Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Yet more support for the idea that it’s not what you practice that is important, but how you practice.  An article written by Annie Murphy Paul for Time Ideas, entitled The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ covers how it’s not so important that you practice for a long period of time, but that you practice in such a way that you address your weakness.

On the surface this seems like it would be a no-brainer, but when you look into the psychology of how and why we practice it makes perfect sense.  It’s all to easy to fall into the trap of avoiding working on things we struggle with because it is more enjoyable to play things we can already play well.  Paul writes:

We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up. But almost two decades of research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the merely good from the great.

Paul cites research by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson (unfortunately you will have to purchase the full paper at that link but those with academic library access should be able to obtain the full paper through interlibrary loan).  Ericsson’s abstract states: Continue reading Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Asheville Jazz Orchestra Live at the White Horse Black Mountain

The Asheville Jazz Orchestra is back for another show at the White Horse Black Mountain tonight (Friday, January 27, 2012) starting at 8 PM.  This time we’ll have the White Horse’s own Kim Hughes sitting into sing a couple of charts with us.  If you’re in western North Carolina this weekend please consider coming out to hear us play.

While I’m at it, I want to plug the graphics designer who created the AJO logos, Heather Rowe.  She not only designs web sites and logos for small businesses, but also is a talented visual artist as well.  Go check out her work.

Jazz Transcription Hub

I recently learned about a cool site put together by Varun Singh with a number of jazz solo transcriptions of a bunch of different instrumentalists.  Jazz Transcription Hub  has 38 different solos available for download.  Most so far are trombone transcriptions, but it looks like there’s a lot of potential for more to be added in the future.  Go over and check it out and if you’ve got a transcription or three available, consider uploading it and adding it to the mix.

Brass Embouchures: Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy)

With regards to the best mouthpiece placement there is some controversy among different authors and teachers.  In his text, Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet (Cornet), J.B. Arban stated, “The mouthpiece should be placed in the middle of the lips, two-thirds on the lower lip, and one-third on the upper lip.”  (Arban, 1982, p. 7).  This contrasts with Dennis Wick, who recommended 2/3 upper lip and 1/3 lower lip (Wick, Trombone Technique, 1971, p. 21).  Philip Farkas felt that such differences were related to the particular type of instrument, with 2/3 lower lip being an embouchure for trumpet and 2/3 upper lip better suited for instruments like horn and trombone (Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing, 1962, p. 32).

Although the recommendations of these and other noted brass pedagogues comes with some caveats and is considered somewhat flexible by many, one recommendation about mouthpiece placement is frequently advised by almost all of them – avoid placing the mouthpiece so that the rim sets on the red (vermilion) of the upper lip.  Frank Gabriel Campos wrote in his text, Trumpet Technique:

To function properly, the inner edge of the mouthpiece must be placed on tissue that is supported by muscle, but the lips are composed of fatty tissue that by itself cannot support a normal embouchure.  A performer whose mouthpiece inner edge is habitually placed on the red (vermillion) of the upper lip is using an embouchure that is not capable of producing the flexibility, strength, and endurance necessary for normal performance.  It should be avoided at all costs.

– Campos, 2005, p. 73

With such a large consensus on this issue it would seem that this advice is sound and should be trusted.  Unfortunately for the field of brass pedagogy, this recommendation is not only based on misinformation, but there are many examples of brass players, particularly high brass, who break this rule and perform at very high levels.  While placing the mouthpiece so the rim rests on the red of the upper lip is rare and not ideal for most players, suggestions to always avoid this placement are incorrect for a sizable minority of players who not only are capable of playing well with such a low mouthpiece placement, but actually play most efficiently this way.

