Sunday, May 3, 2009

Why Learn Music?

Performing on a music instrument makes you smart! I have heard many say this as an argument to supporting music. As my colleague would say, "That statement is a musical sell out." Connecting music to bettering our skills and intelligence in other non-musical areas can force music for music's sake into an ever deepening black hole. The reason to study music and learn to perform is because a person enjoys the music.

Spending my life as a musician, I can certainly tell you that at no time in my practicing and performing am I thinking about my mathematical abilities, or my reasoning skills. My focus is on performing to the best of my abilities. During my practice sessions, I am focused on bettering my MUSICAL skills.

I don't discredit that music can make us better people. In fact, I 100% support that. Being smarter does not necessarily lead to being a better person. What does being a better person mean? Again, I offer the words of my colleague. "Musical activities afford us complex situations in which we must communicate, work with others, compromise, and express ourselves openly." Through participating in musical activities I DO feel I have learned to hear what people are saying, not just reacting to them, but INTERACTING with them.

Kids and adults alike should support Music for Music's sake. Becoming a musician may very well be more important than bettering your math scores. We have a long way to go to support growth in this area. But we are committed.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Take A Stand

I was recently reminded, through an incident with a student's instrument, how important using a good instrument stand is. While the topic may not be all that exciting, protecting our large investment in instruments is. Remember that our investment is not the cost of the instrument alone. The time we put into learning how an instrument responds to our input is priceless. Using a stand is not a 100% guarantee to keeping our instruments safe, but it is dramatically safer than placing the instrument on a chair, or leaning them against the wall.

We all know how subtle adjustments to our instruments make significant differences. Fine tuning is a cumulative process. Getting key action, height, pads, etc. all to our liking takes time, experience and patience. How quickly all of that can be erased if an instrument falls to the ground.

I consider the use of a instrument stands part of my instruction. Saxes can be awkward instruments to build stands for. Unlike trumpets and trombones, where a simple post and platform design creates a very secure stand design, stands for saxes must cradle and balance horns of various weights and designs.

KSQ has had some good experience with Hercules stands.

We all use their stands. So, this means we have a variety including the combo Alto/Tenor, a straight soprano peg, Bari with ad ons and without, and BJ's latest addition, the TravLite for Alto/Tenor.

Adjustable backrestPeg holeFolding yokeSwivel legs

Like include:
  • Portability - all stands fold up and are compact.
  • Stability -- all stands have a wide footprint with rubber feet.
  • Adjustability -- all stands have adjustable bell rests (minus the TravLite - although it does adjust to alto/tenor). The Bari stand has height adjustment and bell rest adjustment.
  • Combo'ability -- Getting the stands with the added peg holes, various other stands can be added. For example, I use an Alto/Tenor combo peg on my Bari stand. I could easily use the straight soprano stand as another option. On my Alto/Tenor, I can also use the straight soprano peg.
  • Weight -- they are not the lightest of stands. But, you get what you pay for. Stability at the expense of weight - you decide.
  • Mechanism -- Janet has had 2 Bari stand failures. First, one base leg retention ball/spring failed. Her replacement stand's bell rest lock failed. For ease of fix, putting the good parts to each together solved the issues. My exact stand on the other had has not had the same issues. But, I do not travel with my Bari stand.
We have no relationship with Hercules. So, I recommend looking at others as well. I also really like the K&M stand. I use this one at home. I leave it in other rooms of the house for when I may be wondering around if Judy and I are practicing at the same time.

The K&M is a stable stand. But, I feel it lacks the portability and ease of use of the Hercules. The center peg does not fold down. To collapse the stand, the peg must be removed from the base. Also, switching from Alto/Tenor requires removing the bell saddle and reinstalling.

But, I do recommend them for use in a studio or home where portability is not a requirement.

One point I also want to make relates to those who play curved Sopranos. The Hercules stands have a unique feature where the bell saddle flips up. They do so to allow infinite placement within the adjustment slot, to fit any Alto/Tenor configuration. However, leaving the saddle in the up position and moving it all the way to the top, allows for use with a curved soprano. My Yanagisawa curved soprano is held securely using the stand in this manner. The only issue I have is that the saddle in this position is not "locked". The weight of the horn holds it in place. So, my disclaimer is that Hercules doesn't build a stand for the soprano. But, it does work. And, the advantage is that using a combo Alto/Curved Soprano allows for use of 1 stand.

