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09.10.13Systematically Creative: Notes on How Serious Musicians Practice

french-horn-iS-2.273181926_stdAndrew Stephenson is a friend and colleague at Uncommon Schools.  He’s a former fourth grade teacher—a very accomplished one—who’s training to be a Director of Operations—a job that essentially means co-leading a school alongside a principal and doing all the organizational stuff so the principal can be locked in on curriculum and instruction and just about nothing else.   To do that you’ve got to be a special combination of systems thinker and creative problem solver.  You’re building a budget one minute and re-designing dismissal procedures to react to unpredictably late busses the next. You have to be prepared to answer every conceivable question from “How can we get the best medical coverage for our teachers?” to “How will we get the ketchup packets opened at lunch for 100 kindergarteners who can’t do it themselves but will want it on their hamburgers, all without causing us to miss a minute of class?” (PS the answer is: Cut them all open in advance in small bunches with a scissors.)

In short, it helps to be a special combination of systematic and creative to thrive at Andrew’s job.  So I was interested but not completely surprised to find that when he’s in fact, a serious (French) Horn player… studied it at the Eastman School of Music. How he finds time to play I have no idea, but there beneath the veneer of everyday hero to the teachers he supports, is an accomplished musician.

Anyway, Andrew posted on a social media site recently, asking his “musical friends” to share details of how they practice—what tricks they use to ensure productivity and constant development.  The response was fascinating.  I’ve edited it slightly and shared it–and then Andrew’s analysis of it, which is pretty amazing—below.  One of the best parts is finding out—when you read to the bottom—that the folks posting are mostly professional musicians, so this turns out to be a glimpse into the secret lives of the professionally (and, it turns out, systematically) creative.  It’s incredibly useful if you’re a musician, I’m sure, but even as a sometime writer/would-be author of several books I am struggling to complete I find Andrew’s assessment at the end really useful.  I’m gonna try it and be changed!

Andrew Stephenson Musical friends: anyone out there fond of keeping a practice log? I feel like I should be keeping both a “to do” and a “done” list of sorts to make sure things are balanced out. Feel free to chime in with your good habits! (Don’t worry, they’re guaranteed to be better than mine.)

Vanessa J. Miller: I’m a fan of the “to do” list for each piece I’m working on using a calendar to decide when I want it completely prepared/memorized etc. and working backwards with a daily plan from there.  It breaks it down more tangibly for me on a day to day basis and feels more rewarding to check “done” at the end of each day.

Andrew Stephenson Vanessa, sounds great–project planning for each piece. And then do you do some kind of schedule for skills/technique upkeep?

Matt Osika It’s the only way I manage to get stuff done…otherwise I just mess around.

Vanessa J. Miller I just use a book of etudes/exercises that I warm up with each day. There are a few main ones for harp that I rotate between- one I complete one, move onto another. Not sure if that helps with that? Harp etudes/exercises are a bit different than horn.

Andrew Stephenson Matt, seconded. Or I just end up “working on” things I’m already good at.

Jacob Medlin I’ve tried logs and such but don’t find them very useful. For me, its all about your daily routine (warmup, whatever you call it). I like the Brass Gym myself, it gives me everything I want. So I play it every day and then focus on learning as much as I can from whatever I’m playing (etudes etc.). No real need to treat it like an academic endeavor in my opinion. That’s a good recipe for it to become boring instead of thrilling!

Jacob Medlin My practice uses 5 min “chunks”. Play for 5 min, then rest for five minutes while you plan out the next 5 min. That keeps me from “messing around”

Andrew Stephenson Jacob, love the chunking idea

Vanessa J. Miller Chunking practice is a great thing! I prefer longer chunks like 30 min practice, 5-10 min off. More than 45 min and the intense focus to accomplish something I feel drastically diminishes. And of course there is the physical stress if one doesn’t take a break.

JG Miller My basic maintaining routine kopprasch book 1 odd etudes. Next day, kopprasch book 1 even etudes. Book 2 odd, book 2 even. . Then kling, odd 20, even 20. That’s a six day maintaining routine.

My time on face is governed at 22-25 minutes on 5 off. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Day 7 is all fun stuff, for me usually Bach cello suites in C.

When I start “getting bored” add a D20 with tape over each side or correspond numbers to transpositions. Let dice decide your fate on each étude. Also, use the optional articulations or make your own.

This is my daily absolute minimum to keep endurance plus a 10 minute warmup; anything more than that really to me isn’t a warmup.

Scale or modify this depending on where you’re coming from since this is obviously not a onramp routine.

Andrew’s background and analysis

1.       My own music—I play (French) horn, usually considered to be one of the more “treacherous” instruments out there.

a.       Full disclosure: I am a mediocre horn player by professional standards. I squeaked by with my degree from Eastman, and I love music dearly, but I don’t think I have the aptitude to make money off of it! I’m just starting a journey to get back into playing after working the last five years.

b.      The reasons for the horn’s treacherous reputation: horn players play higher up in their overtone series than other brass instruments, where the partials are closer together. Since brass players control pitch with the lip muscles, this means horn players are susceptible to “cracking” notes—hitting the wrong partial but with the right fingering. Cracking can also come from something as small as a little bit of condensation building up inside the instrument at the wrong time.

