A Message to all Students Going Back to School

With most college students headed back to school next week I thought I would write a blog post about my time in school. While this is focused primarily for undergrads and grads it certainly can apply to those in high school.

Believe it or not this post was inspired by listening to an old Coldplay album while working out. I used to listen to their X & Y album while working out in school and at New World. I hadn’t given it a listen in a while and thought, why not. (A good album to throw in the mix to survive a long cardio day by the way). Since it had been almost a decade since I had really given it a listen, memories of where I was back then came flooding back. Where I was living, what I was working on, who I was working with. The biggest memory was how focused and dedicated I was able to be towards getting better and improving as a musician. At the time it felt like a struggle, and I guess it was, but in retrospect I was making huge progress. I don’t always think of that time as positive, but for some reason, with a little distance, I look back with great fondness.

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Then all of these thoughts felt odd because I’m still trying to improve, still trying to find ways to get better, and definitely still looking for new challenges; but it’s just not the same. I have a job now and although it is one as a professional musician, believe it or not, that can get in the way of focusing singularly on improving. I don’t have as much time to rethink a technique or go back to the beginning. The paying audience isn’t going to care very much that I would like to spend a few weeks on Stick Control and my rudimental playing.

It also hit me, man, I am an adult now. I don’t feel like one, but when I compare my life now, to then, I am clearly old whether I want to be or not. I have life insurance… I go to bed on a regular basis before 10… I’ve seen the sunrise more after sleeping than before going to bed… I have a mortgage… Hangovers last 2 days (they really do)…

My last realization was, that time spent at school and at New World in the practice room was the time I improved the most. The time I spent pushing the boundaries the most. So that means that you, yes YOU (student currently in school) are the ones pushing the boundaries now. Playing cleaner… playing softer… playing faster… playing with even more shape… playing with more emotion… figuring out a better way to execute a difficult passage or skill..

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So my message to all students about to start a new school year is this:

  1. Take advantage of this time you have. This precious time you have to fully dedicate yourself to getting better and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
  2. It’s all worth it. No matter what level of success you ultimately achieve, you are pursuing what you love to do and that’s so much better than digging ditches for a living.
  3. Whether you feel like it or not YOU are the ones pushing the boundaries of what our field can do.
  4. Keep your head down and keep working. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to look up and check your progress. I made the most progress when my head was down and I wasn’t looking around at everyone else.

Life changes, and I’m glad it changes, because I don’t think I could have kept up that pace and intensity forever. Family becomes a priority over music (and it should). While improving as a musician and trying to discover a better “widget” to help us accomplish our musical goals will always be a priority, as you get older it naturally falls down the priority list. So take advantage of this time you have students! Have fun and enjoy the experience by all means, but also know that you will look back a decade from now and realize this is when you were making the most progress.

WJ

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My PASIC picks!

I could not be more pumped to attend PASIC this year in San Antonio! There are a ton of great clinics, masterclasses, and performances to look forward to. Not mention a great city to host it! The only problem I think I’m going to have is how to replicate myself so I can attend everything I want as well as eat, sleep, and hit the exhibition hall! Let’s get to it, here are my PASIC picks!

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Thursday

8:00 am – Symphonic Committee Meeting

While I am not necessarily looking forward to the hour this is being held, it is always great to see everyone and discuss ideas for next year at PASIC and ideas for PAS in general.

11:00 am – Brian Del Signore – Symphonic Lab – Snare Drum

Brian is the Principal Percussionist and Associate Principal Timpanist in the Houston Symphony Orchestra. I’ve met Brian many times at PASIC and have been impressed with his playing and general symphonic knowledge. A great guy as well! I’m looking forward to watching him coach the students.

11:00 am – Northwestern University Percussion Ensemble

There is a soft spot in my heart for my alma mater and will definitely make it over to see them play!

1:00 pm – ME!!!! William James – Symphonic Lab – Mallets!!!!!!

Do the exclamation points make you want to attend?? I am very excited for the 4 students who are going to play in this lab. I am taking a slightly different approach this year to the Lab and focusing on playing a solo at the audition rather than simply the excerpts. If you want a preview read my blog post from a couple months ago.

1:00 pm – Cory Hills

Even though I will obviously not be attending his performance, for those uninterested in what I have to say, you should check Cory out! He is great!

