Horn Pedagogy Videos and More from Eli Epstein

Renowned horn pedagogue and performer Eli Epstein has a posted a  new video on Breathing and Breath Support to his YouTube Channel. Mr. Epstein gives a concise, yet detailed and anatomically correct, explanation of breathing, and also demonstrates how to put these concepts into practice. Before further discussion, you should watch the video!

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, Mr. Epstein’s approach to the horn is relaxed, methodical, and overwhelmingly positive, which makes for a very effective teacher. One especially unique element is the use of a chair to engage the same muscles used in breath support. Mr. Epstein expertly demonstrates by playing Mendelssohn’s Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, accompanied by a silhouette and animated meter showing varying levels of breath support There is a lot of information packed into this six and half-minute video, so it should be viewed multiple times if possible.

If you like this video and find it useful, be sure to check out his other videos on Relaxation Before Performance and Radical Practicing. The relaxation video comes at a very fortuitous time, as many of us in the education field are approaching the end of our academic year. If you find yourself getting tense and more stressed than usual, take five minutes to listen to this video. You’ll feel more relaxed afterwards.

In Radical Practicing, Mr. Epstein discusses and demonstrates the importance of varied repetition as the pathway to learning new material. When we repeat material over and over in exactly the same way, we become bored, even if we continue making the same mistake. Varying our repetitions to target specific elements of a passage is a much more effective way to learn and retain. On a personal note, this concept played a huge role in the development of my etude book Solo Training for Horn.

If juries, final exams, and other end-of-term tasks are starting to stress you out, take a break and view the above videos. It will be time well spent!

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Brass Pedagogy Interview Questions

Earlier this semester I was contacted by David Mercedes, a doctoral tuba student at the University of Iowa, with several interview questions for his Advanced Brass Pedagogy course with Professor Jeffrey Agrell. David had some very insightful questions, and I have shared these (and my candid responses) below, with David’s permission. The questions are similar, though not exactly the same, as those posted by John Ericson at Horn Matters. I assume both projects are for the same pedagogy class – BRAVO to David Mercedes, Professor Agrell, and the rest of the Advanced Brass Pedagogy class on a fantastic project!

During your years of collegiate teaching, what do you think you have brought to your studios that has been most valuable to them?

I think I’ve brought a variety of professional experiences as well as enthusiasm and passion for what I do.

What is the best way you motivate your students?

Leading by example! I never ask students to do anything I don’t already do or have done in the past. I try to be as excited as I can about whatever it is that they/we/I are doing, with the hope that my excitement is contagious. Attitudes are contagious, and having a positive attitude is one of the most important attributes you can bring to your teaching.

How do you work with students who don’t seem to be motivated, and are complacent with not progressing as a musician?

I try to find something that they are interested in, whatever that may be, and use that as a conversation starter. Students almost always have something they are passionate about, and I try to help them transfer some of that passion to their musical studies. I ask them to provide both long and short-term goals, and we use that as a basis for materials and strategies covered in lessons.

What are some of your recruiting strategies?

Recruiting has been and continues to be a major component of my current position. Here is a short list:

  • Regular visits to local schools
  • Recruiting tours with other brass faculty
  • Develop a robust, professional online identity through website, social media, YouTube videos, etc.
  • Email, hand-written letters to prospective students
  • Annual on-campus recruiting events (Brass Day, Horn Day, etc.)
  • Building relationships with local music educators

How strict is your personal practice plan? What makes you stick to it, and how often do you change it?

I’m fairly regimented in this area, although age and experience have taught me to be more flexible. I strive for 2 hours of focused practice throughout a work day, unless rehearsals, performances, or other obligations prevent it. I enjoy practicing and learning new repertoire, and that’s what keeps me motivated. I am almost always planning a future program in my mind and thinking over repertoire choices.

How did you go about getting invited to perform at festivals, conferences and other institutions?

Persistence – keep applying for as many of them as you can and eventually your proposals will be accepted. Ask for feedback on your proposals from others who have been successful in applying for those festivals/conferences. Cultivate relationships with people in and out of your field – you never know when those relationships may bear fruit. Be a GOOD PERSON.

