Branching Out

Some Thoughts on High School Solo Repertoire

I think it is important for students to learn a variety of styles of playing so I have grouped some of the standard literature into eight categories. My thought in doing this is that students, if motivated, could learn 2 standard solos per year. Teachers could asign the pieces in their entirety or in selected movements, depending on each students’ abilities and/or motivation.

Example: For less motivated and/or less advanced students, 1 movement twice per year from 2 of the 8 separate categories would be a great challenge. For more advanced and/or more motivated students, 2 complete solos per year from the 8 categories would be good or for more variety they could do one movement from each category.

I’ve tried to list from easy to difficult in each category, but teachers would have to make their own determinations based on the student’s strengths. Ideally, younger students could do the first in a group while the older could do the latter. Again, this would need to be adjusted for each student based on level and commitment to practice.

Classical:
Wanhal, Stamitz, Mozart

Early Romantic:
Weber, Rossini, Spohr

Late Romantic:
Schumann, Brahms

Unaccompanied:
Osborne, Sutermeister, Stravinsky

French:
Saint-Saens, Poulenc, Debussy

French Contest:
Messager, Gaubert, Widor

British:
Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Arnold

Modern:
Bernstein, Hindemith, Lutoslawski

An example lesson plan for a motivated student could be:
9th- 2 mvts each of Wanhal & Saint Saens
10th- 3 mvts of Finzi and (all) Osborne
11th- 1mvt of Weber Concerto, 2 mvts of Schumann
12th- Messager, Bernstein

I would like to add that I have found that some students really do not respond well to 1 or more of these categories and that requiring them to stick with that literature can sometimes hinder momentum. It is possible that the student’s understanding of music theory has not developed enough to foster an appreciation of that style. If a student shows signs of this I would suggest more listening first, and then make a change in literature if necessary. Hopefully some time to mature as a musician will give them the tools necessary to appreciate that literature later in their study.

I am not fond of teaching the same literature year after year. A crafty pedagogue can start with a general list, such as this one, and substitute other pieces from the literature that could emphasize similar concepts.

I have also discovered that this new generation has a keen interest in finding literature on their own. Guiding them through standard repertoire while keeping their interest in modern works can be a difficult balancing act but the rewards are great- interest and motivation!

When successful the teacher will find a well balanced and eager young musician who is more than ready for the pace and content of the college curriculum.

Photo courtesy of Kyleah

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My little secret weapon

Once upon a time I thought it was a fun idea to take it upon myself to do a solo tour of all unaccompanied repertoire.

I spent a great deal of time organizing what I thought would be an audience-engaging hour-plus program of music for unaccompanied solo clarinet. (This can be hard to do, as you can imagine…) The program consisted of transcribed music from the Baroque to the present, repertoire for Bb, A, Eb and Demi-clarinet, and a piece composed entirely by math and cut into segments which are arbitrarily or constructively ordered by the performer to create a unique work with each performance.

All-in-all the program was diverse enough that (to my relief) the audiences seemed to genuinely enjoy it. I had a number of challenges leading up to the performances but the program pushed me to be organized, thoughtful, and strong. It was a great challenge.

To my surprise, the thing I learned most from the experience was not self-taught in the process of preparing the tour. Instead, it was delivered to me through the eyes of an audience member. Nevertheless, this lesson taught me more about what I had done than I might have realized had I not gone on tour.

I’ll explain:
Along the tour I had been requested to do masterclasses with students. Typically these classes are offered earlier in the same day as the performance but in one case it was done the following day, allowing students to reflect and offer engaging questions and comments about the music and the performance.

In this particular class a student had been preparing a solo clarinet work with approximate duration of ten minutes. As he played for the audience the exhaustion gradually but assuredly set in and the performer began to get less confident and less consistent. His frustration mounted until he finally stopped. His look of desperation still lingers in my mind… He asked me how I could possibly build up strength and endurance to do a recital of more than an hour by myself while he cannot get through one piece. Fair question!

I certainly had empathy for him. This was a great student who had obviously learned his music and worked hard. He had his heart set on performing well.

Honestly, I needed to dig deep to understand. Why is it that I could now do this when once upon a time I struggled with this very thing as a student of Ronald deKant (and felt impending death during his infamous one-hour warm-up routine).

But digging deep for the right answer was impossible because I had not considered this before…

I did, however, make a quick assessment of how my practice has changed since my CCM student days and how my current routine differs from this student’s.

