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The Importance of Being Self-Aware

September 22, 2016

Usually the first thing I do after a student performs something in a lesson is ask a question:

“What did you think of that?”

Often I get one of these two responses:

  1. “I thought it was good.”
  2. “I thought it was terrible.”

Usually the truth is somewhere in between, so I’ll ask more detailed questions, like:

“What were you happy with?”

AND

“What still needs work?”

Once both of these questions are answered, a clearer picture of what to do next can emerge.  Too often, there is a tendency to focus on only one of them.  When feeling particularly good, it can be easy to ignore details or small mistakes because of how much is going well.  When feeling bad, it’s too easy to throw your hands in the air with an attitude of “I suck!” and walk away.  Neither of these approaches is ideal.

It’s too easy to think that because something went well for you that you’re through with it.  Here’s what I want you to do:  Once you’ve practiced something so that you believe it to be ready for performance- record the performance.  If you have a smartphone, video record it.  Wait until the next day to watch and listen to the recording.  When listening and watching the next day, ask yourself this question:

Would I buy that recording?

If your honest answer is yes, then it’s time to move on to another piece of music.  If not, then you have to answer one more question:

Why not?

Once you’re honest with yourself about what is lacking in that performance, whether it is technical, musical, or both- you now have a plan for what to practice.

But remember to recognize what was good about your performance as well.  If, when asked why you wouldn’t buy the recording, your answer is “Everything!”-that’s not productive.

The caricature of the cocky trumpet player is one with which I’m sure we are all well acquainted.  We may even know some people that come close to that awful stereotype.  There do seem to be some players that think that whatever comes out of their bells is amazing by definition.  It seems obvious why having this kind of attitude is a bad idea.  It makes a player difficult to work with, unpleasant to be around, and generally a bad colleague.

There is a good part of that caricature.  It’s the confidence.  Having confidence is a good thing.  Cockiness is just confidence taken too far.

On the other side of the spectrum are the players that don’t think they do anything well.  They have an easy time recognizing what others do well, but can’t recognize that they have any strengths.  These people are also bad colleagues, because, although they might appear to be easier to work with by constantly deferring to others, their constant putting down of themselves makes them difficult to work with and generally mopey people to be around.

Humility is a good thing.  The idea of “I’m terrible and everyone else is great” is humility taken too far.

Both in the practice room and in working with others, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is vital.  In the practice room it will keep you focused and getting better.  In your professional career, it will make you someone people want to be around, as you will be confident in your abilities, while recognizing the strengths of others around you.

 

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Distractions

August 30, 2016

Now that school is back underway, it’s time to get to work.  And that means practice.  And practice means concentration.  And concentration means focus.  And focus…focus is hard.

Anything that gets between you and your work is a distraction.  This could be some of the obvious suspects- checking FaceBook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit…even Google Plus+(okay…not Google Plus+).  Another prime example is the diversion- “I can’t practice in this room…it’s a mess…I should clean it up first.”  Then you spend the next 90 minutes looking through old pictures and books, not even getting the room straightened.  For some, the most difficult distraction is internal.  You get to the practice room, get your instrument out, open up a book, and think- “Hey, I wonder what my friends are doing later…we should probably make dinner plans…I’ll text them…then right to practicing.”  Then you’re texting for the next 30 minutes, getting nothing done.

So what should you do?  Good question.  First:

Set aside reasonable amounts of time each day where practicing is your only job.

These do not need to be long periods of time.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say some variation of, “I was in the practice room for 8 hours straight yesterday.  I am so awesome, and obviously vastly superior to everyone else on the planet.”  I’m always dubious of claims of number of hours practiced, as it’s an odd thing to brag about.

Second:

When you close the practice room door, know exactly what you wish to accomplish.

Too often people go into a practice with little or no idea of what they want to get done.  They walk in knowing they’re supposed to practice for a certain amount of time, so they’ll look at the clock and make sure that much time is spent in the practice room.

Try setting a goal.  It could be as simple as: “I want to be able to play this etude through without stopping,” or “I want to play this exercise 1 metronome marking faster than yesterday.”  Should you achieve your goal, leave the practice room.  If you still have mental focus and time, make another goal and get back in there.  If not, that session is over.

Lastly, and this is important:

Make time for your distractions.

I hope that you have interests other than practicing.  Set aside time for those as well.  I have a number of puzzle games on my phone that I enjoy.  I’m also a sports fan (Go Spurs Go!), so watching, reading about, and discussing sports is something that I somehow manage to find time for.

The beginning of the school year is a perfect time to build great habits.  Take the opportunity to set aside the times when you know you can be really productive.  And don’t forget that you also need time that’s just for fun.

Please let me know how you’re doing.

