What I’m working on this week

AKA A fresh look at something familiar.

Learning to rely on your ear, if it’s not intrinsic for you, can be pretty terrifying. As a musician I have a good feel for phrasing, tempo, and style, but “playing by ear”, i.e. hearing a tune and repeating it back without seeing the music, has never been my strong suit. In college my two required years of music theory, which included a fair amount of melodic and rhythmic dictation, were a constant source of stress.

Of course, part of the problem was I never filled in a lot of the holes in my earlier music instruction and these classes were far more advanced than the basic theory I’d been given in high school. UW was generously equipped with a music learning lab where I could have gone to self-tutor, but did I ever go? Please. (Music students: don’t be a fool. Go study ear training)

Flash forward to grad school at UNT, and the concept of ‘tune jury’: Jan would select 12 tunes for each of us and we’d be required to learn them in all 12 keys, tested at random. I remember struggling vainly with “Over the Rainbow” in B Major, but ultimately having to test it in Eb, to my tremendous relief. Jan wanted us to follow our ear through these tunes, not thinking about key but about melody, but I was never quite able to do that. The best I could do was analyze the structure of each tune and quickly transpose it.

Over time I’ve sort of fooled myself into thinking that I play by ear this way. In reality, I’m playing by theory, thinking in scale degrees or patterns in order to maneuver different keys. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with that, but I decided this week to train myself a little differently.

I started singing each tune in solfege first.

Yeah, you’ll say, but isn’t that just scale degrees?

Technically, yes. But solfege was created for ease of singing, with one syllable for each pitch, so that vocalists could transverse their melodic terrain without having to stutter. It’s also easier to sing a song when you have lyrics, right? Because melody and story are linked in our brains. So solfege becomes a sort of consistent story, with each pitch serving as a character in play. That makes it easier to change key, and helps us hear the specific intervals that make up a tune.

Try it on a simple tune this week. Let’s say “Ode to Joy”-
OtJ starts on the third note of a major scale. That’s solfege “mi” (sing “Do,a Deer” to yourself if you can’t remember solfege). Below each line is what it would look like in the key of C.

Mi mi fa sol sol fa mi re do do re mi mi re re
Mi mi fa sol sol fa mi re do do re mi re do do
Re re mi do Re mi fa mi do Re mi fa mi re do re sol
Mi mi fa sol sol fa mi re do do re mi re do do

Can you sing it on solfege on C, play it on your instrument, and then transpose it (by singing it first and then playing)? Try it for a week in different keys (flats AND sharps, beloved band students of mine), and see what it does for your pitch recognition, intonation, and ability to play by ear.

Happy practicing!

For the Parents and Guardians


Give it a read, oh payers of the lesson fees, and understand.

(And replace “piano” with “trombone/baritone/euphonium/tuba” and “big black beast” with …I don’t know, “shiny brass beast”?)

Disclaimer: I don’t think any of my current students or parents feel that lessons are the be-all-end-all of their children’s musical education. We all know that practice is necessary to develop skill, and skill necessary to develop enjoyment and expression. I think the points about busy schedules and insisting that children “do everything” are valid. While I understand that we don’t want to place any limits on what our students can achieve, we should allow them some time to find their feet doing something they like.

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: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/how-to-make-performance-anxiety-an-asset-instead-of-a-liability/

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.