Link Between Music and Language

I’ve written before about Dr. Charles Limb’s research using an fMRI scanner to study the brains of jazz musicians while in the act of improvisation. He’s now published some new research that, according to the editor who wrote the headline, supports the language/music link in our brain. He conducted his research by designing keyboards without any metal and scanning the brains of jazz pianists playing scales and trading fours.

That conversation-like improvisation activated brain areas that normally process the syntax of language, the way that words are put together into phrases and sentences. Even between their turns playing, the brain wasn’t resting. The musicians were processing what they were hearing to come up with new sounds that were a good fit.

At the same time, certain other regions of the brain involved with language — those that process the meaning of words — were tuned down, Limb found.

If I recall correctly, similar research showed that when musicians listen to or perform music certain regions in the brain, such as the areas that process vision, are less active than normal. The speculation was that it helps the musician focus on the aural feedback better. These results seems similar in that the regions of the brain responsible for processing language become less active.

What confuses me at this point is how this shows a link between music and language, since different regions in the brain are responsible for a spoken conversation as opposed to a musical conversation. It’s possible that something was left out of the news article, but I know also that editors tend to write the title and frequently choose a misleading headline in order to get readers to click the link. Without going to Limb’s original article, which I’m sure is quite technical and written for neuroscientists, not musicians, it’s hard to say. Either way, it’s another fascinating intersection of music and science.

Greensboro, NC and Jamestown, NC Events February 21-22, 2014

I will be in Greensboro and Jamestown, NC this upcoming weekend for a couple of different events. Friday and Saturday (February 21-22, 2014) North Carolina’s All State Honor Choruses will be performing at Greensboro War Memorial Coliseum Complex. I’m not directly involved in this event, just chaperoning some students from Owen High School while I’m covering for their director while she’s on family leave (congratulations, Mrs. S!). The performance is on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 3:00 PM. If you’ve not heard a high school honor ensemble perform before, you should come on out and hear these talented and dedicated young musicians sing. It’s really amazing how much they accomplish in just a couple of days.

Later on Saturday evening (February 22, 2014) I’ll be playing with the Low-Down Sires at Castle McCulloch for the Mardi Gras of the Carolinas party. We start playing traditional New Orleans jazz at 9:30 PM and the party will go into the wee hours of the morning.

If you’re in the area looking for live music to hear, come on out to one of these different performances. I will have some down time during the days, so it may also be possible to meet up for some lessons, if anyone was looking for a brass embouchure consultation and happen to be near Greensboro. Drop me a line if you want to see if we can arrange something.

Embouchure Change Questions: Overbite, Mouthpiece Placement, and High Range

Here’s another embouchure question from my pile, sent by Khai from Malaysia. As always, keep in mind that I’m going to have to speak somewhat generally and make some educated guesses, particularly since I haven’t watched Khai play.

Hi, I’ve been playing the trombone for about 3 years in my high school band. But a year ago, a senior told me that I am using a wrong embouchure, when I hit a high F (which would be my highest “comfortable” note) I would have a pretty extreme upper lip overbite which would more or less completely cover the pink flesh bits of my lower lip and my tone would sound really thin and airy. I have worked on changing it for a while by evening out my lips for a 50-50 or 60-40 ratio, well its pretty underdeveloped but its easier to go for higher notes even though there’s no good sound quality in it, and if I play softly the tone is alright but as soon as I try to go above a middle F in forte the tone gets weak and I run out of air really fast, I don’t feel like my lips are really vibrating and like I’m only using air to play the notes. So here are my questions. Do I need to change my embouchure? How do I change my embouchure? And how do I increase my lip vibration when I get to higher ranges? Do you have any tips that could help me with my embouchure change if I need to? I will really appreciate any tips or advice you can give, thanks.

