excerpts

#100daypractice challenge, day…whatever

I think today is day 48, actually.  And I didn’t practice today because I was scheduled to get a filling at dental, and I didn’t want to try to play after having local anesthetic.  So I’m not doing so great at this challenge, but…

…its official, I’m taking the D.C. audition in November (uh, next month…uh, three weeks!).  I honestly didn’t need the practice challenge to keep me motivated because I had an audition date to work towards!  I am going to continue counting the days though, just because it will extend past the audition date into December, and I know I will need the motivation then!

Last week was the first week that I have felt “in the groove” with my routine.  And I got 6 days in!  Felt really good.  In fact, everything is feeling really good right now.  I hope that lasts…

I’ve spent the last 3 (or 4? don’t really know…) weeks “in the shed” with my excerpts.  Most of them I know already, but I like to start from scratch when preparing for auditions.  So that means bumping the tempo down to half, and starting from there.  I also focus on the technical excerpts, giving more time to my weaker ones, or ones that I have never played before (only one this time!).  That means lots of mind-numbing practice.  Here’s a lovely video of me working the trills this past Sunday in the Mendelssohn Scherzo:

Don’t mind the mess, the doggies curled up in various places, and the giant crayon in the corner.  And my struggle with the F to G trill.  Ha.

This week, I’ve started my “polish” phase of my audition prep.  I can play everything at tempo now, but now I need to work on smoothing things out, making it musical, things like that.  Recording is the name of the game.  My routine is to work on an excerpt, then record a performance of it.  Then I listen to the recording, figure out what can be improved, make a plan for the next practice session, and repeat.  For now I’m just using the voice memo app on my iPhone, its good enough for this purpose.  I’m also trying to practice in different environments (big room, small room, etc.) to get a feel for different sounds.

In a week or so, I’ll switch to the final phase of my audition prep, which is performance practice!  Or in other words, mock auditions.  Every. Single. Day.  Woo!  And of course any other final adjustments.  Also making sure my reed game is strong.  My reeds quite literally broke my last audition so I want to make sure that doesn’t happen this time.

For now, I’m going to ride this good practice wave that I’m on.  I hope I can keep on it for the next three weeks!

Clarinet Challenge 2.0

Well, unfortunately, the end of the challenge kind of fizzled out for me.  I just ran out of time and had no motivation to finish it out.  But it’s OK though, I learned a lot about audition preparation over the last 14 weeks despite being unable to finish it out.  If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that I have been struggling with audition day nerves and being able to come through when it counted.  I think I’ve finally figured out some of the missing pieces.

Technical preparation, while a large part, is only just part of it.

In my mind I have always known this, but had always been a little bit in denial.  Yes, while being able to execute each excerpt effectively is very, very important, I found that recording a weekly video in one take with no re-dos for all the world to see brought one aspect to the preparation that I had been missing.  Before, I didn’t do any sort of mock auditions until only a couple weeks prior to the audition, but now I understand the benefit of doing mock performances throughout the preparation process, even when the technique isn’t quite there yet.

I learned how to visualize.  And it wasn’t how I thought it would be!

This challenge forced me to visualize, and to make visualization work for me.  I learned pretty quickly that visualizing in a sequential way (like watching a movie in my head) really didn’t work for me.  And that’s why I had always given up on visualizations before now.  It was REALLY hard, and it didn’t seem to work very well.  Or I would visualize, and my brain would literally skip over the hard parts.  What ended up working for me was visualizing only certain aspects.  For example, if I often flubbed a certain note in a certain passage, I would take a moment to visualize myself playing that note perfectly prior to actually playing the passage.  Worked every time!  It helped to make a small list of things to visualize for each excerpt, so I wouldn’t waste time trying to remember what the weak areas were.

Fundamentals are key.

