The “Non-Professional” Music Life

I bet you started playing when you were knee-high to a grasshopper.  In fact, you can’t really even remember much about your pre-music childhood.  Now you’re 17, and you’re choosing whether to major in music, or another one of your passions.  Or you’re 27 and a few years into your chosen (non-music) life and you finally feel like you’ve got a handle on this whole Adulting thing. Or you’re 47, your kids are more self-sufficient, and you find yourself with a bit more free time.

In any of these situations, you might be looking back on your years of music study–at least a decade of weekly lessons, chamber music groups, youth orchestra, not to mention the hours of practicing.  You did very well for yourself.  Won spots In the top groups,  made it into the Senior District or All-State orchestras.  You went to summer music camps and basically spent your entire  pre-college life dedicated to your instrument.

So? Was it worth it? What was it all for if you weren’t going to become a professional musician?  You might catch yourself glancing over at your instrument collecting dust in the corner (or worried that that is its fate), and feel a mix of emotions; the guilt of the unused talent, the enormous amount of money that was spent on your training, mixed with a yearning to play just one more Brahms string quartet or to be surrounded by the sound and vibrations of 100 other musicians on stage with you.

You can’t bear the thought of selling your instrument, and yet you can’t think of how or where you might play.  You gave up that right by choosing a different major, didn’t you? Was it all just a giant waste of time?

Absolutely not.

First of all, even if you never touched your instrument again, the skills you were developing as a musician will transfer to every part of your life.  You may not realize it now, but because of that intense training you endured as a kid you are:

  • Better equipped to give a presentation or talk
  • Have more knowledge of different languages and cultures
  • Have a higher level of self-discipline than your average adult
  • Have a longer attention span than most
  • Have an increased ability to focus intensely and for longer periods of time.

As you can see.  That musical training was really life-training in disguise, you just ALSO have bragging rights for the fact that you have performed in some of the major concert halls in the world.  That alone will make a fascinating bit of trivia for your future co-workers and dates!

So, let’s go back to those situations above.  The High Schooler deciding NOT to major in music, the 27-year old settling into their groove as an adult, or the 47-year old who suddenly finds herself with a bit more time on her hands.  Here are 10 things you can do to keep music in your life (or bring it back!) Some of these ideas are for while you’re still in college, and some are for after you’ve graduated, but any one of them will allow you to take advantage of the skills you have honed over those many years, and will allow you to remain connected forever to your musical passions.

 

1.Look for a college or university that has playing opportunities for non-music majors.

Find one with an “All-School Orchestra”– instead of, or in addition to one that is solely for the school’s music majors.  For some schools, that’s all they have.  They don’t have a performance major, so auditions are open to all students.  Some schools allow any student to audition for the school of music’s orchestra.  If you’re good enough to keep up with the music majors, you’re in.  Other schools offer chamber music, or have groups that organize themselves to play (not for credit).  Ask a lot of questions, and make sure that they know that you are interested in contributing your talents to the school.  If they are allocating funds to HAVE an all-school orchestra, then they need to make sure they accept enough non-music majors who play instruments to keep that orchestra going.  It will only help your chances of getting in!

2. Start a non-music major chamber music club.

Get together once a month (or as often as you all want) and read string quartets.  You can likely check out chamber music from the school’s collection, or pool together what you all have individually.  I like to give my graduating students a complete set of chamber music parts.  It’s often the first set they’ve ever owned, and I always hope that they’ll get together with some new-found college friends and break them in.

3. Find an amateur orchestra to play in.

There are groups in every community all over the world. Some of them, like the Longwood Symphony in Boston, are field-based (in this case, the medical field). In addition to performing around Boston, they go on international tours and give concerts/medical lectures!

4. Sign up for an adult amateur chamber music listing.

You can rank yourself according to your abilities/age/sight-reading level/experience, and like-minded people will email you when they are getting a group together to read for fun, or to put a little concert together.

5. Join the “young professionals” group at your local symphony.

They all have them.  You’ll be invited to cocktail parties and post-concert get togethers and you’ll get to know other non-music professionals who are as in love with Brahms as you are!

6. Join a continuing education’s chamber music program.

Most music schools (both at the community level and the college level) offer adult chamber music groups.  You’d have the benefit of a coach and performance opportunities

7. Be an active member of your music school’s or youth orchestra’s alumni group.

Donate a few dollars a year, go to the alumni events and stay in touch with your teachers and mentors.  Go to their concerts when you’re in town.  You’ll be reminded of the high level of music-making you achieved when you were that age.

