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The Urban School Winter Concert

15 Dec

Elena "Harmonica" Goldstein

…was totally great!  I thought I’d put up a couple pictures (thanks Howard and Audrey!) and write a little bit about it. I teach jazz at The Urban School of San Francisco, which is a really groovy small private high school in the Haight-Ashbury district.  The ensemble I direct is the younger of two jazz bands, called the Lab Band.

Twice a year, we get to take all of our ensembles (the small chamber ensemble, the Urban Singers, my band, and the Advanced Jazz Band) and do a show at the historic Herbst Theatre on Van Ness.  It’s pretty nutbars that we get to play such a great venue, but each year, it’s felt more and more like my kids have earned their place on that stage. This year was no exception.

I do a lot of writing for my group – for this concert, as with the last two, I arranged all three of the tunes we played.  It’s a really big part of ensemble directing, for me, and I think that having the ability to write specifically to my players’ disparate ability levels goes a long way towards getting the most out of them in performance.  I actually wrote a whole post about my approach after last year’s truly outstanding spring concert.

This year, I have my biggest Band yet (like, they actually almost qualify as a “Big Band”), and I honestly couldn’t believe how well they did – mainly because of my own slow writing process. One of the downsides of writing original arrangements for the group is that  they have to wait until I finish one before we can really learn it.  This year, that meant that my final arrangement for “It Don’t Mean a Thing” dropped on them two weeks before the concert… we’d been playing iterations of the chart, each one with a bit more than the last, but were sill just finalizing things a few days before the show.

And keep in mind, this band has a bunch of students who just started on their instruments!  So, we’ve got trombone and saxophone players trying to digest this part in a matter of days, when they still don’t know how to play all the notes on their instruments… and the ridiculous thing is that they pulled it off! I’m amazed at the resourcefulness.  If the entire year could be as focused and productive as the two weeks before a performance, I can’t even imagine how much we could accomplish.  Maybe the moral here is to perform more often?

Anyhow, they rocked the thunder, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. In addition to “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” we played an arrangement I did of “Summertime” that riffed off of Gil Evans’ famous arrangement for Miles Davis, substituting harmonica for Miles’ harmon mute.  We closed with a funky-ish version of “In Walked Bud.”  Throughout the set, the kids didn’t miss a single beat.

I’m planning on sitting down over the coming holiday break and banging out all of our charts for the spring, as well as one for the Advanced Band, and I really want to take my time with it and get the most out of this huge, great group. Also, this will be our chance to get as weird as possible – clapping is old hat these days, so I think we’ll do some whistling, if I can figure out how to notate it…

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Published!

24 Oct

GuitCoverToday we enter a new chapter in the ongoing love affair between yours truly and the wonderful Acoustic Guitar Magazine. After doing a few smaller articles for them, I’ve gotten my first “30-minute lesson” published!

It’s a much more in-depth article than the previous “practicing” pieces I’ve written (which are here and here, if you’re interested). I even recorded several examples for the online version of the article – the whole thing is just very cool.

It’s always been fun to try to tailor my instructional style to fit a different instrument (the guitar) and a different kind of student (the adult hobbyist), while imparting some fairly advanced techniques.  In this article specifically, I’m trying to demonstrate how to take a lengthy passage and methodically break it down in order to learn it.

That sort of “how to practice” stuff is tough to teach, but is far easier to get across to adults than it is to the younger students I work with.  Slowing things down and approching them in a measured manner is something that requires maturity, and it’s much easier to convince adult students that it’s necessary.  So, hopefully the article will help some folks!

Last note: it is a bitch editing something that references so many “examples.”  It’s even harder when there are various “sections” of those examples that also need to be referenced.  One of the most difficult things about writing generalized instructional articles (in any field, really), seems to be getting all of the jargon mashed down to something manageable.  Dan Apczynski, (that’s right, the Dan Apczynski) was a fantastic editor, and also wrote the cover story for the issue – a really outstanding interview with Dave Matthews.

Check it out, it’s really good stuff!

