Mar 03

Duke’s Guide For Practicing

“Reduce the effort whenever possible. The use of force is the opposite of awareness; learning does not take place when we are straining. The principle should not be no pain, no gain. Rather, it should be if strain, no gain. ”

– From Norman Doidge’s “The Brain’s Way of Healing” on core principles of the Feldenkrais Method

There is nothing more fundamentally important to learning and performing music than this idea. Yet, when presented with something that we perceive as difficult we tend to bear down and try harder, even when it physically hurts and there is no improvement.

Nothing in music is difficult. Your effort makes it feel difficult and interferes with your learning.  There is no it.  There is only you.

Here are some suggestions to help make your practice effective and reduce strain:

  1. If you are struggling or feeling frustrated with your playing, pause and take a breath. Be grateful for your errors. Your ability to recognize them tells you what you need to learn. Let your errors be your teacher.
  2. Play it the way you play it, without trying to be better than what you are at the moment. This will expose your errors.  Otherwise, you will cover up what you need to learn.  Practicing is not the same as performing.  Don’t practice when you perform, and don’t perform when you practice.
  3. Slow down. Slow WAY down, until you feel yourself relaxing, one-half to one-quarter of the marked tempo. You have a choice; you can practice slow and learn fast, or practice fast and learn slow. You get to choose.
  4. Notice if your hands are soft. If your hands are tense or straining, then the rest of your body is tense and straining, and you are not learning.
  5. Play at an MP or MF dynamic with an easy breath, bow, or hand action. Then when you get comfortable, learn to play at louder and softer dynamics.
  6. Analyze phrases to simply your thinking, such as recognizing an arpeggio or a common rhythm.  A clear mind thinks simply.
  7. Improvise with a few of the notes from a phrase.  This helps develop and clarify your imagination.
  8. Break the music into small motifs or phrases.  Bite size, chew slowly.
  9. Sing the music or your improvisation slowly, in tune, and in time.  Nothing exposes your image of the music more than your own voice.  Clarifying your image, will clarify your playing.
  10. Play the phrases or tune in twelve keys.  That way you will know if you are playing mechanically or if you are using your imagination.
  11. Without your instrument, imagine the music, slowly.  Notice if there are moments when you tense up, even when imagining. Notice if your breath, jaw, and eyes are soft and relaxed.  A restricted breath, tight jaw, and/or bunched eyebrows are sure signs of effort and confusion. Practice imagining your music in a relaxed manner.
  12. After you get comfortable with playing slowly, play lightly and quickly. We organize ourselves differently when we play quickly from when we play slowly. But, not fast – play light and quick.  When we think “fast” we tighten. When we think “light and quick” we stay loose. Try this with #4, 7, 8, and 11 from above.

Your performance reflects how you practice. Take your time. In your own way and with curiosity, figure out the things in your playing that you want but are unfamiliar. Then you will treasure your practice, reduce your effort, and come to own your music.

® 2015, Steve Duke

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Feb 14

Free Your Breath

How you use your air is key to controlling the sound of a wind instrument. Yet, most players restrict their air without realizing it.

Try this.

Without the instrument, take a big breath and let it go. A lung-full of air takes less than a ½ second to exhale, without pushing. The connective tissue, know as the fascia, and letting go of the muscles used to inhale will move 80% of your air without doing anything. Just let it go. If it takes longer than ½ second, you are probably restricting your breath by holding back your air, restricting your throat, or making a small opening with your embouchure. An unrestricted exhalation also sounds soft without making a “fff” or “hhhaa” sound.

Now do the same on your horn. Let out a lung-full of air through your instrument without making a tone. See if you can move the air through your mouthpiece without letting the air escape out the sides of your mouth. You should be able to release a lungful of air in one second or less.

There is no need to push the air out. You simply release the air. See if you can reduce the amount of time it takes to empty your lungs with least air sound as possible. You do this by relaxing your throat, tongue, jaw, and embouchure.

This moves much more air than you will normally use with playing at your loudest level. You tone will become more resonant and you will reduce tension in your playing.

This is a great routine to add to your warm up, and it only takes a couple of minutes.

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Jan 30

Balancing Your Key Action

Adjusting the springs so that the tension is the same for all keys is a simple and easy way to improve you finger technique. Using your index finger, slowly and gently lower each key, including the side keys and spatula keys. Determine which key has the tension you like, then adjust the springs to the other keys to match that key. I prefer a lighter touch, but strong enough so that the keys to not bounce then they open. You might want to have your instrument repairman set the spring tension. This will help avoid breaking a spring, and the springs will probably hold their tension setting longer.



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Jan 22

The Problem of Correctness and Artistry

When we first learn music, we figure out how to hold the instrument, how to make a tone, etc. Then, we figure out things like correct notes and rhythms. As our playing develops we correct more specific things like intonation, articulation, vibrato, and harmony, which form basic skills and musicianship.

