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Piers Adams of Red Priest: Workshop notes

Piers Adams of Red Priest: Workshop notes

I recently had the pleasure attending a workshop with the amazing recorder soloist Piers Adams, which was sponsored by the Edmonton Recorder Society while Red Priest was in town. This was my third workshop with Piers Adams over the course of several years in a variety of locations. The man is a force of nature as far as recorder playing is concerned – I have nothing but admiration for his command of the instrument and the way he fully embraces the expressive and improvisational philosophy of Baroque music. It was fascinating to hear many of the same things that he had said in previous workshops, but distilled by more years of experience. I took copious notes, and here they are:

Piers Adams Workshop – Edmonton Recorder Society March 3, 2017

Details! – this is the 10% that takes you from amateur to pro.

Breathing:

  • It is all from the diaphragm
  • Relaxation is a baseline state – use sparks of tension for effects, then return to relaxation
  • One hand on chest and one on belly – you should feel action in the belly when breathing, not in the chest (can also lie down with book on belly)

Blowing:

  1. deep sigh with loose lips – place recorder on lips – explore and experiment with single note: no articulation, start strong and allow decay to go flat
  2. repeat “sigh” note with crescendo & diminuendo – go for shape and let the pitch change
  3. repeat – stop blowing when you hear the more start to go flat
  4. repeat – open your mouth at the end of the note to release air before going flat

Now go to the music – just air, no articulation:

  1. play first note as a “sigh” note, with cresc & dim, hold for length of phrase
  2. then move your fingers to hear the whole melody
  3. add a slight push of air on the downbeat of each bar (go back to single note)
  4. add fingers back in – feel slight stress on downbeat from extra push of air
  5. for complete control of phrase shape, refer to handout of methodical possibilities over 8 beats

Contrast a straight air stream with shaping air & punchy bits

Make the air shape the phrase the way you want it – then use alternate fingerings to correct any pitch problems. Do not compromise your phrasing or play tentatively because you are afraid of going out of tune.

Now add articulation:

  1. go back to the first note – just play the rhythm of the phrase with articulation using only the first pitch
  2. “breath is the engine of the articulation” – a slight push of air through the tongue action will be reflected in a slight puff of the cheeks
  3. softest articulation is “n” (try no-no or do-no, pinching your nose so you sound like you have a cold)
  4. then add the fingers for the various pitches once you have your articulation going on one note
  5. then consider where you want TuDu (or DuNo for the softest possible articulation)
  • in TD, TDD, TDDD, the Tu “spawns” any number of Dus.
  • For pick-ups, put Tu on the anacrusis and Du on the downbeat.
  • “Tu” is a very strong articulation, favoured by some performers. Others prefer using mostly “Du” or “No”, and using push of air from diaphragm to give added strength when desired. These are schools of thought  / personal preference.
  • for staccato, “nut” with a quick open mouth on the “t”
  • accents are created with air, not tongue
  • slap tongue on bass: “t” beatbox style + “hoo” of air = practice separately then connect
  1. Double tonguing: KuGu is a softer version of TuDu. On upbeats: KD ,TGD, KDGD, TGDGD
  2. consider how air flows through the articulation
  • is there a separation?
  • does following note start instantly after tail of previous note?
  • allowing previous note to droop in pitch slightly before next note starts is OK, also accents that create a moment of sharpness – average pitch is good, these are shape moments, not poor intonation moments
  • playing in jazz styles – pitch bends and fall-offs are part of the style – relax and be jazzy (Slow Fox piece is excellent for working on this)
  • does previous not give a little push back up before the articulation? (not desired)
  1. in Renaissance music, the phrase structure is often Q / A followed by a short “tail”, which can be played staccato.

