Reading a New Piece

Where to start when taking a look at a piece for the first time? Obviously there are as many approaches as there are musicians, and different pieces call for different attention. For an example, let’s take a look at the Duos for Flute and Clarinet by Robert Muczynski. (I’ll be performing this with my clarinetist colleague in October.)

First, I do a quick flip through the score. I look for really big picture things like how many movements it has, the general tempo markings, whether each movement tends to look more lyrical or more technical, and so forth. This gives me an idea of the overall road map and usually alerts me to sections that will require more work than others. (Sometimes I’m wrong but I have to start somewhere.)

I focus on rhythm first. In my mind, I have a much stronger grasp on the piece if I have the rhythm scaffolding established, and then I can go back and fill in pitches. If I focus on pitches instead, it takes me much longer to get a piece worked up. It is true that I can’t always separate the pitches out but my main focus is the rhythm. To learn the rhythm, I count, tap it out, sing a syllable, conduct while counting or singing, or a combination of these. I usually am not playing my flute at this point. I go ahead and mark the spots where I am not able to immediately count it accurately. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to avoid practicing mistakes.) I’ll focus in on those spots, incorporate them back into the larger context, and continue my rhythm work. I look for the patterns, which saves a lot of mental energy; I can just apply those already-learned rhythms when they reappear. I continue this analysis until I feel like the scaffolding of the piece is there.

Then, while still not playing flute, I take a look at the dynamic shaping, the phrases, the range, and whether those things coordinate or work against each other in some way. Often, when I’m a little further in the learning process, I will create a dynamic chart, where I map out the dynamics alone to see the big picture. This is especially helpful when working on the pacing of a piece.

After all of that is done, I pick up a flute and start playing pitches. I was never strong in ear training class, so I can’t always hear pitches in my head with complete accuracy; doing so isn’t efficient for me, so I use the flute to create those pitches. If I’ve gotten the rhythm relatively stable, the only things that might trip me up as I play through are awkward fingerings. If that’s the case, I work on those in tiny groupings until the unevenness is worked out. (I’m sure I have a blog post about that somewhere...) However, I am generally free to work on just pitches because I’ve established the rhythm already.

If I tried to work on everything all at once and move measure by measure, I would make very little progress. For me, dividing out the musical elements allows me to work efficiently and learn more music in less time.


Applied Teaching in Woodwind Pedagogy

I teach woodwind pedagogy at South Dakota State University each fall, and it is always a juggling act. I like the text I use (Teaching Woodwinds, Mountain Peak Music) and I’m confident that my students will be able to employ it later as a helpful resource when they are in the trenches. However, it is difficult to juggle the presentation of brand new material about five different instruments and provide them with enough playing in-class playing time during the semester in a class that meets for only 50 minutes twice a week. Some of the material in the text is obviously best left for when the students actually need it (such as repertoire guides and the like) but some needs to be addressed in class. And while the performance bar is “fifth grade proficiency,” I think providing them with a beginning band in-class performance experience is valuable for many reasons. I also think it’s important for them to have the opportunity to do some teaching during the course of the class. I tweak the syllabus every year but I generally include the following components: going over the most basic, essential information on each of the five woodwinds; playing in a simulated band class frequently; and having them give mini lessons to classmates on one woodwind instrument they’ve had some experience with. This last component is what I’ll focus on for the rest of this post.

Each student is required to give one mini-lesson during the course of the semester. There are a lot of factors that go into the timing of these lessons; some students have had previous woodwind experience and others have not. To even the playing field (and to get the pace of the course well-established), I don’t schedule these until after the students have been tested on their first woodwind. This is approximately one-third of the way through the semester, and I can assume that every student in the class has some basic skills on at least one woodwind instrument at that point. I usually stagger these throughout the remainder of the semester so entire class periods aren’t full of nothing but lessons.

During the lesson, the teaching student is required to cover material that would be appropriate for a “first lesson.” In South Dakota, it is common for band directors to also give a one-on-one lesson to each student during the week. Therefore, these are skills that really will be likely components in their jobs. In my class, the teaching student will explain how to sit properly, open the case, and assemble the instrument. Depending on how quickly they are able to proceed, the student might try getting a sound out of the instrument (or perhaps just the head joint, mouthpiece, or reed). The teaching student demonstrates disassembly and proper placement of the parts in the case. Cleaning the instrument is also addressed. As these lessons take place, there are often snags – the student might have difficulty lining up the parts appropriately during assembly or might have trouble getting a sound. The teaching student is then tested and must use troubleshooting skills to work through the challenge. Most of the time, it goes well; even if it doesn’t, it’s a great simulation of the kind of situation they will be in once they are in a teaching job.

These lessons are conducted in a masterclass format. The rest of the class watches and is generally very supportive. They are tasked with taking notes, indicating portions of the lesson they thought worked well and opportunities for the teaching student to improve. Some of this feedback is discussed directly after the lesson, and I compile all comments and send them to the teaching student afterwards.

