Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wonderful Christmas Concert

Again this year the Christmas Concert was absolutely superb. Thanks
to all 70 players who participated. Your gift of music to the
community is greatly appreciated. Thanks to St. Paul's United
Methodist for the use of their beautiful and acoustically excellent
sanctuary for our concert.

Rehearsals resume on January 7 for the Summer Season of concerts in
Gypsy Hill Park. We are actively recruiting in the percussion,
clarinet, and flute sections. We are starting on the summer concerts
earlier in the rehearsal season this year and including more review
nights in the schedule.

Thanks to each member who gives so tirelessly to the success of The
Stonewall Brigade Band.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Welcome new band members!

We welcome a number of new band members in our trumpet, clarinet,
trombone, saxophone, french horn, baritone, and string bass
sections. Several of the new members are from the Charlottesville
area, so there is a developing "car pool" for folks driving to
practice and concerts from central Virginia.

At the present time, we are strongly recruiting new members in our
flute, clarinet, and percussion sections. New members are welcome in
every section at any time. Besides the concert band, opportunities
exist for participation in our small ensembles.

Be sure to check the "band schedule" section of the band web site for
various ensemble performances, ensemble rehearsals, and the concert
band schedule.

Welcome, new assistant director

It is with great pleasure that I welcome Frank Sampson as assistant director of the Stonewall Brigade Band.  Frank is band director at Rockbridge County High School in Lexington Virginia and is a former drum major with the James Madison University Marching Royal Dukes.  Frank will be sharing the conducting duties on the band's 2007 Christmas Concert to be held on Monday, December 17, at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, Staunton.

For a concert poster go to www.stonewallbrigadeband.com/concertposterchri.07.pdf

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Twentieth-Annual Stonewall Showcase of Bands is history.

The Twentieth-Annual Stonewall Showcase of Bands is now history.

Of all the Showcases we have had, this has to be the smoothest
ever! The kitchen crew, the press box crew, and the cleanup crew
had almost finished by the time the last bus pulled off the lot. The
weather was beautiful, and the event ran on time all day, with the
exception of a five-minute delay in the start of one class, which was
made up during the next break.

Scores are all available at www.stonewallbrigadeband.com/showcase.html 

along with a press release.

It is very notable that the top winning bands are all on a seven-
period day or an even-odd (alternating) block scheduling system in
their schools, and the lowest scoring bands are all on the four-by-
four block system. On a four-by-four block system the band members
get to be in band class three months out of the year and are off from
band for nine months of the year except for after-school rehearsals,
which have to compete with athletics for time and student
participation. The seven-period day and alternating block schools
allow band members to be in band class for nine months out of the
year, with obvious improvements in the tone quality, endurance, and
stage presence of the bands.

Special congratulations go out to Bath County High School Band.
They had fourth highest overall band score and the highest percussion
score of the day. This is an enormous accomplishment for a school
that includes only 333 students (according to Virginia Department of
Education Fall 2006 statistics) in grades 8-12 in a rural county
divided by mountains. They were the fifth-largest band at the
Showcase, eclipsing many schools with far greater enrollment. With
one band director teaching band in grades 5-12 in the two elementary
schools and one high school, this accomplished group of musicians and
their director deserve special accolades.

Additional congratulations, on top of years of accomplishment, go to
Charlottesville High School Band. Charlottesville has had only two
band directors since 1942! The band is a 26-time Virginia Honor
Band, and has appeared in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the
Rose Bowl Parade. This is truly a class act. Brothers Vince and
Joe Tornello direct the band.

Thanks to all the members of The Stonewall Brigade Band and the
Staunton Recreation Department for an excellent job running the

Monday, September 3, 2007

Time counting trick for non-wind players and other cool stuff

This works for piano, organ, percussion, and strings while actually
playing. It can also work for winds when they are resting but not
when they are playing, as you will see from the method.

I developed this little system for myself, because as an organist, I
have to be very careful of how long to hold whole notes when playing
hymns for a congregation. There is a great tendency toward church
pianists and organists to "jump the gun" after a long note.
Sometimes this is caused because the congregation is mostly non-music-
readers and just guess at the rhythm rather than feeling the pulse
and reading note values. Then the pianist or organist "goes with the
flow" and you get a sort of random, vague tempo that leads to lack of
participation. An organist that wrote an article in "The American
Organist" magazine took Duke Ellington's "it don't mean a thing if
it don't swing" and made it "it don't mean a thing if they won't
sing." This can be a mind-altering thought for someone like me that
has been playing the organ for 50 years. A firm, strong pulse leads
to great group singing.

