The Trouble With Easy Listening

Steve Almond writes about the devaluation of the music listening experience here.

“See, back when I was a kid in the ’70s, the way I listened to music was pretty simple. I put an LP on the turntable, dropped the needle, then sat on the living room rug and listened to every single note. If I liked the record a lot, I would listen to it two or three times in a row, usually with the album cover on my lap, so I could study the lyrics and artwork.

In other words, I considered listening to an album an activity in and of itself. It was not something I did while working on homework, let alone while checking e-mail or thumbing out text messages.”

This is something I’ve been musing about for a while myself.  Sometimes when I’m giving a lecture to a new class I’ll ask the students to consider the last time they listened to an album all the way through while all their attention was focused purely on the music.  While I’m frequently surprised by how many students actually have (or claim to have) spent time listening to music and doing nothing else, it’s typically only a handful of the entire class.  It’s something that I’ve noticed that I do less and less these days too.

Continue reading “The Trouble With Easy Listening”

101 Habits of Highly Effective Writers (and Composers)

I recently came across this list of 101 habits that can help the aspiring writer.  A lot of these suggestions are good for the academic or student writer, but I was also stuck by how much of the advice was similar to what I recommend to my composition students.  Some translate perfectly to composition, such as setting goals, keeping a schedule, and rewriting.  Others may need a little tweaking to make work for a composer.  For example, I generally wouldn’t advise a student composer to work while listening to other music.  Then again, that might make for an interesting exercise, put some music on that is unrelated in style to the piece you’re composing and try to draw elements from the recording into the new context of your project.

Continue reading “101 Habits of Highly Effective Writers (and Composers)”

A Brief History of Brass Instruments

What is a brass instrument?
Before getting into the history of how brass instruments and brass music originated and developed it is necessary to be clear on what a brass instrument actually is. A brass instrument is defined as an “aerophone,” which means it is an instrument where the musician must blow air into the instrument. The musician produces the tone by buzzing the lips into what is generally a cup-shaped mouthpiece. It doesn’t mean that the instrument is necessarily made of brass, since instruments that are made of other metals, wood, horn, or even animal bone are included in the family of brass instruments. Likewise, other instruments that are made of brass or metals, such as the flute or saxophone, do not constitute members of the brass family of instruments.

Continue reading “A Brief History of Brass Instruments”

25 Essential Big Band Albums (Plus Some Additional Picks)

While the heart and soul of jazz has always been improvisation, I’m a huge fan of the pre-arranged sounds of the big band, particularly the great bands that had amazing composers/arrangers combined with incredible improvisers.

Downbeat recently published an article detailing some of the best big band albums after polling a number of musicians about their favorite big band albums.  The top 25 albums aren’t very surprising to me, they have the usual suspects such as a lot of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thad Jones, Maria Schneider and Gil Evans.  Some of my favorite albums are left off, though, so here are a few of my additions to their list.

Continue reading “25 Essential Big Band Albums (Plus Some Additional Picks)”

How to Practice: Getting the Most From Your Practice Time

If you ask any experienced and accomplished musician about practicing one thing that most will tell you is that they are now able to get more out of the same amount of practice than they were able to as a student. In part this is due to the fact that they are better musicians now and can simply move through more material faster, but this is not the only reason. Practicing, like performing, is a skill that gets better the more you do it. Since we want get the most out of our practicing we should not only be learning the art of performing, but also the art of practicing.

Many of us don’t have as much time to practice during the week that we wish. Even those of us who are blessed with an abundance of practice time often don’t utilize that time effectively. What follows below is some advice on how you can maximize results from your practice session and get more benefit from the time that you do have available.

Continue reading “How to Practice: Getting the Most From Your Practice Time”


As someone with one foot in the jazz tradition and the other in the classical I find it interesting how the etiquette for the audience is different.  During a jazz performance it is considered appropriate for the audience to signal their approval of a soloist by applauding or cheering in the middle of a piece, or even just after a particularly nice moment.  In contrast, during a classical performance it is customary for the audience to hold their applause until the very end of the piece.  Applauding between movements will get you a dirty look and maybe even a reprimand.

But historically, this was not always so.  Alex Ross, of the Royal Philharmonic Society, recently gave a lecture about the history of applause.

When the average person hears this [EXAMPLE: End of third movement of Pathétique] his or her immediate instinct is to applaud. The music itself seems to demand it, even beg for it. The word “applause” comes from the instruction “Plaudite,” which appears at the end of Roman comedies, instructing the audience to clap. Chords such as these are the musical equivalent of “Plaudite.” They almost mimic the action of putting one’s hands together, the orchestra being unified in a series of quick, percussive sounds.

Historically classical audiences didn’t always exhibit the restraint that is expected today.

Continue reading “Applause”

Grade Inflation in Higher Education

It’s commonly believed that for decades the average grade of college students have been steadily rising.  While a grade of C is still defined as being the average grade, a C is really perceived by students and teachers alike as a poor grade today.  Where a B was once the most common grade for college students to earn, these days more college students earn A’s.  This trend in academia is known as grade inflation.

According to Stuart Rojstaczer this trend began in the in 1960’s, particular during the Vietnam era, when flunking out of college meant becoming eligible for the draft.  Some site the rise of minority students as being partially responsible for this trend, but Rojstaczer points out that grade inflation actually declined in the 1970’s and 1980’s when minority enrollment in higher education rose most sharply.

Continue reading “Grade Inflation in Higher Education”

Perfect Fourths Patterns

The ascending perfect fourth interval has a very strong harmonic implication that can be useful for both composers and jazz improvisers (as well as being good exercises for technique development).  The perfect fourth interval has the sound of a V-I (authentic) cadence.  This sound is so ingrained in western music that even without any other pitches sounding we can hear the cadence when it’s set up right.  Additionally, stacking perfect fourth intervals together create a characteristic sound when used to voice out chords.  One of my old teachers, Frank Mantooth, was the first person to introduce me to this concept.  Voicings with only perfect fourths can imply a number of different chords, depending on what bass note sounds at the same time.

The above voicing could be used for an F69 chord (containing the root, 5th, 9th, 6th, and 3rd), a Bbmaj9 chord (5th, 9th, 6th, 3rd, and 7th), a Dmin11 chord (3rd, 7th, 11th, root, and 5th), a G7sus (7th, sus 4th, root, 5th, and 9th), and even some others.  Mantooth referred to this style of piano voicing as “miracle voicings” because they allow the pianist to play so many different chords without changing any pitches.

Continue reading “Perfect Fourths Patterns”

The Composition Process: Sonatina for Brass Quintet

I’ve already written a bit about my composition process a bit, specifically some strategies I use to overcome “composer’s block.”  While the general strategies I discuss there have been useful for my students, I’ve found it to be much more helpful if I clarify some of this advice using actual examples.  With this in mind, I kept a journal detailing the steps I took to completing a composition for the UNCA Brass Quintet, including saving different drafts of the piece as I went.  You’ll be able to see here how I got from simple handwritten sketches of basic thematic and motivic material to a completed composition.

Continue reading “The Composition Process: Sonatina for Brass Quintet”