On this episode of Music on Purpose, Chris Coletti from the world famous Canadian Brass joins us to talk about his passion and success in performing at the highest level. It was such a pleasure to sit down with Chris and get his insights about what helped him get to the level to be able to perform around the world in the Canadian Brass.
All of us want better tone quality for ourselves or our students. Players and teachers are being judged constantly on the sound of their students or ensembles. Lets face it, TONE is the first thing people talk about after hearing someones playing. Its all about the sound! One can forgive some missed notes if the sound is amazing.
What is an easy way to see quick results?
That’s a trick question! There is no easy way. Everyone wants a quick fix. Just switch to this mouthpiece or change to this instrument. There are so many articles and posts about secrets to high notes and secrets to tonguing faster. There really is no substitue for individual time spent on the instrument, but while spending that time, students must know what to think about in order to improve their playing.
If there are no other thoughts running through the student’s brain when they are playing their instrument, they will sound like they always have sounded. Instead, we need to fill our minds with the thoughts and sounds of professional players that are playing and performing at the highest level. I consistently tell my students that the number one way to improve your sound is to intentionally listen to fantastic professional players. Why do we start talking with the same accent of the location we live? Why do we say certain phrases like our friends when we hang out together often? We just pick it up. More is caught than taught!
What are professional players thinking to play so well?
These are five thoughts that I use consistently and have gained from professionals including but not limited to Philip Collins, Dan Zehringer, Charles Decker, Kurt Dupuis and Winston Morris. I have taken their advice and formed my own thoughts to help young musicians improve what they are thinking when they are playing.
Clear – Simply put, thinking the word CLEAR. I like to offer the thought of a very still placid lake, early in the morning with out a single ripple, standing on the bank seeing to the bottom. With that single thought in mind, I have them play. Clarity is a simple thought more than an analytical approach to embouchure. (in most cases)
Centered – This is always tough to get because the center of the brass sound is small. I usually draw a bullseye and show the students what happens when you miss slightly above or below the bullseye. I challenge them to think about nailing the bullseye in their mind. Not only that, but the center to the sound has a slight “buzz” running through it. We start by playing with a big volume against a wall to hear the buzz or lack thereof. Then, closing the eyes, we think about nailing the bullseye and hearing the buzz.
Bright/Colorful – This one is particularly tough for low brass players. Low brass players are constantly thinking “dark”. While this is not a negative thought, generally the darker the colors the less resonance or ring the sound has. Instead, think about bright/primary colors like red, blue,yellow, etc. This thought can change a person’s sound almost immediately. I have heard students with airy, closed, dull sounds turn it around immediately by thinking about a brighter color. There is a time and a place for dark tones, but the majority of the time bright primary colors are the most resonant.
Resonance – If a student can nail clarity and centered they will most certainly gain the resonance. Resonance is the ring that stays with the sound. The more colorful, clear and centered a sound, the more resonance it will have.
Projection – This is the effortless thought of pushing your sound easily and quickly through the instrument and immediately affecting the listener. In order to get the sound to project, I have the students think about blowing the instrument away from them. We start the sound with a breath attack and think about the air blowing freely from inside the body to the listener across the room. If a student is accomplishing clarity, centered and bright/colorful, projection and resonance happen naturally. One should not force, but think about being in a constant state of relaxation.
Having correct thoughts of the end result is generally better than flooding a players mind with analytical embouchure thoughts. Sure, there are times this is necessary, but if a student has a good fundamental “setup” try changing their brain instead of their embouchure. These thoughts can transform an individual coupled with daily listening of professional players.
This is the time of year when directors and staff members are gearing up for a successful marching band season. There are so many pressing issues including beginning work on the brand new marching band arrangement. Plans have been made for for a competitive show and we are now ready to hit the ground running. When we get to camp, and place music in front of the students, what thoughts are running through their heads? Have we taken any time to give the students the right thoughts to play the music at a high level WITHOUT our hours of spoon feeding?
