Three In Ten

I’ll start this post with a disclaimer.  I’m not a mathematician.  My dissertation involved some statistics, and I knew enough to get help from someone more qualified than me.  I learned a lot about how statistics really work from that experience, most notably that I shouldn’t trust my impressions about how the numbers really would end up.  Our intuitions can fool us into thinking we’ve found a pattern when one doesn’t really exist.

Let me offer a hypothetical example related to brass pedagogy.  Let’s say you’re a brass teacher working with beginners and you notice that out of your ten students, three improve with a flat chin embouchure while the other just don’t seem to make it work right.  You find it curious that only 30% can make a flat chin work (after all, that’s what you’ve been told is correct), so you write a method book and point this out.  A graduate student looking for a research project for his thesis reads your book and decides to put together a study to check this.  He tests 90 brass players and finds that 45 of them improve more with instruction that recommends a bunched chin.

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Jazz Jam Session Etiquette

I really enjoy going to sit in at open jam sessions when I get the chance.  They are an excellent way to apply things I’m practicing at home in a low pressure performance context.  It’s also a great way to meet and check out other musicians and pick up on new tunes and concepts that other musicians are exploring.

They can also be tortuous when they aren’t organized well or the musicians who are sitting in aren’t considerate of the rest of the players (and audience).  In that spirit, here are some basic rules of thumb for how to behave at a jam session.

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Creativity and Schizophrenia

I just came across this interesting article about how research using some sort of brain scanning technology noted similarities between the brains of highly creative people and the brains of people with schizophrenia, notably fewer receptors of a particular kind.  From the article:

“Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus,” said Professor Ullen.

He believes it is this barrage of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark.  This would explain how highly creative people manage to see unusual connections in problem-solving situations that other people miss.

Looking through history it seems almost as if very creative individuals and crazy lives go hand in hand.  Take, for example, the life of one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Charlie Parker.  In addition to helping to create a new style of improvisation that would lead to modern jazz, Parker also suffered virtually his whole life with addictions and mental illness.  Like other similar cases, Parker died young, at the age of 34 (and the coroner who conducted his autopsy famously estimated his age to be in his fifties).

I tend to think the idea of linking tragic lives and creativity to contain a bit of confirmation bias.  It’s more interesting to study the biography of someone who was eccentric and we tend to not think about the more normal lives of other creative figures in history.  Still, this new research goes a long way in explaining why it seems that highly creative people often seem to be, well, a little off in their own world.

Walter Bishop, Jr.’s Theory of Fourths

I’ve blogged about using perfect fourths as an technical exercise and as a method for motivic development in improvisation before.  The above YouTube video (click read more if you don’t see it) is the late pianist and music educator Walter Bishop, Jr. explaining how he discovered and explored the use of perfect forth patterns to derive both harmonic and melodic material in jazz improvisation.  He plays examples as he describes the application of using the perfect fourth interval on some of his original composition as well as on standards like On Green Dolphin Street and I Got Rhythm as well as standard progressions like the ii-V-I.

Good stuff for improvisors on all instruments and composers looking to expand their vocabulary and explore some new ideas.  The way he starts off by showing how to squeeze the range of a pattern based entirely on perfect fourths into a single octave range will help us non-pianists find a comfortable range in which to start off applying some of his ideas.

Sight Reading and Working Memory Capacity

The ability to sight read a piece of music accurately is an important skill for any musician, and is absolutely essential for a working professional musician.  Most musicians work very hard at improving their sight reading by doing a lot of sight reading.  Of course, if you want to get better at something you need to practice doing it, but some new cognitive psychology research may force us to adjust our thinking on sight reading practice.

According to researchers Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and David Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing, practicing sight reading for thousands of hours will make you good, but individuals with good “working memory capacity” have an advantage.

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Drum Set and Percussion Key Maps

For non-percussion playing composers writing out percussion parts can be quite a challenge, partly because they don’t know exactly how to notate the parts.  These key maps for drum set and some other common percussion instruments can help.