30ML_Ex1_AG204

You, too, can learn how to play this.

Increasingly Glee-Full

15 Oct

GleeHello!  Thought I’d return from that brief (very relaxing) break from posting with a little bit about Glee – the show that everyone loves, or at least loves to talk about.  I just read Joe R’s outstanding TWoP-style recap of last week’s episode (Oh, how I long for the days when I had time to read TWoP every day!), and it got me thinking about the show some more.

Back when the pilot aired in the Spring, I wasn’t entirely sold. To briefly recap my thoughts, I felt like the show was all over the place, and wasn’t clear in what it was going for – “Election”-style black humor, “Bring it On”-style wackiness, or full-on “High School Musical” melodrama and spontaneous singing?  What’s more, the pacing felt bananas and the writing was all over the place.

Well, now that we’re seven episodes in (though I haven’t yet seen this week’s episode), and I thought it’d be worth sharing that Glee has utterly won me over.  They’ve been steadily upping their game comedically, deciding on and evening out the show’s tone, and figuring out what, exactly, the show is about.  I’ve enjoyed each episode a little bit more than the last, and at this point, I find myself looking forward to wednesdays every week.  Hooray!

It’s still not perfect – there are still some clunker jokes in there, and the auto-tuning on the musical numbers can get pretty brutal (particularly during the girls’ Halo/Sunshine mash-up last week – Rachel’s last note sounded like a computer shrieking at me.  Angrily).

But I’m stoked that Jane Lynch is finally getting the props she deserves.  Honestly, I can’t keep track of how many times I’ve heard/read the phrase “The show is hit or miss for me, but I love Jane Lynch so much that I’ll watch regardless.”  Though now that the showrunners seem to be aware that she’s a standout,  I am a little worried that they’re going to overexpose her, you know?

Jane Lynch Sue Sylvester Treadmill Glee

I haven’t seen this week’s episode (when Sue comes in and co-leads the Glee club), so I can’t speak to it, but I’m hoping that they can begin to develop the character a bit. That’d be great, and I bet Lynch would rock it. I’m  not suggesting that the show add a sympathetic backstory or a developmentally-disabled nephew or something, but a little depth would go a long way. If the role is just going to be more takes on the “Terrifying, manly cougar who is hilariously confident” role that Lynch does so well, it could get stale.

Then again, who am I kidding?  I’d tune in just to watch her berate cheerleaders while on the treadmill.

So anyway, the show has totally got me.  It’s frequently hilarious, and aside from the way they make the vocals sound, the music is really great.  That Bon Jovi/Usher mashup was legit, man – super clever way to mix the tunes together.  I respect the choice to not go with Livin’ on a Prayer, too (even though it is the exact same song as “It’s My Life”), since the latter tune worked better with Finn’s theme and story.

And more than anything, Glee just has so many moments that crack me up, and jokes that hit home, seeing as how I do spend a good amount of time teaching music to teenagers.  Also, last week’s episode may have featured my favorite exchange in a while:

Glee Mash-Up Definition 1

WILL: "Here's the deal: Two teams, Boys vs. Girls. One week from today, you will each perform a 'mash-up' of your choice."

Glee Mash-Up Definition 2

PUCK: "What's a... Mash-up?"

Glee Mash-Up Definition 3

WILL: "A 'Mash-up' is when you take two songs and you mash them together to create an even richer Explosion of Musical Expression."

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KIRK: (Falls out of chair laughing)

The Many Hats of The Substitute Teacher

1 Jun
multiple-hats

Hello, class.

One of the many perks of working at The Urban School is that I get to sub there pretty much whenever I want to.  My jazz band only meets a few hours a week, so anytime that my class isn’t meeting, I’m free to cover for the other teachers at school. It’s a lot easier and cheaper for the school to just pay an in-house teacher to sub, rather than going to an outside agency.

It’s a total win-win – it pays well, and I get a ton of work done. What’s more, I get to help out the other teachers while hanging out with some of the kids who aren’t in jazz band, as well as spending some non-rehearsal time with the ones who are.

