Practice Makes Pleasure

This website is about our journeys with music, and for Adam and myself, practice has been the biggest part of that journey.  It is always interesting to assess your current relationship with practice.  For me, how well I am practicing often coincides with how good I feel about everything else in my life.  I’ve also used practicing as a way to pull myself out of a funk.  Whatever the quality of my practice at any given point in time, one thing is for sure: my relationship with practice always reflects where my head is.

I have often heard musicians talk about the relationship between themselves and their instrument.  There is definitely a bond between a musician and her equipment, and this relationship is one where the musician understands how their instrument works, acknowledges its individual quirks, and learns how to act upon it to produce a particular set of sounds.  

My history with practicing is probably familiar to many of you.  When I was young, I loved to practice.  It didn’t feel like an obligation; practicing was something in which I took great pleasure.  This lasted until sometime when I was in school studying music.  Gradually, practice became an obligation that I had to fulfill in order to get to the fun stuff – performing.  

As practice took on a new identity in my life – that of “homework, ” essentially – I began to dread it rather than look forward to it.  When we had vacations from school, I would so look forward to a break from my horn.  I resented being tied down to my instrument if I wanted to stay “in shape.”  However, I noticed that after a few weeks, I would always take it out of the case and play for fun.  When given space from it, I ultimately couldn’t stay away.  

Over the years I matured somewhat as a person and accepted these circumstances. I realized that if I wanted to be able to play the horn whenever I wanted with the kind of freedom I desired, then I was obligated to pay a regular penance of time spent playing fundamentals on my instrument.  This was necessary not only to stay in shape, but also in order to truly know my instrument.  

I also recognized that I had a dysfunctional relationship with practice, and decided that it would be to my benefit to improve upon it.

When I was younger, I played whatever music was put in front of me. I never had to choose music – teachers and band directors did it for me. In college and grad school, I might have chosen some of the solos I played, but etudes were assigned and treated (by me) as a chore.  In fact, I remember telling my teacher Gail once, “I just hate playing etudes.  It’s like the seventh level of hell!”  Gail said, “Well that explains your lessons lately.”  Haha!  I love telling that story – it reminds me of the true honesty that is often required of a teacher!

At the point in my life that I turned my mind to improving the quality of my practice, I had no idea where to start.  What I did have was a large stack of etude books I had purchased over the years, many of which had sat untouched for a decade or more. So I decided to start where we always start: sight-reading.

If you don’t take anything else of value from this blog post, I hope that this one thing will stick with you:

Sight-read etudes regularly.  

Nothing has improved my playing as rapidly as sight-reading etudes on a regular basis.  There is an endless list of benefits to this one commitment; here are a few that I found most impactful:

 - Overcome fear of sight reading

 - Learn to absorb music much more quickly

 - Become much more confident and intuitive with phrasing

Probably the best benefit of adding this element to my practice sessions was the presence of SO MUCH MORE music in my life.  Since I started sight-reading etudes with regularity, my day is filled with easily two or three times more music! As I sight-read through an etude book, I would make notes: the date, any preferable alternate fingerings, tempo thoughts, etc.  I would also make a note about the etude itself.  Did I think it was exciting?  Pretty?  Challenging key?  Needs slower work?

When I finish an etude book, I will go back and practice the pieces that I noted as fun / pretty / needing work, and I work on these in no particular order.  This element of being able to choose what I practice on the spot is another thing about etude study that keeps practicing fresh for me.  

I’ve now finished at least six etude books.  It’s slow going, especially if you turn back and really learn the ones that you like.  However, for me, that’s the big pay off: more pieces of music that I like to and can play.

After undertaking this project five years ago, I started to notice effective patterns in my practice.  I started to actively look for efficient ways of approaching a fresh piece of music.  Through trial and error, I developed together a four-step practice method.

We often present on this method to middle and high school students when Adam and I work with music programs.  It’s so simple, even a sixth grader can apply it!

STEP 1: Sight-read – When sight-reading, I first make myself a promise to read the piece from beginning to end on the first time through.  If you get derailed and have to take a second to get back on, no worries!  Also on this first time though, I don’t pay much attention to dynamics or accidentals, only notes and rhythms.  As I tell my students, this is when we acknowledge our two signatures, key (notes) and time (rhythm).

