What if I don’t love to practice?

"Misty" by Unhindered by Talent is licensed under CC BY-SA

Musicians are supposed to wake up every day filled with a burning desire to practice for hours, right? If you don’t feel that way, you must not really have what it takes, right? And even if you don’t feel like practicing, you should be able to will yourself to do it anyway, right?

It’s normal and okay not to love practicing, or for your love of practicing to vary. And it’s normal and okay to have less-than-perfect willpower.

Some self-awareness about your practicing (or lack thereof) can help a lot. What keeps you from practicing, or from practicing at your best? Can you embrace it? Incorporate it? Work around it?

Here’s an example: I’ve discovered that my mind wanders a lot while I practice. I might be doing some slow repetition of a tricky passage, but my brain is working on something else. So now I practice with a small notepad nearby. I find that if I can pause practicing for a moment and jot down a few thoughts, it quiets my mind.

At first I resisted this idea, because it seemed like I was planning to multitask and be distracted. But for me, permission to get the idea out of my head and onto paper makes my practicing much more productive overall.

Do you fail to practice, or fail to practice well, because:

  • …you get too bored working on one thing for such a long time? Can you rearrange your practicing so you change tasks every few minutes? Or spread your practicing out throughout the day?
  • …you hate missing out on what your friends are up to, IRL or online? Would it help if you gave yourself permission to spend a few minutes now and then, within established limits, to catch up on what’s happening? Or what if you practiced first thing in the morning, before your social circle gets interesting?
  • …you’re engrossed in an interesting book or show? What if you got to read or watch for ten minutes as soon as you finish your scale routine, or put in a solid half-hour on your étude? Or if you get your practicing done before dinner, you get to binge in the evening, guilt-free?
  • …you get hangry or tired? Could you schedule yourself some breaks to snack or nap or stretch? Or move your practicing to after a meal, instead of just before?

Instead of beating yourself up about motivation or willpower, ask yourself how you can harness your natural inclinations and use them for productive practice.

So you want to hire a horn section

"The Shrines' horn section" by Jon Southcoasting is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

So, you want to hire a “horn” section for an upcoming gig or recording. Great! Horns can add a special touch to your rock, pop, blues, etc. performance.

If you haven’t hired horns before, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • A small thing: the word “horn” as it’s used in this kind of music usually means trumpet, trombone, and/or saxophone. In classical music it means one specific instrument, probably not the one you want for this situation. Just something to remember if you ask someone to recommend some “horn” players.
  • If you’re planning to play some covers and there are horns on the original, depending on the mix it can be hard to tell exactly which horns. A horn section might range in size from two to a half dozen players or more, with some combination of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones in various sizes. There’s no single, standard setup.
  • Good working horn players can learn their cover-song parts by ear from a recording, just like your guitar/bass/keys/drum set players probably do. But it can be tricky to get the chord voicings right, just like if you’re trying to get a group of backup singers to imitate the harmonies from a favorite recording. It takes some coordination to make sure all the notes are covered, nobody is playing/singing somebody else’s part, and it sounds like a cohesive unit.
  • One thing that makes a great horn section great is precision in executing the details. This includes things like the coordinating the exact moment that notes begin and end, their shapes (do the notes swell? taper? etc.), and the gentleness or aggressiveness of the notes’ beginnings. Plus, horns don’t automatically play exactly in tune or in balance, so each chord may require the players to adjust to each other. That kind of precision doesn’t come quickly or easily (or cheaply).

Here are some tips to make it all work:

