Wednesday, July 20, 2011

#7: Happiness

I resolved early on to keep this blog limited to music-related posts - but really, music is about LIFE, isn't it?  I also find that our outside-of-the-practice-room-lives can greatly affect our craft (I even wonder if people in love play differently than those that aren't!).

I've gotten to catch up with some people this summer, which has been great.  One of my friends was describing his/her current personal life situation, and then admitted that he/she wondered, "Am I happy?"  It was as if the matter was not his/hers to decide.

This got me thinking -does happiness only happen when a certain set of circumstances are in place, or is happiness a choice?

You can, on one hand, decide that, "I need A, B, and C to happen, and that will make me happy."  Here we need to examine things we can change, and things we can't change.  Take charge of the things you can change, and stop beating yourself up for things outside of your control.  I've said before, be grateful for your experiences and abilities thus far, and don't regret what you haven't done yet or cannot currently do.  You can change your circumstances more than you think, even if change cannot be immediate.

I firmly believe in going for your goals and not expecting anything to be handed to you on a silver platter.  However, I also believe that you can decide to be happy no matter what.  You just broke your ankle, your scholarship just got its funding cut, you've just gotten out of a bad relationship, or whatever issue is in your life that is coming down hard on you - if you say to yourself and the world today, "I'm happy anyways," is anyone going to tell you that you're wrong?  Who else can decide but you?  Now, this doesn't mean you're settling for your situation - you're still going to change whatever you can, but while you're there, you can be happy about doing so.

Let's stop comparing ourselves to others, and start comparing ourselves to our past selves to find improvement and gained knowledge.  

Let's stop being complacent, and put things into motion.  

Let's use our brains for more than is just necessary!

Let's allow ourselves to have time to properly mourn things that sadden or anger us, but let's allow ourselves to get back up, and deliberately contemplate what knowledge or strength we will/have gain/ed.  

Let's consciously change our thinking - let's catch ourselves when we find we are having a pity party for ourselves in our heads, and snap out of it, and change our thoughts.  

Let's take time to enjoy things that truly make our lives better and brighter.

And if there are bumps or roadblocks along the way, let's be happy anyways.  We are all in training, we are all gaining strength.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

#6: The perils of beginning tubists

I do not have a degree in Music Education.  However, I've learned a whole lot just from teaching over the years (and I'm still learning, I love it!).  I'm not sure I could cover all of the perils of beginning tubists, but I'll do my best to cover some of the most common ones.

Breathing: For the most part, beginning tuba players are tiny, and have small lung capacities.  I feel like lately, I've met more and more middle school directors that do breathing exercises with their entire band.  This is great!  Straws are a really great aid to teaching young ones how to breathe - I've found them useful to teach the suction/focus air at the lips concept.  Beware of the PVC pipe method, unless you get PVC pipes that are small enough to where your students can have their mouth around it in a natural position.  I've seen well-educated, well-meaning teachers give their students PVC pipe pieces as a breathing aid, but the pieces are so big that the students are practically dislocating their jaws, which causes tension and does not resemble the way they'd actually breathe while playing.  Studying the Breathing Gym is a worthwhile investment for every band teacher and musician (I'm sure every musician has a friend that's really familiar with and would love to walk anyone else through the ropes!).

I've also studied yogic breathing and adapted some exercises for wind musicians.  There's a set of exercises in particular that I've found helps students explore their entire capacity.  I will probably need another post to talk about those.

Size of the horn:  This is one of the biggest (pun intended) problems I encounter regularly.  Tubas are big, middle schoolers are small.  There's the issue of air, but we talked about that.  Here's another problem: I often see kids craning their necks up to reach the mouthpiece and/or tensing up their arms just holding the tuba or reaching the valves.  The worst part about this issue is that it often goes unnoticed by teachers, both band directors and private teachers.  The first year of playing is so crucial - we are establishing how our body reacts to the instrument.  Leaving the issue of physical comfort unnoticed during the first years of playing leads to problems down the road, even when the student grows big enough to not strain to reach anything on the horn.  I feel like I spent my entire undergraduate career just learning how to relax a bit while playing!
I have heard of a method that advises teachers to only put first year players on euphonium, then later switch them to tuba.  The student is learning bass clef, and fingerings on a euphonium are the same as on a BBb tuba.  The low register on the tuba is often less attainable when the student is first learning to play, and euphonium would allow the student to develop a decent embouchure and middle/low register on euphonium that would transfer well to tuba.  The student could also learn to breathe properly without straining to have enough air for the middle/low register of the tuba (again, all/most middle school band tuba parts and method books are written in the low register).  I think this idea should be considered, but we as teachers need to have other options too.
Two words: tuba stands.  The bottom line is that the student will not be able to breathe properly (both inhalation and exhalation) and form a proper embouchure if he/she is straining to reach the mouthpiece.  There is absolutely no point in making a student play like this because you cannot make progress when the student is in this position.  There have been several occasions where I spent half a lesson (and half the band director's money) figuring out a comfortable way for the student to hold the tuba, just to find that all he/she needs is a tuba stand.  I suppose you could also have the student sit on some towels or something, but cloth often slips and most of the time there's not enough room on the chair for the student, the towels, and the tuba.
I was fortunate in that my middle school had a few chairs with tuba stands attached, and there were several settings of height, so the student could set the tuba lower.  These are a good option as well as just plain ol' tuba stands (be careful not to buy a sousaphone stand unless you only have sousaphones).  I know schools are all on a tight budget, but a couple of tuba stands are really worth the investment.  I've also seen loads of used tuba stands online - it's worth the research to save money these days.  I think just one or two tuba stands would work - you'll often have a kid that had his/her growth spurt early on and doesn't need one!

