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! :)