One Day in the Life

April 6, 2019, is not a day I’m going to forget any time soon.

It was a day that reaffirmed my two professional loves, pedagogy and performance.

Freelance musician/educator life is constantly in flux- long periods of moderate or low activity, short bursts of busy busy busy- and our states of mind can often match those highs and lows. February and March were relatively slow months for me, performance-wise, and as often happens when the balance between teaching and performing is so heavily weighted in the direction of teaching I was feeling distressed and burnt out. There were many things on the horizon, but there was also the slog to get there, through long days of lessons and rehearsals, and no small dose of a trauma anniversary relating to my time at the U.

In a word, I was feeling stressed, crispy (that stage just on the edge of burnout), and worried. But I have faith in my abilities, my knowledge, and my experience, and I knew I had to power through, so I got to work.

And having goals? That means everything. A huge component of my pedagogy is helping people find Flow- find that place where distractions and worries slip away, and they work in the moment toward musical communication. It’s an inherently healthy state for our minds to be in. In a focus-challenged society, Flow States help us balance anxiety, depression, and stage fright; they help us do something for the sake of itself and gain reward from the result. I’d been losing track of my own Flow lately. Too much time trying to manage a social media presence for both my personal and professional life here, a healthy dose of staring out the window willing the flowers to come up there.

So back to those goals. Number 1: Present my pedagogy in an hour-long clinic at Twin Cities Trombone Day. Be convincing, be engaging, let the science prove itself. Sitting down to refresh myself on the source material took away almost all my worries. Being honest with a few folks about the struggle I was having to create an introduction to the clinic led me to some awesome suggestions that ultimately let the whole talk tumble forth fully formed. And walking around all week reciting, “You are an expert, you are the boss” certainly helped.

Guess what? That presentation rocked. The audience, a mixed crowd of professional, student, and amateur trombone players, was so open-minded and supportive, asking good questions and giving great feedback to the young folks who came up to help me demonstrate. Afterward I talked with so many people whose eyes were opened to a new way of thinking, and took a few cards to follow up on taking the clinic on the road.

Sam wanted advice on improving his bass trombone low range in the double trigger register. I refocused his attention on a musical goal- performing Mary Had a Little Lamb- so he could stop worrying about the technical aspects of low range playing. Video credit: Keith Hilson

Goal Number 1 had a bonus effect on Goal Number 2: Rock the bass trombone parts on the AMO charts. Bass trombone, and in particular my 1970s Holton 180 BEAST of a bass trombone, sometimes feels like driving a U-Haul through the Rocky Mountains with one arm tied. It’s hard. I’ve been working for a year on improving my air efficiency, my intonation, and my control over the lower register.

Working on that airflow

In getting back into the research, the thinking behind my natural learning-based pedagogy, it reminded me that I have been overthinking the hell out of approaching the bass trombone. I was letting all the little things I didn’t hear myself doing well ramp up my anxiety, and man, the self-talk was DIRE. But coming out of a funk, remembering why I do what I do, and getting back into Flow made all the difference.

So how was the show?

There have been numerous times in my life that have been tremendously musically rewarding. Almost nothing can compare to the act of finally putting something out into the world that people can hold in their hands, an album, and celebrating the artistic labor of love that went into every second. I’m just a tiny part of the AMO, but when it all came together, it felt like no moving piece was too small. We were all working together to put Adam’s incredible music out into the world, and enjoying the collaboration.

The Adam Meckler Orchestra performs with Toki Wright, April 6th, 2019
Photo by Reid Baumann

And to have an appreciative audience. What a joy. The act of sharing art, and feeling the reciprocation back. Music requires an audience, and communication goes both ways. We give what we have, the audience tells us how that makes them feel, we give more, etc…the loop feeds itself and everyone is better for it.

