Bring your “A” Game

I just came from conducting a concert of my students from Harrison School for the Arts.  They are a great group of high school students, but I often have to remind myself, they are high school students! The music that they played was challenging, and their playing was on a very high level, but the past week has been very stressful because their playing has not been consistent.

So when I got home this evening, my wife, Kathy, asked how the concert went, and I was able to tell her that they pulled it off!  Kathy wondered out loud how it is that they were able to play well in the concert, but were so inconsistent in rehearsals.  That set me to wondering, and I reached a conclusion, a kind of “aha!” moment.

As a professional player, I bring my “A” game to every rehearsal.  When my instrument comes out of the case, I am giving all of my energy and all of my attention to the music and to my playing.  When I perform with other professional players I take for granted that they will do likewise.  But at some rehearsals the students played poorly, and in others they were outstanding.  I couldn’t make sense out of how they could play well one day and poorly the next. The inconsistency in the rehearsals left me wondering if they were really up to the level required by the music.  But faced with an audience, and with Mom, Dad, grandparents, and friends sitting in the house they played well.  Then it occurred to me that the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t play the music.  The problem was that they were not giving 100% at the rehearsals!  They were not bringing their A Game.

So, when push came to shove these students were able to pull off a pretty impressive performance.  But here is the problem.  By not bringing their best to every rehearsal, these students were bringing an element of risk to the concert that is, to my way of thinking, unacceptable.  They pulled it off this time, but can I be sure that they will the next?  I can not! And as well as they played in the concert, how much better might they have played if they had been completely present at every rehearsal?

So it occurs to me that one of the differences between a group of talented kids and a group of seasoned professionals is this work habit.  A pro gives 100% every time.  Thinking back to a recent concert in which I played with Andrew York, he and I had two short rehearsals prior to the concert.  During the first rehearsal we had little to say to each other (in a good way) to make the music better.  We both played all the notes, all the rhythms, all the nuances, and played with each other.  By the second rehearsal we were engaging each other in a real musical conversation, and by the concert, we were interacting deeply and playing off each other with conviction and passion.  We were both confident in the playing because we had both been completely involved from the first note of the first rehearsal.

This is the quality that is missing in many student performances.  As I said before, they are talented high school students, but they are high school students.  So it is incumbent upon me as the teacher and as a professional to impart this work ethic on them.

I’ll make a point of having them read this blog, and hopefully they, and all of my readers will be inspired to consistently bring the A game to every practice and every rehearsal.

Warm Ups

I like to begin my day with some simple slow warm up exercises.  I’m not a big believer in hard stretching.  To me it sounds like something that could be risky.  I’m particularly opposed to stretching one hand by pulling or pushing it with the other, or by using a wall or other object for resistance.  For me, some slow finger movements on the instrument, actually playing, that is, seem like a good safe way to get the muscles warmed up and limber.

The key here, of course, is that these warm ups must be played slowly. I like to start out by playing a little slower than one note per second.  I simply place my left hand first finger on the third string first fret (G#) then play A with the second finger (not picking the first finger up), then adding A# and then B with the third and fourth fingers, respectively. In each case, I place the finger on the string very carefully, trying, as it were, to put the groove in the correct place on the tip of the finger, and placing the finger as close to the fret as possible.  I repeat this set in second position, and so on, up to ninth position.  Then, I descend back to first position in the reverse order (4-3-2-1, etc.)

I repeat this exercise 4 times, once with index-middle alternation, once with middle-ring, once with index-ring, and finally with the thumb.  Here is a video in which I walk you through and demonstrate this exercise.  Try playing along with it!


Fast Tube by Casper


 

 

Targeted Practicing

In one of my guitar classes today I gave the students the following instructions:
“Put your guitars down. Find a small section of one piece of music that you are working on. I will set the timer at 15 minutes, and for that period of time I want you to study your music. You may use visualization, soft vocalization (solfege) and/or Aim Directed Movement. At the end of the 15 minutes pick up your instruments and begin to practice playing what you have been silently practicing. You’ll have 15 minutes to complete that second part.”

You will notice that the first thing I had the students do was put their guitars down. This is essential, because if you are trying to practice mentally with the instrument in your hands, you will almost definitely begin to play before you are mentally prepared. Remember, learning is mental. There is no such thing as muscle memory. What we think of as muscle memory is really plain old every day memorization of physical movements which are so deeply embedded that they can be executed with no conscious thought process or mental effort. But your brain is still in control.

The next thing that you will notice from the instructions was “find a small section of music.” This should be central to your practicing at all times. Not necessarily that the section is small, but that you have deliberately chosen something very specific to practice. To say “I’m practicing the Bach Prelude” is far too general. Far better would be to say, “I’m practicing the 36 measures that I find are technically challenging”, or “I’m going to work on the places in the Villa-Lobos where the dynamics change,” or even, “I’m going to practice the fast runs in the piece.” This process gives your practice a specific goal, without which you are simply repeating large sections of music mindlessly. I think of this as “Targeted Practice”. I target one aspect of the piece and work it thoughtfully and systematically.