In addition to helping the teaching student get a little bit of real-world experience, these lessons serve another purpose. They really help to reinforce (for everyone) basic fundamentals. Ideas of healthy posture, proper hand placement, accurate instrument assembly, cleaning procedures, and many other “givens” are reinforced over and over throughout the semester. While it isn’t explicitly stated during each lesson, the repetition serves to make these ideas second nature, so when the student teacher becomes Teacher, they will hopefully impart the ideas to their students automatically. (It will also help their own playing, if they have developed any inefficient habits in these areas!) I also use in-class playing time to reinforce musical fundamentals, but that is a subject for another post…

Scott/Garrison Duo – Perennials

Albany Records
Performed by The Scott/Garrison Duo: Shannon Scott, clarinet; Leonard Garrison, flute and Rajung Yang, piano

Perennials for flute, clarinet, and piano (2011)
    I. Joyous Overture
    II. Romanza
    III. Scherzo
    IV. Winter Prayer
     V. Spring Awakening

Three Romances for flute and clarinet (2007)
     I. Languid
     II. Sultry
     III. Frisky

Invention No. 1, BWV 772 by J.S. Bach, arr. Dorff for flute and clarinet

Andante con Variazioni for flute and clarinet (1975) 

Invention No. 4, BWV 775 by J.S. Bach, arr. Dorff for flute and clarinet

Three Little Waltzes for flute and clarinet (2010) 

Invention No. 6, BWV 777 by J.S. Bach, arr. Dorff for flute and clarinet

Two Cats for flute and clarinet (2007)
    I. Hootie
     II. Tiki

Invention No. 8, BWV 779 by J.S. Bach, arr. Dorff for flute and clarinet

Dances and Canons for flute and clarinet (1976)
     I. Waltz
    II. Canon
     III. Ballade 
    IV. Canon
     V. Invention
     VI. Dance
     VII. Nocturne
     VIII. Canon
     IX. Dance

Pastorale (Souvenirs du Frög) for clarinet and piano (1994)

This newly-released collection of works for various combinations of flute, clarinet, and piano by Daniel Dorff is expertly executed by the Scott/Garrison Duo, joined by pianist Rajung Yang. Shannon Scott is Instructor of Clarinet at Washington State University, and Leonard Garrison is Associate Professor of Flute at the University of Idaho. Rajung Yang is Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Idaho.

Dorff’s music is fresh and highly listenable. This album primarily includes works written quite recently but there are a few works – Andante con Variazioni, Dances and Canons, and Pastorale (Souvenirs du Frög) – that date from earlier in Dorff’s catalogue. Each work is consistently a pleasure to hear. The title track was commissioned by Walfrid Kujala and Sherry Kujala for their friends Helen Ann Shanley and Richard Shanley, and Dorff explains that his approach to composition includes building repertoire that lasts, much like perennial plants. He expands this idea further to apply to the long-lasting relationships between people, and the work (as well as the album) suddenly had a name. This relationship-based, friendly approach to composition is apparent throughout this album.

Three Romances is a delightful collection of movements for flute and clarinet. They are highly contrasting and provide the performer with ample opportunity to be expressive and show different colors. It’s a very conversational piece and allows for much back-and-forth between the two players.
Scattered throughout the album are several two-part inventions by J.S. Bach that Dorff arranged for flute and clarinet. They are lovely to hear and would work very well in a recital setting either individually or grouped together.

Woodwind Pedagogy

One of the classes that I teach each fall is Woodwind Pedagogy. Most of the students who take this class are music education majors, and this specific class is one of their degree requirements. The goal is to have each student reasonably proficient on three different woodwind instruments by the end of the semester, which is quite a task. Obviously, the scope of this class must be limited so I’ve had to ask myself what the absolute essential information is that each student should be exposed to before the end of the semester.

I require that each student spend time with a single reed instrument, a double reed instrument, and flute. The only exception is if the student plays one of those already as his or her primary instrument. We cover various topics throughout the semester; some days the students play out of method books as a “beginner band,” other days we discuss articles on pedagogy. Later in the semester, as students gain confidence, they teach each other in the style of a private lesson or masterclass. The other students in the class offer suggestions on what went well during the lesson and what might be improved on. Students also offer advice on their primary instrument if that happens to be a woodwind.

So what do I want them to learn? I tend to think back to when I was a beginner on flute and recall the things that worked well for me as well as those that didn’t. For example, I played flute for an entire year before I realized that the tongue had anything to do with articulation. This type of mistake is something I hope my students are able to detect and correct before their students develop habits that are detrimental and quite difficult to change. I also think about the struggles my beginner flute students have had.

Here are some of the ideas I want to make sure these future band teachers have a good understanding of:
how to safely put the instruments together as well as take them apart.
the proper terminology associated with each of the woodwinds.
very basic maintenance.
healthy embouchure skills.
correct fingerings.
the general sound and feel of the different types of woodwinds.
cork grease doesn’t belong on a flute!

I also want them to know about resources that are available to them. When they inevitably are confronted with a situation they don’t immediately have an answer to, I want them to know where to find the answers.

As a flutist, teaching this class has been a learning experience for me, as well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t send a huge thanks to Dr. Bret Pimentel, who generously offered advice when I was putting together my woodwind pedagogy class last fall. He has fantastic blog posts about the work of a woodwind doubler/professor on his site, which have been excellent additions to my own class here at SDSU.

Woodwind pedagogy teachers and band directors: what other topics might be useful that I haven’t included above?