So how am I feeling this week? Incredibly, incredibly lucky, but also satisfied. I’ve done the work, I’ve sought the knowledge, I’ve walked the walk. Owning one’s strength is not egotistical, even if it can sometimes feel that way. I’m learning to overcome that learned impulse and walk into every room with confidence that I belong there- because I do.

Stay tuned for more photos & videos from the AMO CD Release show. Meantime you can order the album here.

Not One, but SEVERAL Announcements!

So things tend to come in threes, and this post full of exciting professional announcements is no exception!

 

~ONE~
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My new clinic, “Ear on the Prize: A holistic approach to effective brass instruction” is now available for booking. Check out the link in the name for more information- I’m really excited to begin offering this clinic to schools in the region!

 

~TWO~Brass Lassie’s album is DONE and ready to be released! We are having a party and concert to celebrate the new album for local folks on September 7th. Details here! The album will be available to purchase in physical form or digital download on our website September 7th as well.

 

~THREE~

I am extremely pleased to announce that I have accepted the adjunct trombone instructor position at St Cloud State University starting this fall.  I am joining a faculty of incredibly talented musicians and educators, and I cannot wait to meet the students of this fine music department. Look for some great events, concerts, and opportunities coming from this direction throughout the academic year.

Teaching and Learning: Staying Relevant

Last week I wrote about how I learned to teach- not just by discovering a talent for teaching but by understanding the journey I had to take to be effective and earnest in my skills. This week I want to talk about the exciting process of lifelong learning: applying what I know about helping folks learn to my own educational opportunities.

I may dive more into this next month (the theme is all picked out: Music & Mental Health!), but over the years I’ve had some struggles not just with working to be an effective educator, but with managing the burnout and stress that can come with it. Not only is teaching music privately a career high in emotional labor and investment, it’s often thankless and frustrating financially.   It takes perseverance and dedication to make it all work, and an adaptability that can often be hard-won.

Even as I reflect on the last five years of private teaching, I’m looking forward to the next chapter. I know I can’t just maintain a private studio for the rest of my working life. There need to be new challenges and created opportunities that keep my mind and inspiration fresh. Here are some of the ways I work to keep my career energizing:

Be a student, too

This can mean taking lessons, classes, seminars, anything- but staying in the mindset of being a learning can help you understand how others are learning, and create better teaching moments for you. I’m not currently in lessons or otherwise, but I am working with amazing instructional learning designer Suzi Hunn (new website coming soon!) to put together my new clinic program and getting a big lesson in how course work is effectively and inclusively designed.

Observe other teachers/educational situations

I get some of my best ideas from watching other folks teach. Not only that, I can observe their language, interaction with the students, and strategies without having to be ‘on’ myself.

Stay in touch with mentors

Staying fresh on my teaching philosophy and connection to my own educational past means keeping relationships with my mentors and teacher open and healthy.

Get social

I love talking with other teachers, whether we’re kvetching, swapping ideas or stories, or just having a normal adult conversation without the added level of having to be an example and role model. Private teaching can be very lonely and isolating, and there have been days where I realized I didn’t talk to anyone over 18- not a terrible thing, but sometimes you need peer-to-peer chit chat to let your brain process its day and recharge your batteries.

Be Interdisciplinary

I often feel that some of the best inspiration I get is from sectors other than music. Books on entrepreneurship, philosophy, relationships, psychology, and science have all been extremely enlightening and motivating for me over the years. On top of that, it makes you a more interesting teacher- you can reference a broad range of topics that can either help you build rapport with a student or send them in a new direction.

Attend conferences, events, festivals, etc

Your state probably has a music educator’s conference. There’s the illustrious Midwest Clinic. Your instrument’s organization is probably getting ready to host a  festival this summer. A Trombone Day just happened in the Twin Cities last week. Or maybe it’s not music-related, per se, like the excellent Giant Steps  which happens in the Cities in October. If something interests you, go to it. Sure, you can network, but you can also listen, and get new ideas.

