About Me

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

Monday, December 30, 2013

Part of the Search: My Lessons with Yusef Lateef

Yusef Lateef passed away on December 23, 2013.  He was a master musician, an accomplished composer, a Grammy award winner, and an NEA Jazz Master.  He earned a Ph. D. in Education (not an honorary degree), he made over 100 recordings as a leader, he wrote poetry and fiction, and he was a painter.  His career as a performing artist spanned seven decades, and he was a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts (and the Five Colleges Consortium).    Twenty years ago, I had the good fortune to study with him at UMASS.  In the years that followed, his music became a focus of my research.  For a period of time, we exchanged many letters, all now carefully preserved.

(at the Black Sheep, 2000)

I would visit him whenever I returned to Amherst, sometimes at his teaching studio, and other times at his favorite café, the Black Sheep.  He was always generous and kind, and he was a great supporter of the academic endeavors that led to my own professorship at James Madison University.  I gave a recital at the Kennedy Center on his 91st birthday and we performed two of his better known compositions in tribute (The Plum Blossom and Morning) .  We last exchanged letters about a year ago, and this turned out to be my last chance to express my gratitude to him.

Brother Yusef was a mentor to me in ways that I would not understand until I had many years to process our relationship.  When I first entered his studio, I was a very young man.  I was more concerned with earning his approval than with what he could teach me, and he saw through this immediately.  He was more interested in talking about the emotional content of music and sound than what notes to play.  He would say again and again that one's sound is the most important thing that they have, and that the sound should be nurtured like a child.  He turned me on to Lester Young, but he discouraged transcribing, as he felt this interfered with the process of finding one's own voice.

When we did talk about generating pitches, he was a master teacher.  I remember lessons where I would enter the room and he was already playing a chord on the piano.  He would say nothing, playing the chord over and over, and I would improvise.  When something struck him, he would nod, or laugh a little.  After awhile, he would say "What was that thing that you played with the perfect fourths?" or whatever had caught our ears.  He taught me to hone in on the things that tugged at my intuition. He once wrote to me in a letter, "I believe that intuitions speaks, and that we should listen."  Many times, he helped me to pull apart something that was interesting, and then to put it back together.  He challenged me to figure out what made that musical idea interesting to me, and how to build other ideas like it, based on the concept.  It was a constant cycle of listening, reverse-engineering, and building from scratch.  This is the way to develop unique vocabulary.  It is the long road, and I'm still walking it.

Brother Yusef came from an era when there were relatively few recordings (compared to now, for sure), and the most important aspect to gaining a reputation was having a unique sound.  He shunned labels, avoided styles, and valued observation and reflection over everything else.  I never saw him when he didn't recommend a book or two, and they were only sometimes about music.  He taught me to believe in myself, to follow my heart, and to seek answers from within.  He was soft-spoken, articulate, and gentle – but firm in his convictions.  I'm still studying from my little notebook that I kept for our lessons, working to integrate the atonal sequences, and the hybrid methodologies.  I am still listening to his recordings, and learning from the way that he was always listening.  Even as he was speaking, he was listening.  He had a sense of space and time about him that was undeniable.

"Seek knowledge, from the cradle to the grave."  He practiced what he preached.  He wasn't perfect, and he did not pretend to be.  He was humble, and he was open about his quest to keep learning and growing.  He was a pilgrim, traveling through this world.  He was a part of my search, and I will always be inspired by him, as an artist, and as a man.  Dr. Lateef's earthly journey has ended, but as long as there are ears to listen, eyes to see, and hearts to feel, his voice will ring on forever.

peace brother peace.

(inside cover to "The Man with the Big Front Yard")

For recommended recordings, follow me on twitter @PracticeMonster

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Be careful when you fight the monsters . . .

Nietzsche warned in Beyond Good and Evil, "He who fights with monsters should be careful, lest he thereby become a monster."  I had to look that up, because I'm not that well-read.  I'm working on it.

This famous quote is a terrific reminder of the meaning of Practice Monster.  Everyone gets a good laugh out of the greenish photo, and the SMASH mantra, but my intension is not to say that I am a Practice Monster, or that you should become one.  Rather, the monster represents the dark side of creative work.  Those bits inside each of us that are motivated by competition, frustration, anger, and fear – that is what forms the monster.  He lurks in dark corners, trying to rob us of the long-term satisfaction and happiness that results from patiently cultivating mastery.  He is a hungry ghost.

