Can you eat a whole steak in one bite? Neither can I!
When you have a difficult piece or etude to play, don't try to play the whole thing from the beginning to the end over and over again until it's perfect. It'll take for ever or it will simply not work. Instead, cut the piece in small sections and practice each section until you can play it with ease. Then move on to the next one and put the parts together when you feel comfortable enough.
If you have for example a 60 bars etude, you can cut it into four sections of 10 to 15 bars depending on how hard each section is. Practice only one section per day. It'll take you four days to get through it and a couple of days to put the whole thing together. It seems a bit boring but it's very efficient and you'll learn it much faster at the end. You better spend an hour on 15 bars and make it work than a month running through a whole etude with mediocre results.
Ok. Let's talk about nerves!
Playing music is a wonderful thing. It's exciting, thrilling, interesting, enriching etc... It can also be stressful sometimes as we all know espescially for horn players. Controlling your nerves is an important part of the equation when it comes to perform. It's no use being the world's greatest player if you collapse as soon as you're on stage.
In the ''Chill baby chill!'' series, I will try to help you with this important aspect of music making. I will post a text every once in a while about my own experience with nerves and you're all welcomed to comment and add to the discussion.
So let's start from the beginning...
I use to be very nervous. As a teenager, I didn't have much confidence in myself in general. I was petrified when I had to speak in front of the class for exemple just to give you an idea! . I was practicing my horn a lot so I could do well with this but playing in front of even 5 people was quite a torture! I remember my legs shaking out of control,my hands becoming all sweaty etc... Most of us have been there I guess! I had to go through a lot to overcome this but I can say now that playing in concert is a fun experience most of the time and nerves aren't really a problem.
So why is that? Why do we get all nervous playing in front of people when we are doing just fine by ourselves?
There are many explanations to that. Normally, the fonction of stress is to prepare your body for fighting or escape in the face of danger. Your adrenalin level is higher, your senses are more alert and more blood is pumped into your system. What we experience in concert is called ''performance stress''. You don't have to face any danger but the kick comes from the fact that you are being observed and watched. How do we deal with that?
It is a perfectly normal human reaction to feel nervous to a certain point in concert. It can even be enjoyable believe it or not! I think the first thing you need to do when dealing with nerves is to accept that you are not a robot. You have feelings and emotions and it's ok to show them. You musn't feel embarrassed if people see you being nervous. We think that people will see us as weak if they see us vulnerable and that is not true. On the contrary, performing something in front of an audience takes a lot of practice, discipline, courage and commitment.
The fact that you're on stage playing music, acting, dancing, juggling etc shows that you have the courage and the strenght to step out of your comfort zone and do something special.That's not weakness! If anyone thinks you're weak for being nervous, well let's hear them play! For that reason, you need to walk on stage with your head up high and no matter how it goes, walk out of stage with your head up high. You deserve it! Allways keep that in mind.
You need also to have realistic expectations about your performance. We've heard people saying that you need to aim for perfection to achieve excellence. In reality, aiming for perfection will put a lot of pressure on your shoulders and hurt you when you perform. You better aim for ''very good'' and get ''very good'' than aim for ''perfect'' and get ''mediocre''. If you allways try to be perfect, you will become increasingly angry and frustrated with your playing because it's simply impossible. You're not a machine! There will allways be something to improve anyway. Learn to appreciate where you are now as a player and be proud of what you've done so far. There will allways be more and less advanced players.
A sane and realistic way to set your goals for your performance is to take your ''average good'' performance in your practice room and expect that in concert. If you've never been perfect alone, why would it suddenly happen in concert?
Having a more realistic and human approach to performing will take a lot of pressure off your shoulders and should make your concert a much more enjoyable experience.
So let's start with that and we'll definately talk more about it later!
It's good to take time to listen to other things than just brass or classical music sometimes. You want to take your mind off of it. Have other interests as well. Sports, games literature etc. If you do nothing else, you'll go crazy and you'll become a " one dimension person" aka boring. Boring person= boring playing.
We're off to Europe with the SSO tonight. I won't be able to write on this blog for a couple of weeks. So I'll see you later!
How loud is fortissimo and how soft is pianissimo ?
It depends on what you play. If you're playing long notes in a chord in the orchestra, you probably shouldn't play full volume or you might cover some more important parts. Also if you're playing a solo, you want to play a bit more even if it's piano. There isn't a specific number of decibel for each dynamic.
Playing extremely loud will wear you out. That's why you need to pace yourself and save your loudest volume for the climax of the piece. If you play your maximum volume all the time, it can be just as boring as if you were playing "mezzo something" the whole time. On the other end playing super soft can be very uncomfortable. It is very difficult to play with almost no air especially in the high register. So what can you do if a conductor keeps asking you to play softer and softer? It's always easy to tell people what to do but actually doing it, that's a different story!
Let's start with the soft part. First have an idea of how much volume you want for a particular passage. Then play it with that volume, not more and NOT LESS. If you try to play infinitely soft, It'll never be soft enough and you'll end up stopping your air flow and choking yourself. On the other end if you fix the volume and stick to it, you will find out that it's a lot easier to control your tone in the soft passages and you'll be able to play softer than if were trying to "disappear". At the end of the day, if the composer didn't want to hear you there, he would not have written a part!
As for loud passages, we should remember that music isn't a strong man contest. It's not about how loud you CAN play; it's about how loud you SHOULD play. Open your ears, listen to the people you play with and make your dynamics an artistic decision, not a competition! Of course, there are time when you need to use your maximum volume. In that case, go for it but choose that moment carefully; you don't want to become boring by doing the same thing all the time.
Choose a dynamic for every passage. Have an idea about how loud or soft you WANT it to be. There will always be time to talk about it if there is any disagreement. That way you become an artist making decisions rather than an athlete blowing as hard as he/she can without knowing why. You'll soon find out that most of the time, you don't need to use full volume and won't need to push yourself to the edge all the time which will take a lot of pressure off your shoulders. You'll feel better and more relaxed which will help you getting a nicer tone and make your playing a much more pleasant experience.
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.