Testing for Congenital Amusia

Jake Mandell is a resident at Brigam and Women’s Hospital and a musician. He developed a test that you can take online to test for congenital amusia, more commonly known as tone deafness. Try it out and see how you do.

It’s purposefully designed to be pretty tough to do. I scored 86.1%, which he lists as “very good performance.” Want to brag or commiserate about your score? Leave it in the comments.

Weekend Gigs and Band Recognition

I’ve got some public gigs this weekend for anyone around western North Carolina. Tomorrow night (Friday, October 19, 2012) I’m performing with salsa band Montuno at the Lake Edan Arts Festival. Our band starts at 8:45 PM.

Saturday night (October 20, 2012) I’ll be performing and directing the Asheville Jazz Orchestra for our monthly show at the White Horse Black Mountain. This evening will be a special event, catered by the Black Mountain Bistro. Dinner starts at 6:30, the music at 8.

While I’m at it, I want to thank everyone who voted for the Asheville Jazz Orchestra in the Mountain X-Press’s annual “Best of Western North Carolina.” This year we placed 3rd in their poll for best jazz band in the area.



Herbert Clarke Noticing Upstream Cornet Player

A discussion about my Playing in the Red Blindfold Test over on the Trumpet Herald Forum brought up Herbert Clarke. Looking through my copy of his Technical Studies I didn’t find any specific recommendations about mouthpiece placement, so I decided to poke around online and see if there was any advice attributed to Clarke about mouthpiece placement. While I wasn’t able to find anything specific, I did find something interesting that apparently was written in Clarke’s Series of Autobiographical Sketches. Clarke tells the story of how he went to a concert and heard a very fine cornet player solo.

The number, an extremely difficult cornet solo which demanded great endurance in playing was the Excelsior Polka by Frewin (I later purchased a copy for cornet and piano). At the ending of the solo the young player was given an ovation of tumultuous applause, in which I joined vigorously. The cornetist again arose, but this time stepped to the front of the platform, and to my wonderment played the entire solo through for the second time without seeming tired or making a slip. The remarkable thing about his performance was that he played so easily, gracefully; apparently with unconcern, and without any facial muscular contortions or movements. His face did not become purple, distorted, or show any signs of strain. I always had made such hard work in playing even a simple little polka which did not reach G on the first space above, that to watch him play with such perfect ease a number which seemed filled with top “C’s” and then end it on the highest note, actually dumfounded me. It was both a revelation and an inspiration!

After the close of the concert I inquired as to the players identity, and learned that he was a Walter B. Rogers who came from the little town of Delphi, in Indiana, I also found out that he played at the Opera House when the season was done.

Later Clarke had the opportunity to watch Rogers perform up close and he noticed his mouthpiece placement. Clarke tried to imitate Rogers here but found it impossible for him.

After the show was over I walked along to think about it, and finally determined to try to imitate this “wonder”. The next morning after breakfast I took my cornet to my room and commenced to experiment, but the more I blew the harder it became for me. Then I stood before the mirror and tried to adjust the mouthpiece to my lips the same as I had observed Rogers do the night before, placing just a little of it on the upper lip with more on the lower lip and drawing the latter in slightly over the teeth, but not a tone came out of the cornet! I tried it again and again with no better results, and then I did actually get mad. I kept up this experimenting all that day, and the following night bought another front seat ticket for the some show. On this night Rogers played a cornet solo between the acts, not standing up before the audience but remaining seated. The selection was Hartman’s Carnival of Venice, and well, perhaps I did not watch him as he played it!

Based on Clarke’s description (bold emphasis is mine) it is probable that Rogers had an upstream (low placement type) embouchure. This embouchure type is less common than the downstream types, but is correct for a sizable minority of players. Many teachers recommend against this embouchure type based on their own experiences trying to play this way and failing. Downstream embouchure type players will almost always find playing with an upstream, low placement embouchure challenging, to say the least. Here’s what Clarke found when he tried it.

The next morning I tried the same way of playing as on the previous day, only changing the position of the mouthpiece against my lips, and again struggled to produce tones. The only result being that I found myself worse off than before, and by the end of that week I could play neither in the old way nor in the new. This was so discouraging that I nearly arrived at a point of giving up the whole thing in disgust. Fortunately for me, however, I had been born with a goodly amount of perseverance and obstinacy in my makeup and stuck to the game although not without admitting to myself that if it was necessary to play the cornet in the old way and suffer with the some strains and headaches as before, perhaps it might be as well if not better to discard playing altogether.