To my surprise I realized that my routine isn’t necessarily a routine at all! In fact, my routine changes so arbitrarily and so frequently that I wondered why I even called it a “practice routine”

…thought for another day…

My secret for building performance endurance is to build a warm-up routine that challenges you in a similar way to the music you are preparing.

For example, his piece began slowly, in a very low tessitura, and very quiet. It wandered around in steps and small skips and gradually approached a slightly higher “step” in speed and in both tessitura and dynamics. Again, a minute later or so, there was another rise, continuing in this fashion and building again and again until the end of the piece which is in an extremely high register with fast technique, loud dynamics and great energy. So I asked him:

Have you ever performed a ten minute warm up that gradually gets higher, louder and faster over ten minutes without interruption?

Revelation! For both of us. What a great lesson for us all!

I don’t know that I had really noticed that my warm up routines reflected the demands of my repertoire in the hundreds of practice sessions prior to that day but as I looked back on specific demanding programs I could see the minutes, the hours, the days of preparation during which I did 10-minute articulation drills in 6/8 meter during warm-ups because I knew that Mendelssohn was creeping up on me or 15-minute legato interval drills because the Brahms sonatas were looming. I can (to this day) hear Ron deKant telling me that my practice routine must have an hour-long warm up for an hour long recital and that my recital practice must contain two full-runs per day…

Here is my secret weapon for musicians: do not skip your warm-up. Instead, make it serve you. Make it provide for you each and every skill that your repertoire demands. Your repertoire requires it and your performance deserves it. Plus, won’t it be nice to not question whether you have done enough?!

Photo courtesy of Jim Lawrence, photographer

Best of luck designing the best practice routine for today!

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The power of one.

So many things can happen in life, each one molding and shaping the life and the person.

When I think back on the things that shaped who I have become I can rarely find an example of a time when I KNEW that my life was changed in that moment.

It wasn’t always a person that changed my life. I remember a few powerful moments or experiences from my childhood that sparked an interest in me. Maybe they just awakened a part of myself that I didn’t know. I remember them vividly as if a cherished long-lost friend.
-The Japanese drumming at rice festivals and lantern festivals
-The Japanese folk songs, especially Sakura which could easily bring tears to my eyes
-music class and my amazement listening to In the Hall of the Mountain King as I realized that my reaction to music was different than most kids’
-band “instrument day” and the sounds of things I loved and things I didn’t. Hahahaha
-the sounds of Bartok and Janacek on an old LP I bought for 25cents at a garage sale

Music spoke to me and brought out emotion and creativity.

I had an interest and an appreciation for sounds and music but I don’t know that I felt anything about who I was or what I wanted to do in life from these experiences. What helped me to discover these things are the people who crossed my path.

One such person was my middle school band director. Not the horrible one that yelled at children and spewed of bigotry and hate. The other one who saw children as learning, little humans and who charged herself with providing the tools for learning, success, motivation, confidence.

She recognized our strengths both individually and as a team. She had a way of challenging us all and recognizing our work. She felt joy from our joy and struggled with us when called upon. She believed in the children she taught and as a result we all loved her.

I wanted to be her. She was one of my idols, one of fairness, servitude, encouragement, high expectations, and determination. I did everything she told me because I TRUSTED her words.

What would have become of me had this person not been thrown into my path? Definitely not the life I live today.

Then she encouraged me to play a solo for contest and I met the other “one” in my life. The most amazing mentor and idol of my formative years: my private lesson teacher. She had a wealth of information, help, corrections, rules, expectations, and demands but most importantly, she had a “tip jar.”

I make a point of telling my students the story of the tip jar because I honestly feel that this is what helped me to become a professional musician. Once she told me, “Your twenty dollars pays me to teach you. It does not pay me to listen to wrong notes. If you’re going to play a wrong note in your scales and patterns, you’re going to have to throw a nickel in the tip jar.”

Well, I didn’t really get any form of allowance because my parents paid for my lessons. I had to actually WORK to pay for wrong notes. You can guess that wrong notes didn’t happen often after that.

You’ve all been told the importance and value of scales. In less than two years as a beginner, this person had put me through octave scales, 2 octave scales, 3 octave scales, 36 minor scales, chromatic scales, whole tone scales, Albert book, Klose book, Stievenard book, and beginning the Baermann. (She wasn’t messing around. Hahaha.) But I loved it and I loved her. She gave me a dream and the tools to reach them.

