Tips Writing for Wind Ensemble By Alan Theisen

A friend of mine, composer and saxophonist Alan Theisen, has an essay on his web site worth checking out. It’s called Ten Tips for Composing For Band. The title is self explanatory but the additional information and recommendations for score study are great. Here are a few items from his list and some of my additional thoughts about it.

  1. Make space for resonance!

With this tip Alan compares scoring for the orchestra compared to the wind band and recommends that the bass instruments be scored lower in their register and bring the inner voices up on the higher side to leave a gap between the lowest instruments and the next instruments up. He lists this as his primary piece of advice for writing for wind ensemble.

I think this is also good advice for scoring for big band as well. Frequently with my trombone voicings, for example, I’ll have the 4th trombone (bass trombone) at least a Perfect 5th lower than the 3rd trombone, sometimes even more. I will often do the same thing for the baritone sax and 2nd tenor sax. Here’s an example from my most recent big band chart, an arrangement of the 16th century Finnish Christmas carol.

Gaudete! Sax Voicings

You can see in this concert pitch excerpt from my arrangement the large gaps between the bari sax and 2nd tenor. I’m a major 9th away on the first chord. On the downbeat of the 2nd measure the distance between those two instruments is 2 octaves and a 2nd! The rhythm section is playing at that moment, but there’s no other horns playing at this moment to fill in notes between those ranges.

4. Think in terms of “flat” keys.

Again, when scoring for a big band I will also tend to favor flat keys. This is, of course, opposite from what you might do when scoring for strings. Yes, good musicians practice and can sound good in all keys, so this certainly isn’t a “rule,” per se. However, wind instruments tend to sound better in the flat keys by nature and flat keys just sound more natural to those instruments.

6. Keep an eye on rests.

Particularly with brass instruments you need to give the musicians a chance to take the metal off the mouth and rest the chops. What’s nice about following this advice is that it also can provide some built in variety to the sonic landscape you’re writing. By passing around the phrases/sections/etc. between different instruments and not having everyone play all the time together you have lots of opportunities to play with timbre and colors.

10. Study scores by Alfred Reed.

Reed was amazing at scoring music for many types of ensembles, but his wind band writing is golden.

For big band scoring and arranging I recommend the book Inside the Score by Rayburn Wright. This book takes 2-3 charts by Sammy Nestico, Thad Jones, and Bob Brookmeyer and analyzes them in detail, going through everything from voicing techniques to how the peaks and valleys of intensity figure through each chart. It’s an excellent book for big band composers and arrangers to see how three masters scored their music for jazz ensemble.

Check out the rest of what Alan wrote over on his web site.

“Greasing the Groove” for Brass Practice

There’s an approach to weight training that I’ve been reading about that I think might have some benefits for brass musicians, particularly those who have limited practice time due to demanding work or family schedules. The basic idea is to do fewer repetitions of weight training, but to do so frequently. It’s sometimes called “greasing the groove.”

…Tsatsouline advocates lifting weights for no more than five repetitions, resting for a bit between sets and reps, and not doing too many sets. For a runner, this would be like going for a four-mile jog, but taking a break to drink water and stretch every mile. Tsatsouline’s book suggests spending 20 minutes at the gym, tops, five days a week. In this way, he claims, you grease the neurological “groove,” or pathway, between your brain and the exercises your body performs. It’s not exactly the brutal routine you’d expect from someone billed as a Soviet weight lifter. But Tsatsouline contends this is the most effective way to build strength.

Lift Weight, Not Too Much, Most of the Days, Olga Khazan

This is obviously not a new idea for music pedagogy and practice. We already know that it’s better to practice 15 minutes a day (every day) over the course of a week than to spend a similar hour and 45 minutes one day over the week. It’s also pretty well established that our brains learn and retain information better with spaced repetition over cramming, but the concept that it’s better to train strength and/or motor skills this way often alludes our thinking when we apply it to brass practice. While many brass teachers advise students to rest as much as you play or never practicing past the point of fatigue, it’s really easy for us to get so focused on practice that we practice on tired chops, leading to reinforcing bad habits or even injuring ourselves.

