Beyond Their Years II

Tone, Intonation and the Young Band

2008 IMEA Clinic Session Proposal and 2008 Midwest Clinic Session Proposal
Chip De Stefano with the McCracken Middle School Symphonic Band

INTRODUCTION

    • Tone and pitch are the two most important aspects of our students performance.
    • Too often, however, the development of these skill is neglected due to short term performance pressures or by lowered standards of what is capable from young bands.
    • The purpose of this session is share the teaching techniques, strategies, and materials the McCracken Middle School Symphonic Band has successfully used to develop these two critical skills.

IMPROVING TONE QUALITY OF THE INDIVIDUAL

  1. AURAL CONCEPT OF CHARACTERISTIC SOUND
    1. The student's perception of what a good sound sounds like is most important to the development of their tone.
    2. Expose students to recordings of professional musicians
    3. Expose students to live music
      1. University faculty and student recitals
      2. Guest artists
    4. Directors should only demonstrate an instrument if they are capable of getting a good characteristic sound on it.
    5. Make sure everything they hear is fantastic!
  2. FUNDAMENTALS
    1. Proper posture and correct embouchure are essential to getting a characteristic sound.
    2. There is a right way and a wrong way of playing an instrument. While history is littered with outstanding musicians with less than perfect embouchures, it is much more common for students to hit the “ceiling“ of their playing very early because of a few bad habits they picked up early on.
    3. At that point they must make the change, often moving backwards before forwards again, or their performance level will significantly plateau.
  3. QUALITY OF EQUIPMENT
    1. Do not underestimate the enormous impact the quality of equipment has on a students sound.
    2. Everything from the instrument make, model, mouthpiece, material (plastic vs. wood), ligature, reed brand and strength has an effect on tone quality.
      1. Even if you're not in a situation where students can be playing professional quality equipment, there are smaller, less expensive tweaks to equipment (particularly in terms of mouthpieces) that will still have a positive impact on their sound.
      2. While, I won't want to spend a lot of time on this point, demonstration will include various individual students playing identical excerpts on different equipment combinations.
    3. Make sure the equipment grows with the child.
      1. Your eighth grader should not be playing on the identical equipment that he/she did when they were in 4th grade!
  4. DAILY EXERCISES TO IMPROVE TONE QUALITY
    1. I really feel there are no secrets here!
    2. All wind instruments should practice long tones, in a variety of registers and dynamics, everyday.
      1. No going through the motions.
      2. Concentrated, engaged effort throughout.
      3. Students must hear the notes in their head with the desired tone quality.
    3. All brass and flutes should practice lip slurs at a variety of tempos, registers, and dynamics.
    4. Integrate these into your students practice routine very early during the first year of instruction.
    5. The percussion practice routine should develop the piston stroke, technique, and note reading EVERY DAY!
    6. Do long tone exercises and lip slurs in rehearsals/lessons/sectionals as often is reasonable based on your situation and time of year.

IMPROVING TONE QUALITY OF THE ENSEMBLE

  1. POTENTIAL MATERIALS FOR ENSEMBLE WARMUP
    1. Tim Loest's Warmups and Beyond
    2. David Newell's Bach and Before
    3. Ed Lisk's The Creative Director: Alternative Rehearsal Techniques
    4. Richard Williams and Jeff King's Foundations for Superior Performance
    5. Chorales
  2. CHOOSING THE RIGHT CHORALE FOR THE RIGHT TIME
    1. Begin with simple chorales to allow students to focus on tone, pitch, balance and blend
      1. Homophonic
      2. Key Signatures the students are familiar and comfortable with
      3. Very few, if any, accidentals
    2. As the students' skills and sound develop, gradually increase the difficulty
      1. Increased independence of parts
      2. Suspensions and passing tones
      3. Minor Keys (Young Bands do not have enough opportunities to play in minor keys!)
      4. More accidentals, more complex harmonic structure
    3. Change chorales as often as reasonable
      1. Every 3 - 6 weeks or parallel with the band's performance schedule.
      2. Once you reach a point of “diminishing returns“ the students are better off working the same concepts on different material
    4. Choose a variety of major and minor keys for the chorale rotation
      1. If students are having difficulty (particularly with pitch) with certain repertoire, choose a chorale in the same key as the problem work.
    5. Rehearse the chorale with as much variety as possible. Keep it interesting for the students so they stay engaged!
      1. Variety of tempos, dynamics and articulation
      2. Subdivided in 8ths & 16ths
      3. “Bopped“
      4. Brass on mouthpieces
      5. Singing
      6. Backwards
      7. Etc...
  3. GROUP BREATHING EXERCISES
    1. Do a variety of breathing exercises every day!
    2. Exercise #1
      1. Mouth in the shape of “Whoa“
      2. “Look at your hand“
      3. Hand/arm serves as gauge for the amount of air in lungs.
      4. All the way out = lungs empty
      5. All the way in = lungs completely full
      6. Demonstrate what a full breath sounds like
      7. No whistling
      8. No added resistance from lips and tongue
      9. One easy breath in. One easy breath out. Relax.
      10. Play the chorale using this type of breath
    3. Exercise #2
      1. Similar to Exercise #1 (Mouth shape, hand as gauge)
      2. Three breaths in, three breaths out, relax
      3. Play the chorale, beginning with three breaths in
    4. Exercise #3
      1. Similar to Exercise #1 (Mouth shape, hand as gauge)
      2. Use opposite hand to create resistance
      3. Straighten hand, perpendicular to face
      4. Nose touching second knuckle of first finger
      5. Side of hand touching center of lips
      6. One easy breath in. One easy breath out. Relax.
      7. Follow with Exercise #1.
    5. Exercise #4
      1. Empty lungs
      2. Place lips against back of hand creating suction
      3. Inhale
      4. “Pop“ hand away from face, filling lungs instantly. Relax.
    6. Additional resource: The Breathing Gym by Patrick Sheridan and Sam Pilafian (Focus on Music)
  4. SUBDIVISION
    1. In addition to providing a strong rhythmic foundation, rehearsing the chorale subdivided can have a positive impact on tone quality
    2. Keep the air moving, and the 16ths "fat."
  5. BRASS ON MOUTHPIECES
    1. Buzzing the mouthpiece connects the brain to the music.
    2. Look for a "fat" buzz, with as much lip vibrating as possible.
  6. INNER HEARING
    1. Exercise #1
      1. Students press "record" in their brain
      2. Conductor Claps a simple 4 or 5 note rhythm
      3. Students press "play" in their brain and hear the clapping rhythm in their head exactly as it was performed.
      4. Repeat with different rhythm.
    2. Exercise #2
      1. In absolute silence, students - listening to their imagination - hear the chorale in their head exactly as they want it to sound.
      2. The most beautiful sound
      3. Perfect intonation, attacks, and phrasing
      4. Students perform the chorale while hearing the perfect performance in their head.