I assume that by “high F” you mean the F a couple of ledger lines and a space just above the bass clef staff, and not the F above that. If you’re talking about the F above “high B flat,” then that would be high enough that my guess is that your embouchure is working fine up there and you should play your whole range with that setting. If this is the first F above the bass clef staff, then the same might apply, in spite of what a senior told you. Then again, maybe you would do well to make an embouchure correction for your entire range. Without being able to watch you play, preferably in person, it’s really impossible to say for certain.

You mention an overbite, by which I’m assuming that your lower jaw is naturally receded. Again, without being able to watch you play, I can only offer some possibilities. One thought is that you should bring your jaw forward some, possibly even as much so that your teeth are aligned. That said, some players do better with a receded jaw position and perhaps you are one of them. You might be able to benefit from Donald Reinhardt’s “jaw retention drill,” which is an away-from-the-instrument exercise. Follow that link to check out what this exercise is and try it out a bit daily for the next few weeks. If your jaw needs to come forward more to play this exercise can help you get more comfortable with this position.

You mention mouthpiece placement, but it’s not really clear to me where you’re placing the mouthpiece normally and what works best for your upper register. I would avoid trying to place the mouthpiece so that you’ve got a 50/50 ratio. Some brass musicians do play well on what might look from the outside like a half and half placement, but one lip or another must predominate inside the cup and the majority of players should place the mouthpiece so that there’s clearly more than one lip inside. Check out this link here for a little more about mouthpiece placement and air stream direction. You might benefit from trying to place the mouthpiece in both the upstream and downstream positions and see if you can find a “sweet spot” where the upper register becomes easier to play. While you’re at it, experiment a bit with placing off to one side or another too. Many great players have off-center placements, some very much so. Don’t worry too much about a big, rich tone at first, just see if you can find a placement that allows you to play high. It’s often easier to open up the sound after you find an embouchure that works for you rather than to try to go for sound first and then build range.

Ideally, all this sort of experimentation (and some others that are too difficult to describe just now) would be done in a private lesson or two. It’s quite difficult to do this stuff, even if you have some experience working with brass embouchures, let alone on your own. Whether or not you should change your embouchure depends on whether or not there are issues that are being caused by an incorrect embouchure type for your face or whether it’s due to you having other incorrect playing mechanics that are making your current embouchure work less than ideal. Often times the answer is a little bit of both.

My last piece of advice for you is to try to build some embouchure strength and control with a little bit of daily free buzzing. Follow this link to watch a video describing a simple exercise I recommend and read up a bit more about it. After a couple of weeks or so practicing this exercise it may become more apparent whether or not an embouchure change will be necessary for you or if you just need to make corrections in how you’re currently playing. Again, without being able to watch you play, that’s the best I can do.

Good luck!

Embouchure Consultations: How To Ask For and Get My Help

As I’m trying to get caught up on some of the brass embouchure questions I’ve been emailed I thought it would be helpful to put together a single resource about how to ask for, and get, my help. Too often folks will contact me for help and I simply have to reply that I’d have to watch them play (preferably in person) to offer any advice. That said, there are some things that people can do that will help me get an idea of what’s going on so that at the very least I can speak generally, if not more specifically.

1. I have to see it.

Unlike some other folks’ approaches that either have a one-size-fits-all approach or even dismisses embouchure issues as related to breathing or use of the tongue, I really need to watch you play in order to understand what’s going on. Every individual has a different face, so every player has a different embouchure. Although there are certain patterns that you can learn to recognize, even players that have a similar embouchure type will have unique issues that can make what they need to work on different. There’s no way around this point, I have to be able to watch you play.

I don’t teach video lessons, and I’m skeptical of anyone who does. Having taken some long distance lessons myself as well as met with folks informally via Skype to try to help out with embouchure issues many times before, I know how incredibly difficult it is doing a video conference in place of an in person lesson. However, I suppose it’s better than nothing in circumstances where a knowledgable teacher isn’t available for some reason or another. Unfortunately, my schedule is usually busy enough that I really can’t afford to take a couple of hours out of my time to meet with players via a video conference, particularly since I refuse to take any money for this.

