Oops! I Did It Again

Here’s the deal: You’re going to mess up.

How do I know this? I’ve been playing and performing for nearly 30 years, and teaching for almost 20.  I’ve messed up a lot.  My students have messed up a lot. Messing up is a natural part of the learning process.  It’s also something that, at least for the vast majority of us mortals, never entirely goes away.  It’s part of our humanity (and, as such, contains a few drams of beauty).

Yes, you definitely want to minimize the frequency and audibility of your mess-ups, particularly in performance.  But in my experience, an intense preoccupation with accuracy almost always comes at the expense of musicianship.  If you’re terrified of messing up, you’re less likely to really listen to the sound you are producing, the shapes you’re making, and how those shapes fit with the shapes being made around you.  You’re less likely to take risks.  You’re less likely to enjoy the music you’re playing, which will, in turn, diminish the likelihood that you’ll be able to transmit that enjoyment to your listeners.

To dredge up a basketball metaphor from my years of rabid childhood fandom, you want to play offense, not defense.

This is not to say that you abandon all sense and simply run toward the basket (traveling!), or smash willy nilly into the opposition (charging, people). Offense is an art, not an expression of brute force.   But staying on offense is important.

I’ve even heard colleagues make the suggestion to go ahead and make a mistake early in each performance, deliberately, to get it out of the way, so that the rest of the time can be spent getting down to the far more important business of communicating what there is to love about whatever it is you’re playing.

I haven’t ever dared to do that. But the impulse makes sense to me.

I had a series of performances last week.  I prepared for them as rigorously as I could- but yes, I messed up.  And so did most of my colleagues.  After which we picked ourselves up as quickly as possible and got back to the business of making music.

Rusher or Repeater: What's Your Musical Learning Style?

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Are you a rusher or a repeater?

Every musician and music student I know leans one way or the other, and I think understanding your tendency can help you better structure your practice and improve your skills.

So which one are you?

If you love sinking your teeth into a new piece but squirm when you have to perfect something you already know, you might be a rusher.  Rushers have many strengths: they are curious, they love to explore, and they are often strong sight readers.  But they’ll sometimes balk at being asked to repeat a piece, and need a push to work toward perfecting something already familiar.  

Repeaters, on the other hand, bask in the familiar.  If, during your practice, you catch yourself playing the same pieces over and over again, or if you need a push to tackle unfamiliar music, you might be a repeater.  Repeaters also have strengths, such as patience, high boredom thresholds, and a desire to comprehend deeply.  But they’ll need a push to tackle things outside of their comfort zones.

Recognize yourself? It’s a continuum, so most people fall somewhere in the middle of the extremes.  But I can definitely pick out my own tendency (I’m a repeater) and that of most of my students.

How does knowing your tendency help you improve your playing?  Here are some suggestions to help you work with, or through, who you are.

If you’re a rusher…

1.  Chanel your curiosity. Continue to explore, but set a duration and focus for your exploration: A month for bass repertoire, e.g., or a month for Handel, or a month for sixteenth-century divisions. Having a repertoire focus will help you carry from one piece into the next, even if you’re still cycling through them quickly.

2. Try an exercise.  Exercises and etudes, by definition, are designed to be repeated. Tackling one at a time, for an extended period, can be a good opportunity to flex your repetition muscles. (The ability to repeat takes time to develop, just like any other skill.)   

3. Perform.  There’s nothing like a performance to motivate you to work more deeply on something. This can be a “performance” during a lesson (teachers are great counterweights for both rushers and repeaters), an informal performance for your friends or family, or a public outing.  Having the deadline ahead of you will help you dig deep.

4. Commit in chunks.  Pick one piece to really work through- and then, with the rest of your daily practice time, cut yourself some slack follow your curiosity where it leads! 

If you’re a repeater….

Listen. Sometimes repeaters repeat because they’re not sure what else to play.  Broadening your listening (through CDs, Youtube, streaming services, online music libraries like Naxos etc.) can help you discover new and beautiful music.

Find a project. Repeaters tend to enjoy structure….so use a structured project to help you step outside of what you know.  Tackle all 12 Telemann Fantasias, or work your way through an anthology, or commit to learning three sonatas by composers who were heretofore unknown to you…the possibilities are endless. 

