Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The drone: your new favorite practice tool

When we think of tools and aids for practicing, the first things that come to mind are undoubtedly the tuner and the metronome.  Most of us use the tuner as a visual aid to adjust intonation.  But there's also a feature on most tuners that is just as, if not more, helpful, and often goes unused: the drone.

We all know that long tones are an important part of the daily routine.  I had always practiced mine using a visual tuner, and often struggled to keep the pitch steady during crescendos and decrescendos, even though I'd been doing similar exercises since college.  One day, I decided to try doing my long tones against a steady drone of C, starting on C and going down chromatically.  I worked on "getting rid of the wobblies," as I say to my students, making sure the notes locked together with no unsteadiness.  Of course, some intervals, like minor 2nds, were more difficult than others.  I did this also with some scales in whole notes.  I found that I was adjusting more quickly, and that I was much more mentally engaged in my long tone practice.  I then decided to continue my long tone practice as such for the next few months, resisting all urges to use the visual tuner.  After a few months passed, I returned to the visual tuner, and found that I was remarkably more accurate, even while doing dynamic changes.  I believe that before using the tuner, I wasn't really using my ear to adjust the note - I was only reacting to what I saw on the tuner.  But our eyes are not what helps us adjust in ensemble playing!

Want to try it out for yourself? Keep reading!

Most tuners have the ability to play a drone, a steady pitch of your choosing.  There are also CDs with drones that sound more notes (like chords and open fifths), like "Breakfast: Intonation Practice for Trombonists" by David Schwartz.  Whichever you use, it's important to be able to hear the drone above your own playing.  I have friends that say they just hook their drone up to a speaker system and let it rip.  I personally use headphones, so the steady pitch is practically inescapable.  This is also a good option if you live with other people, you don't have a loud stereo system, or you want to drown out noise around you.

Here are some examples of how I use the drone::

*Always set the drone to the tonic note.  If you're doing something chromatic, set it to the fundamental pitch of your instrument.

1) With long tones, chromatic or scalar. Experiment with dynamics, too, doing steady crescendos and decrescendos, paying attention to keeping in tune with the drone (and noticing what your tendencies are).

2) With scales or arpeggio exercises

3) With etudes.  For example, I play Rochut etudes every day on tuba.  I play these etudes one octave below written (middle register), 2 octaves below written (low register), and as written for trombone (high register).  I love the drone for lyrical exercises especially, and I often intentionally go slower so I can clearly hear every note resonating with the drone.

4) With solo music.  I found this especially helpful while practicing Bach earlier this year.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to leave comments with any feedback or helpful practice tips!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Top 5 things I've learned as a freelance musician

This phase of my life is drawing to a close.  Not that it would be unlikely for me to freelance again; however, I will never freelance as a woman in her mid-twenties, all on her own for the first time, again.  I'm headed off to start my DMA in the fall.  I'm both excited and intimidated.  I know I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I'm determined to make the best of every opportunity.

I think that now is a good time to reflect on the past couple of years.  I've learned so much and I've made some mistakes.  I hope that you can either relate to this or come away from it with new knowledge. 

Top 5 things I've learned as a freelance musician:

1) Teaching beginners will make you a better musician.  I realized recently that between all of my lessons and sectionals, I probably spend 30-60 minutes per day doing breathing exercises, buzzing, long tones, and lip slurs with my students (on top of my normal daily routine).  Talk about a fundamental workout!  
I think so many people go straight through school to avoid having to teach middle school, and I won't lie, I was afraid to teach this age group at first, too.  As young adults, we assume a lot of things about young kids, especially if you're like me and have no younger siblings.  All of my assumptions were wrong.  Middle schoolers are fun (and funny).  And you don't have to baby talk them - you can talk to them like regular human beings.  And this may sound a bit harsh, but I'll say it anyways: in my opinion, if you can't teach beginners, you have no business teaching college students.  

2) Don't be on time; be early.  Get in the habit now of arriving to all rehearsals at least 10-15 minutes early.  While you may not get fired from a gig for being late or walking in the door right as tuning starts, you may not get called back to play again.   Even if you're still in school, start making this rule for yourself now (I know it's easy to lollygag from the practice rooms).

