How Friends Inform Music (July 1, 2017)

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So this was something I started thinking about a while ago and hit home rather recently after meeting up with and talking to some really close friends for the first time in a few months…how do our friends inform our music?  As musicians and music teachers we often get spoiled, our friends and our peers are built in to our work.  We see the same coworkers and fellow musicians day in and day out and we develop friendships with them, so when we get home at the end of the day, introvert, extrovert, or ambivert…we don’t tend to feel particularly lonely.

What happens when we get out of the microcosm that is school or an ensemble, though?  What happens when, all of a sudden we aren’t around “our people,” anymore?  It’s a massive change and not necessarily an easy one.  While it’s obviously possible (and I believe necessary) to have non-musical friends, they tend to be the people we develop the closest relationships with and when they aren’t two feet away from us in rehearsal anymore we get lonely for these specific individuals.

So what does that mean for our music and our performance?  I can only share my personal experiences, but, like I’ve said, I hope they help you.  We all have specific close bonds to people, frequently ones who live half way across the country…or the world.  We some times get lonely for these specific individuals, but is that a bad thing?

I read a quote from a runner once who stated that her motivation to get up and run every morning was to dedicate her runs to the people she cared about.  One run would be dedicated to her mom, one to her dad, one to her brother, etc.  It gave her the motivation and the drive to get through a twenty mile training run.

Missing the specific people with whom we are particularly close, can actually be really positive for that and less selfish reasons.  Sometimes that longing needs a medium to come out and music can be that perfect expression.  In a way, that sort of motivation is one of the sweetest dedications we can give to someone we love.  Like, “HEY! This is a part of my heart and soul and I’m playing for you today, ya’ big weirdo!”

The real fire of this idea of dedicating a practice session to someone you love often comes, I think, from when we get to see and talk to our good friends.  You probably all know the saying: “sometimes all the therapy you need is coffee with your best friend.”  Sometimes all the inspiration you need is a long talk with your best friends.  That can spur and inspire you to take a renewed interest in your art form.

That’s not to say we all languish away without these important people, but they definitely help motivate and inspire us, if only because we know, no matter how many heartbreaks we suffer, how many auditions we lose, and how many times we fall flat on our faces, they will support us and they will be our loudest cheering section when we succeed and reach our goals.  Of course we want to make these people proud (though, we don’t have to, they’re typically there without us needing to do anything), we love them and they love us, so we work and sometimes we put our friendships into our music.  Sometimes, that sort of love is what makes what we do worth it.

Long Time, No Talk (6/24/2017)

Two years is rather a long time to say nothing, that’s true.  Somehow, life seems to get away from us all at times and priorities change.  This can be a really positive part of life, though.  When our priorities change, it gives us a chance to grow and, sometimes, helps us discover who we truly are.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be who I was two years ago.  Who I was then was the perfect person for 2015, but it’s not who I should be now.

The same idea holds true in music.  When it comes to music, if we hold ourselves to the same standards we did when we were younger, we will never grow in any respect.  If we never grew musically, but grew as people, imagine how difficult it would be to portray our ideas in performance.  Oh…I want to portray what a huge fight feels like here, or maybe what falling in love feels like.  Perhaps you want to express the agony that can come with not getting something you really want (because musicians know nothing of that…).  If we stay where we are now, we never get the chance to express or experience these ideas and emotions, which makes it that much harder for us to connect and change our audiences.

Now, don’t go jump off a bridge to experience what a free fall feels like, but…if it’s always been something you’ve shied away from, maybe go on a steep roller coaster; it gets you to a similar point.  What do you think?  Have you noticed a big difference in yourself since the last time I wrote you all?  Has it made a difference in your musicianship or your life in general?

Look for about three posts a week (I hope…) With any luck, one on how fitness affects music, one on something strictly music, and one general one, how life in general affects music.

August 1, 2015: Responsibility? Camaraderie?

