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

Friday, August 31, 2012

Scientific Method (and also smashing)

The art of good teaching begins with a deep understanding of the discipline to be taught.  I'm currently writing a saxophone method book, and the project has required some pretty detailed analysis of the techniques used in sound production.  I've always been interested in comprehending the specifics of technique, and that interest has spanned the course of my career, as a student, an artist, and a professor.

Effective practice is all about being a good student.  Intellectual curiosity is a basic requirement.  I can remember feeling very frustrated with certain aspects of playing the saxophone whenever I couldn't get a clear answer of how something works.  This frustration caused me to employ the scientific method in the practice room.  25 years later, I still find myself conducting musical experiments to solve the mysteries of great musicianship.

1.  State the problem.  The statement must be clear and concise.  If you can't clearly identify the problem, how can you solve it?  Below are a couple of examples.

     Poor statement: "I can't play that measure without squawking."

     Good statement: "Descending from high A to middle D, the D sounds like a high A."

2.  Form a hypothesis.  Make an educated guess on the cause of the problem.  For the problem above, let's guess that the embouchure is too tight, causing the D to jump up an overtone.

3.  Devise an experiment.  Gather data, and use all the tools at your disposal.  Continuing with our sample problem, we try playing with an exaggeratedly loose embouchure.  In this case, we fail to correct the problem.  In the testing phase, imagine that we recorded video, performing in the normal manner, and again with the exaggerated embouchure.  Although the problem wasn't solved, a careful look at the video reveals that the octave key on the neck is still opened, closing a fraction after the middle D fails to come out.  Time for a new hypothesis.

     "The D sounds as an A, because the switch from neck to body octave vents is late."

Form a new test.  In this case, descending from G to middle D would be revealing, since both notes use the same octave vent.  For our purposes, let's say that we have no problem performing that interval properly.  Eureka!

4.  Create an exercise that works toward solving the problem.  The classic exercise for this situation is to play an A, and to insert a G as a grace note before the middle D.  Practice executing the progression with shorter and shorter grace notes, until they finally disappear.  The result is an inaudible, but very important early depression of the left ring finger, ensuring a timely closing of the neck vent.  Take that exercise to the practice room, and smash!

Problems are usually accompanied by complexities, and there can be many different approaches to solving them.  The hardest part of this process is beginning with a really clear statement of the problem, so take the time to isolate the issue with clarity and specificity.  I'm currently looking at common problems with circular breathing techniques, and it has taken me a week to go from my original problem to a set of smaller, more specific problems, each requiring a slightly different solution.

Musicians must be part-scientists, so keep conducting good experiments.  Just remember to use the scientific method to stay on task, and to guide you to the answers.  Practice well!