Should you play lego with your music?

When you find yourself getting more and more frustrated the more you practice, it's time to separate the elements that make up the music and put them back together.

In other words, play Lego with these music components:
  1. Harmony
  2. Rhythm
  3. Melody
  4. Tone quality
  5. Words if you're a singer
There's just too many things to think about when learning a piece, to not deconstruct and reconstruct it bits by bits.


Are fingerings necessary?

Author Thad Carhart got to attend a master class by famous piano teacher Peter Feuchtwanger, and quotes the master's view on fingerings in his book "The Piano Shop on the Left Bank."

"The most dangerous thing is 'finger memory'; if you really know a piece harmonically, it doesn't matter what finger you use, but if finger memory fails you, it falls apart utterly."


Are recitals out of fashion?

New generations are not connecting to classical music because they think it belongs to the past.

How can we prove them wrong when so many recital musicians wear clothes from twenty years ago?

What you wear on stage sends a message about the music. To make recitals look current and relevant, you have to wear contemporary and up-to-date clothes.

Or you're the one making recitals out of fashion.

Picture from http://www.thisnext.com/tag/piano-training/


Do you change your teaching style with the music?

We teach in the mood of the piece we teach.

This doesn't matter much when you teach a happy piece, because you'll speak to your student in a light and relaxed ton of voice.

But it is important for you to be aware of it when you teach a dramatic and emotional piece, so that you keep yourself in check and remain calm and in control.

Otherwise, you may just scare your students away.

Picture from http://sk.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%BAbor:Mood_dice.svg


2 things to avoid when marking

Marking is an important part of a singer's life, so here are the two ways of marking that are more detrimental than useful.
  1. Mark constantly
    If you mark every time you sing other than during the performance, you actually lose your stamina and your vocal strength. You end up more likely to hurt yourself when you suddenly go back to singing full out.

    By marking constantly you miss the chance to create muscle memory, which will make it harder for you to hit the high notes and the fast runs during performance.

  2. Mark all aspects of the music
    Because you give less vocally when marking, you will tend to give less in all other aspects of the song. You create bad habits when you stop paying attention to diction, energy and musicality, so make sure you stay engaged.  
Marking is a great tool to protect your voice as long as you make sure to remain focused while doing it, and to use it as a side kick of full out singing.

    Picture from http://blogs.voices.com/voxdaily/conferences/Pict


    Why do you do what you do?

    Why do you do what you do? Find out how the answer to this questions makes a difference in your life in this inspiring talk by Simon Sinek.

    Minimum audience required?

    Music schools require students to give recitals for their degree. Some of those recitals don't have much more of an audience than just the student's teacher.

    Is it still a recital if there is no audience?

    Should schools of music require students to get a minimum of maybe 15 or 20 people to a recital for it to count as one?

    Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/99573715@N00/1217496599


    Great posts I wish I had written

    Here are some really cool articles I wish I had written!

    Musician Wages is one of my absolute favorite website for musicians, with a useful article on the top 10 gigs you may not have thought of, and a  music director job profile.

    Good Company is a blog for collaborative pianists, with a really funny post on the different hats accompanists wear, and an informational post on how to make extra money as a copyist.

    The collaborative piano blog talks about the career options in collaborative piano, and on how to get work as a freelance accompanist.

    Michael Roderick is as big a fan of Seth Godin as I am, which is why I have to share this post on finding which part of our job really is the hardest.

    Happy reading!

    Picture from http://blogs.kingston.ac.uk/maceteams/corrines-weekly-links-1/


    A little braggin won't hurt ya

    I just received the diploma for my doctorate in the mail today! It is beautiful, shiny and most importantly, official! I have known I had the degree since last November, but I had this irrational fear that the University would decide to change the curriculum and that I wouldn't be done after all!

    So now that I'm holding the diploma in my hands, it feels very real, and I know that no one can take it away from me! It was years of hard work and I am so proud of myself for having gone through it and finished it. I did it people!



    Do comp tickets make a difference?

