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.

Brass Exercise From Donald Reinhardt – Rests

I’ve been revisiting Donald S. Reinhardt’s “Pivot System For Trombone,” frequently referred to by former Reinhardt students as “The Manual.” The book, now out of print, contains 11 different groups of exercises in the trombone book (9, I believe for trumpet, because Reinhardt added a couple of groups that deal with slide technique). One of the things that makes it difficult for someone just to pick up the book and work out of it is that Reinhardt intended his students to practice out of this book in very specific ways. Originally, the student was to play one group each day, moving on to the next group the next day until the student completed the entire book, then start from the beginning and repeat. After each day’s group, the student was to jump to the back of the book and practice his “Form Studies,” which are scale and chord arpeggio exercises with different articulation patterns.

My teacher, Doug Elliott, studied extensively with Reinhardt. Doug has mentioned to me a couple of times that by the time he was studying with Reinhardt that he had abandoned this specific approach to using this book and was assigning students particular groups according to what he felt they needed to work on. Reinhardt also had lots of other exercises that aren’t in “The Manuals” that he would use for a particular student, depending on what their strengths and weaknesses were.

Furthermore, much of the specific instructions in these books that Reinhardt assigned weren’t included in the text writeup in the book. For three of the daily groups, Reinhardt instructed his students to do something during rests that I have not come across in any other brass method.

During the rest in the second measure Reinhardt instructed students to not breathe and to not let up on the mouthpiece pressure in the slightest. “In short, stay like a Sphinx for 4 beats.” He was adamant that the student shouldn’t move the head, instrument, or anything at all. There are several sets of similar slurs starting on different pitches and going to different pitches all through the first three groups of “The Manual.”

Other brass pedagogues have come up with similar exercises where during the rests you keep the mouthpiece on the lips, with the embouchure firmed and the mouthpiece pressure consistent as with playing, and then breathe through the nose. Reinhardt had exercises where he instructed students to practice that way. What is unique about this particular instruction is that you don’t take in another breath and attack the pitch after the rest with only the air that is left from where you left off. He wrote, “During the rests d not breathe, or raise the mouthpiece pressure; this develops control of the breath.” (my emphasis)

The concern I always have when I both practice these exercises myself and when recommending them to others is that there is a strong possibility that during the rests you can stop the air by closing off the glottis and then have to open it again when beginning the pitch after the rest. Developing that habit would be very contrary to good brass playing and folks who do this usually struggle with initial attacks after a breath and you can sometimes hear them grunt just before playing. You have to consciously keep the glottis open and stop the pitch through the breathing muscles. I think this is probably what Reinhardt was thinking of when he wrote that this develops control of the breath.

Depending on how full a breath you take to start the exercise and how much air you’ve already expelled you may need to stop the air by either relaxing the muscles of expiration or even engaging the muscles of inspiration at a point of balance. Consider that when your lungs are full of air the air pressure alone should be sufficient to commence blowing. All you need to do is relax the muscles of inspiration and you begin to exhale. It’s not until you’ve exhaled enough air that the air pressure equalizes that the muscles of exhalation become more necessary (this is an overly simplistic explanation, since factors like the range and dynamic being played, as well as the average flow of the instrument you’re playing come into play). At these rest points you have to find a point of breathing balance and freeze there.

Coincidentally, I recently caught a lesson with Doug Elliott and we talked about this group of exercises. We both have noticed how hard it is to get folks to practice this exercise correctly. Perhaps the hardest thing for players to do is to keep the mouthpiece pressure and lip position frozen in place as if playing. You have to imagine that you’re still blowing and playing the pitch during the rests, the only difference is that you’re simply not blowing. Everything else in your body, including the embouchure formation and mouthpiece pressure, is exactly the same as if you were playing. It’s really easy for students to not do this correctly. If you watch yourself in a mirror, look to see if you’re relaxing the mouthpiece pressure or otherwise adjusting your embouchure formation during the rests. If you video record yourself, turn the sound off and see if you can tell when you’re resting. Ideally, you want it to be hard to tell.

Whatever the ultimate reason why Reinhardt instructed students with these exercises, I always find that after playing these groups for a day or so that I feel very strong. There’s something about these groups that really helps me build my chops up. It’s certainly possible that they would be just as effective with nose inhalations, and I would certain recommend that for a student who is struggling with keeping the glottis open. Perhaps in the future I’ll try some experimenting and practice them with nose inhalations to see if I notice any difference.

