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!

the anxious musician

anxiety

The Seeds of Anxiety

The anxious musician is me. I think this has always been the case. I’ve never felt like I was good enough to be in whatever position I’ve found myself. It began in high school, when I was in youth orchestra, and hadn’t really blossomed as a musician. I saw the ‘cool kids’ that were doing well with the best teachers, and who got all the attention. I knew that I loved music as much as they did. But I was invisible, or nearly so. I didn’t know why, but [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]my brain told me that it was because I wasn’t good enough. Not just as a player, but as a person.[/pullquote] It’s funny, how this early attitude maintains itself. I’ve always felt like some sort of imposter – fearing that someone would unmask me for the pathetic pretender that I felt I actually was.

Environment is Key

What has become clear to me is that it’s all about comfort and support. The best performances I’ve given in my professional career have been in places where I felt a true rapport and sense of camaraderie with my fellow musicians and the audience. [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The worst have come where I’ve felt like I was being judged at every moment, that every phrase contained a crucial moment where I could ruin everything.[/pullquote]

In moments of clarity, I realize that I am qualified to be doing what I’m doing. I understand that mistakes happen, and they are in the past immediately, and what comes next is what matters. Those moments of clarity are fleeting, however. It doesn’t take much to throw an artistic personality off balance. We are trained from the inception of our studies to be critical of our performance. We are warned that if we don’t practice until it is perfect, someone else will. We are subject to intense peer stratification in music school that makes Predator look like Kindergarten Cop. If you are naturally endowed (or skillfully engendered) with a healthy sense of self, you can make it through these trials with most of your faculties intact. If you’re not (my hand raised over here), then it’s a recipe for, if not a steady downward spiral, then periodic downward spikes with some frantic attempts at self-arrest. In my quest for solutions, I’ve found a couple of helpful sources, which, if you’re like me, you might also find of interest.

Brené Brown

Brené Brown is a YouTube TED Talk phenomenon. She has spent much of her professional life researching the mechanics of shame.

Amy Cuddy & Miranda Wilson

More recently, thanks to a recent Facebook post by David Eby, I discovered this article by cellist Miranda Wilson which talks about physical ways of combatting performance anxiety inspired by Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy.

It is a hard battle, and when you find yourself in an uncertain and possibly hostile performance environment, these tools can make all the difference. I’ll let you know how it goes…

friends, music, and business

Me, with Troy Peters, backstage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Me, with Troy Peters, backstage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

I had one of those rare opportunities this weekend to welcome one of my oldest and dearest friends, Troy Peters, to Portland. What made it rare? He is a conductor (as well as a composer and educator), and he led the Oregon Symphony through a program of light classics and on the second half, the debut collaboration of Oregon-based indie band Blind Pilot with the symphony. Even though I am obviously biased, I think he did a fabulous job. It was just so special to get to go out to dinner with Troy and his wife, Anne, and talk about what has been going on in each others’ lives, both inside and outside of our careers.

There is always that friction of one’s ‘old’ life and one’s ‘new’ life in such encounters – much like going home to stay with your parents as an adult, for example – I found myself feeling and thinking things that have been long out of my experience as the professional orchestral musician that I’ve become, things that were grounded in my time as a very nerdy and unsure of himself violinist in the Tacoma Youth Symphony eons ago. It made me realize just how much of that person I do still carry around deep inside myself now, over 30 years on (!), and how that influences how I do what I do to this day.

Life as an ‘artist’ is often laden with baggage from the past. It’s because we spend so much of our time evaluating ourselves. We are constantly criticizing our playing, both on its own and in comparison to our peers. We are constantly wondering if we’re doing the right thing at the right time. If we have a steady gig, we are questioning if we have stayed in the same place too long. If we don’t have a steady gig, we’re agonizing over how to either win one or how to string more smaller gigs together to make ends meet.

Now, as I reach what is pretty certifiably middle age (45), I begin to wonder when my decline will happen. Is this the best I’ll ever be, in spite of my best efforts? Will someone tell me when I start to really suck? Would I want them too? How did this happen? I went from being in my twenties and seeing a life stretching into the vastness of age, and now I’m in my mid-40’s and I feel like I can see all the way to the end. This is not good!

But we all find our ways to manage. Troy talked about how much he feeds off of the energy and enthusiasm of his many students in the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio, where he is the music director and conductor. Similarly, I find inspiration and revitalization in the form of the Oregon Symphony’s younger members, who bring with them new perspectives, tremendous musical training and instincts, and the sheer vitality of youth.

This season will be my 18th with the Oregon Symphony. Only two years ’til 20. I have no idea how many more seasons are in store for me here, but I do know that they will always be interesting, and I aim to experience them with a renewed sense of purpose and inspiration.