Here's the technique: With your mouth shut, put your tongue against
the roof of your mouth and then pull it away (but keep the tip of the
tongue against the roof of your mouth and only pull down the back of
your tongue) , like pronouncing the sound "ch." You'll hear a
clicking sort of sound in your own ears. This make a great "ersatz"
metronome that you always have with you. You can "tick tock" to your
heart's content and nobody will know. You can also use this
technique to practice subtle changes in tempo while looking at a
piece of music. That way you can learn just the tempo change on a
ritard or accelerando without having the actual manipulation of the
instrument as a distraction. It is also a good technique for "finger
practice" when you are looking at the music, doing the "fingers" on
your horn, but not actually playing. Adding the "tick tock" to
finger practice can reveal rhythmic irregularities or inaccuracies.
Think about the difference between an irregularity (pulse) and an
inaccuracy (note value). It is also good for figuring out when to
use an agogic accent. (Go look that one up.) (Here's a good
reference--piano based but also general:

One of the most disconcerting and jarring things you can do to an
audience is to rush. Have you ever climbed a staircase and found
that the top step was a little shallower (or taller) than all the
rest? Jars your teeth doesn't it... because it disrupts the rhythm
of stair climbing that you established on the first two or three
steps. Rushing a whole note is just as jarring.... or actually
rushing the note that follows a whole note. This applies to any
sort of music.

The "ch ch" technique I described above is also great for wind
players who are sitting there counting rests. It helps you keep your
count with the conductor's tempo. Of course, you have to pay
attention to three things... your own counting speed, the tempo set
by the conductor, and keeping track of where you are..and hold your
attention on all three. Frankly, I count on my fingers. Just press
one finger a little harder into your palm or onto your leg and you
can count on your fingers without anyone knowing you are doing so.
I start with the "pinkie" as one. The thumb alone is 6. That allows
you to get to 10 on one hand.

The "moral to this story" is to figure out what you want to be able
to do on a consistent basis and then develop a system for doing it
the same way every time... or adopt someone else's system after
trying it and finding that it works.

2007 Concert Season is now history

Our 2007 Concert season concluded on August 27 with the People's
Choice Concert. Overall the season was a great success and was
enjoyed by band members and audience alike.

Doing a dozen concerts in a row with all different music (except the
People's Choice Concert) is quite a challenge for an all-volunteer
group, especially since we do all the rehearsals in the Spring and
none during the concert season.

As director, it is my job to know all the music--tempi, entrances,
trouble spots, and things to say in 10 words or less to remind the
members of things to watch. One technique that I had forgotten and
then remembered and put to good use is the idea that correcting the
balance between parts in the band can go a long way toward improving
pitch (which is already very good) and rhythmic precision (which is
sometimes a problem with a large band when everyone is busy reading
the page.) There was a book and set of band exercises published by
W. Francis McBeth about 30 years ago that came to mind in August.
The quick fix was to have the band play a simple Bb concert scale
slowly while I listened from the podium. Then I explained which
sections needed to be a little louder, which a little softer, and
which were ok for the dynamic level. This was done first at forte
and then at mezzo forte. The results were dramatic! Balance,
tuning, and rhythmic precision all improved from good to great.

Another thing that really helped rhythmic precision was to add a live
monitor behind the band. We put one of my Peavey KB-100 keyboard
amplifiers behind the band and ran a mike line up front with the mike
at about eye level with the front row and just behind me. This
allowed the back of the band to hear the front of the band. The
chordal intonation locked in much better, and rhythmic precision
improved, plus we heard the woodwind sections better when they had
the melody and the brass were accompanying. Being able to hear the
front of the band helped the back of the band know when to adjust
their dynamic level from "lead" to "background".

