Posts Tagged ‘music’

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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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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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The Power of Mental Focus

May 13, 2015

In the time I’ve been teaching trumpet lessons, I’ve worked with students of all ages, interest levels, and experience- beginners getting their horns for the first time, high school students, professionals, come back players, and of course college students.   For the long term growth as a musician and trumpet player, one of the most important concepts (and sometimes the most difficult to teach) needed is mental focus.

When I first started teaching beginners, this is what I told them:

“If you practice everything I give you, the stuff you are responsible for in band is going to be pretty easy.  You’re going to sound really good in band, and your director will be very happy with you.  Your director and the other kids in band will think you’re very good.  But we’ll know the truth.”

Then I would explain to them what I meant by “the truth.”  The truth is that our playing is always changing.  Done right, our playing is always growing.  In the big picture we need to do two things:

  1. Practice how to play the horn. In other words- fundamentals.
  2. Practice what to play on the horn.  In other words- music.

(There’s a lot of overlap here, as fundamentals should be played musically, and playing music can certainly inform our technique and spur fundamental growth…but that’s a discussion for another day.)

So “the truth” is that there is always work to be done on our playing.  Always.

There are two reasons I told my beginners this.  They are:

  1. to give them confidence when playing in a group, whether in a performance or rehearsal, that they have the tools necessary to do a terrific job.
  2. to stave off the stereotype of the “cocky trumpet player” by letting them know that there’s always more work to be done.  When things go well, it’s a result of good practice, and not because they were anointed by magic fairies at birth with a special potion that made them the greatest players the world has ever heard.

This worked well. Since I started teaching college, it has surprised me how many students get this backwards.  I hear how their thought process in rehearsals and performances focuses on what is lacking, and the thought process in the practice room focuses on how good everything is.

I found this troubling.  So, like always, let’s start with the easy stuff:

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses

This seems like a simple enough statement.  Here’s why I bring it up.  When in a group, it can be easy to focus on someone else’s strengths, especially if they are your weaknesses.  This is a quick road to Insecureville, which is right next to Underconfident City.  Once you arrive there, it’s very difficult to play your best, as you will be telling yourself how much you can’t do.  Similarly, there are those that like to focus on someone else’s weaknesses, especially if it matches their strengths.  This is the express lane to Conceitedton, which borders Cockyberg.  Once you arrive there, you are so sure of yourself you don’t play your best because, no matter what comes out of your horn, you’ve already convinced yourself you’re the greatest thing since the invention of nachos (mmmm….nachos).

These are bad places for your mind to dwell.  Here’s how mental focus can help.

When practicing, focus on your weaknesses

Again, this may seem simple.  For a lot of people, closing the door to the practice room and really admitting to and working on a weakness can be very difficult.  Once you really commit to this kind of focus while practicing, you’ll see the benefits.

Which brings us to:

When performing, focus on your strengths

When it’s time to play with others, your mental focus needs to shift. Finding the mental place of being confident without being cocky can be a challenge.  Your mental focus will be most beneficial if it is focused on what you bring to the performance.  If you’ve been practicing well, this can help, as you’ve built a habit of playing the instrument well fundamentally and musically in the practice room.

The Circle of Growth

If you can take charge of your mental focus, you can build a circle of growth.  At the top of the circle is practice.  Since you’re focusing on your weaknesses in the practice room, you’re getting better and better at the instrument, building your confidence in what you’re able to do.  At the bottom of the circle is performance.  Since you’re focusing on your strengths in performance, your performances become better, building upon the good habits you’ve build in the practice room.  After your performance, you take what didn’t go as well as you’d like in the performance into the practice room and treat it as a weakness to be worked on.

Keep doing this.  Forever.

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Musicians Are Not Athletes

March 5, 2015

It’s time that we stop saying “Musicians are Athletes.”  It’s one of those phrases that has been repeated so many times that it is now accepted as fact.  There’s only one problem.  It’s just not true.

I’m a sports fan.  Those of you who know me also know that’s a bit of an understatement.  I have respect for the amount of work it takes to become a world class athlete.  Although there are comparisons that can be made in how athletes and musicians practice, saying “Musicians are Athletes” is just as silly as saying “Athletes are Musicians.”  I understand the correlation: Both musicians and athletes spend years honing the skills, both physical and mental, which are needed for their respective careers.

Now let’s look at the execution of these careers.  Athletes are preparing for competition.  The job is to, either as an individual or team, win by doing their job in a quantifiable way better than someone else (score more points, faster, etc.).  Musicians are preparing for concerts.  The job is to perform music for an audience.  (I’m intentionally ignoring music competitions the same way I’m ignoring sports showcases…they exist, but music isn’t quantifiable the same way as sports, and sports showcases take away the competition, one of the key components, from professional sports.)

The reason for bringing this up is not to take away from either group.  It is important that musicians think of themselves accurately.  Although we may share many superficial qualities with athletes, we do not belong under that heading.  We are artists, and should think of ourselves as such.  All of our training, practice, and rehearsals are so that we can step out on stage and create art.

Another significant problem I have in considering musicians athletes is the separation athletics employ.  Most sports are divided along gender lines, and size and shape play an important part.  I’ve witnessed some ridiculous discussions regarding perceived advantages of gender and size, especially as it pertains to trumpet playing.  These discussions have typically relied upon the worst kind of evidence: anecdotal.  Please don’t tell me that you believe a gap in your teeth is the secret to playing high because you saw Jon Faddis.  Or that a beard is necessary to play jazz because you saw Bobby Shew.  Or that military service is the secret to a great orchestral career because Mr. Herseth was in the Navy and Mr. Smith was in the Salvation Army.

As trumpet players, we work together regardless of gender, shape, and size because those things don’t matter when creating music.

The last point of discussion is a doozy.  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some variation of, “playing trumpet is an athletic event.”  Please stop saying this.  Let’s start with air.  Take a look at the throat of your mouthpiece.  No matter what anyone tells you, there is only so much air that will go through there at one time (and it’s not as much as you might think).  Yes, you do have to hold the trumpet up while you play.  But if that’s a measure of athleticism, then playing bass trombone is a lot more of an athletic event than trumpet (you have to hold it up and move one arm back and forth!).  Then there’s the strength involved.  Usually this is referred to as chops, which generally means the ability to play for a long time, very loud, very high, or some combination of those three.  The root of this might be the corners of your lips, which do need to be able to stay in place while blowing air through the mouthpiece and holding the horn against your face.  But here’s a big secret:

It’s not all about strength.

It’s about coordination.

I’ll certainly discuss more about coordination, in detail, in the future.  But for now, please realize that the overlap in the way musicians and athletes prepare doesn’t make musicians athletes any more than it makes athletes musicians.

Now that we are thinking of ourselves as artists (and our chances of a concussion have decreased significantly), practice and rehearse with the idea of creating art each time you step in front of an audience.