Category Archives: Gigging

How to Plan a Student or Solo Recital

Photo by Jin Suk

When I was younger, the word “recital” conjured up a distinct memory of only one thing: “Coda,” Episode 7 of Season 2 of The Wonder Years. I love this conversation between Kevin Arnold and his piano teacher, Mrs. Carples:

MRS. CARPLES: Have you thought about what you’d like to play for the recital this year?

KEVIN: I think I’m busy that night.

MRS. CARPLES: I haven’t told you what night yet.

KEVIN: I mean, um . . . I’m probably gonna be busy that night. See, I’m in junior high now,

and there’s a lot of demands for my time.

MRS. CARPLES: Last year’s excuse was much better. Did your uncle ever pull through?

Kevin ends up facing off with his musical arch nemesis, local piano prodigy Ronald Hirschmuller, in Mrs. Carples’ student piano recital. Both boys are playing Canon in D . . . and Kevin absolutely biffs it.

And so, after watching this I came to only one natural conclusion: recitals were created for one (and only one) purpose . . .

. . . Humiliation.

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Fast forward about 15 years to the day I played my very first solo recital. I practiced and practiced for hours every day throughout the summer in preparation for my big showcase. When the day came, I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but I was unusually excited—and confident—to finally share a talent I’d developed over the course of my lifetime. I performed in an historic lecture hall with elegant balcony seating and soft lighting. I wore a bright yellow blouse and printed my programs on yellow paper to match. I wore a beaded flower pin in my hair. Family, friends, and strangers filled the hall, applauding as my pianist and I took the stage.

And then I performed.

Doesn’t it seem a strange thing to do, to practice hundreds of hours for one 50-minute performance? And it wasn’t even perfect—of course it wasn’t.

But, on the other hand, it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. My first recital turned out to be one of the greatest accomplishments of my life so far—something I’m so proud of. Not only did I feel great about it, but those who came were edified by the performance—even inspired to develop their own talents to share with others.

I left not remembering the mistakes, but the feeling of the instrument in my hands, the applause, the warm hug from my bass professor, the taste of the cinnamon rolls we ate afterwards, and the satisfaction of so many years of lessons and practice finally being brought to fruition.

Recitals aren’t meant to be a chore or just another chance to feel overwhelmed by stage fright. A recital is simply an opportunity to share. Yes, yes, recitals are a lot of work in the sense that they require diligent preparation. But there is nothing that will motivate you more to practice and develop yourself as a musician as an opportunity to perform. And, seriously, what’s the point of practicing in a closet and never performing? Music is meant to be heard.

HOW TO PLAN A RECITAL

There are two main types of recitals: student recitals and solo recitals.

A student recital is a recital organized for multiple performers who are students of the same teacher. A private teacher may have seasonal or annual recitals scheduled for students to perform what they’ve learned in their lessons for parents, friends, family, and other members of the music studio.

A solo recital is a recital by a single performer, usually with an accompanist. Solo recitals might include a duet or small ensemble piece. Joint recitals are sometimes organized with two soloists contributing to one program.

Whether you are a private teacher or solo performer planning a recital, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind. Here are some basic steps to follow when as you organize your program:

 

  1. Set a date. Give yourself enough time to practice and prepare. Think months in advance instead of weeks. Consult with family members and friends to pick a date that’s convenient for your most important guests.
  2. Find a venue. Because recitals are usually for smaller audiences in intimate settings, there are many excellent options as far as performing spaces go. House recitals are wonderfully cozy. Homes with vaulted ceilings usually have lovely acoustics. School and city auditoriums, cafes, libraries, community centers, and even outdoor parks and amphitheatres are great options. Call in advance to book a venue.
  3. Choose your music and finalize your program. Try choosing a variety of pieces to round out your program with a variety of composers and pieces from various eras (Baroque, Romantic, Classical, Modern, etc), or pick a theme (Bach, autumn, arias, movie music). Try not to add pieces last minute, throwing off your practice schedule and leaving you with inconsistently prepared pieces. For beginning students, Suzuki pieces are an excellent choice for student recitals, giving young players confidence to play on stage from the start with wonderful standard tunes. Kennedy Violins now carries sheet music perfect for the occasion.
  4. Find an accompanist. Choose someone experienced over an acquaintance or neighbor who just happens to play the piano. Remember that accompanists are usually paid per service.
  5. Practice with a plan. Write out a schedule devoting equal time to each piece on your program. You don’t want your favorite piece to sound great while everything else doesn’t. Consider focusing on one piece per weekday while still running through each piece daily.
  6. Keep up with lessons. Having a mentor is key when preparing. You need someone who can not only listen to you play, but give you pointers to perfect your performance.
  7. Invite people. Invite anyone and everyone! You can have small recitals for family members or open it up to the general public–whatever you want to do! Recitals are excellent opportunities for community members and loved ones to get together.
  8. Print programs. Keep the program simple. Take a look at program examples online for ideas. Include the title of each piece with the composers name. You could also include the composer’s birth and death dates, a bio about yourself and/or accompanist, and the names of each performer in the recital for group, joint, or student recitals.
  9. Arrange for audio/video recording. For student recitals especially, parents love a good video of their child performing. For professional recitals or to record pieces you’re like to submit as audition sample recordings, find quality equipment and possibly a sound engineer to record for you.
  10. Consider refreshments. Assign a friend or family member to take care of this for you so you don’t have to worry about it the day of the performance. A little munch and mingle after a recital is a great opportunity to receive positive feedback and plenty of hugs from all your fans.
  11. Decide what to wear. Choose something comfortable and cool. Practice in your outfit before hand to make sure you’re not restricted or uncomfortable while playing.
  12. If possible, practice in the venue. Test out the acoustics and balance with your accompanist.
  13. Have a dress rehearsal. Be sure to play through your entire program without stopping at least a few times on your own and at least once with your accompanist. If you can, have your teacher present for your dress rehearsal to give you any last pointers to prepare for the big day.
  14. Perform. Don’t stress about each and every difficult passage–just go for it! Let loose and do your best! Put in everything you’ve got and relish your moment in the spotlight. Performances like this don’t happen every day!
  15. Celebrate! Enough said.