I think that the scariest part of sight-reading is fear of the unknown.  This is why so many of us get into a rut of only practicing pieces that we know (and when we get bored with them, nothing at all).  But after only one time playing through a piece, you are already about 85% acquainted with all of the information on the page!

It’s important to remember that this is the worst it’s going to sound.  Naturally, step 2 will already be much better.  Also keep in mind that the point of practicing is not to sound perfect right away; practicing is for progress!  Personally, I like to conclude the sight-reading step as quickly as possible so that I can move immediately into making music.

STEP 2: Play it again – At this point, I will play through the piece again in its entirety.  When I first started to develop a system for organizing practice, I skipped this step.  Eventually I realized that with one more run through, I could pick up many of the things that had slipped past in the first go.  Step 1 focuses on notes and rhythms.  In step 2, the focus moves to the things that decorate the notes: dynamics and articulations.  The more things my brain could work out subconsciously, the less I had to actively practice in step 3.

The other function of step 2 requires a bit more awareness.  At the end of step 2, I note what items in the etude still don’t sound as good as everything else.  These items need actual practice rather than simple repetition, and are the focus of step 3.

STEP 3: Details – Step 3 is time to clean up the details.  In any given etude, you may have 3-6 spots that require microscopic work.  Step 3 is where we use the creative musical problem-solving methods that we’ve learned from music educators our whole lives.  Play it slower, play it faster, play it an octave up or down, play it with a different articulation, play it backwards, play with a different rhythm, play it on your mouth piece, clap it, sing it, look for alternate fingerings or tricks…and if none of that works, think of a way to creatively address the problem yourself!  Step 3 is one of the two most important steps in this practice method.

STEP 4: Perform it – Step 4 is the other most important step.  It is so hard for us musicians to find a way to practice performing.  Our brain has the unfortunate tendency to get stuck in the nit-picky detail stage.  When organizing an approach to practice, one of the issues I wanted to address was the need to go past the detail stage and engage in performance in my every day life.  So after I work out the details in Step 3, I perform the etude for myself.  In order to do this with any kind of authenticity, I must 1.) put myself into a performance frame of mind, 2.) accept any mistakes I make and move on instantly, and 3.) dedicate myself fully to enjoyment of the music making process.  The last of these is the easiest!  

I usually don’t practice exactly like this; the method is only a loose guide to organize my thoughts.  If I’m reading something new that I can digest very easily, I may combine steps 1 and 2.  If things are going really well, I may stop along the way to do step 3 as I hit the few spots that need attention. The thing that is most constant is step 4; these days, I always “perform” for myself before I set a piece of music aside for the day.  

On the other hand, if I am reading something that is very challenging, I may only do one step per practice session, culminating with a first “performance” on the fourth day.  Still, the aim is to make it to performing, even if it takes four days to get there.

There are numerous benefits to practicing with this method as a loose guide.  I can generally learn an etude from top to bottom in 10-15 minutes.  In that time, I will have played it through three times, all while focusing on the notes and rhythms / dynamics and articulations, practicing the tough spots, then performing it for myself.  

Also, you don’t have to be a professional to practice this way!  Do you have a trumpet in your closet?  Always wanted to play flute in your community band?  Took one year of piano lessons and still have your first music book?  I challenge you – unpack your instrument and spend 10 minutes making noises.  Learn one short piece.  You will enjoy yourself!  The only thing stopping you is your relationship with practice, your relationship with yourself, and what you truly think you are capable of doing.

I am sad to report: through undergoing this process, I accepted that playing in an ensemble is NOT the same thing as practicing your instrument.  Sorry, everyone – I’m as disappointed as you are!  In my early professional life, I would have a rehearsal and call that my playing for the day.  But since the growth of my practice life, I have realized that rehearsals do not fulfill the role that practice plays in the mental health of a musical individual.  While practicing is a relationship between oneself and one’s brain, rehearsal is a negotiation between the brains of all of the artists involved.  I found that when I was not practicing effectively as an individual, my self-esteem suffered.  When my self-esteem suffered, my ensemble playing suffered – even when I was playing in ensembles for 2-4 hours on a daily basis.  Now that I have a healthier relationship with practice, I can often recognize other musicians with healthy practice lives just from the way they sound.

