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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Category: Inspiration

You must do the work

Andrew Hitz

Mallory Thompson 1.jpg

Dr. Mallory Thompson is one of my mentors. She is one of the best musicians I have ever worked with in my career. She has ears for days and the ability to convey what she wants as a conductor not just through words but through looks, gestures and body language. It is a pleasure to play under her baton. Any time she is even in the room she challenges me to be my absolute best.

This past summer, we welcomed her to Shenandoah Conservatory for our Instrumental Conducting Symposium. I visited for a day to see her and to recharge my musical batteries. While sitting in the ensemble I jotted down close to 50 quotes from her that I will post here in their entirety soon.

At one point, Dr. Thompson was working with a conductor on their two-pattern. She mentioned that a staccato two-pattern is like a “V” and that a legato two-pattern is more like a “U”. She then encouraged this person to write a large U and a large V on a piece of paper, tape it to the wall and mirror the letters with their baton.

Then she said something which will stick with me for a long time:

I did this. I put a piece of paper up on the wall and mirrored it. If you want to do this, don’t think you can do it without doing the work.
— Dr. Mallory Thompson, Director of Bands at Northwestern University

Boom.

Like basically all great teaching, this is nothing revolutionary. This has been said thousands of ways by thousands of teachers throughout history.

But Dr. Thompson always finds a way to put things very succinctly. She didn’t simply say do the work. She quite specifically told this conductor to not expect the results she got from doing the work without doing the work themselves.

So obvious and yet something that is rarely put that clearly. That’s putting the dots awfully close together.

Her quote reminded me of something David Zerkel once told one of my students in a master class. He told them that if they practiced lip slurs every day for two full weeks, “The lip trill fairy will pay you a visit.” It’s really not complicated.

This also reminds me of a Facebook post I made a few years ago that said mentioned how hard it is to play in all registers at all dynamic levels with a great sound. My tuba professor from Northwestern, Rex Martin, commented on that post with something to the effect of “It’s actually not that difficult. It just takes an enormous amount of work.” He’s right.

Without exception, the people who can conduct, play the clarinet or speak to a crowd better than you can have spent more time than you have improving their craft. It is all about sustained and focused effort over an extended period of time.

Literally everyone who pays $400 to attend a conducting symposium will go home and practice a few of the things they learned for the first couple of days. But I wonder what the numbers are for the people who are still doing the aforementioned paper on the wall trick 15 days later. Or 30 days later. Or 45 days later.

I bet the drop off is steep after just a few days.

For those of us who want to conduct like Dr. Thompson, we have to do the work. Thank you for the reminder, Mallory.

Selling the Concept of Time During Long Notes

Andrew Hitz

"One of the things that's hard for tuba players, actually it's hard for everyone, is that you need to sell the concept of time when you are playing long notes. It's hard."

—David Zerkel

Whether you are taking an audition, playing in a chamber ensemble or performing in a symphony orchestra, selling the concept of time when you are playing long notes is a golden opportunity to stand out in a good way.

Why is that?

Because most musicians suck at it.

I have played next to some people in quintets over the years who have perfectly fine time and yet could not sell the concept of time on a long note to save their lives because they are too passive.

The best chamber ensembles in the world can shut off the lights and play a slow and beautiful piece of music perfectly together with absolutely zero visual communication. It's hard as hell but the greats have a hard time not spoon-feeding to you when their current note is ending and when the next note begins.

Looking for a way to stand out in the final round of a symphony audition or in a chamber audition? Make it painfully clear where your long notes are coming from and where they are going to and sell the hell out of the time while simultaneously taking cues from and reacting to the players around you.

Do that successfully and you will put yourself on a very short list of people being considered for that job.

Are You Willing or Are You Doing?

Andrew Hitz

"Go for your best sound right at the beginning of every note."
—David Zerkel

Making your best sound right at the beginning of the note is dependent on the immediacy of the air. Students must understand that it's not just the quantity but also the quality of the air that needs to be immediate.

The air of a held note that's not changing dynamics needs to be the exact same at the very beginning of the note as it is a beat later. This is pretty easy to achieve in the middle register at a middle dynamic for a decent player.

The challenge comes from being able to do that in all registers at any dynamic level.

And why are the world's best players able to do that with ease?

Through lots and lots of highly focused repetition.

Joe Alessi wasn't born with the ability to play freakishly soft in any register. He simply worked his ass off. It's really not rocket science.

It is also worth noting that it takes significantly more time and effort to obtain skills than it does to maintain skills. I guarantee you Joe has spent less time in the last calendar year practicing his extreme soft playing that he did when he was first acquiring the skill.