We are now off for a month and will resume rehearsals on October 1,
when we prepare for our October 6th appearance playing "oompah" music
at the Frontier Culture Museum's "Oktoberfest."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Persistence and instrumental technique

In the last post I wrote about the Psychological concept of
Persistence... keeping a mental image of something after the
"something" is no longer seen or heard. The idea was that when we
play a note, then a different note, and come back to the first one
that the pitch must sound the same. (Notice I said sound the same,
not be the same, because listener perception of good tuning is
relative to the other notes being played at the same time.) We want
our listeners to "hear" us being in tune.

Now some things about keeping the pitch the same. There are certain
inherent problems "built in" to your arm, fingers, lip, brain and
instrument that you can easily overcome if you are aware of them.

Instrument by instrument:

Flute: Octave jumps can be tricky to tune. First the head joint has
to be tuned properly using the end cork so that octaves are in tune.
There is a mark on the cleaning rod that is supposed to be equal to
the diameter of the head joint at the embouchure hole. This is the
distance that the cork should be from the center of the hole, AS A
STARTING POINT. Real tuning is done by ear. Play just on the head
joint and then go up an octave. Do this 4 or 5 times and listen to
see if the octaves are in tune. Pulling out on the cork will widen
the octaves and pushing in will shorten them. There will be a point
where the octaves are in tune and the tone will be much clearer and
stronger. That's where you want the cork. After you have tuned the
cork, be aware of head position and air direction. Low notes--raise
the head and pull the chin back so as to blow down into the hole.
High notes, dip the head and push the lower jaw forward. Some
practice on octaves on your instrument will have you in tune in no time.

Trombone: The trick is in muscle control of your "slide arm." The
general tendency is to mis-play 2nd, 3rd and 4th position a little
too far out when coming from first position, and a little too far in
when coming up from 6th or 5th position. It's important to "land" at
the right place, no matter which direction you are coming from...
don't over shoot or land short. Play F,G,A,G,F,A,F a bunch of times
and you'll learn to nail 2nd position. You can make up your own
exercises for other positions if you think about it.

Clarinet and saxophone: The trick is to push the reed halfway closed
with your lower lip, so that the reed vibrates the same distance in
each direction... toward your mouth and toward the mouthpiece. To
figure this out, look at the mouthpiece from the side and see where
the mouthpiece curve away from the reed tip ends and the reed is
touching the mouthpiece. Look at your reed off the mouthpiece and
find the "heart." With the reed on the mouthpiece, looking at it
from the side, put your thumb on the heart of the reed and press
lightly and figure out how far you have to move the reed to move the
tip halfway to the mouthpiece. Then do the same thing with the
mouthpiece in your mouth. This is the starting point for good
control and will generally allow the instrument to play in tune.

Additional clarinet trick: If your high notes go flat just push up
on the thumb rest when you go higher. This will tip your head back
and create a bit more pressure on the reed, pushing the tip closer to
the mouthpiece. To get a faster vibration, the distance should be a
bit shorter for the vibration. This is the same principle as a
pendulum... longer=slower, shorter=faster.

Brasses: The key to good tuning is training your lip to play all the
notes. Try this: Start a buzz without your mouthpiece, starting
with as high a pitch as you can manage. Slowly let it "glissando" or
sweep downward to lower and lower pitches. If you hit a "dead spot"
these are notes where your lip really isn't trained to vibrate and
are notes that will have a fuzzy tone and be out of tune. Do this
exercise at a different time than when you play your horn. You can
even do it while driving your car (alone is better.) Start as high
as you can and slide down to a really "floppy lip" sound as low as
you can go. In a very short time you will find that your tone has
improved and so has your tuning.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Persistence and Pitch

The psychologist Jean Piaget wrote about Persistence-- keeping a
mental image of something when the object is no longer in sight-- as
part of childhood development. As he discussed it, persistence
related to visual stimuli. In my experience as a band director,
persistence can also relate to audible stimuli.

Say, for example, that you play F, G, A, G, F. While you are playing
G and A you do not hear F, but when you return to it, if you are
paying attention, you can readily tell whether the second F you play
is exactly the same pitch as the first one you played. That is
because the mental image of the first F is still fresh in your mind,
and you can make a comparison.

Individuals differ in the amount of "data" that they can keep in
conscious memory. Psychologists tell us that, on average, people can
keep seven items in conscious memory, and that adding one more kicks
the first one out. As with any other characteristic, this can vary
widely between individuals. So, the number of notes that need to be
between the two "F's" in the above example before the perception of
being in tune no longer applies will differ with different listeners.

