Weekly lessons are a major part of music education, and no one would argue the importance of one-on-one attention. However, it is often the case that once a student leaves their university, lessons tend to occur less regularly. For many recent grads there are lots of available reasons to avoid lessons: their schedules are too full, lessons are expensive, they are burnt out this kind of instruction, or maybe they feel they no longer need it. Although some of these can be legitimate concerns, the value of individual instruction and coaching is great enough that it should be made a priority.
Throughout the professional athletic world, coaching is an integral part to the highest levels of success, and the world of professional tennis is a prime example. In this article, Diane Pucin discusses some of the relationships between top players and coaches. There is no need to mention all the accolades Serena Williams has earned in her storied career, and when talking about her work with coach Patrick Mouratoglou she said this:
"No matter what, no matter what stage you're at, you can get better, and you can't always do that yourself. You need another set of eyes, another voice.”
As a musician at any level, this is what you get from one-on-one coaching. It’s not just about getting advice on technique or assigning materials to work on. It’s about getting a knowledgeable outside perspective on all aspects of your playing. Sometimes, no matter how skilled you are at self-analysis, have another set of ears can shed some light on things you never noticed.
Even if you don’t have the ability or desire to get a lesson (or coaching session if you prefer to call it) from a well-known teacher or performer, find someone you trust and set one up. If you are You can leave it up to whoever is listening, or you can ask them to focus on specifics, such as rhythm, tone, musicality, or style. Perhaps most importantly, you have to keep an open mind on the feedback you receive from your musical coach, and it is very helpful to record your session to listen to/watch later.
Listening to music can take many forms. I enjoy having music on in the background while cleaning the house, washing the car, working on my bike, and many other everyday activities. Often I have symphonies pumping into my ear, or solo recordings, but often it’s non-classical music as well. As enjoyable as this kind of listening can be, no matter the content, there is another type of listening that we should be engaging in as musicians: active listening.
Active listening takes place when you are completely engaged with the music you are listening to, giving it your full attention and noticing as many intricacies and details as possible within the music.
As an example, I enjoyed this recording of Mahler 7, with Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while relaxing in my living room one evening last week. For much of the last movement I listened with my eyes closed, experiencing the subtle artistic nuance with which this orchestra performed this amazing piece of music. I heard the slight differences in accents depending on where in the measure they fell, the dedication to sustaining every last note of a slur, the passing of melody from section to section and player to player. All of which would have been lost on me if I was also trying to answer emails or wash dishes at the same time.
In order to create music at a high level, we have to have the ability to create in our minds our desired sound. This ability comes from our own experiences making music, but can also come from listening to great performers, drawing inspiration and musical ideas from their artistry. Some of the best performers I know spend a lot of time and find a lot of enjoyment actively listening to great music. Rather they are intentionally drawing inspiration and musical ideas from this activity or not, I am sure their own musical performance is enhanced through this activity.
Pick one of your favorite pieces of music, or one movement, or just five minutes, and plan an active listening session this week. Find a time when you won’t be interrupted and use the highest quality listening system you have access to, such as full-size speakers or good quality headphones (ideally not earbuds). Listen for whatever you want: details of articulation, phrasing, accents and emphasis, or slight changes in tone color. Afterwards, reflect on what you heard and think about places in your own music where you can apply this level of artistry. This experiment might just change the way you listen to great music.
The experience of watching live music is something special. Every time you get the chance to sit and listen to a person or a group of people perform, you are watching hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months of preparation, culminating in a performance for you. As musicians, it’s hard to avoid comparing our own musicianship with the performers we are watching. This can either be very helpful, or it can be damaging to our own experiences the next time we are in the performer’s roll.
Ask yourself: how do you react when you hear an error from a performer you are watching? I will admit, there have been times when I am hoping to hear a mistake, to in some way validate my own errors, past and future. This kind of listening, however, does not make for a very enjoyable experience and doesn’t do anything to make me feel any better about my own mistakes.
