Hi, come on in, you’re right on time for your lesson.

photo, Jeremy Tenenbaum

I have lots on things on my list for you today: we should double-check your rhythms on that etude, review those melodic minor scales that were giving you trouble last week, and discuss some finer points of vibrato.

But something about your sunken eyes when I met you at the door, the way you slouched into the room, the slept-in fashion statement, says that today you are Struggling. Not because you are lazy or undedicated. But because college life is fraught with deadlines for research papers and rent payments, and scheduled to the brim with marching band rehearsals and late shifts waiting tables, and fueled by store-brand Pop Tarts and never enough sleep.

And because of the heavy secrets that you carry. A friend spiraling into addiction. A boyfriend or girlfriend who tells you you’re not enough. A medical worry that you can’t afford to acknowledge. Sexual assault. Depression.

We can try to fight through your repertoire piece, but today Saint-Saëns isn’t breaking the top twenty things on your mind.

And while sometimes the biggest obstacle between you and your senior recital is sluggish articulation, sometimes it’s crippling anxiety about something else. And my calling is to get you from here to that recital, whatever is standing in the way. 

So for now let’s put off talking about how many practice hours you have logged. Instead I want to know whether you have eaten anything in the last 24 hours. How much you slept last night, and the night before. Whether you have gotten any sunshine this week. Sometimes, I think, the best thing I can do to improve your playing isn’t to harangue you about intonation, but to offer you a protein bar from my desk drawer, send you home for a nap before you have to clock in at the restaurant, or make you walk a few laps around the quad and take some breaths of fresh air.

Or sometimes to ask how you’re doing, ignore the reflexive “fine,” and wait for the real answer to come tumbling out.

I’m no therapist. And I’m not your parent or your doctor or a social worker. I might not always be the right person for you to talk to—luckily you have friends, family, clergy who are also ready to listen. And there’s the campus counseling center, for when you need to talk to someone who isn’t invested in your life, or someone who can offer a professional opinion when medications or other therapies are needed. But if I seem like the right person to open up to, then I want you to feel safe and unjudged doing it.

One thing, though: mentioning suicidal thoughts, even in passing, is a showstopper. Before we move on, I need you to tell me, emphatically, that you’re not in danger of harming yourself. If you can’t convince me, then I’m going to use this circa-1982 office phone to call one of the counseling staff for some help.

Your musical pursuits are important, but not more important than your life and health and happiness. So let’s make sure the real problems are at a manageable level first, and then I’ll resume hassling you about tension in your embouchure.

See you next week. Hang in there!

Thanks for reading! You’re awesome. If you found this post helpful, let me know with a donation or an email.

When you’re too sick for a lesson

photo, Ankarino

Sometimes I have students cancel their lessons due to seemingly very minor, manageable health concerns (physical or mental). Other times students drag themselves to lessons when they are clearly miserable and contagious.

The better approach is clearly somewhere in the middle, but my newest college students are usually living away from their parents and the formal rules of high school for the first time and sometimes aren’t used to making those judgment calls on their own. Continue reading “When you’re too sick for a lesson”

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.

10 ideas for more focused practicing

It can be difficult to keep practice sessions focused and productive. Distractions, burnout, boredom, and bad habits get in the way of progress. Try some or all of these, see what works well for you, and make the most of your practice time.

Photo,  woodleywonderworks. (license)
Photo, woodleywonderworks. (license)

