Archive for the ‘General’ Category

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Criticism

April 2, 2018

As a trumpet teacher, part of my job is giving criticism.  The relationships I have with my students are ones built on mutual trust, so my criticism is usually taken for its intended purpose- to help students improve.  After a student has played something, my first question is usually, “So, how did that go?”  The reason I ask this is so that I can see if the student and I are on the same page before we continue.  If the student says, “pretty good,” and I agree, I will let them know as we discuss how to get from ‘pretty good’ to ‘great.’  If I disagree, I will say something like, “Actually, I thought that did not go well.”  Or, “Hmmm…I thought that didn’t sound good at all.”  After that, I will explain why I thought what I thought, and ask why the student thought it was “pretty good.”  Then we work towards making it better.

Because we have good personal relationships, it is easy to have these kinds of conversations without hurt feelings.  If I think that your performance of Brandt #2 was not very good, that has nothing to do with you as a person.  It has to do with your preparation and performance of that etude.  If you’re working with someone you trust and can put your feelings aside, honest criticism will be a tremendous benefit.

Criticism can be very helpful in growth.  If you are offered an honest assessment of how you are doing, and how it could be better, this can eliminate a lot of wasted time.

There are two big problems I’d like to discuss today.  First up- Unwanted Criticism.  This can happen in a number of ways.  The easiest way is to post anything online…about anything.  Someone will quickly let you know what you should have done, and how much better you should have done it.  Another favorite of mine is the older student.  As an undergrad, there were always “experts” around to let me know what I “should” be doing. These are often the people to tell you how much better everything used to be.  Let me be very clear here- classmates and colleagues can be a great source of information for growth.  I encourage my students to play for each other to get good feedback.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  This is the person who, although is in the same place that you are, is somehow an “expert” on everything, and is happy to let you know it.

I deal with all unwanted criticism the same way- The Smile and Nod.  Here’s what you do:

  • Manufacture your best smile
  • Aim it at the Unwanted Critic
  • Give a small nod in their general direction
  • Walk away

The second big problem- Malicious Criticism.  This might be easier to find, as, if you’re reading this, you have internet access.  There are people that seem intent on hurting other people with their criticism.  The difficult part: it can work.  If you’ve invested a lot in a particular project just to have someone come along and viciously attack it, getting your feelings hurt is not unreasonable.  So- how do you deal with malicious criticism?  I have two suggestions.

  1. Ignore it.  If someone is going out of their way to hurt you, showing them that hurt only feeds them.
  2. If you just can’t let it go, try this- write them a thank you note.  Be as nice as you can in thanking them for taking the time to give such a thoughtful critique of your work.

There are people out there that seem to think that the only way to look good is to try and make others look bad.

So- where can you go for criticism you can trust?  Good question.  Experts.  Look for people that actually know what they’re talking about.  There is more information now, that is easily available, than ever before.  Not all of that information is equal.  It’s worth doing the little bit of extra work to make sure the information you’re getting is from a source that is reputable.

 

 

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Nuance

January 14, 2018

Being a huge trumpet geek, I regularly read trumpet related websites and watch trumpet videos online.  It’s amazing how much great stuff is out there.  That’s not what we’re discussing today.  Today’s topic is about what gets lost in too many online arguments and videos.  If you went to one of these sites and asked “what mouthpiece should I play?”, amazingly, people who have never heard or seen you play will tell you exactly what mouthpiece you should use.  Some of those same people will demonstrate their “knowledge” by saying one thing, like how important a good sound is, then demonstrate their “expertise” by not being able to produce a good sound.

I do not argue with these people.  In fact, I choose not to engage with them at all. What I’d like to discuss today is what’s missing from so many online discussions.

Too often, online discussions become black and white arguments, with no room for the many shades of gray that can exist.

There are a lot of online discussions about equipment.  I use my equipment because it works really well for me.  When I read online discussions regarding equipment, some people quickly resort to trashing horns and mouthpieces that don’t work for them.

