Not One, but SEVERAL Announcements!

So things tend to come in threes, and this post full of exciting professional announcements is no exception!

 

~ONE~
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My new clinic, “Ear on the Prize: A holistic approach to effective brass instruction” is now available for booking. Check out the link in the name for more information- I’m really excited to begin offering this clinic to schools in the region!

 

~TWO~Brass Lassie’s album is DONE and ready to be released! We are having a party and concert to celebrate the new album for local folks on September 7th. Details here! The album will be available to purchase in physical form or digital download on our website September 7th as well.

 

~THREE~

I am extremely pleased to announce that I have accepted the adjunct trombone instructor position at St Cloud State University starting this fall.  I am joining a faculty of incredibly talented musicians and educators, and I cannot wait to meet the students of this fine music department. Look for some great events, concerts, and opportunities coming from this direction throughout the academic year.

Teaching and Learning: Staying Relevant

Last week I wrote about how I learned to teach- not just by discovering a talent for teaching but by understanding the journey I had to take to be effective and earnest in my skills. This week I want to talk about the exciting process of lifelong learning: applying what I know about helping folks learn to my own educational opportunities.

I may dive more into this next month (the theme is all picked out: Music & Mental Health!), but over the years I’ve had some struggles not just with working to be an effective educator, but with managing the burnout and stress that can come with it. Not only is teaching music privately a career high in emotional labor and investment, it’s often thankless and frustrating financially.   It takes perseverance and dedication to make it all work, and an adaptability that can often be hard-won.

Even as I reflect on the last five years of private teaching, I’m looking forward to the next chapter. I know I can’t just maintain a private studio for the rest of my working life. There need to be new challenges and created opportunities that keep my mind and inspiration fresh. Here are some of the ways I work to keep my career energizing:

Be a student, too

This can mean taking lessons, classes, seminars, anything- but staying in the mindset of being a learning can help you understand how others are learning, and create better teaching moments for you. I’m not currently in lessons or otherwise, but I am working with amazing instructional learning designer Suzi Hunn (new website coming soon!) to put together my new clinic program and getting a big lesson in how course work is effectively and inclusively designed.

Observe other teachers/educational situations

I get some of my best ideas from watching other folks teach. Not only that, I can observe their language, interaction with the students, and strategies without having to be ‘on’ myself.

Stay in touch with mentors

Staying fresh on my teaching philosophy and connection to my own educational past means keeping relationships with my mentors and teacher open and healthy.

Get social

I love talking with other teachers, whether we’re kvetching, swapping ideas or stories, or just having a normal adult conversation without the added level of having to be an example and role model. Private teaching can be very lonely and isolating, and there have been days where I realized I didn’t talk to anyone over 18- not a terrible thing, but sometimes you need peer-to-peer chit chat to let your brain process its day and recharge your batteries.

Be Interdisciplinary

I often feel that some of the best inspiration I get is from sectors other than music. Books on entrepreneurship, philosophy, relationships, psychology, and science have all been extremely enlightening and motivating for me over the years. On top of that, it makes you a more interesting teacher- you can reference a broad range of topics that can either help you build rapport with a student or send them in a new direction.

Attend conferences, events, festivals, etc

Your state probably has a music educator’s conference. There’s the illustrious Midwest Clinic. Your instrument’s organization is probably getting ready to host a  festival this summer. A Trombone Day just happened in the Twin Cities last week. Or maybe it’s not music-related, per se, like the excellent Giant Steps  which happens in the Cities in October. If something interests you, go to it. Sure, you can network, but you can also listen, and get new ideas.

Strike a balance

I loooove teaching. There are days when I’m tired and worn out but after a few lessons I actually feel more awake and relaxed. There are also other days when I’m worn out no matter who I teach, and I struggle to stay on my game for the lessons. I’ve started to make sure that there is at least one day, preferably two, a week, where I don’t teach. It gives me a chance to recharge my spoons and feel like the next time lessons come around, I’ll be ready to offer my best educational experience.

Keep inventing

As I mentioned above, I’m in the process of developing a new clinic I can market. I’m thinking I’ll limit my studio population slightly in the next year and save some time for mini clinician tours and performances, starting with Minnesota. There will be more information about that soon, but in the meantime, planning for that is making me look forward, develop new strategies, and keep myself evolving and reaching as a teacher.

What kinds of things do you do to stay relevant and inspired as a teacher and learner? What’s worked and what hasn’t? What will you do next?

