Posted by: aliveinthewild | January 13, 2017

Teaching to Learn; Learning to Teach

Why teach? Should you? Do you? What if someone asked you to? Are you ready?

Many students regard a teacher as an absolute authority, and many teachers prefer to be regarded as such. Although there are some awesome teachers out there, no one is really a perfect teacher. That is both a good thing and a not-so-good thing. It’s not so good if the teacher is truly under par, obviously. But it is a good thing because if teachers had to be perfect, there wouldn’t be any. Therefore, we mortals are allowed to teach.

But taking on that responsibility has to come with integrity. A teacher not only teaches technical skills, but your word and your demeanor can affect a student’s psyche for life. That, too can be good or bad. Bad if you’re someone who says, “You just don’t have the talent to play this instrument,” or “You’ll never be able to sing. Just mouth the words please,” or “You can’t play this if you have a handicap,” or “There’s only one correct technique.” But it’s good if you are supportive, creative, teach to the way a student best learns (aural, tactile, visual, etc.) and accepts that not everyone wants to become a professional.

How many times have you heard someone say they quit playing music because they had a teacher who discouraged them? And how many times have you heard someone say that their life was changed for the better by a good teacher? Which kind of teacher would you like to be?

I’ve written previously about knowing when you’re ready to teach and about the student-teacher relationship (See posts of January, February and March 2013). So I won’t reiterate those posts. But there is more to say…

Teaching is a great way to learn. Although you’ve heard the adage, “Those who can’t do, teach,” I don’t know what idiot came up with that saying, because it is absolutely not true. I’ve seen some who could “barely do” try to teach, but they don’t last long. The fact is, you must have skills to teach skills.

On the other hand, some very skilled people have no idea how to teach what they know. Some try, and end up over-explaining and making students’ eyes glaze over.

And there are those who merely teach exactly as they were taught, with none of their own insights in the mix. Here’s the thing: no supreme being reached out of the sky and said, “This is the correct way to teach such-and-such.” We mortals made it all up, and so we teach what works best. If someone says there is only one way because it works better than all the others, that’s a guarantee they have a lot of unhappy students who are not being taught according to their own needs. And there are a lot of instrumentalists, even professionals, who suffer with pain and chronic injury from techniques that are “correct” but which hurt them.  But I’ve said enough about all that in the past.

Teaching isn’t something we should do only if we have ”arrived”. There is no “there” to which one can arrive. We never stop learning, and hopefully we never stop improving. And if we teach, we learn from teaching. Having to teach something forces us to define it well, understand it thoroughly, and do it well. It keeps us on our toes. We observe and learn about our student’s wishes and needs, and often we become their best friends. How often have you heard someone say, “My life was changed for the better by that student,” or” I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for my students”? If you, as a teacher, look honestly at your life, you’ll see that those statements are just as true as the ones in which you are the hero. Teaching is a two-way thing. Let it be a dance.

Posted by: aliveinthewild | November 17, 2016

It’s All in Your Head

The real music is not on the paper. What’s on the paper is a series of symbols. You could listen to that page all day and never hear a thing. Notation is just a guideline. The music is in your head (and your heart).

Unless you’re a Mozart or a Salieri, it’s nearly impossible to play expressively without an auditory reference that tells you how the music can sound, or for which to strive musically. Sure, what’s notated might be a lovely arrangement, but the music is not just in the notes. Without expression and nuance, it’s dry and dull.

Here’s an example: “Searching for Lambs” is a beautiful tune that is usually notated very simply.


If you play it as written, it sounds stilted. It has no expression and it doesn’t flow.

But listen to what happens if you really think about the lyrics and how they would be spoken descriptively, and express it as though it were being sung –  double click below on these two versions:



Thie first is a simple a capella solo; the second is a full arrangement, and both are very expressive. They’re so differnt from what we usually hear when we just play the notes from the page!

Besides being able to hear in your head how the music should sound, it’s also important to be able to play what you hear or imagine. In a previous Post (“We Can’t Hear What’s In Your Head”) I wrote about the dubious benefit of not paying attention to the difference between what you hear in your head and what actually comes out when you play. Remember that your audience has no idea what you’re imagining. That could be a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s a good thing if, when your fingers don’t follow your intention, you can ad-lib; few listeners would be the wiser. But it’s a bad thing if what you’re hearing in your head isn’t effecting what’s coming out your fingers.

