Three keys to being a successful professional musician

For a recent student seminar at my university, I and my colleagues were asked to provide three "tools" that every professional musician requires in order to succeed. It's rather difficult to narrow things down to three items, but here is my set, in no particular order.

(1) Technical versatility. No matter your instrument, to be a successful professional in the 21st century you must be ready and able to serve in whatever capacity you are needed. If you are a singer, you need to move easily among opera, choral, church, and recital settings. A clarinetist has to be able to blend with her section, tune to the strings, make confident musical decisions in a recital, and be flexible enough to adapt to different conductors. A pianist needs to know how to adjust to playing with singers, choral ensembles, orchestras, and instrumental soloists, all of which have differences in onset of sound, types of conducting, balance/voicing requirements, etc. These things require you to have a comprehensive command of your instrument and the ability to adjust your sound production, tempo, inflection, etc. at a moment's notice. (You also have to know how to remain healthy and balanced in your life, but that's a topic for another day.)

(2) Mental resilience. There are several different components here, but the main point I'm getting at is the ability to recover quickly from emotional highs and lows, remaining focused and able to continue working. Music is powerfully intertwined with emotions. However, there is a danger of becoming overconfident after a great experience and sinking into despair after a bad experience (performance, audition, lesson, or even just an interpersonal interaction). You have to develop the proverbial "thick skin," able to glean useful feedback from each experience while discarding self-doubt, self-praise, attempts at manipulation or power plays by others, or similar distractions. Obviously, this is INCREDIBLY difficult - it's actually a lifelong process of learning by experience (there's that word again). I'm certainly not perfect in this area by any means, but I have seen enough to know how important this skill is. Those who have this "grit" (see: Angela Duckworth's book) will be able to accomplish some remarkable things, and those who lack it often crash and burn - even if they have considerable natural talent.

(3) Communication skills. I can't possibly emphasize this one enough. You need to communicate things clearly, concisely, and comprehensively in both verbal and written mediums. That means no spelling errors, no grammatical errors, no loose ends to conversational threads, no unanswered questions or vague wording, etc. You may have phenomenal ability and technical mastery, but if you can't interact smoothly and graciously with other people you will greatly reduce your chances of holding a job, getting asked to work with an ensemble again, recruiting and retaining students, or helping your organization build its donor base. This also applies to working with people from other cultures. If you're learning their language, learn it correctly, thoroughly, and humbly. Know their social cues as much as possible so that you don't come across as rude or condescending. (Side note: this also applies within the US! Midwesterners and Southerners are really quite different from coastal folks!!) Music is an amazingly diverse profession, and you never know which personal connection might result in that elusive "next big break"!

Finally, and somewhat paradoxically since I've been preaching a bit, is intellectual and musical humility. No matter how high you rise, you've got to remember that you're not all that, and that being a musician doesn't somehow elevate you above "common people". Keep an eternal perspective, especially after very positive or negative experiences. Always look to learn from musical interactions, and be willing to adapt your interpretations or preferences (this is especially important for those working with conductors!!) for the sake of collaborative harmony. Be joyful and thankful for as many things as you can find - sunrises, working gas stations, great coffee, and the privilege of working in music. A spirit of grateful humility, combined with rejoicing in beauty, is really what underlies all of the above "keys" to succeeding in music.

Backstage prep

My blog posts are kind of like slot machines. You can click on the blog every day for months and not get a single thing, then all of a sudden this torrent of words pours forth.

This past week I had an incredible time playing Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra. There are all kinds of things I could say, but today I'm focusing on the immediate pre-concert prep. I'm very interested in this subject, since the hour or so right before you walk onstage is probably the most intense mental gymnastics you have to undergo, other than actually playing the program.

For me, the ideal concert day involves two or three hours of warm-up practicing and slow, "thick" practicing of the actual repertoire. Depending on the length and complexity of the rep, this thick practicing can take anywhere from an hour for a single piece to nearly three hours for a full recital program (following 30-45 minutes of warmups and playing other repertoire to keep the brain fresh - Bach E-major concerto for me last week). The purpose of this practice is to "feel" every single combination of notes throughout the program, to reinforce for your body what your brain already knows about the music. I have found that this pays incredible dividends in the performance, since your mental image of the sensations involved in playing the music reinforce the analytical details, and keep you focused and able to adjust to any unforeseen events onstage (extraneous noises, finger slips, piano malfunctions, etc.).

