Over the years, many students and parents have come to me for lessons in order to prepare for an audition – concert band, Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies, Minnesota Youth Symphonies, college entrances, scholarships, etc. I encourage private lessons for those situations, of course -- auditions are an important learning experience for all musicians to go through.
But preparing for an audition is not the reason for lessons.
I don't teach to the test.
The “test” in the case of musicians tends to be a performance – often an audition into a desired group. If we view that test as the end result of learning music, studying our instrument, and taking lessons, then we miss out on some of the most important aspects of being a musician. If we pick up our horns in order to get into a group, and then a better group, and then the best group, we are robbing ourselves of the beauty and importance of the daily learning we do through practice – and it's that daily learning that lasts a lifetime.
Don't get me wrong – being a part of a wonderful ensemble is a learning experience that can be unparalleled. However, if we make achievement the focus of music we are teaching our children a lie. We are teaching them that their worth as a musician (and as a student, a child, a person) is dependent on how they do, where they play, if they're in the top group, if they're first chair, if they get the solo, if they get the “star” rating. We are teaching them that music is just one more way for them to prove their greatness, receive approval, and get awards.
So, then what happens to the student musician who doesn't get into the best group, who doesn't get first chair, who doesn't get the solo? What happens to the student musician who does get the solo but botches it in performance, who does get the “star” rating one year but not the next?
What do we really want our student musicians to learn about making music?
In my teaching creed, I state:
I endeavor to strengthen and encourage players of all ages to learn more about themselves, horn, and music as part of a lifelong journey of self-improvement and exploration.
I believe music is a vital part of the human experience. I believe music is a universal language.
I believe this language is capable of communicating internal relationships and intangible connections, expressing feelings when we have no words, and understanding with our hearts when we cannot understand with our minds.
I believe it is my responsibility as an educator to develop every individual's innate musical talents and abilities to their highest possible level.
I believe the relationship between educator and student is a partnership – the outcome of which should be your highest achievement with my support and guidance – and it requires respect, cooperation, and honest communication.
What I really want my students to learn from lessons with me is how to achieve their highest possible level of playing while also understanding that music is a tool to learning about themselves, that music is a form of communication in which everyone can participate regardless of performance ability, and that music can be a lifelong source of learning and enjoyment.
I want my students to learn how to work, how to self-assess, how to practice, and how to maneuver through frustrations, challenges, and setbacks.
I want my students to learn that failing is not the same as being a failure; that making a mistake should not be mistaken for disaster; and that trying is more important than succeeding, doing your best is better than doing nothing, and making music is for their purposes only and no one else's.
I want my students to learn to support those around them instead of judge them; to understand that everyone's skills are different but not of greater or lesser value; to use music as a means of connection rather than separation, as a community rather than a competition, and as a journey rather than a destination.
Those are the skills that will help them in every area of their life, whether they make music their career or never play the horn again after high school.
I don't teach to the test, because the test doesn't matter.
Perhaps I should be writing this blog post about road blocks to writing blog posts. :)
Yes, indeed -- it's been two years since I've written a blog post on my website. I always seemed to find something more important to do. But asking myself to articulate some of the thoughts I have while teaching, practicing, rehearsing, and performing is an important part of my process -- and I might as well share that with anyone interested in reading. So, writing this blog post IS the important thing I have to do right now.
My practicing cycles -- since the time I was a teenager -- have always swung between intensely concentrated (frequent and long) and non-existent. Not only has it been a challenge to find a regular time to practice throughout the various stages of my life, it has also been a challenge to find the desire to practice regularly. I'm sure if I had desired daily practice I could have "found" the time to do so.
So, what held me back? What continues to hold me back? What holds you back? I can only speak to my own experience, but perhaps many of you can relate to at least one of the road blocks I discuss below.
1) Perfectionistic Avoidance
You don't have to be a "Type A Perfectionist" to bump up against this road block now and again. In fact, sometimes another name for this affliction is "laziness."