    As performers, the support of our friends and families is what keeps us going when the times get tough. When we do get to perform, it is our victory as much as it is theirs. So when they want to come see us perform to see the result of their support, it seems logical that we want to give them some comp tickets.

    But with the recession, more theatres have been thinking twice before giving away comp tickets. If performers bring in couple friends, that means more money for the theatre. But if theatres gave comp tickets to their performers, they would achieve more in the long term than the extra buck.
    1. Happy performers: sure, performers are paid so it's their job to do their best at all times. But one, they're paid little, and two, it motivates the entire cast when they know someone special is in the room. Also, when performers are happy with the theatre they work at, they are more likely to publicize the show they're in, thus bringing in people who will actually pay to see the show.
    2. New audience members: When people pay to see their loved ones on stage, they connect with those people rather than with the theatre. But if they go in for free and have a good experience, they are more likely to return to that theatre for shows that do not involve their loved ones. That's one step closer for the theatre to having new loyal customers.
    3. Butts in seats: the theatres that do not give comp tickets are usually the ones that already have a hard time selling tickets. Audience members always enjoy a show more when they're not the only ones in the theatre. By having non-paying people in the audience, theatres actually create a better experience for their paying customers, thus increasing the chances of them coming back. 
    When a theatre doesn't give comp tickets to their performers (actors and musicians alike), it alienates those performers, their friends, and the theatre itself. Sometimes, making the right choice is beyond that night's bottom line.

    Picture from http://www.memphisthemusical.com/blog/2009/11/16/640/raffle-tickets-7986881/


      What didn't happen at the Grammys last night

      The Grammy awards last night had some great performances. Artists fell in either of two categories.
      1. All about the show: the best performances of the night in this category were by Usher and by Lady Gaga, although her song reminded many people of Madonna's Express Yourself.
      2. All about the music: those were simple performances that were great because the artists were in the music, instead of faking it: Mumford and Sons, Lady Antebellum, and a lovely version of "Jolene" by Norah Jones, John Mayer and Keith Urban.
      I waited all night for a performance as memorable as last year's Pink. It came in a completely different genre, with Cee-Lo and Gwyneth Paltrow's performance of  "Forget You," which managed to brilliantly combine both the showmanship and the music in a really fun way, with a kick ass bird costume and a choir of Muppets. It was my absolute favorite of the night.

      What was missed from the evening however, besides the sound that the producers annoyingly cut off to prevent viewers from hearing swear words, was a performance of the surprise winner of the New Artist category: Esperanza Spalding.

      The fact that this wonderful singer-songwriter-bassist was in the same category as heavy commercial weights such as Justin Bieber was in itself quite a miracle, but for her to win sent a comforting message to all of us professional musicians out there: there is hope. Unfortunately, because she didn't perform during the evening, many people didn't know her and took her win the wrong way. Here is what should have happened.

      On another note, it is Valentine's day today, so I am sending you all lots of love, particularly to all of you so dedicated to your art that you will spend the evening in rehearsal, in a practice room, or performing.

      Happy Valentine's day!


      The proper way to stop a pianist

      Stopping a pianist during a music theatre rehearsal or a voice lesson is not something many people put much thought into, until inevitably, the pianist stops too early or doesn't stop at all.

      Here are some common pitfalls to avoid.
      1. Being unsure: If you're not sure if you want to stop or not, and you kind of say something but not really, some of your performers will stop and some will keep on going and it will be a mess.

      2. Speaking softly: Many directors will start walking up to the cast in the middle of a song, and will say something. Everyone will know that they're supposed to stop, and nobody will understand why the pianist is still playing.

        That's because the pianist is usually busy looking at the score and did not see the director walk. It's also because the piano is loudest to the person closest to it, which means that the pianist can't hear people if they are speaking at a regular volume a few feet away. To stop a pianist from playing, make sure to use your loud voice.

      3. Turning to the pianist: Some people turn to the pianist in the hopes that that will stop him or her, but not only is this not assertive enough, it also makes the pianist wonder if they're doing something wrong.
       The way to properly stop a pianist is to pick one of the following options, and to stick with it. Consistency is key to success here.
      1. Talking: many directors and teachers mean for their talking to interrupt the song, while others like to give vocal directions during the song. Either one is fine if done consistently, but if you like to do both, you need to use a clear word for the pianist to know when you want him or her to stop playing.