  • Most working horn players read music well. (They often have some kind of formal training.) If you can get some professionally-prepared horn “charts” (sheet music) for the combination of horns you intend to use, and hire top-notch players, they will likely be able to nail the parts on stage with little or no rehearsal. Well-written charts don’t just tell each horn player which notes to play, but also have detailed markings that help a good section play together with precision and style. Good charts cost money, but once you’ve got them you can reuse them with another horn section next time, or even hire local horn players at each tour stop.
  • To put together a really polished, professional horn section without charts requires some rehearsal time to get all the notes sorted out and establish a unified style. This also costs money, because good horn players usually won’t rehearse for free.
  • Depending on the market you are working in, it may be possible to hire a pre-existing horn section. There can be advantages to this, like that they have already put in many hours learning to play together as a coordinated section. Some horn-sections-for-hire might have a set instrumentation, or they might revolve around a single player who provides services like contracting the rest of the section from a roster of top-notch players, and maybe composing or transcribing horn section charts.
  • One budget-friendly option to consider is a single horn player. It’s not the same as a tight, well-coordinated section, but it’s flexible and easy. (I think a single saxophone works especially well for this, but I may be biased.) If you hire the right person you can go without charts or rehearsal time. A good player will learn the most important horn lines from a recording, or even make up something convincing on the spot. I do a fair amount of playing that way—a band hires me to join them on a gig, and either I already know most of the cover songs well enough, or I can play something off-the-cuff that works. If the gig pays well enough, I can afford to do some extra homework in advance and learn the cover parts cold.
  • Horns are loud, but not loud enough to compete with amplified instruments. They will need mics and monitors. Basic vocal/general-purpose mics like SM57s or SM58s are a solid starting point, or your sound engineer may have some other options available. Include the horn section in your sound check so they can get monitor levels. (Generally they will need to hear fair amount of themselves in the monitor, like singers.) If you are providing charts they will also need music stands and maybe stand lights, but can probably bring their own if given advance notice.
  • Horn-playing freelancers are often accustomed to jazz gigs and maybe performances in a local symphony, so they should be ready on a moment’s notice to wear coat and tie (or equivalent female attire), “gig black” (all black, somewhat dressy), or “concert black” (tuxedo or similar dressiness). Decide whether you have any dress code expectations and communicate them.

A horn section brings some extra class and professionalism to your performance. Knowing what to expect helps things go smoothly. Enjoy!

Time-crunch vs. long-term practicing

"Calendar*" by DafneCholet is licensed under CC BY

My approach to practicing has to adapt to deadlines. Sometimes the deadlines come up fast, and there isn’t time to make everything as perfect as I would like. Other times I have plenty of preparation time and want to make the best use of it.

Suppose the music I’m working on has one or two especially challenging spots, and I know I could put many hours into trying to perfect them. If I get bogged down trying to make those couple of spots perfect on a tight deadline, I might fail to adequately prepare the rest. It’s a better strategy to make sure I’m ready to play 98% of the music at tempo, make a reasonable effort with the remaining 2%, and hope for the best.

But if I have plenty of time to prepare, that approach can backfire. Getting the 2% “good enough” early in the process may mean compromises that I have to undo later. I’ll have a better final result if I’m not in a hurry to bring the tough spots up to standard. Instead, I give them time to settle deeply into muscle memory before pushing the tempo. I practice difficult spots for a few minutes every day, instead of cramming.

Think carefully about your practice approach, and adapt as needed. Good luck!

Local vs. big-picture dynamics

"Musican" by davekellam is licensed under CC BY-NC

An important part of interpreting music is figuring out how to use dynamic markings. They aren’t as simple as just playing louder or softer.

It helps a lot to understand the difference between what I call local dynamics and big-picture dynamics. Unfortunately, they are marked in sheet music using the same symbols, so it’s not always immediately obvious which they are. When you study a new repertoire piece, ask yourself why the composer or editor has provided each dynamic marking:

Is it there to call attention to a major event in the music, like a new theme, a return to an old theme, or some other kind of climactic moment? If so, it’s a big-picture dynamic. In many cases there is some other evidence that this is an important moment: a double-bar, a fermata, a key or tempo change, an entrance after some rests, etc. (If you have studied musical form, you probably have some more ideas of what to look for.)

Or, is the dynamic marking there just to provide some shape and direction to a phrase? There’s no major musical event, just a hint about the momentary musical gesture. If so, it’s a local dynamic.

When you think in terms of local vs. big-picture dynamics, it’s clear that not all fortes or mezzo-pianos or crescendos are equal. If the composer uses dynamics to contrast two themes or sections, for example with one being soft and the other being loud, that probably calls for a dramatic change. (It may also hint that some other unwritten contrasts are appropriate, like nuances of tempo, articulation, or tone color.) But a one-measure decrescendo from forte to piano in the middle of a theme might be more of a suggestion from the composer about what direction that phrase should take, and should be handled with more subtlety.