What advice would you have for someone who is looking to follow a career path like yours?

Stay interested in what you do, and stay positive. Figure out what it is that you do well, and continue to improve on those things. You can’t do everything, and no one expects you to. Seek out others who are doing the same kinds of things you are and ask them questions about their success, failure, etc. Be honest with yourself and your capabilities – this is very important in avoiding burnout. Try to avoid over-committing yourself. Be especially careful in how you represent yourself on social media. This is incredibly important today.

What is a typical day like for you?

It really varies depending on my teaching and performing schedule. I almost always start the day with some meditation and breathing exercises, followed by a warm-up/maintenance routine. I feel like if I can get that part completed early in the day then I am well-prepared for whatever challenges come my way.

What is the on – campus interview like?

Varies depending on the position and duties, but here are some general components.

  • One or more meetings/meals with the search committee
  • Exit meeting with search committee
  • Q&A with faculty/students
  • Meetings with various administrators
  • Master class and teaching demonstration
  • Rehearsal with collaborative pianist and a recital performance, hopefully not on the same day.
  • Reading session with faculty ensembles (if applicable)

These can be stressful, and you should make sure you take time throughout the day or days that you are there to relax and have a little time to yourself. Remember that from the time you are picked up at the airport until the time you leave that you are being interviewed. The members of the search committee will probably be very relaxed and social with you and each other, which is a good thing, but don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security about your words and actions. Always represent yourself as positively as possible!

What do you think has been your biggest challenge as a musician?

Balancing the physical demands of playing with achieving musical goals. I tend to be an analytical player, which is helpful as a teacher and performer, but can sometimes get in the way.

IHS 50 Report, Final Thoughts

This is the fourth and final part of a series on the 50th International Horn Symposium (You can read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here). Although IHS 50 will last through tomorrow (Saturday), I am now at home and reflecting on this year’s symposium. 50 years of horn symposia is a big deal, and I’m sure there were many discussions about how to appropriately commemorate the event. I think IHS 50 was a rousing success, with credit and gratitude going first to Gene Berger and the Ball State University faculty and staff, but also to the IHS Advisory Council, and all the members of the International Horn Society for their part in making this event a reality. As is my usual practice, here are some summary thoughts about the symposium.