I think a good comparison is learning to drive a car. I would be skipping a step if I bought a new car for my daughter and turned her loose on the road without teaching her how to do it. She needs to have the right thoughts and decisions going through her mind when executing this skill. There is no way she could be successful without that training process. The same is true for music. The music is our car, and there is no way to be successful driving it without the right thoughts & decision making skills.
How do we do this, and when do we find the time?
One thing that I have started doing with schools is offering once per week brass clinic sessions in the summer. Sure, some people are on vacation or at camps, but each week there is an opportunity for students to come and learn as much as possible about playing like professionals. We cover topics such as breathing, tone production, tuning, articulation & dynamics, balance and how to be a great leader and teacher. Usually, when directors inquire about this they always ask if I have music to pass out to the students ahead of time. That is the LAST thing I want to do during this time of training.I want to take advantage of time to educate, and then put the thoughts into practice without “note” distractions.
When do the students get the opportunity to just think solely about the fundamentals of playing instead of the notes on the page? If I place music in front of them without their thoughts being correct, there is little to no chance the music will sound successful. It blows my mind when I work with students, and we take a 2 hour session to talk about breathing. Then, the very next sessions we talk about a characteristic tone, we set up to play a concert F, and the thought about breathing has completely gone out the window. Just by asking them to play one note, it caused them to now only think about that note and not the things that make the note successful. Can you imagine if they have a full page of new music?
We must make time to train the students how to think in order to be successful. By mid band camp, they have so many things to think about that if the right thoughts have not been instilled, they just do whatever they want. Eventually, if we teach them correct thinking, they will do it enough that it will begin to happen naturally.
Before beginning this marching season, take some time to educate without music. Help give your students the right thoughts to be able to drive their “vehicle” successfully.
Tri-State Ensembles is the only program in the Cincinnati area that focuses solely on the power through training in chamber ensembles. The mission of the program is to rehearse less and perform more, placing more personal responsibility on the student to prepare outside of rehearsals, like professionals. Each chamber ensemble plays at least one gig during the run of the program (which is 4 months).
The Advanced Jazz Combo recently performed at the Greenwhich Jazz Club in Cincinnati and this is a video clip of their performance. Check out Tri-State Ensembles website for more information as well as their Facebook and Twitter pages.
Can you tell the difference when listening to a student or an ensemble, or watching a winterguard that is well-trained vs. one that is well-rehearsed? Is there any difference in the end product?
Do the students get the same level of education with each philosophy?
When judging different events during the year, I always ask myself the question: “Is this group/student well-trained or well-rehearsed, or both?” There are many similarities but the differences are glaring to educators who have their philosophies wrapped up in the “main thing.” So, which one is right? Which one is the most beneficial for the student? Is one better than the other?
Well-rehearsed groups/musicians can play a piece of music very well and can perform and execute at a pretty high level. They have been rehearsing the music/routine for the performance for many months and “have it down” thanks to the instructor who has spent countless hours rehearsing them. They spend less time rehearsing basics and fundamentals and more time rehearsing pieces for performances. They go through the motions without thinking much as the rehearsals have become routine. The performance goes well, but not spectaular because of how performance based rehearsals were. When groups/musicians focus solely on being well-rehearsed, it puts more emphasis on the outcome instead of the experience. The performance can lack energy and emotion.
Well-trained groups/musicians spend more time learning basics and fundamentals and less time rehearsing pieces/routines. These groups/intructors spend more time discussing why and how the “what” operates instead of just the “what” itself. Each rehearsal is a new learning opportunity that keeps students engaged in the musical process placing emphasis solely on daily education instead of the final outcome. When groups/musicians focus solely on being well-trained, it puts less emphasis on the outcome and more on the experience. The audience in turn will feel more emotion and energy from these performances.
Is there a happy medium?
It is my belief the most beneficial option for the student is to be well-trained through expemplary teaching, and rehearse enough for the training to shine. Be confident in your ability as an educator and the students’ ability to learn and grow from what you have to offer. Try to put more responsibility on the student to take the education to the next level on their own, coupled with interactive, motivational, intentional and thoughtful education from YOU the educator.