      2. Pick a word: It doesn't matter what that word is, as long as it's always the same. Best in the music world is "stop," and in the theatre world "hold." Some common words that do not work are "wait," "hey," or "hum."
        Pianists don't mind being stopped, but they do mind not being sure of what you want. Be assertive, loud, and clear, and your pianist will be grateful. 

          Picture fromhttp://www.cosmosmagazine.com/news/2526/red-boosts-attention-blue-creativity


          What should you be paid for a 5 min gig?

          A gig where all you have to do is play for five minutes sounds like an easy gig, but besides the actual difficulty of what you're playing, there is more to a five-minute gig than five minutes.

          You are usually part of a longer performance, so you have to be there before it starts and stay until it's done. If the gig is for church, you may have to stay and play for multiple services. If you have to be somewhere for two hours hours to play five minutes in the middle, you can't accept another gig during the entire two hours. You can't practice during that time either, neither is it free time for you to relax. So you can't reasonably be paid just for the five minutes, but should you be paid as much as if you did play for two hours? Would a split in the middle be enough?

          Photo from http://4womens.net/blog/abs-women


          Want to work for Cirque du Soleil? Part 2

          Tuba player Justin Lerma told us in the first part of his interview how to get a job in the circus world, and what the rehearsal process is like. Here he takes a look back and shares with us the pluses and minuses of the gig, and what made him stop.

          What didn't you know about the job before you joined in?
          I didn't know it was gonna be so much work. I was so young when I started this and I didn't expect the long hours. I felt like I was the weak link because I was so young. It forced me to be better than I was. It forced me to have to work very hard. The environment is bad at times. A lot is expected from you as a musician, and it's even worse for actors and performers. They were times when it was so much. I remember we were contracted to do 2 shows a night, 3 shows on Friday and Saturday. We worked every day, there was no day off. They added a fourth show, not in our contract, and some people wanted money for it. They brought their contract in, and I remember the head guy saying: "this is so unprofessional." The older guys fought back, but things were not good.

          "We worked every day, 
          there was no day off"

          In fact, after I went back to Texas where I'm from, I was short on money so I decided to go back to a Sea World job, and they were not offering contracts to anybody. They wanted to pay people hourly, and the schedule would adjust accordingly to what they needed. So if July 4th (huge day for the park) came, our day started later and they would just adjust the times to fit what they needed, and we'd be there until the day was done. So if they had a show at 10, one at noon, and then one at 8, you would have to stay in the park in between shows, but they wouldn't pay you.

          If you were contracted, they gave you apartments, but at this point, they got local people only. The level went down. They did what they needed to do. It's weird because people know that that happened. That particular show started off really good in 2005, it won 2nd place in this amusement park contest. It went on until 2008 and then they started to notice that musicians were rebelling and they got rid of them.

          "You have a lot of free time 
          to work on your instrument"

          Actually, if you talk about theme parks, they're all getting rid of their musicians. Disney World got rid of a lot of musicians. The funny thing is that two of their tuba players were Mike Roylance who is now principal for Boston, and Chris Olka who is the principal in Seattle.

          What are the pluses and minuses of working for Cirque du Soleil as a musician?
          Obviously money is good. For two months of work, I made $6,000, and I was the lowest paid guy at that point. The performers are making a substantial amount of money. The shows that are in Vegas are paid quite well. People do this for years and years, and they go from show to show. Minuses: being on the road, you're tired, you're worn out, you're with the same people every day, you see them every day. It's a difficult lifestyle. It gives you an opportunity to kind of experiment on your own. Yes you have to do a job, but once the ball gets rolling and you're doing your job, not a lot of rehearsal time is needed, but you have a lot of free time to work on your instrument and own your skills.

