Well, it's been a while. No apologies or reasons, just haven't made the blog a priority. Now on to the good stuff....
I find that many of my students are so terrified of making mistakes that they really don't dive into a task with both feet. The fear of failure is so paralyzing that they would rather stick a toe in the water to see if it is going to be OK. Will this work sometimes? Yes, but... little risk = little reward.
I want you to imagine for a moment, what would happen if you knew you couldn't fail? How would you handle yourself if you KNEW you would succeed? Well as luck has it, I have a plan that will ultimately lead to your success.
Fail. Fail often, and fail boldly.
Please don't get me wrong. I don't mean that you have carte blanche to abandon responsibilities and become undependable. What I mean is that you should try, and try hard. Mentally prepare yourself for the possibility of failure, and when it happens, you will be ready to face it directly, clean up the mess, and above all else, keep moving forward.
In the words attributed to Socrates, "the life unexamined is not worth living." Don't be afraid to examine your shortcomings. Work backward from the point of failure, and unpack things one step at a time. Even if you eventually had link in the chain fail, you likely had many more that were strong and durable. Those durable links in the chain are what matter most. I'll be rooting for you!
I recently found a print of an art piece by the mysterious and profound artist, Banksy. You can learn more about Banksy here. While I am a little concerned to post a picture of the print here, I HAVE purchased a copy, which will hang in my office this year, so hopefully putting it here isn't much of an issue.
The first time I saw this was just this past week, on a Facebook story from Texas trombone legend Joe Dixon. Thank you, Joe. I immediately went online and bought a print because it was so profound for my current state of mind.
This has been a redefining summer of my life, and I think it has made all the difference. I purposely took a break from conferences, workshops, and festivals. I taught my two standard summer online courses, and spent a lot of time at home with my wife, my dog, and my tools. I still played trombone and worked on long term projects, but I also built a workbench, set up my garage shop, built an art piece for our living room that has some deep personal meaning for me and my wife, and fixed a bunch of little stuff around the house. Yes, we rent, but we have a unique setup with our landlord, and I don't mind spending 3 bucks on a tiny part and an afternoon to make something work again.
I also turned 40 this past December, and it has really bugged me. I have less hair than ever, what hair is left is grayer than ever, and weight is harder to lose than ever. But you know what? What I've done this summer has really helped me find peace with everything. In a way, I was doing what Banksy suggested before actually seeing the piece. I rested the parts of my brain that have been running full throttle, while ramping up my skills with wood and making a personal goal of getting dirty and dripping with sweat every single day. It's made me feel more alive, more well rounded, and ready to start the school year with an extra burst of energy and enthusiasm.
You might find yourself at the end of your rope, at a crossroads, or at what feels like a dead end or a burnt bridge. Ask yourself - have you really rested? You might have more options and approaches than you think. I found my copy of the Banksy print for 10 bucks. Maybe it's something you can put in your locker or on your bathroom mirror. In the meantime, I know what I'll be doing with the rest of my summer - making a picture frame for my new Banksy print! Be well and take care!
It is really easy to focus on all the things we don't have, or better put, to covet what others have.
Social media magnifies this and potentially makes us feel defeated, unless we stay present and fight the urge. Remind yourself that there is a place for you in this world where YOUR experiences, YOUR perspective, and YOUR insight will change lives. Wait for it, and it will unfold in due time. However, that doesn't mean you should sit and wait for anything. The phrase "luck is where hard work and opportunity intersect" comes to mind. Keep working hard, and keep your eyes open. When the opportunity comes, you'll be ready, and "luck" will be your friend.
In the meantime, enjoy that cup of coffee. Take in the beauty around you during that morning run or the crisp air in the parking lot between your car and the doors to the gym. Play the gig, whatever it is, and if your page is filled with whole notes, be thankful for the work and the opportunity to play beautiful, resonant, and even long tones.
Enjoy the holiday season. I know I will!!!!
As I sit here writing this, the 2017-2018 school year is rapidly coming to a close.
This point in the academic calendar leaves me both excited at a few weeks of a lighter schedule and a little sad that this particular group of students and time period in our lives can never be recreated. We have grown together this year, and I am more proud of all my students than I can really express.
