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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Noah, Practice Monster, and the Altissimo G

My children get their music lessons at home, as my wife teaches them piano.  I'm on woodwind duty.  Yesterday was a normal day, but something special happened during my son's saxophone lesson that I was lucky enough to catch on video.

My son is a talented young man, but I wouldn't call him a prodigy.  He's a regular, eleven year-old boy. I often have to threaten him with no video games to get him to do anything, including practicing.  Yesterday was just like every other day, with me yelling something about laziness and "You'll get no Skylanders this weekened!"  Even the lesson wasn't terribly special, as he reluctantly played through his scales, complaining that low D-flat to E-flat is "too hard. I can't do it!" (Of course, he eventually played it without a problem.)

Then, there was a spark.  After playing his chromatic scale to high F#, he said, "Dad, will you show me how to play a high G?"  This is the most notoriously difficult note on the alto.  Untold numbers of university students have squeaked it in Paul Creston's sonata.  I once squeaked it on a recital performance of Warren Benson's Aeolian Song.  It's such a pain to master, I even posted my own YouTube masterclass on the subject (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OOUUXczUh4).

I showed Noah this particular exercise, and he stumbled through it.  After a couple of failed attempts, the note popped out.  I couldn't hide my surprise.  Noah suggested how funny it would be to make a YouTube video of him playing the high G, so I turned on the camera.  I did this to encourage him, and I didn't actually think that we would capture anything worth posting.   As luck would have it, I was about to catch a complete practice event.

As you watch the video, notice that he fails over and over again.  He had only played one high G in his life before I turned the camera on, and it was mostly by luck, but now the note was in his ear.  That single success fueled his perseverance, but his eyes and face show his frustration.  Notice the determined breath he takes at 0:25, and the head-in-hand moment that follows.  I made the teaching decision, in the moment, to just quietly encourage him, letting him figure it out on his own.  Somehow, even as he squawks out some accidental multiphonics, he maintains his momentum.  He slows down the exercise, explores the sounds, and he keeps going.  Failed attempts, one after another.  Then, expecting more failure, he realizes that he has done it . . . check out the delayed reaction with his eyes at 1:36.

Sensing that it was time for a break, I turned the camera off and we worked on some jazz for a few minutes.  We went into another room and I played piano for him to practice improvising on the blues.  Then, we turned the camera back on, and he proceeded to execute the exercise three times in a row.  It seems that taking a break gave his brain a chance to let it set in.  He worked through the frustration just enough to make the breakthrough, without succumbing to the frustration of the Practice Monster.

There is nothing unusual about this sequence of events.  Noah practices every day, but not for an inordinate amount of time.  He requires constant encouragement, and is often kicking and screaming all the way to success.  This video just happens to encapsulate a particularly successful practice session:
  • Inspiration/ignition
  • Failure
  • Determination
  • Failure
  • Failure
  • Calming down
  • More failure
  • Palms in eye sockets
  • More Determination
  • Even more failure
  • Success
  • Rest
  • Success!!!

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