You’ll Play The Bass Clarinet.

In this post I thought I should write about the merits of ensemble directors deciding what instruments their students should play. Once again, just as with a few previous posts, I will relate an experience from beginning band class in 2011.

On the third or fourth day of class, whilst everyone else was choosing their instruments, I asked our director what instrument I would play since most people had either already chosen their instruments or were in the process. The director said, just loud enough for me to clearly hear him over several instruments, “You’re playing the bass clarinet.” At that particular moment I was very interested in playing the oboe, but apparently our director had other plans; he had talked me out of the oboe by convincing me that the oboe takes a very long time to develop a good sound. By putting me on the bass clarinet, our director was able to satisfy his desire for a neutral-sounding low-pitched instrument, which the bass clarinet certainly is.

But was our director right to choose an instrument for one of his students with what I perceive to be the ultimate aim of fulfilling his own musical desires? As a former music ed major I think this is one of the most difficult questions to answer, and it may as well result in some very deep divisions within the music education community. Personally, I do not think our director was right to choose my instrument: I think the band would have sounded just as good with, say, a baritone saxophone or even a bassoon, but our director was dead set on the bass clarinet.

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A Bit More About My Musical Instrument Experience

In this post I thought I would follow up my post entitled “A Bit More About Me” by focusing on what musical instruments I have had opportunities to play over the course of my varied musical career, even if many of those opportunities were just one-offs that came up by chance. Here is a list of every musical instrument I’ve played.

Piccolo

Flute

Soprano recorder

Alto recorder

Tenor recorder

Oboe

E-flat clarinet

B-flat clarinet

Bass clarinet

Contra-alto clarinet

Soprano saxophone

Alto saxophone

Tenor saxophone

Baritone saxophone

Bassoon

French horn

Piccolo trumpet

Trumpet

Cornet

Flugelhorn

Tenor horn

Tenor trombone

Bass trombone

Baritone horn

Euphonium

Tuba

Timpani

Other percussion (snare, bass, cymbals etc.)

Harp

Violin

Viola

Cello

Double-bass

Guitar

Piano

Accordion, melodica and harmonica

Pipe organ

Other minor instruments (mbira, banjo, etc.).

As we can see, this list is very diverse, running almost the whole gamut of musical instruments. Keep this lengthy list in mind as you read my future posts about various instruments and topics related to them.

Musical Instrument Accessibility

Here again is yet another unexplored topic in music, and this time it’s musical instruments rather than a musical concept being explored. In particular I would like to present some ideas about how musical instruments could be made more accessible for those with disabilities. And here again I will be reviewing each instrument individually. The instruments I’ll be reviewing are mainly large keyboard instruments, plus maybe a few others if I think they deserve further mention.

The main keyboard instruments I’ll be reviewing here are harpsichord, piano and pipe organ. I listed harpsichord because it’s the most accessible keyboard instrument without some kind of modification: there are no foot pedals to contend with, and the key touch is fairly light for an acoustic keyboard instrument. Another benefit of the harpsichord worth mentioning is that it has a smaller range than the piano (61 keys per keyboard on a harpsichord compared to 88 keys on a piano). Related to the harpsichord is the clavichord, another keyboard instrument whith similar benefits to the harpsichord.

Next up is the piano, the most popular keyboard instrument and the one we all know and love. To make the piano accessible, we would need to modify a few things, the most important being the installation of devices to allow the pedals to be operated by something other than the feet. The easiest way to do this would be to install knee levers but that may not even work. The next option is something completely new and, to my knowledge, untested: elbow levers. That’s right, elbow levers would be used to operate the two or three pedals at the bottom of the piano using rods extending down from the levers to attachment points on the pedals themselves. This modification alone should be enough to make the piano quite accessible.

Finally, to the king of all musical instruments, the pipe organ. The pipe organ would require by far the largest number of modifications. The first order of business would be to move the swell pedals from their current position just above the pedalboard to a position just above the top keyboard. In that position they could be operated by the hands. In either case, the swell pedals serve the same function, controlling the volume of separte sections of the organ by opening and closing boxes with shutters on the front. That’s easy enough, but the next thing to do would be far more difficult: get rid of the pedalboard altogether. As I mentioned, this is almost impossible: pedals have become such an important part of pipe organs and getting rid of them in the name of accessibility would be too musically risky. So as of now with current mainstream technology the only thing we could do with a pipe organ to make it more accessible is to relocate the swell pedals from the pedalboard to just above the keyboards.

