Weekend Gigs

SiresIf you’re in western North Carolina this weekend and looking for live music to check out, I’ve got a couple of public gigs with two different bands. Tomorrow night, (Friday, March 6, 2015) I’m playing with the Low-Down Sires at Highland Brewing Company. The Sires is always fun to play with. We perform traditional jazz from the 1920s and 1930s, striving to play as stylistically correct as possible. Highland Brewing Company is always a fun place to play too. The show starts at 7 PM.

20131213-074555.jpgThe next night (Saturday, March 7, 2015) the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be performing at the White Horse Black Mountain for our regular monthly show out there, starting at 8 PM. We’ll be premiering two original big band compositions that night. One is a new one by me (no title yet, hope I think of one by tomorrow). The other is called Relaxin’ at Cousin’s by our pianist, Richard Shulman. We read through it the other night and it’s a really nice, hard-swinging chart.

If you make it out to one of these shows please be sure to come up and say hello to me.

Stabilizing the Embouchure

Daniel shared a video of his embouchure with me and asked me about helping his range. After watching it, I wrote the following in response. Since the advice I gave Daniel is something that I continue to work on myself, I thought I’d share it here.

By the way, I still have a backlog of emails from players who are waiting for some embouchure help from me. I’m sorry about the delay, and please feel free to drop me a reminder email about it.

Hi, Daniel.

Your situation is one that is kind of tough for me to be specific based on what I can see on a video. In person there are some things we could try and they might provide better clues, but for now I think you should think about having a good overall embouchure formation. Once that’s working a little better it becomes easier to get more personalized.

Watch the video and see how your lips open for the breath and then have to come together quickly as you attack the pitch. This way of breathing is great for taking in large breaths very quickly, but it’s rough on the chops. First, every time you take a breath the mouthpiece has to lighten up on pressure when you open your lips, but then has to “crash” back against your lips for the attack. It’s not as stable and it’s rough on endurance. Secondly, when you go to attack the note it’s very tough to have both the lips firmed correctly for the note and the mouthpiece to be on the right place on the lips.

Just for practice, I’d suggest you take any warmup/routine exercises you do and as you go through a practice session, do a little bit of the following:

  1. Firm your lips as if you were going to buzz.
  2. Place the mouthpiece on the firmed lips and don’t allow yourself to change the position of the lips at all (you might want to wet your lips to set the mouthpiece so it can more easily slide to where it wants to go without twisting up your lips in any way).
  3. Breath in and play the exercise.

When it comes to inhaling for the first note of the exercise you should start out by leaving your chops set, ready to play. You can learn to do this in stages:

  1. Breathe through the nose (your lips firmed and the mouthpiece pressure as if you were already playing).
  2. Breathe through the mouth corners while keeping the lips inside the mouthpiece together. A little more mouthpiece pressure than you might use while playing can help you keep the lips center together while breathing through the mouth corners.

Eventually it can really help to go to breathing through the mouth corners like #2 just above all the time, not just for the first note after putting the instrument on your lips, and not just for exercises. But for now just spend 5-10 minutes a day at the beginning of your practice trying this out for the first notes you play when you put the horn to your lips.

If you find that as your practicing this that your mouthpiece placement wants to drift in any direction (up, down, left, right), allow that to happen. Your placement looks very close to half and half, which actually is not that common. If you find getting the high notes out is easier with a placement higher or lower on the lips, spend some practice time playing with that mouthpiece placement and see what happens.

After a couple of weeks of trying this out let me know how it feels to play now and even take another short video. Please take a look at the link I sent earlier. It will tell you the things to video record that help me figure out what’s going on.

Good luck!


The Pencil Trick Exercise Revisited

If you’re not familiar with the “Pencil Trick” exercise for brass players, it’s a type of embouchure exercise where the player holds a pencil between the lips and holds it straight out for as long as he or she can, just through pinching the lips together. There are a some different variations of it described in books and online, and lots of ways to interpret the basic instructions.

