How to Balance Practicing & Homework

Advice for the High School Musician on Getting it All Done When You’re Being Pulled in Two Directions. 

I see you.  Every morning, between your 7:10am chamber orchestra rehearsal and your 8:00 advisory, you sit in front of your locker and map out your day.  Projects you have to work on, reading that needs to be finished, papers to write, plus 3 hours of practicing and rehearsing.  Maybe you have a extra-curricular club meeting or a family obligation thrown in there as well because, you know, life. You start every day feeling utterly defeated before it even begins–the math never works out.  There aren’t actually enough hours in the day to get do what is being asked of you by your school teachers, coaches and music instructors. I see you so clearly, because I was you.  When I was in high school, that was me.  That was my everyday existence.

Week after week, I see the high school and college students that I meet facing the same dread.  Homework, Tests, and Group Projects battling it out with Practicing, Rehearsals and Concerts for their time and brain space. They feel as if they constantly have to choose who they are going to disappoint that week.  “Sorry, I didn’t finish that assignment.”  “Sorry, I didn’t study for that test.”  “Sorry, I didn’t get much practicing in this week.”  “Sorry, I still haven’t learned that scary orchestra passage.”

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But here’s the thing.  I survived.  Somehow, I wasn’t kicked out of my honors classes, and somehow, I got into music school.  Somehow, it all worked out, and I learned a few important tricks along the way.  I always share these tips and practice hacks with my students, and I am offering them up here to you all as well.  Take a deep breath.  It’s going to be okay.

 

1. Map out the big picture Music commitments for the entire year in advance.

Ask your teachers for help with this.  When are districts? Studio recitals? orchestra concerts? competitions you are interested in doing? (and the application deadline), auditions for summer festivals? (and their application deadlines!). Everything you can think of that has a definite, set-in-stone date already. Put them in your calendar.

2. Map out the big school commitments.

Is there a senior trip that happens every year over spring break? What about that dreaded “Junior Year Research Paper” that stretches between January and Spring Break? Is there a big science fair that you want to enter? When is that? When is the submission deadline? When are your orchestra concerts?  Are you going to be in the pit band for the school musical? When are those required rehearsals going to be? (trust me, the director has known all of this since the first day of school—just ask).

 

3. Take note of where different commitments overlap

Now that you have everything in front of you, you will be able to see where things are a little bit crowded.  Maybe you have that huge research paper happening between January and mid-March, but, oh look!  That’s exactly when you have to submit your summer festival audition recordings.  (deep breath) Now you know that you’ll need to have your audition music learned and ready to go by the time to you get back from winter break, right? With the music learned, You’ll just be recording and submitting, and then you can give your full attention to the paper.  Likewise, if you have a big competition happening in the middle of that research paper? You’ll need to get ahead of the game in your research so you can ease up the week of the competition and focus on your practicing without falling behind.

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4. Communicate with your teachers when you anticipate a problem.

I remember talking to a teacher who assigned a fairly long essay on Friday and said it was due Monday morning.  But I had my usual 8am-7pm Music Center activities on Saturday and a competition on Sunday afternoon.  I stayed after class and told my teacher about my weekend and that the competition was really important to me and I wanted to be able to really focus on it for Sunday, but that writing a good essay was ALSO important to me, and I couldn’t do both of those things at the same time.  I couldn’t fully focus on my competition AND write a good essay.  She nodded, asked me if I thought I could have it finished by Wednesday, and wished me luck on my competition.  I was amazed.  She understood!  She was helping me!  Likewise, now that I am on the other side of things, I can appreciate it when a student comes into a lesson and tells me that they have 4 tests the following week and do not anticipate having a lot of time to practice.  I can take that into consideration, and maybe NOT ask them to learn the next movement of their concerto that week, or tell them to have their piece memorized at the next lesson.  Always remember that we teachers are going with our own timeline when we assign things (both in school and in music).  But the learning is for YOU.  There is time to do everything, just not at once. Trust that we are all on your side and will help you when you need it.

