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.

Weekend Gig and Weekend Picks

If you’re in western North Carolina this weekend, come on out to hear the Asheville Jazz Orchestra perform at the White Horse Black Mountain on Saturday, September 20, 2014. We play two sets of big band jazz starting at 8 PM.

Here are my picks for your weekend music-related surfing.

It do be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, ye scurvy dog! Drink yer grog and let loose with some Pirate Music & Sea Shanties.

Now this is concentration. Watch as this flautist performs flawlessly in spite of a butterfly landing right on her nose and camping out for a while.

 Here’s a very interesting and insightful essay posted by trombonist Alex Iles about Versatility vs. Adaptability. He writes:

Just as a gymnast must adapt and constantly re-distribute her weight and energy in order to perform difficult choreographed routine on a 4 inch wide balance beam, freelance musicians must adapt to a wide variety of demands that are constantly changing.

Here’s one for the trumpet players, although every musician will get some good info from this one. Pick up some advice on how to play in a big band trumpet section.

And lastly, since it’s marching band season here’s a description of the Seven People You Meet at Marching Band Contests.

Upcoming Gigs and Weekend Picks

I’ve got a couple of upcoming public gigs coming up in the next three days. Tomorrow, (July 19, 2014) I’m playing traditional jazz with the Low-Down Sires at a lindy hop dance called The Process in Richmond, VA. I’m afraid I don’t know more of the details about the dance, but if you’re a swing dancer in the area or just a fan of trad jazz you can probably get in touch with someone through that Facebook link above. Next Monday, (July 21, 2014) I’ll be sitting in again with the Greenville Jazz Collective Big Band. We’re playing at Grille 33 in Greenville, SC. If you get to come out to either, please be sure to say hello to me.

If you’re too far away to come hear me play, here are some of my music related links for your weekend surfing.

Nikolaj Lund is a photographer who takes photos of classical musicians and puts them into a unique perspective. Take a look at some of them on his web site.

Hal Crook is a fantastic trombonist, composer, and the author of some of my favorite books on jazz improvisation. The Berkley College of Music, where Crook is on the faculty, has posted a downloadable library of play-a-long tracks Crook put together for improvisation practice.

An old manifesto from 1992, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz urges musical organizations that It’s Time to Bury the Dead. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite.

Is there anything new on the menu of the Vermont Mozart Festival or the Killington Music Festival? Does either the professional or amateur musical community of our state and beyond show any commitment at all to the music of their own age? Indeed, does the listening public have any clue what a wealth of music is consciously and maliciously being denied them? No, no, no and no. Of course not! Pleasant advisory committees, cheerful compromises, and polite accommodations are doomed because such efforts attempt to deal with a special, entrenched group of diseased minds called necrosones, those who make their living by exhuming, stuffing and mounting the music of dead composers –composers who demand neither royalties nor attention to the artistic thought behind what they once did. Necrosones will never change because they cannot, because they are not artists nor are they sympathetic to art. They are vampires.

To finish things off today, here’s Oleg Berg’s treatment of the classic Beatles recording Hey Jude, but tweaked to put it into a minor key. One of the things I love about great music is that it is often still strong when it gets twisted around like this.

Make Your Own Mute/Bow Holder Using Velcro

Glue Velcro Around Cup
1. Glue Velcro Around Cup

Two musician friends of mine simultaneously have come up with similar uses for velcro. Bob, a horn player, designed his own mute holder using velcro strips and a large plastic drink cup. Start by gluing a strip of velcro around your cup. You’ll obviously need to find a cup that’s large enough to hold your mute. Not such a big deal for trumpet players, but probably impossible for tubists.

2. Wrap Velcro Strip Around Chair
2. Wrap Velcro Strip Around Chair

You’ll need enough velcro to next wrap around your chair. I imagine that it would be more comfortable to use the soft fabric-like strip hear, since you’ll be sitting on it. Save the plastic hook portion of the velcro for use on the cup.

Completed Mute Holder
Completed Mute Holder

You’re all set. Your horn mute is right by your bell when you’re playing, making those quick mute changes much easier.

