5-Minute Read: Out of the “Woodshed”

“Woodshedding.” Does that term make you cringe?  It’s an often maddening process for band director and ensemble alike.  The term “woodshedding” originated in early 20th century as slang for an individual practicing, alone, on difficult musical passages.  The idea was that this performer was going off, alone, to a secluded “woodshed” to practice.

But unfortunately, “woodshedding” has often morphed into a group routine where a director or sectional manager works with a group of performers on a difficult passage over and over and over, ad nauseam, to “clean” the music.  This is tiring for the director, who feels the students should be working this stuff out on their own, and it’s certainly frustrating for the ensemble, who’s time is being monopolized by weaker or less well-prepared performers.  I’ve often told performers that making an entire ensemble wait and watch you practice before their very eyes is a sure way to lose respect and friends.

But we’ve reached a point in our history where we can escape the group woodshed!  According to reliable statistics, over 75% of students have access to internet-connected devices that are capable of the techniques I will list below.

The next time you have a difficult passage that bedevils a particular section in your band, try this: assign recording homework.  Here’s how it works.

  • After reading it in class a couple of times, leave the passage alone and move elsewhere in the music.
  • Give the assignment only to the section who has the difficult passage.
  • Make sure to specify what tempo or tempo range they must utilize.
  • The students must record the passage, with a metronome audible in the background, at the specified tempo.  There can be no wrong notes or rhythms.  They may use their phone, a voice recorder, tablet, computer, you name it. There are plenty of free metronome smartphone apps, and there’s even a free one online at www.metronomeonline.com.
  • Give the students about 48-72 hours to complete the assignment.  Don’t touch that part of the music in class until the assignment is complete.
  • They must e-mail you the recording of themselves by the assigned due date and time.
  • Provide a grade on the homework assignment, along with written notes and feedback
This method works to your advantage in so many ways!
  • The entire ensemble’s time is used more productively, as they don’t have to sit there watching other people practice.
  • The assigned performers learn to practice on their own!
  • You get to hear the individual performers and provide them with comments and guidance to help them succeed.
  • The entire ensemble can experience the joy of reaching the assigned passage and hearing the improvement made by individual practice.
  • You get additional assessment data points you can enter into a grade book, thus providing the feedback and quantifiable scores that all parents and administrations seek in this day and age.
While this method can never wholly eliminate repetitive rehearsal techniques, which are necessary occasionally, it can vastly reduce these frustrating episodes.  Give it a try this week!

5-Minute Read: “Just” Tune It!

The greatest ongoing battle for all of us, performers and directors alike, is getting an ensemble in tune.  Instruments are affected by reeds, temperature, humidity, performer embouchure strength, and what we had for breakfast this morning.  No matter how good we get, we still have to work every moment to play in tune!  And one of the best and worst tools in this ongoing battle is the electronic tuner.

Don’t get me wrong! The electronic tuner, whether in its old strobe form or in the ubiquitous smartphone app so many of use today, has been a boon to instrumental musicians everywhere.  We have an absolute baseline measurement of whether a note is in tune with the established A-440 (in America) standard.  However, this standardized tuning can be incredibly useful yet simultaneously and equally worthless to us as we search for perfect intonation.  How is that possible?  Simply put, a tuner assumes that every single pitch class is assigned an absolute frequency.  For example, a tuner calibrated to A-440 assumes that D#2 has a frequency of 77.78 Hz.  In addition, that same tuner assumes that Eb2 is the exact same pitch and has the same frequency of 77.78 Hz.

“But aren’t D# and Eb the same pitch?” you might ask?  If we rate them as a “pitch class” then yes, and if we look at a equal tempered keyboard, then yes again.  However, wind instruments aren’t keyboards, and we don’t treat D# and Eb as the same pitch, except to remember how to finger that particular pitch class. We must utilize Just Temperament.

Here’s why.  Take a look at the following triad: B-D#-F#.  That’s a B major chord.  Now look at this triad: B-Eb-F#.  That’s no major chord!  If it was functioning as a major chord, then it would be spelled properly.  And here’s where it gets weirder.  If a major triad is written, our human ears and brains don’t want to hear that D# tuned to 77.78 Hz.  If we do, then we will hear an out of tune chord with subtle beats disturbing the sonority. (By the way, I always struggled with mathematics.  If you are math-impaired like I am, feel free to forget what I just wrote and use the trusty maxim of “Just Temperament is important because math.”)

Because our human brain wants to hear interval relationships that form whole number ratios, we have to utilize Just Temperament and adjust the tones in every chord we play.  That D# in a B major chord has to be favored down, and the F# must be favored slightly up.  An electronic tuner will tell us we are no longer in tune, but that’s just not true.  “Well if I can’t trust the tuner, who can I trust?” you might ask.  The answer is to trust yourself and trust your ears, given some Just Temperament know-how.  Take a look at this chart.  It provides every triad and seven chord, and includes how many cents (100ths of a half-step) you must adjust each chord tone up or down to achieve a gorgeous sonority.

5-Minute Read: Unison Chorales to the Rescue!

If we got a dollar every time we said the words “intonation” and “balance,” we’d be fondly remembering our band directing days from our private island in the Caribbean.  We are constantly striving to get our performers to listen to the prevailing ensemble balance and pitch center.  And one of our best tools in the ongoing battle is the warm-up chorale.A four-part chorale teaches so much about balance and tuning across an ensemble, and when they’re done well they are just plain fun to play and listen to.  However, sometimes the richness of a four-part harmonized chorale can mask pitch and balance issues from our care and attention.  So try simplifying with unison chorales!

