Back to School Checklist

I may be in the minority here, but I always look forward to the unofficial tail end of summer and beginning of fall. Maybe it's all those years when mid-August meant preparing to go back to school and beginning the adventure of a new year. Maybe it's that I'm excited to finally get a break from Mid-Atlantic heat! Either way, the  quiet arrival of cooler evenings has me looking forward to fall teaching and music-making.

Whether you spent your summer working on new techniques or taking a breather for some perspective, it's time to start getting ready for a whole new season of music. Here's  a few pointers to get you headed in the right direction.

Image via PixaBay.

Image via PixaBay.

  1. Schedule an instrument check-up.
    Book an appointment with your friendly local woodwind repair technician. When your instrument is in good working order, the instrument can perform as it was designed to. It works with you to create music, not against you. It's critical to have your instrument serviced at regular intervals, no matter whether you're playing on your first plastic Yamaha clarinet or your third custom grenadilla Buffet. Pianists, check your records for the last time your instrument was serviced. If it needs a tuning, this is a great time to book it. No sense in playing Brahms out of tune! 
     
  2. Stock up on supplies.
    The first thing that comes to mind here is reeds for clarinets and saxophones. How many do you currently have in rotation? How old are they? Do you need to diversify what strengths you have? If you're not sure, this is a great time to have that conversation with your teacher. Flute players, you're a little bit luckier than your other woodwind colleagues here (no reeds!), but you still have some supplies to inventory along with them. Everyone needs to have cleaning swabs, batteries for metronomes/tuners, key cleaning papers, and the all important stash of pencils.
     
  3. Locate and organize method books and repertoire.
    This is a small task that can give you a big leg up. It's easy for books to get misplaced when they aren't being used on a regular basis, so if you didn't practice much this summer, it's important to locate materials that you know you'll be using this fall. If you already know where they are, excellent! It's on to the second part: organize these books, sheets, and electronic files in a way that helps you find them quickly when they are needed. 
     
  4. Brainstorm musical goals.
    You've done the less creative aspects of preparation, now get to the good stuff! On your own or with your teacher--or ideally, with your teacher after you've done some thinking on your own--write down what you want to accomplish this year. Maybe it's something technical, like working on a powerful bottom register on flute or keeping your altissimo notes in tune on clarinet. Maybe there's a piece you want to learn, either for your own enjoyment or a competition. Maybe your phrasing needs work, and you want to experiment more with interpretation. Some of these are big goals; don't be afraid to break them down into more manageable chunks.
     
  5. Schedule lessons.
    Don't forget to book your fall lesson times! Even if you have access to an excellent band or orchestra program, a private teacher can help you grow musically and refine technique in ways that complement your ensemble playing. And I haven't forgotten you, piano students: with fewer opportunities to play in school, you especially can benefit from time at the bench with your teacher to guide you.

Summertime 2017

Summer is generally a more relaxed time for me, without regular rehearsals or frequent infusions of fresh repertoire to work on. I've been spending a lot of time lately with piano and clarinet--both old friends that I'm eagerly re-introducing into the regular practice rotation. My flute work is focused on technical study to sharpen particular aspects of my playing and prepare for whatever the 2017/2018 season might throw at me.

Some of my colleagues spend the summer in workshops or intensives to rev up for upcoming auditions and performances. If you're feeling the need to light a fire under your playing, a summer intensive can be a great way to propel yourself forward. The work to prepare for these workshops is intense in itself, not to mention the work you'll do while you're there.

Others take some time off from their usual practice routines to create some space and come back with a fresh perspective in the fall. Neither is "better." There's always a balance to be had. If you're burned out, work on practicing smarter instead of harder. Try lessons with a new teacher. Change out what material you're working on. Maybe even take some time away from your instrument (but not too long, or it can be hard to get back in the practice groove).

How are you spending the summer?

(Not So) New Music Tuesday: Lurie and Baker Play Muczynski

A friend and colleague of mine recently gifted me with a real gem of an album, recorded in 1984: Laurie and Baker Play Muczynski. These legendary soloists perform the late 20th-century composer's chamber works for flute and piano, clarinet and piano, and flute and clarinet:

  • "Time Pieces" for Clarinet & Piano, Op. 43
  • Six Duos for Flute & Clarinet, Op. 34
  • Sonata for Flute & Piano, Op. 14
  • Three Preludes for Unaccompanied Flute, Op. 18

My favorite work on the record (yes, it's actually a record!) is the Duos for Flute and Clarinet. This album is the first recording produced of the Duos in this configuration. The six-movement piece was originally composed for two flutists rather than the flute and clarinet instrumentation heard here. It's not atypical for music for flute duo to be arranged for a flute and clarinet pairing, but what makes this particular arrangement interesting is that Muczynski himself opted to re-arrange his flute duet upon learning that Baker and Lurie would be making this record. 

