How do we keep our favorite exercises - our go-to, tried-and-true, most comfortable and comfort-offering routines - alive, useful, invigorating, sustaining (look, Ma - no thesaurus - yet!)? In other words, fresh and not dying on the vine. This question can apply to so many things...we like our creature comforts, our "things" and habits that help us feel more secure and safer, especially when we face the day's uncertainties. For musicians, this is an especially interesting question to pose, as we like our confidence-inducing activities to remain skill-building, yet sometimes we wander into the desert of automatic pilot/self-driving cars/phoning things in/just basically not really being present. . .
While a college undergrad, I remember walking up to the practice room building's top floor (since this is where my favorite rooms were located) for each day's first practice session, wondering what exactly kind of tone day it was going to be. Tone is everything to a flute player (and to all musicians, right?!) - it's the ears to the soul, the personal calling card of an individual. It's a big deal. So, sometimes my heart would pound as I unzipped my bag, unlatched the case to my flute...was it going to be a good tone day? A not so great one? A fabulous one? And what to do about it? Here's an average mental exchange from back then: "Yesterday was a pretty good tone day - I'd better start with EXACTLY the same long-tone exercise on EXACTLY the same pitch as I did yesterday."
Naturally, sometimes that approach would work, and of course, sometimes that would not. Now that I refuse to play Eight Ball with my sound or my playing (!) I celebrate the wisdom of balancing exercises and knowing what I need to do to keep things fresh: be creative, participate, experiment, and play. So I'm attacking the much-revered exercise, the long tone.
What exactly is this important component of a wind player's practicing? Long tones are generally exactly what their name implies: sustained pitches, under which we play a smooth crescendo and decrescendo, to help us focus on the beginning, development, and release of the tone. Here's a good explanation by a horn expert, Bruce Hembd, including the key of developing the right mindset to practice these particular exercises effectively, as well as the importance of changing things up (that's our fresh-picked ingredient!).
For examples from flutists, here's an overview from Jeff Khaner, exercises from Jennifer Cluff, and an explanation from David Cramer on Moyse's De La Sonority. Overall, I adopt these "long tone generalizations" in my own playing:
Here are some great resources for long tones, including different concepts and exercises, videos, and other creative projects, including Flute Pro Shop's project with Danny Dorff. Some other ideas to consider:
So perhaps your goal is to get back into playing shape. We’ve all been there – perhaps you enjoyed your summer break just a little too much away from your instrument (Hello! Beach calling!), or you suddenly have an adjustment in your work load or schedule that’s cramping your practicing style, or you experienced a period of “forced rest” due to overuse, illness, or instrument woes, or you needed to help a family or friend for a while…there are as many real reasons as there are circumstances in life, including joyful ones! But the issue remains – you just know you’re not getting around the instrument so that it feels like “home” when you play. What to do?
First off – a DISCLAIMER. Like all of my blogs, these are my ideas, and things that help me. I write these blogs in the hopes they may help someone else, too, or inspire a discussion and a sharing of ideas in the practice room hallway or over coffee with a friend. The important thing is to know you’re not alone! That being established:
PAUSE for commercial: why am I writing about emotional and mental connections? You’re interested in getting back into shape so you can sprint in the upper register with the best of ‘em! Well, I believe the above are crucial steps to opening up your heart, mind, and (then) body in order to release unnecessary tension. When we are not “in shape” this is especially important. So be strong and take one step at a time.
Try a mixture of the above ideas – 5 minutes of this, 5 minutes of something else, and then read through an etude, and take a break. Then for your next session later in the day, start again with some music-based tone exercise and build your way up to faster finger activity. Build on this tomorrow, and then again, step by step, you’ll be back to where you were in no time.
It’s very important to come up with a plan – small steps of just 30 minute sessions at different times of the day can then progressively build up to longer sessions of 45 minutes after a few days. Even if you feel great, take breaks in between your practice sessions spread out over each day. You may feel tightness and fatigue in your muscles after your “playcation,” so take care to stay connected to your body to monitor how you feel, what you see, and also what you hear.
Finally, and to look at this from another perspective, try welcoming your break. Many professional and serious flutists actively take planned breaks over the year, just as professional and serious athletes pursue “detraining.” The mind and body accrue tremendous fatigue – or worse – if the state of training is constant. Be open to the possibility your time off will help you emerge stronger and refreshed in the long run!
