Sunday, February 24, 2013

Growing Musicians
I love this time of year.  Region Band auditions are over.  Solo and Ensemble is over.  Band Auditions and Benchmarks are still somewhere over the horizon.  The possibilities are endless.  This is the time of year I can once again mold my students into powerful musicians and not just chasers of notes and rhythms.  And it is Spring (well, maybe not officially yet, but Punxsutawney Phil did say it would be early this year).

The competitive focus in my bassoon and saxophone studio thrums with intensity during the fall.  Focus on region etudes and scales drives most practice sessions, many times stifling technical and musical growth because of the kids’ one-track focus .  Lessons attempt to balance fundamental musicianship with cramming notes and rhythms.  All in all, the fall is hyper-intensive, super-focused, and driven.  It wrings me out like a sponge - hearing the same music every day eventually begs questions of sanity. the same time, the local foliage goes through a transition into dormancy - much like my students’ musical development.  With a fiery burst, trees abandon their leaves, littering the ground with the past year’s greenery.  We are left with bare branches and skeletal woodlands.

Winter arrives.  Again, my students have a singular focus - solo contest.  While their efforts are more individual, their pieces catered to their own specific skill level, and I regain a measure of sanity from the variety of music, the students still have a short period of time in which to learn a complex piece of music.  Their attention has a little more flexibility, and just like in the fall, lessons work to balance good musical skills along with the solos, but they still prefer the solo to fundamental practice., Spring approaches.  The Spring season is my favorite and write I about it every year.  I love the newness in the air, the fresh balance of a chilly morning and a warm afternoon.  I can’t wait to get outside and plunge my hands into the soil, to take winter’s leavings and craft them into something extraordinary.  I look forward to the explosive emergence of greens, reds, blues, yellows, and every other imaginable hue and shade this beautiful planet offers.

In the same way that the planet emerges from the slumber of winter dormancy and explodes in growth and life, so do my students.  Now that individual competition sits behind us for the moment, I relish the opportunity to develop the personal strengths of each student, to tackle individual weaknesses, to foster a strong understanding of music theory and how to apply that knowledge to creating a beautiful phrase.  I cherish this time of year because I get to grow musicians. cyclical nature of our planet means I get to experience this feeling again and again.  If it always remained Spring, I wouldn’t appreciate its arrival.  In a way, I love the anticipation as much as I do the release.  In fact, I think I will focus on that particular aspect of making a phrase this week.  Because I can.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Burrito Gigante
I grew up in San Antonio.  To us, the Riverwalk area was a nice place to take out of town visitors, and as I grew older, a fun place to hang out during the All-State Convention.  By my young rationale, simply due to location, the food on the River was majestic, high brow, and unarguably upper-class.  Now that I am an adult, I have quickly learned that a fancy location does not mean fancy food.

The Burrito Gigante is a humongous dish.  It is a flour tortilla practically stuffed with an entire tex-mex buffet, smothered in a curious chile sauce.  It is a harbinger of future heartburn, a muddled mix of tastes, textures, and aromas, and, as its name states explicitly, too large for the average person to eat. have been better pleased eating a Taco Bell 7-layer Burrito drenched in Fire hot sauce.

Now, had I paid the same price for this smorgasbord of mediocrity as I might at my local tex-mex eatery, I would not be sitting here typing this out.  But, with a couple of drinks, two burritos, and an appetizer (which was the best thing about the entire meal), I spent as much as I might for delightful dinner date at a decent steak place.

It might be the ambiance of the place that helps drive the price upwards.  Nope.  I felt like I was dining in the back end of a mess hall occasionally used for storage.  Then maybe it was because of the high quality service.  Again, no.  Service was not poor, but I did not feel well taken care of.  Or maybe it was the claim that this kitchen served only the the most authentic of foods, after all, it was the Original Mexican Restaurant.  Again, and this time in Spanish - no.

Ok, ok.  It must be the River then.  In fact, I am sure the location is the only, the ONLY reason for the prices. does that explain the low quality meal?  Does the NY Phil phone it in just because they are in one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world?  Does the Louvre hang bad art on its wall - they have the location, why do they need quality?  Do the Los Angeles Lakers only strive for a .500 winning percentage - oh, oops, this one is true.

Just because you have the draw and you know people will show up to eat, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality.  I can stomach the price if the food is right, but not when you can’t really even stomach the food.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

All Work and No Play . . . setting: a frozen mountain retreat in the midst of winter, cut off from the rest of the world until the spring thaw arrives.  The caretaker family looks forward to a secluded winter, free from distraction, to help the three of them heal from the familial stress fractures life forces them to suffer.  While it seems the setting is ideal for putting a family back together, there is a problem - all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Happiness, or at least its pursuit, resides in the Declaration of Independence as one of humanity’s unalienable rights.  We have the responsibility to discover our own happiness and exactly how to achieve it, absent the interference of a tyrannical and despotic government.  Because the process of finding individual happiness falls on our shoulders, we often find ourselves missing the mark.  Samantha and I recently had a conversation in which we both discovered that we had possibly just done that.

