Don’t Overload the Students

It is that time of year when summer clinics, sectionals and band camps begin. There is so much information to be given and so much hope for the success of the upcoming fall. It takes time to put together a winning product and it takes time to mold the students into the best version of themselves. When giving them warm-ups, music and basic fundamental thoughts, remember that our goal is to get 100% of the students to learn 100% of the information 100% of the time. In order to do that we must slow down and not be in such a hurry. The elaborate warm-ups and chorales are nice but if the thoughts running through their minds are not right, what will it sound like?

Start with one thought, and make sure that thought is learned by everyone.

At some point some of the information we give students will need to go on “autopilot” because there is simply too many things to think about. In order for things to become a habit the student must be taught exactly what to do, and each thought must be practiced over and over apart from the music. If it is how to expand when breathing, that single thought must be focused on apart from other thoughts. We cannot continue giving the students 10 things to think about while expecting them to play a difficult 8th note exercise perfectly. Have you ever tried to rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time? That is only 2 pieces of information and it is difficult to master. It takes time and organization. Help the students train their brain and be very organized with your thoughts so the students can master 1 step at a time.

It is not simply enough to give the students the correct information. The best educators give the information and then continue through the process with ensuring the student understands it and can master it. Many educators are not organized with their own thoughts and come into the situation without a clear vision of “what do I want my students to master and how do I make it happen?” Assuming students can do it without slow, organized methods usually leads to an ensemble doing many things but not mastering any. A “jack of all trades and a master of none.” Some educators think they hear the New York Philharmonic from their ensembles but in reality it is closer to the local middle school ensemble. Learn to hear what is really there! As we get ready to put together a fall marching show, take the time to break it down for the students. Don’t overload them with information. Each step should be mastered by 100% of them. Take it slow and organized.

A book recommendation that talks about this very thing is called Effortless Mastery. It is a short read and talks about when students begin to master things at a professional level, no matter how small, it breeds confidence and encouragement. Check out this short audio clip of me discussing this very topic with regards to breathing concepts.

 

Have you recently felt you are overloading your students?

Music on Purpose E003: Guest, Gary Schallert from WKU

Learning what's really important

Gary Schallert joins me on this podcast from Western Kentucky University. He is the Director of Bands at WKU and talks about the amount of passion needed to be a successful music educator. Gary discusses his career and the things he has learned that helped him be successful.

For information about Western Kentucky University, please visit www.wku.edu.

Improve Tone by Improving Thoughts

What Brass Players should be Thinking!

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.

Check out more information on the Brass Academy page if you are interested on this or other clinics for your high school brass musicians.

 

Educating through Marching Music

Thoughts on improving your musicians during marching season

I am thankful to have the opportunity to see many marching bands from the press box as an adjudicator and also as a consultant.  Sometimes there is a lack of meaning to the musical products and the way the performers are communicating the information. Why?  Should the marching band season be any different than any other time of year? Sure there is lots to do, really too much to do in the time allowed, but I am convinced many of us go at it all wrong.

When the word competition gets thrown into the mix our minds get crazy, our brains get muddled and we tend to do things that we think are helping but really are hurting. Its like playing high notes on a trumpet. Our brain tells us to tighten up, grip the instrument really hard and take a shallow breath. Those are all direct opposite to the things that we should do to be successful.  If we are not consciously grounded to the correct thoughts and information, we will not remember to do the things that are good for us, even though they don’t necessarily feel natural.

It is my belief that in order to be successful during the marching band season, the music has to mean something to our performers. The performers must understand the musical score and how their part works with other parts. What note of the chord are they playing and how does that note affect the overall sound, tuning and emotion of the total package? Who has the melody and what is the musical phrasing of that melody. What emotion are we trying to evoke out of our listeners through our beauty of phrase and tonal color?

Not only does the music need to mean something, but while we rehearse it we need to educate through it. It is so tempting to turn the metronome on with that loud irritating beat, and rep sections of the music over and over until both the director and performer become numb to what is being heard and played. The more hollow reps, the less the music starts to affect everyone involved. The sparkle gets lost and the beauty of the entire process is tainted.

The less time we spend repping marching band music, the better the marching band music will become.

Now that is a scary thought. Can you imagine? It is October, you have 3 competitions left and there is so much to do, and because of the competitive nature of the activity, or brains are driving us to do more reps and spend more time on the program. That is what feels natural, but I am suggesting to vary the time spent throughout the day to include other things that feed your students both musically, mentally and emotionally. Work on great repertoire with your students during the school day. Work on chamber music and listen to orchestral scores. Talk about chords and music theory and the way professionals play and articulate. Get your students thinking. Listen to originals of your marching arrangements and what professional players are doing to evoke emotion and work other musical pieces that help focus on these details. Work on chamber music and solo playing. Feed your starving students and through the education process you provide, everyone will get nourished.

