Monday, June 16, 2014

New music: Monolith by Alejandro Guardia, Jr.

Hey everyone - happy Monday!

I'm updating to share some new music with you.  I had the honor of premiering the tuba version of Monolith by Alejandro Guardia, Jr., at my recital this past spring.  The piece is written for soloist (contrabass tuba or bass trombone) and trombone quintet.  Alejandro is a low brass musician himself, and he really understands how to write for these instruments, as well as writing a piece that engages the audience.  I got so many compliments on this after the recital - I can definitely tell it was the crowd favorite.

OK, enough blabbing, here's some music!


I highly recommend that you visit Alejandro's website to check out more of his music. He's got lots of other great music, both solo and chamber stuff... loads for low brass folks.  Arrangements and originals... it's all good!

I can't recommend working with composers enough.  Playing something new and being able to collaborate with the composer is both fun and artistically rewarding.  Whether you're a working pro or a student, make friends with composers and create new stuff!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Playing the Mental Game of Music

It's been almost a year since I last posted.  My bad...

The past year has really had me thinking.  And, since I'm in school again, it naturally led me to write a paper for a class.  That paper is 8 or 9 pages long, so I won't copy and paste it here, but I will include a bibliography at the end in case you'd like to read more on this subject.  I'm prefacing this post with this because I want everyone reading to know that what I am about to say is actually backed up by research.  However, using the medium of blog post, I don't feel as bound to certain rules (for example, avoidance of using first person, anecdotes, and colloquialisms).

We musicians know all too well our perils - long hours, sacrificing time with friends or family, high market saturation with a low amount of available positions, low pay, etc.  We even cope by making jokes about these things.  In fact, I saw a list of one-line summaries of different college majors, and for music performance, the summary was something to the effect of, "If you don't hate yourself at least a little bit, you're doing it wrong."  I saw many of my friends post this list on Facebook, several stating things like, "Well, I guess I'm doing something right!"

Seriously folks, when are we going to stop pretending that this attitude is OK?

The research I surveyed for this project had many common threads, one of which was that musicians are generally secretive about ailments (physical or mental), which means they generally do not seek help if they are having issues (and if they do seek help, they're not likely to go further than their applied teacher).  And while we have more resources than ever on subjects like performance anxiety, we generally don't talk about it at school.  So the cycle continues.

Some statistics from various case studies:
  • Musicians in one survey reported acute anxiety (13%), depression (17%), sleep disturbances (17%), and performance anxiety (24%) (van Fenema, 9).
  • 82% of musician outpatients in one study met the criteria for an Axis I psychiatric disorder; despite this, these musicians scored better on functional scales than the control group (9).
  • 90% of musicians in one study had functional issues in performing due to psychological symptoms (12).
  • Of a group of surveyed musicians, 40% reported experiences and/or behavior patterns that could lead to poor health. Between 21% and 27% displayed patterns of over-commitment and over-exertion, and 14% to 19% had symptoms of early or manifested burnout (Voltmer, 12).
  • A review of twenty-four similar studies concluded that 25% of adult musicians experienced debilitating performance anxiety (Pierce, 155).
  • When compared to a group of healthy musicians, a group of musicians with focal dystonia exhibited higher levels of perfectionism and anxiety (Wristen).
  • A 1990 study showed that the students in the sample reported more performance anxiety than the professional and semi-professional musicians in the same study (Pierce, 155).
  • A case study of music students showed that they experienced performance anxiety more often than serious day-to-day stress (Thompson, 416).
  • Almost one-quarter of music students in one study reported being negatively affected by their mental health (Wristen).
Wellness is something we need to be talking about in our schools and workplaces, plain and simple.  While the focus of my paper was mental wellness, the importance of physical wellness cannot be underestimated.  Many careers have been ended too soon because of physical injuries. Several studies show that musicians have difficulty separating musical ability from personal identity, and that musicians often equate self-sacrifice, sometimes to the point of self-punishment, as essential to success. Attitudes of “no pain, no gain” and “survival of the fittest” can lead to overuse and fatigue, which can then lead to more mental distress (Pierce, 155-156). Unfortunately, these behaviors are often seen as normal or even exemplary. Considering this, the prevalence of narcissism throughout the studies surveyed in this paper is troubling. Esther van Fenema, M.D., points out that “a narcissistic personality structure in combination with an identity that is strongly interwoven with the profession might negatively impact well-being when a person is failing as a musician (van Fenema, 16).”  In other words, musicians are prone to viewing musical deficiencies as personal failings or flaws.

