Q&A: The big picture

photo, Princeton Symphony

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

Why does music move humanity so profoundly?

My personal belief is that music is divine in origin, and that there is something inherent to humankind that responds to music. Since I believe that everyone is a child of God, I suppose the love of music is a divinely-inherited trait. Leaders in my faith have said, for example, that “Music is given of God to further his purposes,” and observed “Music is truly the universal language, and when it is excellently expressed how deeply it moves our souls.”

If that’s not your style, you may prefer Darwin’s speculation that the earliest attempts at human language were more like musical gestures than like words. An ability to relate to these sounds is at the foundation of language in the more modern sense, and thus underlies virtually all human experience and culture.

In any case, even as a faith-plus-science kind of guy, I’m definitely out of my depth here, so feel free to share your theories in the comments.

Are applied music studios in higher education sustainable considering the supply of music graduates exceeds available employment?

There are issues here for sure. I can only vouch for my own approach:

Most of my university students are music education majors, and where I live this does seem to be sustainable. My graduates for the most part are able to land and keep jobs doing what they are trained for: directing middle school and high school bands.

Many of my students at some point inquire about the degree in performance. If they are interested in that route and have the skill to pursue it, we have a long talk about the career path of a performance major. Essentially, a bachelors degree in performance qualifies you for one thing, entry into an masters program. The masters qualifies you for a doctoral program, and that qualifies you to teach in higher education and perpetuate the cycle. We talk seriously about the prospects for employment in higher ed (slim).

On the other hand, a college or university education isn’t a trade school certificate—it is meant to produce a well-rounded citizen of the world, with literacy in key fields of human thought and skills in areas like communication and critical thinking. If a prospective student wishes to study the art of musical performance for reasons that are not necessarily 100% practical, then I would like to see that opportunity available to them. Schools and students should be clear with each other about their goals, so there isn’t any confusion about, for example, guarantees of employment.

Some of my students have leveraged some of the more general skills developed in their musical education to pursue careers in other fields, which I find to be a perfectly good outcome. There is also at least some anecdotal evidence that college music majors are welcomed by challenging, high-status programs like law and medical schools.

When will woodwind makers deplete resources of grenadilla/mpingo wood?

I don’t know the answer. My understanding is that these woods are not in danger of extinction, exactly. But the culling of the tallest, straightest specimens for products like oboes and clarinets has potential to cause an evolutionary bottleneck, since only trees that are unsuitable for instruments (because they are curvy, for example) are left alone to reproduce.

I think that the inevitable conclusion to this is alternative materials for instruments. This will be a tough sell for some musicians, but will ultimately be for the better. If modern science can develop amazing new materials for everything from mobile phone technology to medicine to space travel, why not for music? I’m confident that the “wood”-wind instruments will continue to exist in materials that are more sustainable, stable, affordable, crack-free, ergonomic, and beautiful-sounding.

Why does the principal oboist tune the orchestra?

Tradition. We have methods of providing a reference pitch that are far more accurate and reliable than even the best oboist. But the ritual is a comfortable one.

There are lots of additional theories. I’ve written previously about why a bunch of these don’t make sense, and that post continues to draw comments largely based on questionable understanding of “overtones.”


Thanks for your questions! These are some tough ones.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Prepping the dumb guy

photo, Corrie

In the practice room, I’m smart, organized, and focused. I’d like to say that this always leads to performances that are relaxed, poised, and confident. But sometimes the smart guy from the practice room fails to show up, and instead a much dumber version of me ends up on the stage: nervous, distracted, and scatterbrained.

It’s my job (the smart guy) to make sure the dumb guy is prepped and ready to go. He’s not much good at thinking on his feet or making good musical decisions, but he’s trainable. So here’s the preparation regimen:

  • Practice in a thorough, methodical way. Not just the hard parts—the easy parts, too, which the dumb guy thinks he can handle but will be prone to boneheaded mistakes.
  • If recordings of the repertoire are available, listen to them over and over. Sometimes when the dumb guy’s reading or memory fail him, his ear can help him through.
  • Include a clear breathing plan in the practice routine. Mark the breaths in, early in the process, and practice them like they are notes. My particular dumb guy tends to breathe in weird places when he gets nervous, so I have to make sure good breaths are part of his muscle memory. (If you have a dumb guy/girl, they might have their own personal quirks that need a safety net.)
  • Make extensive markings. Anything that the dumb guy might forget gets penciled in, in clear and unambiguous terms (no just circling things—the dumb guy can’t always remember in the heat of the moment what the circles mean). If necessary, I even leave him a little reminder a few bars in advance (“big breath coming up,” “keep fingers relaxed,” etc.).
  • Make foolproof arrangements for page turns. Sometimes that means things like making a couple of copies of a page, with some bars completely blacked out so the dumb guy can’t accidentally play past the page turn, or fail to find his place after turning. Sometimes I even leave some instructions in the margin about how to do the page turn successfully.
  • After the recital or concert, I review the dumb guy’s performance to figure out what other holes he managed to fall into, and strategize about how to plug those holes for next time.

If you’re like me, and your IQ sometimes drops a few points under the hot stage lights, make sure you’ve done your advance work so the dumb guy can’t cause too much havoc.

What I listen for in scholarship auditions

photo, Janeen

It’s scholarship audition season again, which means I get to meet and listen to some very nervous high school seniors (and community college sophomores).

My university is a small regional one, so our audition process probably isn’t as intense as some of the big name-brand music schools. If you’re preparing for an audition, you should definitely check in with that school to see what they expect, but here’s what I usually hear auditionees play, and what I’m thinking while I listen. Continue reading “What I listen for in scholarship auditions”

Getting past frustration and burnout

photo, alister

Every musician (and music student) goes through periods of frustration and burnout. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Here are just a few ideas to consider:

  • Talk to someone. It might be a colleague who can directly relate to what you’re going through. Or a friend or loved one who cares about you. Or a mentor who can offer wisdom. Or a professional counselor who can listen dispassionately and offer coping strategies. Or maybe all of the above.
  • Get organized. Sometimes taking control of your life can bring some calm and make problems seem more manageable. Clear your desk, make a to-do list, review your calendar, clean out your instrument case, make your bed.
  • Get inspired. Go back to what gets you excited about music. Listen to or play through some old favorites or something new you have been wanting to try. Go to the opera or a rock concert or a jazz club.
  • Do some self-care. Get some exercise, get some sunshine, get some sleep, get some air, stock the fridge with nutritious meals, meditate, worship, or do whatever else makes you feel balanced and healthy.
  • Take some time. If you can, take a little break to recharge. Depending on your circumstances, that might mean going on vacation for a couple of weeks, or spending a quiet weekend at home, or just taking a few minutes between practice sessions to rest and recover.
  • Ride it out. Bear in mind that frustration and burnout are extremely common complaints. When appropriate, it may be helpful just to recognize and accept the negative feelings, and forge ahead anyway.

To expand on one point from above, if you find that you are no longer finding happiness or fulfillment in your musical pursuits, and the situation seems to be more than the usual ups-and-downs, consider checking in with a professional counselor. (If you are part of a university community, you might have no-cost or low-cost access to counseling services on campus.) Counseling isn’t just for people who are “sick” or “crazy”—most of us can benefit now and then for talking things through with someone who is good at it, and who, if and when needed, can identify issues that are treatable with medications or other therapies.

Have more ideas on coping with frustration and burnout? Please share in the comments.

Preventing accidents with pencil marks

photo, S. Parker

After some recent windy weather I saw someone in my neighborhood cutting up some fallen tree branches with a chainsaw. He wore jeans and sneakers and handled the saw with something less than familiarity.

Later, I saw a professional tree removal crew working at a similar task. They operated their chainsaws expertly and with confidence, and wore helmets, eye and ear protection, and heavy protective clothing.

I thought the amateur might really be the one in need of safety gear. But the professionals showed up equipped to do the job right, do it promptly, and do it without mishaps. Continue reading “Preventing accidents with pencil marks”

Please lose the music binder

photo, Hometown Beauty

For some reason a high percentage of my incoming students each year like to make a 3-ring binder for their sheet music and lesson materials. I don’t know why.

They apparently put a fair amount of time and money into this project, which often involves custom cover artwork, dividers, and plastic sheet protectors. As the semesters go by, the binder fills up with every bit of sheet music they have used, until the binder is so heavy that a music stand won’t support its weight.

