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All percussionists will have the chance, sooner or later, to participate in a concert-lesson for percussion instruments either as players or as host. Our instruments are captivating, beautiful, they are so many and sometimes they are still quite unknown. In other words, they are appealing.
Consequently, succeeding in boring an audience of kids during a concert-lesson requires indeed great effort. And yet, believe me, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”
Concert lessons can’t be improvised; they have to be carefully planned ahead of time. Here are a few tips on how to do just that.
WHY HOSTING A CONCERT-LESSON
First of all, why is hosting a concert-lesson such a good and right thing? It is a good thing because:
organizing a concert-lesson can be part of the job description for freelance percussionists or for percussion ensembles (entry to be added to my last article “What realistic career paths do percussionists have available“). Although not all concert-lessons I participated in were paid (the reason to participate can be different from a pure economic one – see below), these events can entail some sort of payment. Here is an example on how to go about it:
in elementary or middle schools that have a large auditorium/theatre/gym, which can fit around a hundred seats, you can organize two one-hour long concert-lessons in one morning, so that at least 200 kids can participate;
ask each kid for a 2-3 $ contribution, which the school may decide to cover for them. This would mean an average of 500 $ for each concert-lesson. “Can your really do that?!? Yes, you can. Parolini did that.”
Concert-lessons are a great way to entice kids to sign up for percussion instrument courses in your school or in your private studio.
It is the right thing because:
not too many people know the difference between a vibraphone and a marimba. Only a few know that you can produce very specific sounds with percussion instruments. Even fewer realize that there is indeed a technique to play the triangle… In other words, percussion instruments are a world which is as fascinating as still quite unknown to the large majority of people. If in Japan everyone knows the sound of a marimba and here in my Country, Conservatory teachers call the vibraphone a “xylophone”… well, there must be a reason. And remember that…
…every time a vibraphone gets mistaken with a xylophone, somewhere in the world, a percussionist dies.
HOST VS. MUSICIAN AND HOW MUCH INTERACTION WITH THE AUDIENCE
It is preferable to host a concert-lesson with more than one person for at least two reasons:
music is fun when played with others and we do want to relate the message that playing percussion instruments is fun, right?
It would be preferable for the roles of presenter/host and musicians/interpreter to remain well defined, so that the kids have a clear idea of who the main speaker is during the lesson. Ideally, the role of host should be well defined and should not change so to create a physical separation between the explanation/interaction portion of the lesson and the actual musical performance. I know, unfortunately this is not always feasible.
In any case, how much should the audience be allowed to actively participate in the lesson? The obvious answer would be: “There should be as much interaction as possible”, but it is not always the case. It depends on many different factors, especially:
the average age of the audience: the younger the kids, the more useful interacting would be to maintain a good attention level and to stimulate interest;
the number of participants – the less they are the easier is to interact;
the choice of music and instruments – the structure of the lesson determines how many moments of true interaction there can be with the audience.
That being said, there is no doubt that in each concert-lesson there should be at least one occasion – usually at the end – to answer questions from the audience.
HOW LONG IT SHOULD LAST
The time available for a concert-lesson also determines the type of music that will be played and the topics that will be covered. One thing to keep in mind: human beings have limited attention span, which is determined by age. And although it might seem hard to believe, yes, even our instruments can appear boring.
(Now try to recover from these news and take a deep breath. It’s all over.)
If you are hosting the lesson for a preschool class or for a lower grade elementary class, make it no longer than 45 minutes total. Children that age can’t sit on a chair for longer than that.
If you are teaching in front of the higher elementary grades or of middle school classes, you can go up to maybe a tad over 60 minutes.
Finally, if your audience are teenageres, ages 15 to 18, anxious to learn to bang those drums, or even adults, you can indulge in a one and a half hour concert-lesson. But only if you think that all that time is absolutely necessary; otherwise stay within the 60 minutes range.
WHICH INSTRUMENTS TO INTRODUCE AND WHICH PIECES TO PLAY
What instruments should you introduce? And what pieces should you play? Let’s be practical and ask a different question. What instruments can fit in your car and in your colleagues’ car? Now, this makes more sense.
That being said, through the years, I tried to create a sort of concert-lesson “model” and usually for a good 70-80% of my concert-lessons, I try to proceed in the following manner:
I begin with a piece for snare drum and/or orchestral untuned pecussion, such as for example, a rudimental march, without saying anything before playing. The sound impact of these instruments captures the attention of the audience.
From the snare drum (or from the bass drum, cymbals, etc.) I move on to the drum-set, an instrument that all kids are familiar with, and I explain how drums are just a set-up version of the “classical” instruments that they have just heard. With my drums I can play a solo, a few rhythms, or even better, I can play a piece together with a few keyboard percussion instruments, which I will then introduce.
Marimba and/or vibraphone. By now, they should have already heard the sound, so I can say a couple of words about them (A COUPLE of words), about the way they are made and about their differences. I can then have them listen to a solo or duet using these two types of keyboard. Which piece should you select… well, think about a ten-minute long piece by Stockhausen and then chose the completely opposite.
Time for questions/interaction.
Encores playing a piece with no instruments and/or with “recycled” instruments.
If your concert-lesson was well planned, with the right mix of playing time and interactive time, and if you have chosen the “right” pieces, about 40 to 50 minutes should have by now passed. During the remaining time, if you deem it useful, you can add other pieces or more interaction time with the audience.
USING A THEME?
Finally, one more tip that could give a specific “direction” to your concert-lesson and that could also be useful, in many different ways, for the planning of non music-related subjects (hurray for inter-disciplinarity): chose a theme for your concert-lesson.
