musings from a scholar, a performer, and a die-hard pedagogue!
As winter break closes and the next term of classes opens, many turn their attention to auditions. College, graduate school, and music festival auditions abound this time of year. Let me offer advice and insight from the mysterious other side:
Perfection is Subjective. This field demands perfection. Aim for cleanliness, clarity, consistency, and confidence; however, know that perfection in music is subjective. Those open to learning, changing, and to hearing constructive criticism will have the most success at auditions.
Mentorship is Key. Never has our field been more global. The best orchestral bassoonists of our age can exchange messages with high-schoolers via Facebook. Professors at major universities know YOUR name because of Twitter! As you audition at multiple places, know your personality and your goals (short-term or long-term), and find a teacher that helps you reach your fullest potential.
Never Underestimate Professionalism. To Err is human? Well, err on the side of professionalism. Always dress professionally for auditions. Always record in the best venue with the best equipment possible. Always include a program (track listing) with recordings. Ensure this “program” is well designed. Always treat emails like formal letters: include a salutation and signature, proofread, and spell-check. Always research schools/festivals/teachers for whom you are auditioning.
Be prepared. This seems obvious, but do not take an audition for granted. Even if you are auditioning for a “Safety School,” a festival you have attended in the past, or graduate study at the school you are already attending – Be prepared. It shows respect for the teachers, the institution, and you.
Happy practicing … and happy auditions!
It has been a while since I posted a new blog. I apologize. As I was looking for the best topic for return after a long absence, I realized my absence IS the ideal blog post.
To successfully pursue music in this century, we must be devoted to the practice room. We must be obsessed with the craft of reed making. We must be top scholars able to write, speak, and relate knowledge of historical, cultural and analytical relevance to our music. Balancing priorities can often be difficult.
As a professor, my priorities have shifted over the years, but I still assess and reassess them regularly. Keeping my responsibilities in order of importance keeps a smile on my face and enthusiasm in my bassooning. Those that have worked with me can verify: I’m pretty darned peppy when it comes to bassooning!
Here are my top 5 priorities. May it help YOU set yours!
1. Family. This may be shocking to many that I don’t list bassoon first. Believe it or not, I am diligent about spending time with those closest to me. Some days, it’s as little as dinner. Other times, it’s a vacation to far off lands. Time with family/friends is important.
2. Reed Making. What good is practicing if I am constantly fighting intonation, response, or timbre? I always have good reeds. The real question is, why don’t you?
3. Practicing. I have played my 1-hour warm-up for so many years now, that if I go longer than 2 days without it, I begin withdrawl symptoms. If I have time for nothing else, I do this. Is Oubradous fun? It is for me. Habits are not born, they are formed.
4. Miami Bassoon Studio. These students work hard to be apart of this AWESOME studio. They deserve my attention, my respect, and my energy.
5. Emails. Responding quickly to YOU is important to me. I take care to write personal responses to each individual; however, email can take over! During school days, I don’t turn on my computer until my warm-up is complete. If it takes me a few days to respond to your email, now you know why!
I hope seeing my priorities, helps with yours. Do not feel guilty about neglecting things, instead prioritize the most important, and celebrate those weeks when you are able to achieve a bit more!
As always: Happy practicing!
I have procrastinated this particular blog entry. It has been difficult to write.
Two weeks ago a wonderful, spirited young man took his own life. I was honored to coach this fantastic clarinet player this summer. He was passionate about music and music-making. Each individual with whom he collaborated was richer for the experience. I do not know what led him to take his life, but I feel compelled to write, publically, on mental health issues in our community.
To pursue music as a career is to be overcome by this field. We do not passively enjoy a turn of phrase, or a good beat; rather, these idle occurrences dramatically change our mood, our heart, our being. Similarly, we obsess over re-creating these moments for audiences.
Perfectionism among musicians is consistently discussed and studied. This is an area I have researched off and on for over 15 years. If you find your perfectionist traits to be helpful … you are right. If you find your perfectionist traits to be harmful, you are right. Perfectionism is linked to intrinsic motivation, increased effort, and higher achievement. It is also linked to depression.
Many perfectionists have learned a coping skill for the overwhelming burden of “trying to be perfect.” Don’t. By procrastinating tasks, an excuse for imperfection arises “I simply didn’t have time.” The lower grades and less than stellar performances that result from this coping mechanism can lend to depression.
Still others balance their time wisely, but set a standard that can never be met. Music defies perfection. Bassoon encapsulates this further than most instruments: reeds are an organic substance, some WILL FAIL. Similarly, as our instrument depends heavily on our bodies (affected by health, fatigue, hunger, hydration), mistakes WILL HAPPEN. Perfection is an invention of the mind. The more one aims for this, the further it will seem from reality.