 

5.Don’t wait until you have large chunks of time to practice.

You’ll probably find that you don’t often HAVE large chunks of time every day.  And yet, we often feel like if we don’t have at least two hours available to us, there is no point.  If you’re practicing smart (and you can read more about that here and here) you already have some small sections marked out as well as a few scary technical passages that always need a bit of drilling.  Those are perfect for those times that you walk in the door and you hear “dinner will be ready in 15 minutes!”.  Great–do you know how many times you can drill that passage in 15 minutes?  Awesome.  Go do it.   And depending on your mood and how much of either you need to do, you can use homework as a practice break activity or you can practice between homework subjects. By the way, you ARE listening to your pieces (solo, chamber music and orchestra) while you do your homework, right?

 

6. Try to schedule two or three 1- hour blocks each week that you treat as an extra lesson.

You wouldn’t blow off a lesson because you felt like playing 10 more minutes of that video game, right? So, if your schedule says 5pm practice, then at 5pm, get up and practice.  The rest of your practicing will be done in those small nooks and crannies mentioned above, but this is your full focus time. Because I can guarantee you can find one hour 3 days a week.  The rest of your practicing will be done in those smaller chunks throughout the week.

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Some of the Savannah Arts Academy Orchestra

7. Can you practice at school?

Do you have free periods or study halls that you can get signed out of and use a practice room or an empty ensemble room? Or if you often get to school 30 minutes early, or picked up 30 minutes late, can you use that time to knock out a few sections?

 

8. Create shedding sheets.

Arts and Crafts, anyone?  Collect your music (solo, etudes, chamber music, orchestra music-everything!) and pick out the spots that have tricky passages that just need a lot of shedding.  Photocopy those pages.  Cut out the passages and glue them to a piece of blank paper.  You’ll end up with a few pages of random passages from all sorts of different pieces.  When you are practicing (especially if you only have 10-15 minutes) take out that sheet and start shedding the passages one by one.  Even in your busiest weeks, you will make good progress on your pieces this way. You can also just bring this sheet to school with you if you are going to practice a bit there, so you don’t have to drag all of your music books with you.

 

9. Have a clear goal of what you want to accomplish or improve on that week in your practicing.

That goal shouldn’t just be “get better”.  It can be “be able to play through the entire Popper Etude. “ Or, “fix those double stops at letter C” or “memorize the Bach”. Even those weeks where you are fully loaded up on extra school work or activities, pick a smaller goal for yourself, like: “I am going to listen to the recording of my concerto every day on the way to school” or “ I want to be able to play the first half of the first page of the popper”.  And do something every day to get yourself closer to that goal.

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10. Accept that you are human.

You will have days every once in a while when you didn’t get it all done.  You’ll get a bad grade, you’ll have a poor performance.  Please keep in mind that one bad thing does not make or break your career–academically or musically.  If you fail at something, use it to figure out how to do it better next time, and, above all, learn to ask for help.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by it all, tell someone (a parent, a teacher, a school counselor) and let them help you to take it easy and figure it out.  Every high school student/musician in the world is feeling the same pressures as you.  Talk to your friends about it. Don’t feel that you need to impress each other by saying that you practice 5 hours a day when you are struggling to find 2.  Support one another and come up with solutions together.

a little advance planning, a few little life and practice hacks and a heck of a lot of communicating with your parents, school teachers, music teachers and anyone else who can help support you, you WILL get through these four years.  Believe me, if I could, you can too!

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New Trier High School. I survived.

Have you figured out some creative ways to balance your homework and practice schedules? Let us know in the comment.  Your peers will thank you!

-Kate

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wishing all of you the Happiest Thanksgiving Weekend.  May your cranberries be canned (yes!) and your turkey not be burnt to a crisp. Here are a few of our more popular recent posts, in case you need a break from the game, an escape from nosey (well-meaning?) relatives, or just a little “alone” time over the next few days.

