Thursday, December 7, 2017

Finish the Sentence and Defeat the Demons.

I am one big ole hypocrite...

There, I admit it.

Here I sit, putting on airs of being the bastion of positivity on this blog...having my classmates always coming to me to be the word of encouragement (looking at YOU, Lilah) and...truth be told...


   It's simple. I put a ton of pressure on myself and spend way too much time in my own head. I live or die on every single note; let alone every performance. I'm aware of the risk I'm taking and it has creeped into my head and sits there lurking 24 hours a day. It decided to hop down off the bookshelf in my brain and tapdance on my ego during last night's lesson . At the age of 47, a combination of exhaustion, fear, frustration, and health issues took over and for the first time I can remember I cried in a lesson. Mark was great and was as much counselor as professor but I left with my tail between my legs.

   This morning's practice session wasn't much better. I was dropping notes, missing things I shouldn't, getting more and more frustrated and not able to calm myself. Furthermore I was too stubborn to do the very thing I tell y'all to do and walk away. Finally, I was to the point where I couldn't play the opening two measures of Ibert's Concerino da Camera cleanly because my left hand was just so tight and because I was just so angry and frustrated with myself. I realized where I was, put my horn up, and went to get lunch.

It was on the walk to lunch that I had the worst thought and then what alcoholics call 'a moment of clarity'.

The worst-  " Why the **** did you think you could do this?! You will NEVER make it as a saxophonist! NEVER!"

The moment of clarity began with one word--- "UNLESS"

"Unless you can learn to relax and work through these sticking points, in which case you'll be just fine so work on those this afternoon".

Wow. That was a simple answer. That one word, UNLESS, just changes everything.

"You will NEVER lose weight.....unless you improve your eating habits and exercise."
"I'll NEVER be able to afford that car....unless I stop going to the bar every weekend and lay off the new video game purchase every other week."

Now, does this choice 100% guarantee that I am going to have a fabulous jury on Monday and that I'm going to be a huge success in music?


However, do you know what it does do? It puts the proverbial ball back in my court. It gives ME the control again.

I'm going to take my 'unless' and head back to the practice room to knock my demons out of the way.

Find your demon beating word
Finish your sentence
Get it done.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

So Who Decides What's Hard?

I had a good lesson last night....

   Mark and I spent an hour working on Berio's Sequenza IX and Christian Lauba's Prelude to Vertigo (a multiphonic funky groove!). I walked out of the lesson thinking "Now I'm finally playing some real GRADUATE LEVEL lit!". I?

   What makes this grad level literature? Sure each work is challenging for various reasons but is it something that requires a piece of paper from a University stating that I'm worthy to delve into these works? Are these pieces actually more challenging than other saxophone works by, say, Ibert and Ingolf Dahl or are they just different?

   Who awoke one morning and decided that Lauba and Berio only wrote pieces for grad level and above?

  I think this is a mentality that I'm slowly see change in some studios

(Hey guys, I think the thoughts about mindset here are appropriate for every instrument but I'm a saxophonist so I'm going to use saxophone stuff to make my points, sorry.)

   So, back in the 1960s the saxophone virtuoso, guru, Supreme Leader of the Jedi Council Donald "The Don" Sinta released the album American Music. It was, and still is, one of the 'gold standard' recordings for classical saxophone. It's sort of the Kind of Blue of the should be one of the first in a saxophonist's collection.

  ....but let's talk about what's on the album...

   On this recording you had THE high level saxophone/piano lit of the mid 20th century; works by Paul Creston, Bernard Heiden, Warren Benson, Walter Hartley.....this was, for the time, grad level.

Now,  high school kids play the pieces....WELL.

   What changed? Well, I think for starters, we got more people teaching the saxophone at a high level. The second point, however, is I think the more important part...


   If you don't instill a 'Oh man this is going to be hard' mindset in a student and instead instill a 'Man, a new piece! This is cool!' mindset, how much more could they accomplish?

  A good example involves a couple current freshmen at Arizona State. Dr. Chris Creviston brought in Matt and Tina this year and they are already tearing it up. Matt has already performed Edison Denisov's Sonata and Tina, by all accounts, is absolutely killin on John Anthony Lennon's Distances Within Me. Now, these are 'traditionally' hurdles for grad school students and they are being handled well by a couple of kids who just a few months ago were in high school. Do you think Dr. Creviston assigned these pieces and then said 'Just so you know, these are ridiculously hard and only grad students should play them.' ? More likely he assigned them and said 'Get it done!'.

  Another example is one of my professor's own students; Philip. Philip is currently a high school senior and I recently heard him perform one of the two 'heavy' pieces from my senior recital; Yoshimatsu's Fuzzy Bird Sonata. Do you think at any point Mark said 'Yeah, this is for seniors in college!'?

  What's the point? Well, perhaps....just perhaps....a lot of what's considered 'this level' or 'that level' as far as music literature has to do with stigmas and old mindsets.

Don't let someone else's mindset interfere with your goals. Challenge yourself. Get the chops and play the lit.

Get it done.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Lock It Down- Success....Simplified.

We all have goals....

   Some are lofty, some not so lofty, and some exist only in our dreams (I'm never going to be the reincarnation of Cannonball Adderley and perform with Miles...). However, we have them and are usually looking for ways to achieve them. Often, these dreams are also the source of our greatest frustrations. How do we get there? How do we achieve what our heart so badly wants to achieve?

  The answer is simple....but not easy...

  We lock down fundamentals to the point where we can get out of our own way and do what we want to do with our instrument.

I know...I know....

  Some are you are already saying 'but....but...I already do scales. I already do long tones. I already do etudes!'

 Ok, do you 'do' them or do you approach them with the same mindset that you would your dream concerto?

 You see, so much of what we do in the practice room ends up being 'instrumentalist on auto-pilot'. Yeah, we do scales. Yeah, we do long tones. Yeah, we do articulation work. How much effort do we REALLY put into these things, though?

"Thought of the Day: In music, it can all come down to whether or not you love practicing your scales." - Dr. Timothy McAllister

 Now, I don't know about ALL but he isn't far off here. You MUST give the fundamental work as much love an attention as you do your favorite lit.

 So you do long tones? Really? Can you play the lowest note on the horn with as wide a dynamic range and as in tune as you can the top note on your horn? Is there a significant difference in timbre? Do you have the control needed to play anything in the lit?

  So you do scales? Really? Are your scales at 120 bpm as smooth and even as they are at 60 bpm? How about 130....150....200? How about 3rds, 4ths, arpeggios, whole tone? You get the idea.

 Now, I freely admit, this is an area that I'm working on as well. I must. If I am to play the literature which I really desire to play (and play it at a level which will leave jaws on the floor).

Fundamentals never stop being cool. Don't do them because your teacher tells you. Do them because if you are going to take the time to learn an instrument then take the time to REALLY learn it.

Approach fundamentals from that place of joy and discovery. See just how far you can take things. More importantly, notice how much easier your literature becomes when you become a certified 'CHOP MONSTER'.

Turn on the metronome and the drone. Get your scale book out.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Morning After- Dealing With Performances Which Don't Go Your Way.


 UNLV's Saxophone Studio Recital was last night and, well.....

....things could have gone better on my end.

I walked off stage feeling as if my performance of Ibert's Concertino da Camera would have Jacques spinning in his grave for a few days. I did the right things as far as stage etiquette: Smiled, acknowledged my collaborative pianist, bowed....but...

inside I was screaming "WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!"

I walked off stage, into the green room, and just sunk my head into my hands. I was nauseous, I wanted to cry, I wanted to apologize to the audience for what they had to endure.

So what happened?

This is new territory for me.....not having an off performance, but the reason why. I had almost paralyzing performance anxiety last night. I couldn't breath. My hands were shaking so badly that they almost fell off the horn.

I'm the same guy who, at concerto competition finals back at my alma mater just 18 months ago, was winking at his accompanist in the middle of a performance and was on stage to remind everyone else that they were competing for second place. I OWNED the stage.

Now, my current performance anxiety issue isn't the point of this blog. That's a journey for Mark McArthur (my major professor) and me to navigate. The point is, things didn't go the way I wanted them to and you know what?

The sun still rose this morning.

So, what do you do in a situation like this? It's time to work things out in your head...

WAS IT AS BAD AS YOU (or in this case, I ), thought?
Probably not. In fact, if memory serves, the lyrical sections from last night were actually pretty darned good.

It doesn't even define you for the rest of the week. No one remembers the games where Michael Jordan went 2-20. They remember the games where he dropped 50 points on someone. This is a journey. This likely won't be your last performance.

