This quote from Bill Gates has been stuck in my mind since I saw it at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI!) not long ago. I teach and believe that we practice to be successful, that we work to achieve a successful outcome...but what is the definition of success?
Dictionary.com defines success as "the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals." Ouch! That first part really changes things for me. One of the things I celebrate as a musician and teacher is that the process never ends . . . there's always more to learn, to try, to investigate, to listen to, to play, to see; and perhaps a better or different way to try all of the above. Granted, it's important to acknowledge meeting one's goals - that surely IS an achievement. The desire to accomplish a goal is highly motivational; it moves us forward. However, Dictionary.com underlines the end of action ("a termination of attempts or endeavors"), preceded by the end of inquiry, because there is no more need to look further or deeper or differently. We're "done."
Getting back to the Gates quote, does being successful promote a state of "doneness"? A state of having exhausted all the possibilities? To me, this quote captures that sense of playing a piece really well, or winning an audition, and then suddenly feeling . . . invincible. You all know what I mean, as experience is often the best teacher. Go ahead and experience that sense of accomplishment, but remain curious before human nature kicks in. Prepare for the unexpected, try new things, and ask questions. I may get tired, especially during the final week of classes, but I hope I remain curious!
The other issue with this quote that continues to nag me is the fact that we will all fail at some point and at some task. Failure is not nearly as glamorous as success, and yet it is a very common, if not daily, occurrence. Although not pleasant, if we're not failing at something during the day, then we may not be taking enough chances. The safest arena for us musicians to experiment with this is, of course, the practice room. Be willing to go there, and then we do fail, let's figure out why. That's at the heart of Bill Gates' wisdom: we equip ourselves with knowledge and insight gained through the experience of failing. Remember that quote attributed to Einstein about the definition of insanity? It's doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. How often do we resort to this in our practicing (and living)? Be willing to fail and to figure out why.
So with all of this in mind, consider that Success can be a Lousy Teacher, while Failure can likewise be a Fantastic Teacher. Success can terminate action, while Failure can drive us forward, if we take the initiative to use it, learn from it, and move through it.
I'm getting ready to visit a friend and have the opportunity to work with some of her amazing students, so I put together a guide for them I'd like to share here. Many of these ideas represent the wisdom of my teachers, family, friends, and sources of inspiration over the years. Thank you all for helping! Now it's time to "pay it forward" . . . .
How to make the cut, passing on to the next round and into the live audition after pre-screening recordings, or succeeding after graduation, or practicing after1. Write out goals: make a timeline for the following:
2. Just like the above, practice for next year, not just next month or even next year. Be realistic about where you are in your playing – check your ego at the door and listen critically but positively. Record yourself and listen to it!
3. Use tools to help you. Really.
1. Tonal Energy: http://tonalenergy.com/ is an amazing, one-stop-shopping kind of app that combines reference tones, a sophisticated metronome, a tuner on multiple levels, and a recording device. This is a must-own app for iOS.
2. The Tuning CD: http://www.amazon.com/The-Tuning-C-D-A-440/dp/B002COP51Q Great for playing Reichert No. 2, excerpts, and anything else you’re working on – S L O W L Y!
3. Read an inspiring blog on a regular basis for ideas and practicing strategies, such as this one by Dr. Noa Kageyama: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/
4. Do something to further your career each day. Write a thank you email, listen to a great recording of someone from the past as well as current trends, read Letters to a Young Poet (Rilke), read some of Mozart’s letters, journal your thoughts for five straight and unedited minutes, etc.! Be thankful for the opportunity to make music, connecting with yourself, and connecting with others.
5. Take care of the fundamentals, each day. These basic tools provide our foundation upon which we build artistry. Take care of body use, balance, and coordination during your technique practice. Evaluate your sense of ease vs. tension in muscles during this time. This is money in your playing career bank! Take care of all those little things that are holding you back so that your passion and energy shine through your playing. Listen critically to your rhythm, intonation, vibrato, tone, articulation, and technical coordination. Are they inhibiting your interpretation, sense of pacing, and overall delivery of your piece?
6. Discover your sound. Our tone is like the eyes, which many consider windows to our soul. Create a sound you love, sharing it with the rest of the world. If you don’t know where to begin, listen to ALL kinds of instrumentalists and singers, considering what you love about their sound and what ideas help you find YOURS.
