Um-Chucks - and getting simple stuff RIGHT

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by Jack E, Nov 27, 2017.

  1. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    One of the pieces I'm learning at the moment has bars and bars of um-chucks. The other day I was playing it through, and suddenly realised that my timing was wavering; not on the basic tempo, but on the respective lengths of the ums and the chucks (if you follow me!)

    Basically, in a tempo of 4/4, I was supposed to play the following sequence:-
    crotchet, crotchet rest, crotchet, crotchet rest.

    It could hardly be simpler than that could it? But what I was playing sometimes veered towards:-
    dotted crotchet, quaver rest, dotted crotchet, quaver rest

    and other times, it went the other way, towards:-
    quaver, dotted crotchet rest, quaver, dotted crotchet rest.

    So I realised that the often-scorned um-chuck sequence is actually a damn good learning tool for practising getting the duration of both notes and rests absolutely precise - every single time. And it only takes a quick glance through more complex pieces to see that many of them are littered with rests - and the duration of each one is vital for the overall sound to be right, as I've grasped the fact that when the band is playing, they're playing a succession of chords, with different sections playing the various notes which make up the chord. So if I get the duration of either a note or a rest wrong, either my note will be missing from a chord for split second, or I'll play my note a split second before the rest of the chord is played by other players. Either way, it will mess up the chord as a whole - and even though it might only be for a split second, it will be heard.

    Years (and years and years!) ago, I heard Dizzy Gillespie being interviewed on the radio, and one of the points he made which really stuck in mind was when he said that so many people didn't understand that "the silences between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves." Remember those car air horns from years ago, which were advertised as playing 'Colonel Bogey'? They certainly played the right notes, in the right order - but every note was a crotchet, the 'silences between the notes' were completely missing, and the final sound was a travesty of the tune! :mad:

    I used to have riding lessons on a mare who had close to zero directional stability. If you were riding her along the side of the school, where she had a wall right beside her, she only wavered around a bit - but trying to ride her in a straight line down the centre of the school really sorted out the riders from the passengers!

    You had to constantly monitor every slight shift of her balance and weight to catch her before she veered to one side or the other, and give her a succession of tiny nudges to keep her in a straight line. You'd think that riding a horse, at a walk, in a straight line, would be easy-peasy - yet that mare was making me work hard enough, on a chilly day, that I ended up sweating!

    The instructor said to me that I looked as though I was just sitting there, doing nothing - but, she said, she knew just how hard and how constantly I was working, by the way that mare was walking in a dead straight line. As I'm sure that Mesmerist will confirm from her own experience, riding the simple manoeuvres on such a horse is not too hard, if you think 'near enough is good enough' - but riding the same moves with pin-point accuracy, every single stride, is a far tougher proposition.

    In the same way, playing um-chucks more-or-less right is pretty easy, but getting the duration of each um and chuck spot on, every single time, is very demanding - but a skill which I believe is well worth the effort it takes to master.

    It's paralleled by the experiences of an RAF pilot I used to know, who said that one of the earliest exercises novice pilots get is "flying straight and level" - which, he said, sounds ridiculously easy, until you try and do it yourself, and find the aircraft happily meandering all over the sky! :eek: :oops:

    So I've come to have a great deal of respect for the humble um-chuck - a great learning tool, which I think may well be very much underestimated!

  2. Hsop

    Hsop Member

    Hi Jack

    I have never used a metronome until the last few months whilst practising at home. I used to (and still do sometimes) get ahead of the beat in fast semi-quaver passages. I downloaded a free metronome app for my mobile phone and bought an inexpensive set of mains powered speakers which has the 3.5mm lead to connect to my phone. I have the volume set to give a good balance between my playing and still hearing the beat.