Here’s the problem:

There are lots and lots of great horns being made right now.

There are also lots of terrible horns being made.

For example, if someone writes online that all Bach trumpets are garbage, that person should immediately lose all credibility.  I don’t play Bach trumpets, but that doesn’t mean they’re not any good.  There are brands of trumpets out there that I do believe to be of bad quality.  We need to be able to clearly articulate that difference.

Just because I say I like the color pink doesn’t necessarily mean I hate the color orange.  

I believe we can be better. For some reason, we seem to be losing the ability to discuss anything with any level of nuance. Too many discussions turn into online yelling matches, where the person with the most time on their hands can get the last word, and proclaim themselves “right.”

So what should we do? I have a few ideas.

1) Decide what’s important to you.

Before venturing into what could be an online mine field, take a minute to ask yourself if that particular discussion is worth your time. A lot of us have had initial reactions that, possibly, could have been tempered by a little time.

2) Will getting involved do any good?

This is a big one. If you see someone spouting what you believe to be absolute malarkey, ask yourself if your involvement can actually help. There are people that seem to enjoy confrontational tactics, and are emboldened by anyone who dares to challenge them. Any “discussion” only serves to entrench them in their own beliefs.

3) Stick to the subject at hand.

It is amazing how often I see that “but what about” argument deployed. You could be discussing whether to play Bb or C trumpet on Shostakovich, and then someone writes, “but what about playing rotary on Brahms!” Sure, lots of people choose to play Brahms on rotary, but that has nothing to do with the discussion at hand.

4) Realize that other people could have something valuable to say.

If you’re not interested in hearing other opinions, then don’t get involved.

5) Not all opinions are equal.

We’ve discussed this a bit before (You’re Not Always Entitled to Your Opinion), but it’s especially important to remember online. There are a lot of people using the internet to proclaim themselves experts. Please do some investigating and find out if the “expert” has any real expertise.

6) Know when to get out.

If, once you’ve engaged, you are dragged into something that you know can never be productive, it can be difficult to leave. It’s natural to want to try and convince others that you are right. Use this: “Unfortunately, I see now that we cannot have a productive discussion. Obviously we are not going to agree. This is my last post on the subject.”

My friends will tell you that I really enjoy a good argument. I also enjoy the exchange of ideas. If we can start acting better online, then the people who want to tell everyone else how wrong they are will have no one to argue with. Then we can open the door to real online discussion. I look forward to arguing with you soon.

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Make the Commitment

October 23, 2017

Playing the trumpet is easy.  What I mean by this is that the concepts involved aren’t complicated, and that anyone can do it.  I can teach anyone how to play the trumpet in 30 minutes.  Playing the trumpet well takes a considerable amount of practice.  No one plays at a professional level right away.

As you’re working to learn more and get better, it’s important to remember a few things.

Understanding a concept is just the first step in being able to demonstrate it

Your practice time should be spent putting the concepts you learn intellectually into practical use.  As we discussed with Scales, knowing that the Ab major scale has four flats doesn’t necessarily mean you can play it.  Similarly, knowing that getting a full sound throughout the entire register of the instrument is vital is not the same as doing it.

Oversimplifying can be as bad as overcomplicating

It can be easy to think- “oh, I just need to do this one thing, then everything else will fall into place.”  When faced with the frustration of that not working, it’s easy to make the leap to- “it’s just too difficult…you have to be born with it…if only I knew the secret.”  As a teacher, I go out of my way to make things as simple as possible.  Notice the “as possible.”  That’s the important part.  Oversimplifying can lead to not getting the result you want.  Overcomplicating can lead to quitting in frustration.  I don’t like either of those outcomes.  It’s critical to understand what you’re working towards, and to proceed down the simplest path to get there.

There are no shortcuts

This is a big one.  There are still people out there making outrageous claims about near-instant improvement.  Growth takes time.  If you are not willing to invest the time and energy necessary, find something else to do.  If you’re spending time looking for a magic solution, you’re wasting time you could be spending getting better.