Now, while my students were indulging in this form of practice, I was doing something that educators refer to as modeling. That is, I demonstrated the activity that I wanted them to replicate. Put differently, I did exactly what they were doing while they were doing it in front of them so that they could see what it should look like. This of course had a huge benefit to me, because it meant that I was getting in some very productive practice time myself!

So my specific target today was Koshkin’s “Merlin’s Dream”, measures 46 through 76. It’s a section that I’m not completely comfortable with from a technical standpoint. So I spent 15 minutes running it mentally, one hand at a time, while “listening” to it in my head. I tried fingering it on my arm and playing through it mentally without any hand movement. At 15 minutes, I instructed the students to pick up their instruments, and to practice playing for the next 15 minutes what they had been working on. I did likewise. Needless to say, I found the technical aspect of the music much easier, and I was able to clean up the few remaining difficulties rather easily within the allotted time. All of the students found the same result, although some of them may have been a bit more surprised at the result than I was.

My next task for later today will be to spend 15 minutes singing the same section mentally focusing on the dynamics, articulations, accents, and phrasing in order to get a clear picture of what I want it to sound like, then I’ll spend another 15 minutes practicing those interpretive aspects. Ultimately, the goal is that by day’s end I will have mastered these 40 measures.

I Think Therefore I Play

Yes, I know.  This is the second blog in four days to paraphrase Des Cartes.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Yesterday I blogged about practicing slowly in order to clean up some technical problems that I had encountered while working on Fantasia, by Troy Gifford.  The second problem that I had encountered had to do with memorization.  A few related techniques can be very powerful when trying to solve memorization difficulties, and they all have the benefit of improving the technical aspect of a piece as well.  They all involve practicing without the guitar in your hands.

The first method is the time honored practice of singing the piece.  Pick specific melodic lines and sing them using solfege.  There are some that would argue that the solfege isn’t really necessary, and that any singing will help you to internalize the music.  But I would argue that using solfege helps to reinforce the notes themselves and their positions within the key, which strengthens your understanding and therefore memory of how the notes interrelate.  So while simply humming or singing on a neutral syllable will help tremendously, the solfege takes you to the next level.

The second method that I would suggest is visualization.  With the music in front of you, read through it imagining your hands playing the notes.  In your mind’s eye you should see your left hand moving to the correct frets and strings with the fingering that you use, and your right plucking the correct strings with the correct fingers.  By itself, this can be an incredibly useful method for practicing, one that will not only help you to train your hands to move correctly making it an important aid in memorization, but will also clean up any technical issues you may have.  This combination, while no substitute for picking up the guitar and playing it, may well be of equal importance in learning a piece of music.

The third and final method that I’d like to discuss is “Aim Directed Movement”.  This technique, developed by the great guitar pedagogue Aaron Shearer, is closely related to visualization, but it also involves a physical aspect.  With ADM you practice one hand at a time, working on the left hand movements while using your right arm as a stand-in for the neck of the guitar, and the right hand using the back of your left as a stand-in for the strings that you are plucking.  This has a value that goes beyond that of picking up the instrument and playing and beyond simple visualization because it forces you to combine your mental imagery with physical movements.

Yesterday I spent a little over an hour practicing in just this fashion, using all three techniques, freely moving from one to another, often combining the visualization or the ADM with singing.  Now, I’m going to make a shocking confession here.  I do not enjoy this mode of practice nearly as much as I do practicing on the guitar.  Mental practice is hard work, and involves some cerebral heavy lifting.  And if I am anywhere near a guitar it is nearly impossible for me to resist the temptation to pick it up and try out what I’ve just visualized.  Once I pick up the guitar there is no putting it down.  So I make a point of using these techniques in places where I do not have immediate access to my guitar.  And since I find the process so challenging, I also make a point of treating myself well while I’m doing it.

I live in Central Florida and the weather yesterday was magnificent, as it usually is.  I also have a fairly large piece of property and a lovely patio.  So I made myself a pot of espresso in my trusty Bialetti and sat on my patio sipping my favorite beverage (espresso is the nectar of the gods: it gives them the energy to do godlike things) and spent a pleasant hour and fifteen minutes visualizing, ADMing, and singing.  Then, after a short break, I went back to my guitar and everything simply fell into place effortlessly.

The key for me is always to make it a pleasant experience.  I have sat on my patio practicing in this manner with a cigar, a cognac, a piece of cake, or anything that one might enjoy consuming or doing on a patio.  I’ve practiced at the beach, and on long flights.  The reason I say long flights is that this type of practicing on a plane often gets interrupted by nice conversations, so you need a long flight in order to get enough work done after exchanging pleasantries and explaining what you are doing.  In my single days this could also involve some flirting if the right person was seated next to me.