The idea of commencement used to be lost on me. 'Why can't they just call it graduation?' Was my thought for years. Connotation is the difference. Graduation implies that something is complete or finished. Commencement implies that a new, exciting world is just around the corner, ready to be discovered.
Congrats to all graduates from this school year! Now, as I am fond of saying, "go and do!"
As I sit here in Jonesboro with temperatures in the low to middle teens, I can't sleep, so I thought I would start 2018 out with a new blog post! I have 20 drafts saved, but only seem to be able to actually complete a thought every six months. For any of your fervent readers out there, I apologize, but life always seems to get in the way.
This past year was sort of like Dickens' famous opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities...
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."
When I think about this line, I always go back to how it feels to be overwhelmed. Usually we speak in absolutes when our emotional margin is in short supply. In those moments, it's important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. If you still can't see it, keep stepping until you can see how everything relates. For example, the first three months of 2017 included some amazing highs, such as performing Mahler's "Resurrection" with the Arkansas Symphony, and giving a trombone clinic to band directors at the State Music Convention. While these moments were great and I enjoyed every minute, the uncertainly of the future as it related to job situations and navigating a long distance marriage were, at times, almost too much to bear. If I had let them, they might have robbed me of the joy of those great experiences! The uncertainly, the NOT KNOWING, was worse than when we finally learned how things would proceed. Hearing news that shapes an uncertain, foggy future is liberating, because your imagination can take a break, and logic can return to center stage. Luckily, the second half of the year helped us see that there IS a plan, and if you can hold onto each other through the hard times, not only WILL you make it through, but the outcome is often better than what you could imagine.
There will be times when life will kick you when you're down. You won't feel like getting back up, but you MUST get back up, dust yourself off, and try again. It is in the relentless trying where we grow into the selves we were meant to become. Stay strong, my friends, and may 2018 offer you the best year yet!
Sorry, everybody. I haven't actually posted a new blog entry since October of 2016. It has been a crazy year, and there simply isn't to keep up with everything and do anything well.
It's the middle of summer, there's a storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico named Cindy, and I am stuck in Indiana for a few extra days waiting on a car repair before the International Trombone Festival in California next week. Luckily, I am stuck here with my duet partner and wife, who is pretty good company. We're looking forward to performing together with our friend and pianist Dr. Topher Ruggiero on Friday afternoon at 2:00 PM.
This blog post message is pretty simple. "Do less, and do better." Or put another way, calm your storm.
It's really easy to look at life with 2017 eyes that focus on scheduled social media posts and new Snaps each day. It can feel like you're behind the times if you aren't posting to Instagram 3 times a day. Instead, go the other way. If you believe that social media interaction is important, find one outlet and camp out there. Have accounts in the other places so people can find you, but in those places, tell them where you visit most often. If you have good content, they will find you.
If you are practicing this summer, take advantage of the summer pace. Maybe in your next practice session, focus on making really high quality, liquid smooth slow lip slurs. Really hold yourself to a high standard. I mean, be really picky. Was the first time through good? GREAT! Now try it again, and aim for better than good. In the next session, check in on the slurs, but then focus on your single tonguing clarity. You don't have to get it all done right now, but get something done each time. Slow down your pace a little while you can. When you get frustrated, go for a walk in the park or float down the river in a kayak with a friend. Whatever you choose to spend your time doing, be present, stay in the moment, and try to enjoy the process of getting better.
There will be days in a week or a month or 3 months when you'll have to play practice triage, and won't have time to zero in on an individual aspect of your playing.
So say it with me this time: "Do less, and do better."
Take care of yourselves and each other,
As I pack up and leave the office after a very productive late night practice session, I have a thought I would like to share:
Whether you do the work now or do the work later, you pay the price. If I may offer a suggestion - it costs less to pay the price now, before years of deeply engrained bad habits must be corrected.
If your teacher asks you to do something, do it. Not just for a day, or a week, or a semester. These are things you will do from this point forward until you lay the horn down for good. You will never reach a place where long tones, lip slurs, and scales are optional! If the lip slurs get easier, add a partial, change a tempo, or otherwise expand your frontiers. Practice goals aren't boxes to check off of a list - they are daily tasks which must be done thoughtfully and diligently to thrive as a performer.
