Being Human

In any occupation some sort of training process is required, either within the organization or through outside education, like school. The method and goals of the training process should be geared toward the human reactions created by the job, whether they be direct or indirect. If we are computer engineers, the goal of the process should be creating and updating systems that benefit people, not just making computers as if they were a part of an assembly line. Similarly, we as musicians often can get lost in the technical aspects of what we play, so much so that we forget the actual musicality behind the notes and our interaction with the audience. You tend to see these types of musicians as they graduate out of their undergraduate, sometimes graduate, degrees, but you also, rarely, see them in the orchestra. It's not just limited to the music industry, but there is always the appearance of a colleague or person who is only in it for the money, power, or any other of the wrong reasons. So, how do we continue to miss or overlook these types of people?

I believe very strongly that the reasons for what we are learning to do are at risk. Think about our current educational system. We've gone from teaching children how to learn to now teaching them how to ace the next exam. Researchers wonder why each generation is getting progressively "dumber" even though our technology, and resources are continually growing and it's partially due to the shift of what education teaches. So for us a musicians, while it is imperative that we develop our technique and skill, maintenance of the human element is crucial and should not be overlooked. Still, it is possible, and has occurred, where a person who is exceptional in their execution and consistency, but lacks the human element (but knows all the right things to do for every situation) gets the job or wins the audition or gets the promotion. Again, I think the process of training and, particularly here, hiring has to be geared to the human element equally as much if not more than the technical ones. It is very encouraging to see the overwhelming majority of auditions maintain this standard, but unfortunately, the rest of the job market has a ways to go.

The most obvious occasions of training/hiring gone wrong are in medicine (as far as drug companies, not individual doctors), politics and policing. With society changing constantly the need for adaptation and open mindfulness is important and the only way we can be sensitive to those changes is to stay in touch with our humanity. The problem is that the systems in place are focused more on the products rather than the recipients and when this happens the product and producer is dehumanized and views people as consumers. Whether it be looking for a vote and just saying what sells without believing it, or upping the price of a drug that you know no one else makes, and is vital to your survival, to viewing citizens as targets or potential threats rather than people needing service, the issues we are having these days demand that we take a closer look at the roots to find the problems.

Being a musician, I want to always see our vocation remain human and continue to find more ways to connect with our audiences and our world as a whole. As a black man, I want to be able to walk to work without fearing to be stopped by an officer for "matching a "description." But as a human being, I want to see our world regain its empathy toward their fellow man. Yes, we have to be good at what we do. In some cases our training is what saves our lives or someone else's. Still, our occupations call us to a life of service, and really our existence does as well. We must remember our duties towards our neighbor, no matter how different they are in appearance, ideals, etc. So, as a musician, we put the needs of the audience's soul over ours on stage, which really helps us anyway. As medical officers and corporations, we put the health of humanity above our own, which really helps us anyway. As police officers and public servants, we put the lives of the citizens over our own, which helps us anyway. We have to remember that whatever we do, human lives are attached to the products, directly or indirectly, and the results have no choice but to reciprocate positively towards the producer. Both are important interactions, but when the direct contact is tainted with inhuman actions and views, the results and products are dangerous. Let's examine our reasons for what we do, our training towards those goals, and our interaction with our fellow man. Hopefully that can be a step in a better world for future generations.

Au-Aww-Awedition

Auditions are not a big deal to me anymore, but they are a huge deal now more than ever. Huh? With all the perceived stress and judgments that are wrongly connected to the act and event of auditioning, it's no wonder why people tend to shy away from or fear it. I started taking performance auditions in elementary school, just for a ranking ranging from good to superior (already a labeling issue), and at first I wouldn't get nervous. But when I started connecting my success with pleasing my teachers or my family, nerves immediately set in. This would only get worse as I got older resulting in paranoia, depression and anxiety attacks. These imposed definitions and characteristics of the AUdition made me see it as an AWdition, regretting and even dreading taking them. Luckily, one of my private teachers, Eric Millstein, took time to talk to me and help me see not only auditions differently, but music performance in general.

