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

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

April Focus: Teaching and Being Taught

 

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I’ve never met a (classical) musician who didn’t also teach.  Sure, there are times when teaching is put on the back-burner for a time, or maybe even stopped completely. But It is virtually unheard of for a musician to go their entire career without sharing their passion, experience and knowledge with others who are eager to learn their craft. To me, it also seems like it is our duty to pass on what our teachers learned from their teachers.  My first cello teacher, Gilda Barston, studied at Juilliard with Leonard Rose, who had studied with Felix Salmond, whose mother studied piano with Clara Schumann.  I mean, what a legacy.  The musical thoughts and ideas that were taught to me, come from some pretty steep places!  So, yes-I’d better continue to pass them on to the next generation.

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I taught my first lesson when I was around 10. It wasn’t my own student, of course, but a younger student of Mrs. Barston who lived in my neighborhood, and whose parents both worked long hours and didn’t have time to help him practice.  They paid me to come to the house 2-3 days a week and help him.  I will never forget that feeling of pride I felt when I was able to help him play something that had been giving him trouble, or how happy he would get when he saw he was making progress.  Mrs. Barston gave my name to a few other students over the years, and by the time I landed as a freshman at NEC, I had been “teaching” for 8 years.

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I’ve become fascinated by how we work with students in the classical music world these days, in how things have evolved over the generations, and how they might be changing in the future.  It used to be that if you showed a certain amount of talent, you would be taken to live in Paris or New York or wherever, and your mother would rent an apartment for you or send you to live with relatives and you would have daily lessons with a great master.  These days,  people find a teacher who lives near them and they meet with them every week–same day, same time, for the same length of time. In between those lessons, the students are expected to work on their own, and make a certain amount of improvement.  To be honest, I’m not sure that is the most effective way of doing things.  I have been doing some (very unscientific!) research amongst my colleagues and my students this past year, and I have been thinking about what the best ratio of coached/self-practice is.  Whether it depends on the student and what other, outside factors are involved.  With the technological advances we have seen with Skype and Facetime, what is the future of teaching and does location need to be a consideration anymore?

 

 

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I’m looking forward to doing some deep dives into these questions this month, the idea of a music teacher as a coach, and what the ideal conditions are for learning.  I am lucky to be standing on the shoulders of musical giants, and so, while I will be spending the majority of this month on the road, and perhaps BECAUSE I will be spending the majority of this month on the road performing, I am dedicating this month’s focus to my teachers: Gilda Barston, Nell Novak, Colin Carr, Ralph Kirshbaum, Michael Tilson Thomas and all of the other brilliant musicians who have taken the time to share their passion, experience and knowledge with me.  I would be neither the musician, nor the teacher I am today if it weren’t for them, and I am eternally grateful.

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