So what has this got to do with playing in a band? Several things:

1. When you leave a note and return to it, a listener will notice if
they differ in pitch by even a small amount. Just pay attention and
they will match. (Watch for some instrumental techniques later in
another posting.)

2. When you have to "come in" after an extended rest, and you enter
on the same note played by another section or player just before you
begin, you need to match the pitch exactly, or the listener will
notice and characterize you as "playing out of tune" even if you are
actually playing the correct pitch. It is the comparison that can
trick the ear in this situation. The solution is to listen carefully
while waiting to enter and match the pitch of the note before.

3. This one is trickier. When you have a note that repeats, but the
other notes change (you become the "pivot note" in a chord change)
your note has to be "in tune vertically" with the chord. Consider,
for example, that you are playing the note "C" and it repeats in your
part. So you play C, C. The first time you play the chord is C,E,G.
The second time it is Ab,C,Eb. Do you play the same pitch both
times? Surprisingly, no, because the second time you have the "third
of the chord" which needs to be favored slightly sharp to sound in
tune. How do you know if you are in tune with the chord? Simply
this... when you are slightly out of tune you can hear yourself
clearly, but when you are in tune with the chord your sound tends to
disappear in, or blend with the chord. This also can modify what
happens in #2 above. Just paying attention to the sounds around you
can make this happen automatically.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Balance and the Bandstand

Some thoughts on balance (that directly relate to our bandstand):

1. The bandstand is about the best anywhere, but it does have a few
quirks. If you look at the ceiling you can see that lines in the
plaster converge in the very center. These are decorative, but make it
easy to find the exact center of the stage. Directly under the center
of the ceiling there is a spot about a yard (or slightly more) in
diameter (circular) that is sort of dead. If you're sitting in that
spot your sound won't project as well. It has to do with resonance,
standing waves, and distances. It affects lower notes more than higher
notes. In effect, the sound waves reflect off the back wall back into
this spot and cancel out the waves coming from this spot, if the note's
wavelength is close to a multiple of the distance to the back wall. If
we can avoid having anyone sit directly under this spot it might help,
but since there are a "range" of distances to various portions of the
wall, there are different notes affected at different spots. This is a
very subtle effect, but enough to make certain notes "drop out" of the
overall sound. So, if you find that one of your notes sounds very loud
at this spot, THAT is the note that you hear and the audience doesn't,
so "favor" that note even louder.

2. There is a corridor from that center spot back to the open door in
the back of the bandstand, about a yard wide. If you're sitting in that
corridor your sound won't project to the audience quite as well. The
"hole" in the back wall allows the sound to be reflected off the wall at
the back of the backstage area back through the door, so it is out of
phase with the sound reflected off the back wall of the stage, creating
a "cancellation" of sound waves. Therefore if you are in this "corridor"
or in the "dead spot" (at church, in the choir loft we call our dead
spot the black hole) you need to play at least one dynamic level louder
than if you weren't sitting there. So, just look at the ceiling and at
the door, find the "dead corridor" and adjust if you're in it. In this
situation, if a certain note seems to be coming from inside your head,
you are hearing it out of phase and need to emphasize it a bit so it
sounds right to the audience.

3. If you are sitting outside the roof cover, your sound doesn't
project. In fact, this effect extends about a foot inside that line, so
if you are there, increase your dynamic level by 1 level. Usually this
is the person in the outermost chair.

4. The bandstand has a resonance. Back when I was a student at UVA, if
I was late to marching band practice at Scott Stadium, I could tell I
was late because you could hear the drums... but they didn't sound like
drums... it was one pitch over and over, because the air column inside
the stadium had its own resonant note. It's just like the "boom-boom"
sound from cars with loud stereos passing by... just one note. That's
because the trunk or door of the car has a resonance that is heard
outside but not inside the car. This resonance of the bandstand is
around Eb or F just below the bass staff. Somehow it isn't noticeable
in the tuba sound, but seems to be so in tympani and bass drum. I have
been working on the bass drum tuning. When you don't dampen it, the
resonance of the bandstand doesn't seem to be "triggered" but when you
do dampen it, we get a loud resonant tone that you probably can't hear
from the back of the bandstand. I need to move the pitch of the bass
drum just a little to see if we can get rid of that resonance. (It is
more noticeable when the drum is upright.)

