Coming Back After 211 Days Off

Sarah Paradis is the trombonist with the Mirari Brass Quintet. I was able to watch them give a masterclass a number of years ago which was wonderful. Sarah recently had a son (congratulations, Sarah!), but some complications forced her to take a long time off from the trombone. She’s doing well now and is back to playing trombone and blogging about her experience taking such a long time off and what it’s going to take for her comeback.

Mentally, I didn’t mind too much about this break because I knew it was something I had to do for my health and especially for the health of my baby. It hurt my ego a bit because I couldn’t play with Mirari Brass Quintet, I couldn’t take any gigs, and I missed out on an audition for my local symphony. But again, my family’s health is more important than any gig, so it was clear what I had to do.

In this first of what I hope are several posts, Sarah writes a bit about the circumstances that required her to take time off of the horn, what it was like to teach lessons without being able to play, and her plan for further posts on this topic. I’m looking forward to reading more about her experiences and what we can all learn from her. Check back later on the Brass Blog for updates.

Learning a Musical Instrument as an Adult

My wife has recently become seriously interested in learning to play music after not really having any musical education prior. While she’s dabbled a bit in the past, she needed to find an instrument and genre of music she was particularly excited about to get to the point of where she decided to take the plunge. For her, it’s Celtic harp.

She enjoys being able to ask me for help. Even though I don’t have a background in either Celtic music or harp, I’m still able to answer basic questions and even more complex ones involving music theory or ear training. I’ve been on the lookout lately for things that she might find useful and came across 7 tips for adults taking up a musical instrument. Honestly, the advice that’s in there is good for anyone, regardless of how old you are or even whether you’re just starting out with music or have been playing for decades.

  1. Dedicate a small amount of time every day to practice.
  2. Find some new music to play.
  3. Get your instrument serviced.
  4. Give yourself something to work for.
  5. Remember why you’re doing it.
  6. Persevere.
  7. Don’t be afraid.

Frankly, the above suggestions (and you should read through the short article for extra thoughts on each piece of advice) are solid for learning anything new. OK, maybe “get your instrument serviced” won’t apply to something like creative writing, for example, but the gist of the article does an excellent job of getting started on creative projects.

Elasticity Routine For Lip Flexibility

A few months ago I caught up with Doug Elliott and took another lesson. For those who don’t know, Doug’s embouchure types and terminology are the ones I prefer to use here and my lessons and interview with him were important resources for my dissertation. Doug studied from Donald Reinhardt and took Reinhardt’s ideas and developed a presentation of them that makes them easier to understand.

At any rate, at my last lesson with Doug he reminded me of Reinhardt’s “Elasticity Routine,” or at least the technique and point behind it. I have some inconsistencies in how my chops function between my upper register and F3 and below. Glissing without using the slide between partials in this register are helping me make my embouchure function more consistently. They are also pretty good for developing lip flexibility and overall embouchure control.

There was a forum topic on the Trombone Forum that was discussing similar exercises, so I threw together a short video describing and demonstrating what I’ve been practicing. It’s not as good as Doug’s demonstration for me, but I think you can get the point of how the Elasticity Routine works. The exact glisses that you do are not as important as how you do them. Do not let up on the mouthpiece pressure and try to gliss between those partials as smoothly as possible.

I had a couple of pretty good glisses in there and some examples of me struggling to make them sound smooth. They all sound better now than they did a few months ago. The point is not that this should sound good (although that’s what I’m trying for when practicing this drill), but how they help your playing.

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.

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.