-Kate

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Holiday Gift Guide for Musicians

How to Make a Supplemental Audition Recording

Holiday Gift Guide for Your Child’s Music Teacher

Spotlight Series: Crushing Classical’s Tracy Friedlander

Turning a Funk into Your Next Breakthrough

How to Learn a Piece of Music Once You’ve Left School

Secrets of Effective Practicing

Ten Things I Wish I had Known When I was Taking Auditions

The $100 Bill

Teaching According to The Four Tendencies

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(Sorry, little buddy!) 

Spotlight Series: Tracy Friedlander

This month’s spotlight is shining on horn player, writer and podcaster Tracy Friedlander-creator of the podcast Crushing Classical.  Here, she talks about her own path of discovery towards her ideal career, growing up in Chicago (we played in the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra together!), the No. 1 Secret of Success she has learned from interviewing hundreds of people in creative fields, and the one piece of advice she would give to an incoming college freshman.

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TFTL: What made you decide to start a podcast?

TF: At a career crossroads myself, I realized I didn’t feel like I had any options besides getting back on the audition track. I started looking around for myself at what people were doing and thought “gee, maybe I should start a podcast”! Once I started I could see that there were so many musicians creating unique careers that had interesting and inspiring stories to share.

TFTL: Do you have a morning ritual or routine? Can you share some of it?

TF: I ALWAYS start my day with a cup of yerba mate. Every morning I get up and do a sort of reflection/meditation, and review what I have coming up for the day… usually I do some writing, and always drink tea while doing it!

TFTL: What’s been your biggest overall takeaway after having interviewed so many different musicians?

TF: That the best quality you can possibly have is self awareness. When you are in tune with what you really want in your life, it helps you make better decisions when moving toward a career. Tactically this looks like really reflecting about what you want for your LIFE – do you love travel? Do you have a particular place in mind where you want to live? Do you want a family? The people I’ve interviewed seem to have a strong sense of what works for THEM – and they’ve been able to create a career custom to who they are. That’s what I hope people are able to see through my interviews and reflect on what it means for their own purpose.

TFTL: What is the best part about your career?  

TF: Conversations. I enjoy having meaningful conversations with people about creating music and art they love. It inspires me to do the same thing. I also love that I’ve built a platform in which I can share my ideas and other people’s stories – and hopefully by doing it keep inspiring people to do things they love.

TFTL: Practicing: Love it or Hate it?

TF: I guess I have a love/hate relationship with practicing… I’ve gone through times where I hated practicing those SAME excerpts again for another audition. Now I look at practice as a way to stay in shape, like a workout. And I’m learning new things, like learning to improvise. It’s fun to challenge myself to learn new skills.

TFTL: Who were some of your role models as a young musician?

TF: I really looked up to the Chicago Symphony horns. I grew up outside of Chicago and theirs were my first recordings of classical music I ever listened to.

TFTL: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a professional musician?

TF: I think by the time I was a 14 or so – once I was playing in youth orchestra I was hooked. It was so much fun, I could barely imagine you could get paid for doing something so incredible.

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TFTL: What do you think it takes to “make it” in today’s classical music world?  

TF: I think it depends on what your definition of “make it” is – and you need to really define what that is for yourself. Personally, I think you’ve made it when you don’t have to rely solely on being chosen by someone else to do what you love. So, in order for that to be the case, it’s your job to CREATE something that you can call your own. Then, regardless of if you audition or not, you have something that is yours. That’s when you’ve made it in my eyes.

TFTL: What is your favorite thing about going to a classical music concert these days?

TF: I like to go to a classical concert if it’s one of my favorite symphonies or a piano concerto, but mostly my favorite concerts to go to now are more unique, outside of the box concerts.

TFTL: What advice would you give to an 18-year old freshman at a music conservatory?

TF: Get OUT of the music school and EXPLORE your university. I don’t care about required classes or any of that. Find out what you are interested in. Study a diverse range of things while you can. Also – study abroad! There’s no better time to live in another country and learn about a new culture and learn a new language than when you’re young. There are fabulous teachers all over the world, especially in Europe. Go find out what that’s like!

