Shaking Off the Cobwebs of Summer

I’m back! Is the summer really flying by this fast? Thanks to my regular readers for being patient while I took July off. I was quite busy but took a much needed break from the musical world. Possibly the longest I’ve taken since high school! Now I am back and energized to practice, get ready for the season, tackle new projects, get better and write some blogs! The focus of today’s blog will center around exactly that. How to get back in gear after a much needed break. I encourage all of my students to take a week or two off in the summer as all the hard work done during the year can be exhausting and eventually wear on you. See my blog on when not to practice. Today I will focus not only on practice techniques to get back in shape but also on ways to get organized and set goals so this coming year can be your best!

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I know this isn’t a picture of “shaking off cobwebs”, but thought it was much cuter…

I love music, but it sure can be nice to get away from it for a while. Sometimes when I come back however, I feel a little lost. My routine is gone and the whole process feels foreign. My hands feel terrible and I start to worry how long it will take me to get back in shape. I’m sure many of you have experienced similar feelings. While you may be motivated to get better and conquer the world, sometimes it’s tough to know where to start. Everyone is different but here is how I shake the cobwebs off and set myself up for a great year.

First I establish goals. This may seem very high school councilor of me, but it works. It makes it tough to improve if you don’t know what you are trying to do. I encourage young students to do this especially. It may seem that you should just follow what your teacher tells you to do, but you should be involved in your own education. Communicate with your teacher and discuss options and your own thoughts on what you want to do. There may be times where your teacher strongly pushes you in a direction because they feel it’s what is best for you. They are probably right for doing that. However, they should also listen to what YOU want out of lessons and music study. After you have talked to your teacher and spent some time yourself thinking; write down some goals. They could be areas you want to improve. Pieces you want to learn. Styles of music you want to dive into. A new instrument you have never spent significant time on. An aspect of your playing that you feel really could use improvement.

Once you have these goals you should give them a timeline. When you want them done by. A lot of this timeline is probably predetermined based on your school or professional schedule. Say you know you have a recital in November. A lot of your Fall goals are going to be focused on getting ready for your recital. Then, maybe you have some auditions in February. Most of your winter goals will focus around getting ready for those auditions. Maybe there is a pocket of time where you feel you don’t have anything immediately pressing. That is my favorite!! Take advantage of a 2 week or even month long span of time to dive in and improve something very specifically. It’s really hard to dissect a skill and take a few steps back to fix something when you have a recital, audition, or big performance coming up. Try to find periods of time in your year where this can happen.

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I set up a very loose calendar of the year with the big events on it and start filling in the gaps. I will work backwards from an event. This helps me place markers of when I want the repertoire to be at certain stages. I can’t stress enough how important this is. I am planning on writing a longer blog on this later, but this sort of preparation is key to being ready to perform when you need to be ready. It also helps to see visually how much time you have to prepare. And don’t forget the little stuff. Make sure you put that percussion ensemble piece that you need to learn. Sure it may only take 5-6 hours to prepare but you can plan for that once it is on your schedule.

Every year I look at one aspect of my playing that I want to make a concerted effort to get better. (maybe I should look at multiple things…) It can be something really small or it can be large. Some examples have been:

large interval shifting on marimba

soft snare drum control (specifically doubles and rebound control)

snare drum roll control

cymbal crashes and consistent angle of attack

bass drum and bass drum with cymbals attached (yes you actually have to spend time doing these things!)

vibraphone pedal control

This year for me it’s my tambourine roll. I’ve never been happy with it. I know I am using an inefficient method for producing my roll, and while it has worked, I know it could be better. Well, it’s going to get better!

Now that you have this giant calendar for the year it might seem a little overwhelming! Well, take a deep breath and relax. Because, luckily you have the entire year to accomplish all of these goals. You don’t have to get started on every single item right now. By doing all of this preliminary work, you will have a much better idea of how to plan a practice schedule for the first few weeks going forward. This will help you decide, “OK, what am I working on today.” I would look at the next month or two and let that dictate where my general focus is for these individual practice goals. I wrote a series of blogs about warm ups and technique improvement routines last year that should be helpful for whatever area you need to focus on right now. I set short term goals, so these long term goals we have made, can happen.

Something I am doing this year, and have done in the past is to look WAY ahead and start preparing early. If you make this sort of long term calendar you can see potential conflicts before they happen. My January this year is going to be pretty nuts. I have 2 major performances of extremely difficult repertoire; Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars and Bob Becker’s Girlfriend’s Medley with orchestra. I also have some pretty major events in November and December, so I know my practice time is going to be limited in the winter. I have played the Becker but not the Messiaen. With all of this in mind I’m planning on learning the notes to the unfamiliar Messiaen this fall. I’ll then put it away, probably around October, so I can focus on other things and bring it back in late November. I just simply don’t have the time to learn it from scratch right before the performance, so I’m starting now. You might find similar situations in your schedule, where you need to do some preliminary work on a future project.

Everyone practices and prepares differently but I believe getting yourself organized and having a plan is a huge key to success. Establishing goals, making a timeline, focusing on weaknesses, and writing out a practice schedule are four great ways to improve your playing. Before you even play a note!

WJ

12 Thoughts for an Extra Showing up to Their First Rehearsal

Entering the professional workplace can be intimidating for anyone, not just musicians. Knowing what to do, how to prepare, when to show up, and what to bring can be confusing. Here is some advice for the incoming extra from a principal’s perspective so you will leave a great impression. Some of these tips are specifically for percussionists but a lot is applicable to all musicians. Every orchestra has their own feel and etiquette so as you play more you can observe and make adjustments to fit into the culture. A lot of this advice is on the conservative side for someone playing extra for the first time. And remember, just because you see others behaving a certain way doesn’t mean it is necessarily accepted behavior with the rest of the group.

extrasI want to preface this post with the statement that none of this advice is meant to reflect poorly, be a slam or some sort of message towards any of the extras we use at the St Louis Symphony. We have a ridiculously good group of extras that make the concerts we play possible. This post is meant to be advice for those entering the workplace so they can show up prepared and behave professionally. Before I continue I wanted to make sure our awesome extras here in St Louis didn’t feel any of this was directed to them.

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  1. Show up prepared.

This goes without saying but I will say it anyway. Your #1 job when hired is to play your part. No one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect a high level of preparation. That means knowing your own part as well as how it fits in with everyone else. The quickest way to never get called again is to not be prepared. Plain and simple.

 

  1. Show up early

This is the easiest way to leave a good impression. My rule of thumb is to show up a minimum of 20 minutes early. This is for the easiest possible scenario, like if you were only playing triangle and you can walk out and be ready in 30 seconds. Whatever time it might take you to get ready beyond the 20 minutes, add that to how early you show up. For example, if you are playing bass drum you will need to get your mallets set up, a table of some sort set up, and the calf head tuned. That could take 10 + minutes. So make sure you are there 30 minutes early. Keep in mind a very important factor. You are working with other people and what you do affects them. If you need more room to play, that takes room away from them. That may be perfectly acceptable but it is much better to deal with these compromises before the group tunes. It’s also nice for the principal and personnel manager to know you are there so the thought never runs through their head if they need to make a frantic phone call.

 

  1. Bring everything you need

OK, this may seem ridiculously obvious but let me explain why this is important. In some orchestras there is a culture of using specific equipment. For instance, you might always use that orchestra’s bass drum mallets, triangles or chime hammers. This is usually for a really good reason and should be continued because that is what sounds best and is what the group is used to. And here is where I insert the giant however… I still recommend bringing something in case these instruments are not available. You may know that 99 times out of 100 you will use that group’s tam-tam beater, but how foolish do you look the 1 time it’s not available? If you have questions, just email or call the principal beforehand and work it out. For most orchestras the obvious instruments like bass drum or xylophone will be provided and you can assume that. For a pick up orchestra though, you should confirm everything. You might have to bring some large instruments. As a principal I can say I would much rather get an email wanting to confirm some equipment will be there than having someone show up with the music and nothing else asking me where 6 things they need are.

