This document was something I wrote 5 years ago, but will serve as a nice first post for my site. Especially at a time when musicians might have a bit less to do due to the pandemic or are lacking some motivation. Please let me know what you think in the comments below and help share if you enjoy it.
I decided to write this article for a simple reason; because it is something I would have benefitted from when I was younger and because I see many students suffering when they don't need to. Playing music is something I have always loved but it has also been a source of frustration. I was always confident as a young musician mainly because I didn't really care too much or think too hard about anything. I was probably one of the best euphonium players of my age in my local area but didn't know it. The problem for me was that as I grew up, my thoughts and actions changed. I started to care about what people thought and worried that I wasn't as good as others. I think this is a very natural thing that happens to everybody, some people just deal with it differently. I had a brass lesson every week throughout my childhood and almost every week during my music degree. Now I am the teacher and after seeing students struggling I have decided to write a bit of a guide. I am not saying what I have here is 100% right but it is just me sharing my experiences and I hope it helps those who read it. There are a few basic beliefs that you might have that could be holding you back. Here are some examples:- - I should just keep doing what I'm doing, I will improve eventually. - I should always do exactly what my teacher says - I'll never earn good money as a musician or teacher - I'll never be as good as him/her - I can't do it - What I am trying to do is hard - He/she gets all the opportunities and I get none There are many more statements along those lines. The bottom line is that things will stay the same until you make a change. It's that simple. The same goes for any aspect of life improvement. Simply reading these words will put you on a new track towards success. How then does this apply to musicians? Some people naturally just get things right. They apply themselves in exactly the right way and often do not even realise that how they think is what is helping their success. Other people just float through the world, feeling lost. I've met many music students who have no idea what they want in life, have no idea how to practice and have no idea that they actually could be amazing if they only applied themselves correctly. The journey from the practice room to the stage is often one with many challenges and hurdles, most of which are created irrationally by us, so following these steps could make the process easier.
Step One: CHANGE YOUR BELIEFS This is a very difficult step for some because many of our beliefs are rooted way back to when we were young children. We naturally trust our parents and our teachers and we believe that what they say is right for us. In most cases, and as a parent and teacher myself, I truly hope it is. Some beliefs to question are:- Beliefs about yourself (personality, appearance, capabilities) Beliefs about what others think Beliefs about mistakes you have made Beliefs about money Beliefs about how to practice Beliefs about performing Everything that has come into your life is a result of what you think. How you think about yourself directly affects how people treat you. You have to work on yourself before you can expect anything to happen. From a musicians point of view, we want to be perfect. We want to perform with ease, perform perfectly, be respected by other musicians, loved by audiences and enjoy everything about what we do. To achieve this you have to believe you are unstoppable. Not in an arrogant way, you should always be humble and grateful to others. Making mistakes is a huge part of life and something I suggest to those who dwell on mistakes too much is to think about these two questions:-
1) Is anyone thinking about the musical mistake you made right now, or is it just you?
2) If you make a mistake, maybe in a performance, will those who love you, still love you?
I find these questions help people rationalise beliefs a bit and help be forwards thinking. Of course at the top level mistakes can be costly. You might lose an audition or competition but if you are forwards thinking then you know there will always be more auditions or competitions for you and they are wonderful opportunities to learn from past mistakes. That is where you demonstrate real strength and courage and will get huge satisfaction from it. So when you find yourself a bit stuck or thinking negatively about yourself you should question that belief and try and turn it around.
Step Two: MANAGE YOUR MIND Our minds are very powerful. We have a subconscious mind and a conscious mind. What we consciously tell ourselves is always taken as facts by our subconscious mind. You have to start listening to all the chatter that goes on in your head and direct it towards the positive and happy side. You can write down things you want to think and things that you find yourself thinking about but probably shouldn't and compare which you do the most. For a musician you can use a really simple method.
Write down a paragraph which states all the things you want to be but write it using "I am", as if it has already happened. For example:- "I am a technically proficient pianist with great creativity and musical understanding. I get many new opportunities and earn good money from everything I do. Audiences love my performances and students want to learn from me. I perform effortlessly, with relaxation and with confidence. Nervous feelings make me more relaxed and I am eternally grateful for everything I have in life." Then, state one sentence that can be used to sum this up:- "The previous paragraph is empowered by using the sentence, 'I am a wonderful musician' and whenever I repeat it I move closer towards my goals." Then, whenever you find your mind wandering you simply repeat the words 'I am a wonderful musician' over and over. Not only does this focus your mind but it starts to help you believe because that one sentence encompasses everything you wrote in your statement. For a while, when you say it you might notice your subconscious thought jumps in with doubt but over time that will go away. It is essential that you start to experience the feelings of what you want. If you focus on all the things you don't want then that is all you will get. This method not only helps you believe that you have what it takes but it also stops your mind going to negative default. Over time you will notice you start saying the sentence subconsciously in a variety of situations, not just in a musical situation.
