I find that in performance my mind isn’t always focused on what I would like. I’m easily distracted by conditions in the performance space, audience reactions, or, especially, the ways that my playing isn’t everything I would like it to be.
When I get distracted, and especially when it turns into negative self-talk, it’s easy to spiral. I feel bad about my playing, so my playing gets worse, and then I feel worse still.
When I talk about this phenomenon with my students, often their strategy is “just don’t think negative thoughts.” Maybe that works for them, but it sure doesn’t for me. Rebuking myself for having negative thoughts doesn’t really improve my frame of mind mid-performance.
Instead I find it helpful to focus on something positive and constructive. And in the heat of battle it can be hard to think of something, so it helps me to pick one out in advance. In other words, I have an advance plan for what to focus my mind on if and when it starts wandering in unhelpful directions.
The best positive thing to think about might depend on what works for you. But as a woodwind player, my go-to thought is air. I focus on the sensations of air moving through my body and into the instrument.
This works well for me for a few reasons. Because air is at the core of my tone production technique, paying attention to it usually helps me play a little better. If I’m taking good breaths, my brain and body are better oxygenated and able to function better. And air is closely tied to expression, so focusing on it can help my thoughts redirect toward that. Plus, air is a relaxing thing—lots of meditation and mindfulness practices use breathing as a method to achieve calm and clarity.
Having a plan like this gives me an easy way to get past a distraction and return my thoughts to the moment. Good luck!
My inbox runneth over with invitations to buy and perform composers’ new pieces. I’d like to play new works, but some composers make it harder for me to accept their invitations. Here’s how:
Failure of fit. If I’m clearly just on your email-blast list of 3,000 clarinetists, there’s a fair chance your new piece doesn’t have any special appeal for me. But if it scratches one of my particular performance itches (like pieces for multiple-woodwinds soloist, woodwind instrument with live electronics, or “world” woodwinds) then a more limited mailing or a brief personal note will definitely catch my eye.
No reference material. If I have to guess what the piece is like from a title or a description, I probably won’t invest the money or time to give it a closer look. Give me a perusal score or recording, and preferably both. Recordings that are mediocre or computer-generated are acceptable—I just need a strong hint about what the music is like, not your fully-realized vision. And watermarked or even partial scores work, too. If I can’t find the reference materials on your website, I’ll assume they are not available, and probably won’t email you to ask.
Too restrictive. These days my recital performances are for a relatively small in-person audience and a larger online audience. If you’re uncomfortable with me putting a video on YouTube, I’m less interested in putting time and effort into it.
Logistics too costly. Pieces with extreme difficulty, large or unusual ensembles, complicated staging, rare instruments, etc. present real, practical obstacles to performance. The piece has to be compelling enough for me to decide to spend limited resources (time, money, called-in favors) on it. Some flexibility, such as piano reductions, optional cuts, or adaptable instrumentation, can convince me to try the piece in a lower-cost situation first, and then maybe like it enough to keep it in mind for the rare concerto opportunity later.
Let’s work together and get some new works performed!
I hope you enjoy your first classical music performance! Sometimes the etiquette can seem a little foreign. I’ll try to help you understand what to do, and why classical music fans do things that way.
The most important thing is not to distract the audience and the performers. Some common concert etiquette “rules” include:
Be in your seat before the music starts. Then, stay there until intermission (if there is one) or the end of the concert.
Don’t talk, even at a whisper.
Keep cell phones silenced, screens off, and put away.
If you have kids who might have trouble staying still/quiet, consider leaving them at home. (Except for designated family-friendly concerts.)
Applaud only at the “right” times. (More on this later.)
Avoid unnecessary fidgeting, coughing, and anything else that makes noise.
Why are the “rules” so strict? One reason is that classical music is usually performed in a special concert hall. Usually the music isn’t electronically amplified. The concert hall’s special design makes even the smallest sounds clear from a distance. That’s good when it’s a hushed moment in a violin solo. But it’s bad when it’s an audience member’s crinkling candy wrappers or ringtone. At an amplified rock, country, or hip-hop concert you can make noises like that, and no one will hear. But at a classical music concert people might hear those sounds even if they are far away. The performers can maybe even hear them from the stage.
Classical music wasn’t always such a stuffy affair. Some of the music was originally performed in more boisterous settings. And there are people in classical music interested in changing the current etiquette. But for now, the (mostly-unspoken) “rules” lean toward pretty strict and formal behavior.
And, for classical music fans, it’s one of the things they might love about it. The quiet atmosphere is a blank, unblemished canvas for the musicians to paint on. It’s chance to hear every fine detail of a performance by highly-trained musicians. It can be immersive and meditative. You might find you enjoy it too.
