Auditions and Life Lessons

Auditions offer life lessons

Auditions are like job interviews for musicians. We prepare for hours but have one shot in front of the judges. It’s frightening, thrilling, and weird.

My musical children have not shown interest in studying at a high level or performing in competitions, but I am familiar with the experience, having participated in competitions and auditions for music school.

Non-musician parents will appreciate the perspective of Penelope Trunk whose son recently took an audition at Julliard.

My 11-Year-Old Son Auditioned at Julliard. (http://www.businessinsider.com/my-11-year-old-son-auditioned-at-juilliard-2017-5)

I like her perspective on practicing, that “the art of practicing is finding a process of repetition without boredom.” Some ideas for this kind of practice can be found elsewhere on this blog in the following articles:

Resilience and grit are the new buzz-words in parenting, and music is one of the best ways to teach these skills. Whatever the outcome of Penelope’s son’s auditions, she is raising a resilient child. If you liked this article, another perspective to consider is Amy Chua and her book about being a Tiger Mother.

When we visited New York last year, we took the kids for a tour of Julliard. My husband’s mentor and friend is the head piano technician for the music school. Here’s a picture of my 11-year-old son at Julliard. We weren’t there for an audition, of course, but the building is impressive.

auditions

my son at Juilliard

We can debate the pros and cons of training children to high levels of musical aptitude, but I think Penelope Trunk is doing a good job teaching her child not just about performance but about life. Her perspective as a non-musician strikes me as healthier for parent and child than Amy Chua, whose children have drifted away from music.

Note Reading: Following the Contours

Note Reading is one of the most fundamental, but difficult, skills for beginner musicians.

In this blog post, I will share with you one of the novel approaches invented by a student and her father for reading simple melodies.

Rachel* (not her real name) was having trouble with note reading. She is nine years old and began playing the flute about a month ago. At a previous lesson, I had worked with her on seeing how a melody walks up and down by steps. We drew lines over the notes indicating the rise and fall of the melody. Rachel is a beginning student and she has learned the notes B-A-G but has trouble identifying them on the staff.

Over the next week as he helped Rachel with her lesson assignment, Rachel’s dad came up with a great new way to think about reading the contours of the line. This is a page from Rachel’s book showing a simple melody with the notes B-A-G.

note reading ideas

BAG notes

 

Rachel’s dad asked her to draw dots in a line to represent the pitches. Then he asked her to connect the dots. The first four measures looked like this:

reading notes by contours

Reminding Rachel to begin on the note B, I asked her to play the melody while looking at the dots. When the dots went down, she added one finger. When they went up, she lifted a finger. Success!

After playing the melody this way a couple of times, we compared the dots on her paper with the dots (notes) in her lesson book. It was easy for her to see the contour. Rachel was able to play the entire exercise with few mistakes. She was happy and so was I.

I wish I could take credit for this innovative approach, but it was Rachel’s dad who came up with this solution. He understands better than anyone how Rachel thinks. He knows that she is a visual learner but needs to have the information simplified. The regular music staff in the book had too much distracting information for Rachel to process. She was confused about the stems on the notes and was having difficulty focusing on the five lines. This very simple method eliminated all the unimportant information and made the contour easy to see.

This trick worked great today with a simple stepwise melody on three notes. It’s a solution for today, not a panacea. Tomorrow, it will be another challenge and we’ll find new, innovative ways to learn together.

 

The End of Average – book review

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

Are you average?end of average

Author Todd Rose argues that nobody is average. We all have unique, jagged strengths and weaknesses.

Scientists and statisticians use averages to draw conclusions about a group. However, applying the lessons of the average to an individual is not helpful, and can sometimes be harmful. This is called the “ergodic switch.”

Consider this example. A student takes a standardized test and the results show an average score. As you can see from the table below, this student is not uniformly average in all subjects. This student is above average in encoding and visual puzzles but below average in vocabulary. This student has some clear strengths and one area that needs attention. A one-size-fits-all education really fits none.

average?

composite average score

Age of Average

The End of Average discusses how we have arrived at blindly accepting the lie that the average is a valid tool for creating policy. I thought the sections on genes, traits, Quetelet’s social physics, and Taylorism were particularly interesting. The rise of standardization in American culture was slow, but it has a strong foothold in our educational and business systems today.