Ready-Made or Do-It-Yourself?

There are plenty of chorale books that have a variety of chorales in every key, and that show your musicians every single part of the arrangement.  Therefore, you can always use the techniques described here by simply telling your ensemble “everyone play the soprano part in exercise 7.” However, let me lobby for the Do-It-Yourself variety of unison chorale, for several reasons that will be made apparent below.
You can easily create a unison chorale with any legato melody.  It could even be a melody from your current performance folder (even better!).  For example, if your band is playing Holst’s First Suite in Eb, take the opening chaconne phrase and plug it into your notation software of choice for every instrument in your band.  Like so:

Now your warm-up is also helping your students practice a phrase from their music, and they’re having to tune to every other instrument in the ensemble.  You can have them play it, sing it, brass buzz it, you name it.  In fact, you’ll find it very useful to actually mix and match these techniques mid-phrase.  Just play up to a certain chord, cut off the ensemble, and have them sing the next pitch through their instrument, or have the brass buzz the next pitch.

Every Key Signature!

There are more advantages to this do-it-yourself chorale method.  Since you’ve plugged this into your notation software, it’s now very easy for you to transpose this into every key.  You’ll have to adjust some notes that go out of the practical range for your players, but you’ve got a simple method of teaching your students to listen and play in every single major key.

You might find it useful to focus on a single major scale each week, using the unison chorale in the matching key signature.  Because the melody always remains the same, your students can focus entirely on balance, intonation, and quality of sound throughout all ranges of their instrument.
These techniques of unison melodic warm-up in all keys, mixed with singing and mouthpiece buzzing, can vastly improve your concert or marching band’s ability to tune and produce a balanced sound.  Give it a try!

It’s Darius Milhaud’s birthday today!

It’s Darius Milhaud’s birthday!  Born on this day in 1892, Milhaud grew up in Aix-en-Provence, France.  It’s not too late for you to program some of his works with your ensembles!  Wind Ensembles can always enjoy revisiting his Suite Française. And chamber groups will relish tackling Symphonie de chambre No. 5 “Dixtuor d’instruments à vent”, Op. 75; Le bœuf sur le toit, Op. 58; or my favorite, La création du monde, Op. 81.

5-Minute Read: Metronome Games!

No sound is as dreaded by director and performer alike as the piercing click of a metronome. We’re all ambivalent about the humble metronome; we love it for its contributions to a solid performance, but we hate the frustrating process of playing to an immovable, uncompromising pulse. But there are some techniques and processes that we can employ with the metronome to both help our bands, and make the metronome a little less misery-inducing.  Please note that the following notes can be complicated by asymmetrical and/or mixed meters, so use your best judgement for the musical passages that apply in your own show.

“Subdivide, subdivide, subdivide!”

Most of us have have had this mantra preached at us, and then we’ve preached it to our own ensembles.  And it’s true!  Student performers must learn to subdivide for rhythmic accuracy, maintenance of pulse, and to properly execute marching fundamentals.  However, simply turning on the metronome, with 8th note subdivisions banging away, may not be the most effective way to get your group to internally subdivide.  For one thing, if the metronome is subdividing for them, they don’t have to.  True, the ensemble must fit their performance into the regular pulse the machine provides, but it’s doing the work.  Therefore try this technique in music and field rehearsals.  Let’s assume you’re playing a chart in 4/4 at MM=148
  1. Start by setting the metronome to double the metronome marking, in this case MM=296.  Yes, you could simply turn on the 8th-note subdivider if your metronome has that function.  Rehearse to that tempo to find areas where rhythmic and pulse imprecision occur.
  2. Once you know the areas that need to be firmed up metrically, set the metronome to the marked tempo (MM=148).
  3. Now we begin making the students really do the subdivision themselves.  Set your metronome to half the marked tempo, or every 1st and 3rd beat (MM=74).  Now the performers have to provide the internal subdivision themselves to ensure they arrive at the major downbeats as an ensemble.  This also works well because the marching performers will have their left foot lining up with each metronome click.
  4. Finally, provide the ensemble with only first downbeat of each measure by setting the metronome to 1/4th of the marked tempo (MM=37).
Using this method can truly improve the subdivision skills in your ensemble members.

Empower your Field Conductor

The technique of placing an audible metronome at the back of the ensemble is sound and effective.  It allows the ensemble to listen to the back so that the audience hears a unified sound beyond the sidelines.  However, sometimes it can encourage so much listening that students come to rely on what they hear and cease watching the field conductor or drum major.  So mix it up a bit by giving only your conductor the metronome!
Once you’ve solidified your field show enough, try putting some good earphones over your drum major’s ears and connecting them to a metronome.  Now, only your drum major has the audible pulse, and the band is forced to completely trust their hands.
Want to up the ante even more with this technique?  Ear plugs.  They’re cheap (check out this box of 200 pairs at less than $20 on Amazon) and very handy, especially if you’re preparing your band for an indoor performance where echoes and acoustic concerns impede listening across the field.  Regardless of venue, placing a metronome on your drum major’s ears and forcing your band to only march to their conducting hands can really dial in your ensemble and take your performance to the next level!