What happened? WHY did it happen? Is there a pedagogical thing which can be done to lessen the chance of it happening again? Were you simply not prepared? Were you being stubborn about some things. In my case, though I knew better, one of the problems was that the back of my mind had be set on playing the work at the suggested performance tempo because I'm a grad student and I should be able to do that, right? WRONG. I'd only had the piece for a month or so and only gotten three rehearsals with my pianist.

Listen with peers and/or your teacher after the wounds have subsided a bit. Allow yourself to be objective.

We're all going to have bad days at the office. We're all going to be sickened by them. What we cannot allow is for a bad performance to become an anchor which continually weighs us down. Shake it off, pick yourself up, and promise yourself that the next one will be better.

This is a journey. If you journey far enough you'll have your fair share of bumps and bruises. The journey makes those scars worth it, though.

My next solo performance will have jaws on the floor. I promise you that. More importantly, I promise ME that.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Non-Negotiables for Wind Player Success.


  I'm preparing to dive down into the orchestra pit for a three performance run of Prokofiev's wonderful ballet Romeo and Juliet. Before I do, though, I wanted to share some thoughts with you.

  You see, one of the cool things I get to do at UNLV is perform in the Wind Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Tom Leslie. Maestro Leslie is a big name in the field and has even been president of the American Bandmasters' Association. One of the things that I noticed when receiving the syllabus to the Wind Orchestra was a list from Maestro Leslie called his 'Non-negotiables'. It was basically a list of rules which, when implemented by the ensemble, would all but guarantee the highest level of performance and success. Here's the list:

 They make perfect sense, don't they?

It got me thinking "Great! These are good rules for an ensemble but how about for the rest of the day? What are steadfast rules which will all but guarantee success and growth for the wind player?" Well, here's what I came up with....


  1. Do some form of practice daily (I include score study, critical listening, visualization, and active recovery in with this. Giving your chops a day off every week isn't a bad idea)
  2. Do long tones, overtone work, mouthpiece work, etc EVERY practice session.
  3. Do scales, arpeggios, scale fragments, or patterns and articulation work EVERY practice session.
  4. Sight read as often as possible.
  5. Use a metronome in EVERY practice session.
  6. Use a tuner in EVERY practice session (By tuner I mean a drone or some sort of fixed pitch. You cannot learn to tune with your eyes).
  7. Play with people better than you as often as possible. (This is a big one.)
  8. Perform as often as possible.
  9. Approach the practice room from a place of joy, gratitude, and curiosity. If it feels like a grind, pack up your horn and come back later. Your mindset is wrong.
  10. Learn active recovery techniques. What we do is in fact a physical activity and repetitive use injuries are real and debilitating. You want to be able to do this for the rest of your life, right?
  11. Learn Alexander Technique, body mapping, or some other method of proper alignment and set up to minimize the chance of injury and maximize playing enjoyment.
  12. Record yourself often. Listen later so you can be objective.
  13. Video yourself often. Look for hitches in your alignment, set up, embouchure, etc.
  14. Tell them you want the gig, then SHOW them you want the gig.
  15. Learn to market yourself as a performer not from a place of arrogance but from quiet confidence and professionalism.
  16. ALWAYS be professional on the stage and in rehearsal.
  17. Maintain balance. Find a non musical hobby. We all need a way to 'get away' mentally.
  18. Learn to say 'no' when you need to. 
  19. LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN- Find the best musicians in the world, not necessarily on your instrument, and listen constantly. 
  20. HAVE FUN- If you aren't enjoying it, then why are you doing it?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thoughts for my Saxo-buddies (Relevant for other folks, too)

I got a message yesterday.

  The youngster in question asked me what music I recommended for developing saxophonists. As I was listing some, he messaged something like "Ugh, etudes? I was hoping you'd give me some solos!'..

  Well, my young Padawan, what do you think etudes are?

   Is this a failing on the part of the student? Absolutely not! I think that, as educators, we are too quick to not put etudes into the same category as the most popular sonatas and concertos. It's MUSIC. In fact, how many pieces of our standard lit (and even lit that most cannot play.....Thanks, Mr. Lauba!) began as etudes? One of the most standard pieces in our literature, Bozza's Improvisation and Caprice, began life in an etude book!

  Who here would pay money for a recording of, say, Taimur Sullivan playing through all 48 of the Ferling Etudes? Were that recording to happen my response would be "SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!".

  It's MUSIC! A lot of is is actually really well written music! These composers wrote things for saxophone. We need to show them the same respect and reverence as Ibert, Glazunov, Albright, and the rest!

  Conversely, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with taking a piece of music and using it as an etude. My professor, Mark McArthur, currently has me using Berio Sequenza IX as a 'study piece'. Why? Well, one example would be about five measures in. Mr. Berio expects the player to hold a low B at PP for 10 seconds (yes, he lists the note held for that time frame). You think mastering that won't help my control? My air? Make me a better player?

So, back to the original point, what music did I recommend for the youngster?

Ferling 48 Famous Studies - This is the 'standard' edition of this text. There is an edition done by the esteemed saxophone virtuoso, Marcel Mule, which features an enharmonic variant on the etudes. It's pricey but excellent. One really cannot go wrong with either, though.

Trent Kynaston Daily Studies for Saxophone- This is basically fundamentals 'boot camp' for saxophonists. It covers scales, scale variants, arpeggios, long tones, intervals, articulation, and other aspects of playing. It's my go to recommendation for scales until Doug Owens gets his scale book published (hint hint DOUG!)

Marcel Mule Etudes - I'm just listing an example here. ANY of his studies are useful.

Larry Teal- The Art of Saxophone Playing - This is, I believe, the first book anyone should get when they begin playing the saxophone. This is THE how to.

Klose 25 Daily Exercises (ed. McAllister) - Another great set of etudes, edited by one of THE guys in the field right now.

Don Sinta Voicing: An Approach to the Saxophone's Third Octave  - I considered Racher's Top Tones here as well. I just find the Sinta's book more direct and to the point....kinda like Mr. Sinta...

U.S. Army Field Band - The Saxophone Standard - Boys and girls, this is the greatest value in saxophone education. It's FREE. There is hundreds if not thousands of dollars worth of information here.

These are just a small sampling. There are tons of others. I didn't even list any of the myriad of jazz studies which are available.

Just remember, treat etudes and fundamentals with the same reverence as the biggest concerto and listen to yourself grow! Get after it!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Old Dog, New Tricks- Bringing Your Practice Routine into the 21st Century.

This is an entry which probably should begin with 'Back in my day'...

This is a statement which, to me, is akin to 'You kids get off my lawn!'.

Having said that, years ago, when I was a young performance major at Memphis, a metronome was this thing with a big pendulum style arm and a dial in the back for winding it up. A tuner? Usually the old 'Strobe-O-Conn' , which was about 25 lbs and had a 1940s style microphone. If your program was lucky they MIGHT have a 'Doctor Beat' metronome somewhere. Oh, computers? Yeah, unless you had a Commodore 64 plugged into your TV,  the average computer ran about $2500.

Times have changed a bit, huh? Shouldn't the way we use technology in the practice room change as well?

Now, I am in NO WAY suggesting that effective practice routines should be changed. My favorite pedagogical statement is 'Fundamentals never stop being cool'. Long tones are long tones. Scales, arpeggios, and patterns are still just as important now as they were when Mozart was composing. Articulation studies have as much merit as they always have. What I'm talking about, however, is using the current level of technology to better understand needs and how we progress in the practice room.

Many of my readers don't really remember the days before cell phones and even smart phones have been around for a decade or so now (WOW!). That is some serious world changing technology, isn't it? Yes, they're great for showing the dumb thing you just did on Snapchat but can also be a great tool in the practice room. To this end, most (I think) music students have some form of metronome/tuner installed on their phone. Fabulous. Let's discuss one in particular and the instant feedback it can provide.

It was just about this time last year that I had a grad school audition here at UNLV and my professor, Mark McArthur (Has it been a year?! WOW!) At the time I was using an app called 'Tunable'. It's a really well done metronome/tuner app. However, Mark turned me on to one called Tonal Energy. Tonal Energy did everything Tunable could do plus one BIG feature. It has a a spectrum analyzer where you can actually see what's happening when you play. Ok, first things first. I'm a big believer in the fact that you shouldn't use the visual aspect of a tuner very much. As the esteemed former sax professor at Michigan, Don Sinta, was fond of saying - "You don't tune with your eyes". Therefore, I believe in doing long tones, and even scales, with a drone. One cool feature of tonal energy is that it allows you to not only play against a drone, but do so with multiple pitches. For example, were you to use a C scale as a long tone exercise, you could set the tuner to drone a C and G; therefore giving you not only the tonic (C) but the dominant (G, the 5th scale degree) to tune against. It makes those ears work a bit harder.

