The Learning Scale

By , April 17, 2015

As a contemporary music specialist, I am no stranger to parts like this:



This kind of part — with multiple layers of extended techniques, unique notation to decode, rarely encountered fingerings, and rhythmic complexities — can be quite overwhelming. It’s not sight-readable, even at a slow tempo. There’s often no recording available. Questions for the composer arise. Fingering charts need to be consulted. The progress is so slow at first that it can feel discouraging to practice it at all. To top it all off, imagine that you have a young toddler at home and practice time is quite limited. (For me, this is quite easy to imagine!) A couple years ago I started thinking:

How can I more efficiently structure my practice time so that I can learn this complex part by the first rehearsal (or at least, the last)?

That’s when I developed “The Learning Scale”.

The Learning Scale

The Learning Scale is a tool that helps me to make the best use of my time possible, and to keep track of my progress on a piece in a systematic and honest way. Systematic — as in, each page is assigned a number from 1 to 10 based on how well it is learned, and honest — as in, I’m not deluding myself as to how well I can play the piece.

Here’s my basic scale, after refining it over several years:

10 – can’t get it wrong

9 – very low chance of things not going as planned

8 – a few spots still causing trouble at tempo

7 – mostly accurate notes/dynamics/rhythms/etc. a little under tempo

6 – under tempo play through

5/4/3 – roughly learning; still choosing fingerings, asking questions, studying recordings

2 – worked through, first perusal

1 – sight read

0 – not even looked at it

photo 2 aWhen I encounter an intimidating piece of music (or any piece of music that I have to learn in a short amount of time), I start by doing my best to sight-read it, and then writing a “1” in the corner of each page — or after each line, depending on the complexity of the music. The next practice session that I work through it, that number moves up to a 2. And so on.

I find that by the time I get to “6”, I can usually play through the passage under tempo. Sometimes I can even skip up to 6 or 7 on a page or line after just a few practice sessions. Somehow, no matter how daunting the challenge seems at first, each practice session roughly equates to one number on the learning scale. I don’t know why this is, but it has worked this way for me! As I gain mastery over the material, I start having more time to spend on the really tough sections, so by the time I’m at a “9” I’m really just running those few spots in the piece that are super tricky to get consistent. But I will say, the jump from 9 to 10 is a big one, and rarely do I perform an entire piece that I feel is at a level 10.

Creating a practice schedule using The Learning Scale

As I’ve worked with my system for a while, I’ve started trusting it enough to use it to plan my practice sessions weeks in advance. I usually list out the dates I’ll be able to practice and the rehearsal schedule, then have a column for each piece. I set a goal of where I want to be at the concert or any given rehearsal, and work backwards from there. This lets me set a schedule where I focus on the hardest piece for a few days to really make some progress and bring it up to the level of the other pieces. Or, I can work on the “easier” parts until they’re up to an “8” or so and then put them out of mind for a while.

photo 1However I decide to set my goals, this system has the advantage of specificity and visible progress – the most important things for practice efficiency. Sitting down with only 30 minutes to practice, looking at a daunting piece of music, it’s really helpful to have the specific goal of “getting this passage to a number ‘3’”, especially if getting it to a 3 only means making an honest attempt at working through it, not even necessarily solving everything. The perfectionist in me is placated so that I can put focus where it needs to go. Then, when I achieve my mini-goal and replace the “2” with a “3”, I’ve made visible progress, providing motivation and satisfaction that I’m on the right track to meet my goal of learning the piece (or at least avoiding public embarrassment).

So that’s my method, and for me it really works. Is it neurotic and obsessive? Yes. But as musicians, for the most part, so are we.

Madera Wind Quintet Texas Tour

By , January 24, 2015

I’m excited to return to Texas in February for a tour with the Madera Wind Quintet.  We’ll be playing in North, East and South Texas, with a varied program of quintet standards by Danzi and Ligeti, original arrangements of music by Copland and Beck, and music from our last album Five at Play as well as our upcoming album of works by Don Gillis.Texas Tour

Hello Seattle!

