Saturday, July 28, 2007

Tuning, a quick survey of different techniques...

This came up in a DCP post and I thought it would be good to kind of expand upon this idea....

From my point of view there are three different methods to approach tuning - electronically, aurally, and mechanically. I will survey each one as a separate method, however they are not exclusive methodologies - meaning a combination of the three can be effective as well.

This approach seeks to tune the instruments first using an electronic tuner. The tuning note is generally a concert B-flat, however some people swear tuning to a concert F is better. Personally, since on a brass instrument the inherent tuning difference between an F and a B flat is so insignificant, I like the getting the B flat in tune because it is higher and generally right in the middle of the register for players. F is generally a little easier to bend, so it is harder to get a true read on where the student is placing the note. A student may be playing with a loose embouchure, causing the F to read as flat...the student pushes the tuning slide in to adjust and throws other partials extremely sharp. when the student tightens the embouchure to reach higher notes, he is suddenly badly out of tune with the rest of the ensemble. A popular method to minimize the "bending" effect is to have the students play up to the tuning note starting on F. They play "F-G-A-Bflat", holding the B flat at the top to be tuned. This is a more natural and realistic approach to the note and can sometimes help in getting a true read of a players tuning.

Electronic tuning has the advantage of being fairly accurate and immune against human error. Sure embouchure problems might throw student's pitch out of whack, however that is more a problem of playing fundamentals than it is tuning. It is also quick, speed being limited to the number of tuners available at the time. Another advantage is that no real training is required of the people using the tuner - just a simple knowledge of what to do when the tuner reads a certain way.

The disadvantage of electronic tuning is that students become dependent upon the tuners to play in tune. Using this as the only tuning method in a technique program is not recommended. Students should have an understanding of a basic concept of playing "in tune" and have advanced listening skills before this method can be totally effective. If you are using this method, take the time to make sure students know exactly what is going on and the reasoning behind how to adjust for tuning.

Aural tuning
This is the approach championed by The Cavaliers recently. It involves no electronic tuners and is focused on developing the listening skills of the performers. Tuning notes often originate from the bass voices and work their way upwards to the high trumpets and piccolos. The goal is to listen to the tuning note and attempt to match the sound, not only in pitch, but in quality as well. Often two players who can register as in tune by an electronic tuner can sound out of tune because the quality and timbre of their sounds differ. The reason for this perceived difference is while the fundamental note is in tune, the overtones that create timbre are not. This can be fixed with some individual work with an advanced electronic tuner that displays overtones, however not many programs have the time - much less the actual tuner - to spend fixing individuals. On the field, techniques that develop sound, "air and valve/key", mouthpiece buzzing/squawking, and simply listening to a pure characteristic tone can help. I run into this problem a lot with Saxophones and Trumpets. Saxes range from a very mellow, clarinet-like sound, to a harsh jazz timbre. Depending on your ensemble you may want either one. Trumpets have either a "stuffy" sound or a "bright" tone. The factors that go into these and how to fix them are many, but that is a topic for another post...

Anyway, the aural tuning method trains the performers to match their tones to to one another. This becomes useful in actual performance when they can recognize they are out of tune and respond by independently adjusting it. Performers also become more aware of the tuning tendencies of their instruments and can better anticipate when adjustments will be needed.

A good method that I use is the idea of a "tuning trio." This is a good extension exercise that uses skills from aural training to help with blend and balance. After being tuned in some fashion, three students with like instruments will face each other and play the three notes of a B flat major chord. On a signal, the students will switch and pass around the notes, the goal being to keep the sound consistent. This is quite difficult to achieve as not only do performers have to listen and be aware of tuning and timbre matching, but also be aware of their chordal responsibilities.

Mechanical tuning
This third method is definitely in the minority in terms of use. This is the method that was championed by The Blue Devils in the 90's and, more recently, by Gino Cipriani and The Cadets. The basic premise is that instruments of the same brand, using the same mouthpiece, played in the same manner, will be in tune mechanically at the same point as a function of the air temperature. This method is only applicable to bands and corps who play on instruments of the same brand, and whose mouthpieces are the same. This is very important, because different mouthpieces and bran of horn have different tuning tendencies.

What happens is the staff carefully make marks on the tuning slides of instruments a few millimeters apart. Each day,a small group of players representing each type of instrument will tune using one of the methods described above. The air temperature will be recorded as well as which mark on the tuning slide the instruments were in tune at. The rest of the ensemble will move to the mark that their instruments are in tune. After enough data is collected, the staff can make pretty good estimates on where to set the marks on the tuning slide based on the air temperature alone. From there only minor adjustments can be made on an individual basis. As with the electronic method of tuning, exclusive use of this method is not recommended as students should have an understanding of tuning on a functional level.