Changing our language is a moderate step forward in changing the demands we place on our selves and one another: In lieu of “perfect,” work towards:
Musical, Clean, Precise, Confident, Consistent, Improved, Detailed, Accurate, Enjoyable.
Setting realistic, short-term goals also aids in creating new “success” models. Work towards week-long, or month-long goals. These projects work in tandem to excel your long-term goals.
Finally, if you need help, please reach out. Talk to your mentor, your friends, or seek professional assistance.
It is amazing how many players have such obvious passion, ambition, and love for their instruments … but such a hatred of practicing.
When did practicing become a four-letter word? Does it have to be?
A good practice session is focused. Turn off, or silence devices. Place yourself in a practicing environment: a room conducive to few or no distractions. When possible, find a time span large enough to not feel rushed.
Warm up. Warming up is not merely about the instrument or the reed, it is about centering your mind and body. This is not the time to think on homework, dinner, or friends: it is time to focus on breath, tone, and posture.
Our time is extremely valuable. We are stretched in many directions, pursuing many fields. As such, time in the practice room must be both effective and efficient. Before you conflate these terms, let us discuss them separately. An effective practicer will spend ample time on Scales, Intonation, Tone, Technique, Articulation, etc. before progressing to repertoire. The fundamentals of playing are critical. You cannot adequately perform Marriage of Figaro if you are not well-versed in the intonation and technical inequities of D-Major. Similarly, when assessing the Figaro excerpt, an efficient practicer will identify concerns to address directly: if struggling with rushing, he/she might employ different rhythms at slow tempos, rather than repeating the excerpt at the goal tempo repeatedly. An efficient practicer will have a toolbag of practicing techniques -- including (but not limited to) metronome games, looping, isolation, backwards practicing, articulation, style, or rhythmic alterations, and recording – to identify and remedy specific issues.
All practice is performance practice. Every time you pick up your instrument you are in a dress rehearsal. If you work with this mentality, it will change your perception of ‘practicing.’ There will be no more pointless noodling, no more playing a phrase without dynamics, no more performing on a decrepit reed. Imagine every note you play is for an audience: the standards are much higher. Practicing is ultimately about creating habits for your muscles: both the fine motor skills which operate your instrument, but also your embouchure, your air, and your mind. Do not create bad habits, only good.
In summation, we strive for both quality AND quantity in the practice room, but of the two, never sacrifice quality. Remember, it is easier to create a habit than to break a habit.
Happy practicing! –Dr. S
I write a lot of recommendation letters. When you train as an academic (ideally) you spend time learning how to write grants, reviews, articles, program notes, etc., ad nauseam, and so forth. However, you never study the art of the recommendation letter.
My faithful readers may question my topic: “Dr. S, I’m a student!! I don’t need to think about writing a recommendation letter!”
No, but we all, no matter our position in life, should be thinking about earning a recommendation letter. No one is entitled to one.
In preparation for this blog, I reviewed letters I have received and sent over the last decade. The individuals behind the most effective, positive letters consistently demonstrated the same four (4) traits:
These individuals demonstrate high moral and ethical standards. Morals define your personal character, and ethics define the behavior by which your morals are represented. Individuals with great integrity show respect: for themselves and for those they encounter. They are polite and friendly, but further, they work to see the good in their peers and mentors. They are trustworthy and demonstrate good judgment in ethical situations.
These individuals are also highly responsible. They are early for classes and rehearsals and are always prepared. This includes practicing and knowing their music ahead of time. It also includes time management in reed making. Responsible individuals have developed time management skills: they maintain calendars and are careful to not over-commit themselves. These individuals are also accessible: they return correspondence in a timely manner.
3.) Work Ethic.
These individuals are successful due to their strong work ethic. They do not work to completion, but to excellence. They are the few that do not leave when a job is completed, but look for more work to be done.
These individuals, without fail, each demonstrated great enthusiasm for their chosen field. Passion fuels work ethic, responsibility, and integrity. These individuals were not ashamed, nor did they hide this aspect of their character. It is a critical part of their success.
I invite you to think about how you exhibit these four (4) traits. How will you take these into consideration in the future to earn your recommendation letters?
Best wishes, Dr. S
I adore performing. For those that have seen me in recital, this is no surprise. I am at home on the stage. I find the interaction with the audience exhilarating, the collaboration with colleagues enriching, and the sharing of new music enlivening.