Beginning tuba method books and band parts are written in the low register.  When I say low register, I mean anything below F or Eb below the bass clef staff.  As one would guess, it takes a lot of air to play low on the tuba.  It takes a lot of air in the other registers too, but you run out of air faster in the lower register generally.  So we've already discussed that middle schoolers are small and that their lung capacities are limited.  The air is what makes the vibration happen, and during the first months of playing tuba, this is very difficult for the student to produce.  Plus they are often discouraged by teachers telling everyone that they need to make "4 bar phrases" without taking a breath when in reality, I as an adult experienced player, need to breathe nearly every other measure while playing these middle school parts and method books.  (By the way, I think it's more beneficial and applicable to teach how to take quick breaths that make sense with and don't interrupt the music, while still teaching phrasing.)
The other issue is embouchure.  I think a lot of people are under the impression that low tuba playing must be easier because the embouchure is a bit "looser," for lack of a better term.  I think it'd be easier for students to learn to control their corners in the middle register before venturing into the low register, where essentially you have to have control over something very loose and relaxed.  One thing the Standard of Excellence book does right is teach the correct embouchure in the opening pages (it really works!).
I'm very big on buzzing.  As a teacher, it's very frustrating to have students that only have low parts because they're pretty much impossible for a beginner to buzz.  Buzzing should be taught before the student even touches the horn, but when the student is forced to only play in the low register, it's difficult to apply mid-range buzzing to low register playing (for a beginning student, at least).
The low register is also a challenge because the tubas in the band have no one else to listen to.  Upper woodwinds play mostly in the same range, trombones/euphoniums play together, trumpets/horns/saxes often have parts close together (range wise) - that leaves the tubas all on their own.  They don't know what a low Bb sounds like because no one else in the band is playing it.
If your tubists are having trouble, why not have them try their parts or etudes up an octave?  I know almost everyone's first scale is Bb major, but for tubists, I think learning F and Eb major would be better to start with.

Kids don't know what a tuba is supposed to sound like.  Do you know what a capybara is?  No?  Then can you go draw one (without Googling it) for me?  Of course you couldn't, because you have no idea what it is.
You watched your parents walk for months and month before you even attempted to try it.  You didn't think about "Move my foot like this, bend my knee like this..." - you simply had a goal in mind and tried to imitate it.     You had to do some trial and error to figure out what worked and what didn't.
Unfortunately, there have been so many times that a student has said, "Wow, I've never heard a tuba sound like that" during the first lesson or sectional.  This is not a compliment to myself - this is a problem.  If you don't know what your goal is, you're basically throwing dice every time you put the horn to your face.  This is something that applies to players at all levels.
Giving the student goals, like "blow this piece of paper away" or "say oh, then hold that and say eh" (for embouchure) are very helpful learning tools, but they won't be as useful unless the student has a final product in mind.
In short, students need to hear recordings of their instruments when they're learning to play.  Though again, the tuba presents a challenge in that most tuba solo literature that you'd find on CDs is written in the high register, which students normally don't even touch until they get to college.  I recommend having students listen to some orchestral excerpts (Gene Pokorny's Orchestral Excerpts for Tuba is great) or older recordings like those of Bill Bell, which have older tuba solos written in the middle/lower register.

Any other suggestions/comments are, as always, super duper welcome!

EDIT 7/5/2011: I forgot to mention Dave Zerkel's Tuba Helper CD - a perfect fit for beginning tubists!