Ok, back to the spectrum analyzer. This part gets a bit more involved, as it will require two phones, or a phone and a tablet. I use both a small iphone as well as an Ipad mini. I know the Ipad is a bit pricy for a lot of students. For this purpose, I recommend you look at the Kindle Fire. The Fire HD starts at $50 and will allow use of the Tonal Energy App.

Ok, plug some headphones in to the tablet and have it play the drone. Set the phone's Tonal Energy app to the spectrum analyzer feature. Watch what's happening? How quickly did you find the pitch? How steady was your sound? These are things the spectrum analyzer will show you. It shows progress but it also makes it impossible to ignore any potential issues.

Last night I took three screen shots of my use of the Tonal Energy app. The first was my alto mouthpiece pitch of a concert A. The second, articulation work. The third, I did a vibrato study as someone who was just beginning to learn vibrato might do. Here's what they look like.

First, the mouthpiece pitch:

As you can see, keeping the pitch steady and the air steady wasn't easy. It's a work in progress for even advanced players. (I know someone will notice that the pitch listed is F#. I had the tuner set for alto. It's another cool feature). I had a concert a droning through headphones.

Next, the articulation work:

Four quarters, eight eighths, sixteen sixteenths. Not bad, but I could make it more even. The visual really shows the detail of what I did, doesn't it? Note, I had the metronome on my phone playing through headphones so it wouldn't affect the analysis. The one downside of the app is that the spectrum analyzer picks up every sound; even that coming from the app itself.

Finally, a youngster learning vibrato:

The overall tone appears nice and full. However, the green line in the middle should be a steady pulse going from slightly below the pitch and back up to the pitch. In other words, it should resemble a sine wave. Something like this:

Now, I have no affiliation whatsoever with Tonal Energy. I just find that the more I use it in the practice room, the better some of the fine details of my playing become. It's $3.99 at the moment and if you get it for one device, you actually can download it on all of your devices.

Take your fundamental work and use technology for instant feedback on where you are and what you need to address....


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Perception, Reality, and the Practice Room: Why Your Practice Routine Stinks.

Ok..... to be honest, I have no idea if your practice routine stinks or not; nor will I be able to impart some magical practice schedule to suddenly make you a virtuoso. In fact, this blog will address a certain crowd. It's a club to which I used to be a member.

To which club do I refer?

It's the 'I stink, everything's terrible, why can't I play this, everything is horrible, I'm never going to get any better club'.

I freely admit, when I returned to school to restart my music degree, I was a terror in the practice room....terror to myself that is. I grunted, signed, yelled, cussed, and....on one occasion, kicked my case across a rehearsal hall so hard that it scared several people.

What on earth did I hope to accomplish with this? What possible good was I doing myself? Unfortunately, I'll bet several of you reading this blog have acted in the past or continue to act in a similar manner. Look, let's be real here. This behavior is just plain dumb.

Banging your head against the wall only gives one a headache. It does nothing to the wall and besides, the whole 'tortured artist' thing is played out. If you're doing this because you believe that this is part of how an 'artist' should act with some misplaced passion, just stop. Seriously. Stop.


Is that clear enough?

If you walk in the practice room with the attitude of 'I'm never going to get that passage right' or 'This isn't going to be very good' then your best course of action is to turn around, go have your pity party somewhere, and come back when you have the right mindset.

What IS the right mindset?

Gee, I'm glad you asked, loyal reader.  The right mindset involves a combination of science lab and child's playtime.


Ok, let me fill the gaps in that statement. Remember being a kid and playing. Let's say you were swimming. Child you decides "I'm going to swim from this point to that point underwater. Ohhhh, I didn't quite make it. Let me try to take a bigger breath and push off harder with my legs! YAY!!! I made it!"

What we often did as kids when we were playing was, in a zero pressure environment, figure out how stuff worked and, just as importantly, what doesn't work. We just need to transfer that mindset to the practice room.

"So you mentioned something about a science lab?"

Oh yeah, thanks again loyal reader. Here's what I mean about the science lab. What you were doing when 'figuring stuff out' as a kid was simply a rudimentary form of experimentation. What do the folks in science labs do? Exactly. Here's why I mentioned both-

You take the child like curiosity and enthusiasm and add the documentation of scientific experimentation. Write things down. What works? What doesn't? How did something feel? Most importantly, though, make practice into playtime. "Ok, I hit that low C at piano...I wonder if I tweaked my airstream this way if I could play it at pianissimo?" Make it a fun activity....BECAUSE IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE ONE!

"Well what happens when nothing is working?"

There are those days, huh? You're tired, you can't focus, or things just aren't coming together for some reason. There are a few options. 1: Put that activity aside and work on something else. Hit it again when your mind is fresh. 2: Go get some water and walk around for a few minutes to reset your brain a bit. 3: If it's a REALLY bad day, pack up your instrument and walk away. Explain why to your teacher, if need be, and assure them that you're hitting it again later (and then actually do!).

All fields of study have frustrations. You should absolutely try to limit yours. What we do is a joyous thing. We are part of a long and very prestigious tradition. Have fun. Explore. Figure things out!

Ok, so the next part here has nothing to do with the previous subject. Full disclosure, I'm making a small change to the blog and becoming an Amazon Affiliate. What does this mean to you? Not a darned thing, really. There will be an Amazon Banner on the blog from now on and if I mention a product that's on Amazon, I'll link to their site. This does NOT mean I'm simply going to put products on the blog to make money. However, if I'm talking about reeds, music, etc and Amazon happens to carry them, I'll make a few bucks if someone clicks on the link and buys them. Otherwise, please continue to read and comment. It won't cost you a thing.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Curious Case of Mozart's Magic Beans

What a beautiful time of the year in sunny Las Vegas!

    I'm discovering more and more how fortunate I am to be here and working on my masters degree. More than that, I'm fortunate to be studying (as are you) at a time when there are so many opportunities to share information and discuss ideas. One such idea has presented itself several times recently and I thought I'd share it. It's an old idea which, like good ideas do, gets recycled from time to time.

    It's the concept of Mozart's Magic Beans.

  This is a concept that was first presented to me a few years ago by my major undergrad professor, Dr. Doug Owens. It popped back up this week in an article published by Sean Hurlburt on his Saxophone Performance website. Finally, Mark McArthur (my current professor) detailed it in UNLV's saxophone studio class at the end of the week during a discussion on effective practice techniques.

  Ok, so it's being talked about and now you're asking...'Great, what are Mozart's Magic Beans?!'

  Look, one of the legends of Mozart is that he somehow popped out of the womb as a virtuoso performer and composer. While it's true that the guy was almost laughably talented, legend and hyperbole do tend to often go hand in hand. The truth is often a little different.
  The truth is, Mozart's dad was a very accomplished and skilled musician as well. He was the his son's earliest mentor and as most celeb dads seem to be, was extra hard on junior (obviously, it worked but also tended to make ole Wolfgang a bit nutty). One of the technique used by Daddy Mozart involved beans......

Mozart's dad would give Jr ten beans and have him place the beans in his left pocket. He would then play a passage, scale, whatever. Every time he played it without flaw, he'd move a bean to his right pocket. The goal was that he would eventually play the passage flawlessly ten times in a row and have all the beans in his right pocket. If he played it less than flawlessly, he would have to move all the beans back to his left pocket and start over.

Tough, huh?

I tried this tonight using pennies. My goal? Play a C major scale in thirds in sixteenth notce at quarter note equals 80bpm ; articulated. Do you know how many pennies I moved? Do you want to know my record?


It could have been worse! I could have had a tuner playing the Tonic as a drone and I would have had intonation staring me in the face too.

Let me offer this caveat. I'm no virtuoso but I can play. I have a degree in this and was good enough to have interest from several graduate programs.

Why, then, was my record less than half the goal?

The rule, per Mr. Mozart- FLAWLESS.

You see, there were no instances when I simply couldn't play the scale. What went wrong was an inaccurate articulation...or slight misfire on palm keys...or running out of air at the end......thus the difference between playing something and playing it flawlessly.

So what do I think about this technique?

I believe the technique can be very effective but has two distinct dangers-

1: You MUST be honest with yourself about what's happening (recording yourself might be helpful here). It's easy to rationalize and say 'close enough'. That isn't the goal. The goal here, to steal a sports addage, is 'nothing but net' or it doesn't count.
2: It would become very easy to turn this into a negative experience and start beating oneself up over not being able to get to ten (or even four, five, or six). One must keep this as a growth experience. If , for instance, your're working on a passage from a Bach Cello Suite and you work your way up to the point where you are playing it five times in a row, flawlessly....well, you've improved as a musician and gained valuable technique on your instrument, have you not? Yes, the goal remains ten. HOWEVER, the more important goal here is GROWTH. If you got three in a row last time and four in a row this're getting better!