When I’m subbing, the sheer variety of hats that I get to wear any given week is totally awesome.  A sampling:

The Science Hat

docbrownBy now, the science teachers at Urban pretty much know that I’m not going to be able to teach anything of substance to the kids, so I mostly just hang out and guide them through whatever cool/weird project they’re working on. The labs at urban are really cool, and it’s fun to get to spend some time in them.  What’s more, Urban offers a neurobiology class, which kind of blows my mind.  Then there are the more random science-y happenings… for example, the other week, a kid came into class with a dead snake that he’d found in the road and proceeded to dissect it.  Aah, high school.

The Math Hat

mathletics_trucker_hat-p148862420337032437q02g_400See above re: teachers realizing that I am not an expert in the field I am subbing.  Urban has some really, really great math instructors, (they actually make me wish I could have studied at this level when I was in high school). If I had, maybe I would have been better-equipped to actually teach something when I sub math!  As it stands, I’ve frequently had to give out quizzes in these classes, and there is nothing quite like the petrified, blank expression I give when they come to me mid-quiz, distressed, and ask, “So, for 6a, should we assume that the triangle is isoceles?”  My answer is usually along the lines of “Does it seem like that’s what you should do? Yeah? Then yes.”

History Hair

powdered-wigAnother subject in which Urban excels is history.  In addition to offering standard world and American history, the school offers things like a 20th-century “America Transformed” class and a San Francisco-specific course.  I always have fun subbing these classes, and usually have something substantive (or at least substantive-sounding) to add to the discussion, which is nice.  Most recently, I got to tell a student that there is no “turn of the 19th century,” that there is an end and a beginning to a specific century, and that the century itself is what turns.  So, it’s only “turn of the century.” Am I talking out of my ass? Does that sound right?

The English Bowler

english_bowler_hatThis is where I get into dangerous territory, since I am a pretty awesome pretend English teacher. Only pretend, mind you, but I can bullshit with the best of ’em.  And when I sub, particularly for Shakespeare class, I totally want to teach as much as possible.  So, when the class is discussing the ins and outs of King Lear, I’m so down to tell them all about how the word “Bear” turns up so many times, because it’s Lear’s totem animal, or about the blindness theme, or whatever. Also, I recently got to watch a film version of that play with Bilbo Baggins as Lear.  Creative writing classes are also really, really fun – so much drama!

The Spanish Sombrero

sombreroEveryone is learning Spanish these days, though for whatever reason, I learned French.  And not really even that well.  I should probably have taken the time to pick up some basic Spanish vocab when I was, you know, living in effing Miami for four years, but, I didn’t. Sigh. One of our Spanish teachers in particular has me sub quite a bit, but always (jokingly) laments to his class that I don’t speak the language. “Aah, Kirk.  ¡Él es músico!” Hee.

The French Beret

best-black-beret1Aah, French – a class I really love to sub.  Not only do our French teachers let us watch some downright crazy animated shorts (I also managed to sneak in the Flight of the Conchords’ “Foux de fa fa,” heh), the classes are always really cool, and take me back to my own experiences in high school.  I’m actually subbing a French class as I write this… they’re learning the subjunctive and getting ready for their final.

And you know, thinking about that, watching the students prepare for their calculus and French finals, take notes on videos, and turn in test recycles… I guess the best thing about all of the subbing hats I wear is that at the end of the day, I can just take them off, hang them safely on the rack, and go play the piano, hat-free.

Overture to the Royal Mongolian Suma Foosball Festival

18 May
38476409_920db175de

No one's ever off-sides, huh?

Last week, I wrote a post detailing some basic techniques I use when writing for student ensembles.  The last item on the list, and possibly the most important, was “Always Do Something Awesome.”  This year, my band’s “something awesome” was a re-arrangement of a Lyle Mays tune called “Overture to the Royal Mongolian Suma Foosball Festival.”