For example: a trip through the world of percussion instruments. North America – drums and jazz vibraphone; Central and South America – Latin-American Percussion instruments; Japan – marimba (Yes I know marimba doesn’t come from Japan!!!); Africa – various types of ethnic drums. And so on. How many different things could you say/play on the subject? Very many.
Another example, taking advantage of Stomps’ great popularity, could be: recycled percussion instruments. A fun program including pieces such as “Stinkin’ Garbage” by Ed Argenziano and similar. With this theme, a multiple-session lab could be hosted to teach kids to build a few instruments themselves. Ok, I have never done such a lab, but once it was actually proposed to me directly by a school, so… it – could – work! A useful resource to plan/piece/guide to plan this activity is “Hittin Junk Percussions” by Kevin Tuck.
Question: do you have other tips to give someone who wants to organize a concert-lesson for percussion instruments? Did you have direct experience with a concert-lesson which went either very well or… very bad?
Below I am reporting what is posted on the website of the Adria Conservatory, where I studied for five years after a 8 years Diploma in Percussion from another Conservatory. In the section for the Master Degree of every musical instrument, in the paragraph titled “career paths”, you can read the following:
The theoretical, methodological, and practical knowledge acquired by the student by the end of the biennium will allow him/her to pursue the following career paths:
Member of a chamber music ensemble
Solo opera singer
Concert artist (specific reference to voice-piano duet)
Jazz music concert artist
Music teacher in private schools
Cultural promoter in the field of music
Event and concert season organizer
Composer of soundtracks for movies, radio, and television
Composer of music for musical and drama theater
Composer of music for the multimedia publishing industry
Recording studio producer
Radio station or recording studio consultant
Music consultant and organizer for public or private institutions
Independent composer, researcher, and publicist
Record company producer
Technical supervisor for theaters or opera houses
These trained professionals will have a definite advantage in finding career opportunities in the following areas:
group activities of various types (permanent and temporary positions, contracts);
independent entrepreneurial activities within the different “sectors” of a project.
Graduates will be able to autonomously manage their own business activities (companies, partnerships, co-ops) because by the end of their course of studies, they will have the tools and knowledge – professional, both theoretical and practical, legal and institutional – to be able to move forward with independently managing their career.
Aside from the last paragraph, which does not at all reflect reality (I wish we could study some entrepreneurship instead of so much useless “fluff”), is it really true that you can pursue all those career paths with a second level degree in, for example, percussion instruments? Yes, certainly, except for the “solo opera singer” and “choir artist” part, unless you have a truly exceptional voice…
However… although all these options should be listed because they are indeed options available to you, what are the real and realistic career paths for a percussionist who has graduated from a conservatory?
Let’s talk about it.
How many percussionists do you know who don’t teach? I know some of them, but very few. Of these few, 99% have a permanent position with an orchestra (see section 2).
Teaching is a job, probably the one feeding the largest majority of percussionists around the world.
Teaching is ALSO a passion and can ALSO be wonderful, but this is a whole different story and in any case, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion…
First of all, let’s start with this thought: you need to teach what you know how to play. It is such an obvious concept that it seems impossible to have public school and Conservatory teachers who can’t play their instrument. And yet it happens…
Moving back to my own experience, I do not teach neither ethnic percussion instruments because I can’t play them (except for a few rhythms on conga), nor jazz improvisation on the vibraphone because I never seriously studied that technique. And I don’t teach many other things.
That being said, the second question is: teaching where? Well, basically:
in music schools, cultural groups, or in your personal studio. In other words, privately. Remember that “privately” goes hand in hand with “99% of the time you will exclusively teach drums”;
in public institutions, such as middle schools and high schools, and Conservatories, where you will have the opportunity to teach all the percussion instruments you have available.
And last but not least, …drum roll…. in 2016 you will also have the option to teach ONLINE! I am not only talking about Skype lessons – which I have personally never been a fan of even if it is indeed an option – but mostly about online courses. I myself did try it and this month I will receive my first $100.00 payment (wow!) for my courses on curious.com.
Online music courses are still, in my opinion, an unchartered territory definitely worth exploring.
2. ORCHESTRA PLAYER
orchestral triangleIn Italy, orchestras are dying and from what I’ve heard, they are not doing too well in the rest of the world either. Despite this, orchestras still represent a safe option for many percussionists, maybe because there are not as many of us percussionists as there are players of other instruments. Speaking of which, try asking a flutist how many candidates there are on average for an audition for flute in an orchestra…
Orchestras have, in my opinion, great music, great theaters, great people, and great money. Sometimes.
In reality, orchestras are an interesting career path for both those musicians who want to be full time members and for those ones who, like me, have another main occupation (teaching in my case) and only play in an orchestra as a freelancer.
The most interesting aspect of playing in an orchestra is that, unlike other working environments, everything is already organized and set. You just have to show up on the days of rehearsal and concert, play (well) and then good-bye and good riddance. The very best part is that, most of the times, you’ll find the instruments already set in place with the added bonus of not having to fight with club owners to get paid (see section 4). And that’s huge!
The only problem is that those who dream of becoming permanent members of an orchestra have a long road ahead of them, a long road of auditions. But remember, everything is possible.
If you are one of these brave percussionists, I am sending you a virtual pat on the back, wishing you good luck, and giving you a couple of tips:
at your leisure, read my old post “15 Great Tips on How to Make a Bad Impression in an Orchestra”. You gotta laugh sometimes;
access a super useful resource, the blog of Rob Knopper, specifically the “Audition Hacker” section.
3. CHAMBER MUSIC GROUPS
chamber music percussionEven in chamber music groups there is no shortage of work for percussionists. You can play in early or contemporary chamber music ensembles and even in ensembles of percussion instruments, one of my greatest passions.
