Saturday, 30 November 2013

New Site

Hello all,

If you are reading this, you most likely have had this site as a dormant bookmark for over a year.  I have changed assignments in the Army to the 56th Army Band in Fort Lewis, Washington.  With this move, I have relaunched my private teaching studio and started a studio website, including a blog.

This is now my primary outlet at  For the next little while I will mirror new posts from that site here (unless I can find a way to automate the process).  I would encourage you, though, to check out the new site because there will be new content beyond the blog available.  So check it out.  Leave some feedback.  Enjoy the recording  in the listening room.

Happy Practicing,

Tim Owen
Owen Music

Friday, 9 November 2012

A New Beginning

Looking back at my previous posts, I would like to say I am amazed at how long it has been since I wrote anything.  However, I'd be lying. It's now time to recommit, and I'm sure it won't be the last time I will "reboot" my efforts to contribute.  For now, let this suffice.

In the two years that have passed, of course a lot of things have taken place.  The U.S. Army School of Music has now fully deconsolidated from the Navy school, and though we still occupy the same building, we train our Soldiers completely differently.  A number of things has kept me from practicing consistently, including going to the Advanced Leader Course (held at ... the Army School of Music!) totalling a car and breaking a finger in the process, and welcoming a new daughter to my family.  I also began an MBA program through UMUC, which has been challenging trying to keep up with it all.  No matter how you slice it, time is at a premium for me, and I bet for many other people.  This is why I first began looking for ways of hopefully increasing the efficiency of my practice time, leading me to explore Spaced Repetition Learning as a viable option.

So, on with the show!

I'd like to see if you agree with the following propositions.

Assuming that you have developed the required skills demanded by a piece of music, i.e. if it requires flutter-tonguing or altissimo, you can actually perform those techniques,

(1) there is a tempo at which every element can be performed in proper sequence from beginning to end, and

(2) there is one spot which is (initially) harder than all others to perform accurately and which will break down first as the tempo increases.

I recently had an opportunity to put this to the test when I was asked to premier a saxophone sonata written by a composition student at a local university.  In preparing this piece, I began with a SmartMusic accompaniment set to the target tempo and played (read) until the first time I felt I was unable to perform it accurately.  At this point, I reduced the tempo by one increment and resumed from that measure.  Occasionally I had to bump the tempo down two or three times to get through a spot.  Eventually the tempo settled down to a level that I was able to "stroll" through the rest of the piece with ease.  Subsequent passes began at the last successful tempo and got moved up gradually if I could play it at that tempo with no errors.

From that pass through the piece, I knew the following:

1) where my first "hot spot" was and approximately what tempo I could play it,
2) that I could play everything before that hot spot at least at that tempo,
3) that I could play everything from that spot on to the end at that same tempo, at least, and
4) each of those large chunks also had their own "hot spots" with a slightly higher tempo.

I tracked all this in a spreadsheet format with a pass number, the starting and ending measure number, the tempo expressed as a percentage of the goal tempo, the measure number of the "hot spot" and it's tempo.  So, the first entry coverd the entire piece (I just used beginning and end for measure numbers), and when I found the hot spot I made new entries, #2, to record the first half up to the hot spot, and #3, after the hot spot.  The next pass found the hot spot for #2, generating entries #4 and #5, and so on.  After several passes, it resembles the structure of an Ahnentafel table from family history research!

Anyway, I ended up boiling each movement down to about 5-10 hot spots interspersed with passages I was confident I could read at tempo.  I could then focus the majority of my attention on reviewing my collection of hot spots, applying all my practice tricks such as memorizing the measure, using uneven practice techniques, performing backwards, analyzing structures, and so on.  I then went back and played those larger chunks to make sure I could perform them in context.

Looking back, I think I could have improved the efficiency even more by taking note of each time I had to reduce the tempo on that initial pass.  However, I would have to be careful to distinguish those truly difficult hot spots that require a lot of effort from those that may have been difficult only because of reading issues.  My intent is to be able to process a new piece of music in such a way that I quickly ferret out the parts that need the most work consistently and use a spaced repetition system to schedule reviews of those parts so I can focus my energy on only those parts that require it to maintain a certain level of performance.  Right now, I find I spend about as much time on record-keeping and data entry types of actions as I do on playing. Hopefully, though, I will learn from this process just what the requirements are to streamline everything, thus reducing the administrative time to an absolute minimum.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Recital Is Over ... What Now?