Seeking: Higher Ed Applied Teachers & HS Band Directors for Collaboration

I am looking to connect with educators in the Upper Midwest (Minnesota/Wisconsin/Dakotas/Iowa) who would like to help me beta-test my new series of clinics and master classes. Specifically, I want to speak with applied teachers of low brass instruments and high school band directors whose students might be interested in holistic technique, fresh ideas for the music business, and social justice music education. I can offer up to a two hour clinic visit, plus additional individual lessons held on the same day if desired, for up to three schools.

More information about the clinics and booking for the 1819AY will be available in Summer 2018!

If you or someone you know might be interested, please get in touch with me by leaving a comment here with information on how to contact you, or send me a message through Facebook.

Thanks!

“Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments

Part 6: EPILOGUE

Recently, I recapped the excellent text of studies related to attentional focus and its affect on motor skill learning by Gabriele Wulf. To review: where we put our attention when learning a new skill is important in the development of efficient and accurate movements and will contribute to longer-lasting results and quicker progress. Even at the very beginning level of a skill, an external focus will allow our bodies’ natural learning processes to take over and solidify our abilities.

In several installments, I’d like to tackle a few of those tricky concepts associated with learning the particular motor skills of brass playing, and offer some practical strategies for natural, effective learning.  I’ll address common methods, fads, and accepted techniques and then offer ‘external’ focus solutions for each.

Part 1: AIR

Part 2: EMBOUCHURE

Part 3: ARTICULATION and INTONATION.

Part 4: VALVES/SLIDE vs CONCEPT

Part 5: MUSICALITY

As a final installment, I want to talk about why teaching in this pedagogy is so important to me, and how it can help create a more inclusive, equitable society of brass musicians with healthy playing and performance habits first and foremost in our minds.

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY

There’s a prevailing attitude in music instruction, especially at the upper levels, that seems to think that because their teacher drilled them endlessly on Arban scale patterns, made them buzz into embouchure visualizers and jump up and down doing inhalation exercises, or was just plain salty about the type of work it takes to get good, that we all have to go through that. Unless we’re ‘naturally talented’ in which case we’re held up on a pedestal of unattainable glory.

There’s ample evidence, however, that the school of technical execution, especially in brass learning, is a relatively new turn in a centuries-long history of pedagogical approaches. McPherson and Gabrielsson, in their book The Science and Psychology of Music Performance, attribute the publication of the Arban Comprehensive Method in 1864 as the first in a long series of texts intended to fill a marketing hole in the music publication world. It may not have been the intent of the authors involved, but it created a shift in brass education away from imitation and ear training (external) and developed a dependence on technical acquisition (internal). (McPherson and Gabrielsson, 2002; see also Karen Marston’s dissertation on Jan Kagarice with an overview of relevant brass pedagogies starting on page 52).

The purpose of this epilogue is to allow me to take a few hypothetical leaps, to explain the reasons I am deeply commitment to external focus pedagogy, and to provide some hope for change in the future. There’s future research in this for me, and I hope to refine and defend some of this arguments not long from now in academic form. SO! Here we go.

WHAT IF? 

What if a cultural approach to learning brass that focuses on technical acquisition, a strict checklist of music skills we need to be deemed ‘professional level’ and an iron grip on training interpretive performance skills (i.e. learning pre-composed music and performing to ‘industry standard’) is leaving a cohort of potential lifelong musicians behind, or excluding them from finding success in the music industry?

In other other words, what if training internally is turning off all the folks who can’t naturally approach systematic learning, who might have an improvisational or compositional voice, who might not need to read music or interpret the classics to share their musical inclinations?

What if we’re leaving young people (and in particular, young women and/or people of color) behind in the field of brass instruction because they’re struggling to interpret concepts that don’t actually relate to music performance, what if they’re turned off by the ‘higher, faster, louder, stronger’ school of thinking, that asks how hard they’re working, how uncomfortable they’re making themselves?

What if we’re hurting ourselves with our hyper-focus on technical instruction? What if the growing number of focal dystonia cases has something to do with teaching backwards, teaching muscle movements and breathing instead of sound concepts and air movement, making people maneuver instruments first and get music second?

What if performance anxiety is a facet of practice anxiety? What if when we don’t practice performance, but instead practice skills, we don’t know if we can trust them on the stage anymore?

IMAGINE

Imagine picking up an instrument and having your teacher, someone you trust and admire, model the sound they want you to create. Imagine them steadily helping you build your skills, keeping your ear trained to the goal you want, watching as you unlock your potential for musicality.

Imagine a community of musicians that holds up all performance genres and contexts as valuable, teaches any number of styles as inherently human, sophisticated creations, allows many voices to join the throng. Imagine people joyfully sharing their skills without fear.