Each winter the juxtaposition of my love for performing and others' morbid fear of it is realized when my annual recital coincides with Miami University's audition season. How is it young musicians are raised to love music, but hate performing? I recently overheard a talented young musician declare after a brilliant performance: "it was awful. I cracked a note."
In an era of objective-learning and test-oriented education, students are driven to achieve the right answer --the perfect score. for music, this can prove detrimental. Young players struglle to internalize the lack of perfection in music. There is always room for growth, for maturation, for improvement.
I list below 3 pertinent and critical facts for all aspiring musicians to know:
Ahh, Winter Break. I love this time of year. Before my dear students misunderstand: I miss them dearly, but the change in routine presents an opportunity to assess our current path. The role we play in our own future is critical. Practicing, instrument, mentors, classes, parents --- it is all secondary to YOU.
So the heart of this blog: What are YOU doing to reach your goals?
I travel frequently and work with students of varying levels across the world. Below, I list five areas I have noticed limit students …
Perhaps this is surprising to see on the list. We, after all are training to perform. In my observation, many wait for performances to be assigned by teachers and ensembles. Do not wait: volunteer. Seek opportunities to perform. Create opportunities to perform. The more you are playing in the public sphere, the more comfortable you are performing in the public sphere.
It is easy to grow comfortable in your present environment. Exposure to new ideas, differing players, and the true scope of your peers is paramount to your success. Take advantage of Summer Festivals and Winter Workshops. Travel to regional Double Reed Days. Take lessons with guest artists.
The number one reason quoted for not attending festivals, workshops, and double reed days is money. I observe students wearing $1000 wardrobes, driving Audis, and discussing Friday nights’ out. Prioritize your bassooning.
Many do not fall into the latter category. Communities and universities have multiple ‘research’ grants for students. Few artists/musicians apply. Look into these funds – a world will open to you. My students have received grants to attend festivals, conferences, and workshops in Italy, England, New York City, and further domestic locations.
It is always disheartening to work with an individual who has not “googled” their composer, less yet listened to multiple recordings. In an era of Naxos, YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, Oxford Music Online, ArkivMusic, WorldCat, and, well, Google … being unfamiliar with a piece you are playing is akin to laziness.
Come on, you know I’m right …
I have saved this for last because these can turn addictive for many students! For some, however, this word “competition” elicits the fear of God. Preparing for a competition is equivalent to professionally recording. It requires consistency of the highest level in technique, musical line, intonation, timbre, and confidence. It also requires players to remain on the same repertoire for quite a while to reach these lofty goals. I strongly recommend players pursuing performance challenge themselves to enter a competition and press themselves to rise to the occasion. Regardless of the outcome, the process will improve you ten-fold.
Best of luck in your Winter Break assessment. Drop a line and let me know what you are discovering!
As always: Happy Practicing.
Well, it’s jury time at universities and conservatories across the United States. For those unfamiliar with this rite of passage, allow me to explain.
Juries are a performance exam. Students prepare an allotted amount of music to the peak of their ability and perform it for a panel of esteemed professors. Professors are assessing many things, among them:
I was inspired to write this month’s blog by a Facebook posting. I mentioned the Penny Game. The Penny Game is a “Consistency Builder” I use in my own practicing and with my students.
Begin with 5 pennies on the left side of your stand. Choose a brief technical phrase, or a longer section of music. Turn the metronome to a “doable” tempo. Attempt to play the excerpt 5 times in a row with NO mistakes: technically or musically. For each successful run, one penny is moved over to the right of the stand. If a mistake is made, all pennies are moved back to the left and you must start all over again.
This is a fantastic semester filled with music … new and not so new. I am currently preparing two recitals of differing programs. The first, taking place in October, is part of a lecture series entitled Down with Zombies: The World of the Living. As such, it contains only music of living composers: a concerto by Damian Montano, a sonata by Adrienne Albert, and a fabulous avant-garde work by Cindy McTee.
The second recital, to be performed in November, is an homage to the flute! The music is either written by flutists or for the instrument. It includes a Telemann Fantastia, a Devienne Sonata, Alex Shapiro’s Of Breath and Touch, and the Nussio Variations.
As I prepared for the term, I knew the theme of my Fall would be TIME MANAGEMENT. We often approach practicing as we do exercising: we do it fairly aimlessly and then furiously question our haphazard results. I know many of you are battling similar time management struggles with practicing, so I will outline my typical schedule for you.