My first exposure to this exercise was second hand, a description of it from a trombonist who watched some trumpet players on a tour bus doing it. The first publication I’ve come across that discusses it is Donald Reinhardt’s Encyclopedia of the Pivot System. Here’s what Reinhardt recommended:

A standard, unsharpened wooden pencil is generally used for this routine. Form your saturated embouchure as if to buzz and place the tip of either end of the pencil between your compressed lips – NOT BETWEEN YOUR TEETH. While pointing the pencil in a forward, horizontal manner, strive to support it with only the “pinching power” of your lips. Do not become discouraged if the pencil falls to the floor. In practically all cases a great deal of perseverance is required. As soon as sufficient pinching power of the embouchure formation has been achieved, the prescribed drill will no longer present a problem. Initially, do not attempt the embouchure pencil support for more than a few seconds at a time – it is extremely strenuous. After each attempt has been completed, remove the pencil from between your lips, drop your jaw, open your mouth, exhale and relax. You will feel the results of your workout throughout the lower part of your facial area; this is correct. The amount of time consumed for each workout may be extended; however, it is vital that you accomplish this by degrees.

– Donald S. Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System, Appendix 4-5.

When I do practice this myself, or teach it to a student, this is my preferred method of practicing the pencil trick exercise. But it’s not the only way. Here’s a 10 minute video discussion by George Rawlin, who also came up with the “Bull Dog” exercise that I’ve discussed here. In Rawlin’s version, the pencil is held in contact with the teeth and it’s purpose is to get the teeth aligned.

As with his “Bull Dog” exercise, I feel compelled to mention that the aligned jaw that Rawlin recommends is not necessarily best for all players. I don’t have any formal stats to site, but I feel pretty confident that a majority of brass players do play with their jaw set so that the teeth are aligned. That said, not all should, and it’s a pretty sizable minority.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Rawlin’s system for getting the teeth aligned using the pencil as a guide is going to be accurate. One way to get the pencil to point straight is to close the teeth, for example. I just don’t see it as useful as simply aligning your teeth and using mirror feedback, if you need some.

While many players don’t want to play while aligning their teeth, Rawlin covers a situation that isn’t uncommon, players who should be aligning their teeth, but have trouble thrusting their jaw forward for long periods of time. I prefer a different exercise for this situation.

About 3:00 into the video Rawlin describes exactly one of the reasons why I’m careful about recommending this exercise if I can’t watch the student do it a bit to make sure he or she is doing it correctly. In Reinhardt’s version, the lip compression used to hold the pencil out comes from the mouth corners and shouldn’t be top/bottom squeeze.

And at about 4:50 into his video Rawlin describes one of my personal pet peeves. If you’re tempted to do this pencil exercise (or mouthpiece buzz) in the car, please reconsider. Not only is a distraction from driving, but if the air bag goes off because you get rear ended you’re going to end up sorry you had a stick in your mouth. If you must do something musical in the car, sing to yourself or listen to good music.

At any rate, there is an awful lot of disagreements about his exercise. Many players (some very fine ones) think that it’s a silly waste of time at best and at worse you’re messing up your chops. This certainly can be true, depending on the circumstance. There’s some value that players can get from doing it, but I’m not entirely convinced these days that the cost/benefit ratio from doing it is worth the effort. In my own playing, I find that free buzzing is a better use of my time than the pencil trick.  I also find that considering how easy it is do do the pencil trick exercise in an unproductive way, it’s better to focus my students toward free buzzing as well.

Main FM Radio Broadcast Tonight

Update – Because of the expected wintery weather tonight we’re postponing this show until another time. I’ll post an update when it’s rescheduled.


Tonight, Monday February 16, 2015, I’m planning on stopping by the Main FM radio station headquarters here in Asheville, NC to sit in on Russ Wilson’s jazz program, In the Groove. Depending on the weather (we’re supposed to get some wintery weather tonight) and how long a board meeting I am attending just before, I expect to be on Russ’s show sometime between 7:30 and 8 PM eastern time tonight. You can listen in on the internet by going to the Main FM web site.

Victrola 2Russ asked me to bring some recordings of the Asheville Jazz Orchestra to play and I’m going to bring a bunch of my favorite big band records. Yes, records, not CDs. Russ is quite a collector of old records. Russ brought this portable Victrola player pictured here along on a short tour we played together a while back.

Upcoming Gigs

I’ve got some public gigs coming up. If you’re in western North Carolina, please consider coming out to support live music (and theater) here in Asheville, NC.

Tomorrow night (Thursday, February 12, 2015) I’ll be performing traditional jazz with the Low-Down Sires at the Isis Restaurant and Music Hall in west Asheville. We are splitting the show with Dynamo, from Nashville, TN. The Sires start at 9 PM and Dynamo takes the stage at 10.

chorus-line-webtileAll this month I’m performing in the pit for the Asheville Community Theater’s production of A Chorus Line. Last week was tech week and the opening weekend, which went well. Since I can’t see what’s happening on stage from the “pit” (we’re actually behind the set, not in the pit) I can’t say how good it looks, but the reviews from friends that saw the dress rehearsal were very positive about the dancing. Gary Mitchell, the music director, is fantastic to work for. He knows the score inside out and the whole orchestra plays great. The show is every Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 and Sunday matinee at 2:30 through March 1, 2015.

