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.
We all talk to ourselves throughout the day, but how much importance to we place on our word choice and the emotional weight we place on those words? It is all too common for excellent musicians to rip themselves apart in the practice room. Why? Sometimes it’s one tiny mistake, where previous to that flowed a stream of breathtaking beauty and performance excellence. The way we react to our own mistakes and the subsequent self-talk that follows, has an enormous effect on us, and our choices in this vocabulary can result in positive or negative outcomes.
I stumbled upon an excellent article by Laura Starecheski titled, “Why Saying Is Believing — The Science Of Self-Talk.” This article discusses the ideas of self-talk and the perception of one’s self through a few different viewpoints: physical appearance in the mirror and the use of addressing one’s self in the third-person. While the ideas discuss regarding physical appearance are very interesting, I am going to focus on constructive ways of formulating self-talk.
Miss Starecheski cites the work of psychologist Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan, and his interesting research into the structure of self-talk. Ethan noticed one day, after some creative driving, that he reprimanded himself by saying, “Ethan, you idiot!” This awareness of the impact of using his name instead of ‘I,’ lead him down a very interesting path of research. "What we find," Kross says, "is that a subtle linguistic shift — shifting from 'I' to your own name — can have really powerful self-regulatory effects."
Interesting, hu? Talking to yourself as an outsider can allow you to be a bit kinder to the ‘other person.’ So the next time you have a daunting passage coming up, or a big audition looming, try to encourage yourself with something like, “You can do this Kevin. Trust yourself. You are a great musician!” Try not to think of this kind of talk as egotistical, but as supporting yourself the way you would support a student or colleague. This is a crucial shift, and if you can change this habit you will be a much happier musician.
Notice when you use negative language directed at yourself at any point in your day, but pay special attention while you are making music. If possible, stop for one minute and think about how you can reword your statement in a helpful and constructive way. If you are in a situation where you cannot stop (i.e. rehearsal), then make a mental note of your comment, write it down during a break, and see if you can reward it when you are free.
As always, if you would like to share your experiences please comment below!
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