Practice Monster wants to be the biggest, the baddest, and the best.  He wants to destroy his competitors.  The more we feed him, the more he hungers.  He can consume the artist (or athlete, or whatever), until the original motivation is lost entirely.  He is obsessed with all the wrong aspects of the art, and worse still, he spends most of his time looking over his shoulder, terrified that a bigger, badder monster is on his heels.  His fears are justified.

This blog is about using the energy of the monster to power a higher pursuit.  A little competitiveness goes a long way, but life-long happiness can never come from a lucky win or two.  There is permanent pleasure in calmly growing a little bit each day, with temporary disregard for subjective outcomes.  Practice Monster serves a great purpose, but we must be careful to keep him on the leash.  He requires a lot of energy, and left unchecked, he will run us into the ground.

Remember that our pursuits are exactly that . . . , pursuits.  We spend most of our time preparing, and ultimately, the preparation is where the real contentment can be found.  If we place our self-worth on the performance alone, we are left severely out of balance.  Nietzsche also warned that if we stare too long into an abyss, the abyss will stare back at us.  So it is with Practice Monster.

Mastery is a moving target; every success requires countless failures.  Remember that the joy is in the process itself, and from a sheer numbers game, the process is almost the whole enchilada.  Practice well!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Saxophone Today is now available!

If you enjoy my blog, and you happen to also be a saxophonist, please consider subscribing to the all new, completely digital publication, "Saxophone Today."

I am happy to share my thoughts with you in this blog, but there is no substitute for a truly professional publication.  If you subscribed to the recently retired Saxophone Journal, you will find that ST provides a similar experience, but as a digital flip book, enhanced with live hotlinks to the web and YouTube.

I have already tested it out on my computer and my iPad, and it works beautifully in both formats.  I look forward to a long relationship with Saxophone Today, but that can only happen if people subscribe.  A high quality digital magazine with a cast of experienced, professional writers, interesting interviews, and reviews of the latest products and publications is expensive, especially if it is to be seamlessly delivered and integrated into the modern digital mediascape.

I think that you will find that the subscription rate to be very reasonable.  Find out more by clicking the link below:

Friday, November 29, 2013

On general education and the liberal arts

*originally published on my website, at popesax.com*

This letter is in response to an opinion column in the JMU student newspaper entitled,
“General Education Classes Waste Time and Effort”

October 28, 2013

Dear Ms. Williams:

After reading your recent column in The Breeze, I am strongly compelled to offer a response to your thoughts regarding the value of JMU’s curriculum in general education.  While I disagree with your assertions, I should start by expressing an understanding of where you are coming from.  I attended a large, comprehensive university, similar to JMU.  I remember not being thrilled about my GenEd requirements.  Many of the classes were frustrating and some of them felt pointless at the time.  Many years later, I can honestly say that I am deeply grateful for my strong background in general education.  Some of those classes had an unexpected impact on my life.  I owe much of who I have become to a broad education in the liberal arts.

You make some assertions that I find surprising.  For example, you use "cashier" as a sample career because it is supposedly the second most common job in the United States.  Is this the second most common career for someone with a bachelor’s degree from a comprehensive university?  Is that what you are training for?  I doubt that anyone has come to JMU, or any similar institution for that matter, to prepare for a future as a cashier.  Furthermore, to say that there is no point in training to be a Renaissance man (or woman) is a failure to grasp what a university is.  You write that "College is supposed to be a place where students can study what they want to."  That is simply not true.  University is not summer camp.  You could study "what you want" by taking private lessons from a teacher, or attending a trade school.  The very word university infers "whole," as in universal or universe.  If you want to simply study whatever you want, and to work on your resume, you have come to the wrong place.  Our country was founded by Renaissance men like Thomas Jefferson and yes, our beloved James Madison.  You accuse JMU of aiming too high, but I fear that you are setting the bar far too low.

My required studies in math and science were sometimes tedious, and certainly not a priority while I was primarily studying music, but I have come to use math and physics to better understand the way that my saxophone works, and the way that sound travels.  My students will surely tell you that this has made me a more effective teacher.  Furthermore, I have used algebra to calculate the proper capacitor values for loudspeaker crossovers, and geometry to know if my piano will fit around the corner in the hallway. (It won’t, which is nice to know without breaking my back and getting the piano stuck in the door.  Hooray, math!)  I even use numbers, and good old Pythagoras, to explain to my students how to play in-tune.

