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Prepare Today. Lead Tomorrow. Photo: R Gauthier

Whether they know it or not, students stay with the teacher after they leave the studio.

Their successes warm our hearts, and their struggles keep us concerned all week.

To the beloved student who came in today, disheartened about studying the violin, about handling the pressure that seems to be coming at you from all angles, about how remote your student experience feels from the ideal life you envision: I hear you.

Not long after your lesson, I stepped outside the building, sad, having too many emotions and thoughts fighting in my head and heart. I was not sure how good a job I had done connecting with you, figuring out ways to convey hope and courage to you.

A few feet out of the building, I looked up and saw this, posted everywhere around the campus:

“Prepare Today. Lead Tomorrow.”

I was struck. These four words embody perfectly the idea I was so clumsily trying to communicate to you. Let me try again.

To you, dear student, with all my love:

You feel as though everyone is asking you to be perfect – the perfect student, violinist, person. You feel as though you are getting lost in the requirements of the process. The next paper, the next test, the next lesson. You feel the world expects you to be a certain way.

Don’t let your perception fool you: you don’t have to be anyone but who you already are and who you wish to become in the future.

It’s not about what you think others are expecting of you. It’s not about being perfect or fit a specific mold or follow the beaten path.

It’s about you acquiring the tools to reach excellence in your chosen path. It’s about you keeping sight of what your goals are and understanding how the process you are in right now can help you achieve those. How the current route can serve your future self. How what you’re learning here fits YOUR grand scheme.

Make the process personal. Find yourself in each step, figure out how each stage serves your purpose, brings you closer to your dreams. Try to see the ways in which every exercise, every assignment, every test is related to your vision. Each one of those gives you access to more skill, knowledge, and experience.

Then you can soar and share those gifts with the people whose life you aim to touch and impact.

We aim to give you the alphabet, the vocabulary, and the grammar. You write the poem.

Hard times are guaranteed no matter what path you choose. When things seem tough, dig in, find YOU, and work hard, courageously, for YOU. Don’t expect it to be easy. Welcome challenges, face them fiercely, and see how strong and creative they make you!

You can! I know, because I’ve seen you do it! And I’ve seen the smile on your face when you get to the top of the mountain, sweaty, scrapped, tough, and exhilarated! Prepare today, and lead tomorrow!

Thank you for reminding me to keep the bigger discussion going, for making me think about what is important. xoxo

 

 

Choosing where I’m sweating = Alignment over effort

Last Monday morning, I was not quite in the mood to go back to work after a long weekend spent playing and going on adventures with the kids. My head was full of twirling thoughts as I was staring at a super long to-do list. I was totally indecisive about how to attack the day and completely unmotivated to tackle the things that had to be done.

I realized I needed to dramatically change my state. I needed to put myself first. I needed to treat myself to something extremely valuable: alignment!

Before I played one note or sent one email, I laced up my shoes and went for a nice long (slow) run. I listened to my favorite songs, got my blood flowing, let my thoughts sort themselves, and allowed new ideas to take over. I came back home with a clear plan of action and a true drive to get started.

Running gets me invigorated and inspired all at once. How can I so frequently forget how something so simple can have such a powerful impact on the rest of my day!? For me, sweating on the road always prevents unnecessary sweating in the studio. (Or, at least, sweating in the studio for the wrong reasons - hint: mindless practicing!!!).

Alignment over effort is always time well spent! I’m using the same trick this morning!

 

Fear is good.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to accept vulnerability as an integral part of my human nature and my artistic life, and about how it can allow me to work and perform at my best. I likewise find that we should not forget that, at the other end of the spectrum, fear is often a necessary evil and can be a great tool in our musical journey. We need this dichotomy between learning to embrace our fears and letting go of perfection. Both anxiety and vulnerability offer opportunities for growth but can become hindrances to our progress and performance.

It’s a very fine line. Within that balance between answering fear with courage and letting go of the debilitating chase for perfection lays great potential for what we call in French dépassement – going past what we perceive are our current limitations – in our art.

Facing fear helps us grow our courage muscle. (Cliché, I know! But it really does!) Fear will come at one point or another, there’s no avoiding it. But it can become a great resource. Think of the times fear made you practice that extra hour, gave you sharp focus, and had you bring in you A-game at the next lesson!

There are many ways to learn to handle fear and have it become an agent for good in our lives.

A few things we can do:

1. Build a courage list: Think of all the times you did something despite being afraid and think of what you gained out of it – may it be a job, experience, knowledge, or even new friends! Be proud!

2. Diagnose it: Learn to recognize when you’re acting out of fear. Find your “fear avoiding” patterns (procrastination, denial, etc.) and learn to work around them.

3. Analyze your feelings: What is fear? Sometimes, fear is necessary for your survival. If a bear is at your tail for example, ignoring fear might be bad for your health! Other times, fear is just a feeling caused by your own thoughts. By trying to go to the roots of the thought, you can better understand what causes fear and mitigate its hold on you.

