Understanding Intention–What You Need to Know Before You Practice

This post was written as a guest blog post for Honesty Pill .  Check out what they are doing over there and grab some more fantastic insight into practicing habits, mindset, and audition prep!

It’s always easy to practice a piece that is brand new to us.  After all, everything needs to be figured out–the notes, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, etc.  Likewise, when we have a performance looming in the (very!) near future, it’s easy to focus on and tackle anything that is still not feeling 100% comfortable.

But what about those in-between times?  When your task at hand is to “make it better”.  I’ve heard from a lot of new coaching clients and colleagues that they sometimes find it hard to know what to do to continue to improve.  “Make it Better” is a little vague.  I mean, we all know what needs to be better, right? Intonation, phrasing, sound, breath control, all of the things, but how do we go about fixing “it all”?

Set an Intention on one small thing at a time.

What I find to be missing from a lot of people’s practice sessions (and what was definitely missing from mine when I was growing up) is the habit of setting a clear intention of what, and I mean exactly what, one is about to work on.

It needs to go beyond, “I’m going to work on this 16th-note passage”, and get narrowed down to a point of “I’m going to feel the articulation of my fingers through this 16th-note passage” or “I’m going to work on speed and build up from 88-104 on the metronome today”.

Yes.  That Specific.  How many times have you told yourself you were going to “work on” a particular passage, only to find yourself heading towards the final few bars of the piece a few minutes later? Oops! or mindlessly repeating a measure 25x.  How much better is the passage? You have no idea.  Maybe it’s a little better? Maybe not?

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The Measurement of Success:

There is a saying in the business world: “What gets measured, gets managed”, and it rings true for practicing as well.  Practicing with a clear intention allows you to measure your success in that small, clear way.  If your intention is to clean up intonation, and that’s what you work on for 30 minutes, you can tell at the end of your session if you’re playing more in tune.

Setting an intention keeps you focused, and it gives you clear, tangible evidence of improvement.  Did you manage to get the passage up to q=104? Great!  that’s a clear improvement from yesterday when you couldn’t play it at 96.  If you were only able to get it to 100, then you know where to start next time.  And you can still walk away knowing that you made some improvement in the speed.

Have fun with your intentions:

There are days when I’m just not feeling it.  Maybe it’s the day after a big performance and I want to give myself a little break.  On those days, I’ll pull out a new-to-me piece that I have been wanting to take a look at, and my intention will be “I’m going to try to play through this piece from beginning to end and see how well I can read it”.  Or I might take an old piece that is not currently on my performance repertoire list and my intention will be “I am going to play through this piece and really listen into my sound production”.  While there is no immediate pressure to improve anything, I’m still staying focused and still managing to get something positive out of the practice session. Anything less is just a waste of time.

Shake up your Practice Routine:

Every intention I set makes my practicing feel completely different so I never get bored practicing the same pieces month after month.  One day, my intention will be set around my vibrato, so I’m thinking a lot about how the phrase direction calls for different speeds and ranges of motion in my vibrato.  The next day, I might set my intention around bow angles, so my focus in on my right hand now, instead of my left.  It almost feels like a different piece. By switching up my intentions each day, I’m seeing it all from different perspectives, leaving no stone unturned.

Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

Practicing With Intention Saves Time:

Without Intention, you’re wasting a lot of time in the practice room.  Time spent mindlessly playing through a whole piece (badly).  Time spent repeating a passage without even stopping to figure out what needs adjustment, and time spent wondering where the last few hours went, and whether they made any difference.

I can guarantee that when you start adding in this tool, you’ll be blown away by the results.  Your practicing will feel more efficient, more focused, and more productive.  You’ll start out knowing exactly what you want to get done, and you’ll pack up feeling more accomplished and further ahead than before.

We all know that practicing is a neverending pursuit.  There is no such thing as “perfect” nor is there such a thing as “done”.  It is both the source of a musician’s pain and the whole reason we fell in love with music in the first place.  The quest for beauty, expression and the physical rush of that perfectly executed passage keeps us going day after day.  Use intentions to keep your work focused and measurable and you’ll soon find that your results are more successful.

Action Item: At the start of your next practice session, choose a passage that has been giving you some trouble, and make a quick video of you playing it. Decide what progress you would like to make on it that day and then set a clear, doable intention.  At the end of your session, make another video of the same passage, and take note of your progress.  You can also take note of something else in the passage you would like to work on and make that your next intention. 

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Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

 

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Spotlight Series: Dr. Renée-Paule Gauthier

Today’s Spotlight is shining on Violinist, Teacher, Blogger, Podcaster, and all-around guru of mindful musical work, Renée-Paule Gauthier. 