Imagine a healthy way of approaching both horn and life- curious and open, communicative, expressive, kind, and giving. Imagine all the different faces and personalities we’d see in the brass world.

Imagine how much more fun that would be.

[some important further reading here: http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.16.22.1/manifesto.pdf]

“Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments

Part 4: The VALVES/SLIDE vs CONCEPT/SLOW PRACTICE

Recently, I recapped the excellent text of studies related to attentional focus and its affect on motor skill learning by Gabriele : . To review: where we put our attention when learning a new skill is important in the development of efficient and accurate movements and will contribute to longer-lasting results and quicker progress. Even at the very beginning level of a skill, an external focus will allow our bodies’ natural learning processes to take over and solidify our abilities.

In several installments, I’d like to tackle a few of those tricky concepts associated with learning the particular motor skills of brass playing, and offer some practical strategies for natural, effective learning.  I’ll address common methods, fads, and accepted techniques and then offer ‘external’ focus solutions for each.

In Parts 1,2, & 3 we dove into AIR, EMBOUCHURE, and ARTICULATION and INTONATION.

Today, I’m looking at the VALVES/SLIDE, but more importantly, how we use CONCEPT and MEASURED PRACTICE to develop our technical skills in an externally focused manner.

MOVE IT OR LOSE IT

We’ve got our Arbans, our Clarkes, our Koppraschs, and any number of other texts, all engineered to help us develop fluid, fast technique on the horn so that we can master it. We practice scale studies and etudes and work hard on our execution. It’s definitely a necessity in obtaining a high level of performance on an instrument, so how we can we utilize external attentional focus methods to help lessen the task (and dare I say it- make it fun)?

I’m going to speak primarily from a trombone player’s perspective, since that’s what I play and mostly teach, but these ideas could apply to any instrument.

The main big idea I want to talk about today is CONCEPT- which has something to do with the ‘brain magic’ and ‘umbrella tasking’ I’ve discussed before. Basically, we need to be able to tell our body what the music we want to make sounds like, and so we rely on our concept to guide us. Too often, we go the other way- assess something as a technical skill, learning it as an action our body does and then trying to shoe-horn musicality in over it. We set students on the task of ‘learning their scales’ but we don’t always explain how those scales can show up in music or teach tonality instead. It’s just something we have to do to be better and it’s really boring.

But I think scales and drills can be fun, if you change your concept of them. An ascending scale pattern can have direction- aim for the top! pull down to the bottom!- thirds can be like skipping stairs, arpeggios outline cool chords that can be played underneath the student as they practice, showing them how Western harmony works. If we’re clear on our concept, we’ll have a better shot of integrating the technical skill we’re trying to accomplish into our skill set.

It is of utmost importance that we are helping our young musicians develop their ears. From an early age, they learn recognize sounds and intervals, and are seeped in harmonic structures and internal rhythm. As they begin learning a brass instrument, they can use those tools to conceptualize on the instrument more quickly and easily.

One of the hardest early skills to get on the trombone is a clean slide. Most of us start out slipping around and getting all the semitones between two pitches in the same partial, and have trouble lining up tongue, air, and slide to get a clean attack. Some approaches to going from F(1) in the staff to Eb(3):

Internal Focus: 

“Move the slide really fast and tongue right when you get to 3rd, trying to line the slide and tongue up together.”

External Focus:

“Let’s think of a song that uses this interval. Happy Birthday could start on Eb and go to F and then back- let’s sing that on those pitches (demo on piano). Can we hear those two notes cleanly on the trombone?”

Turn on a metronome. Encourage the student to arrive with the beat each next note, keeping that as their focus. Keep the tempo at a pace they can conceptualize and execute, and speed up slowly.

Another tricky skill is executing the whole step from F in the staff to the G above it. It requires changing partials and moving the slide from 1st to 4th. Most of the time, a beginner will end up glissando-ing down to the D in 4th before being able to make the upward change.

Internal Focus:

“As you’re moving out to 4th, make your air go faster and tongue on the G”

External Focus: 

“Let’s listen for Happy Birthday again, but this time let’s start on F. It’s going to go F-G-F, and we need to hear that interval as we play it. Let’s sing first!”

“Let’s try playing F in 6th position…did you know that was an alternate? Then, we can stay on the same partial and smear up to 4th. Listen (demo). Now, let’s try playing that cleanly from 6th to 4th. Once you have that, we’ll try 1st to 4th- let’s keep hearing a song we recognize as we do it!”

