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.
"Hey, will you come listen to something?"
At some point, we have all asked for feedback. Sometimes we ask explicitly, dragging people from the halls into our practice room to hear an excerpt, and sometimes it is the implicit request we make every time we show up for a lesson. This post is purely about that - asking for feedback.
A couple of weeks ago, I read this article in the Chronicle for Higher Education. It is not about music, but many of the points resonated in my immediately-pre-audition mind. When we ask someone to critique our playing, what do we really want?
In case you didn't actually read the article, I'll summarize - Allison points out that we need to be specific in what we want from our listeners. To translate her categories to music, we can ask for one of five types of feedback:
If you do indeed want feedback - you have asked for categories 1, 2, or 3 - the next step is interpreting what you receive. At this point in my thinking, I returned to the array of internet wisdom and found this post.
The important part is what this suggests about interpreting feedback.
Despite the catastrophic mentality of some of us, all critiques are not this:
Similarly, if your critic says anything at all, it does not mean this:
I venture to say that 99.a lot% of feedback lies somewhere between levels 1 and 9, and how we as players choose to respond to that feedback influences our future progress. To translate the author's example to music and add an extra interpretation of my own:
Feedback - "Your double-tonguing in Marriage of Figaro is too short."
Again, perhaps the most helpful interpretation of feedback lies somewhere between the extremes. As someone who tends toward the unclear feedback requests and catastrophic level 10 interpretations, I am making it my personal mission to shift my perspective.
So here it is - if you see me practicing at any point this spring, come on in and listen. I'll be specific and do my best not to enrage the beast.
As I hope your experiences support, the holidays are filled with parties, family dinners, and various musical opportunities, and with any group event comes a certain degree of collaboration. Sometimes these events can seem like chaos. Turkeys are brined, stuffing is stuffed, salads are tossed, rolls are baked... all too much for one person.
In an ideal collaboration, each person has a job matched to his or her interests and abilities. In times of chaos, we lose this strategy in the tornado of food and drink, and it is far too easy to feel abandoned on the sidelines as your unused brining prowess atrophies. My point? Jump in and offer your skills.
"Mom, sit down! I'll mash the potatoes!"
Because my mashed potatoes are awesome.
To extend the metaphor, I encourage you to find a way to mash the potatoes in your musical ventures over the next year.
Reflect on your own strengths and offer them proudly. Design posters, network, arrange music, coordinate schedules, lead rehearsals, program for your target audience, inspire invested performances, entertain.
I'll mash the potatoes.
"Technically, you played it correctly..."
"Technically, everything was right..."
"Technically, it was fine..."
This post goes out to the several people over the past month who have asked me what to do when they've technically done it all. You know who you are, and you're not alone.
I have previously referred to this performance trend as "playing apologetically."
This can take many forms:
As impolite as it sounds, what if we didn't apologize?
If no one wanted to hear you, they wouldn't be there. Even for "mandatory" school-related events, each and every audience member has chosen to listen to you perform instead of sitting on their respective couches ordering pizza and marathoning Netflix.
What if we didn't apologize for that? What if, instead, we made it really and truly worth their while? We are all at least as interesting as another streamed episode of Law and Order or Gossip Girl.
Sometimes I also think of this difficulty as "being camera shy." Shyness is about
hiding, and in music this can be physically hiding behind our music stand or
instrument. More often, though, it means emotionally hiding behind the ink on
the page, rather than presenting what we actually believe about a piece and its
For the sake of brevity, here I defer to these cute kids in this Dove commercial:
When did you stop thinking you're worth hearing?
Throw away whatever hides you.
Show off for the camera.
"Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent."
This idea of habit formation has been central to my most recent "Lap Four" goal - see my earlier post if you're confused. Historically, I have problems with consistency. One day I play a brilliant concerto, the next I forget how to slur an octave. Home run, strike out.
In my multifaceted approach to solve this problem (and subsequent random internet surfing), I came across several videos, web resources, and a book by New York Times writer Charles Duhigg. He describes the "Habit Loop," which led me to two important realizations:
I set out to deconstruct my habit loop.
CUE: Public performance.
ROUTINE: Freak out, lose control.
REWARD: An "engaging" performance. Sometimes this is a euphemism, sometimes not.
Here's his story, the cookie-based version of my bassoon habit:
After months of diligent work refocusing on the reward - engaging an audience with a musical experience - I finally stepped beyond my most recent plateau. I played in a master class, and, for the first time in what felt like forever, I was happy with what I presented.
I played representatively. I played how I play when I'm alone. I played how I play when I am having fun. *gasp*
A friend of mine asked me later that evening what I felt to be the biggest change in my playing over the past several months, and I gave him a highly inadequate answer. (So, this post is partially for you, Adam!)
I gave him a technical answer. I did blah blah to my reeds and think of my sound as blah blah and by body blah. Blah.
After more reflection, here's the real answer: I practiced right.
