Archive for the ‘Trumpet’ Category

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Big Picture vs. Little Picture

September 4, 2018

As it’s the beginning of the school year, now is a great time to think about how and why we practice.  If you’re in school, there is a lot asked of you.  There are the time commitments of being in all of your classes and rehearsals.  Then there’s the work associated with classes, rehearsals, and lessons.  All of that is important.  But if you only focus on what’s right in front of you, it’s possible that you can get frustrated and lose track of why you’re doing what you’re doing.

This can happen in our daily lives, especially while we’re in school.  It can be frustrating to sit in a practice room working on whatever is most difficult for you (for me it was piano- learning the proper fingerings for scales made me want to throw the piano out the window).  It is very easy to go to the “will I ever really need this?” question about any single aspect of school or work that you find tedious or difficult.

That’s because all of that is the Little Picture.  Don’t get me wrong- the Little Picture is important.  This is what you’re doing right now for the immediate future: homework, learning music for an upcoming performance, learning material for your lessons.  You want to do well in school, sound good in performances, and be prepared for your lessons.

Here’s the hard part- You shouldn’t let the Little Picture obscure the Big Picture.  The Big Picture is the overarching reason you’re doing all of this work.  You get to decide what the Big Picture is.  Please let me offer some advice:

  • Make the Big Picture a concept, not a goal.
    • If you make your big picture a goal, like winning a certain job, then as soon as you achieve it, you’re done.  My big picture is to be a great trumpet player, musician, and teacher.  If my goal was to play lead on Maynard Ferguson’s band, I would have been done with my Big Picture before I was 30.  If it was teaching trumpet at a great music school, then I would still have been done before I was 40.  Make no mistake, those are things I wanted to do and am happy to have done.  But those were all Little Picture things.
  • Stay aware of both the Little Picture and Big Picture.
    • When you lose sight of the Big Picture, it can feel like what you’re doing is pointless, and you’ll never get anywhere.  My career is going well, but it wasn’t exactly a straight line.  I worked at America Online for a short period of time, taught kindergarten for a year, and worked for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Education Department.
  • Invest heavily in every Little Picture.
    • As hard as it can be, take every step in your potential growth seriously.  I have lots of rules.  One of those is:  Knowing is generally better than not knowing.  When you encounter those parts of your education that you don’t like, don’t care about, find difficult, or any combination of those- take the time to do the work and, even if you never see any concrete benefit from it, you’ll be the better for it.

If you can operate this way, you can’t help but continue to grow.

Now get to work.  And never forget why you’re doing it.

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Confidence

June 28, 2018

Recently I met with a high school student who was visiting IU.  As he was packing up, he asked me if I had any advice on developing confidence.  As our time was short, I hope that my answer didn’t come off as flippant.  I told him:

No one can give you confidence.  It’s something you have to build.

As a teacher, I can give advice and tools to help build confidence, but eventually the student has to take ownership.  If I give a student tools and exercises, telling them that once they complete them that they will be confident, I’m lying.  What is most important in the process is that the student is aware of how they’re doing.

I try to make confidence into a logic problem.  Let’s say there is an etude a student has never seen.  I will ask how confident they are in their ability to perform the etude.  Usually, it’s fairly low.  Then I will give the student one week to prepare it, with tools on how to prepare.  After the week, I ask how confident they are.  Some will say very confident, while others will still say they are not confident at all.  What’s the difference?  The students who used the preparation time to not only learn the etude, but understand and believe that they are able to play the etude, have done themselves a great service.  Too many people ignore the second part.

So here’s the logic:

If you are practicing something, you should be getting better at it. 

If you’re getting better at it, you should have more confidence in your ability to perform it.  

So….if you believe that you are practicing well, but you’re not gaining confidence, you have one of two problems.  Either:

  1. You aren’t practicing as well as you think, or
  2. You aren’t paying attention to the progress you’re making.

It can be easy to focus on the nuts and bolts of:

  • playing all the right notes in the right order
  • playing dynamics
  • playing in good time
  • playing musically

because all of those things are important.  Too often we focus exclusively on what still needs work, instead of also including what has improved.  Make sure you’re looking at the big picture.  After working on a piece of music, ask yourself if it’s better than when you started.  If the answer is yes, then give yourself some credit for doing good work, and realize that you should now have increased confidence, as you know you’re heading in the right direction.

If this sounds overly simple- good.  It’s not complicated (that doesn’t mean it’s easy!).  I’ve found that people like to make concepts that they find difficult as complicated as possible.  Making difficult concepts as simple as possible helps me know that a solution is not only possible, but something I can achieve.

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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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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.