Listen, Listen and Listen again!

I’ve talked about this a bit in a previous blog post but it can never be said too many times…..

Its all about the details and it really is all about LISTENING!

There is so much to think about when playing music on any instrument and for us we have the added complication of the ever changing oboe reeds! When we are learning the oboe we can get so obsessed with getting the reed to work that we stop listening to ourselves.

YOU MUST ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOURSELF WHEN PLAYING!!

Listening to yourselves and really thinking about what you can hear is so important. Many of my students play to me in their lesson and make some mistakes that they could be trying to resolve before they come to their lesson. What a lot of students tend to do is just worry about the right notes and rhythms but beyond that there is sometimes not much thought. Right notes and rhythms are great and teachers do like to hear them but if we repeatedly hear more advanced students making mistakes that with some careful listening and thought they could solve on their own, we do tend to get a little frustrated.

Blips between notes, you know, those extra sounds you get between the notes we are supposed to hear, If we hear those what is it telling us? Chances are your fingers aren’t quite coordinated and so we hear a little extra note as one finger goes down a little before another. If you hear this when you are practising don’t ignore it and think,oh my teacher will sort it out’. You are all more than able to start thinking about moving your fingers so they are more coordinated, just keep listening out for the tel tail signs. If you don’t manage to solve the problem don’t worry, the point is you have tried and this will be obvious to your teacher because there will probably be some improvement even if it is not yet perfect. Teachers don’t actually mind if things aren’t correct as generally it is obvious that you have tried.

There are many reasons to listen,

  • tuning
  • tone
  • coordination
  • dynamics
  • phrasing
  • breathing

It is also a skill hugely improtant when you are making music with other people, be it with a piano accompanist, in a chamber ensemble or an orchestra. If you aren’t listening you are going to find it difficult to play well with other people. You will actually find it easier to play better in groups if you listen and follow all the other wonderful musicians around you.

Do you listen to others? I mean really listen, no background music!

Not only should you listen to yourself but you really should listen to others play as much as you can. You really can learn so much by just by listening. Now when I say listening I don’t mean pop some oboe music on in the background while you chat on your phone to friends or play computer games. I mean really listen. This means not doing anything else and just listening, something that we don’t do much of these days. The technology and the ease of finding music means there really is no excuse. I remember having to go to the local library, ordering the tape I wanted (yes… tape, not even a CD!), then a few days later going back to the collect it, heading back home and listening to it on the stereo in the corner of the room. So really students you have no excuses not to listen! Spotify, You Tube and all the others there are…. search them, find oboe music and LISTEN!

When we listen music making becomes more fun. If we are listening we can constantly strive to make a better sound, play things more in time and with better coordination, we get to enjoy the better sound we start making and the happiness of achieving the little details we once used to ignore.

Make your teachers happy, start really listening but remember listening has to be combined with thinking and analysing. When you start noticing the huge improvements you will really wonder why you didn’t always do this!

I am including two music clips with this blog post. The first is the stunning oboist Francois Leleux playing a section of La Favourita by Pasculli. This looks like it was taken in a rehearsal and is the fastest performance of this piece I have ever heard. This isn’t always a good thing but in this case he plays so well you can hear every single note clear as a bell. Not one muffled or fuzzy note. Imagine trying to move your fingers this fast and with this amount of control and coordination!

This next clip is of the two oboists I grew up listening to, Maurice Bourgue and Heinz Holliger. Both are wonderful players. Listen carefully to how they bounce musical ideas from one part to the other. They will be listening so hard in this duet to keep it tidy and precise and so that they are playing so beautifully together. Also think about breathing, there aren’t lots of long breaths so its going to be quite a tiring duet so to keep the energy throughout you have to ignore the developing tiredness, keep breathing properly and just enjoy the music!

Happy Practising everyone and just keep LISTENING!

 

 

Practise, not play through.

At the end of each lesson we ask you to practise. What many of you do is go home and PLAY THROUGH and I’m afraid this isn’t good practice. Here is why….