Most of all, you can create YOUR OWN chamber music ensemble and/or YOUR OWN ensemble of percussion instruments. I already wrote an article titled “5 Good Reasons for Starting a Percussion Ensemble” on this subject.
What is the context in which chamber music ensembles play? In many different contexts, but mostly within the regular concert season and in festivals organized by various local entities and groups.
Once again, I can safely say that playing in a chamber music ensemble means great music, great concert halls, great people, and great money, sometimes even more than when playing in an orchestra.
BUT: there is indeed a different kind of organization (“figure it out for yourself” kind of organization) and most of all, you have to bring your own instruments. Once again, that’s huge…
Every classical percussionist should play in a rock or jazz band, if nothing else to have the opportunity to fight with club owners in order to get paid after a show. Obviously always within the limits of a fight between gentlemen. Learning these sort of things is also part of the “job”.
Although there is a density of about 1 million bands per square kilometer (I came up with this estimate after very reliable calculations…), only less than 1% of these bands perform in more than 3 concerts a month – paid concerts (this estimate is also a product of very reliable calculations…). However, being part of that 1% is not so impossible; all you have to do is put together a good show and be musically prepared. Since this is a secret known to very few, keep your mouth shut and don’t broadcast it to everyone in the practice rooms.
Beware though: there is an increasing number of good drummers around; just look at how many will sign up for the various drumming courses at the different Conservatories. Consequently, having a degree in Percussion Instruments and being able to play the hardest contemporary marimba repertoire is not going to help you in the world of drums.
Study this instrument very thoroughly because it definitely provides a better job opportunity than some of the other wonderful toys percussionists love so much. If nothing else it provides a great teaching opportunity.
To recap: if you are interested in earning a living also as a drummer, your should play “less Keiko Abe, more Guns N’ Roses”.
(P.S.: even if I like Keiko Abe more than listening Axl Rose’s voice…)
5. G.S.P. GREAT SOLO PERCUSSIONIST
Why shouldn’t you strive to become a Great Solo Percussionist like Evelyn Glennie? Simple… because there is only one Evelyn Glennie and it isn’t you.
Just joking. Honestly though, we have to admit that today there is hardly anyone, other than Evelyn Glennie and a few others, who can make a living playing in solo recitals and concerts for percussion instruments without being “forced” to teach in a Conservatory somewhere. It’s a fact.
Yet, there is nothing wrong with dreaming of becoming great soloists, au contraire.
Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars
And best of luck!
Question: in your opinion, which career paths does a percussionist have available? Put yourself in the shoes of a teacher who was asked this question by one of his/her students.
Those of you who have ever recorded a CD with a percussion ensemble will have to agree with me: it is a very delicate task.
Ok, I am not saying that recording with a rock band or a symphony orchestra would be much easier, but a percussion ensemble is not something you see in a recording studio very often. Therefore, if nothing else, it’s better to prepare in the best possible way.
I know that for a fact, because in my career I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity of recording several CDs, four of which with percussion ensembles. The most recent one is the CD of the Adria Percussion Ensemble, which was recorded no more than two months ago and which will be published shortly.
In this post I will therefore give you 6 tips on what you should do if you are preparing to record a CD with a percussion ensemble.
1. TAKE A SURVEY OF THE SPACE
Percussion instruments are bulky and although a normal size recording studio (let’s say 30 m2) could easily accommodate a bass marimba, a vibraphone, and a drum set, when we also need to add a set of 4 timpani, orchestral bass drums, few other keyboard percussion instruments, drums, and various accessories, and then record live, well… it’s not going to happen.
As you know, most original pieces for percussion ensembles cannot be recorded with overdubbing, meaning you cannot record one instrument at a time. You all need to be in the same space to see and hear each other perfectly.
This means that having the availability of a large studio or, as it often happened to me, of the stage of a theater, is absolutely necessary. It in fact allows the instruments to be placed at the right distance from each other and thus prevents the endless echoing effects between different microphones, which make the editing and mixing process a basically impossible task.
However, even if you don’t have such a space available and you are about to start working in a normal recording studio, maybe even recording with overdubbing, still take a survey of the space and review the playlist very thoroughly.
At this point, let me tell you about a problem I faced while recording my last CD: the recording studio included 4 rooms: 3 small ones and a large one. Since you could not fit neither a drum set nor a bass marimba in the small rooms, these two instruments ended up being positioned together in the large one. The problem with this arrangement was that the instruments could not all be recorded at the same time. Consequently, for some of the pieces, a drum track was recorded first together with the vibraphone and the bass (which were playing in separate rooms) and at the end the marimba was finally added. For those pieces for which this arrangement was not possible, the marimba track was recorded first and then all other instruments were added later.
No problem, everything went well… but it’s still better to know AHEAD OF TIME what to expect.
2. TRUST AND WORK WITH SOUND TECHNICIANS Fundamentally, a CD is the product of the combined effort of two categories of music experts: musicians and sound technicians. In the case of percussion ensembles, sound technicians perform a truly enormous amount of recording, editing, and mixing.
On your part, do your best to work with those who are recording you because:
not all sound technicians have had previous experience recording marimbas and vibraphones. Besides, these instruments have a very complex texture and their dynamic range which we, as percussionists are used to, go from very very low to super loud, the I-will-break-your-eardrums kind of loud. This is why you’ll need to be patient if you’ll end up having to record the same part multiple times while the sound technician will try different microphones and settings;
trust sound technicians if they tell you to change mallets or drumsticks, tune a drum differently, use a different cymbal, and so on. You are responsible for the sound you want to reproduce in you CD, but you can’t know what goes on in the control room until you hear it yourself. Let sound technicians advise and guide you, that’s what they are there for;
during the mixing process, work with the sound technician to achieve a good sound and the right balance among the instruments in all the pieces. As usual, not everyone is a fan or have ever listened to a CD by a percussion ensemble. If you have a good idea of how you want to play your CD, don’t hesitate to share it with your colleagues!