A temporary compromise is for you to video tape your embouchure for me playing some things and let me take a look. Sometimes I can spot right away what a player is doing and give very particular advice, so it’s worth taking 30 or 60 minutes to video tape your embouchure and let me get a closer look.

First of all, if you’re having a particular issue (trouble with range, a double buzz, difficulty holding a steady pitch, etc.) I need to see what it looks like when that happens. This may seem like a no brainer, but I’ve lost count of how many times someone has gotten in touch with me about problems with their upper register only to send me video footage of them playing in the middle and low register only. In order to correct problems we need to diagnose what’s going on when things work wrong, so please try to video tape it.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, problems in one register can sometimes be caused not by how you’re playing in that register but by something you’re doing in a different register. Additionally, there are sometimes other issues that I would consider a priority before any sort of correction to your specific problem can be addressed. I also need to see how you’re playing over your entire playable range. Octave slurs are a great thing for this because it also gives me a very clear look at not just how you’re playing a pitch, but also how you’re changing pitches. Here is a basic set of octave slurs that should help give an idea what I like to observe.

Octave Slurs

The specific pitches are less important than getting slurs that span over your entire range.

Take video that is close up enough that all that is mostly visible is the overall embouchure area, including the chin, mouth corners, cheeks, etc. Take a look at some of the embouchure videos I’ve created and you’ll get a good idea of the angles and how close I’d like it to be. Also please try to get views from both the front and sides (although with trombonists it can be hard to get a view of the left side because the horn gets in the way, that’s fine).

Rather than emailing the video file to me directly, post it someplace so I can download it when I’m ready to take a look at it. Large files as email attachments are sometimes inconvenient if I have to wait for them to download while I’m trying to take care of other business online.

Sure, if you have some general questions or just can’t get video posted for me to watch, feel free to contact me anyway. Just don’t be surprised if my response is, “I have to see it.”

2. Describe your specific questions in some detail.

Are there certain situations that make your issues more problematic? Did you notice these issues after a particularly demanding playing schedule or change of equipment? What does it feel like? Give this some careful consideration and give me as many clues as you can think of. Sometimes these things are irrelevant, but at other times they can help me come up with an idea that I won’t get from watching your video alone.

3. Be patient and polite.

I tend to stay pretty busy with teaching, performing, composing/arranging, conducting, blogging, social obligations, etc. As much as I’d like to help everyone out as quickly as possible, please also keep in mind that I do this stuff for a living. Because I don’t feel that this sort of consultation is worth charging you money for, you’ll need to wait for me to have enough time to give your questions the attention it deserves. Believe it or not, it can take quite a while to look through your questions and video and compile my best response.

If you don’t hear back from me in a couple of weeks or so, please feel free to drop me another line and update me on your issues. Like many of us, sometimes my email inbox piles up or I accidentally delete your message or otherwise forget. A polite reminder is helpful for me.

I hesitate a bit to bring this next point up, but I do get bothered by how often I spend a couple of hours or more going through video and putting together what I hope are thoughtful and helpful recommendations only to never get a thank you back. A quick reply to acknowledge you got my message goes a long way to me. If my suggestions don’t make sense or aren’t helping, let me know and I’ll see what I can figure out. No response at all, however, makes me less inclined to help you (and other folks) out in the future.

4. Don’t expect too much.

The way I teach really doesn’t lend itself to long-distance consultation. If your situation is interesting enough to me I will sometimes try to arrange a video conference to help you out, but even this is really a less than ideal way to diagnose and troubleshoot embouchure issues. There have been times where I have been able to help players, but there have also been times where I just couldn’t figure out what was going on. On a couple of occasions I’ve tried to help someone online and though I had come up with some good suggestions only to meet with the player in person and changed my mind. More frequently I’ve offered suggestions that the player didn’t fully grasp online and when we met in person I was able to get them pointed in the right direction. Online correspondence is just not conducive for this sort of teaching.

