Sunday, February 9, 2014

"Just do it like we did it in rehearsal."

As a young band director, I was always caught off guard by how differently my band played on stage than they did in the practice room. Sometimes the drop-off was extreme, and in my first year it got to be so bad that the kids started to expect the performance to be dismal even if rehearsals were excellent.

At the district festival, I happened to be talking to one of the most successful directors in the state, and I asked him what he told his kids before they went on stage to get them to play so well. His answer is the title of this post, "I tell them, 'Just do it like we did it in rehearsal.'"

The simplicity of the concept stunned me. For some reason, I thought that I had to offer some sort of special advice to get my kids mentally prepared to play a concert in front of an audience. In reality, that preparation had already been done, and what I needed to do was help them to get in the exact same frame of mind they'd been in during those excellent rehearsals. Instead, I had been doing the exact opposite. I'd been putting them in a totally different headspace - essentially yanking the rug out from under their feet.

Don Kelbick, legendary basketball coach, had this to say about shooting free throws in intense, high pressure, win or lose situations:

"The other mental aspect that I feel is very important is understanding that all shots are the same and carry their own "intrinsic value," or their own reward and sense of satisfaction. A free throw in the first minute of the game with no score is the same as a free throw in the last second of the game with your team down 1 point. The effects of the shot may be different, but the basket is still in the same place, and so is the free throw line. The shot should be exactly the same in either case. The objective of taking a throw shot is NOT to win or lose a game. The objective is to MAKE THE SHOT! That is the only object. To inject outside values to a particular shot is a recipe for failure."
Read the full article here.

It took a few more concerts after that festival, but we started to develop a new way of thinking about performance, and steadily saw an increase in the quality of our stage playing. In fact, that group's youngest players eventually became the first group to qualify for the state festival in the forty year history of the school.

Here are two of the principles I've learned and still try to use whenever I perform, either as an ensemble member or the conductor.

No performance is ever THE performance. You should always try your best, but it's not the end of the world if things don't go perfectly. Keep your composure, forget about any mistakes as soon as they happen, and focus on what's going on right now. Performing is practicing, so think of each performance as an opportunity to get better at performing. That said...

You'll perform like you practice, so practice like you want to perform.
As much as you can, try to stay in the same mental space that you would if you were on stage or in the studio. When I'm preparing for an important gig, I'll record or video myself at least a few times prior to the performance. Something about knowing that I'm being recorded puts a little bit of healthy pressure on me to do my best. I can always delete the recording if it's awful, and it helps me to get used to playing in front of an audience.

I watched the movie Hoosiers for the first time before I ever set foot in a band room as a beginning musician, but I think this clip exemplifies how we should approach performance.

No matter how big the hall or imposing the audience, whether it's the fall opener or the state festival, a quarter note is still a quarter note, and the key of F still has one flat. And if it worked in our band room, it'll work on the stage. 

Just do it like we did it in rehearsal. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

How do you spell fun?

"Because after a while, even lobster starts to taste like soap." - Dave Ramsey

When I taught high school band, I would start off every year by telling my new students that my whole goal for them was to have fun. That's it, just have fun. I loved the stunned reactions on their faces. They'd giggle and do little celebration dances. (Easy A!) 

Then I'd twist the plot.

"Let me spell 'fun' for you, because some of you may have forgotten how to spell it over the summer break," I'd say, matter-of-factly. Accompanied by giggling and whispering, I would walk to the white board, and with a new, fresh dry-erase marker I would spell in tall capital letters:

W - O - R - K

The laughter would stop. Instead, silence. After a minute or so, inevitably, there'd be some kid in the back who would shout out, "Hey! You spelled it wrong! That says WORK!" 

I'd smile, nod my head and say, "Yes. It does say, 'fun.' Excellent reading." 

As you may surmise, what followed was a very pointed discussion. Let me give you a version of it here.

Several years ago I was teaching a gifted drum student who also happened to be a talented basketball player. Only seven years old at the time, he was remarkable in both arenas. Ultimately the basketball schedule got busy enough that he and his parents had to make a choice between the two, and (of course) basketball won out.*

Not long after, I ran into his mom at the local recreation center. We chatted for a minute, then she asked if I'd play basketball with her son and his friends. She explained that they wanted to play, "a real game," but there were only three of them, and did I possibly have time to fill in for a couple minutes? 