Strike a balance

I loooove teaching. There are days when I’m tired and worn out but after a few lessons I actually feel more awake and relaxed. There are also other days when I’m worn out no matter who I teach, and I struggle to stay on my game for the lessons. I’ve started to make sure that there is at least one day, preferably two, a week, where I don’t teach. It gives me a chance to recharge my spoons and feel like the next time lessons come around, I’ll be ready to offer my best educational experience.

Keep inventing

As I mentioned above, I’m in the process of developing a new clinic I can market. I’m thinking I’ll limit my studio population slightly in the next year and save some time for mini clinician tours and performances, starting with Minnesota. There will be more information about that soon, but in the meantime, planning for that is making me look forward, develop new strategies, and keep myself evolving and reaching as a teacher.

What kinds of things do you do to stay relevant and inspired as a teacher and learner? What’s worked and what hasn’t? What will you do next?

Seeking: Higher Ed Applied Teachers & HS Band Directors for Collaboration

I am looking to connect with educators in the Upper Midwest (Minnesota/Wisconsin/Dakotas/Iowa) who would like to help me beta-test my new series of clinics and master classes. Specifically, I want to speak with applied teachers of low brass instruments and high school band directors whose students might be interested in holistic technique, fresh ideas for the music business, and social justice music education. I can offer up to a two hour clinic visit, plus additional individual lessons held on the same day if desired, for up to three schools.

More information about the clinics and booking for the 1819AY will be available in Summer 2018!

If you or someone you know might be interested, please get in touch with me by leaving a comment here with information on how to contact you, or send me a message through Facebook.

Thanks!

“Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments

Part 6: EPILOGUE

Recently, I recapped the excellent text of studies related to attentional focus and its affect on motor skill learning by Gabriele Wulf. To review: where we put our attention when learning a new skill is important in the development of efficient and accurate movements and will contribute to longer-lasting results and quicker progress. Even at the very beginning level of a skill, an external focus will allow our bodies’ natural learning processes to take over and solidify our abilities.

In several installments, I’d like to tackle a few of those tricky concepts associated with learning the particular motor skills of brass playing, and offer some practical strategies for natural, effective learning.  I’ll address common methods, fads, and accepted techniques and then offer ‘external’ focus solutions for each.

Part 1: AIR

Part 2: EMBOUCHURE

Part 3: ARTICULATION and INTONATION.

Part 4: VALVES/SLIDE vs CONCEPT

Part 5: MUSICALITY

As a final installment, I want to talk about why teaching in this pedagogy is so important to me, and how it can help create a more inclusive, equitable society of brass musicians with healthy playing and performance habits first and foremost in our minds.

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY

There’s a prevailing attitude in music instruction, especially at the upper levels, that seems to think that because their teacher drilled them endlessly on Arban scale patterns, made them buzz into embouchure visualizers and jump up and down doing inhalation exercises, or was just plain salty about the type of work it takes to get good, that we all have to go through that. Unless we’re ‘naturally talented’ in which case we’re held up on a pedestal of unattainable glory.

There’s ample evidence, however, that the school of technical execution, especially in brass learning, is a relatively new turn in a centuries-long history of pedagogical approaches. McPherson and Gabrielsson, in their book The Science and Psychology of Music Performance, attribute the publication of the Arban Comprehensive Method in 1864 as the first in a long series of texts intended to fill a marketing hole in the music publication world. It may not have been the intent of the authors involved, but it created a shift in brass education away from imitation and ear training (external) and developed a dependence on technical acquisition (internal). (McPherson and Gabrielsson, 2002; see also Karen Marston’s dissertation on Jan Kagarice with an overview of relevant brass pedagogies starting on page 52).

The purpose of this epilogue is to allow me to take a few hypothetical leaps, to explain the reasons I am deeply commitment to external focus pedagogy, and to provide some hope for change in the future. There’s future research in this for me, and I hope to refine and defend some of this arguments not long from now in academic form. SO! Here we go.