 

  1. Behave in a professional manner; use good orchestra etiquette

I only say this because there is a good chance you will see others not behaving correctly (sadly) and it shouldn’t let you think that this is acceptable. Basic etiquette should never be a question. For instance, don’t talk once the rehearsal has started unless someone in the section approaches you about something. It’s not social hour. If you have a question wait for a quick break to walk over to the principal and ask them. Only pull out your smartphone if you have a really long time before you play. Cell phone etiquette is different in different orchestras so be conservative in your use. Or, just don’t use it! Use common sense. I know this makes me sound like a stick in the mud but it’s better to be quiet and boring than the person that causes the woodwinds to turn around because you are a distraction.

 

  1. It’s all about getting the best performance.

Don’t take elementary advice personally. If you are new somewhere you may get some pretty basic advice or direction. Don’t take it as a slam against your playing. They just want to make absolutely sure everything will be fine. The first professional service I played was with the NC Symphony. The section was incredibly welcoming but when it came time to play they were constantly make sure I knew where I was and pointing out rehearsal numbers. I thought to myself “Look, I can count rests! I don’t need my hand held.” Of course I didn’t say that but I was thinking it. Now that I look back I totally understand where they were coming from. They knew I could count the rests, but the performance was what was most important and they were just making sure everything would run as smooth as possible. What a great early learning experience! We do that here in St Louis a lot. Not in as obvious a way, but we tap out fingers to rehearsal numbers so we all know where we are.

 

  1. Bring your confidence, but leave your ego at the door.

Different groups have different styles and different ways of playing. Tune into that and see how you can contribute rather than looking for opportunities to show off your chops.

 

  1. If a conductor addresses you, acknowledge you understood the direction.

If the conductor asks you to play something different (louder, softer, whatever) acknowledge you understand. You don’t have to say anything but a simple nod of the head, thumbs up or “OK” let’s them know that the issue is taken care of. If you simply stand there with no reaction, it gives the conductor, the orchestra, and the section the impression you don’t understand. That’s not good! I know addressing a conductor can be intimidating which is why I am a fan of the thumbs up. It’s simple, doesn’t require talking, and let’s everyone know you are on it.

 

  1. Follow the same advice in #7 if the principal or a section member asks you to do something.

If someone in the section has a suggestion, be sure to let them know you heard them and understand. Because the section plays in that hall all the time, they may know or hear things you haven’t noticed yet. Acknowledge their advice and make the change.

 

  1. Don’t over-react to a mistake.

EVERYONE makes mistakes. That’s why we have rehearsals. The orchestra might be expecting a sudden tempo change, but the conductor instead eases into the new tempo. The first time through it probably sounds like a bunch of people were rushing. Everyone makes note of the change and it’s fine the next time through. Don’t think you will never get hired again if you make a mistake. Just make a mental note of it and get it right the next time.

 

  1. Leave religion, politics, and gossip at the door.

No matter how tempting this might be just don’t go there!!

 

  1. Help out when you can but also stay out of the way when can.

A lot goes on to make a rehearsal happen so pitch in when you can. Stay late to pack up stands and equipment. Do what you can to make the service run smoothly. However, sometimes that means staying out of the way! If you have a non-pertinent question, wait to ask it when you know there is time to answer, or don’t ask it at all.

 

  1. Remember we (the orchestra) want you to be there!

This is a really important one! I know it can be nerve racking walking into a new situation where you think everyone is judging you. You may even feel like some people are even being cold to you. It’s not that they are cold or stand-offish, it’s because they are there to do a job. They have their own getting ready to do. Sure it’s nice when lots of people come up to you and say “hey it’s great to have you here!” but that’s not realistic sometimes. You were hired because they wanted YOU. The orchestra is a family that is made up of more than just the members. It takes conductors, staff, and extras to make it happen. Showing you have what it takes will mean they will want to keep you a part of that family.

As I said in the beginning, a lot of this advice is on the conservative side. Some orchestras are more relaxed with their etiquette. However, as an extra playing for the first time, you would rather be thought of as quiet and shy, than disruptive and disrespectful.

Thanks to Alan Stewart and Rob Knopper for a few additions to today’s post and for looking it over before I posted.

I want to let me regular readers know that I am taking a few weeks off here in July so expect the next post around the end of July or beginning of August. Thanks for all the wonderful comments and suggestions. We will pick up our conversation in a few weeks!

WJ

12 Helpful Tips for How to Mark a Part

Marking a part is one of the most helpful things you can do to achieve consistent and high quality performances. Marking that “#” before the C so you remember it’s sharp can make up for a poor memory. Marking “V.S.” at the bottom of the page can prevent you from missing your entrance on the next page. There are tons of markings that are helpful but there is certainly a point of diminishing returns. If you mark your part with too many notes and cues, it will become distracting and will draw your focus away from what is most important; the notes on the page! Below are some markings that I use. I don’t use them all the time; only when I feel they are necessary. My advice to you is to use what you find helpful and leave out the rest.

1. V.S.

This is probably the most common marking. I used to think it stood for “Very Soon” but it actually stands for “Volti Subito” which translates “turn suddenly”. I wasn’t far off I guess… This is typically marked at the bottom of the right page to let you know there are notes immediately at the top of the next page. You can also write the instrument you are playing next as well.

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2. “Moving instructions”

This is fairly obvious but for percussionists we often have to move between instruments. Knowing where you are going is important! Sometimes I will also write “stay” after a lick so I know I don’t have to move to another instrument before my next entrance. For a really busy part sometimes I use a post it note so that it stands out and also so whoever is using the part next can just peel it off and not have to erase a bunch of markings.

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3. Rhythmic aids

Sometimes rhythms don’t visually look right on the page so I will draw rhythmic aids. For poly-rhythms this is especially helpful. It is also helpful when it is not clear visually where the downbeats are, like the example below. This could very easily be perceived as an upbeat in the heat of the performance.

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4. Sticking instructions

Much like bowings, sticking instructions can be very helpful to make sure the right hand is in the right place (pun intended…). I am very conservative in my sticking markings because I only want what is absolutely necessary. That way I know to really pay attention when there is something on the page. Not every lick needs to have a “R” or a “L” underneath it.

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5. Clarifying arrows

These little arrows can be of huge help when looking at a score part after running from one instrument to the next. I love using legal arrows. They are like post it notes and can easily be removed but are a nice visual for what you are playing. Especially when reading a score form part.

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6. Cues

This is one of the most common and most helpful markings you can have as a percussionist. Good cues can make counting rests significantly easier. Got a page of 200 bars rests to count? Simply mark the major entrances at the rehearsal numbers and it will go by with way less stress!

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7. Page turn tabs

Percussionists are probably the only musicians who have a use for this but it can be very helpful! Say you are playing marimba, vibes, xylophone, and glock. Each instrument has it’s own separate part (which is what I recommend). You play some glock to start, then some marimba, then to xylophone, then back to marimba, then to xylophone and finally back to glock. The problem is you have turned 3 pages since you first started playing glock. By sticking one of these legal tabs inside the page you need to get to, you can walk over to the instrument. Grab the top tab. Turn it and know you are on the correct page. This may seem a little confusing but try it next time you have a piece like this. Walk through the part going from instrument to instrument and inserting tabs where your page turns are. This eliminates the “turn 3 pages” direction that take a lot of time and is stressful in the heat of the moment.

