Tuesday, September 25, 2018

That Time I Took 211 Days Off

Part 1
By Sarah Paradis, Trombone

On January 2, 2018, my doctor told me to stop playing trombone until I was 36 weeks pregnant, which I was to reach in May 2018. Not all pregnant brass players need to stop playing their instruments, but I was a high risk pregnancy, so my doctor was taking extra precautions.

I effectively got a mandatory doctor’s order to take four months off the horn. And more than that if I’m honest, because I simply did not feel like starting to play again when I was 36 weeks pregnant, and I definitely wasn’t in a place to play for the first 4-8 weeks of my son’s life. As far as I was concerned, it didn’t sound realistic for me to be playing the horn again for seven months.

Seven months is a long time! The longest break I’ve ever taken since I started playing the trombone in 1992 was about 6 weeks after my first son was born. And the next longest break wouldn’t be longer than two weeks. Seven months is more than half a year!

Mentally, I didn’t mind too much about this break because I knew it was something I had to do for my health and especially for the health of my baby. It hurt my ego a bit because I couldn’t play with Mirari Brass Quintet, I couldn’t take any gigs, and I missed out on an audition for my local symphony. But again, my family’s health is more important than any gig, so it was clear what I had to do.

I definitely became a more creative teacher during this time. There were so many times that I knew I could show my students how to play something, if only I could play my horn. Once I picked up the horn and played it for a 6th grade student, and quickly regretted it. I lacked the control that I was used to, and it just didn’t feel good. A few times I buzzed in attempt to demonstrate, and again I kind of wished I hadn’t. Instead, I sang A LOT. And I turned to good recordings A LOT. Also, my ability to verbally describe a sound grew. I created new analogies and visualizations to use to communicate with my students. It was frustrating at times (read: every time), but in retrospect I am sure I grew as a teacher and a musician.

We welcomed our son Henry on June 1st, 2018. He was healthy and we were all very happy! However, like most babies, he didn’t sleep the way adults like to sleep, so the first 4 weeks were very rocky. “Survival” is a word that comes to mind. After that, we found a rhythm, but coming back to trombone seemed very far from a reality. To be honest, it just wasn’t high on the priority list. My sons needed me and I needed to take care of myself by resting as much as possible.

Fast forward to mid-July, when I was invited to play in Opera Idaho’s production of West Side Story in September. I took the gig and suddenly my comeback plan needed to be defined.

For once, I felt like I had a large amount of time to really come back to the horn in an intentional, meditated way. So, I decided that I was going to do it right. I was going to plan it out, follow my plan, keep a journal, and take my time.

In this blog I will detail my comeback process. I’ll talk about the books I used, the plan I followed, and I’ll include excerpts from my journal.

Part 2 will cover the first three weeks of my comeback.

Part 3 will cover the last two weeks and my re-entry into “real life” playing.

Part 4 will summarize the lessons I learned.

Thank you for joining me!
Part 2

After deciding that I would play my first gig in mid September of 2018, my next step was to plan my comeback. I knew exactly which book I needed to buy:

“Common Sense for COMEBACK CHOPS: A Trombonist’s Guide to Playing After an Extended Time Off” by Ken Ebo

Kind of like it was written for me, right?

There are plenty of reasons people take an extended time off the horn. Ken’s experience was that he was in the military and got deployed for a year of non-music work out of the country. He wasn’t allowed to bring his horn. Other people need to take time off for medical reasons, chop injuries, or any array of other life circumstances.

I think it’s important to make a clear distinction here. I am talking about planned, extended (more than a month) off from the horn. I am NOT talking about randomly taking multiple days off the horn in the middle of a period of time that you are working or in school. I believe the two are very different circumstances. As a brass educator, I think it is very important to play daily, promote healthy playing habits, and perform regularly throughout the school year. As a music student, it was imperative that I play every day, or very close to it. I’m not advocating large amounts of time off in those circumstances. A day off here and there can be good for recovery, but I wouldn’t suggest taking more than 3 days off per month if you are trying to maintain your chops and grow as a brass player.


The book arrived in mid July and I began to look into it. I used Ken’s model to help me plan the length and pacing of my comeback. He had a few preset plans, but I made a “custom” plan that took full advantage of the 40 days I had until the gig. I decided to spend 30 days getting back in shape, and then spend 10 days practicing the rep for the gig. It took me a few tries to get my plan so that it felt manageable but still allowed me enough rest and enough time at each stage.