TFTL: If you could have dinner with any classical musician, dead or alive, who would you choose, and what would you ask them about?

TF: Without a doubt, Leonard Bernstein. I would want to talk to him about how he would suggest musicians can continue his legacy, and what he would do personally if he were in his prime today with the internet and social media.

TFTL: Quickies: Tea or Coffee?  NYC or Maine?  Summer or Winter?  Yoga or Crossfit?

TF: Tea every day, but coffee for a treat. NYC. SUMMER! Crossfit (actually, weight training to be specific!)

TFTL: Where can people find you? 

TF: I’m on Facebook and Instagram @crushingclassical.

You can also find my writing on Medium.com

For the Podcast: Tune in to Crushing Classical on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, iHeart Radio, Android App, YouTube, Spotify or Stitcher

A new episode of Crushing Classical comes out every two weeks. You can subscribe HERE by going into itunes, and you’ll get the newest episode delivered to your app of choice each time a new episode launches! I have loved every one of her episodes.  She always has incredibly inspiring guests, and I love hearing their stories about how they have shaped their own unique career.

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Thank you so much, Tracy! 

Friday Favorites: Holiday Edition! Gifts For the Musician in Your Life

Happy Friday! This weekend is the last sane weekend before the HOLIDAYS begin, isn’t it? I’m in Boston, battling snow and cold (and writing Xmas cards).  Tomorrow I am going to see my former teacher perform the Elgar Concerto in Providence, and on Sunday I am playing a trio concert with some good friends.  It’s been a great week of teaching, rehearsing, playing concerts and seeing tons of friends, but I’m excited to get back to some warm weather next week!  Here is the first Gift Guide of the season–just in time for next week’s Black Friday sales! So start planning ahead! This one is for the musician in your life-whether they are a serious student or a professional, here are all of the things that make our lives easier (and nary a treble clef earring in sight!!)

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1 Tis the season for dry weather, and protecting instruments is super important. These rubber and sponge humidifiers are lifesavers. violin  viola  cello  bass   woodwind

2. This mug warmer!  There is nothing like knowing that you can keep practicing as long as you need to without worrying that your coffee/tea/hot chocolate is getting cold.  (priorities, people!).  I have two.  They are genius.

3. Hand warmers!  for before concerts, auditions, when you’re walking from the car into a lesson in the winter.  We can’t play well when our fingers are cold, and they make great stocking stuffers!

4. This travel steamer I got this one before I went to Seattle, and it was perfect.  Compact and easy to pack, but really got the job done to take wrinkles out of concert attire quickly and easily.

5. a beautiful coffee mug There is something about being a musician and loving coffee and loving beautiful things.  So a beautiful coffee vessel is always a winner.

6. Some books:  This one I cannot recommend highly enough.  If you have a musician in your life that has not read/done this book, be their hero and get it for them.  I talked more about it in my last post about creative breakthroughs.  Or if fiction is more their thing, this one about a concert pianist on the road is like reading a recurring nightmare that we have all had.  And for some practical career advice, this one is a must-read.

7. Leatherwood Rosin is #stringplayergoals. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but their bespoke rosin “recipes” are pretty dreamy.

8. Organizing all of the different aspects of a musician’s life can be difficult.  Keeping teaching hours from rehearsal hours to practice time to life admin time.  It took me a LONG time to find a day planner that reflected how my “crazy musician’s life” worked.  Ink & Volt makes them, and they come in a variety of colors and options.

9. I was looking to borrow a stand light for a recent concert and when I asked a bunch of my colleagues in Boston, Not one person had a working one!  So, if you have a Boston musician in your life, chances are, they would be happy to receive one of these!