 

Currently based in Chicago, Dr. Renée-Paule Gauthier performs with all the top bands in town: Lyric Opera, Joffrey Ballet, the Chicago Philharmonic and is a regular sub with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

She is the String Area Coordinator, Co-director of the Chamber Music Program, and Violin Instructor at North Park University, and is also part of the faculties of North Central College, the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, and the Birch Creek Performance Center, as a violin instructor and chamber music coach.

Her dissertation, The Mind First and Foremost: An Exploration of Mindful Practice Techniques and Strategies for Violinists, explores how cutting-edge research on mindfulness and personal growth can help violinists in the practice room. She is currently at work turning this dissertation into a book.

She blogs about creating a meaningful practice at her website, Mind Over Finger, hosts the Mind Over Finger Podcast and travels throughout the United States giving masterclasses and clinics on the topics of mindful practice, audition preparation, and anxiety management.

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And when she’s not doing all of THAT?  She’s also a wife and mother.  I asked her how she started down this path, what her life looks like as a top-tier freelancer in a major cultural mecca like Chicago, and how she manages to get it all done.

Find out how she starts each day, what she finds difficult about practicing and her magical way of listening to a performance.

TFTL: At what age did you start playing the violin?

RPG: 7 years old

TFTL: Were you naturally drawn to it, or was it something that someone suggested you try?

RPG: My parents were both musicians, and so was my older sister, so I think you could say that it was very much encouraged!  😉

TFTL: When/How/Why did you decide to start a podcast?

Living in a big city (Chicago) where I spend an insane amount of time in my car commuting, I consume a lot (!!!) of podcasts on all kinds of topics!  There were a few very good classical music podcasts already, but I had not found one that talked specifically about my favorite topic – mindful and efficient practice – and I always had several questions in my head that I dreamed to ask the guests.  In November 2017, I was driving back from a conference where I had just given a talk about mindful practicing techniques.  As always, I was listening to a podcast and kept running additional questions in my head.  Then, this voice just popped in my head and said: “You should launch your own podcast!”  At first, I thought it was a crazy idea but, once the spark was ignited, I couldn’t shake it.  The first episode of The Mind Over Finger Podcast came out on September 7, 2018, featuring violinist James Ehnes, and it’s been an incredible ride!

TFTL: Was it outside your comfort zone or something you had some familiarity with already?

RPG: It MOST DEFINITELY was out of my comfort zone!!!  And it felt really scary!  But, it also felt exciting and the calling and desire to push forward were really strong.  The voice in my head kept talking about it, and I just decided to listen to it and take small actions, every day, to see if I could actually make it happen.  They say that courage and confidence come from action – that’s what I tried.  Another important thing is: I asked for help!!!  Jason Heath, who has an AMAZING podcast – Contrabass Conversation – was always generous with his time, advice, and encouragement, and he was instrumental in bringing The Mind Over Podcast to life!  It’s a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, and it’s an endless well of inspiration for me.  It also brings me an incredible amount of joy when I receive emails or comments from someone telling me that it brings value to their life!

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TFTL: I get a lot of requests from high school and conservatory students to give them a taste of what different career paths really look like. What does a typical month of work look like for you?

RPG: Ha!  There is no typical month for me!  It’s always a juggling act, and I keep things organized by planning everything carefully ahead of time – from gigs to administrative work, to family activities, to meals.  I wear many hats!  As a performing musician who also teaches, runs a chamber music program, hosts a podcast, and has a family, I need to find time to practice the repertoire I perform, answer tons of emails, create content in time for releases, prepare material for my students, and handle all of the logistical details to make all of this happen.  My family is also a big priority, so I make sure to plan quality time with my kids and husband and make sure everyone gets to their classes, sports practice, and scout meetings.

TFTL: Did you always have a clear picture of what you wanted your career to look like?

RPG: Not really.  I’m really happy with where I am and what my life looks like, but if I could pass on one piece of advice to young musicians, it would be to get very specific with what they want – the kind of music they want to play, with whom they want to play, what kind of setting they want to play in (orchestra? chamber music? shows? solo? creation?), where they want to live, and the lifestyle they aspire to.  This could make a tremendous difference in how focused they are in their work and the decisions they take when thinking about the future.

TFTL: What were some of the obstacles that you faced in your path towards becoming a professional musician?

RPG: Obstacles can be both external and internal.  I faced them both throughout my life and, as most of us, will face more as time goes!  I would say the following about obstacles: always accept the external obstacles as a part of life and an opportunity to grow and/or change direction, and face internal obstacles with humility and self-compassion, and thrive to get better, stronger, and more loving to others and, especially, yourself!