(You can click on the picture for a clearer view)

You can probably imagine the content of each stage. I can’t go into it because Ken probably wouldn’t like it, but I was very thankful for his book. If left to my own devices, I would definitely want to A) move too fast, B) not rest enough, and/or C) play things that were too demanding too soon. By following his book, I only allowed myself to play the exercises in each stage. Nothing more, nothing less.

I started out with one session a day at first. It was only 10-15 minutes of playing, with lots of breaks in between every exercise. I always started with 10 reps of breathing on the incentive spirometer, then 1-2 minutes of buzzing. Then I’d play. Ken advocates buzzing frequently, so I’d go back and forth between playing and buzzing (and resting) for 15 minutes. By then my chops felt really tingly, and my time was up, so I’d pack up the horn until the next day.

The incentive spirometer: due to my pregnancy, my breathing muscles were all messed up. My lungs/diaphragm/abdomen had been cramped and unused for brass playing for a long time. My lung capacity felt drastically diminished, so I used the incentive spirometer to measure my lung capacity and attempt to improve it. When I started, I was at 2.5 liters, and by day 10 I was getting to 3.25 liters.

I got really detail oriented with my practice sessions so that I could stay focused and complete my tasks without any distraction. I timed my sessions with the timer on my phone, and stopped when my time was up. I turned the phone on to airplane mode so I wasn’t tempted to get distracted by social media or email. I kept a detailed journal and logged everything that I played. These were all great habits that I try to incorporate into my daily practice now.

In my journal, I had a column for my PLAN for the day, then another column for my ACTION, or what I actually did, and a third column that tracked my daily minutes of practice as well as my max incentive spirometer volume. I wrote notes about my sessions underneath. Over time the PLAN became the same every day: Breathe, Buzz, Play. The ACTION column simply kept track of how many times I did each and for how long. Here is a shot of my journal from days 3, 4, and 5.

“What was it like to get back into playing after that long?”

The greatest thing was: I sounded the same. Day 1, I played my horn and nothing had changed about my sound. What a relief! I suppose that part really was like riding a bike.

Another great thing was that I hadn’t lost any technique. What I had lost was endurance and control. These took the full 40 days to get back, so I couldn’t access my technique until I was through the program, but it was there. Once I had regained my “fitness,” I could access the articulation, flexibility, and all other technical ability that I had previously had. *whew*

The not so great, but expected, reality was that I had no endurance. My facial muscles were good for talking and eating, but definitely not good for playing an instrument. Completely gone. In the beginning, I also had no control. I could hold a long note pretty well, but couldn’t manipulate much past that. I remember, around day 4 or so, playing a simple slur exercise that Ken had in stage 1. I played it for my older son, and it was...not good. I was surprised and embarrassed...and worried. “Oh no! This is something I should be able to do!” But I learned soon that thoughts like these will come, and you have to let them go. It’s the great expectation that you have to leave at the door, and just trust the process. For 40 days, in my case. You can have the same standards that you have when you’re in shape, but you have to be OK with not meeting those standards. It takes a lot of patience. A lot.

It’s almost like meditation. You’re supposed to allow thoughts to enter you mind, see them for what they are, and let them go.

Allow the substandard sounds to happen, notate what they are, and let it go. Rinse and repeat, day after day, always aiming for the sound you have in your head.

I hit a bump in the road during week two and came down with a bad cold. This cold, mixed with very inconsistent sleep, left me feeling pretty terrible, but I only had one day where I really was unable to play (day 10). After that, the short practice sessions were manageable.

At the end of 3 weeks, I was feeling somewhat normal... sometimes. I had regained control of slow slurs, and I played my first “high B-flat.” However, I was still having difficulty playing a steady tone in the second partial (low B-flat), and hitting fatigue after 25-35 minutes of playing. To be honest, I had thought that I would be completely back to normal after three weeks of playing, but I wasn’t. It was important that I didn’t judge myself for this reality. Any guilt or doubt would only hinder the process. So, just like in meditation, I noticed that I wasn’t fully back to normal, and I let it go. I got back to work, following the plan. I had to trust the process.

This is how many minutes I spent on the horn per day for the first 3 weeks:

Week 1: 15, 15, 30, 30, 55, 40, 45
Week 2: 0, 55, 0, 55, 60, 65, 70
Week 3: 100, 50, 70, 80, 0, 75, 95

The fact that I had an 8-week-old baby to care for ultimately helped the process, I think. While I always felt like it was a struggle to find time to play (this baby liked to sleep ON me for his naps), the baby’s frequent sleep schedule actually worked quite well for my short practice spurts. I had to play in a practice mute the majority of the time, which wasn’t ideal, but it worked out. I tried to play on the open horn once a day to make sure I was maintaining a resonant sound.