Not realizing how your music is actually sounding is a common malady. We think that if we’re hearing it beautifully in our head, then everyone must be hearing it that way, and all the while our fingers might be producing an entirely different and somewhat undesirable effect that bears little resemblance to what we’re imagining. It’s a good idea to record yourself and honestly listen to what you’re doing. If you’re not up to the standard you want, at least knowing how you’re really sounding gives you the opportunity to fix it.

Expression is not just a skill for advanced players. Listen to a version of the piece played well at your skill level. This might mean having your teacher play it for you or maybe even record it for you, or find an appropriate version on You Tube  – you can find all kinds of examples there; some are good and some not so good, so you have to choose carefully. Listening to as many versions as possible will give you clues about what’s good and what isn’t.

If you have a version in your head that you heard and admired, keep in mind that it’s impossible to play it exactly like the person or recording you wish to emulate  – you may be better, or you may be worse, or you may be just different. Every good musician makes the music their own.

Although I’m using the term “in your head”, remember it’s also “in your heart”. If you don’t feel something wonderful inside when you play a piece of music, there’s not much point in playing it. If you don’t feel it when you play, few others will. It’s easy to get lost in the technical aspects of playing and forget why we are playing.

Sometimes the many repetitions that are required to play a piece well can make it go stale, so here’s what I do about that: I go ahead and let it be just an exercise most of the time in practice, for the sake of practice-makes-perfect. Then, a few weeks before I have to perform it, I start thinking again about how to express it. I get back in touch with whatever it was about the piece that made me love it enough to want to learn it in the first place. I hear it in my head the way I want to play it, and I let my imagination teach my fingers to do it that way.

Try it! You’ll love the result!

Posted by: aliveinthewild | October 6, 2016

I Want to Sound Just Like…… But Do You?

Almost every musician has a favorite other musician they’d like to emulate. Mine is… hmmm… there are so many! On harp, I’d love to sound like Kim Robertson or Harper Tasche. On banjo I’d like to sound like Adam Hurt. You get the idea. Only one trouble: I will never sound like them. If I do what it takes to play as well as they do, I will still sound different.

Striving to sound just like your favorite musician is a noble pursuit, especially because it can inspire you to great accomplishment. But think about it: once you reach that goal, what next? Since that musician’s music already exists, no one wants a carbon copy. What they want is something unique. Why sacrifice your true musical identity to sound like someone else? Even if you got all the notes and nuances identical, people would know. You can’t reproduce another person’s soul.

Everyone’s music sounds different because no two people have the same personality. You can give the same piece to two equally skilled musicians and ask them to learn it note for note, and when they have done so, you’ll be able to hear differences in phrasing, tone, emphasis, and so on. You will never be that other musician. If you are willing to work for it, you can instead be an equally skilled musician who sounds just like… you.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother to make progress. After all, you have to live with yourself. That’s not fun if your conscience knows you haven’t done your best. Don’t sell yourself short. Many musicians don’t work at this because they believe less of themselves than they are truly capable of. If you push yourself beyond your perceived boundaries, you will probably be surprised at what you can do.

SO… how can you become your best musical you? We are ALL still on our way to wherever our best is. Yes, even the most accomplished musicians. Study with musicians whom you respect, and don’t assume there’s a stopping point after which you don’t need to study anymore. Everyone can make progress. There are very few people who cannot become fabulously good musicians. It just takes dedication and a willingness to accept that you don’t know what you don’t know, and you can learn what you need to learn.

Never stop learning. Never stop striving for your best. You have a light to shine in the world!


Posted by: rileylaurie | August 18, 2016

Focus and Relaxation: The Essentials of Great Musicianship

The mind is like a puppy: it won’t just automatically do what you tell it to do  – you have to train it.  Interestingly, training doesn’t just apply to the things we need to focus on, but we also need to practice how to relax mentally and physically, and how to develop the habit of beneficial attitudes, in order for the mind to do what we want rather than going off on its own. And I’m sure you know the mind will go off on its own if we let it.

We don’t need to be slaves to the mind’s whims, the stressful thoughts, the fears, the distractions. We own our minds, not the other way around.  But untrained, our minds will do as they wish and will run our lives. Everyone who is very good at something has learned to be at cause, not at effect, of their thoughts. As musicians we can – and must – train ourselves to focus and to relax into our music during practice. We can have “Attention Benefit” instead of “Attention Deficit”.