WHAT IF? 

What if a cultural approach to learning brass that focuses on technical acquisition, a strict checklist of music skills we need to be deemed ‘professional level’ and an iron grip on training interpretive performance skills (i.e. learning pre-composed music and performing to ‘industry standard’) is leaving a cohort of potential lifelong musicians behind, or excluding them from finding success in the music industry?

In other other words, what if training internally is turning off all the folks who can’t naturally approach systematic learning, who might have an improvisational or compositional voice, who might not need to read music or interpret the classics to share their musical inclinations?

What if we’re leaving young people (and in particular, young women and/or people of color) behind in the field of brass instruction because they’re struggling to interpret concepts that don’t actually relate to music performance, what if they’re turned off by the ‘higher, faster, louder, stronger’ school of thinking, that asks how hard they’re working, how uncomfortable they’re making themselves?

What if we’re hurting ourselves with our hyper-focus on technical instruction? What if the growing number of focal dystonia cases has something to do with teaching backwards, teaching muscle movements and breathing instead of sound concepts and air movement, making people maneuver instruments first and get music second?

What if performance anxiety is a facet of practice anxiety? What if when we don’t practice performance, but instead practice skills, we don’t know if we can trust them on the stage anymore?

IMAGINE

Imagine picking up an instrument and having your teacher, someone you trust and admire, model the sound they want you to create. Imagine them steadily helping you build your skills, keeping your ear trained to the goal you want, watching as you unlock your potential for musicality.

Imagine a community of musicians that holds up all performance genres and contexts as valuable, teaches any number of styles as inherently human, sophisticated creations, allows many voices to join the throng. Imagine people joyfully sharing their skills without fear.

Imagine a healthy way of approaching both horn and life- curious and open, communicative, expressive, kind, and giving. Imagine all the different faces and personalities we’d see in the brass world.

Imagine how much more fun that would be.

[some important further reading here: http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.16.22.1/manifesto.pdf]

“Ear on the Prize”: Employing External Attentional Focus in Learning Brass Instruments

Part 4: The VALVES/SLIDE vs CONCEPT/SLOW PRACTICE

Recently, I recapped the excellent text of studies related to attentional focus and its affect on motor skill learning by Gabriele : . To review: where we put our attention when learning a new skill is important in the development of efficient and accurate movements and will contribute to longer-lasting results and quicker progress. Even at the very beginning level of a skill, an external focus will allow our bodies’ natural learning processes to take over and solidify our abilities.

In several installments, I’d like to tackle a few of those tricky concepts associated with learning the particular motor skills of brass playing, and offer some practical strategies for natural, effective learning.  I’ll address common methods, fads, and accepted techniques and then offer ‘external’ focus solutions for each.

In Parts 1,2, & 3 we dove into AIR, EMBOUCHURE, and ARTICULATION and INTONATION.

Today, I’m looking at the VALVES/SLIDE, but more importantly, how we use CONCEPT and MEASURED PRACTICE to develop our technical skills in an externally focused manner.

MOVE IT OR LOSE IT

We’ve got our Arbans, our Clarkes, our Koppraschs, and any number of other texts, all engineered to help us develop fluid, fast technique on the horn so that we can master it. We practice scale studies and etudes and work hard on our execution. It’s definitely a necessity in obtaining a high level of performance on an instrument, so how we can we utilize external attentional focus methods to help lessen the task (and dare I say it- make it fun)?

I’m going to speak primarily from a trombone player’s perspective, since that’s what I play and mostly teach, but these ideas could apply to any instrument.

The main big idea I want to talk about today is CONCEPT- which has something to do with the ‘brain magic’ and ‘umbrella tasking’ I’ve discussed before. Basically, we need to be able to tell our body what the music we want to make sounds like, and so we rely on our concept to guide us. Too often, we go the other way- assess something as a technical skill, learning it as an action our body does and then trying to shoe-horn musicality in over it. We set students on the task of ‘learning their scales’ but we don’t always explain how those scales can show up in music or teach tonality instead. It’s just something we have to do to be better and it’s really boring.

