The Ergonomically Correct Pianist

March 19, 2016

by Ashley Pontiff

Instructor of piano, flute, and voice at The Lesson Studio

An ergonomically correct pianist = a happy, healthy, exquisite performer!

 

Natural Mechanics: The Piano and the Human Body

By understanding how the natural mechanics of the human body work, and aligning our natural mechanics with the natural mechanics of how the piano is made to respond, we can attune to more precise performance techniques. These precise performance techniques can be applied to every genre of music and help bring out the nuances that only natural playing can, as well as prevent injury caused by improper use and unnatural movements. Just like athletes, musicians must maintain their health and do everything in their power to prevent injuries if they are to excel and be successful. Unlike most athletes, the motion musicians use to play is largely repetitive. Repetitive motion can put strain on your joints, ligaments, and tendons. The only way to combat the weakening of joints and tendons is to utilize numerous muscles, tendons, and ligaments (particularly stronger, larger ones) as your mechanics for playing as opposed to isolating smaller ones.

 

Dorothy Taubin was a piano teacher who revolutionized piano technique by studying human body and piano mechanics, and aligning a piano technique that utilizes both in its most natural and ergonomic form. When playing a single note on the piano, the action should come from the forearm, and not the isolated finger. The action built in to the piano, should serve as a springboard to lift the arm and hand back up after playing. The more lift you have before you play, the greater the spring from the keys you will obtain. If there is no initial lift, there is no spring. Think of jumping on a trampoline. The higher you jump up initially, the bigger the bounce you will get in return.

 

As an experiment, try playing one note repetitively for 1 minute by isolating the single finger from the other fingers when playing. Which muscles, ligaments, or tendons are being used when you isolate one finger from the rest? How tired or sore do your finger, hand, and wrist become? They probably become pretty sore and tired, or will eventually. Then, try playing one note repetitively for 1 minute by using the forearm muscles to gently lift and lower your wrist, hand, and finger to play the note. Use the spring from the piano to bounce the arm back up as you prepare to play again. Notice that now you are using more muscles, ligaments, and tendons and the action is being distributed across more areas of your arm and hand than in the first trial where you isolated only one finger. Also, by allowing your arm, wrist, hand, and finger to work together, the piano’s natural mechanics (springboard action) are being utilized and are now doing some of the work for you. With this technique, you are no longer pulling or lifting to bring your finger and arm upwards. Once you initiate the first preparatory lift, gravity does the work in allowing you to play the note, and the piano action does the work in spring boarding your arm, hand, and finger back up out of the keys. By allowing your arm, wrist, hand, and finger to work together in one fluid motion, the workload is distributed to various muscles, ligaments, and tendons in order to accomplish a task. By learning this technique, your body is now operating naturally and in sync with how it was designed.

 

Creating Balance at the Piano:

Creating balance at the piano begins with how we sit at the piano. We must make sure we are well balanced and feel comfortable and relaxed in our seated position. If we are not balanced, muscles, tendons, and ligaments tighten in order to hold us in a balanced state, and can create tension in our arms, wrists, fingers, neck, shoulders and other parts of the body. This tension does not allow for free, relaxed movement nor proper natural playing technique. A student that is unbalanced at the piano has to “hold on” somehow. For example, a student whose feet do not reach the floor must hold at the point where they can make contact. So, students in this situation brace their feet against the face of an upright piano and hold on with their fingers to the keys. They often start to lean back to balance themselves on the bench because their arms are extended forward over the keys. This is a very tense, uncomfortable way to sit and injury can result from making the body do something against its own natural mechanics for an extended period of time. We must be stable in order to play without tense muscles. All the involuntary stress that unbalanced playing puts on the body causes mental fatigue, excessive strain on the body, and less than desired musical sound.

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A Few Quick Tips For Creating a Well-Balanced Seated Position at the Piano:

How do I know if my bench is too LOW or too HIGH for me when sitting at the piano?

-Elbows Align with Keys √

 

When seated upright at the piano, your arms should be able to hang relaxed without raised shoulders, and the point at which your elbow naturally lies (when hands are placed on the keys of the piano) should align with the tops of the keys. Wrists should not be bent upwards or downwards from your arm and fingers should be at a natural curve downward toward the keys. To correct this alignment, adjust the bench up or down so that your elbows align with the tops of the keys.

**If a bench is not adjustable, or does not go high enough to achieve this alignment, place sturdy foam garden kneeling pads, books that won’t slide, or carpet squares on the bench in order to raise the seat.

 

What if my feet don’t touch the floor?