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8. Eliminating bad page turns

Bad page turns are the worst. You would think proof-readers would catch these but they don’t! Writing a few cues from the previous page at the top of the next one is a great way to eliminate that horrible page turn. In this example there was an eighth note “A” on the previous page. So I just wrote it in on the next page.

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9. Write in the counting above the bars you don’t play in

When others are playing, especially a repeated pattern, it is really hard to count every single bar you are resting. By writing in how many bars rest you have, you don’t have to follow measure by measure, you can just mentally count like you normally would.

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10. Separate systems visually

Sometimes the systems can blend together and you can get visually lost on the page. By drawing two “slash” marks between the systems you can separate the systems in a more pronounced way. This is a big help for me as I am moving my eyes from the instrument to the page, to the conductor, to the page and back and forth.

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11. TACET

One of our favorite markings! Rather than count through a bunch of bars rest, forgetting you don’t play again for 2 pages, you can just mark the entire page tacet. This saves some mental energy, especially in a long show!

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12. Directions for early page turns

Sometimes we have to fly from one instrument to the next and we don’t have time for that page turn. Writing it in early, while you have time, is a great way to keep your heart rate down and give yourself a higher possibility of success. In this example I am leaving marimba and going to xylo, but need to turn the marimba page before leaving.

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I realize there are probably a lot of other markings one could put in your part and I think you should if you find them helpful. The key word is helpful. A properly marked parked is a blessing, but it is much more common to find overly marked parts that are confusing with too much information. In those scenarios I bring out the rubber eraser and just start over.

Leave some comments below of some of your favorite markings and what you find helpful!

WJ

How to Travel to an Audition: What to bring and how to get it there

For percussionists, traveling to auditions can be more challenging than playing the audition. We have to get ourselves, as well as a shopping cart full of gear to the audition, that could be halfway around the world. We are not the only ones that have this issue. I have helped tuba players and bass players get to the airport with their over-sized cargo in my truck. We may have it bad but at least our equipment can break down into small pieces. They have to beg and bribe their way onto airplanes!

To start with let’s ask ourselves what we need to take to the audition. I always start with this because first and foremost I want to sound my best. If that means overcoming some logistical issues, that’s fine, but I can’t sound great if I don’t have the right stuff. I go instrument to instrument and make my decisions based on the rep I must prepare.

What to bring

Snare Drum

Let’s start with snare drum as it is one of the largest instruments we might bring. I own about 10 snare drums and use 5 with the orchestra on a regular basis. So obviously this is not possible at an audition. But is also isn’t necessary. In the audition you aren’t competing with 100 other musicians. So your sound needs are different. I typically bring 2 drums to an audition. Those 2 drums may vary based on the repertoire. I either bring a piccolo drum like my Grover KeeGee drum and a 4″ Symphonic drum or I bring that same 4″ Symphonic drum and a 5″ Symphonic drum. I always bring that 4″ because it is what I use for most of the repertoire at an audition. It covers a wide dynamic range and is great for etudes. If the list has a lot of extremely soft passages, I will also bring the piccolo drum. If the list is really heavy on the loud repertoire, I will bring the 5″. Now for a lot of you, your first drum was a 6.5″. Mine was! Don’t fret, this drum is extremely useful! But it might be a little bit much in the volume department for an audition. When you are by yourself, you can make a 5″ drum sound plenty loud. If I am in the finals and the screen is down I might bring the 6.5″ as a third drum to show a wider palette, but probably not before then. I also bring my own stands for my snare drums. I use very light weight stands so they travel easy and I don’t have to rely on someone else providing them.

Cymbals

The next large instrument we must cover are cymbals. This is a tough one. They are heavy and to play all of the repertoire it’s not unreasonable to think you might have to bring 4 pairs with you. My recommendation on cymbals is to only bring cymbals if you are uncomfortable with what you think they are providing. This is for various reasons. If the group you are auditioning for has a long history then they are used to the sound of the cymbals they have used for 20 + years. Even if your cymbals are awesome and you play awesome, they will still sound different from what the committee is used to and might be judged as not as good. In that one instant you have to impress them, you will be doing yourself a favor if you use the instruments they are used to hearing. If you are auditioning for a school, chances are their cymbals are great and once again they are used to hearing them. Do yourself a favor and use the cymbals provided. The only scenario I would bring cymbals to now is if cymbals aren’t provided (duh…) or I am really uncomfortable with what they are providing. If you do bring cymbals I recommend a bag with wheels so you aren’t carrying so much weight. Zildjian make a great one.

Tambourines

I absolutely would bring your own tambourines. I think tambourines are the most personalized instruments especially when it comes to thumb rolls. I have tried to pick up someone else’s tambourines and I can’t play a thumb roll to save my life, yet they have no problem! You know how you like your instrument so just bring all of them you need. They don’t take up that much room anyway.

Triangles

Triangles are similar to cymbals in that a group can be used to a certain sound. If an orchestra is providing triangles, I might use their recommendation because again, it is what they are used to hearing. They know their hall much better than you do. I would bring my own clip and beaters so the implements I am holding at least feel the same. If the group is not providing triangles or you really love what you are using, then of course, bring your own.

Sticks and Mallets

For sticks and mallets it goes without saying, but bring them all! These give us our sound and are vital. They don’t take up a lot of room and you really can’t play the audition without them!

Other accessories

There are a lot of little accessories that you need to bring depending on the repertoire and how much you really need them. For bass drum, make sure you have whatever mutes you need. If you need towels for tambourine bring those. If you like putting a towel over the lower end of a marimba (below the A), bring that. If you are incredibly tall and find it difficult to play marimba solos on a low instrument, bring some blocks. I would try not to use them for time reasons but if you are 6’6”, then you probably need some blocks. You know yourself and you know your playing so make a list of these little toys and make sure you bring them.

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How to get all this stuff there!

This can become an annoying game of Tetris when it comes time to pack for the audition so do a trial run a week before the audition. Make sure you have a plan and it works. Here are a few rules I would follow that I have learned from trial and error.

  1. Every bag is on wheels or can be put on wheels

You can work out before and after the audition, but the days surrounding the audition is not the time to be sore. All suitcases and gear bags need to be on wheels. Don’t plan to carry anything heavier than a backpack.

  1. Make sure sticks and mallets and anything you literally can no live without is in the carry-on.

Sure you want your favorite snare drum there, but if you don’t have any xylophone, glock, or vibes sticks, it’s going to be pretty hard to play the audition. Prioritize and make sure the stuff you literally can’t live without goes in carry-on.

  1. This is not the time to penny pinch.

If all the stuff you need means you need 4 bags, then bring 4 bags! Yes it will cost you extra to check bags. Yes you will have to pay for a luggage cart at baggage claim. Yes it means you will need a cab instead of the subway. However, we are talking about maybe $200 in extra expenses. Seriously? Don’t waste the thousands of hours in the practice room because you are trying to save at the most $200.

  1. Label all bags multiple times.

Do I need to explain this one?

  1. Use hard shell luggage.

Let’s be honest, clothes are about 5% of what we are bringing to the audition. The rest if gear! Make sure the outside is hard so nothing can poke and damage an instrument. Most hard case suitcases can fit 1 snare drum in a soft bag as well as some toys, a stand, and some clothes. I have even seen people rip out the lining of a hard suitcase and glue their own foam lining in to make sure it protects the instruments.

