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

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.

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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…

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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