Orchestra Rehearsal Etiquette

Photo by Jorge Franganillo

At Kennedy Violins, we want you to succeed as a performer whether you’d a first-time player or a seasoned professional. 99% of musicians at all skill levels participate in an ensemble: playing with other people. Whether you’re in an orchestra for the first time or you’re an experienced orchestral performer, you’ll soon notice that there are some unwritten “rules” pertaining to your involvement and behavior during rehearsal. Conductors even have their own style and set of expectations for the musicians under their direction.

It’s understandable if you feel a little nervous when performing with a new ensemble for the first time. Too bad no one will hand you a copy of Rehearsal Etiquette for Dummies. So if you’re wondering what to do and how to act in rehearsal, here are a few tips to keep you in the know.

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  • Arrive early—at least 15 minutes early, or with enough time to both get your instrument out and warm up. There is nothing more awkward than shuffling through a crowd of seated musicians in the middle of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn. If you are late (it happens), try to avoid taking your seat while the musicians are playing; if you can, wait for an appropriate break in the action to slip in.
  • Come prepared. This means two things:

1) Come having thoroughly practiced your music. Nothing is more frustrating to conductors than to waste time rehearsing passages that the orchestra members didn’t practice ahead of time.

2) Before you head to rehearsal, double check that you have your music, instrument, bow, rosin, reeds, and any necessary accessories. Be sure to note whether or not you need to bring your own stand to rehearsal or you’ll be scrambling without one. You might consider keeping a wire stand in your car (like a spare tire) just in case!

  • Bring a pencil. This one gets its own paragraph. Attending rehearsal without a pencil is like sitting through a university lecture without a taking notes. Even if you think you’ll be able to remember every direction the conductor gives, every dynamic change, every cut, and every ritardando, really, you probably won’t. Keep a couple pencils in your instrument case so they’re always on hand.
  • Don’t under- or over-mark the music. Certainly write down bowings and musical directions as instructed. But don’t ruin the sheet music by circling every last key change, accidental, and dynamic marking until your music is black with pencil. And if you’re sharing a stand, especially avoid slathering the music with your personal notes and fingerings; it’s unprofessional.
  • Be courteous to your colleagues. Position yourself so both you and your stand partner have enough arm and leg room and can see the music comfortably. Don’t be afraid to ask the people around or behind you if they can see the conductor or if you can move a little to give them more space.
  • Don’t tune loudly. Tune as softly as possible so the players around you can hear themselves as well as the tuning A.
  • Don’t chat. If you need to communicate something to your stand partner, do so inconspicuously and quietly. Save personal conversations for break time.
  • At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Approach your section leader during a break, or raise your hand with [appropriate] questions for the conductor for any clarifications.
  • Don’t tap your feet. The conductor is there to keep you in rhythm, and the tapping creates unnecessary noise.
  • If you’re sharing a stand, the inside player (or player further from the edge of the stage) turns the pages.
  • Pass down bowings or comments from the section leader. Don’t be the break in the chain.
  • Players on the outside (closest to the edge of the stage) play the top line of a divisi section while the inside player plays the bottom.
  • Leave your arrogance at home. Members of the orchestra are all equal; everyone is contributing. Don’t gloat if you have a solo, and don’t bust out personal solo concertos and performances pieces just to show off. Everyone will be more annoyed than impressed. Also, don’t practice another orchestra member’s solo to demonstrate that you can play it better.
  • If at all possible, don’t miss any rehearsals leading up to a concert. It is a sign of disrespect to both the conductor and your orchestra members if you’re prioritize getting your nails done over working as hard as everyone else in preparation for a performance. Be careful not to double book yourself.
  • If you’ve agreed to play a performance, don’t back out if you get another gig, even if it pays better. It’s bad form, and you may lose your opportunity to ever play with the initial ensemble again if the director deems you flaky.
  • Learn the art of the “hidden yawn.” Sometimes you just can’t avoid yawning, but you can hide it with a little creativity. Lean over to tie your shoe or pretend to scratch your nose to hide your gaping mouth. Don’t let the conductor catch you yawning. Ornery conductors may send you packing or never invite you back.
  • Treat your music with kindness. Most sheet music is rented or borrowed from a library. Only write markings lightly in pencil so the next player to use it doesn’t have to painfully scrub out markings with a massive rubber eraser. Try not to bend pages or tear them. Keep the music in a protective folder to keep it from getting crinkled in transit.
  • Don’t wear perfume or cologne. You’d be surprised by how many people are allergic or irritated by it.
  • TURN OFF YOUR PHONE. Enough said.
  • Stop when the conductor stops. If you keep playing, it’s a sign that you’re not paying attention. Also, don’t noodle around or practice while the conductor is talking. Personal practice and group rehearsal are two separate activities.
  • Don’t eat during rehearsal. Bottles of water with lids are okay.
  • Don’t question the conductor or treat him/her with disrespect. Trust in their artistic direction. Don’t argue with the conductor or you’ll likely find yourself packing up and sent on your way.
  • Don’t complain about where you sit. Even if you’ve had seating auditions and you think you can play better than other members in your section, graciously accept your position. Just because you sit in the back doesn’t mean you’re not a valuable player; in fact, being in the group to begin with is a privilege in itself. But don’t hesitate to practice your tail off in preparation for the next seating audition.
  • Lastly, enjoy the music! Don’t take rehearsal so seriously that you lose your connection with the piece or with your instrument. Playing music in an ensemble is a real treat; don’t forget that you’re taking part in a meaningful cultural tradition that will edify your audience.