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Concert season has arrived!

The 119th-annual series of concerts in Gypsy Hill Park starts on
Monday, June 4, 2007 in the Stonewall Brigade Bandstand in Staunton's
Gypsy Hill Park. Directions to the park are on the band's website

www.stonewallbrigadeband.com . Concerts are held regardless of
weather, unless there is a thunderstorm with strong blowing rain that
blows in on the bandstand. This year the Mountain Saxhorn Band,
under the leadership of Eb cornetist David Taylor, will open the
concert, recreating the sound of the original band from 1855. Then
the concert band will play the concert as listed on the web site.

The band president, business manager, and I spent about an hour last
Tuesday trying different chair arrangements on the bandstand. The old
arrangement, with "lines on the floor" won't quite work with the
larger band we now have. Our plan is for the three of us to get
there a little early Monday to set up chairs and put the folders on
the stands before the band arrives.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Adjusting to the venue

A favorite expression among builders of fine pipe organs is that "the
room is the most important stop on the organ." By this they mean that
the acoustical environment has much more effect on the music than
anything they can do in making an instrument.

The same is true of a concert band. The acoustical environment in which
we play has a profound effect (and affect) on the audience's experience
in hearing us play.

We are very fortunate to have a bandstand in the park which is very
effective in transmitting our sound to the audience. It is based on a
Klipsch loudspeaker design called a "corner horn" and also based on 17th-
century Dutch pipe organ cases--all in a visual design that is
distinctly "Victorian." The height from ceiling to floor was designed
to create an air column that will support the lowest pitches from the
tubas and bass drum. The "gingerbread" across the front works like
"pipe shades" on a classic organ case... creating an infinitely variable
opening that supports all wavelengths of sound and therefore transmits
all instruments equally to the audience. The angled section of the
ceiling in the back is based on the physics principle "angle of
incidence equals angle of reflection" so that the sound of upright tubas
and upward-aimed bass drum head is reflected to the listening area--and
it gives a variable air column length to the bandstand so that there
aren't any "loud" or "soft" notes because of resonances. The concrete
floor and plaster-lath wall and ceiling materials are designed to be
reflectors rather than absorbers or sound. Even the trees get into the
act, creating a natural reflective barrier behind the audience that
creates just a touch of "reverb."

(An interesting aside.... when the 4th of July events come around and
they put bunting around the top of the bandstand they "kill" a lot of
its natural resonance, so sound reinforcement has to be used.

That being said, what can the players do to adjust to the venue when we
are playing "somewhere else?" Some venues are "bass heavy" and others
are "treble heavy" and others are just plain "dead" where the sound
seems to evaporate inches in front of your face. Usually the band can
present a concert that is enjoyable for the listener with just a few
adjustments in dynamic levels.

First... trumpets need to remember that when they play "into the stand"
the sound is being reflected back at them and will sound louder to them
but softer to the audience. This is counterintuitive. To be heard the
bell has to point above or beside the music stand so that the sound goes
outward rather than being reflected back to the player. This also
affects trombones, but less so, since lower pitches are more non-
directional. So when you are playing very loud with the bell pointing
directly at the listeners you will not sound as loud to yourself but
will be much louder to the listener. (This is where the conductor can
help... with hand signals and perhaps a comment between selections.)

Second, we have to be seated so the sound can get out of the band. The
sound vibrations are actually variations in air pressure that move the
eardrum. Your sound has energy, but doesn't care what it moves... the
eardrums of the listener, the fibers in the clothing of the person
sitting in front of you, the air in ceiling nooks and crannies... it is
all the same to your sound. This means that there needs to be enough
room between rows for the sound to get around the obstacles in the band
in front of the player. That's why many jazz bands have the trumpets
standing up behind the seated trombones, which are on risers behind and
above the saxes, which are the least directional of all the intruments
in a jazz band. That's partly why the woodwinds are seated in front of
the brasses in a concert band (to balance the sound by absorption in
players' backs), the other reason being the natural progression of sound
from low pitch to high pitch from back to front of the band so that the
players playing higher notes can tune to the lower notes behind them.