Maybe I can help you. Sometimes I can’t. Be prepared for the possibility that what I recommend isn’t going to work for you.

5. Please don’t contact me via YouTube.

If you’re reading this you’ve already discovered my blog. Many brass players will see my videos posted on YouTube and either ask questions in the comments there or via a YouTube message. While I usually see those (eventually) and try to get around to replying to them, YouTubes comments form and message features are really inconvenient enough for me that I’m likely to not get around to responding to you. The best two ways to get my attention are to either contact me here or leave your question in the comments section on a relevant blog post here.

Don’t let all the above discourage you. Brass embouchures happens to be a topic that I am passionately fascinated about and it’s really quite easy to get me to virtually talk your ear off about it. Simply dropping me a line or leaving a comment on a post here about your questions is usually enough to get me interested and I’ll do my best to give you all the help I can (eventually).

Weekend Gigs: Low-Down Sires, Land of the Sky Symphonic Band, Asheville Jazz Orchestra

If you’re in the western North Carolina area this Saturday and Sunday (February 15-16, 2014) I have performances with three different groups going on you can come check out. I’m looking forward to the gigs, in part because I’m not playing the same show three times.

Low-Down Sires LogoMy first show is on Saturday the 15th in Marshall, NC with the dixieland band, the Low-Down Sires. We’re playing a “fancy flea market” fundraiser to raise money for heating homes in Madison County starting at 12:30 until 2:30. If you like traditional jazz styles from New Orleans and Chicago and like to swing dance this is the show for you.

Land of the Sky Symphonic Band 2Later that night the Land of the Sky Symphonic Band will be performing an evening of pops music at the White Horse Black Mountain in Black Mountain, NC. Some of the music I’ll be conducting includes Gallop by Dmitri Shostakovich, American Rhapsody by Anne McGinty, and Manhattan Beach March by John Phillip Sousa. We’ll also be performing some medley arrangements of music from Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, and Pirates of the Caribbean. The concert starts at 8 PM.

AJO-2The next evening, Sunday the 16th, the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be performing from 8 PM to 11 PM at the ISIS Restaurant and Music Hall in Asheville, NC. It’s been a few months or so since we last played there, but they’ve got a nice stage and the room has great acoustics for a big band. I haven’t completely selected the sets yet, but I’m considering doing one set of our usual mix of charts, one set of music associated with Count Basie, and one set of nothing but original charts by myself and other guys in the band.

If you’re in the area this weekend come on out and support local live music. Be sure to come up and say hello to me on a set break or after the show!

Following the Clave In Salsa For Musicians and Dancers

My friend Grant Cuthbertson is teaching musicality classes for salsa dancers and has made some of his materials available. He recently posted an analysis on the clave and phrases of Que le Pongan Salsa by El Gran Combo. Check out his analysis and follow along with the recording.

The clave, which literally translates as “key,” is not just the percussion instrument many of you may already be familiar with. In latin music clave also refers to the 2 bar rhythmic pattern that is either played or implied by the percussion section. There are some variations of this pattern, but the two basic ones you’ll find are the 2-3 clave and the 3-2 clave.

clave

The type of clave being played can have a subtle, but important, effect on the music and how dancers might want to respond. While it’s common for salsa tunes to keep the same clave all the way throughout the entire chart, many charts will change the clave back and fourth throughout. Que le Pongan Salsa does this in the typical manner, by adding extra measures in the phrases. Check out Grant’s analysis and look at the 9 measure phrases. The clave pattern starts off as a 2-3 clave in this chart, but “flips” to a 3-2 clave beginning at measure 35.

While the salsa players I usually play with call this “flipping” the clave, it’s important to understand that the clave pattern itself doesn’t change, but rather the phrasing alters where the clave patter falls. Measure 35 of Que le Pongan Salsa adds a 9th measure in the phrase, so when the next phrase starts at measure 36 the clave has flipped to a 3-2 pattern.