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Never Settle

June 8, 2016

Each year I ask every one of my new students this question:  “When you graduate, if you get to choose exactly what you get to do, what would that be?”  It’s shocking to me how many times the answer starts with, “Well…I guess it would okay if….”  Before these students have even started, they’re settling.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that by saying it out loud, you magically walk out of school with your dream job.  What I am saying is that without having an idea of what your dream job might look like, it’s nearly impossible to get there.

So how do you get there?

First-Choose Something.

 You might think that because you don’t know what you want to be doing forever that you don’t have any decisions to make yet.  This is a dangerous road to travel.  Remember this:

Not Making a Choice is a Choice.

If you choose nothing, you’re making the choice to be stagnant.  I don’t know anyone that enjoys that life.

Second- Give It Everything You’ve Got.

This can be the hard part for a lot of people.  Most of the time the first job you get is not the one you will want to keep forever.  This should not change how you approach it.  One sure way to stagnate is to give the bare minimum.  Treat every job like an opportunity to show how well you can do it.  Be the best person who has ever held that position- no matter what the position is.

If your first choice turns out to be the right thing for you, then keep at it.  If not, then choose something else, and give that everything you’ve got.  Keep doing this…forever.

Keep Asking: What Do I Want To Do next?

To get to the job you want usually takes more work than the job you’ll settle for.  You must be willing to do the extra work, both at your current job and in striving for your next.  And once you have the job you want, you’re in the position of deciding what your future holds.

There Is No Right Answer.

This is the most difficult part to discuss.  It can be difficult to realize that your dream job is one someone else settled for.  Similarly, a job that you might settle for could be someone else’s dream job.  One of the most common, and dangerous, examples is this age old gem:  “You should major in Music Education, so that you have something to fall back on.”  I’d like to officially call for the retirement of this ludicrous sentiment.  Here are just a few of the problems with that statement:

  • There are people that really want to teach…if you’re not one of them, please don’t teach.
  • The last thing students need is teachers who think of their career choice as a “fallback.”
  • You’re now working really hard on something you know you don’t want instead of on something you do want.

Be an Individual

Just because a lot of your colleagues may want similar things doesn’t mean you’re wrong to want something different.  There can be a peer pressure to go a certain direction because that’s what you’re “supposed to do.”  There can also be a certain macho attitude of “I only work in my chosen field” that looks down on anything not directly related to “The Chosen Path.”  All of that is garbage.  Here are a few jobs that I’ve had, in chronological order:

  • Lead Trumpet- Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau
  • Customer Service Representative- America Online (that’s right, the person that answers the phone to help you change your billing info, cancel, etc.)
  • Kindergarten Teacher
  • Education Department- Chicago Symphony Orchestra (a part time office job)
  • Assistant Band Director-St. Joseph’s College, Rensselaer, IN (among many duties, I ran the Girls Basketball Band, which I enjoyed immensely.  Go Pumas!)

Make your own decisions, then work tirelessly to give them the best chance of leading you somewhere positive.

 

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Fact Resistance

May 13, 2016

Last week I was perusing my favorite trumpet related internet sites and came across a staggering statement.  I’m paraphrasing here, but what was written stated that all players that have great range, power, and endurance play small equipment.  The person posting went on to write that all of the people that claim to not be able to play small equipment can’t play with good tone, pitch, power, range, or endurance.  This was not just some anonymous person posting.  This is someone who moderates a forum.

So here’s the problem.  All of that is garbage.

There are successful players with amazing range, power, and endurance on all kinds of equipment.  That all people successful in this way play the same kind of equipment is a ridiculous contention.

The bigger problem is this:  People keep repeating silly statements like this with no regard for them being truthful.  When called out on making verifiably false statements, people will often dig in deeper, with such excuses as:

  • “…well, it’s true in MY experience…”- the copout
  • “…that’s what I heard from Teacher A or Player Z…”- the abdication of responsibility
  • “…your facts that disprove my statement are just exceptions..”- the refusal to accept truth

Why is This a Problem?  

Access to information is more easily accessible than at any time in history, but there is no built in truth filter.  When there is no filter, all information- true, false, misleading, outright lies- can be treated equally.  So what happens when people go looking for information?  They get bombarded with all kinds of information, and sometimes don’t know how to differentiate the facts from the garbage.

Too often, people that want to convince you that their way is the right (and sometimes only) way are the loudest voices, working hard to drown out any that disagree.  There seems to be an idea that if something is said loudly enough and often enough, it must be true.

People who know better are often unwilling to engage in the discussion.  Imagine a street corner that you walk past frequently.  Now imagine there is a person there who is screaming at the top of their lungs, “All great trumpet players are lefthanded!”  Most people, even knowing this to be false, would opt to ignore the rantings of a lunatic on the side of the street.  Now give that lunatic an internet connection.