Fundamentals - what exactly are we talking about? And why?
Post-olympics, there's a lot of talk about having strong fundamentals as the basis of anything we do, whether in sports, carpentry, or music. Fundamentals are defined with these catch phrases: underlying, basic, being an essential part of a foundation or basis, and being primary source. Like diagramming sentences (does anyone do this anymore?), these "basics" seem less glamorous, less "fun," yet essential parts of experiencing the joy of turning a fancy or inspiring phrase...so it's more than tempting to skip over them. Who has that kind of time, anyway?
Well, keep in mind this fantastic quote from Noa Kageyama's terrific blog on scale practicing:
“What people don’t realize is that professionals are sensational because of the fundamentals.” ~12-time MLB All-Star, 1995 MVP, and 1990 World Series Champion shortstop Barry Larkin.
There must be some value in investigating fundamentals, right?
Consider any new skill we wish to acquire - let's try learning a new language. Often the best course of action is to start with essential skills that help us execute the eventual activity. We spend hours studying vocabulary, listening to native speakers to get the cadence and pronunciation in our ears, watch movies with subtitles, conjugate verbs...these are all like lifting weights to become stronger on the field. The goal is not to be a fantastic verb conjugator and weight lifter, but to be able to function in the moment with confidence and ease.
Convinced yet? Give it a try, and let's start with scales, since Florida requires all all-state auditionees to play ALL major scales in the circle of 4ths (go, Florida!). Why are scales fundamental? Scales allow us to become comfortable in a particular key, to hear and feel the pull toward home base, to get ready to play pieces or phrases in that key. The more we are "at home" in that key, the easier (more comfort, less stress and tension in our bodies, more musicality and freedom we can express) any phrase or piece will be. Scales are basically just formulas - plug in the correct notes and intervals (distances between pitches) according to the formula, and you're all set. Isn't that great? A simple yet powerful tool!
Already a scale convert? Try a few of these ideas to freshen up your scale encounter:
So give some of these a try and start your very own scale notebook - have some ideas jotted down and ready to attack for the next day, or when you're feeling slightly less inspired. Take one step at a time - work to keep the load (mental and physical) simple so that you lessen any resistance of this new habit. As you gain fluency, start changing one thing at a time - perhaps try one of the new ideas from the above bullet-point list one day, and return to "go to" ease of playing the next day. The overall value is accrued over time. Each day is an opportunity to put money in that scale bank - you'll gain rich rewards! Try this for two weeks, even a month - and notice the difference fundamentals can make. As my husband just pointed out to me, practicing scales is a lot like playing pool - the two purposes of any pool shot is 1. to sink a ball (get it in the pocket) AND 2. to set up the next shot. So - let's be ready for that next shot.
Some scale blogs to check out:
Why I'd spend a lot more time practicing scales if I could do it all over again
Why do I need to practice scales?
How to practice scales - 10 reasons why they are important
Practicing scales effectively
Sight-reading - reading music "down" at first sight - typically invokes intense feelings in all musicians, no matter how many years they have or have not played their instrument (or been a singer). No matter where you may fall in the experience category, these intense feelings can be positive or negative, or even a combination of both. Like other things in life, we often strengthen our abilities by facing intense feelings, rather than attempting to disguise them as a big lump under the proverbial carpet. Since sight-reading can be a component at auditions, including all-state auditions, college auditions, orchestral and teaching auditions, and other performance exams, let's all face this together to discover a few ideas!
At the very thought of sight-reading, we may feel a host of emotions. The real litmus test is experiencing sight-reading "under pressure," in a circumstance in which we are evaluated. Typically we take a risk when we sight-read: we have less control in the outcome since we haven't been able to prepare the music we are about to play. Not in any particular order, here's a list of most common symptoms and complaints I hear from my students, colleagues, and my own personal inventory when sight-reading under pressure: over-excitement, fear of making mistakes, worrying about taking an inappropriate tempo (read: too slowly) and therefore playing too fast, excess tension in the body, shortness of breath, losing a sense of time/tempo relationship, and only able to focus on each note (one at a time, note-by-note). Sit down and make your own list right now so that you outline exactly how you feel when you are asked to sight-read for an evaluation, or in public. Articulating our greatest fears can take the power away from them, so be honest! Remember that lump under the carpet? Don't allow it to trip you up!