Now I will be moving on to other instruments, including timpani, vibraphone, and others. The timpani, known as kettledrum in the singular, are a set of four or five drums roughtly 2 to 2.5 feet across that are in the shape of a bowl. They are played by mallets striking the head of the drums near the edge, producing a particular note depending on the tension of the head and the size of the drum. Timpani have been used by orchestral composers for centuries and they’re the most important percussion instruments in the orchestra. To tune each drum, there is a pedal at the bottom of the drum which is tilted back and for to lower or raise the pitch, not unlike pipe organ swell pedals. To make timpani accessible, one would need to take the same approach as they would with the piano mentioned above, using a device attached to the pedals which would be operated by the player’s elbows.

Remember, this is all theoretical: I have never personally played a piano or organ with any of these modifications, and I am not sure whether piano and organ builders would like to install these devices on their instruments.

A Bit More About Me

In this post I thought I should give readers a bit more information about my musical career and why I started a blog about music.

My musical career began when I was about three years old with instruction from my grandmother in piano and accordion. In fact, it is my grandmother to whom I credit for my musically conservative atitudes. She was born in 1935, and the music and musical traditions she grew up with, and later passed on to me, could go all the way back into the late 1800s. Starting in 2003 I began taking piano lessons with Vencenza Tortolano, with whom I studied for the next three years until August of 2006 when I moved to Florida. It was during my time in Florida, from 2006 to 2015, that some very important changes were to take place in my music life and career. After I moved to Florida, my piano skills which I had built up here in Vermont had regressed: they continued a very slow path of regression until early in 2010. In 2010, at the end of 7th grade, I became very interested in woodwind and brass instruments, an interest of mine which remains with me to this day. I took 1-on-1 clarinet lessons in the 2010-2011 school year, and in 2011 I transferred to public school in Jacksonville, Florida, having attended the Florida School for The Deaf and Blind since 2006. It was in 2011, during my beginning band class and all my subsequent band classes throughout high school, that I would become intimately familiar with the inner workings of ensemble music. Ensemble music still remains a critical part of my musical experience. At the first high school I went to, from 2011 to 2013, I played bass clarinet for the school band, not by my choice but rather by our band director’s choice. I plan on discussing the merits of band director’s instrument choice in a future post so stay tuned. At the end of the 2012-2013 school year this all came to a head when I decided that I either switch instruments or quit band. At that pointt I’d had it with bass parts; I found I was much more content playing melodies in ensemble music. Upon hearing this my mother switched me to our neighborhood school, where my musical career boomed once again: I was out on the marching field playing clarinet with all the other students with the help of a guide, and overall my experience under new musical leadership was much better than my previous band director. What I find particularly interesting is that both directors are Florida State University graduates who play trumpet, and yet they have two very different philosophies: the first director was rigid in his teaching, not being one to venture outside of his comfort zone; the second director, by contrast, was the exact opposite; he was eager to try new ideas, including having a totally blind student (me) march on the field with the rest of the clarinet section. It was these, and many more, positive experiences in his band, that ultimately inspired me to study music education. I graduated from high school with honors in 2015, and went on to study music education at Castleton University in Castleton, Vermont, about a 20-minute drive west of Rutland, where I grew up and where I currently live. Castleton University was upgraded from Castleton State College in the summer of 2015. I completed three semester of a music education degree before dropping out in December 2016, mainly because of the university’s failure to provide the necessary accomodations as a blind student. After leaving Castleton I attend the Community College of Vermont, where I completed an Associates degree in liberal studies in June 2018. During my time at CCV I made an active effort to study as much music as I could on my own, which I credit for keeping my musical career from completely stagnating during my hiatus in official music studies. And starting either this fall or coming spring I hope to resume my music studies at the new Northern Vermont University Johnson campus. Northern Vermont University is a July 2018 merger of the former Johnson State College (in Johnson, Vermont), and Lyndon State College in Lyndonville, Vermont.