To seasoned classical music fans, a disruptive audience member (even unintentionally!) might feel like someone standing in front of the TV during a crucial moment in the big football game. And, unfortunately, they might react like a sports fan, with dirty looks, unkind words, or other rudeness. That’s bad too, because it can scare away potential new fans of classical music. But it probably comes from a place of wanting to experience the music in a pure, uninterrupted way.
A polite audience member also shows appreciation to the performers, usually with applause (not so much yelling, whistling, “woo,” etc.). But pieces of classical music sometimes have multiple parts, with silence between. It can be tricky to know when is the right time to clap. If there’s a printed program, that might help you figure it out. But if you’re not sure it’s best to follow the lead of some of the other concertgoers. (There’s no prize for being the first one to clap.) Sometimes there’s a long silence between the end of the music and the start of the applause. Audience members may be waiting for the last note to finish echoing in the hall. And they might even wait a little longer to savor the magical moment of silence at the end. Don’t worry. The musicians will appreciate that too, and won’t take your hesitation as a lack of enthusiasm.
If you find all this off-putting, there are ways to appreciate classical music performances from home instead. If you enjoy it you can work up to an in-person concert. Or you may be able to find free or inexpensive concerts in your area, especially if there’s a university with a music department. You can try one of those and leave at intermission if you’re bored or uncomfortable.
Thanks for your interest in live classical music, and I hope you enjoy!
Sometimes when my students get paying engagements for the first time, I joke with them that they are now “professional” musicians. That’s true in a sense, but I think there’s more that goes into being a true professional.
If you are a college student aspiring to be a professional musician, here are some things you might ask yourself:
Am I reliably on time to things?
Do I always have a pencil? Extra reeds? Whatever else is needed?
Do I show up to rehearsals with my parts learned and ready?
If you’ve ever been to a theater production, and then gotten to meet any of the actors up close, you might have been shocked by their makeup. You don’t notice it much when they are on stage, but up close it can be pretty extreme.
Stage actors need strange-looking makeup because they perform under bright lights, which can wash out their features. And they need their facial expressions to be unmistakable to audience members, even in the very back row. Their special makeup techniques, which look unnatural up close, help them look natural and communicate visually under the unusual circumstances of a stage production.
Musicians need to take this same approach. If I practice a piece of music in a small room, subtle dynamic contrasts seem like plenty. But in the very different situation of a performance, in a large and reverberant concert hall, those nuances can disappear. I need to go bigger, stage-makeup-style.
That means practicing my music in ways that sometimes feels over the top or even a little obnoxious. But on stage or in a recording it will probably be just right—my sweeping, melodramatic dynamic contrasts will come across as natural and tasteful.
When I ask my students about their interpretation of a piece of music, their answers are often about shaping phrases. The phrases should have some kind of beginning, middle, and end, often expressed in some kind of dynamic shape, like starting softer, growing to a louder peak, then gradually getting softer again.
That isn’t wrong, but it’s really just interpreting individual phrases. The next step is to give those phrases some relationship to each other. Does the next phrase continue the previous one in some way? Answer it? Contradict it? Make a contrast with it? If your favorite tool for expressing your interpretation is dynamics, then the answers to those questions might determine whether the next phrase, say, picks up at the same dynamic level as the previous, or at a dramatically different one.
Then the phrases should build a larger structure, such as a theme. The individual phrases that make up the theme should have beginnings, middles, and ends, but they should join together into something bigger that also has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The themes might combine to build a movement, and the movements to form a complete work. And multiple works may even construct a complete concert program.
Small-scale phrase shaping is a good start, but mature interpretation requires thinking on a larger scale.
For me it’s an ongoing challenge to start a piece of music at the right tempo. Here are a few tricks I have used:
Practice, a lot, with a metronome, to internalize and habituate the tempo.
If circumstances allow, check a metronome backstage immediately before beginning the piece.
If circumstances allow, have a metronome with you on stage. Most have a “silent” function that you can use to discreetly double-check.
Maybe your piece has a fast or tricky part, and you’re worried that you will go too fast and that part won’t go well. Sing that part in your mind before you start to play, so you can pick a tempo that will work for that part.
Be aware of your tendencies. For example, if the adrenaline of performance makes you tend to rush, you can adjust accordingly.
Find a song that you know really well and have thoroughly internalized, that has a tempo very close to the one you wish to play at. Sing a few bars of the song mentally to find your tempo. For example, here’s a list of songs that have a tempo of about 94 beats per minute—I bet you can find at least a few that you know.
Can you use a wind controller, like the Akai EWI, the Yamaha WX, or the Roland Aerophone, as a convenient and/or quiet way to practice a “real” woodwind instrument, like the saxophone or the flute?
No, not really.
You can practice some very limited aspects of woodwind playing. For example, each of those wind controllers has fingering patterns that resemble (but are not identical to) the fingerings of standard woodwinds. If you are in the very early stages of playing a woodwind instrument and still trying to memorize fingerings, I suppose you could use a wind controller to help you with that specific task, to the extent that the fingerings do match.