-Use a Stool or Propped Up Books √

 

Feet should be firmly planted on the ground to maintain balance. If a student’s feet do not touch the floor, use a stool or prop up books underneath their feet to raise the ground level, so that they feel balanced and stable at the piano. Once this adjustment is made, make sure that the bench is not too far forward causing the student to lean back.

Follow these Ergonomic tips and you’ll soon be on your way to being a happy, healthy, exquisite performer!

 

For more information regarding the Dorothy Taubin Technique, natural playing, and photos explaining proper seated positions, read “The Well-Balanced Pianist” at

http://www.wellbalancedpianist.com/bptaubman.htm

 

How will YOU speak through music?

March 12, 2016

By Eric Siegel

Practice, for some, can be harder than playing the instrument itself. Practice is easy when we start simple. Just about everything in music can be broken down into fundamental but little bits that need to be committed to memory. When you confidently know the note names, note values, each fingering, etc., you find that you won’t just be playing the music – you’ll be reading it, too! When you can read music, your vocabulary and ability will increase to intermediate concepts like phrasing, dynamics, and tempo/rhythm change. With enough retention, you might even forget that you’re reading the music at that point. You’ll be back to playing it, but with emotion and a more mature sound. Music really becomes a language.

Is it how much you practice that will make you better? No!!! Practice isn’t always how long you play your instrument. Practice is taking what is learned in lessons and applying that knowledge to your time playing your instrument before meeting again. In a world attached to busy and ever-changing schedules and so many people and things to take responsibility of, take 15-30 minutes of your day to get better at even just one aspect of your playing. Then, commit that to memory. Another day, another dollar.

Air is free, so breathe it all in – and lots of it! Flute, clarinet and saxophone aren’t woodwind instruments for no reason. Woodwind instruments are inoperable without a pair of lungs and lots of air, after all. They possess the clearest sound and tone with air backed up with abdominal (tummy) strength and control. Without an instrument in hand, try putting both your hands on your lower back and take a deep stomach-breath. That’s both of your lungs expanding. We need to use – one more time! – LOTS of air because the air has a bit of a ways to travel!

Have you ever blown air across an empty glass bottle and you’d hear it make a tone? The direction and speed of the air you’re blowing causes the bottle to vibrate fast enough to create a sound. The same principle stands with playing the flute, but optimal sound comes from knowing where to “point” the direction of the airstream, as well as air speed. Unlike the clarinet and saxophone, creating a flute sound doesn’t come from blowing into the instrument with a wooden reed. The speed of the air is what causes the flute to vibrate and, thus, sound. This makes flute tone all the more unique from clarinet and saxophone!

A clarinetist could hold the prestigious role of concertmaster for a world-renowned wind ensemble, but have just as much fun improvising with a big band if he or she wanted to! The clarinet has a recognizable sound that is versatile and uniquely colorful. Part of that is due to its dark wooden body, unlike the brass-bodied flute & saxophone. Whether an instrument is conical or cylindrical also affects what it will sound like; in this case, clarinet and flute possess cylindrical bodies.

Saxophone is arguably the instrument closest-sounding to the human voice. It has the ability to string out the emotions, energy and other characteristics of any genre. It can sound as beautiful to you as it sounds harsh to me, or vice versa! Just as every human being has a voice, every saxophonist has a sound.

How will YOU speak through music?

Creative Processes and Products- Order and Chaos in Dialogue

March 5, 2016

Jim Simmons no guitar

By Jim Simmons

When beginning to write your own music, you will quickly discover the need to record your ideas. Soon after this discovery, another usually follows: namely, the need to make decisions about the ideas that have emerged.

These two problems have many solutions, and that is a good thing, because as you grow in your craft, so too, will your craft change. Even stranger is the fact that your creative process will also undergo its own changes and life cycles. Let me give an example:

Genesis used to write all of her chords down on paper, with the lyrics underneath, but now that her guitar technique has improved beyond simple chord playing, she’s found it difficult to describe what her guitar accompaniment is doing with words, letters, and symbols on paper. After trying to notate riffs and ideas simply by labeling them as they occurred (idea 1, idea 2), she became frustrated at never quite remembering what she had played. So, then Genesis began to video herself playing the ideas.

Now, what could some of the hidden difficulties be in the new approach? Perhaps our song writer still has the necessary and difficult task of sifting and choosing before her, and this may not just apply to different sections of the song—perhaps, she’s discovered there are two versions of a section that seem equally satisfying, and she can’t choose between them.