          "It's very much a man's world"

          Who would benefit most from working for them?
          I had a great time and I learned a ton, doing this was the point where I made the decision to become some kind of freakish tuba player, but it's just like a Broadway show. You play the same stuff over and over and over again, and you're able to inject a little bit of yourself, but there's something that they want. At the end of the day, it needs to be what they want, even if you get to add some stuff in. I can't imagine younger musicians being happy with doing that. I don't think anybody that's in college should do this. I was an idiot. The musicians were all older, at least 30 or so. There were some female vocalists and a few violin players, but it is very much a man's world.

          "Circus shows can be harmful
          to your playing" 

          What made you stop?
          It was time to get real. I never had aspiration to be an amusement park, circus, touring musician. Shows, circus shows like Blast, I feel can be harmful to your playing. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in an orchestra, or in a premiere band job. If you are constantly playing pop tunes, and you're not putting in the time on excerpts, wind ensemble, orchestra, you're gonna lose that kind of playing, and I was loosing it. I was always having to come back and start over from the beginning, change my sound, do this and do that. If I had kept on doing that, I wouldn't have been able to make it to the finals of auditions like I did. The tuba instructor at the Navy School of Music used to study with Mike Roylance and he said: you know, it wasn't until those jobs were taken away from them that they were able to make it to the other jobs. It's detrimental. So I knew it was time to go.


          Want to work for Cirque du Soleil? Part 1

          Tuba player Justin Lerma gets very passionate when he talks about his experience playing in the circus world at Sea World and Cirque du Soleil. He is so genuine about both the good and the bad of his experience there, that his interview is a must-read if you are thinking of joining the circus world.

          How did you end up working in the circus world?
          I never auditioned. Music is very much, as you know, a who-you-know thing. My high school band director, Rick Horn, is a phenomenal trumpet player and I got a phone call from him one day when I was still in high school: "Brian, the creative manager of SeaWorld, wants you to audition for this thing." I called Brian and he said "you want a lesson?" I said sure. I went and he said "you want the job?" I accepted it. I was immediately attached to a circus troupe that was working with Cirque du Soleil. I got a contract with that circus, which was attached to Sea World. That troupe then in turn took me to Cirque du Soleil.

          "I never auditioned"

          But I can tell you that the way Cirque du Soleil does auditions is very specific. The reason that circus was used was because they had a special look. Cirque will ask: "we need someone between 6 ft and 6.2 ft with a slender built and a serpent-like face," and that's what they want. They want specific things.

          Tell us about your experience then. 
          I got into the show. Our first thing was at Sea World show, called Riptide. We were attached to them. Constantine, the head of the production company (a big name of circus troupes from Russia), came and said to musicians: "hey, Cirque du Soleil needs tuba players for this show, or trumpet players for this show." That's how a lot of us got hooked up with Delirium, Cirque du Soleil, Eau, etc. We never did much of an audition. My initial introduction to them wasn't formal, I was introduced: "hey this guy can play, go." Some of us were contracted, some of us were employees. I remember one guy not being able to pick up the show fast enough, and he got fired pretty quickly. It's a business.

          "One guy didn't pick up the show 
          fast enough, and he got fired"

          What's a day like as a musician at Cirque du Soleil?
          First part of it is introduction: "this is the show, this is the concept." Then you go into rehearsals, you're separated from dancers and performers. They were good at giving us brass players rest time. But when you were expected to perform, you were expected to perform. You're on, you're paid to do this. My whole experience with circus shows is a year and half: five months of a tour, and then three stationed shows at Sea World. Sea World gave us about a month and then once a show started, it would be tweaked every now and then, and any changes had to be immediate. With the other shows, it was about a month also. From friends I've heard that some rehearsals could go on longer, but they pay you to do the show, and they need to get you out there as fast as possible.

          "Any changes had to be immediate"

          Our swings were always f**. One swing musicians, he had to learn the first trumpet part, the 2nd part, and the choreo for each, so it was a pain. He had much less time than we did on stage. That's what he was hired to do. In fact that's the guy that got fired because he couldn't learn the show. Luckily Constantine was good about rehearsals. If you needed to have time off you got it. Sea World was not like that. I needed to go to my college orientation and that turned into the biggest problem I ever had there.

