On Metronome Practice and Logic Based Teaching Methods

Back in September I wrote a post here on Practicing with a Metronome in response to a blog post by Mike Longo entitled Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome? While I agree with many of Mike’s points about the cons of metronome practice, my main criticism is his emphatic dismissal of any metronome use at all limits teachers and students by  completely removing a potentially useful tool from their bag of tricks.

Since then, Mike and a couple of others (including at least one student of Mike’s) have stopped by with comments to try to further debate the idea that metronome practice will always produce a soulless and stiff feeling pulse. Since many of their comments really don’t address the points I was trying to make and also rely on some fallacious logic, I wanted to write a new post to try to discuss this further. So while this post is superficially about metronome practice, it’s really more about the inconsistent logic we often use to determine what the best teaching methods are for a particular situation.

Mike commented:

Here is the main point I would like to make. Dizzy Gillespie once made a point about the role of body rhythm being an important factor overlooked by many jazz educators. He would say that he can tell if a player can really play by observing the way that they pat their foot.

Addressing the above point, I would agree that coordinating our bodies to play is essential. Tapping the foot is an excellent way to get the feeling of the tempo internalized, for example. Even though some classical music teachers discourage this practice, I’m fine with it. Sure, looking up at a stage of a concert band or orchestra where everyone is tapping their foot can be visually distracting, but there are ways to tap your foot that are less obtrusive and if it helps the music sound better I’m willing to let it go. That said, tapping the foot to play isn’t a panacea for tempo or groove problems. Watch enough students tap their foot while practicing a passage and you’ll note that sometimes when they get to a difficult passage they still change tempos – they just change their foot along with their playing.

Furthermore, from a logical standpoint, just because an innovative musician told you that tapping the foot was better than using a metronome to practice doesn’t mean we can believe that it must be correct (see argument from authority). Ideas need to stand on their own merit, not be based on who said them. If a general consensus is found among experts it’s fair to assume that an idea is correct, but in this case the general consensus among musicians and music teachers is that a metronome can be useful at times. Many great jazz musicians advocated practicing with a metronome, including Lennie Tristano, Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkle, John Patitucci, Dennis DiBlasio, and Hal Crook. Going back and forth about whose expert has the right approach is pointless if you don’t directly address the logic behind these recommendations.

Mike continues:

 In terms of my opinions concerning practice with the metronome on 2 and 4, one must consider where the 2 and 4 thing originated in jazz. The answer is hand clapping in the black church. If one observes a gospel choir clapping on 2 and 4 and notes the way they are moving their bodies, I defy anyone to prove that a metronome on 2 and 4 can produce that feel or teach a musician how to get that feeling of swing in their playing. In fact I would go so far IMHO to say that musicians who engage in this practice are training themselves to play wrong.

The gospel music sung by African Americans in around the turn of the last century is quite a bit different from the syncopated music we hear today. The texture was largely heterophonic and the music didn’t have the characteristic 2 and 4 accent we associate with jazz.

The historical evolution of the groove that evolved into the swing feeling with 2 and 4 accents is too complex to get into for this essay, but if anyone is interested I suggest that you compare the New Orleans early jazz styles of the 1920s to how it evolved when the music and people migrated up to Chicago. Then compare it to the swing bands from Kansas City and New York. You will be able to hear an evolution of how the groove shifted from a more or less even stress on all four beats to become the standard swing feeling we have today (and of course, you can continue to trace how this groove shifts throughout different style periods).

Regardless, the origins of how a particular musical style evolved doesn’t really say anything about the results that a student might get from a particular practice method. I would agree with Mike that if you don’t spend time performing with great musicians who have a steady pulse and soulful groove you’re not going to be able to pick this up by playing along with a metronome. That doesn’t mean that at times in individual practice that a metronome is going to harm your ability to swing. Certainly if you never practice without a metronome you’re missing the point. And it’s certainly possible for some musicians to achieve a solid swing feel without ever needing to turn on a metronome. None of that really addresses whether or not a metronome may be useful for certain issues in a student’s personal practice.

As far as teaching how to keep good time, it is my contention that a metronome is not the kind of time music is played to. Is there an alternative?

There is no question that there are alternative methods to teaching a student to keep good time without using a metronome and that these approaches have value. What I’m arguing against is limiting our teaching to only one approach.

The other issue I have with Mike’s point here is that practicing with a metronome isn’t so much about teaching good time, but for providing feedback to a student who isn’t keeping good time.

I’ve found that most students, even the beginners I work with, are quite capable of keeping a steady pulse just by clapping or tapping their foot. But music students will often find their time to suffer when they have too much to think about at the same time. We really can’t keep our attention on more than one or two things at a time and if one thing isn’t completely internalized it can suffer when our focus is pulled away from it. As an example, students who don’t have the tempo internalized will often rush when the music gets louder or more rhythmically active. It’s also quite common for musicians to drag when playing softer and when the texture gets less active. I’ve found it quite helpful to use a metronome in these cases to help students become more aware of the tempo in these situations because the click provides them with instant feedback when they start changing their tempo. Likewise, when a passage becomes a challenge for the musician’s technique it’s very common for the tempo to slow down. Using a metronome that will accent certain beats in a metric pattern or a basic click on 2 and 4 can be used for feedback on whether or not they are dropping beats, which can be common when students are reading very challenging lines. Learning to play very challenging passages at a fast tempo can be learned very efficiently by using a metronome to start very slowly and gradually speeding up the tempo until the passage can be played correctly as fast as desired.

Is it musical to play with a metronome this way? Not really. That’s not the point of the exercise. Music students practice all sorts of things that have little musical value (Hanon finger exercises, long tones, scales, chord arpeggios, technical etudes, etc.). The purpose is to get whatever you’re working on so comfortable that you no longer have to think about it and can concentrate on playing musically when it counts.

Or another approach you can think of is if you can groove with a metronome click, think of how hard you’ll swing when you turn it off and jam with live musicians.

This was instigated by a prominent psychotherapist in that area by the name of Andrew Schoenfeld along with saxophonist Benny Wallace, both of whom were private students of mine at one point. As a matter of fact, Mr. Schoenfeld has been using the drum technique with his patients with a great amount of success and even has reported curing some of bipolar disease with it.

I tend to avoid discussing medical issues here and when I do I always want to lead with the statement that I am not a medical professional and in no way should anything I say be taken for medical advice. Nor should you assume that anything I write about health is correct. Check with your family doctor or another medical professional. Never get your medical advice from the internet.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me first state that Mike’s portrayal of Mr. Schoenfeld’s social work as “curing” bipolar disorder is most likely a great exaggeration. The National Institute of Medical Health statement on bipolar disorder says:

Bipolar disorder cannot be cured, but it can be treated effectively over the long-term.

However, I’m a big advocate of research-based music therapy and I think that it’s certainly plausible that musical activities can be used to help individuals with bipolar disorder treat the symptoms they live with.