  • Looking backwards, looking forwards: Every conference has a particular vibe, created in large part by the host organization and venue, as well as the various lectures, performances, and numerous other less tangible details. For example, IHS 47 in Los Angeles had a very cosmopolitan feel, which fit very well with the city’s role as a cultural, artistic, and economic hub. IHS 48 in Ithaca was very different, given the beautiful natural surroundings of the Finger Lakes region in  New York. IHS 50 was somewhere in between, I feel, but with the added ceremony and nostalgia befitting a Golden Anniversary. Several events looked backwards over the past 50 years, while others looked forward to the future. I thought it was a good mix, and offered something of interest for just about everyone.
  • Exhibits and Gear: Though horns, mouthpieces, and accessories were not a focus for me during this particular IHS (I was on a pretty tight schedule), I did browse past most of the vendor tables. Horn makers and retailers both large and small were in high attendance, and the exhibits were all located in a single building, although signage could have been a bit better in pointing out where specific vendors were located. Sheet music tables were nicely insulated from the instrument exhibits, and private instrument testing rooms were reserved in a more quiet part of the building. Lots of new products were on display, including carbon fiber bell inserts for Marcus Bonna soft top cases, a new carbon fiber case from Pope Repair, and the new case by BAM, a longtime maker of cases for string instruments. All of these products are worth a serious look if you are in the market for a new case. Houghton Horns had their complete line of H series mouthpieces, including the new H-4, and Osmun Music unveiled their commemorative IHS 50 mouthpiece.
  • Social Time: Complimentary coffee and tea were a very nice touch at this symposium, and the Ball State Student Center provided plenty of comfortable spaces for meeting new people and catching up with colleagues. It’s always interesting to meet people with whom you’ve communicated electronically, and to put a real face and personality with their name.
  • Participant Ensembles: I didn’t participate in any of the late night horn ensemble reading sessions, but from the talk around the symposium they were very popular. Though not a huge area of interest for me at horn conferences – I’m usually trying to conserve chops and energy for other performances – I recognize how fun and engaging they can be for players of all levels. Perhaps more opportunities will be available at future symposia. Unlike some organizations, many IHS members are not professionals or students, but nonetheless have an abiding love and interest in all things horn-related. Finding the right balance among activities and services which benefit various members of the IHS is an ongoing process, and one which bears some frank discussion.
  • Future of the IHS: I was unable to attend an area representative meeting on Thursday morning, but from what I gather the agenda was largely concerned with ongoing efforts to increase membership in the IHS (see my article on why YOU should join the IHS here). I have seen a few posts on social media inquiring about what benefits IHS members enjoy the most, and why non-members have not joined. I sincerely hope that these conversations continue, and yield some productive results. In the end the Horn Society won’t be able to please everyone, but I hope that some changes can be made to ensure that the IHS flourishes for another 50 years. One issue that I believe is common to all the like-instrument societies (International Trombone Association, International Trumpet Guild, etc.) is identity. Is the IHS a professional organization? Is it for amateurs? Is it for students? Is it for teachers? The answers to all of the above questions is a resounding YES, but therein lies the problem. Catering to the interests of all these parties is a monumental task, and there is no magic bullet to increasing membership. Perhaps better marketing and a greater social media presence will help, but this takes dedicated time and effort, and may in fact drive away other members of the society. I’ve always wondered why more professional horn players aren’t members of the IHS, and if there is a way to bridge the gap and encourage them to join. Overall, though, I have confidence in our leadership and trust them to help find a path that promotes the Goals and Aims of the IHS.

A Recital Video and Some “New Year’s” Resolutions

Here’s a brief two-part post for today.

First is a video recording of a live performance from June 2013 of Sweet Rustica, by the Portuguese composer Eurico Carrapatoso. I’ve written previously about Carrapatoso and his music (here , here, and here), so I won’t add too much other than to say that if you don’t know his music for horn you really should check it out. Though the title is fanciful, his Sweet Rustica is a very substantial work for both players. At six movements and nearly 20 minutes long, this major work is suitable for advanced undergraduate or graduate level recitals. For ordering information and program notes, visit my YouTube video directly or the Editions Bim website.

For part two I’ve put together a modest list of resolutions for the upcoming academic year. While I do celebrate the new calendar year on January 1st, August and September usually feel more like the beginning of a new year to me. To get the year started on an upbeat and productive note, here are my resolutions.

  • Limit email time. I’ve read numerous articles describing the negative effects of excessive email checking on productivity (here’s one, for example, and another one), and I fell into that trap last year. From the first hour of  the day I powered up my computer and logged into my campus email account. Not only was it distracting, but it started off my day in a stressful, frenetic way. NO MORE. As suggested in this article, from now on I’m going to build in specific times during the day to check and respond to email messages, and the rest of the time I’m going to focus on the projects I was supposed to be working on in the first place. In addition, I’ve disabled the email and facebook banners and notifications on my phone. New messages will still show up, but only when I choose to check my accounts.
  • Take more timeouts. This resolution is related to my first one, and I hope it will result in a more focused and productive (but less stressful) working day. Here’s a great online tool for taking a brief break. http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/
  • Exercise and eat a balanced diet. For some personal reasons I won’t get into here I have also begun (re)focusing on regular exercise and a balanced diet. I generally eat healthily and do not lead a sedentary lifestyle, so this isn’t a major change for me, but rather a more systematic approach to things I was already doing.

They might not seem like much, but I think these three resolutions will have a very positive impact during this school year. In fact, they already have as I have been gradually working them into my summer routine. Do you have any resolutions for this academic year? Feel free to share in the comments section below. To all my friends and colleagues out there – here’s to the beginning of another great year!