4. Find it in your body: Where is fear residing? Butterflies in your stomach? Elevated heart rate? Cold hands? Noticing the tangible symptoms of fear can guide us in finding ways to address those directly. (E.g. take deep breath, eat a little something, wash hand with warm water, etc.) Alleviating the physical symptoms of fear can often have beneficial effect on the mental hold fear has on us.

5. Face it: When you have done all of the above, establish your true goals and make a clear plan of action. Be realistic, but don’t forget to have courage.

As they say, what makes you a superhero is not being fearless, but being afraid and doing it anyway.

Send a resume for that audition. Sign up for that concert. Join that group. Tackle that new piece. Write that song.

 

 

 

Inspiration to practice and perform more mindfully really can come in many forms! Yesterday, it came in the shape of a podcast, Crushing Classical Fireside Chat no. 28 - Dismantling "creativity", where Tracy and Eileen discussed the different components of creativity. Expanding from that topic, it got me thinking about the many things that can come from just showing up. It was such a great reminder about standing in my truth and courageously confronting vulnerability.

In performance, the eagerness to play perfectly and the fear of any flaw is actually what prevents me from playing my best. Always. I want to remember to have the courage to stand in my truth and be accepting, even welcoming, of my humanity and vulnerability.

If I expand on this even further, thinking of all the performances where I have felt comfortable and was truly playing my best, they always happened when I was playing from a place of joy and letting go of perfection. So I challenge myself to always reach in and try to find that place of inner joy, in both practicing and performing.

By the way, I don't mean to suggest that one should wallow in mediocrity! I find it hard to believe that anyone would find joy and pride in the pursuit of sub-par experiences! The work must be done and the price must be paid. The preparation must be thorough! We put in the time in the practice room and enjoy the freedom on stage, showing up in our truth, courageously, accepting to look human and vulnerable.

 

 

What do you know about yourself? What type of learner are you? What kind of habits could you develop to improve your work and your life? What mechanisms could you put in place to realize your dreams?

When practicing, we often dissociate ourselves, separating the player from the human. The older I get, the more I find that actually learning about and working with who I am as a person has a profound impact on my practicing and my creative output.

I've been a fan of Gretchen Rubin for a few years now and I'm loving her latest book, The Four Tendencies. Following her framework, I am a typical Obliger: Obligers meet outer expectations and resist inner expectations. (I.e. Doing everything that must be done for others/work/family, leaving little to no time and energy for personal projects.) I have instinctively been setting up outer accountability systems for years in order to keep working towards my goals. E.g. concert dates and upcoming projects with specific deadlines are great built-in accountability systems. Enrolling accountability partners, creating external systems such as detailed schedules and to-do lists, signing up for auditions or classes, and joining groups are other great ways to keep an Obliger on target.

By better understanding this about myself, I can continue to cultivate systems that work for me and will help me create a path to accomplish both the outer and inner goals I set for myself. Understanding the different personality tendencies is also a potentially powerful tool in my studio. By presenting concepts and assignments in ways that cater to their tendencies, I can be better able to help my student stay on course and progress faster. So much potential there!

Check out your tendency by taking her quiz here: https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/3706759/Gretchen-Rubin-s-Quiz-The-Four-Tendencies. Also checkout her previous book, Better Than Before, for 31 strategies to transform your habits.

 

 

Don’t feel like practicing? Make it a treat!

Some days I really don't feel like practicing at all! But one must! Therefore, I’ve been asking myself “How can I enjoy the process?” Might sound silly, I know, but it can be strangely powerful! Lately, I have tried to answer that question and combined it with my 10-minute technique when I absolutely do not feel like practicing what’s in front of me.

For 10 minutes, I try to really treat myself, to make practicing feel as “delicious” as possible. I play at exactly the tempo I want. I try to feel as comfortable as I possibly can, aiming for a super good posture. I try to get the most beautiful, most self-indulging sound I can of the instrument. I'll repeat a note, a string crossing, a bow change, or a shift 10 times if I feel like it. I just try to make it feel like a huge treat.

Strangely enough, comes the 10-minute mark, I’m usually relaxed and ready to go! I've been able to trick myself into really good practicing sessions out of just doing that simple thing. Try it out for size! (Read more about my 10-minute technique at this address: http://www.reneepaulegauthier.com/mind_over_finger/can_you_commit_to_ten_/ )

 

Stephen SitarskiOne of my favorite things about my career choice is that I get to meet incredible artists/humans with inspiring minds and beautiful souls!  Stephen Sitarski is one of those people!  I have for a long time been a big fan of his amazing violin playing and I have a huge respect for him as a person.  I feel incredibly fortunate that he has allowed me to share his wonderful insight on practicing here on my blog.  Please visit is website (http://www.stephensitarski.com/), read through his awesome posts on  Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/MusicCanBeEasy/), and most definitely try to catch one of his concerts if you’re nearby!  More information on him and his career below.  And now, on to Steve!

