Embouchure Differences Between Instruments

While I have no illusions about my expertise as a brass doubler, I have spent some amount of time learning to play all of them passingly.  This experience has given me a peek into some of the similarities and differences in technique between different brass instruments.

Having looked closely at a lot of embouchures of all brass instruments, I would have to say that, in general, the only difference is the size of the mouthpiece.  Examples of the three basic embouchure types can be found on all the brass instruments.  In my late 20s I made an embouchure change and noticed that adopting the same embouchure type improved my ability to play the other brass instruments too.  The really successful brass doublers I’ve been able to look closely at all seem to use the same basic embouchure type for their different instruments.

Very High Placement Embouchure Type

That said, the difference in the size of the mouthpiece can change things about a player’s embouchure.  The most obvious consideration would be how much room a player has on the lips to place the mouthpiece without the nose or chin getting in the way.  This is really only an issue with low brass players.  For example, this trombonist has a (correct for him) mouthpiece placement that is just under his nose.  If he wanted to play tuba, he might have difficulty getting the ratio of upper to lower lip that he’s comfortable with because he doesn’t have enough room to place the larger mouthpiece. Continue reading Embouchure Differences Between Instruments

Keeping Your Brain Sharp Through Music

I recently came across reference to another study recently done on musicians that suggests continuing musical activity into old age can have mental health benefits.

While it is known that practicing music repeatedly changes the organization of the brain, it is not clear if these changes can correlate musical abilities with non-musical abilities. The study of 70 older participants, with different musical experience over their lifetimes, provides a connection between musical activity and mental balance in old age. “The results of this preliminary study revealed that participants with at least 10 years of musical experience (high activity musicians) had better performance in nonverbal memory, naming, and executive processes in advanced age relative to non-musicians.”

It’s interesting, but keep in mind that this is just preliminary research and uses a rather small sample population.  I wouldn’t be surprised if similar correlations could be found among elderly people who actively play bridge, do crossword puzzles, or any activity that involves mental effort.  It might not be the musical activity in and of itself that kept the mind sharper, but simply the mental activity involved.

As scientists follow this study up it may turn out to be mostly hype, like the infamous “Mozart Effect” that had gullible parents convinced that playing classical music for infants would give their children a leg up in school.  Still, it’s neat to see more research done on music’s effects on the brain and this one seems legitimately conducted.

Setting Composing/Arranging Fees and a New Chart

I compose primarily for my own pleasure.  The vast majority of the pieces I write, whether they are original compositions or arrangements, are for groups that I’m involved with already as a director or player.  I do get the occasional commission too.

Often times those commissions are from friends or colleagues, so I usually undercharge them in those cases.  I’m usually just excited that someone who knows my work enjoys it enough to want me to write something specifically for them.  Just having my pieces be performed is good exposure, even if it’s not the most financially lucrative arrangement for me.

When commissions do come in, however, it’s a little hard to come up with a price that is fair for both the composer/arranger as well as the employer.  One the one hand, as a band leader I’m full aware of how expensive purchasing new music can be, and commissions are even more expensive.  On the other hand, writing out a full big band arrangement, for example, can take hundreds of hours of work to complete.

Bill Fulton, a composer/arranger/copyist living around L.A., has put together a good guide for what can be considered an appropriate fee for commissions.  It depends, of course, on the size of the ensemble as well as the length of the completed piece.  Someone not quite of Fulton’s experience can use this as a guide to see what the top pros make, and adjust their own fees accordingly.

I’m currently putting the final touches on a new big band composition.  According to Fulton’s guide, with 193 measures at $22.50 per measure per 4 measures, I should charge $4, 342.50 $1008.62 for this piece if it were commissioned.

Here’s a MIDI realization of my new chart.  You will have to use your imagination, since I haven’t bothered to create a whole lot of playback effects that live musicians will do.  Also, the rhythm section and solo parts are generated by Band-in-a-Box and then dumped into my Finale file, which results in some strange sounds sometimes.  Still, you can get an idea of what it should sound like when played for real.  Would you pay $4,000 for this?  Probably $1,000 would be closer to what I think is appropriate when I get to do my own thing.

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While I’ve got your attention, I’m having trouble coming up for a title for this chart.  My working title has been There’s a Mingus Among Us, since I stole, er borrowed, some ideas from Charles Mingus’s Reincarnation of a Lovebird.  Unfortunately, it turns out that title (and a couple of variations on it) has already been taken.  Anyone have a bright idea for a different title?

