Monday, April 9, 2012

Mistakes I've made (and what they taught me!)

Hello, Internet!  Finally getting around to updating this thing.  Can't believe the last time I did it was almost 2 months ago.

First of all, you need to check out Charles Villarubia's recent performance of the Grantham Concerto with the University of Texas Wind Symphony.  Really inspiring, a brilliant performance.  I personally think the 3rd movement is especially gnarly (in a good way, haha).  See if you don't want to listen to it twice. ;-)  Oh, and if you ever have the chance to take lessons with him - DO IT.

OK, back to the topic in the title.  Part of the reason I've kept this blog is to keep myself accountable.  Some of you may also find it helpful to write things down and get them out of your head.  Another good thing about this blog has been the feedback - I know I'm not alone in the twists and turns of trying to make a career out of playing the tuba (sounds silly if you say it out loud, ha!).

Before we dive in, I'd like to note that some of these things that have been mistakes for me may not be mistakes for other people.  Everyone is different, and part of having a successful career (and life!) is figuring out what works best for you.  I know you're all shocked to hear me say that I'm not an authoritative source on anything.  But I'd like the think that my opinion can be of value to someone somewhere.

1) Qualifying my practice by the quantity of hours I put on my horn that day.  As an undergrad, I always felt most satisfied when I reached my goal of 3.5-4 hours a day on the horn.  I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad goal; in fact, if you're in school, do that much now before you have to start working and you can't practice that much!  My real mistake was this: I don't distinctly remember ever making concrete goals for that 3.5-4 hours.  OK, that's not completely true. I usually had somewhat of a "layout" - daily routine/fundamentals, etudes, break, excerpts, break, solos - I was pretty good about mapping out all the things at hand.  However, my goals were never more specific than getting everything out of the way for the day.  I think my overall goal was to "get better," but there sure are a lot of things you can do to do that.  As my teachers got pickier and my ear got better, I learned to listen for very specific things that needed fixing, and then tend to those things.  You have to be your own teacher in the practice room.  You have to be able to tell yourself how to make something better.  If you can take lessons, yes, yes, yes, you should.  Two sets of ears are better than one, and often I find that someone else's interpretation opens my mind to so many things.  But you also have to learn to think on your own.  Don't just try to remember what your teacher said (though that's helpful) - be an active listener when practicing, and ask your own opinion.
I normally do not have the time or stamina or get more than 2-3 hours in a day (and that's on a good day where I have plenty of free time).  There are often days where I only have an hour or less to practice.  I often find on those days that I get a lot done, too.  It's those days that have taught me to make specific goals, i.e. making 16th note passage in X piece of music even, work on phrasing in Y piece of music.  So, if you have 3-4 hours a day to practice, make every 30 minutes count for something, as if that's all the time you have to get stuff done today.  Oh, and make listening to recordings as important as your fundamentals.  Getting the character of your music under your skin is equally important to learning the notes.

2) Cutting back on fun for the sake of work, especially as an audition or recital is approaching.  Until recently, I didn't realize how bad of a habit this is.  Not only will it make you go insane, it practically encourages you to cram extra loads of practicing in last minute, possibly resulting in burnout or physical fatigue.  I feel like I could write a book on this idea, but I strongly believe that everyone needs a hobby outside of his/her career.  Yes, playing tuba is fun, I love doing it as my job - but, it is my career, and it is work.  Don't let non-musicians try to tell you otherwise!
Many of you know that I have another passion outside of music - Middle Eastern dance (Egyptian and ATS if you care to know or know what that even means).  Dance is my oasis, my escape, my therapist - not to mention it's really helped my interpretive skills, and it keeps me in shape for these military auditions.  Last year, I was working a low wage "normal" job, and then slowly transitioned into being a freelancer.  Money was tight, and I was busy in the practice room preparing for auditions.  I stopped taking dance classes and performing for almost a year.  I don't remember another time in recent history when I've been so utterly depressed, and it showed in my practicing and in my daily conduct.  My sound lacked the buoyancy of Arnold Jacobs that I always try to imitate, and I was acting more and more cranky towards my loved ones.  I slowly realized that I wasn't even doing anything for fun - dancing, movies, going to nature parks, hanging out with friends, etc. - the things that actually make me a human being outside of music.  Music is about life, and when you have no life outside of the practice room, it shows.  How can you possibly play with passion if you never experience it in life?  How can you play with humor if you don't often laugh?  I hope that some of you may know what I'm talking about!
Besides, what good is practicing 5 hours a day every day a week before your recital if it results in your chops being fatigued and your brain being fried?  I know now that it's nearly impossibly for me to have fun in a performance if my chops or brain are tired.  And besides, if I need to cram that much so close to the date, I probably didn't do enough goal-oriented practicing (i.e. practicing in zombie mode) leading up to this time.
I realized I did this a bit to myself in the last audition (though we had a fairly tight time constraint in which to learn the music), and it totally fried my brain.  It's taking me longer to "recover" from this last audition.  So now I'm doubling up my fun time for myself.  Yes, I'm busier, and yes, my dance classes cost money, but I'd rather be busy and having fun anyways.  Dance inspires me, laying around and hoping to "feel better" doesn't.  I regularly need things like dance, books, and being outside to awaken my brain and keep me out of "zombie mode."
On a similar note, another mistake I've made is...

3) Pushing through no matter what.  Yes, I know that perseverance is one of the most important things in achieving your goals.  However, a mistake I've made in the past is not listening to my mind and body when they are screaming at me to take a break.  Does your face hurt when you're playing today?  That's your body telling you to take a break!  Are you feeling overwhelmed or fatigued mentally when you look through your list of excerpts for your next audition?  Step away for a moment.  You will accomplish little or nothing if you are physically or mentally exhausted while practicing.  Not to mention you can actually hurt yourself.
But how will I make up for that lost time?  I know that's the feeling I've often gotten when it's obvious that I'm one Berlioz excerpt away from feeling like death.  Choosing to step away from the horn doesn't mean you have to waste your time.  When was the last time you really sat down and listened to a good recording of some of the music you're preparing?  When was the last time you listened to the recording for something other than tempo and pitch?  How about listening for mood, character... how about deciding what images this music evokes in you?  Doing this often pumps me up enough to get back to my practicing with new vigor.
Sometimes, I'll be so mentally fatigued that anything having to do with work, even listening to "classical" music is overwhelming.  In that case, I must ask, am I feeling overwhelmed, complacent, exhausted?  Should I go running and get out some angst, or should I do some yoga in my backyard?  Should I go run some errands on foot, or should I take a nap?  Should I go to my favorite comedy website or should I read a book?  These are all just things I like to do.  Oh, and sometimes I think about updating this blog. ;-)  On crazy days when we are fatigued, we need to evaluate what our needs are.  On the many days when my time is limited, going for a run may be more beneficial than taking that free time I have to practice.

I guess you could sum all this up by saying... get a life!  Music is not one-dimensional, and your life shouldn't be either.  What are your hobbies?  What are some things that you care about?  What's something that gets you on your feet?  I'd love to hear about your hobbies!