Saturday, February 23, 2019

You Are What You Do- The Professionalism Pep Talk

Yeah so it's been a while....



So where have I been? Ok, well, I left Vegas, moved back to Tennessee, moved to Texas, began teaching middle and high school saxophonists, and then had another graduate teaching assistant position drop in my lap.....


.....and in the middle of all that, I've been watching and listening to college students from many many schools. (I just pictured Commandant Lessard from the Police Academy movies. Yes, I'm old.)

Here's the thing, folks. Many of you could use some guidance, an attitude adjustment, a swift kick in the posterior; however you prefer to phrase it...

Ok, the name of the blog is Ye Olde Music Major and this may be the official "Get off my lawn" entry.


The facts are the facts folks. When you enter school as a music major you might be following your passion. In the real world, though, you're also training for a career. Were it simply about passion, I would have had a doctorate in the 1990s. I'm speaking from experience here. I have done the stupid things about about to list. I've paid for them. Read and absorb what I'm about to tell you and perhaps you'll follow a smarter path.

STEP ONE- SHOW THE **** UP!!!!!

Seriously, I don't know why this has to be mentioned. For starters, YOU'RE PAYING FOR THESE CLASSES. I get it, as a freshman or sophomore things like music theory and music history don't seem very important. THEY FREAKING ARE!!!!! You WILL use them. You WILL use what you learn in class piano. This stuff is important, guys. Even if you're lucky enough to perform for a living you'll need to know the history behind what you play so you're stylistically correct. You'll need to know how harmonic progressions work. You'll need to be able to conduct effective score studies.

You need to show up and be prepared when you do. I'm not saying you have to have it mastered every class. That simply isn't going to happen. You'll struggle in some areas. We all do. The point is to show up, with a good attitude, prepared to the best of your ability, and you have to try. Oh, by the way, you have to have good grades to graduate. Schools hiring band directors do tend to look at your grades and if you're looking at grad school....well, schools do care about GPAs.

Which leads me to my next point...


STEP TWO- LEAVE YOUR ATTITUDE AT THE DOOR!!!!

I don't care how good you think you are. I don't care if you really are that good. If you have serious attitude problems or are an habitual flake; people aren't going to want to work with you. A positive, humble, professional approach will take you much further than just having 'chops'. There are a ton of folks with 'chops' who have to keep their chops at home because people don't want to work with them.


STEP THREE- COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY


A lot of issues in college departments simply come down to communication issues. This isn't just with students either. Professors and administrators are equally guilty. Do your part to avoid this. Email is the preferable means of communication. It gives you a record that you did your due diligence in any situation. Covering your backside in this manner gives you an answer to questions caused by communication problems.

STEP FOUR- ASK QUESTIONS

Yes, this is part of communication but important enough that I feel it needs to be mentioned separately. If you don't understand something, ask. If the professor, conductor, or administrator doesn't do an adequate job of answering the question, ask again. If they blow you off, ask their boss. Remember that you pay to attend school there. They should remember that too.

Ok, here is a MAJOR caveat to that paragraph.

Faculty is there to teach and guide you. They aren't there to spoon feed you or do your work for you. Neither, by the way, are graduate assistants. This isn't middle school. Suck it up, buttercup. Some things you have to figure out on your own. If you show up for a lesson having practiced an hour or less total for the week; a teacher can't make you play better. If you don't come to class, a review session isn't going to suddenly provide you with all the info to do well on an exam. This is called learning to be a professional.

STEP FIVE- LEARN YOUR INSTRUMENT

One of the most maddening statements I hear in music is "I shouldn't be asked to work so hard on my instrument. I mean, I'm just going to be a band director.". Real talk: If I hear a student say that, I will NEVER hire them nor will I recommend them to anyone for a job. If I cannot trust you with one instrument, why should I trust you to lead 40 or 50? You don't have to master your instrument to be a good music educator, true, but you have to try like hell. It makes you a better musician. It teaches you problem solving skills that you can then pass on to your students. Lastly, if you set such low standards for yourself as an instrumentalist, then how on earth can you set high standards for your students?