For some reason upstream players tend to do better playing downstream than downstream players incorrectly playing upstream. This seems to reinforce the idea that placing the mouthpiece so there’s more lower lip inside is wrong. However, for players with the anatomy that is suited for a low placement embouchure type this won’t work as well as sticking with the best placement for their face and learning to work with it.

The moral of the story is that you should work with the mouthpiece placement that works best for you and learn to play your entire range that way. Trying to “fix” your chops by imitating someone with a different embouchure type can be destructive to your playing. Asking your students to adopt your own embouchure type because that’s how you happen to play isn’t always going to work either.

Helium and Pitch

Do you know why brass and woodwinds go sharp as the instruments get warmed up? It’s common for people to respond that it’s because as the temperature goes up objects expand (true), but if you think this through carefully you’ll realize that this would cause the opposite. The actual effect of the expansion of the instrument due to the temperature increase is pretty negligible, there’s another more dramatic effect that pulls the pitch in the opposite direction. Sound travels faster in a warmer temperature making the pitch go higher.

Many years ago I took a Brass Pedagogy class over to the Physics Department and we did some informal experiments filling up our instruments with helium and trying to play this way. Because sound travels dramatically faster in helium the pitch was quite a bit higher pitched. The woodwind and vocal students in my class had a lot of trouble playing a brass instrument this way, the brass majors found it a little easier. Trying it out myself I found it odd to feel the pitch I was playing but hearing a higher pitch but was able to ignore it and play a steady pitch. This suggested to me that the more experienced the brass player the more “muscle memory” they use to help them play with accuracy.

Here’s a video that demonstrates the same experiment filling up instruments and lungs with helium and showing the humorous results.

Eugene Corporon on the Difference Between Rehearsal and Practice

Here are some ideas by conductor and music educator Eugene Corporon I recently came across about the differences between rehearsing and practicing. Food for thought for all the music students out there.

Rehearsals are not the place to teach the parts, but rather the place to put the pieces together.

The rehearsal is a place to do the things together that you can’t do alone. (You can learn your part alone.)

You don’t come to rehearsal to learn your part, but rather to learn everybody else’s part.

Playing on the Red Blindfold Test

A while back I wrote a post debunking the logic of why many teachers and players incorrectly argue against allowing brass players to place the mouthpiece on the red of their lip. Going through these common points I’ve come to the conclusion that while placing the mouthpiece so there is a lot of rim contact on the upper or lower lip doesn’t work for everyone, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this placement, which is why I titled that post “Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy).”

Recently one of the authors I quoted in that article, Frank Gabriel Campos, posted a couple of responses. In one of his replies he wrote:

In a blind audition, I can easily tell within a minute that someone is playing on the red.

To be honest, I doubt that anyone can really tell by sound alone if a player is placing on the red.┬áThis also reminded me of how some players and teachers who are familiar with embouchure types sometimes claim that they can tell which embouchure type a player is simply by hearing a recording. So with this thought in mind, I’ve put together an informal quiz to see how many people can actually tell.

Listen to these 6 audio clips. All 6 players are professional trumpet players with advanced degrees. 5 of the 6 players are college trumpet teachers. Three specialize in classical trumpet and 3 specialize in jazz trumpet, although some do cross over. At least one of these players places the mouthpiece so that rim contacts with the red of the lip and at least one player does not.

(Note: The quiz plugin I’m using seems to be a little buggy, but hopefully it will allow you to see how you did at the end as well as let you know which embouchure type each player belongs to.)

Player A

Player B

Player C

Player D

Player E

Player F

[wpsqt name=”Test Quiz” type=”quiz”]

How did you do? Please leave your comments below, but don’t give away any answers to those who haven’t tried the test yet. If you want to see video of the players in the audio samples check it out here (no cheating and watching it first!).

Smoky Mountain Brass Band

I’m very excited to announce the following, from David Pressley, the president of the Board of Directors for the Smoky Mountain Brass Band.

The Board of Directors is pleased to announce that David Wilken has accepted our offer to become the Director of the Smoky Mountain Brass Band. Dave will begin with the November 6th rehearsal.

The SMBB has been performing since 1981 and played all over western North Carolina (and elsewhere). I’ve sat in with the group from time to time already, performed with many of the members in other groups, and have been attending performances for a while now. It’s quite a treat to get the chance to conduct them now and I’m looking forward to starting up this November.

Thanks to the Board of Directors and the rest of the Smoky Mountain Brass Band!