If I hadn’t had a baby at home, my comeback would have looked different. Specifically, I think I would have tried to play more each day from the beginning, which probably wouldn’t have been a good idea. I liked the pacing of my plan. I liked it while I was playing it and I like it now, as I look back on it. So I suppose I owe the baby a “thank you” for helping me manage a healthy comeback! :):):)

Join me in Part 3 for the last 2 weeks of my comeback and my “re-entry” into real life playing!

And then in Part 4, I will summarize the lessons I learned in the process:)

Friday, July 6, 2018

10 Lessons I Learned While Hiking

10 Lessons I Learned While Hiking
By Matt Vangjel

Recently, my wife, Jena, and I were hiking the Face Trail up to Table Mountain just outside
Grand Teton National Park. This trail had been recommended to us by my fellow Mirari
trumpet player, Alex Noppe. He told us it would be a challenging hike, but that the view
made it worth it. When Jena and I realized how cloudy it would be by the time we got to
the top of the mountain, she made a joke about how it parallelled the career of a musician.
So, thanks to her, on the way down my brain started applying many of our experiences on
the hike to being a musician, student, teacher, and human. In no particular order, here are
some of my thoughts.

1. You can never be too prepared.
This one seems pretty obvious and easy to apply to ourselves as musicians. The thing I want to stress here is, are you even close to being what some consider “too prepared?” Sometimes we think we are prepared but it turns out there are some very obvious things that we’re missing (like an extra pair of socks). So, what are you missing in your preparation? Are you satisfied with being prepared “enough”? What if you’re wrong about what “enough” is?

2. Belief in yourself is more powerful than you know.
Many of the reviews of the hike I read in preparation, especially the ones posted in May and June, mentioned that the hikers had had to turn around because they lost the trail in the snow. For some reason, though, Jena and I had no doubts. Alex had said we’d be fine, we both had hiking boots and are relatively fit people; “we’ve got this,” we thought.
It is possible that if we had known just how hard that hike was going to be, we would’ve said, “you know, maybe not today.” We even had a point where we thought about turning
around, but we agreed that neither one of us would be the one to say uncle. We did
successfully complete the hike, which means we could do it. But how many times do
we just *know* that we can’t do something and so we don’t even try? Sometimes all we
have is believing. Sometimes that’s all you need.

3. Use the tools at your disposal.
We talked to someone who had successfully completed the hike and who gave us the
confidence to take on the challenge. But the most important tool we had was our
phones. We had the trail on our map app and a blue dot (thank you, GPS) that kept us
heading in the right direction and helped us not to stray too far from the trail.

Again, this is an obvious parallel. Your phone is a recorder, metronome, tuner, tone
generator, and more! All of those applications help keep you on track. How many times
a week do you ignore the metronome and just tap your foot? How many times do you
get a pretty good sound and assume that you’re in tune? What if the consequences were
as dire as losing your way on a strenuous and dangerous hike? Maybe they are.

4. Expect snow.
Something you should know about reviews on hiking websites and apps is that some of
these people might as well be professionals. “A bit of snow” to one person is like a blizzard to another (Minnesota vs. Louisiana). We assumed there would be maybe ankle-high snow. We were very wrong. We could see snow at the top of the mountains, so why did we think there would be so little?

What warnings are you receiving and possibly ignoring? I am aware that I just recently
said our blind faith and belief in ourselves was what propelled us forward and helped
us to be successful. But if we had heeded the warnings, we definitely could have been
more prepared (see: Lesson 1).

5. Let music inspire you.
About half a mile from the top, I was sure that I was dying. I had to stop about every ten
steps and rest for at least a minute. Every time I rested, up to my knees in snow, I was
reminded that I had standing water in my shoes, up to my ankles. Needless to say, for
someone who lives at sea level in a very warm climate, 10,000 ft. and 40 degrees was
not exactly comfortable. It was at one of these moments where I was gasping for air and
trying to tell myself I could make it that I turned to Jena and said, “I might need some
of that inspirational music now.”

Jena has a playlist she uses before races and auditions that helps her feel powerful and confident (think Summon the Heroes and Fanfare for the Common Man). Besides beautifully
fitting the scenery around us, it helped us push on.

Sometimes when we’re in the practicing trenches, it’s hard to remember why we do
what we do. Stay inspired every day by listening to great music. It doesn’t always have to
be John Williams and Aaron Copland, but they do have great trumpet parts.