3) Learn how to double on another instrument.  Learning to play bass trombone (decently) was one of the best decisions I've ever made.  Not only did I get more gigs, but learning to play with the smaller mouthpiece has effectively made me a better euphonium player too (I've still got loads of work to do, though!).  After the last couple of years freelancing, I've developed the opinion that anyone that wants to be a working musician and doesn't play more than one instrument (minus maybe string players and percussionists) is only shooting himself/herself in the foot.  Just do it! 

4) Bite your lip.  I'm still working on this one.  I know that saying something negative about someone just feels so tempting sometimes, especially if you're having a moment of insecurity. Don't spend time talking about people (unless it's positive).  If someone wants to gossip, find a way out of the conversation.  Avoid gossipers all together.  They will talk about you, too.  On a related note...

5) Don't take yourself so seriously.  I went to a regional tuba/euph conference recently, and I was surprised to hear a lot of petty talk during the competitions.  You're bad mouthing another group at a tuba-euph quartet competition? Really? At the end of the day, we're just tuba players.  We're not working on the cure for cancer.  We're having fun.  You've got to keep it in perspective - there's an entire world of people out there that have no idea who Arnold Jacobs is, how hard your music is, or what a euphonium is.  

As my quintet likes to say... shut up and play! :)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Post-audition thoughts

Hey everyone! I can't believe that I haven't updated since August.  Time flies by so quickly.  It's been a very busy semester.

The people reading this probably already know that I took an audition a couple of weeks ago for the President's Own Marine Band.  I really wanted the job.  I mean, it's in my top list of dream jobs.  I'm a bit of an optimist and daydreamer, and I could see all of my dreams unfolding in my head at the mere thought of getting this job.  I would think, I'll get this job, I'll be performing full-time, I won't have to save every penny, and eventually I'll have enough money to get my own place, get another horn, get my doctorate, and I'll be in one area settled for some time so maybe I could become established as both a musician and dancer in one area, I even already have friends in DC, and I can finally be in one place long enough to actually have a personal life, and maybe even find my future husband, and we can settle in the DC, and I'll finally have health insurance, and I can pay back my loans, and...

Wait, I didn't even advance past the first round.  Derp.

I really did dream up that scenario.  I really did fantasize about my whole life falling into place pending I won this job.  I think a lot of people do this.  Now, you'd think I'd have been devastated not making it past the first round, especially since I advanced last year, and I advanced in a couple other auditions this year too... but for some reason, I wasn't.  I mean, I had my moment where I cried in the bathroom, but that's all I needed (I firmly believe in not holding emotions back - find a safe way to release them or else they will build up inside of you and come out at the worst possible moment).

I then started to question why I wasn't devastated.  I know this may seem silly to some to question a good thing, but I wanted to analyze why I was totally fine, even after dreaming up my ideal life connected to this audition.  I knew something about me was different.

Technically, I've been out of school and on my own for two and a half years.  But my first year out of school, I still worked for USF as a bus driver (having a Masters degree doesn't make your need to eat any less!), so I was still somewhat in the cocoon of campus and a regular paycheck (albeit a VERY small paycheck).  I had occasional orchestra and quintet gigs, but my main occupation was driving the bus.  I've only been a full-time freelance musician for about a year and a half, and this is the time I've truly considered myself to be "out on my own" because I'm actually in my chosen career field now.  Being self-employed has taken me to a whole new level of organization and responsibility.