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How to move around

Only in the percussion world do we ask ourselves questions like this. How do I even get from one place to the next with all this stuff? Because I have never taken exactly the same stuff to multiple auditions I don’t have a tried and true method. I have to replan and repack for every audition. There are some similarities though. I typically have a hard-shell suitcase with a drum in it, a rolling duffle bag with hardware and odds and ends, a backpack or stick bag, with most of my sticks, and a hardcase snare drum. The snare drum can strap on to the duffle bag and boom, I’ve got a suitcase rolling in each hand and a backpack. I look like I’m packed for a month, when I’m only gone for 2 days, but I can manage to navigate the airport.

Once I arrive at the audition I repack. I get everything ready to walk onstage or in the teacher’s studio. I ALWAYS ask the proctor to carry my drums and anything else I can get them to take. Again, I want to be as relaxed as possible. Carrying 40 pounds of equipment onstage will not help that. I have a cart that I roll onto the stage that has everything I need other than snare drums and cymbals. Before there were “P-bags” I would take a Stevens bag and fold it backwards so there were mallets on each side and hang it from the top of the cart. Easy access to all my sticks and mallets. All of my tambourines, triangles and toys were in a small bag on the bottom. I would normally put a picture here of what I use but my cart broke at this past year’s PASIC. Guess it is time to order a new one.

http://www.amazon.com/Magna-Cart-MCX-PINK-150-Pound-Handtruck/dp/B00E3MEEYE/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1434376226&sr=8-5&keywords=magna+cart

 

I want to thank Joe Bricker for the email that inspired this post. I have been waaaaay behind of where I like to normally be on these posts and his email Saturday night inspired today’s post. Hope this helps Joe!

WJ

How to Make the Correct Mistake

mistakes_happen

Contrary to popular belief, professionals make mistakes. Lots of them. It is rare that I play a concert and don’t have notes I wish I could do over. Most of my colleagues would echo these same sentiments. I know that they are going to happen so my goal is to make sure my mind and focus is in the right place so at least I am making the best mistake. Today we are going to look at some scenarios of when and why mistakes happen and try to eliminate them or at least make sure our priorities are in line so we make the best mistake.

 

In my mind there are two mistakes that can happen.

  1. Mistakes that you have control over: you theoretically could have prevented them.
  2. Mistakes that you have no control over: the situation was totally out of your control and there was nothing you could have done.

 

We can work on number 1 but the second scenario is tough to swallow. But it does happen. The ensemble moves unexpectedly. The conductor did something different and you weren’t able to adjust. There was something wrong with the instrument that you didn’t notice before the performance. The harpist moved and now you can’t see the conductor. Should I keep going? I think you get the point. We try to eliminate all variables that could prevent a good performance but sometimes the planets don’t line up and mistakes happen. I’m not going to spend a lot of time obsessing over those types of mistakes here because I have a feeling we all obsess over them an unhealthy amount already!

 

We can’t prevent all mistakes but how can we minimize or at least make the correct mistake? So what exactly is a correct mistake? Good question! I describe a correct mistake as a mistake that was made with the correct priorities in mind. The easiest example is a situation we have all been in. Sadly…. So, you get lost and don’t know when your next cymbal crash is. You guess, and play a loud crash, but in the wrong place. (Cue cartoon noise Wah, Wah…) Obviously we never want to be lost, but it happens. The “correct” mistake in this scenario is to either rely on cues you wrote in your part as you were preparing or simply don’t play if you are truly lost. Not playing the crash is a mistake for sure. But wouldn’t you rather miss the crash than play it two bars to soon? More examples of “correct” mistakes later.

 

A lot of mistakes happen due to lack of preparation. As I talked about in my post on learning how to focus, preparation is our biggest asset. The first step is learning the notes. This is obvious but should be stated as you will have little to no success not knowing your part. The next step in ensemble playing that is often over looked is knowing how your part fits into the ensemble. You can play all the right notes but if they don’t fit with everyone else, it doesn’t matter. The more you know your part and how it fits with others the better you will be at preventing mistakes.

 

Some mistakes can happen because of non-musical situations. The pedal on the chimes could be stuck and you not notice until you have to play. A quick check before the concert and you are good to go. A situation that happened to me recently was right at the beginning of an opera my mallets were hovering over the first notes but the conductor took more time than usual waiting for the stage before starting. I got a little nervous about making sure I was above the right notes so I looked down to double check. When I looked back up, the orchestra had started. Whoops! I jumped back on but not exactly the start you want! So the next performance I rested my mallets right on top of the first notes so I could literally watch the conductor forever and be ready to go. Lesson learned. The more experience I gain the more I try to anticipate non-musical situations like this to be prepared for. It’s a different kind of preparation but one you can develop an eye for.

 

Unfortunately a lot of mistakes happen because of mental fatigue or a lack of focus. You can be as ready as you can possibly be but you might be tired or just zoned out. If it is a lack of focus that is creating the mistakes then you need to work on your focusing. This is a skill that can be practiced and improved. If you are simply tired or exhausted, then you need to be aware of what you limit is and make sure you have adequate rest before a performance.

 

Now to the most important part of avoiding mistakes. Making sure your priorities are correct and in line. Remember a correct mistake is a mistake that was made with the correct priorities in mind. I’ll give you an example before I list some of what I think are the right priorities to have.

 

In the same opera I missed the opening of (doh!) I had this passage to play on glock.

Blog-mistake1

The passage is obviously syncopated and is with the woodwinds. In one of the first rehearsals (luckily) I was really focused on the conductor and the winds so we would be lined up and I played the following.

Blog-mistake2

Sure I missed some notes at the end but the notes I played showed I had the correct priorities in mind. I was still playing within G minor. I played the same syncopated rhythms the winds had. I played the same shape or line they had. While of course I realized immediately I had a made a mistake, it was one I could live with. In fact I would rather play what I did, together with the ensemble, than be glued to my part, play the right notes but not with the ensemble.

 

So what are some other priorities we should keep in mind to make sure we are making the correct mistake?

 

The time of the orchestra and my placement

Who I am playing with in the orchestra

The key signature

The “scale” my passage is in

The cues right before I play

The relative dynamic of the orchestra

Where the big moments are

What big beats need to line up

My role in the orchestra

 

Of course the goal is to play perfectly all the time. If we are honest with ourselves we know this is not possible. After I make a mistake, of course I’m upset and wish I could go back and fix it, but guess what? Not possible! That’s live music baby!! With this approach though I am able to minimize my mistakes or at least make correct ones. The better your prepare, stay focused, and have your priorities in line, the better your performances will become.

 

WJ

How to Choose a Mallet

We all have our favorite mallets for each instrument, but how do we choose the best mallet for the part? No matter which instrument, whether it’s marimba, vibes, xylo, or glock, we can use the same philosophy for all of them. Today I’m going to outline the process I go through mentally when I choose a mallet. The hope is that this process will make your playing having a little more color. Just as a painter uses multiple colors in a painting we can use multiple sound colors. The mallets we have are our pallet. Of course having all the mallets in the world doesn’t mean much if you don’t know the right place to use them. Here is how to find the right mallet for every situation. 

 


I always start my mallet choice decision with articulation. As percussionists the start of the note is what we have the most control over. For most of the instruments we play we don’t have much control over the sound after the note has started. With that logic, the articulation is pretty darn important. I have started thinking more and more about my mallet playing like a wind player. “How would a wind player attack this note?” I love the word attack. It’s a great adjective to think about articulation. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean aggressive but it definitely doesn’t imply anything passive. A wind player might use words like these to describe their attack and sound:

Light

Dark

Heavy

Warm

Round

Sharp

Bright

Thin

This more sophisticated approach is getting us a little further away from the typical mallet description of soft and hard. That is a very two dimensional way of looking at mallets choices.