I was recently reminded of the richness of my liberal arts training while preparing for a concert at JMU, given through a conference of the Africana Studies program.  The presentation was called “Freedom in the Air,” and it combined images relating to the civil rights movement with jazz improvisation.  As I was mentally preparing, I remembered a short story that I had read in my creative writing class as an undergraduate.  I pulled my old anthology down from the bookshelf and found what I was looking for: “Going to Meet the Man,” by James Baldwin.  This is a devastatingly brutal story about a racist sheriff, and a gruesome depiction of a lynching.  As a young musician, I had no interest in reading something like this, and I was basically annoyed that my creative writing course required so much reading.  Reading that story changed me.  Reading it again, as an adult with twenty additional years of life experiences under my belt, I was glad that I have been carting that book around for twenty years.  It is important to me, and it has shaped my thoughts about music, race, and the power of great writing.  It added to the emotional power of my musical performance that evening, and I want to emphasize that I would have never read that story if I had not been required to do so.  I wouldn’t even know who James Baldwin is, or why I should care.  It’s only a few pages long, but it shaped who I am.  It was not a waste of time, effort, or money.  It was a part of my liberal arts education.  It was the best money that I have ever spent.  Ever.

I am sorry that you have such a negative feeling about your GenEd requirements, but I assure you that not all of your peers agree with you.  I read your column aloud to a group of my students, and they recoiled in horror.  They quickly started to talk about all the GenEd classes that they have valued, and the ones that they look forward to taking.  They named GenEd professors that they admire, and subjects that have struck up new interests for them.  I have wonderful students, but they are not unusual, at least not in my experience.  They are hungry for knowledge, eager to be pointed in new directions, and grateful for the opportunity to be at a place like JMU.  They don’t expect to love every single class, but they see value in the curriculum overall.

You write about JMU’s mission to create “productive citizens,” but that isn’t quite correct.  We are not aiming to make “worker bees.”  We are preparing students to be educated and enlightened citizens who live productive and meaningful lives.  That mission statement gives my career purpose, and frankly, it gives me goose bumps.  I am a benefactor of such an education, and I live a life that is rich with meaning.  Yes, I am valued by my university for my somewhat deep and narrow expertise, but my performance skills would be empty if I didn’t have something to say – something worth saying.  I owe the depth of my intellect to a comprehensive education in the liberal arts.  I didn’t fully appreciate the totality of my education when I was a young man.  Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.  In fact, I am grateful to find myself teaching at a public, comprehensive university, completing the poetic circuit that I began so many years ago.  I strive to be a model for my students, and to demonstrate what it means to be an educated and enlightened citizen who leads a productive and meaningful life.  I hope that you will reconsider your thoughts about your GenEd requirements.  If you happen to find yourself stuck in a narrow hallway with a sofa that you never should have tried to get around that corner, I hope that you will remember Pythagoras, James Madison, and me.  I wish you a productive and meaningful life.


David Pope
Professor of Saxophone (and aspiring Renaissance man)
James Madison University

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The conservatory model of education (and why it works)

Public education in America is struggling, and the surrounding debate is often focussed on assessment and finger-pointing.  We blame the students, the parents, the teachers, the administrators, and the legislators.  I am grateful to be a part of a system of teaching and learning that is flourishing.  The conservatory model is incredibly successful, and I think that it contains some wisdom that would well-serve education in general.  Here are some lessons that I wish to share about how my job sets me up to be a successful teacher.

Small classes

My office is also my studio and classroom.  I do over 90% of my teaching there.  I see each of my students once a week in a private session and once per week in a small group (usually of four students).  We also meet weekly as a large group.  75% of my teaching is one-to-one.

I get to know all of my students in a very personal way.  The emphasis on private teaching establishes a sense of trust and my students know that I care about them as human beings.  They feel safe to share their insecurities with me in a way that they would not be able to do in a large group setting.  The calm of a private lesson allows me to diagnose their needs in a very focussed manner, and to try various solutions.  Students ask questions that they might not ask in front of their peers, for fear of being embarrassed about what they don't know.  As a teacher, it saves time when a student can blurt out the words, "I don't understand."

The small group sessions present a regular opportunity to apply the skills learned in the private sessions.     In my teaching, we work on basic music skills and saxophone technique in the private lessons, and then we apply those skills in a chamber ensemble.  Again, this is done in a safe environment, away from the pressures of an audience.  The small group coaching format provides opportunities to teach individual responsibility and teamwork.  Chamber performance also instills independence, as there is no conductor.  We spend time working on drills, running through small sections of music, and refining the details that will lead to a quality performance.

The final piece of the puzzle is the weekly studio class.  This flexible time with all the students together allows for everything from specific lectures to coached performances by soloists or chamber groups.  In these sessions, the students are free to offer constructive criticism.  They share in the responsibility of teaching, actively participating in the learning process.  This progression from individual sessions to larger groups is an important part of building the necessary skills and confidence for public performances.  The studio class is the last stepping stone before taking the stage.

