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.

#MusicAndMentalHealth Wisdom Wednesday: Dear Nano

Wednesdays this month, I’m aiming to feature the writing of a colleague who’s doing good work helping musicians find ways to balance work, life, and play. Whether they’re finding paths for themselves and sharing their journey, or actively guiding people through the process of gaining a good groundwork, these folks are truly thinking outside the box of our traditional grindstone mentality. The result is careers and people that are happier, more productive in the long run, and ultimately, more successful (and it all depends on how you define ‘success’).

This week I am delighted to have a personalized question answered by Dear Nano, aka my amazingly astute, wise, and versatile friend Leah Pogwizd.

Leah is a bassist, bandleader, and educator living and working in the Seattle area. We met at the University of North Texas in the early Aughts- she was getting her bachelor’s in jazz bass and I my masters in trombone performance. (Leah was a member of the band from which comes the infamous “grow a pair” story referenced in this post, and it’s part of the reason we got to know each other and become friends). Over the years she’s transitioned from being an academic ethnomusicologist to one of the most exciting new voices in jazz education. Her approach to life and work constantly surprises me with refreshing new insight into what it means to be a musician in our current era (This post: “Versatility, not Virtuosity“,  has become my rallying cry for the future of music ed).

Her newest effort,  “Nanoversity of Jazz: Byte-Sized Musicianship“,  is tackling all areas of learning jazz performance in small, manageable lessons.  Check out all her great work and support her Patreon if you could use individualized, amazing insight each month to further your playing.

She’s started a weekly advice column called Dear Nano, and this week, answered my question! As always she completely surpassed any expectation and answered in a uniquely Leah, completely insightful way.

Dear Nano,

How does a freelancing musician find any time for herself? What does it look like to balance ‘always being on’ with a healthy approach to playing and performing?

Thanks,

Overwhelmed Minnesotan

First of all, I’m tickled that it’s only week two of Dear Nano and already we’re getting formal notes with moniker signatures!

Second, it’s funny that you should mention finding “time for herself.” The vast majority of books about freelancing are written by White men. It’s not that they don’t have good advice, it’s just a totally different game if you’re female (or POC, LGBT, disabled, etc.) 

Advice like “take time for yourself” and “learn to say ‘no’” is great unless you’re having to work twice as hard to prove yourself and are the only person fighting the good fight on an issue. So instead, I’m going to offer some advice to female freelance musicians that’s going to sound a bit odd and will require some explanation/pop-culture references: embrace your animus.

Growing up, my mom was really into Jungian psychology and effectively passed it on to me. Jung postulated that men have a feminine anima and women have a masculine animus. In true dude fashion, he wrote mainly about how it affected men, which is why there’s no widely-discussed counterpart to “a man being in touch with his feminine side.”   

There’s a whole book on the topic called Invisible Partners (available in full on Scribd), but at almost 40 years old, it’s a bit dated (such as some cringe-worthy discussions of how homosexuality is sometimes the product of maladapted anima…)

Instead, I’ve opted for pop-culture references. I was recently watching the video for Kelis’ “Caught Out There” (1999), directed by Hype Williams. Just listen/watch and I’ll explain what I mean.

Notice that the only time the male actor speaks with his own voice is at 1:55 when he says, “I love you” – that’s her philandering ex. The other times, when he’s lying on the floor or bruised on the therapist’s chair, it’s her voice which (IMHO) represents her animus.

I totally get it – when you’re betrayed by a male partner (or watch male superiors and colleagues get away with annoying, abusive, or criminal behavior; or get constantly told that femininity is inferior to masculinity), you get mad as hell and pummel your “invisible partner” within an inch of his life.

The video outlines a good course of action: tear shit up (my primary regret of being rendered homeless by my last breakup was that I didn’t get to destroy a living room in such an epic fashion), march in solidarity with other rightly angry women (or honor your feminine archetypes, if you want to read it that way), but ultimately embrace your masculine side (the way Kelis kicks it with the Neptunes (who produced the track) at the end of the video).

This isn’t about manning up or copping male entitlement, it’s about becoming a whole, balanced person in the face of hardship and trauma. If you’re going to be a successful freelancer, you need to be a one-woman-army and have all archetypes on deck – including some strong, sensitive masculine ones.

See what I mean? That was not at all what one might have expected- but it was spot on. I’m reminded of the great Maxine Waters, D-CA, and the now famous “reclaiming my time” moment. Don’t let expectations about who or how to be stop you from getting the answers, rest, gigs, recognition, or WHATEVER you need to be happy in your career. 

For Gatsby

My best friend and lifelong companion Gatsby, aka the best cat in the entire world, passed away on March 23rd, surrounded by love. I miss him dearly.

I played this improv for him as I contemplated life without his cheerful, mischievous, compassionate little soul. Toward the middle I start to transition into the tune of “Waltz for Gatsby”, which I wrote for him last year and arranged for brass quartet.

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Gatsby loved to distract me while I was practicing. He was pretty good at it, too.

Brass Lassie’s Debut Album: Over 50% Funded!

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Brass Lassie’s Debut Album Fundraiser hit 50% exactly one week after we launch it- and it’s still going steady! We are a little ways off from our goal still, but the momentum is truly tremendous and humbling. If you’ve supported, thank you! Could you take a moment to share our music with your friends and encourage them to make a pre-order as well? If you haven’t- check us out!

 Brass Lassie Homepage

Brass Lassie on Facebook

 

January Topic Article: Why Music Matters

This month I’m thinking and writing on #whyImakemusic, and on Wednesdays I want to share articles and resources that have gotten me thinking about why music matters to me and how I can better share my vision with the community.

A recent article in the Atlantic highlighted how jazz musicians communicate through improvisation, unsurprisingly using the parts of their brains dedicated to speech and syntax. On top of that- music has no discernible semantic meaning the way that speech does, because it means something different to each listener. When two musicians are improvising back and forth, they are talking- but they’re sharing more than just words.

From the article:

“If the brain evolved for the purpose of speech, it’s odd that it evolved to a capacity way beyond speech,” Limb said. “So a brain that evolved to handle musical communication—there has to be a relationship between the two. I have reason to suspect that the auditory brain may have been designed to hear music and speech is a happy byproduct.”

So in a sense- why I make music, why you make music, why most cultures have developed musical systems, has more to do with communicating beyond our normal language abilities than just developing something pleasant to listen to. And whether you make music or simply curate a listening library of your own, you engage in musical activity that fires up an important center of your humanity.

I make music…because music makes me human.

“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!”