I started noticing this once when I was on a flight. I used to be a very relaxed flyer but more recently I find I worry a lot when there is turbulence, but I noticed that I was subconsciously saying my sentence during a flight and it really helped me relax. This is what we want as musicians; we want to do good things subconsciously. This applies to practice, performance and how we think. Do you get very nervous? Well, start repeating the phrase "Nervous feelings make me relaxed" and you will be amazed at the result over time. A result of this thinking will now be that you receive sparks of intuitive help. It may come in a dream, it might be advice given by someone else or just a sudden impulse you get. It is important to recognise these and to act on them, do not waste any time. This is how you are going to achieve all the things you wrote down in your paragraph. It maybe that you get an urge to speak to someone specific or to play a specific piece of music or to try a new practice method. Whatever it is, don't ignore it! Step Three: PRACTICE CORRECTLY Practice can be summed up by three main areas. 1- Warm Up 2- Technical practice 3- Performance practice The underlining rule of your practice must be to relax. You want to be able to find more relaxation every time you practice. A warm up is essential for every musician, never overlook it. During the warm up you should work on the basic fundamentals but over the warm up you might want to cover every aspect of technique. It is also a time for maintenance and stabilization. The routines you use or exercises you do can swap daily if you want and the whole warm up should be adaptable. You should be able to warm up in 2 minutes or 30 minutes so you are ready for any situation. It is a time to check that everything is working correctly. No matter what instrument you play, stretching and breathing is the best starting point for your warm up but specific warm up exercises need to be tailored to your needs and only you can discover what works best for you. It is easy for a teacher or friend to tell you about how they warm up but it won't necessarily work for you so experiment.
By the end of the warm up you should be ready to take on the world. Some musician’s reach the end of their warm up and then need a rest, this is completely wrong. The warm up prepares you for your technical practice or repertoire run through so make sure that your warm up helps you find that perfect relaxed way of functioning. A lot of people find it hard to practice due to time constraints. Some of these people also spend a lot of their day wasting time. If you are serious about practice then first evaluate your average day. Find an hour or more that can be put aside. Decide on your practice space, it could be your bedroom, a classroom or a village hall it doesn't matter but if you can't find anywhere then you need to look harder or think outside the box a bit. Tell your family, friends, students and teachers that this is your practice time and start getting into the routine. Once you get settled into regular practice and notice improvements you will soon start to want to practice more! I use the term technical practice to refer to any sort of practice that isn't warming up or performance practice. So it could be the learning of a new piece, practicing slowly, doing specific exercises or studies where you are looking to increase your ability in that area. Technical practice is the time to experiment and the time to repeat things over and over. Find something that you cannot do and commit to learning how. Find an aspect of music which you find hard and work on it until it becomes easy. Do not just play things that you like or that you think sounds good. Play things incredibly slow and refuse to speed it up for a week, the results will be amazing if you can be disciplined to do this. It is important to play things you like for fun whenever you want to, but if you are looking to improve you have to be working on the difficult things every day with a belief that you can do it. The metronome is your best friend during this practice stage, use it religiously. Performance practice is where you are running through individual pieces, a concerto or concert programmes. This can be time consuming if you have a large programme but it really helps you get the feel for what you eventually need to do. When you decide to do performance practice you start at the top and do not stop no matter what happens. If you need to introduce your items then include that in your performance practice. It is also a good time to check the length of your programme just in case you do not go over the time limit you are given. Imagine your audience, wear your concert dress and shoes if needed and you could even do some star jumps or light exercise briefly before starting just so you get your heart rate up a bit. Turn the AC or heating on (or off) and adjust the lights to suit the performance you will eventually give. When I used to play guitar in a band and started doing some real gigs I quickly realised that you often cannot see your hands due to stage lighting (or lack of it) so I quickly started rehearsing with the lights off! Do whatever it takes to imitate the environment you expect in your real performance.
