Monday, January 21, 2019

College auditions, from a professor's perspective

Most of you lucky class of 2019ers will be taking your college entrance auditions this starting month and going into early March. As I welcome myriad frightened flutists into my office for this process every Friday in February at UW, I am reminded of what a daunting, earth-shattering process it can feel like for you. I even vaguely remember going through it myself! And if I could go back in time and give my uptight 17-year-old self some advice, here's what I'd say:

  • You'll end up where you should be. And if it's not your number one school, it's not going to ruin your life. So do your best, and prepare like a fiend, but don't give a mere school other-worldly powers to decide your fate for the next 70 years. You will be FINE.

  • Touch base with prospective teachers early to schedule a lesson.  You need to be with someone whose playing and teaching styles you admire and who you trust to be a reliable mentor. And teachers are looking for a good fit, as well. Get to know them, and let them get to know you. 

(For help writing that introductory email to prospective teachers, read this.)

  • Teachers don't want you to suck up and be fake, but we do want to know how interested you are. We really only have one chance to get the scholarship assignments right, and we want to spend those precious dollars helping to support the students who really want to be at our school. So don't be shy--tell us if you really need financial assistance (politely, of course).  That's helpful to know.

  • Conversely, we all know everyone's got a "safety school" or two, and if we're on that list, no need to make it really obvious (examples include emailing the teacher to ask about an alternative scholarship date because you're prioritizing another school's audition schedule or sharing who's accepted you so far when you show up to our audition.)

  • Really try your best to give a live audition. You need to meet the teacher, the current students, experience the campus and some music short, get a sense of what it would feel like to be a student there.  And it's another way to express your level of interest, regarding my previous tip (ahem).

(If you must send a recording, here are my tips for capturing your best.)

  • Working within any specific audition requirements, present a program that highlights your strengths, not your weaknesses.  Not quite ready to kick butt on the Chaminade? Don't play it! Pick pieces you can play beautifully in your sleep (and hopefully you've been training with that standard in mind).

  • Be flexible. You might play alone for a teacher in her office at one school and for the entire woodwind faculty in the auditorium at the next.  You may play all of your program or a very short portion of it. And if a teacher is particularly interested in hearing what you can do, she may ask you to try something again in a different way.  That's a good sign, so try to enjoy the mini-lesson and give your best! 

Good luck to you all this audition season, and do your best to enjoy the process! 

UWYO flutes having a serious moment together on campus. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

New Year, New Projects!

Image result for new years eve party vintage image

Every year I swear I won't fall into the trap of making a new year's resolution I either a)can't keep b)don't care enough about or c)find no challenge in keeping. But then the frenzy of self-improvement articles comes out on January 1 and I get sucked right back in, and you know what? I'm not going to apologize. Constant growth is what we're all about in classical music, so it makes sense to me. How boring to just keep droning on with the same old habits and tasks without end!

I also have the advantage of an almost completely empty January, between the lack of gigs (fine by me after December!) and University of Wyoming's very late start date, making this the perfect time to reflect on my accomplishments from last year and dream up something big for 2019 (or maybe more than one something). Even if you only have a weekend off,  I hope that you will, too, and undertake this exercise with a positive spirit and the knowledge that you are improving upon past deficiencies every day for your entire life.

If you already have a Big Project in mind, you're lucky!  Now all you have to do is devise a step-by-step plan for tackling the details and go fearlessly forward. But what if you're still searching for the inspiration to develop that brilliant creative idea? Some things help me when I'm stuck, and hopefully you can choose what works for you from this list to get unstuck, too.

Listen to Yourself. You may not have an idea of what you'd like to do next because you're burned out, exhausted, or just not currently inspired.  Don't force it. Your brain needs a break now and then, and you want the idea that finally comes (it will) to be truly organic and meaningful or it's not likely to be successful, anyway.  So, just wait.  Binge watch some Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, cook a bunch of soups and casseroles, rearrange the furniture, whatever feels satisfying right now. When you start getting bored, you'll know your brain is about to kick back into creative mode.

Reflect. Ideas don't come fully formed--at least, they certainly don't for me! They occur in bits and pieces, beginning with personal interests and usually morphing into the solution to a problem.  That's just me; I can clearly see at this point in my life that most of the projects I develop are heavily service-oriented in some way.  What is it for you? Reflect on old projects you loved (whether or not they were successful at the time) and look for a theme.  What do you offer as an artist/teacher/organizer/etc.? Get to know yourself through your past work.

Take Notes. I still find myself returning to physically writing on pieces of paper or a beautiful journal, but you can do this on your phone, tablet, or laptop, too. Scribble down any ideas you have, and just take your time collecting these seemingly random thoughts for your chosen period of a time: a week? two weeks? Again, don't force it. Then step back and look for patterns and commonalities. Slowly, you are creating a flow chart for your next Big Project.