6. You will fall (fail). Fall well.
At one point on the hike, I slipped on an icy log and fell into the snow. I was inches away
from having my leg stuck under this large log and probably broken. I was very lucky, but I
did not fall well.

Later, when we were hiking down the mountain, Jena fell. Well, it didn’t look like a fall,
it was more like, she started to fall and then sat down. She fell well. We do the same thing
when we’re performing. It may seem like a defeatist mentality, to practice failing, but think
of it as practicing recovering. The other part of failing well is not flailing about and getting
yourself into an even worse situation. Sometimes the best thing to do is to accept the fall
gracefully and artistically recover. You’ve heard people do it before, make it part of your
preparation as well.

7. The view at the top isn’t always clear.
It took us five hours of grueling hiking to get to the top of Table Mountain. Once at the top,
you are so close to Grand Teton that you feel like you could throw a rock and hit it. By all
accounts, the hike is worth it for the view at the top. Except, when we got there, the
clouds had rolled in and we couldn’t see the peaks of the three tallest mountains or anything
behind them. All that work and no payoff! We laughed about it and hung around long enough
to eat some food and wring out our soaking socks, but the clouds only got thicker and the view
was more obstructed. So, was it worth it?

Setting goals is hugely important. Sometimes our goals are visible and tangible, and
sometimes they’re not. Either way, we have an expectation of how we will feel, what we will
sound like, what people will say when we achieve certain long-term goals. This is dangerous
because sometimes it’s cloudy at the top. Sometimes it’s not the postcard picture you thought
it would be.

Your biggest success may not be as “big” as someone else’s. Does that matter? Does that
diminish what you’ve done to get there? Of course not. You’ve heard it said a bunch of
different ways but in this case it’s definitely about the journey. It’s being able to look back
and say, “it wasn’t always fun or easy, but I did it.”

8. The way down is hard work.
So what happens when you get to the top? You can’t stay there. You’ve got to come back
down. You can either jump off the mountain and plunge to your death or you can hike down.
It’s true that the hike down goes a little faster and it is less strenuous in some ways. But it’s
not easy by any stretch. It takes work to get down safely.

We have to work really hard to achieve anything—it’s like a constant uphill climb
(maybe there are a few plateaus but they are small, relatively speaking). Once you achieve
your goal there is no coasting, there is no quitting practicing because you’ve made it. You
still have to work just to maintain some level of movement and to not tumble down the
mountain too fast. You don’t want to lose all you’ve worked for so quickly. You could go
ahead and not do the work—just don’t be surprised at how quickly you end up back at the
bottom (with a lot of bumps and bruises too).

9. Get your head up and look around.
There were moments where I felt like all I could do was keep my head down and will myself to take another step. We get like this in our practice and in our journeys to progress. We get so focused on the step right in front of us that we forget to observe the beauty around us on our way to that goal.

If you are learning a piece, changing the way you play, just starting an instrument, it
doesn’t matter.
Pay attention to those beautiful things that happen every day in every practice session. It may be one note that makes your ears perk up, and that’s enough. Appreciate it and store that away in your memory. It’ll help you take that next difficult step and help your potential become your reality.

10. Sometimes you’ll leap, sometimes you’ll crawl, and sometimes you’ll stand still.
Know when to do which.
This is the hardest thing to do when you are in unfamiliar territory. As musicians we are
always striving to get better and pushing to be the best we can be, so standing still and
crawling seem pretty depressing to us. However, it’s crucial that you do them from time to
time. Standing still lets us get our head up, get away from the grind, and appreciate the beauty
around us (or check the GPS to make sure we’re still on the right track). Crawling is, at times,
the only way to continue to move forward because if you jump at the wrong time, you end up
stuck in the snow, under a tree, with your leg (almost) broken.

The more you go through uncertain terrain, the more you are able to recognize which rocks
are stable enough to put your weight on or where the snow is most shallow. You’ll still be
surprised from time to time (fall well and recover) but you will have a better idea of when
to jump, crawl, or wait and that prevents you from wasting precious time and energy.

11. Bonus Lesson!
Don’t just sit in a practice room and surf the internet and think it’s going to make you an
interesting musician. Go do things that challenge and inspire you. You will be amazed at
the lessons you learn and how they apply to every aspect of your life. We are storytellers!
You can’t tell great stories if you don’t have any.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Auditioning for Music Schools: Tips from the Other Side of the Room

It’s early January, so for me, that means another season of listening to college auditions. Few things provoke more anxiety in young musicians than the prospect of only having fifteen minutes to (supposedly) secure your future. So from the perspective of someone who’s listened to a lot of auditions over the past decade, here are a few suggestions to help in your preparations:

1. First Impressions Matter. I’m going to give away a secret here. The vast majority of the time, I can make pretty accurate evaluations about a student’s musical abilities within the first ten seconds of hearing them play. Those ten seconds tell me if you have a good sound, musicality, if you can play in time and in tune, and what your major strengths and weaknesses are. The rest of the audition serves to either confirm or contradict those initial impressions, but the truth is that most of the time, my initial observations prove accurate.