3. LEARN YOUR PART TO PERFECTION
4. ALWAYS BE PROFESSIONAL
Oh yes: by the way, playing in a percussion ensemble is a really fun experience. I already talked about it in my post 5 good reasons for starting a percussion ensemble. However, when you are in a recording studio, you are working and therefore you have to concentrate – ALWAYS.
A recording studio is not a rehearsal room.
5. LEARN TO USE THE CLICK TRACK
If you are an habitual reader of my blog, this statement will sound like a broken record to you: learn to use the metronome.
Up until now, I always talked about that little annoying tool for its important role in the study process, such as for example when you are learning a new piece for marimba.
However, when you are in a recording studio, especially playing a certain type of music that requires a constant pulsation speed, being unable to play with a click track, means not being able to play at all. Period.
This is true not only for the obvious reason that the metronome helps you play at the right speed, but mostly because recording with a click track will allow to:
edit the different parts with great precision, by cutting, mixing, and even recording again the ones that have mistakes or imperfections;
choose the best tracks and eliminate the ones which you played less convincingly;
record one instrument at a time in overdubbing, because each part can (theoretically) be recorded independently from the others thanks to the use of the click track.
Finally, I am going to end with my usual advice: as for everything else in the field of music, put your heart into what you are doing. Otherwise, the CD of your ensemble will sound like a rhythmic solfege with elaborate sounds.
Conclusion: have you ever experienced recording with a percussion ensemble? Tell us what tips you would give a percussionist who never did.
Linea by Luciano Berio is a piece written in 1973 for two pianos, a vibraphone and a marimba. It’s a nice piece… but also an enormous mess.
In May 2014, I performed “Linea” – the vibraphone part – during a concert from which a dvd was produced by the Italian label Stradivarius.
Today I’ll discuss how I prepared for this piece, especially considering what I already wrote in the three-article series “How to Study a New Piece for Marimba”.
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PART I – PRELIMINARY ACTIVITIES
To better understand the title Linea, read the author’s comment to the piece, which can be found on the website of Centro Studi Luciano Berio:
The subject matter or theme of Linea is the constant transformation of a very simple melody into more complex, differentiated and independent articulations. It is rather difficult to define a melody, since this term always implies other functions; a melody by J. S. Bach – a monody, a simple line – implies not only a phrase structure and a rhythmic one, but also a harmonic structure. In a solo violin Sonata, polyphony is implied (and heard as such) even when the violinist is playing a single line… If I decide to use a melody, I must put all the implied elements into it: these elements are not taken for granted or given by history, but have to be invented anew.
Linea is exactly this – an exposition of the elements implied in a melody which is only apparently simple, and is destroyed by its own implications. At times, however, the melody reappears in recognizable form, like an object found again after an absence, and seen with different and maybe more penetrating eyes. Sometimes the four players (two pianists and two percussionists) meet on the same line, playing the same melody; sometimes they diverge and play different music, generated, however, by that ever-present melody.
I composed Linea in 1973 for Felix Blaska and his dance company.
I’ll be honest. When I read about “complex articulations” or “apparently simple” or “the four musicians play a music apparently different”, I became very curious but also very concerned.
Other than that, I didn’t worry too much. By reading the comment, I basically understood that:
the piece has a melody;
the melody changes in the course of the piece;
the piece is an enormous mess.
And that was enough for me.
LISTENING TO THE PIECE AND UNDERSTANDING ITS MEANING
YouTube offers several executions of this piece so, as soon as I accepted to participate in this production and I received the sheet music, I immediately began to check them out.
The first few times I listened, although I had the sheet music in front of me and I concentrated on the notes as hard as I could, I got lost on average 4-5 times in the 15 minutes of music.
Luckily, I received a recording of Linea which is, in my opinion, much more “authentic” and high-quality than the ones you can find on YouTube. I am talking about the version recorded by Ensemble Avantgarde.
As I continued listening to this execution, with the part in front of me, I began to gradually understand more and more, to comprehend the piece’s meaning, in other words, to find the “line” Berio was talking about. Hidden, disorganized, destroyed and rebuilt in the different parts. Once I did this, I also began to appreciate this piece more and more.
As far as the deeper meaning of this melodic line… what Berio meant by certain sequences of notes… or why he transformed them a certain way…these are all pretty useless questions. It would be like desperately trying to look for a metaphysical meaning in any of Bach’s solo pieces.
To examine this profound esthetic concept more in depth, listen to “Pure and Easy” by the Who.
Linea’s macrostructure is easy to identify because each of the 12 sections has a title: Manège I – Entrée I – Ensemble I – Manège II – Ensemble II – Manège III – Ensemble III – Entrèe II – Coda I – Coda II – Ensemble IV – Notturno.
Sister sections have similar characteristics.
The three Manège are the “healthy carriers” of the melody, which is introduced in the first measures of Manège I and is then clearly represented, even if somewhat transformed, in Manège II and III;
The various Ensemble are the “explosive” moments of the piece, when the density of notes is only proportional to the density of sweat dripping from the musicians’ forehead because of the difficulty of execution. In more formal terms, these could be classified as development sections.
The two Entrèes are the most suspended moments of the piece, especially the second one, the freest part of the piece, where the musicians get to play a sort of “coordinated” improvisation guided by very precise instructions included in the part.
The sections known as Coda are pretty self-explanatory whereas the Nocturne represents one last representation – transformed and calm – of the main melody.
The microstructure is also fairly easy to identify because each section is characterized by moments of homophonic dialogue alternated with rests of different length, changes in tempo, surges and collective “frenzies”, recomposition of the melody, texture changes, etc.
