Musical connections are a lot like any other connections. (4 min read) We need to experience them, process, and attribute meaning to them, and that is something that we all get better at with time and practice. There’s that practice word again… This post is inspired by this week’s #MUS654 topic Session 4: Studies and connecting material, and I wanted to liken it to conversation and listening, but there are differences. Although both are aural – spoken word and musical sound, we tend to engage with one very differently to the other. In speech there is a fluid dynamic. It is knowingly experimental and sometimes messy – wait, I didn’t mean that… no, no, it’s more like this… – In conversation it is entirely acceptable to present ideas and change them, or to present ideas and realise that they lacked clarity and then need to add detail. Read more
Posts tagged ‘practice’
This article caught my attention when it came out and I bookmarked it…. I thought it was perfect for this week’s #MUS654 topic about studies and connecting material. Imagine being an established soloist and speaking out about something pedagogically controversial? I’m not sure if that was James Ehnes’ intention to be provocative or if he was just stating his own practice as a mater of fact opinion. I’ll let you decide!
The article is titled: “I never practise scales and studies from books”
Let’s start with a couple of comments from two other very respected performing musicians.
Brannon Cho: He’s not saying that basic foundation exercise is never necessary; obviously when you’re still learning how to get around your instrument and learning about harmonic and melodic structures at a young age, it’s crucial. But once you’re past a point in your development as an instrumentalist and artist when you’ve mastered understanding of keys and intervals and intonation, it’s much more practical and effective to study directly from your repertoire
Nicholas G: The things he described (scales, arpeggios, chords) can certainly be taken way further than basic foundational exercises. Those 3 things are things I think are essentially impossible to master, I mean those 3 things basically encompass all of harmony. It definitely depends what you plan on using your fundamentals for, but at least coming from a improvisatory perspective, these are things even top professionals never stop working on because it takes a complete mastery of those things on your instrument to use them in real time. Just the actual magnitude of harmony is huge, so it’s a never ending process. I’m not saying one shouldn’t study from repertoire and recordings, but rather it’s ridiculous to dismiss scales, arpeggios, and chords as developmental exercises and as less useful than studying repertoire for a high level musician. I mean even looking at Bach violin partitas, it seems he was experimenting endlessly with different ways of voice leading through scales and arpeggios. It’s certainly not something he could have only learned through studying repertoire, because he was experimenting with harmony while writing… and Bach was an incredible instrumentalist himself! I guess it’s just a choice of how well rounded you want to be as a musician. My favorite musicians are personally great performers, composers, and improvisors… it seems like James Ehnes is coming really strongly from a purely performance standpoint. There’s just so much more you can do with scales, arpeggios, chords… harmony… than use it as a developmental exercise.
It is certainly a thought provoking article and those comments really present crystalised thoughts. I wonder what it and they stem in your thoughts and your experience?
I have pasted the article it into hyppothesis.is which allows group annotation – it lets you (and me, and anyone) comment on the document and see what other people say. It is an experiment for me with #MUS654 and I would love for people to join in the discussion right on the page…
If you have never used it, it is very easy. Please feel free to join in, you can make comments easily. The article is LINKED HERE:
Once you get to the hyposthesis.is page, here’s how easy it is to comment:
(screenshot from hypothesis.is)
Looking forward to hearing what you think! (if group annotation is not for you, you are always welcome to comment on this page)#MUS654
(3 min read) I subscribe to ‘The Daily Stillness’ which is a collaborative, maker-type, Daily Create / Connect type activity that is based here. Today’s short blurb hit me like walking out into a field after being in the woods. The message in a very few words:
Practice: Do it.
that was what I read via twitter on my phone early this morning, and then I looked at the actual email and saw it said more than that:
For me, this means a lot on many different levels. Let’s take the most literal first:
A little over a year ago, 5 students and I did an impossible journey where we raised lots of money and went to California to learn and teach- together and with others. It was a living, collaborative educational experience in the true sense of those words. We even had a poster designed for us and our theme/slogan was Don’t you quit!