OK, I didn’t actually learn this, because I’ve known this for a while now.  But this challenge proved just how important fundamentals are.  You can get away with a lot if you just go through your fundamental skills every day.  I can’t tell you how many practice sessions in this challenge were spent only playing my fundamentals.  And yet I was somehow able to get away with recording the excerpts without ever falling on my face!  Honestly, I didn’t put all that much time into practicing excerpts.

What’s next now?  Well, honestly I have the next two weeks to get through for work.  It is the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, and there are so many ceremonies and memorials!  Its weeks like this that make me feel needed in the Navy!  I’m in charge of the woodwind quintet so I have a lot of work to do.  Despite that, I’m going to attempt to start the challenge again after Thanksgiving.  I have decided (for now) to audition for Navy Band in February.  I might change my mind, there’s a lot of factors that could keep me from going.  But its easier to quit preparation already in progress than to get an audition ready at the last minute.  I’m already a little behind, if I start after Thanksgiving weekend, it only gives me 11 weeks to prepare.  But the excerpt list is short (click here to see) and not too crazy.

I’ve already created the whole plan of action.  I freaking love spreadsheets, so I created one to organize it all:

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There it is, week 11-0.  And I’ve already separated the excerpts into practice groups, and I have a video assignment planned for each week.  I’ve also separated the whole thing into phases: phase 1 is wood-shedding/technical practice (orange), phase 2 is polishing (green), and final preparation/taper (blue).  You might notice the two and a half weeks in the middle of phase 1 that is grayed out.  We’re coming home to Colorado for Christmas, and I’m not planning on taking my instrument home with me.  I need the break.  Plus, with all the crap we will be traveling with (see: traveling with a baby), I don’t want to be lugging a clarinet case along.  And whenever I bring my horn on visits home, I never really play.  So I decided to really work on visualizing and listening during that time.  I’ve never devoted that much time to mental practice, so it should be interesting.  And coming back to playing in January should be a fun time.  Heyoooo endurance.  But, I have about six weeks from when I get back home to Hawaii to the audition, so I should be alright.

I would have started the challenge this week (give myself 12 weeks instead of 11), but I know better.  With the holiday and everything, I’m not going to be able to commit the time I want, so I’m just skipping it.  I’m only committing to practice on my work days, and only have a two day work week.  Not a lot that can get done in those two days.

I’m also not going to be as strict with posting videos this time around.  Again, I know better.  I will still be recording videos (because they help!), and they will eventually be posted, but I’m not going to stress about blogging about it.  I’ll get to it when I get to it!

My son will also be turning one in a couple weeks…it is hard to believe how fast this year has gone.  It seems like it was just the other day that he was born.  Now he’s walking, talking (sort of), and developing into his own little person.  Its amazing.

So happy Thanksgiving!  The next few weeks are going to be pretty insane, so I will probably see you on the other side!

Audition reflection

Finally I have a bit of time and I thought I would post about my Navy Band audition nearly three (!) months ago.  If you don’t feel like reading a lot today, here’s is the long story short…I felt extremely prepared, and I probably played the best I’ve ever played in an audition for a long time.  Not the best I can play, but the best I’ve played in a high pressure situation.  But despite playing ALL the excerpts in the 2nd round PLUS the sight-reading selection, they didn’t advance me to the final round.  And according to the guy who was running the audition, they (the audition committee) talked about me a lot, which means that at least some of them wanted to keep me around.  That’s almost worse than playing crappy!

So here’s the long story: unfortunately, I didn’t start the day very well…I was told to be there by 9:00, although the check-in began at 7:30.  I decided since I’m a fleet MU and will be automatically advanced to the semis no matter what, that it would be better to go later in the day.  What I didn’t count on was how terrible the parking situation was on the Navy Yard.  I ended up having to park on the other side of the Yard and didn’t get to the building until 9:15…oops.  But it was all good, I just was the last person to show up, so I was dead last in the prelim round.