 

Thoughts on Practicing by Stephen Sitarski

Practice - that often dreaded word. We love to PLAY. We love to PERFORM. But the process of actually learning and preparing music is, in fact, work. Does it need to be unpleasant? Tedious? No to both questions. Does it need to be exacting, engaging, and sometimes exhausting? Yes.

The key to effective practice is organisation, and a sense of purpose. And, of course, a fundamental understanding of how we learn and retain information, and how we train our brains, nerves, reflexes and muscles to function precisely and reliably.

For professional musicians, and in most cases amateurs as well, there is no escaping some system of practice. Like a golfer - pro or not - the driving range and putting green are essential to the maintenance, improvement, and ultimate enjoyment of the game. You can watch videos, read books and take seminars from experts, but at some point you will need to teach your mind and body how to properly swing a club, how to gauge which club to use in different situations, and how to adjust to unforseen variables such as weather or golfing partners(!).

So, why is there typically a stigma surrounding practicing? When we are students, we are constantly buzzing around each other, saying, "I really have to practice - I have a lesson/masterclass/recital coming up...". "I'm learning the Kreutzer - that's going to be a lot of work...". " If I don't have that piece memorized for my next lesson, my teacher is going to kill me!"

Some players are gifted with an uncanny ability to sight-read music, even difficult pieces, but this skill will never replace solid practicing. And the more talented players can 'get away with' less work, but again, this advantage will not automatically launch someone into a professional career.

Okay, okay - we get it already! There is no substitute for practicing. But HOW should one practice? And for how LONG?

First of all, quantity does not equate quality. 8 hours of poor work does much more harm than good. It is better to use only one hour wisely. Do not be impressed with the braggart who claims to have banged away for 10 hours. Artur Rubinstein stated that 4 hours per day is the maximum that one can productively concentrate. Any more than that is usually wasted time, and could indeed be more disadvantageous.

Often it is easier to plan a whole week of practice than starting from scratch each day. If you are learning a whole recital program, it is neither practical nor recommended to attempt to cover all of the pieces every day. By spreading the music over a whole week's worth of practice, one can keep track of everything and spend an appropriate amount of time on each piece. As you become more familiar with each work, eventually you will be able to touch on all of the music in a single day.

The 'How'

Day One

In front of you is a music stand holding a page of music. It could be an etude, solo concerto, sonata or other chamber music, an orchestral part, an audition excerpt. etc.

Before you greedily jump into trying to execute it immediately at full performance tempo, there are a few things that are worth considering. If this is a known piece, perhaps a little research is helpful so that you will approach learning it in an informed fashion. Is it Baroque or from some other musical period? Is it a dance movement, is it in Sonata form, Rondo form, is ornamentation appropriate? Is the music revolutionary, or simply for entertainment? Was the composer young or old when s/he wrote it? What other works were written around that time? What about the art, architecture, and literature of that same period? The politics? Economics? What language(s) did the composer speak? Family life? Was the composer employed by a court, church, or did s/he make a living from only their compositions? Who did they study with, and who were their students, if any?

Is there a recording of the piece? If so, is it a credible one with a responsible player (i.e. someone who follows a composer's intentions)? Maybe there are several recordings, or even dozens. Perhaps do a little research on which ones are the 'standards' or 'authoritative' ones. If the performer knew the composer personally, or maybe the piece was written for that player, that recording will have extra significance. That said, no recording should be copied! No one is interested in your quasi-Heifetz mimicry of the Sibelius concerto - you'll never be as good, and you will waste an opportunity to express your own unique voice.

If this isn't a solo work, then it is essential to have a piano score (in the case of a sonata), or a full score showing whichever other instruments are involved and how they interact with your part. This is especially critical with orchestral audition excerpts - you must perform your part knowing what else is sounding in the orchestra at that time. The audition panel will know the difference if you don't...

Assuming you've done some (if not all) of this preperatory work, you are now ready to begin to physically learn this music. At this point it is good to be reminded HOW we actually learn. In short, if your brain cannot properly process information, it cannot properly instruct your body to execute accurately or reliably. Since you read the music either from a page or a screen, make sure that your eyesight is clear and healthy, and suitable clarity and lighting is present. In the case of music being printed extremely small, you may wish to enlarge it. If you are working from a page full of messy markings, it is often worth the time and effort to erase everything simply in order to read the actual print underneath.

Many publishers are now printing original unedited copies of music, and some also include a version that has added fingerings, bowings, and expressive markings by some kind of 'expert'. Always start with the original part, and then if you need help or are curious, you may consult someone else's solution.

Start reading through the music slowly and as accurately as possible. Take note of the technical and musical choices that you are faced with - some decisions will be instantaneous and obvious, and others will need further thought and experimentation, and/or a mentor's suggestion. Once you have gone through the piece or section, then begin to assess how much of the information has been absorbed by your brain. Every individual will have different results.