With that in mind, your work should show improvement.  If you’re practicing dutifully and not seeing any improvement, it’s time to look for a new path.

Commitment

This brings me to the title of this entry.  On the surface, some of what is written above might appear to be contradictory.  I’m saying that trumpet is easy, but takes time.  I’m telling you to look for the simplest path for growth, but not look for shortcuts.  I believe that anyone can understand how to play the trumpet in 30 minutes, but being great at it takes much longer.

Too often, people seem to be looking for a checklist of exactly what they need to do to get where they say they want to go.  It’s almost never this simple.  True learning is not a straight line, or a destination.  It’s a long term investment in yourself and a process for continued growth.

No one else can make this commitment for you.  You can take words of encouragement as motivation.  You can also take people telling you “you’ll never make it” as motivation to prove them wrong (this is not my favorite, as it is working from a negative place- I prefer to leave the “you’ll never make it” people behind and forget them).  Ultimately the commitment is about only one person- you.  Once you decide to make this commitment, (and I mean this in the nicest way possible) others don’t matter.  As a student, it can be difficult to be around a lot of other people on similar paths to yours.  You might see people winning auditions, competitions, and jobs that you really want.  Remember this: someone else’s success is not your failure.

Once you’ve made the commitment, there’s no need to advertise it.  Your commitment isn’t to anyone but yourself.  If you are truly making a change, your actions, and the results of those actions, will speak louder than words ever could.

 

 

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Do You REALLY Know it?

September 25, 2017

When I ask new students if they know all of their major scales, I usually get “yes” responses.  Then I pick up my horn and say, “Okay, let’s play them.  First me, then you.”  It’s at that point that I can tell by the look in their eyes whether or not they really know them.  Most of them know how major scales are built, and can tell me how many flats or sharps are in the key signatures.  That’s a great start to REALLY knowing.

Let me ask you a question:

What’s the 13th letter of the alphabet? 

Right now, most of you are either thinking (or singing to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star): “A-B-C-D-E-F-G” while counting on your fingers.  If I asked you if you know the alphabet, you would most likely answer yes.

I want a deeper knowledge of scales and music.

This brings us to memorization.  For some, memorization has become a bad word.  For others, it’s an absolute necessity.  This is where the problems begin.  Memorizing data without understanding it is useless.  For example, if you can tell me that the Ab major scale has four flats, and they are Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db, but still can’t play an Ab major scale, you still have work to do.  Having no data at all will make your job much harder.  If you don’t know how to build an Ab major scale, you’ll probably have a hard time playing one.

There are things that need to be not just memorized, but truly learned so that you can progress.  There is information that you need to own.  And here’s a secret- the more you own, the better.

Smartphones have made it very easy to not know anything.  If you need directions, a recipe, stats from a football game on Saturday, or the name of that person on that show that was that other character from that movie- there’s an app that can help you.  I say this as someone that uses my smartphone regularly for these purposes.

When it comes to music, I want you to start taking responsibility for REALLY knowing your material.  Let’s start with scales as an example:

  1. Can you play all of your major scales from memory?
  2. What about minor scales (natural, melodic, and harmonic)?
  3. What about modes?
  4. Can you play them in 3rds?
  5. 4ths?
  6. You are, of course, playing them over the entire range of your instrument, right?

If you’re thinking- wow, that’s a lot!- you’d be right.  So where do you start?  Simple-with something, anything, that you know that you don’t REALLY know.  Set aside a little bit of time every day to get better.  That little bit of time, every day, will add up quickly, and you’ll start seeing results.

Once you start working in this way, you can start seeing music in a bigger picture.  You won’t be looking note-to-note; you’ll be seeing phrase-to-phrase.  And once you starting taking the responsibility of REALLY knowing music, your performances will improve, and your growth will skyrocket.

