10 Tips To Choose Your Ideal Tempo

One of the most common questions I get about solos and excerpts is “What tempo do you take for ______”. If I had a dollar for how many times I’ve been asked how fast I take Porgy and Bess… Sometimes the answer is easy and sometimes it’s not. Since this is such a common dilemma I figured a blog post was in order.

metronome

While the metronome is one of the most valuable tools a musician can use, I do not like using beats per minute when answering the tempo question. Sure I could say “Play Porgy and Bess at 115 bpm”, but that doesn’t really help in the long run. Remember, the metronome is just a tool and you won’t have it in the performance! If I have a very clear image in my head of style, attitude, and musical goals; I actually arrive at my ideal tempo more often than if I try to pull 115 right out of the air. Sure one day it might be 113 and the next it might be 117 but I am much more consistent when focusing on musical ideas than tempo markings.

  1. Using Recordings

Most people go immediately to YouTube or audio recordings to check the tempo someone else took for a solo or excerpt. I do as well! However, this is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle. Sometimes I leave my research with more questions than answers! Let’s say we listen to 6 recordings and the tempos are 86, 90, 92, 100, 96, and 87. Hardly a clear picture. Rather than just taking the average and deciding upon 93 or so, I use this information and allow it to confirm my ultimate choice. Let’s say this excerpt is laid back and heavy in style. Perhaps, that means I want to take it on the slower side to show that weight. Maybe 89 is best as it is slower, but not the slowest. What if the excerpt is light and energetic? Perhaps leaning towards the top end of the range is appropriate. Say, 96? I see recordings as very valuable, but not the definitive resource. Even if I’m auditioning for the Chicago Symphony, I shouldn’t take the tempo they took with Barenboim on a recording. Maybe the rest of the musicians hated that tempo. What if it is totally contrary to every thought I have about the piece? What if only half the committee even played on that recording? Just because a great orchestra took 1 piece at 1 tempo, doesn’t mean you should. Let style and musical decisions guide your way rather than 1 example.

  1. The room

The room you are performing in can have an influence on your ideal tempo. I remember I took an audition in high school for All-State and the timpani part of the audition was in the auto shop. No lie…. Talk about a less than ideal environment. If the room you are playing in is small and extremely dry, perhaps you might want to take a tempo slightly quicker so you don’t sound too naked. In contrast, if the room you are playing in is large and boomy, perhaps you want to take your tempo slightly slower so the panel can actually hear every note you are playing. These recommendations are slight and should not change the overall style you are going for. You don’t want to be thought of as insensitive to the space, but you also want to be true to yourself.

  1. You are playing by yourself

When playing an ensemble work by yourself (an excerpt), the tempo most orchestras take may not sound as representative when playing the part solo. For instance, it can be hard to get 90 musicians to fly through the beginning of Carnival Overture. The train just moves slower with 90 people on it as opposed to just 1. I like to take Carnival slightly faster than most recordings because I don’t have to worry about anyone else keeping up. This also helps the character I’m going for of light and energetic. On the flip side, an excerpt might sound better slightly slower than when played in the group because it can demonstrate control.

  1. How do all of your tempos relate?

In an audition setting you are playing multiple excerpts, from multiple pieces, representing many styles, in very quick succession. For example, let’s say you are playing 12 excerpts in a round. If 5 of those are right in the middle of the “acceptable tempo” range and 7 are on the “slightly quicker” than normal range, you might be perceived as nervous or out of control by the panel. While I would never change your philosophy greatly on any particular excerpt, I would recommend looking at all of them in total and ask yourself “Am I talking too large a percentage on the fast side?” Or… “Am I taking too large a percentage on the slow side?” You can use quicker or slower tempos to help you represent character extremely well, but if you always tend to lean to the fast or slow side, it can be seen more as a tendency than a conscious choice.

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  1. What tempo can you actually execute consistently?

If your Bach solo just doesn’t feel comfortable at the tempo other colleagues are taking it, then why try to fly too close to the sun and risk failure? The example I use to students is imagine you are standing next to a 100 ft cliff. If I asked you to stand with your toes hanging off the edge you would be pretty nervous! Especially if a strong breeze came by. But if I then asked you to take a step and a half backwards, all the sudden your comfort level would increase dramatically. It’s the same with your tempo. If your marimba solo or excerpt just doesn’t feel comfortable, just back off 3-4 clicks and see if that changes things. It may not change the style as much as you think and you will gain a lot more points in execution than you might lose from a less than ideal tempo.

  1. If there is a tempo change, make it obvious.

This falls under the category of our perception vs. our listener’s perception. The listener often needs help hearing the subtle dynamic and tempo changes we are trying to make. Sure subtly is important, but if the music has an obvious tempo change, make your tempo change obvious. A few clicks may not be enough. You don’t want the panel to ask the question “are they rushing or was that a tempo change?”