Baker's reputation for exquisite phrasing and an impressive dynamic range in the extreme registers of the instrument really shines in these pieces. His performance holds up 30 years later as an example of truly virtuosic American flute playing.

Curiously, Lurie's performance, while excellent in its own right, doesn't hold up quite as well under modern scrutiny. The two colleagues I spoke with regarding Lurie shared a similar conclusion: Lurie's aesthetic is on the lighter side, embracing a pure core for his sound without exploring much of the darker, warmer timbre that the clarinet is capable of producing. This style of clarinet has largely fallen out of favor, overtaken by powerful, overtone-rich, lush sound.

Still, Baker and Lurie's sounds complement each other beautifully in this recording, where individual lines so often weave in and out of each other that it's difficult to discern where one melody ends and the next begins. They work together expertly to deliver a striking, virtuosic take on these demanding but eminently enjoyable duos. 

The entire album is well worth a listen if you can get your hands on a copy of it, a real gem of American composition and performance--and the duos are absolutely worth playing if you can find yourself a duet partner willing to take on the challenge with you.

Off-Topic Thursday: What Musicians Can Learn from Dancers

Image via Pexels.

Image via Pexels.

When my schedule permits, I like to take dance classes. I've tried swing, ballet, tap, and modern and enjoyed them all for every different reasons--much like my love for different genres of music. Dance is hands down my favorite form of exercise, since it combines artistic movement with my beloved music. What better way to take care of my body?

And what better way to introduce some variety into my artistic practice than by exploring a different discipline! Aside from the great workout and enjoyable creative experience, more often than not I leave dance classes with new ideas for things to incorporate into my musical work.

The single most important thing that I walk away with, every single class, is dancers' dedication to the foundations of their art form. In the beginner classes I take, there are a tremendous range of abilities, from true beginner up through local professional dancers. Why are professionals dancing in a beginner class? I wondered for a long time. Then I began to watch them--and their interactions with our teachers--a little more closely.

The beginner classes move slowly, with the opportunity to really focus on each movement and combination as they are presented. For the less experienced, this is a chance to learn for the first time with and form healthy, accurate understanding for future work. For the more experienced? This is their chance to focus on returning to and refining core principles. The teacher may offer a beginner like me corrections on my torso alignment, while offering the professional dancers nuanced correction on the angle of their arms.

It's not unlike a musician's time with slow scales, arpeggios, and tone exercises. When we first start out as beginners, it's our first time learning these concepts. With careful instruction and thoughtful work, we learn them as part of our core musical understanding. As a more advanced artist, we return to them as the foundation of the whole of our work. If we can't play a beautiful Bb scale when the quarter note = 80, we shouldn't be hurrying through intricate Anderson etudes at 132.

Slow, thoughtful, "beginner" exercises give the opportunity to really listen to how we are playing. Are we supporting each note of the scale evenly? Do we produce consistent vibrato throughout the entire compass of that scale? Are we playing evenly? Are we shaping the phrases of the scale? There is so much to be explored by revisiting the basics, no matter what level of musician you are. With "time, patience, and intelligent work" (thank you, Trevor Wye!), it can offer tremendous opportunities for growth.

New Music Tuesday: Rosna by Laboratorium Pieśni

I've been a fan of Laboratorium Pieśni since I stumbled across them thanks to the magic of Facebook a few months ago. Their earthy, gorgeous YouTube videos sucked me in almost as much as the magic of their Eastern European polyphony. They recently released their first full length album entitled "Rosna."

Laboratorium Pieśni is an eight-voice, all-female vocal ensemble focusing on international traditional song practice, particularly from Ukraine, Balkans, Poland, Belarus, Georgia, and Scandinavia. Their specialty is a capella polyphonic song with occasional infusion of folk instrumentation. 

The ensemble are actively engaged in field research, seeking to preserve disappearing folk music by infusing it with fresh life. They say it best on their website, "creating a new space in a traditional song, adding voice improvisations, inspired by sounds of nature, often intuitive, wild and feminine."

My favorite track on the album is easily "Sztoj pa moru" ("Out There on the Sea"), a song from Belarus. The haunting vocals and thoughtful use of percussion make this a particularly compelling track.

Lyrics:
At the sea, blue sea
There was a floating flock of white swans
And where did the gray-white eagle come from?
It dispersed the flock around the blue sea
White down rose to heaven,
Gray feathers fell on a green meadow
And who will collect these feathers?
A beautiful girl

Check out their entire album, available for streaming and purchase through Bandcamp.

Off-Topic Thursday: ZOOM iQ7 Microphone

One of my absolute favorite tools of the moment is the Zoom iQ7 Rotating Mid Side Stereo Capsule - Lightning Connector for iOS. I've been using it for about a year for everything from quick solo recordings to the main microphone to capture a stage performance, and I've been consistently impressed with its performance.

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