Individual pathways to success

I have a set of semesterly standards that my students must demonstrate.  These proficiency levels are an important part of my teaching, but they are only a guideline.  I recognize that every student is different and that they will not be able to achieve similar goals by taking the same path.  Every student is unique, which is why efforts to standardize education are doomed to fail.  In my opinion, the better approach is is to work towards discovering the best ways to help each individual to learn.  This is a time-intensive process that often results in hitting dead-ends, being forced to double back, changing tactics, and the occasional spectacular failure along the way.  The failing is probably the most important part - but more on that in a moment.

In identifying and addressing each student's weaknesses, it is vital that I have the freedom to temporarily forget about the standard proficiency levels.  When a student is unable to meet a certain standard, there is often an underlying cause that might not be easily measured by the usual assessments. For example, imagine that a student must meet a standard involving the ability to read certain pieces of music at-sight, and that a particular student cannot demonstrate the proficiency because of a difficulty in executing rhythms.  No amount of practicing sight reading would ever lead to a successful outcome without first tackling the rhythmic deficiency.  There might be nothing specifically in the standards about rhythm for that particular semester, but the "long road" approach is the only way to eventually acquire the desired skills.

Students progress on different curves.  Some will be moderately diligent in the practice room and easily meet the standards, while others will work much harder and spend a majority of their time on what might appear to be plateaus.  As an expert teacher, I am able to recognize the difference between a student that is not working, and one that is working hard to get through a period where progress is difficult to measure.  I need my supervisors and colleagues to trust me, so that the student and I can complete our work together, even if the standards of measurement fail to show what is happening.  Every student is unique, and for many, it is a long and winding road to success.

Deconstructing failure

Standardization is about measuring success - finding the correct answer.  Failure is not easily quantifiable, but anyone who has ever worked hard to succeed knows that failure is where the learning happens.

"I think it's important to have a good, hard failure when you're young.  I learned a lot out of that."  
-Walt Disney

In my teaching, I frequently use a technique that I have come to call "the guided crash landing."  Frequently, a student needs to experience failure, so that they can assess what went wrong and invent some practice strategies that will lead to a better outcome.  Sometimes the student must be allowed to stumble through a poorly prepared etude in a lesson, but a more extreme situation might call for a poor performance in front of their peers.  Failing is difficult and disappointing, but it is not the end of the world.  In fact, failure is not so much an outcome as it is a new beginning.

If my teaching was assessed only by successes, I would not be able to let my students fail.  This would completely change my profession.  I became a teacher because I love helping students to solve their problems, to deconstruct their failures, and to learn to be their own best teachers.  If my salary, or my job security was connected to a rigid form of assessment, I would be unable to really teach at all.  You can't measure how hard someone failed at art.  This brings us to the next important point.

Beauty is a cloud of possibilities

Art is about beauty.  Beauty is easily experienced, but difficult to measure.  Beauty happens in the spaces between people and art.  When we attempt to standardize beauty, we are left with skinny fashion models with bodies that don't exist in nature, clothes that nobody wears, and regular people in regular clothes feeling totally inadequate.  As each person is unique, their experience of beauty is equally personal.  In my own teaching, I have learned a lot about beauty from my students.  Interpretation happens as we perform and create, and as we observe.  Music can take us to places that we have never been, or show us an unexpected reflection of ourselves.  Art does not exist on a sliding scale of crumby to great.  A rating of beauty depends on what is being measured, why it is being measured, how it is being measured, and most importantly, who is taking the measurements.  Beauty is a cloud of possibilities.  You cannot completely contain it, and the more you grab at it, the more it slips between your fingers.

Interdisciplinary by design

My students will tell you that we take frequent side-trips into areas outside of music.  I have never seen Pythagoras on a music syllabus, but I can't teach my students to play in-tune without teaching some math.  It sometimes takes a full lesson to thoroughly explain the math of tuning, and why it is important. We also spend time exploring philosophy, literature, and culture.  Just this semester, I took several students over to the physics lab to participate in a collaboration with some physics majors.  None of that is on my syllabi.  The time invested in these excursions would be hard to justify by looking at my proficiency standards, but we are planting the seeds of intellectual curiosity.

There is no single destination for every student.  One might become a high school band director, another a music therapist, and another might leave music entirely and go to law school.  One of my graduates is a math teacher, some are freelance performers, and some are in the military.  They benefit from exposure to a wide variety of perspectives.  Again, it is the cloud of possibilities that will somehow point them in the direction of their dreams.  In many cases, they haven't even dreamed the dream yet.

