Saturday, June 11, 2011

U.S. Military Band Clarinets (June 2011 column)

The United States military employs more musicians than any other organization in the country.  According to a recent NPR feature on military bands, the U.S. Army alone employs an estimated four to five thousand musicians!  Since so many of these musicians are clarinetists, we decided to dedicate this column to some of the online resources created by U.S. military bands and their clarinetists.

Full-time orchestral position openings are few and far between these days, so military bands are a popular option for clarinetists looking for a professional performing career. While the audition process for the premier bands is just as rigorous as that for orchestral positions, military band positions are more numerous and provide more financial stability.  With some of the best orchestras in the country cutting pay, canceling concerts, and engaging in tense negotiations with musicians, many top performers in the U.S. are turning to the military bands first, lured by steady funding and perks such as student loan repayment. Clarinetists in these bands perform constantly with concert bands and chamber ensembles, and contribute greatly to music education efforts across the country. They are featured in several videos and websites that we’d like to encourage our readers to explore.

U.S. Army Field Band Educational Videos
The U.S. Army Field Band produced a series of educational videos in VHS format, presumably sometime in the 1980s (original publication date unknown).  These videos are now available online through the Field Band website, including a series of four videos called “Improving your Clarinet Section”. In the videos, members of the Army Field Band Clarinet Quartet discuss the use of clarinet quartets to develop musicianship in band programs. The videos include discussion of appropriate repertoire for each grade level, with musical excerpts performed by the Army Field Band Clarinet Quartet. Band directors and clarinet teachers will love the tips on embouchure, tonguing, phrasing, blending, balance, jazz style, and more.  This video series is a great resource for learning about different levels of repertoire for clarinet quartet and musical concepts that can be taught with each piece.

U.S. Military Bands on YouTube 
There are many military band performances available online that feature clarinetists. The “usarmyband” YouTube Channel features an Army Band clarinet ensemble performing “Let’s Dance” (think Benny Goodman, not David Bowie!).  We also enjoyed a medley of klezmer tunes played by Tom Puwalski accompanied by the U.S. Army Field band, and a 1960 recording of Harold Malsh playing Bassi’s Fantasy on Themes from Verdi’s Rigoletto with the United States Marine Band.

To see the clarinet section of the U.S. Army Band in action, check out their 2009 performance of Clarinet Candy in front of the U.S. Capital building in Washington, D.C.  Aimed directly at the entire section performing standing up, this YouTube video captures the agility, precision, and fast fingers of the clarinet section, including footage of the principal clarinetist realizing that each member of the clarinet section behind him has sat down and gradually dropped out of the music. This moment of surprise is caught on camera as he turns around to see his all of his colleagues seated, leaving him to finish off the piece as the last clarinetist standing. Check out our “Military Bands” YouTube playlist to watch these videos and more.

Clarineticus Intergalacticus
Kristen Mather’s newly formulated blog, Clarineticus Intergalacticus, has made its own niche in the blog world by highlighting the careers of clarinetists in military bands.  Already starting off the year with twelve entries as of February 2011, her blog is not limited to writing about the clarinet in the armed services, but also includes various topics of interest and educational resources.  As a military musician herself, Mather has been a clarinetist in the West Point Band since 2007 and also performs with the chamber ensemble Quintette 7 (featured in a February 2011 post on our blog), which includes members from the West Point Concert Band and the West Point’s Field Music Group, the Hellcats.
Starting off with a list of questions sent out to clarinetists within the various Army bands, Mather has already begun to gather a handful of interviews of clarinet players, some of which hold positions in the West Point Concert Band and The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own.”  The interviewees answer candidly to questions about their favorite memories of basic training, the average work week, and the weirdest thing they do at their job, sharing their personal experiences as clarinetists in the military bands.  We found ourselves wishing for a post containing Mather’s own responses to the list of questions she poses to her colleagues!
Another category on her blog includes “What am I Listening to Today.”  In these posts she features videos of groups or performers that have sparked her interest.  Wandering away from the mainstream musical path, Mather writes about music involving the clarinet in a variety of musical contexts.  Her recommended artists and ensembles to date include jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen in the Choro Ensemble, the Claudia Quintet with clarinetist Chris Speed, and Turkish music featuring the gypsy clarinet sounds of Hüsnü Şenlendirici. Offering a sample of her musical tastes as a musician who makes a living performing concert band repertoire, Mather opens her readers up to possibly new and unfamiliar music or unknown artists.  Although Clarineticus Intergalacticus is a relatively new blog, it is a must-read for any clarinetist interested in pursuing a career in the military service bands.  

Have we missed anything?  Let us know about military band clarinetists in the U.S. and other countries by e-mailing us or leaving your comments on this post.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Metronome Apps in Review

Every clarinetist needs a metronome for practicing and teaching.  An increasing number of people are using metronome apps rather than traditional metronomes, but the number of metronome applications available for iPod/iPhone is overwhelming.  A metronome is a seemingly simple concept, but these apps vary wildly in tempo ranges, options for subdivisions and meters, and even accuracy.  We compared some of the cheapest and most popular metronome apps to guide you in selecting one that fits your needs.