10 Proven Ways to Improve Your Breathing Collected By Will Kimball

I’ve posted before about Will Kimball’s excellent blog. Kimball teaches trombone at Brigham Young University and usually posts on historical topics. Here is a great essay he wrote concerning breathing for brass players. He searched through scientific literature to get at the truth behind breathing and came up with 10 Ways To Improve your breathing based on what we know scientifically.

  1. Practice taking deep breaths
  2. Eat fruit and vegetables
  3. Don’t smoke
  4. Stay physically fit
  5. Allow full expansion
  6. Don’t wear tight clothes
  7. Avoid eating a lot before performing
  8. Relax
  9. Maintain good posture
  10. Take big breaths, even when you don’t think you need them

Much of the above list he compiled is common sense, but some of it goes against the grain of our brass playing urban legends. For example, Kimball mentions the belief (among some brass players) that carrying some extra weight improves lung function or lung capacity, scientific studies actually show the reverse to be true. Time to hit the gym a little more.

The last point, taking big breaths even when it doesn’t seem necessary for the phrase, has at least one caveat. Citing Arend Bouhuys, a specialist in respiration who has studied musicians, Kimball points out that with a larger breath less effort is required to exhale air, helping the musician to maintain relaxed effort in playing. Essentially the internal pressure of having a full breath means the musician simply relaxes to begin exhalation, rather than having to engage the muscles of expiration. However, Kimball also notes that in soft playing that this practice could potentially work against the player as he or she will need to work against the natural tendency for exhalation with the full breath or risk moving too much air.

Although Kimball doesn’t refer to it, I think that the same can apply to extreme upper register playing as well. Playing in the upper register requires a much smaller aperture and moves less air, much like playing soft. Often times I find that taking a very large breath to attack a pitch in the upper register results in too much air pressure and taking in a bit less air makes it easier to get a clean attack.

At any rate, the whole article is worth a read and Kimball supplies links to all the scientific studies he cites there. Go check it out here.

The Thirty Five Basic Points of the Pivot System

In the Donald S. Reinhardt Facebook discussion page the 35 Basic Points of the Pivot System came up. While much of this will not make sense without the rest of the book, I wanted to post these points here so I could more easily refer to them. This come from the “Encyclopedia of the Pivot System,” by Donald S. Reinhardt, p. 229-237.

1. Be ever mindful of the SENSATION THEORY (question and answer twelve in chapter one), and make certain that its principles are constantly utilized throughout your playing. The primary purpose of the warm-up routines is to reestablish yesterday’s playing sensations, or to adjust and align your pre-playing and playing sensations until they merge into the all-essential unified sensation. Remaining alert to the sensations involved during your playing makes it possible to master any new mechanical (physical) point in the shortest time. During the early stages of any warm-up remain conscious of the blowing sensation rather than the pitch and sound factors. Commence your warm-up with a HOOO (no tongue) attack as this utilizes only the breath and the lip-vibrations. Think of the breath and the lips as the basic factors and the tongue as the refining factor (not a crutch) to both. Never warm up so loudly that you experience strain or so softly that you feel a pinching or a holding back. It is obvious, therefore, that your warm-up dynamic level will vary from day to day in order to cater to vast physical differences.

2. Saturate your lips with saliva. This is intended to include the corners of your mouth. It is recommended that you wet your lips several times before the initial playing of the day. This should be done because the saliva to the lips often acts like ink to a blotter, especially for the first few wettings. The idea of wetting the corners of your mouth is to facilitate the inhalation and to prevent embouchure distortion from excessive mouthcorner stretching. Certain present-day squeak artists do adhere to the dry vibrating point principle; however, other than their ability to produce the high ones — their over-all tongue manipulation and control is not worth mentioning. Because tonguing tends to dampen their vibrating points with saliva, their embouchures (with the dry vibrating points) fall apart and become useless under such conditions. With few exceptions, a wet embouchure should be the first choice of any modern brass instrument performer.

3. Your lips must be formed in such a manner that they are just touching—throughout preparation for placement—throughout your placement—throughout your inhalation—and at the completion of your blowing. Your lip aperture (the space blown open -not tongued open) must occur only during your actual blowing.