FINAL STEP- WATCH THE BRIDGES YOU BURN

My undergraduate professor, Dr. Doug Owens, once said and explained that statement in a studio class and it has stuck with me ever since. In the age of social media, we (myself included) do a fantastic job of putting our foot in our mouth and losing coming common courtesy and decency. I'm not saying that one cannot go on social media and express themself, debate issues, what have you. I'm saying that the wrong statement, even one made in jest, can come back to haunt you. Take care in how you act and what you say publicly. Remember that you are in training to be a professional musician; whether on the performance or educational end. People need to have a high opinion of you because you will need them to help you get jobs, into grad school, etc. The folks you see every day are going to help you get a job, or not. Your reputation is the most important thing you have. Keep it good.


So, yeah, this blog was a bit of a rant. I felt it was needed and better you read these words than learn the hard way....




.....like I did....

Monday, September 17, 2018

So, Let's Talk About Gear....

I would normally thumb my nose at an article like this........


    People spend way too much time worrying about gear. They'll see someone performing on their chosen instrument and immediate wonder what equipment is being used. What horn, what mouthpiece, what reed, what bow, what strings. So many folks are more worried about the gear than the work. So many strain to see the make and model of the instrument and miss a wonderful performance in the process. To these folks the fact that Jimi Hendrix played a Fender Stratocaster was the reason for his sound, not that he came up with a unique style of playing guitar.
    As an active member of many social media saxophone boards I see it a lot. Folks are more interested in the mouthpiece and horn used by, say, Joel Frahm than what he does in his practice time. More than this, we have folks who spend thousands trying to put together the exact same gear as their heroes in an attempt to catch the same 'lightning in a bottle'; not understanding that even the most talented of these folks spent hours upon hours daily for YEARS to arrive where they were. Their sound was the result of sweat more than gear. Chris Potter would sound like Chris Potter on a student Bundy saxophone with the stock mouthpiece. Understand that a wind player's sound comes from the wind player, not the instrument. One can even see it with pianist. Chick Corea would sound different than Herbie Hancock even if they played on the exact same piano. Every single great musician develops a unique voice due to who they are as a musician; not due to the gear they use.


That said.....



I LOVE GEAR!

I'm fascinated by it. I want to know how things work. I love discussing it. I love exploring it. I can't wait for Paul Haar's online publication The Saxophonist  each month because he does such a great job of approaching gear reviews from not only an academic standpoint (Professor Haar is Professor of Saxophone at Nebraska) but a real world 'trench knowledge' standpoint as well.

Now, having made my admission I want to drive home a few points.

  • I have spent years playing and studying the saxophone as well as music in general. I have a degree in Saxophone Pedagogy and I'm in the process of transferring from one graduate program to another. I have spent years learning to play. I have spent years developing my sound and my style. A different horn, mouthpiece, etc isn't going to change that. Grabbing Tim McAllister's gear would no more make me sound like Dr. McAllister than grabbing a Conn 10m tenor would make me sound like Dexter Gordon.
  • My interest in gear is more about EASE of playing. I am looking at ways to play in a healthy, pain-free manner until well into my 80s.
  • I try out gear with no illusions of a 'magic bullet'. I just enjoy seeing how things work.

Now, full disclosure time.

 I am an endorsing artist for Marca Reeds. Additionally I have working relationships with Marmaduke Music out of Japan and Key Leaves. To that end, I have received free gear from those companies. I talk up their products on social media quite a bit. I do so, however, because I'm a fan of their products. I use Marmaduke's straps and harnesses exclusively now. I do so because I have neck problems and their products allow me to play pain free. I endorse Marca Reeds because they are the best most consistent reeds I've played. I use Key Leaves on my horns because they help keep keys from sticking and with that will extend the life of some of my pads. I am a fan of all three companies because they are good companies owned by some of the genuinely good folks in the industry. 

So, let's talk about some ground rules for gear.