Pit Orchestra: The Land Down Under

Pit orchestras are part of a long-standing tradition in theater and opera.

One of my most memorable experiences in high school was my very first time playing in a pit orchestra. I remember it very clearly: the musical was called The Nifty Fifties, all the girls on stage wore poodle skirts, and there was a song called “The Blob” about the 1958 sci-fi horror film with choreography reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. To top it off, I had a huge crush on one of the saxophone players who taught me how to solve the Rubix Cube between songs. What a riot.

In the following years I found myself in the pit again, playing in Fiddler on the Roof and 42nd Street. Little did I know, what I thought was a simple extracurricular activity was just a glimpse of future opportunities playing in pit orchestras as a freelancing musician.

The dark, crowded pit of musicians sitting elbow to elbow below the stage became even more familiar through college. Orchestra students were required to be a part of the annual opera productions, and I became acquainted with La Boheme, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Book of Gold. Then I was thrilled to land a gig playing of more than 60 performances of Forever Plaid and My Fair Lady with the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Not to mention Christmastime productions of The Nutcracker, a piece orchestral players become very familiar with over the years.

It had never occurred to me that there are musicians who can make a living solely as pit orchestra players, especially in major metropolitan areas like New York or London where musicals are constantly running. While it may seem archaic to have live orchestral accompaniment in modern theater, pit orchestras are definitely still alive and essential in musical productions.

Sure, performing in a pit orchestra may not seem very glamorous. After all, you play the same music night after night, which (I admit), can get a little dull after a while. That and no one even sees you! Maybe (just maybe) they’ll see the top of your head and the conductor’s baton occasionally poking up from the depths. But then, on the other hand, you can enjoy being a part of the long-standing tradition of live music in theater.

If you’re looking for gigs, there are actually many opportunities to be a part of pit orchestras—especially at Christmastime when those Nutcracker performances are in full swing in community theaters across the nation. Consider how many musicals and operas are performed every day of the year in New York City alone! There really is a steady demand for skilled musicians in the theater community.

So if you’re set on becoming a glamorous on-stage soloist or orchestral player with the stage lights warming your skin, consider the pit orchestra as a humble, but unique and rewarding opportunity to contribute to the arts community. Who knows—maybe you’ll even learn to solve the Rubix Cube while you’re at it. The possibilities are endless.

Musical Olympics: The Spirit of Competition

Photo by Si B

While nations around the globe tune in to the 2012 Summer Olympics, I’ve been thinking about the spirit of competition. What is it that drives us as individuals and societies to compete with each other? What motivates us to be better, stronger, faster, and smarter than each other? Is the spirit of competition healthy or destructive—or could it be both?

I asked a similar question in a recent post, “Musical Role Models: Depressing or Inspiring?” It seems that in any type of competition, the challenge between to parties can be either approached in a spirit of sportsmanship or enmity. I think the appeal of the Olympics is in an incredible display of inspiring sportsmanship between nations. Differences and politics are set aside as athletes shake hands and face off in fair competitions of skill and speed.

