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Suggested Reading

1. Rehearsal Rooms

Struggling to improve the acoustics in your band room? Check out how the Medan Band did it.

2. Concerned about playing swing music properly?

Check out my guidelines

3. Ear training exercises for bands

Unlike piano players, ear training is essential for wind band performers. But how many band directors bother to give their bands suitable exercises?

4. Intonation problems

While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance. 

5. “Blowing” a wind instrument

A common misconception among wind players is to believe that the air moves through the instrument in order to produce the sound. This is simply not true. 

6. Conducting – suggestions for home practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

 

The seven deadly sins

Introduction
Not sustaining long or held notes
Improper breathing in non-legato phrases
Dropping last notes before a rest
Lack of attention to dynamic shadings and balances
Subtle rhythmic inaccuracies
Making crescendos and diminuendos too early
Little concern about how to finish a note 


Introduction

Perhaps some explanation of the title is in order. I refer to the errors listed below as 'sins' because most of them are so easily fixed. Thus, it seems wrong (sinful!) somehow that they should continue to take place, particularly in the case of more advanced secondary, university and community bands.

 Intonation problems are not included. 

And why are these errors 'deadly'? Well, maybe I am being a bit too critical here! The point, though, is that such mistakes - particularly when they occur in combination - can often spoil what would otherwise be very impressive performances. In fact, the best community bands (in Singapore, at least!) approach real professional standards, a situation unheard of a generation ago.

A notable omission in the list is the problem of  intonation. I have left it out for two reasons. The first is that the problem is covered elsewhere on this website. The second is that the more advanced bands I am addressing here are more aware of the issue anyway, and therefore really do not need to be reminded about it.


Not sustaining long or held notes

Sometimes, this is the result of not breathing properly. At other times, it can simply be laziness. The habit is particularly noticeable in the middle of a phrase, where the failure to sustain a note puts an annoying little hole in the music

 


Improper breathing in non-legato phrases

The principle that a phrase should as far as possible be played in a single breath is often overlooked when playing music broken up by rests or staccato notes. The sort of passage I am referring to is given below:

Breathing in the short rests between the figures risks breaking up the musical line by making some notes unrhythmic, too loud or accented.


Dropping last notes before a rest

Confronted by a phrase where the final note is followed by a rest, many musicians tend to shorten or chop off the last note. Curiously, this habit is far less marked when no such rest occurs. I do not know why this is so. One possibility is that the players see the rest and become overly concerned about the possibility of playing the note too long.


Lack of attention to dynamic shadings and balances

I refer here to the need to differentiate carefully  the various sound gradations, particularly those between p and pp or f and ff. It is always important - especially when playing music from the Romantic tradition and afterwards - to work on expanding the dynamic range of the ensemble. But this is not merely a matter of playing ever louder or softer (although this can be a good exercise for some bands).

 There are real physical limits to how soft or loud musical instruments can be played. 

Rather, it has to do with developing a more discriminating sense of the various gradations of sound at different dynamic levels. This, I think, was what Tchaikovsky was really driving at when he used extreme dynamic indications such as  pppp and ffff in his music. After all, there are real physical limits to how soft or loud musical instruments can be played.

While on the subject of dynamic shading, it is probably worth pointing out a common practice on the part of most composers and editors regarding hairpin crescendos and decrescendos. Unless otherwise indicated, such markings refer to one dynamic level above or below where they start, and no more.  Not all composers follow the convention, but it is a good rule of thumb to follow. Thus, a marking such as the following:

is meant to go up only to an mp. If the composer wanted a bigger crescendo, he would write:

Regarding dynamic inbalances, many ensembles assume that when such problems occur the solution is for the weaker instruments (usually the woodwinds) to play louder, or for the band to simply increase the number of woodwind players (doubling). Often, however, the more musical solution is for the brasses and percussion to play more softly instead. This is particularly true when playing transcriptions of eighteenth and nineteenth century symphonic works. In these periods, the brasses generally lacked the projection of modern brass instruments, and were intended to blend more naturally with the overall sound of the orchestra.


Subtle rhythmic inaccuracies

The most common rhythmical problems facing secondary school bands are covered elsewhere on this website. The purpose here is to deal with a few rather less obvious rhythmic issues.

The following rhythm appearing the the middle of a phrase, for example:

Is often played as if it were written:

Then there are rhythms such as the following:

Click here to listen!

which have a tendency to deteriorate into:

Click here to listen!

Sometimes rhythmic inaccuracies can spoil whole themes. Gunther Schuller in his book entitled The Compleat Conductor [Oxford University Press, 1997] notes how the leaping horn theme in Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel is often rendered incorrectly even by professional orchestras. The original theme is as follows:

Click here to listen!

But on many recordings the following can be heard:

Click here to listen!


Making crescendos and diminuendos too early

A crescendo played too early is wrong, simply because it leaves no room to crescendo further and results in the music climaxing in the wrong place. Thus, when the true climax arrives, it becomes little more than an anti-climax. Such errors are often compounded by the fact that they tend to get the music out of sync with the underlying harmonic climax planned by the composer.

 Should a crescendo be geometric or arithmetic? 

There is even a school of thought that argues that the rising curve of a crescendo should be geometric rather than arithmetic. In other words, very little at first, then increasing rapidly much closer to the climax. This approach certainly makes a crescendo sound more exciting.

The reverse also seems to be true, with diminuendos coming far too quickly. In fact, similar arguments could be advanced regarding the tendency to play accelerandos and ritardandos too early.


Little concern about how to finish a note

In the section on conducting, I noted in passing that many conductors spend a lot of time drilling a band in order to obtain precise entries or produce a correct attack (legato, marcato, etc), but often seem unconcerned about how a note should be ended. At the very least, bands should end notes as they begin them, i.e. together! But how often is this true, especially when it comes to slow moving  piano and pianissimo passages?

Finishing the notes properly is a technique in itself. Except for a few rare instances mentioned elsewhere on this website, notes are not finished with the tongue. Instead, it is done by closing the air flow from the throat in much the same way as you would end a sung vowel with the mouth still open.

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