    This has made a noticeable improvement to my playing especially at band rehearsals. I find it easier now to play in time rather than trying to push the tempo on. You still see quite a lot of players tapping their feet to try and maintain the tempo. The rhythm you mentioned, crotchet rest, crotchet rest have you tried sub-dividing in your mind? For example thinking of quaver beats rather than crotchets. It might help to keep things accurate for you but I do feel your pain. I remember (a long time ago) playing 3rd cornet parts (especially marches) with a lot of off-beats to play! :)

    Kind regards
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  3. 4th Cornet

    4th Cornet Active Member

    An interesting read as always Jack.

    I'm not sure I agree with the analogy with your horse-riding in this case.
    From my experience, if one tries to play even notes and rest by 'hard and constant work', they tend to suffer more. Feeling the pulse of the music, listening to the ensemble and relaxing into the repetition of the rhythm without over thinking are what I find best.

    Unlike the usual rule of 'practise proficiently slowly before increasing the tempo', um-chucks are easier to play evenly at faster speeds where there is less room for error, so if struggling to get them even, try a faster speed first.

    It's worth noting that depending on the style of the music, full crotchets (notes and rests) may not be what's needed, even if written as such.

    P.s. Hsop's advice about subdividing the notes into quavers / semis works well too.
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2017
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  4. Andrew Norman

    Andrew Norman Active Member

    The style and context is very important - the playing of "simple" rhythmic patterns can be a real minefield. Listen to what is going on around you.
    Hopefully your MD will give some insight if they feel it is required.
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  5. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    I think I might not have made myself quite clear on that; my comparison was not intended to mean that I thought making a slog of playing um-chucks was a good idea - but more on the lines of how what is apparently a simple exercise (whether on a horse or with a baritone) can require a surprising degree of skill to do really well.
    I hadn't thought of that - so thank you for the suggestion; I'll give it a go.
    I do appreciate that point, which isn't mentioned in my tutorial book - but is frequently asked for by the MD during main band rehearsals (I've learnt a LOT from sitting at the back and listening during them! :) )
    Yes - that's another technique not mentioned in my tutorial book, but our MD is so keen on the band doing it that he frequently starts a rehearsal by having the band play a hymn from the Red Book, but playing the entire piece in quavers.

    Thank you for your helpful advice, and best regards,

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  6. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    I'm afraid my phone isn't the sort which lets me do that - taking a picture is about as hi-tech as it can manage! But I do have an old clockwork metronome which I use a lot. The adjustment isn't that fine; it goes up in quite large steps at the faster tempos - but the main thing is that it gives me a steady tempo to work with - and that has helped a lot, as my rhythm was very poor when I started playing. I have, though, got an electronic one on order with a local music shop.
    Yes - that was suggested to me by my tutors early on, and I do it by flicking my toes up and down inside me boots. Each time the right toes go down, that's the crotchet beat. The left toes go down when the right toes go up, and the combination of right toes and left toes gives me the beat in quavers.
    It certainly has done, however odd it might sound!

    With best regards,

  7. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    Oh, yes - he does; he's very keen on us getting the shape and articulation of the notes appropriate to the style of the piece, and he's made a point of that right from the start - basically, that a march should sound like a march, and hymn should sound like a hymn!

    With best regards,

  8. Emb_Enh

    Emb_Enh Member

    “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” ― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
  9. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    Putting every single note in exactly the right place, for exactly the right duration, with exactly the correct articulation, with precisely the wanted sound, coherently with the needed style...

    This is what separates the pros from the amateurs. It's basic, but incredibly difficult to make truly consistent on a brass instrument.
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  10. 4th Cornet

    4th Cornet Active Member

    I think there's a fine line between mechanically accurate (which is my interpretation of what you've described) and a musical performance where nuances and personality are apparent (at the 'expense' of precision). Music is after all an art form and the reason real musicians still exist and music is not all computer programmed.
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2017
  11. Emb_Enh

    Emb_Enh Member

    Um chugs ... yep...tedious...
    mechanically accurate / musical feel... yep...have fun...don't sweat...
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  12. Mello