Ok - so we have our lists: my composite list from above, and your list you just compiled (you DID make a list and check it twice, right?!). Do you see any similarities? Any differences? Any response to anxiety may be present when we undertake this challenge, so be open to acknowledging that fight-or-flight desire to literally run far away from you sight-reading exploration! Now let's make another list right alongside each. This will be the "empowering list" of actions you can take to combat each symptom or complaint. Don't be surprised if you come up with a few of the same strategies for more than one challenge. Here's an example in my own words, using the list from above:
Symptoms/complaints.................................................................................................Strategies to try
1. over-excitement slow nose breathing, count backwards, audiate
2. fear of making mistakes practice improvising, audiate, focus forward
3. worrying about taking the right tempo so playing too fast audiate a slower tempo, feel it, play it
4. excess tension in the body image being submersed in warm water, loosen
5. shortness of breath nose breathing a few times before playing
6. losing a sense of time/tempo relationship feel a physical pulse in smaller beats
7. only able to focus on each note look at larger chunks
Further explanation of these strategies:
1. slow nose breathing: practice doing this so it becomes a conditioned response to stress. Take a few cleansing nose breaths before the sight-reading section, or as a cleanse in-between each section of any audition. We have more time than we think! (Not sure this is possible? Try recording yourself in a mock audition!)
Counting backwards: if nose breathing just isn't doing it for you, try counting backwards. Try this in any stressful situation to see if it helps your mind relax and your body release tension. Experiment with where to start, using your stress-level as a gage (more stress? Try 7 down to 1. Mild stress? How about 4 to 1, etc.). The more you practice this, the more you can turn to it so the "cue" for relaxation and calming.
Audiating is slightly more complicated and deserves a blog entry on its own (remind me of that!). In a nutshell, this is "hearing" what you'll be playing before you actually play it. This can develop from your lifetime of listening to music, languages, and sounds so you have a library of things to expect and almost predict using your mind's ear. Likewise, if you see a lot of accidentals - thank you, eyes! - you know this is NOT going to be in your key area and therefore trickier to not only hear (audiate) but also process visually by all the information on the page. Sometimes things are harder to play when they just don't sound like we expect!
2. Practice improvising. Speaking of blog topics, this is another one! By no means do I mean to diminish the incredible artistry required to really improvising beautifully, but I'm only going to refer to this as a strategy to become stronger. Back to our pressing need right now: most "straight" musicians are terrified of improvising. I am more of a "noodler" than a great improviser, but the key is to not be afraid of making mistakes. Try picking out a simple tune by ear, like "Happy Birthday." If this is super-hard for you, just "noodle around" until you can find some of tune at first, correcting errors (no big deal!) and reconnecting through any rough patches so that your ear and your fingers agree that you have that section, even if it's just "Happy Birthday to you" and nothing more. Now try to listen ahead (that's where audiating starts to really kick in!) so that you "hear where you're going" before you get there! Keep playing your tune, noticing the similarities and differences of sections ("Happy Birthday to you, 2nd time! Happy Birthday TO [higher!] you....3rd time a whole octave: Happy BIRTHday dear so-and-so....etc.!) to make even more connections. NOW try this in another key - or try adding fun things, decorations, fancy it up somehow. There are no mistakes, really - if you've ever played Balderdash (a game of bluffing), consider this the musical equivalent! Just put it out there and recover quickly - learn from where you get off, reconnect, and proceed ahead = important performing and learning strategies!
Focusing forward is really like putting blinders on that only allow us to look ahead, rather than at what we've already played (see the previous paragraph!). A relative of audiating, it stokes our energy source to plow onward rather than robbing energy by being tempted to fixate on what may have not worked a few beats ago. That doesn't mean we shouldn't learn from errors or look for patterns - use the information at present to apply to the future! But getting bummed about a small hiccup can totally snowball into a domino disaster if we aren't mentally tough.