Always think about the student musicians and what is best for them. It is easy for us to feel like doing more on the marching music will create better music, but for me, sometimes the more time I spend on something, the worse it gets. I can remember auditioning for the United States Marine Band and spending months on the same music. The audition did not go well for me, and from that experience I learned to spend less time on the actual music and more time learning and growing as a player and musician. When I auditioned for the United States “Pershing’s Own” Army Band, I made the finals and I am convinced it is because I spent less time focusing on the audition rep, and more time educating myself.

Does it scare you to spend less time on marching music during the competitive season? If so, why?

Staging Changes Everything

Making your marching music come alive!

So, you just completed two weeks of band camp, learned drill and music, and performed for the parents. Congratulations on completing this ever so exhausting task. As you move into the weeks following, how do you take this product and fine tune it to have the most impeccable balance, volume and musicality in this competitive activity?

You must now redo the music to what the staging presents.

What? I have to go back and rearrange things after spending so much time learning it at band camp? Yes! This art form known as the marching arts is just like a 600 piece jigsaw puzzle that you work with your grandmother. It is fun, takes concentration, but involves weeks to get it just right. If you learn your music inside, and learn your drill outside, then put the music together with the drill and it doesn’t quite sound right, there is a very good reason. The positioning on the field has everything to do with how you sound. If you have a really knowledgable drill writer, which hopefully you do, he/she will work hard to place your students in what they hope will be the best place to sound great, but most of the time it comes with inherent issues they do not know about.

For instance, drill writers do not know you have 4 baritones and 5 trumpets that are All-State players and can bury a band. They also most likely do not think deep enough musically in the score to know which notes of the chords need to speak to make the music come alive. Our drill writers are excellent at what they do, and I definitely would not want their job, but in order for us to achieve an amazingly balanced sound with chords that mean something emotionally and a sound that touches our audience, we have to adjust according to our staging on a very consistent and purposeful basis. Not only do we need to sound great, but the notes of the chords have to sparkle with resonance and beauty in order to have an emotional connection with our audience and adjudicators.

How does this work?

  1. Record your ensemble on a consistent basis, DAILY, and compare it to the original midi recording you received from the arranger. Does the outside recording sound like the midi? Do you get the same chord structure and homogeneous sound that you came to love in the initial recording of the music? Also, be critical when you are listening to the ensemble as if you are judging this product. How does it affect you?
  2. Understand that it is not as simple as telling folks to “play louder”. If you need more sound and you tell students to “play louder,” you will most likely get an overblown sound because your really great students are going too far, and your young students cannot play that big yet. Instead, through the recordings, listen to exactly what note of the chord needs to be adjusted, and address those people.
  3. Do not be afraid to change the dynamics. Maybe the dynamic suggests fff, but the form you are put in says fff for some of it, but then seems to make more sense as it moves to taper the dynamic. This wasn’t the initial plan for the music, but it can be adjusted depending on what we are given to work with, and the adjudicator most likely will never notice.
  4. Know your players and what ranges of the instruments sound best for those players. Do not ask your 8th and 9th grade baritones to play an F above the staff. At the same time do not have them play below an F in the staff. Know what ranges are going to sound good for all players and give everyone the chance to sound great. Are you not getting the volume you need in a specific area? Move notes around in the score depending on age of player and staging to achieve that resonance you are listening for.
  5. Give people new notes and musical lines depending where they are on the field. If the trumpets had the melody but somehow they get staged on the back hash, give it to the horns who are staged right up front. Also, if you are missing several notes of the chords because your mello section is split apart, give new notes to those who are in a better position. Keep working to rescore the music for the staging your are presented. If your baritones are in the back and the trumpets are in the front, and you wonder why you are getting a bright sound, do not settle for it, adjust accordingly. In some very severe cases, you may need a drill rewrite.
  6. Understand it takes time to get it right. If you first try something and it doesn’t work, keep trying. Just like the jigsaw puzzle, it takes time to get it just right. Just make sure you get it by the deadline!

If things do not sound good when the music gets put to drill, there is a very specific reason. It could be the drill is too difficult or it just needs to evolve for a bit. However, many times, about 70% of the time, it needs some sort of adjustment from the way it was initially learned and placed outside before it begins to sparkle.

Have you experienced this with your own ensemble?

Remove the Music!

Take some time to instill great thinking!

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.

Hearing What is Really There!

The students' growth vs. the actual sound

If we are in the business of music education, we are extremely passionate about our students and their success. If you are anything like me, ideas pop into your head consistently on new and exciting ways to help your students improve. It is exhilarating for us to see a student realize their potential through our training and their work ethic. The growth of a student and program is so important and exciting, but can this excitement cloud what we are really hearing?

As much as we like to think we hear what is actually there, most of the time we do not. Have you ever had a guest come in to work with your group and been awakened at that moment to reality? Probably at first you might have thought the guest was a bit harsh or picky, but then you say, “Oh my, he/she is right. I never heard that.” It is not that the guest knows more or is better, but he/she doesn’t know the growth of the ensemble. It is much easier for that person to hear reality because he/she never heard the beginning.

