NB: This post assumes basic knowledge of scales and arpeggios.
In honor of Halloween, let's spend some time talking about skeletons.
I like to call the most important notes in a piece the "skeleton." In every piece, there are pillar notes that make up the core of the melody, and there are ornamental notes that enhance the melody. Generally, the shorter the note length, the more likely the note is to be ornamental.
Just like the skeletons in our bodies give us structure, the skeleton of a piece gives it structure. It's the framework that a composer uses to build a piece; it's the basic idea that lies beneath all the other notes.
So why is it helpful to figure out what lies at the core of a piece? Because knowing where the pillars are will help you maintain a sense of forward motion in your playing. It also makes phrasing clearer and helps you determine appropriate places to breathe.
Let's take a look at the process of finding a piece's skeleton. We'll use the first 24 measures of Fantasia No. 5 from Telemann's 12 Fantasias for Flute without Bass as our example.
Start by making a copy of the piece you're analyzing so you can write all over it without ruining your original.
Most of the time, the skeleton of a piece will be made up of three elements:
Begin your analysis by looking for any repeated notes; these are usually ornamenting something much simpler. The first line is a good example of this; when you ignore the repeated C, you reveal a scale pattern that ends with an arpeggio.
After you finish finding all the repeated notes, look for any measures with long notes in them. Take out any shorter notes that are surrounding the long notes and see if a scale or arpeggio reveals itself. The second line of this fantasia shows this well; the half notes and dotted half notes make up a simple scale pattern.
Sometimes you will need to displace a note up or down an octave to clarify what the skeleton is. We see this in the final line of the movement. Even when the longest notes in the measure are circled, they seem to leap around all over the place, like so:
But if you displace the middle circled note of each measure down an octave, you reveal simple arpeggios and one whole note. Here's a comparison:
Here's what the entire marked-up movement looks like:
And here's a comparison of the original and the skeleton:
If none of the approaches above yield any results, take a look at what happens on each downbeat. The most important stuff usually happens right on the beat, so that's a good place to start if you get stuck.
Once you have the skeleton at your disposal, use it in your practice! Notice how when you have a sense of the bigger idea, getting to the end of a phrase without running out of air becomes easier. Notice how things that seemed wandering or repetitious suddenly sound full of life and direction.
BONUS ROUND: Once you have your skeleton, see if you can simplify it even further. (Perhaps looking at just what happens on beat 1 of each measure will reveal yet another pattern?) Again, look for scale patterns, arpeggios, and anywhere a measure could be refined down to a single pitch. Here's the analyzed skeleton:
And here's the final version (click image for larger version):
EXTRA BONUS ROUND: If you've never heard it, check out Danse Macabre, Op. 40, by Camille Saint-Saëns. It's a spooky piece inspired by an old French Halloween legend and stars lots of skeletons (albeit of a different variety)!
Everyone has the audition that went nuclear. For reasons known or unknown, the music you thought you knew suddenly felt beyond your ability.
The only way an audition is a complete failure is if you don't use it to learn. It's alright to take a day to be disappointed, but then you have to go back and examine what happened. Deconstruct your audition prep and how things went the day of your audition leading up to the performance. See where the cracks started forming long before you walked in front of the audition committee.
Then plug them up.
Failure is discovery. Choose to see that failure as an inoculation. Now you are aware that when you do ________, it means you won't play your best. You can take steps to avoid it next time. Try going through The Audition Checklist to see if there were any steps you missed or could have done more completely.
Most importantly, don't use this one instance as a judgement of your playing as a whole. On that particular day, at that time, and on those particular pieces, you did not do well. But next time will be better.
Fact: people get nervous at auditions.
Everyone gets audition jitters, no matter how experienced or prepared they are. There are lots of ways to handle this stress; nailing down all the variables that I can is what makes me feel better.
Below is a checklist to use before, during, and after an audition. Anxiety can cause us to forget things we normally never would, so having everything down on paper can help make your audition day go more smoothly. Click either image to download the full version.
Let me know if the checklist helps you!
Gerald Klickstein, author of The Musician's Way, posted an interesting blog entry on his website titled "Top Ten Ways to be Nervous on Stage", and it got me thinking about how I would go about being a terrible private teacher.
Remember when making a list like this that you're looking for what the worst teacher in the world would do, not what you personally don't like about your teaching. Don't let it turn into an exercise in negativity. Instead, use it to help you find opportunities for growth. Is there anything you do that resembles something on the Terrible Teacher list, and if so, what changes could you make to fix it?
There's always room to improve, whether in teaching or performing, and it's healthy to give yourself constructive criticism from time to time. After you make your Terrible Teacher list, it's important to make another, different one: the Excellent Educator list. Figure out how an amazing teacher would do things. For example:
It's easy to become complacent if you're solely teaching and no longer studying with a teacher yourself. If you haven't spent much time analyzing yourself, use the worksheet below as your first step. (I included topics that I think are important, and there's space at the bottom of it for other categories that resonate with you.) Never stop looking for ways to become a more effective educator; the results will show in your students' success.
I come from a public school background, so making the transition to a college music program was a culture shock. There were no programs available in my area to prepare me for what a college music curriculum would demand of me, so I felt terrified and inadequate for a good portion of my undergraduate experience.