Diatonic and Chromatic Chords: The Blues

Last Friday I tried to answer a couple of improvisation questions I was emailed by Michael.  He also asked some other very good questions about my Jazz Improvisation For Beginners article on the blues form.

In your “Part 3 – the Blues Form” – something seems off.  You say: “Let’s look at a 12 bar blues in the key of C.”  You then go on to give the chords C7, F7, Dm7, G7, and the note Bb.   I have not heard of a B7 or C7 in the key of C.  Nor have I ever seen a flat or sharp in the key of C.  But there is a Bb, of course, in the key of F.  And the 12 bars you give clearly resolve to the F chord, not the C chord, at least to my ear, which is pitch-perfect.  Isn’t this really the key of F?  Or am I not understanding something here?

As I was putting together a response for Michael I found my answers relied heavily on being able to hear the musical examples, so I decided that a podcast format would be the best way to follow up.  It went a little long, almost 17 minutes, but I started with a brief summary to make sure that most listeners could follow along.

Here’s a link that should give you a direct download so you can listen to it on an MP3 player.  Transcript after the break. Continue reading Diatonic and Chromatic Chords: The Blues

Improvisation Questions, Part 1

I got emailed some great questions from a Michael a bit ago.  He had questions on two separate topics, so I’m going to answer them in two posts.  Here’s the first.

I really enjoy your “Jazz Improvisation for Beginners.”  And, though I write songs that have been produced and played worldwide, I am really a beginner to playing music.  I usually  just make up tunes and sing them into GarageBand, using the I, IV, V structure.  They come out good, are produced, and many are sung by bands worldwide and some are on their CDs.

No question there, but I wanted to remind everyone that some of the greatest songwriters ever (at least in my opinion) were self taught like Michael.  A lot can be done with your ear alone, as long as you keep working on it and forcing yourself to try new things.  One way to do that, of course, is to learn how different things sound by music theory.

But I want to make more imaginative tunes and I want to be able to create tracks so I can sing them to my arrangers the way I hear them.  Continue reading Improvisation Questions, Part 1

Embouchure Question: Top Lip Pressure

Brian stopped by and asked the following question.

I’ve watched all your videos in the last 2 days and have been studying Reinhardt with the encyclopedia for quite awhile and I appreciate your use of “embouchure motion” rather than pivot. My embouchure is upstream, off to the L side, angle almost straight out. I had been using side movement: R and up for low reg. and L and down for higher reg. In the ency. Reinhardt says it is best no matter what type to put pressure on lower lip but in listening to your videos you say that with a low placement upstream emb. more vibration happens with the lower lip and I seemed to have confirmed this today. Putting more pressure on top for low notes and then more pressure on bottom lip for high notes. This seems to free up vibrations and the side mvt. is not so extreme. Is this correct for low placement upstreamer? thank you, Brian

As always, I have to caution you about taking advice from someone who can’t watch you play in person.  It’s really tough to know for certain what’s going on. Continue reading Embouchure Question: Top Lip Pressure

Stork On Choosing a Mouthpiece Based On Your Lips

Last month I wrote a post concerning correlations between the different embouchure types and mouthpiece selection. Since then I’ve come across an article on Stork Mouthpieces with some information posted about the author’s hypothesis how lip size and shape can be used to guide good mouthpiece choices.  The author, who I think is most likely John Stork, writes:

I consider basic lip structure to be the most critical element in properly fitting a player. The size and type of lip a player has absolutely decides which inner diameter they should be using. Choosing the correct inner diameter is where proper mouthpiece selection starts. Nevertheless, not a week goes by where someone, somewhere will make a desperate inquiry concerning which lip type they possess. I also receive pictures, plotted graphs and detailed mechanical drawings of lips in the pursuit of a resolution to this great issue. The problem with this approach is that it’s not really just one particular criteria that can be counted on to reveal  all. If it were as simple as just measuring some physical parameter, the myths and mysteries that surround the whole issue could have been put to rest a long time ago. Rather, it is more of an amalgam of criteria that must decide.

