Fostering Musicality and Creativity in Rehearsal

150301737_3776586bbc_oEver since I started teaching music, I have wanted to teach my students how to play musically and creatively. I have always wanted my students to play with emotion and feeling. However, these are pretty advanced concepts that I think are pretty difficult for many young students to grasp, even in senior high. I think a lot of this stems from years and years of directors telling students how to play musically and expressively and dictating emotions to them. They have not been encouraged to make musical choices on their own.  I don’t think this is something that you can explain. Anyway, I came up with an interesting idea “on the fly” today during my senior high concert band rehearsal, and the results were exciting!

First, I had put the students in a circle (we only have about 15 winds) in order to work on our listening skills for a previous piece. Then we began rehearsing Grainger’s “Ye Banks and Braes ‘O Bonnie Doon”. The students actually did a really good job with ensemble pulse and I didn’t conduct time, just phrases. But, what I really wanted them to do was play expressively. What inevitably happens is that while they play in time together, in tune, and with a really nice blend, it is almost always the same dynamic level with little or no expression.

So I told them that they were going to go out of their comfort zone a little. I told them that in the next section, I wanted them to play with expression wherever they thought it was appropriate. I told them that no matter what they did, it couldn’t be wrong, and that they should do whatever they felt was right. I stepped out of the circle, because I didn’t want my conducting or gestures or anything from me to influence the way they played at all. I sat outside the circle and just listened.

Then, really exciting things started to happen. I heard a little dynamic change…I could tell a few of the students were really trying to play with some expression and dynamics. So then I asked them to do it again, except this time to make what they were doing more obvious to the audience, which was me. As I have told them many times, in order for dynamic contrast to be evident to the listener, it must sound almost extreme to the player. So, they played it again…and I about fell out of my chair!!

Here were a group of students that I have been trying for years to get to play expressively doing it right in front of me! The best part was that they were making these decisions completely on their own! I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I sat and listened as my students played more maturely than I have ever heard them.  They were making musical decisions on their own that were not only appropriate, but beautiful as well! I could even tell that as some students made some musical choices, it influenced the rest of the group, too! It was so exciting!

When we got to the final fermatta, I told the student to fade into nothing, after holding the chord for at least 8 counts. Guess what? It was probably the best release they have ever played!!

Why did they play so well today? I took my conducting and gesturing out of the equation. I allowed them to make musical choices on their own without my influence. I think that if I want my students to make appropriate musical choices, then I have to allow them to do it on their own, without my influence. How exciting!!

UPDATE: My Top Ten Songs

If you read my last post, you know that I was given a challenge of coming up with my top 10 favorite songs or recordings.  Well, after sifting through some 8000 or so songs on iTunes, I have finally picked 10 (well, 13 actually). Here they are in no particular order, and my reasons for picking them.

1. Chameleon – Maynard Ferguson – The first time I ever played a saxophone solo in public was a junior high jazz band concert in 7th grade. This was the song.

2. Hello City – Barenaked Ladies – When I first met my wife, she introduced me to the Barenaked Ladies. Every time I hear this song (or any song from the “Gordon” album) it makes me think of her and when we started dating. I like that.

3. The Rain Song – Led Zeppelin – I had to include a song from my all-time favorite band, and I just think this song really showcases how well they wrote music. I have always enjoyed music that was written with a lot of creativity.

4. Third Symphony, Mvt. 3 – Mesto (for Natalie) – James Barnes – One of the most moving pieces of music that I have ever played in an ensemble. I can remember weeping while playing this piece several times.

5. Shiny Stockings – Count Basie – This is the tune that introduced me to the Basie Band. I can remember specifically playing this song at a jazz festival in high school. It has been one of my favorite big band charts ever since.

6. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Cannonball Adderley – This is the song that introduced me to Cannonball. He has since become one of my top two favorites and biggest influences.