Long-term accountability

I frequently hear the argument that assessment standards are used to keep teachers accountable.  As a professional educator, I obviously am not without bias, but I cannot imagine how anyone can believe that standardized testing of students can possibly paint an accurate picture of a teacher.  If test scores in a certain classroom go up or down in two subsequent years, just how useful is that information?  The situation worsens when we see that standards, and the tests are constantly changing.  In many cases, the specifics are politically motivated, influenced by lobbyists, and put in place with very little input from teachers.  I doubt that there is a single person on earth that went into teaching because they wanted to help students to improve their test taking skills.

                     "Education is a process, not a product."

We tend to force teachers into a defensive posture before they even begin to teach.  Teachers need to be trusted and given the room to take chances.  Almost every teacher that I know would like to be able to take a chance on an unlikely student, but they don't always have that kind of flexibility.  I worked very hard to earn tenure, but that tenure is not a suit of armor.  Tenure is the protection that I need to be able to take some chances, especially on students that might not succeed.  Those students are the ones that really need me, and they are the reason that I teach.  The super talented kids with tons of support and resources are headed towards careers, with or without my help.  It is the kid that needs teaching that I live for.  Some of those students are not going to make it, but they deserve a chance to try, and as a society, we should offer them that chance by supporting the teachers that can make a difference.

I am not held accountable from year to year, as measured by the course evaluations or some kind of multiple choice exam.  The university steps back and lets me work.  I am evaluated in the long-term, according to my body of work, and the successes of my graduates.  Success takes time, more than anything else.  Education is a process, not a product – it is best evaluated as such.  Many of my more successful students were fairly mediocre in the middle of our work together.  They bloomed later, sometimes years after graduation.  If I had been evaluated on their junior-year jury examination, I might have lost my job, but they turned out to have terrific careers.  It took time, because education is a process, not a product.

Contextual assessment

Every semester, my students are required to give a final performance for a panel of professors.  They are expected to demonstrate the work that they have done, over the course of the semester.  Each professor grades the student individually, and the average of those grades becomes twenty percent of the student's final grade for the semester.  This is a standard form of assessment in music.  The student will perform music from the standard repertoire, and different students will often perform the same compositions.  In some ways, this is a pretty standardized method of evaluating a student.  Each student is assigned music that is considered to be playable by a musician at their level of expected competency, and that repertoire provides an effective measuring stick.  If the student cannot successfully perform the piece, or the student has difficulty with certain passages, or even aspects of that piece, it calls into question whether or not the student should be assessed positively.

There are a few things built into the process that provide context into each unique situation.  First of all, each student fills out a form that lists everything that they have worked on, over that semester.  Every exercise, every étude, and every piece of music.  This often reveals an overarching theme to the work, giving insight into what might seem like a subpar final performance.  It can also show the opposite, and point out that a student is coasting on talent.  So this form of contextual assessment provides some accountability, but the review of the teacher/student is only twenty percent of the final grade.  This balanced approach works very well, which is why it has been used by conservatories for a long time.

Moving forward

I am certainly not implying that we can easily integrate any of these elements into a K-12 classroom environment.  Private instruction is expensive, and the research isn't totally conclusive on class size (although it arguably points towards long-term benefits for smaller classes.)  Teachers are continually expected to do more with less, all while aiming at the moving target of standardized testing and ever-shifting assessments that are tied directly to funding, and ultimately, to the security of their own jobs.  With that said, I know some amazing teachers that are already doing some of the things that I suggest, and more, even if it means swimming against the tide.

I have a number of distinct advantages, most notably that I choose my students after an audition and interview process.  They must also be accepted into the university at-large.  My studio is a group of accomplished young people that have already demonstrated considerable academic and musical success.  I can flunk a student out of the class if they aren't making it, and my job is not in jeopardy when a student drops out (as long as I maintain my target class size, which is easy because eager prospective students are lined up out the door).

It is also worth pointing out that I am the only saxophone professor at my university of approximately twenty-thousand students and a thousand faculty members, and only one of a handful of saxophone professors in the entire state.  I had to win the position in a national search process, and if I left my job tomorrow, there would easily be a hundred applicants to fill the spot.  Professors in the humanities tend to work more hours for less pay than faculty in other disciplines.  No matter, I feel very fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to work hard in a field that I believe in, and in a system that works.  If anyone tries to break it, they will have to get by me and Practice Monster first!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Beyond Boundaries: The Creative Saxophonist

I am pleased to announce that I will be writing a new, regular column in the forthcoming digital magazine, Saxophone Today.  The subject matter will be exactly as the title implies.  It will be similar to my old magazine column, but I will be free to explore a variety of styles.  I am already planning to include articles on classical music, world music integration, composing for saxophone, and much more.