4. Form your lips as if to buzz so that the membrane of your lower lip is drawn slightly in and over your lower teeth, while the tip of your upper lip reaches down and contacts your lower lip (while slightly overlapping it) at the vibrating points. This is often termed a buzzing embouchure.

5. Always approach your lips for placement with your mouthpiece and instrument in the exact playing angle. This is very important because it sets your jaw as well as your embouchure and both are a must. If the angle jumps up during the attack, then your jaw was set with its position entirely too receding; whereas, if the instrument angle jumps down—then your jaw was protruding to excess during the placement of the mouthpiece. Check on this important point by diligent mirror observation and make the necessary corrections.

6. At the very moment that your mouthpiece placement is being enacted, sufficient grip pressure must be employed against your lips to make your outer and inner embouchures merge and feel as one solidified unit. Too little mouthpiece pressure may cause your placement to drift or float and completely upset your essential playing
sensations. This is especially true while your embouchure is in its formative stages. The mouthpiece pressure is applied toward you while you are executing your placement and during your inhalation from the corners of your mouth. The forward pressure (puckered resistance)—the backward pressure (mouthpiece pressure)—and the neutralization of the opposing forces occurs during your actual attack and throughout your blowing. When the forward pressure equalizes the backward pressure—the two pressures used during the playing reach a point of neutrality or freezing point. In the PIVOT SYSTEM, therefore, we press to neutralize—not to press! The forward pressure employed during the playing is the basis for the all- essential lip pucker. This works hand-in-hand with your PIVOT for your particular physical type.

7. Your mouthpiece should be placed upon an embouchure of almost buzzing firmness.This prevents any twisting or winding up during the mouthpiece placement. It is safe to say, therefore, that this essential firmness must be arrested with sufficient grip pressure during your placement and inhalation. The actual lip pucker occurs from the moment of the attack to the conclusion of the blowing. If this is carried out in the proper manner, your grip pressure will prevent too much flesh from rushing in and under the rim and into the cup of the mouthpiece. You can see that the lip pucker being the opposite of the smile is intended to neutralize both the forward and the backward pressures and assist in the formation of the hermetic seal of the mouthpiece rim and the flesh of the outer embouchure.

8. Always—place, inhale, play; never—inhale, place, play! A reverse order of these points means that you are seriously impeding the synchronization of your basic playing factors. This is a vital point; do not take it lightly!

9. During your formative stages, the mouthpiece pressure upon your lips during your inhalation should be the same as or more than when playing. This hard and fast correctional requirement may be modified according to your particular physical specifications when sufficient development permits; however, in the meantime, carryout this “must” to the letter. Forget your traditional ifs and buts and master this logic.

10. Inhale the high-pitched, whispered inhalation IM (not OM or UM) through the corners of your mouth (never the center of your mouth). Generally speaking, always execute this slower than you think!

11. During the IM inhalation, your tongue must recede about a sixteenth of an inch away from your teeth. This permits great quantities of air to pass freely around your tongue, without resorting to any abnormal stretch in the corners of your mouth to obtain it. The stretch in the corners of your mouth for the inhalation must be minimized.

12. The tongue during the IM inhalation must be very relaxed while receding. The tongue thus far should have two duties: one, it must contact your lower teeth or lower gums during the mouthpiece placement; and two, it must recede during the IM inhalation. The tongue will have additional duties later in the playing; however, it must be understood that no tongue stiffness must ever be tolerated.

13. Whenever time permits—always inhale slowly! This prevents all kinds of unnecessary nervous and muscular tension from entering into your playing. An over-rapid inhalation is often the cause of a quiver or tremolo—the unwanted tonal annoyances which frequently occur during sustained pianissimo playing.

14. During your inhalation, the position of your head and the angle of your instrument must not be altered in any way, because these faults permit changes to occur in both your jaw position and embouchure formation. You must learn to inhale with as little embouchure and jaw distortion as possible. Do not regard your inhalation maneuver as an opportunity to shift gears with the positions of the embouchure and jaw.

15. During your inhalation, especially after playing a number of lower tones, always retrieve your lower lip. This means that your lower lip must be returned to its starting point. In short, your lips during your interphrase inhalation must be identical in position to your initial inhalation. Do not take this important point lightly.

