Thursday, November 28, 2013

Advice to a College Music Student

Advice to a College Music Student

by Michael D'Angelo. (Direct link here.)

I started teaching at the University of North Carolina Wilmington right after finishing my Master’s degree at Indiana University in 2012. While I wasn’t expecting to get back into academia so quick, it was enlightening to get the teacher’s perspective, especially in a smaller school environment.

I went to two universities with very large schools of music. It’s difficult not only to see everything that happens within these schools, but even more difficult to interact with everyone on a consistent basis. One nice benefit of being at a smaller school is that I interact with both students I teach and other students that are in the department.

In the last year and a half, I’ve seen the many differences between large established schools of music and smaller developing departments of music. For us teachers, we are trying to train our students for the professional world, but most of the larger universities are already at the same level as professionals. This relativity can be discouraging to students in a smaller school, and the biggest thing I have noticed so far in my teaching career is where professional ability lacks, potential replaces. It’s up to the student to see their own potential and develop it.

Below is some helpful advice that I have for students of music, especially at the undergraduate level. Some of these were the reasons why I was very successful in school, some were things I learned and realized as I progressed through school, and some I learned the hard way. If I knew then what I know now…

Your professional career starts as soon as you step foot on campus.

Your time in school has much more of an impact on your professional career than you think. The people you meet and the experiences you will have will directly affect your success when you graduate and are long gone.

Most importantly, people’s perception of you is what carries the most after you’ve graduated.You wouldn’t believe how many groups today have members that went to high school or college together. Once you’re out of school, the network of people that you created will stick with you for the rest of your career.

What that means is you have to make the best impression you can while you’re in school.Your peers will be your colleagues, and your teachers will be your references. If you develop a history of being unreliable, unprepared, late to rehearsals and performances, or just plain unpleasant to work with, people will remember that about you. Once you’ve fallen into a trap, it takes twice as much effort (or even more) to rebuild your reputation.

It’s OK to make mistakes, that’s what being in school is for. What’s most important is how you react to those mistakes. Sometimes a simple apology in person is all it needs, or making up for it by making sure it never happens again.

Be prepared.

Or better put, stay on top of things. When you’re in school, you have so many things to work on all at the same time. Ensemble music, private lesson materials, outside projects, theory homework, music history listening, those pesky general education courses, the list goes on…

The absolute worst thing to do is procrastinate, especially with practicing. What worked the best for me is if I had things to do, I prioritized and did them before extracurricular activities. It’s OK to postpone socializing to stay on top of your work. Give yourself ample time to complete what you need to do. What may work for one person may not work for another, so find the system that’s right for you and stay on top of things. To-do lists work really well for me, but it only works if you make sure it’s cleared as soon as you can. I like to get things done at the beginning of the day, so I have my evenings free.

I also recommend not cramming as many hours as possible into one semester. All of those classes (and the work associated with them) can pile up. When I was an undergrad, I never went over 15 hours. It took an extra semester to graduate, but it was nice being involved in more performing related activities than bookwork.

With all of that being said, if you find yourself not prepared, don’t make excuses for it. Be honest with your professors. The best things you can say are “I’ll do my best” or “It’ll be better next time”. Your professors can tell if you did the work or not, so don’t try to cover it up.

Be reliable.

By being prepared, you’ll be more reliable. You’ll have your parts learned, have better lessons, and become a better musician while doing it. I always appreciate and admire players that are “solid”: they always bring their “A” game, play their parts beautifully, and they look effortless while doing it. Their bad days are better than the great days of some.

Reliable musicians are always on time, always engaged, and always willing to contribute to the music as a whole than their own personal gain or ego. They’re always professional too. They treat every practice session, rehearsal, and performance like it’s the biggest gig they’ve done.

These guys and gals get the calls first.

Practice your butt off!

It should go without saying, but school is the time to hit the practice room hard. It’s very true that you don’t have as much time to practice when you’re not in school. (I didn’t even have as much time as I wanted in grad school!)

It’s not so much that you’re practicing, but it’s the intent of which you practice. You can get the most out of your practice time by really thinking about what you’re doing and how you can make it better. Practicing is more about problem solving than anything else. A good teacher will give you the tools to make your problem solving easier and more effective.

What I really learned from my teachers is how to teach myself.

Record yourself often.