Talking about harmony for composers like Berio is clearly quite a challenge. It is instead much more interesting and useful to try finding the theme, the melody, which is the “multiform” protagonist of the whole piece.
Already present in the first few measures, the harmony is characterized by a minor third (C# to E).
By the end of the first section, it has already changed shape, it has transformed and has basically vanished.
It only reappears during Manège II, only faster and sort of “stretched out” in wider melodic intervals. Then it hides to make room for the “frenzies” of Ensemble II and again it returns slowly in Manège III.
Finally, it peeks one last time at the end of Coda I, during the vibraphone part (what honor!), trying to carve some room for itself within the rapid and aggressive dialogue between the two pianos.
The melodic line is dead and we collect the remains – all that is left – during the Nocturne, the last section which ends the piece as low and gently as it had started.
PART 2 – LEARN THE NOTES
SIGHT – READING THE PIECE
Sight reading this piece is as much an impossible task as it is a necessary one, because it allows you to immediately identify the hardest parts on which you must concentrate your efforts.
If however, as it happened to me, you don’t have a separate sheet music for your part, the first thing you need to do is: create one.
How? Like this:
photocopy the whole sheet music;
cut strips of your part;
glue the strips on a paper size A3;
scan it and print the newly created sheet music.
Note: make sure to glue as many references to the other instruments as possible or rehearsals will become a nightmare.
After having glanced at the newly created sheet music four or five times, you can really start studying, beginning with the hardest parts. And there is definitely no shortage of those: when I did it, I decided to start from page 9 as I thought it gave me plenty to work on.
Studying a piece like Linea is not different from studying any other piece for marimba or vibraphone: turn on the metronome (very very very slow) and follow, if you wish, the instructions I wrote in my post “How to study a new piece for marimba – Part 2“.
I have to admit that during the first phase I made a mistake. Since Linea is an extremely difficult piece, probably the hardest piece I have ever played, I took a very long time to fully learn the various sections. Especially since the piece was going to be recorded, I had to shoot for perfection. The result of spending so much time studying so thoroughly every section was that at the first rehearsal, although it had been scheduled a whole four months before, I was prepared only on the first 20 pages of the score and I had to sight read the rest. And with less than stellar results… As a consequence, besides having wasted my colleagues’ time, I had to hurry and study the rest of the piece before the second rehearsal, a few days later.
Lesson: even if the piece is extremely hard or if it involves an ensemble, try to come to the first rehearsal having read your entire part, even if you haven’t studied every section very thoroughly.
Personally, it was impossible for me to read certain sections without looking at the vibraphone keyboard – too many notes, too fast – despite the fact that I was playing with two pianists in front of me and a marimba player to my side (this arrangement was indicated by Berio himself in the second page) and I therefore frequently needed to look at them to give/receive various signals.
In any case, memorization of the hardest parts has happened automatically and unintentionally because of endless repetitions during both the study and the rehearsal sessions.
SOUND AND PERFORMANCE
It is really interesting to witness how Berio maximizes the sound possibilities of each instrument chosen for Linea. In the case of the vibraphone, for example, there are certain parts that must be played using “dead strokes”. Even the use of the pedal cannot be given for granted and it is in my opinion, one of the hardest elements to “faithfully” reproduce on stage.
What can I say about the performance? As in many other pieces of contemporary music, the player is more involved in playing the right notes than in enjoying (and therefore in bringing to life) the music. However, once you are in the zone – in this case on the line – and especially after studying for months, performing this ensemble music becomes a real pleasure. I tried to truly live this piece during the live performance and the 15 minutes on stage really flew by, even though I am still not sure whether I was able to convey all of this in the recording.
One last advice I can give you about the simple but very important aspect of page setting, I learned from my colleague Arrigo Axia (“Arig”), who played the marimba part. Instead of creating a custom sheet music “with the strips” like I did, cutting out many useful references to the pianos, he used his Ipad connected to a bluetooth pedal to turn each page.
In my opinion, with a 13 inch tablet (the same size as an A4 paper), like the ones sold today, Arrigo’s solution seems perfect. You should try it.
PART 3 – AUDIT AND PERFORMANCE
BEWARE OF MEMORIZATION
As I wrote before, memorizing so many passages from Linea was inevitable, but with all that ink on the paper (we are talking about pages and pages of sixty-fourth notes…), making mistakes in the learning process was also inevitable.
So after several weeks spent studying and rehearsing, I realized, by slowly reading the part with my trusted metronome by my side, that I learned two notes and a rhythm wrong. These things happen but they definitely need to be corrected, especially in the event of a recording.
As far as “recording yourself” during rehearsal or during the study phase, I preached well but did not follow my own advices. Despite all the rehearsals for this piece that I participated in, I never thought of recording myself to hear how I played. A real shame, because I could have corrected a few interpretation mistakes which instead I only noticed shortly before the day of the recording.
It would have been so simple. All I needed to do was turning on that damn smartphone, which I kept turned off in my pocket not to disturb, while I was studying by myself or while I was rehearsing with others. Maybe I was just embarrassed to hear how many notes I played wrong during the most difficult passages. A ridiculous fear since shortly after I would have recorded those same passages for a dvd production… A chance and time wasted.
Finally the performance. For this part, I am leaving you, or at least those who wish to watch it, with the video recording of the concert published by “Stradivarius”. Besides Linea, the program also included two unpublished pieces, one of which, “Terza Algebra del Tempo” by Giovanni Albini, which was written for two percussionists, was also interpreted by me and the great Arrigo.
You find a trailer of the concert down here, enjoy the video!
Question: have you ever played Linea by Berio or a piece with a similar level of difficulty? If you have, what was your study method? Tell us about your experience!