If someone had sat me down and told me the following things when I began my time in higher education, my life would have been much easier. Some are obvious, some are shocking, and some might be unsettling. But they are all realities.
1.) You will spend most of your time being critiqued.
The days of glowing praise are over. The feedback from your teachers will always be some variation of, "Good. But you need to change _________." It's easy to lose sight of how gifted you are and to start to feel frustrated with your mentors. Don't give up; recognize that they're trying to help you make the leap from student to professional, and that their critiques of small details are a sign that the big stuff is already top-notch.
2.) Music isn't just for musicians.
Spend some time playing for people outside of your music school. Volunteering to play a short recital for seniors or children can be a great reminder of how amazing you sound to the average citizen. People don't generally get to hear live music unless they seek it out; they're usually appreciative and awed by it when you bring it to them. This is a good way to counteract the feelings of artistic fatigue that can come with serious, advanced study.
3.) You must be creative with your career goals.
You will be told time and again that there is no career in music and that opportunity is rare. And this is partly true; the days when an orchestra job was easily gained--and could be your sole source of income--are gone. But performance is not the only route you can take as a performance major; most performing musicians have a potluck career of gigs, teaching, and publishing.
4.) "Those who can't do, teach" is a lie...
Teaching is an art and a skill, not a fallback plan for failed performers. If the thought of teaching students turns your stomach, do not teach, and don't waste your time on a double major in performance and music education if you don't have any desire to teach in a school. A disengaged, unskilled, or unwilling teacher can do permanent damage to a student.
5.) ...but being able to teach is more necessary than ever.
Be aware that most musicians will be asked to coach students at some point in their careers. Luckily, music schools are slowly shifting their priorities to help you accommodate this new reality. Music pedagogy classes are becoming more common in performance programs; even if you don't think you'll end up as a teacher, absorb as much knowledge as you can about pedagogy just in case. Most orchestras ask their members to lead workshops for the public, and having a pedagogy background will make you a more appealing hire.
6.) Your body has limits.
Nourish your body. Eat a reasonably healthy diet and hydrate yourself. As often as you are able, get a good night's sleep. There is no artistic heroism in malnourishment and exhaustion. You are an athlete, and you can only perform as well as you treat your body.
7.) Injury does not equal accomplishment.
The person walking around with a brace on their wrist is not more dedicated than you. There is no need to suffer physically for your art. Most injuries result from poor playing position or overuse. It is the job of a teacher to make sure that these kinds of injuries don't occur; careful monitoring of playing position during lessons can make the difference between a productive career and one cut short by injury.
8.) Be grateful.
As hard as your path might be, remember how amazing this opportunity is. For every person who gets to study music, there are tons of people who are turned away at the door. Most of them love music just as much as you, but they just didn't have the money or connections or talent to get to do what you're doing right now. Appreciate the fact that you're in a select group.
9.) Theory and history really do matter.
Many performance majors see music theory and history as things that cut into their practice time. But if you end up taking these classes in college, pay attention. Every era in music history has its own style and idioms, and you must know what these are in order to play stylistically. No one wants to hear Bach played like Berlioz. In the same manner, knowing the basics of music theory can help you decide how to interpret a piece; for example, knowing how key changes work will help you figure out if an accidental is something to bring out in the melody or if it's just a misprint.
If you're a high schooler getting ready for auditions, include some music history and theory study in your preparations. Most schools will require you to demonstrate proficiency in these areas, either by passing a test or taking a class, and you can save yourself a lot of time by testing out of those classes.
10.) Being a good person is just as important as being a good musician.
Be responsible. Show up early and prepared. Treat your fellow students with kindness. The music world is a small one, and the people who get hired time and again are the ones who can be dependable and who are pleasant to work with. Yes, there will be insufferable people who for some reason succeed. Don't let this tempt you into becoming one of them. Be better.
It took years to figure out and internalize these ideas, and I hope they help to make your own path easier.
Questions or comments? Send me an email!
Any questions or comments? Feel free to contact me!
The most important thing to remember is that whatever notes are marked sharp or flat in the key signature will be sharp or flat through the entire piece, no matter what register you play them in.
So how do you figure out the name of a key signature? Easy! To find the name of a major key signature with sharps in it, take the last sharp (use the order of sharps to help you) and go up a half step. Example: a key signature has two sharps, F-sharp and C-sharp. One half step up from C-sharp is D, so you are in D major.
To find the name of a major key signature with flats, the second-to-last flat in the key signature is the name. Example: a key signature has three flats, B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat. E-flat is the second-to-last, so you are in E-flat major. Use the order of flats to help you.
Finding the name of the relative minor of a major key (this is the minor scale that uses the same key signature as a particular major key), uses the exact same process for both sharp and flat keys.
Take the name of the major key signature you're working with and go down two letter names on the staff (not counting the one you started on). The note you end up on is the name of the minor key, and if that note is sharp or flat in the major key signature, then that sharp or flat is included in the minor key name.
The best way to get comfortable with finding key signature names is to practice! When you play a piece, see if you can find the major key name and its relative minor. Here's a key signature cheat sheet for your reference. Print one out and keep it in your band/lesson folder!
When you're rehearsing with a large ensemble or working with your private teacher, you might encounter some words or phrases you aren't familiar with. Below are some terms and concepts that you should know. (Click any image for a larger PDF version.)
Check back on Wednesday for more music vocabulary!