This is something I wish I did more in school. You should always record yourself in many different situations. Record practice sessions, rehearsals, lessons, performances, etc. Not only should you listen to them immediately and use that for personal feedback, take a moment a year later to listen to the same recording. Progress can only be measured over long periods of time. You may not notice your progress in weekly increments, but it’s surprising to listen back to what you sounded like a long time ago and how far you’ve come.

I can always tell who will be great students from the very first conversation I have with them. I ask them what they listen to. You’d be surprised how many students coming to school to study jazz don’t listen to it!

The best resource for any musician is the music itself. The more you listen to the music you want to create, the more it will become a part of you, and of course you have a model for your own development.

When I was studying with Ed Soph, he would always ask me what I listened to. He would follow my answer with, “What makes he/she/it sound so good?” I thank Ed almost every day because he taught me how to listen to music with intent. By recognizing the qualities that make the music successful, it will be easier to incorporate those qualities into your own playing.

Listen to everything you can. Listen to the music you want to create. Listen to things you don’t normally listen to. Find and listen to recordings of what you’re working on, whether it’s solo, chamber music, wind ensemble piece, symphony, big band chart, etc. There are so many resources available now like Spotify, YouTube, CD’s, your school’s library, et al. Find multiple versions. You’ll gain more perspective on different interpretations of the dots and lines you see in front of you. It might also answer any questions you have about the music.

Don’t get discouraged.

The old saying goes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

But sometimes in school you have to. There is so much material that has to be covered in four years, and as a result you may have to push through an idea or technique that isn’t fully realized.

Don’t let that be discouraging to you. With time, you’ll eventually grasp the concept that seemed daunting to you. When things get tough, try not to let emotion get to you. Discouragement can kill your brain’s ability to learn something new. Trust that you’ll get it with time.

Honestly, most of the concepts I learned in school finally clicked for me well after I graduated. So give it some time.
Save everything.

Now this is something I didn’t do and I surely wish I had. I did a little bit during grad school, but I’m still kicking myself for not doing it thoroughly.

Save everything. Everything. Yes, even your textbooks. (I know, it’s tempting to sell them back, but don’t.) The more information you physcially have when you’re out of school, the more resources you’ll have when you don’t have access to all of the resources available when you were in school. That one time you forget how Neapolitan sixth chords work…

My advice is to catalogue every course you take. For physical media, keep a separate binder for each course with all of your notes, assignments, tests, etc. and file it away at the end of the semester. You can do the same digitally. Keep a “College” folder, organize that by semester, then by course. Keep PDF’s, Finale/Sibelius files, audio files, and all of the other things you accumulate during the semester. Organize it in such a way that you can find things easily later down the road.

You’ll be glad you did.

Perform as much as possible.

Play as much as you can in every possible situation you can find yourself in. Try to be in every university ensemble you can play in during your four years, and then play some more outside of school. Play in symphony orchestra, play in a chamber group, sightread duets with friends, help someone on their recital, etc.

If your school has something unique like steel band or gamelan ensemble, do that too.

The more you play, the better you get, and the more people you’ll meet.

Get out of your comfort zone.

This almost ties in with performing as much as possible. At least once you should participate in something completely out of your comfort zone. It may be a format you’re not familiar with, or the music might not be your cup of tea. Whatever it is, go for it.

I’ve found that participating in something out of my comfort zone made me appreciate and respect that particular art form much more by being involved in it. It actually helped me come to appreciate free jazz — not only do I enjoy playing it, I enjoy listening to it as well.

You may actually find that something you may not like will turn out to be incredibly rewarding.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

I will be forever grateful to Christopher Deane for all of the help he has given me over the years.

Never be afraid to talk to someone if you’re having trouble. It doesn’t even have to deal with music. When I was in school, I used to suffer from perfectionism issues: so much so that I would become really discouraged in myself if I felt like I didn’t play one single note perfectly. I would become overwhelmed with anxiety.

But then I asked Mr. Deane for help. I told him what I was experiencing, and he had no problems talking to me and helping me work out these issues while working on pieces for my lessons. As a result, the lessons were phenomenal, and I will forever call him a mentor and a friend. (I still am a perfectionist, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.)

So don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s what your teachers are there for.

Last but certainly not least, have fun.

Music is such an enjoyable experience: listening to it as well as creating it. No matter where you are in your studies, while you are always striving to be a better musician and artist, always remember to enjoy this process. Be happy with the gift that you have: the ability to create great music.

