Teaching

(Originally posted 6/2/2017)

There is not one correct manner in which to teach, but rather a diverse series of paths leading to the same result; great musicianship unhindered by technical ineptitude. This, being the ultimate goal of every performer, should become the focus of teaching regardless the path. Since the burden of execution falls on the student, the teachers job becomes instructing the thinking habits of each student according to their ability. In many ways, asking leading questions requiring that students think outside the realm of their preconceived ideas becomes an ideal vessel for instruction. The answers to strategically placed questions will enable students to address problems, technical and musical, without the constant presence of the teacher. 

In many ways, perfecting an instrument is akin to a puzzle tailored to each individual. Part of the teachers responsibility is to find the pieces and point them out, while enabling the student to polish and assemble them to become a great musician. The student will need help perfecting techniques and musical ideas, so the teacher must be patient and guide the student through the process by assigning routine work, etudes, solos, and excerpts that facilitate their individual learning. In some cases, this means bringing the student back to the most elementary of lessons regardless of age or experience. This ensures that new, fruitful habits form and grow into effortless technique, gradually replacing useless habits. 

Students, you have the responsibility to seek out great teachers, who may not always be the best performers. While there is a correlation between great performing and great teaching, some performers should not teach. 

eachers, your responsibility regarding your students is great and should be taken seriously. It is a practiced and learned skill that must be perfected over time and held to the highest standards. Each word and action bears a consequence, good or bad, and must be carefully considered. Teaching is greatly rewarding, but should be reserved for those who are able to devote time to learning its secrets.

Philip Hembree
Overcoming Psychological, Technical and Musical Plateaus

(Originally posted 5/16/2017)

At some point in every musician's journey, he reaches a plateau in the never-ceasing pursuit of perfection. This may manifest itself as a technical, musical, or psychological hinderance and will become exceedingly frustrating until its removal. The most successful way to remedy this road block is to return to the basics of playing and thinking - identify what is important, and what is not. 

At the root of all music is the concept that it should be fulfilling to the listener. It is less important that the performer enjoys himself, and more so that the listeners capture the essence of the performed work. The notion that every time a musician plays he becomes enamored by the music is misleading. Yes, there are touching moments throughout the years of performing, but these are spontaneous and come at unassuming times. But in the professional world, work can often become tedious and repetitive, leading to a lack of motivation that may cause a mental road block. This is the most dangerous situation to encounter since it will inevitably cause the deterioration of technical and musical concepts. Entirely too often musicians only care about how they played during a concert, when that is secondary to the goal. Instead of focusing on themselves, musicians should work to please, or challenge, the audience. In this manner, music supersedes the individual desire to "play well" and allows the musician to focus on the important aspects of music. In time, this method will alleviate the psychological road block since it focuses the mind away from personal critique and onto making the music speak to the listener.

Stunts in musical growth come when there is much repetition in literature or style of playing. This problem will often plague students who enter audition or recital preparation, and also effects professionals who play in one ensemble for the majority of their career. The simplest solution is literature and style diversification. When not working, or preparing for an upcoming performance, pull out any and every piece in the library that contrasts stylistically with the "norm." This will keep your brain engaged musically and will allow you to approach the required music with a refreshed sense of purpose. 

When hitting a road block with technique, return to the simplest form(s) and rework everything in a systematic and detailed progression. Unless there is a glaring issue to address, diagnose your playing starting with air flow, asking these questions, "Is my air stream relaxed, but energetic?" "Am I blowing out consistently, or are there bumps in the stream?" "Is there unnecessary tension in my throat, jaw, abdomen, upper chest, tongue?" Once you answer these questions satisfactorily, then move on to these questions regarding embouchure, "Are my lips vibrating freely and without unnecessary tension?" "Do my lips respond immediately to the slightest stimulation of air in all registers?" "Am I rolling in/out or adding tension in any register?" "Can I play the same range/good sound without rolling in/out?" "Can I move quickly around the horn while keeping the same embouchure set and with significant ease?" "Am I pivoting to the point of deterioration in my embouchure?" "Does my horn angle align with my dental structure?" When those questions are resolved, troubleshoot articulation, "Can I articulate clearly and clean in all registers at pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff?" "Can I double/triple tongue in all registers with ease and delicacy?" "Is there an airy sound before the articulation?" "Is there a pause before the articulation?" "Does the air stream remain constant through the articulation?"

