Mark Catoe

Piano, saxophone, flute, & clarinet player living in Charlotte, NC.
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In the most common band method books, there is this general approach to getting clarinet players to cross the break: 

  1. Play notes up to A in the staff, working down to low F and E below the staff. 
  2. Add the register key to these low notes, maybe playing a few melodies that stay above the break. 
  3. Play melodies requiring the change from A in the middle of the staff, up a second, to B across the break. 

It seems to me that, if we want to make crossing the break as easy as possible for beginners, then there are a few important things missing. 

First of all, playing from the A in the staff up a 2nd to B requires this change in fingering: 

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That’s a lot of fingers to move. At exactly the same time. What has prepared the student for this? Essentially nothing. Before this, they’ve probably only moved one to maybe four fingers at a time. The largest interval in their repertoire is likely a 5th or a 6th. 

So what can be done to better prepare students, and give them more success crossing the break? Here’s what I do. 

Make sure students use good breath support. 

After learning the first few notes, I turn a student’s mouthpiece around and have them play while I finger the notes on clarinet. I then cover a broad range on the clarinet, including notes with the register key. This is important, because the higher notes won’t sound without proper breath support. We talk about voicing as well. 

Get students used to larger descending intervals. 

Incorporating melodies that have larger descending intervals is the most obvious way to prepare students to cross the break. “Sur le pont d’Avignon” has two descending 5ths. 

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The slurs are intentional, because they can expose when fingers aren’t moving precisely. If the student can play this cleanly, then they are well on their way to being able to cross the break. 

"Over There" starts with a descending 6th. Starting on A, it can be an especially good preparation, since the left hand pointer finger needs to move from the A key to cover the hole for E. 

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Practicing descending octaves and larger intervals is the next step. 

Making sure students can add the register key without uncovering the left thumb hole or moving the other fingers excessively. 

The thumb should move only enough to press the register key, and the index finger should not move, really at all. Sometimes students can move the pointer finger so much that they accidentally press the A-flat key. 

Playing modified melodies that cross the break. 

My favorite starting point for playing across the break is “The More We Get Together,” but modified, so the first note is down an octave. 

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There are at least two reasons students should be able to play this with success. First, the phrases start on low F, so they don’t need any fingering acrobatics crossing the break—a great starting place, I think. Secondly, crossing the break the other way, in this case from C to B-flat, is much easier. 

After this piece, I then proceed to other melodies using decreasing intervals, such as Wagner’s Bridal Chorus. 

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Again, the slurs are there to ensure clean finger movement. 

After working through 10ths (Dvorak’s “Going Home”), octaves (“Happy Birthday to You”), and 7ths (Star Wars theme), 5ths (“My Favorite Things”/”Camptown Races”/”Goodnight Ladies”) they are pretty adept at crossing the break, and can approach playing scales or other melodies with smaller intervals. [1]

Other melodies with phrases that start above the break, then descend are introduced as well. For example, “Reuben and Rachel” or “Li’l Liza Jane” start on the second C, then descend to below the break, and are useful for students to practice as well. 

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[1] These examples were chosen because they cross the break using the described intervals, they avoid other fingering challenges, and they are generally pretty familiar to most students. The entire piece may not work, so adapt with caution. 

The other day I was enjoying a meal at a burger joint in town when I found myself distracted by the music playing. The song wasn’t familiar to me, but I recognized the chord progression as the same as “Desire” by U2. (Actually variations of this chord progression show up in lots of places, “What I Like About You,” “Cherry Cherry,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and many others!) But here, it seemed somehow different. It took me a bit more listening, but I finally figured it out. Even though the chords seem to be the exact same as “Desire,” they were working differently. I used SoundHound to figure out the song was “Steal My Sunshine” by Len. 

A, E, B would be the chords for both songs. [1] The last chord, B, would be home base (the tonic) in “Desire.” This is how this common progression normally works in popular music. But, in “Steal My Sunshine,” the second chord—E—is tonic. If the chords sound exactly the same, why would the tonality be different? Because the melody puts us in E. 

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You can see in the short excerpt of the melody and chords from the chorus above, that E is the most common note. Even when the chord changes to B and the E should clash, it serves as a tonal anchor of sorts. 

In the Nashville number system, “Desire” would be flat 7, 4, 1

"Steal My Sunshine" would be 4, 1, 5

Have a listen and see if you can hear the next-to-last chord as home base in “Steal My Sunshine,” and the last chord of the progression as home base in “Desire.” 

[1] “Desire” is in a different key, but the relationship is exactly the same as “Steal…”—descending fourths. I’ve transposed it here so the chords are the same to make the comparison easier. 

If I’ve taught a beginner who has had any other music teachers, and ask them to explain what a 2/4 time signature means I invariably get an answer like this: “There are two beats in a measure, and the quarter note gets the beat.” 

Fair enough. After telling them they are correct, I usually tell them my preference for thinking about time signatures. Something like this: “2/4 means there are two quarter notes in a measure.” Sometimes I even draw a sample Orff-type time signature to demonstrate. 

So, If there are two ways of thinking about 2/4 (or anything/4), then why choose the latter? I have two reasons.

Think about the second movement (Adagio cantabile) from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8. It’s written in 2/4, but it’s adagio, and played so that the eighth note is perceived as the pulse. You simply can’t say that there are “two beats in a measure.” 

*Thinking about the number of notes—as opposed to beats—in a measure gives the student a framework for approaching compound meters like 6/8 (six eighth notes in a measure) or odd meters like 5/8 (five eighth notes in a measure). Learning only that there are x number of beats… does not equip students in the same way. There are so many beginners who, after being introduced to it, are consistently stumped by 6/8. By and large, my students who learn this way have success understanding compound meters. 

I guess I have a third reason to throw in the mix. It is simply easier to say “there are two quarter notes in a measure” than “there are two beats in a measure, and the quarter note gets the beat.” Half the amount of words for a hopefully clearer picture. 

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*This doesn’t mean that I don’t think learning about beats is important, or don’t teach it. I simply introduce time signatures to my students this way.

[This post originally appeared on my Posterous blog, which no longer exists. I’m posting it here so it doesn’t disappear from the internet.]

"[T]he evolution of no other art is so greatly encumbered by its teachers as is that of music." Arnold Schoenberg (Theory of Harmony)

"It’s like solving a puzzle, rather than dealing with the overwhelming possibilities of infinite space (while crippled by the responsibility of free choice)." 

Twelve Tones (by kindred spirit, Vihart)

After a hiatus, the Mystery Melody Challenge is back! See if you can identify this melody. 

“It’s better to practice one song for 24 hours than play 24 tunes in one hour.”
—Attributed to Bill Evans

I recently sat down for an interview with local Charlotte sax player, Tim Gordon. It’s been my good fortune to know and be able to play with Tim. (First while I was in school, and later, professionally.) Not only is he a fantastic musician, he’s an all around great guy.

In this interview, we talk about the current state of music education, being a professional, and making a living. Tim even gives an economic history lesson on the music scene in Charlotte. Check it out! 

http://markcatoe.tumblr.com/interview-with-tim-gordon

I just transcribed a lead sheet for “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys. Yes, Brian Wilson is a genius.

For example, the key is E major—actually, it’s a little ambiguous, and changes tonal centers a few times, but go with me—E major. And how many root position E major chords are in the entire song? Zero.
And there are two spots with odd-measured phrasing. And three different diminished chords… In a pop song.
But do you know how seamless and natural it sounds? That is why Brian Wilson is a genius.