Finding Our Tribe as Classical Musicians

I feel like every time I turn around, someone is talking about “finding your tribe”, and offering how-tos, advice and new podcasts.  There are 10 new books out on Amazon this week with the word “Tribe” in the title.  So, what, exactly, is this tribe and why do we classical musicians need to find it so desperately?

It’s not terribly complicated, actually. Your tribe is the group of people you spend most of your time with.  They could be your office co-workers, or teammates, or, if you’re running a business, your tribe might be your customer base—the people you want to reach out to and communicate to-the people who are interested in what you offer.  But as a regular person, your tribe is simply your group of close friends.  Your besties. Your community. Your squad. Those people that you consider family–even though you’re not actually related to (thank god!).  But here’s the thing.  Finding our tribe as classical musicians is something I think we are pretty bad at in general, and I think we suffer a lot for it.

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We grow up spending way too much time alone in a practice room.  In fact, unlike on a sports team, if your friends are in the room with you when you’re honing your craft, you’re doing it wrong. I was lucky that growing up, I had a group of close friends who were all classical musicians.  We were all good, we were all serious, and we all needed to practice.  We’d call each other on practice breaks (and boy, was it ever exciting when they came out with 3-way calling!) or meet over at our community music center after school and steal rooms to practice in. We were close, we were supportive, but we were also ultra-competitive.  I once won a competition and a couple of my closest, dearest friends said the most HORRIBLE things about me and how I clearly didn’t deserve to win.  They said these things loudly and publicly and here I am, almost 3 decades later, unable to forget that harsh, unexpected sting of betrayal.  I think I had some major trust issues with my friendships for years after that, and really, those past relationships still haven’t completely healed. 

These days, the idea of building a strong, supportive community of people is a priority for me.  I strive for it in my personal life with my own close friendships, and it’s the cornerstone of this blog–a place to share ideas, advice, successes and failures with a larger community of people–from the high school students hoping to get into a certain summer festival to the seasoned professionals who find themselves spending too many hours alone on airplanes and hotel rooms. We’re all in this together, folks.

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The truth is, being a musician means that we are vulnerable.  We put ourselves out there on a daily basis, and that is scary as hell.  And while, in order to improve and grow, we need a fairly steady stream of critical feedback, we also need people in our lives who we can depend on to be our cheerleaders no matter what.  Even if they were on the other side of that win.

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These days, I am lucky enough to have an incredible group of friends.  Several of them live spread out around the US, and even though I only get to see them maybe once a year or so, we always just pick up where we left off. I have a super close-knit group who are all in Boston (shout out to my laydeez!), and I get to see them whenever I’m in town.  We know what is going on in each other’s lives.  We go to each other’s concerts whenever we can, or at least try to send a “good luck!” text.  I’ll admit, we could be better.  We could have each other’s backs a little more.  But I think that we’re all just so accustomed to doing our own thing.  Our success as musicians has always depended upon our own private work–done alone–in a practice room.  We were all raised to be a bunch of competitive loners pitting ourselves against each other.  But I’ve learned over the years that a colleague’s success does not mean I will be less successful.  It’s not a zero-sum game here, folks. 

So let’s step it up a little bit, shall we? Think about your closest friends.  Musicians? Writers? Accountants? Whatever they do, treat their successes as if  they were your successes and celebrate wildly with them.  Make their goals your goals and help them get what they need.  Hopefully, when it’s your turn, they will return the favor.

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Welcome to the tribe!

Kate

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!) 

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

 

 

Spotlight Series: Sarah Whitney

To continue our monthly series on kick-ass women of the classical music world, this month we have violinist, blogger and all-around music entrepreneur Sarah Whitney.  A native of Concord, MA (She’s a GBYSO alumna!) and currently residing in NYC, Sarah has been taking the classical music world by storm as a member of the acclaimed ensemble, SYBARITE5, as well as running her own unique concert series titled “Beyond the Notes”.  She performs regularly as a duo, AND a trio, is a regular on the recording session circuit and is passionate about creating innovative concert experiences.  As if being on the road almost half the year isn’t enough, she has also recently launched her own blog, The Productive Musician, where she gives great advice on time management and basic life hacks for the artistic soul.  Today, she is giving us a little insight into how she gets it all done,  the valuable lessons she has learned while on the road as a touring musician, and how the biggest risks are always the ones worth taking.

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What are your morning rituals or routines?

