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.

Mix it up

When anyone asks me what I do I tell them that I play and teach classical guitar.  And yet this doesn’t really describe all of my activities.  I’ve discussed the need to diversify stylistically in order to make a living as a musician, and this is a concept that I take very seriously.  For example, this past Saturday I gave a concert with the North American Choro Ensemble, which is certainly not classical guitar.  In fact, even in the choro ensemble we have recognized the importance of mixing things up a bit, and our concert included some sambas and bossa novas.  When playing choros, I try to improvise short licks and runs when repeating verses, and on the sambas and bossas the members of the ensemble go for straight ahead jazz improvisation.  This keeps things interesting for the audience, which is vital if one wishes to perform regularly, and it also keeps it interesting for me.  There is the added benefit that all of these musical activities contribute to making me a better musician, something I strive to do every day.

On Sunday I played in a concert that was billed as “Geert D’Hollander and Friends”.  So I was one of Geert’s “friends” for the evening (and hopefully his friend for life),  This was a classical concert, with Geert playing several solo works on the piano (Chopin, Brahms, Faure, and Scriabin) and me playing solo guitar pieces by Miguel Llobet, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Augustín Barrios, and me.  The setting was a large living room at an historic mansion on the grounds of Bok Tower Gardens.

Which brings me to another subject: diversification of venue.  What is a concert space?  Easy! A concert space is any location in which you decide to give a concert.  Sunday it was a mansion, Saturday a church.  A couple of months ago I performed in what can best be described as a night club.  Downtown Lakeland, FL is home to a venue called Preservation Hall, which is a restaurant/bar/performance space, etc.  There have been rock bands there, burlesque, and now, classical guitar!  And that concert was, indeed, traditional classical guitar.  It was my release party for my new CD, “Lo Mestre, The Music of Miguel Llobet”. (Available for purchase below.)

lomestre orange_buynow

Interestingly enough, I must have driven this point home to my son quite well.  He exemplifies diverse artistic expressions as a way of both making a living and growing artistically (and he seems to be having fun, which is equally important).  Classically trained on violin, guitar, and piano (and also trained on jazz saxophone) he produced my Llobet recording.  But what really makes this surprising is that he makes a good portion of his livelihood playing lead guitar with a heavy metal band, plays slide guitar and mandolin with a bluegrass/country band, and owns a recording studio!  Now that’s what I call mixing it up!

My recovery from surgery

In my last post I wrote about my surgery.  Literally the day after that post, Christmas eve, I began to play again.  It was the best Christmas present in the world!  I began playing in increments of 15 minutes at a time, a couple of times a day.  I was amazed by several things.  First of all, I had no endurance, and no strength.  Moving the middle finger across the string was like lifting a heavy weight, and the little movements involved felt like I was really stretching my tendon.  The 15 minutes were all that I could take without being in pain, and pain is never a good thing when you are playing!  (As opposed to physical therapy, where if you aren’t in pain you aren’t doing it right!)

Over the course of the week I was able to increase the number of times I practiced to 3, then to 4 times, and felt pretty good. By New Years day I felt confident that I could increase my sessions to 20 minutes at a time.  The additional 5 minutes made a difference; I could definitely feel more fatigue in my hand, but there was no pain involved so I kept it up.

The following week I was out of town at a conference of the Florida Music Educators Association, where I had students performing, and where I presented a session geared toward helping classroom music teachers with no real guitar background, but who found themselves having to teach guitar.  Because of the exhausting nature of conferences, and because I knew that my entire schedule would be upset I didn’t attempt any changes in my practice routine.  In fact, although I stuck to my 20 minute limit, I was not able to get to it 4 times every day.  I was surprised that I had any time to practice at all!

January 13 I tried to increase my practice time to 25 minutes. At the very end of the first 25 minutes, my hand began to cramp, so I backed off to 20 minute sessions for the rest of the day – still keeping them to 4 total.  The next day I tried 25 minutes again, but made a point to pay close attention to my hand and keep it very relaxed.  I was able to do the full 25 without any pain, and repeated it 3 more times.

My plan at this point is to try for 30 minutes, which has been my normal practice session for many years now.  I’ll do it 4 times a day this week, and try increasing it to 5 the following.  If that works out well, the week after that I can try 6, which brings me to the normal amount of time that I practice while school is in session.

My goal has been to be back up to speed by February, and I’ve been particularly motivated because my new CD will be released then.  I have been planning to have a “release party” – more concert than party actually – at the end of the month.  I’m feeling pretty good because I seem to be on target so far.lomestre

And, of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I’m already selling copies from my website, and I’d like to invite all my readers to consider purchasing a copy by clicking the link below:

orange_buynow

My Surgery

I debated long and hard with myself as to whether or not to discuss this publicly, but in the end decided that I would, so here goes.