So I think I only waited about 3 hours to go, which is pretty good, considering at the President’s Own I waited about 5 hours to play my round.  I saw some familiar faces, my old boss from Fleet Forces, and another officer from the fleet who works in DC now.  This guy was also there to wish me luck in my “on deck” room:

What a funny painting.  Anyway, despite all of my preparation and the total lack of consequences in the first round, I was extremely nervous.  I tried to mentally “center” myself and calm down, but it seemed like no matter what I did, I couldn’t get my heart rate down.  So my first round was OK.  I had to play a couple of excerpts over, just because my nerves really got to me.  I can’t remember exactly what I played, but I do remember that I played the march and I absolutely nailed it!

Since I was last, I didn’t have to wait long to get the results of the first round, although I knew that I would be going through no matter what.  We had about 30 minutes to get ready for the semis, and I drew the number 4 out of 9 (I think)…right in the middle.  This is the round that is going to count for me.

So, once again, I found myself being extremely nervous and anxious, AGAIN.  I went in, and I fell on my face (figuratively, not literally, haha!) a couple of times, but I replayed those excerpts and completely nailed them the second time.  The committee remained silent, so I just kept on playing excerpts!  I fully expected a “THANK YOU” every time I finished playing something, but didn’t get it.  Finally, I got instructions to play the sight-reading selection on the stand.  I did ok on it, I’m not the best sight-reader, so I did well for me.

I had hopes that I would make it through to the finals, because when I did play well, I played really well.   And I played everything, which many others in the round didn’t get to do.  But I had too many mistakes, so that was it for me.  3 months of hard preparation and sacrifice done in about 10 minutes of playing.  It’s really depressing when you think about in that way.  Like I said before, the guy running the audition found me after everything was said and done and explained how the committee felt about me.  They want me to come back next time.  Its going to be hard, since I’m in Hawaii now, but I think I’ll be willing to try to make it happen when the time comes.

At the end of the day, I was really disappointed with how things went.  This is by far the most prepared I’ve been for an audition ever and I still let my nerves get the best of me.  Seriously, I had absolutely no reason to be so nervous.  The worst that would happen would be that I didn’t get the job and I would get to move to Hawaii.  It was a total win-win situation.  This was probably the least amount of pressure that I’ve had for an audition!  So I’ve really began to explore other options when it comes to managing my anxiety at auditions.

In the musician community, things like beta-blockers or other types of “medical” ways to manage performance anxiety can spark a lot of controversy.  Some might consider them “performance enhancers”.  I disagree.  If someone takes beta-blockers for an audition but doesn’t prepare well, it’s not like they magically become well prepared!  I have never taken them, and I don’t look down on people who do.  I do think that they should be an absolute last resort and one should only take them if necessary.  I’m getting to the point where I might consider it.  It feels as if I’ve tried everything!  I’ve read books, tried relaxation techniques, mental exercises, breathing exercises, vitamin supplements, etc.  Nothing seems to ease the anxiety at the moment of the audition.  It seems to be calming right up until the moment, but when the moment comes, nothing seems to matter and I’m still paralyzed by my anxiety.  So am I a good candidate for a more medical approach to my anxiety?  Maybe.  Will I do it?  Who knows.  My sister suffers from true anxiety, and she’s found some success with hypnosis.  I think I would try that over taking a pill!  I’m open to anything now!

So we will see what the future brings.  I think I have found a great preparation method for auditions, so something good did come out of the whole thing.  For now, I’m just trying to get situated in Hawaii.  We finally move in to our new place this coming Thursday.  We scored a three bedroom place, so I get my own practice room!  I’m very excited about that.  Finally I get a space solely dedicated to working on clarinet.  Teaching there is out, just because its government housing so they have certain rules about running a business in your residence.  But that’s ok, I think I want to take some time off from teaching anyway.  I was starting to get burned out in Virginia.  I just want to play my clarinet, and enjoy living in paradise for a while!

Execution vs. performance

Phase 2 is complete! Wow, the last four weeks certainly went by fast. In fact, it feels like I just started this whole process just the other day, but it was 8 weeks ago!

