Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Faculty Post - Professor Camwell

Ten Things For Music Majors To Consider On Their First Day Of College
by Dr. Dave Camwell
August, 2012

September 5, 1995 - My first day as an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary. These are ten things I wish I had known as I was beginning my life as a confident student and working musician...ahead were eleven straight years of the most interesting, stressful, compelling, difficult, productive, frustrating, and glorious experiences of my life. Of course I realize that we often grow through challenging experiences, but acting on the following points would have made for a smoother ride. 

1. Appreciate subjects outside your music major:

You should be most passionate about Music - your standard of living depends on it. It is important to work very hard on music-specific skills, but do not ignore opportunities that can broaden your horizons. General knowledge out there is vast, so experience at least a sample of other subjects such as literature, history, astronomy, political science, biology, psychology etc.

Your professional self needs non-musical skills and information. For example, taking a course on the history of a country, region or ethnicity can give you a far deeper insight into music that is written for or about that culture. During her doctoral studies in music, my wife chose to study Jewish history as a great way to connect with the large body of literature and music with which it is directly associated. A deeper knowledge of any culture and its associated music will certainly provide a deeper meaning to your performance.

Non-music classes that require clear and concise writing will help your career immeasurably. A strong foundation in grammar and syntax will represent you in a positive and learned manner. Every musician will use grant writing, letters of application for jobs, and self-promotion (biography, Curriculum Vitae, press releases) throughout a career. If you are strictly a performance major and pursue higher education with the goal of becoming a college professor, you will be representing yourself to students, peers and colleagues in your field as an expert. This includes articles, lectures, and one day, application for tenure and promotion! The ability to present yourself as a skilled intellect who shines not only on the concert stage, but also with the written word, is an increasingly important aspect being a successful musician.

2. Practice as much as you can before life gets in the way:

To be professional, aspiring musicians have to put in enough time on their instruments. Author Malcolm Gladwell's celebrated book "Outliers" convincingly shows that true mastery of almost anything needs a minimum of 10,000 hours of active study. A surprise awaiting those just starting their university-level training is in thinking that their current ratios of work-study-play will continue indefinitely. As students get older, the realities of life often demand increasing amounts of time, with obvious examples being long-term relationships, children and financial needs. The best performers always make time to practice in a consistent and diligent way. Your time is precious and finite - don't waste it on activities that will bring no tangible reward.

3. Develop successful practice habits - quality vs quantity:  

Many students think that a successful practice session has to be several hours in one stretch. I would advocate more sessions of smaller duration, with a goal of at least three one-hour sessions a day. When your mind and body tire, it is unlikely you will make much further substantial progress. Your time would be better spent doing something else more productive.

To focus and direct your practice, always set goals at the beginning of each session. Take a one hour session and actively break the time into sections where you work on specific skills and repertoire. A sample classical hour could be: 15 minutes of scales and arpeggios, 10 minutes of overtones, 10 minutes of articulation exercises, 20 minutes of repertoire, and 5 minutes of intonation work. A jazz hour could be: 15 minutes of transcribing, 20 minutes of II-V-I patterns in all keys, 15 minutes of tune memorization, and 10 minutes of moving motivic patterns through the circle of fifths. As you can see, one hour can go by very quickly! The advantage of breaking up a practice session into multiple parts is that you are more engaged and less mentally fatigued throughout. Of course, find the ratio that works for you, and always strive to make every minute of practice a worthwhile one. When you are working on an increased repertoire load (for example, preparing for an audition or recital), your sessions can be lengthened or duplicated to cover more music, all while maintaining the “basics” in each session.

4. Avoid distractions:

Do not let distractions compromise your productivity! Smart-phones, iPads, computers, television and many other devices all clamor for our attention with dopamine-producing notification chimes. Social media is particularly addictive, and while these technologies are great on a social level, your musical development needs focused and uninterrupted time with your instrument. You should be able to practice for at least an hour at a time without checking your Facebook wall, text messages, email, or Ryan Seacrest’s Twitter feed. Both quality and quantity of practice are essential to noticeable improvement.

5. Work harder than you have to:

Most college classes are designed to meet the standards of the NASM (National Association of Schools of Music). Degree quality is important, and how your overall skill-set measures up against the best of your chosen field can make the difference between being hired or not. Think about the competition in all parts of the professional music arena. Do you want to depend on the aged parent support system? No? Then don’t just pass the requirements of any course, shatter them! Be noticed.

