Chicago

5 Jan

This December I was really looking forward to attending the Midwest Convention in Chicago Illinois. The plan was to fly up, spend four days and be home for Christmas. Life had other plans.

For someone who has spent years in the music education field, an emerging composer and all around band person, the Midwest Convention seems like a dream come true. This was my first time to Midwest. I have known about it for a long time, but I thought the convention was “for conductors,” and as I do not get to do a lot of conducting, I did not go.

I had a band piece published in 2021. This was an inconvenient time as people were not travelling. However, this year, I learned that my publisher had a booth at Midwest, and I was invited to attend, even though the piece had been accepted a year earlier. So I decided to go.

For those of you who don’t know, Midwest Clinic is a national convention for band directors. Conductors of all levels from middle school, high school and college professors, all over the country come to visit. Some bring their bands to perform (a very coveted honor) and some come for professional development. They come looking for new knowledge, new equipment, and new music. All these band directors under one roof. And I would be there, with my publisher, with my music. This was a once in a lifetime networking opportunity for me. Not only did I get to meet people who were (band) famous, but my exhibitor badge got me in to see concerts…for free! It was overwhelming, but in a good way. And even though my Florida skin is not suited well to the cold, most of my time was indoors.

The week before I was busy prepping for Christmas. Christmas is my favorite holiday. This is the time of year I usually do baking, wrapping, last minute shopping. I was worried about getting everything done before Chicago. Little did I know.

Forecasters predicted a snowstorm late on Thursday, the last day of the convention. I was scheduled to leave on Thursday morning. I thought we would leave just in time to miss the storm. On Tuesday, it was announced that one of the bands, a large university group, scheduled to perform on the last day, had changed their concert in order that they might catch an earlier flight to Texas. I had tickets purchased through Southwest. After several phone calls, I was assured of my reservation. My flight was still confirmed to take off as scheduled.

The next day, people were talking about the storm and the possibility of flights being grounded. There were several more event cancellations and postponements. While I was in the exhibit hall, I wondered how the exhibitors would be able to ship all their things home. While I was at another booth shopping, I heard a muffled voice over the loudspeaker making an announcement that ended, “Merry Christmas!” The next thing I knew, people were running around the convention center like a bunch of squirrels frantically packing things up. I didn’t need to understand the announcement to realize what was happening. People were packing up and leaving. The storm was heading right for us. The convention was over.

On Thursday morning I checked out as scheduled from my hotel in downtown Chicago. By this time, I got a text from Southwest. My flight had been cancelled.

Schocked and disappointed, we watched the news. We watched the weather channel. There was a major blizzard with record snow. No flights were taking off with anyone. Anywhere.

We went to Midway airport, which was where we were scheduled to leave. We found a nearby hotel. There were no available flights until Christmas. That day, the temperature reached -13 degrees. There was a TGI Fridays outside the hotel, but walking the 100 feet to the restaurant felt painful, stinging.

Chicago is a major hub. The a result of flights being cancelled out of O’Hare and Midway caused a ripple effect across the country. Thousands of people were stranded. Southwest cancelled 3000 flights in one day.

I spent Christmas in a hotel, eating takeout surrounded by people who were similarly stranded. Some were at the convention with me. However, I had a ticket to leave on the evening of the 25th. I arrived at Midway, checked my bags and went through security. I arrived at the gate. It was at this point that they told us our flight was cancelled.

I tried to get on another flight but there were none. On top of which, Southwest had taken my luggage, so I had only the clothes I had on. The next day, we went to Midway. There was a line at the service desk with hundreds of people. All flight cancellations looking for another flight. I even considered the possibility of renting a car, but there were none available.

While I was there, I met a band director whose kids had been caught up in this catastrophe. They were supposed to fly together, but instead had to take different flights to different cities with chaperones. Some of them would not get home until after the new year. I have a lot of fond memories of band trips, but I cannot imagine missing Christmas as a teenager.

