Mental Practice is Important!

In 2010, Mercedes Smith won the prestigious National Flute Association Young Artist Competition. One week later, she won the audition to become principal flute of the Pacific Symphony. I love her approach to practicing - don't play too much, but spend time reflecting on her last practice session, listening to recordings, and planning her next session. 25% of her practicing happens without playing flute, and she rarely practices more than 3 hours per day. Mercedes is a great example of effective deliberate practicing.

A word about practicing and how much to practice: About two years ago I was preparing for a major orchestra audition. There was a huge amount of repertoire to learn and I didn't have a realistic plan for how I was going to succeed. My only thought was, "spend as much time as possible practicing." I gave up my social life and was probably practicing 4-5 hours a day and I was playing my job at the time too. I was exhausted and the audition ended up being a disaster. After that I decided that I needed to change what I was doing because I was working too hard and not seeing the results I wanted. It was at this point that I made a very important decision: I resolved to not practice more than 3 hours day. I usually practice 90 minutes in the morning, and 90 minutes in the afternoon, and usually I play a show at night. I'll often spend a fourth hour each day either listening to recordings of myself and taking notes to come up with a plan for the next day's practice or listening to professional recordings of the music I am working on. I find that having a 3 hour time limit on my daily practice has greatly improved my efficiency. If something isn't going well, I don't get bogged down, I have to move on to the next thing. If I am truly off work (for example the week between NFA and the Pacific audition) I might go as far as 3.5 hours practice in a day, but it is extremely rare that I will break my rule.

Note how she warms up before competitions and auditions, never playing excerpts up to tempo until she actually performs them. Instead of playing at performance tempo, she thinks through the excerpts at performance tempo:

The most crucial thing is how I actually warm up the day of the event. I will not play ANY fast passages up to tempo and I will almost always play with a metronome. Especially at orchestra auditions, you will hear the person in the room next to you frantically running thru Firebird or Peter and the Wolf at an insanely fast tempo. Do not be tempted to do this! For example with Peter and the Wolf I will practice it with my metronome slowly (maybe around 70) then I might take it up to a more moderate tempo (around 100) but I won't practice it faster than that. If I'm worried that I might not be able to hit the right tempo during the audition I'll put my metronome on the performance tempo and THINK through the excerpt without my flute. This goes for any technical passage, whether it be Carnival of the Animals or parts of Dutilleux Sonatine. As far as sound and tone I try to stay extra relaxed in my body. The key the day of an event is to practice calmly and methodically and to not overdo anything; when in doubt put your flute down and think through it. Again, you can be stuck in the warm-up room for hours and it is not worth exhausting yourself before your audition. If you have prepared properly you will be fine.

And some final words about the importance of practicing in high school and college:

For any students out there I would say that the most important time to do your serious practice is during your high school and early college years. If you slack off then, it will be really hard to succeed later. I credit all my good finger technique to long hours of scale practice when I was a teenager. I also think being open to change is crucial -even radical change. Sometimes you realize that you cannot improve an aspect of your playing unless you take a huge step back and start again from square one. I think this happened to me several times -once with articulation and again with tone. I feel like I make sound in a very different way than I did even two years ago and certainly much different than when I was in college. I wouldn't be surprised if I continue to make changes in the future as well. To any student out there: if there is any question in your mind about whether you want to be a professional flutist then you probably shouldn't be one. If you truly love music and cannot imagine yourself doing anything else then go for your dreams -- you won't regret it!


Are you thinking of majoring in music?

Consider two very useful quotes:

1. Chris Gardner was a homeless man portrayed in the film, The Pursuit of Happyness. He took an unpaid internship in a major financial firm, studied unceasingly while raising his two-year-old son, sleeping for a while in a public bathroom, but eventually emerged as a millionaire stockbroker. When asked how he had the strength to keep going, he said, "Find something you love to do so much, you can't wait for the sun to rise to do it all over again."

This is exactly the way music majors must feel about music. Many students feel this way; however, many are still not successful because their actions don't match their love for music. They lack the energy to relentlessly learn technique, expression, and interpretation.

2. Donald Trump once remarked, "If you don't have passion, you have no energy, and if you don't have energy, you have nothing."

Do you have energy to practice scales, listen closely to the music history repertoire, and work on your technical weaknesses EVERY DAY and often? If you do, you will be successful. If the love of music is there, but you regularly choose to do something else instead of practicing and studying music, you will struggle to become a good enough musician. Monitor your energy for developing musicianship - if you have it you will grow. If your energy doesn't match your love for music, the music major may not be for you (but music as an avocation certainly ought to be!).

(These quotes come from The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo.)


One big vote for a liberal arts education

This comes from Peter Lynch, who managed Fidelity's Magellan Fund from 1977 to 1990, when it was the best-performing mutual fund in the world:

In college, except for the obligatory courses, I avoided science, math, and accounting - all the normal preparations for business. I was on the arts side of school, and along with the usual history, psychology, and political science, I also studied metaphysics, epistemology, logic, religion, and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks [at Boston College].
As I look back on it now, it's obvious that studying history and philosophy was much better preparation for the stock market than, say, studying statistics. Investing in stocks is an art, not a science, and people who've been trained to rigidly quantify everything have a big disadvantage. If stockpicking could be quantified, you could rent time on the nearest Cray computer and make a fortune. But it doesn't work that way. All the math you need in the stock market (Chrysler's got $1 billion in cash, $500 million in long-term debt, etc.) you get in the fourth grade.
Logic is the subject that's helped me the most in picking stocks, if only because it taught me to identify the peculiar illogic of Wall Street.

