Staying challenged

January 18, 2017

I teach a small woodwind studio at a small university. That means that sometimes especially talented and hardworking students find they don’t have a lot of competition for ensemble placements, awards, and other things. Here’s what I suggest to students in that position, who want to stay motivated and challenged but have bumped up against the ceiling in terms of those typical measures of achievement.

photo, Brad.K
  • Find inspiration (and some friendly competition) at conferences, festivals, or “clarinet days” (or whatever). Surround yourself by like-minded achievers. Going to a national/international conference can be expensive and disruptive to your semester, but is probably worth it if you can make it work. If not, consider regional events that happen within a few hours’ drive and often over a weekend.
  • Listen to music every day. Spend a few hours scouring a store, library, or online music service for players and repertoire for you instrument that you aren’t familiar with. Cue them up into a playlist so you can listen for five minutes while you get situated in a practice room or walk between classes. Form opinions about them. Next level: add to this some daily listening of music not for your instrument, something completely unfamiliar. Think outside the Western world, too.
  • Record yourself often. Listen back and take notes (the note-taking is important). What do you find embarrassing or unsatisfactory about it? Ask your teacher and see what other resources you can find for ideas on fixing the problem. Keep adding to your list of things to improve, and re-prioritizing as you do improve them.
  • Seek out opportunities that take you outside your comfort zone. Consider entering a competition or taking an audition (even one you know you won’t win), starting a chamber group, tackling repertoire that scares you, joining a rock band, or something else that musicians you admire do, but that seems a little scary and hard.
  • Think about the things you are doing that you feel you have maxed out—maybe you’re first chair in all your ensembles, you’re getting straight As in your lessons, you have won the top scholarship. Now ask yourself: what would it take to really surprise everybody at the next audition, lesson, etc.? What would set a new standard? What would people still be talking about years from now? What would multiply your achievement by two, or ten?

Have other ideas? Please share in the comments section.