The sooner you have ascertained how you have effectively processed each note of the music, your practicing process has begun. In the case of nearly indecypherable technical passages, it may be necessary to learn them 'one note at a time'. Each individual note is playable. The trick is to stitch each note to the others around it. Look for patterns. Look for fingerings and bowings that allow your brain to read the music more easily. Do not attempt to perform all of the notes in a passage before your brain has had a chance to process them! Don't always start at the beginning of the passage and play it to the end. Begin at the end with the final note. Play it brilliantly. Only then add the preceding note. Play them both brilliantly. And then work backwards - but don't add a preceding note or notes until you have brilliantly played the ones that you have practiced.

For difficult left hand passages, I find it extremely helpful to find out what the bow arm is doing. Play the passage without the left hand, but place the bow on the correct strings. Most of the time you will discover that what the bow arm is doing is quite simple. Play a few times without the left hand - confidently and relaxed. Then add the left hand, but try not to change your bow arm. You will notice how your bow arm will partially revert back to being subbordinate to the left hand and its difficulties.

Another trick when learning difficult left hand passages, is to practice them without using the original performance bowings. The idea here is that as your brain grapples with the complexities of the left hand, the bow arm will naturally become 'defensive' to help negotiate the left hand issue. So, for example, if the passage is all slurred bowing, I would practice the notes all separate with confidant rhythm and sound. Or conversely, if the passage is all separate notes, I would slur them in groups in order to hear smooth and even left finger execution. Only when very assured in the left hand would I then incorporate the original bowing.

These practice methods will take a bit more patience and discipline at the beginning of the learning process, but I guarantee that the long term benefits are huge and long lasting. And you will have tangible markers to measure your progress.

That's enough for now.

All is possible - One Note At A Time.

I wish you much success!

Steve Sitarski

Stephen Sitarski

“Sitarski performed with intensity and gravitas, conveying both delicacy and power in his playing.”
Kitchener Record 2009 (R. Murray Schafer’s The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveller)

Stephen Sitarski enjoys a varied career as a violinist and musician.  During the 12/13 season, he will conduct both the Mississauga and Georgian Bay Symphonies.

Recently named in 2012 the Concertmaster of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, Stephen holds the same position with the Esprit Orchestra, and held the same position with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (KWS) for 15 seasons (1997 – 2012).  During his tenure in K-W, Mr. Sitarski became Artistic Director of the KWS Baroque and Beyond.  Stephen has also been guest concertmaster across Canada and the United States, working with many distinguished conductors including Mstislav Rostropovich, Philippe Entremont, Raymond Leppard, Bramwell Tovey, and James Judd.  He has served as Associate Concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and was guest concertmaster and featured soloist with the National Ballet Orchestra for Eugene Onegin and Russian Seasons in March 2011.

Stephen frequently appears as soloist with many concertos in the standard repertoire as well as concertos written especially for him by Canadian composers such as Kelly-Marie Murphy (Blood Upon the Body, Ice Upon the Soul, 2006 premiere with Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony) and Glenn Buhr (Violin Concerto,2000 premiere with Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony).  Stephen is a founding member of Trio Laurier, formed in 2007 with cellist Paul Pulford and pianist Leslie De’Ath, and is a regular participant in diverse chamber groups and festival events nationally and internationally with many of Canada’s finest musicians.  He is also a frequent performer with Toronto’s acclaimed the Art of Time Ensemble and Soundstreams, with which Stephen completed a tour in May 2012 to Taiwan and China, performing works by Tan Dun and R. Murray Schafer.

As an arranger, Stephen has arranged music for the Emperor Quartet (over 20 arrangements of show tunes and popular songs), Quartetto Gelato (Octosca)and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (Canadian and Italian national anthems).

Stephen was just awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, a nomination submitted by the National Yourth Orchestra, where he is a faculty member.  Stephen is also on the faculty of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Toronto’s Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music, and is a frequent mentor for Hamilton’s National Academy Orchestra.  He has taught at the Banff Centre for the Arts, was an instructor at the University of Manitoba, and has maintained an active private studio.

 

 

This month, I'm really excited to bring you a wonderful post by trumpet player Mike Brozick.  Mike was kind enough to take the time to share his wisdom with us and his post is totally inspiring and motivating!  Enjoy!

“First you master your instrument.

Then you master the music.

Then you forget all about that and just play.”

-Charlie Parker

 

We spend a lot of time mastering our instrument, but how do we go from refining the fundamentals to performing for an audience? After you lay a foundation of technique and begin to build your repertoire, it is important to distinguish between two complementary forms of practice: programming practice and performance practice -- or as Parker puts it, mastering the music and then forgetting about all that and just playing.

