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It's Not What You Play, It's How You Play It That Counts!

“It’s Not What You Play, It’s How You Play It That Counts!”

Ed Dumas

I used to jokingly tell my students that I was going to get a giant banner made up that was mounted high on the wall and stretched from one end of the room to the other. The banner would have printed on it the quote above so that I didn’t have to keep saying it day after day. The students knew I was joking, but I was half tempted to do it anyway!

In the first year or so of band class, beginning students are so very concerned with pitch names and fingers on their instrument, that dealing with the “How” of playing the notes becomes a challenge for them. Still, I would encourage you to take whatever opportunity you can with your young beginners to begin to work on this concept so that in the later years they are more open to ideas of changing how they play. Staying too long in the concept of “playing notes” means they will have more trouble when you ask them to “make music.”

This concept is very akin to when students are first learning to read and convert those little black markings (letters) into words, sentences, and vocalizations (sounds) that have meaning to other people. To illustrate what I am after, I would often take a written passage and read it out to the students. BUT, I would read it out loud like someone just learning to read. The pitch would be monotone, the cadence would be slow, the rhythm would be messed up, and I would destroy all of the phrases by breathing in all of the wrong places. Most of the students would look at me with huge question mark eyes because they could not understand what I was saying.

Here is an example in print form. Note that I have written it with heavy periods in the wrong places with only one short collection of words per line with a long space at the end of each line. Try reading it that way as a beginning reader would.

It is a truth.

U-ni-vers-all-y ack-now-ledged that.

A single man in.

Poss-ess-ion of a.

Good for-tune must.

Be in want of a wife.

How-ev-er lit-tle known.

The feelings or views.

Of such a man may.

Be on his first en-ter-ing.

A neigh-bour-hood this truth.

Is so well fixed in the minds.

Of the sur-round-ing fam-i-lies.

That he is con-sid-ered as the right-ful.

Pro-perty of some.

One or oth-er of their daugh-ters.


Now here is the original quote.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

When you read the quote this time, did you notice how the meaning changed, likely rather dramatically? That quote of course is the opening two paragraphs of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, a classic must-read for, well, everyone! Now, I would not use this passage for overly young musicians but chose this for adults who have likely read the book.

In the same way, you could play for your beginning students a simple passage from their first-year book and play it similarly to a beginning reader. I often used “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as this is a melody that everyone knows. Just by labouring over some notes, delaying others, and putting the breaths in all the wrong places, the students either would not recognize the tune that I played, or if they recognized it would immediately realize that they didn’t like what they heard. This is what their audience would often hear in a first-year band performance.

Now, I am not trying to make anyone feel bad about that sound. We all needed to go through it, but the objective is to get past it as fast as possible. I would stress to them that they should not make it sound like a first-year reader, but make it sound like complete phrases. This opens up a whole new discussion with first-year players that has plenty of room for learning, even in the first year. In short, I wanted them to forget about playing notes, and focus on making music.

One of the best “first band arrangements” that I ever found came out of an old series called “Band Today.” In that series is a book called “Concert Today” which had performance tunes for first-year players. The first tune in that book was called “Arch of Triumph” by James Ployhar. That arrangement was wonderful because you could give it to the first-year players within about 4 months or so of them starting in the band program. All of the wind and mallet parts had the same rhythm throughout the entire arrangement, but to get that unique concert band sound that the students loved, some players just played a different set of pitches even though the parts were all very much just step-wise motion with few leaps. This provided the first lessons in harmony that thrilled the students while they learned to play separate parts together, hence “Make Music!”

The next tune in that same book, called “Slightly Misty,” was even more genius. This tune was in three-four meter and now started to break away from the total copying of rhythms across the band to a more instrumental role-like writing. The melody was now 6 phrases long, and it was presented three times, plus an introduction for a total of 19 phrases.

The genius, though, came when you examined the phrases which had the following lengths – 4mm, 4mm, 4mm, 4mm, 5mm, 3mm. So, on the second piece of band music presented to the students, they were already beginning a discussion of melody, phrase lengths, and overall structure of the work! To top it off, the standard 4mm phrase lengths were already broken getting them ready for more advanced work in that area in future years.