Focus and relaxation are intimately related. Focus, unlike what is commonly assumed, is not stressful concentration. It is relaxed concentration, the only kind that works. Stress causes the mind to lose focus. Relaxation enhances focus. I like to call relaxed focus “concentricity” (yes, I made up that word) because it also implies centering. The term “centering” is another term for being aware in a relaxed way of having an inner core from which you can effectively operate.

When we relax, we can focus. When we focus, it creates further relaxation. But how do we get that good feedback circle going when we play?

  1. Take the time to be sure you are seated or standing comfortably and ergonomically before starting. That’s just as important as the practice is.
  2. Create a moment of silence before starting. Do this in both practice and performance.
  3. Breathe deeply, visualizing relaxation entering on the inhale, and all else but beautiful music leaving you as you exhale.
  4. Make the first note important.
  5. While playing, “hear” each phrase of the music just before you play or sing it.
  6. Imagine good tone and expression in advance of each note.
  7. Put feeling into your music instead of worrying about accuracy during performance: you should have practiced enough for accuracy to happen automatically.
  8. Feel the tempo and rhythm.
  9. Imagine the beauty of the music flowing through your voice or instrument, out to the audience, back to you, and out again, in a circular fashion, each time becoming more beautiful.

Another technique for achieving a relaxed body and state of mind for performance is to arrive at your performance location earlier than you normally would, and after getting everything ready for your performance, find a quiet spot where others won’t disturb you, and sit with your eyes closed. Visualize the stage, the lighting, your instrument, the audience, and breathe deeply. See your music as coming from the center of yourself. (If you have a spiritual practice, you can incorporate it also.) After several minutes, when you open your eyes, you’ll find yourself feeling quite peaceful.

I also like to sit for a few minutes as the audience arrives and is seated, watching them from an inconspicuous place. I notice what they are wearing, what kinds of personalities they seem to have, and so on. Sometimes I pick out a few particularly cheerful or friendly-looking people in whose direction I will look when I’m talking between pieces. All of this helps me feel like I know the audience, like they are not strangers.

Another practice that I find very helpful: for several minutes just before a concert, I sit quietly and bring to mind all the things in my life for which I am grateful. It’s amazing how many things I can name. By the time I get on stage I am in a great state of mind!

Being relaxed in performance is essential. We all know we can’t do our best when we’re stressed.  Training the mind may require adopting a contemplative practice that you do every day. Some prefer meditation, some contemplative prayer, some enjoy various mindfulness exercises. Even walking in the woods and noticing very purposely every plant, animal, color, and sound, is a mindfulness exercise that promotes the production of endorphins which are beneficial to the body and mind. All of the above activities have been shown through research to enhance the immune system as well.

One last idea: try expressing your emotions through your music. All of them, not just the “good” ones. Studies have shown that it is the appropriately channeled expression of all of one’s emotions that enhances the immune system and keeps us healthy.

Make a habit of these things and see how your music becomes a joy to play in any situation!

Posted by: rileylaurie | May 25, 2016

Genre and Style  –  How Much Do You Know?

What’s your musical genre? Have you consciously chosen one? Do you really know all about it? How does it differ from others? Can you describe its nuances?

Every genre and sub-genre or style of music is characterized by specific features, some obvious and some quite subtle, without which it just isn’t really authentic. Many nuances may be completely overlooked by players who don’t realize they are important, and maybe don’t hear them, because they aren’t familiar enough with the genre and don’t know what to listen for.

Some musical genres are intellectually oriented and complex, some are fun-loving and happy, some are all about life’s stories, some are contemplative or even soporific. The differences can actually lead to negative attitudes toward one genre by those who are accustomed to another, because we tend to assume that the “rules” of music are the same for all music. They’re not.

For instance, consider the difference between, say, dancers who perform Middle eastern “bellydance” and those who are trained in ballet. Although both require intense training to become truly skilled, the rules of movement are in many ways nearly opposite between these two styles. One observing the other might think them all wrong!

