Monday, December 1, 2014

Beyond the Notes and Rhythms

I remember way back in my early days of the tuba, when I had to sit on two phone books to simply reach the mouthpiece.  I had recently joined a youth orchestra and was completely out of my element, in awe of the other young musicians around me.  They could play such fast notes and with such confidence.  At that point those fast notes seemed to equal greater skill, and man did I wish I could do the same.  As the next few years passed I grew….physically I could now reach the mouthpiece with one phonebook.  And now those fast notes didn’t seem to hold the same intrigue or interest.  I wanted more, but I didn’t know what it was.  In high school my teachers and mentors encouraged me to listen.   Listen to as many great musicians as possible.  I listened to tuba players of course, but also other brass players, string players, and most importantly, vocalists.  Singers like Luciano Pavarotti, Bobby McFerrin, Renee Fleming, and later groups like the Wailin’ Jennys, were and are captivating.  But why?  It wasn’t fast notes or stunning technique.  It was something else, something called musicality. 

I desperately wanted my own playing to have this mysterious element, I wanted to captivate people in the same way these amazing musicians were captivating me.  Initially I wondered if it was possible on the tuba, an instrument not generally recognized as emotionally moving, but after hearing other tubists like Pat Sheridan and Roland Szentpali (check them out if you haven’t) I knew this was more than possible.

It wasn’t until my graduate school, working with and listening to outstanding teachers and fellow students that I really began to discover and understand how to achieve this seemingly transcendent goal.  So how does one captivate their listener?  What does it mean to play musically?  And how do we as musicians go about that? 


Musicality Defined

Musicality is communication.  Communicating to the listener, whether it is other performers, a paying audience, or a family member listening to your practice session, what you are saying through your instrument.  This idea is analogous to language.  We take the fundamental basics of words, and string them together into sentences to express something we are thinking or feeling.  In music we take the fundamentals of musical language and express something we are thinking or feeling through our instruments.  Musicality is the connection; how we communicate our music to the listener.


Connecting & Communicating

Intent.  Okay, so we have to communicate and connect with audiences.  How?  To start, consider what the music means to the composer, and then more importantly, to you.  There are two layers, the composers’ intention and connecting those intentions to what’s meaningful to you.  What is the background of the composer?  Of the particular piece?  It’s important to have knowledge of different styles and understand where the composer is coming from, but then be brave enough to put it forth in an exaggerated manner that means something to you.

Imagine.  Finding what a piece means to you can require imagination.  When reading a book, we imagine and give life to the words on the page.  Similarly with music, take what’s on the page as a starting point and give life to the notes and rhythms.  Like a teacher reading a story to a kindergarten class, be the exaggerated story teller of the printed music.  In addition, use your intuition.  How do you intuitively or automatically want to respond to the music?  Compare this to the score and intertwine your intuition and the composers’ ideas together.

Paint a picture, tell a story.  Connect the music with something extra-musical, whether it’s descriptive words, moods, colors, emotions, a painting, or a story.  Better yet, try drawing/painting an actual picture of what the music looks like to you.  Or write a story to go along with the music, create characters, a plot, and action.  Reflecting the music in a personal painting or story will make the music come to life for you, and as a result your audience.

Sing.  All lines must sing on the instrument, so first sing them with your voice.  And really sing!  Notice how you approach phrases, where you breathe, how you emphasize certain moments.  And as you sing, conduct and move.  Feel the musical line, dance to the music and involve your entire body.  Internalize the music in your body and voice and then project that through your instrument. 

Listen.  Listen to other artists you admire, and really listen!  Include those that play your instrument as well as anyone else you admire.  Don’t limit your listening, explore a variety of genres.  Figure out what captivates you about the artist and use that as a platform or starting point.


Always be musical!

No matter what you’re playing, whether a Bach Cello Suite or a jazz ballade, or whom you’re playing with, from an unaccompanied solo to a chamber group, musicality should always be part of our musical message.  From the first reading of a new piece, keep in mind the story you’re telling. 

Get in the habit of having every note you play be a musical one.  Pay attention to the details on the page, see and respond to what the composer wants, exaggerate, give direction to the musical line, and tell a story.  Musicality allows us as performers to communicate and connect with the listener and other musicians.  And for me, this connection is the primary reason I became an artist in the first place.