Anyone can say that they "want it," but the ones who "do it" are the ones who will make it.
Will you be a wanter, or a do-er?
With all of the responsibilities of being a modern day college student, college can easily become an aimless, stumbling string of days punctuated only by final exams and holiday breaks. For this reason, I sketched out a simple worksheet to help my students map out their short and long term professional and personal goals. To borrow from Dave Ramsey, you have to put it "on paper, on purpose" to keep your goals from bouncing around in your head endlessly.
Whether you want to raise your GPA by half a grade point this semester, lose 30 pounds, add a fifth to your range, or finally kick your procrastination habit to the curb for good, the best place to start is with a little time for quiet reflection on what is truly important to you, a pencil, and the worksheet linked above. You'll be glad you did - especially on those days when the bed is warm and the pull to the practice room, library, or gym seems weaker than usual.
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There are all sorts of comments you expect to hear after a performance, but I'm pretty sure that "boring" isn't one of them. Despite my years of experience, I still fight the urge to take musical risks with my playing. After all, the safer playing route means fewer missed notes, and in a culture that seems to place a high priority on "passing the test," the safe path to "passing off" each etude probably seems like the logical one. But at what cost? It is often an issue in my students' playing, as well, and I have spent hours trying to figure out how I can change this.
I get it. I really do. You want to get better now, right? What does "getting better" really mean? What are your ultimate goals in music? There will come a day when technique alone will fall short in satisfying your musical soul, and that strong, passionate feeling deep in your bones needs to be fed regularly to stay healthy. I chose my instrument because it allows me to communicate with my audience in a special way that fits me perfectly. I have played many concerts and recitals where I played trombone well, but the times when I really connected with my audience were the times when I forgot they were there and tapped into the song in my head - and those moments fed my musical soul.
When working with my students, I try to start each lesson with something lyrical, like a Bordogni Vocalise or Cimera Phrasing Study. If a student is nervous or not completely warmed up, the elements of a lyrical etude can help calm the nerves, and serves as a great primer for the rest of the lesson. My students know the drill - I will follow the lyrical etude with three requests: 1. sing through several phrases loudly and proudly, 2. play the mouthpiece without the tongue, glissing between notes, and 3. perform at least a portion of the vocalise again. I have very rarely had a student do these three things and not immediately sound better and feel more confident in their interpretation. Each week, the lightbulb turns on, but at some point over the course of the following week, the light switches off, and has to be turned on again in the following lesson. I am left scratching my head, wondering how I can help remove the switch from this circuit so that the concept of musical dominance over trombone operation becomes hard wired.
I don't come to this point as a teacher abstractly. I have plenty of experience on the other side of this equation. For example, a couple of years ago, in the first few minutes of a lesson with a major American symphony trombonist* I was playing - you guessed it - a Bordogni Vocalise. I had played for this gentleman on several occasions, but despite my relative comfort in his presence, I felt the need to impress him with my trombone playing. Sure, there were musical thoughts in my head, but they weren't at the forefront of my mind. I played the entire etude, and felt pretty good about how I had played the trombone. In a gesture that seemed to last for a minute, he looked at me, then looked at the music, deep in thought.
"You played it well...but it was....well, it was boring."
You know that sinking feeling when you realize that you totally missed the point? He was totally right. I had spent so much time trying to play the trombone well that I had forgotten where my focus needed to be - on the music! My trombone operation, no matter how good it might have been, didn't make a bit of difference, because I didn't connect with him through my music making. Needless to say, that moment created a strong priority from that day forward.
Please don't get me wrong. I believe that technique is important. It is vital! We must play the instrument well. We practice for years so that our tools are maintained and ready to be used at our musical discretion, but there has to be a point in the process where the technique becomes secondary to the music. Much like a painter, we need many "brushes" to achieve the nuance of a great painting. So as you sit down for your next practice session, remember what you're trying to say through your instrument.
* = major American symphony trombonist was not named in this blog post, because I didn't ask for permission to use his name before I wrote this post. :)
The title may not be flashy or cute, but it is the question that has been on my mind quite a bit recently. So, what does practicing actually mean? I'm going to explore this topic in two separate blog posts. Below is part one...