Today was the last rehearsal of the summer season for the orchestra I’ve been playing in.  I always love these rehearsals, no matter how frustrating they can get, there’s always something fun about them.  This season had its share of frustrations from pitch issues, but that has caused a fair number of good things, too.

Pitch is always a sensitive issue among musicians, so when it comes up as a problem, in earnest, dealing with it is always a learning experience.  As learning experiences go, however, it is among the most useful.  Through my personal attempts to ensure our section had good intonation this season I’ve grown to understand a great deal about my own playing, but this learning curve of pitch tendencies took me on some other tangents of equal import.

Had you asked me my freshman year of college about pitch issues I would have been quick to blame another, but I’ve since learned that, in music, as in life, we must all take responsibility for our actions.  Perhaps I’m not the soul source of our problems, but perhaps I am.  Regardless, I am responsible for making my principal sound good to the best of my ability and, therefore, I must do everything I can to ensure she does.

This is why I never understand animosity in or between sections.  It doesn’t matter if you’re concert master or last chair viola (sorry!), how you play affects the entire orchestra.  Our job is to sound like one cohesive unit and, if one person flounders, our section and our ensembles go bust.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t constantly strive to improve.  Heaven knows, I walk into every audition craving the principal’s seat, but once results are posted I take to my job and support my section, whether I’m principal or third chair, second flute.  Regardless of my placement, there are things I can learn and a role for which I am responsible.  It seems to make sense, after all, especially while we’re in school, we’re there to learn and, from my experience, the musical world is too small to make enemies!  Besides, why would you want to when there are so many fantastic people in our corner of the world?

Responsibility, camaraderie, and aiming high; they seem appropriate to think about, particularly because seating auditions for school are quickly approaching.  Best of luck in the preparation.  Aim high, but be happy and responsible for whatever life throws your way!

Also…Nielsen 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87AQsWeUjCc

July 31, 2015: Timing is Everything

Ladies and gentlemen, I am back…finally!  So, what is my topic for my first post back?  Timing!  It’s funny, last night I went to A Little Nightmare Music concert.  Musical comedy…it’s all about timing.  In a funny turn of events some of my friends and I had perfect timing last night, too, but perfect timing one night, one run-through, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the next day.

How do we emulate good, great, or perfect timing on a repeatedly?  I don’t mean rhythmic timing, I mean musical timing, the timing that makes a performance greatmemorable. I believe the real trick to learning musical timing comes from not only watching, but listening to actors, dancers, and vocalists speak on the subject.

Actors, dancers, vocalstis/singers, they all think slightly differently than instrumentalists, typically.  They think about how they use their bodies in a different manner.  The physicality of what they do in addition to the theatrics of their craft are applied differently than traditional instrumentalists apply these aspects to music.  Each discipline approaches the idea a little differently.

Keep in mind, this is only my perspective on the subject and my understanding of the arts is that all are designed to examine and attempt to understand the human condition whether it is love, fear, anxiety, beauty, or ugliness. (Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht is pretty much the perfect example of all of these: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-pVz2LTakM).  Acting, in some respects, has the easiest time representing each of these because the actors, like singers, are tied to text, vocal inflection, and phsyical expression.  Therefore, both actors and vocalists can use both elements to help there timing.  Still, a good actor or vocalist can convey their meaning, and therefore their timing, without the physical, through the emotion and the dynamic fluctuation in their voice.  It helps, of course, when the play-write, author, or lyricist provides text that jumps from the page without an intermediary, but a great interpreter can make a phone book interesting.

Part of this comes not from the physicality of the artist, but from awareness of their surroundings.  One of my favorite parts of Dancing With the Stars was the finale episode when Meryl Davis and Charlie White danced together off ice.  If you watch carefully, near the end, Charlie nearly falls out of a turn when he has Meryl aloft.  She’s paying attention and you can tell; she unknowingly compensates for his loss of balance and they finish their performance beautifully. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=au4G6sUnjQM  Akin to this, a great actor or comedian can react to an audience or fellow cast-mate immediately, if they need to start improvising.  This is one of the reasons, I believe, classical musicians are pushing their students to practice improvisation on a regular basis this days.

