Tuesday, July 30, 2013

How to Practice Music: Using the Level System

When I work with students, I'm frequently reminded that a lot of us simply have no idea how to practice music. Practicing is more than just getting the instrument out and playing (although, that's sometimes the hardest part!). It's a skill that we have to learn, whether on our own or with the help of a teacher. One of the tools that I use when I'm teaching my students how to practice music is the Level System.

How to Practice - Using the Level System

Last year I told you about a book that revolutionized the way I teach music, The Practice Revolution by Philip Johnston. The main tool in this book that's changed how I practice music is an idea called The Level System. I learned a piece using this method two years ago, and I can pick it up today and it will be as fresh as if I had worked on it last week. Ever since then, I've had my students learn all their music and All-State scales this way. Basically, the idea is that you section your music off into small phrases, if it's not too technically challenging, or into individual measures if there is a lot to work on technique-wise. Each section is given a number and the sectioned music looks like this:

how to practice music - sectioned music

This piece is not challenging technically, so it's been sectioned into small phrases. Once we have our sections, we can start putting them through the levels. The levels are a series of steps that have to be mastered one after the other before we can move on. They start out fairly easy: rhythm, then notes, then articulations, and finally upping the tempo. 

The Metronome

The metronome is used the whole time, except for the second level, which is all about notes. Without the metronome, we have no standard to judge ourselves by, and it's really easy for rhythm mistakes to creep in. To figure out our metronome markings, all we have to do is figure out our final tempo and work backwards.  So, if our level 6 tempo is q = 120, level 5 would be q = 116, level 4 would be q = 112, level 3 would be q = 108 and level 1 would be q = 104. Here's a blank level system for you to use (the link takes you to a Google doc):

How to Practice Music - Blank Level System
Blank Level System
As you work through the levels, all you have to do is write the number of the level completed in the blank space next to the section numbers. To consider a level completed, you need to be able to play it correctly three times in a row. With my students, when they get through level 6 with a section, we mark it with a small sticker, and when they've done all the sections we put a big sticker at the top along with the date completed. The stickers are really important because they give you a visual reference of how much you've gotten done.

The Lesson Notebook

 One of my favorite things about using the level system is that it's really easy for me to notate what I want the student to do for the week in their lesson notebook. A typical notebook entry would look like:

Bach, Gavotte - Trio
  • S.1 - L. 6
  • S.5 - L. 6
  • S.9 - L. 6
  • S.11 - L. 4
  • S. 13 - L. 3
S stands for section and L stands for level. Because the levels are already defined for the student, it's very clear what needs to be accomplished for the next lesson. We typically try to have 3 sections completed for every lesson and one or two in the hopper for the next week.

how to practice music - completed level system

When I practice, my natural tendency is to practice the first phrase to death and neglect the rest of the piece. The level system ensures that each section of the piece is practiced with the same attention to detail, and once all of the sections are completed, they're all technically in the same place. The harder parts aren't slower than the easy parts, and it's really easy to put everything back together and start working on phrasing. If you're questioning how to practice music, or if you're looking for a better way to practice, I highly recommend trying the level system!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Why you NEED an oboe reed case

Recently I've been considering why an oboe reed case is a necessity for all oboe players, rather than an optional accessory. I talked about the importance of handmade oboe reeds earlier, but this is important whether the reeds you play on are handmade or not.

moldy oboe reeds - why you need a reed case

I read an article about trombone lung that discussed the types of mold that grow inside the tubing of brass instruments and it got me thinking about the mold that I sometimes see inside oboe reeds. That people put in their mouths. I decided to cut up some reeds just to show you...because I can make more. :)

moldy oboe reeds

The reed blades on the left came out of my personal reed case and the blades on the right were stored in a reed vial while we were waiting for my student's reed case to come in. Why the difference? My reed case has proper ventilation while a reed vial doesn't have any air flow. at. all. This means that the bacteria that gets blown into the reed from your mouth gets to stay moist and dark, and that means mold. See the black spots? Yep, that's mold. Just what you want to grow on the inside of your oboe reed. Hygiene reasons aside, it also causes the reed to vibrate differently, which will change the sound.

