Monday, January 28, 2013

Faculty Post - Mike Eckerty - Balancing Act

Balancing Act

This week's blog post comes from Assistant Professor of Music, Dr. Michael Eckerty.

The music student (and teacher’s) schedule rarely gets simpler as the school year progresses. Whether it is assignments, lessons, concerts, blog posts, and yes recitals, time continues to press on and we must balance our tasks. I find myself in the midst of preparing for a recital at the same time that I am preparing a student for one and I think this might be a good time to remind myself, my students, and any interested parties on some strategies to remain sane and yes, get the recital prepared. As a disclaimer, I have found in music that many times there is more than one way to do something, but the following certainly have worked for me!

These things may seem basic, but they are important:
  • Do not stay up all night cramming your practice. If you do not know it, it is doubtful that making yourself exhausted will help. 
  • Next, if you do not have an 8am class, you do now - it’s called practice. I understand that vocalists may not be able to adequately sing this early, but instrumentalists can perform early and their mind will be fresh. Vocalists can get up and do your homework at this hour, leaving prime practice time open for later. 
  • A teacher I respect often suggested that I play through the recital every day starting a month prior to the performance. This run-through is not a time to fix notes or memorize your music. It is a time to get your endurance and timing together. Take notes and come back later to work on the places you need to. You probably have enough things on your plate that you should only be practicing the things that need it anyway. 
  • In addition, if you need a practice break, perhaps you can write your program notes early. It might even make you understand your music better. (I must admit, that I enjoy sitting next to other teachers and discussing how bad and erroneous some of your program notes are, however, for your own sake these should be fixed).
Next, don’t neglect your other duties. The performer who decides to allow a recital to delay completion of their homework may not like the ramification on their grade point average. In addition, something else will always come up when you put things off. Your duties also include sleeping regularly, eating food, socializing with your friends, and doing activities that cleanse and refocus your mind. All of life must be a balancing act. Preparing for your recital is no different.

Finally, you are training to be a professional musician and recitals are one of most important things we do. Is it that big of a deal to stress yourself to the point of ulcers? It’s a recital, and as such use this experience to learn how to handle the stress and joys concurrently in a way that produces a positive result for both you and the audience. THAT is the point! I don’t know about you, but I do not want to be sitting in an airplane with a pilot who is stressing every time they have to land the plane. I know that it is their job and that they will perform the task. Hopefully they care about how well they do it, but if it is a big scary deal for them, I am taking the train.

...By the way. Why are you still reading this? Go practice...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Musician Promo Photos: Stay Away From the Train Tracks!

This week's blog comes from the DIY musician. Many (if not all) of our performance majors will need promotional photographs. Here is a great article that highlights the Do-s and Don't-s!!

Why your press photo bores me to tears!

No offense to anyone guilty of the following crimes (I’m guilty myself), but if I had a dollar for every press photo I’ve seen of a band loitering down by the railroad tracks, I’d be a very rich man indeed. Sure, if you’re a folksy bluegrass band called The Freight Hoppers then that particular setting might be a good idea. But if you’re a chamber, classical, pop group or some space-age, post-rock act then it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine that railroad tracks have much to do with your musical or personal aesthetic.

Why, then, do we continue to see so many cliché railroad track press photo (or photos of bands in front of brick walls, or cruising in an old Chevy, etc.)? It certainly isn’t on account of laziness. After all, it took some planning and initiative to get the shoot scheduled, line up a photographer and location, assemble the group, and pick the wardrobe. No, it’s not laziness. It is a lack of creative self-analysis. That’s right, my friends. Sit yourself down on the couch. The good doctor is in.

First, you’ve got to dig down deep and figure out exactly what your music is all about. But here’s the catch, you’re not going to be able to convey the breadth, genius, and diversity of your entire musical catalog with one image. You’re going to have to pick one or two of the most important, crucial things about your music that you would like to convey visually, whether thematically, aesthetically, emotionally, or otherwise. “But people should listen to the music. I don’t want to reduce our sound to a single concept,” I hear some of you say. If that is your attitude then get used to the fact that no one will ever get around to listening to your music. There is simply too much music being made nowadays to wade through the muddied waters. You’ve got to hit people with an impression first, something simple, clear, and impactful that makes them want to investigate further.

Having trouble figuring out the appropriate visual elements to compliment your sound? Ask your fans, friends, or bandmates for suggestions (twitter contests, anyone?). Have a brainstorming session. Don’t be afraid to throw out any old idea and be open to other people’s suggestions even if it seems silly at first. Mull them over. This is your big chance to convey to the world your image of idealized musical self…. (Maybe you’re wearing a costume? Make-up? Go naked? Driving a tractor? On stilts? Looking mysterious? Generous? Sad? Happy?) When you finally choose which approach suits you best, be willing to go outside of your comfort zone, so long as it still feels like YOU (though a slightly more dramatized version of YOU, at that).

If you’ve gotten this far, then the hard part is over. You’ve got a great idea. Everything else is mere logistics and execution. And there are no right or wrong methods. Don’t buy into the normal music biz dogma. It is that kinda thinking that produced so many cliché band photos in the first place. Some press photos may benefit from an informal atmosphere. Sometimes a more formal and poised approach is the best way to go. Weigh the pros and cons of paying a professional photographer, too. They’ll probably have better gear and more experience directing a photo shoot. But will your band be comfortable acting natural in front of a stranger? Sometimes working with a friend (for free or cheap) can yield the same results if you’re all willing to put in a little extra time for trial and error. And here is a strange thought: sometimes “quality” shouldn’t be the goal at all. A blown-out Polaroid or a tattered sepia-toned snapshot might better convey your vibe than a hi-gloss, fancy-pants Photoshop masterpiece.