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

RPG: This is a very difficult question!  I think you need a LOT of dedication and focused work, and also a bit of luck.  Of course, you want to always be prepared when opportunities come knocking, so focus on the process and try to be consistent and meticulous in your work.

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TFTL: Practicing: Love it or Hate it? What do you find is the most challenging aspect of it?

RPG: Love and hate!  What is most difficult I think is that the work is never done.  I try to make it more enjoyable by getting creative with my practice drills and finding different ways of working on things.

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

RPG: My biggest role model as a young musician was my first violin teacher, Jean-Francois Rivest.  If you catch his interview on the podcast (episode #25), you’ll understand why!  His love of music and the enthusiasm he exudes made me the musician I am today.

TFTL: Do you have a morning ritual or routine to get you going each day? Can you share some of it with us?

RPG: Well, ALWAYS coffee first!  Because of my ever-changing schedule I don’t have a set routine but, whenever possible, this is what I aspire to on days I don’t have a morning rehearsal: after the kids leave for school, a bit of tidying up because a tidy house makes me feel better, then meditation and gratitude practice for 10-20 minutes, and day planning where I look at all the things I have to do and organize my day (although the bulk of the planning is done on Sunday nights on my Google calendar).  If there’s time, I love to also squeeze in a run or a workout.

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TFTL: What is your favorite thing about attending (not performing in) a classical music concert these days?

RPG: The joy of feeling like a child again and enjoying music.  I almost never listen to concerts with a critical mind – I sit back and try to savor the gift that the musicians are offering to me.

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

RPG: This is going to sound tacky but I would say Mozart hands down!  There are so many anecdotes and stories about him – I would be eager to see the man behind the legend and pick his brain about everything I could!  I would also love to see his face when I make him listen to some Brahms, Shostakovich, Debussy, or Ligeti and hear what he thinks!

TFTL: What 5 things are always in your carry-on when you’re traveling?

RPG: My phone (to listen to podcasts), my phone charger (😊), an extra sweater, a book (usually about something related to mindfulness or self-growth), and gum!

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TFTL:  Where can people find you, and what is the best way for people to show their support for the awesome work you are doing?  

You can find me at www.mindoverfinger.com, or as mindoverfinger on both Instagram and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/mindoverfinger/  and https://www.instagram.com/mindoverfinger/).  Mostly, I hope people tune in to The Mind Over Finger Podcast and reach out to me with questions, comments, and suggestions!  You can download it on all podcasting platforms, including Spotify, or stream it on my site!

Thank you so much, Renée! 

 

 

10 Podcasts I am Loving Right Now

In a recent post, I talked about using podcasts as an incentive to exercising, and I received more messages and comments asking me which podcasts I listen to than about anything else!  So, here are ten that I have been listening to pretty regularly.  It’s a mix of classical music-specific pods, creative entrepreneurship shows, and general life inspiration shows (because who doesn’t need a little of that these days?).

I’ve also enjoyed being a guest on a few podcasts recently.  One is listed below, and the other was just released yesterday on the Thrive Podcast.  You can have a listen to that one here.  The host, Olga Müller, is a life coach in Germany and wanted to talk to me about career pivots and moving things in the direction of your dream life.  It’s always fun to see a classical music career through the lens of a non-musician!

Do you have a favorite podcast that TFTL readers might want to know about?  I’d love to hear about them, too.  Tell us about them in the comments.  Happy listening!

Photo by Juja Han on Unsplash

1. Crushing Classical

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Tracy Friedlander is the host of this great interview-based pod.  Her guests are all people who are “Redefining a Thriving Classical Music Career”.  Folks who have started their own ensembles, publicists, performers, and administrators.  Anyone who is breaking some sort of mold.

My favorite episode

Or my episode where  I blah blah blah about a few things cello-related.

2. Mind Over Finger

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This is another musician-based podcast and also done with interviews.  Renée-Paule Gauthier has talked to performers like Arnaud Sussman, Joshua Roman, and Tessa Lark about practice and performance techniques.  Last year she did a fantastic series from the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in Indiana.

Stay tuned for an upcoming TFTL Spotlight Interview with Renée-Paule!

My favorite episode

3. Good Life Project

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With host Jonathan Fields.  Guests include today’s most sought after writers and thought-leaders. From CEOs of billion-dollar companies to philosophers and athletes, each guest brings a fascinating perspective on the idea of how to “Live a Good Life”.