oboe reed vial

So, why do oboe reeds come in reed vials if they aren't good for them? Well, they're the safest container for shipping and storage, because the reed's tip can be protected and the reed doesn't move around. Reed makers don't intend for them to be used for long term storage. The other thing that happens when reed vials are used for long term storage is that the tip of the reed frequently gets hit on the sides of the vial, which usually renders the reed unplayable. Reeds are expensive, so we should do everything possible to keep them in the best playing order.
Hodge 3 Oboe Reed Case

Ok, so I've convinced you that you need an oboe reed case to protect your investment, but what kind should you buy? The only kind of oboe reed case that I don't recommend is the type that looks like a clarinet reed holder, where the reed slides in. These are just as bad as reed vials as far as destroying the tip of the reed. This is the type of reed case that I use, but I'm going to assume that most of you don't need to store 20 reeds at a time. I really like these 3 reed cases from Ann Hodge that you can get from Amazon for around $12.00. They get the job done, fit in most oboe cases and are inexpensive.

Now that you know what can grow inside of an oboe reed and what kind of oboe reed case to buy, you can start really protecting your oboe reeds. Please get in touch if you need more help picking one out!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Music Books for Kids: The Philharmonic Gets Dressed

Since I'm a mommy now, I thought it might be nice to add a music books for kids series. There are a lot of really great books written for children, but The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin is by far my favorite. Even though my mom is a professional musician, I didn't read this as a child. I found out about it in college from one of my friends (whose mom is also a musician). She got the book when she was three, and after she read it all she wanted was concert black. So, for Christmas that year she got a black velvet concert dress that she wore all the time. Now she's got her doctorate in violin performance.

music books for kids

The book follows the musicians of a metropolitan orchestra as they get dressed to go to work. While the city around them slows down for the night they take showers, brush their teeth, put on their underwear, wiggle into dresses, tie bow ties and put on jackets. The illustrations are absolutely brilliant, and it's really fun to try to guess which characters play which instruments while you read (the piccolo player is my favorite!) Another friend babysat for her viola teacher in school, and every time her teacher played a concert she read this book to her daughter. In addition to just being an awesome book for all kids, its a really special way for a musician's child to connect with the work that often consumes their parents.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

New Look! and Etsy Oboe reed shop is OPEN!!!

How do you like the new look on the blog? After months of feeling like this blog and it's facebook page didn't have a very cohesive look, I decided to upgrade to a new design. I purchased a few sets of design packages from the talented Christin at Christin Thomas Design and I couldn't be happier with the results! I honestly didn't know that the design (or lack thereof) was bothering me as much as it was until I saw how good it all looks now. The main thing that inspired me to do all this was the grand opening of my etsy  oboe reed shop!

Sarah Parker Oboe Reeds
I'm so excited about taking my handmade oboe reeds to a larger audience than just the local clientele I've built up here in Wilmington. I'll be offering student reeds, professional reeds, oboe reed blanks, English horn reeds, English horn blanks and shaped cane for both instruments. You can get to the shop by visiting http://www.etsy.com/shop/SarahParkerOboeReeds, or by clicking the link at the top of the page. Thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

New Addition!

Well, she's finally here...Charlotte Elizabeth Parker joined our family on May 11, 2013 at 4:22 PM. She weighed 8 lbs. and was 19 inches long. Our world is completely different in a wonderful way; we're all working on getting adjusted to our new lifestyle!

newest family member

Having a baby has definitely changed how I approach the oboe, reed making and teaching. I started teaching again about 6 weeks after Charlotte was born, and I still don't completely feel like I'm back in the groove. I had to laugh looking back at my previous post on the challenges of pregnant reed making....for my next post I'll have to write about making reeds while baby wearing! Anyway, now that the baby is here and I'm not working at my part-time normal person job anymore, I'm really looking forward to getting going with this blog. Here's to major life changes!
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