SW: In the past year or so my morning time has become very sacred. I’ve found that it’s the only way for me to have any sort of routine amidst my ever changing schedule. Ideally, I like to have 1 1/2 hours of “me time” BEFORE I check my email. During this time I will do the basics – make my espresso, eat breakfast, shower, get ready, etc. I will also spend time to plan my day, set my daily goals, read something inspiring and do a short meditation. I’m currently using a planner called the Panda Planner which I love and helps outline much of my planning. This pre-email time has helped me immensely. Most emails are “asks” and although they are things that I need to tend to, most of the time they are other people’s priorities to be fulfilled. By setting my priorities first thing in the morning before checking email, I’ve found I have a better chance of keeping track of and completing my most important tasks.

Any Must-Haves for air-travel? 

SW: A pashmina scarf! The temperature can always be unpredictable on planes so a scarf is something small and lightweight to carry that can be a great way to keep warm and double as a blanket. Also, I oftentimes roll the scarf up and use it as a makeshift lumbar back support which I’ve found makes longs flights SO much more comfortable.

I also only travel wearing jersey and never leave for the airport without my refillable water bottle!

What has been your scariest moment on stage? 

SW: A few years go my quintet, SYBARITE5, premiered a brand new concerto for string quintet and orchestra with the South Carolina Philharmonic. We had been mumbling about switching to iPads for music reading for a while and thought this would be a great time since we wanted to read off of scores. So, we took the plunge. During the performance, all seemed to be going well until I turned the page with my foot pedal only to see I had flipped from page 1 to page 3. I turned back thinking I had skipped a page only to find myself toggling between pages 1 and 3 with no page 2 in sight at all! Mild panic ensued and since there wasn’t much I could do, I slapped on a big smile and did a little improvising to get me through the missing page! Luckily, all the pages were in impeccable order moving forward, but my heart definitely skipped a few beats – no, MANY beats – during that performance!

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What has been your most rewarding moment as a musician?

SW: One of my favorite things is performing at retirement and nursing homes. When my grandparents were living, I would visit their retirement home and grew up frequently performing at these communities. Sometimes they were formal concerts and other times they weren’t but I loved sharing my music this way. Throughout my career, I’ve continued to play at retirement homes all over the country; a few years ago, I was playing at an intensive care unit where many of the residents were not 100% cognitively aware. I was playing Moon River and all of the sudden one of the residents started humming along. This created a chain reaction and before I knew it, I had a choir of residents singing along! It was an extremely rewarding and magical experience. Although we couldn’t really speak to one another, we could connect through our music.

Practicing: Love it or Hate it?

SW: Practicing is a very precious time for me and it’s something that I have grown to sincerely love. Between all of the necessary admin work, travel and life events, it can be quite challenging to find a lot of practice time. I miss those days at grad school when practice hours were a plenty! I have, however, learned to be much more effective with my practice time and can accomplish more in less time than I used to.

What about when you were a kid?

SW: Probably the exact opposite of how I feel about it now! There was usually lots of negotiating about practice time and I was constantly looking for ways to put it off. My parents probably have a laundry list of excuses I used!

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

SW: Gidon Kremer was a huge role model to me. He was one of the first violinists I learned about that pushed the boundaries of being a classical musician. I was fascinated and inspired by his creativity, artistry and fearlessness to be different. This opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about what it meant to be a violinist.

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

SW: I didn’t actually grow up always knowing 100% that I wanted to pursue music professionally. It was a large part of my life and I was very serious about it, but I had a lot of interests and ideas about the future as a young child. When college “discussions” came along my junior year of high school, the prospect of music school was appealing and seemed to make a lot of sense. In some ways you could say the decision to become professional was during my junior year when I applied to music schools for college, but honestly, there really wasn’t a “moment” and in hindsight, it actually happened very organically.

 

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Have any pre-concert rituals? 

SW: Tea! I’m very sensitive to temperature when I perform and get cold very easily. Even in warmer climates, the air conditioning in concert halls can often be very fierce. I’ve found the best and most consistent way to keep my body temperature warm is with a hot beverage so I’m usually sipping on tea or hot water before a show!

Do you have a favorite city to perform in?

SW: One of my favorite places to perform was in Fairbanks, Alaska with SYBARITE5. It was March and indescribably cold, but the the warm reception and hospitality of the community was amazing. We also got to see the northern lights and had one of the most memorable back stage riders consisting of an entire Alaskan salmon!