I applaud and relate to their interest in keeping things organized and their enthusiasm for the course. But the big music binder just doesn’t work very well. Here are my complaints: Continue reading “Please lose the music binder”

Recording your practicing

photo, James Cridland

“Record yourself when you practice” is common advice, and good advice. I frequently recommend it to my students, but few of them do it. I think it can seem overwhelming. Recording seems like a big production: getting the material to performance level, using complicated and expensive equipment, playing beginning to end, doing cruelly thorough analysis followed by self-flagellation and sadness.

Here’s a simple, effective, low-stress approach that I use: Continue reading “Recording your practicing”

Buy intonation, not tone

How exciting to try out new instruments (or mouthpieces or headjoints or barrels or…) and to find one that really has a great sound! It’s a rite of passage for the young woodwind player, trying out a parade of shiny new possibilities, surrounded by parents, a private teacher, friends, and a salesperson with dollar signs in their eyes. “That one has such beautiful tone!” everybody will sigh.

I suggest that you do not buy that one.

photo, themusicgrove

“Good” tone is a fluid, fleeting thing. That clarinet might have better tone than a half-dozen of the same model because its pads currently leak less than the others. That mouthpiece might sound like a winner because the reed you brought with you happens to mate with it better at the moment.

And your tone will shift as you adapt to your purchases. That new piece of gear might make you sound like somebody else right now, but as you get accustomed to it you’ll start to sound like you again. (Don’t like sounding like you? Develop your tone concept.)

Rather than splitting hairs about tone, break out a chromatic tuner, or, better, a drone, and pick out the one that is easiest to play in tune. Bring along a teacher or professional colleague who has high-level proficiency on the instrument, and have them listen and watch the tuner while you play, then play while you listen and watch the tuner. (This is especially crucial if you are a student-level player!)

An instrument or accessory with great tone but poor pitch will be a constant exhausting struggle to play in tune, and its problems are harder to fix in the repair shop. Gear with rock-solid pitch will do a fair amount of the work for you, and “its” tone (your tone) will improve with practice, listening, and some TLC from a good technician. Shop with your priorities in order, and you will get an instrument that will serve you well for many years.

How are you going to improve this?

I’ve blogged previously about getting my students to give more than pat answers about how they think their playing sounds:

It’s an ongoing battle to get my students to listen more deeply than that. Was the articulation “not good” because it started with air noise instead of tone? Because it was accompanied by an unwanted percussive sound? Was the articulation technique perfect but you failed to follow the composer’s markings? Or was it something else?

The next step is getting students to make a clear, actionable plan to improve. That conversation often goes like this:

Me: Okay, what are you going to do to improve that aspect of your—

Student [rolling eyes]: Practice.

Me: Well, obviously. But how are you going to prac—

Student [sighing]: Keep practicing until I get it right.

Me: No, I mean what specific practice tech—

Student [through clenched teeth]: Use a metronome.

In other words, the “plan” is usually to suffer for a few hours in the practice room, and maybe, against all odds, emerge with the problem magically fixed.

But practicing without a plan rarely produces the desired results. I’m much more optimistic about the student’s success if they can tell me something like: “Well, I need to slow this way down, slow enough that I can get it exactly right, and use the metronome to make sure I’m not rushing. When I can play this passage with the correct articulations 10 times in a row without mistakes, then I’ll inch the metronome up by a couple of clicks and try again.” That’s a clear commitment to a tried-and-true method. It will probably be a much more productive and satisfying practice session, which means the student is more likely to put in some more good hours the next day.

Less-experienced students might have a smaller repertoire of practice techniques, and I consider it a lesson-time priority to teach them more of those techniques. Trial and error in the practice room will help them refine these techniques, and determine which ones are most effective for them.

Productive practicing requires identifying an area to improve, selecting a technique (or series of techniques) to apply to it, evaluating progress, adjusting the practice technique as needed, and noting what does and doesn’t work for future practice sessions.

Staying motivated for summer practicing

photo, Craig ONeal
For musicians on an academic schedule, summers are often wide open. This can be a great opportunity to get ahead, or a bottomless pit of procrastination and idleness. Here are some ideas for staying motivated to get some summer practicing done.

Continue reading “Staying motivated for summer practicing”