Life Hacks for Musicians

The Laws of Practicing & More Tips on Preparing Music

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Many of the early South Hills Junior Orchestra “Fox’s Firesides” are about developing new techniques to solve musical problems, dispelling the myth that all you need to do is put in the time. Is there any truth in “practice makes perfect?” Not really. It is more critical that all instrumentalists set-up a regular schedule for focused practice, limiting all distractions, defining and working on goals, and then the truer adage can be modeled: “perfect practice develops perfect playing.”

Perhaps since January is the first month of The New Year, this would be a good time to review the different practice techniques we have already published at https://paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com/foxs-firesides/, especially #1, #4, and #8.

Here are a few more ideas, “borrowed” from my former place of employment – the Upper St. Clair School District Performing Arts Department.

 

THE LAWS OF PRACTICING

The 24-Hour Law – It takes 24 hours for yesterday’s lesson to be learned.

The Perfect Attendance Law – Practicing a little every day always beats cramming.

The Three Musketeers Law – Never practice without a metronome, tuner, or recording device to hear how you sound.

The “Elephant in the Room” Law – One must “face the music,” specifically, the musical passage with which they are struggling the most.

The Sloth Law – When in doubt, play it slower.

 

LIFE HACKS (Practice Edition)

Sloth Hack – Playing slower, to the point that it is impossible to mess up.

Jaws Hack – Slur a passage with which you are struggling.

seriestoshare-logo-01Karaoke Hack – Play the passage in conjunction with your favorite recording of the piece.

Time Trial Hack – Put a timer on for a few minutes and see how much you can accomplish in a short amount of time.

Drop the Bass Hack – If a passage is too high, play it down an octave.

Cheat Code Hack – Simplify a rhythm if you are struggling to learn it.

Here are several additional websites with excellent “hack” recommendations for developing better practice skills, but don’t forget to ask your school music director and private teacher for more advice!

 

Keep up your commitment to and PRACTICE towards real self-improvement, creative self-expression, making beautiful music, and participating in your school and community bands and orchestras!

PKF

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The mission of South Hills Junior Orchestra, which rehearses and performs at the Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh, PA, is to support and nurture local school band and orchestra programs, to develop knowledge, understanding, performance skills, and an appreciation of music, to increase an individual member’s self-esteem and self-motivation, and to continue to advance a life-long study of music. Members of the Orchestra learn, grow, and achieve positions of leadership to serve their fellow members.

(For more information about SHJO, please visit www.shjo.org.)

This and all Fox’s Fireside blog-posts are free and available to share with other music students, parents, directors, and supporters of the arts.

Click here for a printable copy of LIFE HACKS for Musicians

Other “Fox Firesides” are available at https://paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com/foxs-firesides/.

 

© 2019 Paul K. Fox

Photo credit from Pixabay.com: “Fireplace” by judenicholson

Summer or Anytime Music Enrichment

Focus on YOUR MUSIC during summer vacations, holidays, or academic breaks

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The following idea-bank is a checklist offered to Band and Orchestra instrumentalists, their music teachers, and family members as “food for thought!”

Here are a few suggestions to consider as a TO-DO LIST after all the standardized tests, final concerts, and end-of-the-semester projects in all academic areas. Summertime is a wonderful way to “get to know” your instrument and build on your knowledge-base, technique, musicianship, and repertoire.