2:00 pm – Orchestral Mock Audition

I will probably miss a lot of this as I will be answering questions and talking about my book (The Modern Concert Snare Drum Roll) at the Meredith Music Booth, but a really important part of PASIC. Seeing the audition from both sides of the screen is something you can rarely do. And here you get to see some of the best students around play as well as some of the best pros give their thoughts on the playing. A can’t miss!

3:00 pm – Casey Cangelosi

Casey has broken out in the last few years as a premiere percussion performer, educator and composer. All I have to say is visit his YouTube page and website and you will be hooked.

4:00 pm – Symphonic Committee Panel Discussion – Principal Percussion Duties

I have been asked to sit on this panel to discuss the duties of a principal percussionist and how they differ in different orchestras and how they are similar. Plenty of time will also be spent on how students should distribute parts and act as a principal percussionist in their student ensemble. If you are interested in this topic you can download my Step By Step Guide and Checklist for Part Assignments in a recent blog post. Phil O’Banion will moderate and there will be plenty of time for questions from the audience. A great topic!

5:00 pm – Rob Knopper

Rob is presenting a class on how to record yourself. This is a topic literally every musician can benefit from. Recording yourself is the most valuable learning tool you can use outside of a lesson. You are essentially giving yourself a lesson every time you record! If you don’t know who Rob is, just check out his website and pet project Audition Hacker and you will be sold. One of the can’t miss clinics at PASIC.

6:00 pm – Zildjian Testing Room!!!!!!!!!

This is so freakin cool and I think will become a mainstay at future PASIC’s. Zildjian is renting out several rooms at the Hyatt Hotel (Specifically “Travis ABCD”) for anyone to come test and potentially purchase cymbals. The convention center floor is so loud that it is hard to hear what you are playing and it is very rare you get a chance to test out multiple options of the same cymbal. Every cymbal is unique in it’s own way and you can pair your own perfect pair right there! Myself as well as Rob Knopper, JB Leclere, and Keith Aleo will be there to help you pair your perfect pair or help you find that perfect cymbal!

Friday

9:00 am – Glenn Paulson – Cymbals Lab

After a lot of cymbals the day before at the Zildjian testing room this will be a great class on HOW to play them! Looking forward to hearing what Glenn has to say!

11:00 am – James W. Doyle – FUNdamentals – Snare Drum

James has spent a ton of time isolated how to make the most efficient stroke on snare drum. Which of course can be applied to any other instrument as well. While most of the concepts aren’t brand new, this should be a great new approach to the age old question of how to hit a drum.

11:00 am – Col Legno Showcase Concert

I have known Scott Pollard for a long time going back to my days growing up in North Carolina. His duo with his wife Amy Pollard (bassoon) is presenting this showcase concert of bassoon and percussion duo repertoire. This should be a very unique concert!

12:00 – Chris Lamb

Chris is a seasoned pro and always has such intellectual things to say about what we do in the orchestra. His class “A Model to Return to Often” should be applicable to seasoned professionals or a student just beginning to grasp the symphonic repertoire.

1:00 pm – Michael Oberaigner

Since I am an average timpanist at best, I’m very much looking forward to hearing how Michael approaches the drums and how his style differs from that of Americans. I’ve always been fascinated by how differently people can approach the same instrument and sound so good! I will be taking notes in this one.

2:00 pm – PASIC International All-Star Percussion Ensemble, direct by Michael Burritt

Michael Burritt is the premiere collegiate percussion ensemble director and it will be fascinating to see how he works with these players and what he programs. This is the first year PAS has formed this elite group and I expect a very high level concert with some adventurous programming. I know it was difficult to audition and get into this group so I imagine the concert will be fantastic.

3:00 pm – Peter Flamm – Timpani Lab

Again, since I struggle with timpani playing, I’m looking forward to hearing what Peter has to say about the roll. I’ve spent plenty of time working on my snare drum roll, but looking forward to hearing Peter school me on my timpani roll.

4:00 pm – Laurel S. Black

Laurel’s clinic is focused on health and wellness. Specifically the shoulder. I am a big fan of trying to understand how our body works, so I will be interested in hearing the research she is done and how we can be healthier musicians.