3. Playing at a slower tempo AND 6. Losing a tempo relationship: try playing something you've actually prepared by 1. pressing record, 2. singing your first measure to establish your tempo, and 3. playing the first few measures. Listen back to your recording. Do you notice anything? Most musicians actually play their piece much slower than they "kick it off." How does this apply to sight-reading? For some mysterious reason, perhaps being all hyped up on adrenaline and anxious over being judged, we often tend to collapse our perception of time. Think about it - when you're nervous, do five seconds seem more like three seconds or three minutes? I typically fall into the three-minute category! I sometimes find it helpful to have some physical, non-observable response to a tempo like a subtle toe squeeze, perhaps even in smaller beats in the measure (subdividing). The other important strategy is to practice hearing as much of what you have to play - from the rhythms to the actual notes - before you play it. Yes, there's that audiating thing again! This is a hugely powerful tool, and the more we use it, the sharper a tool it becomes!
7. Larger chunks, or chunking: try reading some of the above paragraph by focusing on just one word at a time. Pretty awkward and frustrating, right? How do we NOT do that at this point in our lives? Do we have a broader view, relying on peripheral vision? Perhaps more to the right than the left (see "Focus forward," above!)? Chunking is basically the ability to use our short-term memory by grouping smaller bits of information (perhaps one to two measures, or even two to four beats depending on the meter you're playing in) into a manageable "chunk" rather than coping with the long string of information (complete phrase). Doing this successfully takes practice, especially when staring down new material, but it helps us feel less overwhelmed and more in charge as we organize the sight-reading material into manageable bits.
Although some of these ideas may help at this time, some may not. The key is to practice these concepts and apply them so they fit best to our needs. The best way to be an expert sight-reader is to practice sight-reading! Playing etudes, being comfortable in our scales and arpeggios, remaining curious and active listeners, and memorizing music all help us be more secure and confident as players and sight-readers.
...and for further reading:
See Noa Kageyama's great blog on sight-reading
NaFME's advice - just 15-minutes a day!
Strings Magazine: 3 Ways to Improve Your Sight-reading
Effortless Sight-reading from The Musicians Way
What are your favorite strategies to work on sight-reading? Are you excited at the thought of reading music for the first time (wow!) or terrified (gah!)? What advice would you like to share with others? Feel free to comment!
QUESTION: What IS practicing over a reference tone?
To me, it’s using your ears vs. your eyes. Using a tuner is critical; it helps understand the tendencies of each note and also keeps us “honest.” However, you must train your ears to anticipate and lock in without only relying on the happy face lighting up on our tuner when you place things well!
Let’s take this step by step to really “digest” this often misunderstood practicing tool. The reference tone should be able to be sustained at a volume similar to that which you are playing so that you can play without strain and still be able to hear the generated sound. External speakers (even connected to your phone) are better than earbuds in order for you to hear your tone quality accurately and freely. At least in the preliminary stages, I find it important to play the generated tone at a strong volume (but please, always safeguard your hearing!).
There are a variety of tone generators, including those created by some tuners, but I have found these to be the most useful in my own practicing:
Before you start, check your set up to see if you’re in tune. Go ahead and use a tuner to keep yourself honest, as I wrote earlier! Keep in mind that you want to play with your best tone as you execute these exercises at a comfortable (not forced or strained) dynamic. After you’re comfortable, then experiment with different dynamic levels. Consider this a comfortable mezzo-forte, middle-of-the-road tone.
Begin by playing the same note (strive for a unison, not an octave) the reference tone is sounding. If this proves too challenging or uncomfortable, start by playing the 5th (next step), and then come back to the unison. Let’s start on a low G (for flutists; the second line in the staff) over the same exact pitch sounding on your tone generator. Try not to adjust at first so that you can hear any beats that are created between your tone and that of the drone. (Beats are created by the difference in frequencies.) Are the beats fast or slow? If you’re not sure, try raising and lowering your intonation just slightly. Notice which change decreases the beats – we want to match a unison as much as possible so that means the goal is to eliminate as many beats as you can. Take care to play without excess tension in your body – check in with your jaw, embouchure, tongue, neck, shoulders, hands, and lower. Consider this a chance to create a beautiful and in tune tone. Try making the beats faster. Sense how that feels in your body, to your ears, to every cue you can process. Dial it back to where it’s more in tune (slow the beats down/eliminate them), and compare your personal inventory to feel secure in your work.
As always, if you’re not sure when it’s better or worse, record yourself. Jot down what you did (played sharper, then flatter, etc.). Listen back to notice the difference. It’s likely much more obvious when you’re not busy playing and adjusting!