  • Being a 'gear head' is fine as long as you understand that EFFORT creates the sound, not the GEAR.
  • Make sure your equipment is in good repair. A well set up student horn will blow the doors off a poorly set up pro horn ten times out of ten.
  • Just because your hero plays a certain set up doesn't mean it will work for YOU. I picked up a $450 mouthpiece from a student of mine this spring. All I could do on it was squeak every five notes. It was simply a bad mouthpiece for my embouchure/oral cavity.
  • If you spend more time worrying about gear than approach to the instrument and/or practice time, you're doing it wrong. $1000 mouthpieces don't create a great sound. Long tones do. 
  • Time spent on fundamentals will help you more than the best mouthpiece, horn, etc. 
  • If you pick gear, do so based on good information, advice from folks who are truly qualified, and for the right reasons. Will the product make playing easier or more comfortable? Will it help keep your instrument out of the shop? These are the truly important reasons to get a piece of gear.
  • If you are a high school student, stop reading and go practice.

Because I mentioned the companies with whom I have endorsement deals/relationships, let me provide their information





Ok, you've read about gear. Now, get to work!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Year One: Survival Tips for First Year Music Students

Wow! This is a new one for me. This topic was a request! I've never received a request for a blog topic before so it's exciting and made me have to think. Usually, I'll just wake up or have an event which inspires me to write about it as I feel it might help some folks. In this case, I don't know why I didn't think of this before so, Alissa, here's your blog!


Ok. kiddos, rule one. I'm going to put this in all caps so you see this. IF YOU THINK MAJORING IN MUSIC IS LIKE HIGH SCHOOL BAND OR CHOIR BUT ALL DAY LONG YOU.ARE.WRONG. I can't put it any clearer than that. Hopefully that was made clear by the University ahead of time. So, let's get to tips.


Now, there's a strong possibility (if you're an instrumental major) that you'll be required to march. That's ok, there's usually scholarships involved and, if you're at the right program, some pretty cool travel involved. So, this means band camp, right? Here are some band camp tips.


  • Be yourself. I know that sounds silly but some folks think you have to establish yourself as one of the 'cool kids'. The days are long and hot. Don't worry about being anyone but yourself
  • Make sure to hydrate. This should be common knowledge but some people still forget and have problems
  • For goodness sake, I know this will be the first living away from home experience for many of you but don't go get hammered at night. Besides all the legal and school related problems, you'll feel like hammered dog crap the next day. It isn't worth it. 
  • There will usually be auditions for concert ensembles at some point during or right after camp. Yes, you need to prepare. Yes, you need to take them seriously. No, you won't likely be principal as a first year and no, it isn't the end of the world.
  • Do NOT use your good horn on the field. It isn't worth it.
Ok, we got band camp out of the way. Let's talk about fall semester.

  • Being a music major is busy....like REALLY busy. The better organized you get, the better you'll be. Remember, even if you get loans, grants, or scholarship, you are PAYING to go to school. You are training for a career. Yes, you want to have fun but you're there to do a job. Stay on top of things. Digging out of a hole as a music major is no fun. 
  • If you're staying up all night to complete an assignment.......well.......hope that four hours of Call of Duty was worth it. That's not to say don't have down time or play games. Get your business handled first. Then you can play, watch TV, or socialize guilt and worry free.
  • Yes, even as a music ed major you have to practice.....a LOT. Even as an Ed major you are majoring in your instrument. Time in the practice room makes you a better teacher. Besides, you get good at the very thing that brought you to college in the first place and learn works you never thought you could.
  • Your instrument needs to be serviced and in good shape. If you're a woodwind player you need a good stock of reeds. I like the Marca brand (full disclosure, I'm a Marca endorsing artist). You're going to have to buy music, reeds, and other accessories. It's one of the expenses of being a music major. 
  • Yep, gen ed classes are a pain. Take them seriously. Don't kill it in theory class but fall behind on the path to graduation because you skipped a bunch of psych 101 classes.
  • Here's a life tip based on things I did when I was young and what I heard when I went back- NO ONE CARES WHAT YOUR HIGH SCHOOL BAND DID. They're fun memories, be proud of them, but recognize that your classmates likely all have great high school band/choir memories. No one is going to hire you because of your high school band. Get it?
  • Theory, piano class, ear training, music history may all seem pointless to you at first. They are all important and yes, you will be using all of them down the road.
  • (edit credit to Annias Haney) Those classes all tie in together. You'll see it in the end, like a good movie but with more ear training and analysis.
  • Learn to listen (to something besides pop and DCI shows). Learn about not only the major players on your instrument but major players on all instruments as well as major band and orchestral works. Create a culture of curiosity in yourself that you can then pass down to your students down the road.
  • Remember when I said to get your business handled first? Yes, do that. Yes, be organized. It's so important, though, that you schedule yourself some down time. YOU NEED REST. You need physical rest. You need mental and emotional rest. Burnout sucks.
  • Learn to say no. Some professors, band directors, etc will use you for their own projects to the detriment of your academic performance and sanity if you don't learn that word. Remember that YOU pay THEM. Yes, they're your professors. No, they do NOT control you.
  • Be respectful to your classmates and professors. Burning bridges is dumb and can hurt your career. Drama is just dumb. 
  • Exercise- yes, it's important
  • Don't have a diet which consists solely of cheeseburgers and pizzas. Try to get some healthy foods in your diet
  • SLEEP. Yes, hanging with friends at night is awesome. Yes, homework needs to be done. However, your health is more important. Sleep deprivation hurts performance, makes you feel like crap, and is just no fun.