Watch on You Tube:

So it is also between musical styles. I once heard a man comment on native flute player R. Carlos Nakai’s music after a fabulous concert, “Doesn’t he know more notes than that?” Obviously this man had no idea that the Native American flute has only six notes, that the music is based on traditional native style, and what Nakai does with those notes is masterful. The man was listening for complexity of melody rather than variation of tone, intonation and ornamentation, and also didn’t realize that most native flute music is meant to be meditative and restful. Listen to R. Carlos Nakai on You Tube:

I heard a story from a Celtic musician who played for a person who had become offended because she was repeating parts (i.e. AABB,AABB). That’s what Celtic music does! (Not to mention most traditional music of various ethnicities.) Listen to these links on YouTube:

Anyway, back to the subject of subtle nuance…

If you play Celtic music, can you describe the differences between Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Breton music? Do you know that Irish music is often ornamented differently from Scottish music and that there are types of tunes in one style that do not exist in the other? (I’d tell you, but that would spoil the fun.) Or that Welsh music is often quite chromatic because of influences from classical styles during the Baroque era? Or that traditional Breton music is a melding of French and Celtic styles?

What about skill? Does it take more skill to play one kind of music than another? Partita #3 by J.S. Bach,  for instance, is all about masterful skills, both of the composer and the musician; it’s very cerebral as well as beautiful. J.S. Bach’s music is mathematically and therefore aurally complex because he wanted it that way. Listen on You Tube:

Now what about an even more complex style, which I mentioned in my last post: jazz. Although there are many sub-genres of jazz, and some is reasonably simple, much of what the masters are doing with smooth jazz and such is mind-boggling, even when it’s slow:

I‘ve noticed that the older a continuously-used genre is, the more complex it tends to become. For instance, in traditional Celtic music in the last 40 years or so, elements have been introduced from rock, pop, and other ethnicities, and players have also invented new techniques and written new tunes that are beautiful brain-teasers. An obvious example is that even some staid bagpipe bands play a tune called The Clumsy Lover which, although not as complex as some modernly played Celtic tunes, has a Reggae feel to its quirky rhythm and is not part of the historical tradition. And it’s a great tune: (listen at 2:44)

I cringe when I hear someone call Celtic music “quaint” or “simple”. Obviously they’re not hearing the subtle variations or the ornamentations that make it truly traditional and define the genre, and they aren’t feeling what this music evokes. Or perhaps they’re learning all their “Celtic” music from a book. You can’t do that exclusively and expect it to sound right  –  it might be very pretty, but it won’t be Celtic. All the nuances that are up to the player just can’t be written into notation. You have to know how to add them in yourself, preferably automatically and habitually. This only comes with years of hearing and playing the music with others who are intimately knowledgeable in the genre.

Here is an example of Piobreachd, an ancient tradition in Scottish bagpiping in which the tune is played repeatedly but with more and more added ornaments each time.  (If you wish to skip to the more ornamented part, go to about 6:45)

I love hearing harper/singer Seumas Gagne say “You can’t learn a musical genre well unless you learn to speak the language”. He’s referring to Scots Gaelic, which he speaks fluently and also teaches. Although I don’t speak Gaelic, I do think one has to immerse oneself in a culture before assuming they can really play that culture’s music. I notice that I can really “get” Spanish and South American music, Celtic music, and Appalachian music because I have studied those cultures all my life. On the other hand, I love hearing Bulgarian and Swedish and Greek and Mongolian music too, but I can’t pretend to learn to play them well; I know next to nothing of those cultures.

Another good example of what one might not hear without listening closely is how in French Medieval music the tunes sound simple at first hearing, but in fact this music is subtly complex (that’s not an oxymoron). Listen to these links on You Tube:

To understand a genre, it’s a good idea to listen to live performances. I used to hate Bluegrass music until I heard it live  –  now it’s one of my favorite styles.  It’s the complex side of Southern American music; playing bluegrass well music well requires great skill.  Listen on You Tube:

On the other hand, with banjo at least, there is a contrasting style: mountain “clawhammer” banjo traditionally was zone-out music, even when it was fast. You have to play it to really feel what I mean, but below are links to examples of a slower and a faster piece. As you can see, the faster piece is almost as mesmerizing as the slower one. This style developed in the remote mountains of Appalachia where farming was tough because the ground was rocky and the fields steep. After a day of farming, people just wanted relax with something that produced theta brain waves (though I’m sure that’s not how they would have described it).

A big mistake would be to open a book of music notation that says “Bluegrass Tunes” or “Celtic Tunes” or whatever, and think that because you are playing the notes you are playing in the style. Aside from the fact that some books are not written by people who are truly masters of their stated style, you just can’t notate all the nuances of a style. They can only be learned by integrating them through many, many hours of listening and, ideally for traditional and ethnic musics, also learning by ear at least to some degree. And if you want to get really good at it, study with a master of that genre. Whatever you do, don’t give up  –  sure, it takes time and focus, but the journey is ninety percent of the fun.