The central question of the book is

“How can a society predicated on the conviction that individuals can only be evaluated in reference to the average ever create the conditions for understanding and harnessing individuality?”

The Benefits of Personalization

As a music teacher, I understand the value of a personalized education. Students come to me with unique problems, natural talents, and resources. Some have musical parents; others are the first in their families to study music. Some have natural vibrato; others require years of systematic instruction to learn the skill. Because I work with each student individually, I adapt my teaching. This makes taking private lessons so different than self-directed learning from a book or instruction in school band/orchestra.

My children are fortunate to be in a school system that allows teachers flexibility with the materials they use in the classroom. Through projects, the kids are allowed to choose the direction and intensity of study. For example, my daughter is working on a detailed diorama of Ireland, (shown here with our hedgehog dressed as a leprechaun.) My son who was in the same class last year, chose to write a report for that project. They have different interests and skills, but project-based learning allows them to maximize their jagged learning profiles.Ireland project

Online instruction has offered my son the opportunity to work ahead in math. An online math program allows him to take tests in various math concepts. If he passes the test, he can move onto the next subject area. When it’s new material, the program slows down and teaches him the concept, adding drills until the material is mastered. As parents, we are thrilled that he doesn’t have to complete worksheets on things he already knows. It’s this kind of dynamic, individualized learning that maximizes learning and minimizes frustration.

Wary of Averages

Rose’s book has opened my eyes to the times I have taken the average for granted. From now on, I’m will be much more suspicious when reading articles that try to apply generalizations to specific people. Consequently, I will take another look at the brain scans referenced in Brain Imaging on Musicians, but I hear the school bus… so that will have to wait for now.

Saving for Later

Stick a pin in it – Saving these websites for later.

I keep a running list of articles, websites, leads that I want to investigate further. Here are some of the most interesting ones I have found lately.

I’m saving the article on the Hurrian Hymn for a more comprehensive look at the role of music through history.  The Hurrian Hymn is the oldest record of written music in the West. Written in cuneiform 3400 years ago, the clay tablet indicates pitches to be played on an ancient harp. On this website, you see the stone tablet and hear the Hurrian Hymn played on a recreation of the 9-string lyre.

Our Bones Talk To Our Brains

Our bones create osteocalcin, but when the bones fail to produce enough it can cause problems with blood sugar, anxiety, depression, and difficulty on spacial logic tests… at least for mice. Some of the speculation about the findings suggests that exercise can help maintain bone density. I wonder if the authors of this study have heard about this next study.

Protein Responsible for Linking Memory and Exercise

We know that exercise is good for memory. (See the Healthy Brains blog article and How We Learn blog article for more.) Now scientists have discovered a protein that may be responsible for creating new cells and connections in the brain. Muscles release this protein, called cathepsin, during exercise. Somehow the cathepsin travels to the brain and helps form memories. I thought that the link between memory and physical fitness had more to do with elevated oxygen levels or giving the brain different tasks, but it appears there may be another explanation.

Science Says Silence Is Important for Memory, Learning, and Emotional Health

Add a few more hours to my day, please. In addition to exercising vigorously, I also should be spending significant amounts of time in silence to optimize my brain function.

Singing Changes Your Brain

I’m saving this to share with my church choir as we dive deeper into the mystery of music and spirituality. Bottom line: join a choir! And I’ve got the perfect one for you…

Want to ‘train your brain’? Forget apps, learn a musical instrument

Another article on the many benefits of playing a musical instrument, including greater brain power and better emotional processing. Also discusses the benefits of musical training for people recovering from strokes or struggling with dyslexia.

Science Has Great News For People Who Can’t Sing

The voice is like any other muscle: use it or lose it. But fear not! Even if you’ve “lost it” or never had it, the voice can be trained at any time.