K&M does make a specific stand for a curved soprano.

Of course, this is an instrument specific stand which means it is only used for the curved soprano and not the alto as well.

Regardless of what brand meets the need, the key is to use a quality stand, always!

Keep em safe!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Blog Tour!

Today we head back to James Barrera's Blog (The Sound of Sax). James has posted a great find from YouTUBE. The clips are from a promotional ad featuring Sigurd Rascher.

You can join the tour by clicking here!

The video is of course old. But, there are some timeless topics presented throughout. One section I really liked comes in video 3. He discusses tongue placement for tonguing, and shows a pretty classy graphic (for the 1950's :-). And the other section I really liked is his discussion on practicing difficult passages. He demonstrates how to practice passages using different rhythms.

I could go on and on - he also demos practicing overtones. Check out his "sax without keys".

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why Music Is Important To All!

There are few things in life that all personality types enjoy like music. In fact, to say that we all just "enjoy" music is really not a sufficient description of the power of music. Most of us in fact NEED music in our lives. We listen to it for various reasons. Some of us listen for focus, ie. background music while we work. Others listen to experience the strength and energy communicated through music. Many more listen for the pleasure of experiencing the art of music for music's sake.

For those who perform music, listening and taking part in music first hand creates an experience like no other. This experience is of course very personal, very individual. As musicians we must remember that while music plays into our lives to a great extent, being a musician does not mean we alone appreciate music and as I stated above -- NEED music in our lives more than other -- this is not really the case.

Could music ever stop? Could there be a day when music instruction is so scarce that generations of humans have limited music options due to a lack of musicians? Some would argue that this will never happen. Humans are resourceful, finding ways to keep innate desires alive. Is music an innate desire? I do believe it is. But this thought offers little credibility to our lack of musical arts support in our world. We seem to want to test our own resolve by pushing more and more music out of schools. By doing so, we put more and more faith in the natural selection theory of musical survival.

For those who feel "I don't perform music", or "My child is not in band or chorus" is a reason to not support music in our schools and communities should think about how their lives would be affected by turning off the music. Imagine your world with no radio, no iTunes, no MP3s playing in the car, no XM. What would your world be like?

Supporting music does not mean we all need to be musicians. We just have to imagine our world without music. At times, we will have to fight for what we want, like now. Budget cuts are creating opportunities for schools to be rash and cut programs. State level programs are at risk (see my post regarding the PA Governor's Schools). We are at a point in history when available funds will not come easily. Innovation must take place, support must be consistent, communities must be creative and insistent, and individuals must step up and be heard.

I believe music is important to everyone who reads this. Do your part to ensure you and the next generation can enjoy music. We do NEED music!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Musical Motions

While music is not a visual art in the purest sense (ie - witnessed through our eyes), musical motion and expression does create a sense of motion in our mind. The evidence is simple. Listening to music makes most of us MOVE. The music creates an internal motion that is transmitted throughout our bodies and converted to real, physical motion. While performing music, most great musicians experience this same sensation. Can great musicians separate their musical performance and physical motion? In other words, can great musicians limit their physical motion to only what is necessary to play their instrument? I tend to think not. The visual aspect of performance is both necessary and critical to a vibrant performance, even if hear only through a recording.

The video is a pretty good NON-EXAMPLE of how motion and music are connected. While the robot had to have the movement programmed in, we as humans do not. We react to music! We INTERACT with music! Whether we are actually seeing a musical performance or not, moving to the music while performing seems to enhance the actual music (without even seeing the performer).

Musician performance movement is a debated subject. The debate is often tied to "how much movement is appropriate?" Rather than debate, lets set the scale to include all motion and leave the debate to another post. Many movements are incredibly subtle, an eye brow lift, a knee bend, a slight turning at the waist. Some motions are huge, like explosive dancing motions. For this post, motion is motion, no matter how small or large.

When teaching, I teach motions such as breathing and cuing. They are great places to start a young musician. Teaching a player how to establish a "mood" with something as simple as their breathing, is really empowering. For example, lets say a player has just finished a beautiful lyrical passage. The entrance following this section is a much more dynamic, rhythmic section. If the player breathes using a slow, subtle intake method, we may assume the next section is going to be just as lyrical. And more importantly, as a player, they may not really be "feeling" the rhythmic drive and energy they need to begin the section. Breath is a movement. We have to physically move our bodies, big parts in fact, to take a breath. Engaging all of the parts of our bodies to take a "proper" breath, in the mood of the section we are about to perform connects us internally, mentally, emotionally and musically. Our music performance will benefit from all of those senses, motions and emotions being in sync.

