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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Smashing Tomatoes (Teaching Tip)

Smashing tomatoes? No we are not going to talk about a crazy rock band, a newfangled way of making tomato sauce, or a technique to dice tomatoes. I share with you a teaching tip that I gleaned from one of my favorite conductors many years ago.

Craig Hella Johnson, the music director of the Conspirare choir, once related an image to the orchestra. Imagine a line of tomatoes, evenly spaced apart, that stretches before you. Now imagine that you are on a pogo stick, and your mission is to land smack dab in the center of each tomato in the line. Off you go.

For me, this tomato and pogo stick image is one of the best ways to describe "vertical" playing. What I mean by vertical playing is that the musician places every single note "vertically" on a music score. In other words, each note is set exactly dead center of the beat or beat subdivision. Of course we can create this same sensation through the use of a metronome set to beat subdivisions, but many young students lack the ability to use the metronome in this manner effectively.

The pogo stick and tomato image works very well for these types of students. I ask them what would happen if they did not hit the tomatoes dead center, and I get such responses as, "I would squirt tomato juice all over myself," or "I would make a mess!"  Yes, exactly so. And then when I ask the students to play the particular passage in question again as if they were on a pogo stick smacking the tomatoes dead center, I hear an entirely different result from my students. I hear very exact rhythmic placement.

I think of this vertical playing as a default position, which means that I strive for this sort of rhythmic precision and perfection in everything that I learn to play. However, I understand that there will be times when I or a conductor wish the illusion to be that I am playing more horizontally, in that I may be leaning forward in my tempo and rhythmic playing and weighting things perhaps a little differently rhythmically to create that horizontal illusion.

However, I find that most students seem to have this innate ability already, and the vertical precision is what is more difficult.

Next time your students play with a little less precision then you wish, give the smashing tomatoes image a try.

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2016 by Paula E. Bird

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