Musical Competion
In turn, there is definitely an element of competition in the music world. From challenges between two violinists for first chair to international competitions between ensembles, musicians are constantly being judged in competition with each other. And as with the Olympics, these musical challenges are meant to be fair and inspiring demonstrations of harmonious sportsmanship.

But how do you “judge” the quality of a performance? Let’s take a look at an example of scoring guidelines from the Olympics:

Women’s Gymnastics Scoring Guidelines

 

  • Difficulty – Dance skills, acrobatic skills, and composition are judged by difficulty.
  • Execution – On a ten-scale, execution, technique, and artistry are evaluated.
  • Neutral Deductions – Errors, such as stepping out of bounds or violating time requirements, may result in a deduction from the total score.

Judging a Performance
Take a look and you’ll find that the same criteria for a gymnastics routine could be applied to a musical performance. (Check out Joel’s post, “Auto Racing and Stringed Instruments” and his similar comparison between musical competions and racing cars.) It turns out athletics and musical performance are very similar. Musicians simply go from the practice room to the stage instead of the gym to the arena.

While a musical performance may seem like an abstract “thing” to judge, it turns out there are very specific criteria judges (and even listeners in the audience) look for in a quality performance, just like in a gymnastics routine. Next time you prepare for a performance, try evaluating yourself by the following criteria to see where you need improvement:

Musical Performance Scoring Guidelines

  • Tone – What is the quality of sound?
  • Intonation – Is the soloist or ensemble playing in tune?
  • Balance – Do the musicians (soloist, accompanist, and/or ensemble members) blend together and balance each other in volume?
  • Ensemble – Are performers playing in sync with each other with a sense of togetherness?
  • Interpretation – How is the overall performance and styling of the piece?
  • Musicianship – Are phrasing, tempo, and dynamics used to shape the music?
  • Rhythm – Is rhythm sloppy or accurate?
  • Diction – How is articulation: clear and defined or muddy and unclear?
  • Accuracy – Are all the notes being hit?
  • Selection – Is the piece musically appropriate in nature and difficultuly?
  • Stage Presence – Is the performer appropriately dressed? How are overall appearance and poise?

 

So whether you’re preparing for an orchestra audition, a chair challenge, a competition, or even our 2012 Kennedy Violins Video Contest, try approaching your performance the same way an Olympian might: with dedication, attention to detail, motivation, and a strong drive for success. Don’t forget that Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” and you’ll find that your determination to achieve your music dreams will take you very far . . . perhaps even to the world stage.

Busking: Taking It to the Streets

Photo by Lake Effects Photography

Maybe you’re getting tired of practicing. I mean, come on, it’s summer—everyone is taking trips to the beach, chasing after the sound of “The Entertainer” playing from the ice cream truck, and riding bikes in the sunshine. What could possibly be so appealing about confining yourself in a small, hot, stuffy room to play scales? Of course, all work and no play made Jack a dull boy. But could there be a way to practice and get your summer kicks?

Yes, there is. And it’s called busking.

 

What is Busking?
You know what it is, even if you haven’t heard the word. Busking is street performing; a busker is a street performer. From mimes to caricature artists to violinists, you’re likely to see some great live acts, especially in urban and major metropolitan areas. Visit New York or Paris and street performers are major cultural contributors to each city’s aesthetic.

Where do you busk?
Buskers are commonly found in populous, high-traffic areas—naturally, because why would a performer want to play without an audience? Common places to find street performers are at outdoor markets, subway stops, parks, fairs, and the like.

How do you do it?

  • Know where you’re welcome; sometimes street performers aren’t allowed in certain settings, so do a little research.
  • Play it safe. Especially if you’re a younger student or taking your child’s middle school jazz combo or quartet out on the town, pick a safe location and bring a friend or parental supervision. And kids, dress cute because people will LOVE you. And don’t forget your sunscreen.
  • Have some music to play. Playing memorized pieces or songs is easiest in the sense that you don’t have to worry about carrying a stand and your music blowing away in the wind. If you do bring music, be sure to have clothespins to keep your music from making its escape.
  • Set out your case and CDs if you have your own album for sale. Scatter a few of your own bills in your case to encourage people to add to it. Depending on your location (and you’re competition), you could make anywhere from $5.00-$100/hour. Not bad for an hour of practice, right?
  • Rinse, wash, and repeat. One great advantage to busking is that you don’t need a lot of music; you can have a fairly short set to repeat over and over again as people pass by. You’ll rarely see someone to stop and stand there for more than five minutes watching you perform, so you won’t sound like a broken record. This can be a great opportunity to play all three movements of a concerto over and over for a live audience in preparation for a formal performance.
  • And remember, don’t take it too seriously. The great thing about busking is that people aren’t paying too much attention to you, so you don’t have to sweat your mistakes or memory lapses as you perform. In this sense, street performing is a great “halfway point” somewhere between practicing and performing. Essentially, you’re practicing the act of performance in a really casual, no-pressure setting. Relax and have fun!

