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.


Questioning the System

Five different ways to deliver daily material

Is there a better way? Is there a more effective way? That is probably a better way to phrase this question. Lets think about the public and a large amount of private school systems for a moment. Students are asked to get out of bed before it is light outside, be shuffled into a large building with sometimes very few windows, move quickly from subject to subject, eat foods that are not healthy, be given multiple hours for little work, and then given hours of homework for the student to complete during their time with family. It seems like there might be a better way to me.

What about band programs within these schools?

Students come to class, sit in a large ensemble with many other students, and rehearse the same pieces of music everyday of the week in very short classes. They have so many chances to “zone out” and mentally disappear because of being shuffled around all day and doing the same routine every day.  The teacher can be the best music educator in the world, but because of the way the scenario is being presented, the student perceives the experience as dull and unrewarding. Its like a waiter at a nice restaurant presenting a filet mignon on a garbage can lid. The meat is excellent, but the way it is presented makes it unappealing. By rehearsing the same things without varying opportunities, the student loses interest. If we as educators pinpoint exactly what we want the student to learn on a given day, and plan the most effective way to get that information across, the student will enjoy learning. It sounds simple yet many miss out on this! Most rehearse the same 3 pieces of music everyday with preparing for a concert as their focus. The students are only learning those 3 pieces. What is the lesson each day and the educational benefit of each class? Is their any planning going into the daily needs of those students? What is the benefit of preparing for the concert? If given the opportunity to zone out, the student will. If given multiple opportunities to get things wrong, they will.

By no means am I writing this to try to completely change the system of our public and private school education, because I know that is not possible. Just ask Jamie Oliver about that! But, I believe it is time to question it and attempt to do things differently in each subject area. As times change, so do the students. We are not the same as our parents, and our parents are not the same as their parents. We must evolve and help the students be the very best version of him or herself, whatever that takes. We as educators must revamp our classes within the system.

So, is there a different way? Are there things that we can do in our band programs to engage the student musician and see faster results? Here are five ideas that might just be possible and rewarding for your students.

  1. Look for ways to vary the material and experience for the students. If we rehearse the same material 5 days a week, the students will not look forward to learning and we will lose our students. Not only that but how is this teaching our students to take more personal responsibility on their own part and fostering their sight-reading ability?
  2. Is the large band on a daily basis the best way? I understand the excuses as I hear them often. We do not have any money, we do not have the time. We do not have the space. When students rehearse in a large ensemble, sometimes 60-70 in class, there is no way each student can be reached and fostered. Is there a way to plan, choreograph, initiate and implement small groups within the daily band experience? Giving the student just this one large group experience everyday of the week is limiting the growth of the program.
  3. The lost art of solo playing. In some programs, the only time that students get to play a solo is if they are auditioning for All-State band. Every student should be given the opportunity to work on, perform and create music from within themselves in a solo form. Not only this, but if the solo calls for piano accompaniment, the student should be given the opportunity to play with the accompaniment, live or with a program like “smart music.”
  4. Time to compose. One of the national music standards is to compose and learn the art of creation. Does this mean that every student is going to be a professional composer? Of course not, however we should give them the chance to understand there is so much to create and love in music. From the very beginning we place music in front of the student and tell them to play what is on the page. For many, this hurts their confidence and places rules and regulations on their playing without ever experiencing the freedom to create and fall in love with their own artistic freedom.
  5. Time to listen. Do we incorporate time for our students to listen to all different genres of music, and be reflective together. This could even be combined with the composition aspect. Show the students you are in touch with the music they love and listen to, and come up with exercises to educate them by utilizing material they can relate to. Be relatable.

Is there room for growth in your band program? Maybe you stumbled across this post as an English or Math teacher and you are looking to change things in your education and daily routine. I would love to hear ways you are revamping or questioning the way things have been done for years.

Are you making a daily impact on your students? If so, how?


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?

Tri-State Ensembles Advanced Jazz Combo

Live at the Greenwhich

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.

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?

How are Music Programs Defining Success?

We as music educators love the time of year when district auditions, all-state auditions, honor band/orchestra auditions and solo and ensemble festivals happen. It is a time to socialize with other educators and watch the students grow from each varying musical opportunity, right? Well, not exactly. While networking and education are important, it seems the main importance are the numbers! The number of “ones” or “golds” on solo & ensemble, or the number of kids that auditioned and made all-state. The number of students that auditioned for district band or the number of students that made the “top group.” The list goes on and on.

I have seen this taken to the extreme with emails circulating comparing the different schools in an area with how many students auditioned and made different groups. Directors give young musicians “days off” of class to have individual practice days to work on the audition material. They have each student play privately for them after school (when this would have never happened otherwise) and even make  their own ensemble audition material  the same music. Many students are convinced and coerced to audition to “help” the numbers. I have seen legal pads with names written on the page with check marks as a way to keep track with how many students are auditioning or participating. It all seems like too much energy spent on things of little importance.

What if the same energy was spent on educating students about the high level extra curricular programs in the area, or convincing or coercing students to sign up for a field trip to the symphony or to hear a masterclass by a professional musician.

Do the amount of students that make all-state define a program or director’s success?

Sadly, I believe for many it does. It is a way that a director can appear a really great educator on the surface. Music programs appear successful and thriving from students auditioing. Students making all-state or district programs doesnt say much about the music program, however. While the student, director, private lesson instructors and parents should be congratulated, these things do not define success for music education in that program. It is one audition or test.

What is a better way to define success?

That is a great question.

  • The students’ ability to sight-read and understand music on a deeper level by knowing basic music theory and aural techniques.
  • The students’ ability to feel and create emotion from music through advanced phrasing and shaping.
  • Creating and fostering a love of music education in students through deep thought about daily educational experiences provided.
  • The students’ awareness of what steps to take to be more like professional musicians.
  • Students playing and performing regularly a wide variety of music in varying size ensembles.
  • Giving students opportunities to perform solos and ensembles without a conductor.
  • Giving students practical information that can be applied both now and in the future. Caring less about the test and more about the process. Schools do the same thing when comparing standardized test scores from school to school. Is that one test a definition of succcess for that school?

I am not saying that auditioning for these programs is not a good thing, and I am certainly not saying that directors who ask students to audition for these programs are doing the wrong thing. I am simply saying that there is a problem with how some music programs are defining success if it is based on numbers involved in these programs. Students should be presented the opportunities, and then should be able to make their own decision about auditioning or participating. We should care more about the process and less about the “test.” Instead of sending emails about numbers, maybe send emails inviting other educators to come check out a chamber ensemble concert or come to one of your many performances. Or send an email or newsletter discussing different educational methods and asking for ideas from others. It will soon be evident through observation what program/director is most successful.

How do you define success in your music program?