Monthly Archives: August 2013

Playing Melodically: A Different Approach to Teaching Phrasing

By Todd Stalter

During my first semester in college, my studio teacher gave me what seemed like an insurmountable amount of technical studies to prepare for every lesson which, frankly, I enjoyed in a perverse sort of way—being able to play rings around everybody else was certainly on my mind as an ambitious freshman trumpet player (as if that was all there was to it).  During second semester, however, he tacked on some simple melodies in the back of the Arban Method for each lesson as well, saying, “I think it’s about time you learned how to play a melody.”  Of course, I thought I already did…boy, was I in for an education.  Thanks to him, I was initiated into my first truly detailed study of music.

One of the most important concepts we try to teach our ensembles is to play with good phrasing, but we often become frustrated when we don’t hear our groups playing phrases consistently.  I believe that part of the reason for this can be traced to our students’ first experiences with full ensemble music. They may be unconsciously making a distinction between that music and the material in their lesson books, which is naturally almost 100% melodic in focus.  You can’t really blame them; it’s hard to convince a young trombone player playing whole and half notes all day long, or alto sax and French horn players with an awkward middle voice part that sounds weird, that they actually have a melody of any kind.  And, to be honest, if we’re not careful, we directors can relegate phrasing pretty far down our priority list when rehearsing (guilty as charged).  After a few years of playing Grades 1 to 2.5 ensemble music with little or no attention to melodic playing, it becomes even harder to get good musical phrases out of them when they are in an ensemble capable of playing Grade 3 music and above.

We all know that for an ensemble player of any age, playing a good phrase requires knowing what the melody actually is, who plays it, and how their part relates to it.  I think too many directors get caught in the “melody vs. non-melody” trap while teaching phrasing, and are in fact unwittingly telling their students that when their part is not the melody, they should play “non-melodically,” which is exactly the opposite of what creates good phrasing in the first place.  I believe part of the answer to effectively teaching phrasing lies in convincing EVERYONE that their parts are melodic. Realizing that sometimes they may have the “primary” melody, a “secondary” melody, or even a “background” melody of some sort helps them find their place in the musical texture.  Using this approach, every member of the ensemble is focused on melodic playing, and is instinctively trying to phrase it musically, which gives the director something audible to work with, as in “Hey trombones, did you hear how the euphoniums played the part you share?  That’s how I want you to phrase it.”

Not only does this approach foster better individual and ensemble musicianship, but it teaches students to be more creative musicians and “think it” before they play it, which is a far more gratifying artistic result for both the director and their students.

Piano Teaching Tips from Nancy Bachus and Tom Gerou

Nancy BachusWe both are very proud and excited about Great Music and Musicians, Book 1, a new addition to Premier Piano Course. This unique book is suitable for many age groups and can be used in different settings: private lessons, group lessons, general music classes, or home-schooling. In a private lesson, the introduction or single units can be studied each month, with a brief discussion of one page each week. Students can also be assigned additional projects related to the specific pieces they are studying. A style period could be featured to better understand its style and relationship to repertoire being learned.

Tom GerouMany students attending their first formal music appreciation or music history class are overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of centuries of music history and styles. Although they had been introduced to Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, they often lack a clear understanding of the overall historical picture.

For teachers, it is a balancing act to teach basic music fundamentals, technique, and to prepare for recitals. To also teach historical context and musical style—who, when, where and what—can seem overwhelming or unfeasible. Since most music taught in lessons developed from Western culture, at least an overview of music history is essential for musical insight and understanding of style differences.

A student does not need to know music fundamentals or theory to begin to understand music history. Its development, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present, can be easily grasped through artwork and by listening to music from each period. Listening while looking at the artwork further enhances the learning process and makes it enjoyable. A written activity about the topics that have been presented helps to reinforce the learning.

Great Music & MusiciansWith such a vast subject as the history of Western music, it is useful to introduce a framework, or timeline, on which to hang details. By focusing on one style period within this timeline, students will develop a deeper understanding of the music they are learning. After studying all of the units and listening to the music on the CD, the development of Western music can be seen and understood.