My motivation for starting this blog came from two major sources. My first major source of inspiration was Brett Newton and his work with his Web site, found at http://www.bandestration.com. As the name suggests, he is a composer, and his site is filled with information which is useful in composing for band. My second major source of inspriation for this blog was a blog workshop which I attend in Burlington as part of a paid internship camp for blind high school and college students. I brought the two sources of inspiration together in my mind and within three days of returning home from the camp I had the blog started.

My Thoughts On Popular Music

As a followup to my post entitled,”What It Means To Be Musically Conservative,” I thought I might want to expound my thoughts and feelings about popular music. I’ll be straight to the point by saying this: the pop music being produced today that most people listen to isn’t real music. To understand this it is helpful to understand the four most important elements of music: pitch, dynamics, timbre and rhythm. Pitch refers to the highness or lowness of notes. Dynamics describes how loud or soft those notes are. Timbre, as I have mentioned in previous posts, describes the tonal color of musical instruments or voice. Rhythm is a regular pattern of note duration in a piece of music. So how do those concepts apply to pop music? If you turn on the radio, you will likely find that pop music is almost all rhythm and not much else. There is no dynamics, little variation in timbre, and the range pitches is rather small. This is compared to popular music of the middle of the last century. Since the 1970s musical elements have slowly been disappearing from pop music, and sooner or later either one of two events will occur, or both: an uprising against this nonmusical music, which may have the effect of shutting down the producers of all this rubbish, or the music becomes so simple that it’s nothing but a single sustained tone. Personally, I’d want an uprising in defense of old music before pop music becomes as simple as saw waves.

Why The Guitar And Not The Harp?

In this post I would like to explore something in music that I am calling “small accompaniment.” This uniquely Ericksonian concept is defined by me as the accompaniment of a single voice or instrument by another instrument, and 9 times out of 10 the accompanying instrument is a guitar. But Why? It should be the harp, and here are some reasons. The harp has a wider range than the guitar. The guitar has a range from E2 to C6 or D6; the harp (and here I’m using a 34-stringed instrument) has a range from C2 to A6. That difference in range may not seem significant, but it can be. Another benefit of the harp is, because of the many additional strings, the harp can play chords with more notes, and, therefore, a larger spread between the lowest and highest notes of individual chords. In many respects this isn’t too different from the piano, which has similar musical benefits. If this doesn’t convince musicians to rethink their instrument choices for small accompaniment, I don’t know what will.

What It Means To Be Musically Conservative

In this post I would like to explore yet another untouched topic, and that is to answer the question, “What does it mean to be musically conservative?” In order to determine whether you or your friends and family are musically conservative, you should ask yourself a few important questions.

What time period and/or style of music has had the greatest impact on my musical experience?

What musical instrument or instruments do I most enjoy playing or listening to? Moreover, am I very particular about how I expect those instruments to be played?

If you answered yes to all of these questions then it’s safe to call yourself musically conservative. Before I go any further I should mention that the word conservative is about much more than politics. In fact, the words “conservation” and “conservative” are derived form the same root.

Now let’s explore my own answers to those questions listed above.

What period and/or style has had the greatest impact on my musical experience? Anything from Renaissance to late Romantic, so from about 1500 to 1900.

What musical instruments do I most enjoy playing or listening to? Anything in the orchestra or concert band (violin, viola, cello, double-bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone family, bassoon, trumpet, horn, trombone, baritone horn, euphonium, tuba, timpani), plus pipe organ and harp. Am I particular about how I expect those instruments to be played? Yes, especially those instruments that I play often, such as saxophone. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the saxophone was invented in the 1840s, which makes it a Romantic-era instrument. I expect players of the saxophone family to conform to the original toanl ideals of Adolphe Sax himself: a mellow timbre which can blend wwith every other instrument in the orchestra or concert band.

So, based on these questions, I, Chad Erickson, declare myself a musical conservative. But are you musically conservative? Answer the questions list above to find out.