10. Last but not least, and there is no link here, because it will depend on your location, but I do not know a single musician who, right now, at this very moment, is not thinking “oh man, I need a massage!“.  You know how professional athletes use and abuse their bodies on a daily basis, so their teams/coaches etc. supply regular massage therapists to work on them so that they can be at their best when they perform?  Yeah, we don’t get those (though we DO use and abuse our bodies on a daily basis, and we ALSO need to be at our best when we perform!)  So, low-hanging fruit? maybe, but still always a winner.

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Fellow musicians, what would you add? Let me know in the comments!

Cheers!

Kate

5 Steps to Turning a Funk into Your Next Breakthrough

We’ve all been there. You SHOULD be motivated to work, to practice, to paint, to do whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing.  But you just can’t get yourself to do it.  Your body aches as if you have the flu, but you know you don’t.  You just can’t muster the energy, drive and focus to get anything done. For me, it happens about once every 7 months.  I’ll be churning along and suddenly, I’ve lost my mojo.  I just can’t be bothered to write another email, come up with a worthwhile blog post, and I have to force myself to practice.  It feels horrible, I start to doubt myself, my resolve, my abilities, and it starts to feel like it’s all going to fall apart.

What I have come to realize though, after having gone through these rough patches quite a few times over the last 20 years or so, is that on the other side of them (EVERY. SINGLE. TIME, people) was a breakthrough of some sort.  And now I know the secret.  My body knows when it’s time to shift up before my brain does.  It’s like it can feel the frustration of being ready to take things up a level, but my conscious brain hasn’t quite caught on yet.  So my brain is saying “do the things you’ve been doing!  Why can’t you just get up and do them? What is wrong with you?” And my body is saying “ummm….No!,Because it doesn’t feel like it’s the right thing anymore, and I’m just going to curl up over here in the fetal position and be utterly useless until you figure out what comes next”.

Here are some examples.  Years ago, when I first moved to Boston, but was traveling for months at a time throughout the year, I went through a doozy of a patch.  I didn’t understand it.  I was living the dream!  I had constant work, got to travel all over the place and was always with friends.  On the other side of that, was the realization that while I had what everyone kept telling me was “the best life”.  what I really craved was a routine.  A home, a teaching studio.  I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I missed working with students.  So I eased up on the travel, took on some students and bought a condo.  One funk I was going through resulted in my planning, funding and recording my first cd, The French Cello.  Another one resulted in my moving to Bermuda to have a simpler life and to focus on my performing and my teaching (and start a blog).  In every instance, I was living what I thought was the best possible life, and then, post funk, was able to tweak things and pivot in ways that offered an improved situation.  Looking back, I can see that while it seemed at the time that I kept zig zagging, actually, it was a direct, upwards line to where I always dreamt I would be.  And I’m still heading there, folks, so I expect a few more funks to come my way.

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A similar thing happens on the micro level as well.  You’re perfectly happy with your playing.  Things are going well.  You’re working hard, and (though things can ALWAYS be better) you are happy with your performances, other people are happy with your performances, and life is grand.  Then, suddenly, you realize that your vibrato could be better, or more varied, or something.  And suddenly, you can’t think of anything else.  How could you have felt okay about any of your previous performances when your vibrato was so horrible?  Who did you think you were?  You become focused on it, on watching and studying other people’s vibrato, taking note of whose you like, and whose you don’t care for as much, you start working on it, and suddenly, not only do you have a vibrato that you’re happy with, but you have learned so much about vibrato that you write a book on the pedagogy of vibrato and it becomes a best seller and voila!  Life is grand.

So, how do deal with these low points? What to do? How to turn them into your next Breakthrough?  Here are 5 steps to getting through them:

1. Accept it for what it is.

When you realize that you are “In A Funk”. Tell yourself that this is a moment of pre-growth for you.  That you need to loosen the reigns on how you were doing things before and pay attention to what you need.  Be easy on yourself.  It’s okay to do a little less and say no to non-essential obligations that week. Eat your favorite foods, and maybe take a bubble bath or two.