An Overview of the Book:

The introduction focuses on musical style, a timeline, and how to listen to music. The subsequent units are overviews of major musical style periods. Each unit highlights cultural trends, important composers, musical forms, and how music relates to other arts. The enclosed CD includes excerpts from important musical compositions to illustrate and reinforce what was presented.

Page 43 from Great Music & Musicians

Page 43 from
Great Music & Musicians

In Unit 7, The Turn of the 20th Century, different art movements and styles are vividly illustrated. This emphasis illustrates how much art influenced many of the composers during this time. The music is perceived differently when looking at the art.

Each unit of the book begins with a one-page overview of the time period. Notice the discussion on page 43 of the many different styles in the 20th century and how composers often changed styles during their careers. A focus is on  Impressionism in art and music as an important style at this time.

Pages 44 and 45 follow with highlights of important musical developments from the time. First, Expressionism in art and music is shown and discussed. Next, George Gershwin’s jazz-influenced style is presented, followed by neoclassicism, with its look back to the 18th century.

Page 44-45 from Great Music & Musicians

Page 44-45 from Great Music & Musicians

A two-page art spread provides unique insight into life at the time. There are many details in the art works to be discovered. These spreads are meant to captivate the student’s imagination and bring the time period to life. This provides opportunity for discussion of the student’s observations and reactions. We suggest listening to a related musical example from the CD while viewing the spread.

Page 46-47 from Great Music & Musicians

Page 46-47 from Great Music & Musicians

The final page of each unit has a summary of the most important concepts, listening examples, and a written review. Listening examples from the chapter are repeated here but with added suggestions to guide the students’ listening in each example.

Page 48 from great Music & Musicians

Page 48 from
Great Music & Musicians

In order to maximize lesson time, an Answer Key for all the activities is provided on the last page of the book. It can be used to quickly check the answers, or it can be cut and removed.

This book is a wonderful teaching tool that can be used in many ways. But most of all, it should be enjoyed by looking at the beautiful artwork and listening to the great music that is a part of our cultural heritage.

Great Music & Musicians will take you and your students on a musical journey throughout history. Enjoy your travels!

Nancy Bachus & Tom Gerou

Be an Active Listener

By Jeff Coffin and Caleb Chapman,
The Articulate Jazz Musician

calebchapman_jeffcoffinIn our new book series, The Articulate Jazz Musician, one of the first skills we discuss is the ability to listen. Listening is fundamental! We believe it is the most basic fundamental in music and ultimately essential to success. To participate, we like to think of the listening process as “the act of listening” or, better yet, “active listening.” To get the most from a practice activity, you need to be focused and involved. We would like to share some of our ideas on becoming better listeners, as well as some important recordings to listen to and share.

1. Listen with the Whole Body

Have you ever had goose bumps while listening to music? Where do they come from and why do they happen? Goose bumps come from a WHOLE BODY listening experience. Hearing and feeling music through your body can be a profound experience. Learn to appreciate the sensations of music on your arms, legs, feet, chest, hands, and face—they’re all vibrations and we can “hear” those vibrations with our bodies.

2. Listen to Your Surroundings

Learn to listen around you. Close your eyes, be silent, and pay attention to what you hear. It may take a few moments to perceive your surroundings but there is a lot there! The better your perception is, the better your listening skills will become. There is a big hint in the fact that the words “listen” and “silent” contain exactly the same letters.

3. Listen to an Expanded Range of Styles

It’s important to listen to and enjoy different styles and types of music. A wise person once said: “All listeners are equal in their opinions.” Just because you like something doesn’t mean someone else will feel the same way. The opposite holds true, as well—just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not valid. And similarly, just because something is new or is in a style that is unfamiliar, don’t dismiss it! Give it a listen, not just once but a few times. You might be surprised at how your appreciation for the music changes as you spend more time with it.

4. Listen More than You Practice

A good rule is to listen twice as much as you practice. Music is a language and we need to hear it in order to assimilate its sounds, articulations, rhythms, and emotions. It’s not realistic to expect children (or anyone) to learn a language without first hearing it and imitating it. Music is no exception. It takes time, effort, imitation, and listening.

5. Listen with Others

What is some of the most unusual music you have heard? Have you shared it with your students? Have you asked them to share theirs with you? Listening with others will give you a fresh perspective on what you are hearing. People enjoy talking about what they have heard. It’s important to ask the question, “What did you hear?”

