Thursday, September 24, 2015

Nasty Habits -- Playing in a Section

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Bassoon Section, ca. 1974 (Willard Elliot, Wilbur Simpson, John Raitt, Burl Lane)

In this post, I'd like to discuss how to play in a bassoon section. School and professional orchestras have started up around here for the indoor season and, once again, there is a demand for harmony in a section.

This is a good time to enumerate some of the things that make a section work well together.

1. Respect

An orchestra functions best when it works as a large chamber music ensemble. Therefore, EVERYONE in the orchestra matters and deserves respect. When dealing with colleagues start by assuming everyone wants and deserves to be in the group and everyone is trying their best. While sometimes this may not be so, it is always best to take the high road.

For each new rehearsal or concert, though, respect should be thought of as a precious commodity -- something that is important for you to earn each day in performance and easy to lose. This will help keep you playing your best day-in and day-out.

Respect for the music you play is even more important. This is the focus everyone should strive for.

A certain amount of special respect is due the leader or Principal player in your section. This person is the leader and the one a section looks to for guidance in terms of sound, style, etc. His/her decisions should be considered authoritative regarding how the section works together.

2. Communication 

Communication that is clear and respectful is very important. In a rehearsal, there is little time to discuss things, so short, clear questions or instructions work best. Use the first person plural "we" when asking about a passage you play with other section mates -- "Can we try. . . "

Section leaders need to communicate with their sections in a timely and clear fashion regarding part assignments, any changes in the parts communicated through them by the conductor, etc.

When necessary, try to find ways to communicate that do not interrupt warming up or disturb the flow of a rehearsal. 

Speak quietly in a way that can be heard, but won't drown out the conductor's voice.

Do not point or gesture at someone else's music. Instead, ask the person to check a bar number or letter in their part and have them tell you what they have there.

Try to use subtle body language when communicating during an ensemble rehearsal. Conductors pick up on aggressive body language and could see it as challenging to their authority.

When giving cues, make your gestures subtle, but clear. Players other than the Principal player rarely have to cue, but if you do, NEVER cue with a bigger gesture than the Principal. Do not turn to the player you are cuing, don't breathe loudly to cue, keep as still as you can while cuing clearly.

3. Tuning

ALWAYS let the Principal player try the "A" first. Once they're in, it's your turn. Principals, be aware that others are waiting to tune as well. 

When tuning chords, it's generally best to tune from the lowest note in a chord up. Instead of making assumptions about pitch, just try the isolated chord without saying anything except, "Can we try. . . "

If there is still a discrepancy, try to be flexible. If you have an unstable note, rely on the other person. Sometimes using a third person's ears to help is useful, sometimes checking yourself with a tuner is helpful. Keep in mind, if you use a tuner, use it only for reference to make sure you are not leading the other person too far off normal pitch level. The context of the chords should be ultimately controlling, not the tuner. WE PLAY WITH EACH OTHER, NOT TUNERS!

4. Etiquette 

Try to rid yourself of any bad habits you have when working in a section. 
  • Keep still and quiet during rehearsals and especially concerts.
  • Notice any nervous habits you might have that will drive your section mates crazy after a while! 
  • Don't crow your reed in rehearsal
  • Keep your key mechanism lubricated so it will be quiet when you play
  • If you must work on your reed, do this quietly. Be careful when handling tools so you don't drop them or make noise with them.
  • Keep the area around you devoid of coffee cups, etc. that can be kicked over
  • Be aware of the space around you so you don't put your things in someone else's space. 
  • Never practice someone else's solo onstage!
This list could go on and on. . .

5. Conductors 
  •  Memorize the first few notes of an entrance so the conductor can have your eyes.
  • When the conductor stops conducting YOU STOP IMMEDIATELY.
  • When the conductor asks you to play something in a different manner, do not speak unless you must. Simply nod. There isn't time for a discussion of musical points.
  • If you don't understand or wish to follow up with the conductor, do so at a break one-on-one. NEVER CHALLENGE A CONDUCTOR!
  • The conductor is not your friend. Excessive time spent schmoozing with a conductor in front of colleagues may backfire!
 6. Colleagues
  • Keep in mind that playing in an orchestra is difficult, exacting work. If you hear someone in your section play something wonderfully, let them know!
  • Show appreciation either by quietly shuffling your feet or clapping one hand against your leg.
  • Save this sign of encouragement for occasions in which the playing is truly exceptional or in which the player has overcome a difficulty or made a fine adjustment based upon a conductor's comments.
  • Excessive praise can be seen as an attempt to curry favor and may even be taken as sarcastic if the performer feels they didn't do their best.
I would love to hear what advice others have on this topic!


