Note Reading: Following the Contours

Note Reading is one of the most fundamental, but difficult, skills for beginner musicians.

In this blog post, I will share with you one of the novel approaches invented by a student and her father for reading simple melodies.

Rachel* (not her real name) was having trouble with note reading. She is nine years old and began playing the flute about a month ago. At a previous lesson, I had worked with her on seeing how a melody walks up and down by steps. We drew lines over the notes indicating the rise and fall of the melody. Rachel is a beginning student and she has learned the notes B-A-G but has trouble identifying them on the staff.

Over the next week as he helped Rachel with her lesson assignment, Rachel’s dad came up with a great new way to think about reading the contours of the line. This is a page from Rachel’s book showing a simple melody with the notes B-A-G.

note reading ideas

BAG notes

 

Rachel’s dad asked her to draw dots in a line to represent the pitches. Then he asked her to connect the dots. The first four measures looked like this:

reading notes by contours

Reminding Rachel to begin on the note B, I asked her to play the melody while looking at the dots. When the dots went down, she added one finger. When they went up, she lifted a finger. Success!

After playing the melody this way a couple of times, we compared the dots on her paper with the dots (notes) in her lesson book. It was easy for her to see the contour. Rachel was able to play the entire exercise with few mistakes. She was happy and so was I.

I wish I could take credit for this innovative approach, but it was Rachel’s dad who came up with this solution. He understands better than anyone how Rachel thinks. He knows that she is a visual learner but needs to have the information simplified. The regular music staff in the book had too much distracting information for Rachel to process. She was confused about the stems on the notes and was having difficulty focusing on the five lines. This very simple method eliminated all the unimportant information and made the contour easy to see.

This trick worked great today with a simple stepwise melody on three notes. It’s a solution for today, not a panacea. Tomorrow, it will be another challenge and we’ll find new, innovative ways to learn together.

 

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

Music as a Spiritual Practice: My Path

The Beginning

spiritual practice at church

Covenant Presbyterian Church

Like many people, I first began to connect music and spiritual practice while a young child. I attended a large, stone Presbyterian church with my mother. The church was well endowed and had a huge organ, robust choir, bell choir, several children’s choirs, and occasionally an orchestra. It was a rich place for music.

My favorite service of the year was Easter. The church was full of people, the altar adorned with lilies, and the choir was resplendent in their robes. At the end of the Easter service, organist Trudy Faber would take the organ to its full volume and open the trumpet stops. I remember the sanctuary filled with sound, feeling the floor vibrate under my new white shoes. Even now, just thinking about it, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. As I listened to the organ in the grand sanctuary while gazing at the stained glass windows and flying buttresses, I felt divine ecstasy. This was an awe-inspiring experience that forever linked music with spirituality.

Music still has that power over me. When I am moved by music, I feel its spiritual force within me and a reconnection with the divine.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I don’t know where I got the idea to play the flute, but my mom remembers me telling her that I wanted to play and insisting on it until she relented. Practicing the flute was a pleasant escape from the intensity of my home. While other teens were talking on the telephone or listening to the radio, I was playing the flute in the safe cocoon of my room. This is where I learned how to be alone to be comfortable with silence, and to direct my own learning. (Just to be clear, I had no guidance on how to practice and consequently had terrible practice habits that wasted a lot of time.)

Practicing also cultivated grit because my commitment to the flute was unwavering. In fact, I never missed a day of practice during the entire four years of high school.

Much later, I would learn to meditate. I have come to understand that my music practice is a meditation, reaching that same place of calm and flow.

Music has also opened me up to a range of emotions. For a melancholy piece, I must channel the composer’s pain and reference difficult moments in my life. On the other hand, jubilant music makes me feel energized. Little by little, music has expanded my emotional intelligence. It helps me to simply sit with people who are sad without trying to “make things better.” I am learning to be present with uncomfortable feelings… without trying to change them. Performing music demands that a musician stay present and fully engaged, no matter the emotional intensity.

