Spring has finally sprung here in NYC. With the change of seasons comes the inevitable wardrobe switch from hats to sunglasses, parkas to anoraks, boots to fun flats and, as an added accessory for me, a new brand of horn!
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This sentiment has guided almost every major musical decision I've made in my career. From choosing summer festivals to reading scores, I often ask myself: "if this is the last time I get to play this piece, is this the decision I want to go out on?" It has permeated the way I listen to music, and it's probably what keeps me locked into the passion I have for being a horn player.
The babies are asleep, the toys are picked up, the kitchen is cleaned, and it's too late to practice anymore. As is my wont to do, I started wondering why I can't get enough of this seemingly junky TV.
Today's snow day couldn't have come at a better time, because I was running on fumes by the end of last week. Here's a snapshot from a day that made me think "Whew, it's good to be a horn player!".
Sometimes it's a link to a news article, and sometimes it's an inspirational banner, but the message is the same: don't quit because your big break could be around the corner. ..they offend me so much that I've taken to the blog!
In some cases, these posts serve to keep me accountable in the things I'm working on and the goals I'm striving towards. Here are my big three resolutions as a musician for this year.
We are the bulk of the people working in the industry, and I think we deserved to be celebrated in our own time, not after we embark on a path that redefines who we are. We are directly in touch with our audiences and we have the power to shape the way people see classical music in a hands-on way, on a daily basis. We're working, we're living, and sometimes we're freaking out: we're the Musicians of Now. And we're awesome.
Nowadays, if you judge people by the face they put up on social media, everyone is working and having a great time...why is it so hard for me to be honest about where I'm truly coming from?
Any musician who has ever searched the Internet knows that there are a million and a half articles about practicing. We all know that a healthy practice regiment consists of hitting a lot of marks on a lengthy list of criteria, and to describe what I do every day feels like I'm belaboring a well-made point. I'm more interested in documenting an approach that I return to probably every other week: practicing for physical and mental stamina.
Physical endurance is a tricky topic to talk about because there are so many ways it can go wrong. Too much preparation can lead to injury, as I've experienced, and too little can lead to terrible inconsistency, as I've also experienced! I've written before that I have some serious limits on my practice time these days, and practicing in intense spurts has really helped me. For example, I've been playing the Dufrasne Routine every day to every other day. I split that routine in half and make it a point to play the first 7 exercises in a row, no matter how I feel or how long it takes to play them evenly and cleanly. This usually takes about 15 minutes, and can feel like I've barely played or like I've climbed a mountain, based on what my playing life has been like. I've been preparing for an unaccompanied concert and a major pops concert these past weeks, so this is feeling pretty easy for me at the moment! After a small break, usually ten minutes or however long it takes to feed the toddler a snack, I finish the book, which pretty much always feels like a task.
All this to make the point that it's important to me that I learn how to play when I'm feeling tired. In an ideal situation, I work steadily without days off, and this inevitably leads to having to play when I'm feeling totally tired or swollen. If I can practice playing in unsuitable elements, it's not so scary when I have to do this on the job. Without the panic that sets in when I'm on the spot to make money, I have the clarity of mind to think about which parts of my embouchure are really responsible for different things; like flexibility, soft and loud playing, and high and low playing. I also can get a idea of how much to ease off or engage my embouchure and supplement with more air. Too much air can spread my sound and tempt me to disengage my embouchure, while too little air forces me to tighten and play less efficiently. It's a fine line that I get an opportunity to explore in a safe place.
As physical as playing gets, I find that I can be in incredible shape and still play sloppily. This boils down to what I feel is the crux of my ability on the horn: mental stamina. Again, this is a skill that I want to hone while I'm at home and not on the job. In the best concerts I've played, I was observing myself and thinking in real time as I was playing. I had a plan based on repetitive practice, but I was in the moment enough to switch gears if there was something else going on, for example, a conductor on the podium that was in the throes of live and expressive music.
I had heard many psychologists discuss "out-of-body experiences", and striving to have those during performances, where musicians are in the moment so much that they can't remember what they played or how they sounded. It sounds like an ethereal experience but, in my personal experience, I would never feel comfortable playing a job and not remembering what I did and how I could improve. I have some important performances and auditions on the horizon, and the last thing I want is to mentally tire before I'm done with the task ahead of me. I'm trying a new approach to this side of my playing by trying to practice what I'm calling "mindful performance".
Like physical endurance, it's easy for me to make mistakes when I'm feeling tired or unfocused. These days I'm running on less than an adequate amount of sleep (go figure!), and the mistakes that bother me the most are the ones I make when my mind drifts to a completely different subject. I think often about how to play and complete a Mahler symphony, but how often do I really think about being mentally present for the entire 90 plus minutes that some of these pieces entail? Definitely not as much as the former issue. Lately, I've been practicing material twice as slow so that I can focus on it as if I'm in a performance. I've spent twenty-plus years repeating passages that are difficult, but it doesn't affect mental slips for me in performance: they still happen. If I can play things slow and hear mistakes in real time and even anticipate them before they happen. This might seem obvious to most people, but for me it's liberating to play things ridiculously slow for an hour and observe what's happening from my fingers to slight movements inside of my mouth.
After my hours of practice at this excruciating tempo, I play a run-through of what I've worked on and record it every day until I have to start rehearsals or the performance. I find myself getting through auditions and being less mentally tired; getting through auditions and adapting to the uncomfortable situation in real time; or getting more out of my practice in the next session. I work hard and I do my best to plan well, and I owe it to myself to provide every opportunity to engage and avoid unnecessary mistakes.
One caveat to all of this that I somehow always underestimate: proper functioning of my instrument is key! Many months have gone by where I have learned to adapt to my playing because the horn itself is declining, and it's time to have corks replaced and valves cleaned. I've had miserable months of practicing concertos with sticky valves and clogged slides that change the slots of my horn. There's no shame in getting a horn checked out! And if I'm mentally engaged and experiencing situations that seem logically impossible, it's probably time for a cleaning, regardless of how many (or few!) months have passed and the amount of toothpaste tubes I've decimated. But that's another post for another day...
This is where I am in my practicing journey in this moment. I'm sure that I'll read this in ten years and say to myself "well, this part was an unnecessary tangent I was on!", but I'm sure I'll find myself with different issues in the future that I'm not even thinking about yet. Practicing is sacred and incredibly personal, so it's for my own benefit in a lot of ways that I'm documenting this new path I'm trying. What are some of your practice techniques? What do you agree with, what rubs you the wrong way, and what do you do instead? Nothing makes me happier and sates me more than a productive practice session!
I am so thankful for how unpredictable my life in music has been because it has helped me discover a source of strength that I might never have found. I could never be a parent without these important lessons that I learned from being a horn player.
It's the dead of August, and I'm grateful for a productive summer. Our family has drafted a new member, I've been lucky enough to play a couple of weeks and weekends at the two shows I get to sub on, and I even got to travel a bit with our new family! Unfortunately, I'm finding myself staring down the barrel of an empty calendar for the next three months, a position that all freelancers inevitably find or have found themselves in around this time of year. So what's a horn player to do?
This is my attempt to put some information out there about what to expect when you're a brass player and a soon to be mom.
With a little strategic scheduling and toy placement, it CAN be done!