Start a dialogue about music and about listening. Be sure to listen to your students’ comments. This is important even if you don’t agree with them or if their assessment seems a little strange to you. Experience is a beautiful teacher and we can all learn something from communicating and listening to one another.

Chances are that you, your friends, and your student musicians have some favorite current jazz artists that you are listening to. However, sometimes the vast catalogs of earlier recordings can be intimidating—often students will inquire about what to listen to. Below are a few recommendations from us of some great music to hone those listening skills on!

Small Group Recommendations from Jeff Coffin

Louis Armstrong & the Hot Five – anything!

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

John Coltrane – Ballads

Sonny Rollins – Live at the Village Vanguard

Keith Jarrett – Standards Vol. 1

Cannonball Adderley – Something Else

Alan Lomax’s field recordings (These are online for FREE). (Great folkloric documentaries for FREE!)

Ali Fakar Toure – anything (He’s a guitarist from Mali, Africa.)

Aretha Franklin – Aretha Sings the Blues

Large Ensemble Recommendations from Caleb

Toshiko Akiyoshi – Long Yellow Road

Count Basie – April In Paris

Duke Ellington – Jazz Party

Gil Evans and Miles Davis – Miles Ahead

Maynard Ferguson – Birdland Dreamband

Dizzy Gillespie – Birk’s Works: Verve Big Band Sessions

Benny Goodman – Live at Carnegie Hall 1938

Fletcher Henderson – 1924-1925

Joe Henderson – Big Band

Woody Herman – Keeper of the Flame: Complete Capitol Recordings

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis – Live at the Village Vanguard

Stan Kenton – Cuban Fire

Charles Mingus – Let My Children Hear Music

Buddy Rich – Roar of ’74 

Using Puzzles in the Music Classroom

By Sue Albrecht Johnson

I spent twenty-five years of my life as a middle school/junior high school mathematics teacher. I had always loved mathematics and wanted to give my students this enthusiasm as well. This led me to create lots of puzzles, games, and classroom activities for them to do, in an effort to help them learn and reinforce the skills they were learning in class. Depending on the circumstances, these puzzles were either completed in class, for extra credit, or sometimes on days with substitute teachers.

My lifelong love of singing prompted the idea to create puzzles based on musical topics. I was very pleased with the teacher response to my first book, Music Fun 101. Teachers especially seemed to like the Crossword and Complete the Story sections, in which students are asked to identify notes on the treble and/or bass clef. Those notes are then translated into words. The new collection, called Music Puzzler, incorporates three stories and six crosswords. For an additional activity or extra credit, students may also enjoy clapping, chanting, or tapping the rhythms in these puzzles for the instructor. Keyboard classes may enjoy playing through the musical clues.

In addition, there are a variety of other crosswords focusing on musical elements, history, and vocabulary in the Kriss Kross, Word Search, and Musical Sudoku sections. With every puzzle, the goal is to reinforce concepts that are being learned about in class. If you are studying musical theater, assign the Contemporary Broadway Crossword puzzle as an extra credit assignment. If you are studying the instrument families, pull out the Musical Instruments Kriss Kross to complete at the end of class as a concluding activity or assessment.

Music Puzzler is entirely reproducible and a data CD with PDF files is also included. My hope is that this book will be something that both students and teachers will enjoy!

Compiling a Vocal Collection

Jay AlthouseBy Jay Althouse, Composer

In 1993, I compiled my first collection of vocal solos: Folk Songs for Solo Singers, Vol. 1. To be honest, my only motivation, at that time, was to find something to do as a break from writing and arranging choral music. Little did I know that Folk Songs for Solo Singers, Vol. 1 would go on to become Alfred Music’s all-time top selling vocal solo collection, and that I would compile 17 more vocal books over the next 20 years.

Some of the collections I simply compiled and edited, and for others I did all of the arrangements. Some were comprised of folk song arrangements, spirituals, or Christmas carols, and some were collections of arrangements of great American pop standards from the 1920s through the 1950s. One was a duet book and one a collection of sacred solos. And three, the Ready to Sing… series, are specifically designed for young and developing soloists.