  1. When should you play the performance practice and when shouldn’t you?

This is a case by case basis obviously but hopefully I can give you some tools to help decide. My first instinct is to always play the ink. That’s what the committee is looking at and it’s hard to argue against it. However, there are instances when deviating from the ink makes sense. The second lick of Shostakovich’s Polka doesn’t say to accel but every performance does. If you make your accel obvious (see #6) the panel will understand what you are doing. Sometimes a change can be too much of a risk. The part could be really obscure and you may know more about it than the panel. For instance, the glock part to Magic Flute is extremely loud in the opera. There is a lot going on onstage and for it to be heard it has to be played out. If you played the part in an audition “mf” however, it would be in such stark contrast to everyone else, you will probably lose some points.

There are other times in which the choice can be much tougher to decide. The opening of Pines of Rome does not indicate a tempo change when the meter switches to 3/8, however, every single performance of this changes tempo. I know because I’ve played it many times and I’ve listened to tons of recordings. The spreadsheet below depicts the tempos of 9 different recordings of major symphony orchestras. This may seem obvious to make the tempo change, however, since there are rests at the meter change and the panel may not be thinking in the same manner you are, they may question why your time got bad all the sudden. This is a tricky one for me because I have to put trust in the committee to remember the performance practice. I don’t have a definitive decision for you however this transitions me perfectly to #8.

Opening Rehearsal 2
83 74
85 80
85 75
92 80
85 77
92 80
90 72
93 87
84 77

 

  1. When you make a decision, stick to it!

To make the best impression in a performance or audition, you want to appear as confident as possible. This means right or wrong, executing the decisions you made in the practice room as accurately as possible. Even if the committee doesn’t agree with your interpretation, they would rather hear a confident one they can understand then a half-hearted effort that might even sound apologetic. In an audition they can always ask you to play it differently. The committee may know tendencies of the hall or the orchestra that you don’t, so if they ask you to play something differently take it as a good sign! They want to hear more! So once those decisions are made, stick to them!

  1. In the practice room, don’t be afraid to practice slightly over tempo.

We all know the benefits of slow practice. Your first music teacher probably explained that to you, but we rarely talk about practicing “over tempo”. If I told you, you could win $300 if you could lift 200 lbs off the ground, would you train and stop right at 200 lbs? No! You would train so that you could comfortably lift 200 lbs off the ground even when you weren’t feeling your best. The same can be applied to tempo. If you are playing a tricky xylophone excerpt that needs to sound light and effortless, why not try practicing 10 clicks above tempo and then backing off so the ideal tempo actually IS easier. If you find you are slowing down in the trickier passages but maintaining tempo in the straightforward sections, practice a few clicks over to get better at moving through the tough stuff. This is not something I would recommend doing for a large percentage of your practice time because bad habits could form and the feel could change too dramatically, but it is definitely a tool that can be very useful!

  1. Finally, what tempo do YOU like the most?

Choosing an ultimate tempo can be tricky and there are lots of factors to consider (clearly…) but ultimately YOU have to make the decision. YOU have to take ownership of the performance and feel like it represents YOU. Ok, enough with the all caps… you get my point. If you go through this process and find that you just like Colas slightly quicker than others, then go for it! If you think the solo in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra should be slower, then go for it! All of these choices we make help give the panel a sense of our personality. Being too bland and conservative isn’t a great thing. Obviously being wild and out of control isn’t either, but choosing your spots and showing some personality will separate you in the end.

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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.

XY

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..

packed lunch

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

How to Absorb Criticism

No one likes to be criticized. It’s much more fun when our colleagues praise us for how great we are. However, in the real world, we encounter, seek out and receive criticism. How we deal with that criticism is an enormous part of how we improve. Some criticism is bad and should be ignored, but a lot of it is good and should be weighed very heavily. Today I will discuss why we tend to hate criticism, how to absorb it in the right way and then use it as a tool for improvement.

criticism

Why criticism sucks and it’s easy to ignore:

  1. We plain just don’t like it. Deep in our subconscious we know that the process of analyzing the criticism is very difficult and we would rather just continue along thinking we are great. And we are right! It’s much easier to continue doing the same thing and patting ourselves on the back thinking we are great.
  2. We don’t like the source. We focus on where the criticism is coming from and not the criticism itself. If we don’t like someone or are jealous of someone, it is very easy to push aside any critique we may be receiving. Occasionally critique from a bad source should be ignored, but this is far from the norm.
  3. We are already happy with the final result. How often have you thought you were finished with something and someone makes a comment that questions your entire approach? I hate that! Much easier to ignore that comment and continue with your head buried in the sand.
  4. We think we are above criticism. This is usually not a conscious decision but sometimes our ego gets in the way and tells us “What do they know about my playing? I’m great!”

I think we can all agree that completely turning our back against criticism is a bad thing. However, it can be harder to recognize these subconscious thoughts and rationalizations than you would think. Our ego can get in the way and we simply tell ourselves everything is fine. I’ve had students who don’t even realize how big their ego is. I don’t blame them because it’s human nature to want to believe you are great at something. This is why how criticism is delivered is soooooo important.