While I love both the movie and the book versions of The Shining, I experienced the movie first, and so its impression upon me runs deeper.  Stanley Kubrick’s masterful directing captures the isolation and loneliness felt by the Outlook Hotel’s winter family.  Accompanied by a haunting collection of modern music by Ligeti, Penderecki, and Bartok, the score broods, summing up the overall mood through the constant threat of the Dies Irae - the Day of Reckoning approaches. back and take stock of your life periodically.  In doing so, you might discover that you have taken a wrong turn or stayed too long on a short path.  Life doesn’t have GPS; a computerized voice doesn’t instruct us to decide this way or that and so we find ourselves lost sometimes.  Discovering our wrong turn and rectifying the mistake puts back in the right direction.

The Torrance family sought to find healing in the solace of the mountains.  Jack hoped to mend his relationship with his wife and son while beating his alcoholism - a reversal of his normal behavior.  He also hoped to find a novel.  So, as the winter settled in, he began to work.  And work.  And work.

During Samantha and my analysis of our own recent life, we discovered that we do not take enough individual time for ourselves.  We do other things than just work our businesses, but our lives fill up quickly with obligations to other people, other activities, and other organizations; we find ourselves scheduled to death by our own hand.
Jack Torrance discovers this same problem the longer he spends pounding away at his typewriter.  The unfortunate consequence of taking a winter sojourn in a mildly haunted hotel and working nonstop?  As the movie says - all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  He goes crazy and attempts to kill his family.

While we may not be sequestered in a lonely haunted hotel, the message is the same for us as it was for Jack.  Left to our own overworked lives, without manifesting change, we would find ourselves heading down a similar slippery slope.  Death by axe is not a typical result, but don’t doubt that your relationships could end up broken and mangled, not to mention your own happiness.  Take stock and make sure you are not headed down the same path as Jack.  You might find yourself frozen out of happiness.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Paralysis of Analysis

I have a student who probably should have made region band this year.  Honestly, there is no probably about it.  Had he guided his practice efforts the right way, he would have made region band.  Unfortunately, he succumbed to his insecurities in a way most of us would find familiar.  He couldn’t ever get out of his own head.

Probably three-quarters of the work my students need to do lies in personal perception and how that guides their practice and performance.  Fundamentally, most bassoon students, if placed correctly, are highly intelligent, strongly independent young people.  If prepared the correct way from the moment they first begin to learn their craft, they would all experience high levels of success.  Unfortunately, from the first time they touch the instrument, they experience instruction aimed primarily at correcting mistakes.    For many students, their early instruction teaches them to ferret out errors.  While this may seem like the best way to focus practice, these students have learned to do it to a fault.

The student I mentioned above suffers from this problem.  We can hardly make it through a measure or two before he stops to point out his errors.  He constantly stops, describing the mistake, reasoning out the origin of the error, before restarting.  Left to his own devices, we would never make it past the first line of anything in our lessons.  I am certain his practice sessions proceed the same way.  He is plagued with paralysis of analysis.

My job in his lessons is to deflect his focus from errors.  I work in small chunks of music; any time he stops, I instantly redirect - “keep playing, keep playing, keep playing” - until he resumes.  I don’t let him offer a single unobstructed comment until he has completed the chunk.  Once he achieves that, we dissect the phrase, find the errors, prescribe a solution, and work through it again - without stopping.  Slowly, I am teaching him to practice the right way.  He will make region next year.

Most of us succumb to the same sort of paralysis at points in our life.  We over-think to the point of negativity, sometimes thinking long past the point when decisions should be made.  Often, we wait so long, decision making slips from our skill set, leaving us bereft of the ability to even decide something as simple as what to eat.  

This paralysis resides in fear.  My student fears someone will catch him unaware of his own mistakes, so he stops constantly to point them out when playing on his own.  When playing in band class, the fear retreats - the likeliness of getting caught making mistakes reduces substantially when playing with sixty or seventy other musicians.  If we looked deep within ourselves, our insecurities develop from similar fears.  Our society prides itself on perfection.  We learn from an early age mistakes are frowned upon, so we prevent them by avoiding activities in which they occur or we jump the gun and point them all out unnecessarily.  Neither are the solution.

I teach my students that mistakes lead to growth.  We are human; we err.  I tell them to give themselves permission to make mistakes.  Allowing themselves to err reduces the power a mistake has over their psyche.  Eventually, they roll right past their mistake unaffected.  Now, to be clear, I stress the difference between ignoring a mistake and moving past a mistake.  One is healthy, the other is not.  We practice with a “mistake basket” in which they deposit their mistakes while playing a particular passage.  After they complete the passage, we examine the basket’s contents and decide which items need our focus.  Eventually, we free ourselves from the paralysis of analysis.

Mistakes are necessary for growth, for developing character.  Learning how to handle mistakes in our lives positions us to roll with anything the world might throw our way.  Avoiding or over indulging them does not offer a solution to the problem, rather it roots the problem deeper.  Avoid the paralysis of analysis before it sets in too deep.