    Mello Active Member

    A very interesting topic ...and coincidentally I have just written a book called From Umchucks to Cadenzas . I like to think I served my time playing Umchucks and make the following observations. When I was setting out as an embryonic player the guy next to me used to grunt the rest inbetween the notes......I was told thats why they became known as Um - chucks . ( maybe true - I dont know ) . However ....a useful tip I was given as a youngster was ( not to grunt ) but if I felt myself getting out of sync , to actually touch the first beat of the bar occasionally.
    Actually play it .so a sequence would be ( r=rest, p=play /= barline ) So in 2/4 time it would be:

    r p r p / r p r p / r p r p / r p r p / r p r p / P p r p / r p r p /r p r p / r p r p / r p r p ...

    This usually brought me back in line . and unless the chords changed the odd steadying note on the first of the bar wouldnt be noticed. Eventually there was no need for the security note .
    As a matter of interest I used to play Hn and often used to say I could play my part of any Gilbert & Sullivan piece from memory ..... they all consisted of Um Chucks ! ) ( Although that was my joke as G&S werea brilliant team- so no rants please .
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  13. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

    That wasn't quite what I was seeking to convey; "coherently with the needed style" is the modifier from my post above. Trained pros (and some of the top amateurs) can play with astonishing mechanical accuracy (and I'm not talking air varies here, lest anyone misunderstand - I'm talking basic, simple notes). They then adjust that to create stylistic effects. The difference I mentioned is one of control; a good player can play all sorts of things; a truly accomplished player has everything so tightly under their control while doing the same that they can adjust any aspect of the performance on demand.
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  14. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    Yes, Dave - that's how I understood your post.

    Having said that, I do take the very valid point made by 4th Cornet re. mechanical perfection, but no art. I once heard a concert of Irish music, played by a very competent pianist. Technically, her performance was flawless - but it was completely lacking in any kind of feel or art, or appreciation of the spirit of Irish music! It was tragic; she'd obviously put a lot of time and effort into learning into these very complex pieces - but she made the music sound as though it was being played by a machine.

    It may be that the music (or the MD) calls for a note to start bang on the beat, or, in another piece, to start a split second before the beat and end a tad early to make it swing - as demonstrated by Oscar Peterson in this performance of C Jam Blues:-

    Whatever treatment is required, though, if you can't start and finish each note precisely where it's called for, you can't deliver the goods.

    With best regards,

  15. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    Oh, come on, Mello - don't tease! Where can I get a copy of the book?

    Great stuff - I'll bear that one in mind, and many thanks,

  16. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    I agree about the need for feel, but you have to learn to walk before you can dance!
  17. 4th Cornet

    4th Cornet Active Member

    Hi Dave. I agree. My comment wasn't intended to contradict yours, but just to qualify that accuracy isn't everything.
  18. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    I couldn't agree more, 4th Cornet - but I do see getting um-chucks very accurate as a stepping stone to greater things. I don't, though, see any conflict between precision and feeling. If you look at this video clip where a piano tutor is talking about how to put swing into a jazz piece (the key part starts at about 9 minutes into the clip), you can see what I mean:

    But you can only get that swing into the music if you can start and finish each note exactly where you want it.

    Listen to some brass bands playing a rock or jazz number, and the way they make it sound lumbering and plodding, and then listen to the same piece played by musicians who have the control - as well as the feel - as described by Moomin Dave, above:
    What I can't help but notice when I hear that contrast, is how tiny the adjustments need to be, in order to give that music the most dramatic change of feel.

    With best regards,


    MTA - in the video clip I've linked to, above, look at the section starting at 10 minutes into the clip. Aimee Nolte shows how playing a bass note dead on the beat, but the higher note just a split second before the beat, completely changes the feel of that phrase, even though the time difference between the two notes is so small!
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2017
  19. MoominDave

    MoominDave Well-Known Member

  20. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    Thank you, Dave - it's payday tomorrow, so I'll get one ordered :)

    With best regards,