For me (a self-defined "recovering perfectionist"), I fight this battle every day. I want to avoid the reality of *not* sounding good sometimes. I don't want to deal with the flaws in my preparation, physical playing, in-shapeness, mental focus, sound, or ability. I want to ignore the reality of the hard, constant work that it takes to not only maintain playing a musical instrument but also excel and progress at doing it.
This gives me a very convenient "out" when things don't go well -- what I call the "if only" disillusionment. This train of thought lets me off the hook for ignoring the real work I can and need to do.
"If only I'd had more time..."
"If only I'd been able to listen to a recording..."
"If only there had been another rehearsal..."
"If only I'd gotten the music sooner..."
This mental game is avoidance of reality. It feeds my laziness. It places the blame on external forces rather than recognizing my responsibility. It focuses on the negative rather than the positive -- the time I didn't have rather than the time I did, for example.
You might experience it on a lesser level or just in a different way -- perhaps defeatist thoughts like "Well, it will never be perfect anyway, so I can take a day off," pop into your head now and then and let you off the hook.
However it manifests for you, avoidance is a poison to our positive habit-building. The mantra that has become my antidote for this poison is simple (not always easy!):
"Baby steps. Do what you can."
Those two little sentences erase the need for today's practice to solve ALL my problems and learn ALL my music to the HIGHEST level. I just have to pick up my horn, take a baby step, and I do what I can today.
2) Lack of Time
I have a long to-do list, just like you. It contains big things, of course, but what really fills it up are the little things -- the every-day things that eat away at little bits of time until the whole day seems to have disappeared. If I don't think about my day ahead of time and prioritize my list, practicing will usually fall to the bottom. And keep in mind, horn is my job!
For me, it's not really a lack of time. It's a matter of prioritizing my time differently. Do I need to watch another episode of the show I'm bingeing? Could I do some of my other work more efficiently? Could I ask for help with some things so they don't take so long? When I ask myself these questions, the answers are always very clear.
When I prioritize my list for each day, I have to include playing my horn in the top five things of the day or it doesn't get done. And then I have to schedule the time -- if I leave the time ambiguous, it's usually 10:00 pm before I think of it again. The best way to "find" time is to plan time. Make a schedule and you'll notice you can magically fit in your practicing!
Like any other good habit, you have to push through the first couple of weeks in order to get in the routine. Once you've done it every day for a while, you won't have to think about it as much to fit it in -- you may even miss it!
3) I Don't Know What to Practice
This is a common one from my students, but it still pops up for me, too. Even though I have TONS of stuff to practice, I don't always know where to begin or how to go about it. It's common to waffle between bored and overwhelmed.
The solution I give my students is the same one I follow: follow a formula that provides structure but can be flexible. Split your practice time into thirds:
First Section -- Warm-Up
Having a solid warm-up and maintenance routine doesn't mean you have to do the same things every single day. But having some continuity from day to day does help us to hear/feel our progress; it can also help us identity any weaknesses we need to focus on that day. I suggest having certain things you are sure to do every day and then have a few things that you rotate each day so you don't get bored and "tune out" during your warm-up.
Second Section -- Work Out
This part of practice can be the the mental and physical heavy-lifting portion -- tackle the new stuff, difficult stuff, stuff you would rather avoid. Set a timer if it helps, but dive in and do it. "Baby steps," is a good motto for this section, too. You don't have to do everything today, but you have to do something.
Third Section -- Refresh and Relax
This is the portion of my practice where I review what I've worked on previously (so I can refresh my memory). I do as much as I need to depending on my playing load that week. And then I cool down, just as I warmed up.
We can all be very creative in the ways we avoid practicing. If we turn even a little bit of that creativity toward making sure we DO practice, we can almost always be successful. Go get it!
Nicholas and I recently vacationed in rural Wisconsin, enjoying the last remnants of winter and welcoming in the first sight, sounds, and smells of spring.