Being on your own in this manner is different than being in school, even if you are completely financially independent while in school.  No one tells me what to practice anymore, yet I find there is not enough time to practice everything I want.  I don't always have 4-5 hours a day to practice, but I practice more efficiently now.  I don't have a regular teacher, yet I constantly find things to improve.  No one tells me to read anymore, yet I've read more books since I've been out of school than I did when I was in school.  I don't have a free campus gym anymore, but I'm in great shape.  I have hardly anyone to discuss politics with, yet I am more active in reading or listening to the news and having opinions than ever before.  I have less friends and spend the majority of my free time alone, but I feel more compassionate overall.  I speak up more in my quintet rehearsals.  I don't accept it if people talk down to me.  I am no longer embarrassed about my thoughts and opinions, even if they are non-conformist or even strange. I know many people in school that do these sorts of things, but these are all things that I personally did not do in school.  I have improved on my own, not just as a player, but as a person.  I know this and I feel good about this, and I think this is the biggest reason that I wasn't absolutely devastated by my unsuccessful audition.  I'm still me and I came out in one piece!  

Despite not advancing in the audition for my dream job, I feel more confident than ever.  In fact, I think disappointments like this are very important to my personal development.  I went into the audition confident, and I came out confident, but also humbled and more determined.

It also helps that I've seen other disappointments in my life blossom into enormous blessings.  When I was young, I was constantly told I was too big for ballet and that I would never dance professionally.  But when I got older, I started Middle Eastern dance mainly because of its culture of body acceptance, and now that is one of my life's great passions (and it keeps me in great shape so I can play tuba better).  I got rejected from all of the grad schools to which I applied in the north, but later on I accepted an assistantship at USF.  My lessons with Jay took me to the next level, and had I not still been in Florida during those years, I would have none of my current employment, and there would be so many amazing people that I wouldn't know.  

Who knows what the future will bring?  I could win a job or get hit by a truck.  I'm realizing that, in the past, all I thought about was my future - who I was going to be, where I was going to live, where I was going to work, and as much as I hate to admit it, who I would settle down with.  Of course it's important to have dreams and goals and to work towards them, but I always felt unsatisfied with the present because I never stopped thinking about the future long enough to enjoy the present.  I still have so much work do to on myself, both as a person and as a player, but I feel like I'm on the right track.  I'm far from being perfect, and I'll never be perfect, but I will never stop learning.

Some of you may be wondering why I'm being so candid, especially since I'm a fairly private person in the online realm (I'm always 100% real in person though, and those that know me personally will probably laugh reading this sentence).  I'm writing this not only to release my emotions and metaphorically pat myself on the back, but I'm writing in hopes that someone else struggling with job/future obsession will read it, and take a step back and realize that his/her life is actually totally awesome RIGHT NOW.

I'm living in a house that is old and falling apart because the rent is cheap, but I can practice here all I want and my neighbors don't care, and I can give lessons here when I need to.  I don't have a DMA, but I'm free to go back to school when I'm ready.  I'm not rich, but I'm financially independent.  I'm having more fun dancing, and I cherish long phone conversations with friends and family that are far away.  I'm single, but it's Saturday night, and I ordered a pizza online and ate half of it in my bed - and no one (except maybe you all now) is judging me, and I didn't have to share it with anyone.

Life is awesome - and I have a feeling it's only going to get better.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Encouraging or discouraging? Depends on your perspective.

Random thought before I start: It is never too early/late in the year to listen to Philadelphia Brass Ensemble's A Festival of Carols in Brass.

So, I know, great blog entry title, right?  It could be about so many things!  I find myself re-thinking my goals and making "resolutions" as if it's a new year around this time.  I never really feel like it's a new year in January - to me, the new year starts in August!  You probably do too if you're a student, teacher, and/or musician.  So naturally, my mind is full of things I want to try to accomplish this year, and trying to remember what I did in the past year that was helpful and good (and what wasn't).

At the beginning of graduate school, my teacher, Jay Hunsberger, mentioned to me that my breathing was rather noisy.  I replied, "Yes, yes, I know..." because I had gotten the comment before, and it was one of those things I knew I should "get around to."  So the next few lessons, we did some breathing exercises, and he told me to keep improving it in my practice and giving me exercises, etc.  But it still wasn't getting that much better.  So, finally, he told me, "Rachel, if you don't learn how to breathe correctly, you will not be a professional musician."  Whoa.  I didn't know it was like that.  I then spent the bulk of my non-practicing grad student time researching breathing (which led to the article I posted a while back).

