Being a music student isn't like being a engineering student. There is not a job waiting for you automatically as soon as you graduate. This can cause a lot of anxiety as you wonder if you'll be able to support yourself, pay your student loan, buy a house and a car etc... That kind of anxiety can be a poison for your playing and for your life in general. I could give you all the "believe in yourself" and "don't give up" clichés but instead here's a little story:
Many years ago, I met a director at the CBC radio who use to be a music student in college. She had just started to play horn again in a community orchestra where I went to help for a concert. Things didn't go very well for her in university. Although she was passionate about music and determined to make it as a musician, the pressure and the competition got her frustrated, discouraged and depressed. No matter how hard she was trying, things just didn't seem to work.
One summer, she found a part time job as assistant radio-director. Because of her musical knowledge, she did really well so they kept hiring her occasionally after the summer until they offered her a full time position. She was later promoted to director. She is very contented with her career, has a more than decent income (as I could tell by the car she was driving!) and enjoys life very much. After a few years, she picked up the horn again and enjoys playing music in a community orchestra.
There are thousands of stories like this one. My point is that even if you don't win a job in an orchestra, the musical knowledge, skills, discipline, work ethics and contacts that you acquire as a music student are invaluable assets that can help you in the music business or in any other business if you are willing to be flexible about your career goals. No matter what happens, you are not wasting your time.
Some of my former classmates in the conservatory now have a position in an orchestra, others are teachers and freelance musicians. Some of them are in the music industry but aren't necessarily playing or are doing something else that has nothing to do with music. As far as I know, none of them are unemployed and none of them regret their experience as a music student.
The truth is that not everybody will win a job in an orchestra. The good news is: it's not the end of the world! Those who have the talent and motivation to win a job will win a job. The others will do something else musical or not and will be perfectly happy with their lives. There will always be places for people to play as amateur musicians which can be a lot of fun too.
I want to make myself clear here. I'm not saying that you should give up right now if things aren't going well. Far from that. What I'm saying is that there is a life outside symphony orchestras and that should you not make it as an orchestra player, there is certainly something else waiting for you in which you can be perfectly happy and make a decent living. So no need for that poisonous anxiety.
You made the choice to be a musician and that choice will bring you somewhere. Not always where you thought it would bring you but somewhere nice! So with that in mind, enjoy your playing and don't worry about the future. Your efforts, commitment and discipline will be rewarded in some way. Orchestral or not!
Many musicians, actors, dancers and athletes take Alexander technique lessons to improve the way they use their body. I have personally done it myself for about a year in Switzerland back in 2001-02. AT is not only about having the right posture when you play but also about making the right move with your entire body to achieve an optimal result. It teaches you not to focus on the actual results but on the means to get there. If you do the right move, you'll eventually get the right result with time and patience.
We very often take shortcuts to reach notes or play a difficult passage. Although you might actually get what you want in the short term, you can easily develop bad habits from forcing things which will hurt you in the long run. AT can help you unlearn some of these bad habits and replace them with good ones.
I was always amazed how good my playing felt after each Alexander technique lesson. Some conservatories and music faculties offer it on their premises. If you are lucky enough to be in one of these schools, take advantage of this. If your school doesn't have an AT teacher, make a little research to find one in your area. You won"t regret it. You'll immediately feel a difference in your tone and it'll greatly improve the fluidity of your playing.
Here is a video of an Alexander technique masterclass to give you an idea of what it can do for you. You can find many more about it online.
We all have days once in a while where our chops just don't respond like they should. This can be caused by various factors: sudden change in temperature or humidity, general fatigue, over-practicing the day before, lack of practicing, illness, stress before a performance etc...
If you are generally in good shape and your chops normally work fine, you probably should just take it easy for the day without trying to force to play louder in the high range. Forcing your chops when they don't feel well is like scratching a skin rash to make it feel better. It really doesn't help and you'll just get more anxious about it.
Do what you have to do for that day with the chops that you have and put the instrument back in the case. Go do something else if you can and forget about it. Your chops should feel better the next day if you give them a chance.
If you are a bit stiff a few days before a performance, take some time to play slow and easy pieces that you won't play in that performance. It'll relax your embouchure and undo some of the stiffness.
As for over or under practicing, it's up to you to determine how much you really need to practice to achieve your goals and keep a strong embouchure. You can talk about it with your teacher. Stick to your plan but be flexible about it when needed.
If your chops don't go back to normal after a few days. You might want to take a few steps back and play everything softer and slower for a couple of days or take an entire day off to relax your face.
You can also try to be a bit less perfectionist. If you don't allow yourself any mistakes, you'll tend to get a bit stiff which will affect your chops.
In any case, you need to be patient with your body. It has ups and down. There are different solutions for different situations. Most of the time, things go back to normal by themselves if you give yourself a chance.
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You can change the intonation of a note by changing the tone color. If you make a brighter sound, your pitch will tend to go sharper and a darker tone should help you going lower. This can be very helpful in the low register where the pitch can vary a lot. It is more difficult to do this in the high register but it still makes a difference.
Just a quick word to tell you that I put all posts on this blog in a few categories on the right side. Each category is about one specific aspect of brass playing. Hope it makes navigating on this site easier!