What does “greasing the groove” look like and how can we apply it to brass practice?

One way to grease the groove is to just do the exercise whenever you think of it. Ben Greenfield, in Beyond Trainingdescribes how he would do three to five pull-ups every time he walked under a pull-up bar installed in his office doorway. By the end of the day, he’d have performed 30 to 50 pull-ups with minimal effort.

Lift Weight, Not Too Much, Most of the Days, Olga Khazan

I usually have one of my trombones out of the case on a stand at all times. When the horns are in my cases there’s an extra step to take it out and put it together before I practice. It’s not a lot of work, but if your practice time is limited during the day and you want to try this approach it helps to have your instrument ready to go. When you walk by your horn, pick it up and play a little.

These days my practice time is limited on week days due to my wife’s work-from-home schedule, so I absolutely need to carve out time to practice. But in the past I’ve found that practicing for a few minutes many times a day is a pretty effective way to keep my chops up. Practicing in this way you will never be playing while tired, so you won’t be resorting to those bad habits that can creep in when our chops are spent (excessive mouthpiece pressure, squeezing the corners too tight, etc.). It also can keep you mentally fresh every time you pick up the horn and play so that you can focus on what you’re practicing better.

Of course this isn’t the only way to practice and if you want to be able to play 2-3 sets of lead in a big band without tiring you’ll want to spend some time practicing over longer periods of time, but depending on your schedule “greasing the groove” might be a better way to practice. In normal times I usually have regular rehearsals and gigs that keep me playing for 2-3 hours with less breaks, so I don’t feel like I need to practice for hours at a time. I can usually maintain endurance by playing those rehearsals and gigs. “Greasing the groove” during these times does seem to help me build and maintain my correct playing form so that when endurance does become a factor I’m much more likely to play efficiently and it’s not usually a problem to play for long periods of time. In fact, I strongly suspect that for a few minutes at a time many times a day could improve your endurance even without playing your horn for hours at a time. And if you do have longer periods of time set aside for regular practice, resting as much as you play and spacing out your practice sessions over the day is good advice too.

Try it out and let us know in the comments how it works for you.

Hanging With Brad Goode – Trumpet Gurus Hang Podcast

Brad Goode is a multi-instrumentalist (trumpet, bass, and drums) and teaches at the University of Colorado. Back when I was a grad student at DePaul University Brad lived in the Chicago area and I would go down to the Green Mill to hear his group play on Wednesday nights (my trombone teacher at the time was Paul McKee, who played in that group). Getting to sit up close and listen to some of the top jazz musicians in Chicago play on a regular basis was in many ways more important to my development as a musician than the studies I was doing at the time.

Brad recently went on the Trumpet Gurus Hang Podcast and talked trumpet. Along the way Brad discussed how Donald Reinhardt’s writing saved his career and how and why he teaches embouchure mechanics now. I’ve cued the following video right at that point.

Brad discusses at about 45:00 into the podcast his experiences struggling to learn to play trumpet that mirrors some of my own background struggling with trombone and how I currently teach.

Some of my early experiences with trying to understand the trumpet and figure it out, I didn’t get direct answers. I got philosophical treatises or theoretical responses. I didn’t get somebody to say, “I see what’s going on there. Change this, do this, and this will be fixed.” . . Because there aren’t a lot of people who are willing to go into the specifics of embouchure technique people who do what I do now are sometimes viewed with skepticism by the community of people who believe analysis is paralysis, which is a big movement in brass pedagogy right now. As a player I believe I can show an example of the opposite, somebody who analyzed his way out of many problems.

Podcast host Jose Johnson also recapped his own personal experiences with his own embouchure.

It wasn’t until I met Doug Elliott and Doug worked with me a little bit. And he was the one who kind of put things together for me. And he said, here’s your problem. . . The problem is that because of the problems that you got because from the embouchure change and how hard you worked at that your mind is fighting against itself. Because you know what you want to do but you’re reverting back to that habit that they had instilled with you. . . When I would do the things consciously that he would say, no problem. But I started to play music and I would immediately switch back to that old ingrained pattern. . . That’s where we get into trouble when we just let the subconscious go. . . If the subconscious has been programed wrong . . . then you’re in big trouble.