Cueing is another great exercise for a young musician. The goal is to get the player comfortable with physical motions other than those to just play the instrument. This can be incredibly difficult for a young musician (and adults). I use cuing because, well, here is the secret, "Cuing is actually pretty tough, and this one action alone can help lay the foundation for simpler motions." My logic is, start with something pretty hard, but make it seem easy. Once a young musician gains some skills in cuing, they start to free up in terms of other more subtle movements (and thus, free up musically). I start with cues such as cut offs. These are taught in the context of working with an accompanist. Younger students don't have to be working on solo literature with a live accompanist to practice this. We can all practice cut offs with ourselves, with programs like SmartMusic or with live accompanists.

Musicians of all ages benefit from connecting music and musical motion. As players, motion adds another dimension to our connection to the music. Allowing ourselves to FEEL the motion and act on that feeling through real, physical motion, will elevate our musical performance level.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Vibrato Instructional Videos

As a followup to my post re: group Vibrato, I posted two videos from "YouTube University" on saxophone vibrato.

Video 1: Timothy McAllister

Video 2: Jerry Bergonzi

Vibrato instruction is pretty complex. If left to ourselves, we come up with tons of ways of producing a "vibrato-like" sound, many harmful over time. Also, saxophone converts, those of us who play(ed) other instruments and now play sax, naturally want to apply vibrato techniques from other instruments to the saxophone. The direct application of vibrato techniques from other instruments can also be more harmful than artful.

As an ex trumpet player, I was taught 3 ways to vibrato on the trumpet alone.
  1. Diaphragm -- early cornet style vibrato often used diaphragmatic vibrato.
  2. Lip -- Creates a heavier, jazz oriented vibrato
  3. Hand -- a more controlled, less intrusive to the airstream vibrato approach
Applying any of those techniques to the saxophone would be pretty detrimental to, well, just about everything. Imagine using a hand vibrato on saxophone :-) The reasoning behind specific vibrato techniques however, can be similar. For instance the hand vibrato for the trumpet, the technique I ultimately found home in my tool box, is used so the air stream and embouchure details can remain consistent and unchanged. This allows for a good sound first with a vibrato added for warm and expression on top. That principle is the basis for the jaw vibrato on the sax. The jaw vibrato allows for a consistent airstream and embouchure. The end result is a good saxophone sound with vibrato added for flavor.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Quartet Vibrato

Reading "The Art of Quartet Playing, the Guarneri Quartet" has given me some really powerful insights including how to think about vibrato in our quartet. Vibrato can easily fall victim to becoming a "routine" component to making music rather than a fundamental nuance, artistically integrated into the overall performance of the tune. Routine vibrato is the kind of vibrato that is always the same, same speed, same degree - all the time, no matter the musical style, ensemble mixture, dynamics, or..... Approaching vibrato as a fundamental nuance to performance immediately challanges us as a quartet to thoughtfully integrate vibrato into the score.

So the challenge is laid out - Integrate Vibrato, be Thoughtful about Vibrato, Have a Plan (and justification) for Vibrato Use, Ensure Group Involvement in Applying Vibrato. Sounds easy right?

I've taken the material from the book and developed the following list for consideration.
  • Ensure all members of the group have a fundamental understanding of vibrato production.
  • Ensure members feel confident in their own production of vibrato -- ie -- all have applied the fundamentals of vibrato to create variations in vibrato, including speed and degree and application at various dynamics.
  • Recognize that vibrato is not standard. The amount and degree of vibrato WILL vary for the group and for individuals.
  • Recognize that vibrato is not ALWAYS ON. A non-vibrato passage can be very powerful.
  • Recognize that mixing non-vibrato layers with vibrato layers can help bring out musical priorities.
  • Recognize that vibrato can bring emphasis to a lesser important musical line (this is a negative thing :-)
  • Recognize that vibrato should be discussed, decisions made and marked into scores and parts.
This seems like a lot to think about... and it is. In the book, this topic takes several pages with examples, and additional converations. I've just brushed the surface. Our art and our desire to better our performance requires indepth study of the elements. Vibrato is one of the elements worth dissecting and understanding.