Shore up your reading.  Being a repeater often goes hand in hand with weak sight reading skills.  It’s a chicken and egg scenario: if you aren’t the best reader to begin with, you are more inclined to play what you know, which in turn means you aren’t getting as many opportunities to practice reading new work.  Carve out time to deliberately practice your sight reading- it’s the only way to improve.

Start small.  Commit to 10 minutes of reading or exploration per session, and then let yourself play what you love.

Happy practicing!

How to Turn Dislike into Opportunity

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“I just don’t like that piece.”

I’ve said those words to at least three of my teachers, so it must be cosmic justice that I now hear them on the regular from my students.

As a young player, I used those words as a stamp, formalizing my rejection and excusing any weaknesses in my playing.

As a more experienced player –and now, as a teacher- I hear those words as an invitation and a challenge.  I don’t like that piece- yet.  My student doesn’t like that piece- yet.

Why don’t we like certain music?  Sometimes, we just don’t- there’s not much more to it than that. 

But a substantial portion of the time, we don’t like a piece because something about it makes us uncomfortable.  We may not be familiar with its style.  We may not comprehend what it is trying to achieve.  We may have technical difficulties with it.  And with music, discomfort almost always signals an opportunity for growth.

Thus, I propose that when you discover a piece you don’t much care for, instead of discarding it immediately, take my Fair Shake Challenge.  It’s a three-step checklist I designed to make sure you and I are making dislike work for us.

And if, at the end of the process, you still dislike a piece? Well, then it might not be to your taste.

 Fair Shake Step One: Time

 You know how a person might initially irritate you, but if you spend more time with him or her, you see more and more things to like?  It’s the same way with music.  If you’re not crazy about a piece, spend time really getting to know it inside and out.  If any of your discomfort was due to technical difficulties, more time will help to sort this out; you’ll also get a better feel for what the piece is and what it’s trying to do. 

Fair Shake Step Two: Information

Before you dismiss a piece, make sure you have approached it from an informed perspective.  Maybe there’s an underlying dance rhythm you’ve forgotten to think about, and the piece will snap into focus once you have. Or perhaps the piece has a structure informed by a popular chord progression or national style.  Or maybe you need to think about the piece’s harmonic structure, or where it fits within a composer’s oeuvre. Gathering information is where having a teacher can really shine, but you can do some of the research yourself. 

Fair Shake Step Three: Change

If you don’t like a piece, why not assume for a moment that what you don’t like is, in fact, the way you play it. So try something new.  Shift your tempo, or change your articulation.  Record yourself playing and listen back to see how you could alter your approach.  Listen to someone else, or many someone elses, playing your piece, and see how their approaches might inform yours.

 I went through this process recently with one of my least favorite Telemann Fantasias, No. 7, “Alla Francese.”  I practiced the piece every day for a month, trying out different tempos and articulations. I listened to recordings.  I thought about the influence of French music on the structure of the piece.  I recorded myself and played it back, listening critically, five separate times. Then I performed the piece six times in three days.

 And you know what? Now I like the piece.

Your One Sure Bet for the New Year

As someone who writes a blog focused on improvement, I am both impressed and intimidated by the number of ways in which it possible to get better!  The paths toward improved musicianship are close to limitless, and the goal posts are always, always just a few miles ahead.

That’s why it bemuses me to be able tell you that if you do only this one thing, and no other, to improve your recorder playing in 2019, you’ll still be miles ahead of where you were last year.

I’ll cut to the chase: Enjoy your air. 

That’s it! Three words! It’s simultaneously the simplest and most complex of musical resolutions, and it’s the one you should make today.

Why? I hesitate to say this before an audience of recorder players, but most instruments are more complicated than the recorder.   Pick almost any other instrument and you’re likely looking at reeds or keys or strings or pegs, apparati requiring attention and care.

The recorder, in contrast, is air moving through a stick with holes.  We’ve had instruments like it for millennia, whereas we’ve had, say, the saxophone for less than 200 years.

Many people assume the instrument’s simplicity means the recorder is simple to master (it isn’t, though one of its virtues is undeniably its accessibility during the earlier stages) or somehow deficient.  But simplicity is among the recorder’s greatest strengths.  Playing recorder is the closest you can come to singing without singing, and the voice of the instrument, that sound of air moving relatively unencumbered through it, is haunting.

This is easy to forget.  You get caught up in the minutiae of fingering or articulation, some particularity of ornamentation or phrasing, and you temporarily lose sight of the fact that your air is the best thing you have going for you. Get involved in executing something difficult, and your air is often the first thing to suffer.