Immersing yourself in the culture from which a style of music arose makes a huge difference in how you appreciate it and how you play it. Studying everything you can about what, specifically, makes a genre unique will give your music that “certain something” that sets it apart from just playing notes correctly. It’s worth the effort, and can have a very positive effect on how well your practicing drives your skill level forward. Try it  –  you’ll enjoy it!

Posted by: rileylaurie | April 16, 2016

Teaching for Passion, Practicing for Joy

Last night I attended a concert of the Victor Provost Quartet, with guest artist Paquito D’Rivera. These are some of the world’s finest jazz musicians (google them for info). I was awed, as I always am by Victor, because his music is so amazing that I can greatly enjoy it even though I have little familiarity with his style of jazz. Truly, there is a level of musicianship there that goes far beyond anything many of us can imagine, and it’s clear where it came from: not just their obvious exceptional talent, but from a passion for practice. As they played this unbelievably complex music (I looked at one of the scores and it made my brain hurt), they were grinning and glowing, obviously enjoying themselves tremendously, and playing expressively. What a contrast to the way so many musicians just try to get through a piece without messing up.

The amount of practice it takes to accomplish this may seem unimaginable. But if it were, they could not have done it. The fact that these guys can do what they do proves that it’s possible. That we CAN practice enough to be that good. That we CAN have the passion and WANT to practice that much. Practice isn’t just about getting something to the point where you can play the notes right, but where you can play them easily and expressively and happily.

Obviously, these people had teachers from an early age who made music fun, and made practice not feel like drudgery. Teachers who showed them what is possible, what they could accomplish, instead of just telling them to practice without knowing what they were working for. Who let them hear examples, and gave them experiences that rewarded their efforts. Maybe took them to concerts to witness what studying music is for. Maybe had them play in ensembles. Maybe praised them when they did well. More than anything, it’s obvious that these teachers did not approach their students in the belief that they could only accomplish up to a certain limited level. They didn’t say, “They’re just kids, so don’t expect too much.” They nurtured exceptional accomplishment.

More than anything, it’s clear that these teachers made sure their students’ parents were invested in their children’s musical success. I can’t think of anything more important than this.  But parents need to be instructed in what constitutes encouragement. Lots of praise, taking kids to great performances, and participating with them throughout their young lives is essential.  Just telling children to “go practice” is not a positive reinforcement.

Balance is important. Not allowing a child to have any other life is not helpful. I know a fellow who as an adult wanted very much to learn to play an instrument well, but could not make himself practice. After some self-examination, he reflected, “My parents required me to practice every afternoon after school instead of letting me go out and play with my friends. So I’ve come to associate playing music with sacrificing fun and friendship.” I know many adults who are resentful of being forced to practice instead of being encouraged in positive ways. As adults, they have a very hard time learning.

BUT… let’s not let our pasts determine our futures. If you were not encouraged positively, if practice was drudgery for you as a kid, if your parents were not invested in your musicianship, if your teachers did not expect greatness from you, you can choose to change how that plays out for you now. It is not too late at any age to excel. Don’t limit yourself.

Go to great concerts. Listen to good music at home. Set high goals and work for them by practicing. And then practicing some more. Allow yourself the time. If you must take the time away from something else in our life, let that something be one of the things you enjoy less. Pay no attention to the voice in your mind that says, “But you should be doing this or that before you practice.” You have a responsibility to your dreams: they are what your life is for. Life is short. Do it now.



CEO’s of large companies, stars of sports and movies, and professional musicians have something in common: a large majority suffer from something that has come to be known as The Impostor Syndrome.

I knew a talented young man who graduated Summa Cum Laude from an important music school, with a major in classical guitar. He continued to study with a famous instructor in New York City whose students’ albums were in the top ten on the charts of popular music. This young man became a guitar teacher, accepting students at home. One day, he seemed depressed. I asked him what was wrong, and he replied, “I’m afraid they’ll find out I’m a fake.” It was a mystery to me that anyone with his accomplishments could feel that way.

Over time I learned that many top people in their fields feel the same way, and keep it to themselves as a dark secret. It is usually unfounded, of course, but they can’t be convinced of that. It helps tremendously to know we are not alone in this fear, and to accept that if we have “done our homework”, we are not fakes, and no one will think we are.