So if you’re sick of the practice room, take it to the streets! If you’ve never tried it, it can be a thrilling and memorable experience that connects you to your community in a fresh way. I mean, even Joshua Bell has done it. So it can’t be that hard, right?

Safe Travels: 8 Tips for Transporting Musical Instruments

Photo by Zoagli

 

With vacations nearly in full swing, you may be packing your bags to head out on that much-deserved trip to the Bahamas, your family reunion, or a huge holiday celebration. Are you planning to take your instrument with you? Whether you’re serenading a couple down the aisle, fiddling for your grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration, or joining a holiday jam session, here are a few tips to consider when traveling with an instrument, large or small.

 

1. Know airline policies. Most small- to medium-sized instruments (such as violins, violas, ukuleles, etc.) can be brought on board as standard carry-ons. For larger instruments (such as cellos and basses), depending on the size and the airline, you may have to pay an additional fee or even purchase a ticket for your instrument companion to cross the country with you. Check out these airline policies for musical instrument transport for more details:

 

2. Get ready to go through security.

With random luggage items being subject to inspection, TSA recommends including “short written instructions, where a security officer will notice them, for handling and repacking your instrument.” They allow you to check a personal item, carry-on item, and musical instrument through security. Be sure to allow yourself extra time (up to 30 minutes) to get through security with your instrument in case it needs to be unpacked, inspected, and repacked for flight.

 

3. Prepare your instrument and bow.

Before traveling, loosen your strings a little bit–not enough that the bridge may fall over in transport, but enough that should the temperature or humidity change effect the tautness of the strings, your strings won’t snap or put too much pressure on the face of your instrument, which could cause a crack. And, as always, loosen your bow hairs to prevent your bow from snapping due to similar climate changes.

 

4. Pack your case well.

Planes and car rides can be bumpy! If your instrument doesn’t fit snugly and securely in your case, add some extra padding (foam, washcloths, socks, etc.) to make sure it doesn’t get jostled around too much. Consider even wrapping up your rosin to keep it from shattering or wrapping your bow in bubble wrap or carrying it on (if your cello/bass is underneath the plane) in a separate bow case or cardboard tube. Be sure to securely fasten your case shut before putting it into an overhead bin–you don’t want to pull your case out in a hurry to get off the plane and watch your violin and accessories scatter across the aisles. Check out some of Kennedy Violins’ durable and lightweight cases that are great for travel.

 

5. Put an ID tag on your instrument.

A musician’s worst nightmare is losing their instrument on their way to a performance. Put a proper and easy-to-find ID tag on your instrument including your full name and how to reach you: phone number, e-mail, and address.

 

6. Be sure you have an up-to-date insurance policy covering your instrument.

If you’ve never had your instrument appraised, that’s the first step to including it in your insurance policy. Most professional luthiers can appraise your instrument for you for a modest charge, or sometimes for free if you’re a regular customer. If anything happens to your instrument during travel (such as damage or theft), most airlines can do little to replace or repair your instrument, so being covered through a legitimate policy is essential. Contact your insurance agent for more details.

 

7. Consider the elements.

Especially if you’re driving, NEVER put your instrument in the trunk of your car for an extended period of time. Leaving a violin in the hot trunk (or cab) of your car can ruin the finish, melt the varnish, melt your rosin, warp the wood, cause open seams, or render your instrument in need of serious repair. If your larger instrument has to go under the plane, it may get a little cold, but for a short flight it will probably be okay. Also, consider the climate of your destination. If you’re going to a dryer climate, be sure to use a Dampit instrument humidifier to maintain a healthy humidity level in your case. The majority of Kennedy Violinscases also have a hygrometer to measure humidity levels. 40% humidity is a healthy level for most wooden instruments.

 

8. Think about purchasing or renting an instrument specifically for travel.

Kennedy Violins has a great selection of affordable violins, violas, and cellos that are perfect as backup instruments for travel and touring, which is a smart idea if you don’t want to risk traveling with an extremely expensive, antique, heirloom, or collector’s instrument. Our affordable instrument rental program, starting at $14.97 per month, is also another great option. We can even ship your rental instrument to your destination location (as long as you or a friend/family member were available to receive it) for your convenience.

 

As usual, feel free to contact us at Kennedy Violins with any questions. And wherever you’re headed with your instrument, enjoy your trip! Bon voyage!

The Fine Art of Tuning

A cello section tuning.

In high school at the beginning of each concert, like all orchestras, we would take some time to tune.  Once the squeaking and squawking settled into a common A natural, our conductor would say, “Thank you very much.  Our first song was ‘The Fine Art of Tuning.'”  The audience, slightly confused, would laugh and we would move on to the actual concert.  His comment, while quite dry, actual holds a lot of truth.  The concept of may seem like simply matching pitches but there is “fine art” to it that I see even advanced musicians missing out on.  In my experience there are two main things that will help you master the fine art of tuning: a strong pitch reference and good tuning habits.