If there's anything I learned from that moment on, it's this: If you won't do it, someone else will.  (I'm not talking about paying your bills, unfortunately.)

Whatever it is - playing in extreme registers, arranging popular songs for a chamber ensemble, or playing standard excerpts well and consistently - someone has already done it and people will continue to do it (and do more).  In fact, if I've learned anything on the national audition circuit, it's that there are a lot of tuba players that can play their excerpts well.  So what if Liszt's Mazeppa arranged for band is hard?  Someone is going to come in and absolutely nail it - actually, probably more than one person will.

Now, you can take this one of two ways : 1) Wow, there are so many good players out there, so there's no way I'm going to make it, or 2)  Wow, there are so many good players out there, so that level of playing must somehow be attainable, and I should figure out how they did it.

I know many of us have probably heard a really great player and just passed it off as, "Man, that guy's just a monster player," when really, that person probably just practiced a lot.  The "monster" probably decided somewhere down the road that, "I want to be able to  ______," (fill in the blank)  and then didn't stop until that goal was reached.  It's really that simple - so, decide on some goals and commit to them.

Of course it's important to prioritize your goals, deciding on what should immediately be worked on and what can wait.  Keep tabs on yourself, too.  For instance, with my band excerpts, I'm given the set goal tempo, and every day I date and mark the tempo at which I was consistently able to play the excerpt.  I do this until the goal tempo is reached, and I practice with a metronome up until just days before the audition.  In the past, I have gotten comments about my time, and I decided it should be a goal to make that better.  You can do the same with technique exercises (and pick exercises specific to the technique you wish to better).  As far as bigger artistic goals, set deadlines for yourself. Taking a national audition before the end of the school year or holding a solo recital before summer are examples.  And buy your plane tickets or book the recital date before you can really dig into the repertoire.  That way, you can't stall.

I also fully believe that you should take time to indulge in your silliest musical fantasies to keep your mind fresh.  Who knows, you may make some of your out-there fantasies into goals and then performances.  So let your mind wander to the weirdest of places - no one has to know that you fantasize about dressing up like Lady Gaga and shooting blood and fire from your tuba (oops, guess one of my secrets is out, though are you really surprised my mind goes there?).

I think this time of year is a good time for us to have a conversation with ourselves.  What are the things that we need to do to play like [favorite musician]?  Your favorite player was at one time a student or a less experienced adult.  If you're lost, find help.

If you won't do it, someone else will.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Intervention Program in College Instrumental Musicians & Kinematics in Cello and Flute Playing: Full Article

The article is about using yogic breathing and physical therapy to prevent injury and improve performance in collegiate instrumental musicians.  I'm honored to be part of this team.

Here is the full article - ENJOY!

Intervention Program in College Instrumental Musicians & Kinematics in Cello and Flute Playing

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I'm using my F tuba, and no, I'm not transposing.

Most professional American tubists own 2 tubas, a CC contrabass tuba and an F bass tuba.  But until college, American tuba players normally play a BBb contrabass tuba.  So naturally, I often get the question, "Do you transpose?"  I always say, "No, I just learn different fingerings for each instrument."  The retort is usually something like, "Isn't that the same as transposing?"  To this, I reply, "No, because no matter which tuba I'm playing, if I see an F on a piece of music, that's the note that is coming out of my bell."  Understandably, this may still seem confusing.  Let me explain.

TRANSPOSING INSTRUMENTS 101

Let's talk about the main families of transposing instruments: the clarinet family, the saxophone family, certain parts of the oboe family (oboe d'amore and English horn), trumpet, and horn. The flute family also has some members that transpose, like the alto flute, but when most people think about flutes, they think about the standard concert pitch C flute.  We'll just stick with the more standard instruments for now.  There are many instruments that only sound 1 or 2 octaves higher or lower than written, but let's focus on the instrument families already listed.