I have learned a larger lesson through this part of my musical journey.  In the past year especially, I’ve realized that practicing is really a relationship with one’s full self.  In order to make more music, I had to organize my brain.  I then had to convince my brain that an etude is NOT a lot of music, and that learning it could be easy.  Then I had to use my brain to convince my body to undertake the actual physical playing of my instrument, because I knew the reward would be worthwhile.  Then my brain had to problem-solve all of the issues so that I could make the music sound the way I wanted.  Finally, I allowed myself the prize of one last time, purely for joy.  

Practicing this way is extremely pleasurable.  I have become a voracious reader of etudes.  These days I look forward to my practice sessions with relish.  I sometimes have to pull myself away because it’s no longer physically advisable to play any more.  It reminds me of my early teens, when I had found some musical independence and couldn’t get enough of my instrument.  I leave each of my practice sessions with a head full of music.   

So go take out your instrument.  

Get that etude book you bought in college - the one with no marks on it.  

Play a few scales in penance to the instrument gods.  

Turn to any page in the book.  

Check out your key and time signatures, then read it all the way through.  

Play it through a second time.

Look at the spots that need work.

Finally, perform beautiful music.

Turn the page; repeat.

Classical Music is not Dying

Classical music is not dying.

I’ll say it again, and you say it with me:
classical music is not dying.

Was that hard?

You hear the rumors floating around sometimes: is classical music dead?  
No.  It hasn’t skipped a beat.

So why do we hear these things?  For one reason, musicians live in fear of “the death of classical music.”  When music grabs you, it is reluctant to let go.  Many musicians need music more than music needs them – I know this to be true for myself.  This is the very reason that I work so hard to find or create musical opportunities in my life.  As musicians, we fear that those opportunities will vanish.  Living with that fear makes the struggles of the last eight years seem prophetic.  

Number two, as musicians, we fear the loss of our living.  For us every-day musicians, that living is often modest at best.  We not only bemoan how our compensation is poorly proportioned to our life-long dedication and preparation, but we also eagerly wish for “someone” to provide us more opportunities to perform and thus make money.  

The classical music world is in the middle of a long-standing identity crisis.  We lost a number of organizations during the 2008 recession and felt fundamental bumps in others. I’m not aware of the financial situations of the orchestras that didn’t make it, but I imagine that many of them were already on the brink of folding.  These kinds of precarious situations do convince us that classical music is dying, that our audiences are dying.  

Let’s look from a different perspective.  

We are very lucky in the United States.  This country is chock full of artistic venues and organizations.  First and foremost, those entities would not continue to exist without our art-loving general public.  When we complain about the low level of compensation that comes with our jobs, let’s be very careful not to disparage the consumers of our product, who can only do so much but are allegiant; or the donors to our organizations, the people who truly believe in our missions and keep us afloat; or to the grant organizations and government funds that prove how much our communities value the arts.  

It is sad for us that we can’t all work solely as musicians and make a living wage.  But there are many of us out here doing this thing, and many of us are members of more than one organization even if we are not making ends meet.  Adam and I still cobble our musical lives together as members of no fewer than three institutions each!  The large population of classical musicians in this country is proof of how popular classical music has become over the last fifty years.  MANY small towns across the county feature their own orchestra!  The players in that orchestra are not always residents of that town, but they are often residents of that region.  Also, more young music students are taking lessons than ever before, even if they do not plan to be professionals.  This is a very different culture than existed in the 80’s and 90’s.  The classical music industry would certainly not have been viable for such a large population of musicians fifty years ago.   

I would guess that more musicians are making the majority of their income from musical activities alone today than at any previous point in history.  Even in the glory days of classical music – Austria in Mozart’s time or France at the turn of the twentieth century, for example – there was either a relatively small population of musicians making a living wage, and/or those musicians had other jobs.  For instance, the hornist for whom Mozart composed his concerti lived a double life as a cheese and wine salesman!  Adam and I have certainly worked our share of “straight jobs,” as we call them.  Many of us have accepted this as a reality of life, though the danger is to feel jilted by “the music industry” as an entity for not supporting us financially.  Who are we angry at?  The consumers?  The donors?  The supporting financial infrastructures in our local and larger communities?