Do you have thoughts about well-trained vs. well-rehearsed?
Why do we educate young musicians? What is the philosophy behind our daily routine? I think so often we meander down the same hallway or drive the same drive to work stuck in a rut that is driven by habit instead of intention. Why are we actually doing what we are doing and how is it benefiting our students. . . .and us?
We have the same schedules, the same concerts and the same educational experiences everyday which in turn can drive us to be complacent and bored. If we as educators become bored and tired then most certainly the student will reflect the same feelings. I think we can become stale and sterile in our techniques and offerings without even knowing it. Life gets in the way. We get busy and pushing the limits educationally takes time, mental energy and further education. Then we think these thoughts to ourselves . . . .”I wish I had a better studio,” ” I wish I had more students,” “I wish I had a more successful band program,” etc. Well, there is a way but doing things the same way over and over and expecting different results is the actual definition of INSANITY.
It can be scary to think that if we spend less time working on concert literature and offer more varying musical experiences, our students will actually be more proficient at the concert literature. Let me try to explain.
For example: Most band directors rehearse their band music over and over and also add after school rehearsals because they cannot quite get the music learned in the time alotted during the school day. The problem is not the time, its the engagement of the student. Because the student is bored with the same thing over and over, they are engaged less than 50% of the time they are in rehearsals. Because of this, it takes 50% more rehearsal time and drives the director crazy to get things accomplished. The same can be true for private lesson instructors. Because of the recitals and exams, teachers feel pressure to teach for the test and the student becomes bored and lacks enjoyment practicing the material. Adding varying experiences to your daily educational routine will provide more enjoyment, more variety and keep the brain engaged and growing. The concert material will improve faster by spending less time working on THAT specific material. That is hard to believe I know. . . .but it’s true!
What are the varying experiences?
They are different for each instructor and each situation but it could look like the following:
1. Creating a chamber ensemble program that thrives and works as consistently as the actual band. These experiences can happen certain days of the week during the band class to break up the “same old” band rehearsal, and to provide new sight-reading experiences and enasembles without conductors.
2. Implement improvisation into private lessons and/or music class. It doesn’t neccessarily mean jazz improvisation, but getting the student to be more creative and learn to bring the passion and musicality out without being “stuck” behind the page. Let them learn the fun and excitememt from creating their own musical product.
3. Bring professional players in to work with your students. Do not be afraid of not knowing everything, or not be able to provide your students with everything. Showing humility and knowing weaknesses will help strengthen the core program by filling those voids. One cannot be expected to be proficient on every instrument. As a music educator, give your kids the opportunity to learn from the best players that are actively doing it on a daily basis. Have those players work with your chamber ensembles, do masterclasses and get students excited about the possibilities on their instrument.
4. Take field trips to hear professional concerts. Get your students excited about all different kinds of music. Talk to them about the experiences and why you feel the importance of each trip. What are you trying to gain by the experience?
5. Perform more often and more music with less rehearsal. Make the students (and the educator for that matter) feel a bit uncomfortable with the lack of “spoon-feeding” and put the responsibility on the student to do well because of their individual responsibility.
6. Take a day out of class for a performance day. Have students prepare solos, or bring in a CD they love and let them talk to the class about what they love about it and the history of it.
Think outside the box. Enjoy the daily education with your students and the possibilities are endless.
These are just a few experiences but each requires just a bit more thought. Each requires the educator to take a different daily route, to self educate and be more prepared.
Do you have another experience that might be great to implement as a music educator?
This is the time of year when music educators start getting stressed about upcoming performances and marching band competitions and rehearsals get a bit chaotic and stressful. As these performances draw closer, let’s remember the phrase author Stephen Covey made popular in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Keep the main thing the main thing. Music Education!
We are in the business of training young musicians to be intentional about their music making. We are also in the business of instructing young musicians to be proactive with their thought process in their individual practice and in group settings. If we are attempting to be successful in our upcoming engagements our rehearsals should be even more focused on the main thing which is educational thoughts and training young minds to engage.
