Sunday, January 05, 2014

This blog has been moved.

Hi all -- for any posts from here on out, please visit I won't be posting (or cross-posting) to this blog starting in 2014. Thanks, and thanks for visiting! Mike

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The State of Music Education

A random post I read on the ICA Facebook page inspired this rant. I wanted to clip my comment and post it here as a way of starting a broader conversation. Here we go — fire away.
I think most people know my opinion, but I'll add a few words here. If we think of conservatories as "trade schools" (like where you would go to learn to be an auto mechanic or repair a refrigerator -- thanks Tom), we are teaching our students the equivalent of learning to repair a car from 1940. Is that a carburetor? No? Well, I only know how to work on carburetors, not fuel-injection systems. And what's a Hybrid?

Yes, schools are primarily interested in protecting their own viability. They are a business after all, with budgets, halls to maintain, faculty to support (who need and deserve raises), cafeterias to manage, etc, etc. But there is a solution -- the problem is that it is not an incremental solution. Sure, adding a jazz program, or a songwriting program, or forcing everyone to learn to improvise or compose or take a business class, is good and important. But the culture of learning within the walls of the institution must include EVERYONE, not just the students. The FACULTY must continue to hone their skills (not to point fingers, but does your teacher know how to improvise? Or compose? Or play Balkan wedding music? Or release a recording on the Internet? Or create and manage their social media presence? Or play with electronics? Or manage a concert series? Or market their quintet? No?)

But even better, here's what you can do today: you can take control of the situation yourself. Use the schools to do what they do best: USE THEM TO LEARN YOUR CRAFT. Practice your ass off because you don't have to prepare for a physics final. Form a group. Record a CD. Learn Photoshop. Cold-call a presenter. Buy a Jamie Aebersold book and learn to read changes.

Just because you aren't learning that in a class doesn't mean you can't take the initiative. And then, when you are a teacher, you can teach your students these skills. And CONTINUE LEARNING YOURSELF. Stay viable. Move with the changes in the business and the art. Don't sit back and figure "well, I went through my training, and now I have this gig, so I'm just going to teach what I was taught 5, 10, 30 years ago." Who knows what music will be like in 20 years? So prepare yourself for a life of learning, and you'll be ready when that time comes.

To paraphrase a former US president: "nothing is wrong with music education that can't be fixed by what is right about music education" -- or "ask not what music education can do for you; ask what you can do for music education." -- or some such shit. But whatever.

We can fix this. Lord knows I'm trying. What are you doing? Let's do this together.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Air pressure vs. Air support. Two separate things.

I got a great question in the mail today.
Perhaps you might explain a concept that's always puzzled me: the "warm" vs. "cold" airstreams and the idea of air volume and air pressure as two, distinct and separate qualities that affect tone quality. Thanks!

I've heard this before, and I think it's a bit confusing. Here's how I responded:
Regarding the "warm" vs. "cold" air, I'm not exactly what that concept means to be honest. I don't think of things that way. But the notion of air pressure and air volume (actually I say "air support" or "air availability") is spot on. Your support — which comes from your diaphragm flexing whenever you play — never wavers. The pressure, or speed, that you blow into the instrument does vary, and it should. Imagine a violinist only playing with one bow pressure, and well, you can imagine how boring that would sound. Same goes for wind instruments; the wind is our bow.

Finally, embouchure pressure is also something I vary, but that's when I'm trying to get a certain effect with the sound. Loose embouchure is something great to put into your arsenal for Jazz or even Contemporary music. But, it's an advanced skill that I don't teach to students, because I don't want to confuse them.

So I'll say it again. Air Support is always constant. Air pressure isn't. It's the first step to expressive playing to understand the difference!

Monday, June 03, 2013

Do you have a palatal leak (aka Velopharyngeal Insufficiency)?

What a pain in the nose. Or the back of the throat. I will come out and admit it: I had this problem (and still do from time to time).

What is it? It's when, after playing for a while, you can't keep air from leaking out your nose (instead of going through your instrument). There is very little written online about this problem, and even less about solutions that don't involve surgery.

I went through a year or two of doctors sticking cameras up my nose and into my throat to watch me play (I'd post the videos but they're gross). I even went so far as to evaluate surgery.

Luckily I didn't have the surgery, because when I contacted Julianne Kirk Doyle, a clarinet professor at SUNY Potsdam in New York, she had what ultimately was the solution.

Here is her story, and the solution that worked for her, for her students, and for me.

I first experienced the air leak on my Masters Recital at Eastman. I played a fairly taxing program, was not in the right resonant part of the stage (thought I wasn't projecting) so ended up overplaying on a reed that was a little stiff, and on the last page of the Rigoletto fantasy, the soft palate went...just air leaking out my nose and I couldn't do anything about it. After that happened, for days it felt like I had gotten chlorine up my nose. Upon reflection, I realized the importance of proper breathing and fundamentals as they pertain to playing and revisited how I approached some things.