The most exciting aspect of this new project is that it will incorporate video and audio, and you will be able to view it all as a digital flip book on your computer, or mobile device.  Welcome to the 21st century!

Keep an eye on the website for updates on the launching, and on how to subscribe.  I look forward to being part of this exciting new publication for saxophonists everywhere!


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Creative Practice Techniques – Using Repertoire to Generate Practice Patterns

When practicing a new piece of repertoire, it is fairly common to get hung up on a particular passage.  Recently, I have been learning Astor Piazzolla's wonderful Tango–Études.  They are melodic, romantic, and virtuosic . . . a big hit with audiences, for sure!

Some of the technical portions of the etudes contain challenging melodic patterns with wide leaps, going across the bar lines.  Piazzolla was also a crafty composer, so many of these patterns have a strange note thrown in, or might be missing a pitch here and there.  These little variations from the expected make the music sound fresh and vibrant.  It also makes it a pain in the neck to learn!

For the really tricky parts, I wrote down the passages in a notebook and analyzed them.  Then, I took each pattern and standardized it into a consistent set of intervals.  This became the basis for a practice pattern, to be executed in all twelve keys.  Once the basic pattern was well learned, I could trust my fingers to "auto-pilot" a little bit.  That freed up some mental processing power to focus on the parts that stray from the basic pattern.  In other words, I trained my eyes to see the pattern in batches of notes, and to pay special attention to the aberrations.

Sometimes, a pattern is obscured by these little variations.  Distilling a passage into its essence gives insight into the melodic roadmap, and greater freedom to concentrate on the specific components of the passage that make it so challenging.  There are also obvious advantages to practicing music in every key.  This approach requires a little more work in the beginning, but the payoff is worth the effort, and the benefits of this kind of work remain, long after the recital or concert.

Practice well!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Practice Habits on the Jazz-Classical Spectrum

this posting was reproduced in 
Mouthpiece: The Journal of the Australian Trumpet Guild (Sept 2013, Vol 15, Issue 3)

I began my musical life primarily focussed on jazz.  Over time, my interests broadened and I became very serious about classical music.  In my practice habits, I have been able to use skills from one style to  help the other.  (Actually, I see the musical styles on more of a spectrum, rather than simply one or the other.  This is a topic for another time!)  Below are some of the very general strengths and weakness that I have observed in my own experiences, and then some suggestions for how to integrate the strengths, and minimize the weaknesses.  This list is extremely general, so please, don't blast me with your negative comments.  These are just some aspects that I have observed in my own practice routines.

"Jazz" strengths
  • highly creative
  • emphasis on memorization
  • geared towards technique
  • multiple keys
  • more complete performances (as opposed to small chunks of music)
"Jazz" weaknesses
  • disorganized, or stream of consciousness-oriented
  • lack of attention to minute musical details (such as tone, phrasing, and intonation)
  • poor time management
"Classical" strengths
  • very organized
  • emphasis on perfecting short passages
  • attention to sound qualities, phrasing, and pitch
"Classical" weaknesses
  • too focussed on singular details
  • frustration brought about by unachievable goals ("perfectionism")
  • boredom from lack of artistic stimulation
When I begin a practice session, I try to decide how much time I am going to put in, and what I am going to try to accomplish.  In my head, I review what I did in my last few sessions and decide if I need to continue any of that previous work, or if I will move on.  Once I have a plan, I set to work.

When practicing jazz, I try to get very specific about what tunes I am going to work on, and what I am going to accomplish in the time allotted.  I try to avoid just "blowing" on the changes until the clock runs out.  For example, I might decide to play a certain harmonic substitution at a designated place in the form.  I might work on a particular lick or pattern, and insert it in the appropriate spots.  If I find myself getting disorganized, or not getting anything done, I will borrow from my classical practice habits.  I might loop a few measures over and over, progressively increasing (or decreasing!) in tempo.

I find it very helpful to work on playing melodies to all kinds of tunes, not just ballads, as if they were classical pieces.  I decide where to breathe, how to phrase, work on my tone, and play with a drone to check for good pitch.  Treating a bebop melody, like Donna Lee, as a classical etude produces a different level of attention to detail.  Most of all, I try to keep things structured, on task, and on time.