Friday, September 11, 2015

Nasty Habits - Teaching Yourself

"When the Student is ready, the Teacher will appear."

This Zen koan goes right to the heart of the learning process. As students engage with teachers at the beginning of a new semester, it's helpful to investigate how students can best ready themselves for learning and growth. Teachers can also take much wisdom from contemplating this statement.

You may wonder who or what is the Teacher referred to above! As with most pithy sayings like this, I suppose there's no single correct answer, but here are two that occur to me:

1. The "Teacher" is actually a state of mind that exists when the Student embarks on a journey towards learning, e.g., lesson, with a receptiveness, humility and eagerness to be inspired and to be changed by engaging with great works of music, guided by someone who is farther along on this journey than they are.

2. The "Teacher" is an actual teacher whose effectiveness is enhanced by the Student's receptiveness and preparation for learning.

There are certainly other possible interpretations, but these fit my purpose for this post.

Grouchy Old Man

I'm going to sound like a grouchy old man when I say that young musicians today have many more resources for learning than I did when growing up. After I was done with school came the explosion of the market for CDs, then came the internet and YouTube, etc. Students today are actually overwhelmed with choices when looking for musical sound or style to model.

Combine this with the obsession with testing in the schools and you have a generation that often seems confused and unable to think for itself. Teachers teaching to the test often feel pressure to take short cuts and provide answers for students instead of introducing ambiguity that might delay an answer but provoke deeper, more critical thinking.

I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to "spoon-feeding." Indeed, there are often times when this is necessary -- fixing a reed for a student before an important audition instead of letting the student flounder while searching for themselves for the right solution, for instance.

However, I believe the old adage, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime", still holds true.

Sometimes, I'll challenge my students this way: "Make me really earn my pay by coming into the lesson so prepared and executing the material so convincingly that I scratch my head trying to come up with something to say."

If I have to point out wrong notes or spot something that a machine could register such as bad intonation or pulse, I'm not earning my pay and you're not getting your money's worth out of me!

Dan Silver, Professor of Clarinet at the University of Colorado shared the checklist below with me a long time ago. I think it's a great run-down of what must be taken into consideration when perfecting an etude, piece or excerpt.

In my experience, most students struggle to master the parameters of the "Fundamentals" section and grasp just a few things in the other sections in the practice between lessons. And that's in a good lesson!

 However, in a great performance, the listener is inspired by the performer's mastery of an interpretation. All the other areas must be mastered, but must remain invisible (or inaudible) to the listener. If any difficulty in these other areas becomes audible, the magic of the performance collapses like a house of cards!

Ideally, the weekly lesson should not consist wholly of spoon-feeding by the teacher or the student coming in with issues to the point such that the lesson is derailed. For at least part of an ideal lesson what is practiced is performing what has been learned during the week.

"Progress occurs between lessons." - Dan Stolper, oboist and teacher

Check this list before your next lesson. Challenge yourself to see how many of the areas listed you can master in the material you're learning. Share it with your students.

Musical Artistry              

·         Command of rhythm, pulse, ability to subdivide
·         Technical accuracy
·         Pattern recognition in reading music (scales, arpeggios, etc.)
·         Beauty of tone
·         Accurate intonation
·         Control of dynamics, large dynamic range
·         Control and variety of articulations


·         Variety of tone color
·         Seamless legato 
·         Even passage work
·         Appropriate vibrato


·         Playing exactly what’s on the page first
·         Clarity of the aural concept (what does the inner ear hear?)
·         Sense of style
·         Points of tension and release in the musical line
·         Control of line, phrasing
·         Use of rubato, if appropriate
·         Knowing context of specific piece
·         Performance practice
Physical and Mental

      • Mastery of the "Inner Game"
      • Body awareness and use
      • Stage presence, presentation
      • "X” Factor

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Nasty Habits - Private Lessons

My teaching has started up for the fall semester. The beginning of each new school year marks a period of transition for student and teacher.

New students come in with fresh faces and ideas, looking to improve and adopt new habits. Each fall I spend a little time with my students planning the semester.

One way to get things off to a good start is to set goals and give guidelines for the semester. Most classroom teachers have a syllabus that includes policies governing attendance, grading, etc. Increasingly, the private lesson music teacher has adopted these, too.