“Music education has loads of scientifically proven benefits: It improves reading and verbal skills, raises IQ, helps in learning new languages, slows the effects of aging, betters memory, enhances self-confidence and so much more. Singing in particular has great physical benefits too. It’s an aerobic activity that increases blood oxygenation, improves heart health and exercises core muscles.”

TED talk on practicing
http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/03/06/518777865/the-most-practical-tips-for-practicing-according-to-science

Music Education Brain Research

Music Education and Brain Research

Music education in the public schools has been under attack for decades.  Although parents and teachers have advocated for more and better music programs, having seen the benefits to students, music programs are often the first programs to be cut when a school is under-funded. Neurologists are now conducting brain research that substantiates what we’ve intuitively always known about the advantages of early music education.

5th grade band concert

5th grade band concert – music education

The Brain and Music Program at USC

Researchers at USC https://dornsife.usc.edu/bci/brain-and-music/ have been conducting interesting experiments that will (hopefully) guide the education system in understanding how important music education is for students.

In October 2016, the USC researchers published a paper

“Neural correlates of accelerated auditory processing in children engaged in music training published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience”
(Volume 21, October 2016, Pages 1–14) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878929315301122

detailing the brain activity of students with music training vs. students who had not received music instruction.  Like other studies, their results were conclusive: studying music changes the brain in significant and important ways.

Their conclusion is that

These findings provide evidence that childhood music training has a measurable impact in the development of auditory processes. Although the findings described here are restricted to auditory skills and to their neural correlates, such enhanced maturation may favor faster and more efficient development of language skills as well, given that some of the neural substrates to these different processes are shared. Our findings demonstrate that music education has an important role to play in childhood development and add to the converging evidence that music training is capable of shaping skills that are ingredients of success in social and academic development. It is of particular importance that we show these effects in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” (emphasis mine)

I have blogged about similar research in these posts:

Brain Imaging on Musicians

The Musician’s Brain

I’m wondering how much more empirical data we need to convince administrators that music isn’t just a fun “elective.” Music education is vital to the education of all students.

Reinvigorating Flute Practice

“Goodie Bags” for Reinvigorating Flute Practice

As musicians, there are times when we know we need some help reinvigorating our flute practice.  We might feel like we’re spinning our wheels and not improving. Maybe we’ve prepared everything for the lesson as best as we can but don’t feel like there’s anything else to do. Or perhaps the teacher is out of town and you have another week before she assigns new material. Sometimes practice can feel monotonous and we need a little jolt of excitement to get the creative juices flowing again.

“Besides the lesson assignments, what else can I practice?”

But if you have prepared all the lesson materials and are still looking for something to do (or if you need new ideas to add some excitement to your practice), try the following activity.

Practice Goodie Bags

Print out this sheet and cut on the dotted lines.

ideas for creative flute practice

Notice that there are two columns. One is marked “no flute needed.” Place these pieces of paper in one bag and the items in the “flute needed” column in the second bag. You can fold them in half to conceal the contents. Tape the headings on to the bags like this:

bags of ideas for practice

two bags to choose from

Activities in the “no flute needed” bag include activities online, composition ideas, singing/humming the lesson, and exercising. These might not seem like practicing, but time spent in these activities will help your playing and deepen your musical knowledge.

In the “flute needed” bag, you will find ideas for improvising, practice hacks, and reminders to practice sight reading and record yourself.

You could just choose an activity off the list, but I think drawing from a mystery bag is much more fun. My children use a similar activity for chores. We write chores on slips of paper and draw them one at a time. We also write a few fun activities on the paper to stir things up. They don’t really want to do any of the chores, but when the bag tells them (not me!) they will get to work.

More ideas for general motivation (not just reinvigorating flute practice) can be found in a three-part series I wrote for this blog:

Blog articles on creative ways to practice include

Happy practicing!

Five Things All Marching Band Flutists Should Know

Just in time for marching band season, I present you with these pearls of wisdom.