But I think scales and drills can be fun, if you change your concept of them. An ascending scale pattern can have direction- aim for the top! pull down to the bottom!- thirds can be like skipping stairs, arpeggios outline cool chords that can be played underneath the student as they practice, showing them how Western harmony works. If we’re clear on our concept, we’ll have a better shot of integrating the technical skill we’re trying to accomplish into our skill set.

It is of utmost importance that we are helping our young musicians develop their ears. From an early age, they learn recognize sounds and intervals, and are seeped in harmonic structures and internal rhythm. As they begin learning a brass instrument, they can use those tools to conceptualize on the instrument more quickly and easily.

One of the hardest early skills to get on the trombone is a clean slide. Most of us start out slipping around and getting all the semitones between two pitches in the same partial, and have trouble lining up tongue, air, and slide to get a clean attack. Some approaches to going from F(1) in the staff to Eb(3):

Internal Focus: 

“Move the slide really fast and tongue right when you get to 3rd, trying to line the slide and tongue up together.”

External Focus:

“Let’s think of a song that uses this interval. Happy Birthday could start on Eb and go to F and then back- let’s sing that on those pitches (demo on piano). Can we hear those two notes cleanly on the trombone?”

Turn on a metronome. Encourage the student to arrive with the beat each next note, keeping that as their focus. Keep the tempo at a pace they can conceptualize and execute, and speed up slowly.

Another tricky skill is executing the whole step from F in the staff to the G above it. It requires changing partials and moving the slide from 1st to 4th. Most of the time, a beginner will end up glissando-ing down to the D in 4th before being able to make the upward change.

Internal Focus:

“As you’re moving out to 4th, make your air go faster and tongue on the G”

External Focus: 

“Let’s listen for Happy Birthday again, but this time let’s start on F. It’s going to go F-G-F, and we need to hear that interval as we play it. Let’s sing first!”

“Let’s try playing F in 6th position…did you know that was an alternate? Then, we can stay on the same partial and smear up to 4th. Listen (demo). Now, let’s try playing that cleanly from 6th to 4th. Once you have that, we’ll try 1st to 4th- let’s keep hearing a song we recognize as we do it!”

MEASURED PRACTICE

“Slow practice equals fast progress”- Musician’s proverb

One of the biggest lessons I learned in my studies with Jan Kagarice is that CONCEPT has to meet ABILITY, not the other way around. In other words, if we cannot play something at the speed we have heard it done or want to play it at, we need to lower that concept down to where we can play it. That doesn’t seem like rocket science, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle. This includes all of the elements of a given phrase: direction (dynamics), style (articulation), and execution (mechanics). In a sense, we need to practice performing at all levels of our learning process in order to truly cement the finished project in our bank of motor skills.

For beginners, clean slide/valve technique and faster passages can seem like daunting tasks. But with measured practice skills, bringing concept down to a manageable tempo can make the task more accessible. Adding external focus techniques such as “what is this phrase saying/what does this interval remind you of” will keep the learner’s attention on the execution and not on the physical skill.

This is easier for some than most, but it’s critical in developing fluid, easy technique that responds to the musical goal one is trying to achieve. A metronome can be a lifesaver in this regard- it gives the learner something to aim for rather than guessing blindly at where the next note will be when their sense of steady time has yet to develop. I never move a student faster than they can play any given thing, and in fact sometimes we end up going even slower. To keep from boredom setting in, I keep the task manageable and limit the amount of time we concentrate for. Our brains, in addition to not being able to multi-task, really need time to develop focused concentration abilities. So be patient with your young students and don’t make them do one thing for too long- vary the tasks and move incrementally.

As one of my students said recently: “I can’t play fast stuff! But I’m playing fast without thinking about it!”