Now think about your favourite sport, for example football. Do they just go and play football matches from start to finish every time they train between the matches we see at weekends? OR, do they train on specific aspects of the game that they need to improve so that the following match will hopefully be better. They will have analysed the good and the bad aspects of their performance in the previous match and worked out the things they need to wotk on to improve. Are some of you at this point now realising how this relates to your ‘playing through’ practice routines?

You go home after your lesson, my students (and I am sure many others) with their notebooks full of helpful information pinpointing areas that it would be of benefit for them to work on. In the notebooks might even be information on how to work at the areas of your pieces or scales that you have problems with. Now, answer honestly, Do you read what your teacher has written in your notebook? I don’t mean sometimes, I mean every week and maybe even checking it each time you practise! We honestly don’t write in these notebooks for fun and they really are helpful as we don’t expect you to remember every detail that was discussed in the lesson.

So, many of you go home and in a standard practice session you get your instrument out, maybe warm up for a second by blowing a few notes without really thinking about why you are doing this. Then you might play a scale or two (we really hope you do!) and then you find a piece that you are learning and start at the beginning and play to the end. You may even play it again from the start to the finish. You may even spot that you are playing a wrong note and so when you played the wrong note you stopped, changed to the right note and then carried on. Well I am pleased that you spotted a wrong note but your practice technique can be improved a lot!

You may think professional musicians learn music quickly because they have been playing for a long time but really the main thing is we have learnt HOW to practise. We’ve had to as we sometimes don’t have much time to learn the music before we are performing it to an audience! (You’d be surprised how often we turn up to a rehearsal at 3pm and are then giving the concert at 7.30pm the same evening and didn’t know what was being played until we arrived at the rehearsal!) So when we give you hints and tips on how to practise they really are the quickest way of learning things and improving.

Definition of the word Practise

  1. Perform an activity or exercise a skill repeatedly or regularly in order to aquire, improve or maintain your proficiency in it.
  2.  Carry out or perform (a particular activity, method or custom) habitually or regularly.

So, how should you practise?

As I’ve already mentioned , first if you have one, read the notebook that your teacher wrote in. Remind yourself what the teacher was saying you might need to work on for the next lesson. Once you’ve warmed up its worth practising some scales next and then you are really warmed up when you start tackling your pieces.

Feel free to play through your piece, I know I’ve said this isn’t practice but this is just the start. While playing through really log in your mind or pause and mark it in the music where things went wrong. Now you’ve played through and reminded yourself of the areas of the piece that cause problems you can start working your way through them.

  1. Don’t play through again….. pick out the first problem area of the piece.
  2. Choose a small section around the area that caused the problem and play it but really think about what you are doing, try and work out why it is going wrong.
  3. Now do the same again, but slower as you probably played it up to speed so didn’t give yourself chance to really think about it.
  4. Now do the same again but EVEN SLOWER. Not one student that I’ve asked has ever played something slow enough on the first time of asking!
  5. Have you now pinpointed what the problem is?

Now what do you do?

Are you having problems learning the notes?

  1. Play slowly the section you are trying to learn. If its a long section break it down into small chunks.
  2. Play it slowly, and I really mean slowly. Give yourself chace to really think about the notes and what you need to do to get to the next note.
  3. Start the section you are having problems with and play the first two notes, if those are ok play the first 3 notes. If they are good do the same but keep adding one note at a time. Start by doing this quite slowly then when you have made it to the end of the section all correct try it a fraction faster and repeat the process. It may seem a long way of doing it but in 10mins you will have it firmly under your fingers for a good long time!
  4. Slowly again, try playing the passage in different rhythms, this will also help you get used to the finger patterns required to get through the passage.
  5. Now I haven’t gone mad but if you are finding that you think you’ve got it sorted and then it goes wrong again try it backwards! Do it slowly and it doesn’t really matter about the rhythms its the process of doing it that will help! Try it…. you may well be surprised!