It is natural to have some bias toward our students. It is also natural to think what we are doing is great, especially if we are pouring our souls into our work everyday. The growth of a student and program is the most important thing and it is why we spend our lives educating. When a student/ensemble performs, the pride we feel as educators is off the charts. We see little Judy’s growth from 6th grade, and we see Johnny’s growth from moving from trumpet to tuba. We hear the program migrate from lack of musical skills to playing a beautiful phrase with better tones and intonation. We basically have a cloud of judgement no one else has that is listening to our ensemble. So, we take the group to an adjudicated event, and do not do as well as hoped. While the score is not the most important thing, and neither is the rated event, why did the group not do as well as hoped when we thought the group was great?

Here are some things you might consider doing to help see past the growth to reality.

  • Record the Ensemble

This is best done with a high quality mic and a good recording software or app.  I would recommend Rode record for the iPhone with a Zoom IQ7 mic. Listen back with headphones and you will be surprised what you hear that you most likely have never heard before. Also, let your students hear the recording for the same reason.

  • Invite professionals to listen to your ensemble

It is nice to get some feedback from folks who have never seen/heard your ensemble. You are not asking them to fix your ensemble, just let you know what they are hearing, and you decide what to adjust.

  • Listen to successful ensembles at the same level

How does your ensemble compare to what really successful ensembles at the same level are doing around the country. Constantly expose your ears to the best to cleanse yourself from what you hear daily.

  • Practice your instrument

Being excellent at your main instrument helps you give better advice. Being proficient at your instrument will help you expect more professional quality from your students. You can also demonstrate for your students what a professional sound, breath and articulation look and sound like.

  • Do some adjudication

Being able to adjudicate an event that has many different ensembles will help you hear what other ensembles are doing and help expose you to a comparison of your group to the world. It also helps you realize see more clearly the detailed criteria.

  • Be a constant learner

Never settle and always look for ways to improve. Talk with other great educators, read, watch and learn from professional musicians and be humble in the process.

Do you find yourself blinded by your students’ growth?

Excuses, Excuses!

What's holding your marching program back?

Each year music educators spend time reflecting and contemplating what went wrong in previous year’s competitive marching band shows and what can be done to make things better. This can be a very rewarding process but sometimes things get in the way. A professional trombonist friend of mine always used to say to me, “No excuses, just results.” This is so true in the reflection process. It’s not the ideas or reflection process that holds programs back, but rather the constant excuses.

Some of you might be asking, what do you mean?

Here are 5 common excuses that infiltrate the competitive marching season.

1. There is a problem with the judging panel!

Plain and simple, judges want to see programs succeed. While there may be a very small percentage of time where a specific judge may not be what you perceive as “the best”, or “qualified,” it isn’t the majority. A panel of 5-6 judges is put together for a specific reason and that is to give programs the best chance to have a fair and equal evaluation from many different angles. If one judge gives a program an ordinal of 2nd place and another gives the ordinal of 5th, does that mean the judge who gave 2nd is correct? Not necessarily. It means the program is somewhere in between. It could mean the judges were in different parts of the press box, and saw or heard things differently. It does not mean the judge who gave 5th is “out to get” a program. Really, there is no denying a program that is great, so if you do not want an ordinal of 2nd or 5th, just be better. Instead of looking at those placements as mean spirited, try to look at what your program can improve on as to not receive those placements in the future.

2. Our circuit doesn’t reward our type of shows

There are certain type of shows that fit certain circuits better because of the content of the adjudication sheets. Isn’t it the job of the directors and staff to pick a show that has music and effect according to the criteria in which the program is judged? Instead of using this excuse, reflect on why the show might not be doing as well as hoped, and make necessary changes that are guided by that circuits judging criteria. Study the sheets and present a program that guides the adjudicators through those sheets in a very organized manner.

3. We drew a bad spot at contests

This one does matter slightly, but again, being great is hard to deny. Trust that the adjudicator is competent in being able to recognize and reward greatness, and be amazing as the first band. It is when bands are in the “just ok” area that going first has a bigger impact. Make a statement with tone quality, musicianship, performance, confidence and appearance and programs will almost always get the credit they deserve.

4. Other schools’ shows are so much easier than ours

Placing blame on other programs and focusing on what someone else is or isn’t doing is a big mistake. If another program is doing better than yours, it is usually because that program is performing on a higher level. Whether it is perceived as easier or more difficult really doesn’t make that much difference. It is the performance quality of the material that the director has given their program. Sometimes, other programs might appear easier because they are performing it with such ease that it comes across effortlessly.

5. It’s political!

This is a very popular statement, and has some merit. However, being undeniable in what you are doing can trump any political stereotype. It just takes one or two unbelievable performances for any preconceived notions to be broken. It is hard to deny greatness. Is your program great?

Focusing on ourselves, being humble and working hard are the only things we can control. Wasting mental energy on anything else takes our focus off the main thing, which is high level music education. Try a whole season of no excuses and quite possibly you may see what is holding the program back.

Is there another excuse you have heard during the competitive marching season?

Well-trained vs. Well-rehearsed?

An insight into the differences

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?

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Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

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 thingMusic 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?

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