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What to Practice?

September 18, 2008 1 comment

This is a post that I was supposed to write last month.  I finally got to it. Read more…

The Patch Factor

August 29, 2008 31 comments

Before I begin my article, let me take just a moment to commend Kirk Brandenburg for his article.  It was well-written and well thought out, and demonstrated his father’s diligent teaching at home.  Kirk, you are a credit to your dad’s ministry, and I trust that you will continue to be.

That being said, throughout this month’s topic, we have alluded several times to the fact that some consider the piano to be an effeminate instrument.  With apologies to Kirk and others, I am one of those who think that a large number of piano-playing males are effeminate.  In this post, I intend to flesh that thought out a bit, so I hope you will “endure to the end.”

First, I do not believe that there is any such thing as an effeminate instrument.  Piano included.  For crying out loud, the piano is way too heavy to be effeminate.  But I digress.  I would also include the flute, the pennywhistle, the clarinet, and the harp in my list of instruments that are not effeminate.  I will admit that I don’t have a verse on this… my opinion results from a simple observation that I have made.  Instruments are gender neutral.  They are neither male nor female.  Neither masculine nor feminine.

That being said, although I can in no way claim to be a musician (I can’t even play an i-pod), I do think that some instruments are more suitable to women than men, and vice-versa.  But since that is a topic for those more expert in musical instruments than myself (starting with Kermit the Frog), I’ll leave that one alone.  I believe that any instrument can be played by a man (and no, I don’t believe that ‘like a man’ means either poorly or boorishly), and in a manly fashion, and I believe that the sooner we get that idea in our head, the better off we will be. Read more…

Random Thoughts from the Receiving End

I talked to my son about writing something from his perspective.  Here is what he wrote.

Random Thoughts from the Receiving End

Kirk Brandenburg, 17 year old senior at Bethel Christian Academy, El Sobrante, CA

Instrument: Let Them Choose?

Everybody should start with piano. You don’t get to choose piano. It’s an instrument that you can start early (six or seven years old), and it plants your musical life for whatever it may grow to be. Yankee Doodle and I’m a Little Tea Pot are a lot easier to grasp than, “Ok, make your mouth into a tight but not too tight circle then blow with steady air through your lips while they’re buzzing . . . and don’t forget to count.” Piano takes care of counting, reading music (both clefs), and note values; so, when a child has matured enough (nine years and up) to handle another instrument, all the basics are second nature. Having a basic knowledge of the piano is critical for any musician anyway. I am not saying everybody should shoot for concert pianist- just get the basics (two or three years).

Once the basics have been covered, you may want to choose another instrument. It helps a lot when the person playing the instrument chooses the instrument. That way he can look back or be forced to look back at who made the decision. The original plan in my family was for me to play trumpet–we had a trumpet, but I liked the sound (a sound that I was able to strive for) of the trombone better. The original love for the instrument helped me enjoy the instrument; it wasn’t a forced, laborious thing.

Teachers

It is my opinion that you will never be able to reach your pinnacle in music unless you get professional instruction. Of course you must work with what is available to you, but since everyone should be shooting for the pinnacle, if you have the means, get the lessons. Fortunately, my parents have made the means possible for all of their children and have put music in great importance in our home. I can not begin to tell the benefit I have received from about 17 combined years of professional instruction. Professional instruction gets you to that next level.

In the beginning years, you can save a lot of money by choosing a capable teacher that does not have a big price tag. In my first four years of trombone, I was able to get excellent teaching for my level for a lot cheaper than what the price is now.

Three areas come to mind when choosing a teacher: (1) credentials, (2) capability, and (3) character. When the time comes to choose a teacher, do not be afraid to try around. If you don’t think the teacher can do the job, say no. In my early piano years, I had a teacher I was deathly afraid of. I dreaded going to lessons each week, but I never told my parents. One day after the teacher had slapped my hand for playing a wrong note, my dad and mom knew I was dreading it, so we immediately moved to a new teacher. It was such a relief to want to go to lessons; make sure your child is comfortable with the teacher’s personality. You learn so much more.

Practice Time

One thing that I hate to see is wasted practice time. If you took the average student musician’s real practice time compared to his overall “practicing,” you would probably find that at least half of the time is wasted. I was talking to a world renowned brass instrument repairman here in the Bay Area, and he said he would rather hear 15 minutes of solid practice than an hour of goof-off practice. That always stuck with me, and, although I am guilty of wasting practice time, I always strive to get high octane practicing. High octane practicing includes practicing the hard parts (not “practicing” the easy ones over and over), reading/following the teacher’s notes, not moving on until I have it absolutely perfect, and never brainlessly practicing (always striving for something better). I always have to limit myself in practice sessions because I find that I can spend a full hour on my technique exercises (in trombone) alone!