2.       Background: I went to the Eastman School of Music (part of the University of Rochester) and graduated with an Applied Music degree in horn performance. I’ve been lucky to study with some truly great horn players—W. Peter Kurau was my professor at Eastman, and Andrew McAfee while in high school.

3.       Character List: Here’s a quick rundown of the players in that conversation:

a.       Vanessa Miller: harp, graduated from Eastman, solo harpist who plays a ton of solo gigs and teaches. Married to JG Miller.

b.      JG Miller: close friend of mine, Doctorate of Musical Arts in horn performance, also went to Eastman. Plays horn with the Army Field Band, one of the “special” military bands that are often considered the nation’s best. Side note: in order to qualify for Army basic, JG had to drop over 100 lbs and radically change his BMI. The guy is literally one of the most disciplined people I know, but he also says things like this (without meaning to brag at all): “I’ll spend less time in the practice room than most horn players, but I guarantee it’s more focused.”

c.       Matt Osika: Eastman grad, band director/composter/arranger extraordinaire, Eastman grad. The guy is a complete musician through and through

d.      Jacob Medlin: high school friend, professional horn player and horn builder. He makes professional horns by hand for a living, which I personally think is amazing. His horns are starting to get adopted by some of the best horn players in the world.

4.       Practice Planning (prior to practice) vs. Routines Tracking (post-practice): Here’s what I’m thinking about a log, blending together what I’ve learned about project planning and such from the Ops Fellowship and all the advice gathered from that thread:

a.       Project Planning for Performance Pieces: Vanessa’s idea about project planning for individual pieces someone is preparing for a performance seems spot on. Since those pieces are likely to be new repertoire (or at least ones that haven’t been played in a while), they’re deserving of that kind of intentional backwards-planning. Performance pieces are also usually much longer than individual etudes and exercises, so they need to be broken down. I’d imagine that her project plan, besides including a lot of physical practice, also includes time for listening to the piece in context (i.e. listening to multiple seminal recordings) and a lot of visualization practice about how she wants to sound. (As a harpist, she has to be mindful about the amount of physical time she puts in practicing, because harpists can quickly get repetitive stress injuries from the awkward hand positions they have to use all the time.)

b.      Daily/Weekly Routines: JG’s and Jacob’s ideas about daily routines were also really helpful (BTW, I like to think that I channeled you when I asked about the daily routines in that thread—the conversation was just too good to let it die!). I want to plan a recital for this winter and project plan for the actual performance pieces, but I don’t have the time to do the same for maintenance work, nor is it even appropriate. Daily and weekly routines are meant for upkeep and improvement of the technical aspects of playing. Etudes, exercises, long tones—all of these can help a horn player work on embouchure, flexibility, dynamics, attacks, releases, expression, articulation, and style, but since I need to make sure I work on these equally, I just need to schedule out these blocks on a weekly cycle. Since the etude repertoire JG talked about covers all of these things (Kopprasch, Kling, etc.), I can set myself up with a scaled down version of his routine.

i.      Because I’m not quite as intuitive about horn as JG, I’ll probably make a daily “dashboard” of the topics I listed above to make sure I work on each one during each practice session: tone, embouchure, flexibility, dynamics, attacks, releases, expression, articulation, and style. Something like this:


Day   Embouchure     Tone     Flexibility    Dynamics    Attacks    Releases    Expression    Articulation    Style 
Sunday Play for fun!


I have a really Ops-driven mind, so this kind of dashboard excites me because it has a low transaction cost (it’s a super quick log) and stay data-driven about the major technical aspects of playing. However, Jacob’s point is well-taken that the moment this becomes too chore-driven, I’ll stop doing it. Hopefully this dashboard-type log will self-modulate over time into its most efficient form.

c.       Time On, Time Off: all of these folks seem to have mastered their personal sense of sustained attention/flow. For JG, he sticks to 22-25 minutes on vs. 5 minutes off (very similar to the Pomodoro Technique!), while Jacob operates on a much shorter cycle (5 on, 5 off.) I’ll need to figure out what the right balance is for me, but the point is that we all have a tendency to over play the “bright spots” and pretend we’re doing something useful, when in reality we can easily waste away the amount of practice our face musculature will allow. Since I’m getting my face musculature back into shape, the things I need to be most mindful of are (a) keeping relaxed while playing, (b) maintaining appropriate tone in all registers, and (c) keeping mental focus. I’ll play as long as I can do those three things in concert, but I should take a break every single time I lose one of those three things so that I can best guarantee correct practice. I need to prime the correct mental pathways, not the wrong ones!!


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