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.

Spaces I’d Like To Keep

6 Jun

Like I often do, I was compiling a list in my mind of my favorite indoor spaces.  Places that have particular meaning for me where I can close my eyes and visit any time I want, just as if they were right next to each other.

One is my high school band room.  It also served as the choir room.  Every day, we would meet together and make music for an hour or so.   It’s where I learned some of life’s most important lessons, and experienced some of the world’s great music for the first time.  I have played in many bands and made music in many spaces, but this room tops the list for me because it was a formative place for me, (as any band kid knows).

I would also like to include the house where I grew up, especially my bedroom and the swimming pool in my backyard.  Even after my parents sold the house, I still think about it often and sometimes dream about it.

The other space that tops the list for me is my church in Tallahassee.  I attended St. Thomas More while I was an undergraduate music student at Florida State.  This morning I was crestfallen to learn that this church, this space, was attacked by arson.  I felt compelled to write about this for several reasons.  One is that this church, along with the adjoining buildings, holds countless memories for me.  I was an active participant in the Catholic Student Union, where I made friendships that last to this day.   Second is spiritual and artistic inspiration.  I sang in the choir many times at the Sunday night services.  I was even inspired to write a band piece called “Tenebrae,” that describes the darkening of the church on Good Friday and the light’s return on the Easter vigil, one of many memories of happier times at this cathedral.

As fate would have it, I recently finished the piece.  While writing it, I was still reeling from the devastation of Notre Dame in France.  I included in this piece references to a 13th century motet about fire.  It was a meditation for me upon the importance of fire, an element that gives life, but also devastates.

In a performance workshop, we were told to meditate by closing our eyes and imagining ourselves in a safe place, where we are comfortable, as a way of escaping stress and feeling calm.  Today, another one of my spaces has been taken away.  But even though I am feeling sad, I remind myself that, just as the light returns from the darkness, we will rebuild and repair our community.

#myheartisbroken #allthefeels #tallahasseestrong

 

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To the Hive Mind

9 Apr

A lot has happened since my last blog…Survived my composer’s chamber music exhibition AKA the Shakespearean tragedy entitled, “The Shit Hitteth the Fan.”  I got a job as a music teacher and so am chronically exhausted.  I have not stopped my practicing and rehearsal commitments.  However, it is spring and lately have been thinking about my future goals.  I am looking for a different placement.

It’s not easy to know the next step.  So, if you are the praying kind, I would really appreciate something alongside this:

Dear Universe,

I’m not sure if staying in my current situation will give me the things I need in life.  Please send me people to make connections, open doors, and guide me along the next step.  Things I am hoping for:  career advice, playing opportunities, and personal fulfillment.

Thank you

 

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Today I am not afraid…

30 Mar

Today I am not afraid

To dig deeper…

To practice those things which need practicing…

To spend more time on the difficult passages…

I give myself permission

To practice until it is smooth…

To go as slowly as necessary…

To start over…

To correct my mistakes…

To read ahead so I don’t make any…

I give myself permission…

To fail, but ultimately to succeed

I can look more deeply at the work that needs to be done…

I can face the problems that I have, knowing that I can fix them

I am willing to make an investment in myself and my time

Believing that failure can make me nervous most days, but not today.

Because today, I am not afraid.

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