Why Do So Many Music Students Hate To Practice?

2011Symposium_1_2I hated it, others music teachers I know hated it or even still do, and many of our students hate it–we a have all hated to practice our instruments. I find this disturbing and strange. I no longer hate to practice, in fact if I go many days without practicing, I can’t stand to be away from my instrument any more. So it may be fruitful to attempt to answer the question of why so many hate to practice by comparing why I used to hate it, to why I don’t hate it anymore.

My experience with this has had three stages. I hated to practice when I wasn’t very good. I struggled for my first couple of years of band in school, and because I didn’t sound good and was struggling to do in my lessons what most of my friends were doing without much effort, I became discouraged and didn’t want to practice. This resolve on my part may have been enough to end my playing right there were it not for two inescapable facts: my mother, who had studied piano as a child, refused to let me give up, and insisted on sitting with me while I practiced, and helping through my assignments. She did everything she could think of to keep me playing;  I even remember her dancing around the room while I played “The Merry Widow.” The other fact was that although I hated the struggle I was in, I loved music. Just how much was made evident when finally my failures and the band director’s advice finally convinced my mom that there really wasn’t much point in my continuing. But then something unforeseen happened: I began failing at everythingpractice else in school. Luckily, an alert teacher made the connection, had me placed back in band, and immediately my grades went back up. I don’t think even I knew how much I loved that clarinet.

With new hope, and a glimmers of future success peeking through, I began my comeback, until everything finally “clicked” and I was on my way to being successful playing the clarinet. The better I got, the more I enjoyed practicing. In high school, I couldn’t get enough of clarinet concertos by Weber and Mozart. At that point, I used my study halls to come down to the music suite and practice. No one had to force me to practice anymore. This was the second stage.

The third stage, which I am still in, started when I began my studies with Kalmen Opperman. If there was ever anyone who could one moment make you feel inadequate and small, and the next moment like you could be a world renowned clarinetist, it was Kal. He didn’t just teach clarinet, he taught life. He knew that if you had your head on straight, that was half the battle. He knew that nothing would come easy, even for the very best, and that the only guarantee of success was to simply be so good, even those who didn’t want to hire you would be forced to admit they had to. I grew as a clarinetist while studying with him more than I could have hoped or imagined would be possible. What he gave to me was worth more than perhaps even he ever knew. The ghosts of my past failures were finally put to rest. I believed in myself, and would never allow myself to loose what I now had.

piano practiceI enjoy practicing today because I have reached a level of playing that is satisfying,  and good enough to play professionally. But I know that mediocrity is only weeks away if I neglect my instrument, so I gladly practice often. So how can my story benefit your students? Here are some suggestions. First, play for your students, not to show off, but to let them see what you can do, and what they can do if they follow your teaching closely and practice diligently. Second, convince them that it’s only a matter of hours. Practice is infinitely more valuable than talent and natural ability. I have a modest amount of both, but have achieved a great deal more than my talent and natural ability, whatever that is, would indicate.

Third, set your students up in really exciting performances. Maybe a community volunteer theater needs a musician for their show. Push for your student to play there. Maybe there is a festival band or orchestra with entrance by the school director’s recommendation. Talk to the director and convince him or her to recommend your student. Fourth, go to your student’s school performances, regional and all-state concerts. The personal investment in them that this kind of support demonstrates is powerful. Students will do practically anything you ask when they see that you are genuinely interested in them and what’s important to them beyond your classroom or studio.

If you are playing professionally yourself, introduce your student to other musicians you play with, and arrange for your student to substitute for you at a performance now and then when you are unable to play. All of these things are encouraging, motivating, and really important to a young player trying to get a start in a tough business. Once presented with these kinds of opportunities, and the affirmation that they are capable of playing in these situations, a student will run to the practice room. All of us have very little difficulty finding the motivation to things we enjoy and that bring us affirmation from others, especially significant others like teachers, parents, and friends.

What Does an Embouchure Do?

2011Symposium_1_2Today I will discuss embouchure. Virtually every wind instrument music teacher uses the word, and teaches students how to form and use one. Yet embouchure can easily become one in a list of things the student must do to produce a pleasing sound on a musical instrument. When difficulties arise, or when obstacles (such as dental braces) are introduced, teachers and students alike can be at a loss as to what to do, because the concept of what an embouchure is and what it does has been overlooked.

As is often the case, beginning with the word itself can be helpful in understanding what the word means, and how the thing it represents can be used. The word embouchure is French derived from the verb embouchure meaning to put to one’s mouth. The word contains bouche, which in English means mouth. A suitable definition of embouchure is found in wordreference.com: “the correct application of the lips and tongue in playing a wind instrument.” The term “wind instrument” refers to both brass and woodwind instruments.