This essay will cover some of the most common arguments for not playing with the mouthpiece placed on the rim and show how these points are based on misinformation, inaccurate assumptions, or simply confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the author.  While good intentioned, making such strong statements that a particular mouthpiece placement “should be avoided at all costs” is simply wrong for many players.  With a more accurate understanding of the anatomy of the lips and embouchure form and function brass teachers will gain a tool that can help them make more targeted recommendations when a mouthpiece placement is actually hindering a student’s progress, or whether other issues in embouchure technique should be dealt with instead. Continue reading Brass Embouchures: Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy)

Wave for Saxophone Quartet

I just finished another arrangement for the Lenoir Saxophone Ensemble.  This time I wrote a chart on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic composition Wave.  Here’s a MIDI realization if you’re curious to get an idea what I did with it.


One of the most interesting parts of this tune is the modal mixture of D major and D minor throughout.  The beginning of each A section starts in D major, the tonic key of the tune, but each of these A sections ends in D minor.  It makes for an interesting sound that I exploited a bit in my intro and “outro.”  This sort of modal mixture isn’t typical, but isn’t uncommon.  Other jazz standards I can think of that go back and forth between the tonic major and minor include Alone Together and another Jobim composition Triste.  I did something similar in one of my own composition for big band, Leaving.

I’ve written a lot of music including saxophones but these arrangements for the Lenoir Saxophone Ensemble are the first time I’ve written pieces that are exclusively for the saxophone quartet.  I have to say that it’s been a lot of fun writing for this instrumentation.  Not only do you have a very wide range to exploit between the soprano sax and bari sax, but each of the instruments has it’s own timbre and gives you some different colors to exploit.  In this arrangement I played around a bit more than in my previous sax quartet arrangements with having different saxes take the lead throughout (you can kind of get an idea of this in the MIDI file, but you have to use your imagination, of course).  It’s a tricky way to write, as you have to be careful to not let parts that are playing higher than the lead line get too prominent and overpower the melody.  When it works out, though, it can make for a very interesting sound that doesn’t get used often enough, I think.

The Plural of Anecdote Is Not Evidence

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Recently a conversation about my thoughts on the tongue controlled embouchure spun off into a different topic that I thought deserved a discussion of its own.  It is actually something that I’ve alluded to a couple of different times before, but it’s a very common misconception.  So common, in fact, that many of us brass teachers and players frequently make this fallacious argument to support ideas that may or may not actually be correct.  This is taking our personal stories and concluding from them that this can then be applied to other brass players in general.

There is a difference between “anecdotal evidence” and statistical or scientific evidence.  The former is when someone uses personal stories, or those of other people, as evidence for something you’re already prone to believing.  This is different from collecting data using controls designed to reduce the chance of cognitive bias and compiling it using proven statistical methods.

We are all prone to this cognitive biases, it’s human nature.  In brass playing and teaching this can take many forms.  One of the most obvious examples I often come across are brass teachers who instruct their students to play with the same mouthpiece placement as they do.  The assumption is that if this placement works best for the teacher, then it must be the correct one so all students should do the same. There are so many examples of this in the literature and if you read enough of them you’ll see authors recommending 2/3 upper lip and others recommending 2/3 lower lip, others 50/50.  Clearly this isn’t a very accurate way to develop good brass pedagogy.

As another example, one commenter responded to my discussion on the Balanced Embouchure method’s intentional use of a bunched chin.

I did my own research via youtube, old photos etc. From what I saw, overwhelmingly, the worlds best players are not using flat chins.

Essentially, this commenter took a group of anecdotes (collecting whatever photos and videos you happen to personally come across) and used this to confirm his already held belief that a bunched chin is helpful to good brass technique.   Continue reading The Plural of Anecdote Is Not Evidence

Open Reading Session with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra

The Asheville Jazz Orchestra, a 17 piece big band made up of professional musicians, music teachers and other serious players based in western North Carolina, will be hosting an open reading session on Tuesday January 24th at 7 PM to 9 PM. We’ll be meeting in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church in west Asheville (587 Haywood Rd, Asheville, NC). You’ll want to come around the back of the church and use the ramp entrance to the left of the stairs.

