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. 

Drummer's Weight Room: Tap Timing Exercise

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