How to practice for Solo/Ensemble competitions

For my Minnesota-based studio, many of my students are preparing to perform at their regional solo/ensemble contest in March. We’ve picked out pieces, done our research, and are ready to dig in. Although preparing a contest piece shouldn’t be much different than your normal practice, I thought I’d give a few specific tips on what solo performing means in the practice room.

1. Pick a piece that will stretch your talents a little farther, but won’t be so hard you can’t get it prepared in time.
2. Start by listening. Find a recording of the piece and note what the instrumentation or accompaniment is. Think about how you’ll perform it.
3. If your piece has multiple movements, choose the ones you’d like to perform. Consider your order. For example, 3 movement suites don’t have to be done in order if you’re doing, say, the Allegro first movement and the slower second one. You could flip them if it makes sense musically.
4. Start with the big picture. Play along with the recording and note where you may need to spend more time, but get a feel for the piece as a whole.
5. Make your musical decisions early. It’s easier to learn notes and rhythms sometimes when we have a direction for the phrase we’re working up. For example, a fast passage with lots of sixteenth notes also crescendos or has lots of slurs. Sing it the way you’d like to play it, then work it up slowly utilizing all the components.
6. Practice bigger chunks once you’ve got the technical stuff smoothed out. Pieces always feel differently in our hands when we see how the whole work fits together. Breaths may be different, or you may notice that one phrase is hard to get into from the previous one. Work out those new kinks.
7. Practice performing. At least once or twice a week in the beginning, practice running straight through your work as if it were a performance. As the contest draws closer, you should be practicing performing more than you are practicing individual sections.
8. Perform for your friends and family! Play along with the recording again so you can understand how the accompaniment fits in. Count count count your rests.
9. It sounds obvious, but when you get to the performance- have fun! Nerves are a part of performance but remember that your jury wants to hear you do well. No one is out to get you or judge you as a person. Let your musical soul shine through and above all, don’t worry about the parts you think you messed up. They’re gone! End strong.

Good luck, students!

Weekly Roundup 1/27/15

Reading: Still working on The Music Teaching Artists’ Bible.

Practicing: “Duo Concertante for Tenor and Bass Trombone” by Daniel Schnyder. I get together frequently with my friend Derek to sight-read duets and he had just gotten this in the mail. We got about four bars in and realized we’d never be able to read it cold, so I brought it home to get familiar with it.

Rehearsing: I haven’t had any rehearsals this week! Crazy!

Performing: No performances either.

Listening: Iron and Wine, pretty much his entire catalogue, always; Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love, which has me swooning it’s so good; Bjork, Vulnicura.

Teaching: Air air air air air. Follow the musical line. Don’t hold anything back.

Relaxing: Making cookies and watching The Legend of Korra.

Kind of a slow week! End of January doldrums, I guess.

BrassChix 2015

My dear friend Sarah Schmalenberger, who teaches horn at the University of St Thomas, is again putting on her yearly seminar for women and girls who play brass instruments. This year she’s doing things a little differently, partnering with the fine folks at Schmitt Music to do an equipment and technology day.

Check it out, it’s an awesome day of inspiring performances, networking, and above all, camaraderie for ladies who kick brass. ūüôā

Brass Chix 2015

Minnesota Youth Symphonies mid-season auditions

Students and Parents,

I recently received word that Minnesota Youth Symphonies (MYS) is looking for trombonists to audition for their Repertory Orchestra for the 2nd and 3rd trimester of their 2014-15 season.

Audition Requirements

Auditions will be held before November 15.

I currently have one student in MYS, starting his second year. I encourage all my students to seek extracurricular performance opportunities whenever possible!

Another great local youth orchestra is the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies (GTCYS).

As always I am happy to help my students prepare for auditions!

On Working

This weekend was busy busy busy. 

But oh so good. 

On Saturday, I had the immense privilege to perform in the backing orchestra for international superstar baritone Josh Groban. He is a class act- not only a talented singer but a professional one. He introduced himself to his local musicians and kept everything on a tight schedule without fuss. His touring band- seven mind-bogglingly talented individuals- was also exceedingly nice and made us feel like part of the ensemble. I also had the pleasure to share the stage again with my good friend Melissa Morey, and if you’re looking for a horn teacher, look no further! Taking the stage for an audience of 8,000 people is an experience beyond exciting.¬†

On Sunday, Winona State University professor Donald Lovejoy’s labor of love, Festival Brass, did a reprise concert to last week’s, this time at WSU itself. We played some fantastic music for large brass ensemble, including a spine-tingling rendition of Alfred Reed’s Symphony for Brass and Percussion. Performers included members of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, faculty at local colleges from the U to UW River Falls, and then there was little old me.¬†

I mention it thusly because on top of luxuriating in the musical experiences I participated in this weekend, I got nothing short of an education in the world of professional playing- both on a large, international scale, and on a local one. It’s not often I get to play with such top talent, and it’s definitely a goal of mine to make it a more regular thing.¬†

People are often curious about how the process of booking and getting jobs in the music industry works. Auditions are indeed a part of the puzzle, especially for players hoping to land an orchestra gig. But for freelancers like myself, getting gigs is all about visibility and word-of-mouth. Groban’s gig came to me because Melissa gave my name to the booking agent; Dr Lovejoy found my website when searching for local players for a concert last year. Most gigs come into my hand because of other gigs- a perpetuating cycle- I played here and so-and-so liked me and thought of me when the next concert for X group came up. I play in Metro Brass because of my time with Sheldon Theatre Brass Band- and I can’t even remember how I got that gig anymore.¬†