I also started taking yoga and learning to control the palate through breathing and eventually while at rest as well as while playing. This is been an endurance key for me when I feel in certain environments and with certain reeds, that my palate might go (for the record it hasn't since 2003!) Often when we are playing, even while resting for a couple bars, we keep the tongue high and soft palate engaged, tight and ready to go. I have trained myself to drop and relax the palate while resting, even for just a couple beats or in bars of rest. The only way I can describe this is to touch your upper gumline behind the front teeth with the tip of the tongue and then lower the rest of the tongue and inhale through the nose. You can also just drop the tongue and that also opens and relaxes the palate. You can even do this with the tongue up, if you notice when you fall asleep at night, where does your tongue go? It actually goes up against the roof of your mouth (I learned this from a vocal colleague) so its a natural position, but often in clarinet and voice, we over compensate/engage it.

I have a couple of tests I use with my students is to sensitize them to any throat tension - this can be what ultimately causes the soft palate to go as well as faulty embouchure and low tongue position - I call it a domino effect. Some players tend to support the sound from the throat rather than from the lower abs/air support, I did this for a LONG time and had no idea I wasn't supporting right. My oboe colleague refers to support as "being stuck in a sit up" and we have the students in tech classes use the "Tssssssss" sound while supporting from the abdomen. While you do this, your throat shouldn't be tight, but your abs are. With Bb, we so badly want to get a full sound that is centered and projected, but instead of raising the tongue or having just the right embouchure and support, we can compensate with the throat closing, even just a little bit (which I notice when I'm out of shape) can cause the soft palate to weaken. Kind of like you are trying to grunt (those guys at the gym that try to lift too much weight)

Test for throat tension

- Play a full range scale normally, just be aware but don't try to change anything (I don't tell the students that, just have them play normally)

- Plug the bell (with your calf or a cloth) and finger middle line B (on Bb clarinet) or the lowest note on the bass that closes all the keys

- You should be able to get overtones by doing this, how low can you go?

- Just as a vocalist vocalizes "do, mi, sol, mi do" we can slide from partial to partial with minimal effort. If we can do this, the throat is open.

- If nothing comes out, throat and/or embouchure are too tight.

- Play the full range scale again - do you notice a difference? Is the sound fuller? throat looser? soft palate? What do you notice? How is your support?

Exercises to use

- Kroepsch Book 1 - C Major (and all other keys eventually)

- My theory is if a student can play everything in the Kroepsch book with no issues, then voicing, support, etc is all where it needs to be

- Play each exercise with only air first on a "Shhhhh" syllable and really be aware of the velocity of air behind your fingers, do you hear your fingers?

- Quiet relaxed fingers and good steady air should be accomplished before adding the sound

- Add the sound, it should feel the same as it did with just the air, just more resistance but not uncomfortable

If the soft palate starts to go at anytime, STOP immediately and rest, evaluate why it went. The nice thing about the Kroepsch is they are short. I do a full key each day as part of my warm up in this process.

I had a freshman last fall who is a fabulous player, far ahead of all his peers, but the soft palate problem kept him from playing more than 10 minutes consecutively and when he got into performance it always seemed to give out. We did a lot of rebuilding and looking at support and tension, when he would get expressive, he tried to give nuances from his throat, not with the air speed.

We experimented with embouchure and got him on a mouthpiece that better enabled him to do what he wanted to do. He was on an M13 but working really hard to get the darker color in his head. He changed to the M15 and it was perfect. The M30 was too dark for him and caused him to over work the tongue/soft palate.

We also lightened his reed strength by maybe 1/4-1/2 a strength. We also video his lessons and performances so he can see if there are any physical motions that cause him to be out of balance therefore tensing things up. He leaned forward a lot causing him to tighten the throat, etc.

Long story short, his goal by the end of fall semester was to play the Burgmuller Duo on an area recital with no issues - mission accomplished! From time to time he has little problems, but very few and now knows how to handle the leak if it comes up.

Some folks have gone and had surgery to rebuild their soft palate, or injections into it (like botox), we had a student get one of these treatments in 2007 and its worked for her so far - but I think those are going to only be temporary remedies if the fundamental elements aren't where they need to be. Like any muscle, we can learn to control it with a little sensitization.

Monday, August 13, 2012

How to do looping music in 2012

I get asked this question all the time: What stuff do I need to do the stuff you do?

Loop-based music is what I have done now for over 10 years. If you aren't familiar with that term, it's simply music that can be created on the fly where you 1) record yourself, and then 2) play it back while recording something else on top (or not). 3) rinse, repeat…remove layers, add new ones, etc.

So what equipment do you need besides your instrument? The thing is, it changes. Ten years ago it was a Titanium G4 Powerbook, a MIDI interface, an audio interface and a bunch of control gear. Now it's a Macbook Air, and a different audio interface, and a different bunch of control gear. (Why? Faster computers allow you to do more complex stuff. And I like doing more complex stuff.)

But for example, let's take a piece like Ten Children. It's fairly simple in terms of electronic needs (because I wrote it almost 10 years ago). I can effectively play it with:

• A Macbook Air

• An audio interface like the MOTU Ultralite (I actually use this one, but it's much more expensive, because I'm a snob that way.)

