Welcome to the Ensemble Sound Blog Series. The blog posts in this series are meant to help you think through and hopefully help you come up with some ideas on how to achieve your ideal ensemble sound! As always, these posts are not meant to tell you what to do, but to hopefully make you think more about what you are doing!
“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something that you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” – Doris Lessing
Part 3: The Power of 1-1
In the 3rd segment of The Ensemble Sound Blog series we will start to look into the exercises that we use to work on our ensemble sound. The Power of 1-1 will actually be split into 3 parts or episodes due to the length. Episode 1 will talk about 1-1 and its relationship to “The Power 5” talked about in the second blog part in the Ensemble Sound Series. In episode II, we will listen to a recording of our Wind Symphony performing 1-1 and I will critically dissect their performance. In Episode III we will look at how we can take 1-1 and use it to work on more advanced ensemble concepts.
The Power of 1-1
Episode I: The Return of the Power 5
In Part 1, we discussed that first you need to have your own sound goal in your mind and in Part 2, we discussed that to improve the sound of your ensemble, you need to first start with the individual and make sure each student has an understanding of the fundamentals of playing his/her instrument. What is 1-1? (Usually said as 1 dash 1) It is the first exercise in each of the Essential Musicianship: Ensemble Concepts series and in my opinion the most important exercise to use to improve our group’s ensemble sound. This is one of the first exercises that we play and work fundamentals with everyday. Even if we only have time to do one exercise during our fundamentals time, this is the one that we do.
1-1 is simply a whole note concert F followed by a whole rest and this sequence repeats six times. I entitled this blog as the “Power of 1-1” for the these reasons: this exercise can be used to work on each detail of individual fundamental performance discussed in Part 2; it works with basic and advanced ensemble playing techniques; it can be used to teach students listening. I firmly believe that routinely starting with this exercise each rehearsal helps to improve the students’ focus in rehearsal. This exercise (or pattern) can easily be adapted to work on more advanced ensemble skills very easily and will be discussed in detail in future posts. The rests in this exercise offer a great opportunity to ask questions and guide student listening. During this blog we will discuss various ways to work on 1-1 and the “Power 5” as well as critically dissect the video of our own band playing 1-1.
Above is picture of 1-1 from the Essential Musicianship: Ensemble Concepts (book 3). One of the great things about the Essential Musicianship series is that each exercise has a set of student goals. In 1-1, the list is fairly short with only 6 fundamental goals and we will discuss each individually. We normally pick one goal at first and concentrate fully on improving that one goal. As the group improves on their performance of 1-1, we add one or two other goals for the students to concentrate on as well.
Let’s look at how 1-1 works on the Power 5 discussed in Part 2 of the Ensemble Series .
1-1 is a short exercise that can be used to reinforce the student’s prior knowledge on correct posture. We obviously want our students to sit with good playing posture at all times. Due to my marching band and drum corps background, I have the word “set” drilled into my teaching for good or for bad (I haven’t figured that one out yet :) ). When I say the word “set” my students know to get into their best posture and that I will not start whatever it is that we are doing until I see proper postures around the room and the “room” is completely still. Then I will start the metronome and begin the exercise. Now, this routine was taught separately and 1-1 is used to reinforce it.
A very important aspect of posture that 1-1 helps with is having your students “not moving at all” during the entire exercise. This is a major concept that I did not fully understand the importance of until I read “On Teaching Band”. The more a musician moves, the more chance of the creation of an impurity in the sound. Before I read “On Teaching Band,” I would often have the band keep going past the 6 times written for an indefinite amount of time. This is fine for a more experienced group that has a better understanding of the fundamental concepts. With a younger group, I found out that I was actually reinforcing my students to fidget and move while playing since in their minds they did not know when the exercise was going to end. Now with my beginners or younger groups especially at first, I will always give them the exact number of times we will play the exercise. I will challenge them to stay completely still throughout the entire exercise.
