How Can Music Students Work Smarter?

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This week I will be conducting my students in performances of Grease School Version. Because of my schedule associated with the production, my next post here will be Sunday, May 25. It will be good to see you here then.

We’ve all heard the saying, work smarter, not harder. In music performance, this is especially good advice. Anyone who has worked with student musicians has seen young players and singers make a tremendous effort only to produce unpleasant or poorly projected sounds. When technique is faulty, no amount of effort will lead to the desired result. Getting students to consistently practice good singing or playing habits is challenging, and becomes at times a matter of nagging, but there is no more expedient way to improve a player’s or singer’s performance than correcting bad technique. Today, I will point out some of the more common technical errors students often fall into. These are often errors that directors have either not noticed, or given up on trying to correct.

Good playing and singing begins with eliminating tension. This begins with keeping the body balanced and straight. Carman discussed the use of yoga to achieve balance and breathing necessary for good singing, and her advice is also helpful to musicians. Instrumentalists have also found benefit in gaining self-awareness and control of their body using The Alexander Technique. These techniques teach the performer to eliminate tension that is destructive to good musical practices, and helps focus effort on controlling those parts of the body that are most necessary for proper singing or playing. Using either yoga or The Alexander Technique is an effective way to educate students on why good posture is important to good musicianship. When students understand that their body must be adjusted a certain way to function properly for the production of musical sound, they are more likely to follow through and develop good physical habits than if they are repeatedly nagged to sit or stand straight without understanding the reason why this is being required. Directors can easily observe posture, and students can monitor their own posture, making it relatively easy to work on.

Good playing or singing also depends on holding the instrument correctly. For singers, this includes the head, throat and abdomen. For example, when the head is lowered, the larynx becomes compressed and unable to work freely. When the abdomen is scrunched, it cannot be used to properly manage breathing. For wind instrument players, instruments must be held at the correct angle in relation to the embouchure to allow lips (for brass) or reeds (for most woodwinds) to vibrate freely and produce the best possible tone. The way in which an instrument is held is easy to observe. Teachers can see how an instrument is being held simply by attentively looking, and students can monitor how they are holding their instrument by observing themselves play or sing in a mirror.

Breath management is another essential aspect of good playing of wind instruments or singing. The breathing apparatus of the human body cannot be utilized in the same way for singing or playing a wind instrument as it is for moment to moment breathing, or even for speaking. The air must be exhaled in a more measured way, and with more intensity for making musical sound. A person performing music should look like they are physically exerting themselves beyond what is normally observed from just standing or sitting. When I play or sing for my students, they often remark on my face turning red. I always respond, “yes, and so should yours if you are producing your sound correctly.” If a student’s body looks the same while playing or singing as it does when at rest, s/he is not exerting enough physical effort in to music making. I am not advocating straining or tensing, but simply elevating the intensity with which air is introduced to the sound-producing agent, be it reed or vocal folds.

Lastly, good sound production for music must allow the sound once produced to acquire fullness of tone by resonating. Singers use their chest and sinuses to resonate. Instrumentalists use their mouths and the instrument itself to resonate the sound. What happens in the mouth is critical for wind players and singers. The mouth is the last place a singer’s sound goes before it is released to the listener. It must gain fullness of tone while in the head. For a wind player, head resonance is also important. Dick explained that “the tone of the flute is not just the tone made in the instrument, it is a complex combination of the flutist and the flute. The sound we hear is that of the air vibrating with the flute, but resonated within the body of the flutist…the vibrations pass not only forward from the embouchure into the flute, but back through the mouth, neck and chest…” While these things cannot be visually observed, the affect they have on the sound can be recognized from the characteristics of the sound itself, and correction can be made based on sound alone. Students and teachers who diligently monitor and correct these problems will be pleased with the improvement in musical performance that will result.

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