Give it a try!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Drop the Tylenol- Headache Prevention for Music Students and Musicians.


 Sorry folks, it's been way too long since I penned one of these (Penned? It's a computer, genius!). School gets busy. That said, I had some observations about things which can make your experience in school......and life....much better. If you read one of the comments and get insulted, well, good. You probably need to be.

Ok, let's start with some simple stuff....

  • The brand of instrument is less important than how it's set up and maintained. Musical instruments by and large have moving parts which can wear down and get out of adjustment. They do need to be properly maintained by a QUALIFIED technician; one who hopefully isn't in a 'big box' music store and expected to 'repair' 200 instruments per week. Find a good one. Ask around. Who do professionals in the area use? Develop a rapport with the technician and ask questions. They need to know what you're looking for and can better explain things to you if they have more information.
  • If you buy a brand spanking new instrument, take it to a tech to get it properly 'set up'. I guarantee that even the best brand/model of your instrument could use a final tweak or two. Some need much more. Even if it was well set up at the factory, it was shipped, loaded, unloaded, packed, short, knocked around a bit. 
  • Read the above and know that the difference can be night and day and actually clean up problems in your playing.
  • Make sure you have supplies to keep the instrument clean and dry when not in use. It will save you thousands over your life time....if you use them regularly....
  • If you're a woodwind player, no, two or three reeds isn't enough. Keep a box or two around. I know they're expensive. You picked the field.
  • Have your mouthpiece checked out to make sure it's in good shape. You'd be surprised. It can make a HUGE difference.
  • Similarly, have someone look at your instrument's barrel, lead pipe, neck, or bocal. Those can also make a huge difference.
  • If you are on a student instrument and that's all you can afford, then rock it. Make sure it's in good working condition and make the most of it. 

Ok, Life Lesson Time:

  • There is a difference between confidence and arrogance. As musicians, we NEED confidence. As musicians, arrogance will usually find you in the unemployment line. You might be really good. However, unless your name is Heifitz or Yo Yo Ma, there is likely someone better. Tone down that ego so you can learn something.
  • If you're the best player in the room, you're in the wrong room.
  • I said this in my 'Rules for Music Majors' post but once you step foot on a college campus, your accomplishments in high school mean exactly JACK.
  • 'Once you reach the top of one level, you find yourself at the bottom of the next' - Janos Starker
  • Show up on time and ready to play.
  • Let people know that you want the gig and then SHOW THEM that you want the gig.
  • No, you aren't 'too good' to be at whatever school you attend. 
  • Practice rooms have the same use at Eastman and a community college. 
  • Hard work is more important than raw talent.
  • Hard work and a great attitude absolutely crush raw talent. 
  • Chair placements are often not due simply to playing ability but needs in the ensemble. If, for example, you're auditioning for your school's ensemble for the principal trombone chair but everyone knows you are a KILLER bass trombonist, guess where you're likely to end up?
  • Don't be a jerk. Everyone knows everyone now. If you act like an arrogant jackass in your department, good luck with grad school or jobs. 
  • Don't be afraid to put yourself out there and reach out to teachers and professionals all over the world. You'll be surprised what good can come of it. 
  • Just because you aren't the one playing in studio class or a masterclass doesn't mean you can't learn something. Less mouth, more ears.
  • Help others in your studio, even if they're competition. It helps you in the long run.
  • Be the person people want to succeed.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Few Rules for Music Majors

Man, summer always flies by.....

 I'm in the last few days of Interlochen Arts Camp and then it's home and time for my second semester of graduate study. Watching what goes on here, surrounded by some of the best young artists, instructors, and conductors in the world, I can't help but notice things and how they relate to my undergraduate colleagues around the country. Hence, I compiled a few thoughts.

  • Even if you are going to be conducting a band or working with elementary/middle school students, you should have a STRONG working knowledge of orchestral lit. I mean lit actually performed by an orchestra; not the band arrangement and certainly not whatever drum corps adapted it into a field show. This isn't to bash bands or drum corps. You just need to experience the piece as it was originally intended to be played. That way you understand how it's supposed to sound if you choose to program an adaptation down the road. Besides, listening to orchestral recordings likely means that you're hearing YOUR chosen instrument being played at a high level. More about that in a moment.
  • You need to know (be aware of) a ton of solo lit for not only your instrument but a strong working knowledge of major works for other instruments. Your students need to listen to masters perform on their instrument. You need to tell, for example, a clarinetist about Marcellus performing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra. Ask your classmates. Ask professors. What's been written? 
  • On that same vein, what's on YOUR playlist? You need to know every big time player on your instrument going back several decades. Moreover, you need to know at least 1-2 heavyweights on every instrument. Listen to masters on everything so you'll have a working knowledge of what GOOD is. 
  • (This is also not a bash against drum corps)- If you are a junior or senior in college and the majority of your listening is drum corps, you are doing yourself and your future students a disservice. I'm not saying don't listen. I'm saying Santa Clara Vanguard performing Scheherazade should prompt you to listen to, say, the Vienna Philharmonic performing the work. If you can name the show the Blue Devils played in 2013 but can't list ten major recordings on your instrument, you're simply doing it wrong. 
  • Your professors do know more than you. They might not be right 100% of the time but yes, they are trying to make you better and unless you are finishing a DMA and are a total virtuoso, they are likely much better than you at the instrument. You might disagree with what they say but try it out before you simply dismiss it.
  • You sometimes have to do things which you find to be a waste of time. Welcome to life. 
  • Don't be afraid to say 'no'. You are there to improve and be a student. If professors/administrators are constantly hounding you to recruit, work events, or do things which are taking away from practice or study, 'no' is a perfectly acceptable answer. Be a team player but not to your own detriment. 
  • If you are a music ed major and say 'I don't have to get that good at my instrument. I'm just going to be a band director.' then you are doing it wrong. No, you don't have to reach anywhere near a virtuosic level on your instrument to teach others. You do, however, have to TRY. How can you understand your students' struggle unless you go through it? How can you expect your students to work when you refuse to? No, an hour a week before lessons isn't enough. You have to put in lots of work on your instrument. It helps your ear. It helps your theory skills. It helps your musicality. It's why you are there. Suck it up, buttercup.

Feel free to add your thoughts.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Seeing the Forest for the Trees- A Look at the Big Picture.

So I really dislike my playing right now and you know what?

I'm totally ok with that.

  You see, as I went through my first semester of graduate school, my professor worked to change and streamline a lot of things about my playing. This put me in a position where I was having to relearn how to do a lot of things. In many ways, I was having to take a few steps back to correct subtle but very bad habits and help push me through to the next level.
  I've spent the past few years trying to break through the proverbial wall to no avail. I'd made strides, the wall has divots, cracks, and holes, but it still stands. This is why I dislike my playing right now.

  Ultimately, when it takes a long time to break down that proverbial wall the aspiring musician has to spend a great deal of time staring at a really ugly, cracked, dented, beaten up wall; wondering how to finally break through.

So, how do we do that?

  First things first, you have to believe in yourself and your ability. You do have the ability to improve your skill on whatever instrument you play and your ceiling is likely far higher than you believe. This is a rite of passage that all musicians must endure; usually several times in their life....several, dozens, hundreds, THOUSANDS. There are world class players who still sit with their metronome and pencil on their stand saying 'Why can't I freaking get that passage?!'.

   When you love something enough to fully commit to it you are going to be frustrated by it constantly.  We all set impossible standards for ourselves and are still shocked when we can't ever WHY WHY?!?!?!? Believing in yourself allows you to do this but still step back and say 'Ok, I didn't quite get it today but I will tomorrow!'. If you don't believe in yourself, learn how. Find books on self confidence. Work with people who might be able help. You HAVE TO believe in yourself to succeed in this.

   Second, you have to trust in your teacher. If you don't, you need to figure out the disconnect or find one you do trust. If you don't believe they can really help you, then why are you there?

   Lastly, you must keep faith in the fact that the wall will come down. Keep steady consistent work in the fundamentals of your instrument. If you aren't performing scales, long tones, articulation work, etc every day then you are doing yourself a disservice. Get some studies on rhythm and work the heck out of them (I like Robert Starer's Rhythmic Training). Get music theory texts and work that. Most importantly, work to recognize 'holes' in your technique and work diligently to shore them up. What's holding you back? Is it air? Your tongue? Fingers? Is there a hitch in your technique in certain ranges? Identify those 'holes' and spend a little extra time focusing on them. As an example, one of the holes in my technique is a deficiency getting around the palm keys. As such, I'm going to spend a few weeks working major and minor (harmonic and melodic) scales, scales in 3rds, and scales in 4ths, just going into, through, and out of the palm keys.