All that aside now, what does music therapy have to do with practicing with a metronome? If medical treatments constituted as evidence for what is best for musical practice then there is likely more evidence for using a metronome than not. A cursory search through medical literature available online shows that a metronome has been found to be helpful for treating symptoms of stuttering, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, hypertension, walking issues due to a stroke, and much more. None of this really says anything about whether or not we might find a metronome to be helpful in certain musical teaching situations.

Since the field of jazz academia, to my knowledge, is presently unaware of these principles I feel it necessary to call attention to this statement. “in determining best practice for teaching it’s been shown that a more scientific outlook will produce better, more consistent results with our students” This leads me to ask the question, “Science based on what?” I would consider what Diz made reference to be in fact Science. Maybe not as defined in the world of academia but surely in the world of professional jazz by the people who play it and teach it from that perspective.

We can’t redefine words like “science” to mean whatever we want it to in order to support an agenda. If it helps, reword my statement to say that “research based methods will produce more consistent teaching.” Research done correctly applies certain controls to a particular hypothesis (i.e., metronome practice will automatically produce a stiff feeling groove) and attempt to falsify your idea. You don’t do science by looking for evidence that supports what you believe, you attempt to shoot it down. If it withstands the scrutiny, then you’re perhaps on to something.

The reason we go through this effort in teaching is because of the cognitive bias that we all have.

“Cognitive Bias????” For one thing the music played by Dizzy Gillespie and his followers does not involve the mind. It comes from a place behind the mind… A “magical” place, if you will, and a place, IMHO, that practicing jazz with a metronome will render a student unable to ever achieve.

I’m a fan of using poetic language to help convey musical concepts to my students too, but ultimately I try to recognize when I’m speaking metaphorically and when I’m being precise. If you want to teach that music is outside of the mind and from a magical place, that’s fine, but you can’t invoke this as evidence because it is patently not true.

Since you accused me of “creating another false dichotomy” at the beginning of your article and since you are unaware of these principles your statement appears to me to be the result of projection. Who then is “fooling themselves?” Further I don’t see where this dichotomy you perceive is false but very real IMO.

I think perhaps I’m not being very clear on explaining my thoughts on metronome practice, but I also think that possibly Mike does not understand what a “false dichotomy” is. This logical fallacy is created when a situation is manufactured where only two extreme positions are listed as the only viable options, leaving out the possibility for a combination of both or other additional options.

I have never stated here or on my other post that I think metronome practice is the be all and end of learning to play with good swing. In fact, I have acknowledged many times that Mike’s points about the detriments of relying on a metronome should be kept in mind. The false dichotomy Mike has created is that because of the drawbacks to metronome practice exist there are no situations where a metronome might be helpful. The fact that one can get by without a metronome doesn’t mean that careful and correct use of a metronome at times might not be helpful. Nor does my recommending that a metronome can be helpful mean that I don’t think other approaches have validity and aren’t worth exploring.

Students are infinitely variable. Some students will need different approaches or explanations to grasp the same concepts. Anyone who has taught for long enough will also be familiar with how the exact same student can sometimes respond great to one method only to require changing our instruction up at another time. As I’m fond of saying here, if the only tool in our toolbox is a hammer every problem begins to look like a nail.

This leads me to another of your statements: “we musicians are trained to trust our feelings, experiences, and intuitions. This is a good thing because it helps us become better musicians.” To me, feelings, experiences and intuitions without reality can be very misleading and furthermore if exposed to one of Dizzy’s revelations can change in an instance.

Again, this misses my point about cognitive bias and research based methods. Mike is taking his personal experiences and making the leap to assume that his own background must be true for everyone. I can also list some personal experiences that contrast his. Which of us should one believe? Neither, without making an effort to remove our personal agendas from the equation.

One of Mike’s students, Angelo, made the same logical error:

I would like to offer my background and personal experience with Mike for you consideration.

. . .

I started studying music theory with a teacher, and for the first time in my life, used a metronome.

. . .

Years later I was living in New York City and looking to study composition and arrangement. After meeting with numerous teachers that were presenting me with the same common material over and over, I was given Mike’s name and number. When I met with him for my first lesson I immediately knew I had found what I was looking for. His approach to music was a revelation to me and at the end of my first lesson I asked if I should use a metronome when practicing. His response was “Why would you do that?” As he explained the difference between a click and a pulse feel I immediately recognized what had happened to me years earlier with the drummer and bass player.

I was only studying with Mike for a short while when I got together with a friend that I’ve been playing with for over 30 years. . . He immediately recognized a difference and improvement in my playing.

Now in no way do I want anyone to think that I’m disparaging what Mike taught you. There is definitely a benefit to this approach and in fact I would also agree that it’s essential for developing a good time feel and groove. That said, this is a common fallacy that I hear many folks make all the time. Here it is again, this time made by Mike.

A guitar student who came to me three months ago a nervous wreck because he claimed he had a “time problem.” It turned out his former teacher had him practicing with the metronome on 2 and 4 and he was getting put down by all of the musicians with whom he was playing, particularly a Brazilian drummer, and losing gigs. He came to his lesson yesterday and related to me that the drummer shook his hand after the gig the night before and called him Maestro.

It’s very common for musicians to say variations on the above. You will frequently here someone say something like “I practiced X over and over and didn’t get better. It wasn’t until I forgot about X and went to Y that I suddenly found my way.” What this completely forgets is that X might just have been a necessary step along the progression. Going back to what I wrote far above in this post, using a metronome might not have developed good time, but could just have helped the student internalize certain issues to the point of where forgetting all about the metronome click and going on to something else would be that much more beneficial. This may not always be the case for all situations, but it’s an important area to consider when we’re trying to determine the best way to help a student.

Testimonials, like those above, may be very good for selling books and DVDs, but their anecdotal nature make them extremely unreliable as real evidence. No matter how many positive testimonials you have, they still can’t be used in research-based approaches because of the inherent bias they carry.

I might also mention that the metronome wasn’t invented until Beethoven’s time so I feel sorry for all those sad musicians before him who must have had time problems including Bach, Mozart, Handel, and on and on.

In any honest discussion I think it’s important to only address points actually made by those we’re debating. Creating a “straw man argument” against which you can easily refute doesn’t benefit anyone. I never said that a metronome is the only way to develop good time feel. Again, this is a false dichotomy by reducing my argument to using a metronome is the only way and Mike’s way must therefor be ineffective. I actually advocate a combination of both metronome use for certain situations and then always moving on to internalizing the time feeling and concentrating on musical expression.

There is a story about Beethoven smashing the metronome against the wall and proclaiming, “This is not music!” This was related to me by a musician so I am not sure is it is a true story but if it is Beethoven was surly an extremist.

This story is almost certainly apocryphal. Beethoven was known for writing metronome markings in his music, so he was certainly not opposed to using one for the purpose of finding tempos. Additionally, while the metronome was invented around from the early 1700s, by the time that Johann Maezel patented it in 1815 Beethoven was almost completely deaf and wouldn’t have been capable of hearing a metronome click. Furthermore, Mike is again creating a straw man by implying I feel a metronome click to be musically expressive. It’s not. Or at least not unless you count pieces like György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes.

