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.