A much better way to help your own performance, and actually enjoy the concert you are attending, is to root for the player you are watching, reveling in the beautiful music they are making. The way you listen to music will inform your own concept of what the audience is thinking when it’s your turn on stage. As an audience member, if you are listening with a positive, encouraging spirit, then when you are performing you will feel that same energy from your audience.
Next time you get the chance to enjoy a concert, see if you can stay in this positive mindset throughout the performance. Actively engage with the performer or performers on stage, sending them all the good vibes and encouragement you can, and don’t let a mistake pull you out of the enjoyment of their music. Focus on all of the good things happening on stage, and the next time you are performing, maybe mistakes won’t distract you as much from the beautiful music you are sharing with your audience.
Enjoy your next concert!
Sometimes, nearly hitting a goal can be just as inspiring as actually achieving it. While this concept might be somewhat counterintuitive, there has been quite a bit of research into this phenomenon that I was made aware of listening to a Hidden Brain podcast titled, “Near Wins, And Not Quites: How Almost Winning Can Be Motivating.”
Through interviews and citing the research of his guests, Shankar Vedantam explores this possibility, presenting some interesting findings. According to the research of Monica Wadhwa, who as a young girl felt the thrill of almost winning the lottery, coming very close to a goal can motivate you to win something else that comes up. For her it was a big exam in school, but for you it could easily be the next audition, big job interview, or fantasy football matchup (which I’m sure for some of you will matter greatly in the coming months).
There are a lot of interesting implications in this idea. However, I think for this effect to be really powerful, we also have to frame our “failures” in the right way. Instead of reacting as if the world screwed you over in some way, get excited about how close you got! Think about what you can do to push yourself to the next level that might get you to the goal you just barely missed.
A couple years ago a was a finalist in a principal horn audition for an orchestra, but I didn’t win the job. I was disappointed, but also really excited! I was so close! After that, I was able to ride that excitement and keep working hard toward whatever opportunity was going to come my way next.
Think about a recent “miss” and notice how you respond. How can you alter your outlook to spin a failure into motivation? This is not always an easy task. Take some time to process the failure, but think about what you can do to push yourself over the edge next time. You might even discover you are creating obstacles for yourself, an idea we are going to discuss next week...
As over-used as it may be, the old saying of breakfast being the most important meal of the day has a lot of truth to it. Even though this saying is very common, I have met numerous people that choose not to eat breakfast. Mostly their reasoning is that they either aren’t hungry, or don’t have time to make breakfast in their rush out the door in the morning. It’s been my experience that skipping breakfast has many negative effects on the rest of my day, and if you regularly race out the door with an empty stomach, I recommend changing that approach.
There is a great article discussing the importance of breakfast on sciencedirect.com that was written by Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist and gastrophysicist working out of Oxford University. This long-form, and extremely well-researched and cited article dives into some of the current and former trends at the breakfast table, and discusses the possible impacts of skipping your first meal of the day. Dr. Spence had this to say in regards to the impact of your breakfast.
“The general advice from the health experts is to eat a substantial well-balanced breakfast, one that delivers its energy slowly over the course of the morning.5 Indeed, the failure to eat (a well-balanced) breakfast has been documented to have a deleterious impact on cognitive performance.”
As cut and dry as this comment is, I’m sure some of you are wondering if your daily productivity really suffers from a lack of morning nutritional input. I would argue that as musicians, we need as much cognitive support as possible to get us through our day. Speaking from personal experience, I definitely feel when I don’t have enough fuel in my body. When this happened, I begin to notice my energy level drop while teaching and practicing, activities with which I normally have no issue staying engaged.
Besides the cognitive support, starting your day off with a healthy breakfast improves metabolism and can even generate some weight loss. I have been following the Slow Carb Diet from Tim Ferriss over the past few months, and one of the main tenets of this program is a protein-rich breakfast everyday. (You can find out more about his diet here) Ferriss states that by committing to 30 grams of lean protein every morning, you can start to see measurable results in fat loss. I will provide a more in depth analysis of my experience with this diet in a later post, but if you’re interested I have lost about 20 lbs of fat since starting it, thanks in large part to my commitment to a daily breakfast.
