It's ensemble placement audition season, but as a musician there's likely always something looming on the horizon where we will be performing and (thanks to human nature) evaluated. How do we make lemonade if we're blinded by all the lemons (or limes) life seems to have set before us?
Prepare the best you can. If your deadline looms large, make a chart to attack things logically and in an organized way. What are you most worried about? Start there, and practice in a reverse-timeline format. At this point you may need to assess strategically, recognizing in a realistic way of what is achievable in the amount of time remaining.
Listen to recordings. This time counts as practicing as well, but strive to find the best material you can. If none is available of your piece, listen to other works by the same composer or those in a similar style.
Record yourself in a run through. Do a quick intake on what you perceive as uncomfortable sections or weaknesses. Then listen, and write down your observations of the recording. Compare both sets of "before and after" to see which areas really need more attention. You may be surprised that things aren't as "bad" as they "feel" but we must strive for comfort to achieve ownership.
When preparing excerpts, play for people. Have different combinations of "sets" of excerpts, always including those you are most dreading! Better yet, allow your listeners to choose selections randomly, while still including the ones that make your heart race a little faster.
Practice playing under pressure. Welcome this anxious state so that it is familiar and that you are accustomed to playing - and playing well. This helps you reclaim your power under fire and channel your energies forward. Find your center, shape the line, and focus on your musical goals. We will always feel a little anxious and excited - these ingredients make live music exciting and individual, rather than flat and processed powdered limeade mix.
Maintain perspective. This is just one snapshot of one moment in your life. It does not predict or limit your potentials, but it is time to deliver as best you can. It's not the time to berate yourself on what you did up to this point - that will only undermine your success in playing your best. What advice would you give a friend, or your student, in a similar situation? How would you help them make lemonade?
Learn from this playing opportunity. Every time we play, every time we put our ideas out there in public, we take a chance and we learn about ourselves. That's what this is all about, I believe. Be open to the possibilities and have fun playing - really!
It's already mid-July...do you know where your summer has gone?
Actually, it's been a great summer, full of lots of inspiration, rain, quality time with loved ones and friends, time for reflection, and thoughts for the future. I'm getting ready to teach out of state, followed by the annual whirlwind of NFA Convention/blast off to the semester, so here are a few practice blogs and sites to help get revved up for the Fall semester:
Nicholas Walker, bassist:
Practice Monster. This is a great blog by a former UMiami classmate, saxophonist David Pope. A must-read for all of us who wrestle the balance and discipline that skill requires.
The Musician's Way by Gerald Klickstein. This is an amazing resource of much fantastic information, ranging from practicing to career development to wellness. Spend some time checking out this website, including the terrific downloads.
The Bulletproof Musician by Noa Kageyama. This is another rich website, full of inspiration and practicing ideas. With a searchable blog and an online course, you can find great information here.
Study Hacks Blog decoding patterns of Success, by Cal Newport: "exploring how people build interesting and meaningful lives." Here are some different viewpoints to push us further (below) but there are many other entries you may find interesting:
The Courage Crutch
Flow is the opiate of the mediocre
Is Talent Underrated?
The Practicing Musician - scroll down for lots of entries.
A few lists (with links and other insights):
Music in Practice by Sue Hunt. Here's a post on Two Tips to Cure Mindless Fast Practice, but there are many other entries, including a category on how to practice.
10 Easy Ways to Optimize Your Practicing
5 Strategies for Effective Practice by Nick Baskin, offers ideas on how to avoid getting overwhelmed by the piles of new music awaiting your ensemble and lesson activities.
14 Sites That Help You Practice
Essential Music Practice has helpful ideas, but check out the Top 5 Habits for Effective Practice, located on the bottom of the page. Get it right the first time so you're not practicing being overloaded!
Happy practicing, everyone!
A shout out to my student Ashley (!) and TMEA for getting word out about
TONAL ENERGY - which is probably the best $3.99 a musician can invest if an iOS user. For all you iFans out there, this is definitely a great thing to check out if you have not done so yet!