So, what can instrumentalists take away from all of this?  My impression is: that being able to react to an emotional cue is the key.  Being able to convey what you feel to the audiniece is critical and knowing the piece well enough to adapt it to how you feel on a given night is crucial, but beyond that, we must learn to adapt to audience cues.  We can use trigger words for ourselves to get a general idea of what we believe a piece is trying to convey, but it’s the back-and-forth between soloist-orchestra-and audience that truly makes a performance.  We must be confindent enough in our technique and musicality to do this, but also confident enough in ourselves to bear our souls to people we don’t know.  It’s hard and it’s scary, but the pay off is, ultimately, worth it.  It takes practice (and courage), as you can see in any of the great performers, but at the right time, it will happen, because remember: timing is everything.

June 25, 2014: What does taking a day to yourself really mean?

It’s a valid question, I think.  Does it mean taking a day and doing just the things you want to do?  For me that would mean: waking up at a moderate time (8:00 or 9:00am), running, practicing, going out to lunch, goofing around, writing my blog, and/or practicing more, dinner at home.  I think it could mean that.  I think those sorts of “personal days,” if you will, are over used and can actually become really boring if we do them to much because they’re no longer special.  Can a “personal day” mean a day that isn’t necessarily what you planned, isn’t necessarily what you might usually consider “fun,” but has some special something to it?  I think definitely.

So what triggered this topic?  Well, usually I would have my lessons on Wednesday’s, but this week is the odd-ball out and I don’t.  So, after getting to bed at an absurdly late hour last night (late rehearsals do that to me) I didn’t get myself out of bed until 11:00am, by which I mean that’s when I opened my eyes, it took me another hour or so to actually remove myself from the cozy blankets!  By that point Mom had already dumped laundry at the foot of the bed, so I figured: eh, I’m sitting here, might as well fold.  10 minutes later laundry was folded and I got myself downstairs.

At which point I convinced my mom to make coffee.  It’s not something we usually do, but I had tried a new brand of coffee at rehearsal last Saturday and loved it, so Mom had bought some at the store.  It was a project to figure out how to do it, but it was a snugly warm project.  (I dunno how to describe it.  It’s like when you’re a little kid and the most everyday activities seem cool and exciting and wonderful and special, so you tuck them away and when you’re older those activities don’t seem so bad.)  Crashing through the kitchen trying to find a coffee maker was one of those moments and it was special and it’s funny that it happened now, even though I am decidedly no longer a “child,” well, at least not in age! 😉

While coffee was brewing and making everything smell amazing I decided we should make limeade.  We did, which was a project, squeezing all the limes, but it was really fun.  Plus, it also added to the amazing smells!  Unfortunately, we made a lot of dishes dirty, but here’s the thing, even though we did, and I started on them right after lunch, it didn’t seem so bad.  Somehow, all the dirty dishes weren’t such a big issue today because they paired with great memories! 🙂  So, I haven’t practiced yet today and I head to Zumba in about an hour and a half, but the best part is: even though there isn’t a ton of time for me to practice before I go, I can’t wait to get to it.

I may only hit tone and articulation exercises.  It’s possible they may not be the best one’s I’ve ever played, but that’s okay!  It’s been such a fantastic day, that it’s the excitement to practice, the refreshment with which I’m approaching this, albeit short, practice session that’s important.  And I think that that’s half the battle, especially when taking a “personal day,” whether it’s planned or accidental.  Whatever you do, you need to be ready to come back to that thing you’re taking a break from not just ready to tackle it, but excited to tackle it and maybe not tackle it, but engage with it.  If I’d followed my “what I want to do” personal day plan I wouldn’t be as excited to go play, but it was one of those spontaneous days that just happened and now, I can’t wait! 😀  Writing, practicing, running, any of it, I think you have to approach it with this mentality.

That being said, I should stop writing and go play music before it’s time for me to go dance! 😀

June 24th, 2014: What’s the best way to practice?