One Up On Wall Street. Peter Lynch (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), p. 49-50.


Questions to ponder for a student choosing a college

Keep in mind that no degree will get you a job. Rather than trying to determine a hypothetical advantage of one school’s degree over another’s, think about these questions when you choose your college.

  1. Where will I be most comfortable?

You are choosing your home for the next 4 years.

  1. Which school reflects my personal values?

I believe there is a misconception in the minds of many students. College is not a time to test the “real world.” It is a time to formulate what your identity will be when you have to make a career and family after college. A college that nurtures and strengthens your values is far more valuable than one that “challenges” them with a chop block at every turn.

  1. Where will I best develop my adult character as a person of faith and a good citizen?

In college, you are free – sort of. Your parents are now letting go, and you are learning how to handle your day to day life on your own. What opportunities does your college provide to help you gain confidence as an independent person?

  1. Where will I be challenged intellectually?

Will I have the intellectual capacity to get work and to work well? Keep in mind that there is a big difference between learning “skills and procedures” for a career and developing critical thinking skills for a career. Critical thinking skills are far more flexible and capable of innovation. This is the focus of the liberal arts education at Concordia University.

Only you and your parents can answer these questions for you. What I can say is that Concordia teaches you to think like a professional while becoming a wise, honorable, and cultivated citizen who is commissioned by Christ. The faculty take all of this seriously, not just the academic side of it. But like anywhere else, how far you progress on that track is in your control.

God’s blessings on your college decision!


Month-by-Month with the 2008-09 Concordia Wind Orchestra

Last year, I wrote this short piece to give prospective students an idea of what the CWO experience entails. It may be one year outdated, but it still provides useful insight.

Several months in the life of the Concordia Wind Orchestra, 2008-09:

August: A new school year begins. Week of Welcome is loaded with orientation activities, reunions of friends, and CWO auditions. Before classes begin, all major ensembles hold auditions to determine student placement within the ensemble. The CWO audition consists of three sections: a prepared etude, an excerpt from the upcoming years' literature, and 4 scales selected at random from the major, minor, or chromatic scales. On the first day of rehearsal, five students were congratulated for receiving perfect scores (2 freshmen flutists, and the principal clarinetist, bassoonist, and saxophonist). With student placement complete (sometimes adjustments are made during the semester), rehearsals begin in earnest for the fall concert.

September: The ensemble rehearses hard on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30-5:15. All students are required to observe the "15-minute standard," which means they are present, warming up and preparing for the rehearsal. This standard applies for call times before performances as well. The biggest surprise for returning students is that Prof. Held has actually softened up and included a 5-minute break during every rehearsal. The trumpet section is particularly appreciative.
There are no performances this month, but the CWO takes part in its annual tradition - the retreat! This year's version is especially adventurous - a camping trip in the Cleveland National Forest (our local mountains that are in Orange County - we're not just all about beaches!). Did I say this would be an adventure? Students were divided into groups and given a meager amount of cash to take care of their responsibilities. In the end, the equipment group managed to secure enough tents and sleeping bags to save on rental and generously gave their left over portion to the dinner group (hey, they wanted to have enough food!). Everything actually went off without a hitch as all the groups did an excellent jobs using their budget and coming up with plenty of food and shelter. The retreat itself was a great time. Once we survived an onslaught of bugs in the late afternoon, they went away and we had a very fun evening of food, frisbee, hacky-sack, tree-climbing, camp golf, and campfire worship. The highlight of the night probably was the tarantula that one of the students coaxed into his hat. After everyone had a chance to pet it and take a few pictures, he was off on his merry way. Everyone successfully survived the night and early morning hike led by Prof. Held's 5-year-old son, and we were on our merry way (after we successfully broke into one of the vans whose driver locked the keys away!). The final act of the retreat was to rejoin civilization, get dressed up and attend a fabulous concert by the American Winds and tuba soloist extraordinaire, Patrick Sheridan.

October: Things are really getting serious in rehearsal now with the fall concert coming up quickly (the 5 minute break stays intact, though!). This year, the Wind Orchestra is preparing an All Saints' Day concert. Probably the most challenging piece is David Gillingham's No Shadow of Turning, pushing our sound control and expressive abilities to the limit. We're also very excited to perform two of Frank Ticheli's most beloved works back-to-back, An American Elegy followed by Amazing Grace.

