Decisions, Decisions

Something I had to learn, especially in the fellowship programs, was the difference between being a student and a "master" or professional. While I had performed with several orchestras before, that did not necessarily make me a professional, nor did my experience or knowledge gained by those performances. At Detroit, it was impressed upon me to make my own musical decisions, and showcase them in both rehearsal and especially in the performance. This was weird, because for years I was just regurgitating whatever was done historically, or in recordings, or whatever was on the page. I did have good instincts to fall back on, but I was not used to making conscious decisions about what I wanted to do with the music. This was a skill I had to develop and nurture, and having mentors, and asking myself questions about what I wanted was a huge step in that direction.

It's definitely a balance between the appropriate, historical, or performance practice options, and your own musical identity and preferences. Until you become knowledgeable and comfortable with your personal choices, or if you are not adequately informed about the music, there will be no balance. Studying music has become easier over the years, mainly because of the sometimes immediate access to information through many media sources, like Spotify, YouTube and IMSLP. Studying your musical identity might not be so obvious, and even though these may seem trivial, here's some things I asked myself to get me thinking about it. 

  • What type of sounds do I like to hear?
  • What type of sound do I like to make? 
  • Put these sounds in order from favorite to least favorite: Warm, Dark, Bright, Light, Heavy
  • Put these dynamics in order from favorite to least favorite: Loud, Soft, Medium, Medium Soft, Medium Loud
  • What characteristics define the above items? (What makes a Dark or Loud sound? Be specific) 
  • What kind of music do I like?
  • What kind of music do I dislike?
  • What pieces move me emotionally?

Asking questions like these made me decide, or realize, and accept what my musical preferences were. Personally, I love warm sound qualities, like those of a clarinet, and extremely soft or loud dynamics. Knowing these tendencies informs me on what I'll be prone to do. Maybe I will play something too soft, or too loud for the hall I'm in. So, I will I have to be aware of that and adjust appropriately. It's very important to know yourself as well as you know the music that you play, so that you can make the necessary decisions and adjustments for said music. 

One thing I am quickly learning as principal in Calgary, is that my musical identity is magnified because I am running a section. I have the opportunity to decide how every part will sound, literally catering it to fit my personal preferences. However, I choose not to do that, very often. I currently find that allowing the section to make their own decisions has rendered very interesting and positive outcomes that, had I told them to do a certain thing, would not have happened otherwise. In a way, our individual identities are influencing each others, just like in chamber music, or even in the orchestra itself, and being receptive to each others ideas improves us all. This is something that I really appreciated in Detroit and in Pittsburgh. I had the freedom to make decisions, good or bad, and if there was something that could'e worked better, we all communicated together about it and came up with a new idea. We all appreciated, admired and learned from our colleagues' musicality, and this is one thing I am very happy to see in the section here as well. 

Making your own choices can be hard, especially if you've never done it to this degree, but even if the decision is not appropriate for that particular moment, own it. Mistakes happen, but the attempt is what really matters. It's what will nurture that sense of musical independence, and it's what will help you grow into a "master" of your craft. I am still getting used to being comfortable with my own musicality, because it is unique and sometimes very outrageous, but I continue to remind myself that, someone here in Calgary liked it, someone in Detroit and Pittsburgh liked it, and I really really like it. It's also important for me, and others, to stay open to new ideas in order to adapt and develop our musical identities, making us more mature and flexible musicians. I am constantly reminding myself to own and express my ideas, and I encourage you to do the same, no matter how outlandish they seem to be. Chances are, they aren't as crazy as you may think, but who will know unless you express them. 

Limitation: Overcome or Overpass

I'd like to consider myself a very positive realist about myself and my life. I am well aware of my weaknesses, limits and habits, good or bad, but rather than think negatively about these things, I immediately try to find solutions to them. Jojo Mayer said, at PASIC 2016, that "the idea of limitation was extremely helpful, because limitation always brings challenges....and that's when we really become creative." It's important in these instances where you are confronted with a limitation, that you look at it objectively and not assign a negative connotation to them. This takes practice and patience, but there are books and even classes that can help guide you to that result of objective perception and removing negative self talk, and I will link to some resources at the end of the blog. 