This potential viewpoint is one of the dangers of capitalizing upon art.  If we start to look at classical music as a business that should make more money than it costs to produce, then we risk losing focus on the power of our art form and its message.  It is possible that we as an industry have ventured slightly down that road.  Adam and I share a joke about the “Beethoven Festival.”  One year, THREE organizations we knew were doing Beethoven Festivals!  It’s become our short hand for, “they think this will make them money, but they’re totally out of touch with the times.”  Thinking of ways to draw in consumers is necessary for a business, but the true question lies in how you strategize regarding your product.  When you choose something that has been done again and again, even the previous season in some cases, and often has been recorded dozens of times, are you choosing it because it’s popular?  Because people know it?  Because you don’t trust your audience to pay to hear things they don’t know?  Or are you choosing that music because you are actually creating / curating art?

I love Beethoven.  I think each work that Beethoven gifted us should be celebrated as a rare gem, not tossed into a CD set sprinkled across a season to sell tickets.  

We also need to consider the difference between creating and curating art.  When we present Beethoven, we are curating music.  We are displaying a work that comes from our history and that was especially meaningful during Beethoven’s time.  These days, many organizations make their bread and butter from curating musical art.   There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s how many of us are introduced to and experience the amazing repertoire that encompasses Western Classical Art Music.  

But I assert that these organizations should be spending an equal amount of time creating art.  We can either create art by presenting new works of music, or by pairing an existing work with some other art medium that gives it a new, fresh perspective.  If the reason Beethoven means something to us is because he created art that was meaningful to his time, let’s follow his lead.  Let’s commission works that say something about the world we live in today.  Let’s engage audiences not through pandering to the music they already know, but by making statements so soundly that they need to be heard.  Let’s insist up art solely for the virtue of its quality, not because we think it will be a capitalistic success.  Then, when we play Beethoven along with current music about our life and times, Beethoven will take on new depth and be even more meaningful.  

This is certainly easier to do on a small scale.  For the past fifteen years, musical self employment has been shifting to make room for a large entrepreneurial chamber music movement.  I can’t even keep track of all the groups in Chicago anymore!  It’s great – there’s room in that pool for anyone who does the leg work to make their own opportunities.  In my experience, it was not something that could sustain me financially as my only employment.  But as I said, I don’t even live that way now!  

The benefits to being a member of Fifth House Ensemble were many.  We set a very high standard of musicianship, and had open conversations about how to achieve our musical goals.  Unfortunately, this kind of dialogue is not natural to an orchestral setting – though I often hope that there are, or have been, horn sections out there who operate in an open, respectful, and musically meaningful way.

Also, we had complete control over our artistic product.  Like any team effort, things must be worked out in the collaboration, but that’s why you pick colleagues who have a similar work ethic and life view…and who are fun!

Then there are the general benefits of being a chamber group.  Fewer “mouths to feed,” so to speak; more flexibility in venue size; more instrumentation and works options; easier to commission works for than a larger group; etc, etc, etc.

All of this to say that, with so many qualified musicians running around, the future growth of classical music has naturally started to lean toward entrepreneurship.  In the main, that entrepreneurship has begun to point toward smaller ensembles or one-off individual projects.  These are the kinds of organizations that are currently making art based on things that need to be said today, and that can be said best through music – often in conjunction with the other arts disciplines.  This kind of teamwork creates stronger art, and more opportunities for everyone.  

This mission has already been launched: Fifth House, 8th blackbird, etc…
This is the face of music for the 21st century.  That doesn’t mean that our larger arts organizations have to die, only that they are also called to action. The band world is doing it!  They’re commissioning works left and right. This is also one of the reasons I love the Boulder Philharmonic.  Our music director focuses on creative programming, we often engage with the other arts disciplines, and the orchestra mission is driven by community engagement.  

So now let’s answer the earlier question of where to place the blame when we want more music in our lives, either for compensation or for artistic value.  Let’s take that upon ourselves.  Shoulder the responsibility of meeting your own requirements for artistic fulfillment.  EVEN – this will shock you – even if it doesn’t make you money.  

Now I don’t mean that we should all accept gigs for no pay!  Nor do I mean that we are making too much money in our organizations – we all know that’s not true.  I mean that if you have a free day, instead of practicing for 2 hours by yourself, get together with a friend and play duets.  Who knows, that might turn into trios, and that might turn into a group that makes music together regularly, which could become a reason to have music written for you that speaks to your time and place.  Seek opportunities to make music with people that you like, and all kinds of doors can open.  