Are you having problems with something technical like getting a note to speak or getting to a note even you know exactly what it is?

  1. Again play a small section and really listen.
  2. Play it SLOWLY.
  3. Think about what your fingers are doing between the notes that you are having problems with and think about what your mouth is doing.
  4. Check to see if your fingers are close enough to the keys. A common problem is that fingers are too far away and one finger may not be pressing the key down quite when you think it is.
  5. The problem is sometimes not where it actually shows, sometimes it is a knock on effect from some wobbly technique a few notes earlier so if you can’t work out what the problem is check the bit before and make sure that is secure.

 

In this I have only covered a few basic ideas but the main point of this is that PLAYING THROUGH is not PRACTICE and that repeated work on small aspects of your music is really essential to progress. If you start doing this you will actually find the speed of your progress increases compared to when you just spent each session playing through. One important factor is to always think and always listen to what you are doing. Always do INTELLIGENT PRACTICE!

 

The music clip I’m including with this blog post shows Francois Leleux performing an arrangement of  Dance of the Blessed Spirits written by a composer called Gluck. Now when you listen you might think its not difficult as there aren’t many notes, nothing fast and nothing too compicated. This arrangement though is permanently in the high register of the instrument and it is played with such amazing control and phrasing. Listen and then see if you can make your top F’s sound this beautiful!

It’s Christmas……

Well, we made it through the term! It’s been a long one but it’s been lovely hearing all my students make progress.

Now it’s the holiday this means often pupils suddenly don’t do any work. This I’m afraid my lovely pupils means you will let many of those bad habits we have spent all term getting rid of come back into your playing. I know it’s the holidays and yes you are allowed to enjoy yourselves but PLEASE do some practice!

You will find it very frustrating in January if you don’t play over the holidays. You will suddenly realise that all the things you could do so well just don’t sound as good as you will not have much stamina or control! Please, for your sake and mine keep practising!

Play lots of Christmas tunes, why not give your parents a little concert of pieces you have learned this term. All this counts and will help you keep progressing.

Anyway, this is my last posting before Christmas so I hope you all have a wonderful holiday! Today’s music clip is of the double reed ensemble I coach at The Hall School in Hampstead. It is made up of 3 oboes and 3 bassoons from school years 6 to 8. Hope you enjoy it!

Happy Christmas!!

Scales! They don’t have to be boring!

I know, you’ve all gone yuck the moment you read the title. Well, most of you did. Believe it or not there are people out there that love scales. They enjoy the order and patterns within the scales which is wonderful if you have the kind of brain that enjoys and feels rewarded from repeating these patterns over and over again. Many of us though don’t find them rewarding and therefore find them harder to learn.

Now, time to tell the truth. Do you really find them difficult to learn or do you actually avoid practising them, especially the more difficult ones? I have taught the oboe for many years now and there are a few people out there that genuinely find scales difficult to learn but mostly it is because students have avoided practising them. Students always say they have practised them when they haven’t or they have just played through a few without much thought. This means they don’t remember them immediately so decide they are too hard and then do yet more scale avoidance.

Now, I bet you are all thinking, you are a professional oboist I bet you love scales and found them easy. The answer to that is no, I found them very difficult to learn indeed. My mum was a music teacher so I had a huge amount of help trying to learn them and tried many different ways but it took me years to get them learned. Yes, I really mean years! I was at music college when they finally started to settle in my brain and make sense. Now I found out a few years ago that I am actually dyslexic, not drastically, but certain things I do find difficult to learn and process. All this though does help me understand how frustrating scales can be.


I am often asked “Why do we have to learn scales?”

Well here you go…..

What is written on your music that you have to check before you play? The time signature and the KEY SIGNATURE. Every piece of music you play is based on a key and that key is a scale you can play. If you can play the scale the chances are some of the technical issues in the piece will become easier. Pieces of course don’t stay in one key they often wander through a variety so the better you are at your scales the easier you will find your pieces and playing in all the different keys your pieces require. Your brain won’t be put off by the sharps and the flats as your knowledge of scales will help your brain process the information and understand where the music is going and how it is moving through different keys. This may be all quite subconscious, it certainly is with me.