Two other noteworthy things in Grant’s analysis include how frequently different sections of the band or even the entire band will emphasize parts, or “sides,” of the clave pattern. Also note how often the phrasing is different from the typical 8 measure phrases we’re used to. There are 9 measure and 13 measure phrases used to flip the clave, but there are also some 10 measure and 12 measure phrases as well. Both these features are quite common in salsa music and is one of the characteristics that I find so interesting about it.

Thanks to Grant for making his analysis available.

Embouchure Questions: Mouth Corner Snap and the Lip Pucker

I’m trying to get through some questions I have piling up. Here’s one I got from Chris a while back.

Hi Dave,

I have another Reinhardt related question. Somethings about my playing are getting better, especially my range and endurance, but my tone is not big and full in all registers.

I think at least part of the problem is that I don’t naturally experience any puckering. I get an okay tone by just putting the mouthpiece on my lips in their natural place and blowing – the embouchure firms but the corners don’t ‘snap forward’ – and from here I have a low G to a 3rd ledger F (trumpet), or sometimes G’s and A’s above that. I can do that through pinching or compression. But I don’t have a big, rich sound.

I also recall reading on Trumpet Herald that lip pucker was considered to be something added after everything else was working.

Do you think it is possible that you can develop like I mentioned without the pucker element developing? If so, how would someone go about adding that element to their playing?

Thanks!

As always, it’s really hard to be specific without watching you play, so all I can do is speak generally. It’s difficult to fully grasp many of Donald Reinhardt’s descriptions through text, you often need to have someone show you what things look like.

The mouth corner inhalations is a difficult process to get used to and is one that I find myself always striving to improve on too. This involves keeping your lips just touching inside the mouthpiece and breathing through the mouth corners. When you attack the initial note after inhaling you want the tongue, breathing, and embouchure to all coordinate together. This is where the mouth corner “snap” comes in place. At the peak of your inhalation, and without hesitation, you begin to blow. At the exact same time your tongue will move to its position behind the upper teeth and start the backstroke that creates the articulation (“tah,” “tee,” “dah,” doh,” etc., depending on how pointed an attack you want and what register you’re playing). While these both are going on your mouth corners should snap quickly into their position, firmed roughly where they are when your mouth is closed at rest.

If the corner snap isn’t happening for you there are a couple of things you can try to get them working better. Often times the reason we have trouble coordinating mechanics is because there’s so much going on at once we can’t think about everything well enough to time it in. Try removing something from the equation and work only on one or two things at a time.

Let’s not assume that the mouth corner snap is the only issue. It could be that the reason you’re not able to time getting your corners into position is because something else in the process is happening at the wrong time too. Take some simple exercises and try some nose inhalations with breath attacks first while watching your embouchure in a mirror. Keep everything looking as identical as possible while breathing in through the nose as it looks when you’re playing. You want to make your chops work as if all you need to do play is to go from inhaling to blowing, nothing else visibly changes except the air. When you think you’ve got the idea, switch do doing this with your eyes closed and concentrate on what the feel is like.

Next, continue nose inhalations but add a tongued attack. Again, spend some time watching yourself in a mirror and also with your eyes closed to concentrate on the feel. Reinhardt often had short sets in a give exercise that repeated (his “Spiderweb Routine,” for example).  You can watch yourself in a mirror for the first time through and then close your eyes for the second.

Spiderweb

As you begin getting your exhalation and tonguing coordinating comfortably gradually switch to a mouth corner inhalation. Again, watch yourself in a mirror to see if you are getting your mouth corners to move as quickly as possible from their open position to “snapping” into playing position. Even if it’s not working quite like it should, make note of what it looks like in the mirror and what it feels like when it works wrong. Don’t let your mouth corners open too much or pull back out into an excessive smile position while inhaling, think of them opening just enough to take a slow and relaxed breath. Remember to draw your tongue out of the way of the intake of air.

