Here is an interesting essay by Steven Thompson, writing for NPR. He was asked by a listener about bands and musicians that feature a virtuoso performer, noting that some musicians are known for exceptional technique, but uninteresting music. Thompson replies:
Advanced technique is often the foundation upon which players build unpredictable, exciting and/or moving creative expression. So I would almost never view incredible technical ability — in and of itself — as an obstacle to my enjoyment of a piece of music.
I think what you’re getting at is a sense that some musicians employ their technical gifts in the service of showing off; that they’re not focused on expressing themselves artistically so much as indulging in sterile, soulless peacocking. But that’s a fine line that shifts drastically from person to person, and plenty of musicians — from Rush to Dream Theater to Yngwie Malmsteen — have made zillions of people happy playing music that, for some, crosses over into self-indulgence. For fans of those artists, it isn’t necessary to form “a sound defense,” though you’re likely to hear “technical ability” paired with arguments about awe, appreciation of masters at work, and a desire to be challenged by something that isn’t simple.
Although the examples Thompson discusses are rock musicians, there are similar things that have been said of jazz and classical musicians as well. For example, many jazz fans dislike Maynard Ferguson’s music because they find his high note trumpet playing to be overwhelming. Talk with some orchestral fans and you will hear them compare one orchestra as being “technically superior, but musically lacking.”
It’s an interesting discussion. At what point does instrumental technique become musically unsatisfying? I think everyone would probably agree that up to a certain point, instrumental technique is necessary for a quality musical performance, however there is a certain point where it may become more like juggling (look at how well I can play my instrument) rather than an expressive performance. Perhaps there is a sort of a “bell curve” of instrumental facility where at some point showing off technique ceases to be musical. Or, more likely, the amazement we get from hearing a virtuoso musician perform diminishes quickly so that the player’s chops become less interesting to us, leaving us feeling unsatisfied if there isn’t expressive musicianship also.
Frankly, I think it’s not so much the instrumental technique that is the issue, but rather the lack of musicality in certain virtuoso players. When a musician’s technique is in service of the expression I personally forget about the virtuosic technique and find myself more focused on the spirit and mood of the music. When the playing is done more to show off (higher, faster, louder), then it just comes across as immature, to me. Thompson concludes similarly.
Though your methods may vary, I usually look at the degree to which impeccable musicianship is balanced by other ingredients: emotional weight, hooks, humor, beauty, boldness, inventiveness, novelty, willingness to explore. Ability to play well is a core ingredient, but it’s rarely a satisfying dish unto itself.
A couple of friends of mine are working on social science research investigating gender bias in jazz music and dancing. Please consider taking their survey here.
Are you involved in jazz/swing dance or music? Please help us out for JAZZ SCIENCE!! We would love for you to participate in a study investigating people’s perceptions of jazz music and musicians, and people’s experiences playing jazz music. We’ll be using the results of this survey to inform a panel at this year’s upcoming Lindy Focus! The study will take between 10-60 minutes to complete, depending on your experiences (Just click below)!
If you are interested, please note the following before beginning:
***Anyone can participate as long as they are 1) 18+ years of age, and 2) able to read and understand English. (Ethical and resource limitations.)
***This survey is best viewed on a computer or tablet device. Attempting to take the survey via smartphone may result in formatting issues that make the questionnaire hard to read.
***Please only begin your survey when you have enough time to allow its completion. While it is possible that you may be able to start/stop the survey if you leave your browser open, closing it and re-clicking the link will result in the survey starting over again from the beginning.
Please spread this to other dancers and musicians who might be interested in participating (friends, family, neighbors, etc.)! Ideally, we would like to have data from a diverse range of individuals (including ethnicity, age, gender, and experience). You can help us by sharing!
Just a short post this week to announce that articles I’ve written for the Online Trombone Journal are now back and accessible. I guess there was a glitch in a table somewhere in the code which didn’t recognize my author code. I had forgotten about it, but it recently came up again and Richard found the problem and fixed it.
The OTJ was one of the earliest web sites I worked on, serving as an editor, forum administrator, and other assorted odds and ends. Some of the articles I wrote for the OTJ were in the official capacity as a staff member, but some of them went through the blinded peer review process (the ones with the gold mortar board symbol). There are a number of reviews I wrote on trombone books or recordings. I also wrote a short series of articles on jazz improvisation for beginners, a series of articles covering the history of jazz trombone styles and performers, a summary of Donald Reinhardt’s “pivot system,” and an article covering how to practice lip flexibility for jazz trombonists.
Here is another TED talk, part of a playlist on “Practice Made Perfect.” The overall theme of these videos are improving learning. In this talk, Angela Lee Duckworth discusses the importance of grit to learning.
Leaving a high-flying job in consulting, Angela Lee Duckworth took a job teaching math to seventh graders in a New York public school. She quickly realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating the successful students from those who struggled. Here, she explains her theory of “grit” as a predictor of success.
So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called “growth mindset.” This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brainand how it changes and grows in response to challenge,they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.
