Tuesday, April 29, 2014

One Word Matters

A wonderful break through happened the other day during the lesson of a tenth grade trumpet student!  As a result of just one word, his sound suddenly opened up. The room lit up, and it was easier for him to play! My rants on air, tongue, and coordination were ineffective.  Finally I told him to just BLAT it out!  Voila!

I wonder if the magic word needed for each student could be determined by some questionnaire!  The student answers all the questions and then receives his/her personal word for the week.  No teacher needed!  Sadly, it took me months to figure out that BLAT was what was needed. 

WIND GUSTS was another successful word picture that worked nicely.  But, one word at a time.  No wonder Proverbs speaks of the beauty of a well place word at the precise moment. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Trumpet Lesson with Professor Mahler

Professor: Come on in, you're next!  

Student: Hi, Professor Mahler.

Professor: I hope you're warmed up, because I've got a lot of stuff I am expecting you to play well for me today.

Student: What kind of stuff, Professor Mahler? 

Professor:  Contained in my scores is enough stuff to keep trumpet players at the peak of their game, and audiences coming back for more for a long time to come.  Now, let's take a look at your daily agenda.  Make sure to cover as many of these items as possible every day!

  • soft as possible
  • loud as possible
  • lyric sweetness not expected of trumpet players
  • long fluid chorales in all registers
  • gnarly fanfares, fast and slow, soft and loud
  • sudden rude pokes and jabs
  • the mean and the ugly (the spirit, not the tone)
  • high note diminuendos to nothing
  • the mother of all offstage solos!
  • shocking and unexpected entrances
  • huge leaps in a single bound, soft and loud, fast and slow
  • highest note, lowest note
  • the longest note ever
  • very quiet triplets on a low C sharp
  • offstage screech part
  • transposition always required 
  • complete accuracy always expected

Student: Gee, professor, I'm not sure I am ready to do all of that stuff!  You see, I have many issues and problems that must be solved.  What can you suggest for all of my ailments?  

Professor Mahler:  What I have written is all you will ever need. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Makings of a Great Student, Part 2

Rather than another long and familiar list of the usual must-haves for success, here are some obvious must-not-haves to consider. These are job-killers that quickly cripple growth.

The enemies of success are not a lack of talent or an uninspiring environment. The real inhibitors of success are laziness, stubbornness, lack of taking initiative, and an unwillingness to address weaknesses.  These habits will quickly render one's talent and love of music of no effect.

Confronting weaknesses is a given for the successful. Great students learn to face their vulnerabilities on a daily basis.  Even token attention to difficult issues is better than none.  Regular and wise chipping away on those nasty problems will make them less nasty the next time. A lot of polishing will produce a nice shine. No buffing, no shine!

Part 2 of The Great Student is simple.  Organize a plan for staying with difficult tasks.  Say no to the couch naps.  Endurance isn't only about embouchure strength.  Mental discipline is the greater challenge, for it yields greater results.  A wise strategy beats an untamed talent.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Makings of a Great Student, Part 1

A great student is not necessarily the best player, the most talented, or the most intelligent.  Successful students at any level are able to turn instruction into production quickly. Call it rapid turn around time.  This kind of student "gets it" and does it.  An important mark of a great student is in his or her response to instruction.

A violin professor was somewhat surprised to learn of the success of two of his students whose playing had been less than stellar all during their time in school.  What accounted for their turn around?

He learned that two key components to their improvement was their consistent use of the metronome and the recording of their practice sessions on a daily basis. Rather than wait until the music was totally prepared, they listened to their practice room labors every day and made a habit of turning on the metronome!

Significant progress need not take four years or longer.  Diligent attention to rhythm and listening will drastically improve performance in just a short time!  Really, how much talent is needed to dust off the metronome and click on the recording device? 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Glory and Grit

The road to the stage goes through the trenches.  Because the journey of grunt work never ends, we might as well learn to treasure the grit of preparing as much as the glory of performing.  After all, most of our playing time will be off stage. 

A few thoughts on rethinking the practice session in order to make it a pathway to glory:

  • Don't jump into the trenches without a plan. Organized digging only! No wild flailing permitted. 
  • Don't practice like a student. 
  • Pretend someone important is listening.
  • Don't waste your notes. You have precious few.
  • Dig slowly and carefully on the hard stuff.
  • Set time limits. Don't dig for hours on end, lest you exhaust brains and chops and get yourself nowhere.
  • Record your sessions. See if there's madness to your method.
  • Consider your practice sessions as snippets of quality playing rather than large chunks of rubble.  
  • Avoid making brainless mistakes. Try to make the trenches your error-free zone.
  • Practice musical risk-taking.  Don't just play it safe.  
  • The more agony in the trenches, the more ecstasy on the stage!  Sweat the practice, not the performance.
  • Practice enjoying the frustrations of your grit and grunt work.  Don't avoid your weaknesses. Let difficulties improve you, and the glory will take care of itself.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Another frenzied practice session?

With so much music to rehearse and so little time, how do you respond? Is it going to be another one of those frenzied, aimless practice sessions? Question: is it better to play a lot sloppy, or a little well?  What's more important for our training, quantity or quality? Which comes first?

Usually when under time pressures, we quickly forsake quality for large quantities of flailing. Ten fabulous notes however, are way better than a thousand notes that no one would ever pay to hear. Wouldn't you prefer even a smidgen of gold to a wheelbarrow of dirt?

Imagine a firefighter shooting water on a burning building.  You wouldn't expect to see him randomly and frantically spraying just anywhere? We would hope he'd be patient, deliberate, and thorough, conserving his resources, and getting the job done quickly.

Or, consider the major league pitcher who can throw 110 mile-an-hour fastballs, yet he beans batters half the time.  Similarly, no one would go to a careless heart surgeon, or pay to watch a tennis pro with a chronic double-fault problem?

Just as the firefighter, the ballplayer, the surgeon, and the tennis pro cannot afford to perform poorly, so too the musician must have a mindset of discipline, quality, and accuracy even in the practice session. It's not pressure or an impossible task.  It's a positive rethinking of our approach. Every notes counts. It should remove nervous stress and make practice more efficient and rewarding.   Replace frenzy with organized music-making. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Escaping the Cubicle!

Picture two very different scenarios.  One is a boring cinder block practice cubicle, the other is a spectacular concert hall.  The next time you sit there in your solitary confinement, visualize an entirely different venue!  No one ever made it to the second without excelling in the first.

One of the problems with practice rooms is the sterile and uninspiring environment. Acoustics are always horrible, your sound evaporates instantly, and nobody is there to listen. (Can there be music in the forest if there is no one there to hear it?)  Maybe you should have a colorful mural painted on your practice room wall just for realistic expectations.  Then add some piped in crowd noise, applause, the tuning A, and the tapping baton?  Next, add some terrifying and inspiring maestro pics, and your practice efficiency could be revitalized enormously. 

Now your are ready to begin your playing session.  Remember, you have no notes to waste, no trial starts, no getting lost, no transposing break downs, no intonation clashes, no rhythmic malfunctions, just pure, enjoyable music-making!

Yes, you must work, but you must also perform. Make getting used to it a fun project.