The End of Summer

Here’s where this blog ends. A couple days ago I put in three hours and yesterday I took a much needed compete day off. I feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle this coming week, the end of which will have two relatively important auditions for which I’ve been preparing several weeks.

I’m pleased with myself that with only one or two exceptions I was able to update this blog every single day for the whole summer. I also stuck pretty close to my goal of four hours per day, though it seems the majority of days had an average of three honest hours. I spent the last couple days reviewing this blog, remembering it all, and seeing themes come up again and again. Here’s what I think some of the biggest topics were:

-Planning out my day ahead of time in order to get all my practicing in.
-Including realistic estimates of the time and energy it takes to accomplish all of my daily goals.
-Accepting that rehearsal is not a replacement for practice, at all.
-The importance of setting daily and weekly goals for myself, in terms of tasks, not minutes.
-Knowing exactly what kind of sound I want, before I even pick up the clarinet.
-Working hard six days a week and taking one day completely off.
-Recording, listening as objectively as possible, and writing down my thoughts.
-Taking baby steps to dismantle long-standing bad habits, particularly irrelevant physical tension.

And practicing four hours! It continued to be a stretch for me almost the whole summer but the sheer amount of time really elevated my playing and musicianship. I’m going to continue to try to practice for four hours every day throughout this last year of my master’s degree.

If there’s any one bottom line that I got from doing this it’s that pushing myself beyond my comfort zone has always had positive results. “It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not”.

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Day 80, Fair Game

Practice: 3.5, Rehearsal: 2.  Note to self: Practice after a good long evening work out is…not the best idea.  Tonight I was physically and mentally exhausted for my last hour+ beyond the point of accomplishing anything other than grunt-work.

I’m happy to be back at CSUF.  I’m getting to play lots of new and different music, take lessons with an interesting and imaginative teacher, and, except for the talent pool not being quite as dense, it’s not altogether unlike being at Aspen.  There are a few key differences (some in the “not as cool as Aspen” category).  One thing that occurred to me in last night’s studio class is that here, very few topics are “too amateur” to discuss.  I think at high-level environments people can be too shy or intimidated to ask questions about part of the process of becoming a better musician, such as “how do you practice XYZ?” or simply “How do you practice?”  Questions like these are welcome and encouraged at CSUF and I think to the great benefit of all players at all levels.

Day 79, Character

Practice: 3, Class performances: 1.  The fourth hour of practice that I could have done today was wasted sitting in my car, looking for parking.  Evidently Cal State Fullerton has accepted 100x as many driving students this year and so parking spots after 9am are scarce.  I don’t remember it being this bad last year.  Lesson learned.

I’ve been coasting on yesterday’s thought about abandoning the idea of playing something absolutely perfect.  I didn’t realize until after I made a conscious decision to leave it behind that it had been dominating my thoughts and the way I think of performing.  In class tonight Håkan talked about good practice habits and mentioned that when one practices slowly it’s important to exaggerate the character.  Because when the music is brought back up to tempo, the “space” available for drama is so much less (especially in fast music).  Great advice.

Day 78, “Perfection”

Practice: 4, Rehearsal: 2.  In two completely different settings at CSUF today people brought up the idea of perfection, in terms of musical performance.  The context was that often people become so obsessed with the idea of playing something “perfectly” (notes, rhythms, technical traits) that they lose sight of the WHOLE POINT.  We’re making music, not designing rocket ships.  A small error will not kill you.  But a lack of emotion or risk-taking might.  Thinking about this in my practice tonight ironically made all of the technical things I was worried about vanish.  Musical solutions to technical problems.

Day 77

Practice: 4.  Woot.

  • Practice is most efficient (and I can more easily accomplish longer stretches) if I think of it as task-oriented rather than time-oriented – this helps break down mental barriers such as “2 hours is a long time to practice.”
  • As a continuation of yesterday’s thought about treating myself with as much kindness as I would treat a young student (not forcing them to play something again and again if they’re clearly unhappy and not improving), There’s a big difference between hiding from an excerpt (playing it once, hating it, not playing it again for a few days) and deciding to come back to it.  The big differentiator for me is recording the “best” take I can get out of it at the time, and marking it for later review.  Today I listened to an excerpt that I felt stuck on yesterday and the solution was much clearer to me with fresh ears.
  • The biggest one today: Imagining the ideal sound before making a sound, using that as a template.  See also, entries in this blog: Karate Kid.  “Imagine the perfect bonsai tree.  Then begin cutting.”  This idea is mentioned briefly in an interview from Callas: Life and Art.

Day 76

Practice: 3

Not much time to blog right now, but here’s a quick and dirty list of thoughts I jotted down during the day:

  • Don’t play instrument, play the melody
  • Perceived levels- throat tones are closer to ears than long tube notes, therefore appear to be “louder.”  Double check with a recording device to be sure you aren’t short-changing those notes in terms of volume and clarity.
  • Higher back of tongue sets up more efficient tip of tongue position for articulation
  • Listen to yourself like a student “I’m bored, I’m frustrated”. Would you force a student to keep playing and being frustrated?  Acknowledging that I’m feeling bored or frustrated with an excerpt and deciding to come back to it later in the day dramatically helps my endurance.
  • When I tried reducing some of the needless effort I was using to play the clarinet the other day, it “felt like cheating.” Why?  How hard should it be to play the clarinet?  Listen, don’t feel.

Day 75, Consistency

Practice: 1.5.  Kind of lame considering I had the morning and the afternoon off.  Yesterday I thought about consistency: what it means, how to attain it, and where it comes from.  I briefly discussed this with Håkan and he suggested a few things. It brought to mind a few sayings I’ve heard around: “Practice makes permanent.” and “Excellence is a habit.”  Consistent performing comes from consistent practicing.  There should be very few surprises.

Miscellaneous thoughts, mostly a continuation from yesterday:  Embouchure pressure is not air pressure.  Neither is finger pressure or body pressure (tightening legs, shoulders, feet, whatever).  I still notice a lot of misdirected effort in my playing.  Identifying it is a good way to start.