Exasperated with Southwest, my father waved his Silver Platinum card at the Delta counter and got us a flight that left on the 29th. After a cab ride to Target to get some essentials, we were tired, overwhelmed, and frustrated, but settled in and ready to go home. At last, on the morning of the 28th, we got some good news from Delta. There were three spots that had opened up on a flight, would we be willing to go? Of course! The flight leaves in 45 minutes, could we make it? We ran to our room as fast as we could. I’m a fast packer, but I believed that was the fastest I’ve ever packed a suitcase in my entire life!

My hotel provided a shuttle to the airport, but it only came along every 20 minutes. That was too slow! We called an Uber to take us to the place ASAP, we hurried through security, and boarded a plane to Atlanta. At last, we were finally coming home!

So this experience taught me a few things. Along with never have a convention in Chicago in winter (ha ha ha), I learned to appreciate things I take for granted, namely, the ability to travel and even basic necessities. I learned the importance of setting priorities. I learned that Florida is not the only place with weather that can scare you. And that, like a roller coaster, life can go from high to low very quickly.

I am writing this from home where I am enjoying my tree and Christmas goodies. And this year, I still hope to keep composing, keep playing, keep connecting. I hope, however, that I will still be able to do so while remaining close to my roots and staying safe.

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Recording

17 Oct

Many of us have become familiar with recordings and recording devices since the pandemic. Pieces can be recorded in audio format with a WAV recorder or in video format. Video format allows the recording to be shared online privately, streamed live, or posted on Youtube.

Recording has undergone major development in recent years. There are a myriad of possibilities that an acoustic musician may not be aware of. Some choose to record themselves, others use a professional. Either way, it can help to know about the process in order to be able to communicate with a producer or an engineer.

What is the goal of your recording? Is it a piece you wish to use to audition for a college or an ensemble? Is it an instructional video? Will you be only speaking, or playing, or both? What is your budget? If you do not want to invest in professional studio time, there are things you can do from home to create a sucessful recording.

Where will the recording be located? Choose a place with good light. Choose your clothing beforehand so you look the way you want.

You may be asked to assist on a recording project for someone else. You may be asked to prepare music, or you may be asked to improvise. Make sure that you communicate with the director so you understand what they want.

Extended techniques can be very effective on a recording. Make sure the director understands what you can do on your instrument. Listening is very important.

Finally, when the recording is finished, you may get the opportunity to witness the editing process. First the engineer will upload your recording onto a DAW file. Then, they might create effects by adding reverb or using distortion pedals.

I recently had a meeting with a composer and professor who uses computers and electronics to make professional recordings. I played for him, and the things he was able to do with a flute recording can change the way people look at the instrument. The project was to assist a student with her film.

While by choice or by necessity, electronic music is becoming a bigger part of our lives. This might not necessarily be a bad thing. Although I advocate for a more human-centered approach, knowing about technology can create more musical possibilities. These tools which have been used for years in popular music genres can also now be used in the classical world and may even help classical musicians create a bigger following.

Ewazen Sonata, 2nd movement

19 Aug

Lessons from Marching Band

31 Mar

This weekend I performed in an outdoor concert, the first since the pandemic. Even though the forecast called for scattered showers, we were able to stay dry through most of the concert. However, during the last piece, we had an onslaught of weather and most people immediately packed up their instruments and ran for shelter. It took me a while to pack my things and by that time, I was completely wet. Then, I remembered having similar experiences in marching band and remarked to a horn player, who swapped with me stories of parades and shows rained out.

While I was extremely glad to have played, and disappointed by the rain, I began to reflect on my years in marching band, and on these current pandemic times.

The desire to play music is pantamount to me. The absence of music during this past year has made it even more so. We all want to play and perform. But sometimes, we are prevented from doing so. Whether it be because of illness or because of rain, we are forced to stop for unforeseen reasons and seek shelter instead.