You see, she had already told me how to practice. Small groups of notes, slowly, repetition, add on, slowly, repetition, etc. She had told me to practice method daily and never skip and that the scales would become automatic. I just needed to listen.

And I did. Not because of the tip jar (although that did spur me forward pretty quickly) but because I loved her. I respected her. I thought she was amazing. I wanted to be her. She was the most amazing musician I had ever heard. Twenty five years later I can still hear her voice, both the clarinet voice and the actual voice. They guide me to this very day.

There are many roads to take in life and many people that you will pass along the way. As a musician I try to look for other musicians who inspire me to be the best musician I can be.

I’ve always jokingly said (with great earnest) that I want to be in the finest ensemble you can imagine and be the weakest link in the room. I truly feel this way… Not because I want to bring them down but because I want them to grab me and pull me along until I can keep up and blend in and learn to be a better musician, teacher, leader, person…

If you are a musician and you don’t have a mentor or an idol, it’s time to find one. Make it happen. Find the next person who will help you discover who you are and what you want to do with your life.

Just don’t forget along the way that someone you pass by today might be the kid whose life you have the power to change.

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Bombing my Practice Room

Hating the practice room is one of the most debilitating problems for aspiring young musicians. After all, it’s not actually possible to become a better performer without being consistent in your daily work.

Have you ever wondered why two students even of the same teacher will approach the practice room so differently? Maybe one is eager and ambitious while the other is trepidatious. Maybe one is disinterested and the other is ready to destroy the practice space… And the instrument… And the teacher…

Is this all personality? I think not.

For example, if a student has high expectations when they enter the practice room but they do not know how to equally assess both strengths and weaknesses in their performance they will almost always inevitably steer toward recognizing only weaknesses. This can quickly result in frustration and low self-esteem. Often the practice sessions are very short and completely unproductive.

Likewise, if the student can equally recognize both strengths and weaknesses but is unable to construct methods for eliminating those weaknesses they are likely to develop technique imbalances and want to gravitate to literature that only reflects their strengths. When faced with “prescribed” literature (such as that for all-state, solo competitions, or ensembles) they will have little control over the content in that music and may get increasingly frustrated as they recognize the widening gap created by avoidance. This can also result in frustration and self-esteem problems. Their practice may be long and driven but only of very lyrical work that avoids articulation or of only technical work that avoids dynamic control and shaping.

Let’s take a look at how any and every student can start to build a healthy approach in the practice room today.

First- every student needs to be able to label their own strengths. I have found that the more advanced a student is the more self-critical they tend to be, perhaps as a result of exposure and awareness. I make a habit of telling students what their strengths are until a student can identify what they like about any given performance. (Note to the hard-nosed teacher: a strength is here defined as the weakness of fundamental technique which is of least concern to you at this particular moment in your life as a teacher ­čśé)

Second- every student must be able to label their weaknesses. In my experience it is best to give them a maximum number allowed. I usually change this arbitrarily. For example, one lesson I might have a student list the three things in an ├ętude that they feel they most need help with. On a different day I may ask them to tell me a weakness that they felt stood out in their playing but they can only list one weakness for each strength that they label.

Third- the student needs to be able to identify a practice technique they have been shown in lessons or rehearsals that would be helpful when addressing the labeled weakness. I find it best to have a student pick one problem, one method, and assign 2-5 diligent working minutes (depending in attention span and playing level) to that task. They may need to be told that each day they can slightly alter the practice technique for variety’s sake but that it may take a few days for real progress to sink in and yield long-term benefits and consistency.

Here’s an example:

Jenny has a beautiful tone in her scalar passages during warm-up but in her performance of ├ętude #21 her tone becomes edgy and explosive when articulated. Unable to find her strengths when questioned I have her play the opening slur of her scale exercises. I compliment her on her tone and air support and ask what technique in ├ętude #21 made this more complicated. Now she easily recognizes articulation as the culprit. I ask her what articulation exercises she knows and how we can blend it with what is asked in the ├ętude. (Younger/less experienced students need more guidance with this.) See my blog: Baby Steps

Fourth- the student should try to do some goal driven practice for two or three areas of weakness in the practice routine but it’s best if these are short, intensive sessions which are alternated with other practice techniques like playing through longer sections or full-runs. Every student must have variety in the routine or it becomes stale, boring, and ineffective.

