An observer in a wind ensemble rehearsal of mine recently asked why I spent so much valuable rehearsal time (upwards of 30 minutes from a two hour block, less than a week before the concert) leading the group through breathing exercises and chord building.
Why do we do this?
Particularly at the beginning of each academic year, musician after musician returns wholeheartedly to fundamentals routines, which inevitably wane as the stress piles. Ensemble rehearsals begin, recitals are scheduled, juries loom... why do we "waste" this time and energy when we need to learn our "actual music"? Better yet, for those students not majoring in music, why do we have to learn scales and perform seemingly-endless articulation and intonation exercises with metronomes and drones if our goal is solely to participate in large ensembles or play the occasional gig after graduation?
For you, the student, here are my various depths of answers to the questions you dare not ask:
Why long tones?
Level One: Long tones are the most basic thing we do - making a sound on our instrument. If you can isolate the process of producing a sound, you can vastly improve your musical cake before attempting to put any icing on it.
Level Two: Long tones allow us to focus on the most basic setup of posture, support, tone, and intonation. Play a single note with absolute focus on producing the exact sound you want, and your performance consistency will skyrocket. A stunning long tone tapering to silence is one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard.
Level Three: Long tones are precise and require control to master. In all aspects of life, improvement and quality come most reliably with control. We must practice control.
Level One: Scales are the building blocks of music, especially Western tonal music. If you can learn the word (the scale) you don't have to sound it out (practice to face-palm status) every time you encounter a particular pattern.
Level Two: Scales allow us to focus on the most basic motions of air, embouchure, and finger technique. Loop a pattern that is more automatic, and you have more brain power to dedicate to the things to which you need to mindfully attune in your playing. A perfect scale, even in dynamic and tone across the full range of an instrument, is one of the most impressive performances I have ever heard.
Level Three: Scales are repetitive and require discipline to master. In all aspects of life, improvement and quality come most steadily with discipline. We must practice discipline.
Why practice records/listening logs/reflection reports?
Level One: Records remind you what you have done and what you need to do. Memories are fallible, and we lose efficiency by repeating unnecessary work or forgetting to attend to something.
Level Two: Documentation allows us to find trends in our preparation. Perhaps three hours of playing the morning of a lesson leads to a lower quality lesson than you might anticipate, or perhaps two days without practicing scales is too long to reliably recall new patterns. Perhaps what feels like an eternity memorizing a concerto is, in reality, only ten minutes. Analysis of my own practice perception compared to reality is one of the most eye-opening educational moments I have had.
Level Three: Recording preparation, progress, and achievements is reflective and requires self-awareness. In all aspects of life, improvement and quality come most efficiently with self-awareness. We must practice self-awareness.
So why do we do this?
As a teacher, my goal for you is to achieve the highest you can - as a person and as a professional. I firmly believe that fundamentals not only build a solid foundation of skills on the instrument, but also one of the mental habits and emotional fortitude required to be successful in any capacity. We do this because it will help you develop the control, discipline, and self-awareness you need for your next step in life. We do this because it will make you better, in all aspects of the word.
Now, please excuse me. I need to go practice my scales.
With many hours of training runs and races this season, I had plenty of endurance zen time to contemplate my hours of practicing and performing music. So many things feel the same between running and the disciplined study and presentation of music - both require a huge sacrifice of finances, time, and energy; both consolidate months of training into minutes or hours of performance; and, if you do them right, both are intense labors of love.
As I sat enjoying my post-race chocolate milk after a blistering hot half marathon last weekend, I realized how powerful these connections could be, if we could just distill them into usable advice. What follows are nine things that running has taught me about music.
1. Check Your Form
When it gets hard, rely on fundamentals. When the heat index is in the triple digits, and your shirt is soaked through with sweat, and you can't possibly lift your feet for one more step, runners know that you must stay mindful of how your arms pump to create momentum forward, which part of your foot hits the ground, and exactly how many minutes it has been since you last sipped your water. When you are nearing the climax of your recital closer, and your embouchure is trembling, and your hands are shaking from nerves, top performers know that you must reconnect with your grounded posture and engage your airstream. Fatigue makes us forgetful, and in stress we must all check our form.