How to deliver criticism

A teacher saying, “this is terrible” is not helpful. That sort of criticism is most likely to be ignored and the student revolt against the teacher’s ideas. Even in the worst performances, there are positive points to be made. All too often, as teachers, we forget to say “do it exactly like that again”. We focus on the negative. Even if the positive point is very small, it gives the player something to try and repeat. This also helps soften the blow of negative criticism.

criticism1

When something needs fixing, it is much easier to be direct rather than vague about it. The “this is terrible” comment is vague. “You were dragging through the rests in measures 5-7” is a much more direct and useful comment. A level even deeper is asking why the mistake happened. Could it be because the player wasn’t subdividing? Could it be because the playing was so technical the player needed more time to recover in the rests. This exploratory criticism will be of much more help.

Sadly we don’t always get that sort of direct criticism and we have to do our own exploring and analyzing. If we are given a somewhat vague comment or less than helpful critique then we are left to our own devises to fix the error. There are numerous ways we can check ourselves and do our own self analyzing. Recording is the best method because it removes yourself from the situation so you are listening as a listener and not as a player. You can assess the level of the problem; large, medium, or small and brainstorm the best solution to the issue. If you don’t hear the issue you can record yourself again. If you still don’t hear it, your issue could be a consistency issue. You can do repetitive games to try and raise your level of consistency. If you stilllllll don’t hear the issue then perhaps you fixed the problem simply from hearing the comment and being aware of it. There is also the possibility it was just a bad comment and nothing was wrong. Now as frustrating as that can be, it’s not the end of the world. You went through this long process of analyzing and came out the other side knowing your playing is correct. How great is that! Rather than being bummed thinking you “wasted time”, be confident that you really know it’s right now.

Embracing criticism

This leads me right into the point of this blog post; a philosophy far too few people have. Welcoming and embracing criticism. Because critique is difficult to hear we often avoid it. In fact most of us do. Really successful people however, run toward it. The most frustrating situation for successful people is to have something wrong and not know it. This is why they ask colleagues for advice all the time. They don’t want to miss something. They embrace the critique. In rehearsal I will often turn to my colleagues and ask “was I late on that note?” “Is this present enough?” “Do you like this mallet?” I want to know what they think. They are removed from the situation and can answer objectively because they aren’t the one playing.

This also applies to obstacles in ones playing. If you know you have a weakness, embrace it and say “I am going to fix this, no matter how hard I have to work.” Rather than pretend your playing is acceptable and there is no room for improvement, always be looking for areas for improvement. I find teachers who have this attitude make better instructors because they know how to struggle with something and get through it. They can help their students through the period of struggle and out the other side. Teachers who have lots of natural ability and didn’t struggle as much I find have more difficulty helping students through their own struggles.

I try as much as possible to take this attitude of embracing criticism to all areas of life. The other day I was in the gym working out and all of my warm ups felt great. I was hoping to hit some high numbers on my heavy lifts. However, once I got towards the heavy weights things felt wrong. I couldn’t figure it out but I knew something was out of whack. My trainer was in the other room and I grabbed him for a minute and had him check out my form. After my first set he said “your right knee isn’t pushing out. Your right side looks tight, like your hip is locked up.” He suggested a few stretches I could do to open it up. After stretching a bit, the hip and knee felt much better. He was right… There was no way of me realizing this without asking for a second opinion. My form will be better in the future and I might even recognize the situation next time and not need to ask for help. While I didn’t hit the personal bests I was hoping for, I made a correction and I know how to correct it next time.

Do you do this in your own practice room at school? I asked people to come in and listen to me play all the time when in school. Your colleagues are most likely going through the same thing or have gone through it and can really help. There is a polite way to do this of course and you should always be respectful of other people’s time. Be sure to always thank a colleague for their thoughts.

Bad criticism

Occasionally there are times that you should ignore criticism. Understanding when, can be delicate. Bad criticism can really paralyze you. We have talked about how we want to avoid being controlled by our ego, however we still want confidence! Being confident in your playing is very different than being driven by ego. Confidence is you knowing that you have done the task before and can repeat it again. Bad criticism can kill confidence. While we have been over the much more common scenario of embracing critique, there are times to ignore advice and just move on.

Not everyone approaches their playing the same way. That is a good thing! It’s how we all have our own personalities. Sometimes we can choose to not heed someone’s advice because we think it goes against our personal preference. The key is to make sure it’s not the scenario where your ego is getting in the way and you just not wanting to change. If after trying out someone’s advice and you don’t like it, then maybe you should stick to your guns.

In my experience it all comes down to whether or not you embrace criticism. Some may be good, some may be bad, but you have to welcome it. If you run from critique, you will be destined for mediocrity. Getting feedback from others on your playing is the quickest way to improve, even if it is sometimes painful.