At its best, a syllabus gives student and teacher clear guidelines for the progress of the semester. At very least it functions as a kind of contract between student and teacher covering grading policy, etc.

However, many teachers are uncomfortable with the imposition of legalistic guidelines upon the creative hour that is the private lesson. For the private lesson to be effective, there needs to be a great amount of trust between student and teacher.

Paradoxically, however, sometimes the trust is most easily established when the student knows that clear expectations and boundaries exist in the lesson format.

Setting up meaningful, clear objectives is one way to start out right. "Let's work on improving your intonation this semester." "Let's prepare for your degree recital."

In addition, I've found it helpful to post some points for my students to ponder as we get started for the semester. Here is a list from oboist, Elaine Douvas I've modified for my use.

How to get the best out of your teacher

You deserve to have my best effort -- my undivided attention for one hour per week; your progress and well-being should be the most important thing in the world for the one hour you are there. Unfortunately, a teacher cannot always give his best to each and every student, especially if he has many students, but you can be sure of getting that 100% effort if you always give your own best effort and do not make unnecessary extra work for me.

Consider the following:

1. Come on time; late arrivals show avoidance.

2. Don't warm up in your lesson. Schedule your lesson time such that there is time to warm up beforehand.

3. Help me stay organized; I keep a notebook of assignments but you must keep one yourself. At the beginning of the lesson, tell me everything you have practiced and hope to cover; remind me of what happened at the previous lesson. When you leave, find a place where you can spend a few minutes writing down helpful notes from the lesson.

4. Keep the energy level high: unpack quickly, don't waste time trying out 10 reeds, do not yawn. Additionally, don't waste the next person's time by taking too long to pack up.

5. Don't engage in too much small talk. Try to let me know that you have a great deal prepared and want to get through it.

6. For the teacher-student relationship to be most productive, there must be trust and respect for the assignments given and the material chosen by the teacher.

7. Meet me halfway in the lesson. The first part of your lesson is your performance for me of the work you've done that week. The second half is our chance to analyze and improve upon your playing.

8. Take initiative; do one or two things more than you were assigned.

9. Try to grasp things quickly; don't make me repeat things (a conductor only says things once!).

10. Have problems solved before each lesson; I get frustrated working on the same things with the same person week after week.

11. Don't be a "Space Cadet!" Don't leave things behind; it makes for unnecessary texts or phone calls and extra work for me.

12. If you need a recommendation letter, make it as easy as possible for me. Supply a link in an email to me or provide me with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a hard copy.

13. Schedule your practice time as you do your classes. Treat them with the same discipline as you do your classes.

14. Plan your recitals when I can come, otherwise I may think that you don't value my opinion. Also, notify me of other performances I may want to hear to be able to help you better.

15. Go to my performances. Hearing me play gives meaning to the comments I make in your lessons. Also, go to the performances of your fellow students.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Different Kind of Toscanini Broadcast!

Above is a cartoon that appeared in 1937 on the front page of one of Vienna's major newspapers, The Illustrated Kronenzeitung. In a whimsical mixing of disciplines it shows Richard Eybner, a famous Viennese actor at a microphone impersonating a famous Viennese sportscaster, Willy Schmieger.

The caption reads, "If Schmieger broadcast a Toscanini concert." Shown are Toscanani as referee in a soccer game (see his whistle!), with players, Hugo Burghauser (bassoon) and Arnold Rose (concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic) all in athletic gear with their instruments. A timpanist appears to be the keeper.

This cartoon is featured in Burghauser's book, "Symphonische Begegnungen"

What sort of cultural change would have to take place in the US -- or perhaps anywhere else but Vienna -- for a major newspaper to put something like this on its front page?

The closest thing I could think of is Peter Schickele's broadcast of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, with Bobby Corno on first horn.

Here's another blast from the past:

This is from a December, 1945 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Inside is an article about Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic. William Polisi, Principal Bassoon, Manuel Zegler (misspelled in caption), Second Bassoon (Zeglar would later move up to Principal Bassoon) and Roberto Sensale, contra. In the second photo, the players are posed with their instruments over a chess board. More likely the game was poker and played without instruments present, with money on the table!

The Puppet Show, Bartholemew Fair by John Nixon, 1796 was recently purchased at an auction. This image was shared with me by conductor, Nic McGegan when he conducted us at Blossom this July..

I don't think the listener is too impressed with the bassoonist's playing!