2. Plan Your Season
What is the top priority this year, your "A race"? Is it really wise to impulse buy a 5K with friends and go all out one week before your targeted national ranking triathlon? (In my case, absolutely not!) Are you targeting graduate school or summer festival auditions? Perhaps your junior or senior recital? Naturally, the life of a musician requires balancing many high priority performances, but is it really wise to schedule your prescreening recording session the weekend before that regional orchestra audition? If you have control over your schedule, plan wisely and sequence things in a way that makes sense for you, physically and mentally.
3. Take the Traveled Path (Sometimes)
When running on a trail in the woods, sometimes there are choices: jump the log or double back around it. One adds difficulty, and the other adds distance, and anyone can make that choice based on their needs at the time. In the academic world, this is the choice between taking a heavy course load one semester to graduate on time and keeping your schedule manageable but adding a summer or semester (or year) to your college career. Sometimes, though, one path may be much more worn than another - it seems like everyone chose to run around the rock rather than over it or finish their music education degree in five years instead of four. If there is a successful path that others have taken, it stands to reason that you could be successful there, too, so don't feel the need to reinvent the wheel every time. Keep your mind open to those paths less traveled... but only if they won't trip you up, literally or figuratively!
4. Invest in Quality Equipment
Buy the good shoes in the right size, and you'll avoid injury. Buy a good instrument and good tools and the good cane, and you'll never regret it.
5. Practice Slow and Fast
Five time world champion triathlete Javier Gomez is famous for saying "if you want to race fast, you have to train fast." The three key workouts for runners are speed, hills, and endurance - practice being fast, practice being strong, and practice persevering. In music preparation, these are the same principles, and we all often neglect at least one. Practice being fast: drill short motives at or above performance tempo, but only one or two intervals at a time to grow accustomed to moving quickly and precisely. Practice being strong: build your performance muscles through long tones and scales that make sense for your repertoire. Marriage of Figaro? D Major at pianissimo and double tonguing at your excerpt tempo. Mozart Concerto? B-flat Major in staccato sixteenth notes and wide interval intonation at forte. Practice persevering: balance focused work with putting trouble passages back in context, and use long tones as a way of building muscular endurance with your abdominals and embouchure. You will perform how you have practiced, no matter how that is.
6. Find Your Pacer
When you participate in a large race, there are experienced runners called "pacers" who hold up signs with goal paces and finish times on them, and they run the race as their sign reads for people to follow based on their individual goals. If you want to run a half marathon in under two hours, go find that guy or gal in the neon tank top holding the 2:00 sign and stick to him/her like glue. In music, this is not a simultaneous experience, but you can find a collection of people whose careers you admire and explore how they paced to get there. How did the top orchestral principals study and practice to win their auditions? Where did your admired college professors study, teach, and play before arriving at their current institutions? Be proud of your goals, and go find your pacer.
7. Take Care of You
When you are tired, sleep. When you are hungry, eat. When you are frustrated, take a break. When you are in pain, stop.
Skipping workouts and eating extra donuts will not earn you a personal record race time. Playing every other day or sitting in the practice room on your phone will not win you an audition. Long term results require long term work, and you must be ready to commit.
9. Spit to the Side
Last but not least, this one is perhaps my favorite. Sometimes runners need to spit (yes, literally), and one of the worst things you can do is turn to the side and hit someone right behind you. My record in a race is being spit on twice - not pleasant. Look before you clean out your bocal, and remember that your success does not necessarily mean someone else's failure. Or at least someone else's shoe covered in spit. Be kind to those around you, and best wishes in your continued lessons on the road, in music, and in life.
Happy new year!
Tis the season for fresh starts, new goals, and the grand promise of resolutions. But why do we set resolutions? Tradition tells us to, certainly, but most of us have a genuine interest in bettering ourselves. In fact, many of us feel the need to do so in the same ways:
With such great goals, why do we fail?
Typically, I fall into the resolution death trap trifecta - too many, too big, too vague. "Be kind to yourself." "Actually practice scales." "Get in shape." In an effort to create a reachable, improved version of myself in 2016 (as well as keep one of my resolutions AND test my own advice!), I checked in with some resources on goal setting.