8. Attend an adult chamber music summer camp.

There are programs at Interlochen, New England Music Camp, Summer Trios, and there are others as well–a simple google search will pull up several listings.  No kids allowed, just adults like you who love to play a nice Brahms Piano trio once in a while.  Also, there’s usually wine involved.

9. Join the board of a performing arts organization.

They need people like you!  People who have first-hand experience as a performer, but also bring needed (non-musical) professional skills and perspective.

10. Find an amateur pianist friend and put a little program together.

You can perform it as a house concert for friends and family, take it to hospitals and retirement homes as a form of community outreach, or just for the sake of playing pieces you both love, and challenging yourselves to learn new pieces once in a while.

An Opus Affair Event in Boston

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Musician’s Life: How I transition between my various professional roles (without losing my mind!)

As career musicians, very few of us only have ONE job.  We perform. And teach. And coach. And have some sort of administrative role. Then of course, one might also have a marriage or a relationship to maintain. Children to raise? Parents to care for? The list can go on and on.  Most of us have, by shear necessity, figured out how to keep track of all of the different rehearsals and concerts and teaching schedules we have. I mean, it’s a complete and utter miracle that we all manage to show up in the right place at the right time, on the right day, and with the right music, right?  It’s NUTS.  But recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of talk in various chat groups, podcasts and musician’s facebook groups about the stress of balancing it all and figuring out how to do it all without getting completely overwhelmed.  I want to share a few tips that I have learned along the way on how best to handle having various professional roles without getting stressed out, and they all sort of center around two key ideas:

Transition Time + Setting An Intention

I was in a rehearsal one day and I was feeling really stressed and jumpy (and I hadn’t even had THAT much coffee!) it occurred to me that the rehearsal itself wasn’t all that stressful.  It was great music that I knew well, I was surrounded by friends, the conductor was being nice; Everything was going well. The stress I was feeling was from the traffic that I had had to deal with on the way TO the rehearsal, the worry that I wouldn’t find a parking space, having to turn back to my car once it was parked because I had forgotten to grab my music stand, and standing behind a VERY indecisive person at the coffee shop who couldn’t decide what kind of tea she wanted. (tick tock).  I made it to rehearsal in plenty of time.  My worry was for nothing, but for some reason I kept the stress of the previous hour inside me and I was holding onto it for dear life.

Some wise words from Brendon Burchard, author of High-Performance Habits popped into my head. What was my intention in that rehearsal? well, I wanted to play well, stay focused on the music and my colleagues, and be a positive and enjoyable presence in the room (we’ve all had to deal with rehearsing with Grumpy McGrumpster, right?  NOT fun).  Focusing on the experience that I wanted to have, I was able to transition myself out of the bad traffic, the elusive parking spot, forgotten stand and the slow-to-decide tea drinker and into a positive rehearsal experience, and I had so much more fun. I think I also probably played better and was most certainly a better colleague.

This transition/intention combo has been so helpful to me, and I swear, I use it probably 4-5 times a day now.  Here is a breakdown of how and when I use it.

 

1. When I am finishing up my coffee/breakfast/news/writing time and about to head into the practice room.

I let go of whatever I just read in the news, or whatever I was writing about, and I think about what I want to accomplish with my practicing.  Maybe I want to work on memorizing a particular section, or drill some fast passages, or maybe I am close to a performance and I want to practice doing a few run-throughs.  I do this BEFORE I walk into my studio by the way, so that as soon as I walk into the room, I’m already in practicing mode, and I can just sit down and get right to some focused work.

 

2. When I finish practicing and am about to start diving into some computer work.

Same thing.  I let go of whatever was frustrating me in the practice room-that dumb shift that still isn’t totally solid, that section that is refusing to get memorized, etc. and I set a clear intention for what I want to do that afternoon.  Write a new blog post? Answer some interview questions? Email some presenters? Whatever it is, I make sure I am totally clear on the 2 or 3 most important tasks that need to get done that day and THEN, and only then, will I sit down at my desk, or wherever I’m working that day.