-Stephanie




Monday, November 3, 2014

The Athletic Brass Player

To play a brass instrument well involves learning a variety of skills.  Of course, one must be an artist, as well as an engineer (how do I make my instrument function most efficiently?) and entrepreneur (how do I develop a market for my music?).  But in addition, we also need to be athletes.  Brass instruments tend to create all kinds of physical challenges, from the necessity to move enormous amounts of air to the fine motor control in the face and fingers.  As such, there are some lessons that we can learn from how athletes approach some of the same challenges.  Below are three of the ones that I have found most valuable in my career:

Product Over Process
You're standing at the free throw line holding a basketball.  Are you looking at your hands or the basket?  You're waiting to bat at home plate.  Are you watching the ball or your bat?  In the bowling alley, are you looking at the ball or the pins?  All of these situations have one thing in common: your focus and concentration is on the end result, not the process by which you are going to achieve it.  


So as a musician, what is your product?  How about your sound and your musicianship?  These should always be the ultimate goal of any performance.  Nobody has ever come up to me at the end of a concert and said "I loved how your triplets were perfectly in time" or "My favorite part was that your low D's weren't sharp."  At the end of the day, what matters most is how you sounded and the musical/emotional message you conveyed to your audience.  

In order to do this, of course, you need to understand what a great sound and great artistry are.  The best way to do this is by spending regular time listening to world class musicians.  I always ask students who their favorite players are--if they don't have any, it's clear to me that they don't spend nearly enough time listening (it's okay to have many favorite players and they can change all the time!)  Once you have a great idea of what you want to sound like, then start recording yourself and listening back.  Do you sound like your goal?  If not, focus your practice on what needs to happen to get there.

Obviously, I'm not suggesting here that you ignore the mechanics of how to play the instrument.  Imagine a quarterback working on his passing.  He might make subtle changes to hand position, throwing motion, or footwork.  But then, (and this is the crucial step), he practices those new techniques hundreds or thousands of times so that they become completely automatic, controlled by the unconscious part of the brain.  That way, when he actually gets in the game, his attention can be solely on his targeted receiver downfield.  We can do the same things as brass players.  Nobody should be thinking during a performance: "Keep your finger out of the ring!"

Achieving Balance in Practice
Those people that have been on a well-coached sports team already understand this process.  How many times has a soccer coach said, "Today we'll work only on penalty kicks.  Tomorrow, we'll do just headers."  Good coaches intuitively understand that to develop complete players, you have to practice all facets of the game, repeatedly and continuously.  In fact, many elite teams use a practice model where players engage in a short drill working on one particular skill set, then run to the next drill for 10-15 minutes, then on to the next one.  By keeping them constantly moving and on their toes, the coaches avoid mental fatigue and much more closely simulate the actual game situations that their players are working towards.

I think most brass players understand this concept of balance.  But how many times have you found yourself playing the same Arban exercise over and over (and over and over)?  How many times have you worked for an hour on the same 4 lines of an etude only to realize that you used up your entire time and never got to the rest of your practicing?  I highly recommend that every brass player come up with a great fundamental routine that addresses all of the skills that you need in order to be successful (air, sound, technique, articulation, flexibilty, sight-reading, etc.)  This should be the very first thing that you practice every day--and becomes even more important as you prepare for a recital, audition, or major performance. I also thing it's critical to recognize when you are mentally or physically tired and learn to take a break, or move on to something else.  Continuing to practice when you are working against yourself won't really help you get better!

I've found a couple other great tricks for helping to organize and find balance in your practicing.  First, keep a practice journal.  Write down what you worked on, for how long, and possibly even what you achieved or learned from that practice session.  By going back and looking at your journals for the past week or month, you can learn where you being efficient vs. where you might be wasting a lot of time and what you are working on a lot vs. what you are ignoring.  A second trick that seems to work will is to set a timer.  This works well both for people like me who often had give myself time goals in order to get all of my practicing done ("20 more minutes on my Charlier etude and I then I can watch one episode of Colbert") or for people that obsessively practice they same thing until it's perfect (once the timer goes off, you must move on).  

Fundamentals Over Repertoire
This seems like a simple concept, but it's critical to brass players in every stage of their career.  Think about your favorite team--how much time in their practice do they spend working on skills and drill compared to the amount of time playing scrimmages and actual game simulations.  At most, it's probably 50-50.  At other times in the season, practices are devoted almost exclusively to fundamentals.  

The same goes for brass playing.  Which do you think will lead to developing better multiple tonguing more quickly: working out of the Arban book on a variety of exercises designed to teach you to multiple tongue repeated notes, scalar passages, and arpeggios in a variety of keys, or just compulsively practicing Carnival of Venice over and over again?  Learn the fundamentals first, and then apply them to repertoire.  