Directly before the performance, I will take the score backstage and visualize the entire piece/program in 20-30 second increments, starting at the end and going to the front. This keeps the chunks small enough to remain focused for each one and notice any holes in my perception. Ending with the front of the piece (and program) puts me in the proper mental place to start the work - it's rather tiring to visualize front-to-back and then have to perform the piece "again" onstage. I also like to have a banana beforehand; it may be a placebo, but it certainly seems to help keep the nerves down. Depending on the time of the concert I may also have some caffeinated beverage (no energy drinks!!) as well - with three kids my wife and I tend to shut down around 9:00-9:30, so any performances that take me past 8:00 or so require a little extra boost. No matter how great your evening was, the kids will ALWAYS wake up at 6:00am.

I'd love to hear others' strategies as well, or your thoughts as an audience member on what goes on backstage. Not having personal coaches like athletes do, we tend to have to create our own routines based on long experience of what works and what doesn't. It's a great adventure, and every once in a while you'll get to experience the rewards that come from the countless hours of work and patience. As Liszt would say, Excelsior!

Celebrating America on the road

During the past month, I have had the great pleasure of driving from Los Angeles to upstate New York, with various stops and starts in-between. This gives me an opportunity to celebrate the 240th birthday of the land I love by providing a few snapshots of the amazing array of natural beauty and demographic diversity that I enjoyed while driving across America. Feel free to put on Copland's Appalachian Spring and Third Symphony while you read.

I'll start my travelogue in the Northridge neighborhood of Los Angeles, where I was attending the American Liszt Society's annual festival at Cal State Northridge. Northridge is in the northwest past of LA, in the San Fernando Valley north of Santa Monica and north-northeast of Malibu. My impression of this part of LA was twofold: "my, what expensive cars you all have," and "why would you park such expensive cars on the street??" I am an unashamed country mouse. My most lasting memory comes from driving through the canyons to Malibu and back. What an absolutely stunning sequence of views! I did make the requisite walk to the beach, and stepped on a tar ball for my trouble, but the canyon vistas were the highlight of this part of the trip.

From LA I drove up I-5 and CA-99 through the San Joaquin Valley to Fresno, where I played a recital and enjoyed the generous hospitality of my Liszt Society colleague John Hord. A ridiculous proportion of the world's (yes, the world's) fruits, nuts, and vegetables come from this valley, and you can see enormous plots of almonds, clementines, grapes, tomatoes, and just about anything else imaginable along every mile of this drive. I was hoping to see the Sierra Nevadas, but they're a bit farther from the road than I had expected, and the hazy sky only allowed me to see a general outline of the mountains. Alas, two days in Fresno was not enough to see Yosemite and the sequoias - that's a trip we hope to make "down the road" soon.

From Fresno I went back down CA-99 to Bakersfield, then east on CA-58 and through a small mountain pass into the Mojave Desert. At the start of the desert I drove past Edwards AFB, onetime landing site of the Space Shuttle. At Barstow I joined I-40 at its western terminus (there is a neat sign saying something to the effect of "Wilmington, NC - 2,555 miles) and headed out across the main part of the desert. I was interested to see that this desert is by no means flat, but features plenty of hills and mountains (although no buttes or mesas...more on that later). I was also very glad that our car had recently been retro-fitted with a transmission oil cooler...

Once I entered Arizona things got a bit greener, especially once I approached Flagstaff, with the majestic Humphreys Peak visible from dozens of miles in each direction. The evergreen trees provided a natural context for the "elk crossing" signs I saw several times. Unfortunately the Grand Canyon is a bit far off I-40 for a side trip, so that's another thing to add to future plans. One unfortunate feature of modern travel popped up once I neared the Navajo nation and the Painted Desert - the first of all too many tourist traps and kitsch-mongers known as "Navajo/Indian Trading Posts." They recur at regular intervals (along with the casinos) until you get to Oklahoma City...