By , August 28, 2014

I’m excited to announce that I’ve relocated from Texas to the Seattle area! My husband Greg Dixon has begun a music faculty position at the Digipen Institute of Technology, and I will be freelancing and teaching. I’m looking forward to joining the musical community in Seattle and having more time to devote to planning performances, recording projects, teaching clarinet, continuing to work on my series of instructional videos online, and of course, practicing!

5 Facts about Facebook’s News Feed Problem

By , May 10, 2014

Have you noticed that lately you post something really funny/interesting/important on your personal Facebook page and no one seems to notice?  And in your feed, sometimes you miss posts from your best friends, but see the same posts you don’t care about over and over? Or maybe you set up a Facebook Page for your band or small business to keep in touch with your fans, but now your posts seem to be reaching fewer and fewer people?

I manage a Facebook Page with more than 5,000 fans as part of my job, and as a freelance musician I and many of my friends use Facebook to get the word out about performances and musical projects. I’ve spent countless hours developing content for Facebook and even paid for ads. But in the past couple months, my perspective on Facebook has changed radically due to what I consider to be a serious problem with the Facebook News Feed. I’m hoping these facts can help other musicians and anyone with a Facebook Page understand how Facebook’s News Feed currently works, and what your best options are.

Fact #1: Your News Feed is Getting Crowded.

A great article on TechCrunch explains the problem, which is pretty simple, really: Facebook has gotten too popular.  The more grandmas and co-workers and bands and businesses and non-profits that join Facebook, the more friends you have and the more Pages that you “like,” the more information that naturally gets pushed to your News Feed.  The feed of the average Facebook user now has 1500 posts per day, more than most of us would ever want to see.  So who controls this flow of information? Why, Facebook, of course!


Fact #2: Your News Feed defaults to “Top Stories,” the mode where Facebook controls which content you see.  

Sure, you can switch your feed to display “Most Recent” (though frighteningly, that option recently disappeared for a couple weeks from business Pages), but Facebook will always switch you back to Top Stories mode each time you log in.  And sure, you can dig around for browser plugins or bookmark a special URL to get around Facebook’s automatic default mode, and follow/unfollow people to your heart’s content, but the majority of Facebook users are not going to do that, because Facebook has purposely made it very difficult.


Rather than allowing users to control the flow of information, Facebook has created a complex algorithm (which they continually tweak) to decide for you what information you should see.   This algorithm, of course, favors information stored on Facebook rather than links that take you offsite. It also tries to anticipate your level of interest based on whether your friends liked it and what sorts of posts you’ve tended to like in the past.  It’s a nice idea, but …


Fact #3: Facebook’s “Top Stories” algorithm is fundamentally flawed.

This algorithm, no matter how much it’s tweaked, will never be as good at determining what users want to see as they would if they had more control.

Let’s say you create a shiny new post on Facebook, one you think deserves a lot of likes and comments.  Within the first few critical minutes of the life of your post, you can tell whether it will have a long, happy life, getting views, likes and comments by your friends and fans, or die a quick death and be seen by virtually no one. Why?  Because the algorithm decides if your post is a Top Story based largely on whether people seem to like it when it first appears.  If it doesn’t do well in the first few minutes, it becomes a dreaded Bottom Story, never to be seen again. It’s why your late-night weekend posts don’t do well if your friends are mostly out socializing at that time rather than on Facebook. And it’s why I published and shared this post on a weekend rather than a Monday morning, when I know my audience is mostly at work trying to catch up on emails.

The one-size-fits-all approach to determining which posts make it into your News Feed is applied indiscriminately to content from Pages, whether it’s Coca-Cola’s brandvertising, urgent severe weather updates like Texas Storm Chasers’, or your friend’s band’s “I’m playing at J&J’s Basement tonight” posts.  How could Facebook possibly pretend to understand how important each of these things is to you as an individual at any given moment?


Fact #4: Facebook is a Waste of Time.

(Texas Storm Chasers)

Okay, we all know Facebook is a royal Waste of Time — who hasn’t clicked the app just to see their notifications and then emerged a half-hour later having waded through posts about the health benefits of brown rice#TBT photos of people you haven’t even seen IRL for years, videos of the most famous internet cat doing mundane things that still manage to be mind-blowingly cute, and posts about the horrors of arsenic in brown rice.