7. Be demanding of yourself, but frame it positively. Self-talk is very powerful….would you “talk” to your student the way you “talk” to yourself in your practice session? That doesn’t mean that everything sounds wonderful, or every passage is “great!” Listen critically, knowing that you are assessing what you are doing, not your character or essential qualities as a flutist or person! I guarantee you will accomplish more and in less time.
8. Surround yourself by inspiring people, events, and activities. Find the strongest players and musicians around, and ask them to play a piece with you. Support live music and touring art exhibitions, see an opera or a ballet, and attend a chamber music program. Learn from the performers, the conductors, the singers, the dancers.
9. Be teachable. Be curious. Be flexible. Be the kind of musician you would like to work with. Our work is never done – which is one of the cool things about music, as there is always more to learn! Although we need to recognize our strengths, we can always learn something, play better, and try something new. Be brave and secure enough to ask questions, wondering how something works, and why something else doesn’t. Think about the kind of second flute you would like to have if playing the most demanding first part, and BE that colleague….be prepared, kind, supportive, sensitive, listening acutely and responding, arriving early = on time, and committed.
10. Look at item No. 1 again. A most noble goal is to make a difference through music. It sounds a bit naïve but it is the truest goal, and one that will continue to nurture our passion and interest in being musicians. Sure – there will be rough and tough times ahead, but knowing you are making a difference will make just that: all the difference!
Where has the time gone? The last post I made was in January, and here we are in April already...the light is starting to blind us at the end of the tunnel, it's so bright - the end of the semester is in sight! Many of my students may be wondering the same thing, especially those finishing up their degree programs. It's exciting, something many have dreamed about and looked forward to - and it's also a little scary. Ok, sometimes it's very scary...and confusing, and terrifying, and exhilarating! Often we can't wait for time to pass....or we eagerly wait in anticipation for
an exciting event that can't seem to arrive fast enough, only to discover that it's over before we have a chance to really appreciate it. Time has so many implications in life and music, but especially when experiencing a life IN music:
Rhythm. We know that rhythm is vital to a musical experience, especially when playing with others. We are guided to be "on time" and "in time" in order to match those around us. Typically, the most important aspect considered in an orchestral audition is rhythm. We use our metronomes regularly to guide us rhythmically so that we are not late, early, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do we teach ourselves to follow the metronome, or develop a rhythmic sense between the beats? Experiment with using your metronome on offbeats, in larger increments of the beat, on only downbeats, and other ways to encourage larger groupings. While you're at it, try having it play the subdivisions so you hear and even play every increment of the beat.
Breathing and time. Lately I've been thinking a lot about breath. As flutists we tend to sometimes feel that we need to apologize for taking a breath, or that we are less of a flute player if we actually take a breath here or there....it's important to have a totally energized use of one's air, but I think that it is liberating - if not JUST as important - to consider that taking a breath within the fabric of a melody is an artistic event, with just as much meaning as the placement and pacing of a particular note. If we had that approach would we take a different, more "nourishing" breath that creates a sense of ease and balance in the body? I think it's worth exploring! Many instrumentalists who do not rely on the breath to produce their tone actively breathe to effectively shape a phrase.
Creating space. By creating an "artistic" approach to breathing and breath pacing, we can also experiment with overall pacing and note placement. If we practice with a metronome, can we try to "not be with it" in between the beats, or downbeats? Assuming we are adequately prepared with a passage, what happens if we allow a touch of flexibility? Robert Willoughby always taught that if we take time to complete a phrase, we "start as we leave" - or take the general sense of time forward to get things going again after the sense of relaxation and completion. As they say, timing is everything - and it can really make or break a performance. Take chances, surprise the listener and maybe even yourself, and stretch/push a phrase to help it unfold in a new way. How can you play a piece in a way that also encourages the audience to breathe differently?
Preparation. Figuring out the best strategies to effectively attack what is holding you back in your piece or etude will make the most of your time in the practice room. It often requires practice and time to develop a discerning ear and a positive, constructive attitude. If you have many pieces on your stand in various stages of preparation, try creating a timeline so that you can plan out your practicing, listening, rehearsing, and overall personal lesson plan strategy for everything. Although this just takes a few minutes, it will save you a lot of time and boost your confidence. Try using a countdown app to help you, or an online practice journal (or practice app).
Well, it's almost time for my rehearsal! This is a topic that we could spin for many entries. . . I wish you all the courage to make the most of the time we have, and appreciate the time you invested in reading this!