Now, graduate to playing the 5th (five notes higher than your generated tone is sounding; so if your reference tone is a G – play a D above that). Repeat the steps above, including recording if possible. Now practice playing a G and then a D, slowly slurring up in pairs, and then slurring down from the same D to that first G. Notice if you’re succeeding in locking back into your in-tune tonic (and 5th!) as you play your pairs. Did you record yourself? Did you listen? What did you notice?
5-note scale: now try a super-slow G-A-B-C-D (5-note scale, or Taffanel & Gaubert No. 1) over the same reference tone, but play as if you had all the time in the world (because you do!) to figure this out. Really play into the beats when you hit that A – bring it up too sharp, bring it down too low, zero in when it sounds and feels “right.” Breathe as needed! Next is that minor third, which we need to place low (flat) to really sound in tune. That means that if you play the B with a tuner, it will be too high, but in tune by equal temperament. Without turning this into a dissertation, we seek a purer sound with less beats. Watch this video (at least the first minute) for a quick visualization paired with accompanying tones of equal and pure tuning.
. . . Back to playing this 3rd: go ahead and play the B too sharp (yes! Simon says so). Notice how that feels and sounds (is it uncomfortable? Does it make your “skin crawl”?). Now try lowering the pitch, and compare your personal inventory again (does this feel more grounded?). For an even greater exercise, try your reference tones at G AND D, sustaining both, and play that B. Don’t be afraid to record yourself! Now keep going on your 5-note scale to play the C (this should be a perfect interval), testing the placement of your C by moving it too sharp and too flat, to Goldilocks land of “just right,” and when you’re ready – back to your old friend, D. Play that whole thing once again, even if it took you five or ten minutes to really feel locked in and comfortable. Then play a descending 5-note scale from D to G. Record yourself, and listen back.
This might well be enough for your first exploration (MAYDAY - INFORMATION OVERLOAD!), but be sure to try your 5-note scales in different keys, including minor keys (see T&G no. 2, or G-A-Bb-C-D, etc.). You’ll do the opposite with the third (Bb) since it will need to be a bit sharp! A good rule of thumb is to do at least one or two 5-note scales a day to really awaken your ear. As your endurance and critical listening skills improve, you can continue onward to more complicated exercises. Quality, not quantity – so take great care in this type of practicing to get the most value out of it!
When you’re ready, try a one-octave scale or a simple arpeggio over a reference tone. Playing these in all the keys, major and minor, will make everything you play much easier! You may wish to experiment with different dynamic levels, too, so play these 5-note scales, one-octave (or more) scales, and arpeggios softer and also stronger. Be sure to record yourself here so you become acutely aware of your tendencies for soft and strong playing.
Next, try the above steps in whatever you’re practicing. Assuming you’re playing a tonal piece, pick a small section no longer than two to four measures. Here’s a plan of attack:
Sustain the tonic on your tone generator (your key, or tonal home base) – and if you're not sure what key you’re playing in, just sustain the most common pitch you see in the section. Remember to keep the volume fairly high on your reference tone. Play very slowly - SLOWLY! - and patiently, being curious and giving yourself enough time to really hear the beats that are created between you and the reference tone. Most people aren't willing to play slowly enough to experience the magic of this practicing approach. This is our challenge! Try sounding the tonic and the 5th scale degree together as you play your excerpt. What do you hear in your playing? It’s ok if you’re not sure which direction to go. The only way to really learn is to experiment! Note any observations you can, such as “I think the beats increased when I raised the note higher,” etc. Record yourself to build your confidence to check your observations.
Playing scales and arpeggios, etudes, and passages from our pieces over reference tones can assist us in many ways. I find that being in tune is really a way of playing with a superior tone quality – and I strive to make it a part of my tone vs. an additional aspect to consider. Of course, we can achieve changes in intonation at the cost of a good tone (like rolling in and out on the flute), but the key is to really discover how to play with ease and freedom at varying dynamics while still being in tune! Playing in tune with a resonant, vibrant tone is an important ingredient in our playing.
We often become dependent upon using our eyes when checking in with a tuner, rather than developing our ears. As we play over sustained pedal points we dramatically change our attention to listen vertically as well as horizontally - not easy to do when playing a solo line! I hope these exercises help you accomplish these goals.
For lots of useful information, check out this booklet on equal temperament (like piano tuning) vs. just intonation, and interval ratios.
What are some tricks and favorite methods you use in your practicing with reference tones?