But I’m talking about the Waste of Time that is trying to use Facebook to self-promote or broadcast information, whether it’s letting your friends know that your band is playing tomorrow or trying to get severe weather updates out to your 350K followers that want to know about severe weather updates. A good, old-fashioned post is no longer going to cut it. You’re going to have to be strategic about the time of day. You need to optimize your images for ever-changing desktop and mobile News Feed formats, and read articles about tricks for getting more of those all-important first likes — but make sure not to actually ask for likes. Even simple formatting like boldface requires pasting from an offsite editing tool, and forget about HTML. Even if you spend the time doing all of these things, your posts will probably reach about 1-10% of your fans or friends. These time-sucks are simply NOT WORTH IT, considering that…


Fact #5: When you create a Facebook post, you’re developing content for Facebook, not yourself.

Beyond the fact that you can’t control the formatting or visibility of your posts, content created for Facebook is also hosted on a corporate website that is largely inaccessible to search engines. You’ll never be able to search your Facebook feed like you can search the web. Have you ever tried to find a specific post that showed up in your feed a month ago?  It’s nearly impossible, especially if you can’t remember who posted it. And when you create a post that actually does well, Facebook benefits from the traffic — to the point that maybe Facebook should be paying you rather than the other way around.

The bottom line is that Facebook is just another corporation, legally obligated to make money for its stockholders. It can be a great diversion and a useful tool if you know how to use it.  But as far as self-promotion and business Pages, it’s time to reign in the outsized amount of time and energy we all put into it, and stop donating content to further their profits.

I say it’s time for the humble blog to make a comeback. Take your content first and foremost to your website, where it’s publicly viewable and searchable, people can link to it, you can set up analytics, you control the hosting and can back up your data, you control the formatting with a WYSIWYG or HTML editor, and you can put in as many pictures as you want.  Encourage people to subscribe directly to your feed, and link back to your website from an email newsletter or Twitter. At your website, you decide the Top Story.  And maybe it will become a Top Story on Facebook too when you post a link to it, or maybe not, but at least you have control.

Paul Thomas – Bruegel Sketches

By , May 4, 2014

Last week I had the opportunity to premiere Bruegel Sketches for bass clarinet and accordion by Paul David Thomas, professor of music at Dallas Baptist University, with the composer himself on accordion:

It’s a great set of miniatures evocative of the paintings. And the score is a lesson in how to use notation as a means to an end — the miniatures varied from traditional notation to graphic score, but each one was really effective in its own way. And it’s always fun to have the chance to workshop the piece together, see what works, and tweak things along the way!

The Compositional Style of William O. Smith

By , June 16, 2013

A few years ago, I wrote a paper about William O. Smith. It wasn’t doing me any good sitting here on my computer, so I thought I’d upload it to make it available to anyone who is interested.

The Compositional Style of William O. Smith (PDF) (ZIP)

Written as part of the requirements for my doctoral qualifying exam, this paper explores the evolution of the compositional style of William O. Smith from his studies with Milhaud and work with the Dave Brubeck Octet to his later works. Works discussed include Five Pieces, Variants, Jazz Set for solo clarinet, Concerto for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra, and Epitaphs for double clarinet, including detailed twelve-tone analysis where relevant.

Note: All scores included in the appendix to this document are for reference purposes only.  Please do not duplicate or use for performance.

The Problem with Premiere-Hunting

By , August 31, 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of “premieres,” and why they are often over-valued by performers and ensembles.  Sure, they sound fancy in an artist bio (e.g. “So-and-so has premiered works on eight continents…”), and they can contribute to the perceived legacy of a performer.  We must support the creation of new works; I am an active performer of new music myself, and enjoy premiering works and supporting my composer colleagues.  But the reality is that many (most?) premieres occur in the presence of a small number of people, mostly colleagues, followed by a long period of time (forever?) during which the work is not performed.  What’s more important for a piece of music is actually what happens after the premiere.  The culture of “premiere-hunting” among performers leads us down a road that, paradoxically, can be stifling for new music and composers themselves.