Anyway, back then I really wasn’t sure what I would focus on in “phase 3”, other than a two week “taper”. I think I have figured it out…the final phase needs to be shifting my focus from execution of the excerpts, to the performance of the excerpts. Did I just blow your mind? Because mine did a little when I thought of this. It makes so much sense! I have been skipping this part the whole time, going straight from executing to the audition where I was expected to perform. I’m hoping that this is the key to my mental blockage during the audition.

This phase also makes me rather nervous and uncomfortable. Why? Well I’ve spent my entire auditioning career practicing full blast right up until the audition. And now I’m doing something completely different – I’m stopping the “full blast” practice routine two weeks before the audition. While it makes perfect sense for brass players, I’m still not 100% convinced that it’s the best thing for me to do.

Coincidentally, it just so happens that I am running my 3rd (!!) half marathon of the year just 2 ½ weeks post-audition (on August 31). Because I’ve been doing both the running training plan and the audition prep training plan nearly the same time (my running plan is two weeks behind my clarinet plan), it’s been easy to see how they relate. And it reminds me that they need to be similar! Today I’m trying to put myself in the mindset of just finishing my last long training run, which is usually 12 miles (which I will be doing two weeks from now!). I love the last two weeks of a training plan – easy runs and time to eat all the calories I want. Although the food thing I can’t get away with for an audition, I should think of my practice sessions as easy from now on. I’m almost there; just downhill from here!

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Phase 1…complete!

So here’s an update on my audition preparation. Yesterday was the last day of “phase 1”, aka the woodshedding phase. I am happy to report that I have everything pretty much under my fingers. “Pretty much” being the key words here…some excerpts are certainly not clean (*cough* Dance of the Hours *cough*), and the Rossini is making me want to stab someone or something.

The first couple weeks of this phase were fine. But then the last couple weeks, when I started to get these excerpts up to tempo, that’s when I started to get aggravated. Most of the time I would leave my practice session totally pissed off and frustrated. I would spend 20 minutes just on one measure sometimes.  It was a welcome feeling when that wasn’t the case.

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All frustrations aside, the goal setting technique really helped me be more efficient. For each excerpt, I had a worksheet in which I would outline specific goals for the next time I practiced the particular excerpt. It really helped keep me focused.

For the next four weeks or so, I plan on making recordings on a daily basis and cleaning the technique. Now I start work on ALL the excerpts. For the last four weeks I have only worked on six of them. I have all the excerpts separated out into three groups (four excerpts each day – I’ve included the Rossini twice in the rotation since it’s the solo and its freaking hard), and I still will be practicing six days a week.  It’s exhausting, but if I have any hope to win this audition, this is how it has to be.  

Here we go!

Audition prep

Finally, there’s an opening in the Navy band in DC! I’m trying not to be too overzealous about it…I have to win it first. Since the last few auditions haven’t really worked out that great I’m determined to approach this audition in a new way. One of my colleagues (who is actually going up to audition for the horn spot in the DC band next week!) gave me this article that outlines a way to prepare for a major audition. The author makes the case that an audition should be approached like one would approach a race, like a half marathon. I am a runner, so it makes sense for me to compare it to a running race, but it really can be any athletic event. So, for the half marathon example, one would start training, say, 8-12 weeks prior to the race day. You would build up your mileage and your speed gradually over time (no normal person can really just jump in to a 13 mile run without building up to it, right?) and incorporate rest into the training. Ideally, you want your last long run to be two weeks before the race day, and then taper your training from there so that your body is nice and rested and you are at your peak for the race. Why wouldn’t we treat an audition the same way? What we do is a very physical thing, and we need our minds and bodies rested in order to perform at our best.