I find it interesting that Duckworth also studied teachers in her research. She not only looked at which new teachers in a tough neighborhood would stick it out, but also which teachers would show more successful outcomes for their students. This tells me that grit and the growth mindset are also characteristics of good pedagogy, as well as qualities we want to encourage in our students.
I recently came across this excellent introduction to using parallel modes to select different chord possibilities in an original chord progression. The production and explanation of the techniques is very well done.
Although it might seem that this technique is primarily geared towards the jazz composer, “classical” composers who want to explore tonal harmonies but move outside common practice harmonic language will find some interesting sounds to explore with this technique. Pop or rock songwriters might find an unexpected chord borrowed from parallel modes a great way to explore a harmonic “hook” in their tune. Improvisers will want to study the basic advice on how to select melody notes over a chord progression like this.
This can also become a standalone composition exercise. Just like performers will practice etudes and other exercises that aren’t intended to be performed for an audience, composers can get a lot of value from doing short composition projects that force you to be creative within the constraints of a box. Try taking a very basic diatonic chord progression of 4-8 measures and reharmonizing it musing modal interchange, then write a melody or improvise over it. Exploring different sounds like this increases your compositional pallet, even if the specific short composition never gets expanded into something you want performed.
Here is another TED talk, this time by Carol Dweck.
Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet? A great introduction to this influential field.
Dweck discusses research looking at how different students react to challenge. When given tasks that were just slightly too difficult for them to do, some students reacted positively to the challenge, while others had more negative reactions. Students who have the “growth mindset” understand that they have a chance to learn. They may not be able to perform that task, but they understand that it’s only temporary. Not yet.
Teachers can help encourage the growth mindset. Dweck advises encouragement through praise and to reward the process of learning in addition to performing well. Help them to understand that when the move out of their comfort zone is a good path to learning and getting better.
While the research Dweck cites are mainly geared towards younger students, I think that the growth mindset is the proper attitude for even adult music students. It’s challenging even for older students to want to spend time out of their comfort zone. This ties in nicely with last week’s post from another TED talk about practicing.
As a teacher, there are two big takeaways I get from Dweck’s video. First, there’s the advice she offers to how to encourage a growth mindset in your students, but there’s also a deeper pedagogy lesson in there too. Changing up your approach to teaching, particularly if you feel it’s already successful, is hard. You have to move outside your comfort zone in order to become a better teacher.
My challenge to students this week is to explore practicing out of your comfort level. Don’t simply practice things you can already do well. Teachers have a similar challenge. Find a new bit of pedagogy and find ways to use it in your teaching, even if you don’t find it particularly relevant to that situation. Explore with your students the difference it makes in their results and mindset.
Here is an interesting TED talk by Eduardo Briceño with some good advice for how to structure your practice time.
One of the things I find so interesting about this talk is how it deemphasizes spending time in the “performance zone” and recommends that we spend more time in the “learning zone.” This is opposite of what mainstream brass pedagogy tends to recommend, which is largely based on using imagery and imitation and a musical approach to technique development.
When we’re in the “performance zone” we are consciously trying to avoid mistakes. We’re focused on expressive playing. Contrast this to the “learning zone,” where we are focused on how to improve, practicing specific activities that target those areas for improvement, and spending time on things that we can’t do yet. I recently heard a saying the jugglers use, “If you’re not dropping you’re not learning.” For musicians, we can say that if you’re not making clams in the practice room you’re not improving.
It can be a blow to our ego to practice this way. Fun practice sessions are ones where we feel successful. There is a tendency for us to spend more time practicing things we already do well and less on things that need improvement.
It should go without saying that balance is the key. I’ve mentioned before here some of the great books that trombonist Hal Crook has written on practicing jazz improvisation. His practice recommendation always includes that after spending the bulk of your practice time working on letting the spirit and mood of the music direct your improvisations, rather than the specific exercises you just got finished practicing. Crook sometimes refers to this as the “Ready, Aim, Fire!” approach, as opposed to the approach where you simply jam and hope for the best, “Ready, Fire, Aim.”
While the exact ratio between learning zone and practice zone is going to be different for everyone, my challenge to everyone this week is to closely examine your practice time and increase your amount of “learning zone” to “performance zone.” Try it out and then let us know what you find. Did you improve more over time than you typically feel? Did you find practice time less enjoyable? What did you learn about how to practice?
When I conduct I ask the ensemble to play on my beat. Band conductors, for some reason, seem to be more likely to want their groups to play on the beat, rather than behind the beat. Orchestral conductors, on the other hand, seem to more universally prefer their ensembles play behind their beat. It’s interesting to look at the different reasons (or excuses) for these practices. Here is one, by a cellist, Yvonne Caruthers.
In practice, nearly every conductor gives a beat before the orchestra plays. The conductor gives the beat, but there’s a tiny lag while it’s processed and executed. Most likely, the audience doesn’t even notice. There’s also the fact that one of the conductor’s roles is not to tell the orchestra where they are “now” but to indicate “what happens next”….so being slightly ahead works better.