Happy [slow] practicing!
Sharing music, giving to others, teaches us about precious and valuable, highly transferable skills. While being goal-oriented is useful and often practical in helping determine educational outcomes, it is often more beneficial as a motivating force. Musicians typically seek internal motivation over external, but the summer is a tough time to draw upon that well. Besides, who wants to work on something without any obvious payback?
A recent search (#WIFM) brought up a marketing website and entrepreneurship article focused on improving customer satisfaction, or the "What's in it for me?" factor. Consumers want to see and have results, now. The same article (granted, this is a marketing tool so it's about purchasing an item) touts that consumers gravitate toward an experience they individually or in combination hear, see, taste, smell, touch - all at the moment. Success is achieved when this magic recipe delivers a purchase. Where does music fall here, besides the obvious category (hear)?
When we work on something less concrete than an activity that delivers immediate gratification (like cooking dinner), we're talking about an investment of time and energy (like planting a tiny sapling). Practicing only for tomorrow is rarely going to be a recipe for success, but practicing for next month, or next semester, or better yet - next year (thank you, Trevor) - will offer a much better and more satisfying overall experience. Few people have the patience or perseverance to see that sapling really take root!
Time and energy are expensive commodities in this day of consumerism, and as "they" say - the best things in life are free (and priceless - I'm keeping the ball rolling on those pithy maxims and expressions from last time, have you noticed?!). So what am I trying to say here? I suppose it's this: making great music is a fantastic by-product of finding deeper connections to others, achieving more profound human expression, and the eternal quest to find greater meaning...of searching for more, seeking other options and possibilities. The goal is not the ACT of playing the most perfect B or C#, or articulating the fastest beat of 32nd notes, or playing the softest and most exquisitely delicate high G# at pppp in tune, but it's WHAT we learn about ourselves and others along the way. And then, the kicker: what we DO with those abilities.
What are you going to do with yours?
Let’s see.. just how many buzz-words and pop phrases can you combine into one pithy maxim for embracing life to the fullest? This is tough to stop once you get on a rollercoaster!
Seriously – sometimes we try to multitask to the point of just missing out on one really helpful, valuable moment…Do all of these ideas in my tag line really fit together? Although they sound counter-productive, today I’m feeling that they actually speak to me. Here’s my spin:
I’m a doer, a fixer, a mover and shaker, a stirrer-of-the-pot as you may remember from a previous blog from ages ago. Sometimes just sitting and being is a great challenge. Going with the flow can seem really passive, but a lot of the time it’s more of an active state of release, a conscious choice that requires an effort. To. Just. Be. And be ok with that. In today’s overstimulated world this is not what we are used to doing. It’s sometimes tough to decompress and focus on one thing…which can unfortunately lead to all kinds of challenges just sitting at dinner with someone, let alone trying to get something actually accomplished in the practice room.
So what happens when we go against that proverbial flow, when we resist? Last week in a lesson discussing syncopation challenges in an ensemble setting (i.e. – playing “out of sync” with material played in other parts), I related a story of how I had been so thrilled to ride a rollercoaster as a kid – this particular ride looked so cool, and so exciting – and my dad went on the ride with me! Big moment as a young child. Everything was just amazing…and then all of a sudden the ride stopped…and lurched for a bit, until it went backwards. Oh yes, backwards, as in reverse. I discovered that day I absolutely hate going backwards on rides. My stomach, my head, my body – everything rebelled, and I completely lost it. I remember my dad (poor Dad!) trying to soothe me, just repeating the wise words, “Come on – just go with the direction, go with the flow. Try not to fight it – you’ll only make it worse. Just lean in the same direction the ride is going.” I was fighting and leaning forwards, even though everything was whizzing past me in reverse, and more importantly – the harder and more intensely I fought to make my world right, the worse it got. Dad was completely right (imagine that!) - when I ceased the struggle and leaned into that unstoppable, unimaginable momentum that was carrying my little kiddo body away, even though I clearly did not want to go in that direction, I experienced a powerful shift, an ease, a release.
Advocating passivity in every life experience is not wise, and certainly not my intention here. This wisdom of knowing when to lean, when to flow, when to push, when to dig….this is a hard, life-changing accrual of emotional intelligence. Discovering yourself – your strengths and weaknesses, your usefulness, your potentials to contribute - is also an ongoing, tough, life-changing process. That day, though, I learned that sometimes you have to face your fears and charge on through them, even though they may terrify you and threaten everything that you understand to be right in your world; that sometimes letting go is the strongest thing you can possibly do.