Here’s the good news: You can practice for this! How many times have you started the first ten seconds of each of your pieces? It’s very easy—you could do it twenty times a day in the practice room and in front of teachers/colleagues/random people. Practice these initial impressions until they become so automatic that you can start your pieces in your sleep.

If you want to know how your initial impressions come across to others, record yourself. Listen back immediately and ask the following questions:
  • How does it sound? Is my tone full, clear, and resonant? Listen to your most favorite players and ask “how is their sound different from mine?” 
  • Is it musical? Would someone (not your parents!) pay money to hear you play this? Someone that doesn’t know your instrument or the piece? Again, listen to your favorite players and ask “what are they doing differently from me?” 
  • Is it in tune? Put on a tuner or drone pitch and check for reference. 
  • Is it in time? Put on a metronome and see where you rush or drag. 
2. Sound and Musicianship Are Your Primary Goals. Remember that you’re auditioning to study music—that automatically implies that you have a lot of growth and development ahead of you. I’m not looking for fully-formed prodigies in my studio. If you’re that good coming out of high school, you should be auditioning for jobs, not college! So I’m listening for potential as much as polish.

Two of the things that often take the longest to develop in young musicians are also the two things which will define you as a player throughout your career: sound and musicianship. These are way, way more important than being able to play the highest, the fastest, or the loudest. Make sure in your audition preparations that you are focusing on always playing with a great sound and always playing with compelling musicality.

The best way to gain musicianship is to listen to great musicians. Do you have a favorite player? Have you listened to her or him play many times over? Can you hear their sound in your head? If not, you’re not listening enough. Remember to listen to players on other instruments than your own. This can be a part of your practicing—listen for a few minutes in between playing passages. It gives you a chop break and helps to reinforce great concepts of sound or musicianship.

Finally, one of the best ways to work on these concepts is by playing fundamentals. Fundamental practice should probably be at least 50% of your practice time, right up to the day of your audition. If you need help on developing a great fundamental routine and figuring out how to practice i, ask your teacher. Or contact me—I’m always happy to give suggestions!

3. Select Repertoire That Makes You Sound Your Best. Really hard music played in a mediocre fashion is not nearly as impressive as anything else played well. Don’t try and game the audition process by picking music that you are “supposed to play” or that the panel “wants to hear”. Pick music that highlights your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses (of course, you are constantly working to shore up weak areas in your practice, but you don’t have to spotlight them in an audition). Make sure that you are always asking yourself “does this make me sound my best?”

Here’s an example of something I hear a lot. The Hindemith Trumpet Sonata looks easy on the surface—it’s not fast, the notes aren’t difficult, and there aren’t that many of them. But that piece requires tremendous endurance, breath control, and musicianship, traits which many young musicians haven’t yet developed. Virtually every year, someone chooses this piece to play in an audition for me. Most of the time, they don’t have the chops to make it through. Pick your repertoire carefully!

4. Finally, Ace The Intangibles. Going back to this idea that college teachers are looking for potential over polish, do everything that you can to show in your audition that you are the kind of student that will make their studio better. Here is a partial list of qualities that I love to see in my incoming students. The best students are:
  • Curious
  • Determined
  • Hungry
  • Team players
  • Confident without being cocky
  • Thoughtful
  • Kind towards others
  • Interesting
  • Organized
  • On time
  • Enthusiastic
Without going overboard (or putting on a false persona), how many of these qualities can you show during an audition? There will undoubtedly be time to talk with the panel—this is your chance to show that you are the kind of student that they definitely don’t want to pass on. One further thing with this: you will certainly have an opportunity to ask questions about the program during your audition. Just like in a job interview, have a couple questions in mind to ask. Make them well thought-out, intellectual questions that you can’t find the answers to just by going on the university’s website!

Hopefully this is just a bit of useful insight into the other side of the university audition process. It’s not as scary as it might initially seem, and do remember that you are evaluating the school as well. So test out these tips in your preparations, try to enjoy the process a little bit, and as always, remember to breathe!

Alex Noppe 
Trumpet Professor, University of Wisconsin