This is true, the conductor’s responsibility is to “prep” the ensemble so that they are ready to play what’s about to come up. The most obvious version of this is the “prep beat” the conductor gives to indicate the starting tempo. The conductor can’t hold his or her baton up and then just drop it and have the musicians ready, there needs to be at least one beat patter so the musicians understand the tempo and style they are to enter with.
Unless you are sitting in the front few rows, there is a delay in the sound. Speed of light being faster than that of sound, you see the motion, the orchestra plays to the beat, but you hear the sound slightly later than you see the motion. This is especially noticeable in long halls or concerts played outdoors where crowd is sitting on a long area of grass and they are a long way from the source of the sound.
If you’ve ever performed antiphonal music you’ve experienced this phenomenon. The skill of following the ictus of the conductor’s pattern, rather than listening and reacting to the sound is essential when the distance between performers/conductors is great. Marching band is another situation where this is particularly true. That said, it’s not really clear why the delay that entire orchestras fall into in playing behind the beat is necessary or desirable due to distance. The brass and percussion, typically furthest away from the conductor, usually don’t dictate the delay, it’s the strings, who are closest to the conductor.
The low and loud sections of the orchestra – cellos, basses, and brass – seem especially susceptible to dragging. A commonly hear explanation is that these instruments ‘speak a little late’. However, this absurdly implies that players are unable to take this effect into account.
I agree with the above author’s assessment. If a band can play on the conductor’s beat (or, for that matter, if a trumpet and trombone section in a jazz band can play squarely on the beat without a conductor), there’s really no excuse why an orchestral brass section can’t also adjust their instrumental technique so they don’t “speak a little late.” Not to mention that I don’t buy that these instruments do this. Maybe a pipe organ, but not a brass instrument.
“I don’t think it would work as well, because the phenomenon has its roots in the string section,” Falletta explained. Because string players tend to be in sync when they bow their instruments, playing behind the beat comes naturally to them. “They have time to say ‘OK, here we go’, and then get into the beat.” And that sound should have no point or edge; the music should just flow. Rigidly sticking to the downbeat makes the music a bit sharper, even when that isn’t the intention of the conductor (or composer, who knows?).
So some folks feel it’s because low and loud sections speak late, but others state that it’s related to the string section.
Another explanation for lag is that the sound produced by instruments at the back of an orchestra takes longer to reach the front. This theory also collapses with a little observation. For example, I once heard the opening bass pizzicatos of the Passacaglia from Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra sound exactly with the conductor’s beat. Sitting in the back of the violin section, at the opposite side of the stage, I expected the different speeds of sound and light to make even precisely played notes seem late to the visual cue. But my impression was of exact synchronsiation. In contrast, the slow sections of the Berlioz Corsaire Overture, on the same programme, oozed far behind the beat. The laws of physics are irrelevant. Musicians can play with a conductor when it is really necessary, as in a particularly exposed and brittle passage. But when there is more margin for error, they easily abandon the beat.
Exactly. Ensembles are perfectly able to play with the conductor, but choose not to.
Here’s the simple response: When an orchestra plays behind the conductor, it has the room to produce a more expressive sound. “It works so well because the musicians can take in a great deal more information before they play,” said Falletta. Waiting a tick allows the ensemble to take in the trajectory, speed and style of a conductor’s beat, which helps them determine what kind of sound the conductor is hoping to achieve. “It gives them a chance to prepare that sound. So the downbeat comes, and the sound opens after that.” The result? More beautiful music. However, orchestras don’t do this for the duration of a piece; the sound behind the beat is most pronounced in slower movements, and as the music gets faster and rhythms more complex, orchestras may tend to attack the downbeat along with the conductor.
Again, I don’t buy that this is the case. As I noted above, it’s not the ictus of the beat that dictates the tempo and style the conductor communicates, it’s the preparation of that beat.
In my college orchestra, it seems like the conductor conducts ahead of the beat. I know that it’s a common thing, but I’ve never played with a conductor like that so I’m a little confused. It seems like everyone knows exactly when to come in on beat 1, say at the beginning of a piece, but to me it looks like the conductor gives a big downbeat, nothing happens, and then we come in seemingly randomly… And then it’s hard for me to keep the pulse in my head because I don’t really have anything to refer to except for listening to others because the conductor is doing something else.
This question, asked on violinist.com, is curious. It’s possible that the conductor simply isn’t being clear with the beat, but I don’t know how a conductor can conduct ahead or behind the beat. The conductor’s beat patter IS the beat. It’s the ensemble that collectively chooses to play ahead, behind, or right on the conductor’s ictus. It’s the conductor’s responsibility to tell the ensemble where to play.
Adam Neely’s points in the above video are quite good. I think that the most likely explanation is stylistic convention combined with the collective decision of the ensemble and conductor. Be sure to watch Neely’s followup video.
What do you think? When you perform (as a musician or conductor) do you prefer playing directly on the beat or slightly behind? Leave your comment below.
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