A few more things I’ve learned

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Several years back, I wrote a post or two about things that I wished I’d known when I was a younger musician – as a student, freelancing, and the first few years in a professional orchestra. A few more have percolated through my subconscious lately, and these are more about things that I wish that I’d known as I got into the mid-point of my career.

  1. You will rush when you play louder. Unless you practice with a metronome. See No. 2.
  2. Metronome practice only gets more important. This is a somewhat embarrassing fact, but I think that it holds true for everyone. I was playing some audition rep for a colleague a few years ago, and I remarked that it was so hard really evaluate your own playing, and he said that people in orchestras often think they sound better than they actually do because they never make themselves play publicly outside the orchestra. This is so true. We often think, as musicians in our supposed prime, that we are human metronomes and tuners – but we are just as fallible as we always were, perhaps more so. Practicing with a metronome always improves your rhythm. So why not do it? Hubris.
  3. Efficient practice habits will save your bacon. You will have less and less time to devote to practicing as your life becomes more full of, well, life. Being able to think and practice effectively in 15 or 30 minute chunks is essential. Learn that skill early on, or don’t and get ready to suffer.
  4. Play concerts outside of your job ensemble. I touched on this in No. 2, but even if you’re playing for a class of kindergarteners or at a retirement home, you’re putting yourself out there in a way that sitting in the string section of an orchestra will never replicate. You don’t have to sound like Joshua Bell, but it will make you appraise your playing in a much more critical way, and will pay huge dividends with relatively little effort or exposure.
  5. Listen to music, live and recorded, regularly. Having a range of listening experience definitely helps how you work every day. Knowing the chamber music or sonatas of Janacek helps when one plays the Cunning Little Vixen Suite, or his Sinfonietta. You learn the composer’s mannerisms, which helps to develop a sort of shorthand in approaching a piece of music with which you may be unfamiliar.
  6. Playing everyday, even if it is only a brief warm-up routine, is essential. When I was in my 20’s, I would take almost an entire month off (in July) from playing. It was a bit tough getting back to the instrument, but it was doable (and I thought necessary, for my mental health). Nowadays, it is very noticeable when I take even one day off from thoughtful playing. Just showing up at rehearsals isn’t really enough. There needs to be time where you can really hear yourself play, and focus on the fundamentals: intonation, rhythm, and tone production. Even if it’s just a few scales with the metronome and some solo Bach, that really helps you to keep in touch with the basics.
  7. Don’t get complacent. This touches on No 2 again. Don’t think you know everything, or have everything ‘together’. Be skeptical of your own prowess, and always seek to improve and learn. I’ve had conductors chide the section for rushing, and thought to myself “How dare he! I don’t rush!” Sure enough, I’d go home and check the passage with a metronome and find that I was prone to rushing in that passage. Live and learn.
  8. Hear live performances by musicians of abilities close to your own. This is a new one to me, and it took some time to come to this conclusion. We all tend to listen to superstar musicians play (mostly through recordings, and then through live performances when they play with our orchestra), but we don’t spend much time listening to people who are near our level of ability perform (at least not as a soloist or chamber musician). It is a common psychological condition to feel like we’re the only one who struggles with aspects of their playing. In reality, everyone feels that way, regardless of their level of accomplishment. I’ve listened to performances by colleagues that were a bit less than touring soloist level polished, but which proved to be so inspirational to me. These performances left me itching to go home and practice after I got home – in a good way! I was raring to go and try some of the things that I heard them do, and felt musically recharged. Plus, your colleagues will be thankful to see you in the audience. Professional musicians are notoriously terrible about attending concerts that they don’t play!

2 Replies to “A few more things I’ve learned”

  1. Ah, practicing with a metronome – so valuable!
    Years ago when studying with Pepe Romero, he told me about the time Heifetz invited him over to his house to watch him practice. Pepe said that Heifetz took a particularly tricky passage in the Brahms Violin Concerto and practiced it over & over starting with the metronome on half-speed of his projected concert tempo. Then, H moved the metronome one notch after each perfectly controlled rendition until he eventually got to about 20% beyond the speed needed for performance. H concluded this “lesson” by telling Pepe that one should never actually perform at their absolute top tempo capacity & that his 20% beyond rule enabled him to always feel like he still had quite a bit of gas in his tank.

  2. Excellent, practical suggestions – and not just for string players! Passed on to my daughter, a trombone performance major at IU.

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