I wrote my dissertation on a similar topic, although I looked at more broad physical characteristics and their correlation to the basic embouchure types.  There is more than a little plausibility, although the results of my study ended up being similar to Stork’s last sentence above.  There are an awful lot of variables to consider and there aren’t very easy ways to predict which embouchure type will be most correct for a particular player.  Stork may be on to something, but I do have some questions and concerns about his ideas. Continue reading Stork On Choosing a Mouthpiece Based On Your Lips

Military Band Budget Restored

Good news for both military musicians and fans of military ensembles.

By voice vote Wednesday, the Republican-controlled House restored $120 million for the armed services’ 100-plus military bands — money that budget-conscious members of the Appropriations Committee had cut last month.

While I’m not a veteran, I did audition for military bands twice (didn’t win either audition).  I am, however, a huge fan of many of the military bands.  I have a particularly soft spot for the Airmen of Note, as two of my teachers are former members of that group (Tom Streeter and Doug Elliott) and I worked on the old Online Trombone Journal Forum with the current MD and lead trombonist, Joe Jackson.

Many people don’t realize that military bands are more than marching band style groups.  There are many jazz bands, chamber groups, even rock and country bands.  Performances and recordings by the groups are generally free (or I should say, paid for by your tax dollars already) and the quality of many of these groups is as good as any professional ensemble you’ll hear.  They don’t just play for troops, either.  They often go on tour and if you look around, you’ll probably find that a military band is playing a free concert in your area this summer.  Do yourself a favor and go listen to a high quality band performing a free concert.  You’ll not only hear great music, but you’ll also be helping to support our troops and the musicians who support them.

Update:  Bad news.  Navy musician Rich Hanks commented here that the House has done a switcheroo, and now the cuts to military musicians are back in.  Please write your congressional representative and let them know that you value the work that our military musicians do for both our troops and all our citizens.

When To Let Go Of an Idea When Composing

After getting sidetracked doing arrangements of Motown music I’ve gotten back to working on a big band composition I started a couple of months ago.  Right now I’m at a stage in the work that I tend to enjoy the most.  There is still some original material that needs to be composed and there are still a lot of details to work out in it, but the basic source material for my ideas has been written (and modified) and the overall road map is charted out.  It’s fun because there’s enough completed to get a good idea now how the completed chart will sound, while still having enough uncertainty to be intriguing.  I sort of think of this part of my process as working on a jigsaw puzzle.  I’ve got the pieces (the motives, basic melody, harmonic progression, etc) and sort of an idea how they need to go together, but some of the pieces are still missing and I need to craft them as I go.

Which leads me to the issue I’m struggling with right now, and one that I think is common for a lot of composers.  As the puzzle is coming together I can see that I’ve got some pieces that don’t match the rest.  Sometimes when this happens to me the best solution is to compose a better transition between material or add some new music between to make for a better fit.  With the piece I’m working on right now, I’ve realized that my composition is simply better without it.  I had grown attached to these 8 measures and spent a lot of time working on getting it to sound right, so it was hard for me to toss it aside to the composition notebook.

Here’s a thought for you composers to consider while you’re working on your next piece.  Instead of conceptually putting pieces together to create your work, think about how you can be creative by taking things away.  Rather than a jigsaw puzzle, you’re chipping away at a block of marble.  Just as a marble sculpture can be created by removing all the parts that don’t resemble an horse, you can let your composition emerge by putting down a lot of ideas and then removing the ones that don’t fit.

Working with this idea in mind has yielded some interesting results for me.  Not only have I gotten rid of the transition problem I was having, but by pulling notes out of a rhythmic motive I was exploring I was able to make other transition sections more interesting.  Sometimes the best composing you can do is done with an eraser.

Happy Independence Day

Happy Independence Day.  Those of us in the U.S. are hopefully enjoying a day off today.

I’m actually working tonight, playing the Music of Motown out at the Flat Rock Playhouse for two more nights.  The shows are all sold out, I’m afraid, so if you’re in western North Carolina looking for some patriotic music to listen to tonight, I’d like to recommend the Blue Ridge Orchestra’s performance tonight at the White Horse Black Mountain.

The BRO is a a community orchestra that I have served on the board of directors for a few years.  I also frequently perform with them (when professional performances don’t conflict).  Founding conductor Ron Clearfield just stepped down and Milt Crotts was hired to take over as the new music director.  This concert is Milt’s first performance conducting the group.  I’m sorry I’ll have to miss this performance, but duty calls.