 

What do you find to be the hardest part of being on the road?

SW: The hardest part about being on the road is being sure to make time for myself. I travel mostly with SYBARITE5 and sometimes it’s very convenient to do everything together as a quintet. Although I love my colleagues, it took me a while to realize how essential my “me time” was. I’ve had to find ways to make sure that that happens and make sure I’m disciplined about my time management on the road.

What advice would you give to your 18-year old self? 

SW: All of the musicians you are around now will become your colleagues in the real world! Keep in touch with these people – they will be incredible resources for advice, collaborations and support.

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

SW: Prokofiev! I would ask him if he was going to write one more piece of music what would it be, and who would it be for?

What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career? 

SW: The biggest risk I have taken is probably moving to NYC …without a job! In 2008, my last year of graduate school at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I realized that I did not want to be in an orchestra and therefore had no exact idea about what I WANTED to do after I graduated. I had met Louis, founder of SYBARITE5, at the Aspen Music Festival and School and he called me with a proposal: Would I be interested in moving to NYC after I graduated to help grow SYBARITE5 into a professional chamber ensemble even though there wasn’t any concrete work or financial guarantee yet? Crazy, right?! Well, I took the plunge and I’m so glad I did. Almost 10 years later I have established quite a career in NYC and toured the country and the world with SYBARITE5!

Where can people find you? (website, IG, FB, Twitter, etc.) 

www.sarahwhitney.com

Blog: www.theproductivemusician.com

IG: @sarahwhitneyistall

FB: https://www.facebook.com/sarahwhitneyistall

Thank you so much, Sarah!  Safe Travels!

Ten Things to Know About Making a Supplemental Recording

Happy October!  Having lived most of my life in the Midwest and in New England, fall to me means changing leaves, cider doughnuts, apple picking, and of course, a few decorative gourds.  But for a lot of us, Fall also means School Application Time.  Whether you are an 8th grader applying to private high schools or a Senior applying to college….. the application process as a whole can be overwhelming and stressful, and while school guidance counselors can help with the academic side of things, for many young musicians, the question of sending in a supplemental recording can leave them and their parents scratching their heads.

Wanting to be able to give the best information to my own students, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Dave Jamrog (check him out here!)– Boston-based recording engineer and videographer extraordinaire (he recorded my CD, the French Cello!)– about the ins and outs of the supplemental recording process.  Over the last five years, Dave has worked with hundreds of student musicians and helped them get their materials together.  With his help, I have put together the 10 things you need to know about making (and sending) a supplemental recording.

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1)There is a big difference between sending something in for high school, college as a non music-major, and for those of you who are applying to colleges or conservatories as a music major.

High School:  This one is pretty easy and pretty basic.  Having once held the dual positions of Strings Director and Admissions officer at a prestigious NE Prep School, I can tell you:  I just want to know what level player you are.  I’m thrilled if you are an extremely advanced player because you will likely be one of my principal players, will be able to perform solos and will probably do some chamber music.  I’m thrilled if you are a “decent” player because you will fill out my section and be an enthusiastic member of the group, and I’m thrilled if you’re a relative beginner, because you will grow and become a better one. You should send a recording of yourself performing a work for your instrument, either solo, or accompanied by piano.  This one can be an iphone or home-made video.  What is NOT helpful, is a full length video of your latest orchestra concert.  You’re sitting somewhere in the middle of the violins, but I have no idea who you are, or how well you are playing. Save that one for the grandparents.   And please, I beg of you: DO NOT send in a recording of you playing an instrument as part of your application and then show up to the school having decided not to continue playing “in order to focus on your studies”.  Your oboe playing helped get you into that school, not because it showed what discipline you had, but because that school needed an oboe player! If you are sending something in, you need to be committed to lending that talent to the school.

College (non-major):  This one is slightly similar in that the repertoire is going to be your choice.  You should send in a couple of pieces that show a good contrast in style, tempo or genre.  As a trumpet player, you could play a little Haydn and then some jazz, for instance, or a slow piece and a fast piece.  Again, this college is looking to fill its orchestra, chamber music and private lesson program.  If they don’t have players, there is no point in paying for the faculty or the facilities, and colleges know that people who play instruments are smart, creative and on track to be successful students, so they need to have the program in place to attract that kind of student.  While it might be less competitive than going in as a music major or applying to a music school/conservatory, your financial aid might be affected by whether you are the best cellist applying, or just an okay, half-decent player.  Believe me, they’ll want both of you, but program directors can only submit a short list in order for it to hold any weight with admissions.