Now, I presented those two pieces of music as a way of getting your first-year players to break out of their confines of “playing notes.” If you can find other pieces of music that do a similar task, so much the better. I have seen very few, though, pieces of band music for first-year players that are so simple that everyone can focus on the same task of learning phrases while still enjoying a true concert band sound. Oftentimes, something else gets in the way of the phrases, such as counting too difficult rhythms, counting extended rests, big pitch leaps within the phrase, overlapping phrase lengths, or technical issues with their instrument.

If there are too many challenges for first-year players in the band music, they too often spend great amounts of time dealing with those challenges instead of just “making music.” At some point, though, the teacher needs to focus the class attention away from those other technical challenges, and stress to students that they need to stop playing notes and instead play phrases. 

One of the topics that I have often found useful in that discussion is the idea that breathing is like punctuation to musicians. This is where that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” lesson can be so useful. If you play it for the students with your breaths completely messed up on purpose, they will understand that it changes the meaning of the sounds. Then, ask them to play it back to you with 4 measure phrases and practice it until it sounds like the three phrases that it is. This is where you can introduce the breath mark to them, and the fact that if there are breath marks written in the music, not only does it tell them where to breathe, it also tells them where they MUST NOT breathe!

Negative Thoughts vs Positive Thoughts

Here is a lesson from driver training, which I learned from my father who was a licenced and practicing driver instructor at the time that I was learning to drive. He taught me that when I was driving to not focus on “Don’t have an accident!” The human mind does not register the word “Don’t” as much as it registers the words “Have an accident.” 

Therefore, the words “Don’t have an accident” cause your mind to focus on “Have an accident” which is now more likely to cause you to have an accident! Instead, focus on a positive action such as “Keep your distance” which will help you avoid that accident. In short, don’t tell them so much about what they should not do, but tell them more about what you want them to do!

Many times I have heard discussions in the education system about “negative thoughts” vs “positive thoughts”, and wondered if this concept is misunderstood. While I most certainly don’t want students to berate themselves with emotionally destructive thoughts, maybe they would be less concerned with these types of “negative thoughts” if we instead focused on the positive action thoughts in terms of what they want to achieve instead of worrying about self-destructive harming by telling them what they should not do. It is kind of like that great old Far-Side cartoon which showed a crash cymbal player in an orchestra saying to himself, “I won’t screw up! I won’t screw up!” while he is holding one crash cymbal next to an open bare hand. Maybe he should be telling himself to “Hold two cymbals!” instead of “Don’t screw up!”

Now extend this concept to your first-year concert band players. I found it valuable to help students think better thoughts while they played. The “negative” thought regarding phrases would be “Don’t breathe. Don’t breathe!” Since the brain does not work well that way it tends to focus on what you do not want it to do, which is to breathe. So what do the students do? They breathe, and most likely in the wrong places.

Instead of thinking of a “Don’t” thought have them think of a “Do” thought. In this case, they should focus on “Extend the air. Extend the air!” This tells them what they should do, instead of what they should not do, and hence is a “Positive” action thought. “Extend the air!” will be far more successful at leading students to play with proper phrases. 

Now fast forward a few years after the first-year band class. Students that have not been challenged on playing beyond the notes, will now show that they have a hard time making music with the band. These students will often continue to labour over notes, but often the sounds coming out will be out of time with the band or out of rhythm. Many times these students will be “following” the band, instead of “playing with” the band. Every note will be just a little behind, enough to cause a drag on the entire instrument section or even the entire band.

I have often used a game to illustrate this concept to students. The game is that very annoying thing when one child will repeat back what the other says, but does it as it is being said. The follower does not know what is being said but is prepared to immediately ape it all back as a way to annoy the speaker. Students that are “playing notes” on their instrument are often the same ones that are similarly “following the band”. If there are too many of these followers, the band will continue to bog down, and eventually, fall apart.

A way to break the followers of this habit is to have them memorize a short passage, say 8 measures. Then have the section play the passage back without the sheet music so that the followers now have a chance to feel what it is like to “play with” instead of “follow behind.” Emphasize this often.

Taking The Concept to Extremes

When students begin in concert band class, they usually begin with a heavy concentration on “getting the notes right” which usually means the pitches. I can understand this desire on their part, as it is likely the only thing they know about music. But, I still want to take them beyond this very limited understanding of music as soon as possible.