So what did you think of my blog today? 😛

WJ

 

How to Practice

OK. I know. This is an impossibly large topic to cover in one blog post. But as it relates to My Process, there are some cornerstone elements to good practicing I can cover in a normal length blog post. Practicing is where 99% of the effort and progress happens. Lessons are short. Rehearsals are infrequent. Performances are even more infrequent. Practicing happens every day. Those lessons, rehearsals, and performances are where we put the pieces of our work together. If good practice hasn’t happened, there simply aren’t going to be enough pieces to put something meaningful together.

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Two weeks ago I talked about how to begin practicing a new work. I believe those first few practice sessions are the most difficult. Once you have some momentum it’s a lot easier to be productive in the practice room. Today I’m going to cover some of my cornerstones of good practice.

The biggest challenge I have with students is shifting their practice goals. Most students think the more hours they spend in the practice room the better they will be. This isn’t always the case. Successful musicians have “Goal Oriented” practice sessions instead of “Total Amount of Time” practice sessions. Focusing on a goal rather than the clock will help you accomplish that goal as quickly as possible. That could be 10 minutes or that could be 4 months. The point isn’t how long it takes, the point is to accomplish that goal. When I am staring at the clock, I find myself distracted and tasks generally take longer. Obviously we all have lives and schedules so ignoring the time isn’t really an option. However that doesn’t mean we have to know what time it is throughout the session. Simply set an alarm clock when you have to be done, and spend that time practicing goals rather than an hour and a half. If you don’t accomplish your goal, you can at least know you were as productive as you possibly could be in the time you had.

When deciding on these goals it is important to understand that some goals will take what I call “Calendar Time” and others will take what I call “Hour Time”. Let me give you some examples to explain what I mean. Your snare drum roll isn’t going to go from Morse code to silky smooth in a day. No matter how many hours you practice. That takes calendar time. Trusting a new technique or feeling really solid memorizing Bach, will take days and days. Thus, they improve over calendar time. Smaller tasks such as learning a small orchestra part or memorizing 32 bars of music can be done in a shorter amount of time. Thus hour time. Understanding the difference between the two will help in establishing realistic goals and keep you from pulling your hair out.

When we get ahead of ourselves and expect success quicker than it most likely will come, we tend to skip over important parts of the process. Skills like learning the snare drum roll take days of practicing isolated exercises so you trust the new technique. If those days are rushed through, your body will not trust the new technique and thus make small mistakes. Which will then have to be corrected (or even worse not corrected) later. The same is true for memorizing a big marimba piece. If the early days of memorization are not at a careful and deliberate pace, the notes will not be truly cemented in your brain. Thus more memory slips and lower confidence in what you are playing.

How many of you have prepared something for a lesson that you thought was ready and then walked in and laid an egg? Who has said “it was fine in the practice room, I just don’t understand why I can’t play it here?” I know I have! Some of that has to do with nerves (which is an entirely different blog post!) but a lot of that has to do with preparation. Often we tend to practice things over and over again until we get them right. When we do this we are practicing warming up with lots of mistakes, and then around the 7th or 8th time we get it right. Well in the real world you don’t get 7 or 8 times through before it really counts. I don’t know who originally said it but I love the quote “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.” This is a HUGE difference in philosophy and vitally important in how we practice.

Mile-1

Let’s use the analogy of a marathon to help us understand the pacing of learning a piece. The last post was focusing on those early days in say mile 0 – 2. The researching, the early preparation. Miles 3 – 5 are really an extension of that. You are problem solving. When drilling sections begin to ask yourself if you are happy with your accuracy. Are you happy with your phrasing? Are you happy with your sticking? Will that sticking work at a faster tempo? Are you happy with your sense of style? If not, slow the tempo down and be VERY deliberate about fixing those issues. If need be, practice in slow motion. This slow motion practice can be out of any sort of tempo and can be to simply walk through whatever issues you are trying to solve. DON’T move on until you have fixed the issue. Too many students think that simple repetition will fix problems. This is a lazy attitude. It is much more difficult to really be analytical and tackle the issues but far more efficient. If you realize a sticking probably won’t work when ultimately up to tempo. Stop and walk through options in slow motion. Solve the issue and then find a tempo you can comfortably execute the new sticking.

mile8

Once most issues have been solved, find a tempo at which you can comfortably execute all of your decisions. This is now your working tempo. The goal should be to establish trust and confidence in our decisions. Not moving up in tempo. It can take a LONG time to get to this point and it can take even longer until you are truly ready to move up in tempo. No matter how slow or how fast, this is our starting point. We are at mile 7 or 8 at this point. That’s roughly a third of the way through the entire process! And we have not made any increases in tempo yet. Let that sink in. Roughly a third of the learning process is solving problems and memorization. Most students are not disciplined enough to spend that amount of time on practicing at that slow of a tempo. Because our brains are wired to want success immediately, we all have a tendency to speed up and see what we can do before we are really ready. It’s a natural desire, but one we must fight against.

