Listening in Layers
I was working with a student on his upcoming recital and we had a great discussion on listening. So many musicians have a hard time listening to their own recordings; one of the most difficult lessons that a performer must learn is to address our own playing as it really is and not as we want it to be. I would like to suggest this simple technique to help guide the performer through this very important process. That technique is to listen in layers.
The first step is to turn of the performer’s ears and engage the editor’s ears. Think of yourself as a creative writer. When writing a great poem or essay, the first step is to put the ideas on paper, for a performer that is the act of performing. Perform for yourself in your practice space and document the event with a video or audio recorder. Once the performance is concluded, and you go back to listen to your recording, acknowledge that you are no longer the performer, you are now the editor. When you are in the editing phase, listen in layers and use a rubric to guide your critique. I am including a sample rubric, feel free to use or adapt it to your own needs.
Layer One: Time
Am I playing with an accurate sense of pulse? When does my pulse lose integrity and when it does, what is the cause? Am I playing the rhythms on the page accurately? Are there certain rhythmic patterns that I tend to play inaccurately?
Layer Two: Pitch
When am I playing out of tune? Is it on certain notes? Is it at a certain point in the phrase? Is it related to the dynamics or articulations?
Layer Three: Technique
Am I playing the correct notes? When I am not playing the correct note what is the cause? Am I hearing the right notes in my head? Is my hand position and posture helping me maximize my technique?
Layer Four: Breathing
Are my breaths full and relaxed? Am I following my breathing plan?
Layer Five: Phrasing
Have I identified where the phrases are in the music? Am I conveying that to the audience? Are problems with the other layers of music detracting from my concept of phrase?
Layer Six: Dynamics
Am I playing the dynamics on the page and can that be heard on the recording? Is my attempt to play with dynamic contrast causing other layers to go haywire?
Layer Seven: Vibrato
How does my vibrato fit the character of the music? Does it enhance or detract from the music? Is it appropriate to the style and mood of that moment? Does it engage the listener and enhance projection?
Layer Eight: Articulation
Am I playing the correct articulations? Do the articulations match the style and mood of the moment? Is the articulation aiding in tonal clarity, projection and stylistic understanding?
Layer Nine: Tone Quality
Is the tone appropriate to the style and mood of the moment? Does the tone quality remain static or is it varied? Is the core sound pleasing to the ear?
Layer Ten: Style and Interpretation
Does the interpretation show an understanding of stylistic practices specific to the time period, geographical location, and language of the particular composer?
Getting Started with T&G EJ4
There's no doubt that Taffanel and Gaubert's technique book 17 Grands Exercices Journaliers de Mécanisme pour Flûte has been a staple in flutists' practice routines since its inception. These exercises provide flutists with a thoughtful and methodical approach to conquering technique. One of my favorite exercises in the book is EJ4. It succinctly works the flutist through the major and minor scales in a progression that is both musical and mechanical. However, many young students struggle with getting started with this exercise. Here's a simple approach to getting started with this exercise, enjoy!
Before you get started with the actual exercise, familiarize yourself with the major and minor scales in all three forms. Get used to playing them over the full range of your instrument, not only from the tonic-up-and-back.
Step One: Majors
Practice all of the major scales in the exercise. Start with the first seven measures plus the first note of the eighth measure. Skip ahead to measure 17-24 and so forth. Hint: look for the double bar and key change, that is the start of the next major key area. Get these really good and memorize them! Work up the tempo until you can do it in one or two breaths.
Step Two: Minors
Practice all of the minors following the same procedure as in step one. Before you start the first minor key, analyze the pattern. When is it harmonic minor? When is it melodic minor? This pattern holds true for every minor scale, so learn it well in the first key area and then apply that knowledge to the less familiar key areas. Memorize them!
Step Three: Transitions
Practice all transitions. First practice the transitions from major to minor as a unit. This would be measure 8 to the downbeat of 9, 24 to the downbeat of 25, and so on. Learn how they work and memorize the pattern, from there you will be able to play the notes! Follow the same procedure for the transitions of minor to major (measure 16 to the down beat of 17, and so on.) Memorize this!
Step Four: Putting It All Together
Now that you can do each individual skill, practice them in units. Start with one major and minor key area, and then add more until you can play through the entire exercise. This step is more about mental training and focus than it is about learning the actual notes. Remember, you have already done all the heavy lifting, now all you have to do is maintain through consistent and committed practicing. Celebrate your achievement! You now have the entire exercise memorized and you are ready to go on to the scale game!