By asking these simple questions, you will find areas that need work in your playing. That is a good starting point to overcoming the technical road block. However, SOUND should still be at the forefront of your mind while pursing these projects. While some of these questions will lead to better sound production and efficiency, always demand a great sound each time you play - especially when troubleshooting. 

hile road blocks are frustrating, a systematic approach will help shorten the duration of the problem. I hope these ideas will help alleviate the frustration caused by mental and technical plateaus. 

Philip Hembree
Daily Anxiety, Part 2

(Originally posted 2/27/2017)

In the last blog, I mentioned that I would provide suggestions for dealing with the daily anxiety that confronts teaching careers, and students. This article give suggestions that have worked for me through my experience in both positions.

The paragraphs below give suggestions to handling the daily anxiety for teaching-based careers.

Keep set hours when you respond to emails/calls. Teaching can quickly become an all encompassing task with no relief from the work and the students, meaning a balance of work and life hours is essential to relieving stress. In the world of constant communication it becomes easy to assign a high priority to every email, text, or call. However, not all messages require an immediate response or action, and keeping set hours aside from work communication is key. I recommend not checking work email between 8pm and 8am weekly, and then once a day (if at all) on weekends. This will allow you to set boundaries that will allow your personal life to thrive and not become overrun by work. The exact times are not important, but make sure to set times that align with your personal schedule. 
Teach each student according to their needs. Each student is unique and learns in his/her own manner and it is the teacher's job to discover the best approach for each student. However, there are common problems each student faces, which leads the teacher to assign all students similar material. This is not the issue - the problem comes when each student attempts to play the common material. Two students may have similar sounding articulation deficiencies, but one is caused by over-tonguing and the other by a choppy air stream. While these sound identical, they are corrected by different methods. These type of problems can cause the teacher stress, but if we step back and listen by asking directed questions the answers will eventually present themselves. This may take years, or minutes. Patience and ingenuity are paramount during this process. If something does not work for the student, try a different approach or try phrasing your comments in several different manners. Something will resonate with the student. Once discovered, make a note of the learning style of the student and invent ways of teaching that align with the student's learning predisposition. Thinking of teaching as a logic puzzle will make it less stressful, and when the pieces fit together the job becomes rewarding. 
Admit when you do not have the answers. As teachers, we always want to provide an answer to students requesting information. However, as humans we cannot possibly know everything even about one subject. Admitting that you do not know the answers is good to show your students, and is not a defamation of your character or teaching experience. It shows restraint and experience rather than guesswork and youthfulness. However, if you do not know the answer, research the question and come back with a carefully thought out response for your student. Or, have your student find the answer and report back to you - this teaches independence and will help your student become self-sustainable. 
    
he paragraphs below give suggestions to handling the daily anxiety confronting students. 

Stay ahead on schoolwork. It may seem that schoolwork is an all encompassing, never ending chore. While this may be the case, it should not take over your life. This starts with starting your work well ahead of time. When your instructor assigns work, begging working through it immediately so that when other things fight for your time, you have time to give. You do not have to complete the project in one day. Steady, detailed work is much more effective. This method will also provide room for proof-reading papers and assignments several times, which will likely lead to better grades. This is how I survived during college, and it has greatly aided in my career.
Plan ahead for your future. You must always keep the reason for your education at the front of your mind. Everything that you accomplish in school should be to benefit the ultimate goal - being successfully and gainfully employed. The decisions made today will have an impact on your future, whether it is small are large depends on the situation. Avoid making simple mistakes - DUI, drug abuse, pregnancy, burning professional bridges, etc. These will have a great effect on your life, and before engaging in these activities think what your future employer would think and if it would prevent you from landing a job. This is not meant to say that you should not have fun, but rather to think about consequences.
Prioritize your practicing above all else. As a performance major, your job is to be the best musician in the country. This means that you schoolwork needs to come second to your practice schedule. Of course, you need to keep your grades up since that will effect your scholarships and entry into future academic programs, but if you cannot play your instrument well, you will not have a career. Also, prioritize practicing above your friends. Yes, you need friends and building relationships is a must, but you are at college to learn how to be a professional musician...not a socialite. Spend your free time with friends. 
Learn how to manage your time. Time management is the area in which most college students fail. This is usually the first time they are responsible for their daily schedule. During college, I planned out my days with practice, homework, free time, and meals. While I did not stick to my schedule every day, it provided a starting point for learning time management. Making a schedule forced me to think about my priorities and helped organize my day so that I avoided the majority of stress that may have ensued due to poor planing. 