What we believe deeply about ourselves is a hundred percent of why and how we live and behave. It’s not just how we consciously view ourselves, and certainly not entirely what we consciously tell ourselves. I used to do everything I could to give myself positive messages, but my progress in life was slow and poor. Finally, I asked myself what I saw deep in my mind’s eye as the essence of “me”. What I saw surprised me greatly. Instead of a capable, intelligent person (the one I consciously thought I was), I saw an image of myself as a cowering, shameful, and basically flawed being. I recognized immediately that this was who, as a very young child, I’d been told I was. Nothing I had accomplished in my life had changed that image, and I had not been aware I still carried it, yet the consequences remained. As long as I had this subconscious image, no matter how many positive affirmations I used and no matter how much recognition I got, I could never live up to my capabilities. After recognizing the existence of that image of myself and seeing it for what it was, I was able to redefine myself realistically and on purpose. I began making progress in life. I tell you this story because so many people hold unrealistic, negative images of themselves, and thus hold themselves back from doing and being their best.

Some believe deeply that they must be “humble”, and not shine their light in the world. But not doing all we are capable of doing is a statement that says we don’t want the gifts and abilities we’ve been given. True humility is doing what we are meant to do, using the passion we’ve been given, and accepting it as our job in life, rather than rejecting it for something more “normal”, more responsible, or that someone else said we should do.

I love the following quote from Marianne Williamson, which Nelson Mandela used in his inauguration speech:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, … and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Maybe you’re not yet the best you can be skill-wise. We all have farther to go. That doesn’t mean we have to get to the ultimate level to be very good at what we do (there is no ultimate level  –  it’s a continual process). Confidence is not arrogance. It is merely the knowing that you can do what you say you can do, you are who you say you are and who others say you are.

The Impostor Syndrome exists in most of us. In most cases it is an inner judge lying to you. You don’t have to listen to it. Go out and shine your light.

Posted by: rileylaurie | February 18, 2016

Building Repertoire and Building Skill

It’s easy to assume that there’s one definition for musical skill, but in fact there are different sets of skills for different musical situations, and each needs to be defined separately. Some people shine in one skill and some in another, and some are adept at more than one.

Let’s look at the most general skill sets: session skills and performance skills. Each requires a different focus. (Of course in either genre there are subsets of skills, such as improvisation, sight-reading, ear-playing, memorizing, etc. I’ve written about those in past posts, so I’ll focus here just on the difference between session skills and performance skills.)

Session/jamming skills:

As you probably know, sessions are also called jams, depending on the genre. There is a slight difference in the two terms, however, because jamming often implies some degree of improvisation, while in a session it’s OK to just play the tune straight. For both jamming and sessions, you need a large repertoire, or at least a really good ear and improvisational/accompaniment skills, but whether you play the tunes well is of less importance than being able to keep up with the gang.

Playing on the beat, and being able to play either the chords or the melody (or both) to a recognizable degree, are what one must focus on for sessions and jams. Usually no one really knows how accurately you’re playing because there are many instruments playing at the same time, and imperfections are therefore fairly well hidden, as long as you’re not the loudest instrument in the group. (That doesn’t mean you should play softly  –  if you can’t be heard at all, what’s the point?.)

Ideally it would be great to build a big repertoire and also pay attention to technique, accuracy, nuance and expression. But ultimately, unless an audience has paid to hear you play, music is for the player’s enjoyment, so what you do with your repertoire is your call.

Session playing is good practice for ensemble playing, and can also increase your performance skills, since you’re forced to play at the accepted tempo for each piece, to keep it consistent, and to keep playing when you make a mistake, without pausing or repeating. It can also be excellent for alleviating “stage fright” issues.

Session playing can be a bit frustrating no matter how well you do or don’t play, due to the exclusive nature of some groups. It’s not appropriate to snub anyone at a session or jam, for any reason and no matter their skill level, but some groups do. (I’ve seen session musicians treat someone as though they were a dilettante because they didn’t know all the tunes being played, only to find out later that they had just snubbed someone famous.) Of course if a player doesn’t follow good etiquette, there can be repercussions, but participants should be kind to newcomers and explain the rules to them.