Etudes Made Easy!
Fostering a systematic approach to learning music is of the most valuable lessons that etude study provides the developing student. This overarching idea is more important than the set of concepts presented within a single etude, the maturity and sophistication of the student's approach determines how quickly he or she can improve in every facet of playing, from technical to musical to tone development. For this reason, it is worthwhile to spend the time developing an approach that works for you. In this blog, I will present a strategy that I have found to be very helpful personally and in my own studio. For this blog, I will use Andersen's Etude No. 8 in f# minor, Opus 41. You can find the entire book here: http://imslp.org/wiki/18_Etudes_for_Flute,_Op.41_(Andersen,_Joachim)
Take a Look at the Big Picture
Take a moment to look through the entire etude. Sing through it in your head and make note of the form and phrasing. Label the repetitions and breath marks. I like to use symbols to remind myself of the form, like a star or bracket. If the piece has a more sophisticated form, I may use letters or descriptions, such as "love theme in A major". Here is an example of the Andersen No. 8/41 with these ideas highlighted.
Note that the opening material is presented four times, which makes up 50% of the entire etude! I have selected breath marks that highlight my initial intreptation of the phrasing, these could change as I practice the piece.
I tell my students to choose a hard measure, tackle it, and then work backwards. When we read through a piece of music, it feels like it is getting more and more difficult and increasingly foreign until we finally reach the summit of the musical mountain. Underlying chord progressions, the need for variety, and our own concentration and endurance all contribute to that feeling. A simple solution is to isolate a single difficult measure, conquer it, and then tack on the preceding measure, so on and so forth, building the piece like a lego house. It works for two reasons: 1. once the difficult measure is conquered, the preceding measure doesn't seem as difficult by comparison, and 2. we are repeating the most difficult passages many times, building confidence in them! Try it on the last measure of the fourth line. Play slowly and accurately several times. Observe the contour of notes, shape the phrase, and build confidence through the awkward double-sharp. Add on the measure before (or even a single note) and repeat several times. Continue the process until you have built up the entire phrase. Now take a deep breath, and play through the entire phrase one time. You will notice immediate improvement!
Keep It Simple, Smarty
Smart musicians have a problem; they like to make things complicated. This blog is dedicated to keeping it simple. Keeping that in mind, I'll make it quick!
To create musical flow, we need to focus on asking ourselves one simple question: What is the next note? Follow this simple process to categorize the notes in your mind, think of this as mental "Container Store". Identify the next note, categorize it, and hear it. Why categorize? Putting the notes into categories will reveal information about their musical purpose and structures in a performance-driven manner. Here's a simple diagram for thinking about the next note.
Every musician who has spent a significant amount of time performing from memory can attest to the many benefits of such a pursuit. Some of these surface-level benefits are clear and easy to observe by all musicians and there are other benefits that are more difficult to articulate. In recent years, memory requirements for competitions have become less common, whereas non-memorized concerto performances by wind players have begun to become the norm. There is a growing contingency of musicians who are skeptical about the relevance of memory work in today’s world, many of whom have never had to memorize beyond Suzuki training or marching band, and have written off the possibility of such a huge payoff for something that they may view as little more than a parlor trick.
This blog is designed to encourage the skeptic to consider the many benefits that lay under the surface and to provide some techniques to developing this skill. Whether you are preparing for a competition, audition, or you wish to enrich your practice sessions, keep in mind that once you understand that (like many other elements of practicing) it is a skill, that means that through intelligent work, you can get better at it.
Do I have to?First, let’s discuss the why of memorizing. The act of playing by memory is commonly referred to as “playing by heart”. This endearing term elucidates the purpose of memory work better than any scientific study. To memorize music is to love music so much that you choose to carry it with you everywhere you go! In a recent essay in the New York Times, author Jim Holt discussed the benefits and process to memorizing poetry. In the article, Holt said “The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words.” It is the transformation from tedious mechanical practice to an organic performance that musicians achieve when committing a piece of music to memory.