  1. Prepare yourself mentally. Before you start, take a few minutes for meditation, prayer, introspection, deep breathing, self-awareness, or whatever else helps you set aside the concerns of daily life and get in the zone.
  2. Prepare yourself physically. Stretch, hydrate, dress comfortably. Get enough sleep and exercise and eat a balanced diet. Protect yourself from repetitive-motion injuries and make sure your body can perform at its best.
  3. Embrace routine. Develop some habits around your practice schedule. A carefully-selected routine gets you into practice mode and reduces the chances of falling into procrastination. It also gives you a framework that can be fine-tuned when you have a new idea you would like to incorporate.
  4. Warm up. It doesn’t just mean bringing your instrument up to temperature. Do long tones, scales, articulation studies, or other things that get your instrument-playing muscles working together. Choose ones that demand your very best embouchure, voicing, breath support, finger technique, etc.
  5. Be goal-oriented. Know what you want to accomplish, as specifically as possible. Not “I’m going to practice my scales.” Try “I’m going to get my F-sharp major scale tempo up to sixteenth notes at 60 beats per minute with no wrong notes or hesitations.” Or even better: “I’m going to train my fingers to use that alternate D-sharp fingering in the top octave of the F-sharp major scale at 60 beats per minute with no incorrect or hestitant finger motions.” Goals shouldn’t only be technical; they can be expressive and interpretive, too. Make a list, and start checking things off.
  6. Seek variety. Don’t drive yourself crazy or die of boredom practicing one problem phrase for hours on end. Through experimentation, figure out how long you can really maintain focus and enthusiasm for a single practice task (10 minutes usually works well for me), and move to a new task when it gets less productive to work on the old one. You’ll come back to it later with fresh ears/eyes/fingers/lips.
  7. Take breaks. Take them frequently, but don’t leave them open-ended. Know exactly when you plan to get back to work, and what task you will be tackling next.
  8. Self-evaluate. You probably already have some kind of device you can use to record yourself. Listen back as though it’s somebody else playing. Make notes about what you hear. Pick the biggest-priority items and add them to your goal list.
  9. Escape distractions. You know what pulls you away from the task at hand. Hide it, silence it, power it down. How different would your practicing be if the only people or objects in sight were you, your instrument, and a music stand?
  10. Find inspiration. It’s hard to reach a performance goal if you aren’t sure what that goal sounds like. Don’t be afraid to listen to recordings or watch videos of your heroes—you will still sound like yourself, just a better-informed version of yourself. Listening to singers or players of instruments besides your can really open up your mind and ears, too.

Have additional tips? Leave a comment!

My studio “fresh air” policy

Last year I posted a small sign on my studio door:

Fresh air policy

If you smell of tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs, you will not be permitted to enter my office, whether or not you were the one using those substances. If your grade depends on you being here for a lesson, coaching, or other meeting, you will receive a zero.

Thank you.

Happily, I haven’t had occasion to enforce the policy since then, though I have previously had the occasional student who would have been in violation. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t ever show up to any college course or professional situation under the influence of any mind-altering substance, including alcohol, and my university also happens to be a “tobacco-free” campus, which is rare and awesome.

I wrestled a little bit with the “whether or not you were the one” clause, but it’s my workspace and I don’t like the smell of cigarettes, especially since my work involves a lot of deep breathing. Also, it means I don’t ever have to try to guess whether students are lying (not that any of mine would).

My students’ choices are their own, and I try to be extremely conscientious about not foisting my personal beliefs on them. However, I am also responsible to teach them to protect their health, at least as it relates to their woodwind playing, and to behave professionally. So fresh air—free of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs—is my policy.

Health, wellness, and woodwind doubling

I got an email from a college student taking an Occupational Health and Wellness course. He asked me some questions about health and wellness issues in woodwind doubling, and I tried to answer the best I could.

How do you prepare for the many instrument switches in a musical which require changes of embouchure and hand position/key action adjustments? How do you deal with the physical demands of switches between many instruments?

The best preparation is to develop good, relaxed technique on each instrument independently. I try to practice each instrument carefully and produce the best possible sound on each one.

If I have the luxury of reviewing the part ahead of time, I will often practice the “choreography” for quick instrument switches, and make plenty of pencil marks so that I know ahead of time what switches are coming up. I try to keep a consistent layout of my instrument stands for each show, so that I get used to where each instrument is.

As I am making each switch (even very quick ones) I will try to take a moment to totally relax my facial muscles, hands, etc., and, maybe most importantly, flip a mental switch to oboe mode or clarinet mode or whatever.

Good reliable stands and neckstraps are vital.

Would you say that having to adjust to the action and key pressure of multiple instruments makes you more susceptible to hand/forearm injury than a musician who plays a single instrument?

I’m not an expert, but I would think that playing a single instrument is more dangerous in terms of repetitive motion injuries, etc. If I spend five hours a day practicing (I wish!) then I think I’m better off with more varied physical activities.

Photo, MissTessmacher
Photo, MissTessmacher

Does playing any one instrument create body tension that affects another instrument? (ex. flute might create shoulder tension which affects playing the sax) Continue reading “Health, wellness, and woodwind doubling”