Advice is everywhere. One author at Psych Central implores us to make "nourishing" resolutions in a "goal-friendly environment", one from The New Yorker suggests that the most successful resolution is a well-timed resolution, and a third at U.S. News and World Report insists that written resolutions are the only ones that count. My interpretation is to combine these and combat the trifecta - pick a few breakdown-able, specific goals and track them in writing.
What works for you in setting resolutions? Share below!
To do as I say, here are my 2016 New Year's Resolutions, categorized as a means to limit my resolution frenzy. (If you don't care about my intellectual, physical, or professional ones, skip to the bottom for the musical.)
And yes, I will try to practice my scales, too.
The following post is dedicated to delayed reactions, repeated efforts, and times of percolation.
After a concentrated experiment to kick off the new semester, this return from my blog hiatus also marks a confident return to a practice routine. I was first introduced to the Pomodoro Technique by my colleague Dr. Brent Weber during our time together at the University of Georgia, and since then I have wrestled with an approach that made logical sense but never seemed to work for me.
In summary, the Pomodoro Technique works as follows:
You have a project or series of tasks, you divide them into digestible units, you work for a set amount of time on each unit, you break up the monotony with strategic short and long breaks, and you win. Makes sense, right?
For years of my on-again-off-again relationship with pomodoros, however, we could just never see eye to eye.
I encountered a series of difficulties that may seem familiar for anyone attempting to create successful practice result and time goals:
My growing experience in pedagogy helped solve the first two, and delving into mindfulness and psychology research helped with the second two, but the last one still eluded me. I was terribly bored. All the time.
So what if I tried techniques from other things that used to bore me? I turned to running, one of my favorite mind-numbingly-boring physical exercises, and the epiphany I had been seeking for years hit me square in the face. When I started getting bored running, I found ways to change my scenery more frequently. What if, instead of one passage for 25% of a practice session, I did one measure at a time for 5-10%?
One week ago, I attacked this with gusto. I photocopied all of the music I needed to perform in ten days' time and literally cut it into chunks - one measure chunks, to be exact - and I shortened my time restriction to ten minutes - shorter periods than I had used since before college. The result was magical.
I began to access a flow state multiple times per practice session. Hours slipped by without anguish. Technical tempo barriers increased exponentially and without tension. Endurance was a nonissue. I felt unstoppable.
I attribute this entirely to finding my own personal cocktail for experiencing as many flow triggers as possible in a short period of time. Of the 17 different accepted triggers (many of which are social and not applicable to individual study), this shortened and more focused pomodoro design allowed me to relate to all of the following:
The shift in excerpt length required me to change my concept of goals from larger skills (response in the low register) to specific instances (low B overblown, but only at louder than mezzo forte and if staccato). The shift in timing increased adrenaline and anxiety (then again, so did using a giant, constantly visible timer). The best part, though, is that the process freed me from mandating perfection - when the timer goes off, work is done, if only for now.
After years of skepticism with this particular technique, I am actually shocked to finally find a permutation of duration, goals, and preparation situation that works for me, and that has sparked a great deal of curiosity. If any of you try this approach, please share... What timer duration is best for you? What types of goals? Where in your recital/audition/jury preparation cycle is this best?
With that, my writing timer is going off, and it is time for a short break. Happy (and efficient) practicing!
"I could never do that."
We have all said this at some point, but I'm not convinced we know how much. In only the last 24 hours (and only in the arts), I have heard the following:
These grow and branch out, one by one, to become a tree of impossibilities looming over our careers.
Fairly recently, I've become more specific with what I call my "Impossible Bucket List," and I challenge you to, as well. This bucket list would include repertoire and techniques that at one point (maybe even now) you labeled as impossible, something you would never have the fundamental capacity to manage. Then, pick something and check it off.
Please don't misunderstand. Checking off does not mean perfecting something you deem impossible. Checking off means giving it a real shot. The rolling up your sleeves, 110%, elbow grease kind of trying. For me, this has been via double tonguing (2011), the doctoral audition process (2012), and the Gubaidulina Duo (2014) and Maslanka (two days ago) Sonatas.