A Strong Pitch Reference: Unless you were born with “perfect pitch,” you will need a reference to the correct pitch.

-A tuning fork is the classic tool for tuning.  It is a piece of metal cast into a specific u-shape so that when struck, it emits a particular pitch. *NOTE:  Never strike a tuning fork on your instrument.* I’ve seen this happen which is why I have to say it…

-For beginners, an electronic tuner is useful because they can either emit the desired pitch or show you digitally what pitch you are playing.  There are even some that clip directly on the instrument.  I suggest investing in a tuner that doubles as a metronome.  It’s less to carry around!

Pitch pipes are lightweight and easy to use as well.  All you have to do is blow.  The down side is that if they get dropped or beat up, the notes on the pitch pipe will get out of tune themselves.

Pianos are best used in a band setting.  They aren’t exactly portable like the other options but they are the best choice if you are going to be playing with a piano (I’ll explain that later).

-If you want to be super tech savvy, there are several apps for mobile devices that turn your phone into a tuner.  Just be careful which one you get, the free ones aren’t always accurate.

Clockwise from top left: a chromatic pitch pipe, a tuning fork, a violin pitch pipe, and a mobile app.

Good Playing Habits: some of this may seem like common sense, but it’s good to be reminded.

-The best habit to have while tuning would be listening. It’s not enough to simply look at the tuner see that you are in tune (or worse, just play a note and turn the pegs until you are tired of it or the rest of the group stops tuning).  Listen to what it sounds like to be in tune and out of tune.  On a stringed instrument, you will need to listen to the intervals between the strings.  Traditionally, violin, viola, and cello strings are tuned in fifths (sounds like the beginning of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”).  If you are playing in a group, listen to the other players and “agree” with their tuning.  At times, the people you are playing with may have instruments that aren’t perfectly in tune and can’t be tuned without great difficultly.  I’m not talking about stubborn viola pegs or sticky clarinet keys, but a 250 year old pipe organ or a tinny house piano at a bar.  Your instrument may be perfectly in tune on its own, but if it doesn’t match the instruments you are playing with you will sound out of tune.

-Having strong fundamentals is another habit that will make the tuning process easier and more effective.  In the violin family, a good bow hold is key to quality sound production.  If you don’t have a strong bow hold, you won’t be able to produce a good sound to tune from .  Also, applying too much or too little pressure with the bow can cause the note you are trying to tune to go in and out of tune.  Long and steady bow strokes at medium volume are best for tuning.  Likewise, having the correct shape and placement in the left hand directly impacts the intonation of the notes you are trying to play.  I hate to say it, but it’s best to practice scales over and over again to strengthen tuning in the left hand.

-Lastly, take the time you need to make sure you are in tune.  I remember when I first started tuning my own instrument, the time it took to get it right was frustrating and felt like everyone else I was playing with was getting in tune faster.  Yet, I know that my stand partner and my teacher always liked it when I took an extra 30 seconds to make sure that I was in tune.

Other Helpful Articles: How to Install Strings and Keep Pegs from Slipping, Strung Out on Strings, Beginner Basics, Stringed Instrument Care and Maintence Part One, and Part Two.

Musical Role Models: Depressing or Inspiring?

Are you the type to be discouraged or inspired by great performers?

 

It seems there are two kinds of people in the world: those who react positively and those who react negatively in the presence of someone who is “better” at something than they are.

For example, while observing a successful performer having accomplished a specific task, individual A might

  1. be discouraged and tempted to throw in the towel.
  2. think or say something something like, “I’ll never be that good, so why bother?”
  3. believe the performer is showing them up.
  4. feel envy, jealousy, or enmity towards the performer.
  5. be hesitant to share his/her “lesser” talents with others in the future.

On the other hand, individual B might

  1. be inspired and encouraged.
  2. think or say something like, “That was incredible. What can I do to find similar success?”
  3. believe in the performer’s good intentions to share a positive achievement.
  4. feel gratitude and admiration for the performer.
  5. be excited to improve and share his/her talents with others in the future.

As a musician, do you find yourself more like individual A or B? When you see a great musical performance, are you inspired and encouraged to practice and improve, or are you tempted to give up?

Having a positive attitude about playing music is incredibly important to your success as an artist. Sure, we all have our frustrating days. Like when no matter how much you’ve practiced, you just can’t seem to get that tricky phrase down. Or you’ve spent months or years working on a piece to perform in a competition to discover one of your peers has smoked you on the same number and beat you out. There may be days when your teacher seems disappointed by your lack of progress, or your technical weaknesses may seem too challenging to overcome.

