Blog changes and Average Speed

First off

I am changing my blog a bit. I will still be writing posts, but as well I am planning to start cross posting from other authors providing a breif of their article, some thoughts, and links to those articles. Why am I doing this? In short there is a tremendous amount of really great writers writing about our field, and things adjacent to it (mental training, etc) so I want to highlight that, and curate a collection of those thoughts. 

The first one.

What is Your “Average Speed” in Your Life, Your Health, and Your Work? 

By James Clear

James Clear is an author, photographer, and weightlifter who looks at habits and decision making, He is by no means an obscure name, his work has been covered by various media companies and he has a great mission statement, which I think we as musicians can really take to heart, on it's surface it is simple, but how we as musicians, and artists interact with our field it has great implications.

"At the core of my work is a simple, but powerful question: How can we live better?"

The article I wanted to share from James is one shared by Marc Gelfo (get involved in his app Modacity... seriously). He posted this article on facebook and it is brilliant. 

The article in short

As musicians we can look at our "average speed" as the rate in which we progress consistently. James hits on an idea which hit close to home for me of our "maximum speed". You know the feeling after see a great show, apply for an orchestra audition, etc. where we work like maniacs and do as much as possible (usually ending in injuries, burning out, and ultimately forgetting most of what you thought you learned)

"So often we waste our time and energy thinking that we need a monumental effort to achieve anything significant. We tell ourselves that we need to get amped up on motivation and desire. We think that we need to work harder than everyone else."

James goes on to explore the idea of our average speed as being a thing that can inspire great progress. To me, as I live near many glaciers up here in the great white north. I relate this average speed to glaciers (hear me out), they move slow, methodically, and the change they make to the landscape is dramatic, it cuts deep into the earth and reshapes the land. The idea of max speed to me is like the spring flooding in a way, some years it happens, other years it doesn't. On it's surface it changes the landscape greatly. It moves trees, displaces dirt and stone, but in the end the earth reclaims it with new growth, etc. I hope that analogy makes sense... it does to me. The point of it is that as James writes.

"But when you look at people who are really making progress, you see something different. Nathan wrote 1,000 words per day, every day. And nine months later? Three books are finished. At no point did he necessarily work harder than everyone else. There's nothing sexy or shocking about writing 2 or 3 pages per day. Nathan was simply more consistent than everyone else and, as a result, his average speed for those 253 days was much higher than most people."

The final area of interest that James writes about is about how to change the habits of our work. It is the idea of habit graduation. Which in short is a way in which, to use James' words, "we can increase our average speed". Simple things like going from buying fast food 3 days a week to 2 days a week. If you only practice you major scales, once a week practice minor scales and major scales in one sitting. etc. 

"You get the idea. Habit graduation is about considering your goals and your current average speed, and thinking about how you can increase your output by just a little bit on a consistent basis."

For us as musicians that "output" can be the quality, the specificity, etc of our practice. Which would, in theory, increase the rate in which we grow as players.

 

 

Dice games, adding some spice to practice

As I have been doing the accountable practice project (Read more here about that) one thing I have done a lot of, and has had some questions asked about it is the use of dice. I love using dice to add spontaneity and to keep me on my toes when it comes to working on technique. 

How does it work?

There are a few ways I do this, and I'll outline them here. You will need 3 dice, a 12 sided die, an 8 sided die, and another one (I use a 10 sided since it was handy). You can add any others as well at times I use a 20 sided die to chose how many times I have to attack a note, repeat a passage, etc.

IMG_20180407_161926868.jpg

The basic approach I have been using on my twitch stream is using the 12 sided dice to chose the scale, the 8 sided dice to pick either 1) the scale degree to begin from or 2) the scale degree to go to. (If you are feeling cheeky, you could do both). I like this approach as it gets us out of our usual scale routine. The use of the 10 sided dice is as to determine major or minor, make one odds and one even, then roll and go. One side goal is how fast can you go from rolling to playing. Working scale fluency is a big thing for me.

At times, to mix it up I'll use a 4 sided dice to determin how many octaves to take the scale through. Really, the sky is the limit with this. If you can assign a variable to it, you can get after it. 

Other ideas for dice use

As I said there are tons of possibilities, so here is a quick list of things I have been doing in the past little while.