With every passing year, more and more specialized training courses for percussion instruments are fortunately created. (Hurray!!!)
Even here in Italy, the market for this type of courses have been steadily growing for the past several years. (Hurray!!!)
BUT – there is a negative aspect to this trend. Some of these specialized training courses are absolute junk. (Noooooo!)
Actually, that is what the free market is all about. It doesn’t matter what is being sold, whether it is oranges, smartphones, or specialized training courses for percussionists. The market is meant for selling. Therefore if you are not careful to who is selling you what, it doesn’t really matter whether the greatest percussionist in the world is there waiting for you… you might end up with a lemon. And here is why.
WHAT IS A SPECIALIZED TRAINING COURSE FOR PERCUSSIONISTS?
Let’s be clear. What is a specialized training course in percussion instruments and how does it differ from a masterclass or a university course?
Well, first of all there are no official definitions. TO ME, a training course consists of a series of lessons – usually about ten – held by one or more teachers in the course of a certain period of time, usually no more than a year. These lessons deal with specific aspects of percussion instruments.
For example, typical specialized training courses could be:
courses to help you practice specific excerpts needed for orchestral auditions;
courses on jazz improvisation technique on vibraphone;
courses on the best technique to play the Indian tabla.
In other words, everything and anything.
How are they different from a masterclass? Usually a masterclass is held in a single meeting and is directed to multiple students at once. On the other hand, a professional training course is held in several meetings and can ALSO include “one-on-one” sessions.
Furthermore, unlike a university course, a specialized training course does not usually provide academic credits or awards/diplomas upon completion.
The one thing specialized training courses and masterclasses have in common is the fact that in both cases the lessons are directed to intermediate or advanced percussionists. Often in fact, the requirement to register for these courses is a degree in percussion instruments.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
The problem is that you don’t necessarily need to be a great percussionist to teach training courses in percussion instruments. Instead, even if rarely, you can find training courses taught by a Mr. Nobody who self-declares “the greatest expert in the world on advanced bowing technique on vibraphone”. This is just one example… To stay clear of these types of courses, just read the resume of the instructors teaching them. This is if they are not too embarrassed to publish it.
More often however, the problem is that some training courses are taught by great percussionists who are not teaching-oriented.
Let’s analyze some factual examples inspired by true events I experienced myself or have been told by some of my colleagues.
“CHANGE YOUR TECHNIQUE COMPLETELY”
Let’s pretend you have been studying percussion instruments a certain way for years and years. You sign up for a specialized training course and the teacher reveals to you (wait for it…) that your technique stinks, your sound stinks, your previous teacher stinks. By that point you feel like you stink.
You therefore decide to change the method you have been using and start from zero because “if he said it, it must be true”.
By the time that ordeal is finally over, you feel terrible… clearly you know you have a long road ahead of you before you can call yourself a “professional” percussionist. So you end up signing up for another specialized training course with a different teacher.
As soon as this new teacher meets you, he starts cursing you, your hands, your sound, and obviously the previous teacher. You also start questioning your previous instructor, even though you are fully aware that the answer is inside of you and here it is: besides completely stinking at playing music, you are also dumb and have not understood anything of what was taught to you in the previous training course. Or you just have not studied enough.
Well, you then start studying more and in the meantime, even though you don’t even have enough money for the train ticket to return home from the last lesson of the last course, you sign up for a third specialized training course. This time, besides having to pay tuition, you also have to audition. After all, great Maestros can’t be bothered with people who can’t play.
The course has 8 available slots, and 4 people other than yourself show up. After the audition, all five are accepted in and you think, “Wow! What a honor!”, even though as you ride on the train back home, you do start wondering, “If there were 8 slots and only 5 of us, all already experienced musicians with music degrees, why auditioning?”.
It doesn’t matter. Once again your skills and techniques are considered worthless and you have to change everything all over again.
What the heck do you want to do with your life? This question always makes me smile as I have been asked exactly that by more than one person.
Seriously though, I am asking you to really think about it: why do you relentlessly sign up for more and more specialized training courses to then be hearing that the way you play is wrong and that you have to change everything about it?
Why don’t you just try to work on what you already know and like to do? Are you sure you need 3-4 different people to tell you how to play a thumb roll on tambourine (example of a technique that was explained to me 3 different ways by 3 different teachers…)? Or are you even sure that so much philosophical analysis is required in order to simply decide what type of sound you want to create with your crash cymbals during that passage from Romeo and Juliet?
CLEARLY DEFINE YOUR OBJECTIVE
Before registering and paying for yet another specialized training course in percussion instruments, ask yourself this: what am I really hoping to gain from this course?
You need to have one specific objective in mind, such as for example:
I want a few advices on how to play certain excerpts for future orchestral auditions;
I want to study certain marimba pieces in greater depth;
I want to spend some time studying with one of my favorite artists.
If you don’t know exactly why you want to attend a specialized training course, don’t sign up.
PERCUSSIONISTS FROM THE PAST
Were all past percussionists completely incompetent because they did not attend enough specialized training courses?
Obviously a few incompetent percussionists who play in orchestras or teach at music conservatories do exist and we’ll unfortunately have to deal with them until their retirement. C’est la vie.
That being said, what about the many true artists of the past? How many specialized training courses do you think they attended?
And how much instead did they invest on themselves and their musical talent?
CONCLUSION – AND DAVID SEARCY
During my career I attended countless masterclasses but I paid for very few specialized training courses.
Among these, I distinctly remember the specialized training course for timpani held in Soncino some years ago by David Searcy, the great timpanist who played in the orchestra of Teatro alla Scala in Milan since 1972. I already talked about him in a couple of previous articles: “Timpani: exceptional intruments” and “Timpani: a contribution by Alberto “Mac” Macchini“.
