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

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

Transition Time + Setting An Intention

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

3. Before I start teaching.

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

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

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

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

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

cheers!

Kate

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

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

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

1. The judges want you to play your best.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Dynamics will get you far.

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

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

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

baby and piano

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

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

7. Dressing up helps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!) 

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.

 

 

My Dirty Little Secret for Effective Practicing

I know how it goes.  You leave a lesson and, because you had had a busy week, felt completely unprepared and played much worse than you know you are capable of, and now you are determined to change things around.  Oozing commitment from every pore of your body, you swear that THIS is going to be the week that you get your act together, practice 3 hours every day, and do all of the things your teacher set out for you to do.  You’re going to practice that out-of-tune passage slowly, you’re going to practice that fast passage with all of the rhythms you can think of, do your scales, arpeggios and octaves, and you are going to finally, FINALLY, FINALLY, learn that etude that was assigned to you 4 weeks ago, and has been re-assigned to you at every lesson since.

But not tonight, since you practiced a bit before your lesson, and really, lesson days don’t count as practice days, right?  And then tomorrow comes, and you have to study for that big, important test, but the next day will be totally clear, and you can totally do 6 hours that day (except that when you get home, you find out that you have to go to your little sister’s play that night) and by that fourth day, you have lost that momentum, and all sense of inspiration, and you’re tired out from your big, important test and your sister’s play and you don’t practice much that day either, and all of a sudden, it’s your lesson day again, and you still can’t play that passage in tune, and you still can’t get your fingers to move fast enough for that tricky passage, and you still haven’t gotten past the first 2 lines of that etude.

 

 

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You feel disappointed in yourself, your parents are threatening to stop paying for lessons, and your beloved teacher just sighs and tries to do the best they can with what you are giving them. Meanwhile, your peers are gaining more and more momentum, learning repertoire faster, performing more concerts, winning auditions and competitions and coveted festival spots.  Why can’t you just get it together, you ask? You know you are just as talented as they are.

Have you ever considered how lucky professional athletes are, in that from day one, and all the way through to their high-profile competitions on the world stage, they get to work with their coach on a regular basis?  It’s not like they see their coach once a week and then are left to their own devices until game day!  Their coaches are there at every practice with them (or at least most of them) measuring progress, setting different drills, and basically forcing them to do the right work, the right way.  I suppose there are a few people in the world who are so utterly self-motivated that they can do all of the work on their own, but let’s be honest, those people are few and far between.  The vast majority of people out there work best and accomplish the most when there is some sort of immediate accountability in front of them.

 

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Years ago, I was hired to work with a new young student of a prominent Boston teacher.  Being a bit messy in his “practice” habits, this teacher agreed to take him on if they hired someone to be a practice coach, and handed them my information, knowing I had recently moved back to town and was looking for work anyway.  I drove to this kid’s house once, twice, sometimes 4 times a week if he had something coming up and sat there helping him practice.  I didn’t “teach” him, I just took what his teacher had told him to do and helped him do it. If his teacher had written 25x! for a passage, I sat there and counted to 25 while he did it.  Week after week, this student showed up to his lessons completely prepared-having done all of the exercises laid out for him, making progress on his repertoire and improving his technique.  In 4 years, he went from being a scrappy, out of tune disaster to winning a spot in a Juilliard studio for undergrad.  I loved working with this kid and his family, and always looked forward to going over there, but the very best moment for me, was when his mom said to me (equal parts tearful and proud) “He thinks he can start practicing on his own this year.”  And he did.  By working with a coach for a period of time, he had been building solid practice techniques–and, through the consistency of our sessions, had built in the habit of working that way.  He had everything he needed to do the work on his own.

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Since that time, I have done a little more coaching, and I have run week-long practice camps at various places during school vacation weeks, and those are always my favorite way to work with students.  As I began to establish myself in town, I built up my own teaching studio, which, due to logistical constraints, meant that I was only seeing them the traditional once weekly, and I felt that frustration of wanting to see them every day to help them practice.  My students who had musician parents holding them accountable held a distinct advantage over the others and it didn’t seem fair.

Now that I am traveling and concertizing more, I’ve been taking full advantage of the new online technologies of Skype and FaceTime. In addition to my teaching,  I have found myself moving back to doing more practice coaching again-with both students and young professionals, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it.  I constantly wonder what the classical music world would look like if everyone was practicing well and consistently.  People would have less stress, less self-loathing, and a lot more confidence to get up on stage and love the experience of playing their instrument.

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What do you think?  Have you ever worked with a practice coach? Or, if you’re a teacher, have you ever sent your students to work with one? I’d love to get a dialogue started about the usefulness of coaching in the classical music world, so please leave a comment below with your thoughts on the matter.  If you’d prefer to chat with me directly, you can find me here: https://katekayaian.com/teaching/

Cheers!

~Kate