The trap that many people fall into is, "But I have to learn my band music, so I spend most of my practice time working on that!"  If you spend more of your time learning to be great on your instrument, the director/conductor will thank you later because the next piece will be so much easier to learn.  Don't forget about the importance of sight-reading every day!  Think about it: if you practice your fundamentals until you are a great player and learn how to sight-read anything in front of you, what piece of repertoire will present a serious challenge?  

Besides the actual content, there is very little difference in the preparation and process of great athletes from great musicians.  We have as much to learn from Peyton Manning and John Wooden as we do from Joe Alessi and Maurice Andre!  Now go practice!


Thursday, October 2, 2014

5 Things Musicians Should Do Everyday (Besides Practice)

Just like brushing your teeth, washing your clothes, and putting gas in your car are important daily living tasks, there are other types of daily chores that are just as important to your success as a musician.  I’ve put together a list of 5 things that I think are the keys to a happy, meaningful, and intentional life in music.

Trust –Being able to trust in those around you, especially your fellow musicians, is essential.  However, the most important trust relationship we all have is with ourselves. Trust yourself – do what you say you are going to do.  If you are going to get up at 6am to go practice, plan for it.  Because, let’s face it, there are a ton of great reasons why getting up that early isn’t a good idea. For example, we all need sleep! It’s essential for our physical health as well as our mental health (and a myriad of other good reasons, like a comfy bed, it’s raining/snowing out, your partner looks so freaking comfortable! etc.).  Therefore, plan your day knowing you are going to get up early the next morning and go to bed at an hour where getting up at 6am is doable.  Set your alarm, and get up when it goes off knowing the hardest part is getting your feet on the floor!  Once you’re up, you have now created trust by proving that you will do what you’re going to do.  If you can’t trust you to follow through, why would anyone else?  

Give – As musicians, this is the goal.  We are storytellers.  We have to give a piece of ourselves, our life, our experience, to our audience (whether that is a student, colleague, an interview panel, and audition panel, etc.).  But, from where does all the giving material come?  It comes from sharing the human experience.  Give of yourself to your audience, colleagues, students, friends, etc. Many times the giving we do seems fruitless or futile.  You offer something to an audience and it seems to go unnoticed, is misinterpreted, ignored, or even  not liked.  It can feel empty and a like a worthless use of precious energy.  I’ve certainly felt this way before.  But, the fun and amazing thing about giving is that it’s completely exclusive of someone else’s efforts or response.  Giving is a gift we can share with others but also something we can give to ourselves.  Don’t be selfish – share your music.  Your performance depends on it.  So does the universeJ.

Listen – How many times has a teacher, mentor, friend, musician said something and I did not really LISTEN to what they were saying.  This happens maybe because of ego, maybe because we’re all so busy, we’re tired, focusing on other things, interpreting the information through our past experience, etc. How many times do we focus on our emotional response to the delivery rather than really digging in to the content?  Sometimes the best and most meaningful messages come from an unlikely source or delivery.   I recently read this quote by Leonard Bernstein, “The conductor must not only make his orchestra play - he must make them want to play. He must exalt them, lift them, start their adrenaline pouring, either by pleading or demanding or raging. But however he does it, he must make them love the music as he loves it. It is not so much a matter of imposing his will on them like a dictator; it is more like projecting his feelings around so that they reach the last man in the 2nd violin section. And when this happens - when everybody shares his feelings, when 100 men are sharing the same feelings, exactly, simultaneously, responding as one to each rise and fall of the music, to each point of arrival and departure, to when all that is happening then there is a human identity of feeling that has no equal elsewhere." When we focus on the content of a message rather than letting ego/feelings get in the way, we can learn a lot about ourselves and move forward without baggage or regret. 

I had an experience that changed my life in college.  I got 2nd chair in the Wind Ensemble and choose to be very upset over these results.  I went and spoke to the director of the group who quietly, and calmly let me say my piece.  When I finished, he asked, “are you done?” and proceeded to let me know it didn’t matter what the results were, because it was now my job to make the first horn sound great and feel comfortable to play their best.  It was my job, to be the best dang 2nd horn player not only for me but also for my section and the ensemble at large.  He certainly wasn’t yelling at me, but he wasn’t very happy about my attitude.  I walked out of that room with my tail between my legs, but soon came to realize that night what a gift he gave me by listening and truly understanding what I needed to hear in order to grow and evolve.  I am forever grateful for those uncomfortable few moments and for the fact I choose to put my ego aside and really listen to what he had to say.    