In light of my own experiences in new music, I present here several thoughts about premieres and new music in the form of four pieces of advice for performers:

1. Only ask a piece to be written for you if you have plans to perform it.

Performers often want NEW pieces and they want them by a deadline, but rarely do they guarantee to composers that they will play the piece. Some performers have no shame in asking every composer they know for a piece (after all, one of them might turn out to be BIG someday), but then end up letting the works collect dust on their shelf for months or years.  And when that performer’s koto/bass viol/sousaphone trio never programs it, who will?  Composers are spending large quantities of time to turn out several pieces a year for free for performers, and then end up feeling grateful to get more than one performance out of the work.  Honestly, it’s insulting.

But it’s not like this situation is anything new.  Benny Goodman famously paid Milhaud only $750 for a clarinet concerto in 1941 (after talking him down from his asking price of $1000), demanded that he have sole performance rights for three years, and that it be rushed to completion by an upcoming deadline.  And what happened in the end?  He never played it.  It had “too many notes.”  You have to wonder if Goodman might have received a better piece had Milhaud not been overworked and underpaid!

If you ask a composer for a piece, it’s only fair to have plans for premiering the work and allow enough preparation time for a solid performance.  Try to program it on several performances, not just one.  Even better: pay them, if you can afford it.  Even a token of a couple hundred dollars communicates that you value not just being the first one to perform a work, but the work itself, and the artistry that went into it.

2. It’s not the premiere that’s valuable — it’s the collaboration.

I’ve seen performers hold a call for scores for a specific instrumental combination, and demand that the works have never been performed before.  This seems really egotistical to me.  You’re expecting a serious composer to take many hours of their life to write a new piece for free, specifically for your group, without actually being able to contact or work with you during its creation, and with no guarantee that it will even be chosen for performance?

What actually happens is that you will get a lot of submissions from student and amateur composers who are willing to do it “for fun” or “for the experience,” or on the off chance they might win something and it will help out their career.  A few of these pieces might be good if you’re lucky.  You might even have the good fortune that a really great composer has a piece lying around that fits the requirements, and it happens to have been unperformed for some reason.  Realistically though, your choices may end up being fairly limited, forcing you to settle for an okay piece when there are plenty of amazing, already-written works for your ensemble out there.

If you really want a premiere so bad, find a composer you like and commission them.  These days, composers are so hard up that sometimes you can call it a “commission” even if you don’t pay them!  It makes it sound like money changed hands though, so you and the composer both sound prestigious.  It’s a win-win.

By commissioning a composer, you have the opportunity to collaborate, and collaboration is really the most exciting part about a premiere anyway.  By working directly with a composer, you have the opportunity to influence the actual music.  In collaborations, I’ve done all of the following:

  • helped composers to determine the most idiomatic ways to express their ideas for the clarinet, to make them more accessible to others in the future
  • assisted in finding the best way to notate extended techniques
  • improvised sounds or melodies that made their way into the resulting piece
  • corrected typos or mistakes in draft versions of the score

It’s great to have a passion for new music, but focusing on the premiere while ignoring the collaboration is kind of like planning your own wedding without taking the time to get to know your fiancé. A collaboration can result in a work that’s not only an expression of your personality and specific talents as a performer, but that’s been thoroughly vetted and is ready to be performed by the next player or ensemble.

3. Respect the honor of being the “second performer.”

Speaking of “the next player or ensemble” after a premiere, let’s talk about what I like to call being the “second performer.”

My quintet, the Madera Wind Quintet, held a call for scores last year.  We debated restricting it to works that had not previously been performed, but ended up leaving the call open.  It’s good we did, because our favorite five works out of the 130-plus submissions were all pieces that had already been performed.  In most cases, the works had been performed only once or by one group.

It’s no mystery why the works we chose had all been performed before.  First, they were written for actual people, rather than by a composer sitting alone at a computer desk following an idea and emerging with a finished product thinking, “okay, who can I get to play this?”  To give a couple examples from our call, Philip Wharton worked with the Borealis Wind Quintet on his Quintet, and Peter Nickol’s Ultramarine was written for the London Myriad Ensemble, who contacted us themselves to let us know how excited they were that we were recording it.