I have played in and coached marching bands for many years. The flute is a delicate instrument and if not cared for properly, can be destroyed by marching band. Band directors, students, and parents would be wise to heed these common pitfalls.

Five Rules To Help Your Flute Survive Marching Band

1. Never use a dollar bill to clean the pads.

Every flutist in the country seems to have heard the urban legend that the best way to clean a sticky pad is with a dollar bill. Don’t do it. Paper money is dirty. Really dirty, like 3,000 different types of bacteria and cocaine dirty. Prevent sticky pads by swabbing the inside of the flute  after every rehearsal, store the flute in its case in a dry place, and never expose the flute to extreme temperatures, like leaving it in the car.

marching band

cleaning papers

If the keys become unbearably sticky, use a product specifically designed to clean flute pads like these papers made by Yamaha. Tear off a small sheet and gently place it under the sticky pad. Gently close and open the key. If the pad is really sticky, you may need to softly close the key and slowly drag the paper out.

2. Protect the flute from rain and snow.

This may seem obvious, but sometimes band directors forget that there are flutes and clarinets in the band. While a little rain and snow might not hurt the brass instruments, the delicate mechanism and thin pads of flutes can be destroyed by the weather. Complete re-padding of the flute is costly and rust inside the rods can be impossible to repair. In an emergency, place your flute inside the jacket of your uniform. Back inside, make sure you swab it out and allow it to completely dry before closing the case.

flutes for marching band

plastic flutes

Guo and other manufacturers are now making plastic flutes and piccolos that are impervious to moisture. It’s my dream to have music boosters buy enough for the entire marching band flute section. They are available in a wide variety of colors too!

3. The flute is not a baton for twirling. 

I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every time I saw a flutist twirling a flute at a football game. Leave the baton twirling to the majorettes. Twirling quickly becomes dropping, which can cause irreparable harm to the flute if you bend a rod or break a key. Other damage can include scratches and huge dents in the tube. The flute is an expensive piece of equipment and repairing this kinds of damage is costly.

4. Do not put the flute on a music stand.

bad idea

bad idea

This happens all the time with flutists. It seems like such an easy, convenient place to rest the flute, but DO NOT put your flute on a music stand. Music stands are not strong enough to hold a flute and when the upper desk drops, you flute will fall to the floor with a clang and a gasp from the rest of the band. If you are lucky enough to have a strong stand, placing your flute on the ledge is still a bad idea. Because the end of the flute hangs over the side, it is easy to bump into it and knock it off. Dropping the flute from this height will likely cause a dent or bend.

5. There are no good lyres for a marching flip folder.

marching band lyre

forearm clamp

I have seen three different styles of flute lyres for marching band, but all of them are miserable. The “forearm clamp” is available in several styles. This torture device involves tightly attaching a strap to the arm to hold up the music. There are two significant problems with this tool. First, you must tighten the strap like a tourniquet. If your fingers don’t turn blue from lack of circulation, sweat will make the device slide right off.

marching band

arm clamp #2

Another equally bad option is a metal clamp that attaches to the flute. This will scratch your flute and is hard to position, if you are able to get it to stay on the flute at all. (Amazon reviews of this product are pitiful.) Many years ago, I saw a third option: a lyre that would extend from the armpit forward. It was strapped around the back and cradled in the armpit However, I am not able to find that product anymore. It must have been so user un-friendly that the manufacturer gave up.

marching band lyre #3

clamps onto the body of the flute

Bottom line: lyres do not work for flutes in marching band. MEMORIZE YOUR MUSIC!

If you are a marching band flutist (past or present), what knowledge would you like to pass on to the next generation?

Chrome Music Lab – Acoustics Sandbox

Chrome Music Lab

Check out the Chrome Music Lab, a virtual playground for learning about acoustics. https://musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/Experiments

Chrome Music Lab – Fun with Acoustics!

acousticsClick on something – anything – and interact with the pictures on the screen. There are no explanations, no words even. Jump into the musical sandbox and see the spectrogram of a flute.. or a harp… or even your own voice.