The advantage of this system is, while data collection takes time, once it is in place it is by far the fastest way to get a group in tune. Also, it creates consistency throughout the hornline, especially if a last second adjustment is needed. It is a lot more precise to say "move out two marks" instead of the vague statement "pull out." This method also allows for changes in air temperature in the performance venue - for instance if performing in a dome. The staff can set the hornline to be in tune at the aur temperature inside, instead of having tuning go bad because they tuned in a warmer environment.

The disadvantage of this system is it requires absolute consistency, not only in horn and mouthpiece selection, but also in the approach to playing the instrument. Every program has the goal of consistent approaches to playing, however it is up to the individual directors and staff to recognize when there are exceptions. Each player has different tuning tendencies that are discounted as part of this process. Certainly individual work and identification of a player's tendencies can happen, however it is time consuming and ever changing depending upon circumstances.

Also uncertain is how this system could work with woodwinds. I suppose one could mark the corks in a similar manner as tuning slides, but I can't speak to this as I have never seen it done.

None of these three approaches should ever be used in isolation. As educators, we should all strive to help performers understand tuning and how to play in tune, and not glance over tuning the same way we would gas up a car.. Our approach to tuning should be from a variety of angles, recognizing that students learn in very different ways. What a student sometimes cannot hear suddenly may become very clear to him after seeing the needle on a tuner, for instance. We should mix up our routines and not be afraid to try new methods.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Competition...Blessing or Curse? - Part 1 - Drum Corps (cont.)

This is the 5th installment of my series on Competition in Drum Corps - I encourage you to read the four previous installments found below...
Educational Value

Drum Corps is an excellent educational tool for teaching a variety of things. What are some of the things that are taught? Musical excellence, Discipline, Physical excellence, and hard work are four that come to mind. So lets examine how competition affects each of these lessons. Also for consideration is the trickle down effect from having so many music educators marching in corps today.

Musical excellence -
As examined in the previous post, competition has driven corps to explore extreme musical complexities. The musicians that march today are, overall, more trained and have a better background in music than those who marched years ago. This is not a knock at the "old-timers", just an observation that it is quite difficult to obtain a spot in a highly competitive Drum Corps without having some serious training. Competition has directed the best musicians to the best corps, and left many casual musicians behind. Since the quality of musician has increased, the question is does the activity still have a musical educational value?

This influx of musical talent has actually increased the musical value of the activity. Since most of the performers are starting at higher levels, the corps can better explore musical nuances and spend time perfecting interpretation instead of fundamentals. Harder music, plus the ability to explore the music at deeper levels equals a high educational value in terms of musical excellence.

Discipline -
Here is another area that has been changed drastically from the beginnings of drum corps. The performers today are not local kids who are just looking for something to do over the summer, they are kids who choose to do this activity specifically. Everyone that marches wants to be there and generally try and help out their corps as much as possible. Discipline is not really a major issue these days. From my experience, though, I would say that all marchers learn a level of disciple they never thought possible - even the most dedicated learn something. This activity cannot be duplicated by anything else and nothing can really prepare you for the issues one has on tour. Going through the experience will, for sure, make someone more disciplined. Competition, by changing the main makeup of performers, has increased the value of learning discipline.

Physical Excellence -
This goes hand in hand with musical excellence. Competition has driven corps to perform more visually demanding shows. Performers are put through many varieties of physical training that rival many boot camps - from 2 mile running/breathing blocks, to strength training. Many performers now train in the offseason as well as maintain their physical fitness after aging out. In this respect, competition has increased the educational value of fitness.

Hard Work -
This is the one thing that I hear people marvel at the most when discussing drum corps. All drum corps do it - the long 12 hour rehearsals in the heat, the hours of dot book work, the personal practice time. Many people are unprepared for the amount of time and energy being in a competitive drum corps requires. Competition increases the drive for working harder. The thought that other drum corps are rehearsing and getting better is constantly in the back of performers' heads. As it is now, the pressure to always get better is tied to the idea of competition and being recognized as the best. Also, one gets a clear reward for hard work - if you work hard, your score goes up. If there were no competition, I feel this drive would lessen a bit and corps may become more lax in their rehearsals. The motivation would shift from extrinsic rewards (scores, placements) to more intrinsic rewards (accomplishment, self-esteem). Competition has taught many drum corps performers how to work hard and it is a valuable lesson for them as they go through life.