Since you have not bothered to check out where I am coming from you undoubtedly will continue to consider me to have an extreme perspective.

I want to reiterate that I don’t find Mike’s alternative to metronome practice extreme or something to avoid altogether. What I find extreme is his dismissal of any other approach as having some validity. Again, there are many different approaches that music teachers can take according to the situation and needs of the individual student and it’s my contention that the best teachers are able to draw from a variety of approaches.

As far as pros and cons of metronome use I will say that there is an alternative approach with evidence to back it up that has led me and students to conclude that there are no pros.

Simply because alternative approaches exists and that these methods are helpful doesn’t mean that we should automatically dismiss the metronome. There are definitely good reasons for avoiding a metronome at times, but there is a vast majority opinion among musicians and music teachers that a metronome, when correctly used for specific issues, can be quite effective for helping a student work out problems that cause time issues.

For anyone who is curious exploring ideas on how to best use a metronome, a good general discussion can be found on the Wikipedia entry on metronome practice. I’ll close this post by quoting a passage from this entry, with my bold emphasis to illustrate my basic point.

The “intuitive” approach to metronome practise, is to simply play your music along with a metronome. With metronome technique however, musicians do separate exercises with a metronome to help strengthen and steady their sense of rhythm, and tempo; and increase their sensitivity to musical time and precision. Only occasionally do you play your music with a metronome, to deal with particular issues. It is entirely possible that you never play your music with a metronome at all.

Practicing With a Metronome

I recently came across an interesting blog post written by pianist Mike Longo asking Should You Practice Jazz With A Metronome? Longo’s reply:

In MHO, absolutely not!  Why?  Because a metronome clicking is not a pulse.  What is a pulse anyway?  The sound of your heart beating.  It produces a throbbing, pumping kind of feeling as opposed to the monotonous, soulless clicking of a metronome.  All of the great jazz musicians of the past such as Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Cannonball, John Coltrane,  Erroll Garner, etc., display this kind of sound in their time keeping.

He raises some very good points that are worth some serious consideration. That said, I feel some of his reasoning is a little off base and creates another false dichotomy of the sort that pervades so much music pedagogy. Let me take a few of his points and add my own thoughts.

There is a practice among some of the jazz educators to encourage musicians to practice with the metronome clicking on 2 and 4.  In my estimation this is probably one of the worst things a musician can do and practically destroys the ability to ever swing.  I’m sure there is no malicious attempt on the part of the educators, and they sincerely believe they are “helping” students by having them do this.  The sad thing is there is a type of playing and a kind of “music” that can result from this.  The question becomes…does it swing?   Does it produce a positive reaction in the listener?  In other words, does it make people who listen to it feel good?  In my opinion, ABSOLUTELY NOT!

As someone who has played along with a click track  for recording and for shows that include prerecorded music I agree that this often makes for a stiff feeling groove. That said, there are some folks who really enjoy music that has been recorded with metronomic time and a lot of interesting music has been created this way. I think that Longo’s opinions about music made with a metronome should be placed into the context of the jazz music that he personally enjoys and performs.

But is it really the worst thing one can do? Will it destroy a musician’s ability to play with a confident and natural swing feel? Let’s examine his arguments.

Since this is a common practice being used in many jazz education environments and since the popularity of jazz has diminished in alarming proportions, I suggest that educators might want to question if there might be a connection.

Probably not. Consider how much pop music is recorded and performed with a click track. One might argue that the decline of interest in jazz is inversely proportional to not having metronomic time. I don’t this really applies to a discussion on the pedagogical or practice value of using a metronome.

Longo’s next couple of paragraphs deal with a discussion of watching musicians dance or tap their foot while performing. He argues that one can’t dance like Dizzy Gillespie or tap a foot like Count Basie to a metronome. I’m not sure that this is necessarily true (I can’t dance to either a metronome or Basie both, to be honest), nor does it really say anything about whether practicing with a metronome is useful. There’s also some thoughts about whether white musicians can groove as hard as African American musicians by Cannonball Adderly, but I’m not certain that this is evidence against metronome practice. It’s probably more due enculturation than anything else.

I had a young guitar student who was studying privately with me while attending a university jazz department trying to get a degree in jazz performance. . . He reported that the guitar teacher showed him a clip on You Tube of a guitarist playing a solo while placing the microphone on the floor next to a metronome clicking on 2 and 4.  I observed this clip and found that the playing displayed a tremendous amount of technique with speed and velocity as well as a ton of notes.  But it was not producing anything I wanted to listen to, nor did it swing.  The student proclaimed that the teacher told him, “This is why you should practice with the metronome on 2 and 4” to which I responded by sending the teacher a clip of Wes Montgomery and his group playing “Impressions” with the drummers high hat popping on 2 and 4 in a manner that started your foot tapping involuntarily from the first bar on.  I sent a note along stating, “This is why you shouldn’t practice that way.”

I will let you judge for yourself if Metheny swings and if there’s anything worth listening to, but we need to place this video in context. Metheny isn’t really performing here, he is demonstrating something at a clinic. Again, I think that Longo’s thoughts here are more indicative of his personal preferences in music than what metronome practice can do for your playing.

Further evidence that supports that there is a ring of truth to my theory is the following.  Try taking any classic jazz recording that has withstood the test of time and has everyone agreeing on the fact that it swings and see if you can get a metronome to stay with the music on that recording.  Obviously you cannot, and obviously the musicians were keeping time differently than the way a metronome clicks.

This is indeed a difficult task to accomplish. It’s much easier to use a metronome that you click or tap that tells you what tempo it is moving at and see if the tempo remains steady throughout. Musicians often play at tempos that are between the standard metronome clicks and even if they played in perfect time it would be impossible to set your metronome to the music. That said, it is true that there are almost always minor fluctuations in the tempo with human musicians. It’s part of what makes the music breathe and flow in an expressive way. But do musicians who practice with a metronome do any better at staying with perfect time when recording without a click track?

As an aside, I recently recorded a few big band charts with just four musicians, so used a click track to keep all the parts lined up correctly. When editing the recordings I noticed that many of the players, myself included, frequently played ahead of or behind the beat at times. There were times when this happened where I was able to clean up the sound by edging the notes forward and backwards a bit, but when I perfectly quantized the music to line up exactly the resulting sound was very stiff and artificial sounding.

But I feel the real question to consider is whether or not metronome practice needs to be all or nothing. What does a metronome provide for your practice? It’s good at two things – getting your  tempo correct in the first place and then providing feedback as to whether your tempo is remaining consistent. I prefer to think of a metronome as a “spotter” for your time feel. Once you’ve reached a point where you have a good idea of your tempo and have consistent tempo on the music you’re playing you turn the metronome off. Can a musician develop a static and unmusical groove by overpracticing with a metronome? Perhaps, but I don’t think that this happens to any great degree. On the other hand, the feedback that metronome practice can provide to musicians, particularly less experienced ones or even experienced ones working on challenging material, makes for a valuable tool. In my daily teaching (and performing, to a lesser degree) I come across more cases of musicians who drag or rush than players with a stiff groove.