But music and playing your instrument aren’t meant to be torture, and practice shouldn’t be depressing. If you find yourself feeling discouraged about your progress as a musician, try taking some time to reflect on a few of these questions:

  • Why do you play your instrument?
  • How does music enrich your life?
  • How does music enrich others’ lives?
  • What are your greatest strengths as a musician?
  • What are areas where you can improve?
  • Who are musicians and performers who inspire you?
  • What do you hope to accomplish as a musician?
  • Do you love what you do?
  • Do you like practicing? Or do you hate it?
  • Do you set realistic goals for yourself?
  • Are you investing the time and effort required to meet your goals?
  • What motivates you as a musician?

I often think of a story my husband shared with me from his teenage years when he worked doing construction and remodeling. He worked with many foreign immigrants who struggled to make ends meet. Once, when driving around a beautiful neighborhood of large and impressive homes, one of his coworkers, Hugo, an older man with a difficult life, gazed at the beautiful homes and said, “Aren’t you so happy for these people? I am so happy for them. Look at the beautiful homes and lives they enjoy.” Hugo rejoiced in the successes of others, knowing that even if he never had the riches or talents or beautiful things they did, he could still be happy that someone could have them, if not him.

So even if you don’t perform solo at Carnegie hall or fight back a slew of fans dying for your autograph or sound like Joshua Bell, don’t be discouraged. No matter what level of performance you’re at, remember that there is no “perfection” in the world of musicianship. Be grateful for role models and teachers who inspire. We, including them, are all students, no matter our age, striving to create something meaningful through our art. We constantly improve in a never-ending effort to become a little better at what we do while enriching the lives of others (and ourselves) in the process. So don’t give up. Enjoy the journey, and let yourself be inspired!

Stage Fright Tips: How to Overcome Performance Anxiety

photo by schleikmeister
Studies show that amongst a general list of “greatest fears,” there’s one in particular that consistently takes the cake. Surpassing a fear of spiders, heights, and even death, the act of public speaking (or performance) leaves most people shaking in their boots.

“So, you’re telling me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than have to stand up and give a eulogy,” says Jerry Seinfeld.

Exactly.

So what is it about performing for a crowd that makes us so nervous we physically react? Shaking hands, dry mouth, stomach butterflies, sweating, an increased heart rate, the rush of adrenaline. You would think this fight-or-flight reaction would be in response to a rhinoceros threatening to run you down.

And yet, instead, all you’ll find is a group of strangers, colleagues, family, friends, and even your sweet grandmother happily anticipating your rendition of “Vocalise.” And check this out: 99% of them (unless you have very evil friends), are hoping–and knowing–you’ll succeed. No one wants you to see you fail.

The most common reasons for stage fright are a fear of failure or criticism, uncertainty, self-consciousness, and social phobia. Trouble is, most of us deal with some combination of these fears, desperately hoping to impress or please the people around us–strangers or not.

So while it may take a little more to cure you of your fear of failure (you might also try a few hundred hours of counseling), here are a few tips to battle stage fright and have a truly exceptional–and even rewarding!–performance.

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1. Prepare and Practice.

If you’re afraid of biffing that difficult cadenza, don’t avoid it; instead, face it. Practice the most difficult passages to a point where you don’t worry about them anymore. There’s nothing worse than walking on stage knowing you aren’t prepared. You’d be setting yourself up for failure, which is the root fear that causes stage fright.

2. Be Confident.

Easier said than done, right? But seriously, give yourself some credit! Embrace your ego and let yourself feel strong and capable–because you are. Hours and hours and years of years of your hard work and experience have prepared you for success in this moment. Take pride in the skills you have. Be empowered.

3. Remember, No One’s Perfect.

In fact, the majority of the people in your audience probably have zero experience with your instrument. Some have maybe never touched a violin, viola, cello, or bass in their life. So if you’re fretting over your vibrato in that one phrase being less than perfect, remember that there are people in the audience who don’t even know what vibrato is. It’s like picturing the audience in their underwear as if you have something going for you that they don’t. Truth is, you do.

4. Don’t Dwell on Mistakes.

Along with remembering that no one is perfect, keep in mind that that includes yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. The “perfect” performance doesn’t exist. So if you stumble a little, don’t just stop and give up or stew over what just happened. Instantly move on and get back to the music. Dwelling on your mistakes will lead to making even more mistakes because you’ve lost focus. And speaking of focus . . .

5. Focus.

In the performance setting, there are a lot of details to distract you from the task at hand: the lighting, who’s out in the audience, your accompanist’s polka dot tie. Tune all of it out and focus on what you’ve practiced. There will be time to talk to that cute guy or girl in the audience after you’ve taken your bows.

6. Perform Before You Perform.

Don’t let your big performance be the first time you’ve played for anyone besides your teacher. Take every opportunity possible to play your repertoire before the scheduled performance date. Play for your friends, spouse, family, strangers, or even your cat. Schedule a small house concert or go play on a street corner if you have to.

7. Dress Comfortably.

What to wear might be a concern before your performance, but once you’re actually playing, it shouldn’t be. Avoid tight corsets, uncomfortable shoes, strangling neckties, or hot tuxedos. Some people even perform barefoot! Just make sure your clothing doesn’t distract from your focus while you play. Try on and practice your program in your performance-wear beforehand to be sure shifting, moving, or breathing isn’t more difficult than it needs to be.