mile13

Miles 9 through about 17 are the methodical advancement of tempo towards our ultimate tempo. Let’s say you are at quarter = 45. I want to be so solid and confident in my playing that even before I speed the metronome up to 50, I already know I can do it. This not only helps my accuracy but really helps my confidence in my playing. As I’ve said before success is a learned behavior and having small successes along the way like this build toward even bigger success. As you progress from 50 to 55 and 55 to 60 you should do mini inventories of all those decisions you made early on to make sure they still are working. Perhaps some phrasing needs to change now that you know the piece better? Perhaps the sticking you thought would work, isn’t working and you need to change it? By having this methodical approach, you will be shocked at how much faster this part of the “marathon” goes. Because you did so much good work early on, you will be able to progress much quicker. You will also have fewer mistakes to fix and muscle memory to unlearn. It’s around this point I hear lots of students say “Oh!! Now I get it.”

mile18

Miles 18 through 23 are when we start switching from practice mode to performance mode. This is the switch from just drilling sections to focusing on performing sections once. Like I said earlier, you don’t get 5 or 6 warm up runs before your performance. You get one shot. When problem solving and working up to tempo you are drilling sections for consistency. Now the job is to be consistent the first time. This shift in focus is really for your brain more so than your hands. I tell students to practice performing once……, a lot. Meaning give yourself one shot at something (without stopping) and when you are done analyze how it went. Then repeat and see if you can improve. This is also a great time to start recording yourself. This sort of pressure will mimic the pressure of performing.

BigSurMileMarker25

Miles 24 through 26 are for fine tuning and playing for people. You know the piece at this point and you are really close to being ready for your performance. Now you just need to get really comfortable playing in front of people and incorporating small bits of advice your colleagues can give you. Whenever I am at this point I always feel so glad I spent all those hours problem solving early on. I have a ton of confidence because I have solidified those decisions over the last 20 or so “miles”. Now is not when I want to be discovering new issues. We are far too late in the game for that. So much work goes into the beginning so that at this point I am just focusing on execution and musical goals.

This learning process is not easy and it can be made even more complicated if you have multiple works to learn at the same time and different performance dates for all of them. That’s our topic for next time! Thanks for the comments and shares on Facebook!

WJ

 

 

How to go About Choosing and Learning a New Piece

In my last blog post I previewed what I call my “process”. This is the method I have developed to plan, learn, practice, balance, and schedule my time to prepare pieces. In today’s post I will discuss the first part of that which is choosing a piece (when you have that ability) and how the first few days of practicing are approached. Essentially, the beginning of the journey!

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The reason I feel this part of the process is so important is because I am a huge believer in putting yourself in a position to succeed. NEVER put yourself in a position to fail before you even begin. Sure we will all have failures in our career. It’s a part of being a musician. What I am encouraging is to avoid situations where failing is almost certain from the beginning. I have learned very valuable lessons from my failures. The only lesson I have learned from my failures in which I was never in a position to succeed from the start; was to avoid that scenario at all costs. Don’t misunderstand that I am not encouraging ambition. Ambition is great! Being unrealistic is not. Sometimes putting off learning a piece for a month or two is smarter than adding one more piece of music to your plate. It’s a lot easier to say yes to everything. Learning when to say no is very important!

Deciding to prepare a piece that you do not have the technical ability to play yet or the proper amount of time to adequately prepare may seem like an ambitious thing to do. To reach well beyond your grasp to try to improve yourself. I see over-reaching slightly differently psychologically. In sports this can be called fake hustle. Fake hustle is when you know you are going to fail but you pretend to work really hard so at least it gives the impression you gave it your all. It’s like diving for a loose ball going out of bounds when it is already 6 feet away from you. The ball is going out of bounds no matter how hard you throw yourself at it. Some people may admire you for diving for the ball, just like they might admire you for trying to play a piece well outside your current ability. I see this as psychologically damaging because deep down inside, you know you have no chance and your performance wasn’t good. It’s easier to dive for the ball when it is out of reach than to do the speed and strength training to get faster so the ball IS in reach next time. It’s easier to play Variations on Lost Love by Maslanka and miss 20 % of the notes and not play the rhythms accurately than it is to do the 200 hours of Stevens exercises in front of a mirror that will give you the control needed to really nail it!

The reason I bring this up is that I believe success and winning is a learned behavior. It also breeds and builds confidence. Having lots of small successes along the way gets you in the habit of succeeding. Even if the success is small, the next time a slightly bigger challenge appears, you can rely on your experience of succeeding and confidently attack the next challenge.

This is all important to consider when choosing a piece. We don’t always have control over what we are working on or preparing. What that does mean is that the decisions we can make, need to be good ones. If our ensemble and chamber music commitments are overwhelming, maybe this isn’t a good time to tackle a 20 minute difficult solo work. If you have a big recital coming up, maybe say no to that really nice composer who wants you to play one of their works on their recital. The two biggest factors I consider when deciding to commit to a work are:

  1. The time needed to perform the work correctly and at a high level and do I have that time in my schedule.
  2. Is the potential work a reasonable stretch to my ability or unreasonable?