And that’s too bad. Because air- and the enjoyment of the movement of air- is the recorder’s raison d’etre. It should be yours, too.

So enjoy your air. I guarantee you’ll enjoy your playing more.

Is it Time to Break your Habit?

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Habits have been in vogue lately, spawning self-help bestsellers and pop Psych paeans.

Mostly, this literature trumpets the awesome power of habit and how habit can harnessed for good. And I’m definitely a believer!  After all, daily practice is the habit to which I owe my career.

 But there’s a dark side to habit, in that a bad habit, once it’s sunk in, can be particularly difficult to eradicate.

This plays out time and time again in my teaching, especially with students who were originally self-taught. Don’t get me wrong- I’m overjoyed that people are out there teaching themselves recorder. But I’m even more delighted when I get to help a student before bad habits have sunk in.

But let’s say I’m too late. Say a new student comes to me with an entrenched maladaptive thumb technique, a way of breathing that sets her up for tension, fingerings that are not in tune… the possibilities are endless!

In this case, the student and I have a decision to make.  Do we put forth the very considerable effort necessary to replace a bad habit with a good one?  Or do we let the habit slide?

The decision-making process is different in each case, but the questions we consider are similar:

How entrenched is the habit?

Fingering the E incorrectly for 30 years is different from fingering the E incorrectly for five months.  And in general, adults tend to have a more difficult time replacing bad habits than children do.  I’ll always push a child to change, and almost always push a near beginner. 

How damaging is the habit?

Here you need to consider the magnitude of both physical and musical damage. Holding the recorder with too much tension may cause physical damage in the long run, and that absolutely needs to be addressed. And playing the alto’s low B-flat without the pinky makes for tuning infelicity audible to the casual listener. In contrast, leaving the index finger off the high A is usually audible only to recorder teachers.

 What are the student’s goals?

It goes without saying that bad habits in a pre-professional player must be addressed.  But what about the adult amateur?  Here’s where the student and I really need to think about his goals.  Does the student want to be the best recorder player he can be?  Or is moment-to-moment enjoyment the student’s primary focus?

 What is the student’s tolerance for struggle?

Every student has a different tolerance for being uncomfortable- though this tolerance can be grown.  Some students enjoy the challenge of replacing a bad habit; others grit their teeth and bear it; a few find the process debilitating.

Does the student want to change the habit?

Here’s where the rubber hits the road.  As a teacher, I can encourage and guide and help to provide motivation for change, but at the end of the day, the student needs to be on board. Sometimes a student will say they are on board, but they really aren’t, or some part of them isn’t- and then we need to grapple with that.

How does this decision-making play out in real time? Let’s walk through a couple of scenarios:

1)   Student R came to me in her late 50s with three decades of amateur playing under her belt, including one brief stint of lessons from a non-professional player many years in the past.  Her breathing technique was underdeveloped and included a deeply entrenched habit of thoracic activation, resulting in poor support, short phrase lengths, and a wobbly tone. R was organized and enjoyed challenge and the process of improvement. She loved the bass recorder in particular, and wanted to improve her skills there.  Changing R’s breathing habits was an easy sell, especially when I explained how it would help her on the bass.  We took an organized approach, starting small using specific exercises to replace thoracic breathing with diaphragmatic breathing, and within a couple of years R’s tone was much better supported and she was able to play significantly longer phrases, resulting in a much more enjoyable musical experience for her and her ensemble.

2) Student B came to me in her mid 80s with many decades of amateur playing under her belt. She’d been taking lessons from another professional teacher until that teacher retired, but had retained a maladaptive thumb technique (if a student has had high-quality instruction but still hasn’t broken a bad habit, it’s a good though not infallible indicator that the student doesn’t want to make the change). Student B enjoyed coming to lessons and particularly enjoyed playing duets, but she confessed she didn’t practice much outside of her lesson time, and what’s more, she didn’t really want to.  Her primary goal was to enjoy making music.  We decided to leave B’s thumb technique alone and concentrate on exploring level-appropriate duet repertoire.

Do my students replace their bad habits?  In most, though not all, cases, the answer is yes.  Adults who take lessons are a driven, curious, and achieving bunch. They’ve already shown they are interested in becoming better players, and they tend to be up for a challenge. Replacing bad habits is seldom easy, but it’s almost always rewarding, and watching students take on the task is unfailingly inspiring.

