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.

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!”

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.

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.