If you can swing with a metronome click as your “rhythm section,” just think of how hard you will swing with a real one.

What are your thoughts? Do you feel that it’s better to never practice with a metronome or use it frequently? Or do you find that the best approach is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Remote Recording Sessions

Like a lot of musicians right now, I’ve been participating in some different recording projects where all the musicians either video or audio record themselves from different locations and then put everything together to sync things up. It’s been a good way for me to keep excited and interested in playing music, even though we’re not able to make music in person right now.

There are many places people can go for advice on the technological aspects of putting together these recording projects, and most of those resources are probably more informed and experienced than I am. I did, however, want to share some of the things I’ve been working on recently and how those recordings were put together.

This first one my involvement was just as a player. The parts were sent out and assigned to everyone and we were given a click track and some basic instructions to help everyone get coordinated. I did maybe 3 or 3 takes, with a few false starts in there. The click track we used was modified from a recording of a quartet performing this piece. The starting tempo was plugged in and a metronome clicked it off. During a couple of moments where there was some silence a metronome click was dubbed in to help all the musicians stay at the same tempo without being able to breathe together and cue each other.

While recording for this project I found it a little tricky to cue up my camera, then the click track, and get into position to be ready to play quickly enough. In retrospect, having a longer count off or even just some extra silence at the beginning of the click track would have made it just a little bit easier to be ready to play from the beginning.

Once the parts were all recorded, the audio files were pulled out and synced with each other using GarageBand. The videos were compiled and synced up separately using Adobe Premier Pro and the mixed and edited audio was dropped into the video. Some of the audio and video aren’t perfectly lined up with each other, but you have to look for it and the final audio ended up pretty good.

I made this video for my elementary school music students, so it’s a bit on the silly side. I did this project completely on my own and took me a while, mostly because I don’t have the necessarily video editing software to do this split screen video technique, so I had to come up with a different solution. Again, I started with a click track that was just a bass line and a metronome click. In order to get the opening shtick to a line up with the timing I also recorded my lines and stuck them in before the bass line started in the click track. That way I was saying my lines about the same time as on the click track and would also be able to react on the other video parts at the right time.

I mentioned I don’t have video editing software to do the split screen technique, so my solution was to open up four QuickTime windows on my computer monitor and start each one at the correct time while recording my screen, also using QuickTime. In order to get them synced together I needed to find a way to start separate video window one at a time and at the correct time. My solution was to include at the beginning of each video a count off for each instrument as a point of reference.

So on each video at the very beginning I recorded myself saying, “One, two – one, tow three four. Voice, two – one, two, three four” (in time with the metronome click in my headphones), then “Bone, two…” “Bass, two…” and “Keys, two…” On my computer I arranged the video windows where I wanted them and then watched each video until just before that instrument was counted in. In other words, starting the trombone video would start it right at the “Bone, two…” count off, etc. I then recorded my screen with QuickTime and started the voice window, starting the trombone window right as the voice recording got there, then started the other two video windows in the same way. There was a lot of hit-or-miss here where I ended up a a little bit off, but after a few tries I was able to get each video playing together being synced up pretty close.

The audio for this was done in GarageBand to make sure the audio was lined up. The QuickTime screen recording and the audio recording from GarageBand were lined up as close as I could get using iMovie. I wouldn’t want to try to use this technique for more than 4 videos, but it did the job for me.

Grandpa’s Spells

This last one is just an example of an audio recording project I made with two of my musician friends/colleagues. My friend Annie played both bass and guitar on this and James played the trombone. The tune is a Jelly Roll Morton composition called “Grandpa’s Spells.” I sent out a click track to Annie and James ahead of time that included a metronome click and a bass and drum part.

To create the bass and piano click track, as well as to help me chart out the arrangement we were to use, I used Finale to input in simple parts, exported those parts as a MIDI file, and then dumped those into GarageBand. Once in GarageBand I could record my part over those and send out click tracks to the other musicians that had their part removed. That way James could play his piano part without having a MIDI piano getting in his way, etc. The musicians recorded their parts and sent them back to me, which I dumped back into GarageBand to edit and mix.

Even though the musicians I’ve worked with on these, and other similar projects, were not able to get together in person or go to the same studio to record, it’s pretty amazing what we are able to do today with fairly cheap and easy to use technology. In fact, I would say that the most difficult hurdle to completing these projects is that you need to rely on everyone to have the time, energy, and inclination to set up a device to record on and a device to listen to the click track on at the same time and record their part. For a variety of reasons, many of my current remote recording projects are in limbo because we’re still waiting for musicians to get around to doing their part. Hopefully I’ll have some more of these to share before too long.

How to Discuss Music Online

Having a comments section here in my blog is sometimes a double edged sword. I do feel that one of the most powerful tools the internet can be used for is the ability for us to question and discuss things with people that we would not otherwise get the opportunity to interact with. The flip side of that benefit is that online discussion often breaks down and has the opposite effect that we want. I see this all the time on brass fora. Too often folks offer advice to someone they have never seen or heard play before. Sometimes I question whether the confidence they seem to have about their responses are unjustified. Sometimes those folks don’t (or can’t) demonstrate even basic competence. Joey Tartell has noticed similarly and written about this phenomenon in his blog post, Nuance.

I do not argue with these people.  In fact, I choose not to engage with them at all. What I’d like to discuss today is what’s missing from so many online discussions.

One common pattern Tartell notes is the false dichotomy, when a disagreement is framed as either all or nothing, black or white, without acknowledging that there can be a continuum of possibilities and shades or gray in between. My posts a while back about the relative value of metronome practice is one example. The ensuing discussion between blogs and in the comments section kept getting reduced, in spite of my efforts, to “metronome practice is bad versus metronome practice is good.” There was little room to discuss the nuance between. Another similar pattern is the assumption that when someone says one thing is good, that means the author is calling something else bad. The metronome discussion is another good example. Just because I find a metronome a good practice and teaching tool doesn’t mean that using other approaches are bad.

Tartell lists several suggestions for how to make an online discussion more fruitful. Here is his basic list, but I suggest that you go over and read his elaborations on his original post.

  1. Decide what’s important to you.
  2. Will getting involved do any good?
  3. Stick to the subject at hand.
  4. Realize that other people could have something important to say.
  5. Not all opinions are equal.
  6. Know when to get out.

Playing for Swing Dancers

I’ve been playing gigs for dancers since I started playing professionally, but in the past few years a very active community of younger swing dancers has emerged and I’ve been playing a lot more. I’ve been fortunate that the bands that I work with also happen to be made up of swing dancers (some quite good!), and so I’ve been picking up on a lot of what dancers are looking for from the bands they book to play their events.

I’ve only performed with Laura Windley a handful of times, but she has a unique background as a singer, dancer, and event organizer that makes her advice on this subject worth listening to.

I’ve been seeing a bit of this lately with some local bands who would like to play for swing dancers – bandleaders who contact local organizers to promote their events or about being hired, but have very little experience playing for dance events (or playing for swing dance events specifically, as opposed to ballroom events or more general dancing) or had past experience playing for dancers but haven’t kept up with trends in music in the swing dance community. Several people have written blog posts about playing music for dancers and I agree that the music is the most important aspect and that feedback should be considered, but I want to focus on relationships and communication.