• A bass clarinet microphone like the AMT WS

• A vocal mic like the Shure SM58 (I use a Røde NT3)

• A USB or MIDI foot pedal system. There are many of these, but after many years using one that I made myself, I now use the SoftStep.)

Now for music software:

• Cycling74's Max is what I use to run my show, but it's got a STEEP learning curve.

And with a software-based system like the one I describe above, I need effects plugins. Think: Reverbs, which make you sound like you're in a concert hall, or a bathroom, or a car trunk; Delays, which repeat your sound in a rhythmic (or non-rhythmic) way, way, way, way… The list of plugins I have numbers well over 100. Some are free, most aren't. They come in a few flavors, depending on your software, and your platform (Mac or PC). Most of the ones I use on Mac are of the VST variety. Chris Randall, of Audio Damage, is a GREAT developer of plugins. I own just about everything he's ever made.

Okay, but this post is about the basics. That all that crap above is what I've come to after years and years of development. Do you need it all? Nope.

First, check out this guy, Jarle Bernhoft. He uses a few microphones, and a Boss RC50 LoopStation
, and a guitar effects pedals. You'd be hard pressed to play any of my tunes with it, but if Bernhoft can make the kind of absolutely genius music he makes, it's more than adequate.

If you were to just get something simple like that (with a microphone of course, and maybe a simple little amp/speaker), you'd have a lot of fun, and you'd get a really good idea of what your next steps should be.

But most of all, have fun! This should definitely not be stressful, and you don't need to jump into the deep end right away!


Sunday, July 08, 2012

Student Bass clarinet suggestions?

A question from YouTube:

Hello, this past year I have been playing bass clarinet seriously and I am thinking about buying one... I wonder if you have tried the Bass Clarinets made by Tom Ridenour. Right now I am renting a Buffet Prestige from the school but it would be just too expensive for me to buy one of those. Do you have any suggestion for me?

Here was my reply:

Not a fan of the student-model bass clarinets actually. (I'm sorry!) I've tried Jupiter, and a bunch of others, and I haven't found one that has decent keywork. On Bb clarinets that's not as big of a problem, because 1) the keys are smaller and 2) you cover half of the holes with your fingers anyway. But on bass clarinets the length of the keys, and the length of the rods makes it such that bad keywork (low-quality alloys) will just mean that your bass clarinet is ALWAYS out of adjustment.

That all said, I am going to ClarFest this year, and I plan to make a quick video of each student instrument and post it on YouTube with my comments. (well, if that's possible, and if it's possible to hear me over the noise of everyone playing!)

I hope to be surprised by one of these student instruments. It's just SO hard to make something that's affordable (even if it's plastic) that has decent metal in the keys.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

When to get a new Bass Clarinet

I got this message from a young bass clarinetist, and I thought I'd answer it here, since it's something I'm hearing a fair bit from my own students.

1. When is it time for you to purchase a professional model bass clarinet (low C range)?

2. What is the cost of one of these instruments (quality of course) and which brands are the best?

3. Is this worth purchasing if you don't plan on being a professional musician?

In terms of #1, I got my first horn when I graduated from High School, right before I went off to Eastman for college. I did all of my auditions on an old plastic Leblanc Vito, low Eb bass -- so I guess that's to say that it can be done. I'd say to get one if you can afford it. You can ALWAYS get rid of a used bass for damn near as much as you paid for it. The market for good, used, professional-quality horns is very tight. Most people who buy them keep them, so if you do need to get rid of one, you can usually find a buyer without too much trouble.

As for #2, you can get a Selmer or a Buffet. Those really are your two options. I'm not a fan of the Yamaha horns because they just don't have the sound of the other two. I'm a Selmer guy. I always have been. Their horns simply sound better, they have a more pleasing resistance (read: they're much less resistant), and they are much more "even-blowing" in terms of some notes being stuffy and others being less stuffy. Buffets are particularly prone to this problem.

Lately I've seen younger students getting low C horns (because you can buy student-model low C horns now - that's something they didn't have in the 1980s), but those student model horns by Jupiter, Allora, etc are total crap. Why? Mainly it's all in the keywork. The keys are really low-quality, they bend and go out of adjustment because the metal used is low-quality.

So, in short, save your money. Don't buy a low-C bass clarinet from one of these guys. You'll have repair bills that, over the course of owning the horn, will probably make up the (admittedly huge) difference in cost.

#3: That's a hard one to answer. I own a great set of pots & pans - probably some of the best - but I'm not a professional chef. Why? Because I like working with good tools. Then again, I cook all the time, so I get good use out of them.

Is this what you plan to do on your bass? Will you use and enjoy it a long time? Does having a good "tool" matter in this case? Probably. If you see yourself not playing for long, or -- and be honest with yourself -- if you are someone who loses interest when things get frustrating…well maybe not.

But then again, as I said in #1, you can always sell it.

Hope this helps some of you guys.