Beware of the limitations of dynamic markings in music notation, and of careless editing, and use your best-informed musical judgment to interpret the meanings of those symbols.

Playing issues vs. reading issues

"[233] If you could see it through my eyes." by Linh H. Nguyen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Sometimes when I struggle with a musical passage it’s because I can’t quite play it—maybe my fingers or tongue won’t move quite fast enough yet, or there’s a difficult slur or interval leap that I’m still mastering. The solution is methodical practice, which of course takes significant time and effort.

But there’s an additional set of issues that can be solved more efficiently: reading issues. These are caused by a variety of things: unclear printing, bad editing, poor eyesight, or something just not quite clicking in my brain for some reason. On flute I sometimes get a little lost in the ledger lines, and on bassoon my switches between bass and tenor clefs aren’t always as agile as I’d like. Plus I still sometimes stumble over a double-sharp or some other less-familiar symbol.

Reading issues aren’t shortfalls in my ability to physically operate the instrument—they are a disconnect somewhere in my eyes-to-brain-to-execution connection. And they often don’t need hours of drilling to solve.

Keep in mind that reading from your score is 100% optional. Would it solve the problem if you just memorized those few notes? Made some nice clear pencil marks? Rewrote that measure in a clearer way? Scanned the whole thing and reprinted it at a larger size?

Taking reading out of the picture when necessary can save many hours of frustration and tedium. Try it!

Why my college band chair placements ended up not mattering a bit

"6. Falling Flat" by epospisil is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Over 20 years ago, I was a brand-new music performance major. This is a story about that first year of college that I’ve told many times to my own college students.

I arrived at college with the confidence granted me by a freshly-minted high school diploma and a track record of first-chair saxophone school band placements. I eagerly auditioned for the university concert bands and jazz bands, and was gutted to find myself placed not only in the lowest groups (the #3 band in both cases), but doubling up parts with other players. Devastatingly, a fellow freshman saxophonist landed spots in both the #1 groups.

It was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I hit the practice rooms hard, gradually worked my way up, and in my senior year finally got spots in both top bands. By that time I had gotten serious about woodwind doubling, and earned a fun and important spot in the top concert band outside the saxophone section. And I got the lead alto chair in the top jazz band (and couldn’t help but enjoy a little that the classmate I had envied so much was sitting second).

Had I gotten the seats I wanted right away, maybe I would have coasted through college. And it’s possible I never would have developed an interest woodwind doubling, which now is central to the career that I enjoy so much. Looking back now, having those particular chairs in those particular semesters seems very unimportant, but my growth during those years laid the groundwork for two graduate degrees and a life in playing and teaching music.

Whatever your current stage in your musical development, there are bigger and better things to come. How you measure up to others matters much less than what you’re doing to get to your own next level.

Fix fixable problems now

"There's always something" by Reva G is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Just about every day I have a student show up for a lesson with an etude or repertoire movement they have been working on for a week or more, and there are little, silly problems that haven’t been fixed:

  • A spot where a fingering choice needs to be made, but hasn’t.
  • A page turn in an awkward spot.
  • An unfamiliar foreign term that hasn’t been looked up.
  • An ambiguous accidental that need to be double-checked against the piano part.

It’s easy for them (or me) to ignore or procrastinate small but easily-fixable issues while busily drilling technical passages. But I know they—and I—are doing our best work when those details don’t slip through the cracks.

It’s not worth it to spend a week practicing something in an incorrect or compromised way because you haven’t gotten around to fixing the fixable problems. Would any of these help you solve those issues more promptly?

  • Print an alternate/trill fingering chart and keep it with your practicing stuff, or bookmark an online one on your phone.
  • Put a few dollars on your copier/printer card/app so you can photocopy a page when needed.
  • Keep a good music dictionary in the pocket of your instrument case.
  • Keep your piano score and solo part together so you can always use them in tandem.

Consider what other easily-fixable problems you haven’t bothered to fix, and ask yourself what you can do to remove friction so they get solved right away next time you practice.

What does it mean to “interpret” music?