Music practice can be a spiritual practice. I learned how to be still, how to listen, how to commit mind and action to a singular goal. Music cracked open my heart to the joy and suffering of life.

University Studies

degree

MM from CU

The Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Top Chef… the judging tables in these shows are less intense than music school. Universities accept only a fraction of students who audition. Fewer make it through the first year. Every week, professors offer criticism in lessons and studio class. Then there are the yearly juries and solo recitals. Music students are required to make fast progress while working through stage fright and self-doubt.

While many teachers tried to be constructive with their criticism, the voices in my head were more destructive. Am I good enough? Do they like me? What if I shake/get sweaty hands/can’t breathe? Facing these fears has been difficult. At times, the negative self talk was deafening, paralyzing. My playing suffered from performance anxiety. So I took classes in Alexander Technique and performance anxiety. I developed a tough skin.  Eventually, I learned that obsessing over these minor details did not serve the music. We do our best and then we move on.

Confronting self-doubt is a kind of spiritual practice because it leads to love and forgiveness.

Post-Graduate

flute studio in 1997

studio photo 1997

After graduating with a masters degree in flute performance, getting married, and moving back to Ohio, I worked to build a career in music. Very quickly I learned that there were lots of other people trying to do the same thing and they were just as driven, just as talented (often more talented.) It was thrilling to land a good gig but it also sent me into a spiral of over-work, self-doubt, and anxiety. Teaching, however, has always been something I love. I have a terrific home studio of flute students, teach classes for preschoolers at recreation centers, and work as a music director for a wonderful church, which is aligned with my spiritual beliefs. This wasn’t the career I had envisioned, but I have a passion for it. All of these jobs allow me to help others find joy in music.

Finding my place in the music community has taught me humility and given me a sense of purpose.

Growing a Soul

Meditation, prayer, ritual, yoga, fasting, and writing are all examples of common spiritual practices. I believe that studying and performing music can also be part of a spiritual practice. For some people, the point of spiritual practice is achieving a closer connection with a higher power. For others, it is liberation from this world. But for me, the goal of any spiritual practice is to grow a soul. Music has been part of my life since the beginning. I am aware of ways that it has shaped me into the person I am today. The lessons I am learning are about

Traveling a spiritual path means greater self-actualization. Music continues to reveal new ways to explore the journey.

Reinvigorating Flute Practice

“Goodie Bags” for Reinvigorating Flute Practice

As musicians, there are times when we know we need some help reinvigorating our flute practice.  We might feel like we’re spinning our wheels and not improving. Maybe we’ve prepared everything for the lesson as best as we can but don’t feel like there’s anything else to do. Or perhaps the teacher is out of town and you have another week before she assigns new material. Sometimes practice can feel monotonous and we need a little jolt of excitement to get the creative juices flowing again.

“Besides the lesson assignments, what else can I practice?”

But if you have prepared all the lesson materials and are still looking for something to do (or if you need new ideas to add some excitement to your practice), try the following activity.

Practice Goodie Bags

Print out this sheet and cut on the dotted lines.

ideas for creative flute practice

Notice that there are two columns. One is marked “no flute needed.” Place these pieces of paper in one bag and the items in the “flute needed” column in the second bag. You can fold them in half to conceal the contents. Tape the headings on to the bags like this:

bags of ideas for practice

two bags to choose from

Activities in the “no flute needed” bag include activities online, composition ideas, singing/humming the lesson, and exercising. These might not seem like practicing, but time spent in these activities will help your playing and deepen your musical knowledge.

In the “flute needed” bag, you will find ideas for improvising, practice hacks, and reminders to practice sight reading and record yourself.

You could just choose an activity off the list, but I think drawing from a mystery bag is much more fun. My children use a similar activity for chores. We write chores on slips of paper and draw them one at a time. We also write a few fun activities on the paper to stir things up. They don’t really want to do any of the chores, but when the bag tells them (not me!) they will get to work.

More ideas for general motivation (not just reinvigorating flute practice) can be found in a three-part series I wrote for this blog:

Blog articles on creative ways to practice include

Happy practicing!