Classical practice can become very tedious and difficult.  Borrowing from my jazz training, I ask myself questions about how I can creatively approach certain problems.  Instead of just repeating that one passage that is giving me trouble, I might try playing it in a different key.  This often highlights different aspects of the passage, or allows the music to flow in a different way.  This is especially true when specific technical barriers can be removed by playing in a different key, or perhaps a different octave.  Once those sounds are in your ear, you can move back to the original key.

As a student, I was coached by a piano professor on a very difficult classical piece for alto and piano.  We were very stiff, trying to play things perfectly.  As a demonstration, the piano prof. accompanied me with the purpose of playing all the gestures as musically as possible, with no attention to what notes were being played.  This was a revelation!  Although there were some pretty strange sounding harmonies, the music had a sense of drama and flow.  I will sometimes practice this, hunting for the essence of a certain passage.  Of course, one must eventually play with the correct notes!  This technique is helpful in freeing the music from very challenging sections.

A balanced approach to practicing will surely produce better musical results, but it will also help to keep you mentally healthy.  If we spend too much time locked into one particular focus, and it does not matter if that focus is strong or weak, we risk missing the music altogether.  Remember to reflect, act, and then reflect some more.  We tend to think that practice happens in the studio, or in the practice room, but it really happens in our brains!  Practice well.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Zen in the Art of Archery: The Purity of Purposeless Practice

I have been reading, and rereading Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery for some fifteen years.  Over the years, the book has spoken to me in different ways.  The book is written in a simple and clear manner, and it isn't really about archery at all.  All that one needs to do is to mentally substitute their discipline of choice.  It is really a book about harnessing Practice Monster.

The book is so beautifully composed, and so concise, it hardly makes sense to try and summarize it here.  With only eighty pages, it can be read in a couple of sittings.  The material takes time to process, however, and your experience will depend on what you bring to the table.  I've lost track of how many times I've read it, but I gain new insights with each reading.

With my recent thoughts and writings about the dynamics of personal practice, I've found myself lingering on the the final chapter, about Zen and swordsmanship.  The hapless beginner, giddily thrusting his sword with more joy than skill . . . this summarizes my memories of being a beginner saxophonist: it was more play than anything else, and that was a beautiful moment indeed.

With formal study comes the horrible realization that there are many more skilled than yourself, and that you are hopelessly at the mercy of those with better technique.  Faced with bigger and stronger opponents, the situation is impossible.  In despair, you furiously practice, building a prodigious technique that can be wielded like a weapon, to slay your enemies.  And yet, you fail.  Again and again, we fail.

The imagined enemy can be a competing musician, or the music itself.  Either way, Practice Monster is fully engaged in this part of the process.  The advanced student is driven by the idea of conquering.  Practice itself becomes a dreaded enemy.  Self-doubt and frustration alternate between depression and rage.  The monster consumes us with the illusory obsession with being the best.

It is only when we break free from the purpose of winning that we can attain the high levels of mastery.  The discipline of practice must become its own purpose.  Practice, no matter what we are practicing, becomes a meditation.  The outcome of disciplined practice is inevitable, but that outcome has no bearing on the moment.  Detached from any desire for personal gain, we freely ascend through the purity of purposeless practice.

As a professional musician, I am certainly connected to the importance of advancing my reputation.  It would be transparently dishonest to imply that I am not motivated by profit, or by my own ego.  My career feeds my family, after all.  But there is a deeper level of practice that transcends the material world.  When we learn to practice because it is like breathing, eating, or sleeping, we begin to understand when Herrigel writes that mastery is reached "when the heart is troubled by no more thought of I and You, of the opponent and his sword, of one's own sword and how to wield it – no more in even of life and death."  The true master is more than just unafraid, but completely impervious to fear, temporarily unaware of its existence.  Only then are we joined with the music.  Practice well!

Friday, March 8, 2013

How to Practice Sight Reading

I heard it over and over again:  "Everything is great!  But you need to work on your sight reading."  I knew that I was a terrible sight reader.  Given a little time, I could disassemble just about any piece of music into its components, shed the parts, and then put it all back together.  The problem was that I had no idea how to do it on the spot.  I had no real idea how to practice sight reading, other than to practice stumbling through etude books.  The trouble with this is that I wasn't actually practicing anything; I was only enhancing the brain circuits that I was already using.  I had great teachers, but there isn't much methodology out there about how to practice sight reading, and "just keep doing it" wasn't really working for me.