  • Scales using dice to determine range etc.
  • How many times to attack a note for accuracy (vs the usual do it 10 times in a row.)
  • How many harmonics to ascend in lip slurs.
  • How many times to repeat a passage or exercise. 
  • What dynamic (like scales, we assign dynamics to each face of the dice I usually use a 5 sided (pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff)
  • What articulations or articulation patterns to use.

Again, these are just things I have done in the past week or so, there are plenty of things you can do.

I usually stream a 11am MDT on http://www.twitch.tv/matjamhorn as long as the schedule allows. If not, I'll change it. 

The accountable practice project

It has been awhile

Since I posted last, I've been busy, which is a good thing for a freelancer so I can't really complain about that. Though, I did catch the flu last week which let me start a new project I had had in the back of my mind for awhile. I have named it "the accountable practice" project. In short, it is a continuation of some of my last posts, about getting the most out of sessions, being accountable for all the facets of playing, etc. 

So how is this one different?

Well, I am streaming it... that is the big difference, for me, that puts a big level of accountability on what I am doing, what "little whoopsies" I let slide, and so forth. Having the potential for anyone to stop in and watch, comment, etc. really makes you make good decisions, or bask in the bad ones. It is, in ways, the extreme of the idea to "practice like your teacher is there" or the idea that in music school, while we grinded away in the practice rooms, your peers, teachers, the person gunning for your seat, etc are all listening to what you are doing. So this is really just pushing that to the extreme. If you are interested I am streaming over on my twitch channel. 

Just use this link: http://www.twitch.tv/matjamhorn  

I try to stream at 11 AM MT when my schedule allows it. There is a schedule there I would post when the stream is happening. Right now the format is informal, I have had people hang out, ask questions, etc. I am trying to explain what/why I am doing things, as well, I always have my plan on the page, what materials I am using etc. 

Feel free to stop by, ask questions, etc. I do my best to answer them when they show up in chat. As well, follow the channel so you can know when new streams are coming. In the future I am planning to stream rehearsals etc. as it permits.

Okay, so where is the value?

This was a thing I spent a bunch of time trying to figure out... the why/where part of this. I don't need to "stroke my ego" and this is also, maybe the worst way to do that, to be honest, to lift the curtain on the behind the scenes is never flattering. So for me, the value is in accountability, and consistency. It locks me into a time, makes me plan carefully, and to be very involved in my practice (at least one session a day). So what about the viewer? I think the value for the viewer in this situation is different based on your level. It lets you see what a professional does daily, the decisions in structure, etc. So it can give you ideas, expose you to a variety of methods, studies, etc. That is, to me, where the real value is. 

Hope to see you one time stopping by.

Gamify your practice with EpicWin

First off, this isn't sponsored. I spent a good chunk of time researching this kind of app and ended up going with EpicWin (google, ios) due to a bunch of various reasons that I won't bore you with.

I have always used some form of to-do list or means to track my practice, from a standard journal, to excel sheets, and as mentioned in my practice apps post app based trackers like Wunderlist. So what is different about this app? In a simple sense it allows us to gamify our practicing so not only are we setting goals, tracking what we do, but we get to see the results of that play out in the app. We get to level up our character, their skills (Strength, Stamina, Intellect, Social, and Spirit) as well, as we progress it tracks a "distance traveled stat" as well, you gather loot. At the end of the day, it is still a simple tracking app, but we get to see results, which for players who have been playing for a long time those results can come so slow in real time having the little bar progress across the screen is a nice little reward. 

So that is the basic part of it, if you are closing the window here, thanks for stopping by, if you are going to keep reading I am going to break down my experience, between how I assigned my playing into the 5 above mentioned categories, how the app has allowed me to actually gain some real insight into my practice which Wunderlist was not letting me, how this insight allowed me to make some value judgments in what I practiced, and some final thoughts around it.

As well, I am planning a follow up on this after some more time (probably at least 6 weeks) of using the app for a more detailed look at it's possible benefits. 

*There are a few screen shots at the bottom of this post if you want to see the app first.