New Mexico is roughly divided in half by I-25, which intersects I-40 at Albuquerque. West of I-25 things remain a bit "desert-y," while east of I-25 I saw more ranches and grasslands (or areas that used to be grasslands). My particular route took me off the interstate through Clovis to my home in Plainview, TX via US-84 and US-70, along which you can see - you guessed it - ranches, grasslands, and cotton/dairy farms. One thing that remained constant from California back to west Texas is the sky: the unending, joyous blue sky which reminds you of the sheer size of the land you are transiting.

Our next step of the journey was from west Texas to east Texas. In case you've not heard yet, Texas is a country unto itself. It's about ten hours across at our latitude, and nearly thirteen hours across at its widest point (I-10 from El Paso to Beaumont, east of Houston). You go from desert/ranchland through prairie to bayou country in the course of this trip. We always enjoy the smell of the pine trees in east Texas, and our kids love playing in the red dirt... In the middle of all this, I attended another conference, this time the annual Convention of the Texas Music Teachers Association in Dallas. I did have an excellent steak and a memorable Mexican dinner downtown, but that's a rabbit trail for another time.

Louisiana is the only state that starts with "L." Besides that, it is very swampy and has lots of casinos. Also, you can find the home (or at least the gift shop) of Duck Dynasty near Monroe, which I like to amuse people by describing as a documentary on folks who might as well be distant cousins on my mother's side... I neglected to mention that this part of the trip is on I-20, which for the last hour or two of east Texas begins to surround you with pine trees, transitioning into an amazing variety of deciduous trees, ferns, and other undergrowth as you travel through northern Louisiana.

After crossing the Mississippi River at Vicksburg and entering, well, Mississippi, we started to see more Midwestern farmland, although this far south there are still plenty of trees to go around. You can see some really striking plantation-style houses from the interstate between Vicksburg and Jackson. We finished up this leg of the trip by turning north on I-65 at Birmingham and arriving at Huntsville.

My biggest surprise of the trip came during a small excursion from Huntsville to Columbus, GA to play at the International Double Reed Society conference with my friend, bassoonist Jeffrey McCray. Northeastern Alabama completely amazed me. Its array of lakes and hills reminded me of both the Ozarks in southern Missouri and the foothills of the Catskills in New York. Guntersville, AL is a gem of a town southeast of Huntsville which looks to have all the amenities of a resort town in the Catskills (minus skiing, I suppose). I thoroughly enjoyed both legs of the trip to and from Columbus, and yes, I did drive by Talladega Superspeedway. It is very large.

From Huntsville we headed northeast toward Chattanooga, and enjoyed phenomenal scenery all along US-72 and I-24. This is really a neat corner of the country that I'd never even considered as a scenic destination before...eyes opened. Rolling hills, streams, lakes, dams...imagine the camping possibilities. From Chattanooga we took I-75 to Knoxville, then joined my old friend I-40 again going east toward the Smoky Mountains. At Jefferson City we joined the southwestern end of I-81 and turned toward Virginia.

If you have never had the pleasure of driving along the Appalachians, it's a bucket list item. I would certainly prefer to do this stretch (as I would in cross-country driving in general) without using the freeways, but traveling with a three-month-old and two other kids under 7 means getting there as fast as possible. I hope the Blue Ridge Parkway is in my future. Still, it's a stunning drive, with endless green on either side (in the summer, of course!), with a pinnacle of beauty in the Shenandoah Valley around Harrisonburg.

At Front Royal we turned east toward Washington on I-66, and stopped in Springfield, VA for the night. The sheer size and congestion of the DC area never fails to amaze me. The final stage of our journey started by skipping the Beltway and taking US-15 through Leesburg, VA and Frederick, MD to Harrisburg, PA. The stretch between Haymarket and Leesburg was especially beautiful, with horse farms and vineyards fitting the rolling landscape perfectly.

At Harrisburg we picked up I-81 again and enjoyed several amazing rises and falls through the lines of mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. At some points when you read the top of a grade you can see an entire valley stretching out for many miles below you, rather like a view you'd get on an airplane approaching to land. At Binghamton, NY we turned northeast to I-88, with the help of a very creative shortcut up and down a few hills provided by Google, and entered the rolling fuzzy foothills of the Catskills, where we will spend the next month enjoying a summer retreat among family. There will be another few day trips while we're here, including the Adirondacks and the Catskills, before we head back.