The course that was supposed to last several months, ended up being condensed into one single lesson due to the Maestro’s health problems. That one lesson was enough to change the way I played the timpani forever and my only regret is not having had the chance to attend more lessons with David.
I realize that not all specialized training courses in percussion instruments are taught by amazing artists and teachers like David Searcy. But why not at least trying to find them?
Question: would you like to share your positive and/or negative experiences with the specialized training courses you attended?
After having practiced the infallible study method I introduced you to in my last post to help you correctly learn a new marimba piece, you are finally ready to actually play in front of an audience and/or to record your beautiful CD as a soloist. Worst case scenario, your music teacher will be the only one to ever hear it; it doesn’t really matter.
First though, let a pain-in-the-neck teacher like me ask you 3 little questions:
Are you really ready to play this piece?
Are you sure you haven’t forgotten anything, and I mean anything, of what is written on the part?
And finally, are you 100% sure of your performance?
Listen to me: before moving on to a new piece, finalize your study with a few more practice sessions so that you can refine the part you have just finished studying. How? By auditing your execution and preparing for your performance, as I will explain to you today.
If you missed my two previous articles, I strongly recommend you read them prior to getting into today’s post.
WATCH OUT FOR MEMORIZATION
If you have used the study method I showed you last week, you should have theoretically memorized basically the whole piece. Although memorization was not essential, you should have noticed that by extensively practicing the piece and by focusing on the individual parts, you no longer needed to read the notes.
However, there is a catch: you might have made mistakes in the memorization of a note, a rhythm, an articulation, anything really. You might have even forgotten to study an entire line or section. It happened to me…
How can you know for sure at this point? Easy. Go over the part and try to play it slowly with the help of a metronome while you read note by note.
Santa Claus – marimba
This can be tough because your muscle memory will try to take over your body, completely bypassing your brain… in other words, your hands will want to”go on their own” on a sort of autopilot.
At this point, trying to control what you are doing is rather difficult. It is somewhat like thinking about breathing: unless you are used to it, like for example if you regularly practice yoga, thinking about breathing will initially make the actual breathing process hard. This is because breathing is an automatic process.
In the same manner, playing a piece you have memorized is also an automatic process. I already talked about this in my old post “Muscle Memory”.
Let’s recap: check the whole part again concentrating on the reading of the notes and don’t rely exclusively on your memory. If you realize you have made a mistake or you have forgotten something, regain control of your body so that you can fix what is wrong or missing.
A thousand articles have been written on how useful recording yourself can be to verify the quality of your performance. Well, at least I think a thousand articles have been written. I myself have only read a few.
However, I am still going to restate here how important it is, because I think that recording yourself before playing a piece in public can be useful for at least two reasons:
to verify once again if there are still problems with wrong notes or inaccuracy.
To see if your overall performance feels convincing to you.
The first reason can appear redundant, I realize it. However, sometimes it is only by listening to yourself that you can notice that little note being out of key. Go over the part and you will discover that little note was in fact a different little note and that you had not realized it even as you were reading the whole piece again, as described in the previous paragraph. Darn little note.
Second reason: you know what happens when you hear a recording of your voice, right? The first time is always shocking, you know that. You might think, “who is this person speaking in such an idiotic way…? Welcome Johnny, that idiot is you.
Well, sometimes hearing your own marimba performance can produce a similar effect. Some of your possible reactions might be, for example:
“Come on, do I really play that fast?”
“Am I using mallets that are too hard?”
“The way I am playing this part really stinks!”
“Wow, how cool! I am really good!!!”
Unfortunately this last sentence gets rarely spoken.
If by this point I have been successful in convincing you that recording yourself can be extremely useful, I am also going to tell you that you don’t need fancy technology to do that. The music technology market is already flourishing thanks to people like me, don’t worry…
As I was saying, since recording yourself can be extremely useful to you for listening and evaluating your own performance, you can use a simple recorder with a decent sound. Your smartphone is perfect, as long as you keep it far enough from the marimba and you use headphones when listening to your own performance. The marimba’s overlapping harmonies are in fact a killer for any speaker.
If you want higher quality, in other words you have money to spend, buy a digital recorder. The quality of your recording will really improve. The only requirements should be that the recorder be small (so you can take it with you in the recording studio and on stage) and that, in order to start recording, the only two keys you have to press are “on” to turn it on and “rec” to start recording. Everything else is completely useless for your purpose and would only be a waste of time, actually a detriment to the good habit of recording yourself which I truly hope you will adopt.
PREPARE YOURSELF FOR YOUR PERFORMANCE
Here are a few random advice for when you will have completed all the phases of the study process and you will have entered the “pre-stage” phase:
if you still have doubts on your performance, think again about the part; don’t bother with YouTube videos. They can be useful during the first phase, to get an idea on how to play the part. Now YOU are the one giving YOUR own interpretation of the piece; you are the one deciding what you want to communicate with it;
don’t leave out the “theatrical” aspect of your performance. Concerts and recitals are still shows;
even when you are playing alone in the room and no one is listening, imaging that you are actually performing the most important piece in your career, in front of the largest audience in your career, on the most beautiful stage in your career;
give 100% in all of your performances. Don’t settle for 99.9%. Admit to your mistakes only if you have actually made them, not before;
And have fun!
Question: do you have any final advice to give to a student that have just finished studying a new piece for marimba?
We are finally going to be studying! Well, if this is what you think, then it means that you don’t grasp at all the utter importance of the work you should have done BEFORE starting with the actual study process of a new piece for marimba. In my previous post I already talked to you about the preparatory work that needs to be done.
Today we are starting with the longest portion of the our work, so…. let’s go!