"Sheet Music" by starrise is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

As a new undergraduate music student I was often frustrated by my teachers’ attempts to get me to “interpret” music.

I would play something, and my teacher would stop me and ask me to play it louder. I would play again, but this time it was too loud, too slow, too fast, too staccato, not staccato enough.

I didn’t understand yet the purpose or the process behind musical interpretation. My teachers seemed to have excruciatingly specific ideas about how each and every note of the piece should sound. I couldn’t wrap my head around how they were making these seemingly arbitrary decisions, or how they expected me to guess correctly what they were thinking.

To be fair to my excellent teachers, there’s a strong chance that the problem was on my end, not theirs. But here’s what I wish I would have understood at that point.

  • When faced with a foreign language, one might rely on an interpreter to explain what is being said.
  • When dealing with some raw data, a researcher might interpret the data to show how some pages of numbers, which don’t make sense without context, support a hypothesis.
  • When performing a musical work, a performer interprets the piece to help the audience understand what’s happening.

Here are just a few examples of things in a piece of music that might need interpretation for the audience’s benefit:

  • Where does one phrase end and the next begin?
  • Are there melodies, textures, or other ideas that repeat in important ways throughout the piece?
  • What moods, characters, etc. does the music portray?

You might spend months getting to know the piece, but your audience might be hearing it for the first time. You need to point out the important things to them, so they hear the story, not just a bunch of notes.

When you speak, you offer a variety of clues about how to break up what you are saying into comprehensible chunks. You probably do it without thinking much about it, but it involves things like the pitch, volume, and speed of your voice. To interpret music, you use similar tools: you might demonstrate that a musical phrase is ending by slowing down a tiny bit and bringing the volume down. Or you might help the audience hear what you believe is a warlike quality in a certain passage by using bombastic accents and a strict, military-inspired tempo.

All of this requires you to have opinions about the music. Two tour guides might give different tours of the same place, because they have different opinions about what is interesting or important—they are each interpreting. You might personally enjoy one tour more than the other, but it doesn’t mean either is wrong.

Your interpretation of the music should be based on synthesizing lots of factors. One of the most crucial ones is hints from the composer, so pay close attention to any markings or words the composer uses. (Sometimes they are in a foreign language—it is your job to find out what they mean.) Your interpretation might also be informed by tradition: maybe there is some broad consensus among performers of the piece that it should be played a certain way. That doesn’t mean 100% that you have to go along, but it’s something you should think seriously about. If you are collaborating on the performance with other musicians, you’ll need to work out some agreement with them about various aspects of interpretation.

If you think all of this sounds difficult or complicated, you aren’t wrong. But if you understand what musical interpretation is and why it’s important, you can start to absorb your teachers’ interpretive ideas in a more meaningful way. You can listen to recordings of great performers and steal their interpretive ideas (this is allowed, and even encouraged!). And you can start to use what you have been learning in your music theory and music history classes as fuel for your own interpretive decisions.

As a brand-new freshman music major I was content with my performance if I played the right notes at the right times. That’s important, but it falls pretty far short of the satisfaction and achievement of a meaningful musical interpretation. Keep at it!

Thinking through scales

"#Oboe" by Paper of Light is licensed under CC BY-ND

My university woodwind students have to pass a scale exam as one of the requirements to progress in their degree program. They have to be able to play major scales and three forms of minor scales, plus arpeggios, through the “full range” of the instrument, from memory.

Many of my students learned their major scales in their school band programs, well enough to have most of them in muscle memory. But some of them are less familiar with the minor scales.

It can be a little overwhelming to keep track of 48 different scales. With plenty of accurate repetitions my students can get to the point of muscle memory for all 48. But in the meantime sometimes they get stuck trying to remember the right notes for the next scale, or get mixed up and play the wrong one.