Practising scales will help your technique. They help you focus on strength of fingers and neatness of getting from one note to another without added complications of long pieces. If you can get your technique really good in a scale that will transfer to your pieces and anything based around those notes you will find easier.

Basically they are hugely important to your playing, to your technique and to your musical understanding.

When you start the oboe it isn’t often too long before you start playing your first scales, F major, G major and D minor. After you have taken grade 1 what do you all do, you all stop practising them! This means you end up with more scales to learn for grade 2 as you have to relearn the ones you have previously done. Once you’ve learned a scale please keep revising it, play and keep it fresh in your mind.


How to practise scales.

Well, there are many ways and they don’t all have to be boring.

Many of you pick up a scale book read the scale as you play it then close the book and because you didn’t remember it straight away decide its hard and avoid working on it until your teacher starts having a mini fit in the lessons a couple of weeks before your exams.

How about trying different ways….

1. Play the scale from the book, it’s a perfectly good idea but if we aren’t really thinking about the fact we need to memorise it you won’t start to remember it. So, play it through so you understand how it sounds, then turn away and see if you can say out loud what notes you just played going up. If you manage it try and play the scale going up. Then see if you can say out loud the names of the names of the notes coming down, if you can try and play if downwards. Then try and say the notes up and down then play it up and down.
HINT Always think of the names of the notes in your head as you play your scale.

2. Don’t think that because for the exam you have to play the scale either slurred or tongued and all notes the same length you have to always practice them in that way. Why not try working on them in different rhythms? It means you are still working on the notes and finger technique but you are varying the scale to keep yourself interested and you are less likely to switch off from what you are doing.

3. To help you learn the notes and build up good finger technique don’t think you have to always play the whole scale all the way through every time. Why not gradually build it up. Follow the idea written below then continue it until you have worked through the whole scale.

scale pattern

This idea will really help you gain good control over any parts of the scale that are technically difficult. If it goes wrong keep working on the section of notes you are doing, slowly at first to work out why it goes wrong then try and increase the speed. Keep gradually building it up until you have the whole scale under your fingers. Keep thinking about what the name of the scale is you are playing, this may seem obvious but often students can play the scale once they have started it but the name of the scale doesn’t mean anything to them and it takes quite a while to work it out so do keep telling yourself the name of the scale you are practising.

4. Sometimes the problem isn’t that you don’t know the notes and isn’t that you aren’t technically good enough to play them, sometimes it’s all down to concentration. If I hear a student play nearly the right scale but it has all sorts of hesitations in and maybe the occasional wrong note I get them to play it again to me but this time with their eyes closed. Nearly every time I get a student to do this the scale is instantly better and they always look quite amazed. Closing your eyes takes away any visual distractions so your whole focus goes on he scale and it is often amazing what a difference it makes. Give it a try, go on, go and play a scale with your eyes closed.

5. Make up a little 8 bar piece based on the notes of your scale. This gets you thinking about what notes are in it and what accidentals are required but because you aren’t playing the actual scale it changes your focus slightly. Plus, if you can work out what notes can be used in the piece that you make up you really, hopefully might be able to play them as a scale when the notes just go up and down in step.

6. Try a book called Keys to Success. These are books with little duets but can be played as little solos and each piece is based on a scale. It even tells you the name of the scale for each piece. You could play a tune which uses all the notes from your scale and then try and play the scale afterwards. You can also use these books to play duets with your friends so why not help each other learn scales and have some fun at the same time!

7. For my early grade students instead of thinking about key signatures I get them to remember the ‘Special notes’. These Special Notes are the accidentals so the special note in F major is Bb. This means that if they know a scale has a special note every other note is a normal unsharpened or unflattened note and just helps them to understand them early on.