But I also remember the resilience that came to me from those long ago times. Back then, when we were outdoors, whether it was a football game, a practice, or a competition, sometimes we just kept on going, weather be damned. We were told to toughen up, and not let the elements affect us. We were too focused on the performance anyway. I also remembered how easy it is to relate to someone who had been through the same thing. “We’ve been through worse than this,” I said.

As musicians, we are all stressed out, overwhelmed, and aching for our collective sense of loss as a community. But as I came to learn, it’s hard to keep a band kid down. We’re made of tougher stuff than that. We know of sacrifice, adversity and hard times. Maybe it’s because we didn’t know any better, or that it was expected of us. But we all have had to learn to do things when we didn’t think we could. But we did. And now even when life is getting us down, we need to remember all that we’ve been through before and somehow survived.

Tone

6 Jan

What does it mean to have good tone on the flute? And how does one achieve it?

First, let us consider the elements of good tone. First, tone involves intonation. A flute that is out of tone cannot be said to have a good tone. Second involves vibrato. A pitch must have the appropriate amount of vibrato. However, one should be able to create a good tone without any vibrato. Third is consistency. A pitch should have a good sound throughout the register and dynamics.

In order to teach tone, it is important to understand where tone comes from. Tone is created by the movement of air over the aperture (opening) of the flute. Therefore, the most important considerations for creating a good tone is the shape of the mouth (embouchure) and the flow of air. If a flutist has a bad tone, it is probably because they are having problems with these issues.

Let’s start with air flow. It is important first of all to be able to have enough air to create a quality sound. Make sure you take a big breath while using the diaphragm. Exhalation should be able to travel throughout the body without obstruction. Many flutists struggle with tension. It is important to avoid tension in the neck in order to keep the throat open. If after making these corrections, the flute still sounds weak and breathy, then increase the air flow by making it spin. If the flute sounds harsh and brassy, it is because the flute is “covered,” or the mouth is too much over the hole.

A good embouchure is one that is the correct space and distance from the hole. It should not be too wide. The best way to maintain a good embouchure is to practice every day to exercise the muscles of the mouth. Moyse De La Sonorite is the most recommended set of daily exercises for the flute. Trevor Wye also has an excellent book on the subject. It is not enough, however, to make tone practice a part of your daily routine. It is necessary that the exercises include the low, medium and high registers. Some teachers recommend the use of harmonics as a tone warmup.

Creating a good tone can take a lifetime. It takes time and patience. But improvement comes with exercise and experience. Hopefully I can say that my tone is better now that it used to be, but still can be better in the future.

Vibrato

24 Jun

I’m going to talk today about a topic that is one of the most controversial in flute…vibrato.

First of all, what is vibrato?  The technical meaning of the word is variation in pitch of a note.

Second, how do you teach it?  There are some who say that vibrato cannot be taught; that we develop vibrato by listening to and imitating others.  While this is useful, it does nothing to correct problematic issues in vibrato which may happen later.

Here’s a little bit about the history of vibrato.  Vibrato was first used as an ornament in Baroque playing.  Even today, many Baroque flutists do not use vibrato.  When watching violins, you can see how they affect the oscillation of the note by moving, or vibrating their wrists.  This is why it is called vibrato.

Vibrato also naturally occurs in healthy singers when they are using the Bel Canto technique, mostly in opera.  As for us flutists, Paul Taffanel heard an opera singer perform and so admired her sound, he said, “This is what tone should sound like.”  The use of vibrato has been a part of common practice for flute ever since.

One systematic way of teaching vibrato is to take a whole note and pulsate it, using a metronome.  At mm=60 create even breath attacks for sixteenth notes, then triplets.  However, some critics say that this method creates vibrato that is wide, slow, and too rhythmic.

Common problems with vibrato is the use of the throat.  A player can sound constricted by the pressure on the larynx.  This is sometimes referred to as “nanny goat” vibrato.  To correct this, concentrate on relaxing the throat.  I like to use imagery, such as drinking a milkshake or imagining an orange at the back of the throat.