Regardless of the details of playing each kind of instrument, there is one thing all embouchures must do: An embouchure must firmly hold or grasp the material attached to the vibrating element so that the vibrating element can vibrate freely while having the right amount of control placed on it to produce the  characteristic sound of the instrument being played.

Doc Severinson

Doc Severinson

For brass instruments, the embouchure firmly holds the corners of the mouth and lips so that the center of the lips can freely vibrate, yet still be under control so that poor tone and blasting is avoided. In this respect, one part of the mouth is serving as the embouchure, while another part of the mouth is serving as the vibrating element.  When the mouthpiece is applied, it contacts the lips on the embouchure, but must not be delegated the task of doing the job of the embouchure, that is, of holding the vibrating portion of the lips. Such an arrangement leaves the vibrating portion of the lips at liberty to vibrate freely, unimpeded by the presence of the mouthpiece. When the embouchure is so employed, the need for mouthpiece pressure is at least nearly eliminated, and the impact of braces is reduced, if not eliminated. The other part of the embouchure (frequently overlooked) is the tongue. It adds to the work of the embouchure portion of the lips by directing air flow in side the mouth, and varying the size of the passage between the tongue and the roof of the mouth through which air must flow to reach the vibrating element. When the tongue is raised, the passageway is made smaller causing the air to flow faster in support of higher pitches. When the tongue is lowered, the passageway is made smaller causing the air to flow slower in support of lower pitches. Much of this happens rather naturally, and can be over controlled, causing tension in the throat. The throat must remain open and relaxed so that airflow is not restricted out of the lungs.

Kalmen Opperman

Richard Stoltzman and Kalmen Opperman playing clarinet with French embouchures.

For reed instruments, the lips are employed only in holding the vibrating element; they are in no way employed as the sound source. The lip is minimally curled over the lower teeth for single reed instruments and over top and lower teeth for double reed instruments. The French embouchure for clarinet, which I strongly prefer, also curls the top lip over the top teeth, with the top lip firmly placed on the top of the clarinet mouthpiece. Because the lips are directly contacting the reed, the point of contact on the reed is where all vibration stops, and where the embouchure begins. For this reason, the embouchure should be placed on the reed as far back on the reed as possible to maximize the length of reed that is free to vibrate. Remember that the further back the embouchure is placed, the firmer it must be to hold the reed, because all reeds become thicker moving away from the tip. The point at which all pitches can be played with a full and characteristic tone without need of moving or adjusting the embouchure is the correct placement.

Understanding the how as well as the what of wind instrument embouchures is key in forming and using a proper embouchure, and in correctly responding to obstacles and problems that inevitably crop up over time for every wind player. It is important to remember that the embouchure is used to hold the vibrating element with the lips, and direct the airflow through the mouth with the tongue. The later purpose is why articulation is properly done with the end of the tongue, leaving the rest of the tongue to funnel the airstream. When formed and used properly, an embouchure results in a characteristic tone evenly distributed across the entire range of the instrument with little to no adjustment.

Why Doesn’t That Reed Play Well?

2011Symposium_1_2Not all reeds are created equal. Reeds are often of inconsistent quality, and many do not play well enough to be of use. With this in mind, and assuming that you do not have the time to make your own single reeds, here are some ways you can improve the way you select and place your reeds on the mouthpiece that will give you better results.

Reeds that are made of green or overly porous cane should be avoided. When a brand new reed has a slight greenish tinge to it, the cane it was made from has not been aged properly. The cane was harvested too soon, and will not yet make a good reed. Such reeds can be put away and stored for a year, and will improve with age. If, when placed in the mouth for moistening, you can easily draw air through the reed, it is too porous. Such a reed will absorb moisture too quickly, and will soon break down without ever creating a good tone. The best reeds are made from old, dense cane. These reeds will have a golden to golden brown coloring.

The reed should also be cut well. When a reed is held up to the light, tip facing up, the outline of the heart of the reed adjusting-reedsshould form an upside down “U” that is centered. Equal amounts of light should come through the reed on both sides, all the way up the sides and across the tip. Reeds that have light coming through them across most of the reed, or that have a “V” shape instead of a “U” should be avoided. Such reeds require adjustments with a reed knife, or do not have enough heart to ever play well. While professional reed performing artists usually hand make and adjust their reeds, most music educators do not have the time or the training to work on reeds in this way. By judiciously selecting reeds, the need for this type of work can be avoided in most elementary and secondary educational settings. Handbook for Making and Adjusting Single Reeds by Kalmen Opperman, though now out of print, is an excellent reference for those wishing to learn how to use a reed knife.