By "right" I don't mean that I was practicing wrong before. I mean I practiced being right and knowing I could be right. I practiced being right more than I was being wrong, which I had always before thought of as a waste of time. However, it stands to reason that we will always do what we have always done. If nine times out of ten you crack a note, that one success only means that you have a 10% chance the next time around. Play it correctly ten times in a row, then your chances just over 50% (11 rights for 9 wrongs). Math!
I stopped practicing to be perfect, and I started practicing to be permanent. I practiced right, and it felt right.
Go give it a shot, and let me know what you think!
Warning: This post contains moments of tough love.
Why do you practice?
To move up in your section? To reach higher than your personal best? To increase your ability to connect with an audience?
Up means improvement and success. Just take a look at my Google image search for "success":
In practicing and learning, those "up" moments are brilliant. They encourage us, console us, validate us.
Sure, the "down" moments sting, but it's the prolonged periods of parallel motion that are truly devastating. It hurts to work and feel no progress, it hurts when dedication doesn't seem to matter, and it hurts to watch others improve while you're stuck on cruise control. Plateaus are the worst.
So now I offer you three "UP"s as options to take until you reach your next "up".
To conclude: I had a teacher once who equated the process of practicing and improving over the long-term to climbing a mountain - it is only at the end of your climb that you realize how high you've reached.
In the meantime, though, remind yourself what you can do. Tell yourself you're awesome, because you are to someone (even if not yourself).
Some plateaus can be just plain beautiful.
"So, what do you do?"
As musicians and students, we are oddly forgiving of inappropriate answers to this question, and as we meet hordes of potential friends at the start of each year, we reinforce the inappropriateness with conversations that go something like this:
"Hi, I'm Cayla. I play the bassoon."
"Oh, cool. I do, too."
"What do you like to do for fun?"
"I've never had much time for hobbies."
and icebreaker games that go something like this:
"Tell us your name, what you study, where you're from, and something you like to do."
"Hi, I'm Cayla, and I study music. I'm from Georgia. I play the bassoon."
After these conversations and introductions, I find that I know next to nothing about the actual person next to me, and he or she knows nothing about me. More disturbingly, I used to find that the question of hobbies made me hesitate, too.
The rare student who gets beyond that hesitation is not much more creative. What do you like to do in your spare time? More importantly, what do you do that makes you:
WRONG. You need sleep to function. This is not a hobby.
WRONG. See above.
WRONG. This is, more often than not, code for "sleeping while I'm awake." Something relaxing but not engaging in the long run. This is not a hobby.
PROBABLY WRONG. Unless you run for the sheer enjoyment of running, you are using exercise for a secondary function of health or beautification. This is (often) not a hobby.
Read? Knit? Play guitar? Hike?
MAYBE. Why do you do it, really?
One of the best things I could have done for myself over the past year was to channel my youthful hobbyist and join the fabulous Bloomingfoods co-ed softball team. I joined because I missed being what I had started calling a "real person" doing something with other "real people."
When I was younger, this was not a rare experience. I played softball. I picked up trombone for jazz and marching bands. I wrote short stories (and even a novel once, literally my heaviest artistic contribution to the world). Here are a couple pictures of me looking cute and having a hobby.
Other than reminiscing on our younger days, why do hobbies matter to us as musicians?
Music mandates that we be human. We have to roll in the dirt and know firsthand what it feels like to be cold, supported, like a failure, and so on. We have to live life to truly know pieces of it to share with other humans. Isn't that what we do?
As we each enter a new academic year or performance season that pulls us in too many directions of too many commitments, I throw one more task in front of you. Find something that makes you YOU, independent of your studies, your work, your friends, and your background - something that makes you smile, that you would do if no one asked or noticed or praised, that makes you feel alive.
And as an added bonus, you might be able to confidently answer the question I leave you with now:
"So, what do you do?"
Over the years, I have received many pieces of advice for the days leading up to a performance, including, but certainly not limited to, the following:
We are so inundated with advice, many pieces of which directly contradict each other. It can be overwhelming and downright confusing. So naturally, I'm going to offer you one more.
What I offer tonight is about your music - the actual sheet of paper, not the abstract concept or expressive nature of performance, but the paper you have been literally and figuratively sweating over for weeks.
Here it is:
Erase your brackets.
You know the brackets I mean, those thin stripes of graphite reminding you each passage you still "can't play."
Erase them, because if you are anything like me, they are no longer helpful practice guidelines, but rather signs that might as well look like this:
This relates directly to the previously listed advice on expectations. Brackets remind us that we have tended to fail right there, right then. Over time, that reminder has become an expectation, and I struggle to find a more disheartening pre-anything thought than the expectation of epic failure.
Rather than expecting the best or the worst or whatever is most likely to happen, I invite you to expect nothing at all. Listen to what you are doing - this is when the real music comes into play now, not the paper kind - and try to be just a little bit surprised.
You might just surprise yourself in a good way.