Another “dimension” we can use to think about articulation is weight. I don’t mean how much a stick weighs or how hard we are playing the note. I mean how much weight is behind the mallet head. Weight has a lot to do with how much presence a note has. You can start with two identical mallets but if there is a brass insert inside one of them it will have a little more presence. Adding brass inserts has become really popular to keep the articulation desired but give the mallet more weight and presence. The size of the ball has a lot to do with this as well. A ¾ inch and 1 ¼ inch ball made of the same material will have very similar articulations but very different overall sounds because of the difference in size and weight. Along with more weight, the bigger mallet is making more contact with the bar because of the increased surface area. I find that when I prepare the same work for both an ensemble situation as well as an audition (solo) situation the weight is the biggest variable I change. When playing alone, I don’t need as much presence as when I play in the orchestra. I will probably want very similar articulations but a heavier weight when having to cut through other players.

Another variable that controls the sound of the mallet is the shaft. This is fairly minimal but it does have an effect. I have no scientific research that proves what I believe but my experience tells me that the shaft effects both how you play the instrument and how the head responds off the instrument, and thus the sound. A stiff shaft, like a birch shaft, will usually produce a heavier sound. The head of the mallet will stay on the bar longer and the stroke is usually more emphatic. Because of this most xylophone and glock sticks do not use birch. Birch is great for four mallet marimba because that stiffness allows you to control the mallets more precisely. Rattan is the middle ground. There are thicker, stiffer rattan shafts as well as very thin, flexible rattan. This will have an impact on how you strike the instrument as well as how long the head of the mallet stays on the instrument. In the last 15 years or so there have been specialty glock mallets that are on a very thin fiberglass shaft. The reason (I believe) these sound so great is because of the way they respond off the instrument. The extremely flexible fiberglass allows the mallet to pop right of the bar and thus allowing the bar to vibrate with less interruptions.

The last variable I use are my dynamics and thus stick height. Essentially I am picking the best mallet for the entire passage and then using the stick height necessary to produce the dynamic warranted. Because a passage could require all sorts of sounds and dynamics I pick the best mallet possible because dynamics are the only thing I can adjust within the passage. Marimba players are used to this issue of picking the best four mallets to play a 15 minute solo. Luckily in the symphonic repertoire we can change mallets with greater frequency. Another reason dynamics are one of the last variables I consider when choosing a mallet is because I don’t want the dynamic to influence the articulation too much. It is very easy to fall back on p = soft articulation and f = hard articulation. You will be surprised how many times you want a crisp, sharp articulation in the soft dynamic. We can manipulate volume rather easily with the intensity of the stroke, but we can’t change the articulation.

A lot of you may be wondering why I don’t have “mallet sound” at the top of the list. Well although I haven’t listed sound specifically, everything we have talked about thus far effects the end result or sound. The only aspect of sound we haven’t discussed is sustain and the mallet doesn’t have a lot to do with sustain!

A lot of this logic can be used for other instruments such as bass drum and timpani, however for those instruments the stroke can influence the sound much more than on the mallet instruments.

So to recap:

1. Articulation – How do you want the start of the note to sound?

2. Weight – How present do you want the note to be?

3. Shaft – Which shaft type will compliment your musical choices?

4. Dynamics – How can you use dynamics to get the most out of the mallet you have chosen?

 

 Having a very wide palette of options can make mallet playing a lot of fun. Especially when you are playing a seemingly easy part of single notes. Finding the right color and sound for every situation will really help your playing stand out from the rest.

Learning How to be a Performer: Focusing in the Moment

focus-concentration

A performance is really a continuous series of moments in which one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance. That’s a heavy statement right there… Learning how to focus in those moments is a life’s work. I believe everyone has this skill, even those who claim to have severe performance anxiety. The difference between all of us is where our performing skills shine. Some of us have the ability to focus when performing music, some have the ability to focus while cooking. I couldn’t possibly stay calm and focused during surgery, but to a surgeon it’s just another day at the office. However, that surgeon might be petrified to play a single triangle note onstage. We all have our areas we are more apt to succeed in. Today we will discuss how to focus onstage.

Earlier I said “one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance.” This is the crux of performing. If I am playing bass drum on Stars and Stripes, fitting those quarter notes in the right spot is 100% where my mind is. I am listening to the basses and the low brass to make sure my placement is perfect. If they move ahead a smidge, I want to be right there with them. Earlier in the concert I could have been playing the tambourine part to Carnival Overture and in that moment it would be focusing on leading the ensemble. The reason Bolero is so difficult is not because of its technical difficulties. The challenge lies in the ability to focus and keep the group together for the entire 15 minutes of the piece. Having big ears and adjusting and moving the group into some semblance of the same tempo throughout the piece takes a lot of mental energy. This is the perfect example of a piece that demands focus and being in the moment. Learning how to sharpen our focus will be the goal of today’s post.

The first time I really worked on this was at Northwestern’s summer music camp the summer of my junior year in high school. I must admit, it was not a fully conscious effort. The players I was playing with were the best I had ever been around and I certainly didn’t want to be the weak link in the group. It was a wakeup call. I thought to myself, “Hey, you better dial it in here to fit in with these other kids.” That motivation caused me to focus more during rehearsals and especially in concerts. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid to mess up as I wanted to play on the same level as these other fantastic young musicians. I realized that I was learning how to be in the moment and concentrate solely on the task at hand; playing music. That “zen” state I was in was one that I have been working on perfecting ever since.

So how can one get better at this? Learning to focus in the moment is incredibly difficult. And there is nothing less helpful when trying to focus than someone saying…… FOCUS!!! Even those that are great at it still have wandering minds. (I find myself distracted by the backyard that needs mowing as I type this…) I find a lot of the tactics to deal with a wandering mind to be a little too “hocus pocus” for me. I know they work for some people, but I never found them helpful. The drill I have found to be the most helpful is to ask myself the question “What is my goal?”. A very simply question, but one that gets right to the point. What I find is that my mind immediately goes to what I am trying to accomplish. If I am playing the Third Movement of Scheherazade and I ask myself “What is my goal?” my brain immediately goes to:

project a light, lilting style

very steady and supportive

sensitive, round dynamics

energy in the rhythms

Ask yourself the same question about Porgy and Bess. Take 30 seconds to make a list of your goals.

What you will notice is you came up with some very concrete musical goals to accomplish. What you will also notice after the fact, is what you weren’t thinking about! You weren’t thinking about your shaky hands. You weren’t thinking about how you always miss the A natural in that one spot. You weren’t thinking about how out of control the grass is in the backyard either. This is a great way to focus in a performance or audition and essentially distract yourself by asking the right question. That question might be different for you but asking yourself some version of “What is my goal?” shifts your brain to what is important. This is a topic discussed at length in the book I mentioned last week Fearless Golf, with obviously much more of a golf focus.

So why a question and not a statement? A question is a better way to refocus because it causes you to focus on what YOU think is the answer. A statement is merely a list of facts you believe in, but a question engages the brain in a much deeper way. It almost starts a conversation in your brain. For example which thought do you think is going to be more helpful?

“What is the style of this work?”

“Don’t rush.”

Asking yourself about the style is significantly more helpful! It conjures up multiple adjectives and thoughts that are going to help your performance. Telling yourself not to rush may prevent you from rushing but will not be helpful in any musical way and may even cause you to drag!

Obviously this is incredibly easier said than done, but it is an exercise that I really believe works. Just like music, being able to focus is a lifelong pursuit. Even when life is great it is easy to be distracted, let alone when things aren’t great. For anyone who has stood onstage in a performance and felt really involved in the performance and been tuned in knows what a rush that is. That is exactly the goal! Good luck with your own pursuit of being a performer; now I’ve got to go mow the lawn!