I hear you. "Yeah, yeah, Cayla. Stop bragging. Anything is possible. Whatever."
Nope. You know what? They were all nearly-laughable hot messes of experiences. But you know what else? I don't think any of them are impossible anymore.
My point is not to say that everything is possible right now with focus and hard work. You're tired of hearing that. My goal is not to encourage you to focus on perfecting something inappropriate for your development level. That would be irresponsible.
My point is that no one knows if something is truly impossible for you, and my goal is for you to challenge your own definition of possibility.
Make a few messes.
It might be awesome.
Do you remember the first time you thought your instrument was awesome?
I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, and a doctoral student performed Andre Previn's Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, and I am pretty sure my mouth actually dropped open. I was so nerdishly giggly and head over heels in love. I swore that I would play it "when I was ready" (whatever that meant to 18-year-old Cayla). I didn't even listen to it again for a long time, purely out of fear that in the harsh light of a second listening I would fall out of love.
I did in fact play it later (see a clip from my first doctoral recital here) and will again this coming spring.
It has not been until years later, though, that I realize what actually happened in that moment. I thought the bassoon and its music were awesome. After that performance, I started hearing the potential for awesome in everything. There was a good bit in Saint-Saens, there was some in Mozart, there was a lot in Vivaldi, and most recently there was way more than I expected in Gubaidulina. From that point on, everything new could potentially be knock-me-to-the-floor awesome.
So I'll ask again: do you remember the first time you thought your instrument was awesome?
In addition to being a warm fuzzy and self-assuring sentiment, this realization has motivated me through the tough practice sessions lately. While I've written before about the tools of slow and the dangers of angry practicing, this is even more fundamental. For me, this has been the answer to the "why am I doing this?"
These past few weeks, I have been working on David Maslanka's Sonata. In a break from one particularly tricky section, I wandered my way onto Instagram:
Pouring in the blood, sweat, and tears for the potential of awesome is one thing. For years, that has been enough. Now I realize that I work not only to realize the potential of awesome in a performance, but also to potentially create a moment where someone first realizes that the bassoon and its music are awesome. That music as a whole is pretty awesome.
What if you were the moment someone realized music is awesome?
Now get to it. Go be awesome.
The concept of immersion brings with it one strong command: sink or swim.
In the music world, our immersions come in the form of workshops, symposia, and festivals, and we sink or swim just the same. As I return from another summer of musical immersion, I can't help but reflect on those I've seen swim beautifully... and those who struggled and sank. With such high stakes as your precious technical development, potentially wavering self-esteem, and sense of self as a musician and human, it's best to be sure you know how to swim.
After a total of twelve summers and seven different types of musical immersion programs (many back-to-back in the same year), I think I have it figured out. Sinking is almost always a result of unreadiness in one of four ways.
So when are you ready to swim?
... when you love something.
If you don't love something, certainly don't surround yourself by nothing but highly concentrated versions of that and its biggest fans for a long period of time. Just don't do that to yourself.
Is there something you love to the point of 24 hours not being enough? Is it music? If so, you're 25% ready for immersion.
... when you're confident.
Immersion programs draw the best of the best, period. If you have gone through the type of audition or application process that most of these types of programs require, you have something to offer. Own it!
Can you recognize your strengths and rock them? If so, you're halfway there.
... when you're ready to be wrong.
But don't be too confident. These programs are designed to teach, and that requires a willingness to learn.
Can you ask for and accept feedback and grow from it, without too many hurt feelings? If so, you're nearly ready.
... when you're ready for "camp friends."
Okay, I know festivals and workshops technically aren't "camps," but completely engrossing yourself in an experience completely engrosses you in the people. "Camp friends" are the ones you get to know the fastest and most intensely, the people who you tell secrets, even though you've only known them for two days. People can make or break an immersion experience. They can help you swim or drag you to the bottom, often with them.
If you made it this far through the swimming checklist, you are ready for an immersion. You love something and know what you have to offer. You know that you are not perfect and want to improve. You are excited to find other people just like you.