Slow Practice

Yesterday I spent some time practicing the Troy Gifford Fantasia which I’ve been learning for a little while, but which I haven’t touched in nearly a week.  Since it is not yet learned completely there were two issues:

1.Some spots that I had not memorized as completely as others seemed to slip my mind,

2.The trickier technical spots were not as clean as they were last week.

What to do? One very important part of effective practicing is to have specific goals in mind every time you sit down.  I decided to address the technical spots first with the intent of working on the memorization today.  So the title of this post should make the answer obvious.  I practiced it slowly, sometimes with a metronome.

A word about the metronome.  It can be a very useful tool when used correctly.  I usually use it to keep myself from playing too fast too soon.  Although I have in the past used it to build speed in my scales, I almost never use it to increase my speed in repertoire.  Increasing speed in repertoire should be organic.  Learn to play the music correctly and don’t try to play fast, and it will speed up on its own.  If anything, one must sometimes make a conscious effort to keep it slower longer, which is where the metronome comes in.  The idea is that if you develop speed before you are really ready the music will get sloppy, and you’ll have a hard time cleaning it up.  But if you work slowly and carefully the speed will eventually come on its own.  On the rare occasion when I use the metronome to help pick up speed I use it only for short flurries of fast notes, in order to make sure that they are keeping pace with the rest of the piece.  And this is done only when I know that I can play the notes fast and clean.

So after about 45 minutes of practicing the Fantasia at a snail’s pace I found that I could let myself speed up a little without losing any clarity.

Now that I can play it more or less up to speed again, it’s time to address the memorization issues.  I’ll tackle that later today, and report back on it tomorrow.

 

Diversifying for a career

Because of my teaching positions I often deal with students and/or parents of students who are concerned about the economic viability of a career in music.  This is a legitimate concern in any field, but music perhaps more than others.  Compounding the dilemma for the students/parents is the fact that the most obvious models for a career are millionaire superstars who appear to have won some sort of life-lottery.  What are the odds that any particular young player will become the next big thing?

The truth is that the chances are pretty slim, and if your goal is to be a rock star, be prepared to be disappointed.  The odds are stacked against you, and if you are among the very lucky very few, you will likely find the career disheartening.  Does this mean you shouldn’t even try? Definitely not! You probably won’t succeed, but if you don’t try you definitely won’t succeed. And you’ll need to try as if your entire life depends on it.  BUT, if you are like most people, and do not become the next Adele, or if you are a guitarist, the next Pepe Romero, don’t feel as if your life is over.  The key thing here is to have a practical back up plan.  This doesn’t mean that you have to study computer engineering or accounting, “just in case”.  What it does mean is that you’ve looked at the variety of things that a professional musician does to survive, and you’ve learned how to do them and have reconciled yourself with becoming just another musician who teaches or does whatever.

Wait a minute! Did I say “just another musician who teaches?”  There is no more noble nor rewarding an undertaking than passing your knowledge on to the next generation, so really, should teaching be your mode of earning a living you should consider it a privilege. It may not be as much fun as performing, but it is deeply gratifying, and as stable as any job can be nowadays. And if you just don’t see yourself teaching, you could look into entertainment law, music management, recording arts, media composition (writing music for video games, advertising, TV, movies, etc.) or music therapy.

OK, so what if you are like me, and as much as you can reconcile yourself with a career that doesn’t involve millions of adoring fans you still feel that you must perform.  The answer here is that you must diversify your skillset.

What got me started on this train of thought was my practice last night.  After spending an hour or so practicing a contemporary classical piece that I’m learning (Fantasia by Troy Gifford) I went on to practice some choros that I’m working on with a guitar trio. The choro is an urban popular form from Brazil, similar in some ways to U.S. ragtime music.  The group is putting together a few sets of this music with the intention of performing.  This isn’t the kind of music I’m really known for, nor is it what I originally set out to do when I became a professional guitarist, but it’s one more skill that helps me stay active as a player, and I’d have to say that I’m really having fun doing it.

Over the years I’ve sat in on jazz gigs, played in the pit for numerous regional productions of Broadway musicals, and accompanied singers. In fact, I just accompanied my daughter last week. She sings with a local burlesque company, and she asked me to help out by playing guitar on a song by Dave Matthews.  And about a month or two ago, I contributed a rather Mexican sounding guitar solo to a country song – The Ballad of Pancho and Lefty –  being recorded by a band from south Florida, The Mobile Homies. (BTW, this is one of my son’s bands.  And he is primarily a heavy metal guitarist.  We are a musical family!)

The key here is that the more you can do as a player the more opportunities you will have to play.