Archive for the ‘General’ Category

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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.

 

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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.