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Technique

  • Hyperslow: A technique to master fast, difficult passages

    Mike Lawson | September 10, 2009

    All musicians know the importance of paying ones dues to master the scales, technical licks, and complex passages that we are called upon to play, especially when these phrases must be played at rapid tempos. The ability to perform these skills consistently and accurately under pressure, whether for an audience or an audition, is an important quality to students and professionals alike.

    Practice techniques that make those hours spent in the woodshed more efficient can be a tremendous advantage. Not only do they help musicians increase their skill, but also improve their chances of giving a successful and artistic performance. Although it seems counterintuitive, practicing slowly and deliberately with a metronome can be a very effective way to master fast technical passages quickly. One of the best methods I have found to use that tactic is the use of "Hyperslow" practice.

    Hyperslow practice takes advantage of how the human mind creates connections and stores information. When any task has been repeated a sufficient number of times, the body's adaptation process is triggered in such a way that the ability to reproduce the motions of that activity is enhanced. Even extremely complex tasks can be repeated rapidly and with a very high degree of accuracy without much conscious thought. Used correctly, this natural process can be employed to increase the speed with which the player is able to perform the action by very gradually increasing the tempo with each repetition.

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  • You can tune a piano but…

    Mike Lawson | August 5, 2009

    ...you can't tuna fish. So goes that stale, old joke that is nevertheless ever new in my world. I work with beginning band students, and for most of them, it's fresh and still quite funny. But while working with beginners carries with it the opportunity to incessantly recycle old jokes and instructional anecdotes to ageless success; localizing one's career to beginner band jobs does have its drawbacks as well. "Sending them on" to their blue horizons can touch a director's soul in curious ways.

    For instance, one of my clarinet students is moving on to study with a new private lesson teacher, one who is recommended by the high school she'll be attending. Its elite and competitive music program offers very little advancement opportunity to a student who does not follow prescribed channels, and this instructor is one of those channels. Cassandra feels somewhat guilty for leaving her more rudimentary lessons with me and going to a more accomplished instructor, but I encouraged her to go wholeheartedly into this new era of study. How do I convince her to not feel bad about this change? Right now the music halls of her future are still just bare stages. She doesn't know much yet about the parade of personalities she'll meet as she begins to "swim" in that world.

    Speaking very generally, she and her mother drew some conclusions after her first lesson, stating briefly the impressions made by the woman who is Cassandra's new instructor. Their comments offered the following information: this new teacher is arrogant; however, she's arrogant because she has a legitimately weighty resume. That resume details her studies at the best music schools, followed by a lifetime of performance work, and not just on clarinet, but on other instruments as well.

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  • Rehearsing Music: Procedures, Verbal Cues, and Pictorial Imagery

    Mike Lawson | January 19, 2009

    The procedures and verbal communication skills used by band and orchestra directors to rehearse music must be appropriate for the musical and technical proficiency levels of the groups they are conducting. The following time-tested methods should prove useful in rehearsing music with ensembles at all proficiency levels.

    Procedures
    Establish a rehearsal protocol that works for you and your ensemble and follow it. However, don't let any part of the protocol become routine. Maintain a creative musical spark in everything you do, including warm-ups, if used. Formulate specific objectives for each rehearsal. Having a clear idea of what is to be accomplished keeps the rehearsal focused. Set realistic goals and don't attempt to accomplish more than can be done well in the amount of time available. The rehearsal plan should have a good balance between tension and relaxation by using music of contrasting styles: lyrical vs. dramatic, quiet vs. resounding, dawdling vs. brisk, and so on. After every rehearsal, take time to evaluate what transpired and plan ahead for the next time the ensemble will meet.

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  • Teaching Four-Mallet Marimba Technique: A Sequential Approach to Repertoire

    Mike Lawson | November 27, 2007

    Although evidence exists of four-mallet playing in Asia as early as the 16th Century, on Western mallet instruments it is a fairly recent development. In modern times, a handful of different grips and approaches to playing have become standard, but a systematic approach must be used to teach beginning four-mallet players. All too often, it seems, students are assigned four-mallet solos which are too difficult for them, and are not given the technical tools to be able to play them well.

    We can attribute the standardization of the main stroke types and names used in four-mallet playing to Leigh Howard Stevens' wide-spread method book (which includes an introductory treatise on his approach to four-mallet playing) Method of Movement. In this book, Stevens explains and categorizes the main stroke types of four-mallet playing.

    In general terms, Method of Movement teaches technique through sequential exercises and is great because it provides students with exercises that work on the various types of motion required to master four-mallet technique. In addition to Method of Movement, I require my students to also work out of 120 Progressive Four-Mallet Studies, by Luigi Morleo and published by Honeyrock Publications, which is a wonderful collection of etudes organized systematically so as to work on the various stroke types.

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  • “Look Ma, No Notes!” – Distinguishing Memorization from Music Illiteracy

    Mike Lawson | September 19, 2007

    K.M. Griesinger earned her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in music education from the University of Akron, where she is adjunct faculty. She has been teaching strings in Ohio schools for four years and privately for nearly ten.