I’ve read “serious” posts discussing why:

  • To be a great lead player, you need to be overweight (with listed examples of overweight lead players)
  • To be a great lead player, you need certain dental structure (with listed examples of lead players with said dental structure)
  • To be a great lead player, you have to be tall (with listed examples of tall lead players)

These are real examples of things that people actually believe.  Why?  Because it’s been said so often, so loudly, with so little opposition that it becomes accepted.

Imagine me saying:

  • To be a great trumpet soloist, you must be a European blonde woman.  It’s obvious!  Look at Alison Balsom and Tine Thing Helseth.

Although I believe Ms. Balsom and Ms. Helseth to be fantastic, I don’t believe where they were born, their hair color, or their gender have anything to do with why they play the trumpet so well.

It’s time to stop it.

How Do We Stop It?

We must be willing to engage in rational conversations with people with whom we disagree.  It’s interesting to me that with all of the information available to us, people seem to gravitate to what it easy, comfortable, and familiar.  It’s harder to learn if you’re not exposed to new and challenging information.

We must realize that words have meaning.  Choose your words wisely.

We must realize that opinions are not facts, and facts are not opinions.  Facts are verifiably true, whether you like them or not.

An Example

So let’s go back to the beginning of this post, with the idea put forward that all trumpet players with good range, power, endurance, tone, and pitch play small equipment.

First, beware of all encompassing statements.  All I need is one trumpet player to disprove this statement.  Hmmm……can I think of someone who has made a living as a lead trumpet player- playing in the bands of Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Glenn Miller, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors, who doesn’t, and can’t, play on small equipment?  You know what- I can.  Me.  I won’t bother mentioning others, as if they want to enter the discussion on their own, they are more than welcome.  I’ve also been teaching for a while now, and have seen students succeed on all kinds of different equipment.

Now it will be easy for someone to say that they didn’t know anyone personally, or that’s just what they heard from someone else, or that I don’t really count because I’m an exception.

But now we all know the truth.  The truth is that the original idea was garbage.  No matter how loudly, forcefully, or often it was spoken- it was never true.

 

 

 

 

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Playing Well With Others

November 6, 2015

The past month has been great.  Aside from getting married (which was a truly great day- but not really the point I’m writing about- but bringing up last month without mentioning it seems wrong- oh well, back to my original point, which I haven’t started yet), I had the pleasure of filling a few different musical roles.  October started with a Tromba Mundi tour that ended in Carnegie Hall.  Last weekend I was in Houston to play lead for a Pops show with the Houston Symphony.  And this weekend I’ll be the guest soloist with the Indiana Wind Symphony.  This has me thinking about how we function in ensembles, and the responsibilities for each role. Problems in ensembles often occur because people are either unaware of their roles, or unwilling to serve in them.

There are three settings that make up a majority of our performances.  They are: Soloist, Chamber Musician, and Ensemble Member.  Much has been written about how to work well with others (show up on time, have proper equipment, have a pencil ready, etc.), so today we’re going to focus on the musical responsibilities.  All three share this responsibility:

Show up to rehearsal prepared

Rehearsal is not a time to learn your part.  Rehearsal is the time to put parts together and make decisions about how the music will be played.  The better prepared each person shows up, the easier it is to get meaningful musical work done.

1.  Soloist

As a soloist, you dictate the musical style.  It is your job to be clear, both when playing and speaking, to the other musicians about what your vision of the music is.  Your job is to be a great leader.  Being a leader isn’t just telling others what to do- it’s also listening to other opinions and being someone people want to follow.

2.  Chamber Musician

What I mean by this designation is anytime you are performing in a group of any size without a conductor or designated leader.  Here your job is to be part of a team.  Your responsibilities include offering your opinions as well as listening to others to build the best possible musical product.  Being flexible is very important.  It’s okay to have disagreements.  How those disagreements are handled can dictate the future of a group.  Learning to work well in this situation is one of the most valuable skills you can have.  You want to be someone others want as part of their team.

3.  Ensemble Member

As a member of an ensemble with a conductor or designated leader, your job is to commit to that leader’s musical vision- whether you agree with it or not.  Be the person that helps get everyone on the same page.  If you do this, you will be someone that people want to work with.

Looking at these three descriptions might have you wondering which one you would like to be.  My recommendation is to be all three.  The more you appreciate each role, the easier you understand how others operate.  If you are a soloist, think about how you communicate with your ensemble.  When you are in a chamber setting, consider that others in the group could feel just as strongly about something as you do, and yet not agree with you.  As an ensemble member, know how difficult it can be to run a group and keep everyone moving in the same direction.

If you do this, you can be someone people always want to work with, no matter what the circumstances.