Fastest drivers: Alabama. Worst traffic: Harrisburg, PA. Places I want to see more of: Central CA, Grand Canyon, Smoky Mountains. Pleasant surprises: Albuquerque, NM and Huntsville, AL. Albuquerque is a remarkable center of scenery that hits you almost out of nowhere. I'd like to have a chance to explore it more. Huntsville is shockingly upscale (although I suppose I should have anticipated that with the number of government contractors in the area). Wasn't expecting the adjacent Porsche and BMW dealers. It also has really excellent views, particularly east of town, and we enjoyed our time with a very welcoming Greek Orthodox congregation there. Places I have no desire to ever live: Washington and LA. Too many people, too expensive, too much pressure. You can feel it even on the roads.

Thanks for sticking with this unusually long post - it's really a roundabout way of saying that this country never ceases to amaze me. This trip encompassed thirteen states and something around 4,000 miles of driving (including the outer leg from Texas to LA). I've enjoyed Pikes Peak, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, the endless wheat fields of Kansas, the majestic North Woods of Minnesota, and watched boats of all sizes on the Inland Waterway in Florida. I've now been in every state in the lower 48 except Nevada, Utah, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. We have every kind of scenery imaginable, across an enormous stretch of land, all united by a common belief in freedom. I'm thankful for the freedom to travel from sea to sea, to work wherever I can, to say what I feel needs to be said, and to worship without fear. I am so proud to be an American.

When it rains, it pours...

The old saying about April showers bringing May flowers is full of figurative truth for those of us who work in musical academia. As soon as the calendar turns over to April, it seems like there's a never-ending stream of performances, exams, and rehearsals. This month is no different! 

I spent the first week of April in my adopted hometown of Lincoln, NE performing with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra. I played the brief, but spectacular, piano part in Saint-Saëns' "Organ Symphony," joined on the even briefer four-hand piano part by Elizabeth Grimpo, a great friend of mine who also teaches at a small Christian liberal-arts school - Concordia University in Seward, NE. Also on the program was a new work by Jake Runestad, "Dreams of the Fallen," using poetry by Brian Turner to present the experience of returning war veterans. It is truly an extraordinary work...if you don't know it check it out here. Pianist Jeffrey Biegel played the substantial piano part with conviction and absolute authority. Plus, Tom Trenney, in addition to preparing the choirs, played brilliantly on Barber's "Toccata Festiva" and the Saint-Saëns. There's nothing like sitting in the middle of an orchestra during the finale of that symphony...wow. 

I was also able to play a solo recital at Concordia (Bach-Brahms Chaconne, Mozart K. 333, Liszt Sonata), and enjoyed the opportunity to reconnect with many of my Lincoln friends. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes working through the Ravel left-hand concerto with Mark Clinton, one of my former professors, and made significant progress organizing future projects with several other colleagues at UNL. If you've never been to Lincoln, or experienced the remarkable camaraderie and diversity of musical and cultural opportunities both at the university and in the city, you're missing out. I don't know any other small (pop. ~250,000) cities with such a rich cultural life. It may be corny, but it's true...there's no place like Nebraska. 

Back at school, we have at least one major concert, with associated rehearsals, between now and finals week at the beginning of May. We have a world premiere this weekend of a fantastic new comic opera by my dear friend Gary Belshaw - "Incident at Burro Java." Retired opera professor opens coffee shop, tries to use student chorus to record jingle (based on Wagner's Liebestod...), opera characters lament being type-cast by voice part...it's great stuff. Next Monday the brilliant David Cho, music director of the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra, will lead our concert band in their spring concert. Having him work with our students has been an unbelievable coup. Next Saturday we have our annual scholarship fundraising concert, featuring the "Te Deum" by Mark Hayes, for which I have to dust out my extremely latent organ chops. Finally, we have three concerts in four days during "dead week," including a two-piano recital with Ken Freeman and yours truly (all-French program, details later), a recital by our retired professor and artist-in-residence Mark Pair, and a final choral collage concert featuring student solos and small ensembles. 