So there it is, classical music – there’s your mission.  Put art first, be your own businessman, create unconventional opportunities, follow open doors, collaborate with fellow artists, and say something about the world we live in.  Simple, right? Maybe not, but at least there’s a path forward.

Now say it with me:

Classical music is not dying.

Arnold's Brass Quintet: A Visual Experience

An exceptionally busy semester is drawing to a close for us at UNR. Along with our regular teaching loads and travel for our orchestra jobs, DeAunn and I have also been guest co-directors of L-Cubed, a weekly lunchtime concert series in the university's Knowledge Center Rotunda. Yesterday was the final concert, for which the brass quintet DeAunn coaches, the Manzanita Brass, performed Malcolm Arnold's Brass Quintet No. 1. This is a classic of the quintet repertoire, and definitely not an easy piece!

Along with their musical performance, DeAunn set up a collaboration between the Manzanita Brass and Mahsan Ghazianzad, an art student at UNR. While the quintet performed the piece, Mahsan interpreted the music and their performance live through painting. She completed a visual work of art in the span of the three movements of the work, a scant fifteen minutes - no small feat! To reach this performance took several months of discussions between the artist and musicians, contemplation, and rehearsal. The end result was a spectacular combination of aural and visual art that really engaged the performers and audience.

Below is a video of the performance; enjoy!

(If you're experiencing issues watching the embedded video, go here.)

The Inner Game of Bydło

The first time you perform something new in front of an audience—give a speech, play a recital, step up to bat—it can be a bit daunting. For every musician, there’s probably at least one piece of music that was a nail biter leading up to that first performance. For me, that was the Bydło (“Cattle”) movement—a tuba feature—from Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The instrument that Ravel had in mind when he wrote the tuba part for Pictures is very different from what we commonly use today. The French tuba in C is the size of a euphonium (actually, it’s a little smaller), pitched a full octave above the contrabass tuba, my normal orchestral instrument. This small horn has six valves to give it enough tubing to play the low orchestral parts; it was really constructed to play above the bass clef in the register of the trombones, though, and it takes a mouthpiece similar in dimensions to those that trombonists use. (On a side note, the French tuba that Ravel brought to Boston from France for the premiere of this piece now sits in the entryway of my teacher Gary Ofenloch’s house!)

Ravel’s Bydło is slow, quiet, delicate, and mostly above the bass clef. It peaks on the G# above middle C at a dynamic around a pianissimo; that’s not typical orchestral tuba writing. On an F or Eb bass tuba—often the instruments tuba players choose for this part—it can be very challenging to hit the notes and keep them from getting too loud, let alone play the line musically. It’s definitely geared toward this much smaller French instrument. The euphonium is often the instrument of choice, rather than the tuba, for playing this part. In many instances, one of the trombonists, who may have more experience with that instrument and playing in that range, plays it on euphonium instead of the tuba player. On top of that, the tuba player does not play the previous two movements and needs to come in “cold” on this solo.

This summer, I played my first Bydło. As soon as I found out we were playing Pictures at the Lancaster Festival, I immediately pulled out the part and started practicing. I was excited to finally play this piece, but knew it would take a lot of concentrated effort to prepare. I could have contacted the trombones to see if one of them would play it, but I wanted to take on this challenge; it was definitely time for it in my professional life. Lacking the euphonium experience to play it well on that instrument, I dug in with my F tuba.

I made good progress in my preparation, but I struggled to really play it quietly and cleanly enough. I’ve worked up Bydło for auditions before, but I’ve rarely managed to get it to sound as soft and easy as I wanted it. Playing the individual notes wasn’t an issue; it wasn’t a question of being able to physically produce the right sounds. I had a mental block on playing this music. I pulled out every trick I had; they helped, but it was still a struggle sometimes to hit the high notes with good tone and without playing too loud. As spring moved into summer, I became a little concerned about having the solo performance ready in time.

The time finally came in mid July. At the first rehearsal, we started by working on Eric Ewazen’s Shadowcatcher, a concerto for brass quintet. It’s a great piece and a lot of fun to play, but the quintet tuba part takes a lot out of you! By the time Pictures was up, I was already fatigued. My performance on Bydło that rehearsal was pretty rough: straining to play as quietly as possible, I ended up cracking a bunch of notes and playing pretty far out of tune. Practicing afterward, I kept running into the same problems as before: I wasn’t making the leap to the highest notes smoothly or consistently, and I was embarrassed, frustrated, and nervous.