8. Relax.

I remember before playing a house concert once, I went to the back room and screamed my lungs out to relieve my nerves. Do something to get the adrenaline out of your system: jump up and down, run in a few circles, shake out your limbs. And once you’ve done that, calm yourself down. Deep, slow breathing and some stretching also helps release the tension that’s been building up in anticipation of your performance.

9. Be Familiar with the Venue.

If at all possible, run through your program at least once in the recital hall, auditorium, or performance space where you’ll be playing. You don’t want any surprises on performance day, like blinding stage lights, no piano for your accompanist, or weird acoustics that throw you off.

10. Enjoy Yourself.

Remind yourself why you love music and what this is all about. Then go ahead and let yourself go. Enjoy the spotlight and the support of your audience. Have a good time! After all, isn’t that what’s it’s all about?

Healthy Obsessions: Embracing Your Passions Leads to Success

Einstein: Obsessive Physicist

 

The successful theoretical chemist Henry Eyring once said to his son while working on complex mathematical equation, “We were working a problem just like this a week ago. You don’t seem to understand it much better. Isn’t this what you think about all the time?”

As the young man responded negatively, his father asked, “When you walk down the street, when you’re in the shower, when you don’t have to be thinking about anything else, isn’t this what you think about?”

Again, negative. The boy didn’t think about complex mathematics and physics in his spare time. His father, who had hoped all of his children would become successful scientists then said, “Hal, I think you’d better get out of physics. You ought to find something that you love so much that when you don’t have to think about anything, that’s what you think about.”

 

“Obsession”: A Bad Word?

In today’s world, the word “obsession” has been increasingly weighed down with negative connotations. When you think of an obsessed individual, you may picture a boy playing video games 18 hours per day, a woman who has spent $12 million on plastic surgery, or someone who washes their hands 100 times a day. You may view the characteristic of obsessiveness as a psychological disorder worth treating, avoiding, and fearing.

In truth, however, most of the greatest contributions to the society of man have been made by artists, scientists, inventors, mathematicians, writers, entrepreneuers, business professionals, and the like who have achieved greatness as a result of what may be labeled today as “unhealthy obsessive behavior.” The greatest classical composers and performers are those who have given their entire lives to their art. Thousands of hours of passionate thought and practice have led these self-made prodigies to such levels of success.

Einstein: The Passionate Violinist

Practice: Pleasure or Torture?

I remember as a student in my university’s school of music that I struggled to practice my bass three hours a day based on the curriculum requirement. Over time, I began to dread practicing, gazing out the window of my tiny practice room wishing to be anywhere else or doing anything else. Preferably, I would rather be hanging out with my friends, writing (my “other” passion), or playing and writing songs on the guitar.

As I showed up at my weekly lesson with my bass professor, he sensed my weariness and began to probe me with questions, like the scientist had his son. He wanted to find out how passionate I was about playing the bass, if it was something I truly loved to do, and if I dreamed and ate and breathed “bass” all the time.

Practice, of course, isn’t always “fun,” he said, but he wondered if I had the internal direction or desire I’d need to become the player he hoped I’d become. He asked if I loved to practice as much as he did when he was in school, painting a portrait of himself as a young student (with hair back then) who just couldn’t get enough of anything related to the bass. I just didn’t. I expressed to him my conflicting interests in other things, especially writing, and after some thought, he very sadly, but genuinely proposed that I reconsider my choice to major in music, encouraging me to do what I was most passionate about.

Well, I did finish my music degree and still perform classically. But I also endured a fifth year of college to complete an English minor and take as many writing classes as I could. And since I graduated, I admit, I’ve spent much, much more time writing that I have practicing. And while I feel most myself when I’m playing classical music and take every gig I can get, it’s writing that I think about in my spare time, when I shower, and when I walk down the street.

 

Embracing Your Obsessions

The word “obsession” and the word “passion” are practically synonymous. But notice when someone says, “I have a passion for music,” it doesn’t sound like a psychological disorder, but  like a wonderful thing—and it is! In order to become a truly great musician, yes, you have to practice your brains out, but you also have to love it enough to practice your brains out when you could be doing other things. You’ll find yourself practicing and listening to classical music because you truly, deeply, love it to the point of obsession.

Allowing yourself to embrace your passions and be “obsessed” with what you love takes a lot of courage. It means setting aside other activities you may enjoy doing to do what you love doing even more. It means letting yourself be crazy enough to spend hours at a time learning or creating something that thrills you to no end. It means doing something you feel you “shouldn’t” be doing if you were a rational person.

So no matter what you’re passionate about, whether it be your violin, your children, or the novel on your nightstand, don’t be afraid—for once in your life—to be a little obsessed. Live a little. Be a little crazy. You may be surprised to see how far it takes you.