Here's the good news: we can handle this!  A lot of the research I read suggests that the important steps are 1) breaking the silence, and, 2) shifting from a product-based approach to a process-based one.  So, let's talk about this stuff in our studios and masterclasses.  Let's get guest speakers on these topics just like we would other topics.  Let's talk about different strategies for combating performance anxiety, such as mindfulness (which has helped me immensely).  Let's talk about how to practice, and let's keep each other accountable by practicing with each other, instead of spending all of our time in solitude.  Let's create more diverse performing opportunities.  Let's get students to play in ensembles in which their instrument wouldn't normally "fit" (you might be surprised) and play world and popular music (and can we trained musicians reclaim pop music some time soon, please?).  Let's place as much emphasis on listening and collaboration as we do on the final product (recital, audition, etc.)  This will make us more well-rounded, not to mention more marketable.  I also personally think being on stage in many different contexts will help us be more comfortable on stage in general.

The "traditional" elements of classical training, like competition, need not be removed to make this happen.  Competition is always going to be there.  However, placing an unbalanced emphasis on the results of competitions and recitals only further prompts us to fall hard when we fail.  How many times have you felt that all of your preparation for a recital or audition was pointless because the recital or audition didn't go as well as you wanted?  Did you question your abilities as a musician or a person?  How well does this help us prepare for the next thing?  It's important to know that a bad performance or audition does not make us bad musicians, and that one bad performance does not make a repeat occurrence inevitable. 

Let's stop pretending that performance anxiety will simply go away with experience, without a concerted effort.  Let's stop pretending that having a social life and time off aren't necessary.  Let's stop pretending that the outcome of a recital or competition is the only thing that matters.  Of course we want to do our best, but the reality is that only one person can win the job/competition.   Some people will have to drop out of the race, and that's OK.  And let's stop pretending that getting help for mental distress is something weird or pitiable.  
After dealing with mental distress that led me to almost dropping out of school this semester, I finally decided that I needed to stop ignoring the anxiety I was experiencing both in school and on stage.  

After playing the the tuba for almost 17 years, after years of telling myself that I'm only apt to be a good ensemble musician, it was just this semester that I had a solo performance in which I felt in control.  I feel like I'm starting my musical journey all over, and I'm totally OK with that.  I'm actually driven to work harder (but also rest accordingly) because, being less attached to a certain outcome, I am less attached to the fear of failure.  I still have quite a ways to go with this, though.  I hope to continue a path towards greater artistic and personal freedom, wherever that may lead me.

The stereotype of the "broken" or "insane" artist or musician is pervasive in our culture.  Sure, the ideal of the musician that is so passionate that he/she is out of touch with reality can seem romantic or even desirable.  However, this stereotype can become more powerful and dangerous in a world where many think our art is out of touch and outdated, especially if we musicians are supplying fuel for the fire.  We need to rethink how we do things if we wish to remain relevant, healthy, and employed.