The different families contain instruments that vary in size and timbre (quality of the sound).  The title of the instrument indicates what note it will play when it sees a C on a piece of music.  For instance, if a Bb clarinet player sees the note C on his part, he will play that note, and a concert Bb will come out of the instrument.  If a trumpet player with an Eb trumpet sees the note C on her part, she will use the fingering for C, but an Eb will come out.  Here's another way to think about it.  Let's say you have a C trumpet, and you learn your C major scale.  Now you decide to switch to Bb trumpet, but you use the same fingerings as you did on C trumpet to play a C major scale.  Guess what comes out?  A Bb major scale.

Let's look at an example.  Here is the C major scale, written in concert pitch (what you hear):


Now, take a look at how this same scale is written for 3 different members of the saxophone family: 


Believe it or not, all 3 lines of the saxophone example sound just like the top example - same octave and everything!  Yes, to someone that plays a concert pitch instrument (like the C flute), the saxophone examples do not look anything like a C major scale, but when these are played on the correct instruments with the right fingerings, they sound a C major scale.

But why?

So that someone that plays one saxophone can play all of the saxophones.  Even though all the saxophone examples look different, the fingerings are exactly the same!  You just have to make sure your instrument matches with the name of the instrument on the part.  

You may be wondering, "Why does the bari sax part 'look' higher?  Isn't the bari sax lower than the alto sax?  And how come bari sax is in treble clef?"  Yes, it is a lower-sounding instrument, and yes, there's a reason it's written like that.  Clarinets and bass clarinets see this in their music too.  Let's use the C major scale again as an example.

The following example is written in concert pitch, no transposition.  Notice that I wrote the alto and bari sax sounding 1 octave apart, because normally the bari sax is playing quite a bit lower in pitch than the alto sax.  You can play this on piano to remind you of the difference in sound.


But write this same scale out, transposed for the instruments, and....


Holy smokes, the 2 parts look exactly the same, but they sound an octave apart!  The transposition here takes care of the octave displacement too.  Bb bass clarinet parts are also written in treble clef, but sound an octave lower than their Bb clarinet counterparts.  Their parts will look exactly the same and will use the same fingerings, but sound an octave apart.  This makes it easy for a player to switch between instruments without having to worry about the fingering or learning a new clef.  We should also mention that transposed parts will usually make for having to write way less ledger lines (below or above the staff), which makes music easier to read.  This is why the piccolo sounds 1 octave higher than written.  Who wants to read all those ledger lines (except tubists)?  

BUT LOW BRASS IS DIFFERENT.

Phew.  OK, I get that.  But how come Bb trombone, CC contrabass tuba, F bass tuba, and Bb euphonium are all concert pitch instruments (read: they don't transpose)?

The difference is in the history of the instruments.  Before brass instruments had valves, they were limited to the notes in the overtone series based on the fundamental note of that instrument.  For instance, a C trumpet was limited to the notes in the C overtone series.  But certainly, brass instruments had to play in keys other than C.  So to change keys, a player would change out a piece of piping in the instrument called the "crook" to make it longer or shorter, and thus change the fundamental pitch and the key.  A horn player could change the crook in a horn in F to make it a horn in D.  On a side note, horn players could also manipulate their hands inside their bells to mimic the effect of what valves would do later (play pitches in between the notes in the give overtone series), but the natural, most resonant pitches on the instrument were in the overtone series.  Essentially, the changing of the crook would make it a different instrument.  When valves were invented, the tradition of "switching instruments" continued.  Instead of changing your C crook to a D crook, you'd just change your C trumpet to a D trumpet.  Great for instrument manufacturers, huh? 

Still with me? I hope so!

OK, so what happened with the low brass instruments?  Well, tuba and euphonium pretty much came into being because of the invention of the valve.  Read a little about the history of the tuba to understand why.  So the tuba and euphonium came around after the tradition of transposing instruments had been established.  The trombone has long been a concert pitch instrument (it reads what it sounds), but now the standard trombone is in Bb, as is the standard euphonium.  CC, BBb, F, and Eb tubas are all standard tubas as well.  Sometimes euphoniums play in treble clef and transposed, but this comes from the time when military bands were very popular, and trumpet players often doubled on euphonium, and this prevented them having to learn new fingerings.  It is still common to see treble clef euphonium parts for young students - band directors often change a student from trumpet to euphonium if playing high is an issue.