This is a great exercise to reinforce proper breathing as each note is separated by a rest. Goal #1, (Breathe together), simply means that everybody needs to breath the same way at the same time. In the beginning of the year, I have the students breath for the entire 4 beats of rest. I feel this helps to reinforce two concepts: to take a full and relaxed (tension free) breath and the concept that your breath in is also your release every single time. Once students understand both of these ideas we work on the more often used two-count breath making sure that the student is taking a full and relaxed breath every time. Now students also have to release with a breath, as the release and the breath in are not the same thing.
As the time a student has to breathe becomes less, either from increased tempo or less time to take the breath, there is an increased chance for tension to creep in and create impurities in the sound. I will not teach a one-count breath right away in the beginning of the year because it is the most challenging to not create tension, even though it commonly used in music performance. I first work on a one-count breath using “sustains”. (Part 6 of this series will talk about the benefits of working on sustains). Once students have a good grasp of breathing full and relaxed with a two-count breath and they are consistently taking relaxed breaths in our sustain work, we then work 1-1 with a one-count breath. (Tip: Keep an eye on the students’ shoulders when they are breathing. Seeing shoulders rise up is a sign of tension.)
Proper embouchure set up and strength is essential to creating a characteristic tone quality. When a proper breathing technique is combined with a strong and proper embouchure, a pure sound vibration is created. 1-1 can be used in a variety of ways to work on embouchure. Remember that a good embouchure helps the reed or lips vibrate with the mouthpiece where a weak embouchure will inhibit the reed or lips vibrating with the mouthpiece properly.
Once your students are accustomed to playing 1-1 (which will not take long) you should feel comfortable enough to move off of the podium to walk around the room while the students are playing. If you routinely use a metronome, this should be easy enough. By stepping off the podium you can individually assess almost every student in the classroom and see their embouchures up close. We often have the students perform 1-1 on just their mouthpieces and head joints. This allows us to simply work on getting the mouthpiece and head joint to vibrate instantly. We often do this with the students using an “air” articulation (not using the tongue), which is a great way to check both embouchure and airspeed. If the mouthpiece or head joint doesn’t create instant sound, then either there is a glitch in the embouchure or the airspeed is not moving fast enough at the beginning of the sound being created.
The third goal in 1-1 (Follow through with the same air and vowel shape) contains two very important concepts. The first is that this is a very elegant way of saying to keep everything still and consistent. Any change in airspeed or air direction will cause the sound to change. Remember, the goal is 4 beats of absolutely pure sound. The second is the concept of “vowel” shape. Before I read “On Teaching Band”, I had a very basic idea of vowel shape and its importance to playing an instrument. Vowel shape has more to do with the shape inside the mouth and may not necessarily be part of the embouchure that touches the mouthpiece or head joint (depending on the instrument), but is important regardless. The vowel shape helps to form the shape of the embouchure to allow the students to maximize the vital airflow that we work on in our breathing exercises. In the brass world for example, we want the inside of our mouths to be as open as possible. For the sake of explanation (make sure you are alone as to not receive any looks J) say “EEEEE” and hold it out for around 4 beats. Really exaggerate the firmness in the corners as to feel the tension. As you do this, feel how much space you have (or don’t have) inside your mouth. Now do the same exercise and say “AHHHHHH” for 4 beats. Do you feel how much more relaxed and open the inside of your mouth is? Now each instrument will have a different vowel shape that they will use. A brass player’s vowel shape may change depending on the range that they are playing in and how strong their embouchure currently is. An easy way to introduce this concept to young brass players is to tell them to physically widen the space between their teeth. Again, see where your teeth are when you say “EEEE” versus “Ahhh”. “EEEE” equals tight and tense, “Ahhh” equals relaxed and open. For more information on the proper vowel shape for every instrument, please refer to “On Teaching Band: Notes from Eddie Green.” Having your students use their proper vowel shape will help students play with a characteristic sound.
The great thing about using 1-1 to work on tonguing technique is that you can concentrate solely on the specific technique and isolate the proper motion without having to work on repeating that technique multiple times with multiple notes. Often times in exercises designed to work on articulation students are often asked to play multiple notes (8th notes or 16th notes) repeatedly very quickly. The 1-1 goal for articulation is simply to “start together”. Obviously it is very important to make sure that the ensemble’s most vibrant sound is starting together exactly on count 1.