Last month I had surgery on my hand.  It began late last spring or early last summer when I developed a “trigger finger”.  The correct term for this condition is stenosing tenosynovitis.  What happens when one develops this problem is that the finger gets stuck for a fraction of a second on contraction and extension, and then snaps into position.  It is caused by a narrowing of the sheath that surrounds the tendon of the finger that gets stuck.  The number of remedies available is limited – either a cortisone shot into the sheath, or a minor surgical procedure in which the sheath is severed.

In my case, it was my right middle finger that was the problem.  The point at which it would stick in contraction was not problematic because it occurred after the string was already plucked, in other words, in the follow through.  The problem was that in re-extending it would also stick, and it was interfering with my timing because the finger wouldn’t get out quickly enough.

So in the early fall I went to a hand specialist who gave me a cortisone shot along with a warning that the effect would be temporary, and that I would be limited to 3 such shots in my life.  This, of course meant that surgery would eventually happen.  I went for a follow up a few weeks later, and the shot had not completely eliminated the problem.  Surgery was the only solution.  A few other factors impacted my decision to have it immediately.  I had a gap in my performance schedule that would allow for recovery without having to cancel any concerts.  Furthermore, I was getting ready to sign a contract with Price Rubin and Partners artist management, and did not feel that I could in good conscience sign such an agreement until I was ready to perform without any encumbrances.

On November 22 I had the surgery.  It was an out-patient procedure performed in a hospital under general anesthesia.  I was told that I would not be able to play at all for about 6 weeks, and could lift “nothing heavier than a cup of coffee” for that period.  I awakened from the surgery to find my hand bandaged very heavily, so much so that it actually looked as if I had a cast on my hand! A couple of weeks later I had the stitches removed and was given a referral for physical therapy.

I am writing this a month after the surgery, and my PT is going very well.  There was very little pain after the procedure, but the PT is a whole different story!  The main objectives of the therapy are to regain full range of motion and to prevent any internal scarring.  The exercises designed to stretch my tendons are only a little painful, but the deep massage required to break down scar tissue is pretty painful.

I have been allowed to move my fingers lightly, tapping on the strings delicately in playing patterns.  This helps my dexterity, and makes me feel like I’m practicing at least a little.  My therapist has told me that she believes I’ll be able to play by Christmas.  I won’t be able to dig in and play hard, fast, or long, so everything will be adagio and pianissimo, but at least I’ll be playing again.  This is the longest I’ve gone without playing in over 40 years!

I’ll have to admit that I’m pretty upset by the idea of having surgery on my hand.  Right before the procedure I told my wife that open heart surgery would be less scary for me!  And I’m a bit bothered by the fact that my hand stopped working the way it should.  But I suppose that at the age of 60, and with half a century of playing behind me, a certain amount of wear and tear is somewhat inevitable.  However, the main thing for me now is that I believe I have sufficient movement to be able to play anything, and that I have full sensation in my hand and fingers.  I’ll post follow-ups as I begin to regain my  playing.

Crazy Busy: How to make a living as a musician

In 1980 I was working on my master’s degree at Brooklyn College, where I studied with David Starobin.  David was teaching from his apartment in Brooklyn and was also traveling to Purchase, NY to teach at the state university there.  That’s about an hour drive.  As I recall, he would also take weekly trips to teach at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.  All this plus performing and recording!  So one day I commented to him that I was amazed by his insane schedule.  David’s response was, “If you want to make a living as a musician you have to be willing to work very hard.”

I’ve taken David’s words very seriously, and have almost never turned down work, irregardless of how busy I think I am.  I’ve already blogged about my practice/teaching schedule (June 17 – Daily Schedule), but this didn’t address some of the newer developments that have occurred.  First of all, this year I find that my schedule of teaching at Southeastern University (my other teaching job after I finish a full day of teaching classical guitar at Harrison School for the Arts) has picked up tremendously.  This year I have a dozen private students at SEU and I direct the guitar ensemble.  In addition I have several private students that I see in my home studio.

This is great for my economic security, but what about my artist’s soul?  Well, that side of my life isn’t too shabby lately and is showing signs of increased growth.  Which, of course, makes me busier!  In my July 9 post, Back in the Saddle Again, and more extensively in my  July 15 post, Back in the Saddle Again Follow Up, I talked about playing in churches.  Well, I’ve begun to play in a church in my home city of Lakeland, FL twice every month.  While it’s far from a full concert, I still have to practice a few pieces for these performances, which, although it doesn’t increase my practice time, keeps me on my toes.  And I don’t want to play the same pieces in a short span of time, so I’m a little more serious than usual about learning new repertoire, which is something that I usually do during the summer.  (This doesn’t mean that I don’t normally learn new repertoire the rest of the year, only that I’m not as aggressive about it as during the summer.)  I’ve also given a few performances and have more booked in the near future.  With my new recording, Lo Mestre, The Music of MIguel Llobet about to be released (February) I am keeping that extraordinarily difficult repertoire in shape in anticipation of several performances in order to promote it.   And I’m still playing choros (see my May 22 post, Choros) and I’ve begun to write some of the arrangements of these pieces, something that Dave Miller used to do.