Fifth- the student should be able to recognize goal-driven practice as a success even if the weakness is not completely “cured.” The ultimate goal of practice is to learn and grow which is a natural result of goal-driven practice.

Hopefully the student will be better able to recognize both practice success and progress which should lead to more confidence and a healthier approach to the next practice session. After all, I would rather a student blow up their practice routine than blow up their practice room.

Picture courtesy of Kyleah

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BABY STEPS & FIXING TECHNIQUE

Have you ever had a lesson during which your teacher asked you to do a task so simple that you felt practically insulted at the request? Were you then embarrassed to discover that in the process of performing that task your teacher found a small (and irritating) technical flaw that you hadn’t noticed?

This is a common frustration for musicians as they progress from one invisible level of playing to the next.

What you may not know is that the initial frustration of recognizing a fault is fairly insignificant when compared to the frustration of trying to correct it. Let me give you an example.

Susie-Q has just learned that she must not ‘anchor’ her pinky fingers underneath the keys when they’re not being used. She attempts to play her scale again while ‘floating’ her pinkies above the keys and she misses a note. She starts again and misses a different note. Frustrated, she starts again and plays too quickly, resorts to anchoring the pinkies and misses another note! Susie-Q has known this scale for three years but is eventually brought to tears in frustration from what she thinks should be a simple task.

What is actually going on here? Why is Susie-Q struggling? What can she do to help the learning process?

Have you ever watched a baby learning to stand? With wobbly legs and wobbly bodies…struggling to balance…lifting the knee to take a step and falling swiftly on their padded butt… So cute! Each day the baby may struggle to get vertical once again and she will wobble less and less. It’s practically in the blink of an eye that the same baby is balancing and standing without the hand or the table or the stroller to cling to. Progress!

Now, that same baby has stood again and again. She has also picked up toys and books many, many times in her short life. The difficulty comes when this baby tries to pick up something while standing. The inevitable…Padded butt.

What happened? New technique. A combination of old techniques in a new way is a new technique. The amazing part is that in most cases the baby does not get frustrated. It’s almost as if the baby expected the blunder. She is ready to try again. And again. She learns and she carries pride with her. Many times you will see a baby learn a new skill and then brag a little! This baby stands, squats her little legs, picks up her older sisters metronome and says, “TA-DAH!” (She probably just threw your metronome- TIP: keep your clarinet things in your room…)

I have found that many of us develop very strong and unrealistic self-expectations for learning. Many educators blame this on “instant gratification” experiences but I think it has more to do with personality, determination, and self-worth.

You should know this: when your teacher corrected your technique they probably not only forgave your mistakes but also expected them. That’s right! Expected!

When you try to process new information and change the neurological/physical patterns of your technique it is a process. Slow down. Separate the tasks. Do repetition. Take a break. Stay slow and combine the tasks. Do repetition. Take a break.

Science and medicine have done a significant amount of research about how your brain learns and we know that your brain chews on this new information/technique for the next few sleep cycles. When you practice well you are actually preparing your brain for the practicing that goes on during your REM sleep. Isn’t that amazing?! Practice well, sleep on it, and then practice well again. Our amazing mentors have been telling us for years that it takes three good practice days to learn new concepts. Try to wait three days before you let frustration creep in.

So, next time you plan on changing technique, cut yourself some slack! Make an achievable goal and a reasonable time-frame. Allow your body and your mind to grow and learn but don’t let your self-esteem plunder. Learning is progress even in its baby steps.

Photo credit: Jim Lawrence

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Music1oh1 – The Beginning

In my career of teaching young musicians there have been so many students with amazing talent, great dedication, and fantastic teaching. Each student is a collection of many personal strengths which can take years to develop and often a steady team of mentors.

Like any artist musicians often deal with personal struggles from weaknesses in technique or in expression. They can battle with insecurity and poor self-esteem. Many fall victim to anxiety and even depression. In addition, the constant pressures demanded upon a musician’s body can cause strain and stress which build up over time and which can lead to serious cases of fatigue and overuse of the body’s tissues.

Music1oh1 is my best attempt to help musicians of any and every level to better deal with the daily stress of the hobby, the passion, the craft, the life of making music.

Let’s make happy, healthy music!

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