 

These two practice strategies could not be more different. Programming practice is analytical and self-critical with the goal of improving greatly with each repetition. Performance practice summons everything learned so it can be presented in one confident and accurate shot. Without performance practice, performing in front of an audience can be quite scary, like flying a plane without ever stepping into a flight simulator. Performance practice is something we can and should do every day.

 

 

This month, I once again bring you Dr. Stefan Kartman, amazing cellist and professor at the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin, who will share with you exercises he uses to work on the principles he discussed last month in Part 1.  Dr. Kartman has put together PDFs illustrating these exercises.  They are attached to this blog post.  Please contact me (contact@reneepaulegauthier.com) if you are experiencing problems downloading them and would like to obtain a copy. 

Enjoy!  On to Dr. Kartman!

An Artist's Guide to Technique on the Cello (or the violin!) – Part 2: Daily Exercises

By Dr. Stefan Kartman, Professor of Cello Peck School of the Arts - University of Wisconsin

Daily Exercises

Every determined teacher at some point develops on their own or finds existing raw technical material that exposes and potentially improves these inconsistencies that are detrimental to success in the latter groups of goals.

In such material, it is important that they include as many aspects as possible within the designed timing of the exercise that might be used in a musician's professional life. One can work on bow changes at the frog and tip until they are absolutely great, but this will of course make everyone even more aware of the shaky one in the middle or upper third.

 

 

This month, I am really excited to share the wise words of Dr. Stefan Kartman, amazing cellist and professor at the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin. In the first of two contributions to Mind Over Finger, Dr. Kartman discusses musicianship and technique on the cello. I know that some of our readers are cellists, and I hope they truly enjoy this wonderfully interesting and informative text! As for the rest of us, violinists and musicians, the principles expressed are similarly applicable to us all and, therefore, try to apply them we shall!

On to Dr. Kartman!

 

An Artist's Guide to Technique on the Cello (or the violin!) – Part 1

By Dr. Stefan Kartman, Professor of Cello Peck School of the Arts - University of Wisconsin

 Cello Technique - Goals

If audience members are aware of technique at all, the first thing most think of when they hear that a cellist has a fine technique is that he or she can play really fast. Musicians might add big tone, great intonation and rhythm, consistency, beautiful sound, big dynamic range and a few others. Accomplished professional musicians, when they choose to spend time talking about it at all, might add things like awareness of form, use of tone color to achieve effective phrasing, ability to adapt convincingly to the style called for in the music and by the other players in the ensemble, and others.

No matter how firmly we believe as teachers that our way is best, there is certainly more than one technique suitable to artistic goals on the cello. However, there are many more ways that don't work well than there are ways that work well. As teachers, we have a duty to steer students towards the ways that will serve them best as accomplished professional musicians.

That said, let's look at the partial list of goals from audience members, musicians, accomplished professional musicians, and add a few from teachers of accomplished professional musicians.

We'll start with some of the basics mentioned above...

 
This month, the wonderful cellist and author Sara Sitzer talks to us about how to maximizing our performance by being mindful about our body movements.  Enjoy her delightfully insightful text and make sure to stop by her website to read more about and from her.  On to Sara!  - RPG
 
 
If you spend the majority of your days with an instrument in your hand, you're an athlete. What we do is physically demanding, exhausting, and, frankly, a bit unnatural! Think about it: we spend hours every day in a practice room, contorting our bodies in an effort to achieve technical perfection and dramatic musicality. And while stretches, yoga, and other healthful activities are key to taking care of ourselves as athletes, the technique that I have found to be the most powerful when it comes to saving energy, preventing injury, and playing more expressively, comes down to one word: 
 
EFFICIENCY.
 
Less is more.
 
Think about biking for a moment. Ya know how serious bikers wear those dorky spandex shorts and funny tops? Well, it actually makes it easier for them to ride faster! Without loose clothing flapping against the wind and heavy fabric to soak up sweat, the outfit itself becomes a tool towards efficient riding.
 
Umm.... you're not suggesting that I wear spandex for any performance that involves fast notes, are you?

 

 

This month, I am thrilled and truly honored to welcome the amazingly inspiring Ellen McSweeney!  If you are not already a follower, you soon will be (or should be!).  Ellen’s creative force is phenomenal, and her delightful enthusiasm positively radiate in the community that surrounds her.  Enjoy this awesome text from Ellen!  - RPG

 

I've been a freelance violinist in Chicago for more than eight years now, and it’s brought me some pretty wonderful opportunities. I've played chamber music at Millennium Park, Ganz Hall, WBEZ, the Empty Bottle, and everywhere in between. As I've grown as a player, my performance opportunities have grown with me.

 

 

Memorization on the mental violin

 

I am so very excited to welcome Wil Herzog as my first guest blogger for 2016! 

Wil is a wonderful human being and amazing violinist.  He and I met at Northwestern University and shared many talks about violin technique in dingy smelly practice rooms.  He is someone who’s opinion and insight I value tremendously and who’s friendship I consider precious. 