Book Review: Notes of Hope

photoOne summertime activity I really enjoy is catching up on my reading list, which consists of a variety of books; some purely for pleasure – the Riverworld Series by Philip José Farmer and The Bourne Legacy by Eric Van Lusbader – and others for professional purposes. Notes of Hope, the topic for today’s brief review, is something I think belongs to both categories. This new publication from Mountain Peak Music consists of twelve personal accounts from musicians who have dealt with some kind of performance-related injury. Here’s an excellent video introduction to the book by its compiler, David Vining.

The book’s professional relevance is obvious, but beyond that I found each author’s story inspirational and uplifting. Their courage and perseverance in the face of potentially career-ending hardship transcends any one discipline, and each chapter is written in a straightforward manner without an excess of jargon. This is all to say that yes, musicians will be interested in this book, but I think many other readers will be as well: athletes, dancers, painters, teachers etc. The authors come from a variety of backgrounds and career paths, with vocalists, wind players, and string players being represented. Here is a list of the authors and their instruments, in the order they appear.

  • Amy Likar, flute
  • Shelley Rich, violin
  • Sarah Schmalenberger, horn
  • Adam Cole, piano
  • Bonnie Draina, voice
  • David Vining, trombone
  • Andrée Martin, flute
  • Marie Speziale, trumpet
  • Allison Dromgold Adams, saxophone
  • Constance E. Barrett, cello
  • Jennifer Johnson, violin
  • Kristin Delia Hayes, flute

There is a wealth of information in these pages, far too much to quote at length, but here is a short list of  common themes I took from their stories.

  1. Every injury is unique. Although there are generalizations that can be made about certain types of injuries (such as focal dystonia), the path to recovery for each author was incredibly personalized, often consisting of a variety of therapies. In the case of these authors, there was no magic bullet for recovery.
  2. You can’t go back to the way you used to play. Though it is tempting after an injury to try to get back to the way one used to do things, recovering from an injury often requires the retraining of neural pathways. In many of these stories, the authors had to re-conceptualize the way they produced sound in order to move forward.
  3. Seek out specialists. Performing arts medicine is a relatively new field, but there are specialists out there who can help. Groups such as the Performing Arts Medicine Association and journals such as Medical Problems of Performing Artists can help make us aware of the latest research.
  4. Perception is everything. Many of the injuries documented by the authors were at least in part the result of false perceptions – either mental or physical – about the way they produced a sound with their instrument or voice. Our kinaesthetic sense is incredibly powerful, but prone to misconceptions.
  5. Awareness matters. Disciplines such as Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, Body Mapping, and Yoga are playing an increasingly larger role in the arts, especially in the field of performing arts medicine. Though different in their specifics, each one helps bring about a greater awareness of the body/mind connection. If you aren’t familiar with any of these, you owe it to yourself and your students to find out more!

Notes of Hope is a great book, and one that I plan to come back to with my students this fall. It is also available in a version for iBooks, which at $4.99 is an incredible deal. In closing, here are a few links to related stories on this website. Looking ahead to this summer, I will post some summary comments about our visit and performance at the upcoming International Women’s Brass Conference, but will be taking a few weeks off following that.

For Further Reading

Friday Review: Blow Your OWN Horn! by Fergus McWilliam

For this week’s review we’ll take a closer look at Blow Your OWN Horn!by Fergus McWilliam. Mr. McWilliam is probably best mcwilliamcoverknown for his work with the Berlin Philharmonic, where he has been a member of their famed horn section since 1985. In addition, he is an internationally recognized clinician and teacher. Subtitled as “horn heresies” and “an anti-method method,” this book is in part a collection of his thoughts and ideas on playing the horn, but it also tackles many big picture ideas relevant to brass players and other musicians. He notes early on that his goal with this publication is “to instigate, to provoke, to invite a new discussion, a re-examination of traditional and conventional horn pedagogy by both teachers and students.” (p. 2), and proceeds to state the central axiom or thread that runs throughout the entire book; “The horn cannot be taught; it can only be learned.” (p. 2)

McWilliam takes his role as provocateur seriously, and goes on to explain his philosophy on education.