...SO, TUBAS DON'T TRANSPOSE?

Unlike their high brass and woodwind counterparts, low brass instruments are named for their fundamental pitch.  So, a CC contrabass tuba works around the C harmonic series (with pedal C being the "fundamental"), so a CC contrabass tuba can play all the notes in the C harmonic series with no valves depressed.  Tuba players must learn different fingerings for each instrument.  Our parts are always written in concert pitch. 



OK, so why do you have so many tubas then?  Here are some of the reasons:

1) Timbre.  Contrabass tubas (BBb and CC) are larger and have a darker sound, while bass tubas (F or Eb) tend to sound brighter.  For instance, contrabasses are used in most orchestral playing because they have to support an entire orchestra, and the contrabass tends to be more homogeneous with the basses.  On the other hand, bass tubas are frequently used in brass quintets because they brighter tone is more homogeneous with the higher brass instruments.  However, both can be (and are regularly) used in both large and chamber ensembles.  It depends on the need of the music.

2) Range.  That's an easy one. Contrabass = bigger = easier to play low on.  The opposite is true for F tuba.  While pro tubists can play high or low on either horn, we still have to be practical.  The F tuba is naturally more agile in the high register, and would be the ideal choice for a 15-minute long concerto that sits in the high register for most of the piece.  But if I'm playing below the staff oom-pahs in a polka band for 3 hours at an Oktoberfest gig, I'm going to use my CC.

3) Composer's intent.  Some composers (like Vaughan Williams and John Stevens) specifically request bass or contrabass tuba.  If it's not written on the page, you have to use your judgment.  Some things end up becoming "common knowledge" - for instance, one should play Berlioz on a bass tuba because he originally wrote the parts for ophicleide, the predecessor to the tuba, which had a very bright, compact sound, which is more easily attained on F tuba (not to mention the parts tend to be in the higher register).

There are many cases in which you are going to have to use your musical intuition on the decision of tuba.  For instance, I know many people that will bring an F tuba on stage for Stravinsky's Petrushka just to play the infamous "Bear solo."  I personally like the grittiness and angst of the CC tuba in the register - I really feel like I can "roar," and that my F is too "pretty" up there for what I want in that solo.  That, and I'm way too lazy to carry 2 tubas onstage (except for Bydlo).

I've still had people try to tell me that I transpose because I play instruments in C and F.  But for tuba, that's simply not true. With the exception of brass band music (a whole 'nother thing!), nobody that knows what he/she is doing writes a "CC tuba part" or an "F tuba part" (but remember, composer can specify bass or contrabass, but that's for sound quality, not key).  The bottom line is that if I see the note F on a page, an F is what's going to come out of my tuba. We. Do. Not. Transpose.  We choose our "axe" based on the needs of the gig at hand.  But...

YOU SHOULD STILL PRACTICE TRANSPOSING ANYWAYS

A trumpet player might show up to a gig with his Bb trumpet, but when he is handed a C trumpet part, he's going to have to transpose on the spot.  A horn player might show up to a church gig and be handed the SATB choir part, which is written in concert pitch.  I remember that once I had a church gig where there was one piece that didn't have a tuba part, so the choir director asked me to play the horn part down 1 octave - so I was transposing and reading treble clef.  Regardless of instrument, you should practice transposition.  It will make you a better, more well-rounded musician, plus it's a great brain exercise!

Thanks for reading - I hope this helps make more sense of transposition and transposing instruments!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Yogic breathing and physical therapy study

I'm fortunate enough to be a co-author on this study.  This is a study that I completed during my MM at USF.  I never expected, as a Performance major, to get involved with research at all, much less get something published.  Our work was presented last year at the Performing Artists Medicine Association.  I'm very excited to have worked with Dr. Sang-Hie Lee, who is widely known for her ground-breaking research on the biomechanics of pianists' hands.

I hope that this is a start to something that can help musicians prevent injury and play more easily.


Ciao!