Velcro Bass Bow Holder
Velcro Bass Bow Holder

Coincidentally, a bassist friend of mine, Michael, was unsatisfied with using the bow quivers most bassists use if they alternate between arco and pizz throughout a performance or rehearsal. Michael needed a bow for one tune on a gig we were playing together and the bow changes happened a couple of times and were immediate. Since he mainly plays an older, slap-bass style on this tune he really couldn’t hold the bow in his hand when he wasn’t using it, so he used some velcro on his bow and the tailpiece of his bass to make for a very quick bow holder.

Keep in mind that he was using this for one tune and he doesn’t use his bow for gigs much at all. If you have an expensive bow and need to change a lot during your show I’m not sure how much I’d trust it to stay put. Use at your own risk.

What other musical uses of velcro can you think of? Off the top of my head, I was thinking that there might be a way to use some velcro to design an easy to reset method of holding sheet music on your music stand during outdoor gigs. I’ll have to give it some thought and see what I can come up with.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday, so here are my picks for your music related surfing this weekend.

Are you a tubist or teaching tuba students? If you need some ideas for solo repertoire, check out David Zerkel’s “Do You C What I C?”: An Examination of Solo Literature for the Contrabass Tuba.”

How old are you? Did you know that your abilities to hear higher pitches are dependent on your age? Check it out and see how closely your high frequency hearing matches your expected age here.

If you’re a fan of the London Symphony Orchestra or Ravel’s Bolero go take a look at the LSO’s interactive video performance. You can change camera views to many different sections and view multiple camera angles at once. All I want to know is why Valery Gergiev using a toothpick to conduct?

And lastly, although this isn’t really very musical, check out coin magician David Roth performing his routine called “Tuning Fork.”

“Faking” the Music

I recently came across an interesting article on The Strad (an online magazine for string players) that mirrors some things that as a trombonist (particularly a trombonist who plays a lot of jazz) I guess I just assumed was a pretty typical approach to performing those awkward lines that composer/arrangers sometimes write for us. Faking it – the great unmentionable of orchestral playing discusses the idea of “Faking, smudging, flying, putting the orchestral pedal down.”

In these economically parlous times, only a handful of the major orchestras in any country attack new compositions on a regular basis, with faking mentioned as necessary in anything from ten to almost ninety per cent of some modern works. One player commented that while music by some modern composers presented no problem, with others it was ‘a case of keeping in the right bar and hoping the trumpets drown you out’. There is also a widespread – if erroneous – belief that Tchaikovsky wrote ‘for effect’, and one well-known first violinist admitted that he aimed to land only about a quarter of the high passages, max.

While McVeigh is writing from the standpoint of professional orchestral string players, I find it interesting that this seems to be something that not many string players are taught early on. My first trombone teacher called the idea of faking challenging passages “streamlining” when I asked him about playing unison bebop lines with trumpet players and saxophonists. He pointed out that if I concentrated on nailing what I was capable of and ghosting the rest that my sound would slot in just under the trumpet/saxophone and sound just fine. The key, he taught me, was to do this confidently and perfectly in time. Gradually, as my technique got better, I found that I needed to ghost less and could play more.

Even in solo playing I’ve discovered that ghosting notes works quite well. There are some Carl Fontana solos I transcribed where I discovered the aural impression of what lines he was playing were much more complex than the licks he actually played. Again, the key is that he played those lines perfectly in time and emphasized the important notes while ghosting notes around them. The ear will lock into the underlying harmony and logic of the melodic line and fill in the gaps much more effectively than you might think.

McVeigh concludes her article with 10 recommendations for faking lines in an orchestra string section. Much of what she suggests are specific to string players, such as maintaining the same bowing as the rest of your section. Other points make for great advice for any musician, such as keeping good posture and ensuring that the downbeats of any rhythmically complex line are on time.

How often do you find yourself “faking” difficult passages? Do you feel as if you’re “cheating” or do you think it’s an important part of performing music? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Can You Tell the Strad?

