lessons learned

I had a hard week this week. It had less to do with outside circumstances than life inside of my head. I am working on a piece that I have long admired, and actually have owned for nearly a decade, but never got around to performing. It’s a piece for viola and tape by Nico Muhly called Keep in Touch. I was prompted to get it up to performance shape by Gabriel Kahane, who as Creative Chair of the Oregon Symphony is producing a series of videos called Essential Sounds. He had in mind an interview with Nico, and I’d mentioned knowing of this piece, so one thing led to another… So with basically three weeks to prepare something from zero to ready-to-be-recorded live for video, I began work. I learned some interesting things that might be useful to others – either established professionals, or students, or anyone in between.

First, start with a can-do attitude. I used to have one of these! When I was in my 20’s, I would fearlessly approach very difficult works with the assumption that they were within my purview, and I would be able to perform them well. In the intervening 25-plus years, though, I guess I’ve learned what I don’t know more than what I do know. The negative has overshadowed the positive. Difficult pieces are approached more with trepidation and fear than curiosity and enthusiasm now. And that’s gotta change. I can’t continue in this way – I would quickly burn out or become a bundle of nerves, or both.

Second, don’t get ahead of yourself. I used to tell this to my students all the time. Start slow. Take measured steps. Learn small sections well, then move on to a new one. If only I would listen to my teacher-self! I knew this stuff, but I was not listening. I think that part o this is because of the nature of being in a major orchestra that does so much repertoire in a season. Music is stuffed in one end of the sausage grinder, and hopefully something palatable comes out the other end. Music has to be learned so quickly. So when I start work on any new piece, the first instinct is to take the whole thing in and digest it as quickly as possible, and try to get it up on its feet way too soon. So it was with the Muhly. I tried to get it working with the tape accompaniment way too soon. So technical aspects of the viola part weren’t ready. I also wasn’t familiar enough with the soundtrack. And the rhythmic solidity of the viola part wasn’t there yet, either. What this made for was a series of off-balance, technically poor, and very discouraging attempts to make it through large parts of a 12 minute piece way before I was realistically ready to even contemplate such things. As a very wise friend of mine said on Facebook after my meltdown, “take it slow”. Words to live by.

Third, temper your expectations. I listen to a lot of great players. Some of them are colleagues who I hear at work, others are friends whose work I hear on recordings or on YouTube. Still others are in the constellation of fantastically talented superstars that either come through as soloists, or whose recordings I own. I hear their work, and think that’s the standard of playing that I aspire to. And that’s fine – but I have to also be realistic about what my end product will be. It’s not going to sound like Tabea Zimmermann or Roberto Diaz. I’m not at their level – never was, never will be. So when I record myself playing something, and hear all of the imperfections, I need to accept where I am right now, resolve to work harder to achieve more, and be happy with myself for putting in the effort. This is colored by my own complicated relationship with music and the viola, and I know that and am working on that relationship. But aspiring to greatness – while at the same time accepting the progress that actually gets made – is key.

Hopefully this brief therapy session was helpful to you – if you have any insights that you’ve developed in the course of your musical work, please comment!

Kübler-Ross and Music

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is most famous for her work in charting the grieving process – a seven stage (in the modified model) process that help to explain and express bereavement. I started work on a new piece of contemporary music yesterday, and found that approaching a new, unfamiliar, and challenging piece of music can evoke the same emotional journey. What follows is my own attempt to categorize the stages of musical bereavement.

Shock

Oh my God.
This piece is simply impossible to play.
I’ve got no time to learn this piece.
[stares dumbly at music]

Denial and isolation

Why did I agree to play this piece? There is no way I can do this! Everyone else in the group clearly is having no problem with it, but I have spent two hours looking at one line of this darn piece. Is it too early to have a drink?

Anger

What the f**k is up with the damned piece?
Why would anyone write something like this?
Do they even know how a stringed instrument works?
Why didn’t I practice more when I was younger – then I wouldn’t be having these issues now.
My viola sucks.
I suck.
Music sucks.
Composers suck.
Everything sucks.

Bargaining

God, if you just let me learn this measure, I promise that I’ll practice my scales more. Dear [Insert name of composer here], please just take this passage down an octave, it is written for the viola, not the violin – I’ll play with much better rhythm if you make this one tiny change for me.
Okay, if I can just learn this one page, then I can go outside in the sunshine for 20 minutes.
Okay, if I can just learn this one bar, then I can go take a nap for 20 minutes.
Okay, if I can just learn this one shift, then I can put my viola away until tomorrow.

Depression

My life is worthless because I can’t play the viola.
Everyone must hate me and think I’m lame because I can’t play this piece.
Music makes me sad.
I can’t decide if I’d be happier cleaning my toilet or working on this piece.
I went to eight years of music school for this?
If I were a better person, this would be going better.

Testing

Okay, I just need to remember what I tell my students.
What do I tell my students?
My teacher had some great ideas about approaching pieces like this.
If only I could remember what she said…
I’ll set aside time every day to work on a small portion of this piece.
Don’t get overwhelmed.
Work smart.

Acceptance

If I work through this slowly and methodically, it will be ok.
No one is perfect, so why should I expect myself to be?
If everything were easy I don’t think I would be happier – no rewards without effort!
Challenges are good for the brain, heart, and spirit.
I’m getting older, and learning can take a bit longer, so I’m going to go easy on myself.

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!