Braces II: The Obstacle is the Path
01 Tuesday May 2012
When your young horn student has braces, it’s a good idea to find ways to keep them playing that are easy on the inside of the lip. It’s not easy for such tender tissue to be trapped between a cookie cutter metal ring and razor-wire teeth decorations.
Creativity loves obstacles. You, me, people don’t tend to change anything unless something happens that keeps us from doing it the old way. Trying new stuff is uncomfortable, uncertain, strange. And we might make a mistake or look foolish! But this is how new stuff gets discovered. We should actually seek out obstacles more often, just to see what happens. Hence the zen koan: The obstacle is the path. The challenge wakes us up. Makes us think. Invites experimentation. Edward DeBono relates in Lateral Thinking how one day on the way to work there was a detour and he was forced to find an alternate route. He did, and it was 20 minutes shorter than his usual way. Nothing wrong with the old way – that’s why he didn’t go looking for anything new – but being forced to look saved him a couple days of time each month.
Braces force us to look elsewhere (unless we’re rigid, insensitive, or like the sight of blood) to find ways for our braces-wearing students to keep playing. Yesterday was one of those. The first thing that happened was that we talked more. About all kinds of things. About playing some cool tunes in the 7th grade band. About playing vibraphone in the jazz pieces (he also plays piano, so he plays piano in the jazz band and sometimes vibes in the concert band). About what a dumb idea it was for Napoleon and the Nazis to invade Russia in the wintertime (not sure how we got on that). Finally playing: he played an ostinato on a couple of overtone series notes (OTS 4&5 or 4&3) and I soloed over it, first using the overtones series, then using a pentatonic scale. Then we switched . Then we experimented with the minor pentatonic.
Finally: notation time. As I said last time, we were going to do a lot of low transpositions to make it easier on his chops. So we found Twinkle Twinkle in a beginner’s etude book and played it in horn in Bb basso, b natural, C, D, Eb, and E (in unison). We did each one twice; on the repeat the rule was if it was going well, we were allowed to decorate, embellish, or otherwise mess around with the melody line. Endings (last measure) were always complete free-for-alls.
I got an idea when we were in E horn. “Let’s try this,” I said. “You play each note of the Twinkle melody very short and I’ll play the same note as an afterbeat.” So we did. Then again, faster. Then switch roles. Faster. Faster! We were still getting transposition practice, but we were enlivening the experience with rhythm challenges. More! Again!
Now changed it to 3/4 time (mentally – same notes on the page) and did the same afterbeats game. A bit more challenging – and fun.
He was hanging in there, doing a good job, enjoying the challenge. OK – what’s next? It was time to find out his limits. Now we did it in 5/8. First, just playing the melody in 5/8 in unison. So far, so good, although he was beginning to have trouble with the length of the 3 in the 2+3. Final exam: Afterbeat game in 5/8. I went first. Definitely more challenging. He was going pretty well, but odd meters were something new and not at all in his comfort zone. But he was game. We also tried me on 5/8 melody and him on afterbeats, but this was a bit over his limit – again, the length of the 3. We spent some time clapping on and off the beats, which was fun and painless chopwise.
We finished the lesson with some duets – Vince Gassi’s Just for Two easy jazz horn duets.
The most interesting thing about it was the discovery of rhythm as a way to profitably spend the braces time.
To sum up our braces-time strategies: low range, transposition, rhythm/meter, approached using both aural and written material.