I performed my last recital for my degree program in 2004 (has it really been that long?) and, while I love the repertoire I programmed, if you asked me to perform it today, or even next month, I doubt I could do it. The same could be said for some jazz standards I knew once upon a time but have since been relegated to the attic of my practicing. I have to ask myself if it was really worth all the hours I spent trying to master those pieces.

In describing what he calls the "Law of the Harvest", Stephen Covey cites performing on a musical instrument as an example of an endeavor that you can't fake your way through. You have to invest your energy over the long haul in order to attain a high level of performance. This is in contrast to the academic plague of cramming for a test, only to dump everything you "learned" on the test page, most of which stays there instead of in your head. Or faking your way through short-term social interactions with a few slick tricks that won't hold up under closer inspection.

If we don't do something to retain what we have worked so hard to attain, is what we do really any different than cramming for the next exam?

Monday, 1 November 2010

What is Spaced Repetition Learning?

Good question. Spaced Repetition Learning is any method based on scheduling when you will next review a bit of knowledge. For my purposes, however, I'm going to confine my discussion of SRLs to those that: a) deal only with long-term memory (thus eliminating methods such as Pimsleur where the intervals for review are scheduled in seconds, not days,) and b) increase the review interval after each successful review.

My "favorite" SRL system is called SuperMemo, created by Piotr Wozniak (no relation to Apple's Woz). SuperMemo uses a flashcard metaphor for the learning process, but in its latest iteration it is capable of sophisticated multimedia content. Basically, whenever you learn a card containing a piece of knowledge, the computer records the date of learning and schedules the next review one or two days out. Then you are on to the next piece of knowledge until you are done learning new material for the day. The next time you power up the program, it checks for what cards you are scheduled to review for that day and proceeds to test your ability to recall the information. You grade yourself, and depending on how well you remembered the card's info, it will again schedule the next repetition for a date before it predicts you will forget what you reviewed. For a piece of knowledge of average difficulty, the schedule may go like this: 1 day, 6 days, 14 days, 35 days, and so on. If you find that your recall comes very easily, the review intervals may be even longer; more difficult recalls result in shorter intervals, and the occasional lapse will trigger a reset of the schedule because it is now necessary to relearn that bit of knowledge.

SuperMemo boasts an increase of 10-50 times the rate of learning. Don't think, however, that this is going to help you pass your mid-term exams next week (or was it last week?) SRLs are designed to enhance long-term memory, so if you want to remember something a month after the test, this is for you. The real boost to your learning comes from the ability to process new information because your review cycles are made as long as possible without actually forgetting what you learned.

One other benefit I have found relates to David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. Allen says that a lot of our mental stress comes from our mind's effort to hold on to things we are afraid we will forget, all the "open loops" in our lives. I know that if I put something I want to learn in SuperMemo, I will review it at some future date. That way, even if I have forgotten it, I at least can relearn it. This takes a lot of worry about whether I'll remember something critical out of the equation for my mental stress. And if I have some idea that I want to develop later, I just put it in a queue of items that will eventually work through this process.

I know that there is a lot more information available, so I hope I haven't upset any SR gurus out there by omitting your favorite aspect of the method, or your particular flavor of SRL. After all, that's what the comment section is for!

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is just to start...

Welcome to my blog. I created this site to document and share some experiences and interests related to music, mostly with the saxophone. In particular, I have always been interested in doubling. While I have some experience playing flute and clarinet, I have always wanted to pick up double reeds again. My last attempts, I just realized, were in my undergrad days at BYU, now 14 years gone! Not having instruments made it a little difficult to keep things up, but now I have an excellent opportunity while here at the Army School of Music to work on my doubling skills.

Some other interests I have are related to teaching and learning music. I have been experimenting with incorporating Spaced Repetition Learning methods into my daily routine of practicing. There are quite a few sites out on the web that address SRL for various applications, but as far as I know, none deal with it as a way to learn to play a musical instrument. I've been trying various things off and on since late 2007, and I think I've worked out a few kinks. Anyway, I expect I'll write a bit about my experiences here, hoping to spark some interest and draw from your insights to develop this further.

I also have taken an interest in teaching aural skills concurrently with beginning saxophone lessons. Particularly, I wrote my dissertation on integrating Edwin Gordon's Music Learning Theory with a beginning saxophone curriculum. I would love to develop that further, perhaps even creating some instructional videos that support a "self-teaching" method for those who may not be able to take private lessons for one reason or another.

Well, those are my interests in a nutshell. I expect this blog will evolve as I gain more experience and gather more ideas. Thanks for visiting, and feel free to leave a message.