Laura notes something similar to what I see all the time – excellent jazz musicians who don’t play in a stylistically appropriate way when playing jazz from he 1920s and 1930s. I guess I was lucky in that my undergraduate jazz teacher (Dr. Tom Streeter) made sure that the jazz band was regularly performing swing music and performing it correctly. A lot of jazz programs tend to emphasize modern jazz (nothing wrong with this, per se), and sometimes a student’s interests will pull them in one direction and leave a hole in their stylistic knowledge.

There have been great swing bands that lost gigs because they insisted on featuring their soloists for umpteen choruses and the songs ended up being 10 minutes long. If you have never danced to an uptempo song for 10 minutes, try running for 10 minutes and see how winded you are. You want the dancers to be exhausted at the end of the night, not in the middle of the first set. The guidelines and norms are there for a reason, and the reasons are generally practical.

Selecting the tempos of the tunes and how you put them together is very important for keeping dancers on the dance floor. Too many fast tunes in a row and they will start sitting out tunes. Too many of the same tempos in a row gets repetitive. One dancer/musician I once asked about it said that he likes to put dance sets together in groups of three – medium, fast, medium. When you repeat back to another medium tempo you want to have a slightly different tempo or groove to help provide variety.

But there are exceptions. This past weekend I performed for a Balboa dance weekend. This particular dance is done to faster tempo tunes, so we ended up playing more faster tempo tunes than we might have otherwise. James, the bandleader was very careful about tempos both dances we played, frequently double checking with a metronome. He had also arranged one chart to exactly fit the length of time needed for a dance competition.

Needless to say, in addition to being an excellent ragtime, stride, and swing pianist, James is also a swing dancer. The two dances we played went very well because he understood exactly what the dancers wanted and was organized so that the band was prepared to do it.

Again, I’ve been lucky that I get to rub elbows with some dancers and musicians who are plugged into the swing dance scene at a national level and gotten to tag along to perform at events around the south east. It’s been an invaluable help for those times when I’m the band leader on a dance show or even if dancers show up to one of my regular big band gigs. If you’re wanting to break into this scene, check out Laura’s post.

Weekend Picks – 5 Years of Blogging At Wilktone

It’s Friday and it’s been a couple of months since I posted a regular Weekend Picks. In lieu of writing about some fun and interesting links around the web for this one, I wanted to point out that this month, January 2015, marks the fifth year of Wilktone. To celebrate (or rather blow my own horn), I thought I’d post the most popular posts here, the posts that have generated the most comments, and list a few of my personal favorites that I’d like to see get more views.

A few stats first, for the curious. At the time that I write this post there have been 467,466 views (not all that many in the grand scheme of things) and 585 comments (some of those include links to other posts here). The number of views tends to fluctuate, but over the past five years has steadily grown. January 2015’s average so far is 392 views per day. Again, not a whole lot when compared to popular web sites as a whole, but maybe not too bad for a blog that is somewhat specialized in what it covers.

Over in the right hand side bar you can see a section for popular posts. These posts have been fairly consistent for a while, but the software that measures it weighs more recent views more than hits from a while ago. Over the past five years here are the posts that have gotten the most views.

1. A Brief History of Brass Instruments (21,999 views) – I actually wrote this short article sometime in 2000 or 2001. If I recall correctly, I was teaching a brass pedagogy class that semester and had put together a short lecture on the history of brass instruments. I had researched more information that I wanted to include in the class, so I wrote this article to explore this topic in more detail. In retrospect I wish I had saved the references I used, but I mainly just wanted to get some original content up on the web page I had at the time.

This article has been popular enough that it was plagiarized at scribd.com. The powers-that-be over there were very quick to take it down when I contacted them about that, by the way.

2. The Tongue Controlled Embouchure (15,705 views) – In retrospect I find it curious that my post about this topic has been so popular. I speculate in part that it’s because the tongue controlled embouchure has enough buzz on the internet that brass players are exposed enough to the idea that they want to learn more about it. Since there’s not a whole lot of info available about it, this post shows up on a lot of web searches.

My review of the technique there is not positive (I haven’t changed my mind at this point), but I think it’s neat how many advocates have left their thoughts in the comments there. Even though the discussion has been heated at times, I like how everyone has been civil.

3. Tips for the New Jazz Ensemble Director (13,570 views) – Someone posted a link to this page on the Jazz Education Network’s Facebook page in September, 2104 and in a couple of days hits to Wilktone more than tripled. It’s died down since then, but daily views since then have been slightly up from prior to that month. Either some of the folks who read it have come back to check out more or maybe it just helped boost my search engine presence. At any rate, I liked how this post came out and am happy that so many people find it helpful and interesting.

4. A Stylistic Analysis of Jazz Trombone Through Transcribed Solos (12,171 views) – This is another article that existed before this blog did. As I mentioned there, it is a web based presentation of a lecture recital I gave at Ball State University as part of my doctoral requirements. The lecture recital had a bit less historical and theoretical information than the article includes because I performed each transcription.

5. Brass Embouchures and Air Stream Direction (11,753 views) – I had created my YouTube video on this topic a couple of years before creating Wilktone. This post was my first ever here. Regular readers know the topic of brass embouchures is my favorite to write about.

The most commented pages up to this date are the following posts. So far I have yet to delete any comment (on purpose), other than the spam that sneaks past. Many of these highly commented posts have discussions that debate some of the points I tried to make.

1. The Tongue Controlled Embouchure (71 comments) – As I mentioned above, I have enjoyed the ensuing discussion.

2. Brass Embouchures: Playing On the Red Is Fine (as long as it fits your anatomy) (32 comments) – Since posting on this topic I have put together what I feel are better treatments of this subject, but this was the first post I had that was completely devoted to whether or not placing the mouthpiece rim contacting the red of your lips is OK or not. One of the authors I quoted in my blog post, Frank Gabriel Campos, even stopped by to leave his rebuttal.

3. On Metronome Practice and Logic Based Teaching Methods (21 comments) and Practicing With a Metronome (18 comments) – I’m including these two posts together since the topics and comments are outgrowths of each other. Practicing With a Metronome was a summary of my thoughts about Mike Longo’s post arguing that metronome practice would mess up your jazz playing. In the process I was inspired to explore how a lot of what gets passed on as good music teaching isn’t based on evidence, but personal beliefs or expectations.

4. The Balanced Embouchure: A Review (20 comments) – Not my best written post, to be honest, but as of today I still stand by my opinion of Jeff Smiley’s somewhat controversial book. The ensuing discussion got heated at times, but I always like to carefully consider what supporters have to say about this book.

5. The Pencil Trick Exercise (18 comments) – This post is about Donald Reinhardt’s away-from-the-horn strength building exercise. A lot of people think it’s a waste of time, but not many people really follow Reinhardt’s instructions well enough to do it the way he intended. It’s sort of hard to pick it up through reading a description.