I’ve written before about session etiquette (Blog #1 in the archives), but to reiterate just a few points:

  • Before joining in, listen first for a while and observe how the players are deporting themselves. Follow their lead and their format.
  • Don’t pull up a chair into the main circle unless asked. Sit on the edge of the group until you get to know them.
  • Don’t play solos or expect people to know obscure pieces.
  • Don’t talk excessively between tunes. Don’t talk at all during tunes.
  • Stick with the genre being played.
  • Don’t assume turns are being taken. There might be a tune leader or a pecking order.

Performing skills:

A performer needs to play concert repertoire in a clean, accurate and polished way. Some professional performers don’t do jam sessions well because they’ve spent all their time perfecting their concert repertoire instead, which often does not contain many of the commonly heard session pieces. And some jammers don’t do well in performance because they’ve spent their time learning as much repertoire as possible without necessarily having to pay attention to how well they actually play it. Of course there are many professionals who do well in both settings.

Concerts of folk or traditional music usually only require about 90 minutes of material  – maybe 15 pieces, or fewer if some are very long.  But the focus and the time it takes to keep those pieces concert-ready is significant. The pieces a concert performer may choose are not necessarily ones audiences will recognize, because a few familiar tunes are fun, but not a whole concert of them. So it can be hard to develop a large session repertoire when you’re a full-time career musician. And if you do go for a large repertoire you may never develop the finesse and expression and perfection you need for performance.

No Judgment

In either case, session players and performers have no reason to judge each other for having a difference in focus. It can greatly benefit any musician to be adventurous enough to develop both skill sets if possible. Time can be a limiting factor in either case, since getting really good at one skill set can take a great deal of concentration and persistence. But don’t make the mistake of interpreting the purposeful development of one skill set over another as inadequacy. It’s all good.


Posted by: rileylaurie | January 19, 2016

Excellence is Not the Exception

It’s assumed by most people that only a few can achieve excellence. That’s why the word exists  –  to excel in something means to do significantly better than the norm. But it’s really more complex than that.

If we look, for instance, at what was considered really good guitar playing by well-known folksingers in the ‘60’s, and compare it with the best accompanists today, there’s quite an improvement  –  the average players today are playing as well as or better than the famous folks did back then! And look what happened to guitar playing after Michael Hedges introduced his style of playing in the ‘90’s. The whole concept of guitar playing changed. The same is true with harping; in the 1980s much of what was considered professional-level playing for lever harpists is now common fare for beginners!

Obviously, excellence is a fluid concept. What used to be excellent playing no longer is, because almost everyone pretty much plays that well now. Does that mean everyone plays excellently now? In the literal sense of the word, no. Because others are now excelling above that new level.

What happens is that when a new player hears a great performance or a good recording, they assume that’s normal playing and will assume that’s how they should sound; they automatically aspire to play that way and see no reason why they can’t. Which if course is a valid thought  –  there IS no reason they can’t attain it, with practice. So the norm keeps raising. It’s a good thing.

A related concept to consider is this: to play excellently in performance, we know we have to practice a lot, right? If we practice effectively and we are persistent, we can learn to play really well.  But sometimes our apparent level of skill suddenly disappears when we get on stage. Why?

Suppose you’ve learned a piece and you’re reaching a point where you can play it really well under ideal conditions. Or you practice it badly a few times and then very well once. After you’ve proven to yourself that you can play it well (after all, you just did that once), you stop and go on to another piece. And you expect to play it well on stage?

One or two times of playing a piece brilliantly isn’t sufficient! We need to play a piece well many more times than we ever played it badly. In other words, if it took three months to learn the piece, and now you play it well, it will take another three months of playing it well to surpass the number of times you played it badly. Then add at least another three months onto that, and you might achieve what it takes to perform it well. If you’ve only played it well, say, thirty times but you played it poorly two hundred times, you have a long way to go before it will become dependably and consistently good. Having the patience to accept this process can lead to true excellence.

The flip side of this coin is that once you have attained a certain level of playing  –  let’s call it a level of 8 out of 10  –  you can never sink below a certain level. In your worst performance you might play at a level of 6, but you will never play worse than that. Your skill level is such that you cannot fail.

Here’s the secret: your lowest level of playing IS your actual level. One cannot play at their peak all the time. But one can always play at their lowest level or better. If your peak level is really high, your lowest level will be better than average  –  in other words, still excellent in the literal sense of the word.

If we strive for excellence, we will achieve a level of skill that cannot be degraded.  Sometimes we will play amazingly, sometimes less so. But we will always play well.