So have fun, and create beautiful music.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight

Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight
by Dr. Noa Kageyama 

Have you ever been frustrated by the fact that you can take a difficult passage, work on it for a bit, get it sounding pretty good, but return to the practice room the next day to discover that you’re back at square 1? That nothing has really changed? And despite how good it sounded yesterday, now it sounds just as bad as it did before you worked on it?

Most of us can live with “two steps forward, one step back.” It’s the “two steps forward, two steps back” that makes us want to tear our hair out.

So what are we to do?

Are we just supposed to keep at it and learn how to be more patient? Or is there a different way to practice that can make these improvements more permanent?

Enter Christine Carter

Dr. Christine Carter is a clarinetist who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music, and did her dissertation on the contextual interference effect – a phenomenon that can help you make your daily progress in the practice room actually stick. In this post, she shares a few suggestions on how we can make the most of our practice time.

Take it away, Christine!

Making the most of your hours in the practice room:

One simple change that could drastically increase your productivity

When it comes to practicing, we often think in terms of time: How many hours are necessary to achieve optimal progress? While this is a valid concern, a more important question is how we can make each hour count. What is the most efficient way to work so that what is practiced today actually sticks tomorrow? There is nothing more frustrating than spending a day hard at work only to return the next day at the starting line. Unfortunately, our current practice model is setting us up for this daily disappointment.

Repetition, babies, and brain scans

Early on in our musical training, we are taught the importance of repetition. How often have we been told to “play each passage ten times perfectly before moving on”? The challenge with this well-intentioned advice is that it is not in line with the way our brains work. We are hardwired to pay attention to change, not repetition. This hardwiring can already be observed in preverbal infants. Show a baby the same object over and over again and they will gradually stop paying attention through a process called habituation. Change the object, and the attention returns full force. The same goes for adults. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that there is progressively less brain activation when stimuli are repeated. The fact is, repeated information does not receive the same amount of processing as new information. And on some level, we all know this. Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!” Luckily, there is an alternative.

Blocked practice schedules

In the field of sport psychology, the continuous repetition discussed above is called blocked practice. In a blocked practice schedule, all repetitions of one activity are completed before moving on to a second activity. For example, a baseball player who must hit fifteen fastballs, fifteen curve balls, and fifteen change-up pitches in practice would complete all of the fastballs before moving on to the curve balls and so on. This most resembles the way the majority of musicians practice, especially when it comes to challenging passages. We work on one excerpt for a given amount of time and then move on to the next excerpt until all tasks for the day are complete. A blocked approach seems logical.  Muscle memory requires repetition and why wouldn’t we do all of the repetitions in a row? After all, if we are working on a difficult passage, it feels a lot more comfortable 10 minutes into practice than at the beginning. It is precisely this feeling of comfort and improvement that reinforces our reliance on blocked practice. The problem with this kind of practicing, however, is that the positive results we feel in the practice room today do not lead to the best long-term learning tomorrow. Practicing in a way that optimizes performance in the practice room does not optimize learning.

Random practice schedules

What if we took the blocks of practice on particular tasks and broke them down into smaller segments on each task? In the baseball example above, the players could hit the three different types of pitches in an alternating fashion, instead of doing all of one kind in a row. Two breakdown options are a repeating order (e.g., abc abc abc…) or an arbitrary order (e.g., acb cba bca…). In either, the net result will still be 15 practice hits of each of the three types of serve, exactly the same as the net result in the blocked practice schedule. The only variable that changes is the order in which the pitches are practiced. This type of interspersed schedule is called a random practice schedule (also known as an interleaved practice schedule).

In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning. In the blocked schedule above, the baseball players must only construct the action plan for each type of pitch once, at the beginning of each block. In the random schedule, they must construct and later reconstruct an action plan fifteen times for each pitch. Although a blocked schedule may produce superior performance during practice, study after study has shown that a random practice schedule consistently produces superior retention following practice a day or more later (i.e., the amount actually learned). This phenomenon is called the contextual interference effect.

How much better is a random practice schedule?

It turns out that the hypothetical baseball example used above is not hypothetical.  In a 1994 study by Hall, Domingues, and Cavazos, elite baseball players were assigned to either the blocked or random practice schedules discussed above. After twelve practice sessions, the baseball players in the random practice schedule hit 57% more of the pitches than when they started. The blocked group only hit 25% more of the pitches, meaning that the random practice schedule was almost twice as effective, even though the two groups hit the same number of practice pitches. Similar results have been found across a wide variety of fields. Most pertinent to our interests as musicians, my preliminary research at the Brain and Mind Institute in Canada provides empirical support for the use of a random practice schedule in music. Not only does this research suggest that a random practice schedule is more effective than a blocked schedule for practicing musical passages, participant interviews also reveal that random practice has positive effects on factors such as goal setting and focus.