Early in the process of learning new music, I generally experience the following stages:
1. Sheer excitement - characterized by wild sight-reading with little to no regard for mistakes
2. Childlike optimism - characterized by a bizarre joy for drilling technique and fundamentals, accompanied by frequent positive visualizations of future performances
3. Reality strike - characterized by the identification of true trouble passages, occasionally leading to angry practice
This concept of angry practice is something I have been focusing on in my latest adventure into new repertoire study, and today was my first instance of its ugly head rearing in a practice session. I chose the image of super-angry "El Toro" above in part because he is, indeed, super-angry, but also in part because angry practice became a clear tendency of mine on the baseball (softball) diamond.
To this day, my dad will reference the softball version of angry-practicer Cayla whenever I describe coming up against failure. I spent a good deal of my youth softball days as a pitcher, and I would feel the anger boil almost every time I just couldn't get the sinker to sink or the change-up to change up. Or the strike to be a strike. I would stand on the mound and set my jaw (my muscles clench a little just thinking about it). I would breathe like a bull about to skewer a toreador, and I would snap the ball in my glove.
Snap, snap, snap. That's what we do as musicians in the same situation.
Cracking the articulated A every time? MASH THAT VENT KEY!
Uneven sixteenth notes? TAP YOUR FOOT REALLY HARD! AND SLAM YOUR FINGERS!
Under-supported interval slurs? PLAY THEM REALLY LOUDLY!
Unsurprisingly, these overly-physical, emotionally-driven are not always conducive to good learning. More often than not, the extra drive (my polite way of saying blind anger) drives up the tempo and dynamic of our practice sessions, making it even less likely that we succeed.
Contrary to the advice you may expect, however, I am not about to tell you to calm down. Firstly, rarely are emotional states truly in our control. Secondly, being angry means that you care, and that is wonderful. Thirdly, emotion drives our expression far more than flawless technique. This guy may have some expressive issues -
- but, you know what, so does this guy:
So what do you do?
Angry practice is not good, but anger is not bad. Rather than rattle off a string of unsupported advice, I would rather simply reflect on how I am currently dealing with this trend in my own practice.
For me, the answer to this contradiction lies in the fact that the anger is energy, and we all need energy in some facet of our playing. Focus the fundamental raw energy of the anger on the things in your own personal playing that need an extra kick - for some that is grounded connection with the chair or floor, for others it is embouchure engagement. For us all it is probably airspeed and motion through the phrase or between note changes.
I tried this today in one particularly troublesome measure of Bozza's Recit, Sicilienne, and Rondo that I am planning to perform in July. After spending the standard five minutes letting my angry energy reveal itself in the blunt force trauma to my fingertips as I wildly slapped at an E to F-sharp connection, I stepped back (literally, took a little walk) and contemplated where I could better use that energy. In this case, I needed a more successful voicing, and I was pleasantly surprised at the change in atmosphere of my practice session after.
Success! My angry practicing had become energetic focus.
Now... on to the task of replicating this experience.
What ways have you found to redirect or defuse angry practicing?
Really, I'm curious. Comment away!
After my most recent writing haitus, I struggled over choosing which topic would relaunch my blogging. Many things come to mind (and will be passed to yours in due time) - I have stream of consciousness ramblings and vague outlines on teaching, focus and mindfulness, research, social media presence, and so on and so forth. I decided to blog on "powering up" because it has benefitted me very concretely in the past two weeks.
It all started here, with my summer foray into documentaries and TED Talks:
In case you don't have 20 minutes to watch a TED Talk (which I think you should set aside at least once a week), the organization summarizes it for you:
"Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see
Wait a minute. So you CAN actually fake it 'til you make it?
The concept is quite simple, actually. Holding your body in a wider, more expansive, "high power" pose sends the message to your brain that you are, in fact, high power. Biologically, the claim is that testosterone levels rise and cortisol ones fall, thus increasing your subconscious expectation of success and your natural propensity for risk-taking (or bravery-requiring) behaviors. Additionally, you send the the nonverbal message that you are strong and confident, despite how you may feel in actuality.
I was intrigued enough to try this a little over a week ago, immediately before performing the Mozart Concerto with the lovely Henry Cheng and IU Ad-Hoc Orchestra, to whom I am continually thankful. Despite my immense self-consciousness, I stood backstage for a solid minute like this:
No, I was not wearing that costume.
I was amazed at how well it worked! I felt physically stronger, my weight was more even distributed between my feet, my legs and hips were more grounded, my inhalations flowed deeper into my abdomen, my shoulders fell back and down naturally. As much as I was ever going to in that moment, I felt pretty Wonder Woman-y.
Now, I am not advocating imagining yourself as a superhero as a method for technical improvement. Ultimately, if you can be as collected, self-assured, and in the moment as possible while performing, you are more likely to replicate how you present the music in a stress-free environment. And superheros, at least according to my observations, cope with stress exceptionally well.
Amy Cuddy (afore-referenced TED Talker and Harvard business professor) presents this as applicable in job interviews and presentations. I vote for performance settings such as recitals or auditions. The opportunities are quite wide ranging, though. Give it a shot, and I would love to know what you experience.
Power up and go be super!