Being more intentional about spending daily time teaching fundamentals, technique, tone production, articulation, etc. will actually help the overall product be more successful without spending time on the actual product itself. Its scary, however. It is our nature to get stressed and feel pressure to make sure the product is perfect for an upcoming performance. What we end up doing is trying to think for the students, which makes them engage even less. Why do they need to think when someone else is doing it for them.
Keep the main thing the main thing.
What is the main thing? We are in the business of helping young musicians be the best versions of themselves. Plain and simple. The challenge is making sure we are continuing down the road of education and thoughtful intent instead of rote teaching out of fear that the students will not acheive what we are asking in time to be successful.
I have heard many times from music educators that they start out with great fundamental training, especially in the marching arts, but as the season progresses they just do not have time to work on the fundamentals of playing any longer. It seems logical, and I have certainly fallen into this trap in the past. If you move away from educational thoughts regarding fundamental playing and breathing what are students thinking about while playing? Probably nothing. The harder the season gets, the more relaxed approach and educational thoughts young musicians need. If young players have thoughts of intent always on the front of their brain, we will not need to rote teach as much.
The harder it gets, and the closer those big shows get, take more time to keep the main thing the main thing. Keep giving your young musicians daily vitamins to keep them healthy! Keep them on the path to success through intentional educational thoughts pushing them to be a more advanced version of themselves. The results will be beyond your wildest dream.
Do you find it difficult to find time for the main thing when important performances are approaching?
We all want our ensembles to play better “in-tune.” We spend countless hours rehearsing and waving a tuner in front of our students trying to get that perfect pitch on a concert F or Bb. Why isn’t it working?
When students tune on a tuner, why do they still sound out of tune?
Here are 3 common problems I have encountered when spending time with different band programs.
1. The one note tuning process
This is probably the most common mistake. Directors walk around with a tuner and say to each student “you’re sharp – pull out” or “you’re flat – push in.” What are we attempting to do with this process? It takes so much time and all to get one note to sound better. Instead, spend time helping students find the center of the characteristic tone with adjectives they can relate to and thoughts they can have in their head to achieve a more centered sound. Before going to the tuner, the first step should be getting a characteristic tone. You cannot tune a tone that is flat or sharp. If you try to do this, you will have a bad sound that registers in tune on the tuner, but will never resonate or project, and will always sound out of tune. The tuner should be a reference point after the tone is improved to make sure the student’s tuning slide is somewhat in the right position. A student can be “in-tune” on the tuner but still be sounding out of tune. Spend more time educating students on some helpful thoughts they can have going through their head to get to the core center, as well as teaching note and chord tendencies. I like to use: clear, centered, colorful, resonant and projection when teaching students to improve their tone and intonation. I ask them to think of certain colors to get to the center of the sound. They should also be listening to professional players to have a sound other than their own in their head.
2. Listen to your neighbor
In a world where your high school players are all playing at a professional level, this is a great thought, and the students should listen and blend, but what if their neighbor is -20 flat? What if the two people next to them have less than perfect tone qualities? When tuning each person, focus first on his/her best characteristic tone, without going to the tuner. I am certainly not saying this is not warranted, but the individual tone should be the biggest concern, and some very specific educational thoughts should be going through the young musicians heads before simply “listening to their neighbor”. When is this helpful? As the tone improves and as the ensemble matures but not as a complete means to get an ensemble “in-tune.” Instead of listening to just the neighbor, try to educate the students to focus more on listening to the way the notes fit in the chord and teaching the tendencies of the way notes respond both in the chord and with the specific instruments. Hear the waves of the way notes respond across the section/ensemble. Try having them listen to other individuals in the ensemble, and asking specific questions related to tone and pitch. Each question posed to your ensemble will help them think, and using others as an example can be helpful to all. Be a great player and play for your students. Sometimes just hearing it can produce amazing results. Students should always be aware of every musician around them, but not wrapped up in only their neighbor.
