, he changed the definition of the term “pivot” and had apparently regretted even using the term “pivot system” because it led to a lot of misunderstanding of what he was trying to do with his pedagogy. I also understand that he also expressed less concern for exactly what a student played when practicing mechanics, but was more specific about exactly how the student was supposed to play it. He didn’t specifically ask students to follow each group of exercises, practicing one group each day, but rather assigned exercises based on what the student needed at that particular time.

At any rate, here are the links to the tracks. If you’re interested in the Pivot System Manuals they are out of print in their original form now, an edited version of them for trumpet and trombone are currently available.

Introduction
What is the proper attitude?
What is the improper attitude?
Phases of the Pivot System
Pivot System for Mechanics
The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System
Introduction to the Sensation Theory
The Sensation Theory
The left hand grip
What is the Pivot System
Maloclusions
The thirty-five points of the Pivot System
The Pivot Stabilizer
An open mind
Building reserve

Basic Pivot Manual instructions
Form Studies
Pivot Manual order
Get a pencil
Instruction for trombonists
Group 1
Group 2
Group 3
Group 4
Group 5
Group 6 for trumpet
Group 6 for trombone
Group 7 for trumpet
Group 7 for trombone
Group 8 for trumpet
Group 8 for trombone
Group 9 for trumpet
Group 9 for trombone
Group 10 for trombone
Group 11 for trombone
Pivot System Warm-Up 57

You might notice that there are only nine groups of exercises for trumpet and eleven for trombone. The additional two groups for trombone are exercises designed to increase slide facility.