Minute Clinic – Why Do We Play Chorales?

choralesI am sure that most of you were taught that playing chorales/lyrical music is an essential part of the warm-up process for the band. Well, why? I ask this question because too often I hear lots of chorales being played in bandrooms across the country, but I don’t know what the purpose is for them being played. I base this assumption on what I hear and I don’t think the students know the purpose for them either. When was the last time you actually explained to your students why you play these little pieces every single day? I hope it isn’t to torture them, but that is probably what some students think!

Playing slow and lyrical music is essential to building musicianship with your band, but just like any warm-ups you do, if it is done haphazardly and without any goal in mind, it is a useless waste of time. While your band is playing a chorale are they focused on tone quality, balance, blend, intonation, phrasing and basic musicianship? How can you present the chorale you are going to play today and make sure these things are stressed? Can you tell the students why you are playing them and will that help their understanding? Can you raise your level of expectations during this part of the warm-up today and help your band improve their musicianship? It is just like anything else, what we think is important and emphasize is what the students will focus on too. They will become a mirror of your musicianship if and only if you expect it. Most important of all, set your standard of expectation high and don’t give up – ever!

Minute Clinic – Phrasing

PhrasingI have spent a lot of time in a lot of band rooms and on practice fields this fall, and one of the things that I have to work on the most with every group I rehearse is phrasing. More specifically the end of the phrase, but I’ll get to that in a moment. When I refer to phrasing I am talking about the natural connection of the music into groups of notes and measures; similar to phrases and sentences in the written word or in speech. Too often the students do not make this connection. They play in very short segments that I won’t even call phrases and consequently the music doesn’t make any sense to the listener. It would be similar to me speaking the following – one, word, at, a, time, with, no, connection, of, any, kind, to, the, words. It doesn’t make sense in speech or in prose and it doesn’t make sense in music.

First of all let’s work with our students and get them to phrase in larger groups of notes in 4 measure phrases at the least. Let’s also get them to stop breathing whenever they feel like it and breathe in places that make musical sense. Get them to understand that the best music is made over the barline and barlines are not necessarily places to breathe.

Now on to the end of the phrase. Quite often even if I work with a group that does play in longer phrases of 4 or 8 bars in length, they will usually still clip the last note of the phrase. This is a systemic problem that I even have to remind professionals about when I am producing the Carl Fischer recordings. It never fails that players will shorten up the last note of a phrase and ruin what in other ways might be a well-played phrase of music. I teach students to think open releases of notes, and that I don’t want them to stop the notes with the tongue. Force your students to think of lengthening the last note of the phrase rather that clipping it. It’s easy to clip the ends of phrases, but it is not correct or musical and it is hard work to play with an open release. The students will have to work at that, but I cannot stress to you enough that this is probably the single weakest thing I hear groups of all ability levels do around the country. Take some time and focus on the end of things so that the phrase finishes with the beauty of sound that we expect.

Minute Clinic – Why Do All Articulations Sound The Same?

ArticulationsOne of the things I have noticed over the past 5 to 10 years when I hear my pieces performed is that most articulations in the music are pretty much played the same – hard and short! Obviously this is not what composers intend when they write a staccato, marcato or an accent, but this is what I hear. I believe it is important to teach students the difference between these three articulations and also explain to them that it is different depending on the composer of the piece you are playing and when the piece was written. You would never play a Mozart staccato the same as a Sousa staccato.

What this comes down to is note length and emphasis. It is my opinion that in general groups play too short and with a lack of sonority. Arnold Jacobs the famous tubist of the Chicago Symphony used to say “length equals volume,” meaning if you play a note with more length it will be perceived as louder to the listener. So, if you want to emphasize a note (the definition of an accent as far as I am concerned) you give it more length. You also do this with more air for more emphasis. An accent does not mean tongue the note harder and make it shorter! I also find it helps to eliminate the word short from my rehearsal vocabulary. Use words like light or separated instead. Again the way you play any articulations is style dependent and should be different for every piece.

Another systemic problem that I see from my experience as a music editor is that many composers and arrangers today put in too many articulations. Some put an indication on every single note. I believe this leads to all of the marking becoming meaningless, and it is just about impossible to perform. Think of some of the great march composers like Sousa and Fillmore. There are very few articulations, but when they want an note emphasized it is accented. That note then stands out, is important and can then be treated that way. If every note is marked then which one is more important?

So, remember to teach your students the difference between the different musical markings as they relate to sound. Relate playing the appropriate style of articulations with speech and the natural inflection and emphasis we place on certain words and syllables. Let’s get rid of the every note is hard and short syndrome that has invaded our performances. It’s worth the effort!

Minute Clinic – Intonation

TunerSo what really is good intonation in an ensemble? Pitch matching! I highly recommend that you stop trying to tune every instrument with a tuner and also stop putting the responsible for tuning the instruments on yourselves. Put it where it belongs, and that is on the students, but first you must teach them what in tune and out of tune sounds like. I am not saying that tuners are a bad thing, I am just saying that we overuse them. Sticking a tuner up to a student and then telling them they are flat or sharp is not going improve their ability to play in tune.

 Once you demonstrate what in tune and out of tune is, then you must teach them what to do. It seems logical that they already know what to do, but from my experience, students do not always know that if they are sharp they need to extend their instrument (loosen the string) or if they are flat they need to shorten their instrument (tighten the string). Plus once they have one note in tune, does that mean that the ensemble will play in tune? Well, of course not, but too often this assumption is made by us and them. Students must be trained to match pitch with the other musicians in the ensemble. They have to be able to make instant adjustments in their embouchure (or finger placement for strings) to play in tune.