To be clear, I bet he spent an awful lot of time maintaining it in the past year. But the amount of time he spent getting that ability in the first place might make your head spin right off.

It is my experience that all musicians believe they are willing to do that kind of work to be able to play that well. But it's also been experience that the number who "are willing" to do that work is way higher than the number who actually do it.

72 Thumbs Downs

Andrew Hitz

Everything about this performance is stunning.

Brandon Ridenour's pic playing. His father's piano playing. The arrangement. The communication between the two of them. Everything.

And yet at the time of this post, 72 different people decided they disliked this video so much that they had to publicly state that by down voting it on YouTube.

I completely understand not being a fan of arrangements in general. (I couldn't disagree more with that stance from a personal taste standpoint, but you could of course make that argument in an intelligent fasion.) You can easily not be a fan of their interpretation of the piece (or literally anyone's interpretation of any given piece.)

But to actually feel the need, on a video posted personally by Brandon, to give this a public thumbs down is really baffling to me.

The reason I'm pointing this out is a reminder to us all that if you put your work out into the world, there will be people who don't like it and feel the need to share that opinion with the world.

So don't fall into the trap of having your eyeballs (and heart!) go straight to that huge number 72 next to the thumbs down before noticing the 6,000 thumbs up votes or 300,000+ views. The only way to not have any down votes is to never share it with the world. And who the hell wins then? Literally no one. You don't make the world a better place by not sharing your art with us and the internet trolls will just find another video to give a thumbs down to.

It also bears remembering who is doing the down voting. Do you think that Jose Sibaja, Jens Lindemann or Ryan Anthony are any of the 72 down votes? Hell no they're not. Anyone who can play at this level is too damn busy making art to be taking swipes at people who not only are making it but have the courage to share it with the world.

So screw the haters, ignore the thumbs down count and push on. And you damn well better share your work with the world. We need it now more than ever.

#endrant

Don't Wait Until 1:00 pm

Andrew Hitz

This reminds me of one of my favorite Joe Alessi quotes:

"You’re not winning an audition if your first notes of the day are at 1 pm.”

—Joe Alessi

Same goes for composing. Or doing score study. Or anything else.

Get those feet moving!

How to Prepare for an Audition

Andrew Hitz

"One might say that the ability to evaluate one's own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way."

—Ryan Holiday in Ego is the Enemy

Many years ago I was supposed to be giving a joint master class with Joe Alessi in Banff but instead I was making him do most of the talking and taking notes!

One student asked him what the key to winning an audition is. Joe told him that he really didn't like answering that question but then proceeded to precisely put it into words:

"You have to be brutally honest with yourself and know exactly what you can and can not do on your instrument."
—Joe Alessi on the key to winning an audition

That's it. You need to do the equivalent of staring at yourself in the mirror while completely naked. No clothes to hide behind. No flattering camera angles. No beautiful scenery in the background to distract us. Just you and your glorious naked self.

He then went on to say anyone preparing for an audition should spend an equal amount of their practice time listening to themselves as actually playing. To hammer home that point, he said someone spending four hours in a day preparing for an audition should spend a full two of those hours listening to recordings of themselves.

This is how you get brutally honest about what you can and can not do.

And you need to do this every single day. Federal holidays. Your boyfriend's birthday. Your anniversary. The day you graduate.

The women and men who are on the short list of people who really have a good chance of winning any given audition are all doing this level of prep. So you'd better be.

Arnold Jacobs on Playing Drills

Andrew Hitz

I find "being musical" is a very difficult thing to just turn on and off like a light switch. And I have yet to meet a single student in 25 years of teaching who was very good at that either.

So even "just" the drills and basics need to be done as musically as possible 100% of the time.

I sometimes like to visualize one of two things to help me with this:

  1. I am broadcasting the drills to Facebook Live and soliciting honest feedback
  2. I am recording the drills for a recording to accompany a method book

Do you think Sam Pilafian and Pat Sheridan had to be reminded to focus when they were recording the accompaniment to The Brass Gym? First of all, they are always concentrating to a high level. But even still, the threat of shipping to the world a recording of you playing your own exercises poorly is a good way to get you to focus.

How do you focus when you are "just" playing drills and other basics? It's what separates the truly great players from the good ones.

Simple Exercise to Gain Perspective

Andrew Hitz

As musicians, we can really use a good dose of perspective from time to time. I know I sure can, especially after a particularly frustrating practice session of failing to get a gig I was hoping to score.

Here is a 60-second read from Seth Godin (who my wife calls my spirit animal) with a simple exercise to help gain some perspective.

Good stuff.