Replacing a Wenger Legacy Basic Acoustical Shell Panel

File this under “don’t try this at home.”

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Last year, someone damage the top panel of one of our Wenger acoustical shells. It’s the panel that folds up and down and can be set at one of several angles, and my guess is that someone was too rough with it. The braces connecting the panel to the joint where it pivots were pushing into the panel itself and didn’t seem safe to use any more. So, this summer I called Wenger to ask about getting a replacement panel.

Although the shell has a label that says something like “Don’t try to remove or repair this panel!”, there were no other options for us. After the panel arrived, our facilities manager and I took a closer look at the shell to figure out how to safely remove the old panel and replace it with the new one.

First up, we had to remove the top panel. We tried to careful to relieve pressure on the gas lift supports, but it didn’t matter much. When the panel is folded down, they are close to being fully extended. While I wouldn’t want to take one in the eye, they didn’t seem to pose a lot of risk.

Second, we had to remove the pins that held the top panel to the middle panel at the hinge. A pair of pliers were helpful to grip the pin guide at each end. This is where things get a little dangerous and difficult. Without someone holding onto the top panel when you remove the pins, it will fall to the floor. Worse, if there isn’t anyone keeping tension on the crank on the back, the lift arm will shoot up to its maximum height very quickly when the top panel is removed. (We may have learned this the hard way). If you mess up this part, you have to put enough tension on the lift arm to allow someone to turn the hand crank slowly back to the bottom position.

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It probably requires 4-5 people to do the job. After the old panel was removed, we put the new one back, replacing the pins first and then reattaching the lift supports.

Jazz Band, Teaching Improvisation (part II)

I had a lot of fun working with my high school jazz band this last year on understanding guide tones—with the small group that I had, it was a ton of fun to dig into some concepts that I wish I would have worked harder to grasp when I was in high school. However, most of the group did not have a significant amount of experience with jazz improvisation, and they started the year very hesitant to improvise. Working with the group helped me realize how much teaching improvisation is like teaching anything else. You figure out what the student knows, look at what you want the student to be able to do, and then break down the steps in between to manageable chunks. So for today, what are the first steps in teaching improvisation to beginning students?

These hot cross buns are a great way to start improvising. I'm sure they also taste great.

These hot cross buns are a great way to start improvising. I'm sure they also taste great.

One of the ways I like to encourage improvisation early on is through varying what students are already playing. For instance, I am a big fan of rhythm exercises in beginning band. Many books (I have used Essential Elements in the past) include pages of rhythms in an appendix in the back, and I start using these pages almost right away. While I mix it up with speaking and clapping, when it comes time for students to play a line of rhythms, I start to work in some choices.

"Pick your favorite note and play measure 3." (at this point, they probably know only five notes)

"Great job. Let's trade off every other measure, and you can play any of the notes you have learned so far." If the student is doing well with this, I'll start changing notes in the middle of a measure to see if they'll experiment more.

At this point, I'll also work in some repeat after me, both with myself and the student(s) leading. Perhaps I'll play Hot Cross Buns as we have learned it, and then I'll throw in an extra note or a slightly different rhythm. At the beginning stages of improvisation (and particularly when the student is a beginner on their instrument), my goal is to make them feel comfortable following the instructions I'm giving.

The Essential Elements for Jazz Ensemble book uses a similar approach, and I have my beginning jazz players do the same kinds of exercises. We'll play Jingle Bells and then have students "solo" by varying the melody. Stronger players usually have no trouble with this, but I think it is important to reinforce the concept of variation in working with beginning improvisors. Until we are freed from technical limitations on our instrument, we can't play what we don't know how to play.

Over time, I'll work in additional listening exercises as well as chords, scales, and theory. That discussion, though, will have to wait for another time.

Running over squirrels

Though it sometimes makes students uneasy, I like to compare missing notes to running over squirrels.

It usually comes up after I hear a student performance spiral downward as they let one mistake spin the whole piece out of control. When they stop, I ask the student to imagine being in the car with their parents.

“As your mom or dad are driving, you see a squirrel race out into the street, directly in front of your car! Which would you prefer your parent do? Try to swerve out of the way of the squirrel and cause a collision, or run over the squirrel and preserve the lives of everyone in the car?”

While some students take a long time to think, the right choice is obvious—if you have to decide between running over a squirrel and and getting in a car accident, every sane person will choose preserving the lives of the people in the car.

I then tell the student to treat missed notes or any other mistakes like running over a squirrel. You can’t change the squirrel. If it runs in front of your car, all you can control is your own reaction. When a musician makes a mistake, there is no way to go back and change it. Instead, you have to keep on playing as if nothing has gone wrong. Otherwise, the original mistake may be compounded. Rather than simply running over a squirrel, you jump the curb and crash into a tree. Playing an F natural instead of a sharp is painful, but not as painful as playing out of time for the next 10 bars because you dwell on the mistake.

If you like the analogy, feel free to use it. And if you don’t, let me know a better one! :)