The next (and final) rehearsal went a little better, but I was still very troubled. I continued to remind myself of the words of my “guru” teacher, Roger Rocco: “Play by sound, not by feel”; “There is no reason for your success or failure other than your state of mind.” These ideas have helped me more times than I can count, but I found it incredibly difficult to overcome my frustrations and fears ahead of this performance.

After that rehearsal, with the performance looming the next day, I changed my tack. Several times that day, in bed that night, and again the day of the concert, I mentally practiced Bydło. I don’t mean I casually played back the music in my head and fingered through the part: I focused on mentally executing the entire movement, start to finish, staying present in the music and vividly imagining exactly how I wanted my part—and the rest of the orchestra—to sound. This turned out to be trickier than I thought it would be. My mind struggled to maintain focus on the musical target, and at first I spaced out many times. With practice, though, I was able to stay on target and remain mentally active throughout the whole run of the movement. This work was easily as demanding as the physical preparation I’d done.

The concert was billed as a brass spectacular. Along with Pictures and Shadowcatcher, we opened the concert with an all-brass arrangement of Trumpet Voluntary. An hour before that, though, the orchestra’s trombones and I performed low brass quartets as an opening fanfare for the entire festival. The fanfare went pretty well, though I was distracted, thinking ahead to Bydło. All through the first half of the concert, including during the brass quintet concerto, I was still fixated on the solo to come. The performance was chock full of heavy playing and opportunities to feel fatigued.

As the orchestra played through the opening movements of Pictures, I became more and more anxious. In the movement before Bydło, though, I started getting a little angry with the music. I was tired of feeling run down and insecure. I was a good player and I knew it! The movement finished, and it was time for Bydło to begin. This indignation helped me put my focus on the state of mind I’d managed to achieve in my concerted mental practice. I picked up my horn, and as the low strings started, I played the solo with an energy and will that I hadn’t had before. I stuck to the mental approach to playing and transcended the physicality of executing notes on the instrument: I made music.

When the movement wrapped up, I was physically shaking from the experience. I got a lot of complimentary remarks from my fellow musicians after the concert, both for Bydło and for Shadowcatcher. Was it the best performance of Bydło ever? No, I’ve definitely heard others play it better. But I was happy with my playing, and I was ecstatic to have mastered the music in a performance situation. And now I never have to play it for the first time ever again! I’m kind of looking forward to my next opportunity.

Joy in Music

This morning I took our dog Gizmo out for a leisurely walk while Adam slept in.  I didn’t have anywhere to be.  I had things to take care of, but they could wait until the afternoon.  So I roused the sleeping hound, and we took off around the neighborhood.

We started walking off leash, which Gizmo likes.  But around halfway through, he always gets very draggy.  True to form, he became very distracted about halfway around the circle and was reluctant to walk without prodding.  

While putting him back on the leash, I wondered if maybe he likes certain things about being on leash.  It’s certainly easier for him to communicate with us non-verbally on the leash.  Also, I’ve just returned home from a week away.  It might have been my imagination, but to me, Gizmo actually seemed happy to be connected to me that way, as is our normal fashion.  

We resumed our walk as I pondered this thought.  Gizmo pulled over several times to pee, though at that point in the walk it’s really to sniff light poles or street signs.  On the third time Gizmo tried to pull aside, I balked.

“No,” I said.  “You’ve sniffed enough.”

As I pulled him away, he craned his neck out to take in one last smell of the distraction.  Looking down, I saw that the bush he was sniffing was covered in flowers.

We started to walk away, and I thought, “This is a dog!  Going outside is one of the small handful of pleasures he experiences every day.  Also, smell is his greatest gift, and most of what he smells is poop and piss and garbage!  I’ve just marched him past a small opportunity for him to take pleasure in smell.  In my mind, peeing twice was enough and there was no other reason to pull over and sniff.  Well that was wrong – I’ve got to take him back there so this dog can live his life!”

I turned around and marched Gizmo back to the flower bush, where he leaned in for a good long sniff.  He then walked along the entire length of the bush in the overhanging growth, turned around, and walked through the branches filled with flowers once more.

