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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Category: Quote

Starting the day off right

Andrew Hitz

This x 100!

Marty Hackleman once told me he doesn’t like to call it a warm-up. He calls it his daily routine and the byproduct of that routine is that he is warmed up, both physically and mentally.

I have encountered many students who use their warm-up to ease into the mental aspects of their musical day, but I don’t believe this is necessary if you walk into the practice room with the proper mentality in place.

This is one reason why I am an enormous proponent of doing breathing exercises before playing. I’m not a slave to them and don’t always do them, but whenever I do I make sure I am fully committed mentally to the exercise as a way of engaging my mind on a very specific task, which in turn helps my first notes of the day sound great.

This is also why I like to do things like wind patterns during my breathing exercises. “Be musical with your air” is a phrase I’ve uttered thousands of times to various concert bands and marching bands. “Playing” Jingle Bells with your air is a great way to get dynamics, phrasing, articulation, style and everything else going in the brain.

Once you activate all of those things, the physical side of playing really just comes along for the ride.

Finally, I find it can be difficult to truly concentrate on breathing exercises when I do the exact same ones in the same order ever day. That’s why I like to use sequences (like are found in The Breathing Gym Daily Workouts DVD.) There are many ways to get the air (and the brain) moving and mixing up what is done and the order they are done in is really beneficial, even for professionals.

Regardless of how you begin your day or what you do for a daily routine, a simple decision can be made that your first notes will not be of poor quality. If you make that commitment, you’ll be amazed at the results.

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


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.

In search of a resonant pitch center

Andrew Hitz

This reminded me of a great exercise that Rex Martin taught me at Northwestern which I’ve shared with countless of my own students.

There was a note I was having trouble getting my absolute best sound on. It just wouldn’t center because I was fighting the horn.

So Mr. Martin had me hit the pitch intentionally sharp, hit the pitch intentionally flat and then play it right down the middle with a beautiful vibrato to help it resonate.

Hitting the pitch both sharp and flat helped to frame the pitch and the vibrato helped me to center it. I can’t tell you how well this exercise works. I still do it to this day.

It is worth noting that none of this had anything to do with speed. Just three distinctive versions of the same note.

I’m so happy he showed me this exercise and that the Jacobs quote reminded me of it!

Your chops are dumb

Andrew Hitz

Your chops are as dumb as a box of rocks. Your brain is what’s driving this train.

So don’t focus on feedback from your lips while you’re supposed to be actively creating art. That doesn’t end well for the audience.

Besides, to quote the great Mark Gould:

“It’s not supposed to feel good. It’s a piece of %#&$ing metal on your face.”

Denise Tryon on the four elements to look for when teaching someone

Andrew Hitz

I love this!

1. Physical set-up: I tend to lean towards the mess with a student's physical set-up as little as possible side of things but (and this is a big but!) sometimes it is necessary and solves many problems at once. Efficiency is the key to playing any instrument well and a proper physical set-up is essential to that.

2. Technique: You can't tell a great musical story without being able to do all of the technical stuff well (as well as in any combination.) Technique is not hard to teach or to learn. Or I should say it's not complicated to learn. The only hard part is having the discipline to do it. Having a technique like Denise primarily involves a lot of work over a prolonged period of time. How bad do want it?

3. Music making: That's the only reason I ever play the tuba. All of that work to get a good physical set-up and the decades of learning good technique only serve one purpose: to tell a great musical story.

4. Mental attitude: Attitude is one of those rare things in life that we can actually control. Again, playing the horn like Denise is a very long journey. Some moments, days, even weeks, it can quite hard to keep a positive attitude. Progress is not linear (it never is!) and that can be discouraging if we choose to focus on any one data point along that journey to draw conclusions about our worth as a musician. A great teacher gives a student tools to be able to keep a positive mental attitude, even when that student doesn't feel like it is justified.

And of course she is right about your weakest link. Leave any one of these four behind and you will be held back from realizing your true potential.

Thanks for the awesome quote, Denise!

Getting serious about your routine

Andrew Hitz

This is not a complicated concept and yet can be hard to implement until you get some momentum. If you are serious about improving your playing, you must be practicing the things you can't do well every single day.

The first part of this equation is having the self-awareness to accurately identify the weaknesses in your playing. I don't think I've ever met a player who has no idea what their weaknesses are. But the best players have an acute sense of their shortcomings with a high degree of specificity.

Noticing that soft playing is not a strength is one thing. (And that's a great start!) But digging a few layers deeper (like for example your ascending slurs in the upper middle and upper registers at a soft dynamic are particularly poor) is much better.