Bibliography

Diaz, Frank. Perfection, rumination, and process – using mindfulness to deal with musical                   perfectionism.” Mindfulness and Music. March 2014. Web. April 2014.
ERIC - School-Based Health Centers: On the Front Line for Mental Health, National
Assembly on School-Based Health Care, 2011-Jan . Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
<http://eric.ed.gov/?q=mental+health+services+university&ft=on&id=ED53
9628>
Pierce, Deborah L. "Rising To A New Paradigm: Infusing Health And Wellness
Into The Music Curriculum." Philosophy Of Music Education Review 20.2 (2012):                 154- 176. Education Research Complete. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Thompson, Sam, and Aaaron Williamon. “Awareness and Incidence of Health Problems
             among Conservatoire Students.” Psychology of Music 34.4 (2006): 411-430. Web.                 Mar. 2014.
van Fenema, Esther, et al. "Musicians Seeking Psychiatric Help: A Preliminary
Study Of Psychiatric Characteristics." Medical Problems Of Performing Artists 28.1 (2013): 9-18. MEDLINE with Full Text. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Voltmer, Edgar, et al. "Physical And Mental Health Of Different Types Of
Orchestra Musicians Compared To Other Professions." Medical Problems Of Performing Artists 27.1 (2012): 9-14. CINAHL. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Wristen, Brenda G. "Depression And Anxiety In University Music Students."
                Update: Applications Of Research In Music Education 31.2 (2013): 20-27. ERIC.                   Web. 5 Mar. 2014.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The drone: your new favorite practice tool

When we think of tools and aids for practicing, the first things that come to mind are undoubtedly the tuner and the metronome.  Most of us use the tuner as a visual aid to adjust intonation.  But there's also a feature on most tuners that is just as, if not more, helpful, and often goes unused: the drone.

We all know that long tones are an important part of the daily routine.  I had always practiced mine using a visual tuner, and often struggled to keep the pitch steady during crescendos and decrescendos, even though I'd been doing similar exercises since college.  One day, I decided to try doing my long tones against a steady drone of C, starting on C and going down chromatically.  I worked on "getting rid of the wobblies," as I say to my students, making sure the notes locked together with no unsteadiness.  Of course, some intervals, like minor 2nds, were more difficult than others.  I did this also with some scales in whole notes.  I found that I was adjusting more quickly, and that I was much more mentally engaged in my long tone practice.  I then decided to continue my long tone practice as such for the next few months, resisting all urges to use the visual tuner.  After a few months passed, I returned to the visual tuner, and found that I was remarkably more accurate, even while doing dynamic changes.  I believe that before using the tuner, I wasn't really using my ear to adjust the note - I was only reacting to what I saw on the tuner.  But our eyes are not what helps us adjust in ensemble playing!

Want to try it out for yourself? Keep reading!

Most tuners have the ability to play a drone, a steady pitch of your choosing.  There are also CDs with drones that sound more notes (like chords and open fifths), like "Breakfast: Intonation Practice for Trombonists" by David Schwartz.  Whichever you use, it's important to be able to hear the drone above your own playing.  I have friends that say they just hook their drone up to a speaker system and let it rip.  I personally use headphones, so the steady pitch is practically inescapable.  This is also a good option if you live with other people, you don't have a loud stereo system, or you want to drown out noise around you.

Here are some examples of how I use the drone::

*Always set the drone to the tonic note.  If you're doing something chromatic, set it to the fundamental pitch of your instrument.

1) With long tones, chromatic or scalar. Experiment with dynamics, too, doing steady crescendos and decrescendos, paying attention to keeping in tune with the drone (and noticing what your tendencies are).

2) With scales or arpeggio exercises

3) With etudes.  For example, I play Rochut etudes every day on tuba.  I play these etudes one octave below written (middle register), 2 octaves below written (low register), and as written for trombone (high register).  I love the drone for lyrical exercises especially, and I often intentionally go slower so I can clearly hear every note resonating with the drone.

4) With solo music.  I found this especially helpful while practicing Bach earlier this year.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to leave comments with any feedback or helpful practice tips!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Top 5 things I've learned as a freelance musician

This phase of my life is drawing to a close.  Not that it would be unlikely for me to freelance again; however, I will never freelance as a woman in her mid-twenties, all on her own for the first time, again.  I'm headed off to start my DMA in the fall.  I'm both excited and intimidated.  I know I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I'm determined to make the best of every opportunity.