For my part, it was such a pleasure to watch Gizmo enjoy himself.  When he came out from his return trip, his back hosted two or three white flower petals, collected along his journey.

As we turned to walk away, it occurred to me that what had just happened was a result of me responding to the moment rather than following my self-imposed arbitrary rules and restrictions.   

I didn’t have anywhere to be.  I had things to take care of, but they could wait until the afternoon.

I meditated on this.  Just through my attentiveness, my awareness, I was able to respond to what the situation required.  Awareness has been something that Adam has talked and thought about a lot in the last year.  The results were much more rewarding than had I mindlessly checked an item off my to do list.  Gizmo was allowed a moment of pure joy.  This further resulted in my pleasure over watching the flower petals slip from his back of their own accord.

We walked past another bush as I thought, instinctively pulling Gizmo away when he leaned in for a sniff.  I turned back to look.  This one was a rose bush, ten times more fragrant than the first!  Gizmo and I turned around yet again to spend a moment of late summer on enjoyment.

As he got a good smell (and maybe a good pee), I looked down to see a nicely preserved flower head.  Only in Nevada could you dry a flower naturally outdoors and end up with perfect potpourri!  I picked up the rosebud and held it to my face – the smell was just magnificent.  

Let me tell you, I sure was grateful for that rose when Gizmo took his second dump of the day a few minutes later!  You know - the runny one.

As we finished our walk, I started to think about the lesson that the universe had just taught me:

If you live with awareness and respond wisely to the circumstances of the moment, you will be rewarded in joy.  

I thought about the life of your average musician.  We sometimes feel that the music has lost its meaning because of our overexposure to it.  I remember a period of 3-4 years where I didn’t feel any goosebumps when listening to or playing music.  The realization of this made me profoundly sad.  

But at that time, I was not truly living a life in music.  No, I was WORKING a life in music.  I didn’t like to listen to classical music because I didn’t listen with awareness.  I didn’t feel goosebumps because I was doing a job, not taking a risk!  I wasn’t practicing on my own, and I had lost my joy in music.

With the return of each of those things – awareness of the music around me, determination to take a risk or fail trying, and willingness to make music by myself – I found pieces of that joy again.  

When I am practicing, I am responding to the circumstances of the moment, rather than following some prescribed set order of playing fundamentals and etudes.  I am most chiefly in search of a musical experience, and for me there must be some element of spontaneity to create that in my own practice.  Choosing pieces spontaneously also allows me to select my practice order based on endurance needs, always a consideration on a high brass instrument.  So responding to my actual needs and wants in the moment gives me joy when I practice.

Furthermore, when I am able to listen and play with more awareness, I am rewarded with joy.  This has been one of the true benefits to teaching a theory class: getting to listen to more repertoire with a heightened awareness.  Listening to the music is now one of my favorite parts of playing in the orchestra.

We must all take responsibility for keeping our own joy of music active and intact.  I tell my horn students: be very careful in whose hands you place your love of music.  Some people will want to crush it.  The right people will want to help it grow.  But one must always remember that the person who is most responsible for encouraging growth is oneself.

In conclusion, I guess the universe wants me to add more awareness to my life, not live by my prescribed set of behaviors “just because,” but to consider my actions and reactions and the circumstances surrounding them.  If I can do this, maybe I’ll be rewarded with more joy!

I have a lot of joy already; I’m super lucky in many ways, and my life’s focus is making beautiful sounds.  What’s not to like?  But I’ve been in the dark places.  I’ve felt the absence of my musical feeling.  If you resonate with that thought, I wish for you awareness of the music around you, willingness to take a risk, and the courage to take out your instrument and make music on your own.  

I promise, this will bring you joy.

The Quest Begins

Thanks for joining us here at Brass Quest! This is a project we've had in the works for quite some time. As performers and educators, we've embarked on a quest to find ways to better ourselves as musicians and human beings. We seek to provide you with plenty of content to entertain, inform, and educate, and are working to put up new content regularly. Please explore our site and see what we have to offer.

If there's something related to brass performance and/or pedagogy, or just great music in general, we're interested in learning about it. Please feel free to contact us with suggestions on what you'd like to see; we're curious, but we'll never come across every development in the brass world on our own.

The site is still under moderate construction, so please pardon us as we continue to add more features and content over the coming weeks. For now, we trust you'll find something that will interest you. We're looking forward to sharing our journey with you!