Grit for Musicians: Practicing and Parenting

Is Grit the Secret to Success In Music?

I first heard about Angela Duckworth and her research on “grit” on a Freakonomics podcast. Duckworth talks about how persistence, not talent, is the secret ingredient for success. It got me thinking about how grit translates to music, especially its application in practice.

What is grit?

According to Angela Duckworth, grit is “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” It seems clear that studying music is a gritty activity. Learning to play an instrument is a long-term commitment if any success is to be achieved.

From the book review of Grit in Scientific American: (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/review-of-grit-the-power-of-passion-and-perseverance/)

In this standardized testing culture, Grit is a good reminder that an exclusive focus on ability and potential can distract us from the importance of other variables important for success.

Grit may be more important than talent.

There are plenty of musicians out there with natural talent. Some even have the almost mystical ability of perfect pitch. Yet not all people with perfect pitch become professional musicians. It seems that talent can kick-start a musician because it creates a positive feedback loop. Talent says, “I’m good at this. It’s easy. People recognize my innate ability.” But talent can also be a hinderance. When music practice becomes difficult (and it does get hard at some point for everyone), only the gritty will push through and learn new skills. Of course when a student is endowed with both talent and grittiness, the chance of success is high. As a music teacher, however, if I had to choose between a student with lots of talent or lots of grit, I would choose the grit. Every time.

Want to find out how much grit you have?

Take THE GRIT SCALE quiz

Even if you score low on the “grit scale,” the good news is that grit can be cultivated, even increased.

What do gritty people have in common?

By studying people who are particularly gritty, Angela Duckworth has observed four things the grit paragons display and cultivate:

grit in musicians

Cincinnati Symphony – paragon of grit

  1. Interest
  2. Deliberate Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope

Duckworth observed that people who pursue one interest for long periods of time “learn to substitute nuance for novelty.” I love that. As a musician, I’m not constantly switching instruments. I’m delving more deeply into the repertoire of the flute and perfecting the craft of teaching. There is always more to learn about a subject.

Deliberate practice is something I have discussed many times on this blog. Brain research is helping us understand that some kinds of practicing are better than others. Good practice habits include being able to isolate a mistake and employ solutions to remedy it. Another “grit” researcher, Anders Ericsson puts it this way: “So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.”

How can parents help kids become more gritty?

As a parent (see my admission on this blog about being a Tiger Mother), I want my kids to grow up to be gritty. How do we foster resilience in kids? Perhaps studying music is one way to cultivate grit. When your child studies an instrument, there will be opportunities for improving grit (theirs… and yours!)

Don’t let your child quit music. Teach your child that playing an instrument is a long-term commitment. Everyone comes to a point when things get hard and quitting seems the only way out. Help your child understand that music, like many other pursuits, will seem really hard from time to time. Remind your child of other times they have been frustrated but persevered and overcame the challenge. If your child is just beginning to study an instrument and wants to quit, don’t give in! Set a reasonable time period (6 months – 1 year) after which you will discuss the possibility of changing instruments.

The Atlantic Magazine recently published an article “How To Teach Students Grit.” The author wondered about the role of grit in academic settings. One of the most interesting findings was the role of intrinsic motivation in achievement. Behaviorism, using rewards and punishments to change behavior, is proving to be a colossal disaster in the classroom. A 2011 study of behaviorism in New York public schools (“Financial Incentives and Student Achievement“) showed that incentives such as money had no effect on changing student performance.

In Dallas, students were paid to read books. In New York, students were rewarded for performance on interim assessments. In Chicago, students were paid for classroom grades. I estimate that the impact of financial incentives on state test scores is statistically zero, in each city. -Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

Behaviorism relies on the ability of external forces to change behavior. When students are motivated by rewards, it is called extrinsic motivation. Students who are intrinsically motivated do things because they want to or because they know it’s the right thing to do. As parents, we must be careful of using too many rewards, thereby discouraging intrinsic motivation.