I think that now is a good time to reflect on the past couple of years.  I've learned so much and I've made some mistakes.  I hope that you can either relate to this or come away from it with new knowledge. 

Top 5 things I've learned as a freelance musician:

1) Teaching beginners will make you a better musician.  I realized recently that between all of my lessons and sectionals, I probably spend 30-60 minutes per day doing breathing exercises, buzzing, long tones, and lip slurs with my students (on top of my normal daily routine).  Talk about a fundamental workout!  
I think so many people go straight through school to avoid having to teach middle school, and I won't lie, I was afraid to teach this age group at first, too.  As young adults, we assume a lot of things about young kids, especially if you're like me and have no younger siblings.  All of my assumptions were wrong.  Middle schoolers are fun (and funny).  And you don't have to baby talk them - you can talk to them like regular human beings.  And this may sound a bit harsh, but I'll say it anyways: in my opinion, if you can't teach beginners, you have no business teaching college students.  

2) Don't be on time; be early.  Get in the habit now of arriving to all rehearsals at least 10-15 minutes early.  While you may not get fired from a gig for being late or walking in the door right as tuning starts, you may not get called back to play again.   Even if you're still in school, start making this rule for yourself now (I know it's easy to lollygag from the practice rooms).

3) Learn how to double on another instrument.  Learning to play bass trombone (decently) was one of the best decisions I've ever made.  Not only did I get more gigs, but learning to play with the smaller mouthpiece has effectively made me a better euphonium player too (I've still got loads of work to do, though!).  After the last couple of years freelancing, I've developed the opinion that anyone that wants to be a working musician and doesn't play more than one instrument (minus maybe string players and percussionists) is only shooting himself/herself in the foot.  Just do it! 

4) Bite your lip.  I'm still working on this one.  I know that saying something negative about someone just feels so tempting sometimes, especially if you're having a moment of insecurity. Don't spend time talking about people (unless it's positive).  If someone wants to gossip, find a way out of the conversation.  Avoid gossipers all together.  They will talk about you, too.  On a related note...

5) Don't take yourself so seriously.  I went to a regional tuba/euph conference recently, and I was surprised to hear a lot of petty talk during the competitions.  You're bad mouthing another group at a tuba-euph quartet competition? Really? At the end of the day, we're just tuba players.  We're not working on the cure for cancer.  We're having fun.  You've got to keep it in perspective - there's an entire world of people out there that have no idea who Arnold Jacobs is, how hard your music is, or what a euphonium is.  

As my quintet likes to say... shut up and play! :)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Post-audition thoughts

Hey everyone! I can't believe that I haven't updated since August.  Time flies by so quickly.  It's been a very busy semester.

The people reading this probably already know that I took an audition a couple of weeks ago for the President's Own Marine Band.  I really wanted the job.  I mean, it's in my top list of dream jobs.  I'm a bit of an optimist and daydreamer, and I could see all of my dreams unfolding in my head at the mere thought of getting this job.  I would think, I'll get this job, I'll be performing full-time, I won't have to save every penny, and eventually I'll have enough money to get my own place, get another horn, get my doctorate, and I'll be in one area settled for some time so maybe I could become established as both a musician and dancer in one area, I even already have friends in DC, and I can finally be in one place long enough to actually have a personal life, and maybe even find my future husband, and we can settle in the DC, and I'll finally have health insurance, and I can pay back my loans, and...

Wait, I didn't even advance past the first round.  Derp.

I really did dream up that scenario.  I really did fantasize about my whole life falling into place pending I won this job.  I think a lot of people do this.  Now, you'd think I'd have been devastated not making it past the first round, especially since I advanced last year, and I advanced in a couple other auditions this year too... but for some reason, I wasn't.  I mean, I had my moment where I cried in the bathroom, but that's all I needed (I firmly believe in not holding emotions back - find a safe way to release them or else they will build up inside of you and come out at the worst possible moment).

I then started to question why I wasn't devastated.  I know this may seem silly to some to question a good thing, but I wanted to analyze why I was totally fine, even after dreaming up my ideal life connected to this audition.  I knew something about me was different.