Finally, we have to be aware of the conductor's indication of sound
levels. Sometimes you may think that you are playing "ff" when the
sound is coming out "mp" and sometimes it may be the other way around.
You can't change the way the venue transmits your sound to the audience,
but you can change the general loudness of your sound. Trumpets and
Trombones can do this by the positioning of the bell of the
instruments. Other instrumentalists simply have to make an adjustment
in dynamic level.

When playing in an unfriendly acoustical environment, the quickest and
easiest way to adjust is to listen carefully during the warmup scale and
tuning period. If you find that the conductor's comments sound muffled,
then the space is "dead" and you'll have to play out more. If you find
that your tone really "rings" maybe you will need to drop a dynamic level.

Once we learn to "play the room" -- which we can learn in about a minute
if we pay attention -- we can make the audience hear the same sound that
they would hear if we were on our own bandstand.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The end of the measure

Quarter notes at the end of a measure are often the "problem" in rhythmic reading of syncopation. We get all the tricky stuff right and then play the quarter note at the wrong time. Why does this happen? The brain can generally hold 7 things in current attention of conscious memory, at most. When you introduce an 8th thing, the first thing falls off the other end of your brain. So trying to read all the notes and rests in a measure individually, rather than reading groups and patterns, can lead to a form of "brain clog" that causes rhythmic errors. (Processing time is also involved here, and it slows down as we get older, so it's even more important to read in groups as we age.) That's why it is important to see the quarter note that follows a syncopated pattern in a jazz, rock, pop, or broadway type piece in relationship to the bar line at the end of the measure. See the quarter note on 4 or the quarter note on 3 followed by a rest as a "pattern". The pattern is "a quarter note before a bar line is on the last beat of the bar, and is a pickup to the next bar." A good friend of mine who is a versatile player of many instruments...trumpet, saxophone, guitar, bass, banjo and many more... and in all genres of music from classical to bluegrass.... once commented "I practice licks, and then just string them together." The more "licks" or patterns you know and have played many times... the more automatic the technical (key pushing, breathing, articulation, etc.) parts of your playing become.

In summary.... read the measure from both ends. See the simple pattern at the end if it is there. See the complex pattern not as individual notes but as a pattern that you have already learned to play. Learn a lot of patterns, and you can sight read many pieces of music with accuracy. Remember that you can only "attend to" a maximum of 7 things at a time. Included in those seven things could be tone, dynamics, breathing, tempo, following the director, accents, key signature, time signature.... hey we're past seven. So how in the world can anybody play an instrument? Simple.... automatic performance controlled by the subconscious mind. If you learn the basic skills to the point of automatic performance... then you can attend to the things that are not automatic. And you can attend to the things that make music art.

Learn your rhythmic patterns so you recognize them automatically. Mark the tricky spots on your music so you will remember to read them. Have you ever been playing a piece and suddenly lost your place for no apparent reason? It happens to all of us and is usually because we have been on auto-pilot for a while and suddenly we are in unfamiliar territory and didn't make the switch in our attention. The admonition "read ahead" really means "scope out the territory."

So... when on auto-pilot, be sure to pay attention to where you are. Learn patterns. Read patterns. Play patterns. Use the bar lines as "mile posts on the interstate." Constantly redirect your attention and focus.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Jamestown 400

It's Monday morning, May 14. America's big celebration is now history.
The Stonewall Brigade Band performed a 45 minute concert at 6 pm on
Saturday the 12th of May 2007 and did an outstanding job! It was a fun
and interesting trip for all 70 members who participated. A
thunderstorm came up at 5:20 pm so the entire bunch was crowded into a
dressing tent to tune up, and it was very hot in there--well up into the
80's with high humidity, so we tuned at A=442, which is where the first
clarinets were. When we got on stage it was about 75 degrees and pitch
was right on. There was a capacity audience at the beginning of our
performance. Some audience members left about 15 minutes before the end
of our program because the "main event" was beginning on another stage.
Now we turn to a performance this Saturday for the New Market battle
reenactment event and this coming Sunday for the graduation at Mary
Baldwin College. Three more rehearsals remain, including tonight, and
then our Summer series of Concerts in the Park begin. Look for our
concert schedule on the band web site later this week.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Putting your best foot forward