I’ve discussed motivation in music in other blog posts (Motivation: Parenting and Practicing, Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), but if you are going to use rewards like a sticker chart or money to reward your child for practicing, do it for a short period of time.  Recitals, positive feedback, and continued success in music will foster intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is critical for finding purpose (see #3 in the characteristics of gritty people list.)

Be sure to show your child the world of art and music. Your child needs to see that he or she has a place in the arts, that she is part of something larger. Give them hope that there is more in the world of music than high school marching band. (Not knocking marching band– it’s awesome, but there’s so much more to discover.) A hopeful outlook is one of the hallmarks of a gritty individual.

A final thought

If grit is the secret to success in music, and music is the key to success in life, then grit and success have a direct relationship. The more grit, the more success. Not just in music. In everything.

Embouchure Variations

Embouchure Variations

What does the “perfect embouchure” look like?

I’ve been asked many times what a “proper” or “perfect” embouchure should look like. The answer is simple: There is no one right way to play the flute.

Go to Larry Krantz’s website where you will see 18 pictures of the lips of professional flutists. (http://www.larrykrantz.com/embpic.htm)

A quick glance of the pictures will show you that there is a wide variation of embouchure formation. Some are off-center. Some of the lips show a pronounced “teardrop” in the middle.

The “teardrop” is a natural feature of some lips. I’ve heard of beginning band directors who will not allow students with a “teardrop” lip to begin playing the flute. That is absolutely ridiculous!

Early in my teaching career, I was interviewed for a book (Sign Me Up!). I talked to the author about how I felt that a child’s interest and enthusiasm were much more important than their physical traits. I still feel that way after 20+ years of teaching.

With enough passion and careful instruction, students will adapt to whatever shape their lips happen to be.

Flute Memes: My Favorites

Flute Memes

Social media is overflowing with memes for everything, including music. Flute memes appear on my Facebook page nearly every day.

For your enjoyment, I offer a collection of my favorite flute memes.

Deep but uplifting:

flute memes


I can’t decide if I love this one because it shows all the parts of a flute or because I have a love/hate relationship with IKEA.

 

flute memes


Feeling small before the almighty Bach:

flute memes


Because the flute is not for the faint of heart:

flute memes


This is one I found on the subway in Montreal:

flute memes


The Donald has inspired a lot of memes, but this one is my favorite:

the best termperament


Although not a meme, at least one person has been nearly killed by a flute.

“SERIOUS ACCIDENT AT THE VINTNERS’ HALL. On Tuesday night an accident occurred at the Vintners’-hall, Thames-street, to a gentleman of the name of Ireland, brother of one of the liverymen of the company, which caused great alarm to those who were assembled at dinner on the occasion of the celebration of the Lord Mayor’s-day. He entered the hall a little before 9 o’clock, and took his seat nearly under the orchestra. He had not been there above ten minutes when the flute belonging to one of the musicians dropped from the orchestra on his head. The blood immediately flowed most profusely, and he was for a moment stunned. Mr. May, a surgeon of the neighbourhood, was instantly called in, who found that he had received a slanting wound on the scalp. The wound was dressed, after which Mr. Ireland was conveyed home in a coach. The stewards promptly inquired how the accident originated, when it was ascertained that while the musician was adjusting the leaves of his music-book the flute slipped out of his hand. The man was perfectly sober. It was stated by Mr. May that he did not anticipate any fatal result.”
–unnamed reporter, in The [London] Times, 12 November 1841, page 7


And this one isn’t a flute, but it made me laugh so hard that I have to share it with you.

musician poster

look closely at the mouthpiece


 

Stay tuned, friends. I’ll add more of these gems as I find them. (Updated September 27, 2016)

What are your favorite flute memes?

 

Flute Acoustics

Flute Acoustics: the mystery and the science

simple drum

Madinga slit drum – simple drum

The flute is the second oldest musical instrument in the world but flute acoustics are highly complicated. The drum is the oldest musical instrument in the world, and their acoustics are rather straightforward. A hand or mallet strikes the drum and it begins to vibrate. The air around the drum expands and compresses to create sound waves.