The most important attribute in a metronome for professional musicians is accuracy, and a surprising number of these apps failed to keep time when we tested them in comparison with a Dr. Beat DB-66.  Extreme low and high metronome settings can also be useful - why stop at 210 bpm when you can go to 800?  We looked at these features and more, and came up with a list that we hope will be helpful to those of you searching for the perfect app.  Here are the metronomes we tested, in order from best to worst:

(Note: We were only able to test metronome apps for iOS platforms, but we've heard that "Mobile Metronome" works great on Android devices.)

Metronome: Tempo by Frozen Ape - $1.99
Verdict: Lives up to the hype

This app was recommended to us by quite a few people, and for good reason: $1.99 is a small price to pay for a good metronome, and this one has lots of adjustable settings for visuals and sounds.  It offers an accurate tap feature, and the "setlist" function lets you save multiple metronome settings and switch between them quickly.

Accuracy: good
Range: 10 - 800
Sound: medium loud, offers choice of 9 different sound sets
Rhythms: Offers all common meters and subdivisions, but no odd meters like 5/4.  Allows muting of any beat within the meter.
Visuals: very small pendulum; can also turn on a flash which makes the whole screen flash red on each beat.

Steinway Metronome by Steinway Musical Instruments - FREE
Verdict: best free app, use with external speakers

Unlike most free metronome apps, this one has a tap function.  It features a circular dial and a visual flash that can be turned on and off.

Accuracy: overall stays on track but slight glitch noticeable at high speeds
Range: 35-224
Sound: quiet, only one choice of sound
Rhythms: choice of many different meters, but no subdivisions
Visuals: can be set to flash on downbeat or all beats

Metronome Plus by Dynamic App Design - $.99
Verdict: Decent app - wait to buy until more features are added

According to the developers, future updates will include a tap function and more features.

Accuracy: good
Range: 30 - 300
Sound: loudest of the apps tested; four different sound choices
Rhythms: good choice of meters; can choose subdivisions but no dotted sixteenth or first-and-third triplet rhythms
Visuals: orange light moves back and forth

EasyBeats LE by Hopefully Useful Software - FREE (Pro version is $4.99)
Verdict: Fun and accurate metronome alternative

A metronome is essentially a simple drum machine, so why not play scales to a rock-n-roll beat, or create a jazz pattern for working on swing rhythms?  This app allows you to create your own beat pattern using sixteen different drum sounds.  The downside is that making beats can take a while, and you have to pay an extra $.99 for the ability to save patterns.

Accuracy: good
Range: 0.0 - 220.0  (allows adjustment to 1/10 of a bpm but slider is difficult to adjust with accuracy)
Sound: loud, offers variety of drumset sounds
Rhythms: many subdivision possibilities, but the basic loop is set up in 4/4
Visuals: can watch beat patterns in two different views - pads (where pads light up as they sound) or patterns (where a line moves across the pattern - see screenshot).

BackBeat Free by Cameron Bytheway (Pro version is $2.99)
Verdict: inaccurate but useful for tone generator

This app has ads, but the pro version is ad-free, and features a tap function and additional sounds.  The preset player doesn't work in free version, and accuracy is poor despite claims of "ultra-accurate timekeeping engine." Good tone generator with 7 octaves, though.

Accuracy: poor
Range: 40 - 220
Sound: quiet, no sound options
Rhythms: has sliders for volume of beat and subdivision - similar to Dr. Beat style metronomes
Visuals: set of lights that flash with each beat.

Metronome - reloaded by Chris & Uwe - FREE
Verdict: avoid this app

A pendulum-style metronome like the one below but with a more modern design and with banner ads.  It allows user to key in the tempo using a keypad.  This metronome has a "timing adjustment" slider to make up for the "metronome timing drift" on different devices.  I tried to match up the speed of this app with my DB-66, and ended up with a 2.1% timing adjustment, a metronome that still wouldn't beat at 120 bpm consistently, and five minutes of my life that I'll never get back. 

Accuracy: poor, even with "timing adjustment" slider. 
Range: 30 - 209
Sound: Quiet, Only one sound
Rhythms: Can choose each number of the time signature from a slider, allowing any combination from 2/2 to 12/12 (useful if you're performing the music of Henry Cowell, perhaps).  No subdivisions available.
Visuals: Pendulum

Metronome by - FREE
Verdict: avoid this app

This simple app attempts to emulate the old-school pendulum metronome.  It is difficult to adjust the slider to an exact tempo.

Accuracy: poor
Range: 1 - 210
Sounds - very quiet and only one choice of sound
Rhythms - only allows 2/4, 3/4, 4/4
Visuals: pendulum