My favorite episode

4. Happier with Gretchen Rubin

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If you’ve been hanging around TFTL for a while, you probably know my obsession with Gretchen Rubin and her books.  Several of my posts, like my “30-Day Focus Project” and my “Teaching according to the Four Tendencies” have been inspired by her research and books.  This podcast is her and her sister talking about life hacks, little things to make your life “a little happier” and hilarious stories about their day-to-day lives. 

My favorite episode

 

5. Her Money

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You know what we are not taught in Music School?  What to do with money.  How to get it, what to do with it once we have it, and how to figure out retirement.  Several of my colleagues have admitted that they have NO retirement savings and just plan on teaching and playing until the end—not necessarily because they want to, but because they don’t have any other choice.

Host Jean Chatzky, who many of us know from her work with the Today Show, has made it her mission to educate women on the basics of personal finance.  From explaining the difference between a Roth and a SEP IRA to what the heck an index fund even IS, and how to balance saving for retirement and funding your child’s education, this podcast should be required study material for every music student.

My favorite episode

 

6. Stand Partners For Life

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This one is new to me.  LA Phil violinists Nathan Cole and his wife, Akiko Tarumoto riff on the ins and outs of being orchestral musicians.  Topics have included audition prep, dealing with injuries, and taking listener questions.  They have great banter and it’s like peering into the daily life of orchestral musicians.

My favorite episode 

 

7. The Bulletproof Musician

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Noa Kageyama trained with performance coach extraordinaire, Don Greene while he was at the New World Symphony.  I know DG is extraordinary because I was lucky enough to have been one of his first groups of guinea pigs at NWS when he was starting to build on his research on classical musicians and write his first book. The stuff WORKS.  Noa’s voice is so soft and calm and low, that it sometimes makes me a little bit sleepy.  This isn’t one to listen to if you’re trying to get a power walk in at the same time—you might find yourself strolling along at a snail’s pace, BUT the information he puts out is great.  He combines music-related research with his own work in the field of sports psychology and the result is concrete ideas you can take into the practice room and onto the stage.

My favorite episode

 

8. Don’t Keep Your Day Job

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The host of DKYDJ is Cathy Heller, a singer-songwriter who went to LA with dreams of making it as the next Brittney Spears.  She ended up losing her record deal. Turns out her too-mellow-for-rock-arenas sound was perfect for TV and Movies and she started finding huge success in licensing her music.  She started her podcast to help fellow creatives find their niche, and build their lives around their passions.  Her advice can get a little sappy at times, but there are too many nuggets of good, tactical advice to stop listening.

My favorite episode

 

9. Super Soul Sunday

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Oh, Oprah. I never thought I would be a big Oprah fan, but I’ve got to hand it to her.  She can get ANYONE in the world to be a guest, and she gets some good ones.  Michael Jordan, Byron Katie, Wes Moore, Deepak Chopra and Eckart Tolle.  It’s like a weekly dose of inspiration.

My favorite episode

 

10. The Brendon Show

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Whatever the Bulletproof Musician lacks in vocal energy, Brendon Burchard is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  I sometimes wonder if he just downs red bull by the bucketful, but he’s too healthy for that.  I think he’s just really passionate about his work.  His main focus is High Performance.  (He wrote the High-Performance Habits, which I LOVED).  He doesn’t do interviews but takes a topic like productivity, motivation, or social media marketing and riffs on it for a while.  He’s got great ideas and leaves you with both things to do and things to think about.

My favorite episode

Want to Be More Disciplined? Get a Hobby

Whenever I come back from being on the road, I feel a bit disoriented.  My dirty clothes are stuffed in a suitcase, I’m staring at everything in my house like I’ve never seen it before, and there is a pile of mail staring me down. Even my cats are looking at me funny.

I’ve been out of my routine, between the early am flights and the late-night concert receptions,  both my body and my brain feel…just….off.

I started noticing that one of the first things I would do upon getting home was water my houseplants, and I would be annoyed if I found that my husband had done it recently enough that they didn’t need watering.

It wouldn’t be long before I found myself heading over to the garden shop to buy some new flowers or vegetable seedlings for the gardens.  Surely, doing the laundry, sorting through mail and giving my cats a few extra snuggles was more pressing, but I couldn’t help myself. I needed to stick my hands into some dirt. NOW.

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It occurred to me that spending time with my plants helped me to feel grounded (no pun intended—well, okay, maybe it was a little intended).  But seriously.  It was the one activity that made me feel like I was back on home turf.  After all, my plants are only at home.  I can’t garden while I’m on the road. It had this magical way of catapulting me back into my sense of routine.

It was then that I realized that gardening was an important hobby of mine.  And I also realized how important it was to HAVE a hobby.  I desperately cling to that activity as a calming force in my life. In fact, it’s a lot easier for me to get back into my routine after a disruption, if I have that one calming activity to get me settled first.

