About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Double Tonguing

Somehow I never learned to double tongue. Actually, I know how this happened. I had, and still have, a very fast single tongue, so for most of the times when one might double tongue, I single tongued.

For the non-brass playing readers, brass players start notes with a "ta," "tu," or "da," using the tongue against the top front teeth. When the speed of the notes is too fast to keep up by single tonguing "tu-tu-tu-tu," brass players switch to double tonguing, "tu-ku-tu-ku" etc., using the tongue for the tu, then pulling it back and saying ku for the next note. It's a very useful technique.

My teacher in college, Milan Yancich, assigned me double tonguing exercises, which I did half-heartedly. So I continued through grad school and Civic Orchestra single tonguing, occasionally faking a passage that was too fast for me to single tongue.

I have learned along the way that I'm not alone. A number of musicians have told me how difficult they find double tonguing. And I recently read that Rafael Mendez did not need to double tongue, because his single tonguing was incredibly fast. Mine is not that fast.

Fast forward several decades and I find myself playing first horn in an excellent band in my community. Several pieces on the program this past fall demanded double tonguing, including the Maslanka Symphony #4. The time for faking was over. So I pulled out the Arban book and started working on double tonguing, very slowly, every day. Progress was slow. If I tried to increase the tempo of the exercises too much, they would crash and burn. I thought I would never master even one page - Arban page 175. I really didn't know if I was going to be able to play the passages that needed double tonguing by the band concert date. There's the popular theory now that a person can become an expert by spending 10,000 hours of focused practicing. I have certainly spent more than that much on horn playing overall, and I really hope I don't need to spend 10,000 hours just on double tonguing. But focused practice is the answer, whatever one is trying to learn.

I did get better. I was able to use double tonguing on the concert, though not at full volume. For me, the experience of trying to learn something new that required both physical and mental effort was very fulfilling. Though I learn new things all the time, this particular technique was challenging in a way that most things in my life are not. It required concentrated effort, patience, and weeks and weeks of practice. And no, I have not mastered it yet.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Alexander Technique

Over the years, studying music and knowing musicians, I learned about a number of methods that have helped musicians, and other people, with physical problems. Most are methods based on learning to move correctly or naturally, including the Alexander Technique. I was interested, but there were various roadblocks to trying either -- scheduling, lack of practitioners in my area, cost.

Then the youth symphony that my daughter had belonged to sent out a notice that they were sponsoring a free demonstration of the Alexander Technique. My husband and I went. The Alexander teacher worked with several young musicians, including a pianist, a singer, a clarinetist, and a cellist. He worked with them one at a time, starting by having each play something of their own choice. It was clear they were all fine young musicians. He then worked with them - adjusting the way each stood, having them stand up and sit down, and walking each around while he gently guided by holding the nape of the neck. He suggested in a few cases that the young man or woman should be more still when playing -- that is, not bob around. Then he had the individual play again, the same piece as before. Every the difference was striking. Musicality improved, as did tone, and these were young people who already played extremely well! It was a very impressive demonstration.

I again thought about trying the Alexander Technique, but again put it aside because of my busy schedule.

Then some time ago -- maybe two years? -- I started developing a pain in my right shoulder when I played horn. It grew from annoying to "this really hurts" status over time. It also began hurting at other times, like when I used the computer mouse. Then I irritated my rotator cuff -- same shoulder, different spot, excruciating pain -- and went to the orthopedic doctor, who sent me to physical therapy. I told both the doctor and the therapist about the non-rotator cuff pain, but of course everyone' main goal was fixing the rotator cuff. Both thought maybe the same exercises might also fix the other problem. My rotator cuff got better (hurray!) but there was no change to the other problem.

So this past summer I decided that there was no better time than the present, and I contacted the teacher we saw do the demonstration. He is not close by; it is close to an hour's drive to get to his studio. However, he is an excellent teacher and a musician himself. I don't think I could have found a better teacher for myself.

So what is the Alexander Technique exactly? It's hard to explain. At my first lesson, my teacher asked what my goals were. I said I'd like no pain, or at least less pain, and maybe better posture. He replied that the Alexander Technique doesn't work on posture per say, but I could expect my posture to improve. The American Society for the Alexander Technique explains what it is in part as a way "to change faulty postural habits" and therefore enabling "improved mobility, posture, performance, and alertness and relief of chronic stiffness, tension, and stress." Many people learn it to reduce pain, but others, including actors and dancers, use it to enhance their performance. The technique was created by an actor who was having problems vocally. He began observing how he stood and adjusting to try to reduce tension, which solved his vocal problems. My teacher likes to call it "learning to leave yourself alone." You will feel much more relaxed at the end of a session, somewhat like you may feel at the end of a yoga class, though without the physical workout.

In a session, the teacher guides the student with hands-on adjustments in standing, sitting, and walking. There is also table work, in which the idea is to relax and get all body parts in balance. There are no exercises, like in physical therapy, to go home and practice. It took a number of weeks before I could keep the gains I made in sessions throughout the week, but it does happen. A bonus for me was having not just a musician, but a brass player, as a teacher. He gave me specific advice on holding the horn, breathing, and so on. I haven't finished with lessons, but the pain is mostly gone and usually controllable when it does appear, and my playing has improved in some keys ways, including breath control and use, phrasing, and less tension. All together this results in less nervousness, something I didn't expect. In addition, I usually just feel more comfortable, not just pain-free, but in balance.

It's not a fast fix and it's not cheap, but it really works! If you're interested in how the Alexander Technique helps musicians, take a look at this site. This site also has information and links to blogs and videos that will be useful to anyone interested in the Alexander Technique.