When I'm confronted with a limitation, I first acknowledge it, assess it, and then I ask these things before either abandoning or moving forward with the task I'm trying to accomplish:

  1. Do I need this?
  2. Has this been done before? 
  3. How many different ways can it be done?
  4. What is hindering the execution?
  5. How can I work on this?
  6. Is there something else I can do to emulate the result I want?
  7. Is there someone who has a similar issue as me? How do they do it?
  8. Are there similarities to other things I do now?
  9. If it hasn't been done before, is it physically possible? In what way?

You can add or subtract from this list, but this really informs the actions that I take. Drum set for example, I cannot play double bass drum pedal rhythms to save my life. I am aware of how to practice to gain those skills, but I don't necessarily need them in my immediate career. Or how about the excerpt "New England Triptych: Chester." I have to play fast and soft, but it's difficult to play the way I want, which is to play it with single strokes. An option around that is to use double or even triple strokes to execute the excerpt. Recalling tempos can also be a challenge. Starting out, I had a difficult time remembering 120bpms for "Lieutenant Kije." However, it was fairly easy for me to remember the 3rd movement of "Scheherazade." So, for a while I'd use my tempo of "Scheherazade" for "Kije." My last example is speed, aka "fast fingers." Has it been done? Most certainly. What's hindering my execution? My fingers naturally are not that fast. I'm aware that my physique is not conducive to me being able to play at 250bpms using just fingers. So, I accepted it, and have moved on with that particular technique. However, there are plenty of other ways to play at that tempo, and I have both explored and figured out which strategies work for me.

When presented with any limitation or challenge, explore and exhaust all options that you know or come up with, research and inquire for solutions, and only after every option has been sought out, then move on. The key is to continue to be diligent in the inquiry, and to keep a level head during every aspect of the process. Again, this may take practice and patience to do, especially if this is something you habitually don't do. I encourage you to give this way of thinking and exploring options a try and see how it effects your practice, either positively or negatively. Below are some books and articles that I found helpful in this regard, and I hope they help you as well.

The Art of Practicing

Effortless Mastery

The Creative Habit

What to Say When You Talk to Yourself

Performance Success

Fight Your Fear and Win

Bulletproof Musician: Underestimating your Ability?

Bulletproof Musician: The Mental Adjustment

Bulletproof Musician: Feeling Stuck?

Bulletproof Musician: Not-To-Do List

Bulletproof Musician: After a Disappointing Set-Back

Bulletproof Musician: Don't vs. Do Instructions

20 "Craziest" Audition Acts

I've done some......interesting things either taking, preparing for, traveling to and during auditions. In my classes and discussions, many of these come up and I think it's helpful to see someone else's experiences, vulnerability and humanity in this business. Thought I'd share a few of my special moments with you all.

  1. Used a shoelace as a triangle clip (left the actual clip in the warm-up room)
  2. Used a small vibe pedal carpet as a bass drum muffle for "Rite of Spring" (also left the muffler in the warm-up room)
  3. Traveled by bus overnight to an audition the next morning
  4. Learned an excerpt in the warm-up room 
  5. Practiced pad outside during winter to simulate not being able to feel the sticks due to nerves
  6. Watched horror films to stimulate nerves, then played a mock
  7. Played Tchaikovsky 4 on bass drum, with the brakes off (it moved the entire time, the proctor and I laughed afterwards)
  8. Consciously played an excerpt differently than I had practiced, on a whim
  9. Stayed at an Air BnB and took public transit for an hour to arrive at the audition
  10. Took a twelve hour train ride to an audition, took a 3 hour lesson after the audition, and then took another train home afterwards
  11. Took 10 auditions between November 2016 and June 2017
  12. Deprived myself of sleep to "be too tired" for nerves (it actually worked, kinda)
  13. Ate a lot to trigger a food coma to "be too tired for nerves" (didn't work as well as #12)
  14. Never recorded myself to see how I sounded (still haven't as far as audition prep goes) 
  15. Never brought more than one drum to a professional audition
  16. Did not practice an instrument before the audition (that was for Calgary, I did not practice bass drum) 
  17. Completely changed my technique on an instrument (also for Calgary, I changed my cymbal technique two weeks before the audition)
  18. Practiced 18 hours a day for 4 weeks leading up to an audition (please don't do that)
  19. Practiced in my sleep (it's hard to do, only managed it 4 or 5 times so far)
  20. Played motivational tapes, or my audition excerpt playlist while I slept