I’m not going to win any awards for my landscaping designs, and half of my vegetable plants get eaten by pests before I get to harvest anything, but that doesn’t matter.  I just love puttering around in there.  It makes me happy.  I don’t have to be good at it, but when it works, and I find that half of that night’s dinner came from the garden?  Well, that’s an awesome feeling.

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Hobbies are awesome.  With our music careers, we are expected to be great. Always.  Mistakes are not always forgiven, so we are under extreme pressure to never make them.  Hobbies are different.  With a hobby, mistakes are allowed.  No pressure. We get all the fun of our successes without any of the consequences of our failures.  And that is a very healthy feeling.

They act as a sacred barrier between the never-ending quest for perfection in our music-making, and the acknowledgment of our imperfect humanness. I can’t go straight from a performance one night, to the practice room the next morning to try to improve it more without first hitting a re-set button on my brain. Gardening does that for me.

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I did an informal poll amongst some of my colleagues and found that the ones who are generally happy and calm all have hobbies.  There are knitters, cooks, wine aficionados, cyclists, hikers, birders, etc.  and of my colleagues who are the most stressed out?  You got it–No hobby.

And for some reason, there is this weird stigma that as classical musicians, we’re supposed to be “So Incredibly Dedicated to Our Craft That We Would Never Dream of Spending a Single Second Doing Something Else” but I’m here to call B.S.  As Sarah Kenner, of @thehungrymusician (I seriously drool over her food photos) was talking about on her Instagram Stories the other day, that is ridiculous.  Having a passion outside of our professional craft is not only not detrimental to our success, it adds to it in so many ways.

So do yourself and your playing a favor.  Get a houseplant, go fishing, bake some bread, learn how to knit, anything at all.  You’ll be so happy you did.

Back From Vacation? 8 ways to Get Back Into Your Practice Groove.

Today is Labor Day, our modern-day signal that summer is over and we all have to get back to work.  Whether you spent the last three months studying or playing at various festivals and camps? Or maybe you took some time off to travel, see family, or enrich your life in some non-musical way (I am SO all for that, by the way!)? However you spent this past summer, the prospect of getting back to a routine can seem daunting and overwhelming.  Here are a few tips that might help you get back into your practice groove in time for that first performance, studio class, or concerto competition.

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1. Give Yourself Some Transition Time

 

I believe very strongly in transitioning between one thing and another and wrote about having a whole Transition Week here.  When I’m getting back into practice mode after some time away, I usually spend at least a day or two just playing.  That’s right.  Not practicing anything, just playing.  Favorite pieces I could play in my sleep? A new concerto I want to learn this year? All six Bach Suites–just for fun? It’s hard to leave the beach vacation behind and immediately be excited about scales.  Start by getting excited about your instrument, and begin the routine by spending a certain amount of time with your instrument each day.  If that means just serenading yourself for a couple of days, that’s wonderful.

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2. Plan Out the First 4 Months.

What repertoire are you responsible for between now and Jan 1st? After a couple of days of getting all of that “playing for fun” out of your system, it’ll be time to face reality. Open up your calendar app, or your planner (I use these and have the entire year up on the wall of my studio/office).  And start planning out your year.  For pros, this will mean rehearsals and performances, grant deadlines, important dates for your students (like when you’ll need to have extra time to write all of those letters of recommendation) and for students, you want to write in all of the deadlines for concerto competitions, seating auditions, studio classes, and chamber music and orchestra concerts.  In other words, when do you need to have things prepared by? Knowing this in advance will be extremely helpful in avoiding the dreaded “practice cram” one week before a pre-screening festival audition video is due.

 

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 3. Find a Practice Time That Works For You.

Are you a morning practicer, an evening practicer, or a late-night practicer? I am and have always been an early morning practice person.  When I was at NEC, I would practice early in the morning AND late at night, but the morning session was always more productive for me.  The late-night sessions were more about wanting to be where my late-night practicing friends were! Even if you’re a student and you can’t get a full 3 hours in before school, you could probably manage to do 1 hour then, right? Take advantage of your body’s natural energy patterns, and do your best work then.  If you’re better at night, then get into the habit of getting everything else done earlier in the afternoon and evening, so that when the time comes, you’re free to practice.

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4. Take It Back to the Basics

Yep.  You got it.  Scales, Arpeggios, Octaves, Etudes.  The part that gets rusty after a leisurely summer isn’t our sense of musicality!  It’s our muscles.  Like an athlete coming out of the off-season, it’s all about the warm-ups and the skill-work.  Don’t underestimate how quickly a good technical routine can whip you into shape.