For one week, commit to having a good breakfast everyday. Shoot for the mark of 30 grams of protein, vegetables, and some legumes (beans or lentils). Or if this seems too much for you, just try for a well-balanced breakfast that has no added sugar, and stay away from too much carbohydrates (no oatmeal, toast, or cereal). The point is to eat something that will slowly release energy into your system, not spike up and down within an hour or two. I am willing to bet you feel more sustained energy and alertness throughout your day.
Today almost everyone walks around with a device in their pocket capable of recording. This easy access has given us an extremely powerful tool to help us on our musical journey, but only if we know how to use the information we gain.
Last weekend I enjoyed several hours with the Skylark Horn Quartet recording some new works at Eastern Illinois University. Our awesome recording engineer Chris set up headphones for us, and we were able to listen back to takes to see what we liked, and what we wanted to fix. Sounds really helpful, right? It is, but only if we were able to maintain the right headspace to process the information in the recordings without emotion. Easier said than done.
As our session progressed, I noticed a few times that I reacted to the playback in a way that was not helpful to myself or the group. Luckily, I noticed these few instances and was able to remind myself of the purpose of listening back: to gain information in a non-judgmental way.
I cannot express how useful recording yourself is, and how quickly you can make corrections using this approach. But as I mentioned above, this is only helpful if you approach the listening process in a constructive way. Here’s how to get the most out of your experience.
Also, here is a nice layout of the form I use for this process. One of the instructions on this form says to 'prepare for a Magic Line performance." You can learn more about that technique from Jeff Nelsen. And I have to mention that the inspiration for this concept came from observing a masterclass with Randy Gardner.
Following the guide above, record something and listen back. Write down your findings in a practice log. Look closely at the language you use in both the positive and negative, with special attention to the way you phrase the parts of the recording you want to fix. This should be constructive, not condescending.
I am finishing up a wonderful week of teaching at the Eastern Music Camp at Eastern Illinois University. In addition to my duties as Assistant Director, I have been working with our middle and high school horn students in sectionals, masterclasses, and private lessons.
Besides having a great time with all the fun activities, the students make a remarkable amount of progress during their time on campus, and I believe part of this progress comes from the immersive environment they enjoy during the week. Perhaps the area that most of us think of when pondering immersive learning is language. There is a mountain of research in this area and many interesting articles can be found all over the web. One excellent example is this article published by the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota. This article discusses the possible benefits and challenges of using immersive learning techniques to study language, but many of these concepts can be correlated to music.
At this music camp I get to see each section of horns for two hours each day, one in the morning for masterclass and one in the afternoon for sectional work. This coupled with their time spent in rehearsals and other musical classes has resulted in some impressive results. In addition to their time spent with an instructor, I see students working with each other to conquer challenging passages, playing their favorite tunes for one another, and swapping their favorite musical YouTube videos, like this one. They are engaging with musical learning nearly all day, even when they do not realize it.
Musicians of all ages and abilities could benefit from an immersive experience like this one.There are hundreds of events designed for many different interest and ability levels, so with a little searching I’m sure you could find an experience that is exactly what you are looking for. Even if it’s only for a day or two, I’m sure it will have a big impact on your playing and your musical outlook in general.
Do some research and find 3-5 camps and/or workshops you might enjoy attending. As I mentioned earlier, there are programs for any amount of time and budget. If you need some ideas to get you started, I’ve listed a few links below directing you to quality camps I know of.
Woodland Chamber Music Workshop - for adult musicians of all levels (and I teach here!)
Scor! - Strings Camp for Adults
Summer Brass Festival and Institute - for more advanced brass players
When I started this post, I was in Seattle, WA with the Skylark Horn Quartet playing concerts and premiering new works. In addition to rehearsing and performing a bunch, we had a ton of fun. And the reason we are able to enjoy our down time during a busy week is how prepared we were heading into our first rehearsal.
One of the pieces we premiered with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra was Rowemance for string orchestra, percussion, and four horns. This piece, composed by Will Rowe, was very challenging for us and the orchestra, but thanks to a lot of work individually and as a quartet, the first rehearsal went very smoothly. On the way back to our cozy AirBnB we all remarked how relaxing and enjoyable the rehearsal was.
