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. :)
Do you want to major in music? Maybe you have already been accepted as a music major. Parents, are you worried about your child going into a degree plan that is unfamiliar and risky?
The requisite statistics are sobering. Universities and conservatories graduate more students each year than there are positions in an ever-changing marketplace. Mom and Dad, you're right to worry, but I'm here to tell you that there is hope! Yes, it can be done. Yes, your child can not only survive, but thrive....but it will require their best effort.
There are a few things you can work on together to get a head start for next year.
Every music major will likely have to have 3 or 4 semesters of class piano in their plan of study at an American college or university. If you haven't had piano lessons before college, it can be daunting, especially in a class setting where you might feel like your questions are silly. I know I felt that way, and it made the entire experience much harder than it had to be. I was a pretty good trombone player going into my freshman year, but when I was in the piano room, all I could think about was how behind I was!
Like piano, music theory (or tonal harmony) can be overwhelming to someone who has never been exposed to the subject before. Piano lessons will help your theory, and theory will help your piano playing. Much like the relationship between operations in mathematics, skills in music are interrelated. Find a local pianist in town, and chances are that they can tutor you in BOTH theory and piano.
Every music major will have a "studio" for their instrument or area. On this website, I have a page with student biographies where you can learn some basic information about each student. Seek out the students studying the instrument at the school you want to attend, Facebook them and introduce yourself! Don't talk about your many honors and accolades in high school when you introduce yourself...just let them know that you're interested in doing what they do and let the conversation unfold naturally. With a few exceptions, I think you'll find that most of them are more than willing to share their experiences and opinions with you. You'll understand the music program from the perspective of the student, which can be a nice perspective shift from any brochures that the music program might give you.
I know this can be hard, particularly when you seem to lock horns over every little issue these days. I can almost guarantee that your parents are just as frustrated with you as you are with them. They see their kid, who just yesterday was running around in diapers, getting ready to go out into the world for the first time on their own. Guess what? Mom and Dad will be your lifeline that first year, as you learn how to iron dress shirts, budget your money, and figure out this thing called life.
There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not thankful for all my parents have done, and continue to do, for me. When I was 18, you might have gotten me to chop off a pinky finger before I would admit that in public. I was scared that I would fail. Ultimately, I had a rougher go of it because I was worried about the reaction when things DID take a turn for the worse. Above all else, when they mess up (and they will) hug them first and then get to the matter of righting the ship. Soon enough, they will be calling you more and more often with questions, and eventually, you'll be the smartest people they know. :)
In 2015, you have more opportunities and avenues to promote yourself than ever before. Social media and digital recording have become so user friendly that marketing your product as a musician is easier than ever! However, the product itself must be worth showcasing! There will be plenty of time for your own YouTube channel or an awesome website, but for now, the best place to be is in the practice room, doing everything your teacher tells you to do. :)
In the meantime, the following things will help your chances of employment, and if for no other reason than the rite of passage into the musician's world, you should do them:
For the gigs you end up playing, have basic business cards (I get mine at vistaprint.com) printed up so that when you're asked (and yes, you'll be asked...the music world hasn't gone completely digital, yet) you will have something professional looking to give them. Throw a handful in your instrument case, keep a few in the jacket pocket of your black gig suit, and a few more in your tuxedo jacket. Have extras in your car. Remember, each gig is an audition for the next gig, so stay on your toes, keep your ears open, and your mouth closed. You'll learn a lot if you handle it this way.
Start sketching your musical resume. Imagine two students showing up showing up to their college audition. Both are in freshly pressed dress clothes, and both sound great. One is able to present a crisp, freshly printed resume, while the other one scratches their head when asked about their achievements. While content is certainly important, the package is also important! The head scratcher without a resume might actually have a more impressive list of accomplishments, but they simply couldn't sell themselves as well as the candidate with the copy in hand. The resume writer might be so nervous in the moment that they can't remember anything, but they don't have to! Can you imagine, in a scenario where only one spot is open but two or more are auditioning, which auditioning player will get the nod if all other variables are equal?
If you already have a presence on social media, go over everything and remove anything that you wouldn't want your grandmother (or mother) to see. While it might be on the tightest lockdown available, sometimes all it takes is being friends with a mutual friend to be able to see enough on a profile to create doubt. Cultivate your online presence as much as you can, as early as you can.
Naturally, there are other points to consider, but this should give you a pretty good idea of where to start. This is a rich, fulfilling career path, and for those of you who can't imagine yourself doing anything else, then I invite you to give it all you've got! If I can be of any further assistance to you or your family during this tough time, please contact me for more information, or reply to this blog post below!