But, at what point do we consider how we feel? For many, that moment never happens. We get caught up in a never-ending quest for more and more correctness and do not develop trust for our feelings. Always comparing our playing to an external reference – something “out there” and not “from here”.

Playing what you think you should for the sake of correctness does not allow for spontaneity or subjective perspective, essential qualities of artistry. There is no correct rhythm, tone, or harmony, but there are many interesting subtleties of rhythms, tones, and harmonies. While artistry requires skill and discipline, ultimately it is not about what is right. It is about what you feel is appropriate.

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Jan 15

How To Determine “Good” Technique

Technique is a simple question. Do you do what you intend? Yes or no. But, given the number of styles, genres, schools, and models, how can you objectively evaluate your technique?

Most sound has four elements – pitch, tone, volume, and duration. You can create technical exercises by changing one of the elements and notice if the others remain the same. For example, you can play an arpeggio using whole notes, tapering each note down to nothing. The pitch (within each note), the tone, and the duration should remain the same, only the volume of the note changes. If the other elements change, you are not doing what you intend. As you taper each note, the pitch might get sharper or the tone might switch to a sub-tone? Can you taper a note without changing the pitch or tone?

These elements can be used to objectively evaluate your technique, regardless of style or genre. You also can add the use of recorders, tuners, and metronomes to check to see if you are hearing things accurately.

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Jan 08

Use Your Imagination

Imagination is the most powerful tool you have to improve your playing.

Before you play, imagine the sound you want – the attack, the release, the tone, rhythm, etc. Then simply play that sound. Without reacting or judging, decide what you would change in the sound. Imagine what you want and play again. Keep repeating this and you will find that your playing automatically gets closer and closer to the imagined sound.

Notice if you imagine the sensation of playing or if you think of what you would change in your technique. Let that go and return to simply imagining the sound you want. Play the imagined sound without focusing on how to play. Just produce the sound.

Your imagination is a very powerful way to learn things. It also is the most efficient and clearest way to play.

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Jan 02

Realizing How To Play

Music performance is realized and not trained through mindless drilling.  We practice in order to have those “ah ha” moments. After that, things seem much clearer, although it comes and goes for a while.

This is our learning process, which is rather complex and nonlinear.  What ever helps us realize what to understand is valid, and often does not involve practicing our instrument.  It may include analysis, singing, imagining, or working on our general awareness.  It still requires investing time and energy. But, in the end, it is all about what makes things clear.

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Mar 31

Shed Your Slow 5-2’s

Finger technique is important. We diligently practice eighth-note and sixteenth-note patterns over ii-V-I progressions, chromatic substitutions, and non-diatonic tonalities. It is not unusual to hear sixteenth-note lines at a quartet-note = 200, faster than Charlie Parker and John Coltrane played, faster than at any time in the history of the saxophone.

But, great players also develop a slower, lyrical voice. The melodies of ballads are good examples of how a few notes can be musically powerful. Stella By Starlight and Alone Together have only 4-5 notes in a two-measure phrase.

To develop your lyrical skills, try this. Improvise on a ballad using no more than 5 notes over a two-measure phrase. You might start with playing just one or two notes. Notice how comfortable you feel when you play so few notes and if your solo sounds meaningful. Notice the nuance of each note and your rhythmic feel.

So, while you are shedding your fast ii-V’s, remember also to shed your slow 5-2’s.

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Mar 17

The Better You Sing It, The Better You Play It

We practice many hours learning how to control our instrument. But, we may not accurately hear what we are doing. A good way to tell is to sing what you play. Our voice reveals what we hear and what we do not hear. You do not have to be a trained singer to sing in tune.

Slowly sing your improvisation or melody.

Is your pitch accurate? Do you sing in tune? Can you clearly imagine the pitch before you sing it? Are you relaxed when you sing? Do you sing with musical nuance, or do you sing like you are taking an aural skills test?

The ease in your voice reflects the clarity of your imagination: the easier, the better. Singing in tune, in time, and with musical nuance transfers to your playing. So, the better you sing it, the better you play it.

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Feb 25

Play it the way you say it

One of the main reasons we choose to play certain tunes is because we like the melody. Yet, we often overlook how to phrase the melody, and just “play the ink” or copy the phrasing of a recording by rote. But, how do you phrase a melody in a personal and meaningful way?

The key to phrasing a melody is revealed by the lyrics. The lyrics are the story of the song. They indicate the mood and tempo. In many songs the lyrics are written first, and the music is composed to reflect the meaning of the words.

Try this. Speak the words of a song as you would in a conversation, without singing the pitches or the rhythms. Notice the rhythm and cadence of your voice. That is the beginning of learning how to phrase a melody.  Play it the way you say it.

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