Embouchure Question: Dealing With an Upstream Mouthpiece Placement Shift

I often will scan through topics on brass fora for blogging ideas. This particular question was asked on the Trumpet Herald Forum.

So for some time now my I have had decreased range and endurance. I think it is due to a weak upper lip. When I get about a G above the staff my emborchure changes and goes from a 1 third top, 2 thirds bottom to a 1 fourth top, 3 fourths bottom. Is there a way to just strength my upper lip?

Here, then, is my slightly edited response in that topic.

My short advice is to place the mouthpiece where you put it for the high range and learn to play your entire range there. It may take some weeks of practice before you start becoming comfortable enough to play that way always, but you’ll probably be better off in the long term. If you want to understand why I feel this way, read on.

When I get about a G above the staff my emborchure changes and goes from a 1 third top, 2 thirds bottom to a 1 fourth top, 3 fourths bottom.

Since I have not watched you play in person, you should take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, based on your description you have a “low placement” upstream embouchure type. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s sort of like being left handed. It’s less common than the downstream embouchure types, so you’ll see fewer players around using it. It also is different from the other embouchure types and certain instructions you might get that work great for downstream players actually work against low placement players. I’ve taught many upstream players and happen to be one myself.

Your switch in mouthpiece placement at a certain point in your range is actually a pretty common upstream problem. Again, without watching you play I can’t be certain if this applies to you or not, but almost every time I’ve seen this (and experienced it in my own playing at one time) the solution is not to try to keep your low register placement for the high register, it’s to learn to play your entire range with the high register placement. And this placement has been without exception, for these players, a placement with more lower lip inside the mouthpiece (placement closer to the chin).

Something that helped me and many of my students with similar issues is to place the mouthpiece on your lips where it works best for the high range, play an open note in your high range, and slowly and softly slur down a partial and back up, then back down two partials and up, down three and up, etc. Accept a thinner sound for the moment, just learn what your chops need to do in order to descend with the high register setting. Avoid dropping your jaw as much as possible for this and don’t worry if you can’t get much lower than where you want to reset.

If you watch yourself in a mirror while doing this you might be able to notice that you’re pushing your lips and mouthpiece together upward towards the nose as you descend. This is natural and proper for upstream players (the downstream embouchures can either do the same or reverse, depending on type). The track of this “embouchure motion” of up to descend and down to ascend can be close to straight up and down, or it can be angled, but it should probably be a straight line and consistently work in the same direction (i.e., up and slightly to the right to descend, down and slightly to the left to ascend). If you find yourself needing to reverse the direction of this you might be going too far with it.

Along with good breathing and proper tongue arch to change registers, finding the exact spot for your embouchure motion for each pitch is going to help you open up your sound and keep your mouthpiece placement consistent for your entire register. A good analogy is that your chops are, for now, like a muscle car. The engine sounds pretty rough when you’re idling at the stop light, but once your up to highway speed it’s very smooth. Once you can “tune up” your playing mechanics to adjust you’re “engine” will work fine in all registers.

Again, all the above makes certain assumptions based only one what you’ve written here already, and I could be way off base. I also want to mention that much of what I wrote would be wrong for most other players, so for any folks who disagree, please put my advice in that context.

Teaching Behaviors – Instruction, Praise, Criticism

In many ways I’ve found the coaching and training used in athletics to be an interesting model for music teachers interested in improving their pedagogy. Too often we teach through analogy or even just trial and error, rather than investigating what instruction methods are found to be effective in the long term and what approaches simply don’t work. This subjective approach has been responsible for a lot of the culture of ignorance that I see in traditional brass pedagogy, for example. Too much of the advice you get, even from master musicians, is to focus only on the music and let the body figure itself out.

Athletics, on the other hand, is in the business of competition and can’t rely so much on subjective measurements of success. Player and team statistics will show what coach’s methods are more effective. It’s worth taking a close look at what highly successful coaches say and do and try to relate it to how we teach our private students and direct our ensembles. Looking at John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach for UCLA from 1948-1975, Bulletproof Musician asks, What Is More Effective- Praise or Criticism? The answer, as it turns out, is not quite what you’d expect.