WJ

10 Tips to Play a Fearless Audition

Last week we examined fear and what makes the audition an anxious experience. This week let’s look at how we can deal with the anxiety and perhaps even eliminate it. I’ve received several emails this week from those of you who have had audition nightmare stories. Take some solace in knowing you are not alone!! Thanks for sharing your stories and I hope our email correspondence and this post help reduce your anxiety.

nervousguy

All this fear and anxiety can manifest itself in so many “fun” ways. When I was in high school I would get so nervous that my hands would sweat profusely. Like so much they would drip. I actually tried a special kind of deodorant for my hands to try and keep them from sweating so much. File that story under “things I’d like to forget”. There are many other unfortunate symptoms we experience due to this anxiety.

  • shaky hands
  • negative thoughts
  • sweating
  • mental slips
  • muscle tightness
  • heavy breathing / heart rate increase

Just to list a few…

These are all symptoms of fear. Trying to use deodorant was not going to solve my sweaty hands problem. My hands didn’t sweat in the practice room because there was no pressure and no expectations in the practice room. Once it mattered was when my hands would sweat. Lots of you have told me you have shaky hands. The same is true. I doubt your hands shake constantly in the practice room; only at the audition. So let’s deal with the new variable in the equation: The Audition.

To combat this audition fear, we have to make the audition experience more like the practice room experience. This also means in our preparation we have to do the reverse: make the practice room experience as much like the audition experience as possible. As you will see the large theme of this post is preparation! Ultimately the audition or performance will always bring out a few butterflies in the stomach, but that is a good thing! It means you care! It means you want to succeed! The trick is eliminating the bad audition symptoms and utilizing the good ones to help you play and focus even better!

  1. Prepare the music

This may seem like the most obvious statement ever but prepare the music!! If you are walking into an audition with the thought “I really hope they don’t ask XYZ excerpt”, then you are setting yourself up for all kinds of failure. Sure you might sneak through a round because they don’t ask it, but your anxiety is through the roof and why would you add more anxiety to the situation. I could make this a lot more complicated than it is but a great start to eliminating fear in an audition is knowing you can play all of the repertoire on the list.

  1. Eliminate as many variables as possible

Eliminating the variables you can control puts your mind at ease that you have eliminated lots of the things that could go wrong. There are a thousand thoughts that go through your head every minute at the audition. Knowing you have addressed a lot of your concerns before the audition will reduce your anxiety. Feeling prepared builds confidence and knowing you have crossed all of your t’s and dotted all of your i’s goes a long way. For instance, I would change all of my snare drum heads 10 days before the audition. A new head would be fresh and after 10 days would hold tension very reliably. Virtually no chance of it breaking. Oh, and I would bring an extra head just in case it does. Check drumheads off the worry list! I would also bring a lot of my own food to the audition so that my diet stays the same and my stomach doesn’t get upset. I would also wake up at the same time I needed to for the audition the entire week before so my body was used to whatever time zone I was going to. All of these little thing add up and take a load off your mind.

  1. Prepare for the logistics of the audition

You want as much of your focus in that golden time of the audition to be on playing. Not wondering where you triangle beaters are or wondering how you will get all of this stuff on stage. There are lots of solutions to these logistical issues and you should find the ones that work best for you. First, develop a checklist while you are practicing of everything you need or could possibly need. That way when you pack, you know you have covered every variable. Next, figure out how you are going to travel to the audition. Make sure all your bags have wheels and you can get around an airport comfortably. You don’t want to play poorly because you were lugging a cymbal bag between three terminals. When you get to the audition, figure out how you are going to get everything on stage. Are you going to use multiple drums? Are you going to have stagehands or a proctor carry something? What are you going to carry? Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but make sure you have a plan! I use a little cart with rubber wheels to roll all of my mallets, tambourines, cymbals, triangles and everything else on stage. That way everything is easily accessible at a moment’s notice. Before the audition, I would have people call out excerpts and I would practice grabbing the mallet or whatever I needed and just starting it. I wanted that process to be as simple and easy as possible. I had a routine for triangle, for tambourine, for cymbals, for everything. All of this would allow me to focus solely on my playing and not be distracted by logistical details.

A funny story about my audition cart: My original cart hard extremely hard rubber wheels with treads on them. I was very proud of it and how organized it was. The first time I wheeled it on stage for a mock audition I realized I had made a poor choice. The treads on the wheels made the cart sound like an airplane was taking off!! **Note to self** Make sure the cart is silent when on wood surfaces. Lesson learned!

  1. Prepare for the unexpected

Weird things happen at auditions. Ambulances drive by. The heat turns on and the radiators make noise. Someone’s cell phone rings. The panel can ask you to play the excerpt again “as if you are floating on a cloud”?!?! Sure, you can’t prepare for everything, but if you practice occasionally in weird environments, you won’t be as stunned when a new one presents itself. Tell people in mock auditions to have you play things differently just to mess with you. And really try to do whatever they say. Have someone conduct you through a few excerpts in case the music director conducts you in the finals. Play with a fan blowing on you in case there is a bad draft. Don’t spend a large percentage of your time doing this, but try and get comfortable in case you encounter something bizarre.

  1. Prepare mentally!!

Hopefully you are catching on to the theme of preparation here, but it is key and preparing mentally may be the most important. I could do an entire post on the mental side of auditions (and perhaps I will) but I will touch on a few concepts and methods of preparation you should consider. First, I suggest you read a lot about performance psychology. There are a lot of experts who know more about this topic than I do and you can find the flavor that fits you the best. Some of my favorite books have a sports angle to them (no surprise to those that know me).

The Inner Game of Tennis

Golf is Not a Game of Perfect

How Champions Think

Think Like Tiger

Zen Golf

Drive

and my personal favorite Fearless Golf

All of these books will help your approach to auditions and eliminating fear. The main element I want to talk about here is a big theme Dr. Gio Valiante touches on in his book Fearless Golf. I am a huge fan of this book and his concepts. It is also the inspiration for the title of this post. His main focus is whether or not you are Mastery or Ego driven. Ego drive people are motivated by feeding their ego and receiving praise for their success. They are driven by success. That is what they crave. Fame, fortune, and admiration! In the same way they are driven by success, they are driven by the fear of failure. Failure means no one will praise and admire you. Your reason for competing is gone. Ego driven players are also concerned with details that are ultimately unimportant to the audition. Details like how many people have advanced? Who is showing up to the audition? What did they ask on the first round? This is an innately human way of thinking but it can be so dangerous.

A mastery driven player is motivated by the pursuit of improvement. The only concern of a mastery focused player is executing their round as perfect as they can. Who shows up to the audition, what repertoire is asked, and what time of day they are playing are totally irrelevant. The idea of perfecting something that cannot be completely perfected is fascinating and motivating to a mastery player. Hopefully you can see the enormous shift in how a mastery player perceives a situation vs. an ego driven player. This all boils down to motivation and where your focus is. Take a tough accuracy excerpt like Exotic Birds. An Ego driven person will be thinking about how great it will look if they nail it or how bad it will look if they drop 4 notes. A Mastery oriented player will be focusing on specific target points from their practice session that have helped them execute the excerpt in the past. A mastery driven person looks at failure as one step closer to mastery. Failure is a means for learning how to improve.

It is obviously very hard to live 100% in the mastery category. To some degree I do think it is healthy to celebrate and enjoy success but I very much believe this to be true after the fact. The celebration shouldn’t be what is motivating you. Again, I highly recommend Fearless Golf and the other books mentioned for a brush up on your “mental game”!

