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 . 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.