Technically, I've been out of school and on my own for two and a half years.  But my first year out of school, I still worked for USF as a bus driver (having a Masters degree doesn't make your need to eat any less!), so I was still somewhat in the cocoon of campus and a regular paycheck (albeit a VERY small paycheck).  I had occasional orchestra and quintet gigs, but my main occupation was driving the bus.  I've only been a full-time freelance musician for about a year and a half, and this is the time I've truly considered myself to be "out on my own" because I'm actually in my chosen career field now.  Being self-employed has taken me to a whole new level of organization and responsibility.

Being on your own in this manner is different than being in school, even if you are completely financially independent while in school.  No one tells me what to practice anymore, yet I find there is not enough time to practice everything I want.  I don't always have 4-5 hours a day to practice, but I practice more efficiently now.  I don't have a regular teacher, yet I constantly find things to improve.  No one tells me to read anymore, yet I've read more books since I've been out of school than I did when I was in school.  I don't have a free campus gym anymore, but I'm in great shape.  I have hardly anyone to discuss politics with, yet I am more active in reading or listening to the news and having opinions than ever before.  I have less friends and spend the majority of my free time alone, but I feel more compassionate overall.  I speak up more in my quintet rehearsals.  I don't accept it if people talk down to me.  I am no longer embarrassed about my thoughts and opinions, even if they are non-conformist or even strange. I know many people in school that do these sorts of things, but these are all things that I personally did not do in school.  I have improved on my own, not just as a player, but as a person.  I know this and I feel good about this, and I think this is the biggest reason that I wasn't absolutely devastated by my unsuccessful audition.  I'm still me and I came out in one piece!  

Despite not advancing in the audition for my dream job, I feel more confident than ever.  In fact, I think disappointments like this are very important to my personal development.  I went into the audition confident, and I came out confident, but also humbled and more determined.

It also helps that I've seen other disappointments in my life blossom into enormous blessings.  When I was young, I was constantly told I was too big for ballet and that I would never dance professionally.  But when I got older, I started Middle Eastern dance mainly because of its culture of body acceptance, and now that is one of my life's great passions (and it keeps me in great shape so I can play tuba better).  I got rejected from all of the grad schools to which I applied in the north, but later on I accepted an assistantship at USF.  My lessons with Jay took me to the next level, and had I not still been in Florida during those years, I would have none of my current employment, and there would be so many amazing people that I wouldn't know.  

Who knows what the future will bring?  I could win a job or get hit by a truck.  I'm realizing that, in the past, all I thought about was my future - who I was going to be, where I was going to live, where I was going to work, and as much as I hate to admit it, who I would settle down with.  Of course it's important to have dreams and goals and to work towards them, but I always felt unsatisfied with the present because I never stopped thinking about the future long enough to enjoy the present.  I still have so much work do to on myself, both as a person and as a player, but I feel like I'm on the right track.  I'm far from being perfect, and I'll never be perfect, but I will never stop learning.

Some of you may be wondering why I'm being so candid, especially since I'm a fairly private person in the online realm (I'm always 100% real in person though, and those that know me personally will probably laugh reading this sentence).  I'm writing this not only to release my emotions and metaphorically pat myself on the back, but I'm writing in hopes that someone else struggling with job/future obsession will read it, and take a step back and realize that his/her life is actually totally awesome RIGHT NOW.

I'm living in a house that is old and falling apart because the rent is cheap, but I can practice here all I want and my neighbors don't care, and I can give lessons here when I need to.  I don't have a DMA, but I'm free to go back to school when I'm ready.  I'm not rich, but I'm financially independent.  I'm having more fun dancing, and I cherish long phone conversations with friends and family that are far away.  I'm single, but it's Saturday night, and I ordered a pizza online and ate half of it in my bed - and no one (except maybe you all now) is judging me, and I didn't have to share it with anyone.

Life is awesome - and I have a feeling it's only going to get better.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Encouraging or discouraging? Depends on your perspective.