So, over the course of 15 practices during the 1974-1975 season (Wooden’s last at UCLA), they sat, observed, and systematically tracked Wooden’s specific coaching behaviors – which added up to 2326 “acts of teaching” in total.

So how much of this was praise? And how much was criticism?

Very little, actually.

Just over half of Wooden’s coaching was pure instruction, telling his athletes both how and what to do. Compare this to traditional brass pedagogy, which emphasizes almost only the goal of musical expression. Arnold Jacobs, one of the most influential brass teachers of the 20th century, instructs us to, “Think, product, not methodology” (Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs: A Developmental Guide for Brass Wind Musicians). He felt that 85% of the music student’s attention should be on musical expression, with the remaining 15% on the breathing.

Going into more detail about Wooden’s coaching, researching psychologists broke down the percentage of Wooden’s instruction into the following:

  • 50.3% specific statements on how or what to do.
  • 12.7% reminders on how to act on previous instruction
  • 8% feedback (specifically a combination of scolding or instruction, informing the athlete what he was doing wrong followed by a reminder on what to do)
  • 6.9% praise
  • 6.6% scolding
  • 6.6 uncodable (specific coaching method not clearly heard or seen)
  • 2.8% positive modeling (how to do something)
  • 2.4% other (not fitting any other categories)
  • 1.6% negative modeling (how not to do something)
  • 1.2 nonverbal reward

Compare Jacobs’ figure of 85% of the attention on not being on how to play your instrument with the roughly 75% of Wooden’s instruction on what to do and how to do it. This is a pretty large difference. Something I find interesting in the writing and recordings that Jacobs left before his death is how often he actually seems to be instructing students on how to play while convincing us that we shouldn’t be concerned with how to play. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to what Jacobs did while teaching and put what he said into a better context.

The last bit of Wooden’s coaching that I find particularly interesting is his modeling method. When he say his athletes doing something he wanted to correct he used a three-part approach: correct-incorrect-correct.

When Wooden saw something he didn’t like, and stopped practice to correct the incorrectly executed technique, he would immediately demonstrate the correct way to do the technique, then show everyone the incorrect way the athlete just did it, then model the correct way again.

If you want to read a more detailed account of Wooden’s coaching methods and learn how to best apply his model into your own music teaching you can read Tharp’s and Gallimore’s 1976 article in Psychology Today here.

Weekend Picks

Happy Friday. I hope that some of you might come catch me at one of my gigs tonight or Sunday. If you prefer to spend your weekend home surfing the net, here are some random music-related links from around the web.

I feel all music teachers should practice the craft of teaching, as well as the craft of making music. Dr. Brad Hanson discusses some Strategies for Teaching Aural Recognition.

The way we conceptualize knowledge in the general sense informs our understanding of musical knowledge and how it comes into play during listening and performance. If musical knowledge goes beyond the ability to recite facts and extends into the ability to operate on musical information through performance, the charge to music educators is to teach students to think critically in addition to developing basic musical skills. It is possible to structure learning experiences in lessons and rehearsals through which students identify problems, critically evaluate them, and work together to solve them. If ensemble players are expected to blindly follow the conductor, there is no room for decision-making or independent thought. In skill-based music curricula students memorize information, but are not challenged to use that information to solve or pose problems. Any curriculum that focuses on performance without the integration of history and theory, or without providing opportunities for students to pose or to solve problems is limited in its effectiveness.

Using electronic musician Scott Hansen (AKA Tycho) as an example, David Holmes writes up on How To Make It In the New Music Industry. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the genre of music Hansen mainly covers in his article, I think there’s some good food for thought for musicians of every kind in there.

…Hansen regularly plays to sold out crowds around the world and sells or streams enough of his music to make a decent living. This runs counter to the narrative that unless you’re one of the hallowed few who write disposable pop hits that play well to Middle American Clear Channel listeners, music is no way to pay the bills. His career arc is not the story of a man who profited by sacrificing his art to the trends of the day. It’s the story of how an artist, with enough time, pressure, patience, and business acumen, can build a sustainable career while staying true to a vision. It’s still almost impossibly difficult to accomplish and requires a massive amount of serendipity. Then again, you could say the same thing about building a successful startup.

In Bb is an interesting idea reminiscent of John Cage’s music.

In Bb 2.0 is a collaborative music and spoken word project conceived by Darren Solomon and developed with contributions from users.