So, why am I ok with disliking my playing right now? Simple, I have a plan and know that if I persist, the wall will come down eventually and I'll be one step closer to virtuosity. The only thing standing in between me and the literature I truly want to play With that knowledge, I can make it work.

Believe in yourself.
Get to work.
Blast through walls!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Comparison Game- What Should Your Standard Be?

It's Institute Week at Interlochen Arts Camp!

  The cool thing about Institute Week is that the normal totally world class faculty is joined by some true heavy hitters. When I say heavy hitters I mean flautists like Paula Robison, clarinetists like David Gould, and the entire Prism sax quartet. These are folks who are absolutely at the tops of their field which leads me to my point...

 How fair is it to compare yourself to them?

  I'm not going to go on a diatribe about how young or learning musicians and music students shouldn't compare themselves to the top folks in the craft. Yes, in a perfect world it would be true but one cannot point to these folks and say 'listen to and study their playing as the best examples of the instrument played at the highest level' and not expect some comparison. That would defy human nature. We are going to compare ourselves to others; especially those further down the path than us. Here's where things get tricky, though.

  Yes, for many of us, the end game is to reach that level. We want to be the Heifitz or Jessye Norman of our instrument or voice. I know it is for me. This dream of, desire to...near desparation to reach that level is what drives folks like me. However, it can also be destructive. It gets you caught up in the comparison game, where you compare yourself to every other person who picks up the same instrument; including the true masters. This can be very dangerous.

  You see, most of the time, when you hear someone play, it's only for a few moments and largely equates to a 'snap shot' of their playing. Moreover, the mindset I described often tends to cause our brain to interpret the other person's playing as much cleaner and refined than it actually is. Lastly, what jumps into our ears is anything that person does well where we might struggle. We often ignore the aspects of our own playing which might exceed theirs (and remember that a great deal of this is totally subjective).

  More dangerous to our mindset is the obsessive and unrealistic comparison with the big name artists.  As I said, some comparison is bound happen. However, I have friends who shut down completely because they cannot play a phrase as well as 'Virtuoso Artist A'. I get it, I really do. It's no fun when you hear a master take a phrase with which you're struggling and make it sound totally easy. There are some things you must remember, though...

  • You have no idea how long it took them to learn the phrase
  • They are further, often much further, down the path than you are. 
  • They are more experienced. That does not mean more talented. It means they've taken more time and put in more work. In fact, they may have LESS overall talent than you. You don't know what their talent level is compared to yours and don't ASSUME they simply have that you don't have. 
  • The fact that they're great, elite, musicians doesn't mean you're a crappy one. Believe in your own abilities as they stand; not as comparison to the elite of your field. 
  It sounds cliche but the person you should use to draw the most comparison is 'past you'. How do you sound compared to yesterday, last week? How many metronome markings have you been able to progress the tempo that phrase in the past week. 2 clicks? 20? Either is progress. Either shows you're improving. How's your sound compared to last year? Are you generally more in tune? How about rhythmic accuracy? Is your precision improving? The goal is continued improvement; day in and day out...even if you cannot see it from day to day.

  If you consistently try to ask and answer those questions you'll improve a LOT over the next year, and the year after that. Try to compare yourself to who you were last week, month, year. I'll bet you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results. You're likely better than last week, even better than last month, and loads better than last year.

Listen to others
Focus on yourself and the path you must take
Celebrate victories! 

Get to work!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Dangers of Hero Worship- The Search for My Sound.

Greetings from the soon to be 90th season of the Interlochen Arts Camp!

  The great thing about having a blog like this is that when I have a thought, I can quantify it not only to myself but share it with others who might be helped by it. I had such a thought today.

  Sooooooo yeah, this one is pretty much all about me.

  I tend to listen to things repeatedly to an almost obnoxious level. If I like something, I'll just binge listen. Recently, one such recording has been a recording of Christopher Creviston performing Corelli's Sonata da Camera Opus 5 on soprano saxophone. Here it is-

  Today as I listened I caught myself in the thought 'Man, I wish I sounded like Creviston on soprano.' . Now, on the surface that might sound harmless and for a young student I have no huge problem with it. However, for someone with years of playing under their belt and a music

Is that still where I am?

Do I have such little confidence that my sound is going to please people that I STILL covet the sound of those further down the path?

  You see, for years I idolized guys like Allen Rippe, James Houlik, and Donald Sinta. Everything about my sound concept was shaped on....not developing MY sound...but developing into a version of THEIR sound. Oh I did a darned good job at it. This came with big problems down the road.

  Here's the first problem- I'm not any of those guys and to get a sound which mimicked theirs, I have had to over voice and manipulate my oral cavity in some fairly unnatural ways. This has created a lot of tension in my playing and has had an adverse effect on several aspects of my technique to the point where I'm having to unlearn a lot of things before I can move to the next level.
   Second- I've tried so hard to sound like my heroes that I cannot shape my sound to match others very well. This is especially true on tenor. Early this year I sat in with my grad school's wind orchestra on tenor. I could NOT blend with the rest of the section, try as I might. This is something that will cost me jobs. Musicians must have the flexibility to blend in sections; regardless of genre.

  Ok, back to today's thought. As I was pondering hero worship and how it played out, I observed that all of the current big name professors in the sax world have pretty darned unique sounds and though they share some basic concepts with their mentors, they sound very much like themselves. Tim McAllister sounds like Tim McAllister even though he studied with Don Sinta for a long time; same for Allen Rippe and Chris Creviston. Stephen Page and Otis Murphy sound like themselves even though each spent time with Rousseau. Here's the difference. Where I said "I want to sound like THIS guy!", they said "I want this guy to help me sound like a better me!"

  So, what to do? Well, I will hear saxophones this summer due to where I am. When the Prism Quartet performs 150 yards from your bed, you go, period. However, I think that as far as chosen, active, make-me-better listening, I am going to listen to master's of other instruments. I'm sure Perlman, Heifitz, Rampal, and others can teach me plenty.

   Meanwhile, I'll go back to learning to sound like me and be the best ME I can be.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Gear You Don't Know You Need

Ok, mea culpa....

   It's been a while since my last blog. Finals, grading papers, a jury, and a 1700 mile drive home from grad school necessitated some R&R on my part. Now, I'm a little less than a week out from another great summer at the Interlochen Arts Camp and I thought I'd share some thoughts.

   Now, from the title one might think I'm going to talk about instruments, mouthpieces, and the sort. This is incorrect. My definition of gear is basically anything which can help you on your journey as a musician. That can be an instrument, accessories for the instrument, or, in this case, things which aren't related to your instrument but still important for your development.

   If I have a student and I see them practicing, I'd darned well better see two/three things on or by their stand; a pencil and a tuner/metronome. If I have to explain why you need a pencil to make marks on your music...well...

  Ok, so, the tuner and metronome. There are a couple routes you can take here. First, you can get the outboard tuner and metronome. I'm sure most folks have seen the tuners and Dr. Beats in their respective band rooms. Those are fine options. I'm going to suggest a simpler solution. Most folks at this point have a smart phone and likely a tablet as well. It's so much easier, in my opinion, to download one of the fine tuner/metronome apps currently available. Several are free. My personal favorites are Tunable and Tonal Energy, While neither are free they generally run $2-3. That's considerably less expensive than outboard units and both can do things that the outboard ones cannot do. Both allow for a wide range of subdivisions and meters on the metronome and also allow for drones to be sustained not only in single pitches but, for example, open fifths. This is a much better way to tune. Tonal energy also has a graphing feature where one could do articulation studies and then go back and review the graph to see how even the articulations were. Cool, huh?

  Now, the downside to the smart phone/tablet driven apps is that they generally aren't very loud and as someone plays the met and tuner drone are often drowned out or difficult to hear. Headphones could be used but I've always been uncomfortable using headphones while playing. My answer has been a Bluetooth speaker. I like the Oontz Angle 3 by Cambridge Soundworks. They sell for less than $30, are very durable, and sound surprisingly good. They also have a 3.5mm (think earbud jack) input if you prefer to plug the device in directly. The sound quality is good enough to use later to just listen to tunes.

  Next, let's talk about recordings and the advent of the DAW(Digital Audio Workstation), The average Joe can now get a couple free ones. Audacity is a free download for anyone and can be used on Mac or PC. Apple users have access to the program Garage Band. Both allow for good, basic recordings. Why would someone want to do this? Well, say you have an audition coming up in a big hall. You can only practice in a bedroom or small practice room. How do you know how your articulations and releases would sound in a big hall? Well, record yourself, go into the program, and add different levels of reverb to see! (I got this idea from my professor, Mark McArthur at UNLV. I think it's genius.)