Posted by: rileylaurie | November 26, 2015

Performance Anxiety – Part 2

This article is a continuation of the one posted last time, which you can find below this one on this page.

As a performer, your demeanor signals audiences how to react; it affects how they feel about you, about your music, and about your instrument, and even how they feel about themselves! The audience will take its cues from you. If you look serious, they will be serious. If you are witty, they will laugh. If you are confident, they will be supportive. Whatever you do, you can count on your audience to feed back to you in greater measure whatever you give to them.

Your audience wants to like you and enjoy your music; they would not be there otherwise. They are there to make you feel good, and vice versa. Let your audience be your support system!

When we forget that our audience is our best source of energy and confidence, we may begin to think they are sitting in judgment of us and are planning to hate us. This is insanely silly, but such fear is all too common among performers!

What are we afraid of? That we might mess up. Have you noticed that a confident performer seems to make very few errors, and a nervous one many? That’s because nervousness causes errors; not the other way around. The syndrome we call “stage fright” is actually self-sabotage. We create it, and we give it power. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” The confident performer knows that mistakes account for very little, and so is not much concerned about them.

The physical reaction we feel as stage fright is actually “fight-or-flight” syndrome: when the brain recognizes a situation it interprets as a threat, it orders the adrenals to flood the system with adrenaline, which, if you really were in a threatening situation, could be very helpful. Adrenaline can make you stronger, faster, and more clear-headed. But too much adrenaline when it isn’t needed can make you confused, sweaty-palmed, and shaky-handed. (And it can make you play too fast.)

Why is it so threatening to get on a stage, be in a competition, or sit in front of a teacher? Because someone told us it would be. If you observe children, they are great hams. A three-year-old will readily perform (“Watch me!”). It is only when someone says “Weren’t you scared?” or describes being scared, or they see someone else being scared, that they begin to think that if someone said they ought to be, it must be true. Stage fright is a learned response, not a natural one. How unfortunate.

I find that stage fright is exacerbated if I have not practiced adequately. If there is any question at all about whether I can play a piece of music well in front of an audience, I don’t play it in formal performance.

To assure that you will perform as well as you know you can, here are some guidelines:

  • Practice very, very well. Then practice some more. Make sure you have played each piece well many more times than you’ve played it badly. It should feel natural and easy to play. If it feels difficult, you are not ready to perform it.
  • About 2 weeks before a performance, start pretending you’re in front of an audience as you practice. Visualize the venue and the people as you play.
  • Act confident even if you’re not.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Don’t have any alcoholic drinks or use non­-prescribed drugs before performing.
  • Put feeling into your music. When your mind is thus occupied, it forgets to be afraid.
  • When you can, put yourself in situations that are challenging beyond your comfort zone  –  that makes everything else seem easy.
  • Always arrive at a gig in plenty of time to relax, have a snack, tune more than once, do a lighting and sound check, and practice a bit before the audience arrives.
  • Then, sit where you can unobtrusively watch the audience for a while  –  they will then seem more familiar when you’re playing for them.
  • Before a performance, sit meditatively for several minutes and think of all the reasons you’re grateful for the opportunity to play music. (You’ll be surprised how much this helps!)
  • Hear each part of the music in your head a split second before it’s played, and hear it played beautifully  –  that way you’re choosing how it will sound, instead of waiting to see how it comes out.
  • When a difficult passage is coming up, take a deep breath and then exhale as you play it. You’ll wonder how it got so easy!

Those of us who have stage fright are in good company; Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Lawrence Olivier, and many other “stars” report being severely impacted by it. There is a story about Pablo Casals who, upon injuring his hand, was relieved to think he might never have to perform again. (His hand healed, and his career continued.)

There are prescription drugs for stage fright, which are potent and can be dangerous if used incorrectly. Beta-blockers were developed to slow the heart, so you can imagine what they could do to you if used irresponsibly. Only a doctor can advise you about them. If your career is at stake and you obtain a prescription, there is nothing immoral about using them. Why ruin a career because you refused to use something that could help?

The best cure for stage fright, however, is experience. Once you see that people aren’t going to throw anything at you or stampede the stage, it will become easier and easier.

There is more perspective on stage fright in my book Body, Mind and Music and in the book A Soprano on Her Head by the late Eloise Ristad.

Whether stage fright affects you or not, remember that you took up music for the joy of it, so have fun with it and don’t let anything seem scarier than it really is. If you truly want to share your gift with others, nothing can stop you.

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