Assigning the skills

So the first step to setting up to track with EpicWin for me was to assign all the aspects of my playing into the 5 skills that the app tracks. Here is what I came up with for myself:

  1. Primary Session and works in the extremes (Range and Dynamics) = Strength
  2. Scales and dedicated technique work = Intellect
  3. Repertoire/excerpts = Stamina
  4. Ensemble and Drone work = Social
  5. Etudes and Studies = Spirit

The above works for me, one way that it allows me to is how my primary routine (or first 30-40 minutes of the day is structured, not as a warm up, but as a real working session that hits all the basic facets of horn playing). So that is how I assigned my work into the app, up next, the insight.

Some insights from the tracking

First off I didn't track everything I did, only things that felt warranted, that means were they specific to a goal on hand. Mind blow, at first I wasn't tracking a ton, over time (we are talking a few days here) I started to realize that I had let my practice habits slack a bit. I get it... it's the middle of the season, lots of gigs with the Symphony, Jazz, New music, and more teaching than I can do... those were my excuses for going through the motions, or just getting in the reps. What this meant was I started to plan more concisely and set more small goals along the way. Outcome, better practice. 

Second, this whole teaching all the time and running between gigs encouraged a sort of "fitting it in when I can" practice. With the tracking I started to notice the bulk of my work fell into the Strength (mainly from my primary session) and Intellect categories (mainly intellect because of scales, if I am being truly honest). I was getting in the Social skill just because of rehearsals, but my drone work had slipped (even though i have cello drones, and the intonation repair tool on my tablet, and I always have headphones on me...) 

Why that matters?

It matters to me as a player because I wasn't doing myself justice, and I was treading water and wasting time. I think having a diverse and fluid primary session was really, at the end of the day, the only thing keeping me afloat. So with all of this new information I started carving out time differently, assigning more specific tasks, and making sure I started focusing on the stats in EpicWin that were the lowest to make sure they were represented in my daily focus work in a specific manner.

Conclusion

I started this app as a way to explore adding a game element to practice, simply that. Though going through the process of setting it up forced me to really do some serious self-evaluation in not only my playing, but through what lens' I saw my playing (the 5 track able stats). Then by using the app consistently trends developed. Anyone who trains for anything (I myself am training for some really long Alpine Climbs) can tell you, data is essential when it comes to progress. The value of this app will really be in how you use it. I was personally amazed how much it offered me, and I do continue to keep using it for now. 

Screenshot_20180214-221409.png

Through frustration comes a simple fingering chart

I am sure this is something that has faced many teachers, especially those of us that do clinics, or work with beginners. Why is there no simple fingering chart? Now I am sure there is one out there, in theory, but I really haven’t encountered one.

When I was developing my student horn book a major point of focus for me was an approach that was straight forward, since that is how fundamentals should be, simple and effective. Something I encounter more times than I want to admit is showing up to work with students and being faced with frustration over being able to pitch notes from written middle C to the first G in the treble clef. When they start playing I am sadly never surprised to find Fs being played on the open F horn, Gs on F horn 1st valve, and so on. You know, using B horn fingerings without using the thumb.

When I notice this, the first thing I ask is about a fingering chart, either they don’t have one, or they have one of several method books, I am always amazed with all of these method books that the fingering charts are never great. They never make an effort to differentiate between what fingering is for what horn, or it’s inconsistent. It must be rocket science. So I submit to the horn world the fingering chart from my Student horn book. A simple, no options approach to fingering. It is based around standard conventions, and doesn't give several options for each note. Though in time it is important that the horn player learns all the fingerings, but let’s keep the horse in front of the carriage.

The student Horn Book
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A quick look at some apps to help with practice time

As January is coming to a close and all our resolutions are starting to lose momentum I wanted to recommend a few apps that I currently use myself or previously have.

Time management and planning

A thing that many people struggle with, myself included, is managing our practice time. From the stacks of partially filled out journals, random pieces of paper, and google calendars that just don't get any use, I have recently used a few apps that help me both plan, and keep track of my goals and time.

Work Log (Free, google play link)
Work Log is a great and simple app from AR productions which is designed to track working hours. There are a few reasons why I like this: It's simple, tracks overall work time which you can look back at, you can add quick notes about what the session was for. The takeaway from this is you can get a good view on how much time you are putting in, and a general overview about what was worked on.

Again this isn't a ground breaking thing, and lots of options exist, for me the simplicity of Work Log is what makes it great, and makes me use it. 