The audition is not what you think it is, it's way simpler and way less stressful. The first thing to do is to accept this as truth. The majority of people may believe that it is this huge event, which it "is", and is extremely stressful, which it "is", and even the musical culture currently has these descriptions habitually attached to it. Living and working outside these labels is the first step to liberating yourself from the fears and anxieties of it. It's not easy to do, because it really feels like you're the only person, like you are the odd ball for feeling so calm and almost passive about the entire event. You may feel like, "Why aren't I nervous? Something must be wrong?" or "It can't be that easy." In actuality, there are more people who think that auditions are simple and even easy than you know, and they do win jobs more often than the ones who are gripped by fear. 

Now, why is it simpler and less stressful? As human beings we tend to attach all types of ideas and excuses/reasons with what we do ("I have to cook because I'm hungry"), but the problem arises when we attach a worst case future scenario to our actions ("I have to cook or I'll starve to death"). Often our reasons behind what we do are completely valid, but the danger of assuming or speculating the future or results is what creates the anxiety. Stay in the moment and don't try to predict the future. Yes, we have to prepare heavily for the audition, but that's it! It is not, "I have to play perfectly or I will get cut." Many people play perfect rounds and still get cut, and often people with one or two mistakes get passed along to the second or final round. Even in the final round, some mistakes can be made and they still win! Simplicity wins here. We prepare for an audition so that we are prepared for it. We don't even prepare to win, or to play our best. We prepare so that we are prepared. Nothing more, nothing less. If you rest in the fact that you are prepared, it really takes some of the fear away because you know you came prepared, not, you came to win or you came to impress the judges. Yes, we all want to win, but if we prepare with that mentality we risk clouding and missing certain things. 

The first professional audition I advanced in, I felt extremely prepared for and I went in so confident to the point that I stopped caring about whether or not I would hit a right or wrong note. I just played and even did things I hadn't practiced, but felt in the moment. Sadly, the one excerpt that I did not do this, in my first round, was the one where I felt the need to do a bunch of impressive things to get through the round. Because of this, some musical ideas that I imported sounded outside the character of the piece, even though I thought they sounded impressive. They asked the same excerpt in the second round and it was because of this that I was cut. Honestly, you cannot know what is impressive to anyone, so why even try to do it? It's when we aren't trying that it happens, it's when we play the music so truthfully that the panel hears the orchestra behind you that they are in awe. 

Auditions are a major event, yes, and you cannot take it lightly or haphazardly. Auditions can be stressful, yes, because there's a lot of material to learn and often money, potential or otherwise, attached to it. The hard thing for us to do is to ignore all of the unnecessary chatter and noise that these potentials and reasons can create within and around us. Negativity (caused by realistic logic or unrealistic speculation) of any kind will cloud not only your actual audition, but the process leading up to it. There have been some smaller auditions where I had prepared and played extremely well, made it to the finals, and could literally feel the negative energy coming from behind the screen. There have also been some where the job had so much negative opinions or history that I feared winning it! Being aware of these things can help you navigate through them better and make the process and event a lot less stressful and way easier to deal with.

For me, now, I see auditions with a sense of awe. It's amazing being in that zone of playing for people the way I want to. A zone where I can literally sense the panel or the atmosphere of the hall and orchestra and play to that! I literally want to improvise and find new things in my pieces while I'm presenting what I've prepared. It's exhilarating and does make me nervous because of how vulnerable and almost, no literally how unsure I am of what will come out, even though I've planned so much! But, I've learned to accept that, because even though you plan and practice to the point of perfection, you really don't know what that moment will produce. So, I don't try to know, I let the moment guide my preparation, my interpretation, and my presentation. When I won the Detroit Fellowship, I literally did not think about my strategies or prepared crescendos and phrasings. I listened to the hall, sensed the panel, felt the energy that the orchestra left behind, and played with that. I lost and found myself in the music and at the end of the round I won the Fellowship. I even struggled with the fact that I won, because it felt like I hadn't done anything! The finals felt easy, effortless and I thought that because I didn't struggle that I didn't deserve to win. But, actually, that's the whole reason I did win.