We called ourselves Musiquality and it was all about bringing quality and connection through music. The experience was so epic that we decided to write about it, and make a book. That has been this summer’s project – to write the book, and I have been doing it with my student (recent graduate) co-authors.
2. Do it and don’t quit.
Writing a book is tough. Sometimes words pour out and other times, well, it has been two weeks and I haven’t written a thing. I see people use the #dailywords hashtag on twitter, like here —> . When I am writing these act as a positive influence, but when time passes without writing it is like a tug on the skirt by a small child to remind me that I haven’t done it yet. Today the ‘do it and don’t quit’ was not a negative annoyance, or a reminder of my own failing, but a reminder that I can – and I will. Watch for my own #dailywords report later today.
That brings me nicely to the third point:
What can I say about this? It just makes me smile. In a sentence – YES YOU CAN. I never cease to be surprised by what people can accomplish, and it doesn’t take Olympic greats to make me say this – although it is impossible to not be completely impressed by the refined dedication of those international athletes. Every day, every person can do something that has an impact and makes a difference and that allows them to grow. To live. I know I am optimistic, but I do genuinely believe that.
4. Every day.
Coming back to the Daily Stillness post, there was more – there was text. The suggestion was to read a short post by the author Kathleen Hirsch about practice (HERE). It is a fantastic post about finding stillness in mind as a daily practice – through religion, through breathing, through whatever- but every day. As a musician practice is part of daily life – and routine gets into your blood. I have woken others by shouting PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE! in my sleep. Really. (ok, it was my husband, and he forgave me) People say if you don’t practice for one day then you know it, if you don’t practice for two days your friends know it, and if you don’t practice for three days the whole world knows it. It is like eating or washing –
and then it hit me:
It is all connected.
Yesterday I had a physio appointment because I pulled a muscle very deep and it was causing me pain. The lovely physio gal and I were talking about being fit for purpose. I love to talk sport and fitness, and have had a blissful summer full of running and yoga (and typing and practising) and she loves to talk about people and how their bodies work. I was saying that as musicians, we often do not realise what strength and stamina we need to support the specific muscles we use in music making.
Anyone who has seen a string player hold the bow will know that the positioning looks relaxed but takes a whole host of different muscles to, say, holding a fork. The physio gal commented that it is about awareness. Knowing how we work, what needs supporting, what basic levels of activity and fitness we need to prevent injury all help as we spend hours practising musical instruments.
It is all connected.
I wrote about my concert last week in a series of posts, and the bits that I wanted to go better, happened when I was not still – when my mind was not still. It is something I don’t practice enough, quietening my mind.
Mind. Body. Music.
They all go together. Practising one without the other is like eating without drinking. Sleeping without waking. To me they suddenly seem that polar and connected.
Why is it then that it is so easy to push one aside? I will work hard and not take care of my body, or not eat well, or… the list could go on. These things are important and sometimes it takes a proverbial slap in the face – like my gimpy leg – to remind me just how important it is to take the time, to make the balance, to practice.
Cello cello cello cello cello
That’s where my brain is at the moment. Every year I do a recital at the University and every year there is a moment when I wonder why why why? I don’t have to. Nobody requires me to, it’s not part of my job. But somehow I need to. It is very important to me to put myself through the paces, to learn and do the same as I require the students to do, but it’s a balancing act and it’s no more easy for me than it is for them or anyone. It takes time. I’ve started waking up early, going to bed late, even waking up after everyone else has gone to bed. I think the music just creeps into your blood.