6. Learn to become your own best teacher:

Professors can be wonderfully helpful in your development as a musician. Always try to learn as much as you can from your teachers and seek to remember their most important concepts. Be aware though, that the ultimate goal of any teacher is to push you to a level where you no longer need their help. The development of your own skills of critical thinking, objective listening, and instrument-specific skills are the key to your long-term progress. Avoiding procrastination is also very important! Do not wait to learn a piece until you are sitting in a lesson with your teacher. So much lesson time can be wasted if the teacher needs to tell you which notes and rhythms to play. They can only help you reach a higher plane if you first put in the time and grunt work. Only when the basics of the music are solidly under your fingers can you work on such higher-function elements as style, phrasing, and ornamentation.

7. Practice your scales:

Virtuoso performances seem effortless to listeners. Those high-flying technical skills were hard-won by hours in the practice room on scales, thirds, fourths, arpeggios and any other assorted technique builders. No magic trick will allow you to take a shortcut to technical mastery. Commit to the process diligently, and you will experience success directly proportional to the amount of effort you provide. Music is more than just technique, but you will never regret the time spent practicing this essential part of musicianship. Not putting in that time will hold you back permanently.

8. Promotion and thinking outside the box:

You should be the biggest promoter of your musical skills. Practiced with some realistic humility, the promotion of what you are and do should be a highly positive aspect of your life that makes things happen! For example, don't be satisfied to work all semester on your recital repertoire to only play it once. Instead, book a series of concerts at local churches or non-traditional settings to provide added experience and enrichment to the program.

Certain pieces should be played traditionally (Desenclos, Ibert, Glazounov etc.), but there are many works that can provide artistic growth and interest when approached from a different viewpoint. Perhaps consider a combination program with other artists in other disciplines. Would a Piazzolla Tango work well with a Flamenco dancer? Would Steve Reich's New York Counterpoint work with a beatboxer? Would a solo Bach Sonata work with a non-pitched percussion section groove? Would having video or pictures behind a traditional work provide more interest to the audience? The more creative you can be with your performances, the greater the resulting experience for you and your audience. Do not be afraid to try new things - they may not always work, but in the long run you will be stronger for having at least tried something outside traditional performance.   

9. Listening to music:

A professor of mine once asked our class, “If I were to go out to your car right now, what would I hear on your car stereo?” Today, you can replace that with “what’s on your iPod right now?” We all have different tastes in music, and if you are a music student, you certainly do not have to give up listening to Lady Gaga. But you should be spending time listening to various styles of music within the “Classical” or “Jazz” umbrellas, and this should not be a hardship. I drove forty-five minutes to school each way during my undergraduate degree and delighted in using that time to listen to CDs of the great works of the master composers, as well as the giants of Jazz. It also made music history listening exams much easier! I remember being shocked and dismayed that fellow music majors could not easily identify excerpts such as the openings of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. If you are a serious music major, you simply have to know your literature.

10. The importance of balance and living life to its fullest:

Your college years will hopefully be productive and memorable. Use this time to experience new things, meet new people, explore your surroundings, meet a significant other or two, go to a bar with friends. If you are spending fifty hours a week in a practice room, you are missing the larger point of the college experience. Work hard, play hard, and most importantly embrace life as it happens in a flexible and considered way. Life will always provide you with challenges, and it is important to gain the skills, resources and friendships to weather the inevitable personal storms headed your way.

Well-rounded experiences will also allow you to transfer the richness and depth of emotions from your life through to your music. The great Italian violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) was justly celebrated for his phenomenal and revolutionary performances which were full of show-stopping virtuosity. However, critics often cited that his melancholic slow-movement playing was the true emotional highlight of his concerts. By any standard, Paganini lived a wildly full and debauched life in addition to many hours of intense musical practice. His personal life was clearly expressed in his performances and compositions, leaving us with music that is ripe with pathos, imagination, and emotion. Many other famous virtuoso musicians (Liszt, Schumann, Beethoven, Chopin, etc.) also had similar extra-musical associations with their music, and there is no reason you cannot as well. Live these coming years to their absolute fullest and translate your experiences into your music!


The points stated above should help to foster an environment in which you can thrive. A rewarding study of music is dependent upon many skills, choices, and self-made opportunities. The success and direction of your future career depends upon how you live your student life today. Don’t waste it! Work hard and enjoy the rewards.

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