3. Tuning on the zero
I have found that most young musicians play flat. Simply put, the embouchures and air quality of younger players are not developed enough to produce a tone that is consistently in tune. Even when students are taken outside into the warm weather in the summer months, the sound of the band sounds flat even though the pitch rises. This is again because of the lack of focus and attention on a centered tone. The colors of instruments lie just above the zero on the tuner. It is more offensive to play under the pitch on the flat side, than missing just on the sharp side. When tuning try giving the student a bigger room to tune. I like to tune students somewhere in between the zero and +10 on the tuner. Beautiful bright colors will begin to resonate in the students tone (assuming they are first playing with a beautiful characteristic tone).
The philosophy that drives these suggestions is very detailed music education. I believe very strongly to work for higher level thoughts for young students. They are waiting for education that explains the WHY and the HOW of things. We mistakenly commonly say other phrases like “faster air” or “fill up” or “play to the crowd” without telling them HOW to do it. Think about how these phrases might sound to a young student who knows very little about music? HOW do you make your air faster? HOW do you fill up?
In your education have you heard or used these phrases? What higher level thoughts do you use in your own playing or teaching?
It is safe to say that most if not all music educators want to be successful and have successful students. There are so many things that drive our schedules and our methods that we can become easily distracted. Marching Band competitions, rating festivals, student progress tests, band festivals, recitals, and the list goes on and on. In the midst of preparing for these events are we leaving time to educate?
I am convinced that in order for a student to be successful they need to be passionate and have a teacher that is driven by educating, motivating and fostering that passionate student to be the best version of him or herself. All students are different and the needs vary from person to person. In order to get down to helping one succeed we need to understand that students are not numbers but real people with real needs.
Yes, there are certain standards and certain knowledge that we should strive to make sure students know and understand. I am certainly not saying we should not teach what is necessary, but I am asking the question, “Do we teach what the student needs, or to a list we have been fed through music school?” Does a young piano student that has an ability to compose and improvise need to spend most of their time learning Beethoven Sonatas? Yes, that is relevant and Beethoven’s place in music history is very important, but what will help evolve this student and build into his or her creative being?
Take time to care and take time to educate.
It is as simple as that. Care about the people you are working with and educate them with information and a process that will stir up a crazy amount of passion.
Why do we teach to the test? Why are we so concerned about our “end of the process” assessment? Does it have more to do with us than our students. We sometimes don’t like these hard questions. Change is hard and it requires us to look at ourselves and swallow our pride.
Here is the thing. I am 100% convinced that if we take time to educate, take time to care and place emphasis on training young musicians that have thoughts running through their head when performing and practicing, we won’t need to worry about the test. That will take care of itself. The reason we are so concerned about the test is because we are trying to create some sort of magic or wizardry with our students when they haven’t been trained, motivated or educated to the fullest. We take time to worry about the overall product without taking time to develop the individual.
Take time to learn about the students. Do you know what drives them, what they like to do in their spare time and when their birthday is? People that feel important and included are more likely to enjoy the process and be open to the information presented to them. Help students build great character and foster their passions and abilities while giving them the necessary information.
Have you had a passionate, motivational teacher that made a difference in your life?
Recently two schools in Kentucky celebrated the power and educational benefits of students learning in a chamber ensemble setting. Dixie Heights High School and Madison Central High School have taken the leap to implement professional, organized and weekly chamber music programs. I have been excited to help both schools implement these programs into their daily curriculum. All ensembles performed without a conductor and with only 1 hour per week rehearsal time. Rehearsing less puts more personal responsibility on the students to prepare outside of class and motivates the student to learn the importance of professional practice and preparation. They take pride in their ensembles and learn to communicate non verbally tempo, musicality and how their part fits into the overall big picture of the ensemble.
If you are interested in building a chamber music program into your school music program, please visit my chamber ensemble page for more information. There are many possibilities available and the educational benefits for your program will be invaluable.