In this post, Wil shares a few of his thoughts and strategies on how to maximize your time away from your instrument and achieve musical magic in your head!  And now, to Wil!

 

Memorization on the Mental Violin – by Wil Herzog

Undergraduate technique class at Northwestern was nearly the same this week as any other.  As usual, each student took a turn to stand at the front of the room and play scales and arpeggios in response to the prompts provided by me, the instructor.  However, this week, each student also played an eight-measure excerpt of a Corelli sonata from memory.  All of the performances were near flawless, with only an occasional hesitation or stumble.  After everyone had taken a turn, I posed the big question: “So… how did it go?”  The students giggled and began the discussion.  The conclusion: it had gone surprisingly well.  What made this week’s assignment unique?  The students had been asked to prepare the given excerpt and perform it memorized without ever playing it on the violin or listening to a recording.

Recognize that the harder you work and the better prepared you are, the more luck you might have.  - Ed Bradley

For the last entry of 2015, I want to encourage you to go all in, at all times, in all lessons!

As I mentioned two weeks ago, you pay good money for your lessons and it would be wise to take full advantage of the knowledge that a teacher is trying to transmit to you.  How fast you progress will be directly proportional to how much care you take in preparing for your lesson.  Every.  Single.  Week. 

Before the lesson

Schedule your daily practice sessions at the beginning of the week, and organize them in your practice journal (you have one, right?), making sure you are progressing each day toward the completion of all assigned tasks. 

 

 Working hard and working smart sometimes can be two different things.  -  Byron Dorgan

The KitchenNow that you have brought your groceries home, the fun can begin!  You have the ingredients, and all you need is a good recipe to prepare a delicious meal.

Here is one of the many ways you can break down your “cooking” session.  As you get closer to performance dates, the ratio might change a little bit to include more performance practice, but proper planning and consistency will allow you to stay relatively stable in your routine.

The fractions are based on an hour of practicing, i.e. 1/12 of 60 minutes = 5 minutes.  A student practicing 4 hours a day can therefore multiple by 4 to know the approximate ratio (i.e. 1/12 = 20 minutes).

Be thorough and mindful!  If you feel that your practice sessions are not as productive as they could be, what better time than now to begin making the most out of them?  After all, how can you expect different results if you are doing the same old thing?  As Henry Ford so perfectly put it: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

Warm up: 1/12

  • Always, always, always warm up.  It is the best way to prepare yourself for the work ahead and to prevent injuries.  Select exercises that warm up both arms and hands. 
  • Long tones, Schradieck, Gavriloff.

 

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do. - Leonardo da Vinci

Bring Your Groceries HomeI am noticing a common pattern among you, my students, and I can sadly report that I occasionally fell into the same trap at your age: you don’t bring your groceries home!  Going to your lesson to receive instruction from your teacher is a little bit like going to the grocery store.  You go to the store, fill your cart with items, pay, and then bring the food home to eat so you can remain alive, healthy, thriving as a person.  But a lot of you are in the habit of casually leaving the bags behind at the cash register!

Week after week, some of you walk in the studio without having put in a real effort to solve the problems addressed in the previous lesson.  What you get then is what I call a “repeat lesson,” when the teacher has to repeat and explain the same concepts all over again.  It is hard for you to improve significantly and difficult for a teacher to move forward when, lesson after lesson, the same material and the same notions must be revisited.  Some of you do try to a certain extent, but several of you revert to the same old bad habits whenever something feels slightly uncomfortable or requires real effort to accomplish.  Fight this urge and tackle your bad habits!

 

Make it easy to go right, and hard to go wrong.  – Gretchen Rubin

The Location

Like all disciplines, studying music requires focus and clarity of thought.  One of the best ways to achieve this is by creating a work space that enhances your ability to concentrate and helps you stay on target. 

In her book, Better Than Before, author Gretchen Rubin explains that one of the most powerful strategies to create healthy habits is the Strategy of Convenience: “by making it convenient and pleasant, you make it easier on yourself to keep up with it.”  It’s aSecret of Adulthood for Habits: Make it easy to go right, and hard to go wrong.  You want to make it as easy as possible to just pop in your work space and get something done.

You need a few basics tools – your music, something to hold it, a metronome, a pencil, enough room to move your arms – and you need to work on your ability to zone out distractions and stay focused on the task at hand.

 

Managing your time without setting priorities is like shooting randomly and calling whatever you hit the target.  – Peter Turla

THe ScheduleI have talked about finding your vision and setting a plan of action.  Now comes the time to talk about a way to organize your time that might help you become more effective in acting towards achieving your goals.