Microsoft OneNote (Free, Google, ios)

This app, when used well can be wicked powerful, it also got me off of sending myself daily emails. Features I like to make use of is setting up several notebooks, using the built in ability to record video, and more. The multiple notebooks are useful, I tend to keep one for teaching, one for clinics, a personal one, and then a planning section. 

Wunderlist (Free, Google, ios)

So the whole "planning" thing is tricky, I started using Wunderlist as a way for my wife and I to manage our groceries, then it became my to do list for Timepoint Ensemble. One day as I was about to practice at lunch during a clinic I realized I didn't have my practice note book on me, where I made my daily list from (which I make from an email I send myself after each day's practice) and I cursed myself for my lack of preperation. Then it hit me, Wunderlist strikes again!

Tuners and Metronomes

Alright, so there are literally hundreds of these out there, all of various function and use. I know many people have their favourites so I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel on this one, so here are the ones I am currently using.

Petterson StrobeTuner ($12.99, google, ios)

A classic, it works, it's accurate, and shiny. That's all.

ProMetronome (Free a paid version is also available, google, ios)

A nice little metronome, the features are easy, you can move the accents around quickly, lots of subdivision are available as well in the paid version you can make use of it's pretty fancy polyrhythm features. 

Ear training

So in general a lot of ear training apps are super underwhelming, and after the first few days of excitement, they basically go unused and get uninstalled. Here is one that have stood the test of time for me, for now.

Functional Ear Trainer (Free, google, ios)

It works, it's simple, and it lets me focus on basic ear training. A few highlights is that it does a good job establishing key centers, and you can change the instrument sound, so that's cool. I do truly appreciate it's simple so you don't waste tons of time dealing with it's navigation.

Various

Here are some other apps I like to use

Mobile Sheet Music Reader (free and paid, google)

I have used this for my tablet's sheet music program for years, it works, it's stable, and it has a good organization system. 

iReal Pro ($12.99, google, ios)

Work on your ear by working on your improv chops. I try to spend some time daily with this app. In short it's a digital backing band, you can choose from tons of premade charts, or make your own and get your tunes on. 

So that is it, more a less. The apps that have helped me drag less paper around with me everywhere, and have let me stay as plugged in as I can, which is a thing I like to do. Would love to hear other's favorite apps in the comments below.

Also, have you checked out my new student horn book? Get your's now for $5.99.

The student Horn Book
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Some thoughts on flutter tonguing Part 1 - An approach.

I was inspired by a recent post on the Facebook Horn People group about flutter tonguing. It is a question that comes up fairly often, and I find myself writing the same thing over and over again. Which is not a bad thing, I think it's great that people want to learn to flutter, and am always reassured when people show up (in comments) to support the value of flutter tonguing as more than just an "effect", which it also gets written up as. 

I think it is of value to note that flutter tonguing comes up often, in many contexts. The more new music you play the more of it you will encounter. There are times where one can make an argument that it is merely an effect, as well there are times where it is a colour, or a shift in timbre, a musical device, etc. So we can't just view it as a singular and one dimensional technique. That would be like saying that stopped horn is only an effect to make something sound brassy. 

So the goal of part one is to outline the approach I took to learn to flutter, as well to provide some other thoughts I have been fortunate to gather from other horn players, brass players, and more in regards to having a functional and effective flutter tongue.

Up First, the Approach:

The first thing I want to do is break down my approach to teaching, and how I myself learned to flutter. I want to emphasize, if it's not a thing you just get right away, it will take work. Like anything else, there is no magic pill, or light switch we can flip to make it suddenly happen, it will take some effort, but, here we go

Step 1: Take away the horn, and the mouthpiece, we are only going to need your face, and maybe a piece of paper (I'd recommend the piece of paper). 

Step 2: Place the tip of the tongue in the place you would do your usually TA articulation (this is important as we want to relate this technique and placement to something we already know). Once here you want to keep the tip of the tongue in a point, or shaped like a ski tip. Relax the back of the tongue, and then blow air towards a piece of paper, or hand that you are holding in front of your face. You want to try to keep the tip of the tongue pressed against the TA location with as little effort as possible.

Rinse, lather, repeat until you get a flutter going.