(Note: 2-1 in the Essential Musicianship Ensemble Concepts series works on articulation and has many more goals for working on the proper articulation technique (coming soon in part 4 of the Ensemble Sound Series). I will often bring goals from 2-1 over to 1-1 while we are working articulation).
Just like there are embouchure vowel sounds, there are also tonguing syllables that can be used for articulations. Again, different instruments require different articulation syllables. I like to use “dah” as it is softer than a “tah”. You can refer to “Part 2” of the series for detailed information on the proper tonguing technique. Proper articulation allows for a clear beginning of the note and gets to the “middle” or tone of the note as quickly as possible. I will often tell our students that we want 2% tongue and 98% tone. Many students will use more tongue motion than is needed which then interferes with tone production. To visually help represent this to the students, I print “Dah” and “dAH” on the board. The “D” represents the tongue while the “ah” represents the vowel shape or the middle of the note. I will exaggerate the size of the capital D in the first one taking up more space and over taking the “ah”. This represents the wrong tonguing technique with the “D” taking up too much of the note. In the second one, I will write the “d” really small and exaggerate the size of the “AH” to signify the proper way to tongue with the “AH” taking up almost the entire note.
Releases are an often-overlooked fundamental and in 1-1, releases have 2 separate goals. The first is simply to “release together”. This just means that every student must stop the sound the same way at the same time. For many of us, including me up to a couple years ago, that is the concept we mostly work on. It wasn’t until the ingenious wording of the second goal that deals with releases caught my attention. The second goal dealing with releases states to “organize the end of each note as clearly as the beginning.” This helped me to understand that there was more to releasing a note than just stopping together. Why use the word organize and make it bold face? The use of the word organize tells me that just like there are multiple things we have to do to start a note, there are multiple steps we need to take to end the note as well. The end of the note is just as important as the beginning of the note. When releasing a note, each student has to end together in time, with whatever technique you choose (either with a breath or stopping the air), and the air/embouchure must stay still all the way to the release count.
To work on this concept, I sometimes pretend with my students that we live in an alien world where the silence is more important than the sound. We start 1-1 with the rest versus starting with the concert F as written. We will then focus on “articulating” the beginning of the silence as the most important thing with the “release” of the silence being the start of the sound. Often times during this exercise with the focus being so much on the start of the silence, the beginning of the sound improves as well as they are not over thinking it like they sometimes can.
As you can see, 1-1 can hit on every fundamental concept.
1-1 and Setting up the Rehearsal
We start teaching 1-1 to our students in their first year (click here for a recording of my 2013-2014 6th grade trumpet and horns playing 1-1). I start using the pattern of 1-1 as soon as we start to teach breathing. We keep the pattern when we add the mouthpiece and when we get to their first note on the instrument. Even though the students may not be able to play a concert F, we are still working on all of the “Power 5” fundamentals as soon as the students sit down on the first day and reinforcing them everyday after that! Since our focus every time we play this pattern is to approach it in a calm, relaxed, and tension free way from the very beginning, it also becomes a tool of focus for the rehearsal. Young people love routine and this exercise can help to get your students to forget about the chaos of what just happened in the hallway or the test they have to take after band, and get them focused on their time with you! When we are rehearsing our concert music and we can tell that the students are losing their focus or if their sound is not at the level we want it to be, we stop what we are doing and play 1-1 again. After a couple of time through 1-1 the sound of the group will usually relax back to where we want it and we will continue with our rehearsal.
To be continued……..
Click here for Episode II: The Quest for Purity
In Episode II we will critically listen to our group perform 1-1 and talk about what needs to continue to be worked on and how we can continue to work on 1-1 and keep our students engaged.
Check out the other blogs in the Ensemble Sound Blog Series:
Part 1: Deciding on Your Sound
Part 2: The Power 5
Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode II: The Quest for Purity
Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode III: The Journey Continues
Part 4: High-Definition Articulations
Part 5: Bridging the Gap: The F Remington
Part 6: Sustains: The Final Chapter