I love etudes.  I use them in my practice and in my teaching.  In the abstract, learning any one etude for your lesson isn’t the most important thing in the world.  Students will often ask the questions (especially when it comes to advanced math): “Do I really need to know this?” and “Am I ever going to use this again?”  Although you may not be asked to play etude #19 in public at any point in your career, the cumulative knowledge you gain by taking the time to REALLY know each piece assigned will, over time, help your overall musical growth immensely.

There are always more ways to practice, and always more information to learn.

This is why being a musician is the best way to live.

 

 

 

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Smart(phone) Practice

September 1, 2017

The school year has started.  For a lot of you, that means back to lessons and ensembles, with a whole lot of new music for you to prepare.  When preparing music, you need to pay attention to detail, work out the technical and musical challenges, and make sure you’re playing your instrument fundamentally well.

Don’t forget to practice performing!

Too often musicians spend so much time preparing a piece, they leave performance out of their practice.  Once the piece has been studied, the “hard parts” are worked out, and the phrasing has been decided, the practice session ends.  There needs to be one more step.

Practice performing the piece.

How, you might ask?  Good question.  For those of you with smartphones (and I think that’s a lot of you), try adding this to your daily practice.

  1. After the “normal practice” of your piece, put your phone on your music stand, and video record a performance of the piece.
  2. DON’T WATCH IT YET!
  3. When you are ready to practice this piece next (at least one day later), watch the video.
  4. Notice what you did well, as well as what needs work.  Delete the video.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4.

Adding this to your daily practice gives you the opportunity to show yourself exactly what others see in your performance.  That’s why you don’t watch the video immediately.  When you give yourself that day, something that you might have not noticed could stick out, while something else that bothered you in the moment might be no big deal.  You might also notice aspects of your performance that you hadn’t considered before (posture, hand position, funny faces that you make while playing).

Since you are the only one watching the recordings, it’s up to you to be completely honest with yourself.  If not, it’s like cheating at solitaire- sure you may have “won,” but who cares?  Holding yourself accountable for daily performance can certainly be frustrating, especially at first.  Done correctly, you’re gaining valuable performing experience that will have you better prepared when you next step on stage.

 

 

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Ownership

May 19, 2017

It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard:

“I aced that test.”

or

“I played great.”

And from the same people:

“The teacher gave me a D.”

or

“Umm…my valve stuck…the print was too small…with Venus in retrograde there was just no way.”

It’s very easy to take credit for the good stuff.  When everything is going well and you’re getting positive feedback, ownership is a piece of cake.  It’s when stuff starts going poorly that ownership gets more difficult to assume.  It’s not unusual to look for excuses, or someone else to blame.  Resist that urge.  You must own all that goes right along with all that doesn’t.

Remember this:

A bad performance doesn’t make you a bad person.

Musicians, like many other professionals, often tie their work to their overall self-esteem.  This is very dangerous.  Playing trumpet well does not make you a good person.  Taking pride in a job well done is very different than believing that, because you happen to play well, you’re a gift for the world to enjoy.  On the opposite side, a bad concert doesn’t make you some kind of sub-human never allowed to see sunlight ever again.

While it’s natural to feel good after playing well and not as good after playing poorly, what you do with those feelings is very important.  If you take your good performance as a sign of how great you are, it’s unlikely you’ll keep getting better.  And if you believe your bad performance proves every negative thought that has ever entered your head about yourself, it’s also unlikely you’ll grow from that.

The first thing my students hear from me after finishing playing something is usually, “How do you think that went?”  The answer to that question will show what the student noticed about that performance.  I want to know what the student thinks went well as well as what needs work.  Because most of the time we spend practicing is alone, it’s vital that we learn self-diagnosis.  Once we figure out what was good and what still needs attention, we know what to practice.  At the end of most lessons, my students hear, “So you know what to practice?  And how to practice it?”  When the answer to both questions is yes, I let them go, looking forward to hearing them the following week.

To truly enjoy the gratification that comes from a great performance, and you should, you must completely own the frustration of those performances that weren’t your best.

One last thing- the day after that performance, no matter how it goes:  Get back in the practice room.  There’s still plenty of work to be done.

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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.