I hope that these suggestions will help in your stress negotiation each day. As always, please contact me with questions or comments.

Philip Hembree
Dealing with Daily Anxiety

(Originally posted 2/4/2017)

Due to its impact on daily life, Musical Career Anxiety can have a larger-reaching effect on a performer than performance anxiety. It can produce enough stress to mentally paralyze any musician, subsequently inducing a panic attack. The type of stress each musician encounters is different depending on which career path they have chosen. There are five categories that every musician fits into: Professional Ensemble, Soloist, Freelancer, Teacher, or Student. Each of these have many subcategories that clearly define each musician, and most individuals fit into several of these categories. Below is a short list of some of the situations in each field that may cause stress:

Professional Ensemble Musicians in orchestras, military bands, jazz bands, or professional quintets experience pressure to perform daily at an extremely high level, and to prepare for each rehearsal and concert - in addition to keeping their playing in excellent condition apart from the ensemble music. The changing repertoire alone can be enough to cause anxiety. Every week comes with a new show, and sometimes there are multiple, different, shows in a week with limited rehearsal time. 
    Soloists are constantly programming and preparing for performances and often are expected to play the most difficult literature for the instrument with ease. Even with help from a manager, they also must market themselves and find venues and audiences in order to keep their job stable. The logistics of traveling while on tour are often difficult and time-consuming. Then, recording CD's poses an entirely different set of problems and stress. 
    Freelancers are responsible for being the most versatile performers. This career requires a great variety of practice, listening, and competency on every instrument they may be required to play. The need to always being on top of their game is insatiable. Furthermore, marketing and networking takes up a significant amount of time and energy.
    Teachers have the most demanding job of all the fields because of the amount of responsibility that they hold to themselves and their students. In addition to recruiting and maintaining a studio, the teacher should be an equally adept performer in their field. Teaching requires practice (yes, practice) to streamline ideas, concepts, and the delivery thereof. While practicing teaching, there is a responsibility to do no harm while enabling the student to succeeded at their chosen field. Also, the teacher must ensure to place aside their ego in order to revel in the students' success.
    Students are often pulled in many directions resulting in time-management and efficiently problems. In addition to attending classes and ensembles, they must prepare for lessons, work on music for their own interest, complete academic assignments, and find personal time. There is always the question; "what if I cannot find a job?", resulting in high levels of anxiety.

                 The paragraphs below give suggestions to handling the daily anxiety for performance-based careers:

Prepare for concerts in advance. Advanced preparation can significantly reduce the amount of stress on a weekly basis. Most organizations provide a list of repertoire three months to a year in advance. When this list becomes available, write down every piece that will require practice and begin working through each piece slowly, softly and with great precision and ease. This is the time to play the long game - meaning that you have several months to perfect the music and will not have to cram (added stress) in the last week or two. Make each phrase sound easy, beautiful, and stylistically accurate, even if it is far under tempo and not yet at the appropriate dynamic level. Rotate pieces each day so that there is variety in the practice session and remember to break them into small sections for detailed work. Once satisfied with the result of the practice, put the piece away until the week before the concert. Then, pick it up again and slowly and carefully attend to any residual problems. This method will reduce stress during the week of the performance since the performer will have confidence that the piece(s) have been learned to the best of his/her ability.

 Become a better sight reader. There are weeks when the adequate time for preparation is not available, or new music is placed in the folder unannounced. This can quickly become a high stress situation which will likely lead to a sub-par performance experience. However, when looking through the music for a concert, you will quickly realize that you do not have to practice every note on the page. Bracket the sections that need a quick look on the trumpet and commit to sight reading the rest at the rehearsal/performance. If you are confident in your sight reading abilities, then this should pose no problem and will reduce the stress encountered during the preparation period (or lack of it). If you are not confident in your sight reading abilities (enough so to sight read a concert to near perfection), then I suggest spending a month or three sight reading and sight transposing daily. 

Take care of technical issues diligently. Technical problems cause confidence issues, which turn into stress while performing. The solution; address technical problems on a daily basis by implementing diligent, intelligent practice. Make a highly specific  list of the top five areas that need improvement and work through them each day. Slow, easy, unforced practice is the best solution for these problems. Once again, play the long game and Realize that you cannot fix everything in one day - the goal is to improve each day, not to be perfect. So many times, performers become entangled with perfection and become disappointed, angry, or stressed when they find it unobtainable. If there is improvement after each practice session, then that should be considered success. This can be 1% of improvement, or 100% - it does not matter because it is still better than its former state. Take the time to deconstruct every technical hurdle and rebuild it correctly. This manner of practice will ensure that the problem will be much less likely to return. 