These are some thoughts. I encourage and invite other music majors and former music majors to join in.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Music School Questions, Part Two

This is a continuation of Part One (obviously). If you need to read Part One, I'm a little put out that my writings aren't the center of your universe already. That said, the link to it is HERE (Part ONE).


So, let's continue with some things to ask or at least ponder when choosing a school.

  • Is the professor one which demands a certain brand of instrument, mouthpiece, ligature, etc be used by every student in the studio? This may be a deal breaker for you. It may not.
  • How involved is the student in the selection of Repertoire? Look, there are some pieces considered 'standards' which the student is going to be expected to play. However, in my opinion, the student should be given some input into what is being assigned. How'd you like going into a senior recital with sixty minutes worth of music that you absolutely hate just because the professor assigned it to you? No thanks.
  • Are there 'professional development' classes offered? Think things like billing, purchase orders, fundraising, skills you might need as a music educator but aren't generally taught in regular classrooms?
  • For the education majors- are you being given assistance in preparing for the Praxis exams or are you basically on your own?
  • What is the reputation of the school locally? Regionally? Nationally? This comes into play when applying for jobs or post graduate study.
  • What are the marching requirements for undergrads? What are the scholarships there? Does marching band interfere with concert bands? I know of programs in the past that didn't even have a wind ensemble in the fall due to marching. THAT'S what I mean by interference. (By the way, I'm in no way bashing college marching bands. They can be a great and rewarding experiences with even some very cool travel from time to time!)
  • What are the job responsibilities as a graduate assistant? Understand that there will be work and time spent on your part. However, make sure that you'll have time to do what YOU need to do first. You're there first and foremost as a student and you are there to improve as a musician. That isn't to say you cannot gain skills from your jobs as a grad assistant. Absolutely, you can.
  • Is there time for YOU? You need down time. You need time to exercise (yes, as a musician you absolutely need exercise). You need time for your other classes, to socialize with friends. To not end up as a quivering, burnt out ball of anxiety? Ask current students tough questions.

This is a shorter one but I'll see if I can't put together a part three soon.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Picking a Music School? Some Questions You Need to Ask. Part One.

I'm sitting in the instrument room on a rainy day at Interlochen Arts Camp listening to young musicians practicing. It's nirvana. It reminds me that many of them will soon be selecting a college. I'm convinced that there needs to be some 'Picking a Music School for Dummies' books. Really. There are so many questions that need to be asked and so often the prospective student has no idea that those questions are even questions. The same could be said for prospective graduate students. Often, the thought of getting accepted by a program becomes the driving force; without first thinking "This is a great, respected music school but it is the best one for ME?". There are questioned which should be asked and answered before a decision this big can be made. Otherwise, the student's experience will be less than optimal and, sometimes, things can become toxic in a hurry. When one is talking about the amount of time and money involved as well as the impact on studies or a career down the road, be deliberate and avoid hype.