The whole interview is great and worth checking out.

External Focus to Optimize Playing Technique

To paraphrase Dr. Gabriele Wulf, a central question for music teachers is: How can learning playing technique be facilitated and how can musical performance be optimized? In her article, “Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years,” Dr. Wulf addresses what research into motor skill development published between 1997 and 2012 tells us and offers some practical suggestions that teachers and musicians can use in their practice.

I’ve discussed similar concepts before. My most comprehensive attempt was A Review of Implicit and Explicit Learning Strategies in the Development of Motor Skills and its Application To Teaching Instrumental Technique. In that paper I discussed the difference between implicit (goal oriented) and explicit (detail/technique oriented) instructions and what the literature tells about those two extreme pedagogical approaches. My (inexpert) findings from that research were that if we rely only on one or the other, the implicit approach where one focuses on the goal of good sounding music will work better than spending time on the details of how technique is developed correctly. That said, it’s not an either/or dichotomy and much of the literature acknowledges that both approaches happen in teaching and learning and the there should be some sort of balance between the two. Wulf’s 2012 article on attentional focus and motor learning was published the same year I did my research and wrote my paper.

That’s a slightly different topic than Wulf’s article, but I have come across her work before and posted about it here. In my post Golfing Focus Applied to Music I considered the idea of keeping the musician’s focus as external as possible. In that post I discussed some thoughts about an interview she gave for a golf podcast and how her suggestions to improve golf performance might be applied to music pedagogy and practice.

Here is the paper abstract.

Over the past 15 years, research on focus of attention has consistently demonstrated that an external focus (i.e., on the movement effect) enhances motor performance and learning relative to an internal focus (i.e., on body movements). This article provides a comprehensive review of the extant literature. Findings show that the performance and learning advantages through instructions or feedback inducing an external focus extend across different types of tasks, skill levels, and age groups. Benefits are seen in movement effectiveness (e.g., accuracy, consistency, balance) as well as efficiency (e.g., muscular activity, force production, cardiovascular responses). Methodological issues that have arisen in the literature are discussed. Finally, our current understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the attentional focus effect is outlined, and directions for future research are suggested.

Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years – Gabriel Wulf

I do feel that some of the criticisms I noted in my review of implicit and explicit instructions also apply to Wulf’s paper. For one, an awful lot of the research she sites in her paper were written by her or with her as one of the listed authors. On the one hand, it’s a sign that Wulf is considered one of the experts in her field, but if you’re looking for a consensus opinion it is also a sign of a potential bias. Not having read most of the papers she reviewed I can’t really say if any criticisms or confirmations she covers in her article are valid, but as I recently have been reminded, you can often tell what side of an argument a paper will come down on merely by looking at the authors. Wulf’s research seems to suggest that an external focus is always better, in spite of that not being a universal suggestion.

That said, Wulf does address the research that conflicted with her own findings and discusses potential issues that might cause the differences of opinions. And she also acknowledges that at times it is essential for us to attend to the details of technique. The trick is to make the focus of attention as external as possible, rather than focused internally on the motor control. One study she cited came up with a creative way to teach golfing technique with a more effective external focus. An important part of the golf swing is apparently how and when a golfer shifts weight towards the front leg. The study, “Carry distance and X-factor increases in golf through an external focus of attention,” compared golfers instructed with an internal focus (shift your weight to the left foot) and an external focus designed to elicit the same mechanical procedure (push against the left side of the ground). As expected, the external focus worked better.

All but one of the papers and articles Wulf cited were unrelated to music, but one study with piano students was discussed.