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News Cafe, Miami

2. Spend time alone, doing not much of anything.

Meditation is obviously going to work wonders here, and I highly recommend you try it.  There are a lot of great new apps like calm and headspace that can help get you started.  If you are just NOT into it, try taking some long solo walks instead, or spend some time puttering around your house or garden (car, boat, whatever.  It’s all about tinkering).

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3. Get yourself a journal and start writing.

Journaling has always been my thing.  I’ve done it daily since I was a lonely latch-key kid with no one to talk to.  By journaling, I became my own company and was essentially talking to myself.  What is interesting about journaling, is that it’s true–parts of your sub-conscious self will start coming through and talking to your conscious self.  I’ll never forget the day I was writing away about future concerts and logistics and teaching hours and all of a sudden from nowhere I wrote “I just wish I could be a writer”. Ummmmm What? Who was that?  But it kept creeping back in until my conscious mind caught on and said.  Oh!  Maybe I can start a blog!

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4. Do a jealousy scroll.

This has become so much easier since Instagram became a thing, but the gist of it is this: scroll through social media and pay attention to what gives you a tinge of jealousy.  My friend did this and was amazed.  He had been practicing and working for years trying to get an orchestra job and kept coming close–always making it past the first round, and often into the finals.  He wanted it so badly he could taste it, but he found that when he was scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, it never fazed him when someone posted about winning a job.  He didn’t really care.  But when people posted about their life as an insta–traveler, a digital nomad, he would turn green with envy.  He realized that he had been trained to get an orchestra job, that was the highest pinnacle of achievement for him, but the thought of going to the same job in the same hall with the same people day after day, week after week, year after year, actually filled him with dread.  He longed to travel, to see the world, to do pick up gigs all over the globe.  And now that is exactly what he does.

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5. Use the Artists’ Way.

For any creative type out there, actually, for ANYONE out there, I highly recommend this book.  Julia Cameron wrote it decades ago and I first found it when I was 23, and a fellow at the New World Symphony.  It is broken down into 12-weeks of questions and “assignments”, and, well, I just can’t say enough wonderful things about it.  When I find myself stuck deep into a funk, or if I am in the midst of a substantial pivot in my life, I take it out and start at the beginning again. Here: I’ll make it easy on you.

The Artist’s Way

 

Now, whenever I wake up with those familiar aches and that dreaded lack of motivation, I actually get a little excited.  I know something amazing and fresh and new is about to hatch; and with a little self-care, understanding, space and patience, those funks don’t seem to last as long anymore.

I’d love to hear what breakthroughs you have experienced after a funk.  It’s obviously not limited to musicians, I think this is something we ALL go through.  Share your story in the comments!

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These opinions are my own, and were NOT sponsored in any way.  Tales From the Lane posts may include affiliate links. Thank you for supporting the blog! 

 

Friday Favorites

Hi!  Did you stay up late Tuesday night watching the midterm election returns in the US?  I did, and I think I’m still recovering (physically AND emotionally!) though I pleased about the increasing diversity we are seeing, and with the fantastic youth voter turnout (keep it up, guys!).  We’re having a low-key weekend over here.  Paul is racing both days, and I’ll be teaching a bunch of lessons, working in my garden, and thinking about fall weather.  It’s hard to get organized about the holidays when it’s 75 and sunny!  Are you hosting any get-togethers this season?  Here are a few ideas to help your planning, as well as a few things to keep you entertained over the weekend.  Have a great one!

If you were inspired by the progress made in the midterm elections and want to keep the momentum going, check out DoSomething.org It’s a fantastic site organizing volunteer efforts around the globe.

These would be great as part of your regular concert black gear, or with a nice top for recitals, or just as a party or concert attendee!  Black satin trousers

The perfect crossbody bag if you’re going somewhere warm (or live on an island, hint hint)

Even though it’s still warm and sunny over here in Bermuda, I’m ready to start decking my house out for the holidays.  Here are some simple and pretty things that will make your house feel all warm and cozy.