Again, ambition is a good thing. Choosing a solo that is a stretch to your current ability can motivate and challenge you to improve your playing. Understanding the difference between a stretch and well out of range is another.

Once you have your piece, now it’s time for that first day in the practice room. Boy that can be the toughest day of them all for me. You have no experience yet, all the work is ahead of you. It’s really important to be patient at this point of the process as progress and success will be slow at this point. Don’t rush through important milestones, just to pretend to be making progress.

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In my experience I have found many students practice by simply repeating things over and over hoping they get better. They also increase the tempo as soon as any small amount of success is reached thinking it is time to move on. This will seem to work and give you what I have started calling an approximate version of the piece. It’s ok, not bad, but not really good either. It’s approximate. The next time you hear someone play a piece outside of their ability you will hear what I am talking about. The problem with this approach is you will end up making lots of very small mistakes initially that will become habits. They will need to be corrected later on as the work gets closer to tempo and you are expecting a more polished product. The next problem students encounter is that they generally don’t know how to solves these issues this late in the process. In the long run this actually takes MORE time than if those issues were spotted initially. Remember we want to work smart and hard; not just hard.

This approach also tends to separate learning the piece technically and learning the work musically. Separating these two parts of the process is a common practice of beginner players but should be abandoned as quickly as possible. The quicker you can learn works technically and musically at the same time, the more success you will have. However, this can make for very slow progress in those first few days of practice.

Here are some guidelines and thoughts to help you through those first few days with a piece.

  1. Will this work need to be memorized, partially memorized, or read completely? This is important in the long term because if you know a work will need to be memorized, it is easier to start with the goal of memorization from the beginning.
  2. Next is looking at what resources I can use to help aid my preparation. Those can be scores, recordings, different editions, or other arrangements or transcriptions. These can be valuable tools as questions arise.
  3. Where should I start when learning the piece? Beginning, middle, end? If the beginning is very straight forward but the end is difficult, skip to the end. Read through the piece and give your best guess to where is going to be the most challenging.
  4. Focus on solving sticking problems that will come up at faster tempos. A sticking that could work fine under tempo may pose a serious issues at tempo. Start to develop a “radar” for sticking issues early on to avoid practicing troublesome stickings.
  5. Even though your learning process is focused understandably on small sections, keep the larger work in mind musically as you make musical decisions.
  6. Find a tempo you can play the work (or sections) at consistently. No matter how slow, make sure your accuracy is high (90-95%). My rule of thumb is don’t increase the tempo until you already know before attempting, that you can play it at the next tempo.
  7. Think less about learning and memorizing early on and more about solving problems. The more problems you solve early on, the easier the learning or memorizing will go.

The next post will focus on how to practice and what to work on at different parts of the process. Obviously “how to practice” could be a doctoral thesis. Don’t worry, I will keep it a reasonable length. But there are some key points I want to touch on, especially on how to be more efficient and how to pace yourself properly so you are ready for the performance. As always, leave comments if you want me to cover something specific and thanks for reading!

WJ

To Plug or not to Plug…

To wear earplugs or not wear earplugs… that is a question I have been hearing a lot recently. There was an interesting thread of comments in the Orchestral Percussion Talk Facebook Forum last week about whether percussionists should wear earplugs when they are performing. The thread of comments were all over the map and ranged in their opinions. I chimed in briefly in support of wearing earplugs but thought I would dive deeper into the subject on the blog.

earplugs

I feel very passionate about hearing protection. It is near impossible to perform and interact with other musicians with hearing loss. Yes earplugs alter the sound you are hearing but luckily for us (percussionists) they don’t actually alter our sound. Some brass and woodwind players have trouble playing with earplugs because their head will literally vibrate and the earplugs can be incredibly uncomfortable. As percussionists we are luckily because a cymbals crash or a bass drum hit will sound exactly the same in the audience whether we are wearing earplugs or not. The only difference to us is how WE hear it.

Ironically I had scheduled a hearing test last Monday (the same week the question was asked) and I found all of this discussion incredibly relevant. Thankfully my hearing test came back very positive and I have lost virtually no hearing since my last test in 2009. I have tried to get my hearing tested about every 5 years to make sure I have a good baseline in case I notice some loss. That way is I do notice some loss I can be even more aggressive with protecting my hearing.

The chart below is my hearing in 2009. Circles are right hear; X’s are left ear. Normal hearing is being able to hear all frequencies between a 0 and 20 dB level. You will see I have lost a small amount of hearing in the 6,000 Hz range in my left ear. This means I can still hear a 6,000 hz sound at a 30 dB level. 6,000 is the high end of normal, everyday sounds.

Hearing2009

The next chart is my hearing last week (2015). You can see my hearing is remarkably consistent since 6 years ago. Which I am taking as a good thing!!!! Any noticeable loss would mean I would need to be more aggressive about protecting myself.