Suffering Through

From a family where every child (4 of them) takes piano and an instrument (trombone for the boy, violin for the three girls), it sounds really, really, really bad at first. Count on it. In fact, if your student is always working on the hard, non polished parts, it almost always sounds bad. In my family, there is an underlying disdain for my trombone practice sessions. My sisters always ask if I am done yet. “Do you think you can practice that when we’re gone?” I tend to repeat (and hopefully perfect) the same technique exercises day after day. Not only can I do a full hours worth of technique exercises, my whole family has the routine memorized, and they often sing it back to me. My trombone playing often must be loud and sounds obnoxious. The same disdain goes for some of the family’s violinists’ practice sessions, but . . . we must suffer through, look like we’re enjoying it, and offer our support. If you decide to have music in your home, be ready to endure very unpleasant sounds.

Guys and Piano

I am a guy and I play piano. I have heard that some people think piano is a feminine instrument, but I strongly disagree. Have you never heard some of the great piano concertos? Beethoven, Tchaikovsky especially? I believe that men have a unique sound on the piano. A sound and style that only they can obtain (I haven’t heard the same unique sound with the flute). I have not only heard this unique sound in my playing compared to the women piano players in our church, but I have heard it in the playing of people like Dr. Thomas Corkish (Pastor, Anchor Baptist Church) and David Ledgerwood (well known hymn arranger). I believe that one of the reasons men sound so girly on the piano is because almost every hymn is arranged girly; men are not even given a chance to make it sound manly. I am so thankful for arrangers like David Ledgerwood and Peter Wright because of the manly arrangements they put out.

Something I also dislike is a women accompanying an all male group. It irks me. I love accompanying our church men’s groups because I can sing (through my playing) in a manly way with the manly song. We recently did an all men’s number in church, and our whole church agreed that it had a special quality.

Extracurricular Music

I have gotten the opportunity to participate in outside-of-church music groups. It is a truly amazing experience. The musical training (especially ensemble training) is unparalleled. I find that when I come back to church everything I play is so much easier, and I know I am able to get a better sound for God. Besides it being good for my training, it is super fun. It gives me another outlet to use my instrument. I cannot describe to you the experience, the emotional lift, that occurs when you come upon an amazing part of music. As you may know, I recently toured Australia and New Zealand with the orchestra I participate in. Our last concert ever as a group was at Avondale Girl’s School in New Zealand. It was a very emotional performance. We knew the music the best we ever had, we knew this was our last performance together as that very group, and our conductor had us in the palm of his hand. We were playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, The Pathetique. There is one trombone solo in that symphony (probably the loudest in trombone orchestral literature) that gives me the heebee-jeebees when I play it. The orchestra builds to the climax of the movement, and the trombone solo soars in over the rest of the orchestra; it gives me the goose bumps just thinking about how emotional it is. Some of the orchestra members told me that they cried at these emotional passages, and I admit … my eyes did water. This may all sound weird to you, but emotion is an element that I often see is missing in our church music today. People play their church specials, orchestra parts, etc. like robots. No zeal for the message of the song. Instead of playing with passion just to make beautiful music like I do in the orchestra, I play with passion to communicate a message in church. I learned in the orchestral setting to play with the passion I believe should also be felt in our church music. A heartfelt song is greater praise to God, just like anything we do that is heartfelt is greater praise.

The ensemble experience (especially orchestra) is well worth it. My advice for getting involved in orchestra is to (1) look for the youth symphony of your local professional orchestra or look on the Internet–I know kids who participate in youth orchestras in North Dakota, (2) start early (7th grade)- you work up the chain of advancement. I have now played in a total of four orchestras, and I am trying out for a fifth.

Always Bring It Back to What It Is Really About

The most important thing to do with your instrument is to praise god. Get involved in church music. Our church has a six month schedule for every instrument of every musician in our church. This always keeps me working on something musically for God. Participate in church ministries with your music: nursing home, church orchestra, etc. Always keep in mind why you are playing your instrument. Parents, remind your children why they play. Praising God when you are playing in church should be a given, but if you are playing somewhere else, maybe a secular place, remember who is and should be getting the glory. I make a habit to pray to God before a secular concert or practice that he would receive the praise for what I am about to play. Music is something that we should always have fun with and enjoy, but that must take 2nd place to praising God.

Got Skeels?

August 24, 2008 2 comments

Joey hasn’t been the same, ever since the band leader said it. His little feelies, all mangled and crushed, lie forlorn on the ground. His self-esteem, already needing a stool to mount the flat side of a piece of regular, college-ruled notepaper, now strains to straddle a spaghetti noodle of the angel hair variety. His brow, beaten and bruised, creased with care and worn with worry, resembles a swimming pool on a very windy day. Or perhaps, resembles his bed sheets. That is, before his mother gets around to making it for him.

