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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Category: Performance Tips

It's Not About You

Andrew Hitz

"Blend towards the ticket buyers, not each other."
—Marty Hackleman

I have seen countless chamber ensembles fail to grasp the vital principal behind the above quote. The audience experience is everything.

Don't sit in the easiest possible configuration for your group to interact with each other. Sit in the configuration which makes it easiest for the audience to feel like they are interacting with you.

Don't just make sure something is balanced on stage. Make sure it is balanced in the hall.

Don't lift your stand up higher than it needs to be. Put your stand at a level where the audience feels like they are a part of the experience and not just allowed to peer over your shoulder.

Don't just check for dynamic contrast on stage. Make sure that contrast is reaching the last row of paid seats.

Don't match articulations on your side of the bell. Be sure they are matching at the back of the hall.

This list could go on and on...

I couldn't believe how much left edge I had to put on notes when I first joined Boston Brass. Like, I was dumbfounded. What my colleagues were asking me to do sounded stupid on my side of the bell.

But guess what? Those comments were coming from a rehearsal technique that we frequently used. One player would go out into the hall and listen from out there (ie the only place where it matters what it sounds like!) They would then ask for adjustments until it sounded right out there.

They would ask for so much attack that I thought it sounded stupid. But I trusted them so I did it.

Then I would listen to a recording of the performance from later that evening and I'll be damned they were always right. I had to very gradually adjust what I thought it "should" sound like on my side of the bell.

I have yet to find anyone who will pay me to in an orchestra, band, quintet or as a soloist based on me sounding good on my side of the bell. No one cares.

Literally your only job is making sure it sounds (and looks) good in the audience.

Lance LaDuke: Three Tips for Talking to Audiences

Andrew Hitz

If you haven't spoken to audiences a lot, chances are you need to work on it. It can be one of the most terrifying things that some people ever try to do in life.

But it doesn't need to be.

One of the best people I've ever seen on a mic is my partner at Pedal Note Media, Lance LaDuke. Here is a piece that Lance did a long time ago that he has let me republish here. Good stuff!

(This is reprinted with Lance’s permission and originally appeared at bostonbrass.wordpress.com.)

Um, I’d like to, um talk, you know about er, um, oh you know, like, talking to audiences and stuff.

Captivated?

Can’t wait to hear more?

Didn’t think so.

As musicians, we sometimes feel that we can just let the music speak for itself. There is no need for us to sully our performances with speaking. We practice for hours, perfecting every phrase, every nuance, striving for an ideal performance. Then we adopt a “play it and they will come” mentality. Since we’re God’s gift, people will instantly respond to our every phrase and nuance; we’re just that good. Adulation, groupies and a tour bus are all in our near future.

Other times we feel insecure in performance. Will it go as planned? Will the audience like the piece or program? I hate speaking to crowds. I don’t know what to say. Will they throw vegetables? If so, will there be enough to serve at the reception?

Whatever the reason, it has become increasingly common (and in some cases expected) for musicians to speak to their audiences. While this can seem beneath some of us, and terrifying to others, it needn’t be either.

Audiences want to connect with performers. Programs, bios and notes provide data but not personality. There are many potential reasons (the de-formalization of performances, the rise of reality programming and the connective possibilities of the internet, to name a few). The fact remains that many (most?) most conductors, soloists and chamber musicians will have to “face the music” and speak to the folks who have paid to come hear them play.

Fortunately, audiences have very simple needs. SO STAND UP, TURN ON THE MIC, AND ANSWER THESE THREE QUESTIONS:

1. WHO ARE YOU?

We see your name in the program and read your bio. BUT if you’re a chamber group, introduce the players (so we can connect the names to faces) and let us know something about them. If you’re a soloist, tell us something that happened to you today in our city or at our venue or comment on something that happened in the world that may be on everyone’s mind. Not a lecture, a minute or two. Break the ice. Think dinner party.