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“In addition to,” not “Instead of.”

September 23, 2015

Now that it appears to actually be Fall and school is going full speed ahead, practice time is at a premium.  I’ve written about Time Management before, and though this topic is related, today the discussion focuses on what you want to accomplish.

I’m a big believer in versatility.  Versatility, for our musical purposes, means capable of playing in a wide variety of musical styles and musical settings.  It does not mean there must be a compromise in how you play.  There are still people out there that insist that each player is only allowed to do one thing well.  They will throw around the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” to those trying to do more than one thing.  They are wrong.

Before you say, “but what about Player X?  That player only does one thing, and does it exceedingly well,” let’s be perfectly clear.  As a player, you get to decide what kind of music you want to play.  Some might choose jazz.  Some might choose orchestral.  Others might choose integrating Tuvan Throat Singing with trumpet.  Just because a player you respect has chosen to focus exclusively on one style does not mean that is the only way to achieve excellence in that style.

Here’s what my performance schedule looked like for one week in June:

Wednesday June 10- Solo Recital – Bert Truax School of Trumpet Camp

Saturday June 12- Faculty Brass Quintet Concert – IU Summer Music 2015

Sunday June 13- Music of Simon and Garfunkel – St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

These are three very different performances, all happening in the same week.  To be able to do this takes us to the title.  When people are looking to expand their musical horizons, that means something new must be introduced into the practice regimen.  When introducing something new, it can be easy to remove something that you’ve been practicing to make room.  This is “Instead of” practicing.  While practicing the new material instead of something else, you might be gaining some ground on the new stuff, but you’re losing ground on the old.

If you want to be versatile, it means more practice.  Being able to play a variety of styles requires regular practice on everything you want to be able to play.  That’s “In addition to” practice.  I know there is only so much time in each day, so you must be smart about it.

Here’s how:  Make a list.  That’s right- make a list of all of things you want to be able to do.  It can be technical- “I want to be able to play a Double C.”  It can be musical- “I want to be able to actually swing.”  It can be general- “I want my piccolo trumpet playing to sound like Maurice Andre.”  It can be specific- “I want to be able to perform the Chaynes Concerto.”

Once you’ve made your list, you have a blueprint of what you need to practice.  This list is added to the daily practice that you’re already doing which includes: fundamentals, stuff your teacher assigned you, and music you’re responsible for performing.

Here’s where most people make a huge mistake and give up.  They start at the top of the list, and might get halfway through it on Day 1.  On Day 2 they start at the top of the list again, and might get just past halfway through.  Try this instead.  Wherever you stop on Day 1 is where you start on Day 2.  Wherever you stop on Day 2 is where you start on Day 3.  You get the picture.

Too often, we get wrapped up in the short term thinking that we need to learn to do something…NOW!  If you can start thinking long term, then you’ll be working steadily and consistently…and getting better at all of the things you want.

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The Simplicity of Auditions

September 2, 2015

It’s back to school time.  In addition to a new Trapper Keeper (yes!), that usually means auditions.  As someone auditioning, your job is simple.  You have exactly two things to do.

1)  Play your instrument well

To audition well, you must be fundamentally sound.  Think of this as your Music Delivery System.  Without great Sound, Articulation, Flexibility, and Facility, your best musical intent will go unheard.  This is why practicing your fundamentals is so important.  The better your fundamentals are, the easier it is to play (especially challenging material) musically.

2)  Make great music

This may seem obvious, but it needs reinforcement.  Too often I have heard from people that they “didn’t miss any notes.”  While that is certainly a good technical feat, it’s not a good answer to the question, “how did you play?”  Playing all of the right notes in the right order in good time is not the same as playing musically.  If you’re playing solos and/or excerpts, did you:

  • find great recordings?
  • listen to them over and over…and over?
  • play along with the recordings? (if you’re matching everything- sound, pitch, style, etc.- with one of your favorite players on a great recording…you’re on the right track)

With solos and excerpts, generally there are accepted ways to play.  In other words, “it goes like this.”  Learn “how it goes” and be able to do it fundamentally well and musically.

With etudes there may not be reference recordings, so you’re left to make sure your audition is musical.  Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • study and obey all markings on the page- tempo, dynamics, articulations, etc.
  • consider what it should sound like (majestic, somber, joyful, etc.)
  • commit to both the style you’re performing and to every marking on the page.

That’s it.  Don’t make it more complicated than this.  Here’s why:

You are not in charge of anyone else’s playing, or of judging the audition.

For some people, this is the hardest part.  You can play your absolute best and not get the result you want.  You can win an audition not playing your best.  The results and the other people involved are not your responsibility.  If you try and take that on, it will likely get in the way of the only two things you need to do:

1-Play well.  2-Play musically.