Tag Archives: Technique

Balancing the Physical and Musical Aspects of Instrumental Music

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By Thomas J. West

Most public school music ensembles spend 95 percent of their classroom time preparing for public concerts. It takes many hours of repetition of the music in order to program the body to perform the music accurately. Band and orchestra directors basically run rehearsals for a living and become very good at providing the repetitions necessary to program the physical movements required to perform the music accurately.

When I began writing articles for my website, I focused on sharing music practice tips. The majority of these were strategies designed to help maximize practice routine efficiency, garnering more successful repetitions of the music. What I have only recently realized, however, is that the majority of time and effort spent practicing a musical instrument has more to do with programming the mind to physically control the instrument accurately and reliably. There is more “physical education” involved in instrumental music making than actual “music education”.

In most traditional high school bands and orchestras, the vast majority of rehearsal time is spent drilling the music in order for ensemble members to develop some level of physical proficiency in performance. Teaching basic musicianship concepts like reading notation, understanding pitch, and so on, is left to the elementary music teachers to handle. High school ensembles focus primarily on ensemble techniques such as pulse control, section and group intonation, balance and blend, and so on. Those concepts are touched upon and then drilled, drilled, drilled until the ensemble can perform them accurately.

The Marriage Between Physical and Aural

One of the amazing things about studying music performance is that it elides the physical skill of operating a musical instrument with the mental skill of perceiving and instantly processing and reacting to sound. Singers do this as well, but the need to physically train the body is quite different. Instrumentalists spend a great deal of time simply becoming proficient at manipulating the contraption that makes the musical sounds happen.

Students of music have to not only become proficient at the physical movements, they also have to use their aural skills to assess their own physical performance. The actual musical part of instrumental performance is all mental, and it requires training and skill building just like the physical training of operating the instrument.

Over-Programming the Physical Part of Performance

Because it takes so much time and repetition to program the body, musicianship and listening skills often take a secondary role in many school performing ensemble classes. This is compounded by the fact that many high school band and orchestra directors choose repertoire that demands a high level of technical proficiency on the part of the performers. Technical wizardry (those fast sixteenth note runs, screaming high notes, rapid tonguing or bowing passages, and so on) are engaging and exciting to listen to, and many directors want their students to have the experience of performing exciting works with a lot of technical fireworks.

The trade-off, however, is that technically demanding repertoire often consumes the majority of available class time simply to get the ensemble performing proficiently. Even then, traditional band and orchestra programs lean on the students with the higher music aptitude and skill development to carry the weight while their peers hang on for dear life or fake their way through the difficult passages. Add to that fact the more important consequence—the students rarely have time to improve their musical skills in favor of improving their physical skills.

Audio Gym Teacher?

If ensemble directors, for whatever reason, continue to program technically demanding works that constantly stretch the boundaries of what the students are capable of, they are providing their students with more of an “audio physical education” than a “music education.” Technical ability is only part of what makes up an effective musical performance. It is far better, in my opinion, to choose repertoire with easier technical demand that can be mastered in a shorter amount of time, leaving room towards the end of the preparation period to work on ensemble playing techniques, expressive phrasing, and communicating the intent of the music to the audience.

Quite simply, if by concert time students are not able to look away from the sheet music for more than a brief glance at the baton in order to be able to perform the piece, the technical demand is probably too high.

There certainly is a need for repertoire that “pushes the envelope” and gets students to reach for a new level of technical ability, but I have seen too many band and orchestra programs that try to stretch the ensemble with every single piece they perform. Slaving away on demanding parts is enjoyable for only a minority of students—most are turned off by such hard work, especially if that level of demand is constantly upon them.

Physical training in the band and orchestra is a major component of instrumental performing music and is constantly being addressed. There needs to be a balance, however, between the physical aspects of instrumental performance and the mental aspects of listening, audiating, and understanding music as an art form.

TomWest

Thomas J. West is an active music teacher, composer, adjudicator, and clinician in the greater Philadelphia area. He has eighteen years of experience as a concert band director, marching band director, jazz improvisation instructor, choral director, orchestra director, private instructor, and marching drill writer. Learn more about Thomas at www.thomasjwestmusic.com. 


 

Preparing Students to Improvise

BJim Snideroy Jim Snidero

Improvisation is a scary proposition for many music students and teachers. But the word “improvisation” is fairly misleading, as much of what an improviser uses to create a solo is actually preconceived, and therefore can be learned and developed.

Preconceived concepts regarding form, rhythm, melody, harmony and importantly, solo construction, are some of the elements that are tirelessly practiced and perfected by great improvisers (e.g. masters). This creates a foundation for what will be played. Furthermore, masters have preconceived concepts regarding how they will play. Tone, technique, time feel, articulation, phrasing and vibrato style are often the thing that most identifies a master, being carefully formulated and developed, then repeated over and over again.

What separates an improvisation master from everyone else is (1) the quality and quantity of what’s preconceived, (2) art and, (3) taste. The good news is that (1) can be studied and practiced to the point that you can gain control over a massive amount of preconceived concepts. The bad news is that not everyone can create a work of art, and not everyone has exquisite taste.

Masters strike a balance between preconceived concepts and going with the moment, letting their “spirit,” for lack of a better term, lead them to very human expression. This creates a kind of inspired flow. And this sense of balance between essentially “knowing and not knowing,” to quote Chick Corea from a 1976 Keyboard Player magazine article, is informed by incredible taste and yes, talent. But here’s the thing: it’s very tough to create (2) and (3) without (1)! And (1) is something that most definitely can learned.

There’s a little secret that masters know regarding preconceived vocabulary. To quote Chick again from the same article:

“The myth is that you always have to play something different to be spontaneous. But that’s not true. What’s important is how “there” you are when you’re playing: that’s really the point. Good music is just good music whether it’s composed, improvised or whatever.”

No matter how many times you play an idea, if you are “in the moment,” it is spontaneous and can never actually be played the exact same way again, as no one ever experiences a moment exactly the same way. Charlie Parker played some of his signature ideas thousands of times, but they never sounded exactly alike. The same can be said about virtually every master. So preconceived vocabulary is crucial to the creative process.

Transcribing a solo is the best way to build vocabulary, but quality books are also a good source. For example, the new edition of the Jazz Conception series contains a section on improvisation, extracting over 100 ideas from 21 etudes over various common chord progressions. Vocabulary and context!

Once ideas are committed to memory, you then have material to develop both timing and balance. If one idea is active, dense with notes or rhythms, perhaps the next idea could be static, using just a couple of notes or rhythms. If the contour of an idea ascends, perhaps the next idea might descend, creating a peak. This helps you to develop a sense of balance, maybe even taste.

These instincts then allow you to assemble ideas in a logical and musical manner, often helping to “say” something when improvising. The more material, the more you can say. Eventually, your instincts will allow you to play new things that you hear spontaneously in a musical, logical manner, or react to what your bandmates are playing. You will then be able to balance improvisation between “knowing and not knowing.” It’s powerful stuff, not to mention a whole lot of fun!

Jim Snidero is an alto saxophonist, author and educator living in New York City. He is a Savant recording artist, author of the Jazz Conception series and president of The Jazz Conception Company.

Shop the Jazz Conception series here.