Duke, Cash, and Allen (2011) examined attentional focus effects on music performance. Music majors were asked to perform a keyboard passage, which consisted of 13 alternating sixteenth notes (A and F) that were to be played as quickly and evenly as possible. All participants played the sequence under four conditions: with a focus on their finger movements, on the movements of the piano keys, on the hammers, or on the sound of the keyboard. On a transfer test that involved the reverse tone sequence, a focus on the more distal movement effects (sound or hammers) resulted in greater consistency than either focusing on the more proximal effect (keys) or the internal focus (fingers).

Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years – Gabriel Wulf

My takeaway is that when technique is addressed in teaching and practice that some creative approaches to keeping the attention external is more effective than focusing on fixing the mechanics with an internal focus. Considering trombone technique as an example, here are some of my ideas on creating an external focus to achieve a specific motor skill.

Breathing

Arnold Jacobs and some of his former students had some great ideas about making the breath technique external. Jacobs was pretty adamant that he didn’t want students to think about “filling up the lungs” or otherwise thinking about the expansion that happens with inhalation. If you need to take in more air in an efficient way he advised paying attention to the feel of “wind” moving past the lips. Concentration on the belly expanding is a very internal focus. Moving it to the lips is a little less, but still internal. So how can we think about inhalation in a way that is more external?

It’s necessary to be a little creative here. I like to draw on mental imagery. Rather than feeling the inhalation at the lips, imagine that your breath is drawing in air from across the room.

For the blowing I’ve been borrowing from ideas I’ve gotten from Sam Pilafian’s and Patrick Sheridan’s book, The Breathing Gym. There’s an exercise in there where you imagine blowing the air as if you were shooting an arrow, throwing a dart, and tossing a paper airplane. So, for example, to help a student keep the air moving smoothly through a phrase you can have them visualize floating a paper airplane on the air flowing out of their bell.

Embouchure

The embouchure motion is a relatively easy technique to move to an external focus. The specific technique we’re trying to encourage is the pushing/pulling of the mouthpiece and lips along the teeth and gums. The mouthpiece itself is external already, but if we want to follow Wulf’s findings that the more external the focus the better, we can instead focus on the bell of the instrument moving up and down or side to side, whichever matches the individual player’s embouchure motion. If the horn angle should change somewhat while changing registers, rather than think about how that feels at the lips, focus on what’s happening at the bell.

For something like a smile embouchure I like to again resort to mental imagery. If the problem is the mouth corners are pulling back to ascend, rather than focus on what the mouth corners are doing imagine a long spring on either side that is attached to both walls on one end and at the mouth corners on the other end. As the student ascends, those springs are pushing against the corners and keeping them in place.

Tonguing

Tonguing is the most difficult topic of brass technique for me to come up with ideas for external focus. I think the current standard of using the tongue in a vocal manner works pretty well. So rather than thinking about raising the level of tongue arch to ascend the student will imagine saying, “tah-ee.” Another thought I had would be to imagine that there are motion sensors in the tongue that project its movements to a giant, artificial tongue so that they move in tandem. While playing ascending slurs the student could visualize what that giant artificial tongue is doing, rather than focusing internally on their own tongue.

A visualization that seems to work pretty well for me is to imagine that there’s a line of air coming out of the bell that is at the precise level of my tongue arch. As I slur from a middle range note to an upper range note that line of air is raised higher. Again, the point is to move the focus away from the internal (inside the mouth) to the external (on the other end of the bell).

Some of the above ideas aren’t great, but I’m really just brainstorming right now. I’ve been experimenting with moving my focus external in my practice for a while now but I haven’t tried it more than a few times with students. From that small sample I suspect that different visualizations and different degrees of distance in the point of focus will vary from player to player. This jives with some of the research Wulf mentions that the more advanced the subject the more distant the point of focus can be.

One thing I would like to point out is that my examples, and many of Wulf’s, involve someone (a teacher, coach, or other independent observer) knowing and understanding exactly what and how the performer should be doing. With the knowledge of how to play a savvy teacher or performer can come up with methods to affect a specific motor skill using the more effective external focus. At no part in this process does it appear that it’s recommended to ignore the playing mechanics. Interpreting this research as advocating letting the body figure itself out would seem to be less effective than approaching it through an understanding of what efficient playing technique is and working towards that physical goal using a focus that is as external as possible.