Performance practice also makes you learn the bits that you really need to work on in your technical practice. So at the end of your days practice you know exactly what you will work on the next time you practice. This gives you real drive and determination and helps you perform confidently and flawlessly. You could do technical practice after performance practice, whatever works for you is fine. Step Four: PERFORM WITH EASE This step of course goes hand in hand with the previous steps. To be better at performing you have to practice performing. Most of us rarely get the chance to practice our performance in the performance venue and in front of an audience but imagine if you could! Some people say that if they could walk straight back onto the stage after performing then they could do it all over again but not be nervous. So the only way this can be done is by visualisation and imagination. First of all, when you know you have a performance in the future, as early as possible, write down all the information about the concert but elaborate and exaggerate as much as possible. For example:- "On the 28th February I will perform as a soloist in the school hall. All my friends will be there, plus my family, teachers and lots of people who I do not know. The concert will be a sell out and people will be standing in the isles and at the back of the hall. The concert is being filmed live for a TV show and everyone in the audience will also be filming it on their mobile devices. The hall will be very hot and I will have spot lights pointing at me." Often something that makes people fall apart at the last minute is the audience. Someone asks if the hall is full and then everyone gets scared so it's better to just presume it will be this way so you have no surprises. You should WANT this. This alone is enough to make most people feel nervous but the next step is the important part. Write down a selection of statements.
You can personalise them to suit you, but I like these:- Fear does not exist Nervous feelings make me relax Mistakes do not matter The audience will love my performance Deep relaxed breaths Let's do it! Every time you practice or run through the solo or concert piece you are performing or just at anytime you want, read through the concert information followed by the statements and then go for it. In your practice you must be performing to the audience. Visualise the audience and no matter what, do not stop if you make mistakes. Take a mental note of your mistakes and practice that part in your technical practice the next day.
Recording yourself is also important, with audio and video if possible as often as possible, you will learn so much about yourself and start to become more confident. You will learn to perform with ease and because you are imagining you are in the moment every time you practice, when you are actually in the moment on stage you will just be flicking the switch to auto pilot. Some performers like to save that something extra for their actual concert. This is totally fine once you are at home with being in the performance environment but to start with it is actually better to do the opposite. Practice with 110% effort every time and then in the performance you can play 10% safe but still be perfect. Whenever you have a big performance in the future always try to find another opportunity to perform the same pieces or songs. It could be an informal performance in front of family or friends but to you it will be the real deal and a valuable lesson ahead of the big one. Some of the finest performers are so good because they have performed the same pieces many times in their lives so don't necessarily try to perform new music every time you perform until you feel more comfortable. This strategy also works for speeches, interviews and sports so use it in other aspects of life.
Step Five: DO MORE There are many great musicians out there who just sit around playing to themselves all day. Music is to be shared, performed live and celebrated. Live performance should be an exhilarating experience that you crave more of. There are also average musicians who make a huge name for themselves and earn good money by doing something that is relatively easy. Of course you should aim to be the best and a true master of your instrument or voice but it shouldn't stop there. You have to go out into the real world and find opportunities for yourself. Compose music, set up a website, do some music qualifications, post some YouTube videos, write a blog, find opportunities to teach and perform in your local area and beyond. Plan to record a CD or speak to music shops or instrument manufacturers to see if they might offer you some sort of sponsorship if you endorse their brand. The opportunities are endless but if you love making music then why not try to make a living from it?
If you make just one phone call or send just one email which is related to your goals and dreams then the chance of having an opportunity created from that might not be very high. If you send 100 emails then the chance is higher. An old teacher of mine always used to say an already popular phrase, "If you don't ask, you don't get" and I have always thought of this when I am planning to do something new. You have to remember that everything in this world has been created from thought. It is scientifically impossible for anything man made to be created without it. Buildings do not suddenly appear. New technologies do not suddenly appear. A great example of this was when I first moved to Singapore. A goal of mine, even before I arrived was to get some new music written by local composers. I met a talented local composer called Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli and was involved in a performance he had organised. I quickly suggested to him that he should compose a euphonium concerto for me. Right there in that moment my initial thought began to spread. Time passed and it was something we discussed a few times, the ball was rolling. There were many upsets, challenges and technical issues along the journey but some of my proudest achievements have been made possible just from that one thought.
I have since performed the Concerto for Euphonium, Euphora! by Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli in Brazil and Taiwan and recorded it on my solo CD, Hustle which can be purchased via my website. None of that would have been possible if I hadn't experimented with all the ideas I have written about here. I hope you have enjoyed reading this and please look forward to more blogs from me in the future.
Written (mostly) in 2016, in Singapore