3. Before I start teaching.

My days are completely up and down from one to the next (like everyone’s!) but it’s important to me that my students get me at my best at every lesson.  So whether I have had a frustrating day or a totally kick-ass awesome day, when I walk into my teaching studio, I am “Kate The Teacher”. Ideally, I want to be caring, encouraging, patient, kind, and I want to have the energy to help my students reach a higher level at each and every lesson.  So I actually set an alarm on my phone for 10 minutes before my first student each day (another idea learned from Brendon Burchard) and I set the text to read off those very qualities.  When my alarm goes off and  I look at my phone it says “Be a Caring, Encouraging, Patient and Kind Teacher” and no matter what was going on in the earlier part of my day, that intention is re-set, and it puts me into the right frame of mind to (hopefully) best serve my students.

4. When I get home at the end of the day.

My husband is a teacher, and he likes to workout out before school, so most days, he’s out the door around 6:15am.  That gets me up then as well, and after my own morning routine and usually an early am practice coaching session, I do my own practicing for a few hours, and then I do a few hours of admin work, and then I teach for a few hours.  I love what I do, but at the end of a long day, I can feel TIRED.  And even though I might head home giddy and excited to see my husband and finally be able to relax for the rest of the evening, when I’m tired, I’m more inclined to snap easily (sorry, babe!)

So, every night when I get home, I sit in my car for a couple of minutes, and I think about what kind of evening I want to have. It might be “okay, I know we both have a lot of work to do tonight, and I have to do some practice coaching later, so I’ll just heat up some leftovers for us, and I won’t get annoyed that he doesn’t clean up the kitchen, because I know he’s facing a tight deadline.” Or it might be “okay, I’m looking forward to having a nice mellow evening.  I’ll go in, turn on spotify, and pour us each a nice glass of wine, and maybe we can cook some dinner together, and I won’t dive into how frustrated I am that this person hasn’t gotten back to me about that concert date, or nag him about the stuff he has left lying around the house, and we’ll just laugh and watch something fun on Netflix”.  It’s a game-changer.  I end up being the kind of partner I want to be, rather than accidentally slipping into tired, nagging, not-very-fun-to-be-around wife, and my evenings end up being much more pleasant!

Transition + Intention is the way to go.  Give it a try and let me know how it works for you!  When else in your day would you use it?  What are your toughest transition moments?  Leave a comment below and share your struggles and your wins! Students, this would be great for you as well, going from school to practice to home to rehearsal, etc.

cheers!

Kate

Ten Things I Wish I Had Known About Auditions When I Was a Kid

The following is a post from last May that seemed to help a lot of folks who were gearing up for auditions.  As we enter a new season of festival and youth orchestra auditions, I thought I would post it again.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and any other bits of advice you might have!  Please share them in the comments!  Cheers–Kate

Audition season is just around the corner.  In fact, I am flying to Boston on Friday to do 10 days of cello auditions for one of the youth orchestras there.  All around the country, young musicians are gearing up to audition for various ensembles and getting their audition video materials ready for last-minute summer festival admission.  I remember those days well, and I mostly remember that I did not have a clue what was being asked of me, how these things worked, or how I needed to prepare.  So I thought I would compile a list of things I wish I had known back when I was the one in the hot seat.

1. The judges want you to play your best.

We really, truly do.  We are 100% on your side.  If we sense that you are nervous, we might make small talk with you or crack some jokes to try to put you at ease.  We are NOT trying to trip you up, we are NOT testing you, and we are NOT sitting there counting your mistakes.  We are always looking for the good in your playing, so you should focus on that too.

2. It is far better to play an “old” piece really well, than to play a “new” piece that hasn’t settled.

When I was growing up, my teacher had a clear progression.  Suzuki books–Haydn C Major Concerto–Boccherini–Saint Saens–Kabelevsky–Lalo–Rococo–Elgar–Shostakovich–Dvorak–Prokofief.  So I thought that playing a scrappy Saint-Saens was better than playing a solid Boccherini, because the Saint-Saens meant I was more advanced, and therefore, a better player.  That is ridiculous.  Saint-Saens didn’t sit down looking at the Boccherini score, and set out to write a piece “a bit more difficult”.  So, while it might seem like a momentary disappointment to play a piece that you thought you had “retired”, it will serve you better to audition with a piece that you are comfortable with and will allow you to focus on the musicality, rather than “omg, I hope I make this shift!”.