Basically, the author of the article outlines audition preparation in an 8 week evolution and it directly resembles what we runners do to prepare for a race. Week 1 is to familiarize (or re-familiarize) yourself with the excerpts. Lots and lots of listening! And putting excerpts into categories (i.e. loud, soft, technical, musical, etc.), and separating ones that are new to you, and ones that are old friends. This is also the period where you get back into the mindset of practicing excerpts, and learning which ones will need the most work so that you can prioritize for the coming weeks.

Weeks 2-6 are the meat and potatoes of the plan. He separates the excerpts into groups and rotates practice each day. Daily goal setting and recording is the name of the game! Then the last two weeks before the audition is the “taper” portion which consists of practicing the performance aspect of the excerpts, and practice with the mental game of playing an audition. He also suggests taking 90 seconds before performing each excerpt to think about what needs to happen, and then reducing that time until it lasts only 10 seconds or so. The goal is to go from being able to get the best take the second or third time, to nailing it the first time, every time.

Now, the author here is a trombone player, so the plan is really geared towards the physical part of playing a wind instrument…since playing a brass instrument can be very taxing. Woodwind players have different challenges when it comes to excerpts…most notably our excerpts are more challenging in speed and fingers. So in order to make it work for me, I tweaked it a little. Now, I have 10 weeks (not 8) before the audition, so I customized a 10 week plan for myself. Unfortunately, nearly all of the excerpts fall into the “technical” category, and a few of them I’ve never even played (including the solo! Ugh…)

 

The excerpts separated into groups.  The ones in red I have never worked on before.

The excerpts separated into groups. The ones in red I have never worked on before.


So, I divided the 10 weeks into 3 separate periods. I changed the first week from the article into a purely wood shedding period, and made it four weeks, not just one. There are 6 excerpts on the list that fall into this “technical” category, so I’ve divided them up so that I work on two a day, with a three day rotation (practicing six days a week). For each of the six excerpts, I’ve created a worksheet that defines a goal for the next time I practice that excerpt so that my practice is super focused. For example, after meeting the day’s goal for that particular excerpt, I’ll make a plan for the next time I practice the excerpt, and I’ll give myself a time limit so that I don’t get distracted by other things. I think this will be better than just blindly practicing the excerpts. I just finished week one, day five yesterday…this is going to be a rough four weeks for sure! But incredibly necessary…this is the part of clarinet playing that sucks.

The second period also lasts four weeks. It is exactly like what the article says. There is lot of recording and self evaluation (is there anything else nowadays? LOL) and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning! I am hoping to make use of a worksheet that my colleague gave me that is very similar to the one I described in the first period. This one is more based on listening back to recordings and pinpointing things that need to be improved. It also has you identify the recording as a “success” or “lesson”, which is part of the mental aspect (which I need to improve on desperately!) The end goal of this period is to be completely comfortable with every excerpt.

The third period is also a “taper” period that lasts two weeks before the audition. This is where I’m going to really try to tackle the mental game that I seem to play with myself. My process is going to be pretty much exactly what the author outlines in his article. I like the idea of starting at 90 seconds of thinking about an excerpt before playing and reducing it to a realistic amount of time for the audition. It’s practicing for your brain! This is probably exactly what I need.

I’ve also made my schedule so that I have one day a week where I don’t even pick up my horn. Usually that is a day that I have off from work, like Sundays, so I literally don’t have to touch a clarinet. Some weeks are going to be hard to get in a day of no clarinet, but I feel like I really need to do it. I think that the physical rest and mental rest is just as important and all those days of practicing, just like in the running world!

Now, the most difficult part of this plan is sticking to it during our busiest season. Not only do I have to work a million ceremonies, but we have a lot wind ensemble concerts, AND I’m playing the Artie Shaw Concerto on three of those concerts. So excerpts are not the only thing on my practice list for the next 10 weeks. So I have to prioritize…I’ve made the excerpts #1, Artie Shaw #2, and everything else #3.

So that’s my plan. My hope is not to win the audition, but feel like I did my best at the audition. I want to feel that I the reason that they didn’t pick me for the job was beyond what I could have done in the practice room. I have not felt like that at the last few auditions, and I know that’s it’s all in my head! I can do this.