16. If your mouthpiece is placed slightly more to one side of your mouth than the other, then more air should be inhaled from the opposite corner of your mouth. This is vital to keep your embouchure in line. Check on this point by diligent mirror observation.

17. In the PIVOT SYSTEM, the start of the lower tone and the higher tone must be identical in that they are both produced at the outset with the just touching embouchure and they are blown (not tongued) apart. The principal difference must be in the amount of lip compression (pinching power) employed.

18. At the outset of any standard or normal mouthcorner inhalation, your diaphragm and abdominal regions must protrude with firmness. As this inhalation continues a slight expansion will be felt in your chest and an open, free feeling will be noticed in your throat. Make certain that you use this type of inhalation whenever and wherever possible. This is the same principle as air being blown into a large paper bag—the bottom fills first and then the top.

19. Whenever time does not permit, then use the quarter breath—the sniff breath—the gasp breath—the chest heave—etc. It must be thoroughly comprehended that this form of rapid inhalation must be used only to augment but never to replace the standard or normal mouthcorner inhalation. In short, they are intended to serve as a means to an end rather than the standard mode of playing. This habit has become so strong with certain Latin-American performers (because of short, choppy phrases) that they find it impossible to play any type of slow ballad or any sustained passages.

20. Positively never tolerate any lifting of your shoulders during any inhalation because this fault is a positive guarantee that you will be short- winded. Test this fault and notice how it restricts your inhalation.

21. During your inhalation think of the corners of your mouth, your inhaled air, and your tongue all moving backward together as one solidified unit.

22. DO NOT ALTER THE POSITION OF YOUR HEAD OR THE ANGLE OF YOUR INSTRUMENT DURING YOUR INHALATIONS! This point has been repeated because of its significance.

23. At the peak of any inhalation, positively never delay your attack. The exhalation or the blowing must gain momentum from the inhalation, and all work in one coordinated movement, rather than a delay during the so-called bridge between the two factors. You do not delay when you speak; therefore, do not delay when you execute an attack to play. The idea of bottling up the air for a so-called crisp, explosive attack is utterly preposterous. The desired result must be procured from nervous and muscular synchronization—not from any form of physical delay.

24. With each and every initial attack, the diaphragm and abdominal regions must lift (not protrude) in a firm synchronized manner. The higher the note played, the more pronounced this lift must become. Positively never protrude your diaphragm and abdominal regions for any form of playing, especially while ascending, because this old-time playing fallacy has caused more ruptures, hernias, hemmorhoids, etc., among trumpet players than all other playing faults combined. If you possess this fault—lose it! Remember, a clean musical delivery must be the result of correct muscular timing—not nervous delay.

25. POSITIVELY NEVER SMILE TO ASCEND; LEARN TO PIVOT AND THEN TO PUCKER!

26. The tongue is now BLOWN FORWARD in a very relaxed manner from its IM (slightly receded) position so that it strikes the back of the upper teeth, the upper gums, or higher depending upon the range being played. This is sometimes called the first stage of the attack. The proper tongue-arch level may be assisted by using the vowel AAA (DAAA or TAAA) for the lower register—OOO (DOOO or TOOO) for the middle register—and EEE (DEEE or TEEE) for the upper register. Since there are eight distinctly different tongue types, the matter of tongue obstruction, etc., must be discussed during one of your early lessons in the PIVOT SYSTEM.

27. NEVER PERMIT THE TIP OF YOUR TONGUE TO PENETRATE BETWEEN YOUR TEETH AND LIPS IN ANY REGISTER, AT ANY TIME. This is a hard and fast rule but strive to live up to it at all times. TONGUE PENETRATION IS ONE OF THE CHIEF CAUSES OF INADEQUATE RANGE, ENDURANCE, FLEXIBILITY, ETC.

28. After striking, the tongue immediately snaps back (and down in some cases) into the mouth to permit the cone-like air column to strike the back of the compressed embouchure formation, where the least resistance is presented for the blowing. This is often referred to as the second stage of the attack.