 If you're going to record or make videos of yourself (which I've recommended before), the smartphone or tablet microphones will work but are very limiting and don't give you a really accurate representation of how you sound. The good news is that for $50-150, you can actually get a microphone which will do a fabulous job and plug right in to your phone or tablet with no added software needed. $50 for a microphone might sound like a lot to a high school student. However, what do video games cost....for a single game? If you are going to do any video auditions which would you rather have, the mic on your iphone or a small professional microphone. Companies like Blue, Shure, and Zoom all have really fabulous microphones in that price range. You'll be amazed at the difference they make.

  Lastly, let's talk about listening. In a perfect world all musicians/music students would have permanent access to $5000 tube amplifiers and $10000 speakers. Since we live in the real world, however, I highly suggest that students invest in a good set of headphones. The 'industry standard' for good, decently priced headphone is the Sennheiser HD280 Pro. I have a pair and they are very good. They retail on Amazon for $100. You can't go wrong with them. Having said that I got a surprise in April. I took a chance and ordered a new set of 'ear bud' style headphones from a company called Audiophile. They were $36. To my surprise, while a touch on the bass heavy side their clarity and definition exceed that of the Sennheisers. I was really shocked!

  So....yeah, I'm suggesting you spend some money. However, the point of this blog is to give you some options which I KNOW do a good job for not a ton of money. These are all things which will help and, in the case of the tuner/metronome, aren't really an option. I'll post some links below to aid in finding the products I suggest and as a standard disclaimer, I don't work for these companies. I don't get money from them. They don't know me from Adam. I've just have good experiences with their products and personally use them for my own betterment.


Oontz Angle 3

Zoom iQ5 Iphone Mic

Blue Snowflake USB Mic

Audiophile Elite Earbuds

Well shoot, folks. Amazon is saying these aren't currently available. I'll keep checking and hopefully remember to update this if they start to sell it again.

Sennheiser HD280 Pro

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Brain Game- Practicing in your...mind...?

When I was in high school I was friends with a young lady named Monique,,,

   Monique was a baritone saxophonist and was really good. She ended up being All State her senior year and for a high school player was one of the best I'd heard at the time. She once told me how she'd often practice and, frankly, I thought she was nuts.
   You see, a baritone saxophone isn't the most transportable item in the music world so on days when she couldn't get it home, she'd set up like the bari was actually in her hands and 'practice' her audition music (Ferling etudes, in case you're curious). This just seemed dumb to me but I looked at her results and thought it best to not say anything. What the 17 year old incarnation of myself THOUGHT, though, was "That's dumb. How can you get better at saxophone without playing saxophone?!".

  Fast forward....well.....more years than I care to mention.

   I had lunch with my undergraduate major professor on Friday. We were discussing common issues with being a music major and a big one was being healthy; both physically and mentally. You see, when you are training for a profession a common mentality becomes the 'Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!' mindset to practicing where the student just practices to the point of sheer exhaustion. SOME students can get away with this for a while before problems start to occur but eventually....physically, mentally, motivationally, the student is going to begin to have break downs. Doug then brought up a study that he'd once read and it fascinated me to the point where I had to go and look it up myself.


  There was a study done several years ago which looked at different techniques for improving free throw shooting. The participants each shot 20 free throws and were then divided up into four groups.

  1. Practiced free throws
  2. Didn't physically practice free throws but visualized themselves shooting free throws with perfect technique
  3. Went through both physical practice AND visualization
  4. Did nothing but watch a basketball game on TV

  The results were astonishing. The first three groups all improved their free throw shooting. The astonishing thing was that group two improved almost as much as group one and group three blew both out of the water. 

  Obviously, playing an instrument, like free throw shooting, is a learned skill set and having read this study, I sat down in a chair, pulled out some music (Darius Milhaud's Scaramouche) and had my first go at 'mental practice'.

  To say I struggled was an understatement. I ended up mentally fingering through the first movement at about 25% of the suggested performance tempo. It got better as I went along but it was still challenging. What I found, though, was this- I could hear the piece in my head and was able to concentrate on how my fingers felt as well as practicing the air needed for each phrase. It was almost meditative and allowed me to get the saxophone out of the way and really concentrate on the music as well as my physical instrument (always remember that YOU are part of the instrument you play).

  So  back to Monique. It amazed me that when Doug mentioned this study the image of her showing me how she practiced immediately popped into my head. She instinctively did something that took me years to figure out.

  Lesson learned. I think from now on I'm going to give most ideas I hear a real listen and open my mind more. 

   For those of you who would like to read the free throw study: › HHP › PES › PES_THESES › 3

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Leap of Faith- Trust and Letting Go.

It's really easy to equate the words 'new' and 'scary'.

       Humans tend to be creatures of habit. Musicians are no different (The exception lies in trying new gear. Most of us seem to like doing that WAAAAAYYYYY too much; much to the detriment of our skill sets and our wallets). We tend to get comfortable in a routine and think "Well this is sorta working. I'll stick with it.".

    It's something that beginners and experienced musicians both experience. The trick is to first- recognize it, second- decide to do something about it, and third- allow yourself to take that leap.

    More often than not, this 'leap' is accompanied by either a new teacher or a teacher who has decided you need to to experience something new.

 This is where I ended up recently.

       In December, five days after receiving a degree in Saxophone Pedagogy, I accepted a graduate assistant position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Therein lay the first leap of faith. I had just said yes to, in less than a month, packing up the old car and driving 1700 miles to my new school. It also meant a new teacher.....with whom I'd conversed quite a bit and actually had one lesson but who I still didn't know THAT well. Was this going to work?

   Here is the first lesson from this blog. There's always a risk when beginning study with a new private music teacher. Now, the risk isn't huge if you are a high school student taking lessons once a week with no real binding committment. However, when the subject becomes one of the teacher being your major professor in college or a grad school situation (especially one all the way across the country), there's a real risk. One must do their due diligence in picking a teacher and there's a little bit of 'going with your gut' involved as well.

     Thus far, my gut has been right every time. It was right when I decided to study with Allen Rippe at Memphis. It was right when I decided to study with Doug Owens at UT Martin (after one phone call) and , thus far, it's been right with my decision to spend a great deal of time on Route 66 to come study with Mark McArthur.

That said, there will always be bumps. I'm already experiencing them in my grad study.

   Since I was a youngster I've been tremendously proud of the sound I was able to develop. I've always gotten compliments on it and I've always considered my sound and musicality to be the strength of my playing. On the other hand, my technique has always been the biggest shortcoming in my playing. It's been a constant source of frustration and nothing I've done has seemed to really move the bar forward in a significant manner.

Then Mark caught something that rocked my world.

    In perhaps my third lesson here he said "Your sound is hurting your technique. You're over voicing and it's causing a lot of tension. We need to get you to stop over voicing."



   I handled it well.....if by 'well' one means pouting like a grade school age student. I even told him "My sound is what makes me unique. It's the one thing that makes me stand out!". I left the lesson thinking "Man I made a mistake. This guy is going to turn me into a robot and I'm just going to sound like everyone else." (the voicing/ over voicing discussion will be a future blog so if you don't know what I'm talking about, it's ok)

   Of course, like most times, the professor has a bit more insight than the student. My sound is still fact, it's actually improving. My fingers are improving. My technique is much more relaxed. My sound is more relaxed. Do you know why?

   It's pretty simple. Following an hour of my bottom lip poking out and me grumbling it finally dawned on me that Mark didn't accept me into his grad program to destroy my playing and maybe I ought to give it a chance. I decided to 'buy in'....and have bought in more each week.

So, what's the moral?

 The moral is simple.For you to grow, you must embrace the concept that you must, on occasion, just take a deep breath and jump into a new concept or technique. If your teacher is the one telling you to jump, 99.999999% of the time, it's going to help and you need to trust them. Yes, absolutely go pout and grumble for a while, It's human nature and probably healthy. After that, however, time to put on your big kid britches and get to work. It may get worse before it gets better. Accept the frustration and plow ahead.

Sure, it's scary.....but isn't that how most great things start out?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Ye Olde Music Major and the Need for Distance

There are times when being your own worst critic can turn into you becoming the very roadblock that you're trying to get past.