That being said, applications for most programs go live in about a month - now get out there and immerse yourself in something wonderful!
Okay, I get it. Slow down.
In my experience, this is by far the most frequent practice advice given. In their exceedingly popular music blogs, Noa Kageyama asks "Is Slow Practice Really Necessary?", Gerald Klickstein explores "A Different Kind of Slow Practice", and Daniel Coyle shows us all how "Slow is Beautiful."
Okay, I get it.
For determined practicers, the problem is often not that we don't practice slowly. The problem is that we don't know how slowly. We show up to lessons insisting that we have been practicing slowly (usually we're not lying), and we hear week after week to practice slower. But slow is boring, and slow is confusing.
How slow is slow enough?
THE LONG(ER) ANSWER:
I turned to the idea of mindfulness. Most basically, mindful practicing meant being aware of everything, all the time. When I did that, I practiced slowly and deliberately enough to see relaxed, lasting change.
Without going too far into the psychology and meditation side of the movement, I found an ideal practice tempo by tapping into multiple senses. Specific questions helped:
Focusing on real-time sensations rather than long term goals slowed me down. I practiced less angrily. Repetitions felt like experiences, not like plateaus. The absolute best part about it, though, was that everything sounded like I wanted it to sound. I was like a kid in the nerdiest candy shop ever.
Now for THE SHORT(EST) ANSWER:
No: Practice so you can do everything right.
Yes: Practice so you can do nothing wrong.
Happy (slow enough) practicing!
Image borrowed from ADHD and Spring Cleaning: 10 Survival Tips,
which also has an awesome list of steps to overcome distraction!
About this time every year, all of humanity seems to go cuckoo for cleaning. Some even say it's ingrained into our cultural identity from our ancestors clearing out their dusty huts. Last year I went cuckoo and ended up re-caulking a bathtub.
Cleaning can be therapeutic and invigorating. It's freeing, in a way, to have a literal fresh start.
This year, I'm challenging myself to funnel my spring cleaning urges into musical things. (My bathtub caulk can temporarily fend for itself.) A couple of these are literal, physical cleanings. The others are figurative and psychological. Like that weird ribboned radio thing above, though, all are ugly and broken, and all need to be cleaned.
Here are four highlights from my list, complete with plans of attack. Feel free to add yours below, and we can fight the good spring cleaning fight together!
So there you have it, a quick introduction to my musical spring cleaning list. Now that I've taken care of "going public," maybe I can actually bring myself to throw away that moldy recital reed...
Best of luck in your spring cleanings!
Last week I sent a text message that used the word "just" three times. ... A text.
I am especially guilty of using the word "just." I just want to tell people things. I just want to say... I'd just like to ask... I was just wondering... and it will just take a minute. For me, "just" doing something is often an apology. I'm sorry you're reading this right now - I just wanted to share something, and it will just take a moment of your time.
As it turns out, when I started paying attention to this tendency, I found that it has seeped into my professional world, too.
Two days ago, the awesome Christina Feigel and I taught a master class on giving constructive criticism that included scripted responses with students. As happens with scripts, ours became predictable and elicited some laughter and good-natured teasing. What was my response to that? "It's just one option of phrasing."
WHAT WERE YOU DOING, PAST CAYLA?! That meant they were listening, and they learned. No apology needed.
I even do it - and I bet you do, too - in musical and school situations:
Now, the point - I have decided to reclaim the word "just." "Just" is not always evil. Sometimes "just" keeps things in perspective. Sometimes "just" helps me focus.
I put this plan into action last night, for the bassoon preliminaries of the concerto competition. I did a little powering up and made a positive "just" mantra.
I am not going to do everything. I am not going to play with flawless technique. I am not going to be the poster child for authentic Baroque style. I am not even going to remember every note.
And at the end of the evening, I hadn't played with flawless technique or glorious Baroque style. I hadn't even remembered all the notes. "Just" wasn't a perfect plan, by any means. But someone came up to me afterward to tell me how much he enjoyed it - "I mean, really."
You know what I felt like?
Yep, phenomenal cosmic power. "Just" wasn't a perfect plan, but it was a surprisingly empowering one.
I'm just going to leave you with that.