As experienced musicians, you will know that there are three over-arching categories in the study of music. The first is “pitch” which is the highness and lowness of a musical sound and is usually described by letter names. Pitch can be measured very scientifically if one chooses to, and then expressed as vibrations per second. Multiple pitches are played together to create harmony.

The second category in music is “duration” and is the length that a musical pitch is held. This can be measured in real-time, such as seconds, but is better measured in our music as pulses. The pulses in music are often measured in beats per minute, and the rate of these beats indicates tempo. This leads to all sorts of time discussions surrounding tempo, such as speeding up, slowing down, and so on. Check out the previous article on Concepts of Time for a better understanding of the time issues that students have to deal with.

Finally, the third over-arching category in music is expression. This category includes concepts of dynamics (loud and softs), accents, effects, phrases, melodies, musical structure, and so on. This is the “How” part of playing the notes and rhythms. Students should be encouraged to move towards this end of the three categories as soon as possible to keep their minds open to playing with expression.

To help students move away from “just playing the notes,” I have often used this description of a fictional band. My ultimate concert band would have approximately 72 musicians and would be made of the best players that the world could provide in each section. It would take at least a few million dollars to hire this band for just one rehearsal, as they would each need to be paid large money just to do it.

These musicians would be so good, that they could easily manage whatever music I place in front of them. They could even manage when I give them two run-throughs of a piece of music, but with different directions on each. For the first run-through, they would be told to play every pitch correctly, but every note length would be incorrect (completely random) from the beginning to the end. Despite their obvious talents, this band would last only a few measures before they would utterly fall apart, crash & burn, and would have to stop because no one would know where we are at.

On the second attempt, my ultimate concert band would be asked to play every pitch on the page as something different than what is marked. They would, though, still have to play every note length as absolutely correct and in rhythm. The result would be that the band would sound utterly horrendous, BUT they would be able to stay together from the beginning to the end. This would be a huge step up from the reverse process on the first attempt, and would be proof that time, counting, and rhythm have a higher priority than pitch! 

I have used this hypothetical story many times to help students move away from obsessing about pitches, to concentrating more on time, and then on to expression. Of course, I don’t expect students to be able to play in either of those extremes, though sometimes a class will ask to do so. Still, even just attempting this as an exercise is time well spent to drive home a point. Any discussion you can have with your students about “how” they play will help them focus away from the “what” they play.

Putting It Together

Now, I began this article with the thought that “It is not what you play, it is how you play it that counts!” Students that are sometimes stuck in the playing notes mode are also still very obsessed over not making any incorrect pitches. These students need to understand that from the audience's perspective, correct pitches are not the audience’s highest priority in listening.

From the audience's perspective, they want to be able to “get into” the music. This means that they need to “Suspend Disbelief” to focus their entire mind on what is happening in the performance in front of them. If you are not familiar with the concept of Suspended Disbelief, read a previous article titled “Why We Should Study Music” for a good explanation.

When a student makes a pitch error, there is a chance that the audience will hear it. But, many in our rather unsophisticated audiences may miss the pitch error in blissful ignorance. Students that miss too many pitches, though, may still throw their audience out of Suspended Disbelief because there will be a limit to what an audience can tolerate. When this happens, we still need to work on the correct pitches. But, this should be more a student job at home, rather than a teaching job at school.

In contrast to that, though, I have found that audiences are quite unforgiving when it comes to time and rhythm in music. A band that is playing slow, behind the pulse, rather dodderingly like a first-year reader will surely lose the audience's focus within a matter of a few measures. The audience may not be able to tell you what they do not like in the sound, but they know they cannot get “into” it.

If you look back at your audience at this point, you will see plenty of folks sitting still, blankly staring at an unfocused point in the room with a half-smile on their face. When the music ends, the audience will give you that short, polite applause that means “Is it done yet?” Focusing on “How You Play It” rather than on “What You Play” will help your audience get into the music, and therefore give you a real and honest reaction at the end. 

Why Tapestry Music?

Tapestry Music has been a BC family owned business since 1996.  With 3 locations in White Rock, Vancouver and Victoria, Tapestry offers in store & online shopping, music lessons and repair services. As a music education specialist, Tapestry is respected and recommended by music educators across Canada.

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