MEASURED PRACTICE

“Slow practice equals fast progress”- Musician’s proverb

One of the biggest lessons I learned in my studies with Jan Kagarice is that CONCEPT has to meet ABILITY, not the other way around. In other words, if we cannot play something at the speed we have heard it done or want to play it at, we need to lower that concept down to where we can play it. That doesn’t seem like rocket science, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle. This includes all of the elements of a given phrase: direction (dynamics), style (articulation), and execution (mechanics). In a sense, we need to practice performing at all levels of our learning process in order to truly cement the finished project in our bank of motor skills.

For beginners, clean slide/valve technique and faster passages can seem like daunting tasks. But with measured practice skills, bringing concept down to a manageable tempo can make the task more accessible. Adding external focus techniques such as “what is this phrase saying/what does this interval remind you of” will keep the learner’s attention on the execution and not on the physical skill.

This is easier for some than most, but it’s critical in developing fluid, easy technique that responds to the musical goal one is trying to achieve. A metronome can be a lifesaver in this regard- it gives the learner something to aim for rather than guessing blindly at where the next note will be when their sense of steady time has yet to develop. I never move a student faster than they can play any given thing, and in fact sometimes we end up going even slower. To keep from boredom setting in, I keep the task manageable and limit the amount of time we concentrate for. Our brains, in addition to not being able to multi-task, really need time to develop focused concentration abilities. So be patient with your young students and don’t make them do one thing for too long- vary the tasks and move incrementally.

As one of my students said recently: “I can’t play fast stuff! But I’m playing fast without thinking about it!”

“Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments

Part 3: ARTICULATION and INTONATION

Recently, I recapped the excellent text of studies related to attentional focus and its affect on motor skill learning by Gabriele Wulf. To review: where we put our attention when learning a new skill is important in the development of efficient and accurate movements and will contribute to longer-lasting results and quicker progress. Even at the very beginning level of a skill, an external focus will allow our bodies’ natural learning processes to take over and solidify our abilities.

In several installments, I’d like to tackle a few of those tricky concepts associated with learning the particular motor skills of brass playing, and offer some practical strategies for natural, effective learning.  I’ll address common methods, fads, and accepted techniques and then offer ‘external’ focus solutions for each.

In Parts 1 & 2 we dove into AIR and EMBOUCHURE, and now it’s time to approach the concepts swirling around ARTICULATION and INTONATION (both of which involve the tongue and its many machinations).

WHAT DOES YOUR TONGUE DO? DOES IT MATTER?

The motor skill behind each of the concepts involved in this post utilize the tongue (and by an extent, the oral cavity), so they made sense to explore in one post. There are more opinions on what one is supposed to do with one’s tongue when articulating and tuning then there are trombonists in the world (ok, that’s hyperbole, but still), and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with advice from all sides of the equation. Just Google “how to tongue on a trombone” and you’ll get all the hot takes you could ever wish for.

“The Teachers do what they do; they tell the Student what they think they do; the Students think they hear what the Teachers think they said about what they do; the Students then try to do what they think the Teachers said about what they think they do.” – Denis Wick

But as you probably already know by now, if you’ve been following along with this series, WHAT we’re trying to achieve is far more effective a learning strategy than HOW we’re doing it.

Recently, Boston trombonist and bass trombone guru Douglas Yeo participated in a study that allowed him to see the inner workings of his mouth and throat while playing a modified trombone set-up while in an MRI machine. When I first saw this post, I was pretty wary. The last thing most brass instrumentalists need is more stuff to think about and more focus of attention on the symptoms of our playing process. And on top of that, while more trombonists while participate in this research, we have at the moment only one player demonstrating these exercises and extrapolating them as evidence for what is  proper playing technique.

I don’t want to seem like I’m denying that this is fascinating information to have, or that we can’t learn something from demonstrations like this. I think it could be very useful if we lived in a learning culture where we trusted the educational effects of external focus, and could view the results objectively while still moving forward with our attention on the music.

But unfortunately we don’t, and I can see a whole generation of trombone players and teachers pointing back to this study and inflicting detailed internal focus instructions on themselves and their students. And the result will be inefficient, amusical playing.

Disclaimer time: Some players and teachers deny that anything is happening with their tongue or throat when a brass instrument is played effectively. I am not one of those people; I believe all manner of things are happening! It’s pretty cool that our muscles and tendons and neurons can all work together to form beautiful sounds and music. However, I’m just going to say it: I don’t care what’s happening. It’s just a symptom, and I’m going to let it keep doing what it’s doing and not interfere. Again, the more I focus on the results I want, the more efficient my technique will be.