This got me thinking… How much of an impact does the result of the first rehearsal have on the rest of the rehearsals, and more importantly, the concert? Each performance is a culmination of the work in practice and rehearsal, so wouldn’t it make sense that a positive rehearsing experience would contribute to a positive performing experience? The quartet pondered this throughout the week and this calm feeling of confidence persisted, resulting in two great concerts. We never felt pressure or concern over how things would go, because everything was going smoothly from the very first meeting. We were able to relax and enjoy the experience so much more, knowing that we were completely prepared and ready to go.
There are a lot of factors that contribute to the overall feeling and the resulting success of a rehearsal, many of which we have no control over. We cannot control the preparation levels of our colleagues, nor can we control the attitude and style of the conductor (if there is one). We can, however, control our own preparation level and the mental state we choose to carry with us into rehearsal.
We have all looked at a folder of music for an upcoming gig, and thought, “I’m sure I’ll be fine for the first rehearsal with just a quick look a few minutes before the downbeat.” While we can sometimes get away with this, this approach adds unnecessary pressure and tension that can remain through subsequent rehearsals, and ultimately the concert. By preparing for the first rehearsal like it was a performance, we can relax and enjoy the rehearsal process in the days/weeks leading up to the actual performance.
So, while preparing for your next “first rehearsal,” plan as if it that were the concert. Make every note you play in that rehearsal a performance. Bring everything you have to those few hours, and afterward reflect on how things went. How did you play individually? Was this rehearsal more enjoyable, or did it feel more stressful? What was your preparation like before this rehearsal that differed from your normal lead-up to the first rehearsal? Also, take note of how the other rehearsals and the concert goes. I am willing to bet things are very different!
I recently returned from a three-week horn playing hiatus. That is the longest break from my instrument that I’ve had in as long as I can remember… maybe 10+years? I didn’t know what to expect when I picked my horn up from my sister’s apartment in Manhattan, and I’m sure for many of you that would be a scary moment. I had my experience, which I will share later in this article, but I decided to look around for some other perspectives and I found some interesting info to share with you.
I found an article from classicalguitar.org equating our practice habits to a cross-country skier’s training schedule. This piece, written by Jørgen Oktober Storm, focuses on a famous Norwegian skier by the name of Bjørn Dæhlie. Bjørn “contributes most of his achievement to the time off between exercising: the single most important thing besides the actual practice/training is the relaxation.” An interesting thought, hu? We spend so much of our time pushing ourselves to practice longer, harder, and more frequently, that we forget that the actually learning takes place after the practice session when the brain has time to digest.
Jørgen Oktober Storm (best name ever) says that you will often notice a big leap forward in progress after a break. “This is partly because you have let your mind digest what you’ve put in earlier. Sleep works in the same way: you don’t actually learn anything before taking a break from it, pondering it and dissecting it. Practice is the act of chewing, the rest afterward is the actual digestion of the material, and this is when your body is nourished.”
This article suggests taking a day or two off to give yourself time to adjust your practice approach and make a plan going forward. I, on the other hand, took three weeks off. I have to admit I was a little nervous what I would feel like my first few days back, but I felt just fine after some relaxing practice sessions over two days. More importantly, in the days leading up to my musical reunion, I was truly excited to get back on the horn! As my awesome trip came to a close, I found myself getting really excited about being able to play again. That, I think, is the most valuable result from taking a short break. My love for practicing came roaring back, and with it an increased drive to keep getting better.
Assignment for this week:
Figure out what you need/want to practice this week, including required rep for gigs/lesson and whatever else, and plan it out so you can take one day off. Choose your day off and really enjoy it! This day of downtime will give you a huge boost in quality for the rest of the week, and will give you an end point to aim for while planning your practice sessions. My day off last week was July 4th, because I will be too busy eating hot dogs and pie to work on Strauss. Enjoy!
If you want some more reading about the topics of breaks, I found a long-form article from the Scientific American that is really fascinating and sights lots of research on the topic.
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