Random thought before I start: It is never too early/late in the year to listen to Philadelphia Brass Ensemble's A Festival of Carols in Brass.

So, I know, great blog entry title, right?  It could be about so many things!  I find myself re-thinking my goals and making "resolutions" as if it's a new year around this time.  I never really feel like it's a new year in January - to me, the new year starts in August!  You probably do too if you're a student, teacher, and/or musician.  So naturally, my mind is full of things I want to try to accomplish this year, and trying to remember what I did in the past year that was helpful and good (and what wasn't).

At the beginning of graduate school, my teacher, Jay Hunsberger, mentioned to me that my breathing was rather noisy.  I replied, "Yes, yes, I know..." because I had gotten the comment before, and it was one of those things I knew I should "get around to."  So the next few lessons, we did some breathing exercises, and he told me to keep improving it in my practice and giving me exercises, etc.  But it still wasn't getting that much better.  So, finally, he told me, "Rachel, if you don't learn how to breathe correctly, you will not be a professional musician."  Whoa.  I didn't know it was like that.  I then spent the bulk of my non-practicing grad student time researching breathing (which led to the article I posted a while back).

If there's anything I learned from that moment on, it's this: If you won't do it, someone else will.  (I'm not talking about paying your bills, unfortunately.)

Whatever it is - playing in extreme registers, arranging popular songs for a chamber ensemble, or playing standard excerpts well and consistently - someone has already done it and people will continue to do it (and do more).  In fact, if I've learned anything on the national audition circuit, it's that there are a lot of tuba players that can play their excerpts well.  So what if Liszt's Mazeppa arranged for band is hard?  Someone is going to come in and absolutely nail it - actually, probably more than one person will.

Now, you can take this one of two ways : 1) Wow, there are so many good players out there, so there's no way I'm going to make it, or 2)  Wow, there are so many good players out there, so that level of playing must somehow be attainable, and I should figure out how they did it.

I know many of us have probably heard a really great player and just passed it off as, "Man, that guy's just a monster player," when really, that person probably just practiced a lot.  The "monster" probably decided somewhere down the road that, "I want to be able to  ______," (fill in the blank)  and then didn't stop until that goal was reached.  It's really that simple - so, decide on some goals and commit to them.

Of course it's important to prioritize your goals, deciding on what should immediately be worked on and what can wait.  Keep tabs on yourself, too.  For instance, with my band excerpts, I'm given the set goal tempo, and every day I date and mark the tempo at which I was consistently able to play the excerpt.  I do this until the goal tempo is reached, and I practice with a metronome up until just days before the audition.  In the past, I have gotten comments about my time, and I decided it should be a goal to make that better.  You can do the same with technique exercises (and pick exercises specific to the technique you wish to better).  As far as bigger artistic goals, set deadlines for yourself. Taking a national audition before the end of the school year or holding a solo recital before summer are examples.  And buy your plane tickets or book the recital date before you can really dig into the repertoire.  That way, you can't stall.

I also fully believe that you should take time to indulge in your silliest musical fantasies to keep your mind fresh.  Who knows, you may make some of your out-there fantasies into goals and then performances.  So let your mind wander to the weirdest of places - no one has to know that you fantasize about dressing up like Lady Gaga and shooting blood and fire from your tuba (oops, guess one of my secrets is out, though are you really surprised my mind goes there?).

I think this time of year is a good time for us to have a conversation with ourselves.  What are the things that we need to do to play like [favorite musician]?  Your favorite player was at one time a student or a less experienced adult.  If you're lost, find help.

If you won't do it, someone else will.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Intervention Program in College Instrumental Musicians & Kinematics in Cello and Flute Playing: Full Article

The article is about using yogic breathing and physical therapy to prevent injury and improve performance in collegiate instrumental musicians.  I'm honored to be part of this team.

Here is the full article - ENJOY!

Intervention Program in College Instrumental Musicians & Kinematics in Cello and Flute Playing