IMPROVING INDIVIDUAL INTONATION SKILLS

  1. WHAT'S THE GOAL
    1. It's not important that young students are able to distinguish whether they are sharp or flat.
    2. It is important that young students are able to distinguish whether they are in tune, or out of tune (listening for "waves" or "beats").
    3. They then make an educated guess, based on experience and instinct, to move up or down in pitch. The only wrong answer is to do nothing.
    4. If the waves slow down, the student continues until the waves disappear.
    5. If the pitch gets worse, they quickly adjust the other way until the waves disappear.
  2. THE TUNING CD
    1. The most effective method of developing intonation skills in students.
      1. Develops sense of just intonation
      2. Students learn, by ear, that different scale degrees require addition adjustment to sound in tune.
    2. Students may find it a bit annoying, but they will put up with it because they will hear the improvement.
      1. Scale patterns
      2. Tonic - rest - Tonic - rest - Tonic
      3. Fifth - rest - Fifth - rest - Fifth
      4. Fourth - rest - Fourth - rest - Fourth
      5. Third - rest - Third - rest - Third
      6. Second - rest - Second rest - Second
      7. Tonic
    3. Easy tunes against the drone
  3. WORK WITH TUNER
    1. The tuner must be used as a tool, not as a crutch.
    2. Tone first, then tune.
      1. Young students tend to manipulate the pitch with their embouchure while looking at the tuner rather than playing, then adjusting their instrument.
      2. Tune the students' best sound.
  4. STUDENTS MUST KNOW THE FUNDAMENTALS
    1. Tendencies of instruments (primarily covered through handout)
    2. Knowledge of how to manipulate pitch up and down on their instrument (primarily covered through hand out)
    3. Additional Resource: Improving Intonation in Band and Orchestra Performance by Robert Garofalo (Meredith Music Publications)

IMPROVING THE ENSEMBLE'S INTONATION

  1. DIRECTOR RESPONSIBILITIES
    1. Student's are a reflection of their teacher. Students will not make pitch a priority if the director doesn't.
    2. Treat an out of tune pitch as a wrong note.
    3. Teach students the proper skills. Telling students that they are sharp or flat after looking at the tuner is not good teaching.
  2. REHEARSAL PROCEDURES
    1. It is the students' responsibility to make sure their instrument is properly adjusted.
      1. DO NOT go around the room individually tuning each student at the start of rehearsal.
        1. It takes too much time and destroys the rehearsal pace
        2. It doesn't make much improvement
      2. Strategically place several tuners around the room prior to rehearsal, or have the students purchase their own
    2. If necessary, spot check problem sections with a tuner, or tuning CD within the context of the rehearsal
    3. Begin by isolating cadence points at the ends of major sections and the end of the piece.
    4. Poor pitch is more obvious on long notes than short notes
    5. Faster passages may need to be rehearsed “note-by-note“ so that students can find the “center“ of each pitch
  3. PROPER PROCEDURE FOR TUNING CHORDS
    1. This procedure is effective when done with and without the tuning CD
    2. Begin with the tubas, assuming they are on the root of the chord.
    3. Add everyone who plays the root of the chord
    4. Root & Fifth
    5. Root, Fifth, & Third (3rd is lowered slightly in major chords, raised slightly in minor chords)
    6. Root, Fifth, Thirds & Seventh (if applicable, Dominant 7th must be significantly lowered)
    7. Add any additional harmonic extensions
  4. SINGING
    1. Start students singing during their first year playing
    2. The way you approach singing will have a direct impact on their willingness to do it!
    3. Have students hum
      1. Less reluctance than singing with the same benefit
      2. Less concern with proper vocal pedagogy
    4. Have students sing/hum chords that are not locking in
    5. Have students different intervals using solfege or numbers for ear training.

FINAL THOUGHTS

    • Regardless of the difficulty of the music, there are few things more impressive than a young band that plays in tune with strong characteristic sounds.
    • Much of our year is spent trying to balance long term goals vs. short term goals.
    • While the concepts discussed during this session will result in some instant improvements, the biggest difference will be felt after many weeks, months and years of consistent use.
    • By focusing on the long term issues, however, we ultimately make our short term goals easier to achieve.

HANDOUT TO INCLUDE:

    • Recommended tuning pitches
    • Equipment used by the McCracken Middle School Band
    • Sample Chorales