As we were tromping around the muddy woods, I started noticing all the wonderful “yuck” present at this time of year –- the disintegrating slough of last fall’s leaves, slick with snow and mud and sleet; the broken branches covered in moss and mushrooms and bugs; the various animal scat filled with fur and grass, gathering insects…
All of this got me thinking about how frustrated I get with the “crap” I sometimes produce during my artistic endeavors. I take failed attempts and mistakes as a personal affront to my intelligence, talent, effort, and energy. I use them to judge myself harshly and reprimand myself for not working hard enough, long enough, or well enough.
But if I were to take a lesson from nature, I would just let that crap settle to the ground, disintegrate into the greater whole, and use it for its rich worth –- as compost, as food for the next season, as something vital and necessary for growth.
So, as I move into spring I’m going to try to focus on letting the fallen leaves, broken branches, and piles of poo be what they are -– vital, and part of the process.
I wish this for all of you, as well. Happy spring, everyone. Go forth and compost.
Whether you're a beginning, intermediate, or advanced student, private lessons with a supportive, knowledgeable, and motivating instructor are the best way to develop your skills. In a personalized process focused on students' individual needs, I do my best to adapt to your learning style, approach hurdles creatively, and motivate through positive and encouraging experiences.
Private lessons are a wonderful opportunity! They are also a commitment and investment – of your time, energy, and focus. If you are not prepared to prioritize daily practice and regular lessons (I recommend at least 2 lessons per month and encourage weekly lessons to make progress on your goals), then you should reconsider taking private lessons. If you're under 18 years of age, talk with your parents/guardians about how you will schedule time in your daily lives for practice and lessons – the commitment comes from the whole family!
Getting the Most Out of Private Lessons
When you commit to taking private lessons, you want to get the most out of the experience. Here are some tips that might be helpful; I also encourage you to make your own list and share it with me. Planning ahead is a crucial part of squeezing every last ounce of goodness out of your lessons!
1. Come to your lesson with an open mind.
Your teacher might ask you to try new things – posture, hand position, fingerings, singing, who knows!? Do your best to “go with it” and see what you learn. Some things might work and some might not, but being willing to try everything keeps you open to new information.
2. Bring a lesson notebook to your lesson.
A lesson notebook is a place to write down your practice assignments, information that you and your teacher discuss during lessons, and helpful reminders for your upcoming week of practice.
3. Use your lesson notebook when you practice at home!
Sometimes I can tell students haven't looked at their lesson assignments or the things we discussed since their last lesson. That probably means that if they practiced they didn't practice the things we talked about but instead played things they just like playing. Playing what you enjoy always has a place in your practice session, but practice is also about progress. Look carefully through your assignment and the information your teacher provided each time you practice. The lesson notebook is also a great place to note your questions, frustrations, successes, etc. from your practice sessions.
4. Plan your practice time.
Daily practice is incredibly important for brass players – the small muscles of our embouchure lose strength every day we don't use them. It's okay to take a day off each week, but shoot for 5-6 days a week. Don't just say you'll practice – decide when that time will be and then make it a priority. If you can, practice at the same time every day so it becomes part of your daily routine. Ask your parents/guardians, siblings, and friends to help you keep that time set aside for practicing. If you know you can't practice for 30 minutes, try for at least 10 – it's surprising how often 10 minutes can turn into 25. And remember, something is better than nothing.
5. Have a designated practice space.
Depending on your home and family situation, this can be tricky. There might not be an obvious place where you can practice without disruption or distraction. But do your best to find a place where you can be alone, where it's quiet and calm, and where you can have a strong chair (don't sit on your bed!), a music stand, and place to empty your water. Let those around you know that you're going to practice and ask them not to disrupt you.
6. Maintain your instrument.
Nothing is more frustrating that a horn that's not working. If the valves stick or click or you can't get the slides out to empty water, it's sure not much fun practicing. So, keep your horn in good condition – oil and grease the appropriate equipment, if something breaks get it fixed by a professional, and make sure it's professionally cleaned at least once a year. If you have a school horn, talk to your band director about any maintenance or repair issues – don't give up until it's fixed!