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5. Go Slow

There is no rush right now.  Work for a few minutes and take some time to do a few stretches. Start with your scales (for god’s sake—start with your scales!) and think of it as a morning yoga routine for your fingers and your cello.  Set the timer on your phone for 5 minutes, and for the first week, practice 15 minutes, and take a 5-minute break. You can increase your playing time by 5 minutes each day after that.

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6. Build in Some Accountability

Have a coach you can work with? Someone to keep you honest? Or friends who are in the same boat? Text each other to compare notes and keep each other going.  Or, commit to an Instagram challenge.  Post a different section of your concerto each day.  Trust me, people will nag you if you skip a day!

 

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7. Pair Your Practice Time With a Reward System

This is a well-known habit enforcer.  Pick something that brings you joy.  It could be a vanilla soy latte or a certain kind of chocolate or listening to a favorite podcast. Decide that you can only do that thing after you’ve practiced.  I love podcasts, and I have a long list of ones that I listen to every week, but I’m only allowed to listen to them while I’m exercising.  So, voila.  I exercise more because I want to listen to my podcasts.  It can be a video game, watching youtube videos, reading a favorite book, etc. whatever works for you.

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8. Set Some Goals for the Year

You knew I’d get to this one sooner or later.  If you don’t have any big, exciting goals for yourself, then WHY would you choose to lock yourself away for hours every day and play scales and drill passages over and over. But if you are determined to get into a certain school/camp/festival, make a certain orchestra, win a job, ace that graduation or Doctoral Recital, win a competition, whatever it is.  Make a sign.  Write it out and tape it where you can see it every time you practice.  Turn it into a graphic and make it the wallpaper on your phone.  See it and read it multiple times a day.  It will give you a reason to get into the practice room.  Reasons give us purpose, and Purpose keeps us motivated.

Happy Practicing!  (Don’t forget those scales 😉

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Summer Festival Not in the Cards This Year? 10 Steps to Making This Your Most Epically Productive Summer Anyway.

Summer is here! (YESSS) If you’re off to learn/teach/perform at a summer festival or two, then you’re certainly in for a busy and inspiring 8 weeks.  But what if you’re not? Whether it’s due to financial considerations or because life is just requiring you to stay close to home this summer, all is not lost!  You can definitely turn the next 2 months into your most productive summer ever. Here are 10 things you can do this summer that will have you facing September 1st feeling like a boss.

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1. Learn a new set of repertoire

With a hectic concert schedule during the year, it’s almost impossible to learn new repertoire other than stealing a few minutes here and there from your practice sessions. You’ll often hear of soloists walking off stage from playing their concerto and heading to their dressing room to practice next week’s rep while the orchestra plays the 2nd half of the program!  Summer is the perfect time to work on pieces you want to add to next year’s repertoire list and brush up on some etudes and show pieces. If you have tried this before and found yourself procrastinating week after week, maybe you need some additional accountability built in.  You can form an online practice group with some friends or work with a practice coach, don’t let your need for outward accountability stand in your way this time.

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2. Give yourself an Etude Challenge

Want to go through all 40 Popper Etudes this summer? Or spend a week on each Piatti? You can read more about my thoughts on the benefits of Etudes here, but summer is a great time to geek out on them, and having a looming deadline will help you get your instrument out of its case every day.

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At Hamlin Robinson School

3. Set up some September outreach recitals

Contact your local library, retirement communities, or even a nearby prison and offer to play a program.  September is still pretty light in terms of concert schedules, and what a great feeling it will be to start the year off with a performance of your new repertoire under your belt, rather than that nagging feeling of being out of playing shape!

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4. Update your résumé and bio

Grab your calendar and write down everything you did last season.  Add it in, or swap things out as you see fit.  Is your font outdated? Does the style match your personality? Is your contact information correct? September often brings about auditions for local ensembles, and sub lists, and for you high school seniors, your dreaded College Applications.  Get your materials in order while you have the time this summer and you’ll be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Headshots

5. Have new headshots done

Whether you hire a professional, or have a friend do them, summer is a great time to get a couple of new photos that you can use professionally.  The summer blooms and lush greenery make for fantastic outdoor backgrounds, and the golden hour light in the summer is A+.

Sheet Music

6. Organize your music collection

Some people like to do it by composer, others, by genre (Concerti, Sonatas, Solo works, etc) and there are some weirdos out there who do it by publisher…..what? Yep. I’ve seen it with my very own eyes. But whatever your method, take stock of what you have, see if anything needs some TLC.  Get a stamp with your name and email/website on it and make sure your name is on everything.  I’ll give you bonus points if you take it it all to a stationary shop and laminate the covers.