How to use a random schedule in the practice room

Rather than spending long uninterrupted periods of time woodshedding each excerpt or section of a piece, pick a few passages you would like to work on and alternate between them. If you want to spend a total of 30 minutes on a particular excerpt, practice in shorter segments, continually returning to this excerpt until you have achieved your 30-minute goal. Experiment with lengths of time. If you are practicing excerpts that are very short, you may be able to switch between them at a faster pace than would be required for longer sections. You can use a small alarm clock to time specific intervals or switch after each repetition. At its most basic level, random practice might look like this:


Material to Practice

3 minutes Excerpt A
3 minutes Excerpt B
3 minutes Excerpt C
3 minutes Excerpt A
3 minutes Excerpt B
3 minutes Excerpt C

Practicing passages in different rhythmic variations is a great way of introducing contextual interference on a smaller scale. But instead of doing all rhythmic variations on a single excerpt before moving onto the next, do one variation on excerpt A, one on excerpt B and then return to excerpt A for a second variation etc. Technique can also be interspersed into the random schedule, instead of doing all of it in one long block. An example of a more complicated random practice session might look something like the following:


Material to Practice

2 minutes Long tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutes Excerpt A (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutes Excerpt B (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Long tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutes Excerpt A (using second rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutes Excerpt B (using second rhythmic variation)

The permutations are endless and the exact division of time is not important. What is crucial is that you are keeping your brain engaged by varying the material. More engagement means you will be less bored, more goal-oriented (you have to be if you only have 3 minutes to accomplish something), and substantially more productive. Most importantly, when you return to the practice room the next day, you can start from where you left off. This type of practice sticks.

Additional resources

Dr. Robert Bjork on the benefits of interleaving practice @ Go Cognitive (6-minute video)

About Dr. Christine Carter

Dr. Christine Carter is interested in how musicians can be more effective on stage and in the practice room. She has conducted research at a number of brain imaging and music psychology labs and is currently a visiting scholar at Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute.

Christine is also an active clarinetist. Performances have taken her around the globe, including venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the ancient cloisters in Avignon France, the Sydney Opera House, the Heritage Theatre in rural Newfoundland, and a Baroque Palace in the South of Germany. She completed her Doctor of Musical Arts at Manhattan School of Music, where she now teaches the Woodwind Lab.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Asking The Right Questions

Asking The Right Questions

This week's faculty blog post comes from Assistant Professor of Music, Mr. Matthew Lau

In place of a one-size-fits-all platitude, it is my belief that the best advice is given from personal experience.  This blog post will offer a brief tale of how I learned to modify the questions I was asking to obtain better advice.

I moved to New York City fresh out of graduate school to start my career as an opera singer.  Though I quickly met many aspiring and working singers, I was annoyed that no one could tell me what the necessary steps were to begin my operatic career.
I approached every singer I met with a list of questions:

            1) How do I get a manager?
            2) How do I support myself until my music career takes off?
            3) What voice type do you think I am?
            4) Is life as a vocalist more rewarding than life as an instrumentalist?
            5) Am I good enough to make it?

Sadly, the more I asked, the more confused I became.

Despite the dearth of helpful advice I was able to support myself as a singer.  Yet these questions still plagued me until a chance encounter with Marilyn Horne.  Though likely paraphrased after all these years, I remember Ms. Horne to say, “My advice about advice?  Stop asking other people what you should do. Make your own mistakes.  Now, if you want to ask me about my own choices and how they affected my life, THAT I can answer.  If it rings true for you, use it.  If not, disregard it entirely.”

In the years that followed I asked for advice in a completely different way paying particular attention to tales of what each might do differently given another chance to do it all over again.  Instead of “Do I have to live in New York City?”   I asked, “How old were you when you moved to New York and was the transition an easy one?”   Instead of “Can I have a love life and a career in music?” I asked “How did you manage your love life with your career?” Instead of "With whom should I study?" or "Who is the best manager in town?"  I asked, "Who is your teacher and who is your manager and are you satisfied?"

The resulting stories helped give me the advice I sought and helped me feel less alone during the first years of my career.  One caveat, however: the new, more detailed responses were more helpful, but they were often contradictory.  In order to lend perspective, I found it paramount to keep in mind that each of us is shaped by his current life events.  If a singer responded to my relationship question with an angry or jaded viewpoint often there was a recent divorce framing his or her response. If my interviewing questions resulted in career war stories usually the interviewee was going through a rough time professionally.