Practise practise practise! (or practice in ‘Americanish’ as my children used to say)
I very much enjoy the process, the sound, and having something to say – a voice – where I don’t have to have words. If you asked me what the music means, I wouldn’t have words, but it is full of meaning. I’m happy to talk about that, but maybe another time. Read more
This post is about learning, and what happens when learning is visible – to the learner and to others. (2 min read)
This morning I was practising and I had one of those moments that really made me stop in my tracks and think. In a week I have a big event, it’s my book launch. The book is all about self-efficacy and fostering that positive self-belief in students. -and I have my good friend, and co-founder of the Open Source Learning Foundation, David Preston coming over from LA to speak, and then I’m going to be playing a fun duet with a recent graduate and then I sing a song (accompanied by a second year student) before a tea and cake reception. More on the singing a song later – for this story the important part is the cello/violin duet.
As I played I noticed something out of my peripheral vision. It was my husband – I could see him in the garden through the window.
IMMEDIATELY I became aware that I was very self-conscious of how I was playing and what I sounded like. I had been really going for it in my practising – playing with abandon and making a big sound, really doing all the things I should be doing, and suddenly I questioned everything and shrank. It was as if someone had seen me naked.
That made me think about the idea of body image and I thought about the attention that acceptance of different bodies and individuality is taught. Overwhelmingly there has been a move away from some perfect body image to the idea that people are individual and that’s ok, and then I thought back to musical practice and wondered about my musical identity. Am I comfortable with who I am musically? What about processes? Why would I doubt myself so much if someone saw me learning? -especially if it was my husband! Of all people, he is the most supportive and would not be passing critical judgement – certainly not as he was on his way to mow the lawn. He wasn’t focused on the few notes he heard as he passed by.
I recorded a little passage when I felt self-conscious and noticed what was happening:
I felt physically small, felt tight, was listening in a nervously critical way, my coordination was getting sloppy and it started to go out of tune… Oh my goodness! Not at all what you would want and certainly not a conducive environment for learning.
So my mind moved to the garden (stay with me, it’s a good analogy – promise). There is nothing wrong with watching someone garden. I have never known someone to get sheepish and embarrassed about planting a flower or raking leaves and having dirty hands or leaves still on the ground. We are ok with process in that pursuit. That was a revelation for me. We are ok with process in gardening. We are ok with process in cooking. We watch people do these things from start to finish. There are popular tv shows about it.
Why is it different in musical learning?
I don’t think it should be. Yes it is very important to know the difference between something in progress and something finished, and if a learner does not have the perceptive capabilities to know that there are still areas to improve, then that is not so good… but surely the process of learning should not be something that people are ashamed of. If someone walks in just after I’ve cracked an egg into a bowl, I don’t get worried that they have seen the breakfast crepes before I have cooked them; that would be silly. (photo CC BY-NC-ND by Rakka http://bit.ly/1lEb6tl)
So what am I going to do about it? I’m not completely sure, and would love suggestions. I had the idea to do a practising hangout. In my open music class #MUS654 we talk about all sorts of aspects of music learning from the point of view of teachers, and I think that next year I will add at least one ‘in progress’ hangout to put that process out there. I’ll be the guinea pig – as it’s not fair to ask that sort of thing of the students, certainly not if I am not willing to do it myself! – and I’ll be the fly on the wall and talk through the process. Learning to learn is so important, and I don’t think it’s something anyone should hide from.
More on the book launch soon – as for putting the cards on the table, I’m singing a song and that is a big deal for me. I’m definitely still a student there, and it’s a pop song… like with a microphone. and we’re live streaming it… It’s all about learning and living it, every day.