As I look back on those 18 vocal solo collections over the past 20 years, I am proud of what we have put together at Alfred Music. I remember, when I was a high school senior, the difficulty my choral director and I had in finding vocal solos appropriate for my college audition. Today, vocal teachers have an abundance of books from Alfred Music to use with their students, not just by me, but also by other writers and arrangers such as Andy Beck, Mark Hayes, and Sally Albrecht.

My most recent collection, Songs of the British Isles for Solo Singers, includes some of the most beautiful and enchanting songs from the great vocal tradition of the British Isles. One of the most difficult things about putting this book together was deciding which songs to include; there are so many great ones.

Included are folk songs from England (“Scarborough Fair”), Wales (“The Ash Grove”), Ireland (“Danny Boy”), and Scotland (“The Water Is Wide”). Many of the titles have wonderful lyrics by fine poets, such as Robert Burns (“Flow Gently, Sweet Afton”) and Robert Louis Stevenson (“Skye Boat Song”). Two songs are appropriate for Christmas: “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” and “The Snow Lay on the Ground.” And a third, “Greensleeves” can be sung at holiday time or year round.

All of the songs in Songs of the British Isles for Solo Singers are what I call “singer’s songs.” That is, they sing beautifully, and almost effortlessly, allowing the vocalist to really make music.

I should say, however, that the final song in the collection, “The Blaydon Races,” is not what I would call beautiful. It’s a rousing, boisterous song, which tells the story of the horse races at Blaydon, a town near Newcastle in England, in 1862. It rained, and there was a horse-drawn bus crash and . . . well, you’ll just have to sing it to find out the rest of the story. “The Blaydon Races” is just plain fun to sing, and I’ve included a glossary of terms and phrases from the lyrics to help you follow the bus on its ride to the race track.

Whether you’re looking for audition material, study repertoire, or music that’s simply a pleasure for students to sing, you’re sure to find it with Alfred Music’s vocal solo collections.

Alfred Music’s Vocal Collections Arranged and/or Edited by Jay Althouse:
American Folk Songs for Solo Singers
Christmas for Solo Singers
Encores for Solo Singers
Folk Songs for Solo Singers, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Folk Songs for Two
Great American Songwriters for Solo Singers
International Folk Songs for Solo Singers
Love Songs for Solo Singers
Ready to Sing . . . Christmas
Ready to Sing . . . Folk Songs
Ready to Sing . . . Spirituals
Sacred Solos for All Seasons
Songs of Peace and Patriotism for Solo Singers
Songs of the British Isles for Solo Singers
Spirituals for Solo Singers
Standards for Solo Singers
Ye Shall Have a Song

“In the Zone” with Sound Innovations: Sound Development

By Kirk D. Moss, Ph.D., 
Sound Innovations Author

Remember the day when a student blurted out, “I wish this class would never end?” Students may forget the name of the piece they played, but they will remember the “in the zone” moments of music making for the rest of their lives.

Psychologists refer to “in the zone” experiences as “flow.” Achieving a flow state requires a balance between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too difficult, flow cannot occur. A state of anxiety occurs when challenges exceed the skill level, adding stress and causing uneasiness. Both the skill and challenge levels must be matched at a high level to experience “flow,” and that’s why I’m so excited about Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate String Orchestra and Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Advanced String Orchestra. Both Sound Development books help ensure that students have the necessary skills to meet the challenges found within the intermediate and advanced level of repertoire that they perform.

Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate and Sound Development for Advanced
 String Orchestra emphasize playing with 
a characteristic beautiful sound. Intermediate or advanced technical skills are presented in four levels, consistent with the revolutionary Sound Innovations structure: (1) Sound Tone, (2) Sound Bowing, (3) Sound Shifting, and (4) Sound Scales and Arpeggios. The levels can be used in the order that is best for your students, as individual warm-ups, structured units, or as dictated by your repertoire.

Each level presents a unique set of skills. Level 1 offers a systematic approach to developing right-hand technique through teaching sequences that refine the most important variables of sound: bowing lanes, bow weight, and bow speed. Following in the Galamian tradition, Level 2 introduces the bow strokes, including collé. Using collé to develop your students’ right-hand finger flexibility can make a noticeable difference on every bow change and in every attack stroke. In Level 3, new positions and shifting are thoroughly presented using finger pattern logic and guide notes. I especially like the clear and uncluttered page layout of the scales and arpeggios in Level 4. The innovative format is flexible, allowing teachers to differentiate instruction among a wide range of student ability levels.