Here's a little experiment: make a fist with both hands and squeeze as hard as possible. While doing that, try to blow air. How does it feel? Not very good of course.
Now relax both hand and blow. See how natural and comfortable that feels.
We tend to press our valves or pistons too hard when we play. Especially for high or difficult passages. This creates tension in the harm which affects the rest of the body and stiffens the air flow causing problems in the high register.
Take a couple of minutes to practice pressing your valves gently with just the minimum amount of pressure. Trombone players can practice holding the slide gently and moving the harm fluidly. Then play on your instrument this way. Your playing should immediately feel more relaxed and comfortable. You might miss a bit more notes at first but it'll only take a few minutes for your embouchure to get used to this new relaxed way of playing.
This will help your tone in the high register and improve your endurance.
The way we breath has a big impact on our state of mind.
Imagine you are at home, everything is fine, you're watching TV or reading a book. How do you breath? Take a few seconds to see yourself in that situation and breath just as you would breath there.
Now imagine you are late for rehearsal and stuck in traffic. How do you breath there? Not quite the same...
In concert or rehearsal, try to breath like you would in the first situation whenever you're not playing. By doing this, you are sending the message to your subconscious that everything is ok which will calm your mind a bit and help you focus on the moment.
You can do this in any situation whenever you feel nervous or irritated. Just breath normally and calmly and your mind will follow.
Double and triple tonging are very handy when you need to play fast staccato especially for repeated notes and it's not that difficult to learn.
When you single tongue, you attack each note separately making a "tah" attack. With double tonguing, you will alternate between "tah" and "kah" attacks to play faster. It takes a bit of time to get used to produce the "kah" in the back of your mouth while playing. You can practice scales just on "kah" attacks to strengthen your muscles back there. In the beginning, your tongue will get tired quickly but it should improve with time.
First practice with only 3 notes. Repeat "takata.... takata..." many times. Then add more notes to the sequence until you can do "taka taka taka taka..." non stop comfortably.
For triplets, use triple tonguing. Instead of doing TKTKTK, you make groups of TKT and repeat as much as needed. You can also do TTK for your triplets. I personally prefer the first method.
Before you practice on your instrument, practice "speaking" your double or triple tonguing.
Say "taka taka taka taka ta...." for double and "takata takata takata...." as fast as possible for triple. This way you can get used to it and add some speed before you play it.
Here is a little video about double and triple tonguing to give you an idea. There are more videos with slightly different opinions about it. Some people argue about "takata" vs "tukutu" or even "tagataga..." I think it's a minor detail. You can try different options and see what works the best for you.
Have you ever had a little voice in your head telling you how much "you suck" after missing a note? That your tone is "so harsh" and you're "so weak" because you can't reach that note or get tired ? Everyone has it up to a certain point.
That voice is an extremely destructive force in our lives. It keeps us from being the happy and confident people that we should be. It constantly criticize us and compare us to "better than us" making us feel miserable, helpless and discouraged when something doesn't go as planned. There is absolutely no way to satisfy it as it'll always try to find flaws and make us feel bad about them even if we are doing well.
Twelve years ago, I went to a transactional analysis course for a weekend. It has nothing to do with finance! T.A. is a method created by Eric Berne in the 1950's to help people dealing with themselves and other people around them. It has been greatly helpful in my career when I had to deal with stressful situations and made me a more confident person and player. The main goal of T.A. is to help us shut down that non-stop critic in our head so we can fulfill our potential and enjoy what we do.
This constant self-criticizing comes from the education and conditioning we receive from our all well intentioned parents, teachers, educators, coaches, the society etc. Basically, to accomplish the impossible mission it sets for you, you'll have to these things:
1) Be perfect. "Don't you ever miss a note or have a tiny bit of fuzz in your tone!"
2) Be strong." Why the hell are you getting tired?! you're so weak!"
3) Hurry up. "Man! you're so slow! Everyone got it but you! What's the matter with you?!"
4) Work hard. "It's not good enough because the piece is too easy"
5) Please the others. "you're not allowed to say no!"
There are probably more but these are the most common.
Lovely program isn't it? The good news is that you don't have to cope with that. If you can recognize where it comes from, you can tell it: "shut up and leave me alone!" "let me have a good time and be myself!" "Go away! You're not helping at all!"
It is not always easy to shut this voice up in a society driven by performance, social status, competitiveness and money. This society wants results and it wants them NOW! It doesn't care if you're happy or not as long as you perform! It will make sure you feel ashamed every time you don't conform to its standards of performance, beauty, material welt, success, etc...
Being aware of this will help you break free from this tyranny and enable you to be yourself. Not a robot, not an alien, not a super-hero, not a super model, not the world champion. JUST YOURSELF IS FINE!
You will then become more confident as you won't let that bitchy critic undermine you all the time. You'll also have more patience as you won't expect results right now and allow yourself proper time to learn things without a bully whipping you to go faster.
This is only to give you an idea about transactional analysis. It would take a whole book to go over everything. You can find many articles about it online. Take time to do a little research and see how it can help you as a person and as a musician. It has changed the lives of millions of people including mine.
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.