No one likes to go backwards, to let go. I remember the great and thoughtful flutist Michel Debost discussing in a masterclass that one of the first muscle movements a baby masters is making a fist. A tyke will latch onto your finger and hang on with great strength, often requiring you to gently pry away their fingers. It all makes sense – that letting go is not human nature. Sometimes, though, we gain strength through that release, by being willing to take that risk to be sensitive and open.
This may require an active choice on our part, and one that may require practice. How can we let that be part of our practicing, of our self-expression? Being open to our weaknesses, whatever we way-deep-down perceive them to be, and embracing them – leaves us open to reaching our potential. I’m working hard to do this – and I know it will not be easy - I believe it’s worth it!
Happy New Year! Well, not quite...but it's the spring (already!) and many of us are thinking about a new season, with fresh green grass, spring's flowers, the crisp breeze, perhaps even spring cleaning (of home, dorm room, exercise routine, practicing...so many things!)...Short of making a laundry list of springtime resolutions, I'm sharing a few thoughts that seem to be unshakably present at this time of new beginnings as I listen to the birds chirp:
1. No matter what we do or do not do in life, let's be artists. Let's live in a way that makes us conscious of giving to others, sharing our art (whatever we create this day) just for the sake of connecting with someone else, and receiving their art in return. Make the world a better place by doing something artistic today and connecting to ourselves, to others, and to the act of making art...of being alive.
2. Let's be kind to ourselves and to each other. For a variety of reasons, no one ever truly knows what a person may or may not be experiencing. Rather than limiting our contributions to the day, let's try to first consider sending our energy and art out, rather than keeping it in. Worry not about whether it is good - it just IS. So let it BE, and send it forth!
3. Like No. 2, even if we don't feel ready, let's take a small step forward - just one - outside our respective comfort zones. Thinking of helping someone else may help us be brave enough to stretch, even just a bit. The alternative is just existing, of missing out on life. What are we waiting for? Few things are ever "done" or "ready enough" or "the right time."
4. Choose and use that oxygen mask. Many people can recite the basic safety procedures we hear on flights regarding the order of placing our oxygen mask over our own mouths first before proceeding to assist others. I'm guessing most parents struggle with that instruction, and that many of us don't necessarily follow that order in realistic or common daily activities. When we think about it, however, we will be of little use to someone else if we pass out from lack of that life-giving force, oxygen. That rush of air invigorating our own systems will enable us to reach out to another. Isn't that at the heart of art's role, of communication?
Today we wrapped up our second annual Taffanel & goBEARS event, where we invited seniors to spend a little extra time on campus, attending classes and rehearsals, and participating in flute studio events. Here are a few thoughts I shared with students in a discussion form, but I imagine these could be useful to others as well so here goes:
· Be prepared = practice performing, audiate exactly what you want to say to create the experience and “history of performing” – strive to be comfortable in the autonomous stage! This is not the time to be actively learning material, but rather practicing the trust that must be present in performing.
· Perform whatever you’re planning to play at an audition. Play for your friends, for your dog, for your band director, for your English teacher, or even for a photo of Emmanuel Pahud! Consider arranging a performance at an assisted living facility, bringing joy to others and surely guaranteeing a positive experience for your "performance bank."
· Take your time, breathe deeply and fully, nourish your body, and be sure to get a few days of good rest. This also implies that you are allowing your muscles to rest in between serious practicing sessions. Remember that your brain is a muscle as well so budget in down/quiet time!
· Record yourself – and try dressing up as if you are performing your audition.
· Play your strengths – if you have the freedom to choose what you play rather than required works (yet still representing contrasting styles), choose works that you LOVE and that you feel present you at your best. This may require having several pieces ready so that you have options and feel able to play in a compelling way.
· Keep rep fresh. Learn other pieces by the same composer (not just flute works), or by other composers of works in similar styles. Cycle of rep: learn new things, brush up on old, freshen up trusty works... and ROTATE these in your practicing.
· Practice introducing yourself while looking your audience in the eye in an open manner. How we present ourselves is important, especially in terms of how we relate to others. Will you be a team player? Will you be an open student and eager ensemble member? As a musician, we strive to be tireless advocates. Connect with your audition panel in simple but sincere conversation first, followed by sincere communication through music making.