Now, I love basketball. I play as much as I can. I post about it on this blog frequently. I was at the rec center that day to play basketball. But I've never had a less satisfying hoops experience than I did that day. Allow me to set the scene for you. 

Even though I'm slow and out of shape, I'm 6'1" (about 185 cm) and have a decent knowledge of the game. These were nine-year-olds. I was a giant compared to them. It took fully the first ten minutes to stop instinctively blocking every shot. None of them could steal the ball from me or really defend me in any way, and none of them could score on me until I chose to let them. I felt like Dwight Howard. 

For about sixty seconds.

It was NOT fun. At all. That was the day I learned that winning isn't everything in basketball, or in life. Especially when there's no multi-million dollar contract or shoe endorsement deal on the line, winning takes a major back seat to fun. And by fun, of course I mean work.

Many times I go to the rec center and get into pick-up games with people who are younger, faster, stronger and more talented than me. And - I've got to tell you - it's usually a lot of work. I have to run hard, jump high, out-think and keep up with a variety of humans in a variety of basketball settings. Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. I'm always sore the next day. But it's almost always fun

My absolute favorite is when I hustle really hard against a player or team that's better than me and am able to gain some success. I block a shot or keep them from scoring, or maybe I finally make that nifty move, hit a great shot, or my underdog team wins. Those small moments of hard-fought victory are exponentially sweeter than easy wins.

They're fun, but only if you work for them.

My new band students every fall wanted to have fun, and they wanted to work. They just didn't know that the two of those things go together. 

The first group of students that I took all the way through that school were phenomenal. They somehow intuitively knew that it was going to take their best work to achieve something great, and they wanted it. Badly. 

One thing the band at my school had never done (and, at this writing, haven't done since) was to qualify for the State Concert Band Festival. As that first group of students entered their senior year, several of them came to me and said, "We want this. We're going to qualify for state this year. We don't want to play any of the easy stuff anymore. We want music that will get the judges' attention, and we'll work as hard as we have to, to succeed."

I didn't want to get their hopes up, but I didn't want to let them down. In rehearsal, we talked frequently and candidly about what would be expected in terms of quality and execution, and they consistently worked to improve themselves. 

We qualified for state that year. It was sort of a miracle. (Part of the story is in another blog post here.) The band played with a level of maturity and passion that we'd never had before, and they accomplished something great. They put themselves on the map. 

Afterward, I heard many of the students say, "That was fun!

I'll never forget what that school year felt like in terms of effort. All of the rehearsals, the sectionals, the coaching sessions, the clinics, the tour - all of it. But for all of the pain and effort, what still gives me chills is the memory of walking on stage with those amazing young people and making great musical history at the State Concert Band Festival. What was the last thing I said to them before we took the stage? 

"Let's go have some fun." There was nothing else to say.

As a musician - and especially as a drummer - it can be easy to get into a comfortable place and never want to come out. Once you can play certain styles or pieces, or you've got solo ideas that work, or whatever it is, you might lose your motivation to keep developing your skills. 

Take any example you want - only ever eating ice cream, never having to do homework, playing video games all day or blasting nine-year-olds at basketball - eventually you need a challenge, variety and something to work towards. If not, even lobster starts to taste like soap. More than that, you'll never do anything great, and never have any real-for-true fun.

What every great musician and athlete knows - what every great person knows - is that hard work for the right cause is fun

Push yourself. Work hard. Accomplish something great. Make the most of your own unique talent and creativity. Achieve your potential.

Have fun!

*Sports or music? The answer, of course, is, "AND." But that's a topic for another blog post. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

With the end in mind, you don't need resolutions

I'm on record as saying that I don't do New Year's resolutions. They're largely a waste of time and they set you up for failure. And that failure results in less motivation and less productivity.

One alternative is to focus on results. Ask yourself what you want the end result to look like, then work backwards. What will have to happen to get that result?

The other day I was shooting baskets, and I wasn't having much success. Mostly, I was just chucking the sphere at the hoop. The more I missed, the more I just thought, "Well, try it again!" You know what they say about insanity, right?*

Finally, after missing many shots in a row, I thought, "What am I not doing right?" I had been focusing on my feet, my arm/hand position, release, follow through, etc., but I had forgotten what needed to happen at the hoop - for the ball to go through! That simple thought reminded me of a key concept, that of "dropping" the ball on top of the hoop.