Today, I learned that apparently, “Suma Foosball” is a real thing – ten people line up on either side of a large foosball table and take each other on.  Which sounds.. well… awesome! In an effort to learn more about it, I googled “Suma Foosball,” and while I didn’t find anything but references to the Mays tune, I did come across a recently-uploaded YouTube video of a performance of the piece.  For the longest time, it was impossible to find a recording of that song online, so it’s great that it’s up now!

It’s a pretty fun version, performed by the Karlis Vanagas Big Band – they sound great!  The arrangement is the original one (no wah-wah violins, harmonicas, or string quartet breakdowns here), but it still gives a pretty fun demonstration of what makes the tune so cool.

Check it out:

Arranging: Writing for Student Ensembles

6 May
kirk-lab-band

Good Times.

This past Sunday, my band at The Urban School of San Francisco gave our Spring concert, and it was, by all accounts, a crashing success.  The group I direct there is the beginning group, dubbed the “Lab Band” – the idea is that students develop their skills in my band before graduating to the Advanced Band, led by Urban’s head jazz director, Scott Foster.  This kind of hierarchical setup works really well, both in motivating students to improve, so that they can move up, and allowing those who are just starting out on their instruments not to feel overwhelmed in the early goings.

And believe me, we have a LOT of students who are just starting out on their instruments.  A good number of kids arrive at Urban with musical training, but most of them play rhythm section instruments – guitar, piano, drums, or bass.  In order to keep our jazz program functioning, it’s necessary to get kids to switch to horns – brass is in the highest demand, but sax is also cool.  Scott is really good at convincing the students to switch – once they’re on new instruments, my challenge is to keep then engaged on the new axe long enough to get a hang of playing it.  We’ve been doing a good job of retaining students each year, and as a result, our program’s depth belies the small size of our student body.

I’ve found that the best way to get the most out of everyone is to do my own arrangements for the group for each performance.  This is made all the more necessary by the fact that my group is increasingly filled out by non-standard instrumentation (this year, we’ve got marimba, violin, flute, and harmonica).  By using a few tricks to keep the parts accessible, as well as writing to the strengths of each individual musician, I’ve had great success leading the group through performances of challenging, exciting repertoire that, without the creative re-arrangements, we’d never have been able to play.

I thought I’d share a few basic concepts and tricks that I use.

1. Write to Your Players’ Strengths

This one maybe goes without saying, but the most important thing in arranging for student groups is to get familiar with the skill level of each of your players and write to that level.  It worked for Duke, right?  In my band this year, I have a really strong sax section, particularly my lead alto player, while my brass section are all in their first or second years on the instruments.  The trick was to write challenging material for the saxes while giving the brass just enough to keep them engaged and improving, but to focus their material on pads and long tones so that they could get better at playing in tune.  For example – in our winter concert, I put together an arrangement of “In A Mellow Tone” that featured a notey, tricky sax soli, accompanied by punchy brass hits and pads.  It went off without a hitch.

2. Don’t Be Afraid of Unison

tank

The high school set's most-adored minor blues.

Last year, we performed Yoko Kano’s “Tank!”, the opening song from the anime series Cowboy Bebop.  That tune is burning fast, and features some really fast-fingering from the reeds.  The band pulled it off with aplomb, and a big reason was the amount of unison in the arrangement.  When arranging for a professional big band, I would usually use a good deal more complex and cross-sectional voicings, even on a tune as harmonically simple as “Tank!”. For the Lab Band, however, I found that by putting the lower voicings in unison with the lead, we got a pretty massive sound on the melody, and the less well-seasoned players could hear their parts played throughout the band by the lead players.

3. Only Feature Your Strongest Soloists

There is a tendency in jazz band to want to feature everyone – I try to stay away from that, featuring only my best soloists, players who have been on their instruments for a long time and feel comfortable getting up and improvising.  The end result of this is that our performance never drags, and the younger players don’t have to feel stressed, nervous, or forced to solo.  What’s more, new instrumentalists have something to shoot for, someone to listen to and emulate, and can feel confident in tackling their role in the performance.  Rehearsal is a totally different story – that’s when it’s good to get kids improvising and letting lose, but on stage, I tend to leave it to the players who are actually comfortable being in the spotlight.