That's been my standard ever since. Making the process and the event easy, effortless, playing my way, not trying to impress but trying to play truthfully and honestly in that moment, not only in auditions but in every performance. It may not be the "norm" for auditioning, but it works for me and that's exactly what you should find for yourself. A system where you will be so prepared that you can just play the music the way you want, not giving way to fear of mistakes, fear or judgment and fear of loss and winning. Caution: the system does not guarantee "victory". It can only prepare you for playing the notes, traditional and trendy phrasing, etc. The magic happens when you play so truthfully and honestly that the music comes to life, the orchestra can be heard in your playing, and "you" disappear. In the words of Eric, "Just think about the music. It's all about the music." 

Mojo Jojo

Practicing is something we all have to do in order to get what and where we want in a certain amount of time, but there are times where the task itself seems unappealing, even down right painful to even consider doing. Often times, music itself may cause those feelings within us, and we may lose interest or motivation to work that particular day, or week, maybe even that month. So, how do we navigate through these events of loss motivation or interest in the work? Sometimes it's as easy as listening to or playing your favorite song, or even your favorite exercise. Maybe you can watch a show that just gives you a much needed break that gets you excited to practice again, or even just energizes you in general. Perhaps it's time for a field trip, getting out of the practice room and into the world, or even a change of practice room scenery. But if it's specifically lack of motivation within the practice room you are dealing with, these next ideas might help as well.   

Personally, whenever I had these feelings, it was due to either fatigue, discouragement or boredom. It's good to know when enough is enough. There's no use going passed your physical capabilities as far as energy is concerned. Your brain can't focus as keenly on the tasks you give it and the body can't perform at the high levels you expect it to. I tend to practice close to "completely spent," usually because I'm on the verge of a breakthrough and know when I cannot give anymore, but this is not for everyone. Know what your limits are and take care to not over do anything when you know you should take a break. With this in mind, a good strategy I have is to separate an intense day of practice with a more relaxed one, and then one day completely free to either rest, do minimal physical practice or mental studying. This tends to manage the energy levels pretty well for me and I think it might help avoid any sudden fatigue from practicing. Still, if you know you are tired and should rest, rest! Don't be a hero, there are other things you can do besides the tactile practicing. Rest and listen to the music you are studying, or even watch something unrelated. Practice when you can and rest when you have to!

Fatigue is somewhat out of our control as far as when it appears, but boredom is completely within our means to tackle. The key here, for me, is finding freshness and newness within the constant repetition that we have to do, not only in the practice room but in daily life. Still, with all the variations we can come up with in both cases, we may get tired of repeating the same technical passages or exercises and continued practice or events can be futile due to disinterest. So, if you know that you are checked out within the practice session, it's better to find a different thing to work on that you are excited about, interested in or is new and different than the same thing over and over again. This could also be due to a need for a new standard or goal. Maybe you feel that you have reached a plateau and aren't getting better or don't know what better is. In these cases I go on YouTube and watch my favorite musicians and artists like Jojo Mayer and Les Twins. While technically I may have reached a plateau, musicality is something that can always improve and that improvement will inspire technical improvement. It's almost like finding a motivational speaker or mentor, encouraging you to reach new levels and that will never get old.