Wreath , Table Runner, Place card holders

If you’re looking for some fun holiday themed music to play, Virtual Sheet Music offers tons of customizable pieces that are ready for immediate download!  Check it out here:

Speaking of music shops, Johnson’s Strings is having a big sale on strings right now.  It’s  time to stock up!

During the crazy holiday time, I prefer short stories  to novels.  These are so beautiful and touching and no matter how many times I have read them, I keep reaching for them again and again. Here are some others that I want to check out as well. And of course, these are always a treat!

It’s a great time to be Armenian!  The new exhibit, Armenia! at the Met is receiving rave reviews from everyone I know, and the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown, MA is having a grand re-opening reception next Thursday, Nov. 15th to show off their newly re-designed space.  (I’ll be there, too, so come on out and say hello!)

The party season is about to commence. Are you ready?  A friend of mine had the brilliant idea to just stock up now on a drawer full of great (and not too expensive!) host/hostess gifts.  Here are a few nice ideas–whether you are visiting for a few days of thanksgiving, or showing up to a dinner party:

I would love this wine chiller,Everyone has one wine chiller, but how nice to be able to keep a few bottles chilling on the table.  You can always use another!

A really nice, great smelling (and not so cheap that it’ll give you a headache!) candle is such a luxury.  This Tocca Candle would be a great gift if you are staying overnight.

Every year I seem to run out of taper candles and just the wrong moment (i.e. moments before a dinner party!) And good luck finding any red tapers in a store the weeks leading up to Christmas!  If a guest showed up bearing some of these, I would be forever grateful!

I got one of these Champagne Stoppers as a stocking stuffer one year, and it has come in so handy on numerous occasions.  Can’t quite finish that bottle of bubbly?  Not to worry!

And how grateful would your host be to be able to soak their tired achey feet after cleaning, cooking and hosting a gathering all day?  Bath salts to the rescue!

Of course, you can’t go wrong with food.  These look almost too good to eat!

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

Cheers,

Kate

 

 

On Tour: Chicago, Seattle and Victoria

Last month, I went on a little mini recital tour to Seattle and Victoria, and I stopped in Boston and Chicago on the way.  I got to see dear friends that I had not seen in years (and meet their children!) and I finally got to see the PNW for the first time (spoiler alert: it’s gorgeous).  The trip was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work.  Without a pianist or my very helpful husband to pitch in with the driving and other logistical matters, I was exhausted when I got back home.

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Because I often have to check my cello (in its extra heavy-duty Stevenson flight case), I try to do direct flights whenever I can.  In this case, I needed to stop in Boston for a couple of days anyway.  I taught some lessons, caught up with a good friend over dinner, rehearsed with the always-lovely Craft Ensemble ladies for an upcoming concert and helped a student make her supplemental audition recording for her Nov. 1 college applications.  I managed to cram a lot into a short amount of time, but I also got to soak up some fall colors and enjoy the changing leaves (because I had NO idea what I was about to witness in Seattle).  Continue reading

How to Learn a Piece of Music Once You’re Out of School

(and, honestly, even when you’re still in it!)

When I was in Chicago last week I had lunch with a young cellist that I know from my Boston days.  I used to work for her mom, and I’ve known this girl since she was a baby.  Now she’s all grown up (22!) and playing in Chicago’s Civic Orchestra.  I asked her what topic she would want to read about in terms of being a post-conservatory, but pre-professional musician.  After thinking about it for a while, she came up with this:  “How does one go about learning a piece of music–from cracking open the music for the first time to performance level–without the help and feedback of a teacher?”.  Ahhhh.  Yes.  Essentially, how does one learn to be their own teacher?

First of all, we are all constantly learning and tweaking our practice methods.  I do have a particular passion/obsession with practicing/learning techniques, and I can share what works for me, and what I try to instill in my students. 