Now that I have spoken about how I changed my questions, I would like to list some words of advice which greatly influenced my life.

Marilyn Horne, Mezzo-Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
My advice to you is to stop asking for advice and make your own mistakes.

Mistrust any advice from someone who tells you what you should be singing after just one hearing.

Frederica Von Stade, Mezzo-Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
Guilt.  The business and study of singing has more guilt attached to it than any other.  Like a game of hot potato each teacher and singer hands off his guilt to the next.  In order to be a successful singer you must learn how not to be crippled by this guilt.

Richard Leech, Tenor: Metropolitan Opera
The key to a successful career is effective pharmaceutical management.  Most singers at some point struggle with allergies or illness and a good doctor on speed dial is invaluable.

Ellen Shade, Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
Learn to talk about something OTHER than music.  When a group of singers get together inevitably the conversation turns to vocal technique, competitions, agents, or the music business.  If you're not careful you will expend all your energy in these conversations having nothing left for the real work that needs to be done.  Instead, seek out a good teacher, a good coach and a good manager. Trust their ears and their advice alone.  With everyone else, CHANGE THE SUBJECT!

Margaret Harshaw, Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
Music is the only lover that will never leave you.

Georges Janzer, Violist: Végh Quartet
When choosing between different career paths pay attention to how you spend your day.  If you look carefully you will notice a pattern which reflects your sincere interest.  Follow that as your guide regardless of family pressure or preconceived ideas and you will lead a happy life.

Gerry Bolfrass, Artist's Agent and Manager, New York City
You are ready for operatic management when you can articulate exactly which roles you are prepared to sing and where you feel you could be singing them right now.

Two Things Experts Do Differently Than Non-Experts When Practicing

Two Things Experts Do Differently Than Non-Experts When Practicing
This blog comes from Dr. Noa Kageyama, and his blog the Bulletproof Musician. A must read!

Have you ever found yourself awake at 2am, watching infomercials, wondering where they find those folks who can go from a size ten to a size four in eight weeks, throw out their fat pants, get engaged, and live happily ever after? (If not, you gotta check out these five all-time worst fitness infomercials – especially the Hawaii Chair, which you could totally use to tone your abs while you practice.)

I will admit that I’ve been tempted by the Bowflexes, Perfect Pushups, and various other devices, because the frustrating thing about working out, is that it’s hard to know if you are making the best use of your time.

I mean sure, doing something is better than doing nothing, but what if there’s another exercise routine that could be getting me far greater results in the same amount of time?

What do the fittest people do that I’m not? How are their workouts different? Are there key things they do while they’re working out that provide a bigger payoff than the things I do? In other words, are they extracting disproportionately greater results from their time in the weight room than I am?

The same can be said for the practice room. What do the best musicians do in the practice room? What do the less effective practicers do? Are there any differences?

Indeed, it appears that there are.

Best vs. worst

Two researchers from the City University of New York did a study of basketball players to see if they could discern a difference between the practice habits of the best free throw shooters (70% or higher) and the worst free throw shooters (55% or lower).

There were a number of differences, but it boiled down to two in particular.

Difference #1: Goals were specific

The best free throw shooters had specific goals about what they wanted to accomplish or focus on before the made a practice free throw attempt. As in, “I’m going to make 10 out of 10 shots” or “I’m going to keep my elbows in.”

The worst free throw shooters had more general goals – like “Make the shot” or “Use good form.”

Difference #2: Attributions of failure were specific

Invariably, the players would miss shots now and again, but when the best free throw shooters missed, they tended to attribute their miss to specific technical problems – like “I didn’t bend my knees.” This lends itself to a more specific goal for the next practice attempt, and a more thoughtful reflection process upon the hit or miss of the subsequent free throw. Far better than saying “I suck” or “What’s wrong with me?” or “Crap, I’m never going to get this.”

In contrast, the worst performers were more likely to attribute failure to non-specific factors, like “My rhythm was off” or “I wasn’t focused” which doesn’t do much to inform the next practice attempt.

It’s not what you know, but whether you use it

You might be thinking that perhaps the worst performers didn’t focus on specific technical strategies because they simply didn’t know as much. That perhaps the best performers were able to focus on technique and strategy because they knew more about how to shoot a free throw with proper form.