It can indeed be so thrilling as a composer or premiering performer to discover that a piece “has legs.”  I couldn’t be more excited about my quintet’s upcoming CD Five at Play, because it may well give “legs” to some great pieces of music.  We started with six excellent but largely unknown works for wind quintet (five from the call and one commission) and gave them several performances and recorded them, in the hopes that these pieces will get picked up by other groups and become part of a 21st-century wind quintet repertoire.  Several other quintets have already shown interest in our project, and the CD isn’t even out yet.  If we had limited our call to only premieres, the quality and impact of our project would have been much more limited.

To me, it’s not the first performance that’s important, it’s how big of an impact a piece has on how many people.  Which brings me to my next point.

4. Focus on the music, not yourself.

If we’re all honest with ourselves, we know that there’s tons of already-written music out there, even new music — heck, even 21st-century music! — that’s amazing.  That deserves to be played.  That deserves to be better known, and taught to our students.  If you have the choice between premiering a work that might be second-rate, or programming a piece that wasn’t written for you but may well be one of the better works from its decade, consider not just your legacy but the legacy of the music itself in making that decision.

Are you recycling someone else’s leftovers by being the “second performer”?  Far from it.  You are taking a leadership role in the formation of a canon.  Not a singular canon, necessarily, but a collection of new works that could be considered representative, groundbreaking, or musically superlative in a certain style or genre.  That, and also, you are making a composer very happy — both honorable endeavors in which you should take much pride.

If performers fall into the trap of constant premiere-hunting, we decline a role in helping to shape a body of work that may continue to be performed generations from now.  If we don’t help to define the “best” music of our time, who will?  Organizations with the money to sponsor composers-in-residence, perhaps.  University professors who have to develop a curriculum for music history courses and new music ensembles.  Composers themselves, by accepting each other’s works to conferences.  If performers constantly shirk this responsibility in pursuit of the premiere-as-ego-boost, I believe we risk further fragmentation and irrelevance of new music–after all, we have the power to be its greatest advocates.

Premiering new works is a noble endeavor, but it is only one piece of the puzzle.  Finding a programming balance between composer collaborations and second (or third, or fourth…) performances of recently-written pieces can do much to encourage vitality and cohesion in the new music community.

My bottom line is this:

If you’re into new music, great, go support a composer.  Just don’t always make them write you something new.

How to Slap Tongue

By , March 25, 2012

Slap tonguing is an extended technique which achieves a percussive effect that can be used on its own or to start a sustained pitch. It is a neat sound, especially on the bass clarinet, but difficult to learn. Last week, I was thinking about how long it took me to finally learn how to slap tongue correctly, and I decided to make a little instructional video in the hopes of helping others learn this technique! I love extended techniques, so maybe this will be the beginning of a series….?

In this video I describe a three-step process for learning how to slap tongue on the clarinet or saxophone.

    Step 1: Practice creating suction with the tongue, away from the instrument, on a large reed or piece of glass
    Step 2: Practice creating suction with the tongue on the reed with your normal setup, but without forming an embouchure.
    Step 3: Form a normal embouchure and attempt to slap tongue while blowing into the instrument

Learning the action needed to slap tongue without forming an embouchure ensures that you won’t be using the oral cavity to create suction, but that you are doing it correctly — with the tongue. In the video I mention some other helpful hints including using a soft reed, and keeping your tongue farther forward (as if anchor tonguing) and then pulling down. Good luck!

Madera Wind Quintet Call for Scores

By , January 18, 2012

At the end of last year’s performance season, in May of 2011, the members of the Madera Wind Quintet began tossing around the idea of doing a call for scores.  We had just performed a new work commissioned by Sarah Summar and had such a great time doing it, and we had already performed much of the standard quintet literature.  After some discussion, we decided to search for more new quintet works to perform and by July had announced our 2012 Call for Scores. Phase 1 was complete.

Phase 2, organizing all the data from submissions we received and deciding the winners, was more difficult and time-consuming than any of us had imagined!  Rather than two weeks (as we initially scheduled), it took over two months to finish the process.  At the end of it all, we are extremely happy with the winners and can’t wait to perform these works! (Go here to view the list of winners.)

Personally, I learned a great deal from this process.