“Good” vibrato is one of the most subjective parts of flute playing.  On an audition, orchestras have desired qualities and the flutist is judged by whether they will contribute to it.  Every great flutist has their own unique sound which is identifiable on recordings.  But it is not enough to just imitate the sound of your favorite player.  The judicious use of vibrato is influenced by the period, style, composer, and even the needs of the conductor.  Flutists are expected to know about this and be able to adjust appropriately.

So, when asked how to teach vibrato, the answer is not easy.  It is a many-layered approach that is learned over a lifetime, one with many explanations and differing opinions.  That said, the more knowledge you acquire, and the more you put that knowledge into physical practice, the better of a teacher and performer you will be.cropped-11872939_815297888568710_1642972480_n-1

COVID-19

16 Jun

Due to COVID-19, many instructors are switching to an online format. During this time, Skype lessons will be available. Please contact me under the comment section for details.

quarantine

27 Apr

cropped-11872939_815297888568710_1642972480_n-1Today I feel like I’m living in the sad part of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which the angel shows George Bailey what life would be like if he had never been born.  This sobering realization makes him decide that life is worth living, after all.  Lately, I have come to see that there is much in life we take for granted.  We complain about people in our social circle, hectic meetings and things that don’t go as well as we think they should.  Due to the coronavirus and the subsequent restrictions placed on our lives I was forced to see what life would be like if we had no communities.  No concerts, rehearsals or church services.  No outings or socialization.  And like George Bailey,  I realize that I have had a “wonderful community.”  I am humbled with gratitude and wish to return to my old life as soon as possible.

Rehearsing a Chamber Concert

2 Mar

Many musicians belong to large ensembles, whether it be professional or amateur, orchestra or symphonic band. However, some do not have much experience in a smaller, or chamber ensemble.

If you are invited to perform in a chamber group, there are some things you need to know. One, it is important to get along well with the members of the group. Chamber musicians must work well with each other. It is important to be able to express yourself in front of your colleagues. If you don’t understand something, ask questions. If you have an opinion about something, say so, but if someone disagrees with you, don’t take it personally. Learn to take criticism well. If you are in a leadership role, make sure that everyone feels heard. When making decisions that affect the group, make sure the opinions of everyone are taken into account. People like to feel valued and appreciated.
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When choosing repertoire, there are several factors to take into account. Choose music that everyone can play well. Also choose music that the audience will like.

It is also important to make good use of time. Sometimes a chamber ensemble has less time to rehearse before a gig. Especially when the other musicians are your friends with whom you have been playing with a long time, it can be tempting to talk to each other instead of practice. Try to stay on task.

Finally, do your homework. Make sure that you know your part beforehand. Practice, listen to recordings and learn the others parts as well.

If you follow these simple tips, you can create a concert that all will enjoy, including the audience.

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Eric Whitacre

10 Nov

Famed composer and conductor Eric Whitacre just came to St. Petersburg where he gave a series of concerts with the Tampa Bay Master Chorale and the Florida Orchestra.  I have been familiar with his music since college and was very excited for this event.  He gave a choral workshop at the Mahaffey.

Whitacre’s music is deceptively simple.  While he is not afraid of dissonance, he writes with choirs in mind, which means his music is accessible for student and amateur singers.  He conducted us in rehearsal, and I enjoyed getting to see his personality as well as his music.  He told stories about the composition process and was charismatic and encouraging to us as singers.  The chorale sang “Lux Arumque,” a piece I have sung with them several times.

His choral pieces, “Seal Lullaby,” and “Sleep,” are tonal and expressive.  It was both tender and uplifting.  Worth noting, there is also a wind band arrangement of Sleep, and also the original piece, October, of which I played a solo in a concert recently.

It is great to be able to work with Eric not only as a contemporary composer but as someone who is a choral expert and dedicated to working with choruses.  I hope one day that I will be able to compose music that inspires and engages singers as his does.