Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Real Time Reality Check- Using Tech to Move You Forward

Happy Summer!

  For me, it was the end of the first semester of my new graduate home. I love it there. It's going to be a place for me to continue to grow as a musician and educator. Everything was great.....except my jury comments.
  Our clarinet professor is a firecracker. She's a student of Cohen, a former member of Pershing's Own, and (though a very nice and decent person) is honest on a level most students aren't always ready to experience.

Simply put, she kicked my butt.

"Your sound gets really bright and pinched at forte"
"You didn't subdivide that passage well at all!"
(These aren't direct quotes....well the first actually is...but you get the gist)

I read through a lot of her comments and agreed with what she said. These were issues I knew I was trying to address? Others, though, I thought "How did I miss that? I thought I was playing that rhythm correctly! What am I doing wrong in the practice room?".

Understand, I have some pretty serious goals for the fall. I need to shore up some issues. If I'm missing major things about my playing in the practice room, I need to figure out where they are and how to fix them.

There are obviously disconnects and I need to find them.

I'll bet I'm not alone here.

Now, let me be clear here.

I am NOT being negative!!!!!!!

I'm about getting better. I cannot being any more direct than that. I love music. I love practicing. I love playing my horn. I am GRATEFUL that I've had these opportunities.

I just need to do it better.

So, this morning I was thinking about how best to locate those practice room disconnects. I picked up my iPad to use the ole google machine on the interwebs to find some practice technique and....saw the camera.


Now I record myself from time to time. I have a decent little microphone. I have good headphones. Why not simply record myself practicing?

Understand, I'm not talking about recording and reviewing an entire practice session. That would be painful. What I'm suggesting is this:

Record 1-3 minute segments of your practice and immediately, IN REAL TIME, review those recordings so, IN REAL TIME, you can address what you hear.

I'm starting simply. I use The Tuning CD for long tones. I'll do 'spot checks' of working open fifths through the full range of the instrument at varying dynamics. Where are intonation problems? At what level does my tone spread? Where are response problems? Am I hearing something as in tune when it really isn't?!

Next, scales and patterns with a metronome. Is the scale even through the full range? Is the subdivision totally exact and in line? Are there exactly four sixteenths per quarter note?

I thought it was.

I bet I'm not the only one who misses things in the practice room.

So, think of these recording segments is that good but reaaaaaalllly honest friend: The one who tells you when you shouldn't wear that outfit. The one who tells you directly when you put your foot in your mouth and don't realize it.

Stay 'old school' when you practice. Fundamental work should always always ALWAYS be the basis behind getting better. However, we have so many tools available now that we didn't just a few years ago.

Let's work smarter AND harder.

Get to work!


Friday, April 26, 2019

It Ain't About Being in the Club..

WOW! What a week!

This week my new graduate home was host to some of my heroes; The Moanin' Frogs.

If you are in music (or even if you aren't) and haven't heard of this amazing sextet, you need to look them up.

They are a FORCE in chamber music. They are enormous talents and showmen on a level that few ever attain. They cross genres with ease....seriously, they're just bad asses.

So, what in the world does this have to do with the title?

Well, part of my grad duties included playing chauffeur to guys who I really admired. Oh darn, right? In the days spent with them, however, I was reminded that for all my years on this planet, I often still don't get it.

You see, when I returned to school and realized how the saxophone world, the music world, and the concept of promotion had changed through social media, I quickly gobbled up all things saxophone. I added tons of saxophone majors and professors on platforms like Facebook and saw their education and careers unfold in ways I would have never been able to my first time around.

From seeing all this, I panicked. How was I going to hang with these folks. How was I going to compete with their success when I was too old to do competitions like MTNA and others? I was focused, I was determined. I decided that all these folks were in some sort of club to which I was an outsider. "I have to get into that club", I decided. "It's the only way I'll succeed."

Man I was ridiculous. Sharing any perceived success, constantly humble bragging, promoting myself to the nth degree. I look back at myself and my state of mind just 3-4 years ago and shake my head. I was ridiculous.

Even when I began to get grad school offers I was worried and had to look at it from the angle of 'Is it the RIGHT grad school to get respect from these guys?'

Here, kids, is the simple answer (and one I was too caught up in everything to see).


The practice rooms in Ann Arbor, Michigan work in exactly the same fashion as the ones in Bloomington, Indiana, Memphis, Tn., and Cleveland Mississippi!

The point is that I (and hopefully, you) am doing something that I love and striving to improve at it.

So why did this week remind me of that fact?

Well, here I was, with musicians whom I held in the highest regard and we were just hanging for a few days in between lessons and rehearsals. In talking to them I heard the same dreams, desires, fears, and confidence issues that I have. They're worried about getting better. They're worried that people will enjoy what they do. They're thinking about the future and wondering what it holds.