If we look first at the word education, whose roots are found in the Latin ex ducare, “to lead out,” then we shall see that all we teachers can, and indeed really should aspire to is to help our students discover what is inside them and to provide them with useful tools for their journey of learning. (p. 3)

I agree wholeheartedly with this philosophy,  and also think that the best and most effective teachers are those who tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. Numerous chapters confront head-on generally accepted principals of brass playing, including the importance of air vs. embouchure, the use of a mirror when practicing, the importance of our kinaesthetic sense, hesitating before attacks, and whether warm-ups are really necessary. But readers should beware: if you don’t like the idea of questioning existing horn methods, and if the thought of challenging venerated masters makes you uneasy, you might want to read the book in small chunks! Nothing escapes critique, including his own ideas, and he cautions that “Horn methods at best shouldn’t be truly necessary and at worst can be outright confusing, if not damaging. All of them — including this one — should be seen as suspect.” (p. 7)

Are you intrigued yet? If you disagree with some of the concepts he presents I think Mr. McWilliam would certainly approve, provided that you in turn set out to develop your own way of explaining things. That is, after all, the goal of education – to teach ourselves how to learn.

Another area in which dogma has often held significant sway is the concept of sound and tone color. Of all the other great ideas in this book I found McWilliam’s discussion of sound (Chapter 3) the most interesting. He adopts a supremely practical approach: one’s sound should be whatever serves the music the best, i.e. “the kind of sound most appropriate for the context.” (p. 47) He believes that we should strive not to create the same kind of sound every time we play, but rather to create a fascinating sound. “Fascinating” is a wonderful word, and one that isn’t used often enough when discussing tone color. He also includes several visualization exercises to help us find our own fascinating sounds.

There is much more to be found in Blow Your OWN Horn!, but hopefully this brief review will be enough to get you interested. It’s a fabulous book, but isn’t always easy to read.  I’ve read it at least three times, and am still wrapping my mind around some of the concepts and questions found inside. My advice is to go into it with an open mind (and ear), and be willing to question everything!

You can read another review of this book in the May 2012 issue of The Horn Call. 

Is College Teaching a Stressful Job?

Earlier this year an article by Kyle Kensing at CareerCast created a bit of a storm in social media, especially among my colleagues in higher education.  The title of the article was “The 10 Least Stressful Jobs of 2013,” and college professor occupied the number one (least stressful) spot on their list. According to their methodology, the field’s “high growth opportunities, low health risks and substantial pay provide a low-stress environment that’s the envy of many career professionals.” A follow-up article by Susan Adams on Forbes.com came to a similar conclusion, noting that “University professors have a lot less stress than most of us.” There have been several well-articulated rebuttals, including this one  by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed, and this one by David Kroll, posted on Forbes.com.  In response to these kinds of comments, Susan Adams has written an addendum to her original Forbes article. Here’s a short quote.

Since writing the above piece I have received more than 150 comments, many of them outraged, from professors who say their jobs are terribly stressful. While I characterize their lives as full of unrestricted time, few deadlines and frequent, extended breaks, the commenters insist that most professors work upwards of 60 hours a week preparing lectures, correcting papers and doing research for required publications in journals and books. Most everyone says they never take the summer off, barely get a single day’s break for Christmas or New Year’s and work almost every night into the wee hours.

Well, which is it?  Is college teaching stressful or not?  It seems to me that the answer isn’t clear cut at all. There may not be as many external stress factors in college teaching as there are in other careers, but that doesn’t mean that college teachers aren’t under stress. Lots of stress can be self-imposed, based on one’s motivation, career aspirations, and levels of anxiety. These internal factors vary widely among people even in the same careers, and I would think that accurately measuring someone’s stress level is an imperfect science at best. For college teachers in the performing arts, the stress factor can take on an entirely new dimension. For me, every performance brings with it a certain level of stress. However, I have come to terms with it over the years, and am continually working on ways to reduce my stress levels.