Pre-audition thoughts

So lets see…its been almost three years since I’ve taken any kind of audition.  Wow that’s crazy!  Time has flown by since I’ve been in the Navy.  Tomorrow I’m headed to Washington, D.C. once again to be one of the probably hundred clarinetists to take the President’s Own audition.  This time is going to be quite interesting, because I am certainly a different player than I was three years ago.  The change has come mostly to adjust to my life as a Navy musician and a professional march player.  I learned quickly that its very difficult to play those crazy marches using the heavy reeds that I was using.  While I was in school (Eastman specifically) I was always so concerned with making my sound as dark as possible, so the heavier the reed, the better.  But it made it hard to play things sometimes, I think that’s why I had so much trouble in auditions most of the time.  My reed was so heavy that if it wasn’t absolutely perfect in the audition room, it was over for me.  I wish I had realized that sooner, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache.

Since I stopped taking auditions (and especially since I joined the Navy), I have realized that I really don’t want that dark sound, and I’ve been trying to brighten it up a little.  I’ve since dropped down to a Vandoren 3 1/2+ V12, and I couldn’t be happier.  Its so much easier to play things now!  And I am really starting to enjoy my sound.  I also feel that I’ve matured incredibly over the last two years musically.  For the first time in my life, I feel like I can truly express myself musically.  It’s a great feeling!

Its interesting…I really didn’t, or couldn’t, discover who I was until I had no teacher to tell me what to do.  Granted, I am extremely grateful to my teachers for pointing me in the right direction, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without them.  But, I didn’t truly grow as a musician until I had to listen to myself 100% of the time and be my own teacher.  When you have a teacher, its easy to turn off your ears and just do what they tell you to do.  But when you don’t have that, you are forced to grow into something beyond what your teacher has taught you to be.  I think that’s pretty amazing.

For this audition, I’ve really paid a lot of attention to the details.  Like, REALLY paid attention, and committed to making things perfect.  Before, I kind of glossed over little things and hoped for the best at the actual audition.  A really good example of this is one of the excerpts on the list this time.   It is from De Meij’s Lord of the Rings Symphony, specifically the “Gollum” movement.  There are a lot of grace notes in the excerpt, and one of them really gave me trouble:

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I kept getting a grunty sound when I would re-articulate the C grace note.  UGH so frustrating!  Before I would just forget about it, and assume and hope that all the other applicants had trouble with it too.  I’m not sure if it was a time thing (my practice time was always limited, especially when I was working full-time), or just a laziness thing, but I knew if I wanted to do well, I needed to abandon that attitude for this audition.  Maybe boot camp taught me something after all…attention to detail!  After a lot of trial and error, I figured out a way to get the C out, and I played just this measure literally hundreds of times, slowly and correctly.  I think I annoyed some people at work, because I would just play it over and over before rehearsals, haha.  It is a pretty annoying figure to be playing over and over, but whatever.  Anyway, it was worth it, because now I can play it right nearly every time.  Yes!

I’ve also spent a great deal of time trying to visualize the audition.  A lot of my audition failures in the past have been due to my own mental sabotage.  So instead of going to my “happy place” during all those boring change of command and retirement ceremonies that I have been at for work, I’ve simply been imagining myself at the audition, playing through the excerpts in my head, imagining my inevitable anxiety, etc.  Its pretty easy because I know what the room looks like, and how the room sounds because I’ve been there before…January 2010.  Wow that was almost four years ago!  Anyway, I have no idea if the visualization is going to help when the time comes, but when I step into that audition room I will take comfort in the fact that I have been there done that a number of times already, even if it was just in my head.

Yesterday I got some news at work that might make the audition easier for me to get through.  It’s not for sure or official yet, so I can’t say anything at the moment.  So we will see what happens Monday.  Wish me luck!

(Wait, I don’t need luck because I’m super prepared and I’m going to rock it!)