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7. Give your practice space a makeover

A properly set up practice space can give you a boost of motivation, a fresh perspective on things, and can make your life easier. Make sure you have the following:

  • A Rug–to keep the sound from being too “boomy” and to help with sound-proofing.
  • A mirror–to keep an eye on your technique (and taking mirror selfies, obviously)
  • An electric cup warmer—my most essential item (lol)
  • Plants
  • Nice artwork. A photo of your favorite player, or a sentimental picture from your youth. Puppies, kittens, rainbows, whatever inspires you.
  • A notebook. The repetitive nature of practicing (both playing a passage repetitively, and the fact that practicing itself is something we do every day) can put you into an almost meditative state. My best ideas, solutions to nagging problems, etc. usually come to me when I am practicing.  Keep a notebook handy so you can jot them down in the moment.
  • A cup/jar of sharpened pencils
  • An eraser
  • A metronome
  • Rosin/reeds/etc.
  • A good stand
  • A pencil/rosin/metronome holder that attaches to your stand

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8. Re-connect with some long-lost friends/mentors

Send a DM to someone you went to summer camp with. Email a former teacher or chamber music coach and let them know how your year went and what you’ve been up to.  Trust me, they’d LOVE to hear from you (hint hint)!  Call a colleague you haven’t seen in a while and make plans to meet up for a coffee or lunch.  Summer is a great time to catch up with people.  Schedules are more relaxed and people have more time to meet up. And you never know, you could end up brainstorming a fun project together for the upcoming season.

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9. Check out some outdoor concerts

I know the feeling.  If you finally have a day off from performing and teaching, the last thing you want to do is go to ANOTHER concert.  But it is vital that we rally our energy and do it anyway.  Summer concerts especially are fun, low-key, inspiring, and you’ll likely run into a bunch of people you haven’t seen in a while and it’ll turn into a big party.  Make some chicken salad, grab a big blanket and some bug spray and get out there.

Kate with bikes

10. Relax!

Do some summer things!  Make a list of things that mean summer to you, and plan them into your days. Here’s mine:

  • Swim in the ocean (okay, I know….I live in Bermuda, and I go to the beach every week of the year…but you can only really SWIM in the summer). Also, I’ll be in Boston.
  • Eat lobster with LOTS of butter, preferably in Maine.
  • Eat homemade ice cream. Strawberry, cherry, peach, and blueberry are my faves in the summer months.
  • Go for a hike in the Blue Hills
  • Have a BBQ with my girlfriends and our families.
  • Make S’mores with my nephews in Chicago
  • Take our bikes on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and spend a day riding along the beach.

My Top 10 Favorite Books for Musicians

The ends of the concert season and school year are approaching and (thankfully!) bringing along the slower pace of the summer.  Even if we have a full schedule of festivals and concerts, there is a bit more free time between June and September.  It’s the perfect time to catch up on reading, and a great time to reach for a something that will keep you musically inspired through the summer months.  I’ve put together a list of my top-10 favorite books for musicians.  These are the books I would most recommend to colleagues AND students alike.

The following books have taught me about music making and life making alike, have given me insight into composers and performers I have long admired and given me fresh perspective on what it is I do, and why it is I do it.  It is, to be sure, an incomplete list–I wanted to limit it to my top 10, but please feel free to add your favorites to the comments.

P.S. Any of these would make a great graduation or post-recital gift for your favorite high-school musician.

Happy Reading!

-Kate

 

 

1. Casals and the Art of Interpretation by David Blum: The thoughts and wisdom of this musical giant should be read by every musician–no matter their instrument.

Casals

 

2. Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon: An in-depth look into Beethoven’s life and the world in which he lived.  You’ll never believe how much chocolate this man consumed on a daily basis.

Beethoven

 

3. Testimony, the Memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich:  No one should attempt to play this man’s music without reading this book first.  An insight into his soul, and the stories behind the music.

Testimony

 

4. Joys and Sorrows, by Pablo Casals: This one is more autobiographical than philosophical.  You’ll learn important details of the political landscape (and minefield) of his time, and how they affected his career, and the careers of his contemporaries.

Joys and Sorrows

 

5. The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin: A charming and fascinating look at the Biography of J.S. Bach through the lens of his six suites for solo cello and the man who made them famous.

The Cello Suites

 

6. The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross:  (from his website) “The narrative goes from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to downtown New  York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.”