What, might you ask, has caused Joey such trauma, such trepidation, such total cerebral torture? Well, that is a long story, as you might have guessed, and will take some time to unravel. Feelies are just that way.

In the meantime, Joey continues his daily self-therapy sessions, in his bedroom, alone, with his pillow behind his now nearly twelve-year-old back and his Wii within arm’s reach. His mother rarely disturbs her patient, other than with the ocassional glass of warm milk and plate of chocolate chip cookies. Father has yet to be made aware of his son’s (a.k.a. “my pride and joy”) condition. Joey’s mangled feelies have only been festering for a week so far. Hardly enough time for a man of Joey’s father’s experience to sit up and take note. Besides, he hardly ever visits that end of the house. The TV is clear down in the basement. Read more…

Instrumental in Practicing (part one)

August 21, 2008 3 comments

At about the age of six, I couldn’t wait until I could do dishes. Once old enough to wash them, in very little time, I lost that passion. However, my parents never lost their conviction about my participation, even though Sunday dinner dishes stacked like a bad comb over.

I bring dish washing to your attention because it compares with instrument practice as an example. Kids start out wanting to play, so they practice. In less than a year, the newness wears off and they stop practicing. How can you keep them practicing?

The Philosophy behind the Means for Continuing Practice

Before you ever start choosing instruments or playing them, both parents should have their mind made up about why their children will play. This needs to be a dad and mom thing because it is often too tough for one parent. Both parents have to know why.

I’ve talked to a lot of secularists on this and most who I talk to say that you can’t force a child to play an instrument. They imply that it is wrong to do that. They say that the child must want to play. They tell me that your child must have fun with it, that you don’t want to pressure them. If children don’t want to play, these experts say, they shouldn’t have to. I nod my head to that and smile. Read more…

What Instrument?

August 19, 2008 1 comment

As a band director, a question I’m often asked is, “What instrument should my child play?” There are a few things to consider along with this question — age, physiology, gender, and character. While not “set in stone,” many agree that children should not start playing a wind instrument (woodwind or brass) until they are a little more developed physically. We don’t begin teaching those instruments until the fourth grade. On the other hand, string instruments and piano do not have any potential “dangers” for a young player.

Physiologically, parents and teachers should consider the size of a child’s features that would be involved in playing the instrument. Everyone can overcome difficulties, but most of the time, we do not want unnecessary difficulties for a beginning instrumentalist–there are enough things to overcome without creating more. Read more…

Toward Your Children Growing Up to Be Excellent Musicians

August 13, 2008 5 comments

I’ve often got a chuckle out of the titles of Kaiser’s “Toward” books—Toward an Old Testament Theology, Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament, Toward Old Testament Ethics, Toward an Exegetical Theology. You get the picture. Who can go wrong with a title that starts with “Toward.” If someone ever criticizes the content, you have a built-in defense. “I never said I would cover the subject, just toward the subject.” “Well, I stand corrected.” After reading this essay, your children may not grow up to be excellent musicians, but this will help them toward that goal. I think the “toward” title will also excuse the random nature of this post. I’m not going to try to give you any kind of chronological sequence with this. I’m going to move into a kind of stream of consciousness and you will have to organize my outline into a preferred order on your own.

Have Them in a New Testament Church

If your children grow up in the right kind of church, they will be singing three or four times a week in church services. Early on they will be hearing good tunes and reading notes.

Sing During Family Devotions

Music will become more important if you sing at home. If you want worship to be important to your children, then it will be something you’ll do at home. Moses commanded the parents to sing his song in Deuteronomy 34. God expects families to sing. People will who are filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-19). Your family will become fully informed that praising God is for everywhere. If you don’t sing at home, you’ll leave the worship for the antiseptic confines of church and easily cause your children to disrespect this important activity.

Listen At Home to the Kind of Music You Want Your Children to Play

Be serious about the music you play at home. It should be thoughtful, skilled, and great. You will find some of this among hymn work that is done for Mp3 or CD. You can find plenty of classical music like this. A good way for them to develop the right taste is to give them that taste. One of the best ways to keep from bad music is to fill your life up with good music.

Start Them on Piano

I’m not dogmatic on this, but the piano is your base instrument. I have four children and they’ll each be a different kind of piano player with varied abilities and work intensity and efficiency. Piano has no wind requirements. On the piano, each child can learn the basics of notation, musical language, and theory. Playing notes will no longer be foreign.

Some are against teaching boys piano, because it is too feminine. I respect this as a possibility. Actually, I think that harp is more effeminate than the piano and we all know who played the harp. Piano is a rather indoor type of activity and you will want your sons out getting their hands dirty and straining their muscles with some hard labor. This will not clash with playing the piano. If our men are to be the worship leaders, that is, the leaders of church worship, they need to know music and knowing piano is a great start.