  • What is the success rate for students? What are the alumni doing? How many are in grad school or doctoral programs? What's the job placement rate for Education majors?
  • What are the performance opportunities there? How much time does the student get with their instrument?
  • Is the school proactive about bringing in guest artists for master classes? Will the student have the opportunity to participate?
  • Talk to the students there. Are they given good direction? Is their development the most important thing in the mind of professors or do those teachers have 'pet projects' or agendas which interfere? ( yes, sadly, that question should be asked)
  • If the student is a prospective grad student looking for an assistantship, is the assistantship guaranteed for the duration of graduate school? GET THAT IN WRITING.
  • Is the major professor tenured? Is there a possibility of the professor leaving? On the other hand, is the professor riding tenure to retirement (Meaning, how aggressive is the professor in helping to develop the student, perform themselves, and growing the studio?)?
  • What are scholarship requirements? Are there scholarships which simply aren't worth the time requirements? (Yes, this can be a thing)
  • Will the student have the opportunity to get some teaching experience; either through teaching private lessons or working with local schools?
  • Are there good repair techs within a reasonable distance?
  • Are there enough practice rooms? This is a big one. One wouldn't think it would be a problem but if there are a dozen practice rooms and a few hundred music majors it can be an issue.
  • What hours is the building open? Is there adequate access?
  • Talk to the students again. How much drama is in the department (this can usually be determined over pizza)? Is there drama between studios or professors? You don't want to walk into a toxic situation.

I'll have more questions to ask in Part Two: The Search for more Scholarship Money

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Jury Duty- Making Heads or Tails of Your Jury Sheets

Ahhh summer break....

   I'm enjoying another summer at Interlochen Arts Camp and while preparing my summer practice schedule went back to review my jury sheets from earlier this month. I'm trying to identify areas of need and the jury sheets provide some insight into areas of development for me.
   My jury day was......interesting. I had recently been diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea (which was of no surprise to me or anyone who knew me) and the second sleep study, the one to determine which level of CPAP device I needed to correct the apnea, was scheduled to begin about five hours following my jury. I was looking forward to both my jury, for which I felt exceptionally well prepared as well as the sleep study, where I could finally work towards relief from the condition.
  Thirty minutes prior to my jury I was in a practice room warming up when I got a call from the doctor's office. I figured it was to confirm the night's appointment and answer. '........insurance company denied payment on the study. Your out of pocket would be $1200.......'
  This was THIRTY MINUTES before my jury.


So.......

 Walk into my jury. Graduate juries are a bit longer than undergrad and as such I'd prepared Lennon's Distances Within Me as well as Boutry's Divertimento. These are stylistically different pieces; with the Lennon being very introspective and often full of angst (as the title would suggest) and the Boutry being much lighter.
  I used to dislike the Lennon. Now, with more life experience, it speaks to me like few other works and has become one of my favorite pieces. The Boutry I enjoy but it's just good music. It isn't cathartic, musically, like the Lennon was to me.


Yeah, so I mentioned the Lennon having a lot of angst? With the news I'd just received it was a bit moreso than normal. I get it. I was upset, I did too much with the bigger dynamics and my sound spread a bit. I WAS UPSET. I WAS FURIOUS...FRUSTRATED....feeling despair.

By the time I got to the Boutry I was a bit better; having worked out some of my frustration during the Lennon. Still, one of the comments I received on a jury sheet floored me.

I expected some of what I got. I could even hear it as it was happening and was too emotional to rein it in. "Sound spreading in higher dynamics. Some intonation issues.' I fully expected that. Then I read one which had me shaking my head in disbelief.

A faculty member had started a new section for the Boutry and began with "Ahhh, this is more YOUR STYLE of a piece'

WHAT?!?!?!?!?!

Yo, dude! I just put my heart and soul and everything I am into the composition you just heard and something based on French cafe jazz from the mid 20th century is more 'my style'? I couldn't help myself and laughed out loud when I read the statement.