College/Conservatory (music major): Okay, this one is the biggie.  You’re not just going up against other random students applying to said school with varying interests and talents.  You are going up against all of the other talented 17 yr-olds who play YOUR INSTRUMENT.  You need to show your strengths and show them that they should pick you. It is imperative that you send in your absolute best, most polished looking recording.  For most, if not all, of these programs, you will need to submit a preliminary recording in the late fall/winter, along with your application, and if that is accepted, you will fly to the school in Feb/Mar and play a live audition for the faculty.  Each school has their own repertoire lists for the preliminary rounds, but for strings, it is usually one or two movements of solo Bach, and the 1st movement of a standard concerto. If you are a Junior in High School, and you even THINK you might want to go into music, this is a great time to hop onto the websites of a few schools you are interested in, and look up the repertoire lists so that your teacher can start you on those pieces now.

2) You should listen to your teacher and do exactly what they suggest regarding your recordings. 

High School students are told time and time again that they should start taking initiative in their lives.  Trust me, this is NOT the moment to do that.  Your private teacher knows your playing inside and out.  They know your strengths and they know your weaknesses.  They know how important this recording is, and they have undoubtedly chosen pieces that will show off said strengths and hide said weaknesses.  Just because your friend is sending in his Dvorak concerto doesn’t mean that you should whip up some Prokofief Sinfonia Concertante in the next couple of weeks just to make sure you’re playing something harder than the competition.  It’s not about how difficult the piece is: it’s about how well you play, and the longer you have known a piece, the better you will sound playing it.

3) Book your time in advance

Take a look at your calendar now and take note of all of your deadlines Book your recording for two to three weeks before the first deadline.  Bear in mind that your recording engineer is dealing with 100 high school seniors who all share the same deadlines.  Your deadline is their deadline.  YOU might have the time three days before you need to hit send to deal with post-production and finalizing your recording, but your engineer might NOT.  While we’re on the subject of deadlines, please be sure to let your private teacher know ALL of your deadlines as well.  Give them one spreadsheet with each school, the pieces needed, prelim deadlines, recommendation letter deadlines, etc.

4) Book a long-enough window of time (Yes, 2 hours IS needed to record 15 minutes of music)

A lot of young musicians (and their parents) underestimate the amount of time it takes to make a good recording, and a lot of parents wonder why they need to book (and pay for!) two hours in order to record 10 minutes of music.  Well, here’s why.  When you’re booking time with a recording engineer, you are booking their time.  That’s two hours of them being there (usually, they don’t charge for travel time, but they should if you are asking them to travel a far distance to come to you).  Part of that 2 hours is spent setting up microphones according to the space (every space’s acoustics are different, and the engineer knows how to set things up to get you sounding amazing).  Then you need time to tune, warm up, and get comfortable.  It’s nerve-wracking to play in front of strangers/microphones/cameras in your face.  You will also want to stop after your first couple of takes and listen back to yourself to make sure YOU like the balance, and so you can hear for yourself how the dynamics are coming through the microphone).  Besides, if you’re going to bother doing it at all, you want to make sure you get exactly everything you need, rather than feel like, after all that, you still never got a good take of that last page.

5) Audio vs. Video. Dress the part, make sure you have figured out page turns, and that your stand isn’t covering you completely.

Certainly, for video, you need to be sure that you are dressed as if you are playing a concert.  Doesn’t have to be a concert gown or a tuxedo, but definitely dress trousers and a button-down shirt, Long skirt and dressy top, or a long dress. Wear your hair in a way that doesn’t cover your face, get in the way of your instrument, etc.  I once had a student who ALWAYS wore her hair up in a bun.  For her senior recital, her mom took her to get her hair professionally done and wore it down in gorgeous, flowing curls. Well, she had a hell of a time playing with her hair suddenly getting caught between her fingers and the fingerboard, in the pegs, in front of her face so she couldn’t see the music.  Not surprisingly, she came out for the 2nd piece with her hair pulled up in her usual bun!  Page turns!  Photocopy pages and tape them out so that you can avoid turning the page if you can (or make sure everything is memorized). If you are recording at home, make sure that the space around you is clean and not too distracting.