Competition has only increased the educational value of drum corps - whether it is indirectly, through recruitment of better musicians, or directly through ideals such as hard work and discipline.

next installment will examine the effect competition has had on the number and size of corps....
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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Competition...Blessing or Curse? - Part 1 - Drum Corps (cont.)

This is the 4th installment of my series examining the effect of competition on the marching activity.
Complexity of Material

Complexity of material can be broken down into two sub categories; show design, and technical demand. Both of these are affected by Drum Corps being a competitive activity. The question first of all is how are they affected by competition, and secondly, is this effect good for the activity.

Examining show design, we find that shows today are much more complicated and involved than shows at the dawn of DCI competition. This directly correlates with the increased emphasis on General Effect scoring over the past 20 years. Under the "tic system", shows need not have any overall "general effect", and this was not a major concern for directors and designers at the time. Gradually, GE points became more important, comprising 10%, then 30%, then finally 40% of the overall score. Designers advanced these ideas of "effect" with the development of the "total show concept." This was the idea of every section of the show relating to a larger general theme. This concept remains in place today. Competitive corps who revert to the old show designs find it more difficult to compete in todays Drum Corps context (I'm thinking specifically here of Cadets '03 and Madison '04).

Now is this effect on show design good for the activity? Many people have complained recently that show designs are too complex and ask too much of the audience. While initially, competition drove the change to the "total show concept", nowadays the competitive atmosphere is more of a hindrance to show development than anything else. Designers' ever-expanding visions are being cut, spliced, and crammed into parameters that were never meant to display them. It is akin to a governing body restricting what you could use in a Broadway musical, then forcing the writers to cram it all into 11.5 minutes. Musical ideas cannot be developed fully in the time alloted forcing designers to cash in on the quick effect and leave subtlety behind. New storytelling techniques are burdened by restrictions on personnel and instruments. Show designs are stripped down to the most basic semblance of expression under the weight of competition, demanding of the audience little more than basic form and musical recognition. Freeing the show design of the shackles of competition will bring depth and true complexity to an activity that is already yearning for it. Shows can step out of the banal, and create profound performance art that can have lasting impacts on society.

The second area of complexity deals with the question of technical demand. During the "tic system's" heyday, technically complex musical and visual material was generally toned down, or "watered", to make it easier. The thought with that process was that if you aren't playing something extremely difficult, there is less chance that you will screw it up. The advent of the "build-up" system allowed designers to program in great feats of virtuosic display, because now they received credit for attempting more difficult material. This trend towards more difficulty is still in full force today, as corps keep trying to out-perform previous years.

The question now is does competition driven technicality help or hurt the activity. I am of the opinion that many of the technical demands built into shows these days are exceedingly gratuitous. The average person has trouble distinguishing the difficulty of things that are not blindingly obvious. Only the highly trained judges can sometimes understand and appreciate some of the demands a show makes on the performers. If competition were to disappear, shows would become increasingly easier , however not appear less impressive to the audience. The gratuitous difficulty would be trimmed from the shows, leaving more time for substance and musical narrative.

On both accounts, show design and technical demand, I contend that competition hurts the activity more than it helps it. Show designs would become more fan-friendly and entertaining and some of the technical filler would be trimmed away making for a much cleaner show.

The next installment I will examine the effect competition has on the educational value of Drum Corps...

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Uniform musings, Part 6 - New Uniforms in '07, Allentown edition

So, I have been a little late in getting this out due to some other factors, but without further ado, here are some thoughts on the new uniforms I saw in Allentown.

Best "Surprisingly good" uniforms - Madison
I did not initially think this was a good change for Madison who did have beautiful white pants and a cool jacket design, however after seeing them in person, I found my opinions to be quite different. Marching was never Madison's strong point, so green pants does a lot to refocus the eye onto the white gauntlets, hat, and shoulders. The three-tone green effect was not as offensive as the Bluecoats two-tone blue mainly because the greens turn into a visual "wash" against the variable green field background. The simplified jacket removes the awkward business of the "half-fleur" and makes for a cleaner look all around.

The "To boldy go..." award - SouthwindThe "inspired by Star Trek" look works well for Southwind who has not had th best luck in uniform selection over the past couple years. The return to the traditional shako and plume is a safe choice and the simplified colors and cut to the uniforms make the corps look more cohesive as a unit. There is some visual distinctiveness as it is very apparent when parts of the corps are turned backfield. The yellow and white on the shoulders serves well to highlight front facing performers.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

a message from an author of the blog

Sorry about the sparse postings...I've been out of town for the past two weeks and I don't own a laptop.
I will return to my regularly scheduled postings (like 2 a week or so)

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Sunday, July 8, 2007

Competitive Marching Show Design, examined through three standards

For Marching Band and Drum Corps, there is no question more fundamental to the activity than that of show design. The field show is at the heart of all marching units, competitive or not, and is the most public display of a units’ skills. Many units are judged, both formally and informally, on the strength of the show they perform on the football field. Far from the early days where parades and reviews reigned, the field show has been king of the marching activity for nearly 50 years.