In fact, the primary difference between these giants and yours truly?

They've had more time in the practice room.

So....if you're like I was.....if you're trying to be in some sort of mythical social media based music success 'club', just stop......practice hard, love what you do, and get out and make friends who share your interests.

I did this week. It's so much more satisfying.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Big Dreams, Small Moves: The Daily Approach to Success.

I'm currently listening a recording of a star in the making.

Lilah Senibaldi gave her junior flute recital at the University of Tennessee-Martin last night.

Remember that name. She is going to be a star.

Look, I'm not going to name drop....but I know stars. I can just tell. She's going to be one.

I've known Lilah for a few years now and saw her having one of the problems that I still struggle with at times. We both want to be GREAT musicians. We both want to be great....RIGHT NOW. Lilah was having problems the summer after her freshman year. You see, she was already 19 and not in a major symphony(yes, really). In her eyes, she wasn't at a Paula Robison or Julius Baker level so she was just a hack.

Like me she thought the path to greatness was the equivalent of a 100 yard touchdown pass in football. If it didn't happen all at once and in a very short time it wasn't going to happen at all.

This isn't logical nor is it realistic but then, musicians rarely use logic or spend much time in reality. It is part of our DNA, I think, to have unrealistic dreams and set unreachable goals.

If you're an educator please PLEASE do nothing to squash that. Instead, offer this advice:

Look at runners: Marathon runners train for years to shave a few minutes off their time. Middle distance runners do the same in seconds. For a Carl Lewis or Ussain Bolt, trimming 2 hundredths of a second in two years is a darned miracle.

That's an interesting perspective, isn't it?

The point here is to never stop chasing greatness but do so with small victories. Are you a hundredth of a percent better at your craft today than yesterday? Is the passage which was just stopping you in your tracks yesterday a little better today?


If, every day you improve a little...even an infinitesimally small amount...how will that add up?

Achieve big dreams with small moves, my friends.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Prove Them Right! Avoiding Toxicity and Embracing Your Support System

I'm a few days away from a birthday. This makes, well, more of them than I care to admit.

No, in case you were wondering, I'm not a big fan of aging. That said, one advantage of getting older is that the ability of self reflect seems to be enhanced over time. I don't know if you'd call it 'wisdom' in my case; as it seems to always take place after the fact. That being said, it does lead to some positive thoughts and a better mindset a good bit of the time. Example-

I was thinking this morning about my return to school in January of 2013 and my path since then and I have to tell you, the more I thought about it the more one sentence resonated in my skull.

I cannot believe how fortunate I am.

I shouldn't have had the opportunity to return, but I did.
Tennessee-Martin didn't have to accept me into their program, but they did.
My parents didn't have to help me afford school, but they did.
J. Berry didn't have to hire me to work at Interlochen after a quarter century absence, but she did.
Mark McArthur didn't have to let me into his studio as a graduate student at UNLV, but he did.
Following Mark leaving UNLV, Dr. Chris Beaty and the faculty at Texas A&M University-Commerce didn't have to allow me to transfer into their program mid year, but they did.
Nicolas at Marca Reeds and Tatsuro at Marmaduke Music didn't have to be as kind to me over the past year or so as they've been, but they were.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that there's a 'Team Andy'......and it has a pretty darned big roster. This is really changing my mindset about things by the minute.

In the past, I've used detractors and naysayers as motivation- "I'll show them!"

Now, the "I'll show them!" is a statement of affirmation for Mom, Dad, my teachers, my friends, and everyone in my corner. It simply means, "I'm going to bust my butt to prove you right." More than that, it means "My success is your success, too!"

So, that brings us to the second part of the title.....avoiding toxicity.

There will always be detractors. Leonard Bernstein had 'haters', Serena Williams has folks who claim she isn't that good. More than this, sometimes situations themselves just aren't healthy and one needs to be objective and learn to recognize a toxic environment when it appears.

That takes time and experience and.....listening to your support system. They can often tell a bad scene even when you can't.

So, what to do when you recognize a situation as being toxic? Well, first, try to figure out if the toxicity can be corrected. What or who is causing the issue? What steps can be taken to correct it?

Here's the big one - Don't be afraid to walk away. NO situation is permanent. NO school is worth being miserable. Yes, you can find another program (if it gets to that).

The POINT is you are studying music because you love it. Even the tough, frustrating situations are supposed to be positive and encourage growth. If they aren't, get away from them.

Your support system will understand. That's why they are your support system.

Prove them RIGHT.