This year, use the Sound Innovations series to help your students acquire the skills they need to get so absorbed in performing music that they can hardly stop playing. In fact, all four volumes of the series are on SmartMusic allowing even more opportunities to play! Match your teaching to the level of repertoire with exercises and routines designed for intermediate and advanced string players. Prepare your students to produce a signature sound as they gain access to the entire fingerboard. Make “in the zone” experiences a way of life in your classroom.

Have a terrific year, and remember: kids can do anything; we just have to teach them how!

Back to School, Back to Basics!

By Chris M. Bernotas
Sound Innovations Authorbernotas

I am a firm believer of reinforcing the fundamentals of music every day, all year, not just at the beginning of the school year. However, let’s face it, many of our students have taken the meaning of SUMMER BREAK to heart and likely have not played as much as we all would have preferred in the past two months or so. As teachers, we have the wonderful benefit of hitting the ‘reset’ button with the beginning of each school year. We can truly start fresh while continuing with last school year’s successes. Our sights can be set on what we want to improve in our own teaching as well as setting goals for your band program. Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Band is a comprehensive resource that you might wish to consider as you set goals for your band this year.

The ensemble warm-up can be one of the most exciting parts of rehearsal. I know it is for me. During the warm-up I can truly allow my students to take ownership of their learning. Simple warm-up exercises help not only to train students to play as ensemble musicians but they serve to teach students to become self-sufficient decision makers. Let me explain. A teacher can discuss tuning with all the correct ideas and concepts and the band may still play out of tune. Students hear the teacher talking and often understand logically what he or she is saying, but until they experience playing in tune they really do not get it. To me, tuning is as much a feeling as it is measurable with a tuning device. I find it much more enlightening for a student to sense “in-tune-ness” than to be told that they are in tune. This requires experimenting on the part of the student. For a student to match pitch in an exercise like “Passing the Tonic,” he or she needs to truly listen to their note, evaluate or compare it to those of other students, and decide what to do if it is not the same as those around them. That is the exciting part to me; the STUDENT is the one directing their learning. When they experience playing in tune it is much more powerful and memorable because they are the ones that made it happen. Then when they turn to their performance music they can reflect upon that experience and implement the strategies they used in the warm-up as they work to achieve a meaningful musical performance. Almost all of the exercises in Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Concert Band are similarly dependent upon student growth and understanding.

Flexibility and variety are also quite important when working on the “FUNdamentals.” The exercises in Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Concert Band are simple and clear for you to work your magic with. That’s right, YOU will be working the magic. That is the beauty of this book – it is to be used however you see fit. You may decide that your band needs to focus on matching pitch, so you may want to choose a Layered Tuning exercise in the key of the piece you are planning to rehearse. Perhaps you will want students to sing their notes or hum them. Or maybe you will want half of the band to play and the other half to sing. Maybe you would like the woodwinds to play and the brass to buzz on their mouthpieces. It is all up to you and we provide you with many exercises and chorales (412 to be exact) to work with. The variety is also so exciting. These are not copied exercises, you know, written in one key then just transposed to all the others. They are all different, which allows you and your students enough material to choose from to keep the warm-up and focus on fundamentals fresh.

With Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Concert Band you will be able to plan a 10-minute warm-up that will be engaging, prepare students for their literature, and seamlessly prepare them to perform their repertoire with a wonderful, musical sound. As well, Sound Innovations for Intermediate Concert Band is now available on SmartMusic, adding the dimension of that wonderful teaching/learning tool. And guess what, I will let you in on a little secret… Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Advanced Concert Band is right around the corner!

If you are already using Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Intermediate Concert Band, let us know how it is working with your program and let us know some of the innovative ways you are using it! We hope you are enjoying the variety of exercises and wonderful chorales by some of your favorite composers. I wish you and your students all the best this school year.

Chris M. Bernotas

An Interview with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the Tony-nominated songwriters of the Broadway musical A Christmas Story, which opened in November 2012 and enjoyed a critically acclaimed, record-breaking run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Read on to learn about how they adapted this beloved holiday classic for the stage.