This week has been particularly busy.  I played in church Sunday. Then, on Monday recorded an interview with Jack Price (of Price Rubin and Partners, an artist management company that will be representing me in the near future).  The company has a web radio site, PRP Radio One which does a daily artist interview.  Some of the interviews are with A list artists that they represent (Pepe Romero, Angel Romero, Lalo Schifrin, Scholomo Mintz, etc.) and others are more in my league professionally.  Tuesday I spent the evening producing a pre-production recording session for a student of mine who is getting ready to record his first classical guitar CD.  Wednesday I actually had nothing after 8:00 PM, so I managed to have a nice quiet romantic dinner (complete with roaring fire pit) with my wife.  It is very important for busy people to make time for their loved ones! Then, Thursday I played for a Chamber of Commerce event, raced from Winter Haven FL back to Lakeland FL, and played a couple of pieces in a concert program.  Next week I have concerts on Monday and Friday, and will probably be playing a wedding on Friday as well.  And since this week I had no time to rehearse with the North American Choro Ensemble we will be doubling up our rehearsals next week.

OK, so you are probably out of breath just reading my schedule.  And you may be asking yourself, “How on earth does he do it?”  A few things.  First, I love, I mean really love everything that I am doing.  I’m working in my bliss! This makes it feel more like play.  Imagine being able to just play games for 16 hours a day!  So although the work is tiring, it isn’t draining.  It is actually invigorating.  Also, I take pretty good care of myself physically, so I have a great deal of stamina, and I’ve been blessed with the ability to function well on less sleep than most other people.  (Yes, I know that we all, even I, function best on 8 hours of sleep every night.)

I’d like to close with another story that has influenced how I live and work.  Or maybe it’s more of a parable, except that it is actually true.  In 1982, preparing for the 90th birthday of Andrés Segovia, NPR sent a small crew of young men to Spain to record interviews with him.  These interviews would be aired the following year in a radio mini-series on the maestro.  Segovia rose early every morning, practiced guitar, ate, practiced some more, rested, walked, practiced, and generally dined late or held court with colleagues or went to concerts.  This was his daily routine.  The young men from NPR found that they were unable to keep up with this 89 year old human whirlwind.  Finally, one of the crew asked, “Maestro, don’t you ever rest?”  He responded, “I’ll have eternity to rest.” And to that I say, “Amen!”

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


 

 

Daily schedule

The school year has ended and I’ve begun to organize my summer practice schedule. During the academic year I find it very difficult to squeeze in any more than 3 hours of practice per day. My typical day begins at 4:30 AM, when I let my dog out to the back yard, start my coffee maker, and let the dog back in. By 4:45 I’m tuning my guitar, buffing my nails and beginning my morning warm up exercises. These include very slow right and left hand finger placement exercises, either arpeggios or tremolo work, and then short fast scales. At around 5:20 or 5:25 I perform my morning ablutions, and at 5:50 or 5:55 wolf down what passes for breakfast.

I get to my classroom around 6:10 or 6:15, and once I’ve opened up the guitar locker-room/music library and fired up my computer, I sit in my office for 30 minutes of scale work.

My teaching begins at 7, and it is an unusual day indeed when I’m able to practice before it ends. Dismissal is at 2:05, and I’m in my office working until 2:45 on some days and 4:00 on others. On the days when I’m finished at 2:45 I then either go home to give some private lessons, or head over to Southeastern University to give lessons or direct the guitar ensemble. I typically finish up everything around 6 or 7 PM, and then have some dinner. So, now it’s 8 PM and I begin my real practicing. I try to get in another 2 hours, and it just depends on how fatigued I am as to whether I get it all in or not.

You can see why I live for the summer! My typical summer schedule begins with an hour bike ride, and I begin my warm ups at 8. Half hour of warm ups, followed by a short break, half hour of scales, followed by another short break, and then half hour of sight reading.

At this point I may take a slightly longer break, and then I resume with half hour of Aim Directed Movement, followed by half hour on my newest repertoire. At this writing the ADM and new repertoire is all the Barrios “Catedral”. After lunch I resume with half hour of repertoire that, while not my newest is still not completely learned. Right now that is the Koshkin “Merlin’s Dream”. After that (and a short break) I spend half hour on my almost-finished repertoire, which now is Troy Gifford’s “Fantasia on a theme by Ravel”.

I then take a big break from the guitar during which I read a book, write letters, articles, or whatever, and then I get back to my practicing with half hour or so of work on choros.

In my next post I will begin to break down each segment of my practice schedule to give a clearer picture of what I do and why I think it’s important.

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.

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.