2. WHAT ARE YOU PLAYING?

Remind us. Don’t just read the program to us but give us a framework to help us get a head start on what we’re about to hear. Set the table for us.  This is especially helpful if the composer is less familiar to a general audience. This can take less than a minute

3. WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

Is there an interesting story about the composer or the piece? Why did you select it? Is there anything in particular we should listen for? One to two minutes should do it.

Tailor the talk to your style. If you’re funny, let it be funny. If the piece is serious, let it be serious. DON’T read a script. If you need notes, fine, but talk TO the people who have come to hear you and BE YOURSELF!

THAT’S IT! NOW GO SIT DOWN AND DAZZLE US WITH YOUR PLAYING!

It’s really that simple. We don’t need a twenty-minute lecture. We DID come to hear you play. We just want to know WHO YOU ARE, WHAT YOU’RE PLAYING AND WHY WE SHOULD CARE.

See you at the reception.

I hear there are plenty of veggies.

Lance

It's All About Performing

Andrew Hitz

This may be obvious but it still bears mentioning.The only way to get good at doing anything is by doing it.

All performers must go out of their way to get as much performance experience as possible. And the key is to create your own performance opportunities.

Don't wait for them to come to you! Approach 20 different venues where you live and ask them if you can perform there.

Nursing homes. Schools. Coffee houses. Bars. Senior centers.

What's the worst thing that can happen to you? You get 20 no's. Is that really that bad?

I've found that being willing to potentially get "rejected" 20 times is one of the key traits that just about every person who has "made it" in the music business share.

If you are in need of more performance experience, I challenge you to reach out to someone about about finding a performance space today. Don't wait until tomorrow or next week. Send the email. Pick up the phone. Text someone.

No one ever acquired something like performance experience by thinking about it.

Great List of Playing Tips

Andrew Hitz

I recently stumbled onto a great list of playing tips over at the website for the International Horn Society by Eldon Matlick, professor of horn at the University of Oklahoma.

It is titled "Hot Tips for Horn Players" but is really a list for all musicians. It features 18 tips for musicians of all kinds. Really, really good stuff!

You really need to read the whole list but here are a few of my favorites:

1. PERFORMANCE IS 90% MENTAL! Learn how to think! If you can hear it, you can play it. Expose yourself to great music and music making. Listen to great horn players. Experience live professional music making. Listen to recordings of world- class ensembles. Experience various mediums and styles of music. Become a musical sponge and take everything in. Every musical experience goes into your memory bank and this is the source from which you draw.

6. LEARN TO HEAR DETAILS IN YOUR PLAYING! Don’t succumb to the trap of falling in love with your playing. Develop a critical ear. When you think something is polished, record yourself. You will be amazed at what you hear. Keep stock of what you can do well and what you need to accomplish. Don’t waste time doing things that are not a problem. Great players work out and solve their playing deficiencies. Eliminate weaknesses in your playing. While this may prove to be mentally painful, this is a sure-fire method of gaining success in your performance.

12. PRACTICE ‘OUTSIDE THE BOX’ Musicianship is not the same as horn playing. Create a musical experience when you play. To this end, we must free ourselves from the instrument. Learn to sing! Singing is the ideal medium for establishing musical flow and the identification of logical breathing spots. Identify the natural flow of the solo line. Is the phrase asking a question or making a statement? As you sing, are you aware of the various emotional content of the various passages/sections? Practice singing and phrasing different ways. Identify those phrasings that have promise and then experiment on your instrument. When learning a solo, don’t neglect learning, and being able to sing, all interludes between solo entrances.

Seriously, go read them all!

Weston Sprott on Being Tentative

Andrew Hitz

"Many players see a low dynamic marking on a part and let that turn them into apologetic, frightened musicians. I think it is beneficial to do the exact opposite. "
-Weston Sprott, Acting Principal Trombone of the Metropolitan Opera

The above is a quote from a fantastic article by Weston Sprott that he posted on his website. It is only two paragraphs long and well worth the 30 seconds.

As the title of the article says, don't be shy!