5:00 pm – JB Leclere

JB’s clinic “Accessories, Color in the Service of Dramatic Art” is one all symphonic percussionists should attend this year. We always tend to focus on snare drum and xylophone but one you start working, most of what you play are the toys.

8:30 pm – Joe Locke, Warren Wolf, Tony Miceli, and Stefon Harris

These are 4 of the best vibraphone players in the world. All on one stage. Yes there will be a lot of notes flying around up there but I can’t wait to hear how lyrical they can play. That’s the sign of a great vibe player to me. Should be a memorable concert.

Saturday

9:00 am – Jerry Noble – Accessories Lab

Jerry has become a friend over the years at PASIC and I’m really looking forward to his class on accessories. He is planning on discussing some of the most commonly performed rep using the major accessory instruments. It is surprising how much rep there is for these instruments that aren’t necessarily the standard excerpts. While this may be early in the morning on Saturday, I will definitely be attending!

10:00 am – Symphonic Emeritus Section

Lead by Alan Abel, this ridiculous line up of retired legends in the symphonic world will play through some of the standard repertoire as a section. Scheduled to play are : Arnie Lang, Bill Platt, Ron Barnett, Bill Cahn, Tony Cirone, Thomas Akins, John H. Beck, Peter Kogan, Richard Weiner, Gerald Unger, and Stanley Leonard. I that pretty much sells itself…

12:00 pm – Thomas Burritt

This concert and clinic should be over the top. If you haven’t seen Tom’s new recordings of the Bach C minor Cello Suite, then you need to check it out right now. Tom has become a leading educator, especially in Texas, and I’m sure there will be a huge crowd for this!

1:00 pm – Matthew Geiger

Matthew’s Clinic is entitled: “Passing the Pre-Screening”. Can I interest any one in that topic???? This should be required attendance for all HS and college age students looking to apply to their next school!

1:00 pm – University Committee Panel Discussion – Graduate Auditions – What Every Student Should Know

Again, is this a topic I could interest anyone in? A great idea lead by Benjamin Fraley with a heavy hitting lineup of Megan Arns, Michael Burritt, and Scott Herring as panelists. They know what they are talking about for sure and I imagine there will be a lot of college juniors and seniors in the audience!!

2:00 pm – Santa Clara Vanguard Percussion Section

While my marching days are well behind me, it is always fun to see what is new and how ridiculous these kid’s chops are. I don’t miss sleeping on gym floors, but I do miss the playing! Should be an awesome performance.

3:00 pm – Anika Nilles

If you have been on social media in the last 6 months you have seen how much she has exploded and how tight her grooves are. This is the perfect environment for a showcase concert for her. Us drum geeks will eat it up.

4:00 pm – Nexus

I never grow tired of seeing Nexus. They are THE chamber group in percussion and the model for the rest of us. They are also, insanely good. I hope I sound half as good as they do at their age!

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There it is! All of my picks! I can’t wait to head down to TX and see everyone, check out the exhibition hall, and have my ears pleased by awesome music. See you there!

WJ

Shaun Tilburg – The Regimen

There is something very human about a daily routine. While it can be fun to break routine just to make life interesting, our bodies and minds really do function better when we have consistent behavior. Some of these strange routines can even be seen as quirky to others, but they can put you in the right mental or physical state to perform well. Over the years I have collected many books and routines that make up my daily practice sessions outside of learning new music. I wrote a series of blogs about my warm up routines this winter. While my routine was built from multiple resources, assembled together over many years, there is a new resource where you can get a lot of that in one. My old buddy Shaun Tilberg, has written The Regimen for snare drum that is designed to be your “one stop shop” for your daily snare drum needs.

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The book is obviously influenced by a lot of the standard resources the percussion community has used for years. Shaun has blended those together into his own take on many of the standard technical issues we face on snare drum. Some of the more obvious influences to me were Stone’s Stick Control and Accents and Rebounds, Moeller’s The Art of Snare Drumming, Morello’s Master Studies for Snare Drum, and Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos for the Advanced Drummer. Shaun obviously has deep roots in rudimental playing. The beginning of his book sets up much like my first snare drum lessons with focus on rudiments and stick control. I believe, no matter what path you take in percussion, a solid rudimental foundation will pay off on any instrument.