WARM-UP & TUNING
Like in exercise, warming up is crucial. We use countless fine muscles in our hands, arms, abdominal cavity, thoracic cavity, embouchure, and more. Warming up draws the blood flow to these areas. Further, it focuses your mind on breathing, posture, tone, and intonation. These elements are distilled with difficult technique or phrasing. Finally, in warm-up one can assess and make adjustments to the reed.
I always warm-up. This period can last from 5-20 minutes depending on the length of my practice session. The longer sessions involve a 2-part tuning exercise.
Music, whether written in 1585 or 2014 is primarily (there are exceptions) based on patterns of pitch &/or rhythm. The more fluid I am in these domains, the more consistent my repertoire becomes. I read through the first volume of Oubradous in nearly every practice session (with a metronome). In longer sessions, I supplement this with a traditional circle of fifths scale routine. If I am short on time, I will read Scale/Arpeggio etudes in lieu of Oubradous. Again, I never skip technique management .
I begin each repertoire session by replaying the work from my previous practice one ‘click’ lower on the metronome, then at the tempo I left it. This reinforces my practicing and muscle memory. If some minor practicing needs to occur to maintain my ability, then I spend the time. If I am unable to recreate the previous practice session quickly, I make a mental note. I will return to the passage at the end of this practice session.
One should note, I do not learn “fingers” and then “music.”
Habits are easier to create than to break.
I learn the music at a tempo that allows me to play it musically from the first reading. It is easier to speed it up correctly than to insert music when muscles have already learned habits.
My goal is to have all of my music at a similar level. I am maintaining much of it currently and working most on two pieces that are new to me . It is important the familiar pieces do not atrophy, so I am careful to review the familiar works once a week.
With regard to the new works: to be effective and efficient with my time, I do not play the pieces in their entirety. I isolate large sections and work on a new section of both pieces each day. This moves the prior day’s work into the “Maintenance” of my routine.
In my isolation, I use a metronome religiously. I adore metronome games (See Blog Jan/2014), Backwards Practicing, and what I call the Transitive Property: Play Phrase A 3x with no errors. Play Phrase B 3 x with no errors. Play Phrase A + B 3x with no errors. Now Play Phrase C 3x with no errors … Moving forward: A + B + C 3x with no errors. It’s not simply if you can PLAY a lick, it’s if you can contextualize it.
I cool down by contextualizing the work I have done. I slow down the metronome and blend large sections together. It is always important to remember the larger picture.
This is also the time I will play through a “Maintenance” piece that I have performed before. These pieces need work, but in general have been in a better state (however, after great practicing, the two new works have caught up!)
I hope this gives you all some good ideas with your practicing! Off to the practice room we ALL go!
Next week marks the 43rd Annual International Double Reed Society Conference. I am excited to experience great concerts, lectures, and exhibits. Similarly, I am honored to be among those presenting.
This excitement and honor pales in comparison, however, to my enthusiasm at spending a week reconnecting with old friends, making new friends, and sharing our passion for the great endeavor of MUSIC.
As a former host of IDRS, students often ask me about the Society, its value in our field, and the importance of the Annual Conferences. I can think of no better time to address these questions!
When Woodwind Magazine folded, a bassoon newsletter began as a means of communication.
Indeed, 45 years later IDRS serves first and foremost as a tool of connection and communication between double reed musicians, scholars, vendors, and instrument makers throughout the world.
As was the intent in 1969, topics range from performance trends, reeds, repertoire, recordings, job
vacancies, classifieds, and individual players’ activities.
IDRS has over 4,400 members from over 56 countries! Members include university/conservatory professors, orchestral players, instrument makers, reed makers, double reed companies, publishers, composers, freelance musicians, amateurs, parents, and fans! The Society has no age minimum or maximum. Student memberships are available and encouraged!
In addition to joining a great and supportive group, membership provides many perks:
2. Full access to the IDRS website, including:
Membership Contact Information
Full The Double Reed Archives (1969-present)
Select Score Downloads
Select Streaming Video
Select Midi Accompaniments
3. Discounted access to the Annual Conferences
The Annual Conferences are the largest gathering of double reed musicians in the world. They are an exchange of ideas, trends, and breakthroughs in the field. New instruments, equipment, tools, books, and repertoire are often unveiled at these conferences.
They are a venue to assess directions in performance practice. They are a location to discuss academic motion. They are a place to hear, play, and buy the oldest, the newest, the easiest, the hardest.
Finally, the Conferences feature current and rising stars in our field. An opportunity to hear these musicians perform or speak should never be missed!
The conferences are in a different location each year, making attendance at one accessible for you!
A colleague of mine is quoted as saying “Dr. S, doesn’t love the bassoon … she LUUUVVVS the bassoon.” Yup.