And don't miss the awesome conversation we had with Weston on The Brass Junkies. It will get you thinking about some really important stuff.

Valuable Lesson from Amy McCabe

Andrew Hitz

Tonight I saw a wonderful recital by the Seraph Brass here in the Washington, DC area.  The playing was fantastic and the program was enjoyable.

There was one thing that occurred during the performance that was a valuable lesson for us all.

During the great Jack Gale arrangement of Porgy and Bess (which was recorded by the Empire Brass way back when) Amy McCabe, trumpet player for one of the premier military bands, had a little bit of an issue that she said I could feel free to share here.  And it had absolutely nothing to do with her stunning playing!

During a fermata she leaned over to quickly pick up her plunger mute and her tuning slide fell out right onto the floor! She smiled as it took her about five seconds to get the thing back in.  Five seconds of dead time on stage feels like an eternity.

Amy handled this like the pro she is.  She didn't panic.  She didn't get even remotely upset.  She even turned to the audience right after the tuning slide was back in and said "Well alright!"

Everyone laughed and she actually created a real bonding moment between the performers and the audience.

It was the absolute perfect response to the situation when many of us would have become upset.  She kept the audience in mind above everything else which is the only thing that matters.

Your Instrument is Dumb

Andrew Hitz

Your instrument is dumb. It doesn't know a half step from a hamster. We need to be sure to be issuing commands and not be getting feedback from our instruments while we play.

Exclamation points, not question marks.

That Anxiety Ain't Helping

Andrew Hitz

"No amount of anxiety makes any difference to anything that is going to happen."
-Alan Watts

Anxiety about a concert, a job interview, or anything else is never going to help make it go any better.  I always find that when my mind wanders and starts to act against my best interests that it helps for me to focus on things that I can control.

Two things that I can't control: the past and the future.  Even if I know deep down that I should have prepared more for something, worrying about that now will not help anything.  Even if I am being reasonable in expecting bad news in the near future, worrying about that will always distract me from taking the next positive step.

For some it is meditation, for some it is prayer, for others it is listening to their favorite music.  Find whatever it is that gets you focused on the here and now and you will be amazed at how it puts you in the best possible position to succeed.

 My tuba backstage next to some taiko drums before a Boston Brass performance in the mountain town of Yuzawa in the Niigata Prefecture of Japan.

My tuba backstage next to some taiko drums before a Boston Brass performance in the mountain town of Yuzawa in the Niigata Prefecture of Japan.

The Relationship of Attention Spans and Long Notes

Andrew Hitz

"People have short attention spans, Google Generation.  On the long notes I'm going to insist that you keep us with you."

-David Zerkel

Long notes are just as vital to the musical story you are trying to tell as the short ones.  There is a way to play long notes such that not only your audience but also the people playing along with you know exactly where you are headed musically, where you are coming from musically, and exactly when that note is going to end.

Keep us (the audience and your fellow performers) with you on the long notes at all costs.

(Click here for more great quotes from David Zerkel.)

Going Too Far

Andrew Hitz

"The place that you want to get with your playing is to where you are uncomfortable with how far you've gone."
-David Zerkel

The only way to tell if you are playing a passage too loud is to play the passage too loud.  If you are practicing, the only true way to evaluate the sounds you are making is by recording yourself and then listening to the recording.

Whenever students begin studying with me, almost to a person they are uncomfortable at first with how far I ask them to take things like dynamics and accents.  You don't know how much dynamic contrast is too much dynamic contrast until you have captured yourself playing with too much contrast via a recording.

When I first joined Boston Brass I regularly found that I was uncomfortable with what I was hearing on my side of the bell, especially concerning the amount of front to the notes and accents.  But when I listened back, I found that I was simply matching Rich Kelley on the trumpet or JD Shaw on the horn.

The proof was in the recording and it turned out that my comfort level as it related to what I heard on my side of the bell was not only not relevant but had to be actively ignored in my pursuit of simply "making it sound right."

What in your playing do you need to take too far?