Vibrato

  • Is an ornament or an aid to phrase shaping, not a mask for poor intonation.
  • most vibratos are to much above the pitch and not enough below
  • practice going below the pitch so far the sound cuts out completely

Fingers

  • baseline relaxed position – recorder supported (thumbrest recommended), fingers pressing holes, then relaxed until they are just able to seal the air
  • action is a quick flick up, as precise as flicking a wad of paper across the room, then instantly return to relaxed position
  • other fingers remain relaxed – no tensing in response to surrounding action
  • no snatching at notes – that makes tension – go slowly with very quick actions between notes – wait, and then very precise
  • fingers hanging over edge are ore relaxed than fingers curved to use tip on hole – middle fingers can be more forward to do this
  • exercise – pick 2 notes at random, alternate working on precise finger action with no tension in fingers that aren’t moving – add a third note, then a fourth, etc. Random patterns good prep for contemporary music.
  • when drilling technical spots, make sure you are also doing the nuance as well as the action

Thinking

  • mental focus = precision
  • there is a tempo when you can do it with no errors

Slurs

  • in new music for recorder, feel free to break up long slurs with legato articulations – composers do not often fully understand the instrument
  • slur up = mouth shape oh-ee (feel like you are whistling the high note)

Printable PDF of above notes

Longer lesson or more practice?

Where should I spend my time?

I recently had a parent ask me if she could pay for a longer lesson time. This surprised me for two reasons:

  1. Parents are usually trying to find the most inexpensive way to get music instruction, not looking for ways to make it cost more!
  2. The student was not at a level where I usually recommend a longer lesson in order to cover the amount of material.

So I began to think:

  • This parent obviously values the time I spend with her child in the lesson.
  • Because the child is still very young, we spend a certain amount of lesson time drilling spots to establish physical coordination and kinaesthetic memory.
  • If the parent took the extra lesson time that she wanted to purchase from me, and spent it doing a few more repetitions in a slightly longer daily practice, then the student would not need to do so many repetitions in the lesson.
  • This would leave more lesson time available to introduce new things.
  • Therefore, it would be more economical for the parent and more enjoyable for the student to increase their practice time instead of their lesson time.

That was the best solution in this case. But when do we need to increase the length of the lesson?

  • When the student has prepared the practice assignment well, but we run out of time in the lesson to hear everything that was assigned.
  • When we have enough time in the lesson to hear a well prepared practice assignment, but we run out of time to include a necessary next step (such as music reading, or scales, or supplementary study material).
  • When the student and his family struggle with finding enough time to practice consistently, and cannot come to the lesson with the practice assignment prepared well enough to leave time for anything else. In this case, their lesson may be the only time in the week when they can focus on their practice points for enough time to be able to notice improvements. So instead of teaching the same lesson over and over for many months, we can create some slow steady progress by ensuring at least one careful practice session each week as part of the lesson.
  • When a student’s learning style is such that she just needs a bit more time in order to absorb the necessary information. This is where a teacher needs to examine her approach to the lesson. Sometimes this situation is better dealt with by teaching in smaller steps rather than increasing the lesson length. (This approach can also help when there are economic barriers to lengthening a student’s lesson.)

So my equation for lesson length calculations might look something like this:

L(Lesson length) P(practice assignment assessment) T(time available for new material)

When T = 0 then we need to make the lesson longer

P is affected by two things:

  1. effectiveness of student home practice
  2. efficiency of teacher’s practice assignment

Changing the value of P can allow more to be accomplished in a short lesson before it needs to become longer.

Baroque flute lessons

I finally acquired an inexpensive Aulos baroque flauto traverso pitched at a=415. I have been wanting to do this for some time, in order to have an instrument that I can loan out to interested students. These instruments are not readily available  – I only acquired my handmade instrument after playing an order with an instrument maker and waiting for two years. Now that mass production instruments are available, I can offer the experience of playing a period instrument along with the performance practice instruction I provide when teaching the Bach, Handel, and Blavet sonatas to my older students.

My first student to try the instrument was featured on the Edmonton Suzuki Flute and Recorder Society fall chamber music concert. We are playing a duet by Hotteterre – she is playing the Aulos flute, which is a copy of a Stanesby Junior in plastic, and I am playing my boxwood Rottenburgh copy by Rod Cameron. She is also reading from a facsimile of the original publication, which is in french violin clef.

“Perhaps it is music that will save the world.”

“Perhaps it is music that will save the world.” 

Pablo Casals said this, after hearing the students of the Talent Education movement in Japan, April 1961. 