After an introduction explaining his philosophy and goals for the book, Shaun starts with single stroke control and accents to establish basic stick movement. Shaun discusses in detail how the arm, wrist, and fingers all have roles and how to use them appropriately when playing these single strokes. A vital concept to understand at the start of one’s technique. Then multiple strokes are added, combining accents and single stroke combinations. He discusses the Moeller stroke and when to use it in these scenarios. Shaun clearly thought about the flow of the book, because it has a logical progression. When you start making permutations of all these elements the options are endless, but this book has a nice sequence.

There is a nice section on flams and variations on how you can practice earlier exercises by adding flams. While Shaun presents a lot of great options (including some new to me!) I wish there was a section on flam placement. I spend a lot of time talking to students about how wide or how closed flams should be, depending on the style. Most of what Shaun is presenting is influenced by rudimental playing, which suggests a more open flam. This is the best place to start in my mind as it is significantly easier to tighten up a flam than to open it up. Beginner students tend to play very flat, or tight flams, and I think this should be pointed out to those approaching flams for the first time.

Shaun touches on basic open and closed roll techniques and then dives right into some exercises. Thanks for the shout out to my book Shaun! Most of the exercises are more advanced exercises for finger and roll control. The types of exercises that don’t work on your roll specifically, but focus on skills that will ultimately make your roll better. After rolls, he has some great exercises on playing soft. The caption at the top of the soft section is “Everyone eventually finds a way to fake it loud, but it’s almost impossible to fake it soft.” I don’t know who said that, but it’s true!!! Once I am warmed up, I would say the majority of my practice time is on my soft playing and on my roll. The two most difficult things to do on snare drum.

The book concludes with two etudes written by the author to encapsulate the various topics covered in the book. The first, Off-beat Kicker, is a very approachable etude with lots of dynamic contrasts. Those dynamic contrasts make the grace notes and rolls rather difficult to control. The next etude, The Stuttering Scott, is much more difficult and will take more than a few hours to perfect. The more complicated rhythms, syncopated rhythms, and metric modulation make this etude really cool. The etude is clearly rudimental but also has influences from the French style and is very similar to the work of Joe Tompkins.

If the book wasn’t enough to help establish a daily routine, Shaun’s website is a great supplemental resource for the book. There are a bunch of explanation videos as well as lot of demonstration videos that will clear up any questions you might have. It is always good to have a visual with technical exercises and Shaun’s website provides that. It is great to see how relaxed his playing is. When people say “Gee, he makes that look easy.” what they should be saying is “Gee, he makes that look efficient.” The music is still hard! But with practice and efficient use of strokes, one can make it appear to look easy. Shaun is definitely doing that!

The biggest point I think all students should take away from Shaun’s book is that technical facility will help your performance. No one practices most of these exercises because they are “fun” or “exciting”. The repertoire and etudes are way more engaging! But, playing grids and repetitive exercises will isolate and fix technical difficulties that will make the repertoire and etudes significantly easier. While I am sure I will still go back to my standard Stick Control, Accents and Rebounds, and other standard method books, The Regimen will be a welcome addition to my music stand.

WJ

How Weight Training Has Made Me a Better Musician

My advocacy for weight training.

There are a multitude of articles, resources and studies showing the benefit of exercise to improve one’s health and professional abilities. The correlation between fitness and a musician’s ability to perform is generally understood today but most people don’t think of weight training as an avenue for that fitness. For the last three plus years I have been training with a trainer and lifting weights. HEAVY weights. I’ve never really felt out of shape but also never saw myself as an athlete and certainly not a lifter but my health and ability to perform has never been better. I had the same concerns most musicians have about weight training and I’m going to try and address them in this post. There are a remarkable number of similarities between lifting and the music profession. I can honestly say that lifting has made me a better musician.

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The biggest thing I have gained from weight lifting has not been the added strength (although that is nice) but has been body awareness and understanding how the body is supposed to move. Our muscles, bones, and ligaments are designed to move in certain ways. We can move them in other ways but that usually requires more effort and potential risk of injury (eventually). Even if you are picking up the paper off the front porch, your body has ways of doing that that are more efficient than others. In terms of my playing my posture and movement has become so much more efficient. We have to stand up, a lot, and we all have experienced back discomfort and soreness from standing for so long. Learning proper positions when lifting heavy weights programs your body to default to those positions when performing. When you are in the middle of performing or practicing Merlin or a long symphony you don’t have time to think about your spine angle or your shoulder positions. They will default to where they are trained to be. Since lifting my posture and feet position has improved immensely!

