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.