3. You’re not being asked for scales for the sake of the scales.

I don’t know what fingering your teacher taught you and I don’t care if you accidentally used a 4 instead of a 1.  I want to see that you have a fluid bow arm and can make a gorgeous, full, rich sound on your instrument.  And no, you do NOT win extra points for playing your scale as fast as you can.  That tells me that you are impatient and that you don’t care about your sound, and that you really want this audition to be over as soon as possible :-).

4. Dynamics will get you far.

Insta-musicality.  The death of any performance (and particularly an audition performance!) is to be boring.  Dynamic contrasts will help create different colors and will create shape and interest in your playing.  Dynamics are your friends.  See #6 below for more on this.

5. Figure out the essence of each excerpt/piece and really go for that.

It is fairly standard practice to ask for “two contrasting pieces” in an audition.  And those contrasts are usually going to be fast/slow, baroque/romantic, etc.  Figure out what makes each piece.  Is it a slow, lyrical piece?  Then go for sustained sound, smooth bow changes and long phrasing.  is it a rustic peasant dance?  Then really go for that kind of character in your articulations and dynamics.

baby and piano

6. Sight-reading: it’s not a speed test.  it’s a “can you follow instructions” test.

I was raised to not ever keep people waiting, so whenever I was handed that dreaded sheet of sight-reading, I would try to dive in immediately, so as not to waste my judges time with my petty “thinking”.  Oh, poor little me.  Don’t be like that. We judges are testing whether you can look at a bunch of black dots and foreign words and translate them into music.  It would behoove you to take a moment and look through the entire thing.  take note of the key, meter, clef, how high and low it is going to go, and locate and count out any tricky rhythms.  Bonus points for actually playing the dynamics as well! You want to have an idea of how it goes before you play a single note. Take your time.  I have, a few times, had to tell an auditionee that they had taken long enough, and we needed them to start playing, but I have NEVER faulted them for it.  If anything, they have shown that they care, and that they want to play it well.

7. Dressing up helps

I have seen auditionees come in wearing their pajamas.  We want you to be comfortable, but also, have a little respect. Even if you are going to be behind a screen, dress as if you are going to a job interview.  Because essentially you are. More importantly, when you are dressed for a performance, you focus for a performance.  It really does help you play better.

8. Be friendly, but don’t lose your focus.

I have always been a pretty outgoing person, and I never wanted to be perceived as being a diva.  So, if I was in a warm-up room, I would find myself chatting it up with the staff, the other auditionees, parents, ANYONE.  The problem was not in my friendliness, nor did I really need another 5 minutes of practicing, but I would walk into my audition, and I would be in social mode, not in cello mode, and I would find myself making silly mistakes because I was distracted.  In hindsight, it would have been far better for me to just smile, say hello, and then sit in a corner going over my pieces slowly–just to stay in the right mind frame.

9. Practice playing something from memory in front of people (or your dog).  take note of where your eyes go.

Do you practice in front of a mirror? (like you should!).  I do too.  But then you show up to a performance or an audition, and not only is the mirror not there, but instead of a mirror, there are judges.  It’s amazing how different it feels to go from playing something and seeing the mirror image straight ahead of you, to suddenly looking DOWN at your hands.  Everything is in a different place!  So I would be sure to practice your piece a few times without a mirror and with people in front of you.  Figure out where you want your eyes to focus on (sometimes I just close my eyes) and start getting accustomed to how it feels.

10. The results are totally out of your control (and often out of our control too).

Sometimes, there are tons of kids graduating, or moving up, or have moved away, etc. and for whatever reason, there are PLENTY of spots for all of the people who audition.  Sometimes that is NOT the case, and the competition is stiffer that year.  A person can play the EXACT SAME AUDITION, and have completely different results based on random factors that have nothing to do with their abilities.  This is where life lessons come in.  Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised, and sometimes in life, you will be disappointed.  I promise you, you’ll get over it, life will go on, and give you more pleasant surprises.  All you can do is play your best; and if you use your audition date as a practice goal, and learn as much as you possibly can from every moment of the process so that the next one can be even better?  Well, then you’ve come out ahead in so many ways, no matter what the result is.

If you are taking an audition this spring, best of luck to you!  Keep the above information in mind and let me know how it all goes!  If you’re auditioning for me, please know that I am so excited to hear you play, and I hope that you have a really great experience.  Colleagues, what other tips/advice would you add to this list? Have any of you readers had any particularly amusing audition experiences?

keep calm