Completely unlike the drum, the flute produces a tone by splitting an airstream on an edge. There are many different kinds of flutes. For example, a recorder is a kind of flute. The recorder produces a sound when air blown through the mouthpiece is directed at the sharp edge of the whistle. Pan pipes are also a kind of flute, because air is blown over the opposite edge of an open tube. Instead of keys, each tube on the panpipe is a different length and creates a different pitch.

On all flutes, vibration is caused by the displacement of the jet of air and the pitch is formed by a resonating pipe. Changes in the pitch are produced by changing the pipe length. That’s the short explanation of flute acoustics.

flute acoustics

giant pan pipes

For a more technical explanation of flute acoustics, check out these websites:

Flute acoustics: and introduction

General info on acoustic physics of the flute: (also other instruments)

The modern flute is an acoustic wonder. The lip plate and tone hole are carefully crafted for the proper edge resistance. The Boehm System flute that most flutists play has 18-20 keys. The keys open and close tone holes to create approximately 40,000 fingering combinations. The flutist’s bible for fingerings is A Modern Guide To Fingerings for the Flute by James Pellerite. It contains page after page of standard fingerings, multi-phonics, trills, tremolos, and fingerings for special situations.

flute acoustics modern flute

A student recently told me about some online resources for fingerings. (Thanks, James, for the links!)

“The Virtual Flute” allows you to find fingerings using an algorithm. You can ask it to generate all tones that can theoretically be produced by a given fingering or you can ask it to find all the fingerings for a given pitch (or pitches). This is a fantastic resource for composers looking for new sound capabilities of the flute. It’s also a novel way to find new fingerings for difficult passages in flute music or to find fingerings that may be useful for correcting pitch problems.

Another website offers flute fingerings for a variety of flutes, including ones with different footjoints and Baroque flutes:

 Note-by-Note acoustic response data (experimental):
http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/music/flute/modernC/results.html

Opening and closing the tone holes isn’t the only thing that influences pitch. The angle of the air, speed of air, and temperature of the room will have an effect on the pitch. Manufactures have different “scales” they use to determine the size and placement of the tone holes. I am especially interested to know if there is an algorithm that understands the slight differences in a manufacturer’s scale. There are some trill fingerings that are radically different depending on which brand of flute is played. Some flutes will have extra tone holes, such as the C# key and this creates even more fingering possibilities. Because pitch and tone quality are inextricably linked on the flute, the player’s body will have some mysterious effects on the sound coming out of it. But that’s going down another rabbit hole…

Flute acoustics is a fascinating topic, one that is worthy of study. Save these links for a good reference and enjoy a bit of a left-brain workout when learning about the science of acoustics. Now, go practice!

 

Music and Healing

Music as Medicine: Healing Tunes.

When I was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, the flute studio was involved in a collaboration with the hospital. We worked with a researcher on a study about increasing air capacity with the regular use of an inspirometer. The flute students were asked to keep a log of our use of the device and our lung capacities were measured in the lab before and after using the device.

Another part of the collaboration involved the Flute Troupe being invited to perform at the opening ceremony for the cancer memorial garden on campus. I was very honored to take part in that beautiful outdoor ceremony.

The flute studio worked for a couple of years on various projects linking music and healing. The project that I remember most vividly was being asked to play at the hospital. Our flute troupe played in the lobby once or twice for the people in the waiting room. It seemed to make the mood lighter and help anxious loved ones pass the time while they waited for news.

Individually, we prepared unaccompanied solo music to play in the surgery recovery area. I remember going by myself to University Hospital and being led back into a space where people were waking up after cancer surgery. Gurneys were being rolled in and out, there were beeps of monitors, and nurses were busy tending to patients. I played “Syrinx” and some Irish tunes. I improvised peaceful music. I’d like to think that maybe someone waking up from surgery was comforted by the sounds of the flute. That experience changed me. I found a quiet in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a busy hospital. I felt like I had something special to offer, that maybe my music would be meaningful to someone. Some of the nurses smiled. I hope that it was comforting to them and I hope I wasn’t in the way of their very important work.