· Prepare a statement regarding why you want to pursue music. This will not only help define your goals but encourage a deeper connection to what music means to you.
· Be authentic in your playing, rather than playing in a way you think will impress. Think beyond getting a job – what would your life be without music? This is your message when you play.
· Remember that the audition committee is your audience. We want to hear you and we are excited and happy to see you!
Welcome to the new school year! Many of you may be a new freshman music major (congratulations!), or a new freshman in high school, a returning sophomore, grad student, or other class member, or even a recent graduate seeking or starting a new position. No matter where you are in your musical development you will undoubtedly face new challenges this year regarding just how to juggle the many demands - musical, academic, personal, health, financial, just to name a few - while developing and establishing a strong work ethic and practice schedule. There are so many assignments, projects to attend to, etudes to learn, skills to acquire...how do we do it all without feeling completely overwhelmed? These are important questions to consider when the demands are great.
Overwhelmed by all the newness. I remember beginning life as a college freshman and feeling physically and emotionally fatigued by attempting to process so many new things all at once. It was all so incredibly exciting, invigorating . . .and terrifying all at once! One of the most stressful aspects for me was actually trying to learn how to practice all the material I was assigned, and that practicing in an actual practice room surrounded by my colleagues was both inspiring and intimidating. What if the people walking by actually heard me? Would they consider me an imposter, etc.? I relate these thoughts to share that they are normal and typical - you are not alone if these flash through your mind as you head upstairs with your stack of lesson materials, instrument, and gear.
Short summary: advice. The years have offered me perspective (thank goodness), and my advice: when you are in the practice room, you are - first and foremost - forging a true relationship with yourself. This is the space where you "let your hair down" and bravely entrust yourself in your care. That means you get to know your strengths, your weaknesses - all in a safe place. Your practicing and creating of art here is your commitment to you, your potentials, and your connections to the person you are. Try to remember that this is YOUR time, not with everyone else you hear down the hall actually in the room with you to judge and point out mistakes. They're busy taking care of THEIR challenges, not thinking about you.
How do we practice when there are so many other things to do? Consider your practice time as a regular class meeting. If you don't schedule it in just like a class, it may be tough to get around to it later in the day. Even worse than that is going through the entire day and postponing the work until late in the evening, when you're exhausted, likely more critical in a less-than-helpful way, and more inclined to fuel self-doubts. There are a billion things to do, and even people who will try to convince you to get coffee rather than practice . . . make a plan, but be wisely flexible. Another tough lesson: observe where you waste time. Would you be better off taking a legitimate break rather than frittering away that hour and a half block of time you had reserved? As Noa Kageyama notes, there's no such thing as a Facebook emergency. Using technology in your practicing is great - but it may be helpful to power down the social media apps when you cross through that practice room doorway.
Relationships make life. When I consider the most important relationships in my life, I am filled with great joy and gratefulness. As you all know, that doesn't mean that every second is wonderful or easy. People are complicated, feelings are powerful, and pressures can be great. However, nothing is more precious or more important in life than forging truly sustaining and meaningful relationships, the kind that exact sincere investments of time, energy, and self but offer countless expressions of being a sum vs. merely a "part." Humankind thirsts and thrives through this kind of powerful connection. Even if I am tired or concerned about my own trials, I choose to devote my focused attention to my wonderful husband when he is looking into my eyes and telling me about his worries of the week's most frustrating project. Being in a relationship means being present, and that the other person knows "you've got their back." Can we be that way for ourselves in the practice room? Can we create and nurture a relationship with ourselves in that music laboratory, whether the microscope reveals a less-than-desirable crack or a streak of 24k gold?
To me, if everyone sincerely practiced in a reflective and centered way, if everyone could devote time to themselves in this powerfully personal way, affording the opportunity to vulnerably express and cultivate what is in their hearts and minds through art . . . the world would be a happier place. So rather than consider practicing a chore, turn to this as a lifetime opportunity to really explore yourself, starting now. Few other professions or callings offer such ongoing opportunities for self-discovery.
My goal for 2015-2016, for all of my students, myself, and anyone reading this: discover how to create and maintain that connection we so thirst to have - but start with building that relationship with the SELF - even in the practice room.