SIGHT-READ THE PIECE
In my previous post, I already mentioned how important sight-reading really is. Now I am going to explain why.
You have to realize that learning to play a new piece for marimba is like getting to know a new person. If you have some preliminary information about that individual – such as his/her name, physical aspect, address, preferences – before actually meeting him/her in person, you can say you already know him/her a little. This is exactly what you learned to do last week when you analyzed and listened to the piece.
If you then happen to actually meet the person, this first contact, this first meeting will tell you a thousand more things about him/her. Some of your initial impressions might end up being wrong or unfounded, but after a first meeting you will usually have a much clearer picture than you had before. Usually.
This is exactly why sight-reading a new piece for marimba is so important: it gives you a MUCH clearer picture about the piece in question. Usually.
START STUDYING THE PART
Once you read your part a first time, you can start the actual study process.
First turn the metronome on. Remember, the metronome is your best friend. Please please please, use the metronome.
This is exactly what I tell my students when I catch them (usually in the classrooms next to where I teach my own class) studying a piece without a metronome.
Metronomo_o-Let’s in fact clarify something once and for all: the metronome is a wonderful aid to the study process and it does not kill your musicality. However, you must use your judgement when utilizing one. Here is how you can do that:
Turn it on.
Set a slow, very slow tempo.
Focus on a short musical phrase or period (a structural analysis has already been performed as part of the preliminary activities) and start studying it.
Once you are able to correctly execute the rhythm, the notes, the dynamics, the performance – in other words, everything – then…
…don’t turn the metronome off. Instead…
…increase the tempo by no more than about 10 BPM.
Repeat the previous steps starting with number 3.
Move on to the following phrase or period and repeat the same steps.
Connect the different phrases giving them a sense of musical continuity.
When you know a good portion of the piece and you have been able to maintain the correct tempo, then you can turn the metronome off and have fun. In a one-hour study session, this last step should last no more than 10-15 minutes…
You can now understand that studying this way requires a considerable amount of time because of how the same phrase has to be practiced over and over, at a progressively increased tempo, until all the musical aspects of the piece have been perfectly mastered.
Well, it’s true. Studying the right way takes time. If you ever want some tips on how to organize your study schedule, you can read my post “How to Recover from a Period of Inactivity”.
SECOND DAY: FROM THE BEGINNING? NEIN!!!
Let’s say that on the first day you studied the first part of a piece. Today it is the second day; from where do you start? From the beginning? NEIN!!!
Once you have completed warmups and technique exercises, always start your study session with the parts you don’t yet know.
Playing over and over what you have already mastered is indeed fun and gratifying because it gives you an immediate sense of accomplishment. However, it is utterly useless and a total waste of time.
Set aside some time at the end of your study session to review and to tie together the sections you already studied with the new ones. See step 10 in the previous section.
MEMORIZING: YES OR NO?
Memorizing should not be an objective in itself. On the other hand, before learning how to play by memory, you should master your reading technique: in other words, focus on peripheral vision and practice.
Obviously, if you are playing a piece of a certain technical complexity, reading the part becomes basically impossible. At that point, memorization becomes inevitable.
In any case, debating the issue of memorizing or not memorizing is utterly useless. The issue is actually quite simple: if you study a certain way (refer to the section “Start Studying the Part”), you will learn that practice after practice, repetition after repetition, you end up memorizing the piece anyway, even without any conscious effort.
If you haven’t memorized the piece, it means that:
you haven’t studied enough;
the piece is relatively easy and allows you to read and perform at the same time.
SOUND AND PERFORMANCE
Right notes, right rhythm, right dynamics, etc.… but an ugly sound? Everything else becomes tainted.
Well, how can you obtain a beautiful sound on the marimba? Well, to give a truly satisfactory answer to this question I would need much more than one post.
Remember just a couple of things:
your sound depends on the way you move in space. Learn how to move.
for all percussion instruments including those, like the marimba, that don’t have a “natural” rebound. Si-mu-la-te it.
That being said, right notes, right tempo, right dynamics, beautiful sound…flat performance? Everything else becomes tainted.
How can we then execute a beautiful performance? Well, we now risk entering a dangerous philosophical-esthetical territory that doesn’t belong in this post. We are not just talking about analysis but also, actually mostly, about “heart” and that, my friend, is up to you.
A FEW MORE TIPS
If there is one thing I learned from the masterclass I took with the great David Friedman is to hold your mallets low. It is a matter of physics. The higher the mallets the more notes will be played wrong. That being said, you can still be amazed at the sight of a marimbist bringing the mallets down from above his/her head. However, remember this: it would be really interesting to see a performance by one of these marimbists while reading their part and to count how many notes they will play wrong. And if you are thinking “but Evelyn Glennie sometimes plays like that”, well, let me remind you that you are no Evelyn Glennie.
Keep your music stand low. How can you use your peripheral vision if your stand is too high for the keyboard? And above all, if you want to really impress your audience… let them see you! What the heck, are you or aren’t you a rockstar gripping four mallets?!?
Mark the stickings you find useful and do not improvise them during complex passages. Select, once and for all, what mallets you intend to use for a certain passage and write it on your part. You need to eliminate all useless work while you play. And then, a little teacher tip: when I see a marimba part with no stickings I immediately think that maybe my student has studied very little, and I am usually right.
Study a lot.
See you again with the next and last episode of the series “How To Study a New Piece for Marimba”, when I’ll discuss the review phase and final performance. And…drum roll… we’ll also talk about recording!
In the meantime, if you missed the first part, you can read the article “Preliminary Activities” where I discussed what you should do before you start “actually playing the notes”.
See you soon, and… happy studying.
And have fun!
Question: do you have any other tip you’d like to share on how to study a new piece for marimba?