And of course it should go without saying that the sound should be the guide for the teacher and player here. The point of moving your focus to the external is to create the habits we want to adopt for good playing. When you’re done working on the technical aspects of performing for the time being it’s good to forget about them and put your attention on playing with expression.

Try it out in your own practicing and teaching and see how it works for you. What other ideas for shifting the focus from something internal to more external can you think of? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Playing On the Red Blindfold Test – Answers

Back in October 2012 I conducted a pilot study to see whether it would be accurate to state that one could simply listen to a trumpet player and tell by sound alone whether or not that player placed the mouthpiece with a significant amount of rim on the vermillion of one lip. Since then the plugin I used to collect the participants’ answers is no longer being updated for WordPress and is no longer available, so you won’t be able to take the test that way. Furthermore, the original page I created to show the answers and videos to the participants after they took the test seems to have been lost into the aether. This page is my recreation of that post, but it’s been so long I don’t exactly recall how much I wrote there.

Since I’m writing this up now as a post I’m going to put the results below the “read more” fold. If you’re catching this post from the home page you won’t be able to see the results until you click that link, so try the survey out first and then come back to see how well you did.

All the embedded videos below are the same video with all six trumpet players. I set up each embedded video to start directly on the particular player, however.

Continue reading Playing On the Red Blindfold Test – Answers

Free Software to Separate Vocals and Instrumental Tracks

I recently came across a web-based app, melody ml, that is pretty neat. If you upload an MP3 file its software will separate and put together MP3s of just the bass part, just the drums part, just the vocals, and all the instruments without the vocals. If you’re a bassist, for example, and you need to transcribe and learn the bass part to a song this could be a helpful tool to allow you to hear the bass bart as clearly as possible. If you’re a vocalist looking to create a practice track you can upload an MP3 and get back just the backing track.

I tried it out with a couple of tracks. “Don’t Change Horses,” by Tower of Power, worked perfectly. I also tried it out with a recording I made about a hear ago, “Grandpa’s Spells,” to see how it would handle something that doesn’t have vocals. It didn’t work as well. The separated tracks were mostly silent and the instruments without vocals track sounded the same as the original track (this track, by the way, is a quartet of piano, bass, guitar, and trombone).

So the uses that you might get out of this app are limited to rock style tunes, at least for now. I hope that this app eventually adds the ability to separate other specific tracks in different genre’s of music. I’d like the ability to use it to separate an instrument solo track or just the horn section for transcription purposes, but for a free, web-based app it’s pretty cool.

Try it out here.

Happy Holidays from Wilktone

Tomorrow is Christmas Day. Happy holidays to all readers of Wilktone.

Here’s a recording that the Asheville Jazz Orchestra made last year during lockdown. Everyone sent me their recorded tracks and I assembled them together and made this Christmas greeting video.

Rest As Much As You Play

There is a concept for practicing brass instruments that is fairly well known, but probably not done correctly by most of us – when practicing, rest as much as you play. Those instructions are fairly clear, but hard to implement and also leaves a lot of room for interpretation. What does it really mean to rest as much as you play while practicing?

My interpretation of this advice is to break that up into two concepts. First, when in the midst of a practice session when I get done with an exercise routine or piece that I’m practicing I will try to put the instrument down for the same amount of time it took me to play it before moving on to the next routine or piece. So in a 60 minute practice session I might only have the metal on the mouth for about 30 minutes of that hour, but it’s 5 minutes on, 5 minutes of rest, and so on. In actuality, there’s perhaps even more rest time than playing time if you count the very short breaks I’ll be taking built into whatever I’m practicing. Solo rep has rests in it, many technique exercises have repeated “sets” where I’ll take the mouthpiece off the lips for a moment and then move on to the next set, etc.