Talk About What Instrument Each Will Play

Early on start talking about the instruments each could play. You tell each of them what the possibilities are. If you have the right kind of music playing around the house and in church, you won’t have them thinking about the trap set or the electric guitar.

I think that certain instruments are more feminine. With all due respect to James Galway, the fife and drums of the War for Independence, and the Army Band, you better be very sure if you let your son play the flute. That should be a consideration, that is, make sure that the instrument fits the child to some degree.

We evaluated each of our children and made the choice for them. When you do this, they will be expecting to get started. You can start talking about how great a player that you think they’ll be.

Get the Best Teachers

I think that the teaching makes the biggest difference as to the quality of your children’s playing. You are going to pay for the best teachers, but you really do get what you pay for. Why even start out on your journey if you aren’t expecting a great ending? It took us awhile to land the string teacher we needed for our oldest daughter, but we finally found a Russian who was once concertmaster for a Soviet Opera. Our daughters go each Monday and Thursday for a half hour each. They progress rapidly.

My son started with a wonderful woman trombonist at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. She graduated from Northwestern and gave him a great beginning. For the last two years he has taken from a master teacher, who has helped him go even further, but for much more money.

You will be better off hiring someone who has played well himself, a professional. He also should be able to teach. Those names will surface in your area once you start researching. We like “old-school.” Old school doesn’t pamper children in the lessons. He has expectations from them and will apply pressure. I like to know that my teacher wants something great from me.

My wife started all of our children off on piano, because she is excellent with the fundamentals and enforcing them. When each of them reaches a certain level, he will go to a teacher we pay for lessons. There are many piano teachers out there. You want to be careful just settling on one. Monitor their progress closely and have improvement that you expect. Communicate that to the teacher. If you are not satisfied, you should look into others. The better teacher may be more expensive.

Have a System for Enforcing Practice

I’m going to spend a whole post on this one, but this will make the greatest difference in your children’s musical excellence. Most kids don’t want to practice. You have a great purpose that you believe in, so you must enforce their practice. There is a new philosophy that travels around in secular circles first and now in Christian ones, that is, “it’s got to be fun for the child.” That philosophy is resulting in less music and less skilled music. It hasn’t seemed to affect every culture. The Asians don’t seem to have adopted that “fun strategy” as a whole.

In that separate post, I will tell you how we have enforced practice. I start hearing music practiced every morning at 6:00am. That goes until we leave for school. Then I hear it after school until late in the evening. There is almost always an instrument being played at our house. One hint here. Own a few timers.

Get the Children in Groups

As soon as your children are able, it is good to get them playing in an orchestra or chamber group. They will like playing more, which will help them practice better. Most kids love being in an orchestra. It is fun collaborating with others to make something very nice. We also have this in our church services. Our kids open their instrument cases, get tuned up, and go to the platform every week to play for the Lord in church. This brings more participation and more excellence in music.

Our kids have also benefited from further evaluation of their talents with an orchestra. In each case, the child must audition. Then each plays for his seating. He will be judged each time and given comments. You’ll get a second opinion on how far your child is going. In addition you’ll get the conductor/music director, an assistant conductor, and then coaches. A chamber quartet sits as artists-in-residence at one of our orchestras. The coaches are often some of the best instrument teachers around.

Recitals and Contests

Recitals will put them under pressure when they play. They should be regularly doing solo work in recitals. The contests are even better. We have a contest every year at our own school. We bring in professional players as judges to make comments. Then we have organized a regional contest with another Christian school (the school of Dave Mallinak). They perform more times with further scrutiny and with the encouragement of other young people around them. They can better understand where they stand if they do some comparison with other people.

Our orchestras have concerto contests every year. Dozens enter the contest and they are judged by other professionals. Whoever wins the competition will play his solo with the full orchestra in the last concert of the year.

Make Sure They Have an Instrument

We rented the violins to begin. We bought an inexpensive trombone on Ebay to begin. We got a very old piano for free and we had it repaired for 300 dollars. Now we own a very nice, professional trombone. We own one very, very nice violin and another very nice violin. Only one is now renting, the youngest. Once your children start getting good, you will see the need to buying and maintaining very good instruments. You will hear the difference in the quality.

The Interest and Support of You as a Parent

I love listening to my children play and compete. I love driving them to their lessons. I love shelling out the cash. I love hearing their progress. I love what it has done for our worship of the Lord. I love hearing them practice.

By being at everything and loving it, you will help your children. This isn’t hard for me, because I do love it. Your love must translate also into recognizing when poor practice is being done for various reasons and doing your best to correct it. I’ll tell you more about how to show interest and support in other posts.

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I’ll be in North Carolina in a couple of weeks speaking at this conference. Take a look at it over at my blog. If you are around and have the time, come over or down or up to be with us.

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