7. Reward yourself.
Make your practice plan, track your practice on a plan/guide worksheet or in your lesson notebook, and at the end of the week allow yourself a small reward if you practiced 6 days. Sometimes that external enticement can help you get through the days when you feel like you “just can't.”
8. Ask questions!
Your lesson teacher is an expert. Now is your chance to ask all the questions you can think of about playing your horn, taking care of it, reading music, learning rhythms, etc. Ask, ask, ask! And then listen, listen, listen!
1. Commit to helping.
You don't have to know anything about music, playing an instrument, or practicing. You can help your student by talking with them about how to structure their time, asking them about how they practice and what they do, and assisting them in designating a space in your home that's conducive to focused practice. Of course, you will most likely also have to commit to driving them to lessons, carrying the horn occasionally, and purchasing music. Staying involved in these ways shows your student that you care, that you prioritize their horn-playing, and that you want them to succeed.
2. Show interest.
Again, you don't have to know anything about music or horn playing to do this. Just ask your student what they've learned. Letting them teach you is a great opportunity to show you care, but it's also a great opportunity for them to assimilate knowledge – when sharing it with you they have to articulate what they've learned in new ways.
3. Sit in on lessons – and pay attention.
This is something that's a little different for every family – some students don't want parents/guardians in on the lesson because they feel self-conscious; some parents/guardians don't want to be in on the lesson because they can use that time to do things that wouldn't otherwise get done. However, if it's a good fit for all of you, consider sitting in, even if it's only once a month. It's my recommendation to try not to interject during the lesson unless directly engaged in conversation by the teacher/student; just observe and soak in what your student is doing, asking, trying, etc. Not only will you probably learn new things about music or horn-playing, but you'll also get to see your student in a new light and appreciate all that they are navigating during lessons.
4. Stay positive.
There will definitely be times that your student gets frustrated, wants to quit, doesn't want to practice, doesn't want to go to their lesson, or even throws a tantrum. Take a deep breath and know that every... single... parent/guardian has experienced this with a student learning to do something new. Try to stay positive and encourage your student to keep trying – perhaps after a break! – and work through their frustration by approaching practice sessions as information-gathering experiences rather than performances. If you're also learning to do something new, “practice” your new skill while they practice their horn – then talk about how things went during your practice session. Demonstrate positive ways of dealing with things that didn't go “right” or were frustrating for you. Students will begin to understand that learning is a life-long process and that boredom or anger or laziness is always a part of that process and that it can be worked through.
5. Ask, ask, ask!
If you have questions or concerns about your student's music study, instrument, equipment, or anything horn related, use your private lesson teacher as a resource. You can also ask your student's band/orchestra director, other private lesson teachers, college/university professors, music stores, etc. You don't have to guess when it comes to choosing an instrument or finding music or helping your student maintain their horn – just ask! Everyone is willing to help.
I spent a week teaching at Shell Lake Arts Center this July – my second summer doing so – for the Concert Band Camp week, during which middle and high school aged students come to learn, make music, and do “camp” stuff (swimming, eating ice cream, complaining about the terrible food, etc.).
I remember thinking last year that this camp was a really magical place. I spent the week teaching 11 young horn players more about horn-playing. I went home from that week impressed with the students, but personally unsettled – I didn't feel I'd done a very good job of communicating with my students, I felt distanced from my subject matter, I'd avoided connecting with my fellow teachers and staff on some level, and I stayed relatively safe in my horn-teaching room/bubble/shell.
Something hadn't quite clicked for me.
This summer, I decided to go into the week with different outcomes in mind – I wanted to be genuinely myself (not the “teacher” me or the “horn performer” me, but just me) as often as possible, I wanted to get to know more of the students (rather than just the horns), and I wanted to be open to possibilities.
What a difference.
And not just for me. But for those around me.