We have all heard the expression "put your best foot forward" but
what does that mean in terms of playing in a concert band? It
relates to sitting posture and having the best position that makes it
possible to play your instrument with the least UNNECESSARY muscular
tension. In "Geometry Class" we learned that three points determine
a plane. Those three points are your left foot, your right foot, and
your chair (with your body sitting on it.) You have the most
stability and least effort in balancing yourself and your instrument
if your center of gravity is in the middle of the triangle formed by
your two feet and the center of your chair. It helps if one foot is
slightly in front of the other, but which one should be in front?
The answer is your dominant foot, and there is an easy way to figure
out which one it is. Just be aware for a few days of which foot you
always put out first when you go from standing to walking, or which
foot you put down first when climbing stairs. Then, "put your best
foot forward" when seated and playing your instrument. (Have a close
look at how professional orchestral players sit.) Then, since your
brain doesn't have to do so much "background processing work" to keep
you balanced on your chair, your brain can allocate more of its
resources to the background processing that makes it possible for you
to play your instrument with ease and grace. So... when playing in
the band, "put your best foot forward."

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Pickup notes in a march.

The key to clean pickup notes in a march it to have a slight space
(silence) BEFORE the pickup notes. Slightly cut off the note before
the pickup(s) if there is no rest. Generally a quarter of a beat in
2/4 or 4/4 is enough. 1/3 of a beat in 6/8 time generally works
well. If there is a rest, be sure it starts when written.

When there are an odd number of pickup notes, they generally can be
grouped as sub-phrases. Five pickups mean that the first note is a
pickup to the second, and the next three notes are pickups to the
downbeat. This implies that the second note is slightly more
separated and that there is a crescendo during the last three so that
you "land" on the downbeat.

Another trick is to use the "bluegrass" method of counting. In a cut
time march, 5 eighth note pickups into a half note downbeat would be
"scat sung" as "a 2 it is a 1."

To get the needed "lilt" in playing a march, it helps to accent
slightly a pickup note, but with slightly less weight than the weight
of the downbeat that follows. In the "Sousa" period marches the rule
was "long note=strong note." In a 6/8 march think "de dum, de dum,
de dum" to get the "feel" of eighth rests on counts 2 and 5.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Sight reading tips

Focused attention is the first key to effective sight reading. You
need to divide your attention into three areas-- reading (both the
page and the conductor if there is one), playing, and checking (to
see if what you are doing is what is on the page, and if what you are
playing fits in with what the other members of the group are playing,
if applicable.) You have to do all 3 things all the time and adjust
your focus "on the fly."

A quick "before playing" overview for things like time signature, key
changes, and obviously tricky rhythms should take no more than 10-15
seconds. This quick glance should tell you if there are any changes
in tempo, dynamics, or style. You don't have to study what they are,
just notice THAT they are and maybe WHERE they are. Then you'll be
ready for them when you get there.

Reading notes in groups is the second key to effective sight
reading. If you try to read each and every note as a separate
entity, your brain has trouble processing all that separate
information quickly enough to play. It is much easier to see four
sixteenth-notes as a group, and then play them as a group (a grouping
you have probably played many times before.) If there is something
that looks like a scale, it probably is. There may be a note or two
that aren't really "scale notes" but if you have recognized the scale
with a glance, it's easy to pick out the "odd notes". With a little
practice this can become automatic.

When rests come in the middle of a measure, it is easier to read
"when the end comes" than it is to "count out the middle." For
example in 4/4 time, if you have a quarter note, two quarter rests,
and a quarter note, it is more efficient to see the last note as a
pickup note to the next measure. Remember that the bar lines aren't
fences to jump over, but are more like the mile markers on the highway.

If you get totally lost, find the next marker, such as a key change,
time change, tempo change, or major section, and jump on when the
music goes by.

Most of all, relax, and the music will just happen. The more you
sight read the better sight-reader you will become. Then playing
your instrument will be more fun than ever!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Breathe in time to start on time

The beginning of a piece will have maximum impact and generate maximum
enjoyment for the audience if the attack of the first note is exactly
together by all players. The trick to accomplishing this is for
everyone to take their breath in tempo, following the director's
preparatory beat. "Breathe together to start together!"


The purpose of this blog is to communicate some of the finer points of playing music... instrumental technic, sight reading, phrasing, interpretation, and lots of other topics that will come to mind from time to time.