One of the most important aspects of performing is communication. Even though the quality of our performance will mostly depend on how prepared we are musically, communication can help make the performance less stressful while allowing us to put most of our energy into the main thing – the music.
Practicing and performing should not be that different from each other when it comes to our musical approach. I believe that standards for energy, emotion, execution and creativity shouldn’t change that much between our practice room repetitions and the stage. If someone were to eavesdrop on a practice sessions, they should feel like they’re hearing us perform. However, they shouldn’t hear us sounding perfect or even good.
Poor performances can send shock waves through our system. Any of us who have played music for a long time can probably share multiple horror stories in regards to performances. The culprits range from things outside of our control to things we are directly responsible for. Either way, it usually feels horrible.
The first time I hosted a masterclass for my students where they worked with a guest artist, I remember feeling a little confused and disappointed. There were several times during the event when the guest would point out the most obvious things a student needed to do to improve their performance. Because these areas discussed were so obvious, it wasn’t the first time the students had heard about them. However, the students reacted to this instruction in the masterclass way differently than when I had I brought them up in the lessons. It was if they had never realized that these things needed work and they were suddenly eager to improve.
While a student at University of Miami, I wrote an original jazz tune for one of our ensembles that I was very excited about. I felt the tune captured the vibe of the famous Miles Davis quintet from the ‘60’s… That was the theme of the ensemble. The tune had unpredictable harmonic rhythm, harmony based on modes of melodic minor and a lot of suspended chords, and romantic-influenced melodies. It wasn’t extremely complicated but it wasn’t simple either.
Our students are typically really into music. As teachers we often assess a student’s musical engagement by how much and how well they practice in relation to what we ask them to do. However, an untapped goldmine for teachers lies in the music students engage with outside of the lesson.
For many students of music, performing without the printed music in front of them can be a stressful venture. Over the years I’ve eliminated the word “memorized” from my teaching vocabulary – at it has helped my students tremendously. However, for the sake of honoring the tradition I’ve included the word “memorize” from time to time in the post – this is the first of a series of posts on playing without the printed page.
There’s an assignment that we often miss as teachers. And it’s one that always makes our jobs way easier – maybe easier than anything we could have students do. Over time it simply transforms our students’ musical experiences and their abilities.
Students should be asked to listen to music each time we see them. It can be done in casual conversations about what they’ve been listening to (or what we’ve been listening to), to more precise assignments based on what you’re working on in lessons.
Students have often come to me asking if they are “ready” for a musical situation. Whether it be an audition, adjudication, festival, accompanying gig, college program, a certain ensemble, a tour, etc. – my answer is always the same… Participate in as many musical situations as possible where you are the worst one. Be musically overwhelmed as much and as often as possible. We grow the most from these experiences. And if we are taking lessons, earning a degree or just trying to be the best version of ourselves that we can be; growth is the most important thing we can aspire towards.
Over time as I’ve gotten the opportunity to hang out and discuss music with people who have had very successful performance and recording careers, there is a common thread that they all emphasize in their own playing and admire in the playing of their peers. This common thread is rhythm. It can either be the commitment to and admiration of deep and individual time-feel, high levels of rhythmic accuracy, advanced rhythmic phrasing or to their ability to make the most basic musical parts feel so good.