4. Gradually Increase Brass Ranges Over Time

watermelon-man-marimba1

Groovy.

One potential pitfall inherent in writing for individual players is that they’re never challenged.  That is to say, the upside of this technique is that they always sound good, but the downside is that the material is never something that they have to reach for, or work hard to be able to perform.  This is something that I’m addressing slowly, and really trying to get a handle on – I’m in my fifth year directing at Urban, and am only now getting a feel for the progression that I should be fostering, particularly for my brass players.

I usually start kids out playing easy, low tones – both trumpet and trombone players don’t get anything above a written C (trumpets in the middle of the staff, Trombone above the staff).  By the end of their first year, trumpet players should be comfortably up above D in the staff, maybe even up to G; second years past G to A’s and B-flats (always good for those #9 voicings in a G blues).  Trombonists don’t need to focus on their range as much as just increasing their mobility; I don’t try to push it too far above the clef, instead focusing on adding some eighth-note runs to my arrangements later in the year.

5. Always Do Something Awesome

mongolian-snapshot

The name says it all.

Maybe this one also goes without saying, but everyone wants to do something rad onstage.  Students will learn jazz, learn the language, and challenge themselves, but they’ll only want to do it (and you’ll only really have a good time directing them) if you make sure that every concert, they get to do something that is awesome.  Not “Wow, we are playing this jazz standard quite well” awesome, but actually awesome.  My (amazing) high school band director, Janis Stockhouse, had this down to a science.  In fact, my “something awesome” for this past concert was a chart that I got from her, Lyle Mays’ “Overture to the Royal Mongolian Suma Foosball Festival.”

I re-arranged the tune specifically for my group, making it into a violin feature and adding a string quartet, borrowing some players from the Urban Chamber Ensemble.  It was a real showstopper, in no small part because the chart was tailored very specifically to the strengths of my players. But really, more than anything else, the reason that the tune went off so well was because, well, that song is awesome.  Past arrangements of “Watermelon Man” (featuring a ripping harmonica solo and a groovy marimba/vibes/pizzo strings intro), Seu George’s “Carolina,” and the aforementioned “Tank!” were also galvanizing tunes that made everyone, myself included, want to put in the extra work to really kick ass.

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I’m planning on coming up with a more coherent, detailed, and easily-implemented method for this type of arranging, but those five basic ideas are a start.  I’m sure that some of the more prolific arrangers of student-oriented charts (Mark Taylor and Gordon Goodwin come to mind) have a plethora of their own techniques, as well, and I am very interested in finding out if they’ve written at all on the subject.

I think this sort of approach is a big deal. The explosion of interest in jazz education, coupled with the high-level arranging training at the disposal of today’s jazz educators, make it clear that while pre-fab Kendor charts will always be a worthwhile (and time-saving) resource for jazz educators, we and our students stand to gain far more by creating original arrangements, tailored to the strengths of the individual musicians in our bands.  Time is, of course, a huge factor for full-time band directors, but a possible work-around would be for directors to hire local arrangers to write music specifically for their student groups.  We’re out here, and we’re surprisingly affordable!

Used creatively and with an eye (and ear) for our students’ abilities, ensemble-specific arrangements allow jazz educators to awaken young instrumentalists to the joys of musical performance while helping them to improve and prosper regardless of their prior level of  musical training.

me-and-the-lab-band

An Article That Wasn’t Published

1 Dec

I’d like to share an instructional article that I came up with for Acoustic Guitar Magazine – I’ve had a few pieces published in the magazine, courtesy of the amazing Dan Apczynski, and this one, concerning techniques for breaking down, rephrasing, and re-assembling tricky sections in a song, was a bit too complicated.  A paired-down version of the article will be in a forthcoming issue, but I wanted to use this space to share the unedited, slightly more complicated version.  After the break:

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