8. A way to really help you think of the names of the notes that you are playing while you are playing them is to play a scale of, for example, F Major but every time you get to an A, finger the note but do not blow. This means your fingers are playing the scale as normal but you just don’t blow everything you get to an A. As well as helping you think of the names of the notes while playing the scale it also gives you a different focus within the scale and gets you to think about the scale in a totally different way.

9. Once you know the notes why not try different articulations to make practicing the scales more interesting. This will keep the scale fresh and give you a totally new focus so you won’t get bored. Try these different articulation patterns and any others you think of. The first 3 are all the same pattern but I have shown how they work with 1 octave, a 12th and 2 octaves.

Scale articulations

The main things that will help though are:
~ Repetition
~ Concentration
~ Thinking of the names of the notes as you play
~ Really thinking about the name of the scale you are playing
~ Not avoiding them!

I hope some of these ideas help you with your scale practice. Let me know what helps you as it’s always good to get different ideas for learning scales. The main thing is to not avoid them. Really keep them going, warm up with some scales, use them to practice dynamic control, tone quality, breath control. They really are very useful for very many things. I hope this also answers your questions of why we play them.

Now, go on, go and get your oboe out and try some of the ideas above!

The music clip for this blog is the wonderfully expressive playing of Francois Leleux performing the Cimarosa Oboe Concerto.

Back to School, and the word beginning with ‘P’

Dear Students,

I really hope you have all had a wonderful summer holiday. I am sure many of you have found it full of fun, excitement, travel, sunshine (maybe if you escaped the UK) and hopefully some music and of course learning.

This is the time of year when students realise various things……

  • Oops I haven’t played my oboe since July and I have a lesson on Monday.
  • Oh dear, I’ve not played the oboe as much as I should have done this holiday but I did do a bit so hopefully I won’t be too bad.
  • OH NO! I had forgotten all my reeds broke and I have none left and I have a lesson on Monday!
  • I’m looking forward to my lesson so I can show my teacher all the work I’ve done and how much the pieces I am playing have improved.

Now we all need a holiday from time to time so I’m not going to lecture you about what you should have done. Obviously it would have been better to have kept playing, but sometimes the activities or holidays you may go on during the long break don’t allow this to happen. So, what I am going to focus on is how to get back into practice as quickly as possible.

Firstly, those of you who have no working reeds…. Tell someone NOW! The sooner you can get a reed the better. When I sold reeds online it was amazing the number of panicked parents that messaged me at the start of September telling me their children had only just told them they had no reeds as they had all broken ages ago.

Students who have realised you haven’t played since July. Go and soak a reed, find some easy music that you should be able to play and go and play it. Before you tackle the music you were set it is a good idea to just reacquaint yourselves with the oboe. Play some long notes, play some scales, think about your embouchure and posture. You will get tired quickly so if you don’t think about these things you are likely to get into some bad habits. Start by playing little and often, so 10mins then a break, then another 10/15mins then another break etc and this way your lips will build up strength again much quicker. Once you start feeling more comfortable start looking at something you were asked to practice so you can go to your lesson with something you have worked on, even if it is only a little bit.

For those students that have played occasionally, well done for playing in the holidays! Now plan a routine for practice so you can get playing regularly. It’s good to get into a routine before everything gets very busy again with all the other work and activities that you do. I would also suggest little and often to start with as although you have played it isn’t regularly so your lips will also get tired and you need to build up strength again.

Students who have worked hard practising throughout the holiday. Well Done, your teachers will be very happy to hear you playing!

Note to all those who did very little practice

DO NOT TELL YOUR TEACHER YOU DID LOTS OF PRACTICE!! Your teacher will be able to tell very quickly that you didn’t and it will only lead to an awkward conversation. It will be much better if you own up at the beginning of the lesson, your teacher may be a bit disappointed but they will like your honesty.

Now, go and sort out a practice routine, get practising, listen to lots of music but most of all, enjoy playing and have fun making music!

As it’s the start of term I wanted to post something fun. So, here is the John Wilson Orchestra playing the music to Tom and Jerry! Watch out for the percussionists!