Oh yeah, I have a little website that I'd be honored for you to check out. You can get there at the link below!

Andy Austin Saxophonist.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

How to Use Instant Gratification as a Tool

We do live in an instant gratification world now, don't we?

I laughed at myself this week. After a several month hiatus I started posting on here again....

....and noticed myself getting SO FRUSTRATED when the 1000 views per article became 40-60 views. I kept periodically checking and thinking 'Why did my audience abandon me?!'

Ok the massive narcissism aside (Really dude? Your 'audience'? 1000 views is hardly 'viral'!) is it that important that people provide me that instant gratification by reading my thoughts RIGHT THEN? Is what I'm writing so drenched in insight and wisdom that they must absorb it immediately? I started to realize that it isn't so much a conceit issue as it is the way we're now groomed in our society. We must have that feedback RIGHT NOW! We need that gratification NOW!

Face it, we've become the society that has drones deliver Amazon packages to us in a few hours because two days was too long to wait. We're the society that yells at the microwave after 3 minutes because whatever crappy food we're waiting on isn't ready. We want everything right now!

I think this is something that really frustrates young musicians in the practice room. "I've been practicing a month now! Why am I not a virtuoso yet?!"

So...I started thinking about that. This is, oddly enough, not an area where I have a huge problem. I don't have to have instant gratification in the practice room. Sure, it's cool on those days when my tone is particularly rich or everything is just 'clicking' technically but I've managed to get the mindset that it is indeed a process and I'll get there when I get there if I keep working. However, were I one who required such instant I would suggest this.

It's a simple trick; used as an instant gratification reward for getting your crap done in the practice room. So let's put together a scenario......

Pretend your practice schedule includes the following for a particular day..

  • Warm ups
  • Long Tones
  • Harmonic minor scales in 4ths
  • Bob's Big Book of Etudes #45
  • Movement 3 of the Big Giant Concerto measures 55-70.
Ok, add this to the end: 5-10 minutes of whatever YOU want to play IF, and only IF, you successfully put in the work on the scheduled work. 

Ok, so it isn't technically INSTANT gratification. You do have to wait an hour or so. That said, after just an hour of effort, you get that prize. It's something to look forward to on days when your motivation isn't as high.

Give it a try.....and read my blog! (Or don't....I'll keep writing them regardless...)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

It's Just Hard Sometimes...

Writing this blog can make me feel very vulnerable sometimes.

I often delve into my own frustrations, my own fears, my own weaknesses. It's scary stuff....

....almost like being on stage can be scary stuff.

This is one of those vulnerable moments because to make some points I have to let you into my psyche.

The past few years have been very difficult for me as a player.

You see, my last year or so of undergraduate study was crazy. I had confidence on a level I'd never had before. I was a showman on stage. I was winking at the accompanist, working the crowd, and was never afraid to cut loose. I won the concerto competition, was a featured soloist in the jazz band, and received Performing Artist of the Year awards from my school.

and then grad school started and everything took a nose dive.

I didn't have a single what I thought to be good or even DECENT solo performance. One was a borderline disaster. The rest of the studio seemed to think I was a joke. Hell, most of the department seemed to think I was a joke. The thought of stepping on stage was just terrifying to me.

It was almost a blessing when I received word from my major professor last summer that he was no longer going to be teaching there. It was my out. It was a way to start over. "I'll take a year off, work, and practice my tail off.", I thought. I was in contact with several programs whose teachers, for whatever reason, still saw potential in me and I thought I could get in somewhere else.

That year turned into about three months.

I had an opportunity fall into my lap. The professor and I shared a common teacher. We got along really well and the school seemed like a good opportunity. Besides, my girlfriend was already doing grad studies there in clarinet. How perfect was that?

My initial audition was just for the professor since it was over winter break and no other professors were in town. It went fairly well. He made a video to show the others. It was enough to get me in; at least for the semester.

I had a follow up audition a few weeks ago. It also apparently was enough to get me in but I still lacked that feeling I'd had in undergrad where I walk in fully believing that I was about to blow minds and change lives with what I was going to do with my horn.

Now, I have my first public performance here in a few weeks for a composer's conference. It's a world premiere. To say I'm not yet comfortable with performing this piece is an understatement.

So where am I going with all this?

Well for starters, I cannot fully put my finger on why things went so cockeyed at my first grad program. I just know it did. What I CAN do is work on how to get out of the funk I'm in. This is what I think is relevant and just might help others.