  1. Accept the final result, before it happens

This is obviously very related to the mental preparation but I believe deserves its own focus. An enormous aspect of auditions that is overlooked is the fact that you have no control over the outcome. Yes, that’s right, you have no control over the outcome. What you do have control over however is how you play. You can’t control how the committee is feeling. You can’t control what kind of player they are looking for. They are the one voting and all you can do is give them a product worth voting for. You can’t force them to vote for you. Knowing all of this is vital because it separates the result (whether you advanced or not) from what is most important, how you played! If your success at an audition is based on the result then you are giving someone else the control. If you walked into an audition and executed every single thing just like you wanted, then you had an unbelievably successful audition. It goes back to the mastery concept. The result will be what it is going to be. Don’t focus on the result, focus on your playing!

  1. Gain experience, but in a way that builds confidence

Having experience is great, but wouldn’t you rather it be positive experience. A lot of students decide to take auditions “for experience” while completely ignoring the fact that they know deep down inside that they are not ready to win and/or play the job. This works for some because they learn lessons like how to travel and how to get comfortable with the logistics of the audition. Despite this, I do not normally recommend it. Yes there are lots of lessons to learn, but there are places to learn those lessons.

My main concern with taking an audition “for experience” knowing you aren’t ready is very related to fear and the psychology of an audition we have talked about. I have heard from many students this week that the fear they experience is tremendous. The undertone to that fear is that there are still fundamental problems to fix in their playing. That’s fine! What is not fine is ignoring those problems for the sake of “experience”. Let’s fix those issues before putting ourselves in a position to fail. If you take 10 auditions before you are realistically ready, that means you have put yourself in a no win situation 10 times and that fear builds on itself. Then when you are ready, you have these failures weighing on your mind. All of your experiences have been negative and you have no positives to build confidence on. Now I realize this isn’t the case for everyone, but I have seen I a lot of students beat up by the process simply because they entered too soon.

So Will, where should I gain experience then? A very fair and important question. If you are a student still working out fundamental issues in your playing, then start in situations that you are more likely to succeed in. Focus on nailing your placement auditions in college. Focus on really doing your absolute best in a local Youth Orchestra audition. The repertoire lists are smaller and much more manageable. Your ability to have them fully prepared is much, much higher.

When you are having success there, start auditioning for summer festivals. Start with the small ones, then start applying to the more competitive ones. Your goal is to prepare the best you can and execute exactly what your are trying to do. These environments are also much more supportive and encouraging. You will gain a lot of knowledge as well as experience. Once you are having some success in summer festivals, start participating in mock auditions a lot. And I mean a lot! Mock auditions will really increase the competitive level but in a controlled environment. By using this progressive approach, you will become so familiar with the audition process and small details of it, that it will feel immensely more comfortable once you are out there competing for employment.

  1. Don’t avoid weaknesses in your playing

This one won’t take long. It may take a while to fix those weaknesses but that’s ok! Remember mastery driven people are motivated by what is hard! Find the weakest part of your playing and attack it! Resolve that a year from now it will be a strength. The ultimate compliment (to me) is that someone has no weaknesses. Sometimes we just need a change of attitude. Spin everything around 180 and chose to look at something in a more positive way.

I have done this with a lot of areas of my own playing. In grad school I really hated playing bass drum with cymbals attached. It was uncomfortable. It was hard. It was hard to play consistently. It was annoying to practice. Excuses, excuses. Well guess what? If you want to play in any orchestra, you have got to be comfortable playing bass drum with cymbals attached. One day I had enough and just said, ” Nope! Not anymore. I’m changing this.” So I set up a drum in a practice room we rarely used and practiced attachment for at least an hour every day for a month. Boy was that a productive month! My attachment playing was all of the sudden a strength. It didn’t take a million hours, all it took was a change in attitude.

  1. Take care of your body

Your body is your real instrument, and you want it to be in great shape come audition day. Treat the audition like a marathon. You want to taper and be well rested at the audition. The last thing you want is to do a lot of great work and then play poorly because you were tired or exhausted. Let’s face it, there aren’t going to be many monstrous improvements 3 days before the audition. Rather than spend that extra hour practicing at the point, spend it resting.

I also believe that exercise during the preparation is a great outlet for many reasons. It gets you away from the minutia for a little while. It keeps your body strong. Our instrument is a very physical one so being in shape helps. I also believe exercising is a confidence builder. We talked earlier about building on small successes. Working out is exactly that. A series of small successes that over time give a great result. What a great model to use for our own audition preparation.

  1. Play for people. LOTS of people

I saved a big one for last. Performing for your teachers, colleagues, and friends is the best way to gain all this experience we have talked about and put all of the preparation to the test. It tests if your playing is ready. It tests if you are focused on the right things. It mimics the experience of the audition in getting only one shot to play something. It tests whether you prepared correctly for the logistics of an audition. I can’t over emphasize this enough. Even the bad experiences give you something to learn. (See mastery driven player above!) Be sure to play for musicians who don’t play your instrument as well! You will get a lot of unique comments from them that will be very helpful. In the real world, audition committees are made up of more musicians that don’t play your instrument than musicians that do.

We will never be perfect and not everyone will enjoy our playing. In a way this is incredibly frustrating but it is also liberating because we can always feel like we can get better. I try to use these concepts to be a fearless player. I don’t always succeed but I strive to be a mastery driven and a fearless percussionist. I hope this post helps you do the same!

WJ

Examining Fear and Anxiety at Auditions

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can be crippling. Our body is literally programmed to protect us from what we fear. “Fight or flight” anyone? Auditions, sadly, can elicit fear and anxiety. We have all felt that feeling of wishing we could get off the stage and hide as fast as possible. There are many things one can fear. Things that are very serious like death or serious injury, to the not so serious like spiders or public speaking. While the conscious brain recognizes that taking an audition is not as life threatening as falling from a 4 story window, don’t even bother trying to explain that to the subconscious brain! I have heard from many of you that the fear you feel at auditions can be debilitating. This is also common for performances. Dealing with this emotion is vital to any form of success.

Today’s post will examine what exactly we are afraid of and why. Next week I will look at how we deal with that fear and how we can manage it. I broke this discussion into two halves for a couple reasons. I want to really dive into what makes us anxious and try to figure out why. Really understanding the why will help us know where to look to try and deal with this fear. Trying to examine why we have anxiety as well as solving those issues would also make this post quite long and I want to have plenty of dedicated space for a discussion on dealing with fear. Lastly, I want to give you a chance to weigh in, in case I’ve missed something that sends you over the edge. Leave a comment below or send me an email at william.j.james@gmail.com.

photo-StageDoor-1

So…. What exactly are we afraid of?

Not all fear is the same. Unfortunately there are many things that can cause fear and performance anxiety. Here is what I think most people are afraid of:

  • being unprepared
  • failure
  • success
  • personalizing fear
  • not meeting expectations

Let’s look at them one at a time.

Are you prepared?

I believe this is the main catalyst for fear at auditions. Who has thought “Am I really ready for this?” right before an audition? I know I have! And I’m guessing most of you have as well. I think this is for two reasons, that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

  1. You know deep down, you aren’t prepared and you are dreading when someone will figure it out.
  2. You genuinely aren’t sure if you are prepared or if you prepared correctly.

#1 highlights the physical preparation. #2 highlights the mental preparation. Any performance needs both physical and mental preparation. If you have the confidence and mental toughness of a professional but don’t have the hands, guess what? The result is going to be poor. If you have hands better than anyone, but have no confidence, you are going to crumble as well. This is why I think this is the biggest cause of fear. You have to have both. In many ways our mental preparation is more important than the physical. Our focus and mental state is so fragile, we have to be in a good place in order to play well. We will look more into how to do that next time.