Take a Walk.  When you're surrounded by notes, all of your electronic devices, and you feel ready to burst from being so close yet so far from a coherent thought, push away from the desk and MOVE. I love to bundle up on these cold, clear days in January and enjoy the silence of a midday walk in my neighborhood park when everyone else is at work, school, or curled up under a blanket inside. My brain might feel muddy, filled with swirling, confusing thoughts, but as I walk, things start to organize themselves and I return with a clearer idea of what to do next.  Or at least a renewed sense of energy for the next round of brainstorming!

Google It. You can't just recreate what someone else has done--you need an element of uniqueness to your design if it's going to succeed at all. Whether it's the title for your new ensemble, the programming for a propose album, the existence of current technique books for your instrument, scour the internet to make sure you're not just reinventing the wheel.  And if you are, be glad you found out early and tweak your model to make it special to you and your perceived community.

Of course, you don't have to undertake a Big Project at all; you can undoubtedly fill your days with practice, teaching, going to work, or whatever has to get done by 5pm every day.  But the Big Project feeds your creative needs and allows you to interact with the world in a positive way on your own terms. It could be as simple as performing a recital in your community (well, that's not simple!) or as huge as starting a community music school in your town. And the size and scope of your project will dictate how long you spend developing every detail to make it happen. What you dream up this year might even become the most distinguishing work of your career. So, give it a go! And I'd love to hear what you're all working on if you feel like sharing; just comment below!

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The doctor is in: from my inbox

After working with students at our yearly UW Saxofluticon or Wyoming Summer Flute Intensive, I often hear from them with follow-up questions. Having received permission to anonymously post this question from the author, I think this query hits on some great challenges we all have at times. And with winter break looming, many students are left on their own for several weeks in a row without their teachers' weekly reminders to practice intelligently and efficiently.  So, consider this my early New Year's present to whomever wants it! 

Q: I continue to have inconsistent tuning, embouchure, flexibility and posture. My question is if you have experienced this or have an idea of some things I could do to control this.

A: I am a fan of compartmentalization, so if that doesn't fit the way you think (if you need to integrate more), then you'll have to adjust this advice.  But I like to make sure I'm doing something every day that helps me develop good habits in each of the categories you listed; if I do something that only focuses on one problem at a time, I feel like I can tackle it more efficiently, and then it's easier to incorporate and apply to combinations of tasks.  Make sense?  And while I have a variety of exercises I can practice for any given challenge, I only do one exercise per challenge, and then I rotate when I get bored or feel like I've hit a wall (maybe once a month). The Practice Triad of Triumph that I talk about with my UW students is getting at that; don't do a different exercises every day or you'll never master any of them, but know when it's time to try something new because you're sick of what you're doing. So, click on that triad link and you'll see plenty of suggestions for sound production. Additionally,

Tuning: always practiced with the tuner on, try the Daily Embouchure Warm-Up, Drone exercise, or "diamonds" (whole notes, p-f-p)

Embouchure: everything about tone is related to this!  But particularly flexibility: Daily Embouchure Warm-Up, harmonics, or whistle tones

Posture: This is where a good daily stretching routine without the flute comes in handy. It's so super dorky, but I like the Essentrics videos on You Tube the best:

Additionally, here are some blog posts that you might find informative: 

Obviously, you can master each of these exercises and then not apply them to your solo playing, making all of this a waste of time. So, you still have to remember what you worked on for each challenge and stay vigilant about doing it while you're working on your Chaminade, etc. 

Finally, this is something I often do with my UW students.  You may not always be staying focused or making the best use of your time when you practice.  It happens to all of us, because the level of focus we need to really achieve something extraordinary is so intense. So, I recommend keeping a diary/log of your practice sessions for a few days.  It can be quite simple--just write down every starting and stopping time when you practice, and write down what you worked on.  You can get more detailed by writing down when you moved on to a new technique, as well (so, timing for tone exercises and what you did, then timing for scales and what exactly you did, etc.). Then, after a few days, take a look and audit yourself--what did you avoid practicing?  When did you just play the same thing over and over without it getting you anywhere, etc.?  What kind of simple reward system could you set up to motivate yourself to do the things you are avoiding?

I hope this is at least somewhat helpful; happy practicing! 


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

What can you do with a music degree?