First, I found out that if you don’t have an entry fee or any limitations on age, nationality, or performance history of the piece, you are bound to get a LOT of submissions!  In our case this was good, as it gave us a lot to choose from, but it also meant we got a lot more bad pieces submitted.

Second, I learned that there is such a thing as “good music” and “bad music,” and it can be universally agreed upon (at least within our group of five).  We all refined our score-reading skills and had great discussions about what we wanted from a quintet piece.  I was surprised (shocked, actually) that there was so little disagreement over which works to eliminate from our consideration and which works eventually emerged as our winners.  It helps that we have been playing together in some form since 2008, and 1.5 years now with the same personnel.  Several of us have quite a bit of experience with new music and helped to guide the discussions.  But mostly we trusted our ears, had a few beers, and worked at it until the job was done!

Third, I learned that there is a lot of great music out there that is undeservedly languishing in obscurity after one or two performances.  Many groups purposefully seek out premieres, requiring that the pieces submitted to their call have never been performed.  We chose not to do this, and in the end we found that all of our selected scores had been performed previously.  It makes sense; most professional composers write with an ensemble in mind or a performance already scheduled.  I am excited that we can bring more attention to the five pieces we chose through our spring performances and upcoming recording project, and hopefully inspire other groups to perform them in the future.

So far our Call for Scores has been an incredible experience, and I highly encourage other performers and ensembles to consider doing such a project.  We now enter Phase 3: Practice and Rehearse!

A Creative Problem-Solving Approach to Instruction

By , July 20, 2011

I came across an article that got me thinking about my teaching philosophy – “The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience” by Andrea Kuszewski.  The article explores research and personal experience about the value of a creative, exploratory approach to learning as opposed to a linear, rote approach.  According to Kuszewski, studies have found that

too much direct instruction—showing a child what to do, rather than letting him figure out the solution himself—can severely affect his ability and/or instinct to independently and creatively solve problems, or to explore multiple potential solutions.

It got me thinking about how I can better create an atmosphere of creative problem-solving in clarinet lessons.  It is so easy, especially as someone with a doctorate in clarinet, to sit there and point out problems and tell students the solutions.  It makes me feel smart, it’s a quick solution, and often the student prefers that approach because they are used to being treated that way in a classroom — the teacher teaches, the students learn, memorize, repeat.

But when I am at my best as a teacher (when I’ve had enough sleep and/or caffeine and haven’t just taught fifteen lessons) and the student is receptive, I push myself to take the path that is more challenging for both of us, but results in deeper learning.  Instead of “You missed the B-flat,” I might ask a series of questions: “Did that sound right to you?  What note sounded wrong?  Why?  What can you do to fix it?”  I usually find that the student can self-correct, and in a way that is much more memorable to them and that they can recreate when practicing on their own.  It also opens up a dialog that allows the students to share ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of — and also to come up with ideas that are flat out wrong.  But according to the article, that’s a good thing:

In this age of innovation, even more important than being an effective problem solver, is being a problem finder. It’s one thing to look at a problem and be able to generate a solution; it is another thing to be able to look at an ambiguous situation, and decide if there is a problem that needs to be solved. That’s a skill that isn’t really targeted by traditional teaching methods, and in fact, it is often discouraged. In order to teach problem finding, more creative methods must be utilized. Rule-breaking , to an extent, should be tolerated and encouraged, and yes—even taught.

Teaching how and when to break rules and take creative risks isn’t a neat and clean process—it can get a little messy, and errors will be made. But we should be aware of this from the beginning and reward smart risk-taking, even if it leads to an error.

Our present economy values creative professionals (programmers, designers, marketing experts) very highly, but our education system is set up to place more importance on rote learning and standardized tests than developing creative problem-solving.  And as the article points out, students taught with an emphasis on creative problem-solving usually do better on standardized tests anyway!  So as a teacher in the arts, I feel especially responsible to lead my students through an exploratory learning process in which they are active participants.  After all, they might not get it anywhere else.

It’s hard, in a half-hour lesson, to take the time to ask open-ended questions, or help a student figure out a rhythm instead of just playing it for them.  But so, so worth it in the long run.

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