Okay, well, I’m starting this a little off topic by saying the following: I’m posting now because yesterday I had a splitting headache all day (despite being productive) and because I have a late rehearsal tonight!  So, today I’m “rambling” about practicing and wondering what the best way of doing it is.  I’ve read a couple articles that say interleaved practice is better than blocked practice, so I tried it and noticed results! (Curious about what it means?  Here’s the article: Interleaved Vs. Blocked Practice (The Bullet Proof Musician)  My articulation is faster my tone responds more easily when I need it to, I love it!  Of course there’s also the article Dr. Kageyama has on mindless and deliberate practice, which, let’s face it, we’re all probably guilty of at some point.  That’s not so much my point though.

I know that an adult human has a maximum attention span of 20 minutes under the best conditions, so I block my practice time together as such.  Ex: Tone/Articulation (20 min.), Etude (20 min.), Tone/Articulation (20 min.), Gordelli (20 min.), Piccolo (20 min.), etc.  That being said, when I practice the way I ideally want to, 20 minutes on one section, take 5 minutes, do a different task (cleaning, writing, doing dishes, etc.) for 20 minutes, take a 5 minute break, practice for 20 minutes, I never get to everything.  Let’s also add into the equation that if I want to interleave my practice on pieces I have to be incredibly methodical in how I do it and that I usually wind up practicing scales and some large articulation exercises in one big 30 minute clump.  So, often what happens is I set aside a block of 3-4 hours and practice the entire time, setting my timer for 20 minutes, playing that whole time, then taking a 1-2 minute stretch break (at most) and coming right back.

I understand the question of quality over quantity, but what’s the ideal balance?  Having an hour of good practice time interwoven with other activities or having a couple hours of strong work, but knowing that, even though you’re trying your hardest, some of the practice is getting wasted?  What works for you?  What worked for you in the past?  How do you balance practicing and a busy schedule?  Comments are, as always welcomed and encouraged! 😀

P.S. Out of running for another week or so until I figure out the deal with my feet and shoes, ugh!

June 22, 2014: It isn’t easy…being green? No…

So last night I got some critiquing on my blog post (from Mom) which I appreciate.  She told me that it wasn’t her favorite or, she thought, my best.  I kind of agree, but it got me thinking that it isn’t always easy figuring out what and how to write.  I want to get in as much writing as I can as often as I can, but it isn’t always easy, sometimes coming up with a topic (beyond: today I did A, then B, then C) can be nearly impossible!  But I appreciate the criticism or feedback or whatever it is you want to call it.  It helps!

Finding a topic can be hard, but if you want to grab readers it’s also necessary.  I’ve always struggled with rambling whether I’m writing for pleasure or for school, sticking to a topic and making it have a logical progression has never been easy for me.  Heaven knows, when I’m trying to write something new, interesting, and generally with an attempt to be musical, it’s doubly hard!  That being said, I think it’s something we all struggle with when we write.  Limiting ourselves to one topic, especially when there are probably 12 million different things to talk about floating around in our heads can be hard!

Just to give you an idea, for me, at the moment, these are some of the things I have floating around in my head!  First and foremost, tight calves and stiff arches (early plantar fasciitis?  I hope not!).  Yes, despite being a musician above all this is what’s floating around most in my head in an attempt to stay healthy.  Second of all, practice plans, so much music to get through, not nearly enough time.  Next? Allergy, which is (I’m hoping) the reason for me being chronically tired the past week.  Orchestra Rehearsals, practicing piccolo, reading, cleaning, time management, prepping for camp, learning new music as it comes in, so on and so forth.  We all have this constant internal/external list that grows, shifts, and changes with each day.  The challenge is being able to sit down and focus on writing, practicing or whatever else is important at that moment and moving everything else aside.

The next several days that I write my goal will be to focus on one thing, whatever that maybe and have that be what I write about on a given day.  We’ll see how I do with that, but it’s worth a shot.  Certainly, it’s something I ought to be able to manage over the summer…I hope! 🙂