The other interpretation I have of resting as much as you play is to then put time between practice sessions. In general, I rarely practice more than an hour at a stretch, so when I come back to another practice session I make sure that I have an hour of not playing between. With my current schedule that’s not a problem since I usually am able to practice for an hour each morning and if I don’t have a gig or a rehearsal that evening will put in another hour in the evening. Back when I was a graduate music student I had a more demanding rehearsal and practice schedule and would organize my practice time around my rehearsal schedule so that I could put at least an hour in between each playing obligation.

The basic idea here is that while practicing you should always be refreshed enough to play correctly. When fatigue sets in it’s very easy to slip into habits that aren’t very helpful. Some of these habits will seem like they’re working, to an extent, but it’s often not until the next day where it feels stiff and unresponsive. Resting as much as you play both in a practice session and throughout the entire day helps you avoid that.

It’s also worth mentioning that players will respond differently to how much you rest and play. If you’re familiar with the basic brass embouchure types, players belonging to the two downstream types will typically find that they can play for longer periods of time, but when they finally get tired they will need a nice long break to recover. In contrast, players who belong to the upstream type find that they can get tire quickly, but all it takes is a short break to recover. These are generalizations and you can find exceptions, but they can be used to your advantage if you understand your embouchure type and how to play correctly for that type. For example, as an upstream player I find that practicing in shorter spurts of just a few minutes at a time, then resting for a few minutes, can get me through more challenging materials better than trying to go through everything as quickly as possible.

It’s important, at least at first, to be more diligent about this. Take out your phone and time yourself on how long it takes you to get through something you’re working on. Then set a timer for that amount of time and rest before you play again. Better still, record yourself and then listen back to it in its entirety. Hearing how you sound while not in the act of making music is great feedback. Another fine way to duplicate this is to find a practice partner working on similar things as you. If you’re working on technique routines, for example, you play an exercise and your partner plays it back, then you move on to the next one and go back and forth. If you’re practicing solo repertoire you can alternate phrases with each other, or play the same phrase back and forth. If improvising you can trade choruses, 16, 8s, or 4s. Rest for a few minutes between each set that you’re doing.

If you already practice this way, let us know in the comments why you’ve adopted this approach and how it’s worked for you. If you don’t, tell us why you’ve chosen to not do so or try it out for a week or three and then let us know if you felt a difference.

Glenn Libman Talks Donald Reinhardt

I wasn’t familiar with trumpet player Glenn Libman prior to coming across this video. Libman studied with Donald Reinhardt for a number of years. In this video for the Trumpet Diagnostics YouTube channel Libman got together with Bobby Medina and Paul Baron to discuss Donald Reinhardt’s pedagogy.

I don’t know exactly when Libman studied with Reinhardt, but I do know that Reinhardt altered some of his ideas and presentation over the years. Some of what Libman discusses in this video are contrary to things that I learned from my teacher, Doug Elliott, who also studied with Reinhardt for a number of years.

For example, Libman describes Reinhardt’s term “pivot” more about bring the bell of the instrument up or down. He does qualify it as bring the bell up also pushes the mouthpiece and lips up, but this is a tricky way to describe it. My preference is to call the phenomenon as an “embouchure motion” and discuss any horn angle changes as being related to keeping the mouthpiece pressure consistent across the entire range.

Libman also discusses Reinhardt’s IIIB type (what I usually call the Medium High Placement) as being the most common, and IIIA (Very High Placement) as being more rare. If I recall correctly, Reinhardt wrote or said something similar that his IIIB type was pretty common. That said, my experience has been different. I find many more players belong to the Very High Placement (IIIA) type than the Medium High Placement (IIIB). I wonder if the prevalence of modern orthodontics have made some types like the Medium High Placement/IIIB less common than they were during Reinhardt’s day.

He also describes free buzzing as working against upstream players, where I was taught that free buzzing was a very good exercise for upstream players (as long as you don’t buzz into the instrument). There seems to be something about the upstream embouchure type (Low Placement/IV) that these players have trouble building embouchure strength and endurance simply by playing a lot. Free buzzing seems to really help upstream players do so.

Regardless, I found the whole interview interesting and informative. There’s a lot of good information in there and if you are curious about Donald Reinhardt’s pedagogy it makes for a solid introduction.