I know this because during my week at Shell Lake this summer, I taught not only horn masterclasses, sectionals, and lessons, but also theory and an elective I titled “Positive Performance” that dealt with stage fright, performance anxiety, and nerves. During my teaching, I was honest, vulnerable, and as genuine as possible with the students. I didn't claim to have all the answers or put up my usual professional front. I let them ask any question and I always answered it honestly, no matter what – no matter how uncomfortable. When I was frustrated, I said so. When I was feeling goofy, I was goofy. When I didn't know an answer, I said, “I don't know. Let's find out.”
The first day of the Positive Performance class, everyone introduced themselves in a big circle (more than 30 students). When I asked how many of them got nervous just having to say their name in front of everyone, almost all of them raised their hands; I did, too. The girl sitting next to me raised her hand and asked me, “Are you nervous right now? Because your hand is shaking.” And I answered honestly, “You bet I am. You're all looking at me and expecting answers and information. But I'm fumbling around just like all of you, trying to figure out how to be happy.”
The whole room changed. Everyone in that room peeked their head out of their shell.
My openness encouraged theirs. My honesty gave them courage to be honest. My vulnerability told them this was a safe space for them to be vulnerable.
I know that because all of a sudden, I had many (MANY!) students coming to talk to me in between classes and rehearsals about their anxieties, doubts, confusion, and even self-hatred. I had students write me notes, letters, and emails thanking me for giving them a place to be imperfect and ask questions. Some came into my teaching room, cried, didn't talk much, hugged me when I gave them Kleenex, and then left quietly.
Their openness encouraged mine. Their honesty gave me courage to keep being honest. Their vulnerability let me know that having a safe space is crucial for all of us.
All of these students, in different words, said the same thing to me:
Everyone else knows what they're doing, but I don't.
Imagine if we all felt safe enough to admit this to everyone around us. Imagine if we could open ourselves to friends and strangers alike and articulate our true feelings. Imagine if we didn't put on our masks, retreat into our shells, and mute our voices.
Imagine if we all admitted to each other that none of us knows what we're doing; we are all just fumbling around trying to figure out how to be happy.
Imagine how freeing that would be. Think of the possibilities! We could ask each other questions without worrying about being judged for being stupid, we could ask for help and support when we're feeling nervous or scared without feeling weak, and we could be more empathetic and forgiving of others knowing that they are feeling just like us – alone.
Because, ultimately, we are all alone. We exist inside our internal space, living a rich, complex, and confusing internal life that no one else gets to experience.
We all walk around believing that those around us are constantly judging us – we believe this because we are judging ourselves. What is our belief except a projection of our internal self onto the external world? If we judge ourselves then we believe the world operates in that same way – being critical of our flaws, doubting our abilities, assuming rejection instead of acceptance, and trying to take up as little space as possible so as not to be noticed.
Ultimately, we live life alone – only with ourselves, inside our internal space.
Imagine if we made that space an open, honest, accepting, safe, empathetic, and forgiving space.
Imagine if we created our own safe space, all the time.
How would you connect your internal self with the external world?
Getting ready for a performance or audition can be a daunting process. It's easy to feel overwhelmed by everything you need to prepare, and end up procrastinating instead of being productive.
Here are some tips I have created and collected over the years. While I still struggle with performing in some ways, this process has helped me feel confident even when I'm nervous.
1. Know the requirements.
Make sure you do your research. Know the audience/organization for which you are auditioning. What do you need to play, how long does it need to be, will you play alone or with an accompanist, where will the audition/performance take place?
2. Allow plenty of time.
When possible, give yourself months to prepare. Auditioning and performing at your highest level takes preparation, time to get to know the material, and mental practice. If you don't have a lot of time to prepare then, if possible, choose music with which you're already comfortable.
3. Plan your practice.
Approach your practice with a plan – don't just sit down and play every day (though daily playing is great!). Go into each practice session with a goal – it can be small or large, but be sure you know exactly what you want to accomplish. Make every practice session count.