6) Piano accompanist vs. solo:

Pianists always make us sound better, but they also help us  to actually play better.  You’ll hear the harmonies better and make better dynamic contrasts, and because they are professionals, their high level of playing will help you to boost your own level of playing–even just in that moment.  It’s for this reason that Dave recommends doing the  pieces with your accompanist first (if you have a mix of accompanied and unaccompanied repertoire.) That energy will carry over into solo stuff (he’s seen it happen a million times!) Get an accompanist that you trust and allow them to help coach you.  They probably have a lot of experience doing this, have figured out a few tricks of the trade,  and they are there to make you sound your best.

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7) Make sure you are recording something that you feel very comfortable with, and that you are as prepared as you possibly can be.  

Ideally, you should be recording pieces that you have already performed, either in a recital or an audition.  This is where trusting the teacher comes in again.  I have had students decide (on their own, 3 days before their recording) that they wanted to record their NEW piece instead of their “OLD” piece because they felt that the “NEW” piece would be more impressive.  Don’t underestimate how different it will feel to have that camera and those mics in front of you, when you are trying to get a “perfect” take.  If you miss something once in the practice room, you’ll miss it 10 times in the recording space.  You want tried and true.  One way to get more comfortable with the process as a whole, is to practice doing recordings on your phone in the week prior.  See how it feels to “just keep going” and then be sure to listen back and take note of what went well and what you want to fix.

8) Don’t stop too often. 

It’s never going to be 100% perfect.  Dave said that this is one of the biggest and most common mistakes he sees. In an attempt to get everything absolutely perfect, a student will stop every time something small goes wrong.  A good rule of thumb is that if something goes HORRIBLY wrong in the first 30 seconds, then go back and start from the beginning, but once you get into the piece–keep going.  It is far better to have three complete “less-than-perfect” takes that you can choose from, than 68 “perfect” snippets that are completely useless to you.  I like to have my students start with one “no matter what” run-through of each piece.  Psychologically, they are under less pressure to “get through it” because they know they already “have one in the can”.  Then, we can take the time to get better takes.

9) This one is for the parents:

Please trust the other adults in the room and know that they all want the best outcome for your child.  From the recording engineer, to the teacher or the accompanist.  If you start trying to micro-manage your child’s session, you are going to add to their stress and cause unnecessary tension for everyone.  If the teacher is not there, and you are not a musician yourself, you can ask the accompanist or the engineer to help keep tabs on their takes.

10) What happens after the recording session:

Your engineer will send you all of the files of your various takes, and you (and possibly your teacher) will listen to them, take notes, and decide which one(s) are the “keepers”. You won’t be doing any editing or splicing  (never allowed for this kind of thing!) so you can disregard any partial takes.  You’ll tell your engineer which takes you want to use, as well as all of the information the schools have given you about how they want the files submitted (they often want different sizes, formats, etc.).  The engineer will then send you all of your neat and tidy files labled and ready to send off to your schools.  Make sure you listen to it before you send it in. and please, please, please, don’t forget to put your name and instrument on the file or in case of a hardcopy, on the case and the CD/DVD itself.  Also, be sure to save those files to your computer, dropbox, or an external hard drive.  Check with your engineer about their file management.  Dave keeps all of your files for 6 months so if you need to send something in for another audition later, he can format it however you need and you don’t need to re-record.

11) Bonus:  What to do if you really cannot afford a professional engineer? 

I get it!  Between lessons, chamber music, orchestra, summer festivals and application fees, sometimes it’s difficult to find the few hundred dollars that a supplemental recording generally costs. Here are some alternatives for those times when you’re in a bind.

  • Dave had a great suggestion, which was to book a group session for several of your friends/studio mates/school peers.  And split up a shorter time.  Since there would be zero/minimal set up time between players, you wouldn’t all need a full two hours and if you hired one accompanist, you might get a deal of that as well.
  • Ask you school A/V department if they have any good recording equipment, and see if they have a student who knows how to use it. Maybe you can help tutor them in AP Bio in return :-).
  • Call Berklee and see if they can suggest a talented music production/recording engineer student.
  • If you have no other choice, Røde makes a $50 microphone that works with an iphone that will help with the quality.  You’ll still have to figure out the file compression/uploading logistics, but if you are particularly tech savvy, this might work for you.

From the bottom of my heart, I am wishing all of you the absolute best.  Prepare well, go in with confidence, trust your teachers, and this should be an enjoyable experience for you.  If you are interested in setting up a session with Dave, you can find him here.  Thanks so much, Dave, for your input and stories!

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Photos of our recording sessions for The French Cello.