Featured image CC BY-SA by Hernán Piñera http://bit.ly/1Q6K8HM
(2 min read) As a student I was a latecomers to seriously studying music, and as we know it takes a lot of practice to be excellent at any instrument (yes, voice is an instrument). As a first year undergraduate I had a great friend who gave me a present to help with my practising. It was a pink mini-Fender Amp that had a slot in the back for a 9v battery, an input and an output. I used it for years until it finally went to live with the other amps in the sky. (Photo CC-BY by S.Su)
What was it for? Scales and intonation. That’s right, my little pink Fender amp was a drone machine for me and it would be hooked up to my digital tuner and blast out sine tones (like these) so I could have a solid, fixed reference pitch as I practiced. I used it religiously everyday – and I needed to! There was no quick fix for developing an inner ear or learning the placement of fingers on a fretless instrument. I quickly realised that as a cello player, I thought about notes, and scales, mainly in a melodic context. What I mean, is that I didn’t have that key harmonic reference in my head like another musician might. (Photo CC-BY-NC by Bill Selak)
The amp was a stepping stone for me. As I plugged away learning the patterns for my scales and solidifying the geography of the fingerboard it helped to keep me on track. The next step was to create that drone myself, with my voice. The magic of this (once you get over the fact that you are not supposed to sound like a diva holding a low G -or whatever note- for a minute or more) was that the combination of the voice and the cello notes interacted in a very physical way. I could FEEL the vibrations of the different intervals. So an octave really felt smooth as glass, whereas the major 7th had a sawtooth edge that produced very tangible harmonic beats. These were different from the more textured velour of a 3rd. It is a real challenge to hold a pitch steady when the interval is moving, and not to waver. Really, give it a go – even if you sing against that sine wave generator I linked to – play a note on it (turn it up so the volume matches your voice) and sing a scale. You’ll feel those intervals too.
It is a practice that taught me to tune in, literally, as well as to get into the mental space where I could really listen. Scales became more than rushing through the Galamian finger pattern of ‘stretch-stretch-squash-squash-squash’ (which is how to play a major scale on a violin/viola/cello staring on any note) and moved into a real tool for teaching me about relationships of notes and balance within my hand and the sound.
Do I still do it? Yes.
Do I make my students do it? Yes.
Do they think it’s silly? Yes, and I volunteer to sing the first drone – and we all laugh. It is very good to laugh. …and then to practise some more!
Don’t forget this week’s #MUS654 Hangout/Webinar happening on Wed. 30th September at 6pm BST. We’ll be talking about scales and the relationship of notes, and I look forward to welcoming Roozbeh Golpaygani روزبه گلپايگانى who will be sharing his knowledge of Persian music. You are more than welcome to join in the conversation in person or via Twitter.
(1 min read) Yesterday I welcomed a guest for the day. We had both studied at Northwestern University a lifetime ago and we passed many times in the hallways of the practice building, went to each other’s recitals, and even had classes with each other’s teachers.
Jonathan is a professional tuba player. He took the day off from his job playing for the West End show Scottsboro Boys to come down to Chichester for the day. At first, by MA students looked slightly surprised when I said that I had arranged a class with a tuba player. There are pianists, singers, violin, guitar, but none of them are brass players. It was fantastic. Jonathan also spent time hearing and talking with the undergraduate low brass players.
We all learned. There was laughter. The music and the learning was reinforced and students were given permission to think and believe in what they were doing. It is relevant not only to tuba players, not only to string players, not only to musicians, but to all learners.
My favourite exchange was between one of the brass students and Jonathan, where the student demonstrated how a student thinks sometimes – with years of training in following instructions. The student was playing and stopped and said:
Jonathan: Why are you saying sorry?
Student: I didn’t breathe when you told me.
Jonathan: But you don’t have to do what you’re told. What I say is right for me, but I’m me and you’re you. That’s why you go away and sing it and figure out what’s right for you. – You’re only as good as the work you put into it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play it today, or tomorrow, or next week, but if you can take it apart and work on bits and you know you are getting a bit better then that’s ok. You’ve got to push yourself, but not destroy your confidence. It’s about balance. Music is a doing word. You’ve got to do it.
I loved that. It is relevant if you are a musician, and if not, replace the word ‘music’ and ‘breathe’ with ‘learning’ and it is relevant to you too.
Thank you Jonathan for sharing your day with me and with my students.