Ask for help from colleagues or former teachers. While it may be uncomfortable, asking for help from trusted sources (not trumpet herald!!) may help manage stress. Often, the problems professionals face are not unique to them and there may be a simple solution available that will save weeks or months of discontent. A former teacher will likely know how you think and how to approach your problems efficiently, and colleagues will know your current playing tendencies and will offer advice if asked directly. Take their advice and tailor it for your playing needs, because even though they know you well, only you can discover what truly works. 

                                          The next post will cover teaching and student - related stress.

                                The paragraphs below give suggestions for dealing with stress in general:

One Day at a Time. Often, musicians look far into the future in the hopes of staying ahead of their preparation. While this is a necessary part of life, musicians elevate this planning to an unhealthy level and self-impose unnecessary stress. Spending too much time looking forward will cause the accumulation of every obligation to be placed at the front of the mind all at once. Instead, future planning should be limited to a small part of every week. Spend less than thirty minutes a week looking forward and planning a half-year schedule of events. Then, prioritize which events need immediate attention and which can wait. The goal for each day becomes one centered around progress, no matter how large or small. By taking one day at a time, you will be able to organize your time wisely to ensure that you are working toward future goals. Furthermore, during the day take one event at a time. Multi-tasking can lead to stress and become an unwelcome distraction. If necessary, set time limits for your activities (practice, eating, relaxing, other work, etc.) and focus only on one thing at a time. This is a good exercise in shutting out stress by refocusing the mind on the immediate, not the future. 

Time Alone is essential to reducing daily stress, but is often the first to be overlooked. Be sure to schedule in adequate quiet time every day. It does not matter whether you read a book, meditate, pray, or just sit and think - the point is to turn off distractions and spend time that is completely yours. Like anything in life, this is highly individualized and needs to be in balance with the rest of your obligations. Too much alone time may result in a poor work ethic, and too little time may lead to a mental breakdown - which will force a break from work. Each person will discover the appropriate amount of time they need for themselves, but remember that time alone becomes exceedingly important the busier you become, and will help you to be happier and less stressed. 

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle contributes greatly to stress reduction. Exercising on a daily or semi-daily basis will help clear the mind while adding variety to your schedule. I find that when I go more than a week without any exercise, I become irritable - but then my wife tells me to go run or cycle and I start to feel better after I finish. You do not have to spend an egregious amount of time exercising, but consider incorporating it into your daily routine. It can also serve as a stress-relief tool and time to process events. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water daily and avoid over-consuming sodas and highly sugary drinks - these may taste great, but they do not help your body and may cause dehydration.

Ensure that you keep a good sleep schedule. Everyone needs a different amount of sleep to function properly. However, regardless of how much sleep you require, it should be set high on your priority list. I recommend waking up close to the same time each day and going to bed at a set time each evening. These times will naturally fluctuate depending on your work schedule, but by setting a routine your body will feel more relaxed and you will be able to better handle the stress of each day. 

Philip Hembree
Overcoming Performance Anxiety

(Originally posted 12/18/2016)

At some point in every musician’s life, he will experience performance anxiety in one or more of its various forms (shortness of breath, dry mouth, mental lapses, nausea, etc.). While this can be a debilitating experience, with practice and thoughtful consideration, musicians may discover how to perform beautifully when suffering from anxiety. The two main type of anxiety that I will write about are: Performance Anxiety – when musicians experience anxiety before or during a specific, short term, high-stress event, and Musial Career Anxiety – when musicians experience anxiety on a daily basis due to their interpretation of external factors (work load, recital/audition preparation, etc.). This post will deal with performance anxiety, and the next will cover Musical Career Anxiety. 

Performance Anxiety
The best solution for performance anxiety is preparation. I find that if I am prepared for a performance, then I will feel more comfortable performing and will be able to focus solely on music. Since the entire reason for playing music is to communicate an idea, emotion, or feeling to the audience, this should be the goal for preparation. Take the time to understand the work you will be performing and map out the phrases, color changes, and musical ideas so that this will become the default setting when you perform.