A terrific user's guide is located online . Although billed as a tuner, this powerful app is a chromatic tuner, metronome, and recording device all rolled into one convenient package. When using the tuner option, you can use your iDevice as a tuner or select the tone generator instrument (and temperament) to sustain a reference tone (or multiple tones). It's also possible to select these options while using the metronome, which also offers great options.
The analysis option allows you to see feedback for each option - tuner and metronome. While selecting the tuner or tone generator option, the sound you create (input) registers on a graph indicating your tuning (cents sharp, flat, or in tune). The metronome clicks are also visible, so you can check the precision of your attacks or note shifts. Even better is the ability to record the track, which provides a recording of not only the audio but also the visual graph track! You can then save the file on your iDevice or even email it or upload it. [Keep in mind that in order to be correctly in tune you'll want to make sure you take into the account the tendency of that note. For example, if you're playing the third of major chord, you will need to place that note 13.7 cents flat (officially!). Here's a handy chart to help with this.]
some ways to get the most out of this app
Although I am sure I will keep learning new things, here are a few tricks to plug into your practicing strategies:
1. Tone generator: pick the best instrument to enhance yours, and choose registers to give you optimum resonance (and the most overtones). If you're working on piccolo excerpts, for example, avoid assigning the same register in which you're currently playing. Although this may be more challenging at first, you can add lower octaves and sustain multiple tones simultaneously.
2. Check your vibrato. Using the analysis option, use the graph as a visual check to explore the options available to you - amplitude (width) and velocity (speed). Are the pulsations regular? Tending to creep up or down (sharp or flat)? Stopping the vibrato while you switch from note to note? Having the visual feedback can powerfully reinforce the aural information we often neglect.
3. Record yourself! This is a sure-fire way to improve quickly and significantly. Even more powerful here is the ability to recording yourself while NOT looking at the screen, save the file, and then view the analysis. OUCH. Start to make the connection between what you hear and what you see regarding intonation tendencies, releases of phrases, attacks of notes, and other important details.
Try this app today and share some ways you've found!
Being Italian, wooden spoons have been a big part of my life. It was always the tool of choice for cooking, and I remember wielding a wooden spoon to make sauce (yes, tomato sauce, not gravy - in my house). Nothing seems to work quite as well, not even those handy silicone spatulas that I can conveniently toss in the dishwasher. I have my favorite wooden spoons, some with wider bases for expert pot-scraping, some with longer handles to reach all the way to the bottom and not get lost in the sauce, and some that are just very important for sentimental reasons over the generations.
When we practice, it's often tempting to "let it rest," not wishing to unveil all the sticky clumps that are lurking at the bottom of our piece. It's certainly easier to not disrupt things - after all, the practicing pot is on simmer so it will eventually cook/be "done." There's a lot to be said for a slow and methodical approach, like a low simmer..but what about a pressure cooker, or induction burner, or other materials that speed up the cooking process to increase results in less time? Are the results the same? Different? How?
What is our go-to cooking technique for practicing? In our approach to life? Sometimes stirring the pot sheds new light on things...perhaps it's time to really scrape away and give things a good but careful mix. Are there practicing strategies we've shied away from because they're new, and therefore a little uncomfortable? Do we always begin our practicing session with long tones? With vibrato? Without? How can we stir the pot?
This morning in our Wednesday tone/tech class we went through a bunch of "standard" exercises we tend to go to and play a bit on automatic pilot. We purposefully were creative and changed things up together as a group, brainstorming and having fun bumbling through the challenging variations we were able to create. We made our neurons fire differently and although it was challenging it was completely engaging. The time flew by and we had fun!
I'd also like to add that in the larger picture, it takes mental, emotional, and physical strength to stir the pot...to invite change, and to make things "happen." Check out this great list (!) of things the mentally strong avoid. Here's to all the wooden spoons out there!