Now, the obvious question is asked, what constitutes a good show design? This question is heavily dependant upon a few factors, mainly the purpose of the performance. A “halftime” band serves a completely different function than a competitive one and the show design should reflect this.

For the purposes of this article, I will examine show design as it relates to competitive marching bands only. Shows in this realm have to meet some very specific standards in order to be successful. The ideas I advance in this article focus on the three major factors that determine the success of a competitive high school marching band – complexity, accessibility, and the intangibles. While bands may be successful without utilizing the full depth of each of the three standards, I will argue that the most successful programs incorporate them to a high degree. I will first define the three factors, give examples of each of their uses, and finally synthesize all three factors to examine a “total” show.

Complexity refers to the written difficulty of the musical and visual books. Bands that incorporate difficult drill moves and musical ideas have a greater potential to score higher than do bands that perform easier repertoire. The concept of complexity is broken down in the judging paradigm into two parts – 1) what the potential of the show is, and 2) how well the students are performing it. The goal, of course, is to create a demand that is achievable by the students, yet difficult enough to be recognized by the judges as a performance accomplishment. Two examples;

• A band flying around the field at large step sizes performing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue, in d minor” will be recognized for a large demand, however it is extremely improbable the performance level will be very high. The judges will mark them down for not performing at the level demanded by the show.

• A band performing a grade one arrangement of “Lighty Row” while marching at a 16 to 5 down the field will be recognized for achieving a high performance level. The judges will most likely mark them down for the show not demanding enough of the performers.

The ideal level for material to be written is in what educators call the “zone of proximal development.” This is the level that students are not able to easily perform at first, however, through practice and rehearsal, are able to achieve by the conclusion of the season.

A popular approach to writing the correct difficulty for the show is to initially “over-write” the show for the performers. Because no one can accurately gauge at the beginning of a season the “zone” things need to be written in, arrangers will most often try and keep the musical parts difficult in the beginning of the season. As the season progresses, the improvement in the performers’ abilities are assessed and, if need be, parts can be cut or rewritten to accommodate specific difficulties. This is often referred to as “watering”, or “hosing” the parts down so the performers can be more successful in performing them. This process is, for the most part, a musical process, as drill and visual elements are more difficult to change mid-season.

There are a few things both staff, designers, and students can do to increase the complexity rating of a show. The design team has the obvious task of writing material that is sufficiently difficult and challenging to perform. The technical staff has an important role to play in that they need to have the skills necessary to recognize the difficulty in the material and to teach students to overcome that difficulty in an effective manner. The student responsibility lies in becoming better musicians. This means practicing at home, extra sectionals, and getting help from staff members as needed. The student component is critical for any band program that is looking to build long-term success.

The next factor to a successful show is that of accessibility. This is the measure of how familiar and clear the design ideas are that you present to the audience. Crowd and parent response to the show concept is a major motivating factor for a band program. It can increase enrollment, retainment, school support, administrative support, and even financial support.

The easiest way to make a show accessible is to play music that people are familiar with. Popular music charts are more the domain of “halftime” bands, but the competitive band could do well by sneaking them in at some point in the show. Many classical and jazz pieces have also made the jump from “art” music to “popular.” A common problem with playing popular music is the performing band has to meet the preconceived notions the audience has for that particular piece. Stray too far from the source material and you may leave some people behind simply because you “messed” with their tune.

Another way to make shows accessible is through a clear and simple concept. People won’t mind un-familiar music if the concept of the show is sold to them clearly. Shows that tell a story, or engage in some type of narrative format are generally seen as more accessible than more esoteric designs. A show on “Romeo and Juliet” has a better chance of being understood than does a show entitled “Genesis: rebirth from darkness.”
The students will also appreciate accessible show designs. Not only might they understand the concept, but they may also recognize the music they are playing. This automatically involves them in the show in more ways than being simply a performer. The more connections a student can make with the show, the better they can perform the program. An increased audience response also gives a psychological boost to the performer and can serve as additional extrinsic motivation for them

Unlike the other two standards, accessibility rests directly on the shoulders of the show designers. Once the music and visual packages are developed, neither the staff, nor students can do much of anything to affect the show appeal beyond simple execution. I would argue that accessibility be an important design consideration from the initial stages of the design process.