An old one, but a good example of how even experts fool themselves. Get a room full of concert violinists and have them play 6 different instruments. 3 would by “old Italian” instruments by Stradivari and Guarneri. 3 were modern instruments. Do you think that the professionals would be able to tell the modern instruments from the older ones? Research designer Claudia Fritz set up her experiment to test just that.

When Fritz asked the players which violins they’d like to take home, almost two-thirds chose a violin that turned out to be new. She’s found the same in tests with other musical instruments. “I haven’t found any consistency whatsoever,” she says. “Never. People don’t agree. They just like different things.”

It’s another example of how hard it is to be objective when judging something musical. We all have different tastes and different ways of thinking about music and this helps define our subjective musical experiences. It’s almost impossible to separate ourselves from our preferences and expectations. For Fritz, this opens up a different area to explore.

“People looked at the violin, tried to understand how it vibrates, what are the mechanics behind it,” she says of past research. “But nobody has really looked at the human side.” She says her research is aimed at determining how people choose what they like, and what criteria they use.

If our cognitive biases influence us so much as to how we talk about our equipment, how much of how we discuss practice methods and pedagogical materials is similarly biased? A couple of days ago I discussed a device that is supposed to help brass players develop a better embouchure. Is an individual’s success with such a device also going to depend on their expectations and beliefs?

It would be nice to believe that we are able to rise above these tendencies, but the research shows that we really can’t help it. A humbling thought.

International Music Score Library Project

If you’re a classical musician, music student, or music teacher, you will want to be aware of the International Music Score Library Project. With hundreds of thousands of public domain music scores available, the IMSLP is one of the best resources for free music scores available on the web. Here’s some resent news about this site:

28 December 2013 – 261,000 scores.
28 December 2013 – 74,000 works have scores or parts on Petrucci Music Library.
1 July 2013 – We are happy to receive news of the successful incorporation and launch of Petrucci Music Library – Canada! More information can be found in this forum post.
30 May 2013 – IMSLP is happy to announce the availability of a “score similarity” feature, created by Vladimir Viro, which will show other pieces similar to a particular IMSLP file.

Since all the works published on this site are public domain there isn’t much music available after the 20th century, but if you’re looking for music to study prior to 1900 you can try searching at the IMSLP first and you may be able to a PDF score of what you’re looking for, sometimes even more than one edition.

Interview on Free Music Ed Podcast

About a month ago I posted a new resource I discovered that I recommend for music educators called  The podcast covers some great topics, such as iPad and iPhone apps for band directors, dealing with limited instrumentation, brass mouthpieces, marching band arrangements, and much more.

Stephan Cox, the brain behind invited me to come onto the podcast and interviewed me about a number of my favorite blogging topics, including teaching jazz improvisation, brass embouchures, teaching composition, and other odds and ends. It was a great time talking with Stephan and he was an excellent host who asked great questions. The podcast is now live and you can download it here or by searching for FreeMusicEd on iTunes (best to type it in as one word to find it easily). Be sure to go through and listen to his other podcasts and poke around the website some too!

Advice For Parents of Music Students

I was asked a while back if I could put together a resource for parents of music students. Parents will sometimes surf by here or contact me looking for advice on how to help their child with music studies. Here are some of my thoughts compiled together, in no particular order.

Encourage, but keep an eye on burnout

Children studying music definitely respond to positive reinforcement. Ask your child to play for you regularly. Ask about how lessons and music classes are going and what music he or she is playing in them. Encourage your child to practice every day, or at least as close to every day as is possible. Conversely, be on the lookout for signs of burnout. Children today seem to be busier than ever with school work, music lessons, rehearsals, dance classes, athletics, and all the other activities parents encourage their children to be a part of. If your goal is to have your child love music and participate in band, be aware that sometimes they may feel burnt out on all the activity and see if they can back off on some for a while. Sometimes when an activity like practicing our instrument becomes a chore we loose the enjoyment we used to get from it.