 

Up Your Practice Game

We all want to get better at what we do. How we do that is the challenge. This month I have three words for you: specificity of learning.

Say what?

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Time to get nerdy! The specificity of learning hypothesis is a 1968 chestnut from the field of motor learning.  I can already see your eyes glazing over, but bear with me a minute!

To shamelessly over-simplify, the specificity of learning hypothesis proposes this: For best result, your practice should look like your performance.

Motor learning is more complicated than that (1968 was a long time ago, and we’ve learned a lot since then), but I think specificity of learning is worth revisiting because it speaks to a phenomenon I’ve observed time and time again in my years as a performer and teacher:  

Most of the time, we get better at exactly what we practice- and we don’t get better at what we don’t.

Sure, there’s some carryover. Practice the alto and you’re in a better position to pick up the tenor.  Practice one sonata by Handel and you’ll have a better understanding of his style when it comes to tackling the next one.

But more frequently, in order to make efficient progress, you need to think in a granular way about the specific skills you want to rehearse.  If you don’t do this, and decide that practice is practice is practice, you’ll likely become frustrated when you happen upon a gap in your skill set.  

If you’ve never practiced sight reading with a whole note beat, for example, you’re going to be hard pressed to do it under pressure, even if you’re a quarter note ace.  I find that students who encounter a difficulty like this often over-generalize: they decide they are bad readers, or that playing with a whole note beat is inherently too difficult.   

In fact, this is a lesson in specificity of learning: in order to improve reading with a whole note beat, you need to practice reading with a whole note beat.  Students who decide a whole note beat is too hard are. forgetting about the years of practice they’ve already put in reading music with a quarter note beat- practice that worked! 

In my own playing, I’ve found that I’m much weaker in sharp keys than I am with flats.  After almost thirty years of practice, four or five or even six flats is not problem.  But five sharps? Run! This is a direct result of specific practice: recorder music tends to be written in flat keys, so over the years I’ve put in infinitely more hours with flats.

The payoff to thinking about specificity of learning is that you’re empowered to improve your skills. I spent a lot of time in sharp keys this summer- and I definitely improved my facility!  My students who have trouble with a whole note beat get more assignments with a whole note beat- and they improve!  Trouble with bass clef?  Practice bass clef. Trouble performing?  Practice performing.  Trouble finding your place again when you get lost? Practice finding your place again when you get lost.

Becoming a better recorder player isn’t a straight shot. It’s a million small -and marvelous- journeys.  Happy traveling.

The Game-Changer You Already Own

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What's the one thing you can bring to a lesson or practice session that is guaranteed to make you a better musician?

It's not magic.  It's not even high-tech.  It's the score!

One of the first things I teach new students is to always, always cart along the score.  Unless you're playing an unaccompanied solo, showing up with only your part is like bringing a serving dish to a potluck but forgetting to fill it with food. 

Seriously, folks. The score is essential.  The score is your lifeline.  You need to sleep with the score under your pillow.   You need to carry it next to your heart.  No, you don’t necessarily need to play from it (although I like to whenever possible), but you do need to know it backwards and forwards.

But why?  What’s so important about that junk for the keyboard or all those other consort parts anyway?  Especially if you’re not planning to play the piece with anyone else in the immediate future?

Here's the thing: the score is your boss.  You may think your part is your boss, or that you are the boss.  No and no. The score is your boss.  It shapes, colors, and dictates how you play your part.

Take any single note in your piece. Here are five things the score can tell you about it:

1)   Are you the main event? You have four quarter notes.  Do you invest them with a soloist’s emotion, or do you play them as a graceful accompaniment?  Take a look at the baseline- if it has thematic material or fast moving notes, chances are you’re not the big cheese.

2)   Are you a crunch or a release?  The more technical terminology for this is dissonance or consonance.  Is your note crunchy, or dissonant?  If so, you need to play it up and connect it to its release note.  If your note is consonant, you most often play it with less propulsion, sometimes taking a comma or breath afterward.

3)   Where are you in the chord?  If you’re the third, you’ll place the pitch of your note somewhere different than if you’re the fifth, e.g.

4)   Which notes will work in your ornament?  If there’s an E Major chord underneath your note, you’re not going to be happy leaping to a G natural as you decorate.

