Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Experiment: Day One


Summer is here and I'm having my typical motivational issues with practice. There are so many wonderful distractions this time of year. The weather is beautiful and I live in a place where I can drive a short distance in any direction to view scenic vistas and swim in sparkling mountain rivers. My garden beckons me every morning for attention, and, if I try hard enough, I can find a party or cookout to go to any day of the week.

This fall I'll be returning to school to begin work on a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree. I've landed a spot at an incredible school; I'll be in a true conservatory environment and I need to play at my best.

I've been out of school for about a year. This time last year I was playing the best I'd ever played in my life, but a lot can happen in a year. During the academic year I focused intensely on managing my first lecture format classes. I made a few performance opportunities for myself, but my biggest goal was to learn to navigate in the classroom and give my students the opportunity to learn that they deserved. Days of practicing got missed, but I was learning so much on the job that I allowed my playing to slip a little.

...okay. I let my playing slip a lot.

Wake-up Call

I watched a video of a recent public performance I was involved in. My playing was just plain bad. My intonation was spotty, I didn't have the dynamic control that I thought I had, and I missed a startling number of notes. Completely missed them. In obvious places. Ouch.

This simply will not do.

The Experiment

I recently read a blog post about the Public Humiliation Diet: (Warning: Strong Language). The concept revolved around the dieter publishing his weight daily on Twitter.

I need a little healthy external motivation for practicing, so I'm going to publish a daily practice journal in this blog. Just knowing that I have a great chance of making public what a HUGE slacker I am should give me a big push. It will also help me organize my thoughts and goals by forcing me to state them in clear language. When I have time and the inclination I'll also write about my experiences in practicing, practice techniques, frustrations, motivations, and anything else that I think will help myself and my readers.

I openly welcome comments, ideas, and suggestions. If you feel inspired to share your practice techniques, please do. They can only offer insight for myself and other readers.

Day 1

1. Get back into the game. Begin getting my head and body prepared to be in a daily routine again.
2. Regain strength in my embouchure.
3. Remember what my body feels like in a focused practice session.
4. Scrape in a new reed and work on one that's in progress.
5. Have fun! I love to play the bassoon. That's why I do it.

The Session:
The first time I play in a day, I like to start with my major and minor scales. I find that I can focus very clearly for the first 15 minutes and often find myself in an extremely pleasant zone, where I can feel every muscle move and hear the tiniest flaws in technique.

I like to play the notes slowly so that I can compare pitches, timbres, and volumes between notes. It's a wonderful exercise, and especially enjoyable if I'm playing on a good reed.

My reed wasn't great today. Any problems it had were compounded by my wimpy embouchure. My lips were tired by the end of my major scales. Oh dear. I spent a few minutes scraping in that new reed to let my lips rest before leaping into my minor scales.

Teaching lessons can often illuminate issues in your playing and understanding of music that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. For instance, it was not until teaching minor scales to a gifted student that I realized how inadequate my ability to identify minor keys was. I was having to think too long to tell her what the key signatures for minor keys were. Because I know this, because my chops were already tired (ugh!), and because I needed to try out that new reed anyway, I decided to focus my attention during my minor scales less on intonation and more on note names and key signatures. Today I realized that I have always played my minor scales completely by ear. Even though I was going around the circle of fifths I forced myself to identify the key signature and raised seventh of every scale that I played. I plan to continue to do that until it becomes automatic - a skill that I feel I should have developed long long ago.

That reed was pretty good for a first day scraping. By tomorrow it will have hardened up and I can refine it a little.

After finishing my scales I was at a lack for what to play next. I felt so rusty and I wasn't particularly focused for technical work anymore. What could I do that would be a good use of my time? I have some vague ideas about a recital before I leave for school, but no distinct plans yet. Certainly no rep picked out.

Sight reading! I've always been a little tense about sight reading. I'm not terrible at it, but it could always use improvement, so I picked up my wrinkly old Weissenborn book and started in on the 50 Advanced Studies. My students often work on select studies for auditions, and I'm always taken by their charm. I also felt that I needed something that wouldn't frustrate me today. I read down the first six.

By the time I was done with that, I'd been practicing for about 45 minutes. My concentration was zapped by my tired mouth and a strain I was feeling in my right shoulder. I've always felt that it's best to only practice when you can focus, so I packed up. I'm confident that my focus will improve throughout this experiment.

Future Practice:
With more playing and reed scraping I'll be able to play for longer. Hopefully my right shoulder will build up some strength - I need to keep an eye on that and experiment with changes in playing positions if it hasn't improved by the end of the week. I've had problems before.

I'm going to play through all of the Advanced Studies. My reading needs to be in top shape when I get into ensembles in the fall. They're also charming and fun.

I need to be playing my scales in thirds. They're not in bad shape, but they are a step in getting fluent with my Van Hoesen Scales - I goal I hope to achieve by the end of June.

Other summer goals: double-tonguing, consistency in the highest range of the bassoon, a pile of good reeds, and increased general competence on the instrument. I'd like to end my summer with a solo/chamber performance that I can be proud of. I want to walk into the next phase of my education confident and ready to learn, with as little rehashing as possible.

Thank you for reading about the first day of my experiment! Was this helpful? What comments do you have?

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