Instantly, my release angle changed, my elevation (such as it is) improved, and my posture straightened up. Miraculously, the ball started to go through the hoop. It sounds simple, but just by knowing what needed to happen at the end of the process, my brain automatically changed the beginning.

Like my shooting baskets without thinking about the end result, many resolutions are basically nice gestures, but ultimately useless. When I hear people say they need to, "exercise more," or, "eat less junk," or, "start saving money," I usually cringe. Unless you connect those good intentions to an end result, they're almost worse than not making resolutions at all.

Join me in a little mental exercise, will you? Just take a minute to think about the next few scenarios.

Let's say you played fifty paying gigs last year - and that's cool - but you want to double that number this year. What would you have to do to play one hundred paying gigs this year? What would you do first, then next? Whose help would you need? What would need to change about how you run your business?

What if you really did need to lose twenty-five pounds this year? What would you need to do to get it done? Is there anything you need to stop doing or eating? Need to get a gym membership, or a new alarm clock? Maybe you need to finally read that health book or take your friend up on his offer to be your jogging partner.

Or maybe there's an audition you want to prepare for and take. Where do you need to start? What instruments do you need to get? Do you need to study with someone?

Whether it be a technique goal or an earning goal, number of gigs played or something else, this same process can apply. What will the end result be? What do you need to do first (right now!), and what is next? If you keep your eye on the final goal, the process will usually make itself clear.

Happy drumming!

*It's a colloquialism by now, but, "Insanity is doing the same thing you did before and expecting a different result."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Servants get all the good stuff

"You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want." - Zig Ziglar, Secrets of Closing the Sale (1984)

December is a great time to be a freelance musician. One of my annual Christmas gigs is to play in the percussion section of Dr. Craig Jessop's American Festival Chorus and Orchestra. It's a world-class ensemble, and always features a prominent soloist.

Dr. Craig Jessop
This year was no exception. The performances were electric, and the guest artist, Alyson Cambridge, delivered passionate, moving interpretations. It was a joy to be a part of the process of preparation and presentation of such a gift.

During one of the performances in a section where I had rests (welcome to orchestral percussion), I was watching the singers, the instrumentalists, the conductor, the soloist and the audience, and I had an epiphany.

I don't think about it often, but a section percussionist's role - almost without exception - is to be servant to the music. Candidly, what musician doesn't have this responsibility? Percussionists, possibly more than other musicians, have to find ways to fit fewer notes into the texture and framework of the performance, and make them count.

Watching the performance that night, suddenly all I saw were servants.

Each musician was giving, contributing his or her sound and heart. Dr. Jessop, with his back to the audience, while conducting energetically with both arms, was sweating and breathing heavily, smiling the smile of the joyous laborer. He was serving the music, the performers and the audience at once.

Alyson Cambridge
Alyson Cambridge, the soloist, was engaging the audience in every imaginable way, expending her considerable talents to the fullest. The audience, for their part, received the gift with absolute grace and rewarded the performers at every possible opportunity. The ovation at the conclusion of the program lasted for several minutes.

All gave. All received. That's how it's supposed to work.

I'll be honest. It's not totally altruistic. Nobody plays music exclusively to give. Music has huge rewards, and one of them was the rush of being a part of that much energy focused in one room at one time. There are other rewards, but I think this is the one that keeps me coming back for every gig.

Financial guru Dave Ramsey has a saying, "Live like no one else, so later you can live like no one else." In a nutshell, he's talking about being financially conservative now so you'll have money later.

If I may, I'd like to alter that saying a little bit as follows: "Play like no one else, so later you can play like no one else."

American Festival Chorus and Orchestra
The best, most successful musicians in the industry are the ones who give their whole hearts to each gig, be it a casual for a few people who don't even care, or a huge venue in front of attentive, die hard fans. When these musicians play, their colleagues, clients and audiences appreciate them and learn that they can depend on them to deliver meaningful music each and every time.

Develop a reputation as a good servant, and you'll soon be master of your own career.

Happy drumming!

Drummer's Weight Room: Tap Timing Exercise

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