Hearing2015

One of the interesting things they tested for this time (which I had never been tested before) is my acoustic reflex. This is my ear’s ability to shrink the ear canal and thus protect my hearing. I was pretty fascinated. I had always thought that if I was causing a loud sound (and thus knowing exactly when it would happen) it did not feel as painful as when someone else was causing a loud sound. Sure some of that is the emotional surprise but turns out your ear is actually helping protect your hearing by contracting. Thankfully my reflexes were in the 90th percentile…

I only share my results because I think it is incredibly important for all musicians to have regular hearing tests to know where they stand. Small changes over a long period of time won’t be noticed unless you have regular tests.

 

Yes there are times when the orchestra must play extremely loud, but that doesn’t mean I have to do that at the expense of my long term hearing. This brings up a very important point and that is your perception of sound and volume. The argument that you want to hear how you sound as natural as possible is bogus. If you wanted to hear how you sounded with the orchestra you would have to somehow sit in the audience and play within the orchestra at the same time. You are adjusting your perception based on experience and knowing that the volume level where you are will be different out in the audience.

Our audio engineer mixed a performance of a concert for a trumpet player from the point of view of where he was sitting. Guess what was loudest in the mix??? Trumpet… A lot of trombone and some horn as well. Guess what the total mix of the orchestra sounded like??? Bad… But yet, that trumpet player plays in this position every day and has no problem blending with the orchestra, because he is instinctively adjusting his sound and volume with how he knows it will ultimately sound in the audience. Everyone in the orchestra does this from their own perspective every single day.

As percussionists we do the same thing. A cymbal crash will sound much louder where we are than out in the house. But yet through experience we have a pretty good idea of how loud to play. To my point earlier, we are lucky in that the earplugs don’t actually change our sound. The xylophone is going to ultimately sound exactly the same whether we are wearing earplugs or not. Knowing your instrument and trusting the sounds you have made over and over will allow you to trust the sounds you are making with earplugs in.

All of this goes to the overall point that it is not as difficult to adjust to playing with earplugs than some people make it out to be. Your hearing is WAY more important than any temporary frustration in having to adjust.

I also can’t emphasize enough that this is a safety matter as well. There are multiple free apps you can download that will monitor the dB level wherever you are. Because the microphone on an iPhone isn’t the most sophisticated in the world it usually tops out at 100 dB. You are going to be SHOCKED at how many situations you find yourself in where the volume level is constantly at 100. Try it out the next time you go to a crowded bar. Keep in mind anything over 85 dB for an extended period of time can cause minor loss. An orchestra tuning and warming up can be that loud!

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Foam earplugs are incredibly cheap and most orchestras actually provide them. They will do a good job of protecting your hearing but they are difficult to get in and out and the sound quality is fairly poor. There are custom musician earplugs that you can order through most audiologists. They make a mold of your ear and make a pair of plastic plugs custom fit to your ear. They also have removable filters at various dB levels so you can control how much sound is reduced. I typically use 15 dB rated filters with the orchestra and 25 dB rated filters for amplified shows. So a 110 dB orchestra is reduced to 95 dB. A big difference! The nice thing about custom plugs is you can take them in and out relatively easily for soft passages. For those who attend our concerts regularly, you will see me take mine in and out multiple times a night based on the volume level. They are also incredibly comfortable compared to the foam plugs. These custom plugs are expensive, but are a one time expense. The molds and a set of filters should cost around $200. A second set of filters will cost you another $100 or so.

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I don’t mean to rant in this post and scare anyone. I also don’t claim to be an expert or a professional audiologist. I am just trying to educate and help! As musicians our hearing is vitally important to our future in being able to perform for years to come.

Sorry I have been negligent in updates recently. Lots going on here in St Louis! Updates will be more regular from here on out. Probably every other week. Thanks to the loyal readers for staying patient!!

WJ

A Step by Step Guide and Checklist for Part Assignments

Principal Percussionists have one of the most unique jobs in the orchestra (or wind ensemble).  Our parts don’t come already laid out all nice and neat like the rest of the orchestra. The horns have it easy: Horn 1, 2, 3, and 4… Most of our repertoire isn’t incredibly complicated to figure out how to divide up parts. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is pretty easy as it is just Bass Drum, Cymbals, and Triangle. Three people – three parts. However (and that’s a giant however), some of the repertoire out there is much more complicated to lay out. Plus we have the issue of equipment to worry about. With big shows it can look like a yard sale on stage. How does the principal percussion figure out where to put all that stuff? When laying out parts there are a lot of factors to think about:

How many players will you need?

Do you need to rent instruments?

Do you want to keep one player only playing mallets?

What instruments need to be near other instruments for quick switches back and forth?

How much room do you typically have onstage and do you need more than that for a specific concert?

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Needless to say there is a lot to think about! To help keep small details from falling through the cracks I have come up with this Step by Step Guide and Checklist for Part Assignments over my 8 year of experience here in St Louis. For those who have never distributed parts or held a principal percussion position, this resource will be invaluable as you navigate your first concert. Being prepared for that first rehearsal is critical and you want everyone to know what their responsibilities are. After all, you can’t do everything, you have to rely on your section and you need to put them in the best possible scenario to succeed. This Guide and Checklist will help you whether you are in a profession orchestra or college wind ensemble.