As you can see, there is no single way to produce a great press photo. As long as you’ve left an impression and piqued the curiosity of a potential fan then you’ve succeeded. Hopefully this essay leaves you more inspired than confused. But don’t fret. You can keep trying different ideas until you see that one magic photo that just hits you in the right way, the one where you say, “Oh yeah! That is how I want the world to see me!” Just do me a favor and stay away from the railroad tracks. It isn’t safe down there anyways...

Monday, January 14, 2013

Faculty Post - Jim Oatts' Jazz Renaissance

Jazz Renaissance

During the second week of October I was invited to take part in a five day festival in Los Angeles. The L.A. Jazz Institute presented eighteen concerts by musicians that had been members of the "touring Big Bands" during the 1970's. I toured and recorded during that time with several bands that included the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Woody Herman Jazz Orchestra, and the "Jazz/Rock" band "Chase". They were experiences that I have not forgotten. A number of the musicians that I traveled with were also participating and we had a marvelous time performing and "catching up" during the gruelling schedule.

My first concert was with the alumni of Woody Herman. Some of the finest jazz musicians in the music world. When I was thirteen years old my father took me to the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines the hear this band. It was a revelation to me and I remember that it was that evening I decided, "that's what I want to do with my life". To have the experience later in life to play with this orchestra was a dream come true. Two of my favorite trumpet players that were on stage that night also played the concert in L.A. They were Bobby Shew and Don Rader.

The second concert was the music of Stan Kenton. I toured and recorded with the orchestra in 1975. They flew me to Chicago the join the band and we performed sixty-five straight concerts of "one nighters". Some of the alumni included: Peter Erskine, Mike Vax, Carl Saunders, and Jay Sollenberger.

I was in charge of bringing together the group "Chase". Bill Chase created this band in Las Vegas and it was very popular until half of the band were killed in a terrible plane crash in 1974. The band ended and never performed again until we did a reunion concert in Minneapolis in 2007. You might remember the first "hit", Get it On. Since 2007 the band has performed in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and St. Paul.

Another concert that I played on was the music of Louie Bellson. Louie was one of the finest drummers and his band featured many of L.A.'s great jazz players. Other well known bands of the 1970's that performed included Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Bill Watrous, The Tonight Show Band, Don Ellis, and Gil Evans.

In closing, my formal music education came from my father and the outstanding experiences in college. However, my involvement with these professional organizations gave me an insight to the real music world outside of academia. Being fortunate to learn and play with some of the finest people at their craft was invaluable. Experiences such as these have unfortunately dwindled, making the ability to sustain a musical and financial future more difficult. Good luck to all of you as you hone your musical skills and talent.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Faculty post - Kimberly Roberts - Prepare now!

The first blog post of 2013 is from Assistant Professor of Music, Dr. Kimberly Roberts
Prepare Now!
by Dr. Kimberly Roberts
To have a career in music, whether as an educator, a performer, or any other musical path, you must begin preparing now. It isn’t enough to just “be in school”. You must have a mindset that you are a product for sale. You only have a few years to develop your technique, your professionalism, your work ethic, and your overall package. How can you do that here?
1.   Set goals for study every semester. Sure, your teacher has a plan for your progress, but you need to be an active participant in your musical path. Talk with your teacher about what you want to accomplish, and find out what they want you to accomplish. You must push yourself to go beyond the requirements – if you can barely achieve the minimum requirements each semester, you are not motivated enough for a career in music.
2.   Try to incorporate some of your applied work into your other academic work. Use music you are working on for the basis of a research paper, find a new concept in Harmony class in your current repertoire. For that matter, fully research every piece you study – composer biography, poet biography, time period, dramatic importance, historical significance, major recordings, etc.
3.    As soon as you and your teacher think you are ready, spend your summers doing something in your field. Whether that’s going to a pay-to-sing opera program, working for an opera company or symphony, working at a summer music camp, or doing an apprentice program. Not only will you get experience, you will get exposure and the beginning of a network! The musical world is small, your tenacity and networking skills are extremely important.
4.   Do competitions. You may or may not get any useful feedback, you may or may not win – but that is not the purpose. What you do get are pressure-free audition experiences! Nothing is at stake in a competition. You also get to know the competition in your area and age group, and you get heard by more people! Totally worth the money!
5.   Do your research. You should know who the major and minor agents are, and what opera companies, symphonies, professional choruses, festivals, YAPs, outreach programs, and competitions are in your area. Do you know where the major and minor YAPs in the nation are and who is singing in them? Do you know who the winners for major national competitions are? Do you know what the 10 most performed operas, oratorios, and symphonic works are? You should. Music is a business, and if you aren’t going to do the market research, what chance do you have in marketing your product?
6.   Make sure your materials are prepared. Even though you don’t have much to put on your resume, write down every musical experience you can think of. Tons of resumes are online, but don’t try to compare yours to someone that has a national or regional career. Look for ones that are just a level or two above you. Get a good headshot! Keep current quality recordings of yourself.
7.   Develop a five year plan. It is ok if that changes, but you must have goals to work toward. Opportunities may come up that take you away from that plan, but that’s great. The most important thing is to always ask yourself – if money were no object, what job would I want? What am I doing to earn that job? I’ve seen Met winners end up teaching day care because they weren’t interested in taking their career into their own hands. On the other side, I’ve seen a girl who was in vocal peril for most of her schooling figure things out and within one year of graduate school win an Adler Fellowship. If you don’t know what that is, it’s time to do some research.
8.   Don’t rely on hearsay and speculation. Do the research yourself! Ask for guidance from your teachers, not your friends. I don’t know any student here that knows enough to give you accurate advice. Remember that the faculty have a ton of life experience and numerous degrees in music. We are here to help you become marketable and successful musicians, but you must take ownership of your own progress.