I have recently been undergoing certain changes in my own creative process, similar to the ones described above. I want to offer a few encouragements to any creators out there who’ve struggled with such challenges.

First of all, your song, project, piece, whatever it is—it doesn’t have to be the end-all-of-all perfect artistic/musical statement that you make. So, don’t feel the need to put all of your ideas into one song/piece/etc. Hopefully, you’ll write more in the future, so leave something else to say for later projects. Secondly, if you have differing versions of a musical section, that may be a good thing, since deliberate variations often lend interest to the listener. Regarding creative process, remember that just because it’s a “process” doesn’t mean it has to be systematic. It’s true that sifting through videos, audio recordings, lead sheets, and other sorts of sketches can be a chore, but such work will always bear fruit. Even if you wind up creating “too much” material, you may eventually use some of the leftovers to get you started on another work.

Lastly, creativity is, in my mind, more a way of life than a means to an end. It’s true that an artist should seek to share their work with others, and that it’s a shame when an artist never gets their ideas out of their head. But, similarly tragic is an artist haunted by perfectionism and the fear of failure. As good as you (and I) want that song, or piece, or project to end up sounding, creating music and art are values in-and-of-themselves. So, on one hand, be passionate about the quality of your finished product. But, on the other hand, be free, messy, methodical, imperfect, and committed to the chaotic, ordering process of creativity.

Here are some videos documenting a piece as it grew. I was sick at the time, and not very concerned with my playing technique, so some of the notes sound pretty bad, and some of the videos end with me more frustrated than satisfied, but I am so glad I can now reference these for the new version of the piece that is now underway.

 

Happy Creating!

Jim Simmons

 

Part 1

https://youtu.be/yV2omIwbb6w

 

Part 2

https://youtu.be/ImQ7S7SCTkM

 

Part 3

https://youtu.be/mAmsnKcG0f4

 

Part 4

https://youtu.be/myDghjcYWUc

 

Part 5

https://youtu.be/a4ACWH5A2IM

 

Part 6

https://youtu.be/0J0FYVyhJqI

 

How to maximize lesson impact and keep your child growing as a musician, with the help of The Lesson Studio

March 29, 2015
Hugh Lobel , The Lesson Studio

Hugh Lobel, Piano

by Hugh Lobel, instructor of piano, theory, and composition

The following post is inspired by an article titled “Why Students Really Quit Their Musical Instrument (and how Parents Can Prevent It) by Anthony Mazzocchi. The original article can be found on the website “The Music Parents’ Guide” at the following URL: http://www.musicparentsguide.com/2015/02/17/students-really-quit-musical-instrument-parents-can-prevent/

I recently stumbled upon an article that resonated deeply for me as a music educator. The article, titled “Why Students Really Quit Their Musical Instrument”, is a thoughtful exploration of the student-parent-teacher dynamic and how parents and teachers can work together to keep children interested and engaged in music.

The article focuses on public school music programs, and notes that over half of the students who join a music program quit within one or two years. The author, Anthony Mazzocchi, (or “TONY” in the article) lists the real reasons why students usually quit, and how parents and teachers can combat these problems together.

Tony’s observations are wonderful and I strongly recommend the article to every parent of a young aspiring musician. After reading the list, it dawned on me that our studio provides MANY ways of keeping students engaged so they don’t want to quit, while simultaneously maximizing their musical growth potential!

For this blog post, I’ve decided to re-visit Tony’s “quit” list, addressing how parents can work with teachers and the studio to make sure that your child stays encouraged to make meaningful progress! Again, this list comes from a public school educator with a long history of experience. This list items come from Mr. Mazzocchi; the comments on each item are my own.

  1. Parents don’t treat music as important as other subjects.  It’s easy to treat core school subjects as the most important part of a child’s studies; those grades and test scores are a constant reminder of future expectations. But don’t forget that there are wonderful skills to be developed with learning a musical instrument: complex reasoning, hand-eye coordination, the value of studying another ‘language’ (and music is definitely a language!), and the reward of learning a craft.

Teachers at The Lesson Studio can come up with and endless list of ways that learning music helps a young mind grow, and science agrees! Just look at this article: http://health.heraldtribune.com/2012/09/13/learning-young-to-play-a-musical-instrument-can-have-a-lifetime-of-benefits/ If learning music has so many benefits, then we really should treat our practice with the same importance as studying for those exams! Remember, if you have any questions about music’s importance, just talk to your child’s teacher or any other instructor at the studio.