29. The duties of the tongue up to this point are as follows:

  1. It must contact the lower teeth or lower gums while the mouthpiece placement is being enacted.
  2. It must recede a trifle during the IM inhalation.
  3. It must strike the back of the upper teeth, the upper gums, or higher depending upon the particular register being played. Remember, the vowels (already suggested) will assist you in achieving the essential tongue-arch level.
  4. It must never be permitted to penetrate between your teeth and lips in any register, at any time.
  5. It must snap back (and down in some cases) into your mouth to permit the cone-like air column to move forward to create the essential lip-vibrations for the particular range being played.
  6. Its arch-level is used to control all types of slurring and flexibility in general.

30. The length of the tongue backstroke is one of the controlling factors for both volume and speed; whereas, the level of the tongue-arch is one of the governing factors for range. Keep these facts in mind while analyzing any tongue problem.

31. All prescribed mechanical (physical) procedures must be carried to extremes during your daily practice periods; however, while you are playing your engagements give your entire attention to music. This is both necessary and proper.

32. Remember, the only time that any sensation is new is the first time; therefore, when you strive to master any new mechanical point make certain that you do not expect the new sensation to be as vivid in later attempts, or you will be carrying the point to extremes. Failure to observe this important fact has caused many performers to experience extended playing frustration.

33. Remember, there are no playing secrets—just logic and common sense. Intelligent, consistent daily practice and study invariably wins out over this word talent.

34. The primary purpose of the PIVOT is to make it possible for you to retain constantly the all-essential line-up between your lips and teeth, so that the lip-vibrations will not be impeded or obliterated in any particular part of your range. It is for this reason that you must study this ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE PIVOT SYSTEM and the PIVOT SYSTEM MANUAL thoroughly and completely. In the PIVOT SYSTEM four standard embouchure and jaw types and five subtypes (nine in all) are utilized and you are directed to fall into one type or the other. This is the only method whereby your individual differences are given scientific consideration. In this manner Mother Nature is satisfied.

35. If you are really serious about your study, I suggest from an hour and a half to five hours of study and practice daily. You must learn to rest exactly as long as you practice. Five minutes of playing means five minutes of resting, etc. In this way you are constantly building up your playing reserve and endurance and never permitting a thoughtless, illogical practice period to tear it down and destroy it. May I suggest a daily review of these thirty-five basic points of the PIVOT SYSTEM.

The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System is out of print now and hard to find. If you do find a copy, it’s a bit difficult to read through it and get a firm grasp on what Reinhardt wanted unless you get some help from a former Reinhardt student or someone else who is well versed in Reinhardt’s pedagogy. It is written in a FAQ style and isn’t written in a way that is designed to help you grasp basic concepts first before moving on to more advanced ones. Stick with it, though, and it is one of the most comprehensive and complete discussions of brass technique that I’ve found.

On Learning the “Classics”

I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?

Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.

It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.

So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.

And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.

Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.

Paralysis By Analysis “Godwin’s Law”

In 1990 Mike Godwin famously wrote about Usnet discussion groups, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” The corollary is that once this comparison is made, the individual who made it automatically looses the argument. It’s become known as “Godwin’s Law.” I propose a similar adage for the expression, “paralysis by analysis.” As an online discussion about brass technique gets longer, the probability that someone will come along and reject a logical or factual argument with the term “paralysis by analysis” approaches 1. When that happens, that individual looses the debate.

I’ve blogged about my problems with this expression before, but it’s worth repeating.

The first issue I take with this expression is that it is almost always used to dismiss someone else’s points without actually addressing any of the logic or facts that were brought up. Someone can provide a well-documented and rational argument about some point of brass technique and rather than pointing out flaws with the argument, a contrarian will reject the entire argument without having to provide any evidence or logical explanation. If they don’t use the expression, “paralysis by analysis” they often say something like, “you’re thinking too much,” or “the body will figure itself out.” It’s intellectually lazy at best, and at its heart it’s bad advice.

analysis
noun, plural analyses

1. the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements (opposed to synthesis).
2. this process as a method of studying the nature of something or of determining its essential features and their relations.
3. a presentation, usually in writing, of the results of this process.

Analysis in musical pedagogy and practice is a good thing. It allows us to learn about the details of playing technique, put music into an historical and theoretical context, and help us to communicate the results of our study to other people. When people discourage analysis they are not just recommending against a valuable tool for teachers and students, they are actively encouraging students to NOT explore, question, and learn.