The belief in music and healing continues to inform my playing.

Years later, I would play my flute for my grandmother when she was in the hospital. When my grandfather was at the end of his life, my sister and I sang at his bedside. More recently, I sang to my father-in-law when he was in his final hours. Bringing music into these sacred spaces felt good, human, comforting.

So when I came across an article about the use of Sufi music in Turkish hospitals, I felt an immediate connection and wanted to share my story with you, dear reader.

In Turkey, Sufi music is used to decrease patient stress.

Do you have a story about music and healing? Perhaps a time that music was medicine to you? Please share!

 

 

Gigs

Gigs: The Fun and the Funny.

Freelance musicians are dependent on gigs for their livelihood. Though it may seem like an easy way to make money, the truth is a bit more complicated. The lovely music you hear at a wedding may be lovely, but it is a tiny part of what goes into performing gigs.

gigs

toddler theater with Rotten Ralph, Sept. 2015

I consider myself very lucky to be a freelance musician. I love my career. It’s exciting to be working for myself and adapting to the wide variety of occasions my services are needed. This week, I played an outdoor wedding, headlined a concert for 250 toddlers, taught music classes, rehearsed and conducted an adult choir, team-taught an arts program with the theme “autumn leaves,” met individually with flute and recorder students, and performed at a birthday party for a dozen two-year-olds. But those are just the performing moments, the ones that everyone knows about and which seem glamorous. There were also hundreds of miles of driving, instrument schlepping (my arms are sore today!), practicing, emails and phone calls, QuickBooks data entry, standing in line at the bank, and paying a big health insurance premium bill. Those things are not so fun.

My friend Emily Packard has a wonderful blog article about her adventures as a gig musician Take a moment to read it. Her writing is terrific and the story is a good one, though I feel very sorry for her poor violin.

Emily Packard’s blog

gigs

this is the performance where I almost fainted. the sun was scorching!

Another blog popped into my Facebook feed as I sit here writing this. The Self-Inspired Flutist is another article about the perils of being a performing musician. I laughed out loud when reading about the author’s horrible experience of having her skirt fall off during a recital. Performing without clothes on is every musician’s recurring nightmare and it really happened to Terri Sanchez.

Have you read the book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly? Anthony Boudain’s confessional is filled with hilarious, disgusting, unbelievable moments from his career as a chef.

I’ve often thought that we musicians should write something like that too. My husband is a piano technician and he loves to share war stories with fellow technicians about mice nests in pianos and colorful clients. A piano technician friend works for the Pentagon and tells entertaining stories about working in the D.C. area.

I have my share of war stories too. There was the time I nearly fainted while playing in the hot summer sun on stage with a furry shark. Or maybe you would like to hear about the funeral gig that included discreetly eating my own snot while playing the flute. But I think I’ll save those stories for my book Musician Confidential.

 

The physics of tuning

Tuning: A Physics Lesson

It’s fascinating to study the mathematics of intonation. All musicians will benefit from a basic knowledge of how the musical scale is created. As a flute teacher, I think my students should have a working understanding of the harmonic series.tuning the piano

When playing with other instruments, flutists will strive to create perfect intervals without “beats.” But when playing with the piano, the flutist must match the imperfect tuning of equal temperment.

I love this video titled “Why It’s Impossible To Tune a Piano.” Watch it a couple of times — the delivery is fast but there’s a lot of good information:

http://devour.com/video/why-its-impossible-to-tune-a-piano/

My dear husband is a piano technician. He studied at the North Bennett Street School in Boston for a year before taking the test to become a Registered Piano Technician. Yes, it is possible to tune a piano with an electric device. But there’s a difference in a piano that has been tuned by ear. Only human beings can make subtle changes to the intervals to make them sound just right. In fact, I can always tell when Bryan Hartzler has tuned a piano. It sounds different than a piano serviced by another tuner. There’s something special about the human ear that can’t be duplicated by a computer.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy watching the video. Music and mathematics. Beauty and physics. And even though the scientists can calculate precisely, music will always require the human touch.