While the band is using this rehearsal as a chance to try out some new material for some upcoming gigs, this would be a great opportunity for musicians who haven’t played with us before to get to know the book and for us to get to know players looking to join our sub list. Students looking for sight reading experience are welcome and encouraged to come sit in. Composers and arrangers are encouraged to bring charts for us to try out.  Please pass the word around and let anyone in the area who might be interested in jamming with us in an informal and low pressure situation.

Although there may be some extras, you’ll probably want to bring your own music stand/amp/cables/etc.

In order for me to ensure that we have key parts covered, please drop me a line to let me know if you plan on coming (although you’re welcome to show up anyway).

I hope to see some of you next Tuesday!

Gil Evans Voicings and Autumn Leaves

I’ve just finished another arrangement for the Lenoir Saxophone Ensemble, my  fifth arrangement for them.  This time I wrote a chart on the standard Autumn Leaves.  Here’s a MIDI realization if you’d like to hear my treatment of this tune.

[audio:|titles=Autumn Leaves]

In order to give this chart a different flavor from the previous ones I’ve written for the Lenoir Saxophone Ensemble I decided to play around with a voicing technique that Gil Evans, one of my favorite composer/arrangers, used frequently.  Evans was fond of voicing out chords in such a way that would put at least two parts together a second apart. In my arrangement I used this idea throughout.  Here’s one example, which can be heard in my arrangement just at the end of the rubato opening.

Normally I wouldn’t put a half step between the top two voices like this, as it obscures the sound of the highest pitch a bit.  In this particular case, however, it works pretty well because the melody is in the bari sax.  With this particular chord voicing the major 7th between the bari and tenor also help give it a dissonant grinding quality.

Rather than listen to my MIDI realization (a pale imitation of real instrumentalists anyway), you should check out how Evans used these very tight voicings to great effect.  Here’s an example, Evan’s composition The Time of the Barracudas.

Jaw Retention Drill

A friend of mine who plays euphonium, Kristin, was telling me that she’s been having trouble lately with her jaw getting tired while playing and asked me if I had any advice.  This is not an uncommon issue for players of certain embouchure types who need to play with their jaw protruded and their teeth alined.  Simply practicing carefully to develop more endurance helps, but it’s helpful sometimes to isolate those muscles in particular.  To help his students with similar issues Donald Reinhardt designed an away-from-the-instrument exercise he called the Jaw Retention Drill.

While the outer lower lip membrane is slightly inward and over the lower teeth, protrude the jaw as far as possible; however do not tolerate strain while so doing.  Sustain this extended jaw position for at least ten seconds.  When completed drop the jaw, open the mouth, exhale rather explosively, then relax.  After a week or so of this routine, the amount of time for the jaw protrusion should be extended.  Many students have developed this to such a point that thirty seconds is no great chore; however, it often requires several months to accomplish this.

Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Appendix page 3.

There are a couple of other similar drills that Reinhardt recommended for building strength away from your instrument, including free buzzing and the pencil trick exercise.  All of these drills are probably best done with a little time between doing them and actually playing to give your muscles a chance to rest and recover.  Remember to take things easy at first, you’re trying to build up, not tear down.

Guess the Embouchure Type: Roy Williams

I wasn’t familiar with British trombonist Roy Williams until I came across this YouTube video of him playing the ballad Old Folks.  There’s not much about him online, but I did find a discography here.  He’s definitely a player I need to check out more.  Watch his playing here and see if you can guess his embouchure type.

While you’re watching, pay close attention to how stable his embouchure is at all times.  When he breathes he almost always keeps his lips inside the mouthpiece touching and takes are in through the mouth corners.  Speaking of his mouth corners, they are firmly locked in place throughout his entire range. His jaw remains pretty stable as well, not moving up or down when he changes registers and his chin remains firm (don’t confuse his dimple for a bunched chin).  These are good characteristics for players of all embouchure types, so it’s a good model to watch and emulate.

Unfortunately this upload is very low resolution, so it’s has poor video quality.  That, along with Williams’ very minimal embouchure motion make it difficult for me to guess with much confidence.  Continue reading Guess the Embouchure Type: Roy Williams