"Keep your mind here and now"
The biggest cliché of all times! Nevertheless , if we think about it for a moment, it can still help us a bit. So don't leave yet!
If we look around us, there is always someone who we think is better, richer, better looking, smarter etc. than us. We all wish we could be in his/her shoes sometimes. Now here is a little secret: these people we envy so much are probably wishing they were someone else too sometimes. In fact, they might even wish they were you! That's because, we're so busy focusing on what we don't have that we forget to enjoy what we actually have.
I read an article once about the level of happiness versus personal income. There was a difference in happiness between the people who didn't earn enough to support themselves and those who weren't rich but were doing just okay. However, there was no difference between people in the "okay" category and the super rich because the very wealthy people keep wanting more and are never satisfied no matter what. Some rich people were happy but not more that the average Joe.
So what does that have to do with music?
Even if you can't play everything yet and aren't the strongest player around, there's still quite a lot you can do with your instrument. If you think about what you CAN do rather than what you haven't achieved so far, you can do enough to enjoy yourself playing even if you've only been playing for a couple of months.
Take time to play music that you like just for the simple pleasure of playing music. It doesn't always have to be about making progress, getting good grades or winning prizes. JUST HAVE FUN HERE AND NOW WITH YOUR INSTRUMENT.
The process of learning is just as important as the end result. Do what you need to do daily to achieve your goals and results will come when they come. Focus on the means to reach your target rather than the target itself. If you do the right moves, the right things will happen. Maybe not today or tomorrow but they will happen.
In the mean time, make sure you don't miss this exciting time by over thinking about the future or by wishing you were someone else. Like I said, that someone else probably wants to be someone else too!
We had a rather grueling schedule in the past two weeks in the orchestra as we had to perform the Alpine symphony, record the Dvorak cello concerto and Brahm's Academic festival overture before playing Beethoven's Fidelio the next week!
This large amount of work can be exhausting and make your playing difficult as you need to play high ,soft and exposed passages on tired chops. If it happens over a long period of time, it can cause you to gradually lose self confidence and to be more nervous in general.
In my previous orchestra, I was often put in a situation where I had to perform delicate passages at the end of very tiring rehearsals which was causing me stress that compounded over the years to the point that I started shaking a bit when I had to play by myself. I also had trouble sleeping at night and wasn't feeling well both physically and mentally.
One day, after yet another crappy night of not-so much-sleep, I've decided to just take it easy in the rehearsal. We were playing Shostakovitch 8. I thought I would just play everything sort of "mezzo-something" to relax. So I stopped trying to blow the roof up in fortissimo passages and I didn't try to be almost inaudible in pianissimos anymore. And then something happened: after about 30 minutes of this, I began to feel really good! My heart beat felt normal again and my entire mind and body was relaxed and comfortable. Like a ton of pressure was suddenly off my shoulders. Ironically, as I felt better, my tone was instantly better and I could play louder and softer since I wasn't wasting all my energy on every line and wasn't pushing myself to the edge all the time.
It makes sense: if your body is comfortable, your mind will be comfortable and your confidence level will increase.
I asked the conductor in the break if we were making enough sound. He said it was just perfect like that.
So I asked myself how many times in a concert do we need to play our loudest or softest volume? Not very often actually. In fact, we can play within our comfort zone more than 95% of the time. We still need to have the ability to play extremely loud or soft in case we need it but most of the time, it's not necessary. Even if it's pianissimo, the part still needs to be heard or else, the composer wouldn't have written it! And if it's fortissimo, well. you're not alone in the orchestra and it might not be the most important thing going on. You have to use your artistic judgement.
The past two weeks reminded me of this as I got so tired after playing so much loud stuff in Alpine that I had a hard time in the Beethoven the week after and was a bit discouraged. I remembered what I did a couple of years ago and took it easy from the third day of rehearsal. Things went much better after that and the concert went great!
There is a time to give 110% and there is a time to take it easy. You can save yourself a lot of stress by pacing yourself properly depending on how much you have to play in a particular week and by using your artistic judgement to determine your dynamics. You'll feel much better and will have a much better time playing in general.
Brass instruments work with air. There's no way around it. Use your air well and you will play well. The more air you can take, the easier it gets to make a nice tone, play in the high register and have more endurance. Of course it doesn't all comes down to how much air you can take in your lungs but air intake does play a major role in your playing.
First you need to follow the laws of physics: think of your body as a balloon; when it gets bigger, air goes in. When it gets smaller, air goes out. To increase your air intake, you'll have to facilitate this movement.
To do so you will have to get rid of unnecessary tensions in your body:
-Don't press on your valves too hard. It will create stress in your harm which will affect your torso and disrupt the natural movement of your diaphragm and rib cage.
-Don't force with your forehead. Tensions in your upper facial muscles won't help you reaching high notes on the contrary.
-Keep your shoulders down. Raising your shoulders while playing will hurt you on the short term as well as on the long term.
-Don't hold your instrument too tight.
-Don't keep your harms to close to your body. This is a defensive reflex that most people have to protect themselves against danger. Unfortunately, this will not help you here. To counter this habit, you can slightly raise your elbows for each breath you take. You don't need to lift them to the roof. Just a bit to make sure your rib cage has enough space to expand. Eventually, you will get the right habit and won't need to think about it any more.
-Take Alexander technique lessons. In a previous post, I mentioned how great my playing felt after each Alexander lesson. A good Alexander technique teacher will help you use your body in a way that will make your breathing natural and fluid. I strongly recommend this to all musicians.
-Do breathing exercises. For example:
Stand up and open your harms while taking deep breaths.
Blow on your hand while moving it up and down.
Lie down on your back and feel your body inflating and deflating on each breath.
-Be in good physical shape.
Increasing you air intake will take some time but if you do these simple things you should see some result immediately. Keep working on it and you'll develop a nice fluid air flow to support your playing.
Someone once told me that motivation and expectations are like a hammer ; if you have a big one, your nail will go in faster but if you hit your finger, it'll hurt a lot more!
A lot of the stress we feel when we play comes from the expectations we have about our playing. If you set the bar so high that you can never reach your goal, you set yourself for a lot of tension and frustration. Also, if you've never achieved something in your practice room, it is unlikely that you'll achieve it on stage.
We often hear that you need to aim for perfection if you want to achieve excellence. It may be true in some areas but in brass playing, this approach might cause you more trouble than anything else as it will make you tense and nervous. You just won't have fun playing if you don't give yourself a chance to be human.
On the other hand, if you don't care at all, you won't practice and will not become a good player. You don't want that!
The best is to fix yourself ambitious but realistic short term targets for your playing and achieve these goals. That way you'll always have small victories and will be motivated to practice without the frustration of failing all the time. Once you've reach your target, set the bar slightly higher. Be ready to take a few steps back if you feel you aren't making progress anymore. We all have ups and downs so don't get mad if things don't go your way all the time!
For performances, you can expect something a bit above the average of what you normally do. If you have a chance to perform the same piece again, try to be a bit better than the previous time you played it.
It can be mentally difficult to accept lower expectations. and it takes some courage to let go of some of our perfectionism.
LOWER EXPECTATIONS DOESN'T MEAN NO EXPECTATIONS OR LOW EXPECTATIONS.
You can still aim quite high even if it's not perfection. It'll just be more realistic and you will sound better, have more endurance and play more musically at the end.
I am associate principal horn of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the author of the progressive methods. I'm happy to share my experience as a horn player and teacher with you.