Do music students often freeze up when trying to play their instrument? Of course, but it’s worth looking deeper (dare I say, analyze) what’s actually happening to musicians when this happens. There are two scenarios. First, and I suspect most common, the musician is trying to multitask and rather than making for an improvement it leads to the musical equivalent of “athlete’s choke.”

Multitasking is really just task switching. It’s not really possible for people to think about more than one, maybe two, things at a time. Instead the focus changes from one thing to another. Because there are so many different physical skills that need to coordinate for playing a musical instrument it’s really impossible to keep them all in mind while playing, so we need to be selective on what we concentrate on while practicing and performing. Analysis should be done prior to picking up the instrument and the particular task to be practiced is selected based on what the player or teacher determines needs correction. Once the work on that particular point of focus is concluded, the musician should move on to another task. At no point is the analysis itself causing the freezing up, it’s the action of trying to analyze while coordinating all the physical tasks, and often trying to make corrections on the fly at the same time.

“Paralysis by multitasking” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’s much more accurate.

The other scenario that happens when a musician struggles with analysis is that they aren’t drawing the correct conclusions from their analysis. This is why we have teachers, who presumably have more experience than the student and understands better what’s going on. Where I have a problem is when music teachers discourage their students to analyze because they want to always do that for their student. Those students are going to need to learn to do their own analysis, and so it’s better for the teacher to instruct the student in what correct playing mechanics are and how to spot check their own technique and make their own corrections. Furthermore, most serious music students end up doing some sort of teaching at some point in their careers, even if it’s just offering advice on the internet. When students consistently hear from their teacher, “paralysis by analysis” they take that mantra too seriously and it becomes an excuse. They use it to justify ignoring or dismissing information that is useful and it becomes a cover for teachers who simply don’t know what’s going on with their students.

“Paralysis by ignorance” doesn’t rhyme either.

So I herby declare that in the comments section in this blog, if you use the expression “paralysis by analysis” to dismiss a logical or specific point of view you don’t agree with you automatically loose the argument.

Learning Styles – How Can Teachers Best Help Students Learn

The idea of students having a “learning style” refers to a concept that that individuals differ on how the best learn, develop, and retain information. For example, someone who is considered to be a “visual” learner needs to see the information in some way, while an “aural” learner will want to hear it explained. On its surface this seems like a good thing, since we are all individuals and experienced teachers develop strategies to help students with different needs and backgrounds learn better. Unfortunately, the idea of catering lessons to a particular student’s learning style doesn’t show that it actually helps. In fact, it can even leave some students behind when proven methods of instruction are avoided in favor of what essentially amounts to a preference on the student’s part. Teachers end up working with a student’s strengths and not addressing the weaknesses.

In spite of the lack of evidence to back up the learning styles theory, this is a pervasive myth among educators, students, and the general public. Companies that want to sell lesson plans and other educational support materials to schools and teachers are, in part, to blame for the continued belief in this myth. Here’s one example that purports to tell you your learning style by asking you 20 questions. I tried it out and learned that I was an “auditory” learner.

Auditory

If you are an auditory learner, you learn by hearing and listening. You understand and remember things you have heard. You store information by the way it sounds, and you have an easier time understanding spoken instructions than written ones. You often learn by reading out loud because you have to hear it or speak it in order to know it.

As an auditory learner, you probably hum or talk to yourself or others if you become bored. People may think you are not paying attention, even though you may be hearing and understanding everything being said.

Here are some things that auditory learners like you can do to learn better.

  • Sit where you can hear.
  • Have your hearing checked on a regular basis.
  • Use flashcards to learn new words; read them out loud.
  • Read stories, assignments, or directions out loud.
  • Record yourself spelling words and then listen to the recording.
  • Have test questions read to you out loud.
  • Study new material by reading it out loud.

Remember that you need to hear things, not just see things, in order to learn well.

The problem with assessing a student’s learning style with questions like this survey is that it doesn’t actually address learning. Asking someone the “best way to study for a test” doesn’t offer information on how a student best learns because it doesn’t assess whether the student did well on the test! The only way to assess whether learning styles are helpful is how well they learned the material, not what someone prefers to do for fun or what strategies they want to try.

