“Mountain Winds” Community Band of Western North Carolina

Are you an adult musician living in western North Carolina who plays a wind or percussion instrument?  Did you play in high school or college, but haven’t played much since then?  Are you looking for an opportunity to have fun playing in a concert band again?  If so, you might want to go check out the newly formed Mountain Winds Community Band.

The “Mountain Winds” is an adult community band which provides a musical outlet for musicians in Western North Carolina. This concert group is open to any adult residing in Western North Carolina who has high school or college band experience. . .

This concert group was formed to provide community members the opportunity to perform in a concert band after their formal schooling. The group is comprised of individuals from several occupations. The common thread shared by all members is the love of music and performing with friends.

They are just getting started, so I’m sure they need players on all instruments.  You don’t need to be a virtuoso player, either, just love playing and be willing to commit to attending rehearsals and performances.  Go register with them and start enjoying making music!

Mouthpiece Pressure Myths

If you ask pretty much any experienced brass player or teacher they will tell you that mouthpiece pressure on the lips is a bad thing.  Brass teachers almost universally teach beginning players to avoid excessive mouthpiece pressure.  Some performers even insist that they play with no pressure at all.  Then there are the ubiquitous stories about some player who hung his instrument on a string and played an incredibly high and powerful note (always a second hand account and I’ve not come across any videos of this parlor trick, so probably urban legend).

While most of us realize that no pressure isn’t really practical (there should be enough pressure to form a hermetic seal between the lips and mouthpiece rim), we still tend to insist that mouthpiece pressure should be as minimal as possible.  But how much pressure is too much?  How much pressure do the professionals use compared to beginners?

There have been a number of studies that have looked at how much mouthpiece pressure brass players use, but I recently came across one I hadn’t seen before, published in New Scientist way back in 1986.  It’s interesting not so much because what it says about mouthpiece pressure, but what it says about brass teachers and commonly established pedagogy.

Does the fact that someone is good at something necessarily make them a good teacher?  We often assume that because “experts” can perform the task in question, they are the best people to pass on their skills to others.  When someone is an expert, we tend to infer first that he or she has a clear and accurate insight into how to acquire the skill and so perform the task, and secondly, given that the person has such an insight, that he or she has skills necessary to transfer this information to others.

Because the authors, Joe Barbenel, John Booth Davies and Patrick Kenny, were amateur trumpet players they were familiar with what brass players and teachers say about mouthpiece pressure, but to these researchers in the fields of psychology and bioengineering the amount of mouthpiece pressure was only one question they were curious about.  They not only wanted to compare the amount of pressure used by professional and beginner trumpet players, but also see if the professional trumpet players would be able to accurately guess how much pressure they themselves used and if they could accurately predict how much pressure other players used. Continue reading Mouthpiece Pressure Myths

Question About Medium High Placement Embouchure

Jeff stopped by a while ago and left a comment on one of my pages. I wanted to take a bit of time and try to get to his question. Jeff writes:

I have been typed as having 3b chops (I am a trombonist) and have benefitted from several Skype lessons. . . One subject I have been unable to get a clear answer on is this: As a 3b, what should I be good at (eg, good sound) and what will need extra effort because of my downstream type? The reason I ask this is because it would be helpful not to beat myself up over certain areas of my playing if, in fact, it is an area that needs extra study because of my physical make up!!

First of all, I prefer not to use Donald Reinhardt’s embouchure designations, as they are internally inconsistent and also simply confuse too many people. Instead, I use the embouchure types that were first taught to me by Doug Elliott, a former student of Reinhardt’s. Doug’s types are descriptive and simple enough that even non-brass players can understand and make use of them. So for the remainder of this post I’ll talk about your embouchure type as belonging to the Medium High Placement embouchure type.

Secondly, while you many get some benefits from online lessons, I would be cautious. Continue reading Question About Medium High Placement Embouchure

Friday Music Theory Puzzle – Spot the Parallels

I haven’t done a music theory puzzle in a while.  Here’s one to keep everyone’s brain sharp over the weekend, taken from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 (Pastoral).  This work is noted for its rustic feeling.  One way Beethoven got this sound was to intentionally utilize parallel 5ths and 8vs, normally avoided at the time.  The following excerpt from the 1st movement of this symphony contains one example of parallel 8vs and 2 examples of parallel 5ths.

Until the 20th century, most European composers (and composers highly influenced by “classical” music) avoided writing separate parts that moved in parallel octaves or 5ths.  They were heard as destroying the independence of each part.  Listening with our ears today it’s not so obvious, but at the time that Beethoven lived these sounds would be noticeable to many listeners.

Can you spot them all?  Answer after the break.