Even if college teaching is a “low stress” career, does it matter?  Does that take away from the fulfillment and satisfaction I might feel from doing my job well?  I certainly hope not! While I may experience varying degrees of pressure at work, my ultimate goal is to do the best job I can every day with the minimum amount of stress.  Another thing I take away from reading the above articles is that how others view our field – in this case, higher education – often doesn’t convey the reality of our day to day jobs. Likewise, I am all too aware that the preconceptions I have about other peoples’ jobs are probably way off base. One way to clear up some of these perhaps ill-founded notions is simply to talk to people in other careers and find out what creates stress for them. One of the things I like most about my job is that it brings me into contact with lots of different people and careers – public school educators, professional musicians, business leaders, and many more. Hopefully learning how people deal with stress in their own careers will help me manage my own.

Notes from a Master Class on Performance Anxiety

To close out this week’s series of master class notes (read Part 1 and Part 2), here are my notes from a talk given by David Sternbach, Research Director of the Center for Arts and Wellness at George Mason University. A former horn player himself, Mr. Sternbach visited a studio class during my time at UW-Madison. Mr. Sternbach has authored numerous articles covering a variety of issues facing musicians and other performing artists.

David Sternbach Master Class, The University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • Excellence is a habit.
  • Stage fright has three stages: 1) anticipatory 2) on-stage 3) afterwards
  • To deal with stage fright (performance anxiety) it is necessary to restore your sense of engagement and reexamine your practice room conduct.
  • Visualize what you want to accomplish.
  • Spend at least some time in every practice session playing something you love.
  • Establish a “minimum emotional standard”.
  • Get the body warm before starting a practice session.
  • Take more frequent breaks.
  • Have zero tolerance for tension – it’s not worth learning a passage of music if tension is the result.
  • Act, don’t react.
  • Construct and practice affirmation phrases, and use them to replace the normal stress response. The affirmation has to be more powerful than a habitual negative statement.
  • As in physical exercise, the cycle of challenge and recovery is important in the practice room. Practice should be regular and patterned.
  • Create an environment in which you are happy.
  • Play for your own delight at the beginning and end of a practice session.
  • Physical fitness, especially cardiac fitness, is very important. Good cardiac health allows the body to recover faster from panic.
  • Rehearse the feelings in the music, as well as the notes and rhythms. Train the mind to feel a certain way.
  • We want alertness, not terror.
  • Real Self vs. Performer Self: It is possible to train an emotional state, and replace negative thoughts/emotions with positive ones.
  • Relaxation training: Practice quickly achieving a relaxed state by stopping suddenly in the middle of practicing and forcing yourself to relax. Abdominal breathing can help achieve a relaxed state.

Thoughts on David Zerkel’s “Some Suggestions on Being an Effective Music Student”

Recently David Zerkel, Associate Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at the University of Georgia, posted a great Facebook note titled “Some Suggestions on Being an Effective Music Student, 2012 Edition.” The note quickly went viral, at least amongst music teachers, and can be easily found on Facebook. In addition, Kyle Hayes has reposted the note in its entirety on his blog here. Professor Zerkel covers a number of topics, but the bottom line is that being a successful music major takes a lot of work! This fact should not discourage students, but rather drive home the point that music is a serious field of study (but well worth it). I agree whole-heartedly with all of the suggestions presented, and I have reprinted the list and posted it on my bulletin board at school with the heading “READ THIS.” While I can hardly improve upon Professor Zerkel’s list, I’ve been thinking of some humble additions which might also be worth considering if you are a music student.

1. Consider your health, both mental and physical. College students can be notoriously hard on their bodies, often driving themselves to the point of exhaustion (needlessly, in my opinion). Simply eating more healthily and getting enough rest can do wonders for your overall state of being. Throw in some regular exercise and you’ll find yourself with more energy, a sharper mind, and better practice sessions. Mental health is also an important issue, though one which many students (and teachers) are hesitant to talk about. Most campuses have ample counseling for students and faculty, and it is generally free and confidential. There is often a negative perception about those who seek counseling, but this is unwarranted. Venting to an unbiased third party about anything from little annoyances to major life issues can be quite helpful in dealing with the stress of college life.