          How long is the rehearsal process?
          It all varied. When I went into the show the first time for the circus, I walked in the room and they said "ok you guys are gonna be playing this this this and that. We don't have the music for this and this, but we have the cd. Can you transcribe it?" I played in about 40 min of the show, other people had solos (soprano sax had to do Air, a solo by himself), we transcribed it all. Then you had to memorize it, because you have to run around, do choreographed stuff. We had two days to remember it because the steps were really hard.

          "They said: we don't have the music. 
          Can you transcribe it?"

          Then the rehearsals came. They were weird because not all of us were used at the same time, and some things were longer than others. You'd get in at 9 o'clock, sit around for 2 hours, play for 30 min, then they didn't need, then they took you back on. You can stay there a whole day, play 30 min and that's it. Its a painful process because I was a tuba player, I wasn't the lead, and I never knew what was going on. I was just there playing, and do what they told me to do. Eventually, everything got worked out, and after a month of rehearsals, we had a set schedule and it wasn't very difficult. After all that stuff it got pretty calm, and we were good. Two days before we open the show, they decided the show was too long, so they scrapped most of it.

          "Two days before the show, 
          they scrapped most of it"

          The acrobats and other people , they knew what they were doing, but the musicians didn't. We were gonna do this Black Eyed Peas tune, some awesome Dixieland stuff, and they cut it. They said "Alright we want you to play this now. We don't have the music. Figure it out." I remember being there until 4 o'clock in the morning transcribing. I never had an ear training class, I had never transcribed. I was a kid, 18. We were all on the same boat. If somebody helped me, they weren't transcribing their part. In  two days, the show was gonna open. We were being paid to be ready. We could have improvised for all they cared but it had to be professional , it needed to flow. 

          Even with all of that bs, that was the most fun I ever had. I was young and I still hadn't had a lot of professional experience. I felt like a rock star. That stadium was really big. I was so young, I knew it was a big show, and for me it was a very big deal. I knew it could possibly open up more possibilities. I was tired and frustrated and I felt overworked but I had a very good time doing it all. It was definitely some of the people I got to meet that made it good.

          "I felt like a rock star"

          Andy the sax player, a couple months after we finished that show and I was getting ready to go on a tour, I got a phone call: "dude, turn Oprah on," and Andy was playing for Michael Buble on Oprah. I think this is why I'm so obsessive about practicing and playing music. Peter Tunnel, Issac Tubb (he was playing at the Bellagio) and a tuba player Michael Woods, they were talking about Andy. They were like: "yeah man, he never takes his horn off his face." I don't remember him doing anything, or talking. He was always working on conditioning himself to do all these amazing things, and he really could do it. I wanted to be like that, and have those things said about me. It's because I heard those people I looked up to say that that I'm always practicing.


          Instrument practice, radio, TV prohibited

          I've always had this vision of Italy where mothers sing all day, and music comes pouring from every open window. Idealistic, but there used to be a time where music playing was a good thing, part of any good neighborhood. Playing an instrument at home helped people connect in the community.

          For some reason, we got the feeling in our new apartment that we had to be very cautious with any kind of sound when our neighbor from below asked us to take off our shoes so he wouldn't have to hear us walk. Then a new family of smokers moved in next door, and the entire floor started smelling like a club in the 70s. We looked over our lease to see if there were any smoking regulations, and found this instead:
          "The Tenant shall not play in a disturbing manner or cause to be played in a disturbing manner any musical instrument, radio, TV, or stereo on the leased premises, and shall not conduct or permit to be conducted vocal or instrumental practice or instruction at any time."
          1. Gee, couldn't the management have told us that when they asked us our occupation and we told them that both of us were professional musicians?!
          2. Seeing instruments put in the same category as radio, TV and stereo just hurts my musician's soul.
          3. How about reasonable rules instead of a no-playing rule: playing allowed between 9am-8pm, electric instruments unplugged.
          4. Cigarettes are permitted but not instrument playing?! When it comes to a big apartment complex like ours, how hard could it be to have specific buildings designated for smokers, specific buildings designated for pro and amateur musicians?