  1. Students don’t know how to get better.  This one is really critical. It surprises students and parents alike that we all need to practice practicing our instrument! There are many exercises and methods of thinking about our practice sessions that can keep us focused and growing. Many teachers (myself included) spend a good part of every lesson working on showing a student exactly how to practice to get the most out of their lessons and the most out of their time. It’s critical that our parents understand something about this as well!

Did you know that parents are welcome to sit in on the lessons? I encourage any parent to join in on occasion. You’re free to sit in just once, or to come in every time. This can help you better understand where your child excels and struggles, and can give you a better insight into exactly what your child should do to get the most out of that valuable practice time. Just ask your child’s teacher if you can join in for a lesson or two (or 10)!

  1. Parents and students think they aren’t musically talented.  As Tony points out, we all have to remember that music is a craft. It takes serious time and dedication to make progress! This is especially difficult in a generation where videogames provide quick and easy reward incentives for situations that can be solved in a matter of minutes. Learning a craft is so different from the reward pace of games, that the slow speed of progress at an instrument can be very discouraging to a young student, possibly making your child feel like s/he simply doesn’t have any talent!

 

Making sure that your child feels a sense of progress both inside and outside of lessons is crucial to helping them see how they are improving. In my lessons, I reward students by playing for them, and by improvising with them at the piano. At home, your child can be rewarded for practicing by giving them “free play” time at their instrument, where they can make up whatever they want! Free improvisation has its own value and teaches a child to explore and learn the instrument beyond the studies in lesson books. Record these improvisations and use them to show your child how much progress has been made, and play back their favorite “sessions” to show them just how creative they are!

  1. Students discontinue playing over the summer.  Over the summer many students stop taking lessons in order to free up time for family travel and summer programs. Cutting out lessons entirely is a huge hindrance to a student’s progress, particularly if their practice schedule disappears with it. As Tony points out, “Statistics show that students who do not read over the summer find themselves extremely behind once school starts — the same goes for playing an

Instrument!”

If you’re wondering what you can do about this, remember that The Lesson Studio offers a variety of plans for the summer season. We all care about your child’s progress, and we know that even occasional lessons and practice sessions can keep your child from losing the progress they’ve made over the fall and spring seasons. Although we’d love to see your child every week, we know that it may not be a possibility with your schedule. Just talk to our office about your plans, and we’ll find something that works for your family. Remember that we want to see improvement so that your child can continue to learn and grow and love their instrument!

  1. The instrument is in disrepair.  This one can surprise you with how important it is! If your child’s instrument is worn and damaged or out of tune, practicing can sound bad and can be discouraging. A child may think that s/he’s actually playing wrong when everything else is going fine! Remember that teachers at The Lesson Studio can demonstrate how to keep an instrument in tune and well maintained. Consider asking your child’s teacher to show you these proper methods during a lesson. If your instrument needs professional maintenance, the Lesson Studio can recommend someone to help. You can even leave your instrument with us, and we’ll handle the repairs for you!

An instrument that works, but is missing some of the functions can also be discouraging. A piano student can learn almost every song ever written on an electric keyboard, but a $100 instrument is likely to lack realistic volume control and may not even have enough keys for a student to play their song properly. The Lesson Studio doesn’t sell instruments and we don’t receive any “kick-backs” for recommending specific manufacturers or models. We only want what’s best for your child, and our teachers are happy to recommend something that can fit your price range and needs. This conversation can happen at any point, not just the first lesson. Maybe you want to start with a smaller instrument for a “trial” period, but you’re not sure where to go once you’re ready to invest more. Maybe you’re ready to buy a professional level instrument but you’re not sure what brand or style best fits your own needs. Don’t be afraid to talk to your instructor about these questions and concerns at the beginning of a lesson, or a few minutes before the end. We can point you in the right direction to get the instrument that will help your child have everything necessary to make the right progress.

  1. Teachers don’t create enough performing opportunities during the year.  Well, this might be an issue that Tony finds elsewhere, but this certainly isn’t the case at The Lesson Studio! For private lessons, we provide recitals at the end of every semester, and we encourage students to find their own reasons to perform for an audience.

But we’ve found an even more exciting way to get students performing as a group in our Rock Band ensembles! Playing with a band can be a wonderful experience for anyone wanting to learn music. In a band, students learn to work as a team, learn how to play in fun situations where accuracy and fluency are required, and experience an environment where everyone contributes meaningfully without the additional stress of being a soloist. Our rock bands perform at Boulder festivals and at their own recitals, providing many opportunities for your child to grow and experience the excitement of playing for an audience.