If you’re still having difficulties with the corner snap, remove the tonguing again and practice breath attacks with the mouth corner inhalations. You may be bottling the air up with the tongue and because of this your mouth corners hesitate a moment to get into position. Again, do some mirror observations and also close your eyes to concentrate on the feel.

As far as the “lip pucker” goes, my thoughts here may be different from what some of Reinhardt’s students might tell you. It’s also possible that Reinhardt felt that what a high brass player would do is slightly different from low brass. That said, I think that perhaps some of the differences you might hear from different players that studied from Reinhardt might also be influenced by when they happened to take lessons from him. Here’s what Reinhardt wrote in 1942 in the Pivot System for Trumpet, A Complete Manual With Studies.

The eventual goal of the PIVOT SYSTEM is a natural LIP-PUCKER. Your lips go forward to meet the mouthpiece-rim; you should not bring the mouthpiece to meet the lips. This mode of playing reduces all lip-pressure to a minimum and the extreme top-register can be played with apparent ease. Replace the old-fashioned “smile system” with the PIVOT and the LIP-PUCKER, and many unnatural lip complications will vanish.

Note that in the context of discussing the lip pucker Reinhardt refers to the “smile embouchure.” Around 1900 it was actually fairly common for brass teachers to encourage players to pull their mouth corners back as if smiling to ascend, something that we know today limits a brass musician’s high range and endurance. We also know that Reinhardt frequently taught players to go from point A to point B by teaching them to go to point C, only to bring them back to point B later. This can be an effective pedagogical trick, but if you’re not in a situation where you’re getting a teacher to watch what you’re doing you can end up doing too much of a good thing and take it too far. I suspect that in this situation Reinhardt may have been encouraging a lip pucker in order to discourage a smile embouchure.

Compare the above quote from Reinhardt to what he published in 1973 in his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System.

In the PIVOT SYSTEM, the term lip pucker is to imply a tightening down of the mouthcorners against the teeth. Because of the circular formation of the teeth, the mouthcorners must “snap forward” into this puckered position simultaneously with the initial attack. This snapping forward of the mouthcorners occurs a split-second after the mouthcorner inhalation has been enacted. The lip pucker increases its forward push (cushion formation) while the performer is ascending the register of the instrument, and decreases it while he descends. Thus the lip pucker is utilized from the very moment that the initial attack is executed and throughout the blowing; however, it must never be used as a means of forming the embouchure to make the lips receptive to mouthpiece placement.

The PIVOT SYSTEM lip pucker is the “neutralizing or equalizing force” of the “forward and backward” embouchure pressures which are constantly utilized throughout the playing. Remember, the mouthpiece must always be placed upon an embouchure with “buzzing firmness,” and the lip pucker itself must be formed and synchronized with each and every initial attack. In short, do not pucker for placement, pucker to play!

Note that in the above passage Reinhardt discusses the lip pucker as the mouth corners snapping “forward” and that this forward lip pucker increases as you ascend and decreases as you descend. Many people interpret a lip pucker as bringing the mouth corners inward as you play (opposite of the smile embouchure), however by 1973 Reinhardt was describing the lip pucker a bit differently from his earlier description.

Reinhardt also had a “Lip Pucker Routine” that was similar to the Spiderweb Routine, but with some important differences.

Lip Pucker Routine

In this exercise you must not crescendo on the half note. Continue to expand the intervals chromatically to high C. Again, use a mirror to observe the “forward pushing of the mouthcorners with the eighth note.”

Lastly, a personal anecdote that may offer some additional insights. Keep in mind here that I’m going by memory of what I was told by two different teachers who studied extensively from Reinhardt. I’ve looked around for my lesson notes and couldn’t find the exact ones I’m thinking of, so I may have some of the details wrong. Take it with a grain of salt.

At one point a Reinhardt teacher (a trumpet player) offered a suggestion that I should think of bringing my mouth corners inward towards the mouthpiece rim as I ascend. This is something that many brass players sometimes recommend. It did seem to help the production of the extreme upper register.