 We want to strive for beatless tuning. A good visual aid is to have students wave their hands with palms down to the speed of the beats in the sound. Hopefully as intonation improves their hands will slow down. Also, don’t forget to have them tune to a fixed pitch. Making students adjust to a tuner playing a tone will be very beneficial to getting them to understand what they have to do to play in tune. And please remember that the quality of their tone, balance and blend effects intonation greatly. Students need to learn how to play “inside” the sound of the ensemble. If they are sticking out in any way then they need to check their tone, then their intonation, then their balance, and there blend. If they lose themselves in the sound, chances are they are in tune. So please use tuners in moderation and focus on what really playing in tune means in an ensemble, and that is pitch matching.

 I also recommend that you check out an incredible new device I have discovered for intonation training. It is the Yamaha HD-200. For more information go to: http://usa.yamaha.com/products/musical-instruments/winds/harmony_director/harmony_director/?mode=model

Minute Clinic – What Good is Marching Band?

MBPhotoAnother school year is off and running and you know what that means? Football! Oh, and yes marching band. Many band directors have a love, hate relationship with marching band and there are many who wish it was not even part of what we have to do in music education. Others love it to the point that it has become the focus of the program and it is not about football, but competition. I am not going to take sides here, but I will leave you with this thought – everything in moderation! Too much of anything in life is probably not wise.

So for all of you marching band loathers out there, I ask that you focus on the positive aspects of marching band and how they can improve the abilities and musicianship of your students. Listen, a bad tone is a bad tone, inside or outside. Please make sure to stress good quality sounds no matter where they are playing. Many feel that marching band causes the destruction of the embouchure. Well, it does if you let the students over blow with puffed checks and bad fundamentals. And what about musicianship? Should any music they play, be that Louie, Louie or Lincolnshire Posy be played without good phrasing?

 I appreciate marching band because it is a great way to get students to use more AIR!! It is the essence of wind instrument playing isn’t it? So why not use this to our advantage? The trick is to not ever, never ever let the students push to the point that their embouchures are destroyed and the tone is disgusting! If these things are kept in check, I firmly believe that marching band can help the students become better wind players. Now percussionists love marching band because they get to play – a lot! There are many skills they can improve while participating in marching band. But like I stated above, moderation folks! A well-balanced all around program is what we should all strive for and marching band certainly can and should be used as just another medium in your program to do so.

Minute Clinic – Sound Out of Silence

How often have you heard groups set up, get ready for the first note, the conductor gives them the preparatory gesture and then they haphazardly comes in or the first sound they make is harsh and non-musical? With wind players this happens for three reasons – 1. They don’t take a rhythmic breath (breathe together and you will play together), 2. They think the tongue makes the sound, leading to a BANG at the start of the tone. 3. They don’t have a firm embouchure at the start of the tone.

The best way that I know how to rectify this systemic problem that I hear bands do incorrectly all over the country is to have them first learn what you are doing with your conducting. That starts with you actually conducting ONE preparatory gesture and not counting off “One, Two, Ready, Play”. Even beginning players can react to a preparatory gesture and do not need a count off or you banging your baton on the music stand! Show and discuss with your students what your conducting gestures mean. I find it helpful to do this – “Say the word START when you think you should start during my conducting pattern.” I also do it in reverse – “Say the word STOP when you think you should stop during my conducting pattern.” I have used this little trick with countless students and they nail it every time as it helps them to understand exactly where you would like them to start and stop the sound.

Now I take this a step further, I have the students on the prep. beat think “Breathe, Set, Play” on 4 & 1. This will get them to do a rhythmic breath on 4, set the corners of the embouchure firm on the & of 4 and then sound starts on 1. The other thing that works best for me at the start of rehearsal is to have them start the tone with a breath attack (no tongue). This way they begin to understand that the AIR makes the tone and not the tongue. Later on you can work on articulation, but they first must understand how to overcome the three reasons mentioned above why the first entrance of the band sounds bad and how to correct it. I leave you with one more phrase that I use often with musicians I conduct – “Music is how you get out of silence and back into silence.” Ponder that for a while – Good luck!

Minute Clinic – Warm-Ups

Wam-up-graphic

As the start of the new school year gets underway and bands across America are having their band camps, of which I have helped out with a few this year, I am reminded of the necessity of good quality fundamentals. Please make good focused warm-ups and fundamental drills part of your band’s routine this fall! Don’t just do mindless exercises, scales or drills. Have a purpose for each exercise you ask your students to play and make sure they succeed at doing them to the level of quality that you expect before you move on. Also, as you get a few days or weeks or even months into the band camp or school year, don’t stop doing these fundamentals, as many of us do when we find we are under the gun for the group to perform. Believe me, if you emphasize fundamentals, the music will be the easy part of what you do.

I am reminded of the famous basketball coach at UCLA John Wooden who would not let his players take a shot until they had mastered how to pass the ball, or at his first practice of the year how he would teach the players for most of the first practice how to put on their socks and shoes properly to avoid blisters. Seems like simple and ridiculous stuff, but certainly it is proven that it made the difference for this legendary coach, so why wouldn’t it work for us band directors? Stress the basics first and establish the level of quality that you expect and don’t move on until you get it. If you just force the music down their throats, what are they really learning? More importantly how are they improving on their instruments and as musicians. So, folks make a renewed effort this school year to make warm-ups and fundamental drills part of your routine, but do them with purpose!