          Picture from http://www.sodahead.com/living/man-arrested-for-not-turning-down-his-music-how-do-you-handle-noisy-neighbors/question-496665/?link=ibaf&imgurl=http://www3.sympatico.ca/pratten/NSB/nomusic.JPG&q=loud%2Bmusic


          Do you have a pocket piano?

          Ever came up with a beautiful melody on the subway, and didn't have any way to record it? Ever needed to hear that chord progression while doing your theory assignment on the bus?

          Those situations are in the past, as now you can have your own pocket piano on your phone. There are great piano apps out there, and if you're a musician, having one of them can really make your life easier. Here are the best ones for pro musicians, out of the twenty listed in this great article.
          1. Pianist: this app has 88 keys and you can record and save what you play. 
          2. Real Piano: professional sound with no distortion,you can play five notes at once.
          3. Piano Sharp: five octaves and you can import and export MIDI files.

          Picture from http://www.tvleni.com/pocket-piano-for-symbian-s60v5-edition-virtual-piano-with-an-excellent-sound-on-your-phone.html


          Is there a righ posture to play your instrument?

          I love Gerald Klichstein's blog The Musician's way. A few weeks ago he wrote an article about the importance of finding the right position while we play as to avoid discomfort.

          It got me thinking because for most musicians focused on playing with the right position, discomfort still sets in after a few hours. I wonder if instead of one right posture, the right position isn't actually any that you change regularly.

          Many people believe that it's only if you have the wrong posture that you will eventually be in pain, but how many of us do not ever feel pain when playing hours and hours a day?

          Maybe after every hour we play we actually need to dramatically change our position. No pianist will ever admit to it, but I know many who spend part of their practice playing with crossed legs, or with their legs in a lotus, or with their legs extended under the piano, or the regular position.

          Maybe I am very far from the right answer, but looking and trying different options has to be part of the process to finding what truly works.

          I understand why the concept of sitting in one right position sounds like the correct answer, but until I meet many musicians who used to be in pain and are not anymore because of that technique, I won't be convinced.

          Picture from http://www.barnard.edu/bc1968/exhibit.html


          How to get young belters not to be scared

          Young belters are often afraid to injure themselves while singing. When they try to belt and they feel "something," they immediately assume that it's bad.

          Everyone has had experience working out and feeling their muscles work hard, and knowing that that's safe. And at other times we've actually felt a muscle tear or pull, and knew that that was not safe. The same way students know what is right or wrong when they work out, they need to know that they can trust themselves when they're belting as well.

          Belters fear they'll get injured unknowingly, that they won't be able to tell if something is going wrong. Instead of preventing any injury, their fear usually prevents them from finding the right placement. They need to know that they are aware enough of their own body to tell which is which. 

          Picture from http://www.zazzle.com/bonnievoyage/television+gifts


          How to teach students to play with purpose

          It is traditional that in music lessons, students work on technically challenging pieces. That's when their technique gets improved on and their level goes up. But it's only many years later, in early adulthood, that most students finally understand what it's like to be fully in control of a piece, technically and musically. Why then? Because by then, many students have gone through college, where they got to play some easier pieces in some of their ensembles.

          There is no reason that full control of a piece should come this late, after this many years of lessons. If us teachers were to give our students a very easy piece every week alongside their regular ones, students would learn from a young age what it means to own a piece. As the years would go by, they would be able to translate that information into their harder works. When practicing their demanding pieces, students are too concerned with the technical aspects of it to be able to completely master the musical aspects of it as well. Because they would be freed from technical challenges when working on an accessible piece, they could focus solely on musical challenges.

          Giving students challenging technical pieces only makes student's musical level lags behind their technical level. By addressing both aspects with a long and arduous piece alongside a short and technically basic piece, students can become well rounded in music at a younger age, and understand what it means to play with purpose.

          Picture from http://blogs.skokielibrary.info/studio/2009/02/14/midnight-music-using-classical-music-library/
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