4. Divide and conquer.
It's not enough to sit down each day and play through everything – that can often feel overwhelming and stressful. As you're planning your practice, be sure to take things in chunks. Tackle one scale or two measure of a solo or the exact articulation of a phrase.
5. Slow and steady.
I think this one might be the hardest! Slowing down when you practice takes great concentration and restraint. But a little slow work on a particular passage can turn 30 minutes of practice turn into 3 minutes of practice. Slowing down and setting a metronome tells you a lot about which parts needs more focus. Slow work means more efficient work – and that means you get more done with each practice.
6. Tackle the tough spots.
It's easy for everyone (yes, including me) to only want to play what we like, what is easy for us, and what is most enjoyable. But practice is different than playing. Practice means working on the things that aren't easy, that aren't going well, and that are challenging. That means that we might not always sound our best during practice – and that's the point! If you sound great while you're practicing every day then you're probably not practicing the right things. Tackle the things that are difficult for you, that don't come easily, and that cause you discomfort. Because practice will make them easier – and then what first intimidated you will become your friend!
7. Play it for people.
It's important to practice being nervous as well as practicing your music. So, before your audition or performance, plan to play for friends, family, peers, etc. Ask them to give you feedback. Take regular lessons so your teacher can help you achieve your goals.
8. Record yourself.
Sometimes the best feedback is the completely objective recording – it allows you to hear exactly what you sound like and then make a plan for working on what still needs work.
9. Play everything twice.
As you're nearing the time of the actual performance/audition, practice playing your whole audition/performance twice straight through -- if you can, then you probably have the endurance and stamina to make it through your audition/performance even with nerves. When we get nervous, our muscles and mind don't work the same way as when we're relaxed – so if you can play everything twice through and not be tired, then you're well on our way to being prepared enough to play while being nervous.
Imagine what it will be like to walk in to the performing space, sit down, put your music on the stand, feel nervous, and then take a deep breath and play. Practicing that mentally makes a big difference! If you mentally practice as much as you physically practice, you'll be ready to face your audition/performance with confidence. Always breathe deeply and with a relaxed belly as you visualize (and as you walk into a performance situation) – this keeps your heart rate down and lets you feel more relaxed. Believe in the reality of positive thinking!
Now for the actual DOING of it! Moving from the preparation stage to the performance/audition stage is an important mental practice.
1. Preparation, preparation, preparation.
Nothing gives you more confidence going into an audition or performance than being as prepared as possible. Listen to recordings of the music, plan your practice, play for others, and know your music backwards and forwards – then you'll feel completely ready!
2. Know that everyone listening wants you to do well.
Sometimes we imagine that the people listening want us to fail. But have you ever hoped that the people you've heard performing will fail? I doubt it! When you listen to music, you want to hear the best; you want to love it. It's the same when you audition or perform – everyone listening to you wants you to do your best, sound great, and be confident. So use their positive thoughts and energy to your advantage!
3. Positive thinking.
It may seem cheesy or New Age-y, but going into a performance situation with positive thoughts can make a real difference. Say to yourself things like, “I am prepared. I will do well. I love this music. I want to share what I've learned with those who are listening. I know I can play with my best sound. I'm excited to meet this opportunity!”
4. Never feel rushed.
Usually, during auditions and even during performance, things are behind schedule and everyone around you is rushing around, pushing you to hurry up. But you ALWAYS have time to breathe, close your eyes, visualize your performance, and walk slowly. Don't let other people's stress affect your attitude – take your time, take deep breaths, empty the water from your horn, and go into your playing with a calm mind.
5. Smile, stand tall, and acknowledge your audience, judges, and accompanist.
The smile isn't as much for other people as it is for you – putting a smile on your face allows you to feel confident, strong, and positive. The muscles in your face can actually trigger all those "happy" chemicals in your brain to start pumping (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins). Standing tall allows you to breathe deeply and calmly. Acknowledging your audience/judges with eye contact and/or a bow allows you to bring them into your circle, into your support system – they're on your team! Acknowledging your accompanist allows you to feel a partnership with them – you're not alone; you have a support system in your accompanist.