The interface is so simple and visual that people of all ages can learn about acoustics. You don’t need to be a musician to enjoy this website.

Exploratorium

Exploratorium

The Chrome Music Lab reminds me of The Exploratorium in San Francisco. It’s a giant building full of science experiments. My family spent an incredible day there several years ago with our kids, then six and four. I remember one exhibit in particular – it had a motor that was exposed and operational. Our youngest liked turning the crank and seeing all the parts move. I had a “lightbulb moment” about magnets and energy. Husband, who is a pro with small engines, was fascinated by some detail I didn’t begin to understand. All of us learned something new by playing with the exhibit.

The Chrome Music Lab is like this too. Playing with the monkeys and drums, I was reminded of the ethnomusicologist’s way of notating non-Western rhythms. My kids liked clicking on the silly monkeys and hearing the different sounds. Others might observe the visual spacing of the rhythms, as if the sounds were placed on a ruler. Each person will have a different understanding of the activity and unique insights.

Here are a few ideas for interacting with the Chrome Music Lab:

  • Try to guess the piece on the “Piano Roll” before hitting the play button.
  • Find the octaves in “Harmonics.”
  • Use “Arpeggios” to accompany yourself while singing simple songs like “The Wheels On the Bus” and “Twinkle Twinkle.”
  • Notice how the tune changes as you draw in “Kandinsky.” Art becomes music. Change colors for different sounds.

(Thanks, James, for the link.)

Recital Preparation

The Studio Recital for my students is this week and we’ve been talking about recital preparation.

Mental preparation in the two weeks leading up to a performance is critical. By this stage, you should have all of the notes, rhythms, and expressive elements under control. Most of the technical difficulties should be mastered. In the final stretch before a big performance, attention will shift from hewing out the difficulties of the piece to polishing for the audience. I touched on these ideas a bit in the blog post “Mental Practice” but here’s another look with a keen focus on recital preparation. Since I am a woman who plays flute, many of the suggestions below are based on my experiences. In the comments, please let me know if there are other things you consider before a big performance.

The flute and recorder students of Marlene Hartzler, 2013

Studio recital 2013

Recital preparation has mental and physical aspects.

You must practice like you are performing.

  1. Play through your piece often without stopping. Push yourself for high accuracy in notes and rhythms while maintaining musicianship. Make sure that transitions of dynamics and tempos are smooth. You should still leave time in your practice for woodshedding, but play through your piece in its entirety once a day,
  2. Try messing up on purpose and improvising your way through the mistake. Keep your fingers moving until you get back “on the rails.”
  3. Find opportunities for playing your piece for other people. This can be as simple as asking a friend or family member to listen to you play the piece all the way through, or as formal as organizing a pre-performance concert (at a nursing home, your church, etc.) Young children may enjoy performing a concert for their stuffed animals. Set the critters up in front of the music stand and have fun entertaining the furry guests. Don’t forget to bow at the end!
  4. Record yourself performing. Listening to an audio recording will help you refine your musical ideas. If you are able to videotape yourself, watch for excessive body movement. Pay attention to your face when you make a mistake. Do you grimace when something goes wrong or do you have a “poker face?”

Mental preparation goes a long way toward a positive experience.

  1. Visualize the room in which you will be playing. Imagine people sitting facing you. If this is a space you are familiar with, make the mental picture as vivid as possible by adding details about the size of the room, the color of the walls and flooring, the temperature of the building, the lighting sources and quality, the smells, the height of the stage, and so forth.
  2. Create a mantra that you will use during your final preparation and on the day of the recital. You might say to yourself “I am prepared. I am strong. I love this music.” or something similarly affirming. Practice this positive self-talk while you are practicing and whenever you feel nervous about the upcoming performance.
  3. Consider this question: what is the worst thing that can happen if I mess up? Perhaps you will have a bruised ego for a little while, but you will not be irreparably harmed. In the worst case scenario, you will have a juicy story to share with friends and laugh about in the future. In a recent post on this blog, I shared a link to a story about a woman whose skirt fell off during a performance. She didn’t die of embarrassment. In fact, she continues to teach and perform with a good sense of humor.
  4. Practice concentration exercises. Find ways to redirect a wandering mind.
  5. Notice when you are engaging in negative self-talk. Counter it with positive affirmations. Visualize yourself feeling radiant after a perfect performance.