Every reed should be balanced, which means both sides of the reed, left and right, should offer equal resistance. Take a reed and place your index finger behind the tip on the left side and gently flex it. Do the same on the right side. You will probably notice that one side of the tip is softer than the other–that is it offers less resistance. When this is so, the reed is unbalanced. If the difference is not too great, this imbalance can be compensated for by placing the reed on the mouthpiece slightly off center, with the reed off center in the direction of the soft side; if the reed is softer on the left side, then the reed should be placed on the mouthpiece of center to the left. If you cannot determine which side is softer, try offsetting the reed in both directions and see in which position the reed plays better. Most reeds will not play best centered on the mouthpiece.

If the imbalance is more pronounced, try also offsetting the bottom (heel) of the reed in the opposite direction as the tip; if the tip is offset to the left, also offset the heel to the right. You can also try offsetting the heel and centering the tip. One of these positions will produce the best tone. Once the most desirable position for the reed is found, it is a good idea to mark the reed with arrows so you will know how to place that reed the next time you use it. I put an arrow pointing right or left at the bottom of the lay to indicate tip placement, and an arrow on the back of the reed to indicate heel placement. Your success with single reeds will improve dramatically once you are placing them correctly on the mouthpiece, and choosing wisely the reeds in which you will invest your time. While reeds are but one part of what is needed to produce a pleasant and characteristic tone, they are the sound source, and merit careful attention.

It All Starts With Expectations: What Teachers Do

2011Symposium_1_2If there is one thing a teacher must do it is this: expect change. We teachers are in the business of bringing about changes in our students; changes in their behaviors, attitudes, and proficiencies. Daily, we know this to be true, but the slowness with which change often takes place can easily make it difficult to see some changes taking place.  We become accustomed to certain behaviors from certain students. These include regularly making little attempt to be prepared, frequently giving attention to things other than your instruction, often not knowing what to do or showing little or no improvement at all. What change do we expect to find in students exhibiting these behaviors as we continue to teach them week after week?

It is natural to have high expectations for students who are nearly always on-task and show constant improvement, and low expectations for students who are not showing improvement. But we better serve all students if we have high expectations for each of them. We can and should expect that all of our students will do what we ask of them, that all of our students will practice what we teach at least long enough to do it right, and that all students will give their best effort along the way. In most cases, what we teach must include not only what we want them to learn, but also how they can most efficiently and effectively learn. The best teachers I’ve had made it clear what I needed to do in order to learn what they were teaching me. For example, in my college string methods class, double bassist Gary Karr taught us that lower notes required a slower bow speed, and higher notes required a faster bow speed. IfExpectations he just taught it like that, forgetful students like me would have easily confused this teaching, and wondered if slower bow speeds were for higher notes or lower notes. But the rhyme “the lower the slower” forever embedded it in my mind. The late Kalmen Opperman summarized how to play the clarinet with the refrain “push up, close off, and blow.” With this in mind, I had three points of reference to monitor as I practiced, checking my right thumb, embouchure, and breathing. All three had to be right, Other teachers had taught me breath management, but not the others. He also taught me to practice passages with different articulation patterns to achieve evenness. Other clarinet teachers simply told me to keep practicing. Left to my own devices with only “keep practicing” to go on, I made little progress. I needed to be taught what to do when I practiced before I could see my effort result in growth as a clarinet player.

In classes where I am teaching twenty or more students at a time, my students need to practice attentiveness before they can learn or practice anything. They must learn to look and listen, to ask questions as well as answer them, and learn to be a fully participating part of a class. I expect them to practice doing these things everyday, and to use these strategies to learn and practice the curricular content of the course they are in and that I am teaching. None of this happens instantly or even quickly. It will be a process, in some cases a long process of steady growth before the final expectation is met. But along the way, I expect that they will demonstrate growth in all of these areas. Some will not want to try, and that is one of the many great challenges of teaching. I must show them that it is worth their while to try, and to trust my confidence that they will succeed if they do. Every now and then success at something comes easily, but it is never so indefinitely. When someone fails to apply effort, someone else will eventually surpass their greatest achievement. Sooner or later, and sooner for most of us, success is bought with effort, and the greatest of successes is available for a high price in success. I expect all of my students to be college-ready when they finish high school, and I expect my work with students, who range in age from 3 to 13 years, to be an important segment of that preparation. Some days it doesn’t feel like any of that will happen with some of them, but it is on those days that expecting great things is most important.