The rest is noise

 

7. High Performance Habits, by Brendon Burchard:  Burchard spent years researching the top performers in a wide range of fields-athletes, musicians, business, writers, artists, and statesmen, and came away with the six habits they all had in common.  He also found that these habits are accessible to us all.

High Performance Habits

 

8. Beyond Talent by Angela Myles Beeching: This books is like a warm hug and a gentle nudge for musicians embarking on a career.  She combines great advice everything from networking to branding with words of wisdom regarding balance and keeping stress to a minimum.

Beyond Talent

 

9. The Savvy Musician, by David Cutler: More great career advice.  Cutler goes into the nitty-gritty of making recordings, setting up concerts and gettin’ S&*^ done.

The Savvy Musician

 

10. The Artists Way, by Julia Cameron: This is a book that I recommend to everyone-even people who just want to get back in touch with their creative sides to help them in their non-artistic careers.  Cameron lays out 12 months of journaling and exercises to help you figure out what the heck it is you actually want and how to go out and get it.

Artists Way

Etudes: A Love Story

Anyone who has asked me how/what I practice each day knows that I play an etude every day. Usually I just go through my books of Popper or Piatti,  but sometimes I mix it up.  Every so often I go through a student level book just to remind myself of which one tackles which technical issue.  In fact, I look ahead at the “etude du jour” and use that key for my scales/octaves/arpeggios warm up before-hand, so you could say that Etudes are a very big part of my life.  That wasn’t always the case.

 

Growing up, my teacher would assign me an etude every week and I would, well, just kin of ignore it. You know, pretend it didn’t exist.  Hoped it would just sort of go away. Etudes were boring, and they were difficult to figure out, which made me feel like a bad musician (because surely no one ELSE had any trouble sight-reading them, right?) so I would show up to my lesson and tell my teacher that I had “forgotten my etude book at home”.  Some weeks she would just nod at me and say, well I’ll hear it next week then.  And sometimes she would fully call me out on it and put her own copy of it on the stand (a technique my own students are learning and catching onto quickly) and I would struggle through it and exasperate my poor teacher.

 

It took going to conservatory and studying with a man who would dedicate ENTIRE STUDIO CLASSES to The Glorious Etude, and we each had to perform one FROM MEMORY for our entire class to get me to truly appreciate the benefits of working on them.  The purpose of this blog is to save the rest of you the time that I wasted in my youth, so I’m going to just spell it out for you.  WORK ON YOUR ETUDES.  Here are 3 reasons why you’ll thank me if you do.

 

1. Your general playing ability will improve.

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David Popper. The Mac-Daddy of Cello Etudes

Each etude tackles one or two specific technical issues and just drills it into you.  Playing up-bow staccato? Check.  Playing chromatic scales up and down the cello and figuring out the best fingering for them? Check. Double Stops? Check.  Trills? Check.  Trouble with octave shifts? There’s one for that.  Trouble with ricochet? We’ve got you covered.  Working on the 2-3 measures of your concerto that has ricochet simply won’t fix the issue like working through a two-page etude where you have constant ricochet in every possible situation on the instrument will.  Students? Trust that your teachers are addressing your specific issues with their choice in etudes.  Adults? Try writing out a list of the top 5 issues in your playing that you want to improve, and then dug through your books of etudes and came up with a list for each of the 5. Spend a couple of months working on those etudes, and I guarantee you’ll see a huge improvement in those playing issues.

 

2.Your sight-reading will improve.

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Mr. Kruetzer. The man violinists love to hate.

Etudes are full of patterns, and the more you come across them, the more your brain and fingers will recognize those patterns in your performance repertoire.  Intervals will start to translate into certain fingering choices and you’ll find your able to play things through correctly the first time more often.  Start with some easier ones and gradually build up to trickier keys/clefs/registers.

 

3. Your confidence will improve.

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Piatti. My former nemesis.

I have a student who would consistently come into her lesson and say that she couldn’t do one of her assignments (be it a new section of a piece, an etude, her new orchestra or chamber music piece) because “it was too hard and she couldn’t figure it out”.  Through etudes, she is learning that “nothing is un-figure-outable”.  She can take something one measure at a time, heck, one NOTE at a time and put it together.  Piatti 6 used to scare the hell out of me.  I refused to attempt it.  I would play a few measures of it and then give up.  Then one day I forced myself to figure out 1 line a day.  That’s it.  Just one line, and then put it together with the lines I had done before.  Eventually, I was playing the entire thing.  It wasn’t as horrible a monster as I had made it out to be, but figuring it out like that did stretch me in a lot of ways.

 

What are some of your favorite etudes, and why?  What technical stumbling blocks do you have in your playing that you might be able to fix with some etudes? Leave a note in the comments!

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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