The researchers thought of this as well, and specifically controlled for this possibility by testing for the players’ knowledge of basketball free throw shooting technique. As it turns out, there were no significant differences in knowledge between experts and non-experts.

So while both the top performers and the worst performers had the same level of knowledge to draw from, very few of the worst performers actually utilized this knowledge base. Meanwhile, the best performers were much more likely to utilize their knowledge to think, plan, and direct their practice time more productively.

Take action

When you’re practicing something technical, try using more specific goals. But perhaps more importantly, pay attention to how you talk to yourself after mistakes. Do you focus on technique? Or throw out a few curse words and jump right into another practice attempt without trying to figure out why you missed the last one?

The one-sentence summary

“Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile.” ~Abu Bakr

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Faculty post - Dr. Kimberly Roberts - The Importance of Being a GoodAudience Member

The first faculty post of the new academic year comes from Associate Professor of Music, Dr. Kimberly Roberts. 

The Importance of Being a Good Audience Member

By Dr. Kimberly Roberts

Every year, I hear music students complain about having to go see so many concerts – faculty recitals, classmate recitals, ensemble concerts, guest artist concerts, and the like. Then I see some of these same students text, write notes, or doodle throughout the program, and finally, have the audacity to list off all of the things they didn't like about the performance they just endured. This is not acceptable behavior for anyone that wants to make music their profession. Being a “good” audience member is a vital part of both the music making process and your journey as a professional musician.

Many musicians over the years have written about the three integral roles involved in a musical performance: the composer, the performer(s), the audience. If you have a composer and a performer, but no audience, all you have is a rehearsal; if you just have the composer and the audience, you just have an idea waiting for realization; and if you only have the performer and the audience you might as well be listening to a comedian. The point is, all three roles are of equal importance.

Think of when you have been the one on stage. What sort of things distracted you? Of course, the obvious things like cell phone lights and sounds, talking, and extraneous movement will stand out in your mind. But what about the not so obvious things – doodling, glaring, sleeping, looking bored, loud page turns. How did that behavior make you feel as the performer? How many times have you been angry at a fellow audience member for that behavior? How many times have you done those very things? It doesn't matter if you have had a long day, or if you just got into a fight with your friend, and it certainly doesn't matter if you don't like the person performing – your behavior negatively affects the performance and the experience of the other audience members around you.

We have all felt how a performance can be extra awesome because of a “great” audience. Because of that audience, everyone involved had a better show. What sort of behaviors make a “great” audience? For me, it is attentiveness, appropriateness of facial reactions, and appreciative applause. In your own solo performances, think about the facial expressions of your audience. When people have a pleasant look on their face and applaud firmly, you receive a confidence boost and feel better about the performance. When you see someone laughing to their neighbor or staring off into space you quickly lose confidence and you don't do as well.

The way we react to others' performances can also affect our own ability to perform effectively. I can't tell you the number of students I have seen sit in the Cold Lounge and pass judgement on their classmates' performances. These students get so wrapped up in critizing others that when their time comes to perform, they are paranoid and inhibited. They are sure that everyone in the audience is being as nasty about them as they are about others. Unfortunately, they are right - because of their public arrogance, people do judge those students' performances more harshly. This always leads to crippling performance anxiety, and more often than not, I see these students give up their goals of becoming a professional musician altogether.

Remember, no one is paying you to perform yet and none of you have degrees in this yet, so really, your opinion is stunted and often unecessary. Negative comments at the undergraduate level usually come from jealousy or a disappointment in one's own progress. All of you are on your own journey towards professional musicianship – help each other and support one another. What do you really gain by cutting down your peers? Just because you can point out deficiencies or inaccuracies doesn't mean that you will make it in this business. It does, however, mean you are a jerk, and people love to see a jerk fail in a public performance.

You have options in your recital attendance. By choosing to attend a concert or recital, you have accepted the responsibility of being a part of a performance. Do your part to make it a good performance.

Dr. Kimberly Roberts

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Faculty Post - Bernard McDonald - I was Lost but Now I am Found: Choosing Where to Study

I was Lost but Now I am Found: Choosing Where to Study

by Assistant Professor of Opera, Bernard McDonald

This post is autobiographical. The reason I am sharing it is because I want you to know that the greatest thing about being a music professor at Simpson College is the daily joy I experience in teaching, guiding, and being a mentor to talented and committed young musicians in ways that I did not experience as an undergraduate. 