7. Irish Tune from County Derry – Percy Grainger – Hands down, my favorite wind band piece of all time. To me, this piece is the standard of beauty in the wind band literature.

8. Ornithology – Charlie Parker – This is from one of the first jazz recordings I ever owned – Charlie Parker at Storyville. I can remember just being amazed when I first heard it as a young saxophone player.

9. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag – James Brown – I can remember hearing this recording on the local oldies station that my parents listened to. Probably my first introduction to soul/r&b music. I have always loved this tune!

10. Daphnis & Chloe – Suite No. 2 – Maurice Ravel – When I played this piece in college, it was the first time I really connected emotions to performing music. I mean deep emotion. I had always heard directors and conductors talk about playing with emotion and feeling, but it never really clicked with me until I played this piece.

11. Delta City Blues – Michael Brecker – This one is from my other biggest saxophone influence. What Michael does with overtones in this recording just blows my mind. He is one of the all-time greats. I wish I could have seen him live before he passed away.

12. Cheese Cake – Dexter Gordon – I was introduced to this recording at a jazz camp that had a huge impact on my life when I was in high school. I wish I could have picked every track from this album entitled “Go.”

13. Bu’s March – Benny Green – I always wished that I could play piano, and I love this album from Benny Green recorded live at the Village Vanguard. This recording has one of the hardest swinging shout choruses I’ve ever heard.

So there you have it. Looking back at this list, I noticed that each song has had a particular impact on my life as a teacher and musician, and I suppose subconsciously, that is why I picked them. I hope you get a chance to check out any that you are not familiar with, and I challenge you to do the same and pick your top ten. Please share the results here!

Top Ten Favorite Pieces

This idea is somewhat related to a conversation that Travis Weller started a while ago with a post entitled “My Band Room is On Fire.”

My ever-faithful assistant director Dennis Hritz, posed this question to me the other day: If a dinner was being held in your honor to document your life as a musician so far, what 10 recordings would be played at that dinner? So, my mission is to come up with 10 songs or recordings that are my favorites, regardless of genre. This is something that I’m going to have to think about! I’m not quite sure if I can narrow it down to only 10 favorite recordings, but I have starting thinking about what I might include. Some ideas I’ve had are to include things like my first jazz album that I owned or the first jazz recording I ever heard. I have to also include some of my all-time favorite players like Cannonball Adderley and Johnny Griffin. What songs have I listened to over and over again and still loved just as much as the first time that I heard them?

On a somewhat related note, if you haven’t checked out 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, you need to do that! I have found some really great stuff there!

I would be interested to hear what is on your top ten list! I will post mine here as soon as I decide!

Middle & High School Winter Concert Recordings

Below I have posted links to our recordings from the winter concert. The first 3 songs were performed by a combined middle and high school group. I have done this the last few years because of lack of instrumentation in the middle school. The glaring thing that needs work in these recordings to me is intonation. I welcome your input upon hearing these as well. I tried to use the wordpress embedded player for these files, but for whatever reason, it didn’t seem to want to play them from drop.io. Any thoughts on that would also be appreciated, as I would rather use the embedded player than the links. Thanks!

I should also mention some info about the bands that you are hearing. These groups meet 2 and 3 days a week only, due to our scheduling. The Middle School Band instrumentation is as follows:
2 Flutes
6 Clarinets
1 Trumpet
2 French Horns
2 Trombones
4 Percussion
1 Mallets

High School Band:
2 Flutes
4 Clarinets
1 Alto Saxophone
1 Tenor Saxophone
3 Trumpets
2 Trombones
1 Tuba
8 Percussion
2 Mallets

The 7th & 8th grade bands perform together, even though the meet during separate periods. Also, 9th & 10th grade students meet a separate period from 11th & 12th, but they also perform as one ensemble.

Song for the Winter Moon – MS & HS
Do You Hear…? – MS & HS
Oh Hanukkah – MS & HS
Fa Una Canzona – HS
Prelude on Greensleeves – HS