Try to sign your child up for regular private lessons

There’s almost no replacement for one-on-one private lessons when it comes to success in music. The individualized attention a private instructor can offer will pay off in dividends down the road, as many bad playing habits can not seem to make much of a difference in the short term but are very hard to correct later.  Us band directors can only do so much in large ensemble rehearsals when it comes to teaching children to play or sing music.

One trend I’ve noticed is that many students want to take a lesson or three just before a big contest or audition, and then drop the lessons once it has passed. While catching the occasional lesson like this is better than no private lessons at all, it’s not really the best way to prepare. While I’m always happy to help a student prepare for an all-state audition, very often the issues holding a student back are best addressed in exercises or etudes that aren’t going to be asked on the audition or contest. Having a regular meeting with a private instructor is going to mean better overall musicianship and developing the skills and will better prepare the student for learning the contest music.

Listen to “art” music in the home or car with your child and make recordings available

I’ve got nothing against pop, country, rap, etc. In fact, I like to listen to a wide variety of musical genres and feel there’s good (and bad) music in all styles. That said, music is an aural art form and music students who aren’t exposed to the sounds they will be performing will be at a disadvantage when it comes to learning how to play with a characteristic tone and with a stylistic approach. Take the time to put on some music that will broaden your child’s listening skills, with an emphasis on the instrument that your child is studying.

Rent or purchase a decent instrument, make needed repairs quickly

You don’t have to go overboard and buy a top of the line instrument, but your child’s instrument should be in good playing condition and be well put together. If there are dents in a trombone slide, leaky pads on the clarinet, or sticky valves on a trumpet the instrument is going to be harder (or impossible) to play and limit your child’s progress.

If you’re looking for specific brand information I recommend you speak directly with your child’s music teacher. Your child’s teacher will have a good idea of how he or she currently plays and what sort of equipment will be most helpful, as opposed to someone online, who may or may not be as expert as you think.

Many schools have deals with local music stores that offer good quality instruments for rental or purchase and also ensure that your student has all other necessary equipment and books for music classes (e.g., cleaning kits, required music books, etc.). Some music stores also have special deals for students that include repair work and may even pick up and drop off the instrument at your child’s school, saving you the bother of running those errands yourself.

Attend your child’s performances

Performing for people you know who came specifically to hear you is so much more fun than playing for a group of strangers. Of course it can be impossible to get to every single event, but make a serious effort to hear your child perform as much as possible.

Take your child to hear high quality live music

While having good recordings to listen to is invaluable for music students, seeing music performed live offers so much more. Professional performances will be more inspiring and educational than non-professional shows, of course, but don’t dismiss how exciting going to hear a community or school group too. If your child is in middle school, for example, going to hear a high school band perform will show him or her what is possible for slightly older students and what sort of opportunities are available at the high school.

Meet your child’s music teacher(s) and consult with them from time to time

Band and choir directors are busy folks. They often spend the whole school day teaching classes and then go on to run after-school rehearsals until late in the afternoon (or evening). Weekend student performances and contests also often take up a lot of their available time. I’m not pointing this out to discourage you from checking in on your child with them, but instead to help you understand that your child’s music teacher may be too busy to check in with each of their student’s parents individual on a regular basis. Talking with your child’s music teacher will let both your child and the teacher know you care and help communicate important information (e.g., what specific issues your child is struggling/excelling with, what time that next concert’s warm-up will be, what clothes they need to wear, etc.).

Join the band/choir boosters

If you’ve got the time to be active in the schools booster organization join and help out. Band is a very expensive program, requiring instruments and other equipment to be purchased and maintained, obtaining sheet music, hiring support staff, and many other expenses that might not be obvious or covered by school funding. Booster clubs are often the main source of funding for some particular programs (e.g., marching bands) and many times events and activities can’t be done without volunteers to help supervise or take responsibilities for the preparations. The stronger the booster club, the better your child’s experience will be in music.

Can you think of some suggestions I’ve left off of this list? Do you have some specific questions that you’d like to see added? Leave your comments here or drop me an email here.