I imagine most of you have the same concerns I first had at the prospect of lifting heavy weights: risk of injury, weight gain, and loss of mobility. All are valid concerns, because if we can’t play our instruments, all the strength in the world isn’t going to help. To address the injury concern my response would be that almost all injuries happen due to improper form. Who teaches you form? Your trainer and with trainers you typically get what you pay for. Most gyms and trainers are not what I would consider professionals. When I perform I expect the highest level of performance out of myself as do my colleagues, not to mention the paying public. To expect the same out of someone who I am I trusting the health of my body should be self evident. The phrase “form first” is commonly used but rarely adhered to. I’ve been lifting for 3 plus years and my trainer Jimmy is still tweaking my form. This means most of the beginning of my training was learning HOW to lift, not just pushing as much weight as I could.

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I was really worried about losing flexibility when I started. My career demands lightening quick reflexes and being healthy is great but being muscle bound with no flexibility isn’t going to help. This falls under the same category of professionalism. Most trainers help you work out and when you are done say “see you tomorrow!” and leave. No wonder you are so tight and sore the next day. Stretching after a workout is just as important as the work out. I try to spend at least 33% of the time I spent working out, stretching afterwards. So if I work out for an hour, that means minimum 20 minutes stretching afterward. If I have tightness in my shoulders or something nagging me I will spend even more time on that area.

Weight gain was also a concern for me. Sure I want to be healthy but do I want to gain 30 pounds and become muscle bound? This is a huge myth I have discovered. Most weight gain is due to diet, rather than exercise. This obviously applies to fat gain but also to quick substantial muscle gain. There are guys and girls in my gym that can out lift me by a huge margin that weight exactly the same as me. A good balance between diet and exercise will keep you at the weight you want while also adding strength. Focusing on body fat percentage rather than the number on the scale will also keep your body at a nice healthy “fighting weight”.

My trainer Jimmy and I have made some adjustments to the normal routine because of my need to be able to perform as a musician. For instance my hands, wrists, and forearms are my money makers. No need to overly stress them. So I use gloves and straps when working out. The gloves are obvious but straps help relieve the work my forearms have to do. If I’m doing deadlifts I’ll use straps so I’m not relying 100% on my forearms to grip the bar. Same if I’m doing something like dumbbell lunges. I’m working my legs primarily so no need to overly stress the forearms. I also use something called fat grips when doing dips so that the pressure on my hands is spread out and not in one small space. These small tweaks help me feel safe when lifting and confident that I can play a concert that night.

Don’t get me wrong, the physical benefits of lifting have been great. I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’m at 15% body fat and stronger than I have ever been by far. And I do all this while still eating pizza occasionally and having a few beers after a concert. Life’s gotta be worth living right? However, the most surprising benefit has been mental. I’ve always been a big fan of the psychology of performing and I credit most of my success to that. Lifting has only improved it. It’s pretty simple actually. You look at someone else lifting and think “there is no way I will ever be able to lift that much.” Same as a student looking at a professional thinking “I’ll never be able to play that piece.” But you take the small steps (under good direction!!!) and make progress and one day you make that lift or you start playing that piece you never thought you would. That kind of confidence is addictive. Talk about helping your posture. That will make you walk around a little taller.

I realize that everyone has preferences and there are a multitude of options to stay fit and to some degree I support all of them as it is better than sitting on the couch for sure! This is just what I have found to be successful for me. My biggest suggestion is to find good instruction and someone you can trust. Just like with music, if you study with the best, and put in the work you will improve at a much faster rate. Keeping your body fit WILL improve your ability to play if done correctly.

I must give a huge shout out to the Thacker brothers at The Lab for starting such a first class organization. Note I say organization, not just gym, as they really are the whole package. But the biggest shout out goes to my trainer Jimmy Duke who is a first class athlete and just as much of a professional as any working musician you will meet. Thanks for kicking my butt on a regular basis and keeping me healthy.