The Intangibles
What I mean by the intangibles are all of the factors that affect the collective band in positive or negative ways. Some factors include the staff leadership, the student leadership, the parental involvement, the band history, and personality of the students. A good show designer needs to take these factors into account just as they would complexity or accessibility.

In order to get a pulse on these factors, it takes keen observational skills, a focused band program, and above all else, time and perspective. A director who has been involved with one program over a long period of time will better be able to suit show concepts that fit with the intangibles of the band of a particular year. Also, the established expectations at long-running programs create stability which is an important contributing factor to success through the show design. Students can rehearse more effectively if they understand the expectations for a smooth rehearsal are already established and followed.

There are certain things the design team, the technical staff, and the students are responsible for in defining “the intangibles” for a band program. The design staff needs to be tuned into the personality of the band and design shows based upon what fits best. A band of younger rookies may not have the maturity to tackle a show, for example, on the fall of communism.

The technical staff has the responsibility of defining the operational and logistical standards of the band. This includes creating effective student and staff hierarchies, defining proper rehearsal technique, implementing a discipline structure, and executing teaching strategies that promote positive achievement. Of the three standards discussed in this paper, this is the standard most affected by technical staff involvement. There are reasons why successful band programs always have an acclaimed, constant technical staff. The manner in which the above operational standards are executed is the most important determining factor in creating a positive band atmosphere.

The students also share responsibility in creating “the intangibles.” Student leaders should be experienced in the activity and hold the respect of other members and staff. The manner in which the upperclassmen and the student leaders carry themselves and the attitudes they hold about the band program are very contagious to the band as a whole. The students can also be an important source of energy, or “hype” for the band program itself.

Combining the three elements…
Shows can and have been successful in utilizing these factors at different levels. I contend that great show designs strive for maximum effectiveness in all three of the areas discussed above. Never settle. With a few changes, every program put on a marching field can “max-out” each of the standards.

this post also appears on the Standing 'o' articles page as a PDF here

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Monday, July 2, 2007

Amplified Vocals

Amplified vocals. The dreaded two word phrase of drum corps. Since the Cadets put their "This I Believe" show out on the field, I've noticed the amount discussion/arguments/whatever about amped vocals increase, and I thought I'd take my own stab at discussing this controversial aspect of drum corps. It's a pretty broad topic, so this will take a series of posts... but here we go.

First up...
Classification of Amped Vocals

While each individual use of amped vocals is different from any other, I've decided that they can be divided into three main categories, as listed and explained below. I've also taken some liberties with placing each corps' usage of amped vocals in an appropriate category (I realize that some of these placements could very easily be debated).

1. Sparse spoken words or phrases
When a corps chooses to use amplified vocals, but does so sparingly. The vocals generally aren't used for an extended length of time but instead are short phrases or words. They are often used as a novelty and, while relevant to the show's design, don't explicitly explain a concept or idea.

Corps that have used this:
Blue Devils 2006 - "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse."
Bluecoats 2007 - "Stop! Drop your weapons!," etc.
Cadets 2005 - Bjork impersonation in "Cvalda"
Cadets 2006 - "I thought you all might like to sit and have some tea," etc.
Crossmen 2006 - Radio section

2. Narration
I consider any extended use of continuous amped vocals or any vocals that explain a show concept to the audience to be narration. This category probably has the biggest variety of vocals (in terms of presentation and purpose) and is also probably the most vehemently opposed (except, of course, for amplified singing).

Corps that have used this:
Blue Devils 2005 - "Yowza yowza yowza!" ... need I say more?
Blue Stars 2006 - "The freedom to etc etc etc"
Boston Crusaders 2004 - "The mind, like the hand, etc..."
Cadets 2005 - "You unlock this door with the key of imagination, etc..."
Cadets 2007 - I don't think this one needs an explanation.
Carolina Crown 2004 - Beat poetry

3. Singing and "drumspeak"
This is pretty self explanatory. I grouped amplified singing and drumspeak together because they aren't mere spoken words, but instead almost function as an additional instrument within the ensemble.

Corps that have used this:
Bluecoats 2005 - Drumspeak
Cadets 2005 - Drumspeak
Cadets 2006 - Singing, neutral syllable
Capital Regiment - Singing,
Carolina Crown 2004 - Singing, "Seasons of Love"

Up next... pros and cons of each.

[Note: I have not included Pacific Crest 2007 or Seattle Cascades 2005 in these lists because I am not familiar with these shows. If anyone has any information they'd like to share about them (or any other show that I may have missed) in regards to their uses of amped vocals, I'd be happy to add it.]

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