  • I'm in a funk because I care so deeply about what I'm doing. This is my life. This is how I best tell people who I am. This isn't just important. This is ME. This is the biggest part of who I am.
  • I'm in a funk because I miss the thrill of performing as a soloist. I used to champ at the bit to get on stage. I need that back. The thrill of being on stage and truly entertaining people is something I must have in my life. 
  • I'm in a funk because I don't want to let down those in my corner.
Now, even though it's taking me a while to really internalize the following statements, this in the reality on which I need to focus.

  • Because I care so deeply about what I'm doing, I have a bad habit of setting impossible standards for myself. This is a process and what I hear as a horrible performance isn't necessarily what others hear AT ALL. 
  • Two extra years of practice means my ear has continued to develop and details I previously either didn't hear or didn't know to notice are now ever present while I play. It means I'm continuing to grow as a saxophonist and a musician.
  • Those in my corner only want the best for me and only care that I work hard, succeed, and find happiness.

I think so much of the time our growth can be difficult and painful because we make it so. Our fear, our doubts, our inability to just let go just get in our way. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It means we care. It means this is something that matters to us.

I don't have a real answer on how I'm going to get my confidence back to where it was in the spring of 2016. I just feel that my first real step was this admission and knowing I'll find my way back.

If you're having the same issues, I hope you find your way with me!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Your Reputation is YOU.

So, yeah, this is a continuation of my last post.....which not so many folks read. It's amazing what happens with a hiatus.

The more I look around each day the more I'm reminded of one of the cool things about being back in school later in life:

Man I am sooooooo glad social media wasn't around when I was 19.

Seriously, I doubt I would have made it through school or gotten a job ANYWHERE. I had a penchant for humor when it wasn't appropriate, inappropriate humor when it was even less appropriate, and just a general penchant for sticking my foot in my mouth. Impulse control issues, ADD, and social media are a bad combo.

Over the years I've gotten better but still, I'm always learning. You see, young grasshoppers, wisdom is acquired slowly....and all too often....very painfully.

So where am I going with this?

It's pretty simple, kiddos, there is SO MUCH MORE to the field of music than how much you know or how well you can play.

I had a conversation with undergrads recently. They asked me, as a saxophonist, the biggest difference between when I started years ago and now. I explained, the difference is pretty striking...

When I was an 18-20 year old, there were three or four universities where the true bad asses resided. I mean, the guys who could really PLAY. There was Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, North Texas, maybe a smattering of others. Oh, and it was either jazz or classical. You didn't see guys who could really do both.


EVERYONE can PLAY. I don't care if it's the professor at PoDunk State U in Bumblesnort. They are likely a beast and, more often than not, they can not only play classical lit at a high level but solo over ii V I's with ease.

It isn't just enough to be good anymore. EVERYONE is good. High schoolers are beasts now.

This isn't meant to discourage anyone. Keep working and you'll get there. I tell myself that daily. The point is that there's so much more to this whole thing. Here's what is important.

  • Remember that your words AND deeds follow you. Everybody knows everybody. You may not think so but yeah, the music world is much smaller than you think.
  • The above is especially true on social media. The internet is forever and screen shots are a thing. You might have deleted the ugly thing you impulsively posted but yeah, people probably saw it. Someone might have saved it.
  • You're going to screw up. You might screw up badly. OWN IT. Say 'Yes, that was me.' Apologize, mean it, and do your best to make it right. The response will be remembered as much if not more than the gaffe.
  • Work your butt off. Yes, it's ok to relax. Yes, we all need breaks. The problem comes when the breaks aren't the exception but the rule.
  • Treat your classes like job training. This is supposed to be your career. Treat it as such. 
  •  Choose your battles. There are ways to handle situations; especially with professors. If you pick a fight with a professor (of course I don't mean physical here) you are going to lose. Even if you think you win; that will follow you. There are ways to handle things. Be professional. Follow protocols as outlined in your student handbook.
  • As a followup to the above statement. If you skip class with the excuse "The professor doesn't teach to my learning style." or "The professor doesn't know what they are doing." you just lost any argument you had. How would you know what and how they're teaching IF YOU AREN'T EVEN THERE?!
  • It isn't enough to want the gig. It isn't even enough to earn the gig. You have to continue earning it every single day. The people who do that.....those are the ones who are consistently successful. This applies to Dean's list, chair placement, rank in the studio, a job, whatever. Simply put in the work.
  •     Try to be someone who's pleasant to be around. I know some folks are introverts. I get it. I am somewhat of an introvert myself; though I often come across as outgoing. You don't have to be the life of the party. You simply need to be professional, easy to work with, and pleasant to be around.

Folks, being a success comes down to two things. Attitude and effort. I know I'm not the first one to tell you this. However, everyone needs a bit of a reminder and for someone to occasionally impart wisdom gained over the years....and often the hard, painful way....

Keep your game face on.
Get to work.