Here are a few key things you can keep focused on: tongue placement, make sure you are blowing your air with energy and intent towards that external point (piece of paper, hand, etc). We want to make sure we aren't blowing at our tongue, but past it.  We are in essence, obstructing the air stream before it starts the embouchure in motion so AIR FLOW is crucial.

Step 3: Once you get something going (it may be kind of janky at first, but keep with it, keep using the monitor) repeat the process with the mouthpiece, and the again with the horn. When we add the metal into the mix the feeling will be that we "lose space" for the tongue, but keep focused on the key points of tongue placement, and air flow. I would recommend starting on a mid-range note (something around the middle C range) and when that becomes secure start doing intervals, scale fragments, etc. Remember the goal at this point is working on the fundamental skill and getting that down (remember things like lip slurs, and long tones... this is like that, you can even do lip slurs, and long tones with a flutter.)

So beyond needing to have this skill as a horn player what are some reasons we care? Here are some points to consider, flutter tonguing needs great air, so you will get incredible air control from it. It helps tremendously doing flutter scales over your break, and even more. Anything air related will benefit from this. So stick with it.

Part 2 of this post will be a look at some examples of flutter in practice in different settings, and more!

Have you seen my student horn book? Get your copy now for only $5.99 CAD

   

Just SLOW DOWN

I am happy to have finally released my student horn book, this book took me about a year of work. I was fortunate to get to "test run" the project with several schools, and a wide variety of settings/skills. In the end I feel I was able to get things to a place where it would serve as a positive tool for students in developing the fundamental aspects of their playing. 


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Now, for this post, if there was one lesson I could share it is as follows:

SLOW DOWN

In my time teaching and working with students I always liked to listen to how students warmed up (as well as professionals, of course) and the biggest difference I noticed is how fast people jump into "hard for them" stuff, and how much time is spent on the basics of tone production. Younger players, in general tended to grab their horns and just jump right into it, trying to play through scales, etc. and generally running into problems, then going back and forth over them. 

Let's take a moment and break down an example of this. Let's consider the following scenario: you are/you have/you are teaching a student that is having a hard time getting all the pitches in a C major (F concert scale). Here is how it manifests itself. The player starts playing, they get success on the first few notes, then as the ascend the scale (usually tonguing) the pitches start to get away from them, the sound starts to diffuse, and the ability to get the right pitches, at the right time goes away. Sound familiar? This is a very common scenario I see, I usually show up and am told that the student can't play pitches above a certain note, and has a hard time pitching. My first step when this happens to me, or to someone/a group I am teaching is the first question, what do you usually do to warm up. This is based on a presumption that scales form a large part of band method (which it usually does). The usual answer I get is along these lines:

I start buzzing a bit, then play some scales, and get to music. Sounds good right? So I ask the students to go through this process, take their time, etc. Generally this means a few seconds of a buzz, scrambling around a scale (trying to play it really fast) and that's it... all done in under a minute. Now we have to assume the teachers presence will cause them to rush things, so I give the benefit of the doubt and try to get them to repeat it, and just slow down and take more time, slur their scales (just a few notes at a time), and find a nice sound. I was always surprised to be met with the following responses.

1. We never practice sluring.
2. We have to play our scales at 8th notes at 100bpm (usually in grade 7 or so)

For consistency, I generally observed these same things when observing large groups of students warming up: fast, tongued, and random (not in a "wow! they are improvising a scale exercise" or something similar)

The take away from this is as follows, SLOW DOWN, slur things, focus on a narrow range of comfortable pitches to start, and allow it to expand from that core. Band method can force people into the extremes pretty quickly, so the duty to teach simple and effective exercises that don't overwhelm the students can end up falling to us, the teacher. Finally, practice slurs, just between two notes... it can open up the entire world. 

In my experience professionals, and students that are achieving more consistent results start their day out slow. Single tones, relaxed, efficient, and focused on getting the simple stuff in order. After that those positive habits are stretched out into the other areas of playing. 

If you have seen my student horn book you will notice right away that one of the key approaches is to create a simple sound, and then reach out with it. As the exercises move forward, this approach is expanded in several ways. At the end of the day, in my experience, if we want results, we need to make sure we SLOW DOWN and make sure the sounds we make are the ones we mean to, and want to.