  1. Help organize your time by setting up a regular daily practice schedule. Practice a little every day. Consistency creates confidence!
  2. Create a “scale journal.” Write down on manuscript paper all your major and minor scales and the I, IV and V7 arpeggio series. Practice scales in all keys.
  3. Shriya NarasimhanCreate four new scale variations every day and add them to your “journal.” Creative new variations should make playing scales more enjoyable. Some examples are unusual rhythms (pizza toppings, desserts, interesting proper names), more difficult slurs, scales in thirds, etc.
  4. Explore the performance of one, two or three octaves of major, minor, chromatic, pentatonic and whole tone scales.
  5. To improve reading skills, play new music “at sight,” even music written for other instruments. Don’t be afraid to play a challenging piece above your ability level or even read a song from a piano score.
  6. Play through some of your “oldies” and favorites from past lessons or Band/Orchestra classes.
  7. shjo_Jonathan Pickell and Wendy HartVisit the local music store and browse. Explore new publications of Classical, pop, folk, fiddle/jazz, show tunes or other styles.
  8. Sign-up for a music camp or college classes of music appreciation, theory, eurhythmics, etc.
  9. Take a few private lessons. For enrichment, take piano, voice and/or learn a new instrument.
  10. Spend an entire day in the sheet music, recordings, and music book section at the local library.
  11. Purchase and learn the music audition requirements for your MEA band/orchestra ensemble or solo adjudication festivals.
  12. Form a chamber group with other players in your neighborhood and rehearse at least once a week.
  13. _shjo_violinistsPurchase a duet book for mix or matched instruments (such as Beautiful Music for 2 Stringed Instruments by Applebaum—Book I (easy), Book II (medium), Book III advanced). Team up with another musician (band or string) and share non-transposing parts (flute or oboe with violin, trombone with cello, etc.).
  14. Encourage yourself to “pick out a song by ear” and try to write it down on music paper.
  15. Sit in or join a local community or youth ensemble like the South Hills Junior Orchestra which rehearses on Saturdays in the Upper St. Clair High School (Western PA) Band Room. Rehearsals resume on September 8, 2018.
  16. shjo_David Levin_and_Devon AllenPlan a vacation or academic break around an out-of-state music workshop or concert series.
  17. Update your iTunes, Google Music, Amazon Music or other online music streaming services by purchasing and listening new solo or chamber works by artists who perform on the same instrument as you.
  18. Subscribe to SmartMusic, install/learn new music software, or peruse free online programs. Samples: Have you tried https://www.musictheory.net/ or https://www.good-ear.com/?
  19. Tune in to WQED FM, WDUQ or PBS and share a few minutes of classical music at least once a week. Attend concerts by professional musicians (like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Civic Light Opera, or River City Brass).
  20. Prepare and perform a fifteen-minute recital for the residents of a local nursing home, hospital or Senior Citizen center.
  21. _shjo_in_rehearsal_031018 - 00Read books or magazine articles about famous musicians, performers, conductors or composers.
  22. Take a “field trip” to a luthier (person who makes or repairs string instruments) or the instrument dealer. Have your instrument examined, cleaned, adjusted and appraised. Purchase accessories and do any necessary repairs. If necessary, update your insurance!

How many of these can you accomplish over the months of June, July and August… or throughout the year? “Practice makes self-confidence,” and the more time you put into it, the more you take away from the experience. Please enjoy your summer or winter breaks, but learn to have fun with your instrument and EXPLORE MORE MUSIC!

Click here for a digital “take-away” of this list. Also, please feel free to share the other SHJO enrichment resources and “Fox Firesides” at http://www.shjo.org/foxs-fireside/ or https://paulkfoxusc.wordpress.com/foxs-firesides/.

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Paul K. Fox, Director, South Hills Junior Orchestra        www.shjo.org

PKF

© 2018 Paul K. Fox

Photo credit from Pixabay.com: “fire” by skeeze.

 

It’s Time to “Dust Off Your Chops!”

Music Teacher Retirees: Participate in a Community Band or Orchestra!

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(Reprinted from the Fall 2015 PMEA News, the state journal of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association)

“Music lasts a lifetime!”

“Music makes me ____!”

“Make time for music!”

“Music touches lives!”

“Music is basic!”

band-musicians-1423023More than titles of PMEA/NAfME/MENC conferences or past themes of Music in Our Schools’ month, these concepts bring us back to the roots of why we became musicians and music teachers in the first place.

When a music educator retires, among the many joys and fruits of his/her career-long investment in labor is a sudden life-style change – the glorious transformation of being set free from those things you no longer want nor need to do (routine day-to-day drudgery, paperwork, etc.) and embarking on new journeys to explore and embrace revised personal goals – hopefully including a renewed refocus on making your own music!

Besides being personally fulfilling and simply “fun,” regular sessions of making music are good for you! Citing numerous sources in her Association for Concert Bands (ACB) President’s Message “Enriching Lives Through Music” in The Journal of the Association of Concert Bands (Vol. 31 No. 2 June 2012 – see http://www.acbands.org/shellenberger-letters), PMEA Retired Member and ACB Past President Judy Shellenberger spotlights the importance of singing or playing music at any age, and its effect on “our brain’s system of neural pathways that improve our general measure of intelligence and longevity.” According to the Society for Neuroscience, one example of this is that “learning to play a musical instrument refines the entire neurological system. It demands precise movement of muscle groups and combinations of physical processes such as breathing, fingerings and articulations all at the same time.”

flute-player-1506263-1920x1440Additional quotes from Shellenberger’s letter include a contribution from Dr. Katrina McFerran, Melbourne Conservatory of Music, reminding us of the value of creative expression and ensemble participation in our lives. “Making music allows you to put your real self out there and be heard. Group music making is truly empowering and should be an essential part of the human experience,” she said. “For those performing in community bands, making music has a stronger relationship to health than listening does, and performing enables us to make stronger social connections.”