This is often a tenuous lifestyle, I won’t lie about that. And there are downsides to the ‘word-of-mouth’ method of booking gigs. Music and especially the brass world can be a bit of an old boys club, and not just in a sexist way. Friends book friends book friends and no one else gets a chance. Luckily, you have two very important tools at hand to combat this.¬†

1. Be a reliable player.

Notice I did say phenomenal, or outstanding, or anything- but reliable. It’s so boring, I know. And you should always strive to be the best performer you can be. But if you’re reliable- not only can you hit the notes and rhythms and play in tune, but you can also be counted on to show up on time, dress appropriately, and act professionally- people will book you again.¬†

2. Be a good person.

Bring the drama? Act aggressively to criticism? Can’t be nice to your fellow performers? Don’t expect to work much. Like anyone else, musicians like work to people who are pleasant and easy to get along with. Most of us are pretty nice people- I’m speaking for my studio, of course- so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem for anyone. Just remember that acting maturely, calmly, and friendly at a gig is a sure fire way to impress the powers that be.¬†

Got it? Now go practice. You still have to know how to play all your scales. 

Preparing for a Big Gig

Since I have a pretty cool show to do tonight that has required a moderate amount of preparation and promises to be one of the bigger concerts I’ve ever played, I thought it would be an appropriate time to do a little post on gig preparation.

I think maybe a lot of my students are really ‘too young’ to be nervous, and by that I mean you haven’t gotten to a point in your lives yet where it occurs to you that performing music is a thing that can ‘go wrong’- i.e. seem so important any wrong note is an unmitigated disaster. It’s fun to play- or it’s just another thing you have to do in a long line of things they make you march through in grade school (man, I hope no one feels that way!).

More power to you! Keep the fun mentality. I can’t count the number of times I’ve allowed what I heard to be a poor performance affect my mood and rule my next few days.

And then there’s performance anxiety. Far more than just nerves, facing down anxiety on stage can cause you to freeze up, forget what you’ve learned, and dread every second on stage. I’ve been there- it’s not pretty.

So if you do experience an excess of nerves or severe anxiety? Buck up, little camper! You CAN fix it.

Nerves are not inherently a bad thing. Being nervous means you have an excess of adrenaline helping you out at that point in time. And all adrenaline does is heighten your senses and give you strength to overcome whatever’s in front of you. Like the tiny woman who can lift a car to save a trapped man after an accident, or a sprinter at the Olympics who’s run the best race of her life, a little adrenaline on stage can make your performance that much stronger. You just need to know how to use it.

It would take a long time to get into all the ways you harness you nerves here, and many people have said it better than I can. Here’s a good start:¬†

In the practice room, we tend to zone out. It’s boring, repetitive, and there are distractions both mental and in our surroundings. It’s always Friday afternoon in your brain and you’ve clocked out. But as I’ve touched on before, if you utilize deep practice, you’re actually practicing performance.¬†

It’s true! You can practice performance. And you should. Being on stage comes naturally to a very few people, and I would wager that many of those people had to work at it a little bit as well. In the more than 15 years of stage experience I’ve had, it only gets more natural as time goes by. When I sit down and really learn a part, finding the connections between notes and phrases, and really hearing what I’m playing so that my technique is left to my motor functions, I’m practicing how I will perform it. And if I can’t perform it, why am I practicing it?

What if, you shout, terrified, you HAVEN’T PRACTICED? At all? Not even a eeny little bit?

Well, my first thought, is why the heck not?

But my practical advice to you is: Fake it.

Fake the confidence you need to put on a good performance. Come on stage, empty your water valve, give a big grin to the audience, and proceed to pour your heart and soul into whatever you’re playing whether you know it or not. Leave that overanalyzing, over-worrying, OCD little Left Brain out of this. Right Brain’s in charge and it’s time to rock.

Now, it’d probably be better if you’d practiced. But have you ever heard the saying, “it’s 10% what you say and 90% how you say it” that people pick up on when you speak? That’s a phrase that’s so immersed in the popular parlance I can’t find a source for it. Never mind that, it’s true. We pick up on confidence and control. We like people who make us think they know what they’re doing, regardless if they actually do or not.

I would say about 75% of the compliments I get after a show contain some variant of the phrase “Wow! You sure looked like you were having fun up there!” (60% of those same comments still come from folks whose cognitive functions have all but ceased because OMG A GIRL IS PLAYING TROMBONE and I seriously hope to whatever higher deity you believe in that your generation is the last of those idiots because I am not an anomaly, people, look it up). What does that really mean? Honestly, I think it’s a little bit of jealousy, a little bit of awe, and a lot of the shared joy of giving and experiencing live music. People don’t go to a show to judge how bad it is. We want to be entertained.

So go entertain. Practice first, but practice with the intention of pure, unadulterated performance.

Practice Deeper

Deliberate practice.

If there’s one thing I try to get across to my students as often as possible, it’s the concept of deep practice. Every one of you has worked this way in lessons with me. We pick out a passage, maybe it’s two lines long, maybe a bar, maybe it’s¬†only three notes long but regardless, we slow it down, pluck it out on the keyboard, listen carefully, and play. Then we speed up- only a little bit- and play. We keep listening.

The end result is deep practice. You’ve trained your muscles to respond to what you hear by only telling them¬†what something should sound like, and not¬†how¬† to do it. ¬†Ultimately you’ve got two lines or a bar or three notes of music that you’ll never forget how to play, and you’ll always play correctly, because you programmed in the right coordinates.

I want all my students to be accomplished, but more so than that I want your accomplishments to sound effortless despite the hours of work put into each passage. Because with deliberate practice, the end result is pure performance.