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.