When I was in high school, I decided not to major in music.  I knew I didn't want to be a band director, and someone had told me you had to practice 6 hours a day to get into an orchestra, so I didn't think I had either the discipline nor the skill to win an orchestral job. And so that was that, because I had no idea what else you could possibly do to earn a living as a musician! Thankfully, I loved playing the flute too much to quit, so with some support from my flute professor, who was willing to teach me as a non-major, and a strong desire to be happy, I signed back on to music in October of my freshman year in college. Fast forward 26 (?!) years, and I am thrilled to be not only a very busy flutist and teacher, but a career coach to musicians and in the midst of creating an entrepreneurship program for the music department where I teach at University of Wyoming. But before adults ever get to the point where they're asking for career advice from me, they have to survive high school and trust that music is the right major, even if they don't know yet exactly what they'll pursue after graduation.

I am diametrically opposed to twisting arms--if you can possibly stand to walk away from music, then maybe you should. It's a ton of work for very little appreciation and a slow-growing pay scale, so if you aren't completely obsessed, you'll be happier doing something easier/more respected/higher paying. But for students of any age who feel torn between their great love of music and their fear or living in their parents' basement after school, let's just take a quick look at this in-no-way-complete list of job opportunities:

Freelance: conductor, orchestral musician, $chamber musician, $soloist, $clinician, pit musician, recording artist, accompanist
Cruise ship musician
Church musician
Full-time orchestral (symphony, opera, ballet, musical theater) musician
$Private studio owner/teacher
😁Early childhood music practitioner
$Community music school director/administrator/teacher
😁Music teacher in the public schools
College professor
$Instrument repair
$😁Instrument sales
Commercial music (composing, recording, marketing)
$Audio engineer
Theater technician
$😁Artist management
Grant writer
Arts Administrator: ensemble executive director, non-profit organizer, festival director, marketers, πŸ˜development directors, etc.
$Arts lawyer
$Artist accountant
$Arts journalist
Yoga, meditation, performance psychology, Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, music therapy

$Opportunities to run your own business
😁Great avenues for the more socially inclined

Non-musician careers who favor artist education background: Computer programmer, doctor, banker, pharmacist, clinical psychologist, engineer

**What am I missing, friends? Chime in below and help make this list more complete!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Mastering Your Practice, part 3: Nitty Gritty Practice

(See here for Part 1 and Part 2 of "Mastering Your Practice" if you missed them!)

Nitty gritty practice is actually a term I stole from Sharon Sparrow in her fabulous book, 6 Weeks to Finals. It's a very thorough, very specific guide to preparing for orchestral auditions, but I think it's incredibly inspiring for anyone who wants to get more details in their performance preparation. In this final post about practicing, I'm getting specific about different ways to target what you need to do and how to break things down and build them back up, stronger than ever. Check out my suggested reading guide at the end if you're looking for some additional inspiration, as well. Good luck to you all, whatever your end goals are this semester (and every semester!).

Step 3: Try Something Creative
Ideas to avoid hitting a wall in your technical practice:
  • ·         “Chunking”: studies show the brain digests smaller bits of information better. Try playing fewer notes repeatedly, then gradually adding from the back or front.
  • ·         “Problem Note Sandwich”: do a diagnostic run through a passage and find which notes causes the first fumble.  Isolate that note and one or two (max) on either side and begin reps.  When this passage is learned, add another note on each end, then another…making sure you work past a barline or beamed group to work passage into context.

·         1 minute loops: with a metronome, practice a difficult passage repeatedly for one minute each day at your fastest controlled speed. Take 1 beat between reps to think about what you want to fix from the last rep; work towards performance tempo as quickly as possible.
·         S-L-O-W: practice a difficult passage as a slow, lyrical ballad, paying attention to how you maintain a connection between notes. Imagine pouring molasses from a bottle!
·         Practice rhythms: alter the rhythm to emphasize different notes in a run. If it’s straight 16ths, try dotting the rhythm in both directions; you can also change from duple (8ths or 16ths) to triple (triplets)
·         Move the metronome: place the metronome on all the other parts of the beat, and apply to loops above
·         Memorize difficult passages
Preparing to perform
·         Schedule a weekly recording session to check in on various moments (those that you feel are getting close to ready as well as those that have you stumped). Listen back immediately and take notes in your practice notebook on things that worked and areas of improvement.
·         Take video (preferred) or audio of a run-through of your piece. Watch/listen immediately and take notes as described above.
·         Perform for friends and colleagues whose opinions you value (and therefore make you nervous)
·         Schedule risk-free performances of your pieces to workshop them—nursing homes, churches, coffee shops, or competitions if applicable!

Suggested reading:
Colvin, Geoff.  Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else.  New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

Daniel Coyle.  The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown.  New York: Random House, 2009.

Greene, Don.  Fight Your Fear and Win: Seven Skills For Performing Your Best Under Pressure--At Work, In Sports, On Stage.  New York: Broadway Books, 2001.

Leonard, George.  Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment.  New York: Plume Books, 1991.

Loehr, James.  The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental, Emotional, and Physical Conditioning from one of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists.  New York: Plume Books, 1994.