Lastly, here are some posts I’ve written that are some of my personal favorites and not already mentioned above.

1. How To Transcribe: Some Advice for the Beginning Jazz Improviser – This post is another that existed on a previous personal web site that got moved over. In it I describe the process that I personally used to get started transcribing jazz solos. Many of my students have found it a helpful way to get started too.

2. Embouchure Dysfunction: An examination of brass embouchure troubleshooting – This is another post that is mainly about the YouTube video I put together. While my personal research in brass embouchures has been about how they function, over the course of study I became familiar with a lot of the ways in which brass embouchures malfunction. In this video and post I describe 5 different cases (of various degrees of difficulty) and discuss some of the ways in which making corrections to embouchure function can help players who are having these difficulties. One of my main goals in this post was to raise some awareness in the field of brass teachers and players as a whole about the physical results of brass embouchure dysfunction, instead of addressing problems through breathing, psychology, or working to make the embouchure work better with the technique that is potentially causing the issue.

3. Donald Reinhardt and the Pivot System – A Criticism – I wish I had the chance to take lessons from Reinhardt before he died, but one possible advantage to learning his teachings through lessons with a former student of his and his writings is that I don’t feel the emotional attachment that many of his students do. Many of the ones I know are quite vocal that passing on his ideas require a strict adherence to using the same language and terminology that Reinhardt happened to use (or more accurately, how he happened to be describing it at whatever time the student was with him). In this post I discuss the confusion that results when we try to communicate an already complicated topic using terms and descriptions that are unnecessarily inconsistent to most other brass players.

4. Arnold Jacobs on Embouchure: A Criticism – Like my criticism of the Pivot System, this post is about another brass pedagogue that has been very influential in my playing and teaching. Jacobs made a lot of very important contributions to brass pedagogy, but he also made a few statements about embouchure that I find demonstrably inaccurate.

5. An Examination of the Anatomical and Technical Arguments Against Placing the Mouthpiece on the Vermillion – I mentioned above that since writing the Playing on the Red Is Fine post I have done a better analysis and writeup of this topic. This is what I was referring to. The post itself is just an abstract of the formal academic paper. To my knowledge, no one else has done as extensive a review of the musical and medical review to attempt to settle this debate. It also includes a discussion of a pilot study designed to help answer the question of whether someone can tell through sound alone that a brass player places the mouthpiece rim on the red of the lips (my results strongly suggested that you can’t).

Do you have a favorite topic or discussion here that got left out? Any disagreements with the inclusion of the ones above? Please leave your thoughts in the comments here.

AJO Tonight and Weekend Picks

AJO-Logo-Transparent copyI’m directing and performing with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra again tonight (Friday, August 8, 2014) at the White Horse in Black Mountain, NC. The show starts at 8 PM and we’ll play two sets of big band jazz. If you’re in the area looking for live music, please consider coming on out.

Here are some music related links for you to check out this weekend.

Low-Down Sires Busk
Low-Down Sires Busk

The first time I ever performed on the street (AKA “busking”) I had just graduated high school. A sax player heard me play and we talked for a while about a band he was playing in. A month later I went off to college and coincidentally I met another member of that band, eventually leading into me recording and playing some gigs with them. Recently I started busking again with some friends I play trad jazz with. We’ve found it to be a fun way to practice new material, essentially becoming a way to make a bit of money to rehearse. Sometimes if we’ve got some down time on an out of town tour we will go out and play on the street to not only pick up a few more bucks but also plug our gigs later. If you’re interested in trying out performing on the street, check out this advice on How to Busk.

One piece of advice I often give to my composition/arranging students is that they should show their parts to players that perform the instruments they are writing for. Even instruments in the same family will differ in terms of playability. For example, I sometimes get parts written by trumpet players that lay horribly for trombone because they took what they wrote for a trumpet and simply transposed it down an octave. Horn is a particularly challenging instrument for me to write well for because it has some idiosyncrasies that don’t translate from the other brass instruments. Fortunately, John Ericson has given us 9 Ways We Can Tell a Composer or Arranger Doesn’t Know How to Write for the Horn.

Did your metronome battery die? Or maybe it’s just too quiet and you need to blast a metronome through your computer speakers. Here’s a handy (and amusing) online metronome that simulates a pendulum style metronome.

And lastly, since school is about to start up after our summer break, here is a list of Ten Things You Should Never Say to Your Music Teacher. The tone may be tongue-in-cheek, but the advice is golden!

Introducing Improvisation in the Concert Band Setting

Ever since the National Association for Music Education adopted its National Standards for Music Education one area that band directors have begun to address in more detail than ever before is improvisation. NAfME’s standards include:

Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.

In many band programs, however, this can be a real challenge for directors to implement, particularly if he or she has had little to no experience playing jazz. If you don’t happen to play one of the typical jazz instruments the chances that you feel uncomfortable are high. This essay is designed for  band directors who want to introduce improvisation with their students in the concert band specifically, although music teachers should be able to find ways to adapt these ideas for almost any situation with a little thought and creativity.

The first thing to understand is that everyone improvises all the time, but we often don’t think about it when it happens because we’re so used to it. When rehearsing our concert band we improvise a great deal by responding to what we’re hearing and addressing them in patterns that we know (or hope) will be successful. As we get more experience teachings we pick up on new ideas and try them out, eventually coming up with our own teaching style that fits our own personality and style. This process isn’t really all that different from how we can develop an improvisational style, it’s just a different context.

The way we teach is highly influenced by those who taught us. Improvisation should be equally influenced by an informed opinion of what we think works and fits how we want to play. In order to improvise convincingly we should be familiar with lots of different players. Probably the most important thing that we as band directors can do is listen to lots of great improvisers and encourage our students to listen to great improvisers as well. It’s sort of like learning to speak a language from reading a book. You can learn the “grammar” and “spelling” of musical improvisation from a book, but if you don’t listen to it performed by the masters you’re going to end up with a funny “accent.”

Improvising for the first time can be a daunting task. There are lots of different things to keep track of all at once and the amount of multitasking is intimidating for many students. That said, when you consider improvisation at its basic level there are really three main areas of concern – when to play, what to play, and how to play it.

When to play is usually the first thing I address with teaching improvisation to a new group of students in a longer-term improvisation class. Subtopics in this area of concern include using silence, playing with good phrasing, rhythmic density, etc. The main point I want to get across at first is that you don’t have to play all the time and, in fact, it’s often more interesting to leave room in your improvisations for your audience to guess what’s coming next. I like to demonstrate to new students what this can be like by improvising a solo by using much more silence than I normally would. When a soloist doesn’t play for a long time the tension can really build up and no matter what you play next the release can be quite surprising and enjoyable. Get your students to duplicate this in their own solos as much as possible.

Leaving silence in improvisations has additional benefits beyond simply making your solos more interesting. It allows the accompanists to interact more conversationally. It also gives the student a chance to evaluate what he or she just played and how effective it was and then think about what’s coming up next. This is also another one of NAfME’s standards.

Evaluating music and music performances.