I write this on Remembrance Day. This is a day when I reflect on the effects of war. Not just to appreciate the sacrifices and commitment of the military, but also to remember how war and other acts of violence affect civilians. In my immediate family, we count both WWII veterans and WWII refugees, people who have given me personal stories about their war experience.  Some years I am thankful for movements towards peace in the world, and other years I am worried when events start to look similar to past events that foreshadowed future conflict.

This year, my student groups met to rehearse on the evening before November 11. I was thinking about Remembrance Day, and following current events, and hoping for a peaceful future for my students. This brought to mind what Pablo Casals said to Shinichi Suzuki after hearing a student performance: “Perhaps music can save the world.” So I took a moment with each class to speak to the students. This is what I said:

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day. On this day, there are certain things that we do to remind ourselves about past wars and our hope for future peace. This reminded me of what Pablo Casals said to Dr. Suzuki: “Perhaps music can save the world.”

Think about this, and think about what we are doing here tonight.

  • We are listening carefully to each other.
  • We are taking turns, alternating between leading and supporting each other.
  • We are anticipating what our colleagues are trying to do, and helping them achieve it.
  • We listen respectfully to suggestions to improve the performance of our group.
  • We are flexible, and often try different solutions before we solve a problem.
  • We share the same goals.
  • We are cooperating to create something beautiful and expressive.

Do you think, if our world leaders all did these things too, our world would be a better place?

We are not world leaders. Some of you may grow up to become one! But what we can all do here and now, is take what we do in our group class, and use it to make our own small corner of the world a better place. Take this thought with you tomorrow, for Remembrance Day.

Am I a “music vendor”?  No. I am a Suzuki teacher. 

I was recently called a “music vendor” by a school administrator who was searching for a term to describe the music teachers that were on the school’s referral list for lessons. But in my years of work as a  Suzuki teacher and member of many Suzuki organizations, I don’t think I have ever actually sold anyone any music. Thinking about why I disagreed with this term, though, was very helpful in clarifying my thoughts about what it is I do.

What I offer is a relationship with a family and a student that can be longer and deeper than any other teacher. A child can start with me at birth in the Suzuki Early Childhood Education class, take lessons on an instrument starting at age 3, and continue until they graduate from high school, or even continue into college if they wish to continue with advanced study or teacher training. No public school teacher can offer the gift of such a long term relationship with a child that also includes the parents.

It is the Suzuki training that gives me the skills and resources to enter into a relationship with a child and family so early, to best take advantage of the enormous amount of learning that can take place in early childhood. It is the Suzuki training that allows me to maintain that relationship with strong long term goals and the tools to present those goals in easily attained small steps. And it is the Suzuki training that develops independence through aural learning, so that the affirmation of achievement and goals eventually comes from within the students’ own experience, not from extrinsic motivation.

Yes, I do charge a fee for lessons. Until we have the utopian moneyless society depicted in Star Trek, I need to use money as a form of exchange in order obtain the necessities for living, including the time I require to devote to my students. And yes, that fee is set based on an average number of lessons or weeks of teaching in a year. But a lesson is more than just a set number of minutes alone with your teacher. A lesson can also be a performance, a rehearsal, a class, a workshop, an ensemble, or any other opportunity to experience the expressive and communicative power of the music you create.

I feel that it is my duty as a teacher to provide as many varied opportunities of this nature as possible. Not all of my students will be able to take advantage of all of them, but making them available is part of what my lesson fee provides. Some years some students may have many opportunities for extra learning, and other years some students may have fewer. But the choices will always be available, and if we all take the long term view of our teacher/student/family relationship, it will all work out evenly over time.

This is why I have stopped tracking the number of lessons for each student. I will teach for a set number of weeks, and offer several “extra lesson days” for those who need to reschedule. Those who take advantage of the extra lesson days  may end up with more lessons than those who choose not use them. Rehearsals, recitals, festivals, workshops, chamber ensembles, masterclasses, and groups are all included in the ongoing lesson experience. Students who attend these events will learn more than those who do not attend. Student families who are actively engaged with what I provide will get their “money’s worth” out of their fee, more so than by counting the number of lessons or the length of each lesson.

So if you want to go to a “music vendor”, and buy a set number of lesson minutes, go to a different teacher, not me. But if you want a long term relationship with a mentor who will provide you with many opportunities to grow through music, let’s get started!