Knowing how to build a well-organized schedule can be an instrumental element in becoming an efficient and successful person.  Personally, I like to take some time at the beginning of each week, usually on Sunday evening, to plan the upcoming days.  I plan everything - practice time, rehearsals, concerts, appointments, teaching, cooking, working, studying, cleaning, leisure time, etc. - and I try to be as precise and detailed as possible.  Proceeding this way allows me to maximize my time and prevent unpleasant surprises.  Not 100% of what I plan gets done, but I’m 100% more efficient by planning ahead of time. 

The Plan 

Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.  -  Alan Lakein

 

In the last entry, I suggested that you take some time to reflect on where you stand and where you want to go.  Now that you have the picture, you have to think of your plan.  I agree with the technique presented in almost every self-help book, which is to put your plan on paper and to break long term goals into short-term, achievable increments.

If you don’t know where to start and you are not too sure how to move forward, you might want to consider finding a mentor.  Most of you already have one—your private teacher.  Your teacher will, without a doubt, be more than happy to answer any question you have and to help you establish your plan and follow through with it (sometimes, for your own good, in spite of yourself!).  If you want even more input, think of someone who lives the life you dream of living and reach out to him/her.  Ask them out for coffee and pick their brain on their personal strategies to achieve success.  What did they do to get where they are?  What did they have to sacrifice?  What qualities were essential in their success?  What did they learn from their mistakes?  What mistakes should you avoid?   What did they learn from their successes?  What steps should you take?

 

 

 There is nothing like a dream to create the future.  -  Victor Hugo

The Picture

 

Ah!  September!  The air is filled with optimism and the possibilities appear limitless!  Like January 1st, the beginning of the school year opens the door to reinvention.  It is the perfect moment to pause, reflect, assess, and plan.  A clean slate is laid before us and everything is possible. 

As any time management expert or success guru will tell you, you need to know where you want to go, or you go nowhere.  And while you put some effort into thinking about where you are going, it is also a good idea to take in where you are.

At the beginning of each school year, I ask my students to mull over a few points and write a short essay.  The exercise (hopefully) allows them to evaluate their current situation and develop a vision for their future.  

I am including it here and invite you to ponder the questions and do your own self-assessment.  Feel free to share your essays and thoughts with me at contact@reneepaulegauthier.com, and I will be happy to offer you feedback and/or discussion. 

I encourage you to be as honest and spontaneous as you can be.  Allow yourself one short sentence per question and let the answers come to you naturally, sticking with the first thing that comes to your mind.  Try to complete the exercise in less than 10 minutes.  The time factor and concise answers will promote a fluidity in your thoughts and provide insight into things which are important to you, some of which you might not have realized before.

In a short essay, please briefly describe: 

     

 

If you get stuck, draw with a different pen. Change your tools; it may free your thinking.  -  Paul Arden

 

The Tools of the TradeAs I have mentioned several times, getting creative with your practicing techniques can yield fantastic results.  Any and every exercise can be tweaked and tailored to your needs.  In Dig Deep, I elaborated on the fact that we need to turn off the automatic pilot and really use our mind to analyze the problem and find ways to solve it.  Using your imagination to come up with new exercises is not only fun, it fires up the synapses in your brain, solidifying your skills. 

Technology can be your friend in this area.  In addition to listening to the repertoire you are working on and browsing the internet for articles and videos about music making (read here for ways to incorporate these into your routine), there are several tools you can use to enhance your practice sessions.  Having written in detail about how to record yourself, I will now turn to a few other tools of the trade.  

Check Your Pulse

 

Honestly, as you can imagine, it really isn't all that fun directing yourself, running back and forth to the monitors to see if you're terrible or not.  -  George Clooney

 

 In my last post, I discussed ways to make the most of the summer period and strongly encouraged students to embrace and incorporate technology into their practicing arsenal.  One of the best way to ensure monitoring and accelerate progress is by recording yourself.

Summer Is Coming 

“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?” ― Rumi

 

Exams are over, library books have been returned, and summer is slowly making its way here.  If you are a serious high school level violin student, you most likely will not take summer off from practicing.  If you are a college music major, you most definitely should not.

 

Growing Heap 

 A little and a little, collected together, becomes a great deal; the heap in the barn consists of single grains, and drop and drop make the inundation.  - Saadi

 

Lately I have been talking to all my friends about my new favourite podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin.  I thoroughly enjoy the wise and practical advice that the sisters/authors Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft deliver with charming candidness and good humor.  I have become a loyal listener from the very first episode in which Ms. Rubin elaborates on the “argument of the growing heap.”  This was extremely interesting to me, being about one of the most important aspects of the discipline of violin playing and one about which I have been thinking about so much lately. 

 Je me souviens

Je me souviens is the official motto of Quebec, the province of Canada where I’m from. It means "I remember".

Yes, we remember. We remember the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its glories. - Thomas Chapais, Québec, 1895

 

A couple of years ago, I read an excellent text published on the excellent Bulletproof Musician blog and written by the excellent horn player/teacher and fearless performance wizard Jeff Nelsen.