Put your chef's hat on and think about it. How often do you hesitate to stir the pot, both in the practice room and in general? What's keeping you from giving things a good swish, mixing everything up, and offering fresh and invigoratingly new perspectives? Be the wooden spoon and accept this throwdown: stir the pot both in the practice room and in your life, even just one small way - today.
Region and Audition Strategies for Success!
So – your region auditions are coming up, or your college auditions, or end-of-the-semester juries are just around the corner. That means your heart might be pounding a little as you read these words! And that’s ok – that’s a good sign. You care, you’re invested, and this matters to you. These are all important factors. Putting yourself out there for possible rejection is a brave thing to do, and there’s just no way to authentically grow without taking this risk.
Let’s take a step back and put on our white lab coats for a second…so that we can be objective in a little experiment. At this point, with just a few days to spare, what exactly are some factors we may be able to control? As you know, I like to make lists…so let’s consider these possible options:
1. How much rest you get between now and then. Ok – so you might have a couple of finals and/or big assignments between now and the big event. What if you push a little extra now at the beginning of the week so you can get additional (or better!) rest closer to the audition?
2. Speaking of rest, as Jeanne Baxtresser notes, we are athletes of the small muscles. Therefor, we need to make sure these muscles get time to recover and rest. This is not the time to double your practice time. Take breaks, make sure you stretch before a session, and set a timer to avoid tackling too much at once. See Janet Horvath’s intelligent article on injury prevention.
3. What kind of fuel are you putting in your car? If you expect to go the distance to have a rewarding road trip, you’ll probably make sure you fill the tank, check the oil, look at the battery, make sure you’re not carrying excess baggage in the trunk, maybe even get a car wash, clean out the interior to make things comfortable…Do we take care of our cars better than we do our bodies? That’s probably fuel for another blog, but for now consider what you eat and drink between now and the audition. Even if you think it’s a little boring, drink lots of water, eat vegetables and protein, avoid processed everything, watch the salt. Again, it’s probably not the best time to start a diet or quit caffeine, but just keep things moderate for now. Bring water and fortifying snacks to keep your blood sugar stable.
4. Like all performance experiences, make sure your clothing is comfortable. Are your shoes sturdy enough so that you feel grounded and completely able to perform your best? Does that shirt bunch a little or your earrings clank? These sound like silly considerations, but anything that’s going to take your attention away from your objective is a distraction. Pick something out to wear and play through the audition list. How do you feel?
5. Manage your remaining practicing and preparation wisely. Not sure how to go about this? Start by making a recording – just record yourself, using your phone or laptop. There are tons of great apps out there (and THAT’s another blog entry!). Write down your observations after you’ve played, and then listen to the recording. How accurate were you? Did you notice other things? Important aspects to consider are rhythms, intonation, dynamics, note lengths, and accuracy. Write out a few objectives for yourself to address in your next practice session, and make them achievable so you feel empowered but not overwhelmed. That might mean just selecting ONE big goal, not twelve small ones. Be strong!
6. Image your material. This is one of the most powerful practicing strategies I know: study the score, no flute, and go through slowly and hear everything exactly as you want to play it. Nail each rhythm, place every note in the most resonant place, sing the phrase. Image it like this until you feel confident you’ve created a positive and successful track record! If there’s even the tiniest hiccup or hesitation, that’s information: spend a little more time working out that spot by imaging, s-l-o-w-l-y and purposefully.
7. Take a break! Do something to reward your inner artist, something that’s really fun and inspiring and meaningful to you, something that reaffirms why you’re doing this and why you care about music. Do this each day between now and you-know-when.
Now, go out there and have a good time playing! There is absolutely nothing we can control about so much in a performance experience, such as when we’re asked to play, how the panel might react, how many other responsibilities might be on our plate that week…however, managing things like this list above can help us feel empowered, prepared, and able to manage the little unpredictable things that can really add up. Let me know how things go for you!
I love to write things down, sometimes as lists and sometimes just a way to organize my thoughts, like a family-tree styled flow chart. Just the action of writing things down really helps carve an item into my memory, and then sometimes I simply take special enjoyment out of crossing things off that list!