Another online “test” (I won’t link because it wants you to register before it gives you results) is a bit more thorough one that has some more nuance to the questions and asks more, but again, I find many of the questions odd (“You have a good sense of color” “You hear small things that others don’t” – can a so-called visual learner be color blind or can someone with some hearing loss still be a so-called aural learner?) and none of the questions assess learning.

A good summary of why learning styles is a myth can be found in this Wired article.

Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Here is another one.

Teaching children according to their individual “learning style” does not achieve better results and should be ditched by schools in favour of evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.

Thirty eminent academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology have signed a letter to the Guardian voicing their concern about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.

What about all that literature that supposedly supports learning styles? Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork wrote a review of the literature.

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific apti- tudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtu- ally no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for vali- dating the educational applications of learning styles. Al- though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

Searching online for evidence that both supports and refutes the theory of learning styles shows a general difference between those supporting and those debunking. Sites and “articles” that support learning styles tend to lack citations and when they do have them, the studies listed either are from companies that want to sell their materials to teachers, are poorly done, or even state the exact opposite of what that source is claiming. On the other hand, criticisms of learning styles tend to be well researched with peer reviewed articles from reputable authors and journals and provide a much more nuanced view of teaching and learning.

The bottom line for teachers is that while we can and should use every tool available when necessary, it’s important to look at the bigger picture – whether learning is taking place and whether the results we’re getting from our students is what they are truly capable of. By all means, reinforce the students’ strengths, but address their weaknesses too.

Firm, Place, Breathe, Blow

A thread on the Facebook Trombone Pedagogy group lately has been discussing different thoughts on coordinating breathing with setting the embouchure and placing the mouthpiece. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss my preferred way of teaching students to coordinate air and embouchure together, based on Donald Reinhardt’s instructions from his writings, including his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System.

While the jaw is in its playing position, form the saturated embouchure with ALMOST buzzing firmness, so that the lips are “just touching” at the vibrating points. When in doubt, form the lips as if to buzz. . .

Place the mouthpiece upon the embouchure formation as just prescribed and use sufficient “contact pressure” to locate and sustain its position in the playing groove of the embouchure. The actually placement must be executed in accordance with the [embouchure] type. . .

Inhale the high-pitched, whispered “IM” (not “OM” or “UM”) through both mouthcorners – NEVER THE MOUTHCENTER – simultaneously. . . In short, eliminate “gear shifting” and inhale with a minimum of embouchure distortion.

At it’s heart, Reinhardt’s advice is to work towards unifying the player’s pre-playing sensations with the playing sensations. In other words, he felt it was valuable to have as little change as possible in the position of the lips and mouthpiece upon the lips from inhaling to playing. In order to encourage this, he instructed his students to practice (during certain exercises – not during rehearsing and performance) to firm the lips as if buzzing first, place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips, inhale through the mouth corners while maintaining mouthpiece pressure and holding the lip center just touching, then commence blowing by coordinating the mouth corners snapping into their correct position. Taking breaths in the middle of phrases is to be simply a matter of continuing to breathe through the mouth corners while keeping everything under the mouthpiece rim and inside the mouthpiece should remain more or less in playing position.

Many players, including some excellent ones, either don’t consider their embouchure when breathing or are so focused on moving lots of air that they don’t feel that minimizing the embouchure “gear shift” between inhaling and blowing is valuable. Some players will open their mouth very wide to inhale and the mouthpiece placement shifts slightly every time they begin blowing. Some players will set the mouthpiece on relaxed lips and firm them only just as they begin blowing, which can result in twisting or winding the lips up under the rim or distortions and inconsistency in their overall embouchure formation from breath to breath. Consistency in a player’s embouchure formation should result in better playing consistency.

One of the biggest challenges to adopting this approach is that it’s difficult to take in as much air as quickly when you’re only breathing through the mouth corners. Trumpet and horn players may find the smaller mouthpiece size makes keeping the lip center just touching inside the mouthpiece while inhaling to be easier than low brass players with their larger mouthpieces. I think it’s important to keep in mind that this approach is meant to be practiced only at specific times in your routine and then forgotten about while you move on or are performing. We can think of this approach as an ideal goal, but that not every playing situation is going to make that ideal work at every moment. By aiming towards the ideal in your practice you are minimizing the potential for this to cause issues, both short term cracking notes from time to time or the longer term (and fortunately rarer) embouchure dysfunction that can result.

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.