The first bit of useful information came when I was at the University of Massachusetts.  I had a friend that would practice reading Clifford Brown transcriptions while he had someone else cover up the measure that he was playing with an index card.  This meant that he had to quickly memorize the measure, and memorize the next measure while playing the previous one!  I joined in, and we treated it like a competition, to see who could read the furthest ahead.  A good deal of the material was just eighth notes, or rhythmic jazz clichés, so you mainly had to focus on memorizing the pitches quickly.  Intuitively, I developed a few strategies that made it easier.

  1. Read the notes in groups.  Find the starting pitch and look for scale steps, skips, and familiar patterns (such as triads, seventh chords, scales in thirds, etc.).
  2. Think relative to the key.  Learn to hone in on specific notes that you are likely to see, such as the root, fifth, and seventh (the leading tone).
  3. Practice reading small chunks at sight.  Put on the metronome, read a single measure in your mind without playing, then play the measure in time with your eyes closed.  Repeat this process with larger chunks, always with the metronome, always in time.
Once you start to get a handle on grouping notes and seeing pitch patterns quickly, you will be on your way to being a better reader.  But pitches are only part of the problem.  If you can't execute rhythms accurately, you will quickly lose your place.  Stopping and starting is a defining characteristic of poor sight reading!  What to do?  Here are some thoughts.

  1. Visually break the measure into parts.  Most meters can be broken into halves.  4/4 is two chunks of two beats, so always identify beat three with your eyes - in cut time, this is "big beat two."  6/8 is two groups of three eighth notes, so look for the fourth eighth note, again like the second big beat.  9/8 has three big beats, and 12/8 has four.
  2. Use the big beats as landmarks.  Try to notice if you are playing on the big beats, or if you are resting, or sustaining through with long notes or ties.
  3. Tap the subdivisions!  Speak the rhythms while tapping steady subdivisions.  I find it helpful to tap with two hands on my lap, always starting with the right hand, and always alternating hands. For example, when subdividing eighth notes, the downbeats will always be in the right hand, upbeats with the left.  In compound time, I tap the big beats with the right hand (think RIGHT, left, left, RIGHT, left, left).
In general, most music is made up of some core rhythms that you will see over and over again.  Once they are learned, it becomes like recognizing a big word that you once had to sound out.  Take the time to slowly sort out the patterns that you tend to stumble on.  Syncopated clichés, tied rhythms, and staggered groupings are all challenging at first, but they are really not much more than tricky vocabulary words.

What follows is a singularly important technique for good sight reading, used by many of the good readers that I have met over the years.  If you don't practice this, you will never get beyond the stopping and starting.  Please, take what follows very seriously.  I cannot overemphasize the point.


This trick will allow you to make mistakes without getting lost, but you must practice it without your instrument, until the brain circuitry is fully formed.  It takes practice and dedication, but I know of no other way to build metric confidence.  Assuming that we are in 4/4 time, turn on the metronome and speak, loudly and clearly, "one, two, three, four."  Say nothing else, never miss a beat, and stay perfectly with the metronome.  If you have a Dr. Beat, you can even set it to speak the numbers with you.  Even better!  Whatever you do, remember that you must not mumble, you must never miss a beat, and you must stay in time.

To get started, take a simple etude and clap the written rhythm of the music while counting out loud.  Keep your hands close together, and clap lightly, but clearly.  No matter what happens, no matter how badly you bungle a rhythm, keep counting out loud.  The counting must be unwavering.  If you cannot do this, go slower.  Practice it so slowly that you cannot possibly mess it up.  Practice this every day - clap the written rhythms and count out loud.  Do not speak the rhythms you are clapping!

There are numerous variations to this exercise, including speaking the subdivisions.  For example, in 6/8 you could say "ONE-tee-ta, Two-tee-ta."  In a funky, syncopated etude, you could count "ONE-ee-an-da, TWO-ee-an-da."  However you choose the count, make it consistent, and don't stop when you make a clapping error.

In time, you will be able to internalize the counting while playing your instrument.  This is a slow process, and it takes a long time to make progress.  Practice it every day.  I know of no other way to develop the ability to stay in the meter, even when making mistakes.  Don't stop, and if you can't get through it, GO SLOWER.  Slow practice is always best, even if it is frustrating and time consuming.  Don't let Practice Monster get the best of you!  Patience is the key.

Most of what I have outlined can be practiced with nothing more than a metronome and a couple of simple etude books - those old beginner books that you have lying around are perfect to get started.  I also recommend the following to my students:

Pasquale Bona, Complete Method for Rhythmical Articulation

Good luck, and remember to COUNT OUT LOUD!

Monday, February 11, 2013

New website!

I am pleased to announce my new website, inspired by Practice Monster, and specifically dedicated to saxophonists.

To get regular updates, follow me on twitter @PracticeMonster.