2. Make some friends outside of music. More so than students in other majors, music students often find themselves interacting with the same small group of people day in and day out. While this can create deep and lasting bonds of friendship between music students, it can also lead to an inability to interact with people outside one’s circle of friends. Being able to hold an intelligent conversation with someone outside your field of study is very important, not just as an exercise, but as training for a future career as an ambassador for the arts. This doesn’t mean you have to give up any of the friends you have in music, but that you ought to at least make an effort to get to know some people from another area of study.

3. Be positive, and others will follow. Lead by example; be as positive as you can be about everything (easier said than done, I know!) and it will pay off in several ways. For one, you’ll feel better. In addition, you’ll find yourself gravitating towards other positive people (and they will gravitate towards you). And finally, you’ll have a positive influence on those around you. Even when you don’t feel particularly motivated to practice, study, etc., fake it! Summoning the drive to get in the practice room or open your textbook is usually the hardest part, and once you get going you’ll find that the passage you were dreading to practice wasn’t really that difficult to get under your fingers, and that the theory homework you were having nightmares about wasn’t so bad after all.

4. And last, but most definitely not least, GO TO CLASS! Enough said, no excuses.

Friday Review: Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, by Jeffrey Agrell

This week we’ll look at Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, a book by Jeffrey Agrell, Associate Professor of Horn at the University of Iowa (cover image linked from Amazon.com). I’ve known Professor Agrell for several years, and I’m always amazed by his creativity and sheer productivity.  In addition to his teaching and performing duties at the University of Iowa, he has created two blogs, (Horn Insights and Improv Insights), regularly updates the massive UI Horn Studio site, and publishes books and articles prodigiously. (When do you sleep, Jeff?)  Though it may not be the first of its kind, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians is certainly among the most comprehensive (over 35o pages) and well written. Professor Agrell’s writing is clear and entertaining to read, and his “think outside the box” approach to teaching is very evident in these pages. Since I don’t have the room or the time here to consider every detail of this wonderful publication, let me just say that Agrell leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the art of improvisation. He provides copious evidence of the importance of improvisation in music education, and gives the following as one of his main goals with this book.

My fondest wish is that this book introduces a wide variety of musicians to the joys of creating music. I hope that professional and amateur musicians alike discover new musical worlds through this book, as well as music educators of every age, conductors, composers, music therapists-and even jazz players, who, although this book does not use the jazz style, just might benefit from this book as much as or more than classical musicians, since they have always had the attitude and ability to learn from all sources. [p. xvii]

In keeping with the comprehensive scope of this book, Chapter 1 is titled “Introduction: Why Improvise?”, and by the time you’re finished reading it you’ll wonder why you or your students haven’t been improvising. Subsequent chapters fill in more details to help you get started, even if you’ve never improvised. As a graduate student I took an introductory jazz improvisation class, and one of the main concepts I took away from that experience is that when you start learning to improvise you have to forget about all the value judgements you put on yourself and your playing. I remember leaving several classes feeling like a 6th grade band student – it was really like learning a new language. Over time I got more proficient, though nowhere near what you would call competent as a jazz improviser. More importantly, I developed an appreciation for the art and skill of improvisation, and a much wider view of what musicianship is. Jeff’s book will help you to do the same, and you’ll have a great time doing it! These games are well-designed, fun to play, and will stretch your ears and mind. If you want proof, just head on over to Improv Insights and check out a few of the games listed there. Convince a few friends to join you in this endeavor, and then go for it. You’ll be glad you did. One of our horn studio class assignments this semester was to choose one improvisation game from the website and teach it to the class. It’s a great way to get started, but if you want the whole story buy the book.

I’ve just scratched the surface here, but I hope you get the idea. Jeff has also written a companion book, Improv Games for One Player, which is also well worth checking out.

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