I am agog at the many opportunities Simpson music students have. I want you to know this so you realize that being a music student here is different – in many ways it is equal to and often much better than pursuing an undergraduate degree at a major conservatory or university. I hope it will encourage you to commit even more highly to your own future success while you are here.

When I was leaving high school and for most of my undergraduate years, I had no idea what I was going to do in music. I had studied piano and violin from a young age, and was fortunate to attend the junior school of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).  I played organ and conducted the choir in my local church, I played violin in orchestra, I had started to conduct shows for my local community theatre group; I had even played piano concertos with orchestra. I was certainly destined for a career in music but no-one ever took me aside and said, “Look, if you do x now, you could be doing y five years hence.”  

As a first generation musician, I had to make my own way, and a lot of mistakes, before discovering a path that would only later become obvious. Looking at my teenage self, it is obvious that I had the nascent skills of a répétiteur, vocal coach, chorus master, and conductor of opera – but I had no idea I could have a career doing those things and what steps to take then to make it happen. Had I auditioned at Simpson in 1990, I know that Robert Larsen, Maria Di Palma, and others would have sat me down and explained the kinds of options available to someone with my particular skills and varied interests.

Trying to be sensible, I went to the University of Edinburgh for its traditional, academic music degree. It was a mistake. I transferred to the University of Glasgow. Apart from the friends I made, also a mistake. Now, there’s nothing wrong with either institution, in fact they are two of the great, ancient universities of Europe, but performing opportunities were not equal to what I had experienced before.

I was like a square peg in a round hole. I transferred again: to the RSAMD, where I cobbled together enough credits between outside gigs to graduate in two years with a degree in piano performance. I gradually discovered what kind of career I could pursue.

After graduation, I took a year out – something that I would recommend to many of you – during which I traveled, studied Italian in Italy, practiced, gave recitals, took German classes, read a lot, partied a lot, and conducted the Yeoman of the Guard!  It was then that I started to make decisions that felt right, about which I had no doubt.

First, I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. My years of piano practice, language study, and the experience of conducting and playing for singers earned me a scholarship for its répétiteur course. For a year I worked with great coaches, language coaches, played scenes programs, played rehearsals, played voice lessons, and was a chorus master for two productions. I had the bug, and it lead me to the United States and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).

Two years of practical training and study at CCM lead me to an apprenticeship at the San Francisco Opera, which lead me to the New York City Opera. Finally, I had started to make a living doing what I loved to do and was learning from the terrific singers, coaches, conductors, directors, and artistic administrators who were now my colleagues.

Now, learning is life-long. So, much later, I made peace with the University of Glasgow (and myself) by graduating from there with a degree in musicology.  I also studied conducting at Indiana University.

Why am I telling you this? My world tour of music schools was a source of baffled amusement to my friends, concern to my parents, and in the end, mostly a fabulously circuitous cumulative experience. But when I say the Simpson undergraduate music experience is second to none, I feel qualified to say so. I have attended six internationally respected institutions that offer a bachelor’s degree in music. I have taught, guest conducted, and coached at a few more. From my point of view, Simpson is the best.

In my next post I will enumerate how and why. If you are a current, or prospective student or parent, and need to know in the interim, email me and I’ll be happy to share.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Faculty Post - The Minimum Requirement Fallacy for Musicians - Dr. Tim A. McMillin

The Minimum Requirement Fallacy for Musicians

Premise 1: There are N (arbitrary number) minimum requirements for my degree in music.
Premise 2: If I complete the minimum requirements, my institution grants me the degree.

Conclusion: By achieving my degree, I am well-prepared to face the world as a fine musician and scholar.

Fallacy is defined as “an error in reasoning.” Do you see the error in the above illogical conclusion?  I’m not sure I became aware of the enormous flaw in the reasoning demonstrated above until after I was actively involved as a student musician.  Here it is - The dirty secret of the musician’s minimum requirements… Are you ready?

Minimums will neither guarantee success nor expert status. A degree in music neither guarantees success nor expert status.  Achieving a degree by meeting minimum standards won’t necessarily guarantee employability or admission to graduate programs. Minimum requirements are just that – MINIMUMS. What is the minimum wage?  The very least amount one would expect to be paid…ever.  What is a minimum age?  The absolute youngest age you can possibly be in order to qualify.  What are minimum requirements in education?  The absolute fewest activities or tasks one must complete in order to receive a degree.  I submit that the minimum concept does not stand the test for performing musicians. It is in our nature and at the core of our training to strive to make every performance the best that it possibly can be. Nothing about that conforms to the concept of a minimum. Rather, serious musicians should be asking themselves how they are achieving significantly more than the minimum requirement in order to be competitive in a tough field.