At this point in the semester, I'm starting to hear a few grumbles about being a bit frustrated. Most typically, though, this grumbling stems from having personally set goals and being a bit overwhelmed by the rapidly-approaching end of term, if not year. A life-changing experience I had was attending Burton Kaplan's Practicing Marathon Retreat (yes, you read that correctly!) a few years ago. It was rewarding on so many levels for me, even as an established professional musician, primarily because it carved out time for me in which I could totally focus on my playing, my being a flutist and musician. I'm sure I will write more about that experience, so to get to my point here: a terrific strategy Burton writes about is goal-setting. This may hardly seem revolutionary, but I think we often don't really determine exactly what our objectives are other than playing well and being successful. How does that all happen, anyway?
One of the great things about the Baylor School of Music (if I may toot my own flute, so to speak) is that we embrace and encourage studying music education. All music ed majors here have every opportunity afforded performance majors. This path may not be right for everyone, but I still believe that if you're studying music, you'll be teaching in some form at some point in your life! That means that if you're great at multi-tasking and time management, this career path with a pretty established occupational trajectory could be a good undergraduate plan. As a music education major, something you will have to do is write a lesson plan, so let's all start this activity together for our OWN practicing sessions:
For one week, come up with a basic plan. Here's a helpful website that uses this trifecta, through my personal practicing lens:
1. What do I want to learn during this week's practice sessions? This particular session?
2. What strategies will I use to accomplish this?
3. How will I measure this "new" skill to see?
*If nothing else, check out the steps for outlining learning objectives. Often we practice and just figure that we are putting in the time, therefore it will improve somehow. Define goals and see how that changes your perspectives, your skills, and the next steps!
Ok - there's one more important step:
4. At the end of your practicing day (split your sessions up, right?), sit down and make a list (!) of what you did, what you accomplished, and what needs to be done. Try to be fairly specific but this shouldn't take more than ten minutes so that you maximize your time. NOW, make a quick lesson plan for tomorrow - no more than five minutes on this task!
See how this works for the week. Believe it or not, this list-making is actually part of your practicing! Even if it takes 15 minutes, this saves me tons of time, gets me in a totally different zone for getting things done, and I feel a greater sense of accomplishment. It also helps me see the long-scale trajectory of development, rather than just being overwhelmed by where I currently am and where I really want to be in my playing. Try it out and let me know what you think!
Last week we had a great visit with Tim Hagen, right now completing his DMA at UT. He gave a terrific mini-recital and class on what he calls "Scientific Practicing." Most musicians know and appreciate that performing well is no accident - this requires serious time, effort, dedication, and a whole lot of heart and investment of self! This includes having a method to really objectively plan out strategies for improvement.
I think it's so important to continually grow and seek inspiration, whether this be from great art, listening to an inspiring piece of music, attending a masterclass for a different instrument than your specialization (yes!), doodling with color pens, or (GASP!) read a thought-provoking book. One thing I love doing is collecting quotes - even from teabag tags or fortune cookies - and also good and inspiring passages from books. It's important to gather ideas from the outside to promote deeper and more meaningful interior growth. As an undergraduate I kept a notebook of such ideas which I could turn to when I needed a fresh perspective or a "practicing pick-me-up."
One of the books Tim mentioned was exactly that, and I'm so happy to rediscover Carol Dweck's amazing book, Mindset. If you haven't heard of this book, make sure you check out her terrific website! Her message is clear, concise, and really gets to the core of understanding how to best help ourselves learn faster and smarter. There's a ton of inspiring material here...start with taking this short test here to determine which mindset (fixed or growth) you actually have. Then read this page to use that information so you can reach your potential by discovering the four simple steps to change your mindset.
Speaking of change, here's another great book to check out, with a pretty hip website, too: Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath. I admit that two books on making changes may be a bit too intense for this point in the semester, but you might find a useful passage or two to at least take a screen shot to save for a rainy day review...and then dive into the book later after finals! Happy reading and especially - music making!