Grit Is Great

 

Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.  - Booker T. Washington

Ain’t nothin’ like hard work.  Don’t be afraid of it!  Embrace it, cultivate it. 

Of course, we should all strive to keep a balanced life.  Keeping time for all important things: family, health, work, and leisure, is a good habit to develop.  But when the time to work comes, we should not be afraid to go all in.

Eat That Frog

If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first. - Mark Twain

In the last post I talked about one trick to adopt to get ourselves in the practice room.  I would now like to talk about a concept which I had known about for what seems to be forever (thank you, Mom!) but was presented to me in a fresh way a couple months ago during a visit to the Savor blog.  In a short video segment the former concert pianist and deeply inspiring young successful entrepreneur Angela Jia Kim (founder of Om Aroma & Co and creator of the Manifest Method) discusses how you can increase your productivity by simply “eating that frog.”

Commit to ten 

 Each goodly thing is hardest to begin.  -  Edmund Spenser

 

Sometimes, one of the hardest thing about practicing the violin is to actually start.  For most people, procrastination is often the sign of an underlying problem.  For a violinist, it can stem from a fear of failure, a feeling of inadequacy, a lack of motivation, and/or discouragement in the face of the amount of work ahead.  Playing the violin, or any musical instrument, is a deeply personal experience.  At the root of it all is a deep love for music.  Then, after years of hard work, discipline, and sacrifices, it becomes an intrinsic part of who we are.  One feels exposed, revealed.  The never ending pursuit of perfection combined with accumulating deadlines can often make the climb to the mountain top seem way too steep.  Sometimes, it is simply scary because we usually put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves and, for this reason, the violin resting in the case becomes a feared object embodying a large panoply of frustrations and insecurities. 

 

 Questions are the answer.  – Anthony Robbins

An important part of deep practice is introspection.  Fixing any problem and improving any passage begins by first analyzing the issue at hand by asking yourself questions.  In his book Awaken the Giant Within, Anthony Robbins asserts (with reason) that our questions determine our thoughts and, therefore, our actions.   Still according to Robbins, quality questions create a quality life.  In the violin studio, this could be translated as “quality questions create a quality practice session.”  The best way to deepen your focus during a practice session is by being fully aware and by maintaining an inquiring mind. 

Seek And You Shall Find 

 You will find only what you bring in. - Yoda

 

After discussing my philosophy as a teacher in the first post of the year, I would like to turn my attention to the second partner in the musical team: the student.  Having been there myself, I realize how easy it is for students to forget the critical importance of their active participation in the process.  Not only in violin playing, but in all other subjects, students often approach lessons/classes in a passive state, showing up ready to take in what is to be offered but without having done thorough preparatory work. 

Work Together, We Can 

 Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice. - Yoda

 

For the first post of the year (can you believe the calendar reads 2015?!), I want take a few minutes to reflect on my values as a teacher and guide.  It is important for me to provide my students with solid notions about violin playing and music in general, to instill in them the desire to apply and deepen that knowledge outside of the studio, and to hopefully reach them on a personal level and help them develop solid human values.

 

 

Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.  –Samuel Beckett

 

As I stated in the first installment of this blog, first, there is art.  But for art to reach the listener’s heart, there needs to be a limited amount of filters between the artist’s conception of a work and his/her audience’s ears.  Technical mastery of basic elements will give the performer the freedom to interpret music , beyond merely playing notes.   

Mind over finger

 

 Technique is conception - Zvi Zeitlin

 

“Technique is conception” my beloved old teacher Zvi Zeitlin would often repeat.  When not shouting at me, or laughing at some clever remark he had just made, he loved to point out how everything about violin playing originated first in the mind.  Of course, as a young and naive pupil, it took me years and countless hours of mindless/useless practice to fully grasp the importance of this concept.

Price of shortcut 

 Hasten slowly and ye shall soon arrive.  - Jetsun Milarepa

 

Anyone who has ever taken a lesson with me knows that I love a good analogy as much as anybody.  One that y I like to use with my students is the comparison of inefficient and impatient practice with rushing out the door.  We know how things happen when we get ready in a rush! This is when we drop, spill, knock things down, and forget important steps in our morning routine.  We might make it out of the house in time, but with crumpled clothes, disheveled hair, coffee stained pants, and our packed lunch sitting back home in the fridge.

 

House of brick 

 Then the third little pig built himself a house of bricks. It took him a long time to build it, and it was a very strong house. - Children tale

 

First, there is art.  The artistic message is the essence of what we do.  But for the message to be communicated truthfully, the transmitting medium must be effective.  At the basis of an effective performance (“effective” taking on different meanings for each performer and/or listener) is a solid technique.  A solid technique allows the musician to experience freedom from the limitations imposed on him by the markings on the page and lets his vision of a work take place.  However, reaching mastery takes time . . . lots of time.  It requires dedication, discipline, and a long term vision which guides everyday (every minute!) decisions.

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