Consider the physical and logistical aspects of a performance.

  1. Knowledge is power. Ask your teacher about any details that confuse you or create anxiety. Perhaps you want to know where you should warm up or if you need to bring a music stand. Although it’s not possible to know every detail of the day, see if you can get more information about the things that worry you.
  2. Know where you are going and how long it will take you to get there. Plan your route the night before and leave lots of extra time for travel. It is far better to be early than late to a performance! If you arrive early, you will have time to practice your concentration exercises, get a full warm-up, and have a few moments of quiet. Running late can be very stressful and will deprive you of the time you need to prepare fully.
  3. Practice in the shoes and clothes you will be wearing. Make sure your shirt allows for easy breathing. Are your shoes comfortable? Ladies: Is your neckline OK for bowing? Take a look at the hem of your skirt. It should be at least knee-length for standing, floor-length if you are sitting on a stage. Can you safely balance in heels?
  4. If you have hair that can reach your mouth, consider how you will wear it away from your face. Headbands, hair ties, bobby pins, and/or barrettes are good items to keep in your instrument case.
  5. Lay out your clothes the day before. Are you missing anything? You don’t want to have to make an emergency run to the drugstore for tights/hose/dark socks on the way to the recital.
  6. Watch what you eat on the day of the performance. Be especially mindful of caffeine and sugar, which can make you feel jittery and leave you feeling low later. Wind players need to be aware that salty foods can make the mouth dry and spicy foods can make the lips and tongue swell. Dairy products can increase the amount of mucus in your throat. Try to avoid eating a meal one hour before the performance. Normal nervousness can be upsetting to the stomach. Eating too close to the performance can also make your mouth water.  Bring a water bottle, but be sure to not drink too much! It’s disgusting, I know, but these things can make a difference!
  7. Get a full night of sleep. Just as cramming the night before a test is unproductive, staying up all night practicing will not make your performance better. Research has shown that sleep is essential for brain function. (How We Learn is a great book detailing this research.)
  8. Eat a banana to help quiet the nerves. (This is the one exception to the “don’t eat before a performance” rule.) Maybe you think I’m crazy, but check out these articles on the effect of bananas on anxiety: “Banana Natural Beta Blockers For Anxiety” and “Best Foods For Calming Your Nervous System” and “Got Nerves? Eat A Banana.

It’s totally normal to be nervous about a performance. Nervousness is your body’s way of being excited.

Performance anxiety is a whole other topic, on which many good books have been written. My favorite is A Soprano On Her Head by Eloise Ristad. I’ll post more on this subject in the future.

However, I believe that proper recital preparation can alleviate some nervousness. Being super-prepared with the music, practicing like you are performing, using visualizations and affirmations, working out the logistics, and preparing your body all contribute to a successful performance experience.

Break a leg!

 

I love Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is my hero.

I’ve read nearly every one of Kurt Vonnegut’s books. I love his wry humor and oddball social commentary. So it goes.

This Vonnegut quote was circulating on my Facebook feed this week, and the timing couldn’t have been better.

Vonnegut quote

Making art can feel lonely and pointless. All artists (and I include musicians in the broad artist category) have dark times of self-doubt. But whether you are making money as an artist or consider it a hobby, you are making something. Perhaps it will not matter to anyone but you. Nonetheless, there is a deep human urge to create something from nothing.

As a mother, I feel it is my job to help my kids grow souls. My children both study music, but it’s not because I want them to become soloists with symphonies across the world. They study music to broaden their lives, to connect emotionally, and to develop a sharp mind.

Every week I teach several music and movement classes for families with preschool children. I end my music classes for families with this blessing:

“Wherever you go, keep a song in your heart.”