I find it very helpful to have a mental roadmap for thinking through the next scale, and especially so if I can relate it to something I already have in muscle memory. My map might go something like this, but there are lots of possibilities:

  • C major scale: already in muscle memory, little or no “thinking” needed. As I play, notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C major arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.
  • C natural minor scale: since it’s a minor scale, I’m going to lower the third from E to E-flat. And E-flat major is the relative key to C minor, and I have E-flat major in my muscle memory, so I can play that same pattern of notes without too much thought.
  • C harmonic minor scale: now that I’ve got C natural minor under my fingers, I just need to change one note to produce the harmonic minor: B-flat becomes B-natural.
  • C melodic minor, ascending: this one is just like the C major scale I played a minute ago, but lower the E to E-flat.
  • C melodic minor, descending: this one is just like the C natural minor scale (related to E-flat major) that I played a minute ago. Notice the first, third, and fifth scale degrees, so I can use them in the next step.
  • C minor arpeggio: first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale I just played.

Another approach that appeals to some of my students is to think in terms of scale degrees: start with the major scale that’s already in muscle memory, and remember that for, say, harmonic minor, you have to lower the third and the sixth.

Having an organized way of thinking through the scales helps prevent the paralysis and overwhelm of trying to conjure up the whole scale from nothing. When my students take their exam, nobody minds if they take a few moments to think before they start playing, but getting stuck mid-scale would be a problem.

As you get better and faster at thinking through the scales, a good way to push yourself is to use a metronome, and limit yourself to a pre-set amount of time before the next scale starts. Maybe a certain number of beats (or, ultimately, zero beats) before jumping into the next one. If that doesn’t go well in the practice space, you know that particular transition is a problem spot, and can reorganize your efforts accordingly.

Happy practicing!

What I’ve learned from playing different musical styles

"Sun and Sax." by Neil. Moralee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

One of my favorite things about being a performing musician is moving in and out of different styles. Recently I’ve performed as a classical, jazz, rock, and blues musician. I’ve been thinking a little about the skills that I associate with each, especially skills that have expanded my musicianship and carried over into playing other styles. It’s too many to name, but here are a few. Feel free to chime in in the comments section with your own insights.

I have college degrees in (essentially) classical music performance. From playing solo repertoire, chamber music, and orchestral music, I’ve had to pursue a disciplined, precise approach to my instruments. I’ve had to try to blend seamlessly into a variety of instrumental textures. I’ve had to try to give every note delicacy and beauty, even when the music is trying to communicate something that isn’t delicate and beautiful. Other aspects of my classical music education involved informing my performance by studying centuries of tradition and history and methods of musical analysis.

I’ve also done a lot of study of jazz. From big band section playing, I’ve had to try to make every note crisp and energized, even in the sweetest of ballads. I’ve had to try to blend into sections that take a wide variety of approaches to style—much wider than I’ve encountered in classical music. I’ve learned to use purposeful imprecision (in a way) by, say, playing a little behind the beat, or being a little more flexible with pitch. I’ve learned to really, really use my ears, transcribing notes and chords and rhythms but also nuances of style. (For jazz players, “transcribing” doesn’t always mean writing something down; it’s copying some or all of a performance from a recording.) And of course there’s improvisation, an art unto itself that many classically-trained musicians never delve into. From that I’ve gained a much deeper, more practical, more useable understanding of harmony. I’ve also gained confidence to play something that isn’t on a page in front of me, and a sense that I can make things work musically even when I’m not sure what will happen next.

It’s not uncommon on a rock or blues gig to play songs that I don’t know and have never heard before, with no fakebook and nobody to tell me what the chord changes are. On some blues gigs, I’ve had to watch the bass player’s fingers to try to anticipate even which key the song is going to be in. That kind of unstructuredness can be terrifying to my classically-trained side, and even my jazz-playing side, which is used to improvising within fairly well-established frameworks. But it’s also freeing and thrilling to play for several hours with no music stand and no agreed-upon set list. Sometimes it means reaching way back into my memory to try to roughly reproduce a rock horn section riff I’ve heard once or twice on a recording, but often it means having to create my part from nothing. The protocols often aren’t as strict as they are in jazz, and I’ve had to learn, for example, that just because I played a fill after the blues singer’s first phrase doesn’t mean the guitarist is going to leave me any space after the next one. And, of course, formal education in rock or blues aren’t nearly as widespread or formalized (yet?) as jazz education or especially classical training, so these are lessons learned on stage.

Every new gig is an adventure. See what you can learn in the concert hall to apply later in a smoky club, or vice versa.