Items that address what to play are actually pretty easy to find. This includes things like chord/scale relationships, playing chord tones and non-chord tones, playing outside the changes, etc. There are lots of great resources all over on this aspect of improvisation, so rather than duplicate a lot of it here I’ll instead focus on what I think the best way to teach this element of improvisation is.

Music is an aural art form. It exists in sound, not on the paper. With improvisation it is even more important to learn to listen and imitate the sounds you hear. When introducing note choices to students new to improvisation I always teach them by playing a pitch and having them find it on their instrument by ear.

A simple ear training exercise you can do with your concert band is to play random notes and have your students try to match pitch. Some students will be better than others and it’s helpful for struggling students to have a strategy to help them out. I usually advice my students to simply play a chromatic scale until they hear themselves match the pitch. Over time they will find it easier to hear when they’ve found the right pitch and may even begin finding it faster by learning how far away they are and leaping closer to the correct pitch. Once students get used to matching pitch with you playing the lead have a student volunteer play the random pitches instead.

As an aside, I find many students will use their eyes, rather than their ears, to figure out the pitch. As a trombonist I get in the habit of playing lots of pitches with alternate positions to see if the trombone section is just watching my slide rather than finding pitches by ear. Students will often look over to their section peers to look at fingerings rather than risk guessing the wrong pitch. It’s up to you to encourage them to avoid this and instead really try to find pitches by ear. The payoff will be much better in the long run if they can learn to find pitches aurally, rather than visually. Once most of the class has found the pitch I will tell the band what the pitch is to help provide feedback, but I always make them give me an honest effort first.

Once I have a band able to match pitches fairly well I will teach them by ear basic scales (pentatonic, blues scale, or scale fragments) that can be used to improvise over a simple vamp. If they want or need to write down pitch names I will usually allow it, but they again have to give me an honest effort to learn these scales by ear before I’ll help them with the pitch names. Next I’ll teach the band some simple riffs that set up a vamp (again by ear) that fits those pitches.

As a composer I try to limit the number of independent lines I’m writing to no more than three or four (with some exceptions according to the effect I’m after). For the purposes of setting up a vamp for improvisation with a concert band I feel two or three riffs works best. Again, I teach my students the riffs by ear and have the whole band learn some basic riffs. After the band has got the gist of each riff I assign parts to them and get them to set up the vamp. Once the groove is happening, I’ll demonstrate by improvising a simple solo (using only the notes I taught them just before) over their accompaniment.

concert band riffs

Since I’m a composer and experienced improviser, coming up with chord vamps and riffs isn’t really a big deal for me, but for many band directors this is a brick wall. In order to help those folks out, I’ve put together some riffs that you can use in PDF form here. Three of the examples are simple two-chord vamps with three simple riffs notated in all standard transpositions. One example is a blues progression in Eb with parts for each standard concert band instrument. Again, I usually teach students these riffs by ear and then later hand out parts if needed (or, better still, have the students learn to notate these riffs themselves).

Once you’re able to get your band riffing on this simple chord progressions you’re ready to get them to play solos. If you want to ease them into solo improvisation one way I like to get them started is to play a very simple (one or two note) idea with a metronome click and have them play the lick back at me. Use the a scale that will work over the vamp you want them to improvise over, but don’t use more than three notes (see the handouts from above for some scale choices over the vamps I wrote out). The point here is to teach them that they don’t need to play a very complex lick to sound tasteful. I emphasize that all they can play very interesting ideas by rhythmically improvising on even just one or two notes.

Then go around your ensemble and have everyone play 2, 4, or 8 measures of improvisation. Some students will jump right in and go wild while others will freeze up. With the eager students it can be helpful to get them to scale back their improvisation and not try to squeeze in every idea they have into just 4 measures. With timid students my goal is to get them to play just one note (then just one note more, now two notes, etc.). You can also have some students practice playing longer solos.

Another exercise I like to use is to have students come up with their own background riffs using only notes in the scale I’ve given them to improvise with. Each of the PDF examples I posted has three riffs, one that functions as a bass line, one chord support, and one melodic riff. Simply remove the melodic riff from the vamp and have a student play his or her own riff in place of it, then have the other students pick up that riff by ear.

You’ll notice that in almost every step of my process I emphasize teaching students ideas by ear. Having good aural skills is a critical ability for improvisation. While it’s certainly possible to create interesting improvisations from selecting note choices by reading notation this approach is limiting. Teaching your students to match pitches by ear will train them to “hear” the ideas they have in their head and play them more spontaneously.

Conversely, only teaching improvisation through playing by ear will also hinder development. I always like to point out that music theory IS ear training and vice versa. After you teach improvisational techniques by ear go back later and teach your students the theory behind it. More advanced concepts can be first learned via a theoretical approach (e.g., read this scale and then apply those notes over this chord vamp), but emphasize while practicing this way that your students should be listening closely to the sounds and making the connection between what they are seeing with what they are hearing. When using this approach reiterate to your students that they should intentionally leave a lot of silence in their improvisations to give them a chance to evaluate what they just played and then think a bit about what they are going to do next.

I recommend that you make improvisation a regular warmup with your group. You don’t have to improvise with them every day or even every week, but go back to improvisation every so often with them to reinforce what they’ve learned and get them to practice it more. Like most musical skills, improvisation abilities are developed over the long term and we can’t simply teach it in one class and expect that our students will become successful at it. In fact, you can break down all of the above steps and exercises into their own warmup and spread them out over the course of a week or so. Easing your students into improvisation this way will help some of your students who are more nervous about improvisation get used to the idea of playing a solo over time. All your students will benefit from the repetition of ear training and music theory over time, helping them retain these skills.

And of course, have fun with it. The more you project that you’re enjoying the music the more it will “jazz up” your concert band for learning to improvise. Even if many of these students will never join a jazz band you’ll find that the ear training and music theory practice they get will help them become better musicians and benefit your concert band in ways you didn’t expect.

Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.

Free Music Ed

I’ve discovered a new music education web site  I’d like to plug. FreeMusicEd.org has some great resources for music educators. There are links to free music downloads, music theory sites, tuners, metronomes, and instructional resources. There’s also a nice podcast with 35 episodes so far.

I discovered this resource through John Bogenschutz’s web comic, Tone Deaf Comics. The latest podcast from FreeMusicEd.org was an interview with Bogenschutz and I was interested in learning more about the creator of one of my current favorite comics. Through listening to that podcast I’ve discovered the many other episodes that are available. Go check them out here or use iTunes or your favorite podcatching software to download them.

Milt Steven’s Beefs and Pet Peeves for Trombonists

Milt Stevens (1942-2007) was the principle trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra for 29 years before his death in 2007. He maintained a busy performing schedule and also taught at Catholic University. A while back I was poking around to learn a bit more about him and found some notes from one of his clinics called Beefs and Pet Peeves. A lot of these are my own personal pet peeves as well and some I think are a little particular to Stevens’s own situation. Here’s a few of them that I had some additional thoughts  or comments to make.

2. Not knowing tempos, styles, interpretations!
Listen!: Get lots of recordings.
Listen!: Keep radio tuned to classical stations.
Listen!: Attend live concerts.