The development of pattern-based thinking is unavoidable in memory work. Memory work is a form of ear training. When a musician puts a piece to memory, patterns emerge, both visually and aurally. We begin to make broad connections and learn to speak the language of the composer. We develop an understanding of the nuances of a composition, seeing repetition and deviation in melodic and harmonic devices. We see the shape of the piece, and in understanding how the form unfolds in time, we can more easily understand how to execute the individual phrases. The joy of memorizing is the joy of unfolding a paper and discovering a beautiful piece of art underneath the creases. Learning to hear the larger framework of a composition gives balance to technical practice, which requires us to isolate a very limited number of notes.
Removing ObstaclesPerforming without a music stand in front of you allows you to connect directly with your audience. What an exhilarating and terrifying opportunity to share music at a deeper level than before! In the concert hall, this allows the audience direct visual access to the performer. In an ensemble performance, it allows you to keep your eye on the conductor and musicians around you. When you open yourself up to better visual communication while performing and rehearsing you ensure a richer, unrestrained performance. In the practice room, it allows the performer direct visual access to his or herself. The performer can practice in front of the mirror without the hindrance of the music stand. Practicing in front of the mirror teaches the flutist how to be his or her own best teacher. We have an innate understanding of efficient body mechanics and through conscientious self-observation, we will naturally develop posture and hand position that leads to efficient technique.
Memorizing develops concentration. One of the biggest challenges of being a performing musician is learning to deal with distraction. Distraction has origins in both internal and external forms. External distraction, whether it appears as a ringing cell phone, coughing audience members, or a mosquito buzzing at your face, is par for the course. We can’t control it, so we must learn to accept it as part of performing. Internal distraction, an inner narrative, can be much more distracting than any external situation. The mind is a powerful force, but one can overcome the hindrance of the inner monologue through memory work. The internal distraction is much like a stubborn toddler, the best way to deal with it is to keep it busy. The mind gets bored easily, and if you give yourself a challenge, you can learn to overcome internal distraction.
Create Happiness and Learn Faster
Frustration.This is one of the most difficult things about playing an instrument. In order to improve, we have to push through the difficulty of learning. Sometimes when I am practicing a new skill or a difficult passage, I imagine the synapses firing in my brain, stretching and reaching so far to connect, yearning for understanding and fluency. One of the major hurdles to our own success is learning how to let go of frustration and to stay positive while learning. Here's a little secret: with the right approach, learning becomes much easier! I tell my students that if we begin with an optimistic and confident mindset, we will save countless hours of frustration. The question that students ask me more than anything is how.
Begin with optimism and confidence!Research shows that once we are in a negative feedback loop, it is much more difficult to break that loop. We must start fresh every day, our mindset outside of the practice room matters, and we must cultivate positivity in all aspects of life. How do you change entrenched thinking patterns? First, observe your own mind and recognize that these negative patterns are present. Acknowledge, and then let go. Our brains only like to keep a finite amount of information in our immediate grasp, so fill that space up with positivity. Keep a journal, either analogue or online (I love the colorful moleskins!) and write down three things that you are grateful for every morning. Think about it while brushing your teeth, and then just jot it down. This is the first step to rewiring your mind toward positivity.
Get Some Exercise!Walk, run, bike, chase your dog around, square dance...anything! Just get your blood circulating! This is so important because stress and negative thinking takes such a huge toll on the human body! Release some of the stale, old bad feelings through sweat...your body will thank you! Once you get those endorphins flowing, you will see things in a different light. Trust me, it works like a charm!
Keep a Journal of PositivityWrite down a list of positive things every day. This only needs to take a few minutes; you can do this while you are waiting for class to start, in between practice sessions, before bed, or any time! Gain some perspective on your life; the world is full of people who just can't let themselves enjoy the good that they have all around them. Learn to recognize the positive, remember that you are retraining your brain!
Stay in the Flow of Positivity while PracticingThe next step is the big one. You've cultivated all of these wonderful habits, now how do you apply them to the practice room? As I get out my instrument, I set my intentions. Here's an exercise that I use to set my intentions: I imagine my mind as a coin. One side of the coin has all the wonder, excitement, positivity, and creativity that makes up my human potential. What is on the other side? All of the negative, hate, and frustration? No. The other side is nothing. If I flip that coin over, there is nothing. I check in with my mind's coin often, and I know that it will always land with the sunny side up, because I my mind can't create nothing. There will always be something there, there will always be some presence, and that presence is good.
In order to keep yourself in the flow of positivity, keep this in mind:
flutist, writer, traveler, teacher