5)   What’s your tempo?  Say you’ve got a half note, but the bass part is all sixteenth notes and the whole movement is marked “adagio.”  Those sixteenth notes have to sound adagio, not just your half note- which means you may need to play the movement slower than you think.

This is only the beginning!  Bring the score!

What I Really Think of Your Playing

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I have yet to find an adult student who isn’t nervous when they play for me, at least the first time. And I get it- I really do.  Any time you’ve got someone’s undivided attention, particularly when that person is analyzing your actions, it’s natural to feel a little exposed.  Add in the fact that you are by definition undertaking something outside of your comfort zone (the bravest and best part of taking lessons!), and sweaty palms make sense.

But I want to put a nail in the coffin of one common student fear.  Make that tens of nails.  Hundreds of nails.  A nail-gun-gone-berserk number of nails.

It is never, ever a burden to listen to you play.

“You must get tired of listening to me,” I’ve had students say.  Or, “I hope we're not ruining the piece for you.”   “Can you really stand to listen to the repeat?” “I didn’t want to make you listen to any more of this.”

There are dozens of variations, but the core concern is the same: a sizable minority of students worry their playing is a chore.

I can’t think of anything further from the truth.  Listening to a student or students play, no matter what the level is profoundly engaging and uniformly enjoyable. Because every time I listen, I’m confronting a fascinating challenge: How can I help this particular student or group of students make progress, both now and in the long term?  

Working that out is pretty much the most captivating puzzle I know, and I immediately busy myself with a host of subsidiary questions. What knowledge or skills do students possess that I can build on?  What should we select to work on?  What can I say or do to best communicate the goal?  How can I motivate the student toward the selected goal?  How can I check for understanding of the improvement process? How will I develop the student’s ability to self-monitor?  What personality or time or technical constrains might stand in the student’s way, and how can I mitigate them?

Listening to great music is pleasurable, sure. But it’s far more fun to dig into the challenge of helping you get better.  And we can always improve- each of us, from the greenest beginner to the most virtuosic professional.

So please know this: Your teachers don’t get tired of listening to you play.  We genuinely feel that it is a privilege to hear you.

And If I ever stop feeling that way, I hope I’m smart enough to take a break.

What Does Success Look Like?

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The first time my student R attended a workshop, she spent most of the day in tears. 

I was distressed, but not surprised.  At that point in her playing life, R had a strong negative reaction to every playing mistake she made, allowing each error to derail her progress through a piece.  Whenever she made a mistake, she became so flustered that it was almost impossible for her to hop back in.

Just a few years later, R was attending workshops throughout the region, making mistakes and finding her part again with aplomb. 

Mostly, this is a credit to R’s perseverance. Not everyone would stick with playing after an upsetting experience, but R was impressively determined.

But helping R also required me to use one of the most powerful tools any teacher’s arsenal- the power to define success.

What does defining success mean? When you define success, you identify, shape, and shift the parameters by which students measure their own performance. You help students choose -and use- the success metric that best suits their abilities and needs at any given time.

If you don’t define success, your student will do it for you.  The fact is that students come to lessons with all kinds of pre-determined success metrics.  Some are explicit- students know what they want to achieve.  But some are implicit- hidden definitions that can cause trouble along the way.  In addition, students’ success metrics can also be static- they don’t change over time as a student grows.

In contrast, a good teaching success metric is explicit and dynamic- both student and teacher know what success means at any particular time, and the definition of success shifts to match student needs.  One lesson, success might mean playing all the notes in time.  A year later, success might mean playing all the notes in time and in tune.

When she attended that first workshop, R carried with her an implicit and unhelpful success metric: Success, to R, meant not making mistakes.

What I needed to do was to give R a more constructive definition of successAfter that first workshop, we debriefed and made a plan.  From now on, 10 minutes of every lesson would be devoted to sight reading duets.  And R’s only goal during these sessions was to get back in.  No matter what.  No mater how long it took

She could exclaim, she could sigh, she could spend most of the piece trying to figure out where she was, but if she got back in by the final cutoff, even partway through the last note, R would have succeeded.  Later, we took the same definition of success into group playing sessions.

It worked.

Slowly, but steadily, it worked.

I moved out of state and no longer teach R, but I saw her recently at a workshop and asked permission to tell her story.  The workshop featured a student performance and I watched as, during the last movement of her piece, R lost her place- and quickly hopped back in.  It was a splendid moment-  over in a few blinks of an eye. 

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© 2016 Anne Timberlake