Before I start practicing, I often do a little breathing exercise to relax and put myself in a good mindset to play.
I first try to listen or feel my heart beat. Then I breath in through my nose for 4 beats, hold my breath for 2, breath out for 4 and keep may lungs empty for 2. I breath like this for a few minutes until I feel calm and relax.
Do this exercise regularly before playing or at any time during the day. It will calm you and help you focus on the moment. It will put you in a good state of mind and increase your concentration to maximize the efficiency of your practicing time.
Everyone without exception should find time to do a bit of physical activity two or three times a week. It doesn't matter what. After all, your body is the vehicle you use to do everything including playing music so you should take good care of it.
No need to list all the benefits of exercise here but let's just mention that exercise is a great stress reliever and confidence booster. Not a bad thing for a brass player! Being in good physical shape will also improve your mental health and mood. You'll learn better and faster.
I can tell you that the older you get, the more difference it will make. In your early 20's, your mind and body are naturally young and sharp, you recover quickly and learn fast. But as you reach your 30's and the weight of the years starts adding up, it's not that easy anymore! You'll have to work for it if you want to stay fit. The good news is that exercise is fun! You might feel terrible the first few times but you'll get better and feel great after a while.
I've always been physically active on and off all my life. As I see my 40's coming soon, I decided to take it more seriously. I started to run seriously about 18 months ago on top of attending a yoga class every week. I'll do two or three runs per week plus one time yoga. At 37, I can really tell the difference in my playing. I feel stronger and more confident, I'm less tired at the end of rehearsals and concerts, my concentration is sharper and I make less little mistakes. I'm in a better mood and sleep better. Now I just can't stop running. Even in the singaporean heat!
We all like to watch sports on TV but why not getting off the couch and be your own hero sometimes?! You'll feel great and play your horn better.
Relax! This isn't about Snow White!...
Go in front of a mirror and take a look at yourself. You'll see a smart, talented, dedicated and hard working person. That person deserve your trust and respect. Learn to trust him/her and you'll be more confident than ever.
When you do this exercise, try to look at your reflexion in the mirror as if it was someone else. You can then tell him or her : "I trust you, "you'll do fine" or "you've done all this work, you can do this no problem" . You can say anything you want as long as you mean it.
Do this before you play and when it's time to perform, let go. Let that person you saw in the mirror take charge. He/she will make it happen for you. Trust him/her.
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.
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.
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.
If you have fun playing, people will have fun listening to you.
As a music student, you are constantly preparing for a lesson, an exam, a recital, an audition etc. There is always something coming up where you'll have to present something or compete with others.
This constant obligation to prove something to teachers, judges, classmates and yourself can become a burden if you're not careful about it. I personally went through a hard time in school until I told myself that if I wasn't gonna enjoy myself playing music, I'd rather do something else. My life changed when I decided to make fun the most important aspect of my playing. I became more relaxed and played a lot better. The results in exams and auditions followed. I also had much better relations with my classmates.
Take time to play pieces or etudes just for yourself with fun and pleasure as your only goal. No public to impress, no jury to win over, no conductor to follow, no teacher to satisfy, nothing to prove and nothing to explain! Chose pieces you won't be performing for anybody. Just music you really like. It can be something new or something you played before. Just enjoy yourself. When you go back to the pieces you need to prepare, you'll feel much better.
Make the fun aspect of your playing just as important as rhythm, intonation, tone and musicality. Those aspects will improve if you enjoy yourself, trust me.
Don't we all love these high and soft passages? They make us look so good all the time! Just kidding of course!
I'm afraid there is no trick that will guaranty a 100% success rate but there are a few things that can help you.
First, you need to plan your dynamics according to your artistic judgement rather than your physical abilities. If you just try to play as soft as you can, you'll always try to get softer and softer and your playing will become uncomfortable. This will cause you to miss notes and create more stress. You should always play as soft as you SHOULD instead. This way, you will get to a nice soft sound and keep it there unless the conductor asks for less. They don't always do by the way contrary to what most people say! By having a "bottom" to your dynamics, you give yourself a realistic goal and take some stress off your shoulders.
Second, take a good breath before playing. When we see piano written in our part, we very often have the reflex to take a small breath. It's much easier to play a soft passage with full lungs.
Third, let go a nice piano sound rather then restraining your forte.
These tricks can help you playing soft in the high range but there is no guaranty. You need to be patient with this aspect of your playing. Avoid over-practicing a passage before a concert. You'll eventually miss a note if you try to play it 100 times in a row which will make you more nervous. Concentrate on what you have to do to make it work and trust yourself.
Take your playing seriously without taking yourself too seriously.
In other words: do your best without worrying about what people will say or think. You'll enjoy playing music a lot more this way and will be a lot less nervous.
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.