It's an odd thing that often occurs in the practice room. A musician hits a sticking point of some sort and a variety of self destructive behaviors can potentially kick in. 
  • The musician is clueless on how to fix the problem and shuts down
  • The musician tries to force their way through the problem and simply reinforces bad habits
  • The musician rationalizes 'Oh, that passage is just not going to get better. I'll just sort of fake it through there.'
  • The musician has a pedagogy degree and spends more time trying to come up with fifteen effective practice solutions than they do actually working out the problem *AHEM*

   I have experienced all of these. Most recently, it's the bottom one. They are all frustrating and none are really effective ways to work through, well, frustration. All have long term negative implications. The third was a big problem of mine in my undergrad days. I can tell it now in recordings of me. I'll listen and think "Wow, I didn't fool anyone there!".  Currently it's the last situation which is my hold up. Coming up with 15 practice strategies would be great.....were I getting another pedagogy degree. I'm not. I'm a grad student majoring in PERFORMANCE. I need to get better at PLAYING here; not just teaching. 

(Can you see now that this blog, though I write it to hopefully help others, is mostly about my own journey and struggles?)

Ok, so back to the matter at hand. Logic and reason tell us that if we know those are going to be issues in the practice room to simply avoid them.

Yeah, right.

When have musicians ever been known for logic and reason?!

The issue here is that we need to be able to review the situation from a distance. Yes, you can journal the problem in your practice journal but even then in the heat of the moment the journal entry might be more "I stink and need to take up knitting instead" and less 'Here's the issue. Here's where I'm having problems."

So, how to get past this?

Fortunately, the vast majority of us have a solution right in our pocket. The good old smart phone.

Sometimes, the best place to review and game plan a practice room issue is not in the practice room. The smart phone allows us to video ourselves playing. Give this a try.

Look at the passage that you're working on. Set the phone up on another music stand (or some other stable area) so that your fingers and embouchure are clearly visible. Give yourself 3-4 attempts at the passage; good, bad, ugly, it doesn't matter. Turn the recorder off. Don't watch it.

SEVERAL hours later, when you are no longer really emotionally invested in the situation, transfer the video to your computer and watch and listen closely. Make careful notes of what you see and hear. These notes allow for two things. 1: Now that you are out of the situation you can take the info you gathered and in a less emotional state, come up with practice strategies for the next day. 2: You have something to share with your teacher that goes beyond "I just can't" or "I suck". You can even share the videos with the teacher to allow them to see what goes on in practicing and not just the lessons.

By the way, if you aren't satisfied with the sound quality of the recording, a bit of searching and $50 will get you a microphone which plugs into your phone and really upgrades the quality and detail of what you're hearing.

Try it out. Distance yourself from the problem and solutions often become clearer.
Get it done.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

So, You're About to Major in Music... (Part Three)

Guys, I could do dozens of these blogs about going through a college music program. I'm not. I'm just sharing some of my thoughts on things that I wish I'd known going in and things that might be helpful. Ultimately you have to make your own path. You are going to have successes and failures. Celebrate your success, reflect on and learn from your failures but dwell on neither for long. There's too much to do. Here are a few more tips that I think incoming students need to know.

  • At some point you're going to have to play in front of people. If this is a problem, look for books and videos on performance anxiety. Jeff Nelson has a series called Fearless Performance. I'd look into that or similar programs. Beyond that, I hate to sound mean but you chose the major. Suck it up, buttercup.
  • With the solo performance (unless you're a piano major), comes a collaborative pianist. A few schools have people paid to do the job. Count yourselves as fortunate. If not, understand that their fees are part of your expenses as a music major. They are doing a job and deserve compensation for that time and effort. 

  • When working with a pianist, you are establishing a relationship which may well run the course of your college career. Keep these things in mind.
  • A collaborative pianist can make you sound better or much, much worse. Keep that in mind when choosing one.
  • Even if they are paid by the school, gift cards, gift baskets, and other such niceties will go a long way to show the pianist that you appreciate what they are doing.
  • If you know you have a recital, convocation, or jury performance, approach and communicate with the pianist AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE. They are people too and have schedules and deadlines just like you.
  • Get with them early and often about scheduling rehearsals and for goodness sake, SHOW UP PREPARED. Few things are as frustrating for a pianist as wasting their time while someone is still trying to hash out notes.
  • No, a single half hour rehearsal is NOT sufficient to get a piece together to perform. 
  • Understand that at some point on stage, something is going to happen and that pianist is going to save you from crashing and burning. I speak from personal experience on this. You are going to mess up and they are going to catch it and adjust.
  • At the end of the performance, RECOGNIZE THEM. They were performing too. Show the audience you appreciate the pianist's efforts! (I'm going to have to  do a whole  blog on stage etiquette...)

Ok, here's someone else to consider.

  • From the first week you are there. Meet the music department administrative assistant. Speak to them and smile every time you see them. From time to time, get together with other students and bring them lunch or coffee. Why, you ask?
  • You think the department chair runs that department?! Not a chance. The administrative assistant knows everyone, every important phone number, every important email address. There are problems that will take you days of running all over campus to solve that they can often get fixed in five minutes. Oh, you really need that class to graduate on time but it's full? Let me email someone. Fixed. Get it? The pianist saves you on stage. The administrative assistant saves you off stage. Having them in your corner goes a long way to making your life easier in college. It is THAT simple.


  • PREPARE FOR THEM! Really? How easy is that to understand and yet I see people who claim to want to be professionals in the field of music, who have had the audition music for weeks, slack off and try to learn the music fifteen minutes before the fact. You are training to be professionals. Carry yourself like one. Prepare like one.
  • The results aren't always going to go the way you want. Sometimes it's because the band directors, professors, etc are considering more than just playing; leadership, trust they've developed with a player to get the job done, etc. SOMETIMES, yes, you get screwed over. It happens. It's happened to me......more than once. Read the next bit carefully though and don't react like I did.
  • Yelling, screaming, and generally acting like a jackass is NOT going to change the results and even if you are 100% correct and you got screwed over.....who looks like the jerk now? It doesn't determine your career.
  • If someone beats you in an audition, even if they didn't deserve to, congratulate them. It wasn't like they conspired with the judges. Directing anger towards someone who beat you because you're disappointed with the results only makes you look petty and, in the case of chair auditions, proves the judges right. You aren't mature enough for the chair. 
  • Use less than what you wanted results to motivate you.
  • You want to win a chair or concerto competition? Work your tail off and go in with an audition which leaves ZERO doubt. 
  • Remember what I said about slacking and not learning audition music? I know folks who have gotten the idea that standard operating procedure for preparing for a lesson is an hour the morning of lesson day. SERIOUSLY?! You are PAYING to have a professional train you. That person cannot make you a better player in an hour every week if you don't put in the work in between. You have this great opportunity to learn a lot about your chosen instrument (as well as new instruments if you so choose). However, it only works if you put in the work.
  • The same holds true for class attendance. This is something I didn't understand when I was younger. Yes, I get it. Some times you get burnt out and need a mental health day. Sometimes it's just the crazy notion that you are no longer in a school situation where you are mandated to be in class every day. However, why pay for a class, never attend, and then make a crappy grade and not get anything out of the class that...yeah... YOU PAID FOR?!?!?!?!?

Ok folks. I hope I didn't scare anyone away from this field. If you love it, you TRULY love it. It's an amazing field of study and in my opinion puts you in the same field with Mozart, Miles Davis, Jessye Norman, Bernstein, and all the other giants of music. Go forth and conquer your destiny!

Friday, March 10, 2017

So, You're About to Major in Music (part two)

Ok, so....

 You've picked your school, applied, auditioned, and been accepted. YAY!

What now?

  • Contact your soon to be major professor and ask if there's anything they would like for you to work on prior to arrival. In the meantime, work the heck out of fundamentals. Work lots of scale and scale patterns with a metronome, do a ton of long tones with a tuner, and sight read everything you can. Many incoming students think the expectations are simply an extension of high school and slacking during the summer is to be expected. I guarantee your professors would disagree. I don't mean practice several hours a day every day but keep yout chops up and keep trying to move forward.
  • Get a head start on music theory. I know some high schools offer it. Most don't. Here's a great resource that's FREE and easy to understand.
  • Many new music students envision being a music major like high school band....but all day long. Most last a semester, maybe two. Understand that this is a very demanding major and you have to learn to manage time really well. When other majors are playing Frisbee on campus you'll still be working. If it's worth it to you....then it's worth it to you.
  • Unless you studied with your professor in high school, there's usually a 'feeling out' process between student and teacher. Totally ok. Totally normal.
  • Be proud of your high school achievements but understand that your classmates, especially those above you year-wise, do NOT care what you did in high school. 
  • See above and triple that for what your marching band did in high school. It means exactly Jack. You will be ridiculed for bragging about your high school marching band in college. They're fond memories. Keep them as that. 
  • Yes, theory is important. Yes, ear training is important. Yes, piano class is important. If you're unsure as to why, go talk to your high school band director. I'll bet they can tell you stories of how they didn't THINK they'd need them either.
  • If you enjoy performing, make yourself available to do so. More and more chamber groups are forming in music departments. Take advantage. They're usually an absolute blast!
  • If you have severe stage fright or if you've never played solos in a public setting before, talk to your professor and juniors and seniors about how to handle it. It's a common thing and nothing to be ashamed of. It's something you'll have to get a handle on, though. If you are too scared to play in front of 30 people, how are you going to conduct 50?
  • Remember when I said that what you did in high school doesn't matter? That holds true if you had bad auditions and didn't have much success in high school honor bands. It doesn't matter now. The college obviously believes in you and thinks you have what it takes. It's a clean slate!
  • I know money is tight but get a professional instrument. Ask your professor's advice if need be. If you are a sax, clarinet, or double reed major then no.....two or three reeds isn't going to cut it anymore. You need a few boxes. Sorry. it's part of the expense of the degree.
  • Find a good repair person. Your professor will expect you to keep your instrument well maintained.