Fear of Failure

Fear of failure is something we can all relate to. No one likes to fail. This was ingrained in our memory from elementary school when the teacher would ask you a question. If you got it right you were praised. If you got it wrong you experienced negative consequences like lower grades, disapproval from teachers, friends and parents, not to mention embarrassment. This doesn’t need a ton of explanation as we all hate to fail.

Success

I have asked this question in multiple masterclasses and it says a lot about the mental state of those taking the audition. What is your reaction when the proctor walks in the room and says you have advanced to the finals? Is it “oh boy..” and your nerves get jacked up? Or is it “bring it on, let’s go!”? It is easy to understand each emotion. It is also pretty easy to tell which one is better… Sure you might be anxious about failing but it very well could be that you are afraid of succeeding! I have met many young percussionists who are clearly not ready mentally to succeed yet. They will get there but this also harkens back to being prepared. If you are not sure if you are prepared, then you may worry about sneaking through the audition and then not succeeding at the job. It is also entirely possible that in one’s mind they would love the chance to win an audition. However, once the spotlight gets hot and the chance to win is there, they panic and no longer feel as comfortable as they thought they would. This situation isn’t always easy to recognize, and many don’t want to recognize it, but being afraid of success is common.

Personalizing Fear

It is very easy to take failure personally. We are afraid that being cut at an audition is a reflection of who we are personally and everything we have ever done. While logically we may know this is not true, in the moment it is pretty hard to convince yourself otherwise. I don’t need to tell you that there are a lot of egos at an audition and those egos can really get in the way! Everyone has an ego and fear of hurting that ego can have a real negative effect at an audition.

Not meeting expectations

Not meeting your own or someone’s expectations for you can cause severe anxiety. Big expectations can cause serious pressure! You may feel like you have to win an audition. You may be a sophomore and feel like you have to get out of the lower level ensemble at your university. That sort of expectation can be frightening and cause severe anxiety. Managing these expectations is very important. Expectations are good in theory because that means you expect good things, but keeping them appropriate is important. More on that next week!

So these are the main scenarios I have experienced or heard of causing fear and anxiety. Not fun!! I still experience these symptoms by the way! When I play solos I still get quite anxious because I am so used to playing with an ensemble. When it is just me it can feel quite lonely and intimidating. Challenging myself in that environment and forcing myself to face those fears helps me grow as a musician. Learning to cope and deal with these fears is very important, although not easy. I’m looking forward to hearing from you and commiserating over shared stories, but I am even more looking forward to next week and discussing how we deal with fear and conquer it!!

WJ

How to make playing, insert composer here ___”Beethoven”___, easy in 5 simple steps

We all have composers or styles of music we struggle with. Beethoven was mine. I’m going to use my struggle with Beethoven to show you how you can conquer that area of music you never thought you could play.

I was never going to play Beethoven correctly. I played for all kinds of people and no one (and I really mean no one) liked the way I played Beethoven. I would listen to tons of recordings. The same ones I’m sure you have. Cleveland, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Berlin, etc… I would practice and record myself. I did everything, everyone tells you to do. But to no avail. Needless to say I was pretty discouraged.

I would listen to teachers, professionals, and other students talk about Beethoven’s works in a way that would make you believe if only we could harness their power we could cure the world of cancer and HIV in an afternoon. They talked as if you need two Phd’s in order to be allowed to perform his music. Beethoven, to me, was a unicorn. Perhaps climbing Mt Everest. That was how impossible the task felt. Despite my inadequacy in performing Beethoven, I really did love the music.

Beethoven-post

Step 1: Study the music

The notes on the page are our first clue into how we should approach any piece of music. With Beethoven, my confidence grew as my knowledge of music theory grew. I was never drawn to music theory in a scholarly way, I found it beneficial in a very practical, functional way. This was very important in my quest to play Beethoven. After some very basic studying I found I could understand the forms. I understood how he would move from this key to that key. I understood all the basic components of the music. It was genius. His writing was the perfect combination of basic music theory and unbelievable expression. I understood all of this, I just couldn’t put it together.

Step 2: Understand the time period and style

Understanding the historical context and performance practice is very important for any composer but especially a warhorse composer like Beethoven. I knew this at the time but needed to figure out how to apply it. All the recordings I talked about helped me understand appropriate tempos and how to stylize rhythms. They also helped with quality of sound and articulation. Even within all of those great recordings there is a range of appropriate choices. Figuring out how to take this basic knowledge of music history and theory and apply it was a struggle. It was around this time that I learned two very important lessons.

Step 3: Don’t overly complicate the music

The first lesson was: don’t overly complicate what you are trying to do musically. The music may BE complicated, but it doesn’t help to complicate IT. That statement can really apply to all music. Let’s face it, Beethoven carries a lot of baggage. He wrote some of the most popular music in the history of western society. That comes with some serious performance practice and an enormous amount of opinions. The problem I was running into was I was trying to play it just like they do in Cleveland at the same time as how they play it in Berlin. Oh, and I was also trying to play it like Vic Firth in Boston. But what I found most difficult was trying to do all of that at the same time as trying to please the teacher standing in front of me. All. of. this. is. impossible. Once I realized this. My life got a lot better.

Step 4: Take all the knowledge you have available and then play it the way YOU think it should be played

The second lesson I learned was from Will Hudgins. I studied with Will at NEC in Boston. We had and still have a great relationship and I can’t say enough about him as a teacher. He could sense my insecurity in playing Beethoven but also other composers as well. Finally, he just said “Play it how you hear it. How you hear it in your head.” What a concept??? I did have my own opinions on how I thought it should sound but I had blocked them away because surely all of these other professionals have better opinions. As I began to play I could feel the weight of trying to please everyone in the history of the world being lifted off my shoulders. I took all of my studying and knowledge I had gained, boiled it in my brain, and then made my own decisions. I also began to enjoy playing it more.

Step 5: Write down adjectives and descriptive phrases to help you focus your playing

These were two very big lessons to learn. I still, however, had to figure out how I wanted to play Beethoven. Around this time I started to journal my practice sessions and take lots of notes from lessons to apply to the practice room. What I found myself doing was writing down a lot of adjectives as my opinions grew stronger. I would write down words like:

“light”                                                  “aggressive”                                       “humorous”

“on the backside of the beat”           “with weight”                                    “tight”

“regal”                                                  “pointed”                                            “grand”

I cannot over emphasize enough how helpful this is. Take an audition list with 50 excerpts and multiply that by 10 adjectives per excerpt. That’s 500 descriptions for the audition!!! That’s a lot of helpful information! It is also a lot to remember, so journaling will help tremendously.

Here are my notes for Beethoven 7 for an audition, cough cough, about 10 years ago. The iPod reference dates me…

2015-04-27 09.09.54

All of these are one word and short phrase descriptions of how I wanted to sound. What I realized I was doing was breaking down something that was very complex (Beethoven) and boiling it down to lots of simple elements. There is no changing something that is complex that has the baggage of Beethoven but I can try to be as simplistic about how I describe it to myself. I can describe a passage as “having some weight, but soft, with a crisp articulation, with very square, un-stylized rhythms.” In this scenario I’ve painted a very specific picture of how I want the passage to sound by using lots of adjectives or descriptive phrases. They are also very clear descriptions that I understand, rather than “it should sound sad.”

I know a lot of students feel this way about various styles of music. It is very easy to be intimidated by certain styles or composer’s works. Trust me, I’ve been there! A healthy amount of respect is certainly due to these areas you feel intimidated by, but NO music should feel un-performable. This is music after all. Not brain surgery. There can always be room for improvement, but how will you improve if you don’t start somewhere? By using this very simple idea in your journaling, you can make the unapproachable, approachable.

WJ