And lastly, trombonist David Finlayson gives us a slide’s eye view of a Rochut Melodious Etude.

Tongue Arch Up Against the Molars

Here’s a question I got a while back from Boaz.

After several times starting to play trumpet daily, I’ve just noticed that the left side of my tongue doesn’t make contact with the upper molars, but my right side does.  I believe this has an effect on focusing the airstream (in all if not the middle to high range), puffing my cheeks and overall ease of playing.  The cheek that puffs the most is the left side which is solved if I focus on keeping the tongue touching both the top-left and top-right molars.  I literally feel like the air escapes from the throat to my left cheek, then out the lips.  With the tongue touching the teeth I feel as if I can finally perform lipslurs primarily using only the tongue arch.

The problem is that the low range doesn’t sound resonant because I’m not used to this yet and that my tongue level is too high now.  In time I’m hoping my body will adjust to this and that I’m hoping this is a step to correct playing.  Can you tell me if you have found the tongue touching the upper molars consistent in most if not all ranges of brass playing?  I’m not sure how different trombone would affect the tongue in terms of the tongue arch.

What you are describing, Boaz, is very similar to something Donald Reinhardt wrote about in his Encyclopedia of the Pivot System as one of his less common tongue types. In this tongue type after the tongue tip’s backstroke attack the sides of the tongue will contact the inner sides of the upper teeth and remain there for slurring and sustaining. This technique is used by many “squeak artist” trumpet players because the narrow passage the air stream must travel between the high tongue arch and the roof of the mouth (along with proper coordination of the breathing and embouchure) helps these players get into the extreme upper register.

Boaz also discovered the drawback to using this tongue technique – the difficulties in the low range. Reinhardt didn’t recommend it for all-around brass playing for this very reason. Quoting Reinhardt:

…[I]f this high tongue-arch is maintained the lower register will suffer accordingly, because the size of the air column is entirely too limited as it passes over the tongue. Players in this category claim that if they permit the tongue-arch to be lowered to accommodate the lower tones they cannot bring the tongue back to its original position for the upper register, unless they inhale and start again. I repeat, the tongue type one (this is Reinhardt’s term for this tongue type) is not recommended or intended for all-around brass playing.

I have heard that players with unusually large oral cavities (particularly a tall roof of the mouth) are able to mitigate the difficulties in the low register. I’ve not explored this tonguing method much myself, but I don’t have much of an issue bringing my tongue arch back up after descending into the low register without needing to inhale and start again. It’s hard to say what’s physically happening to the players Reinhardt noted in the quote above. Generally speaking, I think it’s better to adopt one method to apply the tongue arch and stick with it, rather than switching around, but it seems to be less necessary for long-term playing than adopting a single embouchure type is.

As far as the cheek puff Boaz mentions, this is something I’d want to watch to offer any specific advice. There are some circumstances when a cheek puff seems to be necessary and proper for certain players, but that’s typically more with trumpet players who have very small oral cavities and while they play in the upper register very loudly. Some low brass players may find it helpful to play in the extreme low register. In all of these situations, however, I feel it’s important to keep the cheek puff as far away from the mouth corners as possible. When the cheek puff is allowed to pull the corners away it can start to mess with the embouchure.

Got any thoughts yourself? Do you use a similar method to Boaz with your tongue arch? If so, how do you deal with the difficulties it tends to cause in the lower register? Please leave your comments below.

Weekend Gigs

I’ve got a couple of public gigs coming up this weekend. If you’re in western North Carolina this Friday or Sunday please come on out and support live music.

Low-Down Sires LogoThis Friday, January 30, 2015, I’m performing with the Low-Down Sires at Southern Appalachian Brewery in Hendersonville, NC. We start the first of two sets at 8 PM. The Low-Down Sires performs traditional jazz from New Orleans and Chicago, covering music performed or composed by artists like Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver. If you’re a swing dancer, we cater our sets to make for good dancing, but it’s just as fun to sit and listen to this great music.

AJO at Woody's and Becky's PartyIf you can’t make that show, you can come out this Sunday, February 1, 2015 to check out the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. We will be performing two sets at the White Horse Black Mountain in Black Mountain, NC starting at 7:30 PM. The AJO plays a variety of big band jazz, ranging from the chestnuts of the Swing Era all the way up through original charts by myself and other local composer/arrangers.

If you are able to make it out to one (or both!) of these shows, please come up and say hello to me during a set break or after the gig.