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PASIC 2015 Preview!!!!

I am very happy to officially announce that I will be conducting the Mallet Percussion Lab at PASIC 2015 in San Antonio, TX. The Lab will be presented at 1:00 pm in room 006 on Thursday November, 12th. I have been wanting to announce this for quite some time but I had to wait until all ducks were officially in a row and the date and time had been set.

If you are interested in participating please email Dan Ainspan at intern@pas.org to put your name on the list. Space is very limited but there is a wait list as it is quite common to have cancellations.

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Rather than do a typical mallet lab where we listen to Porgy and Bess for the 23,426,899th time I thought it might be interesting to do something different. Plenty of time is spent discussing excerpts and honing our skills on xylophone, glock, and vibes as far as excerpts are concerned. But not a lot of time is spent on the solos we are asked to play in these audition environments. Yes, I know that tons of time is spent on marimba solos in our field, but not in the context of an audition. Specifically an orchestra audition or a summer festival audition. In these environments you don’t have the time to play the heavier repertoire that many prepare for recitals and college auditions. In an orchestra audition, the focus is on your orchestra playing. The solo is just a nice dessert. So how should it be treated and prepared differently? THAT is what we will discuss in the Mallet Lab this year at PASIC!

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If the committee wants you to choose your own solo then they want to get a good sense of your musical personality. Just the choice of a solo tells a lot about you. Is it aggressive? Is it soft and sweet? Is it ironic and humorous? This will help them get to know your solo voice. Since it is a solo of choice, they are not looking to compare you to others, so much as to get to know you.

So what sort of musical content should this solo have? Well the committee is leaving it up to you so they are obviously looking to be impressed with some personality and expression. Since you have the committee’s attention at this point I think it is important to grab it right away. A long, slow opening can take too long to develop in this situation. The committee is used to listening to excerpts that are over in 30 seconds. A solo that takes 60 to really get going will lose them before you really began.

Chops are important to have but I think are largely overrated in this scenario. If you have made it to the finals, they know you have chops, now they want to see if you have a voice. So the difficulty level doesn’t have to be a 10 out of 10. I think there are several advantages to playing a moderate solo as opposed to a difficult one. First, the chances of success are much higher with something you know you can pull off 99 times out of 100. Second, a truly difficult piece could be lost on the committee. There might be some that are really “wowed” but chances are a good portion won’t know what they are listening for and could be more perplexed by the difficult repertoire than impressed. Giving them something very approachable and easy to grasp, yet still impressive, is the balance you should try and strike. The last point I’d like to make about the difficulty level is one most don’t consider. Preparation. This is an orchestra job. Not a soloist job. If you spend 40% of your time working on a really difficult solo, then your excerpts (what really matter) will probably suffer. Pick a solo that you are comfortable with and won’t take too much time away from your excerpt preparation.

When a committee asks for a specified solo, they are still looking for all of the personality I discussed above, but they are also looking to more easily compare your playing to others. It is much easier to compare 5 candidates when they all play the same solo, than 5 different ones. If this is the case then you should still think about ways of showing your own personality but perhaps in a conservative way. You want to stand out in a good way. I have heard many players trying to do too much and end up standing out in a bad way. The committee is listening to the same solo over and over again so a lot of it is going to sound exactly the same. When they do hear something different you want the committee to say “Oh that was very clever, I like what they did there.” Rather than, “Well…. that was different.”

Bach is often asked on auditions as well. Sometimes as a Bach solo of choice but also as a specified Bach solo. Either way Bach is a great way to hear solo playing in a familiar style so all on the committee. However, anyone who has played Bach in front of a group of people knows that it is very difficult to please everyone with Bach. There is no shortage of opinions on how one should interpret Bach, especially when it is played on an instrument the work was not written for. With this in mind, I usually suggest a conservative interpretation of Bach. You do want to show expression and musicality for sure! But you also don’t want to run the risk of offending anyone. This is a great moment to remember that you are being judged mainly on your orchestral skills. The Bach solo probably will not win you the job, but could potentially lose you the job. A conservative approach is probably the safest bet.

The students playing in the Lab will all be asked to prepare the Minuet No. 1 from the E major Partita for Violin by Bach. This will let everyone prepare the same solo as well as a work by Bach. After they have performed the Minuet, they will also be asked to perform a solo of choice with the instruction that we are simulating the audition environment. This will give the students the opportunity to both choose a solo for this situation, as well as prepare and perform that solo.

Finally I would like your help. I would like to compile a list of good audition solos to distribute at the class at PASIC. It will also be available on my website. Because I have still not conquered the task of knowing every piece in the repertoire, I would like your suggestions for good audition solo pieces. They don’t necessarily have to be for marimba either, but you should consult the general guidelines below. Post a comment below with some of your suggestions and I look forward to seeing you at PASIC 2015!!!

Will James’ Solo Rep List and Guidelines for Auditions

 

WJ

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