The best players can not only identify their shortcomings to that degree of specificity but then develop a plan to meet them head-on in their daily routines. If you are bored with practicing scales, incorporate one of your weaknesses into your daily scale work. This requires creativity and a lot of focus (since playing a new exercise that you just made up takes a lot more work than just playing around the Circle of Fourths again.)

And if you really want to raise the bar, throw a portion of your warmup on Instagram Live. Even if only five people watch for a total of a minute, your focus will be off the charts when you are broadcasting one of your biggest weaknesses to your friends and colleagues.

So ask yourself two questions: what are your biggest shortcomings as a player (be as specific as possible) and how many days in the last week have you worked on them?

If your answer is less than seven, you might want to reevaluate your priorities.

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.

You Can't Break a Bad Habit

Andrew Hitz

This is precisely why it is so important to not rush through things and learn them the wrong way when practicing. The key word in the last sentence of the above Arnold Jacobs quote is gradually.

Once you have established a habit, the only way to replace it with a new one is gradually over time. Translation: it's a lot of work.

I was also always taught that the brain does not respond well to the word don't. If you write something like "Don't Drag" in your music then your brain first comprehends "Drag" which is not exactly ideal. I always have my students write the positive version of whatever they're working on so "Don't Drag" becomes "Groove" or "Steady Tempo".

Ideally, we don't ever learn something wrong in the first place because the extra time we take to learn something with slow and deliberate practice will be more than saved by not having to relearn it the right way. But if we do, rather than focusing on not doing it wrong, we need to replace it with the correct version and then have the patience to see the entire process through which will take a while no matter what we do.

Less Facts, More Stories

Andrew Hitz

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”― Ken Kesey


It is natural for classical musicians to get wrapped up in getting the facts right. We obsess from an early age about playing the right notes and the right rhythms.

This is of course critically important, but can not come at the expense of having storytelling as our primary focus.

I have encountered so many musicians who feel they are owed a living from playing their instrument once they are able to operate it at a certain level. Or once they have worked X hours a week for Y years in a row.

(Note: This is almost never said aloud but some variation of this feeling of entitlement is frequently just below the surface.)

But this is a false premise.

Literally no one pays money to see artists execute the technical aspects of their art at a high level of proficiency. At least not for that reason alone.

That's not how art works.

Let's take a filmmaker as an example. Who cares if you are a master of many aspects of filmmaking. Lighting. Camera angles. You name it. If your film doesn't take the audience on a journey, it won't make any money and it certainly won't be talked about in 100 years. Hell, it won't be talked about in 100 weeks.

We need stories, not great lighting!

To be clear, great lighting and creative camera angles are integral parts to telling a great story with your film. But to only focus on mastering the lighting leaves you one step shy of the promised land and it's really the only step that matters.

Once you have spent the 10,000 hours mastering the tools, what do you do with them?

In this blog post from 2014, my teacher and mentor, Rex Martin, blew my mind just like he did for four straight years at Northwestern. He took many years to master the ability to play softly in all registers.

But who gives a crap? The question is what has he done with that tool once it was in his musical toolbox.

A number of years ago I flew out to Chicago to see him perform the Vaughn-Williams Concerto for Tuba. I've seen that piece played a 1,000 times and wasn't particularly excited to see it specifically. I flew there to see him. I flew there to hear his story.

The end of the 2nd movement has a four-note ascending line in the tuba that is quite pretty when played well. Mr. Martin played that line with a gorgeous diminuendo and hit the final held note with no vibrato at all. While then barely diminuendoing further he added just the slightest bit of vibrato at the very end of that note, all while continuing to get softer. He then ended the movement with a perfectly tapered release.

It made me hold my breath.

A piece I wouldn't be sad if I never heard again for the rest of my life took my breath away. That's the power of music.

Or rather, that's the power of storytelling.

I would never purchase a plane ticket to see someone operate a tuba at a really high level. But to see someone tell a musical version of anything as powerful as those four notes? I'll fly or drive anywhere for that (which is exactly why I have driven through 44 states plus Ontario to see Phish.)

You will be compensated if enough people find the musical story you are telling remarkable. Remarkable meaning worth remarking over. As in I felt I had to tell some of my friends about the end of Mr. Martin's 2nd Movement of the Vaughn-Williams.

("Enough people" is quite possibly a much smaller number than you think. I did a TEM episode on it that's less than 25 minutes long.)

So don't only focus on the facts. The question is what you do with those facts. Ken Kesey is right. While facts are quite important, what we really need is a good story.