  1. There is not enough “fun”music to practice. This one can definitely feel like the case for a student who is still going through the lesson books. Teachers at The Lesson Studio know it’s important for your child to play music that is fun, but we don’t have the same level of insight into your child’s interests that you do! Look up your child’s favorite songs online; if it’s out there for your child to hear, someone’s almost certainly made a version for your child to play! Bring these songs with your child to the studio and our instructors can add it into the lesson. If you’re not sure what the best online resources are for your child’s instrument, feel free to ask the instructor and we can point you in the right direction. If you ask at the beginning of a lesson, or a few minutes before the end, we can usually even help you look. And if you really want to make sure that your child is playing “fun” music, think more about signing up for one of our Rock Bands. Our bands often play popular and current songs, and we also teach classics from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s!

Practicing an instrument and making progress can feel challenging and frustrating at times. Many children get discouraged and either quit or stop making progress when the issues listed above are not addressed. At The Lesson Studio, our instructors want each and every student to find something meaningful and impactful in making music. By working with the studio and the teachers, parents can really help to ensure that their child continues to grow and to love their instrument.

Choosing the right teacher for YOU

February 22, 2015

Heidi

by Heidi Ames

There are so many music teachers out there! How do you even begin the process of choosing the right one for you or your child?  If you don’t have any experience in music this part may seem fairly simple. Just call up your local music studio and have them choose one for you or choose one from their online list. Done. Unfortunately many new students don’t know the importance of taking the time to find the right teacher. Here are some helpful DO’s and DONT’s when selecting a teacher:

DO…interview your teacher. Don’t hesitate to ask about a teacher’s background and experience. It is very important to get a solid foundation from someone who can spot and fix tension issues immediately, otherwise bad habits may become ingrained which are then difficult to correct later on. Also, when you progress on your instrument you won’t need to find another teacher later on or be “passed up” to a teacher with more experience.

DO… sit in on a lesson. In many cases teachers are okay with potential students sitting in to observe their teaching style. Don’t be afraid ask!

DO… a trial lesson or two. This way you can get an idea of how you without making a commitment to weekly lessons. Music teachers are used to doing one-time lessons and there are no hard feelings if you decide it’s not the right fit. Good teachers want what is best for you anyway.

DO…ask yourself what you would like to get out of lessons and express them to your teacher. Having realistic goals in mind before getting started is essential to your success. Music lessons are one of the best investments you can make so spend some time getting clear on what you would like to get out of them. If a teacher doesn’t feel they can get you where you want to be they will tell you, but only if you ask!

DON’T… stay with a teacher with whom you do not feel comfortable. You should feel that you can communicate freely with him/her and not afraid or embarrassed to make mistakes for fear of how they will react. Your teacher should be able to make you laugh at least once during your lesson!

DON’T….study with a teacher who does not have training in the musical style you are interested in studying. If you want to be a jazz pianist and your teacher only knows how to play Beethoven you might run into some problems. There are specialized methods for jazz/rock training that many classical musicians have never studied. However, many of the best teachers in any musical style do have a foundation in classical training.

DON’T….stay with a teacher if you are not learning from them. You should be able to see some results in your playing within a couple of months and feel inspired to practice. Your teacher should be genuinely interested in your success and it will be reflected in your playing.

I hope you found this list helpful! Of course there are many factors involved in selecting a teacher and this list is only a starting point. If you have any more ideas, please comment below.

Heidi Ames teaches piano and voice at The Lesson Studio.

Handing Mistakes

February 15, 2015
Michael Sebulsky

Michael Sebulsky

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Michael Sebulsky

Whether it be playing a memorized, classical piece in a concert hall, playing a jazz solo at a local jam, or simply sitting and learning with friends around the campfire mistakes are likely to happen. A mistake is defined as an unintentional musical moment, contrary to musical expectation. Some mistakes seem more critical than others. Whether it is a broken guitar string, a wrong note played on the piano or a vocalist’s voice not reaching the expected high point a mistake does not have to end or ruin a performance. Most good performances contain a mistake, if not more than one. Chances are that if you have seen a live music performance that you have seen many mistakes, whether you noticed or not.

Instead of being afraid of making a mistake, a practicing musician can follow the following tips to learn how to make mistakes and other “unintentional musical events” a part of a good, smooth musical performance.