“A symptom is not a prescription for doing.” -Jan Kagarice

There is enough scientific evidence out there now to tell us that we are not capable of actually multi-tasking. We can ‘serial task’: i.e. switch rapidly from one high level task to another, or we can incorporate an automated task (like walking) into a high level task (like talking on the phone), but we can’t do two high-level tasks at the same time, especially if they utilize similar brain functions. (Source) (I find fault with the example given in this article, listening to classical music while reading, because I certainly cannot focus on both!)

When we provide our brass playing self sets of internal instructions at the same time- “Strike the tongue at the tip of the teeth and pull back while moving the slide rapidly into position and blowing”- we are asking ourselves to do this all at once, but we are really serial tasking. When we provide external instructions- “These notes all connect and they sound like this. Imitate what you hear”- we form chains of functions that can occur simultaneously because we are not giving them high-level concentration. It’s sort of like ‘umbrella tasking‘; combining all the elements of successful brass performance under the umbrella of our concept. It goes back to what I referenced earlier in the Wulf text:

This lines up with what Wulf calls “optimal attentional focus” (Wulf 149) and what I call “brain magic”. When we learn a complex skill, the components of the skill line up in a queue of actions, and if we want to be most effective, we will let the highest-level affect lead our focus. All other components will tick off without need for conscious intervention.  (Husting)

Ok! So you get the point. Whatever we’re trying to do, we should get out of the way and not interfere with the system. So let’s get back to it.

ARTICULATION

Internal Focus:

“Your tongue should strike the back of your top teeth and interrupt the air but not stop it”

External Focus:

“We’re playing Hot Cross Buns today. Do you know the words to the fast part? ‘One-a-penny Two-a-penny’. Let’s say that together- can you hear how clearly we articulate that when we sing it? Let’s imitate it on the instrument.”

[I love teaching my students simple songs and making sure they know the words. We don’t teach young children how to manipulate their tongue when they are learning to speak, so why not utilize the same type of mimicry for brass playing?]

Internal Focus:

“This scale is staccato. Play really short notes by flicking your tongue quickly and using a hard syllable”

External Focus: 

“This scale says to play it staccato. What kind of character could we give it? Bouncy? Cheeky? Let’s listen to what that sounds like on piano for reference”

INTONATION

I have to do a little more exposition here. There is no reliable INTONATION without reliable TONE. Before I even introduce my students to the idea of ‘playing in tune’, I train their ears to recognize that they are resonating the whole horn and matching whatever pitch I give them. It will take time for them to develop the capacity for fine adjustments, but it will be much easier if they are producing a good sound. If they are struggling to play something in tune, I might take them back a few steps to AIR and EMBOUCHURE. The idea that the position of our tongue, the shape of our oral cavity (because of the position of the tongue), and the relaxation or tension of our throat has an effect on intonation is not unprecedented: the shape and tension of physical objects determine pitch according to acoustical science. But don’t put the cart before the horse. Form follows function. Those physical objects have been fiddled with over centuries to find the desired sound and range du jour! All because someone had a concept, and they wanted to improve upon the form of the tool they were using to execute it.

Also, a note on tuners. I generally discourage overuse of tuners in my studio in favor of things like pitch drones and reference instruments with stable intonation (like an electric keyboard). I find that staring at a tuner turns the focus inward, and players start to fiddle with physical aspects rather than trying to blend or match a sound. There is one great (and really cheap) tuner on the app market, and that’s Tonal Energy. It has lots of great tools, like metronome and playback, but most importantly, it provides high quality drones in a variety of sound types (including trombone!) that allow you to really work on expanding your ear and your sound’s relative pitch.

Internal Focus:

“Move your tongue up or down to create a better/more in tune sound”

[What I’ve noticed about this: Moving my tongue around in my mouth really only affects the pitch if I’m not thinking about resonating my sound all the way out to the bell. If I’m effectively resonating my instrument with a good tone, moving my tongue around has little to no affect- UNLESS I give it an intention along the lines of “now I want to bend the pitch and make it sound lower/higher”]

“Watch the tuner and react to what you see”

External Focus:

“Listen to the drone pitch. Hum or sing along, and then move air against your balance point and resonant the instrument with that pitch. Only look at the tuner for confirmation, and then start the process over by refocusing on the drone sound.”

[Intonation also works differently in different settings. If you’re playing the melody, you’re going to play the melody in tune with itself, and your accompaniment will adjust (unless it’s a piano, haha) to you. If you’re playing with piano, you can play your phrase on the keyboard to see what it sounds like in equal temperament, and then imitate those relationships on your instrument.]

That’s a lot! But I think these are really important concepts to consider when trying to approach your instrument in the most efficient and healthy way. Stay tuned for Part 4- the topic of which is yet to be determined but will probably be something along the lines of slide technique- and a second live video soon!