Take a tuning note, even if you know you're already in tune. It allows you to play a note (and find your first pitch) before you start your audition/performance, get a feel for you breath, and hear the acoustic space you're in for your performance. Take your time! Use good air! Love your tone!
7. Think through your piece.
Even if you only have a short amount of time, think through the details of your audition/performance materials so that you carry your preparation into your performance. Mental preparation is as important as physical preparation.
8. Do your best.
No one's audition/performance is perfect. You will never do everything as well as you want to. But you CAN do your best and then let it go. Focus your energy and attention on as many of the details as you can, keeping in mind your preparation – and then be content with a job well done. You will make mistakes -- but if you can let them go and focus on what comes next, you will still show your best playing.
No matter what happens during your audition/performance, you deserve congratulations for going through the preparation and process. Whether or not you did your best, you did good work! That's always worth recognizing. You learned from your experience – how it feels to prepare, how it feels to be nervous, how it feels to play for complete strangers. That's important!
10. Learn from your experience.
Now that you've auditioned/performed, you have more information about how to prepare for next time. What made you feel the most nervous? What excited you the most? What caused you the most stress? All of that information allows you to prepare even more for the next time around. Every experience is a LEARNING experience. Perfection is NOT possible – but progress is ALWAYS possible.
All horn players miss notes. All horn players worry about being good enough; we worry about being perfect. You are not alone. You have a whole community of horn players who have struggled the way you have struggled, worried about what worries you, and strived for what you want to achieve. You are NOT alone.
I recently had the great honor of co-presenting a session at the Minnesota Music Educator's Association Midwinter Clinic with three talented and dedicated educators -- Dr. Paul Budde, Megan Ivers-Palmer, and Dr. Robert Ouren. Our session was focused on how to help beginning brass players get a good start on their instrument and stay motivated to keep playing.
Whether you are a band director or a parent of a young brass player, the information from the session might be helpful to you. You can access the full handout at MMEA's website - just click here.
For horn-specific documents, click on the documents below.
I haven't written a blog post in a while. It's totally because I'm procrastinating - something, I think, to which everyone can relate. Part of it is because I find other ways to spend my time - practicing, listening to music, eating, walking, sleeping, chatting with friends, etc. But part of it is definitely fear of putting words out into the internet where they can be read by anyone and shared. That's more than a little intimidating. I know a lot of people who are much better writers than I am, are more knowledgable about the horn and teaching, have more experience than I do, have more degrees, titles, and credentials than I have.
So, it's easy for me to put off writing my thoughts. What if I'm judged? What if what I say is stupid, silly, or wrong? What if I embarrass myself? What if I'm not enough?
Those are the same fears that I carry in my heart and head when I perform. (You, too? Maybe not, maybe so....)
So, how do we cope with those fears? How do we move past our terror of being judged and found wanting? How do we present ourselves to the world without wearing a mask or putting on armor?
These are hard questions, but important ones (especially for artists). They affect everything in our daily lives -- not just playing our instruments, performing, speaking in meetings, or meeting with clients. How we perceive ourselves, present ourselves, and praise (or criticize) ourselves makes all the difference in our day to day existence and work.
We exist in an increasingly aware (I would say hyper-aware) society -- one that's visible to everyone through social media, instant news coverage, FaceTime/Skype, texting, etc. All of these ways to connect can be great, but they can also be overwhelming. We are constantly bombarded with images and information, most of it telling us (in both overt and covert ways) that we are not _______ enough. Fill in the blank with your own insecurities. **
I'm not thin enough.
I'm not intelligent enough.
I'm not talented enough.
I'm not confident enough.
I'm not GOOD enough.
I would guess that all of us can fill in those blanks with many fears and insecurities.**
Here's what I take away from this feeling, though... what gives me the courage to teach, perform, talk, write, and leave my house:
We ALL have fears. We ALL try to hide them. And that connects all of us, all the time.