Opening our ears to the world around us we may just find the answer by listening a little harder to the content.

Let go – It can be letting go of information that no longer serves you, letting go of relationships that no longer allow you to grow, moving on from a job because you stop moving forward, it could be letting go of old habits, letting go of control, lots of things.  All of these are important.  One of the most important skills we can possess as a musician in the ability to self-analyze.  Figure out where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there.  Often times, this requires letting go of old habits, ways of thought, or even control.  It’s always important to evolve and part of that growth is figuring out what isn’t working for you or what is now unnecessary to hold on to, and letting it all go.

It is easy to hold on to things, people, situations, schools of thought, habits, etc., because that’s just how we’ve always functioned, known.  Letting go requires us to regularly take inventory of our lives and see keep what’s working and discard the things that aren’t in order to make more room for the solutions.  The scariest part can be not knowing the outcome of your letting go efforts.  But, what if letting go is a part of the solution and allows you to fulfill goals and reach dreams?  You’ll never know, unless you take the first step…..and let go.

Love/Celebrate – Let’s face it.  Being a musician can be hard.  There are a lot of things about the business that seem unfair, difficult, costly, emotionally taxing, etc. I’ve had my share of blood, sweat, and tears shed to reach where I am, too.  When I was in my second year out of my DM program, I had been applying for every job that became available.  I had been working several jobs, barely making ends meet for just over a year at this point.  I was sitting in my teacher’s office finishing up some projects we had been working on, and another one of my favorite professors came in the room, sat down and said, you’ve looked like crap for a long time now, what's up?  It’s always nice to be told the stress you’re feeling is all over your face (there’s that content thing againJ).  Either way, I told him I was thinking about quitting music.  He replied, “what do you plan on doing instead?”  “I don’t know, something other than this,” I said.  And he said the words that really changed my thinking and course.  “You don’t get to quite because you’re frustrated, you quit because there is something else you’d rather do.”  He was totally right.  In that moment, I finally was able to see and feel the fire that I had felt for music my whole life, even though it was dim.  Never the less, the fire was still there.  I had buried it with, stress, frustration, exhaustion, worry.  I buried it with all the things that don’t really have anything to do with WHY I wanted to be a musician.  Ever since I can remember, I knew music was going to be my career.  From the moment I picked up a horn, I knew this was going to be my life’s work.  So why had I allowed all of these other factors drown out the light inside?  Because I forgot the WHY.  I love music.  I love sound, I love working with my Mirari family, I love how music can change someone’s life (especially my own), I love how listening to Bruckner 8 the 4th movement, no matter how tired or busy I am, will ALWAYS make me stop what I’m doing and dance around the room, playing the timpani part, conducting, and smile from the inside out.  These are the things I forgot. 

Everyday, I make sure to celebrate the fact that I am doing what I love.  I look at my name plate outside my office door often, and think how proud and happy I am that my love for music, no matter how long it took and arduous it was/can be, got me here.  Music never lets you down.  It’s ever present and always available to refill my soul with love.  That love is worth celebrating.

So, go out there and work for the life you deserve.  Be AWESOME today!



Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Distracted? 6 Practicing Tips to Improve Your Focus

Does this conversation sound familiar to you?

Friend: “Hey (your name), how are you?”
You: “Great, and super busy!

I’ve definitely been busy lately. I’ve been busy for the last…10-15 years, really. It took me a while to realize it, but “busy” is my style. I say “yes” to a lot of things, and I am comfortable maintaining seven different agendas. It’s not necessarily good for me, but I’m good at it.

The truth is, we’re all busy. We have so many options in our lives for work and entertainment, there’s no way we could be bored. 

The problem is when my busy-bee mentality gets in the way of my focus, which is something I must have as a musician. I notice my focus wandering especially when I practice. I have so many other things running through my mind that I struggle to quiet my constant train of thought. Then I catch myself writing three emails in the middle of a practice session – and I don’t even know how I got there!

Luckily I realized that I had a problem – no, it did not take an intervention! I started trying out some practicing techniques that would me focus on the task at hand: playing beautiful music.

I’m sharing these with you so that you will benefit from these practice techniques. We’re all different people, so some may work better than others. But one thing is for sure: we’re all busy! So I challenge you to incorporate at least one of these techniques into your practice routine this week. Which leads me to my first tip…


1.  Build a Routine
Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if we slept at different times every day? Like you know you need to get 8 hours, but you worked it into your schedule whenever it happened to fit? That would be crazy! We need our sleep to be consistent and regular. Humans like routine. So, why not use the same approach with your practice? If your daily routine is to wake up, shower, eat breakfast, and warm up, soon it will feel so natural, you won’t remember a time you didn’t warm up first thing in the morning. And then you don’t need to waste any time or energy worrying about when you will get your practice time in.