1. Practice performing

One of the most important aspects of a good performance is to practice the attitude and experience of the performance. This can be done in many ways. Ask your close friends (whom you feel comfortable around) if you can perform your music for them. This is a great way to experience the sensation and nerves of performing for a group of people, albeit people who you know to be your “musical allies.” Allow the performance to go on, no matter what! This is where most of your mistakes will come to light. Allow your friends to give you honest and constructive feedback and feel free to ask them questions about the performance. Remember that your experience of your performance is not always (or ever) the same as the experience your audience has!
Practice performing can happen while learning a piece of music, even before the entire piece is ready. A musician can be well benefitted by working section by section through a piece for performing. When a certain section seems ready (even when the whole piece isn’t) the musician can enter into “practice performing” by not allowing themselves to stop while playing this section. Making notes of what went well, what felt shaky and what went not according to plan at this stage in the learning process can help to better shape the remainder of the piece.

2. Do not memorize the mistake.

So many times we let a mistake stop us in our tracks. (There will be more about not stopping in the next section.) By stopping, we are actually setting ourselves up to repeat the same activity. Muscle memory plays a huge part in this activity. One great way to remove the muscle memory is to take a break, and begin the learning process of the mistake section again. Good, successful practice sessions allow the musician to not only practice the notes and chords of a tune but also the mental strength and focus necessary for executing the performance with excellence. Mental fatigue can cause mistakes. So get up, grab a glass of water or a piece of fruit, talk to someone for a moment and distance yourself from the learning momentarily. When you return you will see what parts of the piece are memorized both mentally and muscularly. Sometimes slowing down and starting from scratch causes a musician to focus more on the music, and not the expectation of an error.

3. Don’t stop and focus.

Stopping is the most commonly repeated mistake. We stop because we are not expecting what has just happened. Stopping during the performance of a bad note negates the correct rhythm and placement of the note. Do not allow a note to be both bad melodically and rhythmically by stopping! Instead, allow yourself the opportunity to play the unexpected, incorrect note and allow it to be apart of the performance. In most cases, one wrong or bad note is not something your audience will remember or even notice. By not stopping, the performer draws less attention to the unexpected error and more attention to the overall performance.

4. Practice fixing the mistake.

The activity of fixing a mistake is not one that any musician should endeavor to work on during a performance. In fact, while practicing performing, the idea of stopping is completely frowned upon. Instead, continue playing and practice the activity of not stopping when a mistake occurs. What you will learn is akin to an entirely new skill, that of thinking on your feet as a musician. This is where mental focus on the piece is crucial. Knowing your piece can allow you to patch a mistake during a performance without stopping and smoothly guide you to the next section of your work.

5. Make the mistake a part of your playing.

The great Chet Atkins once quipped that, “The first time I do it, it is a mistake. The second time it is my own arrangement.” A performer can benefit from the idea of knowing that some errors actually help the performance to sound unique! Essentially, not all mistakes are bad or contrary to a good, solid performance. There is no such thing as the mythical “perfect performance.” Therefore, allow mistakes to be a part of the overall sound of the performance and do not let them distract from the larger picture, which is a musical, smooth performance.

Using these tips should help your practice time, your performances, and your understanding of how to handle mistakes. Taking each one of these tips and applying them to your daily study will show results quickly and benefit your overall performing, making your instrument much more enjoyable to study.

“Understanding Tempo and Rhythm”

November 9, 2014

Casey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

by Casey Cormier

 

No matter what instrument you choose to study, there is no doubt that at some point you will struggle with the proper timing of a piece.  Of course this is the main focus of any drummer, keeping a steady beat while delivering a solid rhythmic pattern.  But singers need to have a good sense of time too; often in my career I’ve worked with incredible vocalists who would come in at the wrong place in a song, causing us backing musicians to quickly alter our position in the piece and follow our wayward leader.  The importance of understanding tempo and rhythm, and the methods of practicing to improve these skills, cannot be overstated.

 

Tempo is the pace of a piece of music.  In pop songs, most often, the tempo stays the same through out the piece.  In art songs, or classical music, the tempo can change as the music proceeds, in which case a conductor comes in very handy.  Tempos are determined in BPMs, or Beats Per Minute.  The easiest tempo to ascertain is 60 BPMs.  60 beats per minute…60 seconds per minute.  Think “one Mississippi, two Mississippi”, or refer to any analog clock, and you’ll here 60 bpm ticking away.  Tempo ranges can be determined from this source, such as:

 

Largo ~ This is the slowest tempo setting, 60 beats per minute or slower.  Think of a slow, sad ballad.  “Something” by the Beatles is 69 bpm, so even slower than that!