However, later in a lesson with a different teacher (a trombonist), he pointed out that my inward mouth corner pucker was causing my sound to thin out and causing difficulties with descending back down without needing to pull the mouthpiece off my lips and reset. I was relying on squeezing too much “meat” into the mouthpiece cup to get the faster vibrations, rather than building strength and holding the mouth corners firmly in place. When I asked about the instructions to bring the mouth corners inward to ascend this teacher suggested that it could be something that Reinhardt felt was different for trumpet than for trombone.

That said, it’s possible that this might have been due to the time period when these two particular teachers studied with Reinhardt. We know that Reinhardt was constantly testing and evolving his pedagogy. Consider the many changes he made from publishing the Pivot System Manuals and the Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. According to some of Reinhardt’s students who took pedagogy lessons from him towards the end of his life he had made changes from what he wrote in the Encyclopedia as well. He was constantly evolving and making updates and corrections to what he taught. Often times I feel that some of the posts in the Trumpet Herald Reinhardt Forum reflect instructions that might have been particular to that student or were Reinhardt’s method to get a student to exaggerate a particular mechanical issue that would have been brought back at a later time. Take all recommendations (including mine here) with a grain of salt if you’re not at an in-person lesson.

In short, I wouldn’t worry too much about a “lip pucker,” per se, but instead spend time coordinating your mouth corner snap and keeping your mouth corners locked in place for the entire range (roughly where they might be when your mouth is closed and at rest). As you ascend, the mouth corners will gradually push forward to ascend and come back slightly to descend, but think of this as the forward pressure of the mouth corners “neutralizing” the backward pressure of the mouthpiece and don’t let this forward push become too extreme. Opening up your sound is something that I would need to watch you play to help with. Using your proper embouchure motion (not too much, not too little) can really help here. Also, don’t neglect how you’re breathing here. With all the attention on embouchure that we sometimes do it’s easy to forget that the breathing is a very important part of our playing. Breathing is also one of the most natural parts of brass playing and is comparatively easy to correct. It may be that you’re doing too much forward mouth corner pucker in the first place, thinning out your tone somewhat. Spend some time forgetting about your chops and strive towards the sensation that your breathing is doing the work for your embouchure. Then forget all about chops, breathing, and tonguing and be sure to practice expressive playing.

Good luck!

Playing Dixieland in the Front Line

Low-Down Sires 1When playing dixieland, New Orleans/Chicago styles of traditional jazz each of the horn players in the front line (usually trumpet or cornet, clarinet, and trombone) will collectively improvise polyphonic ensemble passages. In order to make this work without getting in each others’ way, each instrumentalist fits within a particular role. The cornet player will usually play or paraphrase the melody while the clarinetist improvises a rhythmically active line generally in a register above the cornet player. Meanwhile, the trombonist plays a supporting line under the cornet and clarinet, with an emphasis on outlining the chord progression with lots of glisses. Done well, this is one of the most exciting things to listen to and is great fun to play.

Who has the hardest job in the traditional jazz front line, the trumpet/cornet player, the clarinetist, or the trombonist? Ivan, over on his Playing Traditional Jazz blog, discusses this very question. I’ve found that most players will automatically assume that their own job is the most challenging, but one clarinetist thought differently.

Clarinet is easier than trumpet in that we generally don’t have to learn many melodies. If you’re flexible and have a good ear and instinct, you can listen to the trumpet for specific types of melody lines that tell you a) what the next chord might be, and b) if we do a double-ending or change pitch, etc.

. . .

To play the way I do, clarinet is easier, because I can play whatever I want and don’t need to know the song one bit.

One of the points Ivan makes is that cornet/trumpet players not only need to learn the chord progression for soloing and embellishing on the ensemble passages, but they also need to know the melody very well, since they usually cover the melody in performance.

This insight is supported by another correspondent (a trumpet player), who told me he often asks whether – for a change – one of the other players would like to play the melody line in the first chorus or two of a tune. He has been surprised to find that very fine players are often reluctant to do this, claiming that they are not sure of the melody – even though they can create wonderful decorations around it!