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  1. Start with the Eagle-eye view. Zoom out as far as you can.  If it is a standard piece, then I would start by listening to a few recordings and just familiarizing yourself with how the the piece goes.  I like to do this in the car, while I am cooking or folding laundry, etc.  Then I listen to it a few more times, while sitting with my music, or better yet, the piano score. And I see what pops out at me.  Then, finally, I take it into the studio and just play through it.  No matter what, I just want to get a sense of what feels natural and idiomatic, and which sections will be problematic due to challenging technical demands, or because it just doesn’t sit well on the instrument (Poulenc Cello Sonata, I’m looking at YOU!).

2.  Zoom in a bit and find the large sections. I’m talking as basic as Intro, Exposition, Development and Recap, or ABA, or what have you. I like these sections to be between half a page and a full page, but definitely not more than that.  I take each one of those large sections and play through it a few times, and mark the things that prove to be obstacles (anything that causes me to stop or hesitate—usually a group of fast notes, a tricky shift, or some awkward double stops).

  1. Next step is the zoom in further and mark some smaller sections (that lyrical phrase, that line of double stops, that long run of 16th notes, etc.) and I bracket those. I ask myself what the problem/obstacle is, and figure out the best solution. Then these are sections (more than a measure or two) that I will repeat 5-10 times, and I’ll do this for a few days–always bearing in mind what my solution is to the specific problem.

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4. After a few days of that, I’ll have ironed out a lot of the kinks, but there will inevitably be a few things here and there that stop me in my tracks. That shift, that one double stop, those last 2 beats of that 16th note run.  And those are the things that I drill on repeat until they are hammered out.  This is the mouse-eye view.  The minutiae.  Getting all my ducks in a row.

  1. When I am satisfied with having gotten a handle on those bits and bobs, I start to zoom out again. From small sections to larger sections and back out to the whole piece.  When I can honestly say that I’ve got the notes, rhythms, dynamics and articulations down, I’m ready to move onto Part B.

 

If Part A is all about figuring out the printed markings, then Part B is to figure out what they all mean.  WHY is it marked fortissimo there? Is it angry? Excited? Just a balance thing to carry over the piano? 

  1. Decide what the music is about. If the composer is alive and well, and you have access to them, you can just ask them. Otherwise, you might be able to dig up some good program notes online, or read up on the composer.  Maybe there are some published letters in which they talk about writing this piece.  Barring all that, you can just find your own interpretation of the music.

2. I zoom back in again, and create a story, with characters and plot and plot twists, and emotions and reactions and dialogue. I try to make it as vivid as possible and line up the notes/rhythms/dynamics/articulations with that story. I want it all to MEAN something.

On to Part C: Hone your storytelling skills. 

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Now that I’ve got the notes down, and I have decided what story I am trying to tell with those notes.  The only thing left is to see whether or not I am successfully communicating my story to my listeners.  If I have performances happening, that’s easy.  I’ll get feedback.  If I have decided that my story is one of hope and inspiration, and an audience member tells me that they really enjoyed my sorrowful lament, then I know I need to tweak something.  Maybe my tempo was too slow? Or maybe my tempo was fine, but I need to increase my bow speed to keep the energy level up.  And this is the part that makes it worth performing a piece over and over again.  Each time you have a new opportunity to be more convincing with your story; to tell it better, or communicate more clearly– to reach your listener in a more direct way.  And that is what it’s all about.  There is no such thing as a “right” interpretation, but you should be clear about what YOUR interpretation is, and if any of the notes/rhythms/dynamics/etc. are insecure, you won’t be able to get your interpretation out smoothly.  It will feel held back and stifled.

So there you have it.  Through a series of zooming in and out and in and out again, you first learn all of the little black dots, lines, dashes and words on the page, then you find out as much as you can about the circumstances behind the writing of the piece, then you decide what it is about, and figure out how to bring your story to life.

It is a wonderfully empowering journey.  A little scary at first, when you are accustomed to having a teacher there tell you how to play every note, but doing it brings about more self-confidence and the feeling of connecting with your audience over a piece that you brought to life yourself is an incredible feeling.

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in front of the Arts Center at College of Charleston