There are certainly other fields where the concept of minimum might be fallacious (although I am admittedly not expert in any of them). Consider: As a consumer, do you want to trust a doctor who has completed only the minimum requirements to gain his or her degree?  How about your pharmacist?  How about your teacher?  Do you want to know that any of these people met minimum requirements in minimum training – that would typically be Cs and/or Ds in only the fewest classes required in their training?  I would guess not.

For serious musicians, many minimum requirements are moot.  An important premise not mentioned above is this: You have only four years in an undergraduate music program to hone and polish your skills to the level of professional.  Being a musician is a personal and individual task.  Be as selfish as you possibly can when it comes to improving and perfecting your musical skills.  Consider a few minimums that exist in all music programs, ask yourself why they exist, and assess whether you are currently blowing them out of the water. If you are not, what benefit might you realize if you did?

Performing opportunities:  In typical degree programs, there are a minimum number of required opportunities for every music student to be involved in making music. Are you going above and beyond the minimum requirements in your experience?  What benefit might you reap if you added an additional ensemble, an additional solo opportunity, sang or played on music convocation even if it isn’t required in your studio?  Perhaps more importantly – If you aren’t taking advantage of the extra opportunities that abound, what is keeping you from doing so?  Is it something as easy as laziness?  If so, fix it!  Is it something more dubious like a fear of failure?  Seek help in overcoming that fear! Is it that you lack the skills to perform in a manner that you are proud of showcasing?  Take steps to become a better performer with great haste – time is fleeting!

Practicing your craft:  Most applied music studios ask for a minimum number of minutes in a practice room from you.  Are you far surpassing those expectations?  If not, what are you waiting for?  Will there ever be a time in your life again when you have the resources of time and ample and undivided guidance to assist you in becoming the finest musician you can be?  I don’t think so!  So, why aren’t you practicing at least 2-3 hours a day in your major applied area (for singers; 4-8 for pianists and instrumentalists, right?) and adding another hour or two in a minor area for good measure?  Imagine what you COULD accomplish if you doubled whatever you currently are doing.  Will you graduate with a degree if you rarely practice? Perhaps.  Will you be the musician you could be? Absolutely not.

Attending Performances:  Attending recitals, ensemble concerts, workshops, master classes and seminars all carry minimum requirements on some level. First, think about the educational implications.  What do you learn from performances by others? Literature, performance practice, and honing your own ears for excellence in a variety of genres are but a few of the myriad benefits of hearing others perform.  What about guest master classes and workshops?  What could possibly be more important to a musician on a Saturday morning than taking advantage of an opportunity to hear nationally recognized presenters or expert performers speaking about and demonstrating their craft?  For a student who is serious about a successful future in the field of music, the answer is nothing! Later, all of these opportunities will cost you dearly. Moreover, they will not benefit you in the early years of your career!  Why wait? 

There is a larger ethical and moral consideration when it comes to attending performances of your peers to consider as well.  As professionals in the field of music, what is the one thing that we all require?  Audiences!  If you are unwilling to set the example by being part of an audience, what possible reason would you have to think or expect that anyone would ever be a part of an audience for your performances?  Further, the issue of creating a collegial environment in your department is a serious one.  How much more pleasant and inviting is a place where students support one another in their performing ventures by attending and engaging?  Whether in ensemble concerts or solo recitals, your presence (or absence) is noted by your peers and the faculty.  How would you feel if there were no faculty members at your own recital?  If your faculty can make time to attend for collegial reasons, what prevents you?  The model of prioritization is an important one to grasp!

There are numerous other minimum requirements that one could enumerate.  However, I believe the same essential questions can be applied in all cases. What is the minimum?  Why does it exist?  What are the benefits associated with achieving the minimum?  Wouldn’t those benefits be expanded by greater exposure and study?

If one engages in this logic, the idea of “minimum requirement” for a musician really does become moot.  Instead, the successful student of music views each “requirement” as an opportunity.  Who doesn’t want to take advantage of as many opportunities for self-improvement as humanly possible?  It does take a level of maturity and dedication of purpose to achieve, but I guarantee the end result is worth the immediate perceived sacrifice.  Go forth and grab as many opportunities as you can in such a short time.  Embrace your education and make the most of it!