I’ll add to this that I feel you should listen to all styles of music, not just classical (or jazz, if you perform jazz). Focus on what you want to perform most, but don’t neglect other styles. One of the reasons I feel successful as a musician is because I can step into many different musical situations and playing convincingly and stylistically. I perform with orchestras, big bands, traditional jazz combos, salsa bands, R&B bands, rock horn sections, brass chamber ensembles, solo recitals, and conduct a concert band and brass band. If all I listened to was jazz or classical music I’d not be as flexible, nor would I have been prepared to join these groups.

4. Pointing bell into the music stand!
Don’t wander with the bell as you play (unless you are David Taylor). Play off the left side of your stand, and when you read from the right hand page of music, don’t angle the bell into the stand.

I deal with this all the time with band students (and also frequently the adult players I conduct and sometimes even with professional brass players I perform with). The trouble is that when you play into the music stand you hear yourself quite clearly, but your sound isn’t projected forward to the audience and the rest of the group. Get used to directing your bell forward!

5. Pointing bell too low (toward the floor) or too high (at the head of the conductor)!
Ideally, the entire trombone section would agree on a mutually acceptable angle to hold the trombones. Use the “bells up” angle only for special effect.

On this one I’ll differ slightly with Stevens. Everyone has at least a slightly different horn angle and not every section will agree on a “mutually acceptable angle.”

I find it curious that Stevens would be such a stickler for this. One of my teachers, Doug Elliott, included Stevens in his film, The Brass Player’s Embouchure, and showed Stevens’s fairly low horn angle. If I recall correctly, Stevens had one of the most rare embouchure types. Doug’s teacher, Donald Reinhardt, called this embouchure type the Type III or “jellyroll” embouchure type because it is characterized by a rather pronounced lower lip roll and lowered horn angle. Even more unusual for Stevens’s embouchure, he used the reverse embouchure motion that most “jellyroll” embouchure players use, he pushed up to ascend and pulled down to descend. For a brief discussion of how Reinhardt’s embouchure types correlate to the embouchure classifications I prefer to use click here.

7. Allowing sound to puny, weak!
Get a weighty sound with resonance. Pretend that you can feel your resonant tone coming back into your body through your feet. Start with better quality inhales. Inhale thinking “OH”; exhale thinking “HO”.

Much like teaching articulations through using syllables, teaching breathing using these mouth shapes can be problematic if you’re not careful. Personally, I prefer to practice (and teach) keeping the lips just touching in the center (inside the mouthpiece) when breathing and breath through the mouth corners. When you open your mouth to inhale you end up having to hit a moving target when you make that initial attack right afterwards. Also, crashing the mouthpiece up against your lips every time after you breathe doesn’t seem to help your endurance in the long term.

10. Having tone production and embouchure problems due to using a dry lip embouchure!
Most brass players play with moisture on lips, even where the rim touches the lips. Mention survey of NSO brass.

I haven’t seen the NSO brass survey, but it doesn’t surprise me that most of the players played with a wet embouchure. There are some players who prefer a dry embouchure and just can’t fully adopt a wet embouchure, though. When I first made an embouchure change to the “low placement” embouchure type I was unable to keep my mouthpiece placement consistently on the same spot with a wet embouchure and I played dry. Gradually I switched to playing wet on the bottom lip and dry on the top lip to keep the rim from slipping off my top lip while playing. Eventually I was able to fully make the switch to a wet embouchure on both lips, which is my preferred way to play today. That said, every once in a while I’ll practice dry to work on some things.

In general, I’d recommend that any brass player who can play with a wet embouchure should try to adopt this. There are some advantages to this over dry for all around brass playing. Not everyone can play wet, however, and these players shouldn’t overly concern themselves about playing this way.

12. Trying to have a big sound by opening lips too far!
Your tone will be “woofy”, if your aperture is too wide for your air stream. Instead, open breathing apparatus, throat, and inside of mouth.

Players belonging to the “medium high placement” embouchure type are more prone to this problem than the other basic types, but all players should avoid this.

I also like this advice from Stevens because he discusses a good strategy for getting a focused and resonant tone – work on breathing and tongue position. Too often I come across advice from well-intentioned brass teachers who are all about breathing and keeping an open throat, etc., but when the encounter player with an unusual mouthpiece placement (e.g., the “low placement” type player) with a thin sound, they forget all about this important advice and immediately try to correct the mouthpiece placement first. Eliminate the other elements before you change embouchures.

14. Not letting lower jaw protrude enough to align lips!
When descending into lower register, allow a pivot. When ascending into extreme high register, try a reverse pivot!

Much like the horn angle above, this is personal to the player. Again, I’m surprised that Stevens would make this one of his personal beefs, because if I recall from Doug’s film, Stevens had a receded jaw position and lowered horn angle.

15. Having to shift mouthpiece up and down to change registers!
Learn to traverse registers without excessive shifting.

It’s best to keep your mouthpiece placement consistent, regardless of the register you’re playing. There will always be some pushing and pulling of the mouthpiece and lips together in an upward and downward direction, but keep it from being too excessive.

23. Having a non-existent or improper vibrato!
Discuss proper speed and amplitude. Discuss lip/jaw and slide vibrato. Mention diaphragm vibrato as not commonly done on brass instruments, except French horn.

I found Stevens’s comment of horn vibrato interesting. Most horn players I know don’t use vibrato, even for solo playing. John Ericson, from Horn Matters, has a nice article on horn vibrato here.

24. Not relying on basic tools to help you learn!
Metronome. 1/2-speed tape recorder. Mirror. Video camera. Tuner.

These days you don’t really need a 1/2 speed tape recorder, you can do the same thing with computer software. I remember lessons with Ed Kocher where we would record ourselves playing Rochut etudes phrase by phrase and then listen back to them at 1/2 speed. All the little cracked notes, out of tune pitches, and out of tempo rhythms were brought out even more by this. It was a real positive kick in the pants.

28. Exhibiting poor stage presence
Emptying water too obviously. Drinking water too obviously and too often. Not acknowledging audience/accompanists. Not bowing and taking curtain calls correctly.

This side of performing is something that is too often not taught, for some reason, yet it has a very important effect on the quality of the performance and how the audience perceives the sound. This topic deserves a post of it’s own at a later date.

29. Having no vocal training!
Sing in choruses and choirs. Be able to hear intervals before they happen. Have a singing quality to your sound.

One of the best things I’ve done for my trombone performing is to take a few vocal lessons and to perform regularly in choirs. Not to mention that it now allows me to sing backup in some of the groups I perform in once in a while as needed.

30. Not being a complete musician!
Listen to many and various recitals. Improvise. Be able to play by ear. Play in public often. Know how to effect a phrase and “turn a nuance”. Performing musically, with understanding, style, and emotion, is the primary goal of this art form.

See my comments on #2 above.

There’s plenty more beefs and pet peeves at Stevens’s web site. Go check it out here.

Got any of your own beefs or pet peeves you need to get off your chest? Leave your thoughts about them in the comments section here.