Shellenberger goes on to say, “In order to function optimally, we need to nourish our brains with nutritious food.” In his book, Use Your Brain to Change Your Age: Secrets to Look, Feel, and Think Younger Every Day, Dr. Daniel Amen states, “We must exercise and challenge our brains. Doing crossword puzzles are great but not enough, we need to stimulate our memories.” Shellenberger concludes with the essential justification that “new music challenges our brains. Every time we learn a new rhythm pattern, we challenge our brain and when we memorize the passage, it increases our brain circuitry to a higher level.”

celloman-in-pause-1420972The late June Hinckley, former MENC President, lamented the tragedy when people fail to make music a vital component of life beyond the school years. In her April 2000 article “Music for a Lifetime” in MENC Teaching Music, Ms. Hinckley affirmed her view that music is a life-skill worth nurturing. She said, “I believe we need to be as concerned about community music programs as we are about school music, and to work with leaders to help them understand the vital role each plays in the cultural, social, and aesthetic fabric of our towns and cities as well as in our preschools and K-12 institutions. If music is basic, then it is basic to life’s many ages and stages, before, during, and after school for toddlers, school-age youngsters, and adults.” And retired members!

So, which pretext do you use to “put off” joining a community instrumental ensemble? The top ten “lame” excuses for not participating in a community band or orchestra may be:

  1. I haven’t played for years.
  2. My spouse’s “honey-do” list is too long.
  3. I can’t find my instrument.
  4. I turned my clarinet into a lamp.
  5. My dog howls at me when I play.
  6. I’m too busy! My calendar is full.
  7. I have arthritis, or the pressure is changing, so my shoulder, wrist, leg, arm (or whatever) hurts.
  8. I need new reeds… strings… drum sticks… some valve oil.
  9. I haven’t practiced all week (or month).
  10. There are no opportunities to perform in my area.

jazz-musician-1313572-1279x974Retirees, hopefully a few of these are not nostalgic – bringing back memories of the justifications for not practicing you may have heard from your own music students!

For some of us, the biggest obstacles of re-awakening our love of music and seeking hands-on experience playing in a band and orchestra are overcoming a little inertia, avoiding the blind acceptance of (bad) habits, and not being resigned to the myth that “our busy days and nights won’t allow us enough time” or that “we just have not played lately and feel very rusty!”

What is it about amateur music making that seems to be so intimating? Why do so some people think they have to be a virtuoso or “perfectly prepared” before participating in an ensemble? A few groups like the Community Band South (based in Upper St. Clair, Pittsburgh) generally have a “no student instrumentalists” membership policy. (With their hours of in-school rehearsals every week, most high school players have “major chops” and can usually play circles around “the seniors!”) Did you know there is a group in PA called RTO, which literally means “Really Terrible Orchestra?” (But, before you jump to any conclusions, better ask the members how they sound today.) Finally, does anyone remember Portsmouth Sinfonia, the “spoof” ensemble whose members earned recognition performing (badly) on non-major instruments?

old-band-young-fan-1502738The first big step about getting involved in a community band or orchestra is simply going out and doing it. Dive in! Remember how much FUN it was to surround yourself with like-minded and motivated musicians, all “making connections,” “coming together” and collaborating in an “ensemble,” exploring and interpreting new music and the classic band and orchestra masterworks, and regularly learning new skills of technique and expression on an instrument?

To facilitate finding an ensemble in Pennsylvania, please go to the PMEA website, click on “focus areas” and “retired members.” See http://www.pmea.net/retired-members/. This directory of PA community bands and orchestras will be updated (new groups added) from time to time. (Please clarinet-shots-1412621-1599x1066send any corrections or additions to paulkfox.usc@gmail.com.) Another excellent resource (especially for contact information) is a link posted on the Association for Concert Bands website: http://www.community-music.info/.

Happy trails, retired members, and enjoy the resurgence of your renewed personal music making!

PKF

© 2015 Paul K. Fox