How did you become involved with the musical version of A Christmas Story?
Similar to how an actor auditions for a show, we were actually approached by the producers of A Christmas Story and asked to submit songs to “audition” in a way. We absolutely love the movie and were ecstatic when we were chosen to write the music for the production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater.

How did you go about adapting the story to be told with music?
There was a story in place—a structure that already works. Since it’s a holiday staple, we wanted to honor people’s favorite parts of the film and enhance them for the musical stage without tampering with them too much. For example, Ralphie’s obsession with the Red Ryder® Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle was part of the movie, but we were able to really explore and expand on that through the song “Ralphie to the Rescue.” If Ralphie wanted to be a cowboy then we could make him into a cowboy fighting off Indians, bank robbers, and old style western villains in a six-minute dance number. The fantasy scenes in the movie were perfect for becoming musical numbers.

Were there any characters for which you particularly enjoyed writing?
We’re really proud of the song “Just Like That.” At its core, A Christmas Story is about nostalgia and remembering your own childhood. In this song, we see a mother trying to capture that one moment as her kids are growing up too quickly. This is one of the moments in the musical that didn’t exist in the film, so it gave us the opportunity to explore the mother’s character and make her the emotional anchor of the show. It’s really rewarding, because audiences have really responded to the moments in the show that have more heart.

In your writing partnership, which comes first—the music or the lyrics or does it vary?
We have been lucky to have the chance to speak to several writing teams and explore how they work with each other. Because of those conversations, we try and push each other so that we both end up feeling responsible for the entire song. Neither the music nor the lyrics should overshadow the other. We’re interested in finding the place where music and lyrics really meet.

Much of our time collaborating is spent discussing exactly what we want our songs to say. We each have strengths that compliment each other well, including greater strengths in music and lyrics. But in the end, it’s a song in which (hopefully) the words and music are seamlessly woven together and you can’t tell what’s what. But that brings us back to the arguing… hammering out all those details and deciding where we want the song to go, what its message should be, what the character is feeling… that all usually happens before a note or word is written. Then sometimes we start with the music and sometime we start with the lyric. There’s really no formula for it at all—it’s always changing!

What advice do you have for young composers in middle school, high school, and college?
When we were first starting to write our show Edges, it was when things like YouTube and Facebook were just beginning. That allowed us to use the new media to get our music out without having to have complete productions mounted. Getting your music out there is the most important thing. But remember that whatever you post might live forever—be judicious and smart when posting. The only way to get better at composing is to keep composing. Don’t stop writing!

About Benj Pasek and Justin Paul:
The Broadway musical A Christmas Story opened in November 2012 and enjoyed a critically acclaimed, record-breaking run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. In addition to Benj and Justin’s Best Score nomination, A Christmas Story also received Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Book. The holiday musical was named one of the Top 10 Shows of 2012 by Time Magazine, shared recognition as the #1 Musical of 2012 in USA Today and received Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for Outstanding New Broadway Musical. Benj and Justin’s score also received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Music.

Benj and Justin are both graduates of the University of Michigan. They are the recipients of the 2011 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2011 Sundance Institute Fellowship, the 2011 ASCAP Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award, the 2011 ASCAP Songwriters Fellowship Award, and a 2007-2008 Dramatists Guild Fellowship. They are the youngest recipients of the Jonathan Larson Award (2007) in the foundation’s history. They have participated in ASCAP’s Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project and were named one of Dramatist Magazine’s “50 to Watch” in contemporary theatre.

Alfred is proud to offer SATB, SAB, and 2-Part voicings of “Counting Down to Christmas” from A Christmas Story, arranged by Greg Gilpin. Click here for more information. 

Visualization and Mental Rehearsal: The Power of the Movie Theater in Your Mind

Thomas J. West

Any good music teacher and most accomplished music students will tell you that repetition is a key ingredient in mastering any musical instrument. Repetition of a physical skill makes that skill become automatic. Often with my students, I use the analogy that learning to play an instrument is like learning to tie your shoes. When you learn to tie your shoes at the ripe old age of 4 to 6 years old, someone has to teach you the steps of the shoe-tying process. You have to follow that process step by step, and therefore one shoelace may take up to two or three minutes to completely tie.