I'll have more in part three. Music majors, music graduates, band directors, professors, please feel free to chime in!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

So, You're About to Major in Music....(Part One)

It's getting about that time!

  Ahhh, spring, where soon to be graduated high school seniors are trying to get out of homework (Senioritis) and decide what they want to do following graduation. For some of you young scamps that means wanting to major in music and figuring out where to do so. Well, as someone who only finished his degree a few months ago, I thought it would be fun to start a list of things that most of us wish we knew going in. I'm going to try to get my colleagues and future colleagues to join in with thoughts, too.

Ok, so.....picking a school...

  • I would submit a few thoughts here. First, when you visit, email, whatever (I'd try to visit), see how easily you connect with the person who'll be your studio professor and the person who will be your major ensemble director. These are ultimately the two folks you'll work with the most and it's important that you can have good working relationships with each. 
  • What is the reputation of the program as far as getting people employed following graduation or getting them into graduate programs? What is the focus of the program? Is it more education based or more performance based?
  • The quality and size of the school's marching band should be about number 632 on the list of things which are important when picking a music school. It contributes zero to your development (Unless there's a program where the ed. students are involved in the design and teaching of the field shows, which would honestly be pretty cool).
  • What is the proximity to good repair techs? This is ultimately not a deal breaker but it's a giant pain if something has gone wrong with your instrument and the nearest decent repair tech is 2-3 hours away. I speak from experience there.
  • This is going to be your home for the next few years. What do you think about the town in which the school is located? Yeah, that is important.
  • What kind of housing is available to students?
  • What kind of scholarships are available? More scholarships mean fewer student loans which means you aren't in debt for the next four lifetimes.
  • What are the time commitment expectations to fulfill the scholarship requirements? You may decide that some aren't worth it. 
  • What is the level of literature being played in the studio as well as in the major ensembles? That's another way of saying "Are their students progressing?". 
  • How aggressive is the studio professor about performing? Do they do a lot of recitals and public performances? You don't want them performing so much that they are constantly missing lessons but you want them to be able to put their money where their mouth is. 
  • How big is the studio? How much attention will the professor be able to provide? Will you even study with the professor at first vs a graduate or doctoral assistant? That shouldn't necessarily be a deal breaker but it's important to know going in.
  • Get a lesson or two with that professor. See the above statement about connection. 

Ok colleagues- GO! Add to this. Part two will be coming out very soon.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Compliment Sandwich- Be Real, but Nice, to Yourself.

Man I beat myself up a lot.

   I think most musicians do. There's this level of self doubt that we acquire over time because we want to be It's this desire that causes a great deal of self criticism and demeaning remarks about our own playing. I do it and from my experience the vast majority of anyone who tries to make a career in this field does as well. It's counterproductive, causes nothing but headaches, and actually impedes progress. The time you spend beating yourself up is time that could be spent improving. Easier said than done, right? Oh I know. My last two teachers have dealt with the psychology of Andy as much as they have the technique of Andy. I'm VERY VERY hard on myself and dwell on each little mistake; which, of course, causes more mistakes. It's something I'm fighting and I'm sure many of you do as well. What I propose is a trick I heard from a really fine flutist named Charles Lewis. Charles isn't a household name in the flute world but man he should be. He is a MONSTER player, a good teacher, and an all around decent human being. What he mentioned to me at one point is a great way to address students and I believe it's something we can learn to use on ourselves when analyzing our performance.

It's the compliment sandwich.

  Yeah, this is a pretty common thing in performance evaluation in several fields. You give a compliment (slice of bread), constructive criticism(the meat), and then another compliment(the other slice of bread). Voila', you've made a compliment sandwich.

This is something I'm going to try to add to my own practice habits and I think it's worth a try for most students.

It is important for us to be real with ourselves in the practice room but remember this really important point-


You can be 'real' with yourself and still see the positives in your playing.

Be Real
See the Good
Get it done!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A New Approach to Long Tones.

I had a few epiphanies today:

  If you've read my recent blogs, which you should, because it makes me feel better about myself (kidding) you'll know that I've been fighting to repair a few kinks in my technique. As I explained to my mom, fixing my technique is like fixing a watch. Even if only one or two things aren't working you have to take the whole thing apart to identify what isn't working and then fix it. This got me thinking a lot about what I do in the practice room because my biggest problem is too much tension. Consequently, a few things have happened over the past few days that might have opened a few doors towards getting my technique on track and I may have gotten a few pretty interesting ideas about how for me, and maybe others like me, to practice in a smarter manner.

  On Friday I was very fortunate to have a lesson on 'body mapping' with a guru on the subject; Dr. Stephen Caplan. For those who aren't familiar with body mapping, it's a discipline with the goal of getting the musician's entire body aligned in the best and most natural position for them to play with as little tension and as much comfort as possible. In just an hour of working with Dr. Caplan he was able to identify some issues that I was having even in simply holding my instrument. I saw some fairly significant improvments in one session and that began to carry over to the practice room today.

   So in today's practice session I, like most wind players, began with long tones. They are, of course, one of the absolute most important things we can do, right? Following that it was Lindemann exercises and the first movement of Darius Milhaud's Scaramouche. I was focusing not so much on the exercises or the Milhaud, but on aligning things properly and using only the absolute minimum pressure needed to close or open the keys. It worked! For an hour or so my fingers were flying over the horn deftly, easily...until..

   I began to get tired. I kept catching myself slipping back into my old habits and was having more and more difficulty playing. I didn't want to make it worse so I packed my horn up and went home, contemplating what had just happened and I think I came up with some answers and possible solutions.

  For those who don't know, I have a degree and strong back ground in exercise science. I even spent time as a university strength and conditioning coach (it feels like a lifetime ago). One of the big tenants we preached with our athletes was that when performing complex, technical lifts like the clean or snatch, one should only do a few repetitions per set because as the body fatigued, maintaining proper technique because a really issue and without proper technique, bad things could happen.....including injury.

  Well duh, playing an instrument is a physical activity and a fairly technical one at that. As we fatigue, it stands to reason that our technique and even our approach to the instrument is going to be compromised. Some may have better stamina than others there but eventually it's going to happen, right?

  One of the other things we preached to our athletes was the concept of 'active rest'. Instead of simply sitting down in between sets of an exercise, walk around, stretch, do some push ups, do something light but enough to keep you engaged and keep the blood pumping.

This is what got me thinking about long tones.

  When performing long tones, yes, you are engaged in playing and concentrating (hopefully) on air, tone quality, and intonation against the drone that you should absolutely be using. That's a lot. It isn't so much, however, that you couldn't make sure you are aligned properly (this is where you should find a body mapping or Alexander Technique person. If you've ever done marching band, I can almost guarantee that your alignment is less than great), or keep your hands and wrists nice and relaxed, right? So, you're able to refocus on doing things the right way while still being engaged with practicing and doing something really productive.

   This is what I'm going to do in my next practice session and some of you should try it, too. Begin with a light easy warm up. Start getting into your technical work. When you feel yourself begin to tire physically and mentally...I mean at the first sign of fatigue....get up, get some water, walk around for a second to clear your head, come back and hit long tones. Following that, get water, walk around for a minute, come back and see if you can do technical work comfortably and properly again. Then, finish with another round of long tones. Finishing with long tones allows you to finish on a positive, almost meditative note and you aren't finishing wiped and mad at yourself because you (likely due to fatigue driving technique issues ) couldn't get things right at the end of the practice session.

   What I'm saying here should not be taken to diminish the importance of long tone work. Rather, it should just show that perhaps they could be even more valuable than we know!

Get it a try
Get it done!