Here's the deal, though. That was that professor's OPINION. That's what that professor HEARD.

What's the point of all this?

Well, you should take your jury sheets seriously. There is likely something pedagogical in there which you can use to improve. Moreover, if you're playing a piece and doing things which stylistically are just wrong......and all of the faculty comment in a similar fashion....ok, look at how you played it and work on your style.

Having said that, a comment such as that? That is an opinion. That person may have the title of Doctor of Musical Arts but that doesn't make them necessarily right. That's often when you need to return to your professor (especially as an undergraduate) and ask about the statement.

Moral of the story- Sit down with your professor. Go over the comments- the good, the bad, and the weird. It's one performance...a snapshot of your playing. Don't dwell too long on the good or the bad. Take the useful bits and remember that professors aren't perfect or necessarily right. This isn't a subjective issue. There are a lot of things which in music aren't 'right' or 'wrong'. With juries, worry about the things that are and remember that YOUR voice as a musician is no less valid than someone else's. If you feel very strongly about the way you phrased a line and can defend that eloquently; then do so.


Oh, and I finally got the CPAP. I'm no longer nodding off during class...rehearsals...standing in line....

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Sun's Out, Guns Out....Your Summer Practice Routine

So I'm giving a lesson the other day to a freshman music ed major...


...can you believe I'm teaching college level saxophone lessons? My mind is still reeling from that.


  As we only have a few lessons left this summer, my student and I were discussing ideas for how to approach improvements over the summer. This gave me the opportunity to express a series of ideas which had been bouncing around in my head for some time. I like the ideas so much I'll share them with you now.


  First- Let's be real:

Yes, you can take small breaks during the summer. It's healthy and even productive to give your brain and body a rest. That does NOT mean leave your instrument in the case all summer. If you are someone who thinks this is a good idea, I question your desire to be a music major. So yes, SMALL breaks. Go to the beach, go camping, do something to relax and give batteries some recharging. Then, get ready to hit it.


The Assessment

This is the part where you either have to take a cold look in the mirror or have your teacher help you. Where are areas where you need work? What are fundamentals which need some extra attention? Assess and then plan-


The Week-long Attack Plan

Ok, let's rewind to winter break. I was back home and my mom was sick....REALLY sick. As such, I didn't really leave home much during the break. During this time, I tried something new with scales. I went slow on just my major scales and worked them over and over (see my blog entry about Mozart's Magic Beans). I practiced them until I could get each, slowly (50-60 BPM on 16th notes) ten times in a row perfectly. I did this for a week straight. Do you know what happened? Without going over 60 beats per minute, I added 20 beats per minute to my top tempo on major full range scales. Let that sink in....


I ADDED 20BPM TO MY SCALES IN A WEEK NEVER GOING OVER 60 BPM!!!


Ok, so here's the plan.


Each week you're going to go through fundamentals: Long tones, scales, voicing, your normal practice routine. THEN:


You pick a concentration for that week: Scale Variations, Articulation, Arpeggios, iiVIs for the jazz guys (I think everyone should try them), what ever facet of your playing you feel could use work. Then, you spend a week slowly working the snot out of it. IT'S JUST A WEEK.

As my professor, Mark McArthur, told me about scales:

"Practice them like you never want to have to practice them again!"

When you ......let's pretend you decided to focus on scales in 3rds....


Treat them the first day like you've never seen them before. Set the metronome slow, almost painfully slow, and try to really LEARN them. INTERNALIZE the movement from the first pass through.

You aren't learning scales. You aren't learning articulation. You are learning your INSTRUMENT. Treat the whole process like this. After a week, pick a new focus. I guarantee, after a week, your skills will improve...seriously.


A final thought: Something else you can do during the summer is work on your level of physical fitness. Playing a musical instrument is a physical activity. Getting in better shape does make playing an instrument (particularly a wind instrument) easier. Improving your levels of strength and flexibility lowers the likelihood of an overuse injury and allows you to play for longer periods without discomfort.


Get to it.
Have a great summer.
Get it done!