When you inevitably experience performance anxiety, your playing will revert to its most comfortable state (which is the practice room), and any bad habits will be exposed. Unfortunately, most people practice unmusically, or with an unsatisfactory sound for the sake of “learning the notes.” So, when they step into a high-stress situation, their musicality flies out the window, and they are left with a boring performance. This is because the majority of their practicing was spent on technique, and not music. Thinking of music first when learning a new piece, or when perfecting an old one, is the most important habit of practicing. Even when playing at half-tempo, make every effort to phrase beautifully and ensure an effortless, ringing sound. Think of this as being musically assertive – playing everything with gusto and freedom in the style of the music. Then, when performance anxiety enters, we will revert to musical playing and not an un-musical mess. In this way, the mind is still focused on music, and not technique. Below are ideas on how to practically work on performance anxiety:

Practice the techniques required in the performance separate from the literature being performed in order to avoid inserting bad habits into the music. For example, if the concerto performed heavily requires triple tonguing, practice triple tonguing in the style of the piece during routine work. This will aid in the learning of the concerto, and over time it will build confidence when practicing and performing the piece. This will also ensure that there are no bad habits in the music, since they have been addressed in the daily routine.

Play in front of anyone who will listen to you. Overcoming performance anxiety takes practice, and the only way to accomplish that is to play in public on a regular basis. This included playing for parents, friends, colleagues, professors, strangers, and even a recording device (with the assumption you will send the recording to someone for comments). Playing for professionals of your instrument is extremely valuable for the technical advice, but playing for professionals not of your instrument family is beneficial for musical advice. For instance, a cellist probably does not care that the trumpet naturally has bad intonation, or that playing in the extreme ranges can be difficult. They will comment on your overall musical style and will not allow you to make excuses for your instrument. Playing for non-musicians is also revealing. You must be a great performer to engage an audience that does not know anything about music – and they certainly do not want to hear excuses about your instrument. They want to hear beautiful music.

Sight-read often. Simply put, the better you can sight-read, the less you have to practice the piece you must perform. The goal of every musician should be to play any piece of music beautifully the first time through. This means that the style must be clearly defined, your sound must be appropriate to the genre, your phrases must be convincing and obvious to the listener, and you must sound confident in the piece you are performing. For a large work, this means that you may want to spend time looking through the piece before you actually begin playing it with your instrument. This will speed up the learning time and help avoid simple mistakes, such as wrong rhythms and notes. For every day practice, find new pieces to sight-read each day. When you run out of music, transpose the pieces or play music written for other instruments. Give yourself a few moments to look over the piece in order to decide upon a style and tempo. Then play it through as if it were a performance – this means that you cannot stop, and music and phrasing must be the foremost thought when playing. Sight-reading on a daily basis will help you learn music efficiently and will allow you to develop musical habits when first learning a new work.

Discover and develop a pre-performance routine that is tailored to your needs. Much of performance anxiety results from pre-performance uncertainty. How do I warm up? How much should I play? What do I eat? Do I eat at all? How long before the performance should I arrive? Ask yourself these questions, and more, and form a plan. Then practice the plan when you perform for people before the actual performance. By trial and error, you will discover what works for you. Then, on the day of the performance, stick with what you know and execute your pre-laid plan. This certainty will bring about a calm before you step out to perform. *Note that sometimes, despite our best efforts plans may be forced to change. Be understanding of this and accept the change and quickly form a new plan based on all of the information you have. The worst thing to do is to stress about things outside of your control.*

Realize that on the day of the performance, you can play no better than your current state. Often, we put pressure upon ourselves to play better than we can. This comes from the desire to impress the audience, or specific members of the audience. But, as Charlie Geyer once told me, “Only you know what your best is.” He also mentioned that even my second-best performance would sound great. We are our own harshest critics, and that can be crippling. Once I realized that I did not have to play above my current level, most of my anxiety faded. My goal is to have my “best” playing to be well above what I consider acceptable for a performance. If I accomplish that, then I feel free to play the performance to the best of my ability that day and will be happy. Then, I’ll go practice making my best even better.

Understand that the audience wants you to succeedOnce you realize that the audience is not there to judge but rather to enjoy what you have to offer, you may start to feel less stress. They want to hear your ideas and your interpretation whether they agree with it or not. Play each performance as for a group of encouraging friends and save the analyzation for when you receive the recording. Give the audience music, and they will be your best friends.

By following these steps and having a well-formed plan, performance anxiety will slowly become less noticeable until it all but disappears. Keep in mind that even the best professionals become nervous at times, but their plan propels them through the performance and allows them to display confidence and security. This is the ultimate goal – not letting performance anxiety control your performances. 

Philip Hembree