November: The All Saints' Day concert is a perfect example of the Concordia Wind Orchestra's mission to serve the community as a faith-centered musical ensemble. The concert is filled with challenging, inspiring, and highly-respected works placed in the context of a deeper message. The concert opens with a three portrayals of human grief - a Steven Stucky arrangement of Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary, an Armenian song of sadness and hope called Giligia, by Alfred Reed (accompanied by the image Armenian Sadness,by Fons Heijnsbroek) and Ticheli's well-known An American Elegy. Our faith carries us far beyond sadness though, and this is expressed in the second part of the concert which highlights faith themes of redemption, praise, eternal life, faithfulness, and peace through music selections and narration.
This memorable concert was performed on campus, at a Los Angeles church, and at our area Lutheran high school for their chapel service. An then, in a flash, it was time to think "Christmas!"

December: This is the whirlwind month! Students are frantically finishing major class projects, prepping for finals, and readying performance juries. But this is also the month of Concordia's biggest music event, an unforgettable experience for the performers and audience - our Christmas concerts. The CWO traditionally plays during the 2nd half of the concert, alternating Christmas selections (and sometimes joining) with the Concordia Choir and Master Chorale. After the Concert Handbells take that role in the first half, we have an impressively fast and efficient stage-change, replacing the handbells with the full wind orchestra set-up. We perform to five sold-out audiences each year, and the concert is an Orange County Christmas highlight.

January: One week before classes begin, CWO members report back to campus. It is tour time! After one day of intensive rehearsals, we leave for a four-day tour through California, taking us to Lutheran churches in Paso Robles, Fremont, Santa Maria, Oxnard, and Torrance. This year's tour concert takes on a unique format - an Evening Prayer worship. We have this special liturgy orchestrated by a local composer named Charles Raasch and put all of our tour repertoire in this worship format. We bring soprano Natalie Hovsepian (junior at Concordia) along to do the chanting and sing special arrangements of The Lord's Prayer and a hymn. In the end, this concert/worship hybrid was an excellent example of the Concordia Wind Orchestra's mission as a faith-centered wind band. Seven performances over four days (including one school perforamance and two morning worship services) may sound like a lot, but we still have time for many fun and educational tour excursions. Tours are more than an opportunity for performance outreach. Students also experience many things. This year, we managed a stop at the Niles Silent Film Museum (location where Charlie Chapman made it big), including a screening of a Charlie Chapman film. We also had a lively guided tour of the monarch butterflies that migrate to the Bridges State Beach, followed by a perfect afternoon at Santa Cruz beach (sunny and 70 degrees in January!). And between performances on Sunday, we stopped to tour the Getty Center - one of the world's most spectacular art museums.

February: After the tour, there was no time to rest. Rehearsals began in earnest, with only two weeks to prepare our very popular annual family concert. This year's theme is "SuperMusic for SuperHeroes." A hilarious skit accompanied our concert, with a superpower potion being developed by a Concordia professor, which was stolen by Lex Luther, who trapped Batman, Robin, and Superman, and was finally defeated when all of the kids in the audience who came dressed as superheroes zapped him with their superlollypops combined with the the newly-found power in "Superconductor's" conducting baton. This concert is a community highlight, filling the CU Center with enthusiastic families. After the concert, the patio is filled with superhero-themed kid games led by CWO members with lots of prizes for the kids. This year's concert was taped for broadcast on Irvine City Televison.

March/April: With 20 of our 28 performances behind us already, things calm down a bit for two months. Rehearsals are occupied in preparation for our spring concert and two more outings to area churches for their worship services. This year we are preparing a Palm Sunday service, so we are having Charles Raasch arrange two hymns for the Lenten season: "No Tramp of Soldiers' Marching Feet" (whose text makes several marching band references) and "My Song is Love Unknown." Charlie will join us as organist for these settings on Palm Sunday. We'll prepare other music appropriate for Lent, including O Sacred Head Now Wounded by William Latham. The Wind Orchestra is always enthusiastically-received by congregations. Having a wind orchestra in worship is a spectacular and highly expressive way to enhance worship.

May: Our spring concert arrives - a collaboration with the Art Deparment themed, "Sonic Portraits: Music and Art in Synergy." The concert includes all music that is based in the visual arts. The program has large prints of each painting depicted by the music. One of our pieces, Prism by Steve Shafer, is accompanied by a video art installment (and it has an unbelievably beautiful penny whistle solo played by flutist Megan Salgado). Performing Pictures at an Exhibition, Scenes from the Louvre, and Art in the Park challenge and inspire us, but the highlight is a new work composed by junior Christian Guebert. This piece is inspired by three paintings by recent Concordia graduate, Justin Morris.

Closing out the year is our traditional performance at Concordia's commencement ceremonies (Pomp and Circumstance way too many times!). We part ways with our graduates, ready for some rest but reflecting on what has been a landmark year in the history of the Concordia Wind Orchestra.


CUI's tuba instructor, Charlie Warren, releases Music Minus One Tuba CD

Charlie Warren and his Disneyland-based brass quintet, the Pacific Coast Horns, have released a new Music Minus One CD for solo tuba, titled "Take Five." This is a great way for students to learn solo pieces with high quality accompaniment on CD, in regular tempo and slower tempo.

CWO Performs Ticheli's Amazing Grace

The Concordia Wind Orchestra performs for worship at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Orange, CA in 2009. Directed by Jeff Held. Permission granted by Manhattan Beach Music.