Andante ~ Faster than 60 beats per minute, but not twice as fast.  Think of a walking pace, a straight ahead rock song.  “Down on the Corner” by CCR is 108 bpm, on the edge of andante and…

Allegro ~ Full steam ahead!  120 bmp or higher, heard often in up-tempo dance numbers and punk rock. “Rockaway Beach” by the Ramones clocks in at 168 bpm, more than twice as fast as “Something”!

 

If a guitarist were to count off “Rockaway Beach” at 69 beats per minute, you can bet his or her band mates would be raising some eyebrows.  Of course that doesn’t mean that we all need to bring metronomes to every rehearsal, but it does mean that we should consider the tempo of a piece of music before we jump in.  Practicing scales or exercises with a metronome is a great way of helping to improve innate tempo precision, and using one with a piece of music that you are trying to polish for a performance or recording is guaranteed to make you stronger with it.  In fact, most of what you hear on the radio today was recorded with a click track keeping tempo in the musicians’ ears, to guarantee a steady beat throughout.

 

Once you understand tempo, it’s important to grasp the concept of rhythm, or playing notes in a metric pattern.  What?  Let’s break it down this way.  Most of popular music is played in 4/4 time, or four beats in a measure.  Count “1,2,3,4”, in an even fashion and you’ve got it.  What if we wanted to have those same beats but add a beat in between each.  We’d be creating what are called 8th notes, and count “1&2&3&4&” in the same amount of time.  We could mix and match these to create different patterns, such as “1 2& 3 4&” or “1 2&3& 4”.  Songs often have a signature rhythm attached either to their melody or to the supporting instruments.  For example, “1,2,3(rest)1,2&(rest)(rest)” is the rhythm to the beginning riff of Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing”.  If you were to take out those rests and play the same notes, it would cease to be the same song.  Rhythm is the skeletal system of melody, and tempo is its heart beat.

 

So when and how should you practice rhythmic concepts?  I have students break out the metronome to practice a scale they have already conquered melodically; in other words, if they aren’t able to play the pattern properly, then it’s too soon for the metronome.  But once they’re able to maneuver that scale without correction, then we start at 60 bpm, and move up from there.  Any exercise you can do at 60 bpm you’ll eventually be able to do at 120 (twice as fast); I recommend moving up in intervals of 20.  For a song, once the student can read through it accurately, then the metronome is a great polishing tool, but it’s important to take the most difficult part of the piece and determine the playable tempo from there.  If we’re playing “Good Times Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin, we’ll determine the tempo to practice from the guitar solo, the most difficult part of the song, and apply that to the whole thing.  The results for a student of any instrument will be a stronger rhythmic foundation and thus a better all-around musician in the making!

Multi-tasking — Good or Bad?

November 2, 2014

Elizabeth LaManna, Cello Instructor at the Lesson Studio

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 
   

 

By Elizabeth Avery LaManna

Is the mind able to be ‘present’ and focused on more than one thing at a time?
What does it take to play an instrument and make music?
Where is the focus and where is one ‘present’?

It seems to me, Music Making is an extreme multi-tasking activity. Yet to be a part of the music magic you have to stay focused in a zone separate from the multi-tasking demands.

That means your practice has to really be productive. All the little parts of playing the instrument need to become natural, accurate, automatic and reliable – ie – the means of making your music are second nature. And all those little individual parts need your complete attention in practice, one at a time. Practice becomes so much fun when attention and intention are clear and defined. Repetition is only valuable when the task is being well defined and executed.

So make your practice a time of clarity when you seek and drill carefully. Take the challenges in such tiny bits and slowly practice so that you can master the tasks you set before yourself. You will find success and things will stick with you and become your foundation.

Remember, in practice you are always an artist at work.

Accented notes versus unaccented notes

October 25, 2014

By Ryan Sapp – Drum Set Instructor at The Lesson Studio.

Ryan Sapp

Ryan Sapp, Percussion Instructor at the Lesson Studio

In drumming, there should be a major difference in volume between accented notes and unaccented notes. Unaccented notes can be thought of as “the normal notes at the normal volume” or “just cruising along”. Accented notes are much louder and should really stick out and be discernable by even the casual music listener. Accented notes are frequently used as the backbeat (2 and 4) in rock music. They are also used to highlight accents in songs and other instruments. Accented notes are frequently used in fills and can also create a counter rhythm within a flow of notes.

Creating solid accents within the flow of the music and in a stream of notes is a worthwhile pursuit. It requires consistent practice over the course of time. The rewards of this practice are numerous and include superior hand and muscular control, increased dynamic awareness, and a musical sophistication that is noticeable amongst musicians and listeners alike. A qualified instructor will help you use the correct technique and guide you in your pursuit of musical excellence.