In the meantime, I'm on the way to Houston this weekend, where I'll teach, judge, and perform at Lamar University in Beaumont and perform at the Steinway Selection Center in Houston. It is truly a blessing to work in music, and even though it's quite a blitz lately, not least because I have a brand-new son at home and my eternally patient wife has to put in lots of extra hours while I'm gone, it is such a fulfilling life.

Week in review, February 28-March 5

This will be a short one, since we're waiting for the arrival of baby #3 any day now! The endless tension of waiting has a way of exhausting the mind.

We had a relatively quiet week - no performances, just the normal routine of teaching, accompanying, and practicing. I was focusing on Liszt's Dante sonata during my practice time, in addition to revisiting my fall recital program, which I'll be playing again three times in April. There is so much that could be said about Dante sonata...for now I'll just express my unbounded wonder at Liszt's harmonic ingenuity. There are some truly amazing progressions in the piece, and the final few minutes feature some of the most incredibly creative, sonorous piano writing I've ever encountered. An amazing piece...perhaps it will show up on a program in the next year or two.

I also got to enjoy Wayland's opera scenes program, featuring Bizet's hilarious "omelet" scene from Docteur Miracle, a brilliant comedic take on learning German by Douglas Brown, and one of the best short operatic works I've encountered, Gary Belshaw's "The Worst One Ever." The latter work features three coeds complaining about their teacher, boyfriend, and dad, with delightfully tuneful music and a clever libretto.

That's all for now...I think a few of Brahms' Handel variations are in my future for this week.

Week in review, February 21-27

Last week featured two recitals, and almost a third. One of my students gave a half-hour recital of Glass, Mozart, Chopin, and Debussy as part of a Bachelor of Arts degree, and then for the second half of the double-header I played with a clarinet performance student - Baermann duo for two clarinets and Spohr's second concerto. Quite a full afternoon! It's quite interesting going from the emotional intensity of having one of my own students give a degree recital, then turning around and performing twenty minutes later.

The third program that "almost was" was scheduled for Tuesday evening - a lecture recital on Argento's "To Be Sung Upon the Water." Unfortunately we had illness among us and had to postpone to the end of March...more time to meditate on this really amazing combination of text and music. There will probably be a dedicated blog post on this work around that time!

Concerto practice for the week was the fourth movement of Brahms' second concerto. I knew going in that this was a tall technical order - make large, "heavy" shapes sound light and "grazioso"! My goodness, that's no joke. I'm amazed how Brahms covers multiple octaves with incredibly wide gestures, as well as the requisite scales in double thirds, octave melodies, and other Brahmsian traits, but still creates a truly transparent texture. This is not "heavy" music, but it will be a while before I can get everything familiar enough in my fingers to pull off the light, airy nature of this material. Goal for completion of the whole concerto is summer 2017.

Two other random thoughts: one airline rant and one language-learning technique. I received a notice that a trip I had booked for April to play a set of recitals in the Houston area had been subject to a "schedule change." Usually when this happens it's a matter of a few minutes (e.g., 7:35 flight becomes 7:42), or simply a flight number change. Not this time. Apparently the original flight I'd booked for 8am had been cancelled. So, I was "conveniently" rebooked on the 5am flight. No "would you like to cancel/try another airline/receive a refund?"...just the assumption that I'd automatically take the early morning flight rather than look for a more convenient deal. As a relative of mine likes to say, the airlines are probably the only business that can completely alter the product/service they sell to you at any time AFTER you purchase it, and not only not offer you a refund but actually charge you if their altered product doesn't fit your needs and you cancel your order. Oh well. I suppose with a new baby around by then I'll probably be awake at 3am anyway...

Lastly, in my continuing quest to build German fluency, I bought a German copy of FIFA 14 on eBay. It's a blast. When you work through household activities, sports/recreation, or other "routine" things in another language it really helps retention. Anyone know how I can get hold of a German sports news program?

New baby coming soon...my posting could soon return to its erratic self, but I'll try to continue the weekly reviews. I'm finding that it's good discipline.