Ivan does make the point that clarinet players can really make or break a traditional jazz band and that the clarinet part requires a mastery of the instrument and of the tune.

What about the trombonist?

I consider his job extremely difficult too. He needs to know the harmonic progression of every tune the band plays (either as a result of hard graft in learning the chord sequences or by developing an amazing ear for the bassline of the successive chords). He has to push the band along through the chord changes. This frequently involves (starting on the fourth note of a bar and moving on to the first of the next) taking the harmony from the root of one chord to the root of the next by means of a glissando or direct punching out of the notes.

But he must also have a huge repertoire of tricks and phrases. He should be able to take on the melody for an occasional chorus – to give variety to the presentation. And he should be a skilful user of mutes: a good range of trombone effects is possible to embellish the music.

Ultimately, I think Ivan and I agree that playing any of the instruments in the front line requires a lot of work and practice to do well, however there is one point I would like to make that I don’t think is emphasized enough in Ivan’s post. Playing the clarinet or trombone part still means you need to know the melody extremely well, if anything so you know what not to play!

This is particularly important for the group I perform with, the Low-Down Sires. We currently have only a two horn front line, cornet and trombone. With a 3rd horn player it’s not such a big deal if two of us end up on the same melody or countermelody note because someone will be playing another chord tone. But with two horns if I don’t know what the cornet will be playing and I end up on the same pitch the whole character of the ensemble chorus suddenly gets thin sounding. This was a point that Ben Polcer made in the recent Lindy Focus music track I sat in on. He asked me to help demonstrate a collective improvisation with him on the tune Careless Love. There’s one spot in the tune where the natural tendency for me as the trombonist would be to keep a descending melodic line going, and as a line it fits great over the chord changes. Unfortunately, it also happens to coincide with one very important melody note, so I had to sacrifice a nice voice leading in that part to not double his part. Ben went out of his way to point out that I did this afterwards and noted how important is was for all the horn players to learn the melody, not just the trumpet or cornet player.

Not to mention that it’s a nice change once in a while to change the roles around and have one of the other horn players cover the melody. And you will never know when it might suddenly become necessary. Several years ago I went to a performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and their trumpet player, John Brunious, had passed away unexpectedly just before their tour. Since there wasn’t enough time to replace him, the other horn players covered the melody the whole concert.

Yes, I’m guilty of neglecting the melody on a lot of the tunes I regularly play with the Sires, but I’ve found that on those pieces where I not only have the chord progression memorized but also can cover the melody if asked my tailgating fits so much better with what the rest of the band is doing. Which reminds me that I have some transcribing to do in order to learn some new tunes. . .

Tip of the hat to Mick G., from the Low-Down Sires, for passing along Ivan’s Playing Traditional Jazz post.

Rubber Band Conducting

Rubber Band ConductingIn The Modern Conductor Elizabeth Green offers some exercises to help conductors keep gestures along the correct horizontal and vertical plane.

Short-Summary Quick Review (Horizontal)

1. Cross hands on diaphragm,
2. Hands point IN.
3. Move outward in straight line.
4. Stop: Order palms to face front.

5. Palms face outward all the way.
6. Return on straight line to diaphragm.
7. Reset hands and repeat.

Short-Summary quick Review (Vertical)

1. Arms hang full length at side.
2. Palms toward the rear.
3. Raise arms vertically, hands hanging down.
4. Stop at top.

5. Palms to front, fingers point straight up.
6. Down in straight line to lowest point.
7. Hands point up all the way.
8. Reset hands and repeat.

I had the honor of sharing the podium at a recent concert with Dr. Bill Bryant. During our warmup I noticed him with his wrists connected with a rubber band. He explained that this was an exercise he picked up to do something similar to the Green exercises, keep your hands in the correct plane for conducting. Here’s a short video of him demonstrating.