If we can tap into that commonality, we can connect with each other. And when we connect, the fears lose their hold over us - they lose their power and begin to leave us because we no longer need to hide them and be ashamed of them. We can finally admit them, bring them out into the light, and show each other. Our fears are much smaller in the light than they are in the dark.
By being vulnerable, we become stronger - but we can only do it together. I think that's why the arts are so important to our humanity. They allow us to be vulnerable through creative outlets that keep us connected -- writing, dance, visual art, music, spoken word.
So, as you create don't try to eliminate vulnerability. Show it through your art. Because then your art will be genuine -- then it will truly connect with those around you. And when you do that, your vulnerability becomes your strength rather than your weakness.
**For more reading on this idea, I highly recommend Brene Brown's Daring Greatly.
The fabulous Michael Gast, who plays Principal Horn with the Minnesota Orchestra, once told me in a lesson, “You're playing your horn with a question mark. You have to play with an exclamation point!”
I repeat this advice often. I find that many of us – not just horn players but all musicians – practice and perform carefully. We do this because we want to practice and perform well. And that's a good impulse.
But that impulse can manifest itself in very bad ways – holding back on our air, trying to play quietly until we feel something is “good enough,” avoiding situations or music that might make us sound “bad,” sidestepping challenges, even moving our posture so the bell faces into our body so we can hear ourselves but others can't. It's amazing the ways – giant and subtle – that we try to “hide” while we're striving for perfection.
Here's the problem with it: we never reach perfection.
So we always have to hide.
I consider myself a recovering perfectionist – I say that with all seriousness. I consider perfectionism a disease – like a disease, it robs us of our health (mental and physical). And like a disease, it needs to be treated – and the earlier, the better.
The treatment is letting go of getting it the first and every time; letting go of the idea of waiting until it's perfect. Let yourself just play – improvement only comes as you try and fail.
This is the heart of Michael Gast's advice – stop playing like you're asking for permission, and start playing knowing you have permission. You have permission to make mistakes, sound bad, experiment with new ideas and sounds, and question information. You have permission to play louder, use more air, try that challenging piece of music, take that audition, and go for that high note. If you screw up, that's okay – because making mistakes gives you information.
If you're going to miss something, miss it by being brave, going for it, and attempting to make the best music you can. You will usually surprise yourself and get it. Because when we let go of perfection and give ourselves permission to try, we use our AIR well, we correct our posture, we adjust our embouchure as we need to, and we learn. Above all, we learn.
That's when things start getting fun.
So, take a deep breath, pick up your horn, and play as an exclamation point!
One of the most common things I hear from students when they walk into my studio is, “I'm so frustrated with [fill in the blank]!” Something has arisen in their practicing or performing that is hard for them to solve on their own, either because they've tried to fix it and their attempts aren't working or because they have no idea how to begin tackling the issue.
Sometimes I can give them a different way to look at the problem or offer some technical tweaks to assist in solving their concern, and we sail past it and move on. But sometimes – if the problem continues to persist and frustration continues to build – what I have found during my years of teaching and my own practice is that the best way to tackle a problem can be... STOP tackling it.
Take a break. If you've been fixating on something (ex: tonguing in the high range, a particular scale, a difficult solo passage) and it's not improving, taking a break from it can sometimes be the key. Try focusing on the opposite of whatever your “problem” is for a while. For example, if I'm struggling with tonguing a tricky and fast passage I instead turn my focus to my air and tone quality by doing slurred exercises and slowing down. If I struggle with a high, slow passage, I practice quick-tongued low work.
I believe this works because when we are overly focused on one thing we tend to forget our basics – air movement, tone quality, embouchure strength, breathing well. We also tend to forget about the things we already do well – the current frustration may color everything else and we can begin to lose confidence in other areas of our playing. Revisiting our basics and acknowledging what we can do well draws our attention back to the strengths we have in our arsenal to tackle the existing problem. After leaving it alone for a while, when revisiting the “problem” you might find that it has solved itself.
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