Planxty George Brabazon for Trombone Quartet

Planxty George Brabazon is a composition by Turlough O’Carolan. My wife has gotten interested in folk harp and has been learning to play this piece. For fun, I wrote a trombone quartet on this piece.

Planxty George Brabazon by Turlough O’Carolan, arranged by David Wilken

If you want to hear a more traditional setting, here is a performance on YouTube.

Here’s a PDF copy of my arrangement, free to download.

If you do end up reading it or performing it, please let me know if you liked it.

On Memorizing Music

A while back I blogged about memorizing tunes you will improvise over. The consensus (which I agree with) is that it’s better to have the tunes memorized, because it helps free up your improvisations. I also pointed out that sight reading (or rather, “sight improvising”) skills are also important and so it’s worth being able to look at changes for the first time and improvise over them.

Organist Jonathan Dimmock discusses a similar topic in his article, The Folly of Memorization. In addition to discussing his thoughts on memorizing music he also brings in some historical context. Did you know that Clara Schumann was largely responsible for the trend for pianists to memorize their music? As a woman musician in the 1850s she struggled to be noticed, so she decided to do something that was unprecedented at the time – perform by memory.

The critics were outraged! That she, a woman!, would have the audacity to do something as bold as that was surely to be condemned. But the male pianists of the day saw it differently. They knew that their prowess, even their male virility, was at stake; they could not allow a female to show them up! And so the cult of piano memorization was born. In short order, this would also penetrate the world of concerto performances on every instrument.

According to Dimmock, the changing relationship of musicians to audience that occurred during the Industrial Revolution also made this trend go “viral.” It was during this time that the idea of a “genius artist” became mainstream. This concept is so pervasive today that it’s hard to imagine how musicians were perceived differently today. Prior to the Classical Period in music history musicians were seen more as skilled labor rather than artists. After Schumann’s influence, musicians strove to impress and communicate artistic goals, in part through performing demanding music by memory.

It’s after Dimmock’s description of the historical influences where I feel he goes off the rails. He appears to believe that either you’re going to be skilled at memorization or skilled at improvisation, but not both (or, for that matter, neither).

We now know that the brain is organized in a manner that performers are either adept at memorization or improvisation. Yes, these two things are hard-wired into brain functioning and almost mutually exclusive. Show me a brilliant improviser and I would be willing to bet that they struggle to memorize music. One is not better than the other; they are different and of equal merit.

Without going through and picking apart his evidence and logic, I feel Dimmock is missing some important information regarding how we learn and retain skills, including memorization and improvisation. Contrary to Dimmock’s opinion, I think it’s clear that with practice musicians can learn to excel at both. In fact, as my blog post from earlier discusses, I think skills like reading, memorization, and improvisation are all part of the overall big picture in what I’m interested in while performing music. Sure, some people will have more aptitude in one or another (or both or neither), but we’re not really “hard wired” to only be good in one and never become successful in another.

Why memorize your concert music? Personally, when I’ve gotten ready for a solo performance (particularly as a featured soloist on a concert with only one piece to perform) I tend to have the music mostly memorized merely out of the repetition from practicing the piece a lot. Taking the extra step to prepare to perform it by memory isn’t usually a lot of work beyond. Many soloists feel that not having to watch the music helps them to play more expressively.

The strongest argument I can think of for memorizing music is the it simply looks better on stage. We know that even highly experienced musicians will rate the exact same performance differently depending on the attire that the performer wears. It may not be “fair,” but it’s something that musicians use to their advantage (dress up for your gig and your audience will like your performance better). Performing on stage from memory is just one more thing that can push a good performance into a great on in the minds of your audience.

While your musical goals may not align with mine, when I perform I’m trying to make a connection with my audience. Getting rid of the sheet music while soloing may only be a subtle difference, but it’s the aggregate of the small details that make for the overall musical effect.

That said, I think Dimmock has some valid points.

I believe that the cult of memorization is now coming into its sunset, led on by the sunrise of the Technological Age. It’s computers that memorize! Humans give something else to art, we give soul. It’s time to stop insisting humans need to act like computers. Let’s let computers do the memorizing, and allow people to do the soulful communication. It is only through the latter that transformation of the listener is possible.

What do you think? Is memorizing music bad, good, or neither? Do you feel that you have the ability to improvise, memorize, but not do both well? What experiences have you had that are different from mine and Dimmock’s? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Guess the Embouchure Type – Trombonist Jeremy Wilson

I wasn’t familiar with Jeremy Wilson’s playing or teaching prior to coming across his YouTube channel. He’s got a few performance videos on there as well as some videos where he discusses his philosophy of music practice and performance. There’s some really excellent and inspiring things there, you should explore it. All of the videos I watched were well produced too.

One of the videos I enjoyed very much was his performance of a piece called Tresin Terra, by David M. Rodgers. Wilson’s performance is amazing. His tone is consistent and beautiful across the entire range. His playing is not only technically impressive but also very expressive. The composition is also very cool. I was watching the video trying to look for Wilson’s embouchure type, but I kept getting lost in the music. Take a look and see if, like me, you had to go back to guess Jeremy Wilson’s embouchure type. I will put my guess under the break.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Trombonist Jeremy Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do J.S. Bach and Charlie Parker Have In Common?