The Akai instruments have saxophone, flute, and oboe modes, plus the more flexible “EWI” mode that is quite saxophone-like, and even a couple of variations of a valved-brass-inspired mode. The Yamaha WX5 has several saxophone modes and a flute mode. The Roland instruments are set up to map fairly directly to saxophone fingerings, even going so far as to include some of the saxophone’s more problematic features like “palm” keys. However, with that exception, none even have all the keys needed to learn proper saxophone, flute, or oboe technique.
(None of the instruments currently has a clarinet mode, presumably because the real-clarinet phenomenon of overblowing to odd-numbered partials raises some complications for an electronic instrument capable of many octaves of range. And none of the instruments has the physical keys to reasonably approximate bassoon technique.)
Plus, in all cases, including the Rolands, none of them can fully imitate the “feel” of a standard woodwind. Beyond the very basic stage of learning fingering patterns, much of the fingering work that woodwind players practice has to do with nuances of the fingers’ interactions with the keys. Even switching from one flute to a slightly different model of flute can mean having to re-adapt to the keys’ precise locations, spring tensions, etc. Switching between a flute and a wind controller is a much larger leap.
And, of course, no major wind controller currently provides a realistic approach to tone production. None has a reed that functions as such, and none has a flute-like embouchure hole. There are some superficial similarities like breath pressure being mapped to volume, or a bite-able mouthpiece that allows for something like saxophone-style jaw vibrato (or to the ill-advised reed instrument technique of bending pitch with jaw movement).
So, can you practice on it? Not really.
But the good news is that wind controllers (particularly, in my opinion, the Akai EWIs) have lots of potential as instruments in their own right. (If you aren’t familiar, look no farther than Michael Brecker’s playing for an eye-opener.)
Rather than looking at wind controllers as a “practice” instrument or a low-budget stand-in, consider a wind controller to be an additional avenue for expression. Playing it well requires just as much hard work, but also brings worthwhile creative rewards.
For many household items, screws should be tightened if they seem loose. But for woodwind instruments it’s a little more complicated.
Woodwind instruments (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones) have many screws on them. They are usually the slotted type, for which you would use a standard (“flat-head”) screwdriver. And some of them need to be tightened when they become loose, but some should be left alone—and it’s not always easy to tell which is which. If you aren’t sure, take it to your teacher or a professional instrument repair shop.
When tightening screws, always use a screwdriver that fits the screw very closely, to reduce the chances of damaging the screw. Mismatched screwdrivers can also slip, causing injury to you or scratches on the instrument’s finish.
Here are some kinds of screws you might find on your instrument:
Some screws simply hold some non-moving pieces together. For example, these screws on a saxophone hold this key guard onto the instrument. It’s not a moving part; the screws are just there so a professional can remove the key guard to do specialized work on the key. If these screws are loose, you can carefully tighten them just until they are snug.
The same is true of these screws that hold the oboe’s thumb rest in place—they are part of a non-moving assembly. If they won’t stay in place, the wood may be damaged (the hole is “stripped”). A good repair shop can fix it for you.
Woodwind instruments have many pivot screws, and also pivot rods that have slotted ends like screws. These allow some of the instrument’s keys to pivot (rotate) a little when you press and release them.
Here is one of the pivot screws on a flute. The threaded part screws into a post that is attached to the instrument, and the pointy tip of the screw fits into a void in the end of the key, holding it in place but allowing it to pivot smoothly. For a well-made and well-maintained instrument, usually you can screw these in all the way until they are snug and the head of the screw fits into the post without protruding. But if that makes the key stick or misbehave, it may be necessary to loosen it just slightly.
Here is a flute pivot rod. When it is screwed in it looks the same as a pivot screw, but when it is removed you can see that it’s long enough to pass all the way through a post and the keys’ hinge tube, and then screw into another post. Like a pivot screw, a pivot rod can usually be screwed in until snug, unless that seems to cause a problem.
Most of the woodwinds also have at least a few adjustment screws. These allow a professional to fine-tune how some of the keys move. They need to be tightened a certain amount, no tighter and no looser, like turning the knob on an oven to get the right temperature. If it’s too loose or too tight, it will make the instrument difficult or impossible to play. Making these adjustments properly requires specialized skills.
Here are some of the many adjustment screws on an oboe:
And here is one of the few on a clarinet:
If you tighten these adjustment screws and don’t know what you are doing, you will probably need to take the instrument to your teacher or a repair shop to undo the damage. This can be time-consuming and expensive.
If you have screws that keep loosening on their own, this may be because they are dirty, damaged, or need lubrication. A good repair shop can clean and repair the screws or rods without damaging them (or replace them if necessary), and can determine and apply the appropriate lubricant. (Most household oils aren’t right for the job.) If the screws continue to loosen after this treatment, take the instrument to the shop again and they may use additional methods to secure the screws in place.