Group Instrumental Teaching & Mixed Abilities

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As we all know, group teaching is a controversial topic. One of the most frequent objections to it (in my experience) is that since no two students will progress at the same rate, or in the same way, the activity is doomed to failure because the less able students will hold the faster learners back and conversely, the faster learners will leave the slower ones behind.  A ‘lose-lose’ situation, to coin a phrase.

However, I believe that these differences can indeed be accommodated

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Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Hucbald…

It shouldn’t be too long before I  can post my next article in the series  ‘Pythagoras and the Music of the Future’. It has taken me some time partly because I have made a start on ‘digitising’ some of my earlier compositions to enable sharing.

The first fruits of this will appear in my next post introducing my composition, Songs of The Aristos for brass & computer-generated tape. The accompanying sound file was created using Sibelius 7 and the marvellous, free sound recording software Audacity. I am still ‘finding my way’, especially with the latter, so any audio clips that I post may leave something to be desired in terms of ‘engineering’. Please forgive.

Going back to Pythagoras and the harmonic series for a moment, I want to share a quote I recently came across, which I have a great deal of sympathy with. It’s from A Monk’s Musical Musings – an excellent, very comprehensive blog by a scholarly guitarist who goes by the nom de plumeHucbald‘.

“Lacking in all music theories that I am aware of from Western history is a neat and tidy description of why music works, and why it has evolved as we see from the historical record. There is no Einsteinian General Theory of Musical Relativity… yet.

For such a proposed theory to be compelling, it would have to relate directly – in all of its aspects – to the very nature of sound itself. Harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, melody, and form would all have to be explained as having originated within some feature that God and nature have given to sound, and sound alone. There is only one candidate for the feature I am describing, of course, and that is The Harmonic Overtone Series.”

I couldn’t agree more with the second paragraph. In fact, I think that study of the harmonic series could probably lead to a musical ‘Theory of Everything’ let alone Relativity! The problem for me is that Hucbald doesn’t seem to have much time for ‘modern’ i.e. non-tonal music judging by subsequent comments in his blog. It’s almost as if he holds the belief  (and if he doesn’t many others do) that post tonal music has somehow become divorced from the properties of the harmonic series. I can only agree to a certain extent and this is something I’ll be addressing in my forthcoming articles.

Nevertheless, for those interested in such things, there is a lot to be gained from looking at;

A Monk’s Musical Musings: Musical Implications of the Harmonic Overtone Series: Introduction.

Tuning tips for teachers of young/amateur bands and wind ensembles

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Many will be used to tuning to a sustained note, usually A, or in the case of brass or wind bands, it could be a B flat. The problem with this is that many players will, consciously or unconsciously, compensate by correcting the pitch with the embouchure. Once the music starts, the tuning is ‘out’ again.

I have found the following sequence for tuning instruments very useful. It is a lengthy process initially, but it speeds up as you and the players get used to it and it pays dividends.

  1. Tune the first player to a digital tuner. This is optional because the main objective is to have the players in tune with each other not necessarily to the exact concert pitch, but of course you won’t want to be too far out.
  2. Have the first player play a short ‘open’ note. Short means about one second, but not less.
  3. Immediately, get the next player to do the same. You will find it is very easy to compare the pitches and give the necessary ‘pushing/pulling’ instructions to the players.  After a while, this process can become quite quick.
  4. Go through this process with each of the players and the first player, occasionally back-tracking to check those who have been tuned.
  5. When a section has been tuned in this way then have them play long unison note ‘forte’.
  6. Listen, and you will hear either beats or the octave above the tuning note ‘ringing’ out!
  7. Repeat the above until you are satisfied.

We hear the beats or octaves because of ‘sum tones’ and ‘difference tones’:  When two notes are played simultaneously, they produce additional frequencies which are the sum of, and the difference between, the frequencies of the notes being played.  If the frequencies are just 2-3 Hz out, then the sum/difference tones will be below our hearing threshold, but they will create ‘amplitude modulation’ of the basic tone creating the familiar ‘wah-wah’ effect. If they are in tune, the clear octave above will be heard.

For the sake of clarity, let’s take A as an example. Everyone knows that in standard concert pitch A = 440 Hz.

440 + 440 = 880;  in tune so ‘A’ one octave higher would be heard.

440 – 440 = 0;  no lower pitch would be heard, but

440 – 438 = 2; one note is flat so ‘beats’ would result

It gets a tiny bit more complex when one note is sharp, but this serves to illustrate the point.

Of course, after this and when your rehearsal is under way, the focus will be on intonation (the players) rather than tuning (the instruments).  However, you will find that once these tuning habits are well established and the players are encouraged to listen critically to, and correct, their own intonation, a considerable improvement in the richness of sound – across the entire ensemble – will result.