Now, fast forward to today. How long does it take to tie a shoelace now? Can you do it without looking? And the big question: what is the difference between then and now? The answer is usually fairly obvious to most students: since you learned that skill you have practiced it nearly daily for years, subjecting yourself to hundreds of repetitions of the action until it becomes “automatic.”

We learn nearly everything we know how to do in a similar fashion. Babies are born with only a few genetic reflexes and parents literally teach them how to roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, make noises, and learn to speak. We do this same learning process over and over our entire lives.

But how does the brain and body get to the point where the skill being learned becomes automatic and mastered? The millions of neurons that make up the brain literally send electrical signals from one neuron to another in patterns that cause the skill to be performed by the muscles. The more often that sequence of neurons fire their signal, the more associated those neurons become with one another, forming a neural network, or neuronet.

The more a neuronet is fired, the more “hard-wired” that neuronet becomes. The muscles develop what seems like their own “memory” for the skill. This is the normal process that each of us does daily in our lives without a second thought.

Now here’s the interesting part!

Neurologists have shown in clinical tests that a person can visualize in their mind’s eye completing a physical motor skill and can mentally rehearse the skill with significant effect on actually performing the skill physically. In an article in the 1995 Journal of Neurophysiology, [1] a research group showed that mental rehearsal produced significant results. Individuals participated in a five-day study of practicing the piano.

The first group memorized a short sequence of notes and practiced for two hours every day for five days. Another group did not touch a piano, but observed the first group being taught the sequence of notes until they had memorized the sequence. Then they mentally rehearsed their exercise by imagining themselves in the experience for the same length of time per day as the first group.

At the conclusion of the five days, researchers used modern scanning equipment to measure the amount of neural growth in the motor cortices of the brain. They were surprised to find that the group that did only mental rehearsal showed nearly the same expansion and development of neural networks that the participants who physically practiced. This kind of learning in neuroscience is called Hebbian learning. [2] The main idea of this type of learning is that “the nerve cells that fire together wire together.”

The Power of Imagination

Mental rehearsal is a real technique that can reduce the amount of physical practice time by a significant amount. The human mind’s ability to imagine something that isn’t there is at the core of every great invention, scientific discovery, musical masterpiece, and memorable sports performance. Before the body can DO an action, the mind must first SEE the action being done.

What is true about this human ability, however, is that a person can only learn something through mental rehearsal if they already have knowledge and memory of the skill they are attempting to master. For example, you can’t become the next Tiger Woods by simply sitting in a chair and imagining you are 20 under par. You have to have developed the knowledge and physical skills necessary to play the game of golf at that level. Similarly, you can not play a musical instrument simply by imagining you sound great. Knowledge acquisition builds the neuronets that then makes mental rehearsal an effective method of mastering specific musical skills.

Imagination is something that most people in our society consider to be something reserved for children, daydreamers, and TV screenplay writers. “Imagination” is literally “the ability to form images in the mind.” If you can imagine it, you acquire the knowledge to sharpen that image, and you focus on it and repeat it, you can make that image a physical reality.

Here’s How to Mentally Rehearse

Arrange for a time and place with a minimum of distractions, just like you would for a traditional practice session. Sit comfortably in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and bring your mind and body to a relaxed state. Once you are relaxed, begin to visualize yourself as the active participant in the skill you are practicing. Perhaps it is a specific passage of music you’ve had trouble with, or perhaps a specific technique on your instrument you need to work on. It is critical that you see yourself performing the skill to be learned as if it were happening in the present.

If you experience any stray thoughts or “voices in your head” telling you that you are doing it wrong or any other negative comment, simply allow that thought to flow through and resume your mental practice. Repeat the skill you are practicing over and over for as many times as you can before you begin to lose focus. When you finish, open your eyes and smile. The smile is important, because it attaches positive emotions to the memory you just created.

When you get out your instrument and perform the skill you have mentally rehearsed, you will get amazing results. It is especially effective if you mentally rehearse for several days before attempting to perform physically. Like any other practice method, mental rehearsal is itself an acquired skill. It has applications far beyond the scope of playing a musical instrument as well.

If you try mental rehearsal and have great results with it, please contact me and share your story.

