Planning breaths

When learning a new étude or repertoire piece, it’s common to practice at first with focus on the notes, often playing them at a slow tempo and/or divided into chunks. This is a good approach for mastering the needed finger technique, but it may neglect one of the crucial parts of a performance: breathing.

In some music, it’s obvious where to breathe. But in a page of nonstop sixteenth notes, it’s harder to find the right places, and to execute them gracefully. Adding to the problem, I find that when I am nervous or playing under pressure, my breathing is one of the first things that falls apart: I start breathing in unaccustomed places, or skipping breaths that I know I really need.

I recommend establishing a breathing plan early in the process of learning new music. That way you can practice the breaths just like you practice the notes—they become a part of your muscle memory, and will happen automatically even under pressure.

The first step for a wind player should be to mark in the musical breaths, the ones that demarcate phrases. These are breaths that you will take (or possibly fake) regardless of your need for oxygen, because they serve the music. How exactly to do that is beyond the scope of this post, but here are a few quick tips:

  • Beware breathing at bar lines. They look like nice stopping points, but often don’t make musical sense. (They are there only for your convenience in counting.)
  • Background in music theory helps a lot, but you can also use your ears to help you figure out intuitively where a phrase comes to rest, or steal ideas from a good recording.
  • To go deeper, consider studying phrasing, perhaps from a book like David McGill’s. (Put that one on your wish list if you haven’t read it already!)

Once the breaths required by the music are in place, you may decide you need more, perhaps because you haven’t worked the piece up to its full tempo yet (or because the piece isn’t written with sensitivity to your desire to survive). Mark in-between “survival” breaths as needed, perhaps in parentheses so you remember which ones they are. Put them in the best places you can find, and execute them as musically as you can, but as your tempo increases you may be able to skip them. If so, be sure to erase them so your marked-in plan stays up to date.

Choosing places for survival breaths is a trial-and-error process. Mark some in and give them a try, then adjust as needed. If you feel uncomfortable while playing, this can lead to panicked decisions on stage, so choose breaths for your comfort.

Particularly for the oboe, you may find you need some “breaths” where you can actually exhale stale air. Mark these clearly, too.

Always update your pencil marks if you decide to change the plan at all, so that your plan is 100% clear and you can practice it in a consistent way. You can change your mind later, as long as you change your marks.

To summarize:

  • Start early in the process of learning a new piece.
  • Mark in musical breaths, which you will observe even if you’re capable of playing longer without stopping.
  • Mark in survival breaths, if necessary. Use trial and error to get them right.
  • Practice the breaths just as diligently as you practice the notes.
  • As you get closer to the performance, you might alter the breathing plan as your interpretation evolves, or as you no longer need some of the survival breaths.
  • Be strict about keeping the markings current, and about playing just what is marked.

Well-planned, thoroughly-practiced breaths contribute to a relaxed, musical performance.

Using sticky notes to focus my performance thinking

photo, George Lawrie

I might put in weeks or months preparing for a high-pressure performance. The groundwork is done—I have made the technical and interpretive decisions, drilled the difficult spots, and otherwise planned and prepared every aspect of my playing.

But all of that can fall apart pretty quickly if my head isn’t in the right place. Nerves, stress, and distractions can make one small error snowball into an unfocused, sloppy performance.

One of my favorite tricks to help avoid this is to plan my thinking. As I do the final preparations for my performance, I often pick out two or three things I would like to focus on as I begin each piece or movement. These might be important technical details (“make sure embouchure is stable before playing the first note”), more general advice (“keep breath support strong through the ends of phrases”), or interpretive thoughts (“light and playful”).

I write these two or three things (no more) on a sticky note, and place it at the beginning of the piece or movement. If the reminders seem especially crucial, I might put the sticky note over the first few measures of music, so I can’t start playing until I have physically moved it out of the way.

This small preparation helps ensure that as I begin to play, I’m thinking about the things that are most important to the success of the performance, rather than reacting to distractions.

Buying more instruments, or making do with what you have

I get asked every so often whether it’s a good idea for a woodwind doubler to try to have a fairly “complete” set of instruments, or whether it’s better to make do with a few and make substitutions as needed. For example, do you need a B-flat clarinet and an A clarinet, or can you just transpose? Is it worth it to buy an English horn for sporadic use, or can you cover the part on saxophone?

The answers, of course, depend on your goals. It’s hard to predict for sure which instruments will end up being useful or financially worthwhile. And a new instrument isn’t always something you can just hurry and buy when a gig offer demands it. 

If your aim is to maximize your income, and some substitutions are acceptable at your gigs, then you should buy as few instruments as you can get away with. Prioritize the ones that are most likely to pay for themselves in terms of new gigs within the shortest time frame.

If it makes you happy to have a larger collection of instruments, and you can afford to make it happen, then there’s nothing wrong with that, either. For many of us music straddles the line between profession and hobby, and being a woodwind doubler isn’t necessarily any more expensive a hobby than boating or fine woodworking or international travel. If you can count the purchase as a business expense as well, then all the better.

Follow the instrument acquisition strategy that best suits your financial situation and personal goals.

How to write boring program notes

photo, Pat M2007

Things to include in your program notes for maximum boredom:

  • More than a sentence (two, tops) of general biography on the composer.
  • Unremarkable facts about the piece’s structure (sonata form! key of F!).
  • A blow-by-blow description (first there is a kind of sad theme! it starts out low and soft but then it gets higher and louder!).
  • Unfounded judgments about the piece or composer (this is one of the greatest pieces in the repertoire! the composer is truly a genius!).
  • Explanation (excuses and/or bragging) about how difficult the piece is to play, or inside baseball about playing technique (this piece goes way up into the third octave! the performer has to use triple-tonguing in this one spot!).
  • Show-offy or obscure terminology, especially if it’s not part of your usual vocabulary and there’s a chance you are using it wrong.
  • Length greater than a slow reader can get through in the breaks between pieces.

But if you prefer program notes that are less boring, I guess you could try these:

  • Stick mostly to biographical information that relates specifically to the piece being performed.
  • Stick mostly to language and content that is accessible to someone who is new to this kind of music and nervous that they won’t get it.
  • If you must describe the piece to your audience, imagine you are writing program notes for a movie instead. Don’t give away the ending or the celebrity cameos or the plot twist, and don’t give a scene-by-scene breakdown. Give just enough to pique their interest.
  • If the piece itself is likely to be challenging or inaccessible to your audience, give them a sense for what is interesting about it. (For example, explain in two or three simple sentences about 12-tone serialism or microtonality or minimalism.)

If you’re a student writing program notes as an assignment, you might have to hit a certain target length, include specific information, cite sources, etc. If you’re a teacher assigning those things, consider that maybe what you really wanted was a book report or a theory paper instead.

Generally, program notes should give an intelligent but not necessarily musically-trained audience a few things to help them enjoy the performance more, without feeling like homework. Be ruthless about trimming away anything that doesn’t contribute to that, and don’t be afraid of brevity.

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”