2. Schedule It
And why stop at the morning? Try scheduling all of your practice sessions. If you’re a person who uses a daily planner or the calendar on your phone, this one is for you. I find that if I write down my practice time in my calendar, I am more likely to stick to the plan and less likely to do something else instead. Here’s an example of my daily schedule on Google Calendar:




      3. Commit
Don’t half-ass your practice session. If you’re not totally in it, step back and evaluate why. I make sure I fully commit by going through all of the important fundamentals in my morning warm up: 8 minutes of Breathing Gym, 2 minutes of buzzing, long tones, slow slurs, fast slurs, articulation, high range, low range, etc. Sometimes I catch myself wanting to skip the breathing exercises and then I think, “What’s the point? You’re too good to spend time doing this halfway. Either commit now or do something else.” If you know a method to achieve superior practice and performance, why wouldn’t you follow it every time?

      4. Make 1 Goal
So if you’re having trouble committing to a practice session, design a goal for yourself. There are three rules for this goal:

Your goal must be:
·      Specific
·      Measurable
·      Achievable

This is especially good if you have less than 30 minutes to practice. Here's an example of a good goal:

“In this practice session I will practice my memorization of Bolero. I will divide the excerpt into phrases and play each phrase once with music and once without. I will repeat this process until 30 minutes have passed.”  

My goal is specific; it outlines the exact process that I will use.
My goal is measurable; at the end of 30 minutes, I can report that I did it.
My goal is achievable; notice it didn’t say that I would memorize Bolero, because I don’t necessarily know if I can do that in 30 minutes. I do know that I can play phrases back and forth, with and without music. I set an achievable goal that would take me closer to memorization. I am practicing my memorization in small chunks so that it is more likely it will be memorized at the end of the session.

Not only will your goal direct your focus, but you’ll have the added bonus of feeling accomplished at the end of your practice session. And who wouldn’t want that?!

      5. 10x10
This is for those mornings when I have to get some work done on the computer, but I also have to practice. I set the timer on my phone to 10 minutes, repeating. And then I go! For the first ten minutes, I play my trombone. When the timer rings, I work on my computer. Rinse and repeat. Once an hour, take a ten minute chunk to go outside and run around in the sun. Then get back to it. This technique works for 1-2 hour increments. It helps keep me focused because I have a sense of urgency in everything I do.

      6. Metronome ON
Still getting distracted? Take out your loudest metronome, turn it on, turn the volume all the way up, and then don’t turn it off. Trust me, it’s really annoying to have a loud click in your ear while you’re trying to check Facebook. It’s a good reminder to get your head back where it should be: in the music.

-Sarah



Monday, August 4, 2014

That's It! I've Got It!

Today, I had no epiphanies. I did not figure anything out today. Sort of...

Peter Pirotte is a friend of mine who recently won a job playing trumpet with the Navy Band in Washington, D.C. He was one of my roommates in Kansas City and probably heard me say, "I think I've figured it out...." at least every other day. I was constantly searching and having breakthroughs. At least I felt like I was. That made practicing exciting and it was all I wanted to do. 

I am always certain that I am going to find the answer to my "issues." Every time I try a different approach, I am sure it is going to be the magic one that fixes everything. It's really easy to keep pressing forward and get into practicing when you feel that way. It's like you're on the brink of a huge discovery that is going to change the world! Only, it never does.

What it does is change your playing a little bit. And instead of there being a magic tip that will suddenly make you amazing, it is a painful process of minor (sometimes imperceivable) improvements. Those are easy to gloss over, which is why it is good to record regularly. I don't record as much as I should but I constantly have the realization:  I couldn't do that two months ago...or last year.

I will continue to search for those few magic secrets that are going to dramatically change my trumpet life knowing I will probably not find them. As with any magic, it's just more exciting to believe.

So, my epiphany today was that I had no epiphany and that I have to keep on working. Like I said, it is easy when you're making huge improvements all of the time. We are not going to have days like that every single day and it is important not to define our musical self by one "bad day." Doug Reneau, another of my Kansas City friends who now plays in the Louisiana Philharmonic, said to me, "If a scientist has a failed hypothesis, he doesn't view it necessarily as a personal failure. It is merely something that did not work and provided some very helpful data. So you've got more to work with the next time. Practicing should be like that." 

Happy Practicing!

-Matt