Visualization and imagination are the true language of our minds. Everything springs forth from imagery, including the written and spoken word. Imagination is the tool that many of us lose as we enter adulthood. Imagining what you wish to see happen literally helps you become that which you imagined. The reality of playing a musical instrument with great skill comes forth from inside of the mind of each player, not from the words of a teacher or the repetition of a demonstration.

Thank you  to Thomas J. West for letting us use his blog!
Check out Thomas J. West’s blog:

Bang Zoom!!

Start your program off with a bang and watch kids get excited about music.

By Vince Gassi

Vince Gassi
There is so much to do in preparation for September and beyond, but just as important as all the organizing and ordering are the ways that we generate enthusiasm and excitement.  So how do we do it? How do we get kids buzzed about band and maintain that excitement all throughout the year? Here are just a few ideas. I’m sure you’ve got many more.

As you browse these eight great ideas, you can use the Mind Map below as a visual reference:

1. BAND NIGHT OUT. Attend a concert as a band within the first few weeks of school. It’s a great way to kick off the year. There are always exciting performances to attend and good live music will aid in the development of a student’s concept of tone and style. Parents are always willing to help with transportation and other considerations. Plus, they will soon realize just how cool your program is.

2. SNEAK PREVIEWS. Consider inviting other classes, teachers, or parents into the band room for a quick snippet of your next concert. This doesn’t have to be onerous. Just one piece is sufficient or even a section that you are working on. Better yet, simply nab the next person walking past your room. Ask them to come in for a minute and listen. Kids love to perform and sometimes the best progress is made in front of a live audience.

3. OFF SPEED PITCH. As students are entering your room, why not have music playing? The twist is that it can be music that they listen to and not necessarily your musical preference. “Hey Miss, you like this stuff?” is a question you’ll no doubt hear. That’s okay. They’ll think that they have the coolest teacher in the school.

4. VIDEO TESTS (CONTESTS). Have students record their own playing tests. They are much easier to grade. What if they make a mistake and re-record? Great! The more they do that, the more they practice. Isn’t that the point? “But sir, I get nervous when I have to play a test.” My reply is, “Don’t think of it as a test but rather as a contest.” The word contest can imply a game or challenge to achieve a personal best. Athletes do it all the time.

5. BAND CAMP. It would take some preparation during the previous school year so you may want to save this one for next September, but how cool would it be (while the rest of the school is in class, of course) to have the senior band or the entire music department away at camp for a few days? Run sectionals and full rehearsals. It’s a great way to introduce repertoire for the year. Invite guest instructors for master classes and/or to perform with the band. Remember you want to turn kids on so it has to be fun.

6. BEGINNER CAMP. Have just the beginning music students at a mini-camp for one day. Specialists will ensure that concepts get ingrained correctly from the start. Order pizza (band budget) and invite parents to attend a very brief mini-concert (one very easy three-note piece). Briefly outline what your goals are and why home support is so crucial. What a sense of accomplishment your students will feel and what a fantastic sneak preview of the fun they’ll have in your music program!

7. VIDEO CONFERENCE. Set up a videoconference with a composer whose music you’ll be performing this year. It can just be a question and answer session. Forward student generated questions to your guest composer ahead of time. There isn’t a lot of tech setup (laptop, screen, Skype). Schedule a second session later in the year when the band has had time to work on the music. What an invaluable experience and what a great preparation for the actual concert. Plan ahead and this one will reap great benefits.

8. BANDFEST. How about a virtual and/or real band exchange? Two bands from different parts of the country or the world (or even just down the street) could meet via webcam and perform one piece for each other in preparation for an actual trip to each respective city. It’s up to you just how big you want to go.

OTHER IDEAS: 9. Youtube concert report (students critique other bands performing similar repertoire), 10. Senior students mentor juniors, 11. Start an ensemble or two, 12. “Hear and Tell” (students play short recordings for the other students of their favorite band piece/composer and talk about why they like it), 13. Students create a band website or a band blog, 14. Movie day (composers, famous musicians).

All of these activities generate excitement and energy and, most importantly, engender the belief that music is important and fun! Remember to make your classes and rehearsals engaging as well. Your excitement and energy will rub off, so be creative. Tap into your own passion for the music and share it. Start the year off with a bang and it won’t be long before your program will be zooming along!