    I played the piano quite well as a teen. I remember learning simple tunes at first and repetitious pattern-based exercises that I easily memorized, progressing gradually to Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. But I can also still remember my dear teacher playing through each new piece for me, then coaching and pointing as I stumbled painfully through a first attempt: "No, no, that is A-flat• no, a triad• right here." I simply watched and tried to make my hands create something that sounded like the melody I had just heard. I don't know if I ever would have known that treble and bass clef were different had I not studied flute and cello later. But then I got to college. As a music major, I spent my first two semesters panic-stricken, trying desperately to keep up in theory classes and quietly despairing in the back of the cello section in orchestra.

    I look back now and wonder: Did she ever know? Could my very first music teacher have overlooked the fact that I couldn't read all those years? And shouldn't that have been a priority in our lessons? The unfortunate truth is that many students are able to play or sing, but are essentially musically illiterate. We live in a culture that even promotes it; how about those infomercials with enthusiastic "experts" claiming you too can learn to play the piano by ear? Of course, to professional music educators, this method would be comparable to learning to speak the English language by listening to books on tape. Yet many music teachers will admit the problem is common, especially in large school ensembles where students can watch or ask each other and slip by unnoticed. As both a private teacher and an orchestra director, I have made the mistake of missing the warning signs. In recent years, I have begun to recognize potential non-readers and find they generally fall into one of three categories.

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  • Fiddling with the Orchestra Curriculum

    Mike Lawson | October 22, 2006

    by Julie Lyonn Lieberman

    During the world's second Alternative String Festival March 11 -13, world class alternative string players presented clinics representing at least 10 of the roughly 30 folk, world, jazz, and popular styles that feature strings. A brainchild of the American String Teachers Association, both the 2003 and 2004 Alternative String Festivals have drawn enthusiastic participation by string teachers, performers, and orchestra directors from throughout the United States.

    My role on the 2003 planning committee and as chair for 2004 inspired me to develop a new book and clinic that could provide an overview of this burgeoning field. During the 2004 clinic, titled "Alternative Strings: The New Curriculum," Bob Phillips (author and "father" of over 800 fiddle clubs in schools throughout America), Andy Dabczynski (co-author of Fiddlers Philharmonic), Renata Bratt (cellist and President of the Jazz String Caucus), Randy Sabien (jazz violinist and co-author of "Jazz Philharmonic"), and Daryl Silberman (Yamaha product specialist, orchestral strings) joined me. The session was kicked off with a performance by the Chattahoochee Fiddlers, a high school fiddle club from Georgia, directed by Jim Palmer.

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  • UpClose: Maria Schneider

    Mike Lawson | October 21, 2006

    By Christian Wissmuller

    Maria Schneider's dense and complex arrangements have distinguished her as one of the premier creative forces in avant-jazz since the release of her first album, Evanescence, in 1992. Taking her cues from the likes of Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, Schneider's compositional voice is nonetheless unmistakably original, featuring elegant voicings and powerful shifts of mood.

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  • UpFront: Jazz / EarTraining / Jazz Education

    Mike Lawson | October 19, 2006


    How do we, as teachers, prepare kids these days to be better musicians, to appreciate music more, to understand and be able to play jazz music, even at a beginner level? Of course there are many philosophies and approaches. "Back in the day...," as we say, you learned by listening to records and by playing with other (hopefully better) musicians who would keep you in line. Eventually you might have the opportunity to play with some master, who would take you under his or her wing. The learning was done on the job; your homework was to listen.

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  • UPFRONT: CLARINET PEDAGOGY

    Mike Lawson | February 1, 2003While there are no quick fixes in music education, student clarinetists can show rapid improvement in their tone quality and technique with a few adjustments and the assistance of their director. Embouchure There are many ways to set up an embouchure for good tone production. However, by doing a few things, the tone quality can […] Read More...
  • STRINGS SECTION: SECRETS OF GOOD CELLO TECHNIQUE

    Mike Lawson | September 1, 2002

    A common misconception about teaching children to play the cello is that it requires more striving and effort than its smaller counterparts. Not true! Playing the cello requires more balance and preparation, more relaxation and use of natural body weight.

    Avoid terms like "grip," "push," "press," "hold," "squeeze," and "tight." Substitute "good" words like "hang," "drape," "relax," "draw," "weight," "breathe," "balance," and "hold." Avoid the term "bow grip"; its very nature implies tightness. Use instead "bow hold." A good tone is not produced by pressing harder, but by adjusting the location of the bow in relation to the bridge and using more arm weight.

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  • Practicing Stage Fright Management

    Mike Lawson | July 1, 2002

    Waiting backstage, the familiar symptoms return. The palms moisten, the stomach becomes queasy, the heart beats harder and faster, breathing becomes more shallow, the knees feel weak. “Here we go again,” you think to yourself, disgusted that the cycle is seemingly beyond your control. Is it possible to overcome the body’s natural defense mechanisms? To use the surge of adrenalin in a positive way to enhance instead of hinder a performance? Of course it is. It just takes some understanding and practice.

    Fight or Flight: The Human Body in Survival Mode

    Those familiar feelings are caused by the production of adrenalin. Your brain receives those primal impulses and your body goes into “fight or flight” survival mode. Your body is reacting to perceived danger – it is primed for anything. Response time is quickened; senses are fine-tuned. You can jump higher, run faster and play daunting technical passages. Although your body is telling you to run, you must stay and complete a performance. So how do you minimize the negative effects of adrenalin? By changing your perception, by viewing the physical changes as excitement, not panic. By learning to slow down, breathe deeply and focus that additional energy into a passionate and exciting performance. This takes practice.

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