Rick Beato has a neat YouTube channel he calls Everything Music. I haven’t had the chance yet to watch more than this one, but it’s a really nice discussion about octave displacement.

In this episode of Everything Music we will explore what Bach and Charlie Parker had in common which was octave displacement. It is a way for you to make your melodies more interesting and more intervallic. It will also give your lines much more interesting shapes.

432 Hz Tuning – Fact vs Fiction

I posted about this topic a while back, but I recently came across a very nice article by Assaf Dar Sagol called 432 Hz Tuning – Separating Fact From Fiction.

432 Hz. The magic number everybody is talking about. It is said to be the natural frequency of the universe, to have cosmic healing powers and to attract masses of audience to our music. Just by tuning our music less than a semitone below our standard A=440Hz we are promised direct access to the universe’s hidden treasures.

There are many articles presenting so-called “scientific evidence” in favor of 432 Hz. But how much of what are being presented with is fact, and how much of it is fiction? Let’s find out!

Sagol goes through several myths and claims about 432 Hz being a special note somehow and offers an overview of the actual history and science behind those claims – including linking to his sources. Real history and science are always so much more interesting then pseudo-history and pseudo-science.

Bozo As Played By Ed Cuffee

One of my favorite bands to play with is the Low-Down Sires. We strive to recreate the spirit of early jazz styles as authentically as possible, frequently even through recreating performances of groups that pioneered the style. One tune we recently added to our repertoire is Bozo, as recorded by Clarence Williams (featuring King Oliver).

After learning to play this solo, we discovered that the tune “Bozo” appears to be a plagiarized version of “Tozo,” by Fletcher Henderson. Check out what the blogger for Pop From Yestercentury noticed in his post, Tozo and Bozo.

Regardless of who originally composed this tune, here is the melody/paraphrase of this tune as played by trombonist Ed Coffee on the Clarence Williams recording of “Bozo.” Check out the first four measures and think about the historical context of the melody and chord.

Listen closely to the recording on the embedded video above and let me know if you hear it the same. I hear the harmony pretty clearly as an Eb7 chord. While an Eb7 chord isn’t all that unusual in a tune in G major during this style period, having it right at the beginning of the tune is odd. Even more strange is the A natural and E natural (enharmonically Fb) in the melody notes.

For a jazz tune composed at least as early as 1927 this is harmonically surprising, very much ahead of its time. This is quite early in jazz for an altered dominant chord. You will find examples in swing style tunes, but it’s not until the emergence of bebop where this sort of harmonic relationship becomes common.

In the context of this tune, which is in the key of G major, an Eb7 chord more commonly leads by resolving down a half step to the dominant, D7. In “Bozo” it skips the dominant chord and jumps immediately to the tonic, but only after a fairly long time. In most jazz tunes of this time period it’s not uncommon for chords to remain static for so long, but a harmonically sophisticated chord of this type would normally not sit statically for so long.

Then there’s the altered extensions of this chord. Looking forward again to the 1940s and later, it became common in jazz to alter the dominant chord extensions by altering certain chord tones like the 9ths and 11ths. It’s unusual in a jazz tune from the late 1920s.

As an interesting aside, I’ve often heard of this chord relationship (VI7 chord) as called the “pineapple chord,” but never understood the context of why. My formal music theory background compares it to the Neapolitan chord, but my jazz theory background things about it as a tritone substitution to the V chord.

Does anyone know why “pineapple chord” has become a common term for this chord function?

The link below is a PDF to my transcription of the melody/paraphrase. As always, take it with a grain of salt and check it yourself for errors. Let me know if you find any.

Bozo – Trombone

Using Modal Interchange to Compose Chord Progressions

I recently came across this excellent introduction to using parallel modes to select different chord possibilities in an original chord progression. The production and explanation of the techniques is very well done.

Although it might seem that this technique is primarily geared towards the jazz composer, “classical” composers who want to explore tonal harmonies but move outside common practice harmonic language will find some interesting sounds to explore with this technique. Pop or rock songwriters might find an unexpected chord borrowed from parallel modes a great way to explore a harmonic “hook” in their tune. Improvisers will want to study the basic advice on how to select melody notes over a chord progression like this.

This can also become a standalone composition exercise. Just like performers will practice etudes and other exercises that aren’t intended to be performed for an audience, composers can get a lot of value from doing short composition projects that force you to be creative within the constraints of a box. Try taking a very basic diatonic chord progression of 4-8 measures and reharmonizing it musing modal interchange, then write a melody or improvise over it. Exploring different sounds like this increases your compositional pallet, even if the specific short composition never gets expanded into something you want performed.

Standard Jazz Notation

Just a quick post today because I’m in the midst of a composition that needs to be completed.

I came across Tim Davies’s orchestration blog while looking for something that I could send to some friends about how jazz horn players will interpret articulations. One of the search engine hits was this post by Davies that not only covers how to mark articulations, but also what the default jazz notation practice is and how to make your score and parts look nice. He offers advice that is specific to computer notation.

There’s a lot of other nice stuff in Davies’s blog. If you’re a composer, arranger, or do copy work, you will find a lot of his writings helpful.