Continue reading Friday Music Theory Puzzle – Spot the Parallels

The Effect of the Brass Player’s Oral Cavity On Intonation, Part 3

Does the size of your oral cavity change how far you pull out your tuning slide?  Does having a smaller mouth size mean that you have to pull out further?  I’ve explored this and similar topics here before (Part 1, Part 2).  Since I’m largely self-taught with regards to physics and acoustics, I tend to defer to the experts with questions like this.  Unfortunately, the experts don’t usually agree.  Recently I came across a reprinted article by Thomas Moore from the March 2002 issue of the International Trumpet Guild Journal that notes the same thing.

A search of the scientific literature produced several conflicting theories on the importance of the size of the oral cavity in the production of musical sound, but very little physical evidence to support any claim.  It turned out that this well-known fact was not so well known.

So Moore and his team set out to take a closer look at the oral cavity’s influence.  They started out with a computer model, which indicated that the oral cavity would have no role in determining the pitch of a trumpet.  But since computer models aren’t perfect they decided to use artificial lips with an artificial oral cavity designed to change size.  They were able to effectively limit all other influences this way and simply measure how the size of the oral cavity would change the pitch.  The result?

Our results can say nothing about the effects due to changes in air flow in the mouth and throat, which I believe to be very important.  The size of the player’s oral cavity, however, is almost certainly a negligible factor in determining the pitch of any trumpet.

As interesting as it is to learn more about this, Moore offered a concluding thought about his research that has broader implications to the field of brass pedagogy and acoustical research as a whole.

. . . this situation demonstrates how even the experts can fall into the trap of accepting a believable theory as fact.  It is common to find statements made by musicians or instrument manufacturers that have no basis in fact.  Usually these statements are actually well informed opinions stated as fact.  We should never be afraid to offer an opinion, but when discussing the science of our art I think that we should all be very careful.  Maybe we should begin a lot more of our statements with the phrase “I believe…”

I believe that’s excellent advice and I think I’ll try to do that more myself.

The Neuroscience of Music

Jonah Lehrer blogs for Wired.com. Recently he posted a piece on The Neuroscience of Music.  In it he asks questions that musicians and neuroscientists have long wondered about, “Why does music make us feel the way we do?”  Lehrer then looks at a recent study designed to take a close look at that question.

The first thing they discovered (using ligand-based PET) is that music triggers the release of dopamine in both the dorsal and ventral striatum. This isn’t particularly surprising: these regions have long been associated with the response to pleasurable stimuli. It doesn’t matter if we’re having sex or snorting cocaine or listening to Kanye: These things fill us with bliss because they tickle these cells. Happiness begins here.

But the study didn’t stop there.  They used an fMRI and noticed something interesting.

In essence, the scientists found that our favorite moments in the music were preceeded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate. They call this the “anticipatory phase” and argue that the purpose of this activity is to help us predict the arrival of our favorite part.

In other words, the anticipation of a favorite phrase created a Pavlovian response in the brains of the listeners.  This anticipation itself could be responsible for much of the pleasure we get when listening to music, particularly when the composer surprises us by doing something unexpected.  The surge of dopamine our brains get is caused by our struggle to figure out what’s going to happen next.

The article is an interesting read, but so are many of the comments on the blog as well.  If you’re looking to waste some time, go over and check it out.

A Rebuttal to my Balanced Embouchure Review

I’ve posted a number of resources for brass players and teachers online about brass embouchures and it’s common for people to contact me asking for my opinion about different practice methods. Almost a year ago I decided to post a skeptical review of one method that I’d gotten a number of different queries about, Jeff Smiley’s book, The Balanced Embouchure.

One of the reasons why I started this blog is to get more information out there and hopefully start a public dialogue about some subjects that are not well understood, even by experts in the field of brass pedagogy. It’s important to me that this dialogue be open and that my own ideas are questioned too. Recently a commenter, Alistair, took me up on this challenge and posted a rebuttal to my review of The Balanced Embouchure. Since Alistair raised many points that are worth another look, I thought I’d devote a new post to the topic of The Balanced Embouchure. In the process of responding to some of Alistair’s comment I hope to clarify my position and acknowledge a few points that he made. Since I’m going to respond to his comments out of the order in which he wrote and gloss over or skip some of them, I would recommend that you read his entire comment in context here.

First, let me concede some points, because Alistair caught me in some errors. Continue reading A Rebuttal to my Balanced Embouchure Review

Guess the Embouchure Type – Italian Hornist Plays Jobim

It’s been a while since I’ve done a “Guess the Embouchure Type” post.  Bruce Hembd, from the excellent Horn Matters blog, spotted this one and sent this link, knowing that I like to look at embouchures.  Since my Italian is very bad, I’m not certain of this horn player’s name, but I recognize the tune he’s playing as Antonio Carlos Jobim’s composition Corcavado.  Take a look and see if you can spot this horn player’s embouchure type.

Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type – Italian Hornist Plays Jobim