To begin with unaccented notes, you must place the sticks just above the drum in the “neutral position”. The tips of the drumsticks must be very near each other and be approximately 1/2 inch over the drumhead. Both sticks must be at the same height. This position allows you to drop each tip onto the drumhead at a lower volume. After either hand strikes the drum, remember to return it to the “neutral position” of 1/2 inch above the drumhead. Using a metronome and playing a steady stream of either 8th or 16th notes is highly recommended to help achieve evenness.

To play an accented note, you must also begin at the “neutral position”. This position allows for the easy use of playing either an unaccented note (which you just drop the stick to the head) or an accented note (which you simply lift the stick approximately 6 – 12 inches above the drumhead). Lift the stick with the wrist using a good pivot. When playing an accented note, do not lift the stick past a 90-degree angle or the straight up and down position. Using your wrist with a good pivot, bring the stick back toward the drumhead. After bringing the stick down and striking the drumhead, return your hand and the tip of the stick to the neutral position.

When bringing the stick down from the high, accented position, you only have to use enough power to bring the stick in motion while letting gravity take care of the rest. Think of it like dribbling a basketball: Once the ball is in motion, you just have to lightly flick it with your wrist to keep it going. The ball is doing the work for you. Thus, you do not have to be heavy handed while doing accents.

Stick height controls volume. Thus, the softer unaccented notes are only a 1/2 inch above the drumhead while the louder accented notes are approximately 6 – 12 inches above the drumhead. This significant difference in height between unaccented notes and accented notes should be at noticeably different volumes. In written dynamics, the unaccented notes should sound piano (soft) and the accented notes should sound fortissimo (very loud).

There are several drum method books that feature exercises and usable patterns to practice. There are also hundreds of songs that feature excellent use of accented versus unaccented notes. Notable famous beats within songs include The Red Hot Chili Peppers “Under The Bridge”, Tower Of Power’s “Soul Vaccination”, Toto’s “Rosanna”, and “Funky Drummer” by James Brown.

Singing More than Just the Words

October 12, 2014

By, Catherine Behrens. Voice instructor at The Lesson Studio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music can bring about strong emotions, bring back old memories, and soothe our tired bodies at the end of a long day. As musicians, it is one of our chief goals to move people with what we do. We want to give a message to our audience that will leave them changed after they have heard us play or sing. There are many things that go into creating an impacting performance, but there is one tool that I want to focus on that is specific to singers. We have words. Composers and songwriters choose their lyrics very carefully. Whether they have taken inspiration from a great poet such as Shakespeare, Dickinson or Goethe, or if they have written their own, these words have been crafted to evoke emotion. When we sing, we sometimes get so focused on all the technique (which is super important!) we forget about the words. So here are some ideas on how to get the most meaning out of your song.

First, write out your words on a separate piece of paper and read them out loud. If there is a part that doesn’t make sense to you, really focus in on it. Try and figure out if it is symbolic or literal. Maybe it’s a metaphor or a description. If you still don’t know, talk to other people about it. Your teacher, family members, classmates, anyone who you think might be helpful in understanding what the writer meant. Keep reading it to yourself until the message of the words, and what you want to get across when you sing it, becomes ingrained in you. This is also a fantastic way to help memorize your songs!

Next, go into each individual sentence and determine which words are the most important in that sentence. For example, if you have something like “Never mind I’ll find someone like you” I would pick “mind” and “someone” as my two big words (although next time I sing that phrase I might pick “find” and “you”). This is probably going to be a little different for everybody, which is great because that’s going to make your interpretation unique. Once you have your words for each sentence or phrase, go through your music and underline them to remind you that those are the words you want to highlight. When you sing them, give them just a little more love than the other words. Making them pop like this will give your listeners a road-map of what is important in the music.

Finally, invest in what those words actually mean. It isn’t enough to have a head knowledge of what you are singing about, you should be feeling it too. So if you are singing a love song, and you’ve never been in love, maybe try to think about a friend that means a lot to you, or a family member. Make the lyrics your own. If you can’t relate to it, neither will anyone else. The thing that makes your favorite artists so good is that they move you. Maybe it moves you to dance, or cry, or to change the world, but you are feeling those emotions because the artist felt them first. Now it’s your job to feel those same things and pass it on the the next person.

So, at the end of the day, be sure you know what your song is about, and that it means something to you. Whether it’s Mozart or Rihanna, look at what the words behind the music mean. They cared a lot about how those words fit into music, and you should too. So dig deep and make the world listen to your song!