Drum Set




Here is a short article on how to write out drum set parts for big bands.  With most “groove-based” percussion playing (jazz, latin, rock, etc.) it’s not necessary to write out the complete percussion part for the player, since what they will come up with to play is usually hipper than what you can notate.  On the other hand, a lot of big band drum set parts don’t have enough info for the drummer for easy sight reading.  There’s a balance that you have to strike to give you percussionists or drum set players enough info to work from to blend and balance with the band (dynamics, phrasings, hits, etc.) without cluttering it up too much.

When in doubt about how to write something, get in person with someone who plays that instrument and get their help.

Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?

Terry Teachout, of the Wall Street Journal Online doesn’t seem to think so.  He asks:

What, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional symphony orchestra in the 21st century? Many people still believe that an orchestra is a self-evidently essential part of what makes a city civilized. But is this true?

He goes on to compare regional orchestras to regional museums and theater companies.  These are probably good comparisons to make, since it’s probably the same group of people who are attracted to these artistic activities.  But what point is Teachout driving at with this comparison?   Continue reading “Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?”

Eight Composition Points To Consider by Bill Russo

I’ve been leafing through Bill Russo’s book Jazz Composition & Orchestration for some ideas and inspiration and came across the following eight points to consider for composers wanting to have their music performed.  It’s good advice, particularly for inexperienced composers.

  1. Write in medium registers for all the instruments
  2. Give the brass instruments frequent and long rests
  3. Deal with one aspect of composition at a time
  4. Write a sketch score and then a full score
  5. Be sure that both the score and the extracted parts are legible and that they correspond to each other completely
  6. Know the orchestra you are writing for and give crucial passages to the best players
  7. Construct parts that are enjoyable to perform
  8. Be brave, if your work is unpalatable to the “hip” crowd, but be careful to learn what they have to teach you and avoid attacking theme merely to disguise your own deficiencies.

If I could be so bold, I’ll add:

  1. When looking for new musical material see if you can derive it from motives already in the piece

What would you add?

The Hand of Bill Evans

I just saw this over on Casa Valdez Studio, the blog of saxophonist David Valdez.  Supposedly it is a scan of Bill Evans‘ handwritten manuscript for a 1971 recording session.  Evans was not only one of the most influential pianists of jazz, but was also a innovative composer as well.

Time Remembered is a challenging tune to improvise over.  The root movement is mainly what you would expect, but sometimes the chord quality (major, minor, etc.) often isn’t.  Check out mm. 5-6 in the image above to see what I mean.  The root movement of A, D, to G is the common ii-V-I pattern, but all three chords are minor.  I also love how Evans chooses the upper extensions of the chords as melody notes (9th, 11th, 13th).

One of my composition teachers once brought a stack of photocopies of handwritten music by John Scofield he had gotten somewhere (he wouldn’t say).  It was really cool to look at what Scofield had written and hear the recording to see how much was actually improvised and how much was pre-composed.

Arnold Jacobs on Embouchure: A Criticism

Today I’m going to go after one of brass pedagogy’s sacred cows, Arnold Jacobs.  Since so many teachers and players have been strongly influenced by Jacobs’ teaching (myself included), I should give a little background first.

Jacobs sometimes summarized his teaching philosophy as “Song & Wind.”  This influential concept is sometimes described as the musician’s focus should first and foremost should be on being a musical communicator, the “song.”  After that, a brass musician’s attention should be placed on good breathing, the “wind.”  One of the reasons that this is such a popular pedagogical method is because it’s very effective.  Putting attention on the musical expression does have a tendency to work out the kinks in a player’s technique.  Efficient breathing is also an extremely important part of good brass technique.

Just so I’m clear here, I’m not advocating that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.  However, just because Jacobs had an expert understanding of the physiology of breathing and application of that knowledge to playing brasswind instruments doesn’t mean that his statements on other areas should be taken for gospel truth, as many seem to think.  Case in point, his statements on the embouchure.

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