Another cause of this could be that the instrument has become boring. I love snare drum, but sometimes I would get bored of it and would rather watch anime instead of practice. For percussionists this can be an "easy" fix as we have an immeasurable amount of instruments to either play or learn, so finding that freshness is more readily available. But what about the musicians who literally only have the one instrument like violinists and bassists? Again, maybe this is a good thing to step away for a little bit and take a rest. It will not be long before you begin to miss the feelings of holding the instrument, let alone the sound that it produces. I tried to take a week off to go on vacation and while packing my bags, purposefully trying not to pack sticks and a pad, I looked at my sticks and my mouth watered. That may seem obsessive. Yea, I'm ok with it though. The instrument is an extension of ourselves, and when we become to comfortable with it or take it for granted, we get bored or passive when it comes to anything concerning it. Taking this step back will allow us to have time to regain that excitement and reevaluate/recharge our passions for it. Again, finding something new, maybe a new technique or aspect about the instrument that you never thought of, can inspire a new interest and motivation to pick it up and keep going. And speaking of passion, remind yourself of the reasons why you want to do what you are stressing about or bored of. Regaining that inspiration is a definite and an invaluable source of encouragement and energy to continue the work you set yourself up to do.

Finally, there probably has been an event or situation that has caused you to be discouraged, either about the work you put in or the work you have to put in. How many auditions or tests did you do poorly in even though you felt your preparation was on point? Of course this could be due to just a bad day (insert song here), but in that moment you can be hard on yourself and question whether or not you actually can "do this." It's this inquiry where we tend to compare and despair, and consequently our motivation to continue working suffers heavily. I had a lot of trouble with this because, like most of us, I placed extremely high standards and expectations on myself and often practiced insane amounts trying to build Rome in a day, the latest a week. So, when I didn't measure up I would feel inadequate and incapable of reaching the goals I set. Well, how did I manage this?

First, we have to remember that one moment does not define an entire chapter of your life, let alone your entire existence. Don't forget that there will be other opportunities out there and don't let the idea that "it was my one chance" influence your actions following the event. My girlfriend would often encourage me that, "If not this one, something bigger and better will come later," and as cliche as that may sound, it is true. Had I won a certain job at a certain time, I may not have won the Detroit Fellowship, who knows? So remember that you will have other chances as long as you are there to take them.

Second, any "failure" is an opportunity to learn. Maybe there was something missing from your preparation or maybe something happened during the test or audition that you had never thought of before. Whatever the case is, this current disappointment is an opportunity to become aware of something completely new, helping you grow and develop into a more complete musician. Maybe the panel asked for an obscure change that you never thought of, or didn't know how to emulate. If they asked you to play like a flute and you couldn't, now you have the impulse to not only watch and listen to flutists, but every other instrumentalist to prepare for the next audition. This certainly will make the next audition more exciting and give you more confidence knowing that you can emulate any instrument they ask for. 

Third, we have to continue to believe that the goal is attainable. Just because we aren't where we want to be at currently doesn't mean we will never get there. Time is relative for everyone and patience is crucial. The worst thing you can do is rush the process or become impatient with your progress. No matter the size or magnitude of it, any progress is progress. The fact that it has been done before proves that it is possible, and if it hasn't been done before means it's an opportunity to do the impossible! Keeping this positive outlook is imperative whenever you hit a perceived set back or else you will remain stagnant and lose any motivation to even continue. It is ok to be frustrated, even that is a motivator to improve, but if it is to the extent to inactivity or halting the work itself, it is detrimental and should be viewed very carefully whenever it arises.

These views and ideas are specific to my experience, but I'm certain others have had similar feelings concerning this topic. It's important for us to look after ourselves both physically and mentally. Get plenty of physical and mental rest so you don't burn out and be completely aware of your limits so you don't go beyond them recklessly. Mentally, we have to continuously recharge and sustain our desire and passion for what we do or else the work becomes dry and automatic, just going through the motions. And above all, we have to remain positive, even through hard times and tough losses. Any experience is a learning experience and the biggest blunder can lead to an unexpected answer to an unforeseen question or problem. So if you lose your mojo there are many ways to get it back, both inside and outside the practice room. Again, maybe it's not a practice room issue and you just need to get out and explore a bit. Remember, "Away from the instrument, there are tons of things to learn" - Jojo Mayer. Stay encouraged, stay motivated and keep up the great work!